No other city in the world straddles two continents; nowhere else has been the capital of two empires. This vibrant metropolis of 15 million people, sprawling across the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus Strait, is unique. Founded by the Greeks, later capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Istanbul blossomed anew at the heart of the Moslem Ottoman Empire following its capture by the Turks in 1453.
Both empires bequeathed Istanbul a wealth of superb buildings, most concentrated in the old city centred on Sultanahmet. From the glittering gold mosaics of the Hagia Sophia to the cascading domes of the Blue Mosque, and from the cavernous depths of the Basilica Cistern to the Topkapı Palace’s mysterious harem, Istanbul simply oozes history.
Across the curving inlet of the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet are bustling Karaköy, Galata and Beyöğlu. Istanbulites and visitors alike come here in droves to shop, eat, club, visit galleries, cinemas and theatres, whilst the more adventurous catch a ferry to Asia and hip Kadıköy and Moda.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do. For further Istanbul inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants, nightlife and things to do.
The only way is up if you begin your day in the subterranean depths of the Basilica Cistern, a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 columns. Don’t miss the twin blocks carved into snake-haired Medusas, or the carp idling in the shallow waters.
Right across from the cistern is the greatest single building in a city full of wonders, the Hagia Sophia. Initially a church, it was converted into a mosque in 1453, made a museum in 1934 and converted once again to a mosque in 2020; standing beneath its 55m-high dome is a humbling experience. Look out for the superb mosaic of the Virgin and child flanked by the Byzantine emperors Constantine and Justinian above the doorway as you enter the church via the Vestibule of Warriors.
Neighbouring the Hagia Sophia is the breathtaking Blue Mosque, famed for its glorious blue Iznik tilework interior. It is closed to non-worshippers during five daily prayers; opening times are Sat-Thurs, 8.30am-11.30am, 1pm-2.30pm, 3.30pm-4.45pm; Fri, 1.30pm-4.45pm. For more suggestions of the best things to do in the city, see our guide.
A couple of minutes walk away on Divan Yolu is Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi, where the speciality is tasty grilled meatballs dished up with a white-bean salad and spicy tomato sauce. It’s good value and attracts as many locals as tourists.
The four courtyards and plethora of buildings and pavilions that make up the Topkapı Palace complex are a whole afternoon’s entertainment. This was the nerve centre of the Ottoman Empire. It's suitably grandiose, located on the tip of the peninsula on which the old quarter stands. Several museums, featuring treasures such as the Topkapı Dagger and a hair from the Prophet Mohammed, dot the complex, and there’s a café with great views across the Bosphorus. If the complex is busy with Turkish school children or cruise ship passengers, dodge into the intriguing and beautifully-tiled Harem section (often refreshingly empty as it’s a significant extra admission charge of TRY 40 [£2.20]).
Tucked away up a cobbled side street just off Sultanahmet’s main drag, Divan Yolu, is Khorasani. The speciality is that most Turkish of foods: kebab. Several varieties are grilled to perfection over charcoal and served up with great ovals of the thin, unleavened bread, lavas. Meze, or starters, are delicious too, with dips such as muhamara (a spicy blend of breadcrumbs, walnuts and hot pepper). For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the city, see our guide.
For a nightcap try the roof bar of the Arcadia Blue Hotel on Imran Ökten Cad, Sultanahmet, which affords spectacular views over the historic, lit-up buildings of the old city, of the lights twinkling on ships in the Sea of Marmara, and across to Asia.
Take the tram to the Pazartekke stop and walk a short way to the Panorama 1453 History Museum. With a huge dome painted with a 360-degree panorama recreating the storming of the monumental Theodosius land walls running right behind the museum, it could be kitsch. Yet the figures and scenes are so skilfully done it is superb and really helps you ‘live’ the siege and eventual capture of the city by the Turks in 1453.
From the museum, stroll north for around a mile along the walls to the Kariye Museum. Under major restoration at the time of writing, plans to turn the museum back into the mosque it became after the Ottoman conquest appear to have stalled and it may well reopen as a museum. In its original incarnation known as the Church of St Saviour in Chora, it is adorned with a superb collection of mosaics telling biblical tales in near-graphic novel style.
Take an early lunch in the lovely garden of the Asitane restaurant, attached to the Kariye Hotel, right next door to the museum. It’s justly renowned for recreating flavourful Ottoman Turkish dishes; try the Mahmudiye, a rich chicken stew slow-cooked with apricots, raisins and almonds.
Walk off lunch with a half-hour stroll downhill to the wall’s end on the Golden Horn, passing the restored late-Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, also known as the Tekfur Saray. Don’t miss the adjacent pigeon fanciers (tumblers not racers!) market if it’s a Saturday. From Ayvansaray Pier catch a ferry down this scenic waterway to the landmark Galata Bridge at Karaköy.
Head across the Golden Horn to the fin-de-siecle Büyük Londra Oteli for an aperitif with a view from the splendid rooftop bar. If it’s too cold up top, the ground-floor lobby bar has an authentically raffish 1920s charm, complete with caged parrot, vintage radios and potted palms. Nearby Yeni Lokanta dishes up innovative Turkish food for sophisticated Istanbulites. As you tackle your raki-infused sea bass with cheese and rocket, listen to the gentle hubbub of your fellow diners and rest assured you’re mingling with some of the metropolis’ elite.
If you’re up to make a real night of it, walk a short way downhill into Galata for the atmospheric Nardis Jazz Club, run by local jazz musicians and featuring occasional international acts as well as the best home-grown talent. For more suggestions of the best bars in the city, see our guide.
