Why you should go to Istanbul
As the host city for the 2023 Uefa Champions League final, Istanbul is expected to experience a football crisis when the Atatürk Olympic Stadium hosts Manchester City and Inter in Europe’s biggest games on Saturday 10 June.
Beautiful sports are not the only reason to visit this beautiful city though. With mosques, markets, art galleries and monuments, this “magic meeting place” – which spans two continents, Europe and Asia – has “more high-quality attractions than minarets”, and “is more”, said Lonely Planet. And best of all, some of the best sites in Istanbul “cost nothing” to visit.
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Like Byzantium and then Constantinople, the city has been a center of travel and trade since ancient times. The decline of empires – first Greek, then Roman, then Ottoman – has enriched its architecture, culture and cuisine, which borrows liberally from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, but summer is less oppressive here than in southern Turkey. Expect temperatures of 22C in May, 29C in August and 20C in October. Rain is more common in the winter months, but sunny days can still bring temperatures in the mid-teens.
Top attractions are things to do
Mosques are ancient buildings
As a “city of ancient empires”, there are ancient buildings scattered around Istanbul, National Geographic said. Famous places include Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Galata Tower. Did you know that there are over 3,000 mosques in Turkey’s largest city? If you want to go “off the beaten path”, and “less crowds”, go to the Süleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. “The mosque building on the hill is considered to be the best work in Istanbul by Mimar Sinan, and the courtyard offers a spectacular view of the city.”
This is a house that has “a lot of information”, said Katie Nadworny at Travel + Leisure. In the last 15 years Hagia Sophia has turned from a church to a mosque to a museum and back to a mosque. No more fees to hear the “last house palimpest”. And while some of the famous paintings have been photographed, “much remains to be seen”.
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are conveniently located within walking distance of each other. The “monumental” Blue Mosque, better known as the Sultanahmet Camii, “dominates to the south-east of the Hippodrome”, says Rough Guides. With its six minarets, “abundant” and “dominant” in the old part of Istanbul, “it is one of the most famous and visited monuments of the city”.
Istanbul is a “house of museums” and the city’s best museums offer a “journey through time,” says Lonely Planet’s Jennifer Hattam. According to Istanbeautiful, the “must visit” museums in Istanbul include Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern Museum, Istanbul Archeology Museums, Dolmabahce Palace Museum, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.
Those who love to worship at the altar of shopping can throw themselves into the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets. While the Grand Bazaar gets “more than its share of souvenir-hungry tourists”, the surrounding area is “under-explored”, says the Rough Guides. This is a “shame” because it has “excellent attractions”, from the ancient Çemberlitaş Hamamı Turkish baths to the city’s best mosque, the hilltop Süleymaniye Mosque. “It’s easy to see how you could spend a day in this area on your own.”
The mosques, palaces and museums of the old city will keep you busy for days, and then there’s the Bosphorus, the two-kilometer strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Med. – is what divides Europe and Asia. The river is very busy and scenic, the river is served by boats and tourist boats, which travel between the jetties, hotels and mansions that line the shore.
The “sleepless” city of Istanbul is “full” of bars, clubs, and restaurants to “satisfy the night traveler,” says Kushal Walia at Travel Triangle. Local people “eat hard” and “eat healthy food often”. Enjoy popular venues such as Reina (“party all night”), Sortie (“wine and dine”), and Supperclub (“fun place”).
Accommodation: the best hotels
A quiet place “isn’t easy to come by” in Istanbul, especially in the “firmness” of the old town, said Holden Frith on TheWeek.co.uk. This helps explain why the most luxurious hotel in the neighborhood, the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul in Sultanahmet, is located in a former prison. With an excellent location in the heart of the old city, the recently renovated hotel is the “opening point” of Istanbul’s most popular attractions.
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Istanbul is the place where “worlds, cultures, religions and kingdoms collide”, said Condé Nast Traveler. A “unique fusion” of “East-West, ancient-modern, grit and grandeur”, the city’s “perfectly restored” Ottoman palaces and palaces now house many luxury hotels. One place that is a “must be” is Peninsula Istanbul. Consisting of four separate buildings, the hotel spans 250m of “prime Galataport waterfront property” overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the old city.
There are 11 hotels in Istanbul that were given 9/10 by the experts at The Telegraph. The pick of the bunch is Sumahan on the Water, a former Ottoman settlement on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait. Other highly regarded hotels are the “hip boutique” Georges Hotel Galata and the “full of history” Pera Palace Hotel.
While Turkey’s Mediterranean resorts do a brisk trade in beach retreats, Istanbul is for those who want to reconnect with the world rather than escape it all. The Six Senses Kocatas Mansion offers “a place to relax”, says Holden Frith at TheWeek.co.uk. Few places could be more formal than Six Senses, which houses two 19th-century palaces on the banks of the Bosphorus. The guest rooms are spacious, bright and, like the city itself, they are a harmonious combination.
Eating and drinking
The famous Turkish cuisine is “more than kebap and döner”, says The Istanbul Insider. “Whether you like meat, fish, or vegetables, you’ll never run out of options.” Some of the things you can eat are Turkish breakfast “on the shores of the Bosphorus in areas like Bebek and Rumelihisarı”, and menemen, “a delicious Turkish omelette”.
Food is an event in Istanbul and the city offers unique cuisine to suit all budgets. Grilled meats and flatbreads abound in underground restaurants and kiosks throughout the city. For more Anatolian cooking, visit Balikci Sabahattin, a few streets from the Blue Mosque. There you will find a healthy number of Istanbul residents among the revelers – all enjoying seafood, as well as an extensive wine list.
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In the 2023 Michelin Guide there are one restaurant in Istanbul with two Michelin stars, four with one star, and ten that have been awarded the Bib Gourmand. The two-star Turkish director Fatih Tutak is “chic, modern” that puts the products of local entrepreneurs “on the ground”, said the director. And at Neolokal, which has one star and a green star for gastronomy and sustainability, guests will be offered “fun food” and good Turkish wine. The restaurant, in Salt Galata, “makes your experience unforgettable,” said the Leader.
For cocktails, mezze and snacks, head to the Sureyya Teras rooftop at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul in Sultanahmet, where the Hagia Sophia buildings offer an unparalleled view.
Transport: how to get to Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the best connected airports in the world and direct flights connect with many UK airports. Turkish Airlines, which offers meals and in-flight entertainment on most flights, is the best option for a four-hour flight. The airline also runs a “Stopover in Istanbul” offer for passengers traveling through Istanbul Airport, which includes free accommodation in partner hotels.