Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****1/2
The missing piece
This has been the big missing city for me. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to visit one of the most historically important cities on the planet, and I always assumed a visit was inevitable - I'm just surprised it has taken so long. Afterall, it seems almost everyone in England visits Istanbul annually - it's recently become as popular as southern Spain or the Greek islands as a destination - particularly for British families.
And it nearly happened. I had booked everything up with a couple of friends in March 2020 - and then of course, the pandemic hit, and I lost my flight money, although I was refunded for the hotel. But more importantly, I had missed a chance to visit Istanbul.
So, three years later than initially planned, I finally got my visit. Thankfully it more than lived up to expectations.
Where East meets West
Istanbul was, for many centuries, the most important city in the world. Straddling the eastern and western hemispheres, the rulers of this strategic city would automatically control the lucrative trading routes between the two civilizations - and until the age of exploration every Empire that controlled the city was the most powerful of their time, from the Greeks to the Romans, Byzantines, and the Ottomans.
Originally known as Byzantium, the city was known for most its history in the English language as Constantinople, named after the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. The name Istanbul has been in use in English, somewhat begrudgingly, since the early 20th century, but has been known to local Greeks and Turks for many centuries before that.
Today, it remains one of the largest cities in the world and is both historically and culturally important as the gateway to both Europe and Asia. It's for this reason, as well as its storied history that Istanbul is also one of the most popular destinations globally, frequently topping the list of the most visited cities in the world.
It's not hard to see why. The cityscape looks like it has thousands of stories to tell, with many of the narrow passageways and streets, as well as the buildings and bazaars, being many hundreds of years old.
Hagia Sophia: When reality is better than photos
There aren't many places that I've romanticised before visiting them as much I have Hagia Sofia. It's a landmark with a rich history across two religions, several empires, and multiple cultures.
Originally built in the 6th century as a church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman era, became a museum, before it was very recently repurposed back into a mosque. Hagia Sophia has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and is one of humanity's greatest architectural achievements.
When it was built, it was the principal church of the East and the most spectacular and advanced construction of its time. However, by the time of the Muslim conquest, the Church was falling apart, ruined by the incessant wars between the Greeks and the Latins that had meant it was at times a Catholic church and at other times an Orthodox church.
When the Turks entered the Hagia Sophia, it was suffering from collapsed walls, water leaks, and doors falling off hinges and the conquering Sultan, Mehmed, ordered its immediate refurbishment and restoration. The conquest - while ending one era of the building's history - ensured it was preserved and thrived for many more centuries.
I've read about the history of Hagia Sofia for many, many years but I wasn't prepared for the sheer size of the place, as well as the way it dominates Sultanahmet Square - it's one of those places that is much better in person than photos. It was multiple times bigger and more impressive than I could have imagined.
When it was a museum, you had to pay to enter, now - as a place of worship - it is free to enter, but there are often very long queues to get in. I visited late in the evening and I waited for about 10 minutes. Once you are in you have to remove your shoes, but as soon as you step foot in the main hall, the beauty and grandeur of building is overwhelming!
The architecture of Hagia Sophia is a beautiful fusion of Byzantine and Ottoman styles, with stunning domes and intricate mosaics. The most striking feature of the building is its massive central dome, which is 55 metres high and has a diameter of 31 metres. The dome is supported by four massive piers and is surrounded by smaller domes and half-domes. The interior of the building has been restored to reflect its original glory, although some frescos have been covered up to ensure they are not used for idol worship. While the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians make copious use of frescos and paintings, Muslims and Protestants tend to shun them.
There is a small section at the front of the hall that is closed off for worshipers, but most of the main hall is accessible. There are still some small mosaics and frescos that are uncovered, just outside the main hall, so you can still see a bit of that Greek / Christian history inside the building itself.
It's honestly one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and I would recommend visiting Istanbul just to see Hagia Sofia - it is that special.
The mosque is located in the historic district of Sultanahmet, which is also home to other famous landmarks such as the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. This area certainly feels like a tourist centre, but remains relatively classy, especially when you compare them to city centres in other cities. Visitors can also take a stroll in the nearby Gulhane Park, which is a lovely green space with walking paths and fountains, while there is also the Obelisk of Theodosius. a three and half thousand-year-old tower transported to Istanbul by the Romans in the nearby Sultanahmet Square.
