What are the best things to see and do in Istanbul?

Mickey Ashmore

From historical sites and boat tours to dining on world-class cuisine, here are Forbes Travel Guide editors’ five favorite things to do in Istanbul, a city straddling the borders of Europe and Asia that has a population of nearly 20 million people:
 
1. Visit Old City. You’ll find some of Istanbul’s most-visited attractions in Old City, including the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace (don’t miss the Harem and view from the rear courtyards at the latter). You could easily devote at least half a day to visiting these sites — and more if you’re a serious history buff. Don’t forget to finish your day with a visit to a Turkish bath to refresh, relax and rejuvenate yourself before a night out on the town — Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş Hamamı are two good options.
 
2. A night out in Beyoğlu. Istanbul’s nightlife does not disappoint, particularly in the Beyoğlu district, where you’ll find the city’s best concentration of bars, restaurants and clubs. For a great pre-dinner aperitif, check out Mikla, which has an outdoor terrace with some of the best views in Istanbul. You can also check out the bar scene at Münferit or the rooftop dance floor at NuTeras. During the winter, stroll the Asmalı Mescit area, where you can sample a range of bars and clubs.
 
3. Eat the local fish. It would be a shame to leave Istanbul without enjoying some of its fresh fish. Go to one of the restaurants along the Bosphorus strait and start with cold meze (shared appetizers), then move to ara sıcak (hot appetizers) like fish köfte or grilled calamari while saving room for a nice piece of levrek (sea bass) or kalkan (turbot).

4. Boat rides on the Bosphorus Strait. You should definitely plan on spending some time on the Bosphorus, especially if you come during the summer. Options on the strait range from a private tour with wine and cheese — you can arrange this through your hotel — to simply catching a ferry from Eminönü, in Europe, to Kadıköy, in Asia. The many tourist-friendly Boğaz Turs that depart from multiple ferry docks throughout the city are another option.
 
5. Brunch and a Walk from Rumeli to Arnavutköy. Brunch is serious business in Istanbul. Locals like to have it late in the day, and one of their favorite places to enjoy it is in Rumelihisarı, a quiet neighborhood along the upper Bosphorus set beneath the historic Rumeli fortress. After brunch, burn off a few calories by joining the locals on a seaside walk from Rumeli along the Bosphorus, back toward Bebek and onto Arnavutköy.

  • On March 12, 2013
    Caroline Patek answered the question: Caroline Patek

    What are the best places to eat in Istanbul?

    Rooftop Terrace at Mikla (Mecit Gulaydin) One of my favorite things about Istanbul's dining scene is the unbelievable views from some of its top restaurants. Between the Bosphorus and the scattering of rich historical sites throughout the city, there's no shortage of picture-perfect vistas. 

    360 Istanbul is set atop a building in Beyoglu, and true to its name, it provides 360 views of the city. Large windows offer those sitting inside grand vistas, but you'll want to be seated on the balcony. The menu is filled with traditional Turkish fare and the cocktails are a must — the mojito I ordered is forever ingrained in my memory.

    Mikla restaurant is another one of my favorite Istanbul spots. Perched at the top of the Marmara Pera hotel (where I stayed during my trip), chef Mehmet Gürs combines Turkish and Scandinavian cuisine for dishes such as North Aegean octopus with cauliflower and arugula cream. Yet again, the views of some of Istanbul's most famous sites aren't to be missed —  including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque —  and the restaurant's rooftop terrace bar is great for a pre- or post-dinner drink (or two). 
  • On March 12, 2013
    Caroline Patek answered the question: Caroline Patek

    What are the best places to eat in Istanbul?

    Rooftop Terrace at Mikla (Mecit Gulaydin) One of my favorite things about Istanbul's dining scene is the unbelievable views from some of its top restaurants. Between the Bosphorus and the scattering of rich historical sites throughout the city, there's no shortage of picture-perfect vistas. 

    360 Istanbul is set atop a building in Beyoglu, and true to its name, it provides 360 views of the city. Large windows offer those sitting inside grand vistas, but you'll want to be seated on the balcony. The menu is filled with traditional Turkish fare and the cocktails are a must — the mojito I ordered is forever ingrained in my memory.

