It is a city unlike any other. Cut in half by the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe from Asia, Istanbul is unlike any other city in the world; a city where two continents collide.
Throughout history it has been one of the world’s most major cultural, political, and commercial centers. It has seen occupation by the Greeks, Romans and Venetians, and was the heart of the Ottoman empire; physical reminders of each empire still stand to this day.
But its location as a meeting place between the East and West also saw it as the final stop “on the legendary Silk Road linking Asia with Europe, and many merchants who came here liked it so much that they, too, decided to stay. In so doing, they gave the city a cultural diversity that it retains.”
Istanbul ranks as one of the Top 10 most visited cities by tourists and for good reason. Visitors could spend a lifetime getting lost in the city’s cultural sights, sounds, and smells. But the big question is, do you visit Europe, or Asia?
A Transcontinental City: Things to Do in European and Asian Istanbul
How to Get Around
Istanbul is a congested place to say the least. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as you will have to quickly learn how to drive amongst blaring car horns and insane traffic. It’s very difficult to discern the road rules!
Taxis & Public Transport
Istanbul taxis are a cheap, easy and comfortable way to get around. But make sure you research dependable taxi companies, and have read up on popular cons.
Most drivers you encounter are fair, but taxi scams are commonly reported here. So avoid these if you can by pre booking a cab or having your hotel call one.
Although most tourists will stick to the European side of Istanbul, the Asian side offers many great attractions as well. You can get between the two sides by ferry or bus (click for timetables and cost info).
Hire a Local Tour Guide
If you’d like to gain a deeper knowledge of Istanbul and it’s history, Serhat Engul is a really great local tour guide in Istanbul who offers comprehensive tours through the city.
We recommend hiring him to take you around and teach you about the fascinating history of the city. You can get in touch with him by heading over to his Istanbul Clues travel blog.
Every-one who goes on a private tour with Serhat raves about him (you can check Tripadvisor), and we found he is recommended by most hotels. He’s super friendly, very professional, and really enthusiastic about Istanbul. He speaks fluent English, and creates customized tours just for you.
So, now that you’ve chosen your preferred way of getting around, let’s divide up a visit to Istanbul much like the Bosphorus and look at what each side has to offer.
The European side of Istanbul offers access to the city’s most well known attractions including the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. Most tourists spend most if not all their time on the Eastern side as there is so much to see and do.
The following are just some of the highlights that are not to be missed during your visit to Istanbul’s European side.
In what could easily be classed as a Wonder of the World, Hagia Sophia blends symbols of Christian and Islamic faith. What was once a Christian Church would later become an Imperial Mosque, and now a museum.
This marvel of architecture, used as a setting for Dan Brown’s Inferno, will leave you speechless. Keep an eye out for Gli, the Hagia Sophia’s resident cat when you’re inside.
This palace is rather new by Istanbul standards, having been constructed in the 19th century. This extravagant palace of the Ottoman Empire spared no expense during its construction with its gold and silk furnishings.
The palace is the largest in Turkey and one of the most beautiful in the World. With 285 rooms and 68 toilets, it is one incredible house.
Many items were given as gifts upon its completion including a chandelier from Queen Victoria and tiger skin rugs from Russians Czars.
The Blue Mosque
Quite close to Hagia Sophia you will find the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly referred to by travellers as the Blue Mosque.
The architecture of the structure is truly incredible with its minarets, domes, 20,000 handmade İznik style ceramic tiles, and stained glass windows.
Entry is free of charge but you must dress appropriately, removing your shoes, not exposing legs, and covering your head if you are a female. The mosque is a functioning one for prayer and respect must be shown when visiting.
The Grand Bazaar
In what could be the oldest shopping world in the world, the Grand Bazaar is an assault on the senses. Visited by nearly 100 million people annually, it is one of the world’s largest covered markets.
Whether you are looking for Turkish textiles, ceramics, copper, traditional Borek, or trinkets, you are sure to find it at the Grand Bazaar. Get lost in the thousands of shops spread out over a network of streets.
Built in the sixth century, this subterranean ancient cistern is located close to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. A must visit, the cistern provides an eerie yet remarkable atmosphere.
Walk through the orange lit columns as you search for the swimming carp and Medusa heads. It was here where Dan Brown’s Inferno came to its climax.
The Asian side of Istanbul offers visitors a glimpse of how local residents live. It is literally a continent away as well as a world away from the hectic increasingly commercialised Old Town or Taksim Square located on the European side.
You seem to get more of a relaxed vibe where you can stretch out a bit along with enjoying more green parks and better coastal access.
In what is sure to give a foodie a culinary orgasm, the Kadıköy Market offers a colourful array of food stalls, bars, and restaurants.
Fruits, vegetables, spices, cheese, breads, meats, and everything in-between is available. Best of all is the fact there are much fewer tourist crowds than you will experience in the European side’s markets.
Enjoy the beautiful street murals of Yeldeğirmeni. The neighbourhood is rich with history as it dates back to the 15th century and has a definite artsy vibe showcased by its numerous studios and art festivals.
You will fall in love with the area’s cafes and eateries.
Although not as grand as the Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side, Beylerbeyi Palace still offers a glimpse into sheer opulence.
Guided tours are mandatory, much like Dolmabahçe, when visiting the Palace and although they are offered in Turkish and English you must arrive at the correct time for the language you desire.
Highlights include the bamboo garden, indoor marble pool, and lavish staircases. Although it may be smaller than Dolmabahçe Palace, it receives far fewer crowds meaning fewer queues and carries a cheaper entrance fee.
Photo by Alexxx Malev
Enjoy a beautiful pedestrian path that seems to go on forever along the southern coast of the city. A good walk taking around a couple hours would be from Fenerbahçe to Bostancı or vice versa. You could continue on for a much longer walk if you’d care for.
The waterside walk is popular with locals on the weekends where you are sure to see all kinds of outdoor recreation being enjoyed. The walkway is lined with beautiful trees and greenery making the experience all that more pleasant as you gaze out at the Prince Islands off the coast.
Where We Stayed
We stayed on the European side at the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. Surrounded by peaceful gardens, Grand Hyatt Istanbul blends an exciting city life with a relaxing retreat in the middle of the city.
Venture into Taksim Square or explore historic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. The service is excellent, the rooms luxurious, and the property among the best accommodation in Istanbul.
What We Loved:
➡ Amazing location: You’re an 8 minute walk from Taksim Square, which is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. This is a busy nightlife, shopping and dining district. Vintage trams trundle along Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, which is lined with 19th-century buildings housing international shopping chains, movie theaters and cafes.
➡ Service is amazing: The staff go out of their way to welcome you to Istanbul, and are so kind and friendly. We arrived at 6am, well before check-in, though with rooms available we were checked in straight away.
➡ Rooms with a view: 360 stunning guestrooms and suites with city, garden, and Bosporus views. We had Bosporus views, and it was quite a novelty sitting in our room in Europe, looking over to Asia!
➡ Relax in style: The Gaia Fitness Centre & Spa offers massages, manicures, and Hammam rituals, as well as an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and more.
➡ Turkish-inspired cuisine: Dine at 34, grab a cocktail at The Library Bar, enjoy a meal at Mezzanine Lounge & Bar, and snack alfresco at Gazebo.
➡ The pool: The photo below speaks for itself.
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