One of the big things on my bucket list was to see the Blue Mosque, but unfortunately it was closed for renovation during my visit. However, I did enter the Mausoleum of Suleiman the Magnificent, an octagonal building that houses the remains of his family in covered coffin like structures. The tomb was a beautiful and completely unexpected surprise. You have to take off your shoes to enter, and guards stand by and aren't shy to move you along - but it's well worth visiting seeing the beautiful, tiled walls, impressive patterns and calligraphy on the ceilings, and of course the tombs themselves covered in colourful and decorative fabric.
Unexpected surprises at Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is located in the same area as Hagia Sophia, just a short walk away. The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground water reservoir that was built in the 6th century and it was used to store water for the city and has been well-preserved. Entry to the Basilica Cistern costs 300 Turkish Lira (approximately £12).
You have to queue a little, and it wasn't immediately clear to me exactly where to queue to get in but some very helpful guides pointed to a small entrance, a short walk opposite Hagia Sophia. Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern is less well known, and I didn't know too much about it before making my down a set of stairs and into an underground labyrinth of walkways.
The cistern was built using materials from earlier Roman buildings and Greek temples, such as columns and capitals, which can be seen throughout the structure. The most famous features of the cistern are the Medusa heads, two large marble heads used as column bases, which are said to represent the Gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology.
The cistern is an engineering marvel, with a capacity of over 80,000 cubic metres of water. You can walk through the cistern's many columns and walkways, which are illuminated by dim lighting and the occasional flicker of fish swimming in the shallow water below. Every so often the dim lighting would make way for brighter orange lightning, and everyone would quickly line up to take photos.
I've never visited anything like it, and so when I was in there, I made sure to walk around very slowly just to take everything in. It feels genuinely surreal, even more so when it's something you don't expect. With shallow water, moody lighting, heads of Medusa and other strange statues (including one of a hand), this was one experience I'm not likely to forget soon.
Topkapi Palace and Ottoman History
Another place I knew relatively little about was Topkapi Palace. I've read extensively about Ottoman history, but never really studied their palaces in any great detail so I was unsure initially about whether I wanted to visit, but I'm very glad that I did. There are two different entrance packages - one with harem entrance and one without, and I decided to go for the full package. The entry fee for Topkapi Palace is different for locals and foreign visitors (which I think is a good idea) and costs about 700 Lira for the full tour (about £25).
Topkapi Palace, built in the 15th century, was once home to sultans - the rulers of the Ottoman Empire - today it is a museum that houses a vast collection of Islamic art, ceramics, and other artifacts. The palace's architecture is a typical example of Ottoman style, with ornate domes and arches, as well as perfectly kept gardens. Once inside, you can explore the palace's many rooms and halls, including the harem, the Treasury, and the Imperial Council Chamber. In addition to the palace itself, visitors can enjoy stunning views of the Bosphorus and the city skyline from the palace's many courtyards and terraces.
The whole complex is worth a visit, although no more or less interesting than similar palaces in the capital cities of ancient kingdoms around the world. Of course, it has Ottoman architecture and decoration and that's what makes it different.
Visiting the royal family's residences in the harem, the training school for young courtiers, the weapons room (complete with some incredible swords and daggers like the Topkapi dagger) and the administrative centre where the key decisions of the Empire were made were all interesting. There were also strange rooms, like one that was just full of old clocks.
But one room really stood out to me, and that was the room that holds sacred relics. Whether you are Muslim or not, it is irrelevant, looking at relics that belonged to individuals that changed the course of history is a truly humbling experience.
Among the sacred relics is the Holy Mantle, a type of cloak that is believed to have been worn by Prophet Muhammad and is kept in a special room called the Hırka-i Saadet Room. Additionally, the Prophet's sword, Zulfiqar, is also a significant relic and is housed in the Privy Chamber. The room also has a tooth and a hair from the beard of Muhammed. To see these relics associated with Muhammed were as incredible as they were unexpected and really puts to shame the poor way in which we have kept Sikh history.