    Mikla restaurant is another one of my favorite Istanbul spots. Perched at the top of the Marmara Pera hotel (where I stayed during my trip), chef Mehmet Gürs combines Turkish and Scandinavian cuisine for dishes such as North Aegean octopus with cauliflower and arugula cream. Yet again, the views of some of Istanbul's most famous sites aren't to be missed —  including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque —  and the restaurant's rooftop terrace bar is great for a pre- or post-dinner drink (or two). 
  • On September 5, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to eat in Istanbul?

    From traditional bakeries to modern restaurants, here are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ picks for the best places to eat in Istanbul:
     
    1. Kandilli Suna’nın Yeri. No trip to Istanbul is complete without enjoying a proper rakı balık meal — rakı is the local aniseed-flavored alcohol, and balık means fish — and there’s no better place to do it at then Kandilli Suna’nın Yeri, located just across the Bosphorus from Bebek. Don’t miss their famous fava bean spread, fried calamari and grilled sea bass. You can cross the Bosphorus either by public ferry or sea taxi.
     
    2. Karaköy Lokantası. Turquoise-blue tiles covering the walls and rod-iron fixtures add to the classic appeal of the family-run restaurant in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. Start with a few cold and hot appetizers to share, then order a homemade yogurt. For a main course, don’t miss the hünkar beğendi (Sultan’s Delight), tender cooked meat atop a creamy eggplant puree.
     
    3. Mikla. Turkish celebrity chef Mehmet Gurs runs this top-notch restaurant offering both local- and Scandinavian-influenced cuisine. You’ll love the food, but might fawn over the spectacular views of the Bosphorus from the restaurant’s elegant outdoor terrace just as much.
     
    4. Münferit. Münferit serves modern takes on classic Turkish dishes in a sleek setting. The menu is filled with mouthwatering fare like baked porcini with melted cheese and truffle; there’s a great wine list, too. You’ll also find one of the city’s hottest late-night bar scenes here on the weekends.
     
    5. Datlı Maya. You’ll be greeted with a blast of warmth from a large oven and the smells of freshly baked bread when you walk into Datlı Maya, a repurposed commercial simit bakery specializing in traditional Turkish food like pide and lahmacun with a bohemian twist. Be sure to add a salad to your meal — it’s one of our favorite dishes on the small menu.
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  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    Where can you get the best view in Istanbul?

    Comprised of seven hills and two bodies of water, Istanbul is a city where you’ll have no trouble finding spots with remarkable panoramic views. Here are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ four favorite ones:
     
    1. Mangerie in Bebek. This gourmet café offers upscale fare on a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. Enjoy the views while you dine on either classic Turkish breakfast dishes or international classics like eggs Benedict.
     
    2. Mikla. Mikla is arguably one of the best restaurants in Istanbul — and some would say it has one of the best views, too. From this elegant space you can see nearly every piece of the city, including the large number of ships waiting in the Marmara Sea.
     
    3. Galata Tower. Few would argue that there are significantly better views than those you’ll enjoy from the wraparound balcony of Galata Tower. Yes, it’s touristy, but even locals admit to being mesmerized by the tower’s dominating presence in the middle of such an urban environment.
     
    4. Boat tour. A private or group tour on the Bosphorus, heading towards the Black Sea, will yield fantastic views of Istanbul. From the historic Bosphorus palaces to the modern skyscrapers in Istanbul’s central business district, you’ll be amazed by all the history you can see in just one ride.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    What is the best thing to bring home from Istanbul?

    Istanbul is full of great things to bring home, including antiques — some of questionable authenticity — locally produced crafts and modern pieces inspired by Ottoman times. Stroll through the local markets or go to design stores like Paşabahçe to find classic souvenirs specific to the city such as tea glasses and ceramic evil eyes; the latter promises to bring you protection and prosperity.
     
