Oh what I would give to be able to see Istanbul for the first time again. It’s the kind of city that seems to keep unfolding into the distance.
The first glimpse of a mosque in the distance or the first time crossing the Galata bridge at dusk with the call to prayer lingering in the background. Istanbul is a wonder, but with so much to do and see it can quickly become overwhelming for the first-timer.
Here are some of my best tips for your first time in the city of seven hills:
Get Your Bearings on The Bosporus
Start your adventure in Istanbul with a cruise down the Bosporus Straight. Long considered the crossroads of trade where the eastern world meets the west, the Bosporus divides Istanbul into two parts: the Asian and the European Sides. From this vantage point you’ll be able to get your bearings on the city’s many peninsulas and major landmarks— you’re bound to get lost at least once in Istanbul, but this way if you can find the straight you’ll be able to orient yourself.
Visit the Ever-Changing Hagia Sophia
Considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic sights in Istanbul. After going through a metamorphosis from Cathedral to Mosque, to Museum the Hagia Sophia has recently transformed back into a Mosque.
While the lines can be quite long to enter, the clash of Islamic and Catholic art is an experience of contrasts that is unique to Istanbul. It’s a must-do activity for your first time in Istanbul, but remember, women need to have their heads and shoulders covered to enter any mosque so be sure to bring a scarf along, otherwise they have paper scarfs you can buy at the mosque.
Hangout on the Rooftops
Istanbul is a city built on seven hills, making the mosque-dotted skyline dynamic and captivating. For the best views of the city, head to one of the many rooftops. From casual cafes and bars to fine dining restaurants, there’s a rooftop in Istanbul for any flavor you’re looking for. If you’re after the perfect rooftop photo, make a photoshoot reservation at Taht Istanbul or Kubbe Istanbul— think of sipping Turkish tea on colorful carpets with a picturesque skyline complete with seagulls flying in the background.
Pamper Yourself at the Turkish Baths
Finding moments of serenity in a city of 20 million people is a feat in and of itself. The Turkish Baths are the perfect place to unwind and take in everything you’ve experienced so far.
Dating back to the Ottoman Empire, the baths are floor-to-ceiling marble wonders of grandeur and leisure.
After spending about an hour in the steam room and getting a traditional scrub you’ll feel reborn. The best part is that you can lounge in the resting areas for as long as you’d like with complimentary Turkish tea in hand of course.
Wondering which bath to go to? I’ve got you covered with the best hamam in Istanbul.
Indulge Your Senses with a Meyhane Dinner
A Meyhane dinner is a whirlwind of sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. This traditional Turkish experience is a must-do for your first time in Istanbul.
The rich aromas of Turkish cuisine will greet you before you’re even inside. Rather than looking at a menu, there is a cooler showcasing the colorful mezze (appetizers) and freshly caught fish.
Everything is brought out family-style, making for a truly impressive table spread. The restaurant comes to life with the sounds of a live bağlama (Turkish guitar) and Raki (Anise Liquor) flowing. The night typically ends with the whole restaurant dancing and singing till long after midnight.
Explore the Bazaars in Istanbul
There are endless types and amounts of bazaars in Istanbul. You can find flea markets with vintage goods, farmer’s markets, and of course historic markets like Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and the spice bazaar.
Walking through the bazaars will remind you that people have come for centuries to Istanbul to trade and sell goods. If you’re wondering which bazaar in Istanbul you should check out, read my article breaking down all of the markets in Istanbul.