Other important relics in the Topkapi Palace include the Sword of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, which is kept in the Sacred Safekeeping Room and is made of iron and encrusted with jewels. It was on the artifacts that really drew me in, knowing the history of Ali. Still feels surreal to think I have seen it in real life.
Abraham's Pot, also in the Sacred Safekeeping Room, is a significant relic believed to have been used by Prophet Abraham to prepare food for his guests. David's Sword is also in the same room and is believed to have belonged to the Prophet King David. Furthermore, the Turban of Joseph is also housed in the Sacred Safekeeping Room. It is believed to have been worn by Prophet Joseph and is an important relic. Moses' staff, which he used to perform miracles, is also present in the Palace, making it one of the most significant relics in the Islamic world. I was less convinced that these were the real deal given how far back in history we are going, but if they are, that's pretty incredible.
There are also relics of John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace. One of these relics is a section of his forearm, which is believed to have been brought to Istanbul during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The relic is kept in a special room in the palace called the Chamber of the Sacred Relics and is considered to be a significant religious artifact by Christians and Muslims alike. It is believed to have been preserved in a special oil that has kept the relic intact for over 2000 years. It looks otherworldly when you see it in real life.
These are relics of incredible people, and I had no idea they were preserved in such good order in one place. These are world changing individuals that I have grown up hearing stories about - whether from Jewish, Christian, or Islamic perspectives. I don't say it lightly - but to me, this is one of the most important rooms in the Abrahamic world - and certainly one of the most impressive rooms I have ever had the fortune of visiting.
The beauty of Turkish architecture
I spent a long time walking around the different neighbourhoods of the city, and it was a great way to see parts of the city I might miss in taxis or public transport. The walk up the hill to the Suleymaniye Mosque was a fun one as it took me through several different neighbourhoods, all with slightly different vibes.
The Suleymaniye Mosque is an iconic landmark in Istanbul, known for its stunning views over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Built in the 16th century, it is one of the largest mosques in the city and is a beautiful example of Ottoman architecture. The mosque's elegant domes and intricate tiles make it a must-visit attraction in Istanbul, and as it is a place of worship, entrance is free.
The Suleymaniye Mosque is located on the top of a hill in the historic district of Eminonu, a short walk from the Grand Bazaar. The surrounding area of the Suleymaniye Mosque is filled with narrow, winding streets lined with traditional Ottoman houses and charming cafes. The area is also home to the Istanbul University and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
The mosque was built in the 16th century by the Ottoman Empire's greatest architect, Mimar Sinan, during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. As soon as you walk into the main complex you are welcomed by a beautiful courtyard from which you can see the four sides of the mosque.
The interior of the mosque is equally impressive, with intricately decorated walls, ornate chandeliers, and stained-glass windows. There is a magnificent dome with a dominant red and green colour scheme, and it is comfortably one of the most beautiful places of worship I have ever visited. It's one of those things I've learned while travelling. Growing up I was under the impression that all mosques were off-limits to non-Muslims, but the more I travel, the more I realise how wrong I was this entire time.
Around the perimeter of the mosque are views of the city and Bosphorus, which themselves are worth the visit alone - but to me, the sadness of missing out on the Blue Mosque was party remedied by the beauty of the Suleymaniye Mosque.
History and views
Just across the water, but still on the European side of the city, is the Galata Tower, a historic watchtower that offers panoramic views over the city. Originally built in the 14th century, it has been rebuilt several times over the centuries.
There was a bit of queue when I visited and I had to wait about 20-30 minutes. It costs 350 Lira to enter which is about £15, a reasonable price for the spectacular views.
The stone tower located in the Beyoglu district was built in 1348 during the Byzantine period and has since become a major landmark of Istanbul. The tower stands at a height of 66.9 metres and has a cone-shaped roof, with a viewing platform at the top that offers stunning panoramic views of the city. I went just after sunset and the city had a beautiful glow about it. You can see some of the main sites of the city, as well as the Bosphorus and large Turkish flags that dotted the horizon.
