10 Photos: The Past and Present Wonders of Istanbul

Jan 30, 2016

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Our “In 10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, redeeming for hotels and flights and more. TPG Contributor David Hoffmann of the popular David’s Been Here travel blog takes us to Istanbul, the only city in the world straddling Europe and Asia, to discover its seemingly timeless attractions. (All photos by the author.)

It’s easy to fall in love with Istanbul, as it’s Turkey’s most exciting city and the epicenter of a culture and history that spans thousands of years. For those travelers who are endlessly curious about the world, leisurely perusing the city’s markets and infamous landmarks, as well as sampling delicious Turkish cuisine will be time very well spent.

An overhead view of Istanbul.

I’ve visited Istanbul (known for centuries as Constantinople) several times since 2009 and the city never ceases to expand – a dense sprawl of Ottoman-era constructions and modern condos along the shore of the Marmara Sea, heading north halfway up the Bosphorus Strait that separates Europe and Asia.

The city is a living museum littered with Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman relics. I always stay in the historic Sultanahmet District so that I’m walking distance from the major attractions. The DoubleTree by Hilton Istanbul Old Town is centrally located within a half-hour walk to the Blue Mosque and the Ayia Sofia. Rates start at 125€ ($133) or 30,000 HHonors Points per night. If you’re looking for a five-star experience, the St. Regis Istanbul is a gorgeous Starwood property along the city’s “Fifth Avenue,” just across the bridge from the Sultanahmed District. Rates start at 261€ ($278) or 30,000 Starpoints per night.

For more on places to stay in Istanbul, be sure to see The Points Guy’s review of Soho House Istanbul and which points hotels he recommends in the city.

Exterior of the Ayia Sofia
Exterior view of the Ayia Sofia.

When you’re ready to begin sightseeing, a good place to start is the most photographed building in Turkey, the Ayia Sofia. This remarkable structure was originally built in 535 A.D. to serve as a Christian Basilica before beginning its new life as a mosque after the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople. Nowadays, the Ayia Sofia is a secular museum known for its massive dome and priceless works of art. Admission is 30 TL ($10.30).

Architectural details of the interior of the Blue Mosque
Architectural details of the interior of the Blue Mosque domes.

The Blue Mosque is just steps away from Ayia Sofia. To me, this building personifies Turkish culture – grand, ornate and colorful. It was built in the 17th century and got its name from the blue tiles adorning the interior walls. I especially love the way the light filters through the many windows in the domed ceiling. As with any mosque, everyone must dress modestly and remove their shoes before entering. Women are required to cover their hair. Admission is free.

The dim caverns of the Basilica Cistern held an emergency supply of water for the city of Constantinople
The dim caverns of the Basilica Cistern held an emergency supply of water for the city of Constantinople.

History buffs should make time to see the Basilica Cistern, one of Istanbul’s many subterranean attractions, which is located a block west of the Ayia Sofia. This underground water reservoir has been here since the 6th century A.D. It’s incredible to think it was built with just bricks and plaster, then supported by 336 Roman columns — it can store 100,000 tons of water! Don’t skip seeing the the back of the cistern where Medusa heads are used as column supports. Their odd placement, as well as their origin, has been a source of speculation for years.

If you’re in need of some fresh air, take a boat ride along the Bosphorus. There are several cruises, tourist ferries and private yacht charters for special occasions.

The Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses - come with cash and be willing to haggle for the price you want
The Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses — come with cash and be willing to haggle for the price you want.

If you’re itching to buy souvenirs like silk pashminas or the perfect kilim rug, go hit the Grand Bazaar. With more than 4,000 shops, navigating it is no easy feat, which is why you may want to get a guide if you’re planning on spending a lot of time here. My wife and I asked a Turkish friend for a reputable jewelry store, and she arranged for the storeowner to meet us at the entrance instead of having us try to find his shop ourselves. We ended up buying two beautiful pairs of 18-karat gold earrings with a great discount — hot tea included.

Reina nightclub on a Saturday night
To see and be seen, check out Reina’s scene on a Saturday night.

Istanbul has a bustling nightlife, and Reina is the place to see and be seen. It’s a massive two-story complex that boasts six restaurants, a world-class nightclub and stellar views over the Bosphorus. Because the nightclub has a steep cover charge, I like to reserve a table at either Reina Restaurant or Kosebasi. After dinner I make my way to the club without having to pay cover. If you go, you’ve got to dress to impress.

An array of Turkish appetizers at Hamdi Restaurant
An array of Turkish dips and small bites at Hamdi Restaurant.

In Turkey, eating is a sport, so you’ve got to treat yourself to at least one extraordinary meal. I recommend an epic vista to accompany your lamb kebabs at the well-priced Hamdi Restaurant. Reserve a table out on the terrace for lunch to catch all the boat traffic on the Bosphorus below. Skip the Turkish coffee if you have a weak stomach.

Cagaloglu Hammam was named in the Top 1000 Places to See Before You Die
Cagaloglu Hammam was named one of the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

Getting pampered is an essential part of any lux holiday and lucky for you, Istanbul is home to several traditional hammams. The 300-year-old Cagaloglu Hammam is on my Top 10 list of Destination Spas. My go-to treatment is the full-service bath €50 ($55). You’ll leave feeling refreshed and uber clean.

Whirling Dervishes show
Whirling Dervishes show at the Galata Mawlawi House Museum.

A Whirling Dervishes show isn’t something you come across every day. This 800-year old Sufi practice uses a continuous spinning motion as a form of meditation. The Galata Mawlawi House Museum in the Galata District (across the bridge from the historic Sultanahmet District) is the best place to see this mystical and ancient form of prayer. Tickets are about 40 TL ($20 per person). Since the show is a religious ceremony, it’s probably best not to go with small children.

Viewing platform of the Galata Tower
Viewing platform of the Galata Tower.

Last but not least is the Galata Tower. Sure, its impressive height makes it hard to miss, but did you know it offers some of the best views in Istanbul? Take the elevator to the top viewing deck (10 TL) for breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views of the city – and don’t forget your camera!

Getting There

The only year-round nonstop flights from the US to Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST) are on Turkish Airlines, flying from New York-JFK, Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA) and San Francisco (SFO). Turkish Airlines international business-class travelers and Star Alliance Gold members can enjoy the chic Turkish Airlines Departure Lounge, which includes free Wi-Fi and a chef’s corner. Be sure to see Eric Rosen’s post, How to Use Airlines Miles for Award Travel to Istanbul.

Helpful Hint About Credit Cards

Cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use for your trip to Istanbul. To see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

Have you been to Istanbul? Please share your comments or experiences with us in the comments below. 

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