The tourist season in Istanbul is well underway, bringing hordes of tour buses and groups into Sultanahment (the Old City) each day, perhaps even more this year as the Turkish city is currently one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture. Whether you are planning your first visit or your tenth, here is a look at some of the most touristed spots, why you should fight the crowds to see them, and where you can get off the beaten path.
Why go: Istanbul’s star attraction could hardly be overhyped; it is awe-inspiring and worthwhile, period. The sheer size and fact that it was completed in just five years makes it a must-see. Yes, it will be crowded but it’s big enough that you barely notice.
Where else: There is no real comparison to Hagia Sophia, but if you enjoy the murals, plan a visit to Chora Church (aka Kariye Muzesi). While not undiscovered either, the location is outside of the Old City and can be quiet in the off-season and on weekdays.
Getting there: Bus 31E, 37E, 38E or 36KE from Eminönü, or 87 from Taksim, get off at Edirnekapı near the old walls after the sunken stadium.
Why go: The city’s most famous active mosque isn’t really all blue, as the interior is covered in tiles of all shades and designs. It’s perpetually filled with rude tourists with uncovered hair talking on cell phones and photographing worshippers (all major mosque no-nos) but if you are seeing Hagia Sophia, it’s right there, the light and colors are lovely, and it’s free. Watch out for the “helpful” guides who will tell you it is closed for prayer and “volunteer” to take you elsewhere; if it is closed to the public, you’ll know it at the door and will have to wait a half hour or so to enter.
Where else: Tucked in a busy street near the Spice Market, the Rustem Pasha Mosque is also decorated with beautiful Iznik tiles but gets few foreign visitors. You may sometimes get the place to yourself, making your visit far more peaceful or even spiritual.
Getting there: From the Spice Market, exit onto Hasırcılar and wander a few blocks past vendors selling everything from coffee to tinfoil to guns; look for an elevated courtyard on your right with a sign for the mosque (camii). From Eminonu, head up Uzunçarşı away from the water, the mosque will be on your left a block or two up the hill.
Why go: In many rooms of the palace, you’ll feel the full court press of people trying to get a good look at exhibits, it’s worth it to see emeralds the size of a baby’s head, over-the-top Ottoman costumes, a bizarre collection of relics, and the reality that life in a harem was nothing like the inside of I Dream of Jeannie‘s bottle.
Where else: While less grand than the other royal residences, Beylerbeyi Palace is a pretty jewelbox of a palace and gives you a nice excuse to visit the Asian side. Only accessible by guided tour, but unlike the European Bosphorus-side Dolmabahçe Palace, you’ll rarely have more than a few other travelers on your English-language tour and the admission is a relative bargain at 10 TL.
Getting there: Ferry over to Üsküdar on the Asian side, where you can take bus 15 to the Çayırbaşı stop right by the big bridge.
Why go: The mother of all tourist traps, it’s hard to say you went to Istanbul without visiting this maze of shops. While quality and value are questionable, it’s an experience to listen to the myriad ways the shopkeepers will try to get your attention (they are very thick-skinned and multilingual). One thing to note besides tourist swag is the “Wall Street” of the Grand Bazaar, a street of Turkish men trading currencies and yelling into their cellphones (thanks to Rick Steves for the tip). Want to actually buy something? Outside the actual covered bazaar lie more streets selling many of the same items without the hassle.
Where else: If you are in the market for a submarine phone or an Ottoman fireplace, Horhor Bit Pazari is your best bet. More of an antiques market than a souvenir bazaar, it’s still fun to wander the hundreds of shops and wonder about the history behind the furnishings.
Getting there: In the very untouristy neighborhood of Aksaray, take the tram to Aksaray, walk towards the metro and head up Horhor Caddesi and look for the sign at Kırık Tulumba Sokak. It can be hard to find so check with your hotel or ask directions when off the tram.
Galata Bridge dining
Why go: The views from the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn are spectacular and unmistakenly Istanbul, but the restaurants on the lower level tend to be overpriced tourist traps. Any place where the waiters try to hustle you into sitting down at their table and the menus are in seven languages should be approached with caution. Better to have a walk along the bridge with the fishermen and stop below for a tea (not the apple stuff, it’s a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner) or beer.
Where else: Waterside cafes are plentiful in the suburbs lining the Bosphorus and while they may also be overpriced, the Turkish locals are spending similar amounts to enjoy the views. Rumeli Hisarı is popular for Sunday brunches and has a cool old fortress to explore, Bebek is trendy and posh, Arnavutköy is full of crumbling Ottoman mansions and fish restaurants, Ortaköy is famous for overstuffed baked potatoes and terrace cafes, and Beşiktaş is crowded with students and commuters having a beer and lounging on bean bag chairs.
Getting there: Ferry schedules are erratic, try buses 22, 22RE, 25E from the tram end or 40, 40T, 42T from Taksim to anywhere along the water. Traffic is often bad along the Bosphorus, so work your way back on foot.
Have a favorite tourist trap or local secret to share? Leave it in the comments.