The tower was originally built as part of the Genoese fortifications of Constantinople, and it served as a lookout tower for the defence of the city. Over the centuries, the tower has been used for a variety of purposes, including as an observatory, a fire tower, and a prison.
You can access to the top viewing platform via a lift or a steep staircase - the staircases are particularly fun given the ceiling are quite low and the width is quite narrow. Each floor that you stop along has a different exhibition and it's a nice climb down.
The surrounding area of Galata Tower is a vibrant and bustling neighborhood, known for its historic architecture, trendy cafes, and art galleries. Visitors can explore the narrow streets of the Beyoglu district and admire the colorful murals and street art that decorate the walls of many buildings. The nearby Galata Bridge is also a popular attraction, offering stunning views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
I really liked this part of the city. The slow slope behind the tower filled with small cafes, and the restaurants on the side of the tower all lit up at night felt magical. I crossed the bridge in the day and during the night and both times it was full of fisherman looking for their catch from the river. The views of the city skyline from the bridge looking towards the Suleymaniye Mosque were just amazing - it really felt like a film set.
Grand Bazaar: a maze of shops
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with over 4,000 shops selling everything from Turkish rugs to spices and jewelry. This bustling market has been around for centuries, and it is a hub of commerce and culture in Istanbul. Visitors to the Grand Bazaar can spend hours exploring its many shops and admiring its beautiful architecture. The Grand Bazaar is free to enter, but prices for goods inside can vary.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, located in the heart of Istanbul's historic city center. The bazaar covers an area of over 30,000 square meters and consists of more than 60 streets and alleys lined with over 4,000 shops, selling everything from traditional Turkish carpets and jewelry to spices, textiles, and souvenirs.
The history of the Grand Bazaar dates back to the 15th century when it was founded by Mehmet the Conqueror, who also commissioned the construction of the nearby Spice Bazaar. Over the centuries, the bazaar has undergone many changes and expansions, and today it is a major tourist attraction that attracts millions of visitors each year.
Visitors can enter the Grand Bazaar free of charge and explore its labyrinthine streets and shops. It is a great place to experience the vibrant atmosphere of Istanbul, with its bustling crowds, colorful displays, and vibrant sounds and smells. Bargaining is a common practice in the bazaar, and visitors should be prepared to haggle over prices.
The Grand Bazaar is located in the heart of Istanbul's historic district, near the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The area is rich in history and culture, with many other interesting landmarks and attractions nearby. Visitors can explore the narrow streets and alleys of the old city, admire the impressive Ottoman architecture, and sample traditional Turkish cuisine in the many restaurants and cafes that line the streets.
Taksim Square is one of Istanbul's most popular gathering places, located in the heart of the city's modern district. The square is surrounded by narrow streets, shops, and restaurants, and is a hub of activity both day and night.
The history of Taksim Square dates back to the early 19th century, when it was a meeting point for the city's residents. Over the years, it has been the site of many important political demonstrations and events, including the protests that took place in Gezi Park in 2013 which I remember seeing on television as powerful movements.
Today, the square is home to several important landmarks, including the Republic Monument, which commemorates the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. There are also several museums, art galleries, and theaters located in the surrounding area.
A short walk away is the famous Istiklal Avenue, which runs from the square to the iconic Galata Tower. The area is also home to several traditional Turkish bathhouses, loads of restaurants and bars. It's broadly the equivalent of Oxford Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York and the area was packed at all times of the day and long into the evening. A tram runs almost the entire length of the avenue, while small side streets radiate from the centre, with bars and restaurants along the perimeter.
While one side is very upmarket, the other is the red-light district, and very seedy. And not seedy in the edgy way that equivalents in other cities are - this just felt straight up dangerous.
From Europe to Asian and back again... in one city
The meeting point of Europe and Asia is what makes Istanbul so unique and famous, so the chance to jump on the waterway and make the crossing is a rite of passage for all that visit.
The Bosphorus is a crucial part of Istanbul's identity, separating Europe and Asia and acting as a hub for commerce and transportation. Taking a boat tour along the Bosphorus is an excellent way to take in the cityscape and see Istanbul from a different perspective. During the boat ride I even saw a pod of dolphins jumping out the water right next to the boat. Along the way, I saw some of the city's most significant landmarks, including the Maiden's Tower and the Dolmabahce Palace.