    Of course, there’s always food, too. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors think dried figs and fruits from any number of vendors are a good buy — and that Malatya Pazarı is an especially good brand to look for. Almond paste sweets from Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi in Bebek are also recommended, and standard Turkish delights always make great gifts for friends as well. For a more modern gift, head to Atölye 11 in Karaköy, where you can find fantastic Ottoman-inspired jewelry, pillows and clothing.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    What are the best Istanbul food experiences?

    From Ottoman-inspired dishes to some of the best kebabs in Turkey, Istanbul offers some excellent food experiences — these are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ picks for the best:
     
    1. Fresh fish. There are few food experiences more enjoyable in Istanbul than a long meal filled with a variety of fresh seafood. Go to one of the restaurants along the Bosphorus strait and start with cold meze (shared appetizers), and then move to ara sıcak (hot appetizers) like fish köfte or grilled calamari. If you’re still hungry, finish off your feast with levrek (sea bass) or kalkan (turbot).

    2. Brunch. Turks love a late brunch, with the city’s quintessential brunching grounds found just underneath the Rumeli Fortress. Here you’ll find a number of fantastic places for a leisurely meal, including crowd favorites like Kale Café, Nar Café and Sade Kahve.
     
    3. Lunch in Asia. Istanbul spans parts of both Europe and Asia, so a trip to one or the other is just short boat ride away. Take the public ferryboat from the European side (either Beşiktaş, Karaköy or Eminönü ferry docks) to Kadiköy. Once you arrive, walk towards Moda and into the Kadiköy market center. Take your time to slowly explore the market, where you’ll find food stalls full of delicious fare such as dolma (peppers, eggplants and mussels stuffed with rice), cheese and other Turkish delicacies. For a sit-down meal head to Çiya Sofrası, which serves authentic Turkish cuisine from several regions of the country.
     
    4. Street food. Some of Istanbul’s best eats are found on the street. Of particular acclaim is Emine Ana Tantuni, just off Taksim Square: The menu is small, but you will not be disappointed with the simple tantuni durum and housemade ayran (salty yogurt drink).
     
    5. Fine dining with a view. Istanbul has a number of top-notch fine dining establishments, but Mikla stands out above the rest. This wonderful spot run by Turkish celebrity chef Mehmet Gurs serves both local- and Scandinavian-influenced foods; the cuisine is excellent, but our favorite perk is the elegant outdoor terrace, where you’ll enjoy immaculate views of the Bosphorus.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    Where is the best nightlife in Istanbul?

    Istanbul has a vibrant nightlife scene, particularly in the popular Asmalı Mescit area in Beyoğlu. There you’ll find small pedestrian streets packed with restaurants, bars and tons of people. In Asmalı, Balkon Bar — an understated yet hip rooftop bar — is always a great choice.
     
    Another popular nightlife area recommended by our Forbes Travel Guide editors is Pera, which is home to NuPera and NuTeras, two of Istanbul’s more popular dance clubs — and they’re conveniently housed in the same building. NuTeras is arguably home to Istanbul’s best dance floor: a raised space with views of the Old City.
     
    The most popular bar scenes can be found at Münferit and Cezayir, just off Istiklal Avenue. You’ll find a hip crowd and great music at both, but if it’s an alternative scene you’re looking for go to the Cihangir neighborhood, where you’ll find spots like Susam Cafe (for casual drinks) and MiniMüzikhol (for late-night dancing).
     
    Finally, no Istanbul nightlife list is complete without mentioning Lucca in Bebek. Lucca is an Istanbul institution, catering to a trendy, upmarket crowd with fantastic cocktails, consistently solid food and energizing music.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    What is the best way to see Istanbul in one day?

    Though you’d need weeks (if not more) to properly explore Istanbul, you can still cover a lot of ground in one day and see the best of the old and new parts of the city.
     
    Our Forbes Travel Guide editors recommend starting your morning early with a serving of börek (fried pastries) and a Turkish coffee or tea. After breakfast, kick off your sightseeing at Sultanahmet Square, where you can stop in the ancient Hagia Sophia mosque and lavish Topkapı Palace. Next, head to the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar shopping market and meander through until you find the exits toward the Golden Horn, the historic inlet for the Bosphorus strait. Finish your tour of the Old City with a stroll through the Egyptian Market (Spice Bazaar).
     
