Istanbul is truly an amazingly vibrant city and deserving of it's title "European Capital of Culture". Feel free to walk through the cities center which has a completely safe atmosphere, even in the evening, and gives one the understanding of just how modern, integrated, and western this historical place really is.
One of the biggest things that spring out at you is how many young people inhabit, work, and play in Istanbul as the average age is 21. Additionally, food stands, restaurants, and the smell of spices are everywhere.
We think the top 10 tips and interesting places to see on any ones' list of Istanbul should read something like this:
1) Visit the Hagia Sophia which is a magnificent architectural wonder and was the largest structure on earth for over 1,000 years. In 1453, it was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. It remains one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture, as the Christian mosaics and iconography were plastered over by he conquers thus preserving these treasures.
2) Experience the Palace of Topkapi which was created between 1466 and 1478. Now, a museum, with tours to enlighten you to the past sensual, artistic and rich history of Turkey and the Sultans who lived here for 400 years. For an additional fee (it's worth it) you can visit the private Harem section which was the living quarters of the Sultan, his mother and his wives. There are many courtyards and buildings housing the exquisite jewels, thrones, weapons, and plunder as well as some incredible historical artifacts such as one of St. John the Baptist's hands.
3) Wonder about the engineering prowess of yesteryear as you walk around the unique underground Basilica Cistern. This football field size structure has a mysterious feeling with it's low lightning, pillars, stone Medusa heads and carp fish floating throughout the waters. Great for the whole family. It's also fun to dress up like a Sultan at the photography shop as you enter.
4) Be Impressed at the Dolmabache Palace. It is opulent. We ended up in a in a sophistiscated lounge that definitely had an old world feeling.
5.) Drink fresh squeezed pomegranate juice from a vendor on the streets.
6) Shop for souvenirs and other Turkish treasures at the The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market; both of these beehives of commerce should definitely be on every travelers list of places to visit. The sales people are determined, however they are friendly, clever, engaging, and charming.
7) Cruise the Bosphorus Strait which is the only body of water that separates two continents. One side of Istanbul is in Europe, the other is in Asia. By cruising up the strait toward the Black Sea, especially with a guide along to explain, you'll see many beautiful mansions, the Ortakoy Mosque, Palaces, the Rumeli Hisari fortress and the Bosphorus Bridge which links the two continents together.
8) Enjoy three museums in one at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. One admission allows you into all three. Only 10 TRl, make sure to see the Sarcophagus room... Did you know the temple and statues were in color? Items dating back to 30,000 BC.
9) Sit with a traditional Turkish coffee and watch the world of Turkey go by. The waiters run back and forth from the cafes to where you sit (usually across the platia) carrying and swinging your coffee in a unique way and you will see all of life pass you by.
10) Get pampered in a true authentic traditional Hamam known as a Turkish Bath. Our thinking is every visitor to Turkey should try it. It's been appreciated and used in the daily life of Turks for hundreds of years. You will find the experience ethical, organized, and clean. You will be wrapped in a cotton cloth called pestamal, then you steam in a gorgeous high dome ceiling room. You lay on the marble platform for about 20 minutes, then the attendant comes and give you a scrub with a loofa like mitt. You'll be hot, so they douse you with cold water, then a pummeling type massage from head to toe to energize and then the heavenly bubble bath massage. There is one close to the Grand Bazaar called Cemberlitas which is convenient but might be crowded.