I landed in Kadikoy, a lively and diverse district on the Asian side of Istanbul, with plenty of interesting streets and neighbourhoods to explore. I spent most of my time in the area around the Kadikoy Market which was incredibly lively and had some great deals for souvenirs. I'm not a huge fan of Turkish food - in fact, it's probably one of the big downsides of the city, but here I managed to get some food that I thought was at least okay.
One of the hidden gems in Istanbul is the neighbourhood of Yeldegirmeni, a charming and historic area known for its colorful streets, lively atmosphere, and rich cultural heritage. It felt a little more bohemian, a little more like the early days of Shoreditch or Williamsburg.
One of the main attractions in Yeldegirmeni is the Yeldegirmeni Art Street, a colourful pedestrian street that is lined with murals and street art. The street has become a hub for artists and creatives, with several galleries, studios, and workshops located in the area. The neighborhood is also home to several historic landmarks, including the Yeldegirmeni Mosque, which dates back to the 17th century and is an excellent example of Ottoman architecture. The mosque is a popular spot for visitors, and the surrounding area is known for its lively street markets and food stalls
To reach Kadikoy from the European side of Istanbul, I took a ferry from Eminonu (and a return to Besiktas) using my Istanbul Kart which I could also use on the metro and buses. The cost of a ferry crossing varies depending on the time of day and the port of departure, but for me cost about 12 Lira for a one-way trip.
I also caught the metro a handful of times and while the network isn't very expansive, trains were punctual and clean, as were the stations - although they seemed to be set very deep under the ground - getting into the stations was easy, but almost every station then required a very long walk down several escalators before getting to the platform.
Taxis are a fair price - from the main Istanbul airport to the city it cost about £20 - but you can get the metro from the secondary Sabiha Airport on the Asian side of the city.
The main Istanbul Airport is one of the largest in the world, frequently one of the highest rated and has worked hard to be seen as a global hub. For me, it is comfortably one of the most spectacular airports that I have visited, with no end of shops, a modern decor, and one of the best business class lounges I have ever visited. I stopped by both the IAG lounge and the Turkish Airlines lounge, and both would be near the top of the list of good business class lounges. The Turkish Airlines lounge could comfortably compete with the Emirates lounge in Dubai and the Qatar Airways lounge in Doha.
Security is very tight. Flying to both the UK and the US, I had to complete security on three different occasions - once as soon as I got into the airport, again after passport control, and a final one at the gate itself. I had to show my passport more times than I've ever seen before, but there was no discrimination as a Sikh. I was wearing a patka and on one occasion was asked to take it off, I replied with a firm no, and didn't really have to explain anything as the guard straight away dropped his insistence in a kind and disarming way.
Would I recommend visiting Istanbul?
Absolutely. Let's get the bad things out the way. The food isn't great, and as everything is halaal it can really limit the types of food you can eat. More basically, the cuisine doesn't have the flavours I'm accustomed to - there was always either a lack of salt, or spice - or too much sugar. Another letdown is the fact that everyone seems to smoke, everywhere - and at times it can be a little much.
But that is largely it. Everything else about the city was fantastic. The people are generally nice, it's easy to walk around, and I felt relatively safe (although not quite as safe as cities in Japan or the Middle East). The history is where this city really shines, and for me it is in the same category as cities like Athens and Rome as basically open-air museums that have also successfully transformed into modern metropolises.
As a Sikh, I had no specific issues at the airport or the city. There was once a rumour that Guru Nanak had visited the city as evidenced by a stone tablet with an inscription describing his presence. That was disproven a few years back, but the false rumour still persists. That's not to say Guru Nanak didn't make it here, it's just that it wasn't recorded in history. There is also no Gurdwaras in the city and little to no Sikhs - although I did see one or two Sikh tourists.
That being said, if you have a chance to visit Istanbul, you should absolutely take it. For me, this is culturally and historically one of the best cities that I have ever visited.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.