Location, location, location
Fortunately, most must-see historic sights stud the compact Sultanahmet district. Here the ornate pavilions of the Topkapı Palace sprawl behind the monumental Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya). Opposite rise the domes and minarets of the equally splendid Blue Mosque. The superb Süleymaniye Mosque Complex occupies a hill-top above the 4,000-plus shops of the medieval Grand Bazaar. Across the Golden Horn the conical cap of the Galata Tower marks the pulsating entertainment quarters of Karaköy, Galata and Beyoğlu; nearby the Bosphorus waterfront is home to the hip gallery, Istanbul Modern. Cheap ferry rides take visitors across to the Asian suburbs, north to the mouth of the Black Sea or up the Golden Horn to the city’s ancient land walls.
Did you know?
Art Nouveau architecture was surprisingly popular in fin-de-siecle Istanbul – don’t miss the wonderfully ornate whiplash façades of the Flora Han in Sirkeci (old city), or the elegant Botter House in Beyoğlu.
Museum Pass Istanbul costs a mere TRY 125 (£18) and gives access to all the major historic sites in the city over a five-day period. Savings are substantial, and fast-track entry to busy major sites is a real boon.
To escape the crowds milling around the Topkapı Palace head for the terrace of the Konyalı Lokantası at the far end (north-east) of the complex and kick-back with a Turkish coffee and superb views across the Bosphorus to Asia.
Linking the historic but touristy Spice Bazaar with the exquisite Rüstem Paşa Mosque is vibrant Hasırlıcar Sokak (Street of the Strawmakers). It’s so jam-packed with local shoppers it’s not for the claustrophobic, but is the place to get Turkish delight, coffee, nuts, dried fruits, rolling pins, cake tins and much, much more. Simply revel in its heaving, earthy bazaar atmosphere.
Architecture and history buffs should spend some time in the cosy, log-fire warmed lobby reading room of the Ibrahim Pasha Hotel eruditely browsing the owner’s wonderful collection of books on Istanbul and Turkey in general.
More places to stay
Given that it has been fashioned from a beautiful 19th-century Ottoman palace, it is hardly surprising that the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorous has been dubbed the 'Palace'. Rooms are elegant and have been sympathetically preserved, leisure facilities are luxurious, and the restaurant is popular with locals.
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With a stylish roof terrace, comfortable rooms, friendly staff and excellent breakfasts, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, in the heart of Istanbul, is popular with discerning city-breakers. It's a short walk across the former chariot racing arena to the Blue Mosque.
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Büyük Londra, known in its late-Ottoman heyday as The Grand Hotel des Londres, is ideal for those seeking some serious fin de siècle atmosphere right in the heart of buzzing Beyoğlu. There are rooms to suit every budget, and it's hard to beat for location, period charm and price. For more suggestions of the best hotels in the city, see our guide.
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What to bring home
Forget balsamic vinegar, nar ekşisi (pomegranate syrup) is a vital ingredient of the best salad dressing going. Get it from the hole-in-the wall shops around the Spice Bazaar.
Cotton peştemal (Turkish bath sarongs) make superb wraps/beach towels – try Abdulla in the Grand Bazaar.
When to go
The best seasons to visit Istanbul are May-June and September-October, with days not too too hot to explore the sights and evenings warm enough to take advantage of the city’s wonderful outdoor and roof-top bars and restaurants. July and August are fine as long as you don’t overdo things in the heat of the afternoon. April brings showers and can feel quite chilly at night, November can be warm but snow is not unknown and fog rolling down the Bosphorus and shutting the ferries is a distinct possibility. December, January and February are sometimes cold and grey, with snow, sleet and fog all a possibility - though equally crisp, clear days are far from uncommon.
Know before you go
Visa requirements :UK citizens are no longer required to obtain a visa for tourist purposes to enter Turkey. To check that no changes are made prior to your visit see: mfa.gov.tr
British Consulate: 00 90 212 334 6400, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 34, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu. Open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-1am; 1.45pm-4.45pm
British Embassy, Ankara: 00 90 312 455 3344
Emergency services: dial 112 (ambulance); 110 (fire); 155 (police)
Main Tourist Office: 00 90 212 518 8754; goturkey.co.uk; Divan Yolu 3, Sultanahmet
Currency: Turkish Lira
Telephone code: dial 00 90, then the number, if dialling from Britain
Time difference: +2 hours summer time; +3 hours winter time
Flight time: London to Istanbul is approximately 3hr 30min
Local laws and etiquette
You are obliged to carry ID at all times, so keep your passport (or a photocopy) on you.
Never make disparaging remarks about Turkey or its founder, Atatürk.
Dress conservatively when visiting mosques, follow the dress codes posted outside each one, and avoid photographing people at prayer.
Homosexuality is legal in Turkey (over the age of 18), and Istanbul has a thriving LGBT+ scene centred on the Beyoğlu district. Many Turks are, however, very conservative and attitudes to homosexuality at best ambivalent, and the AKP government has banned the once-annual Pride march in Istanbul in recent years.
Despite increasing conservatism within the country, plenty of Turks drink alcohol, and the Beyoğlu district sometimes seems devoted to it. However, drunken behaviour is frowned upon and may land you in trouble with the police and/or irate locals.
Terry first visited continent-spanning Istanbul as an impecunious undergraduate in 1978, sparking a decades-long obsession. Today, when not leading special-interest groups around the city’s fantastic historic sites, he’ll likely be found at a rooftop bar in hedonistic Galata.