Formerly known as Lygos, Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents (Asia and Europe). As well as once being the seat of the historical Ottoman Empire, the city is famous for its superb architecture and cuisine. After you've visited Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, head off the beaten path to get a closer look at Istanbulite culture.
Free your mind, free your body!
Visit 'the other' blue mosque for a peaceful and spiritual experience. There is a considerable difference between visiting a mosque while surrounded by large groups of tourists and visiting one where you are likely to be virtually alone. The reverent Rüstem Pasha Mosque is one such place. Bluer than its more famous counterpart, the entrance to this small hidden gem of the Ottoman Empire is hidden above stalls near the local spice market. Its colourful interior displays more than eighty different patterns of dazzling iznik tiles.
Fancy a laugh? Then make your way to Istanbul's unusual Cartoon and Humour Museum which holds a collection of original works by the country's cartoonists. From caricatures and drawings to prints and photographs you are sure to see something that tickles your funny bone in this 'humour library'!
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city by heading to one or more of the Princes' Islands ('Adalar') about 20 kilometres southeast of the city in the Sea of Marmara. While you will have to splurge on the cost of a ferry trip (less than the price of a cup of Turkish coffee) you can tour this peaceful car-free oasis on foot or hire a bicycle or horse-drawn carriage to take you around the island.
You won't find a Turkish scarf at the local bazaar as cheap as these…
If the thought of sipping a traditional Turkish beverage seems too good to pass up, head to old town for the most important meal of the day, breakfast. There you will find street vendors in abundance where you can try some fragrant Turkish Tea and a traditional freshly baked 'Simit', Istanbul's answer to a bagel. Of course, street vendors are a popular choice throughout the day so be sure to try other things, like an Islak hamburger, slice of börek (savory filled pastry) and pistachio baklava, while you're there.
Did you know that the first person to fly was an aviator from the 17th century Ottoman Empire? Climb the 67 metre cylindrical Galata Tower from which Hezârfen Ahmet Çelebi flew three kilometres to Uskudar using self-made wings, after which he was promptly exiled to Algeria by the Sultan of the time for daring to delve into black magic! The tower also has some of the best views of Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorous Strait and Golden Horn.
While many of the city hotels will claim to have Turkish baths, they tend to be more like a health spa in comparison to the traditional type the locals visit. Expect the real deal at Kocamustafapasa Hamami where for a small fee your skin will be scrubbed in a way that will make your bathtub loofah at home feel like it's made of cotton wool!
There's a Hard Rock Café in Istanbul…
But why would you want to dine on American favourites in Turkey? One of the best ways to mix and mingle with Istanbulites is at a communal Meyhane. Bond over food, alcohol and dance as you make new friends, discover the stories that shaped the city's culture and most importantly, enjoy a great night out! There are many to choose from but one less than touristy option is Çukur Meyhane in Sokak.
Watch a Sama Ritual of whirling dervishes! This 800 year old ceremony is performed by devout followers of the Mevlevi religious way who seek maturity, peace and a closer collection with God through music and dance. The most famous performances are performed at Galata Mevlevihanesi, but less crowded ceremonies can also be observed at Rumi Mevlevi. Visit the websites to book your tickets in advance.
While it is strongly recommended that you do not attempt to dip your toes 'in' the Bosphorus Strait, there is nothing to stop you making a splash 'on' this busy waterway. Suada is a floating beach style club and swimming hotspot which offers lounge music and cocktails with panoramic views of the strait as a backdrop. Catch the free shuttle boat from Kuruçesme to get there.
It's time to talk Turkey
How often do you think you'll be returning to Istanbul in the future? If this is a once in a lifetime trip for you, make it special by doing something you'll remember for a very long time. And since you've already saved on your accommodation, now is the time to reward yourself.
An expensive seafood meal overlooking the Bosphorus Strait is generally a must for tourists. Go a step further by indulging in a morning or afternoon actually on the water in a private motor yacht. See the superb sights up close and at your own relaxed pace as you cruise through Europe and Asia in comfort and enjoy an elegant al fresco meal along the way.
And there's no more unique a souvenir than one you made yourself! Take part in a private jewellery making workshop at the Grand Bazaar, run by a local 'Usta' (master). Your workshop will include a demonstration of the ancient craft for inspiration, after which you will be assisted with designing and making your own bespoke keepsake.
Venture further afield if you have the time by…
Hiring a car and heading to the eastern Mediterranean's best preserved ancient Greco-Roman city, Ephesus. More than two thousand years old, prepare to be amazed at the preserved ruins and the ongoing project to restore the remains of building facades, statues and works of art that once stood proudly in this vibrant city. Be sure to visit the House of Virgin Mary and the Library of Celsus while you are there. If you have a few extra days you may choose to delve even further into history at some of the surrounding areas, including Troy and Pergamum.
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