    Now that you’ve spent your morning exploring two of Istanbul’s best markets, cross the Galata Bridge by foot to Karaköy for a late traditional lunch at Karaköy Lokantası. (We recommend the Sultan’s Delight with meat.) After you eat, consider taking a break with a Turkish bath or visiting the Istanbul Modern for contemporary art and a drink with a view at their excellent café.
     
    Keep things modern for dinner by heading to Leb-i derya  Richmond for a Turkish fusion meal, followed by cocktails in a hip after-dinner scene at Balkon Bar or Münferit.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to stay in Istanbul?

    The Old City is a popular choice for many visitors, but when we visit Istanbul we prefer to stay either along the Bosphorus strait or in Beyoğlu. With that in mind, here are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ picks for the best Istanbul hotels:
     
    1. TomTom Suites. While TomTom Suites is located on a quiet back street, it’s just a few blocks from Istiklal Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s most happening streets. The hotel itself has received a number of awards thanks to its top-notch service and simple-yet-modern design. We particularly love the terrace and La Mouette, the hotel’s top-floor restaurant, both of which offer stunning panoramic views of the city.
     
    2. Georges Hotel Galata. Featuring a sexy, modern design and a popular downstairs bar and restaurant called Le Fumoir, Georges Hotel Galata is an Istanbul newcomer on a small stone street just a few steps from historic Galata Tower. We love that most of the beautiful guestrooms here have a balcony and view of the Bosphorus.
     
    3. Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet. This former site of an Ottoman prison is today a gorgeous hotel surrounded a courtyard garden. You’ll have great views of the major Sultanahmet sites here, and the grand, elegant guestrooms are just what you’d expect from a Four Seasons hotel. (Want to be closer to the water? Stay at sister property Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus.)
     
    4. Sumahan on the Water. Situated on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus in Çengelköy, Sumahan on the Water is ideal for both romantic getaways and as a convenient jumping-off point for exploring Istanbul. Despite its seemingly out-of-the-way location, Sumahan actually puts you in the center of the action thanks to its private boat that runs between Asia and Europe. The hotel itself is a historic distillery restored by a Turkish-American husband-and-wife team — book one of the two-floor loft rooms with a private hammam and living room doors that open to unobstructed views of the Bosphorus.
     
    5. The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul. Centrally located in Taksim Square, The Ritz-Carlton adds authentic details throughout the luxury hotel, with Turkish décor like colorful Iznik tiles in the bathrooms. We recommend heading to the indulgent open-air spa, to soak in the sun on the teak terrace with a smoothie and then head to the hammam. For the best ocean vista, book the luxury hotel’s Ritz-Carlton or Bosphorus View suites.
  • On September 5, 2012
    Mickey Ashmore answered the question: Mickey Ashmore

    Where is the best shopping in Istanbul?

    Just like the city itself, the shopping scene in Istanbul is balanced between old institutions and modern upstarts.
     
    For the old and traditional, wander through the maze of stalls at the Grand Bazaar. You’ll find just about everything here, but the items most worth seeking out are those inspired by the city’s Ottoman roots: intricate rugs, colorful jewelry and ceramics, and luxurious bath products. For a more retro vibe, stroll the small stone streets of Çukurcuma in Beyoğlu, where antique and nostalgia shops are found at every other storefront.
     
    Our Forbes Travel Guide editors say there are two areas to consider for more modern shopping excursions. In Galata, particularly along Serdar-ı ekrem Street, you’ll find hip, up-and-coming Turkish designers; the store Building, for example, showcases a range of new Turkish trends. Along the same street as Building you’ll find a number of other great design and fashion shops, including Arzu Kaprol. Finally, if you want to see the real high-end fashions, head to Nişantaşı’s shopping streets, home to international brands like Zara and Prada.
     
    Regardless of where you go, don’t plan your shopping spree for a Sunday since most places will be closed.
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