Istanbul has a special place in human history, sitting metaphorically and physically between the East and West. At one point it was the capital city of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and the key to trade and cultural dominance. Once called Constantinople, today Istanbul offers a glimpse into ancient history and modern sensibilities. Famous for its mix of ancient mosques and Cathedrals, textiles, and food, travellers can get lost in history or seek out experiences unique to the Middle Eastern-European vibe.
We’ve rounded up the best places to see in Istanbul that you won’t find in a travel guide.
THINGS TO DO
For couples: Known for its boutiques, Istanbul is where you’ll find that unique souvenir for your friends or family. Sevan Bicakci’s studio offers travellers a look at the artist’s stunning and award-winning jewelry designs. According to travel writer Krista Canfield McNish of FoodWaterShoes, “the craftsmanship is drop dead gorgeous and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”
For business travellers: The Galata Tower is itself a destination for tourists who want to climb the 14th century medieval stone structure, but it’s the galleries surrounding the tower that attract the most experienced travellers. Try Schneider Temple Art Gallery for fashion history or Arte for sculptures and paintings, and get a first-hand look at the art movements coming out of Istanbul today.
For families: Vialand is considered a must-do for families visiting Istanbul, offering respite from touring and a bit of excitement geared toward kids. The theme park is a magical playland with roller coasters, games and more. Parents can enjoy shopping and eating while the kids have a day to relax from sightseeing.
For anyone on a budget: The Balat Street neighborhood and its brightly colored winding streets are a beautiful reminder of Istanbul’s past, as well as a quiet getaway from the hustle of the city centre. If you tour Balat, “you may see super-nice historical buildings, synagogues, churches and mosques next to each other,” says travel writer Çiler Geçici. Once a settlement for the Jewish community during the Ottoman Empire, it’s now where the cool kids go to hang out at cafes and galleries.
THINGS TO SEE
For couples: If you’re in search of a beautiful painted Turkish coffee set to take home or a vividly coloured ceiling pendant, you won’t want to miss a trip to the Grand Bazaar. Built in the mid 1400s, the covered shopping area spans 61 streets and houses 4,000 shops. But as travel writer Stephanie Craig notes, the real travel enthusiast will want to venture to the roof for secret — and breathtaking — views of the city that make for perfect Instagram moments.
For business travellers: Take a colleague to The Walls of Constantinople which were built under Constantine’s rule after he took over the city in 324. Once meant to protect the city from attack by sea and by land, today in some sections they’ve been removed to make way for Istanbul’s growing population. The remaining ruins are a living monument to the power of the Byzantine Empire, as well as an architectural feat.
For families: Miniaturk is an excellent way to introduce children to Istanbul and Turkey’s greatest architectural wonders – shrunken down. The park features 105 small-scale models of the city’s structures, a life-sized chess board, and a playground where the kids can run freely while getting an experience unlike anything back home. Not to mention, the chance to take photos of giant children walking among a miniature city!
For anyone on a budget: Visiting Kadıköy by ferry across the Bosphorous is one of the best ways to enjoy authentic contemporary Istanbul culture. Geçici calls it the Bohemian part of Istanbul and recommends you, “get lost in the streets of Moda especially. There are art studios and music venues and many beautiful buildings with amazing murals to visit.” Çiçek İşleri is a favourite — you can find handmade Turkish linens with traditional embroidered motifs.
WHERE TO DINE
For couples: Mürver is new on the scene and has quickly become an Istanbul hot spot. With its open fire cooking concept and beautiful views of the Bosphorus, this restaurant offers both a wonderful meal and an exciting atmosphere as you watch your food grilled only moments before it arrives at your table.
For business travellers: Toi is the new hot spot in Istanbul for anyone looking for an excellent dining experience. Don’t be surprised to find New England clam chowder and Carnoroli risotto with spring mushrooms and “Tulum” cheese on the menu as Toi boasts an international influence that will make any traveller feel at home.
For families: Insiders recommend Köfteci Arnavut Balat, which only serves meatballs. Kids will love the familiar food, but make sure you get there early — the restaurant closes as soon as they’re out of meatballs.
For anyone on a budget: Kybele Cafe feels like home for most locals, who describe the atmosphere as feeling like you’re at an old relative’s home. In warmer weather, enjoy dessert on the back patio.
WHERE TO PARTY
For couples: Spend the night talking and enjoying each other’s company at Safa Meyhanes. Drink raki alongside locals under a crystal chandelier surrounded by paintings and a warm charm as you soak in the atmosphere at one of Istanbul’s oldest taverns.
For business travellers: Concerts at the Basilica Cistern offers the experience of hearing modern music in an ancient venue. “Walking around the giant marble columns is like time travelling to another time and the acoustics are out of this world,” says travel writer Krista Canfield McNish.
For families: Kalendertepe is family-friendly while still serving delicious authentic cuisine. Kids can roam through the park-like setting while parents enjoy well-made traditional Turkish dishes.
For anyone on a budget: Klein is the place to go dance amidst a scene that’s more about enjoying yourself than getting noticed. The borderline kitschy atmosphere draws people looking for a good time, thanks to a reputation on par with some of the world’s best nightclubs.
WHERE TO STAY
Whether you’re looking for a location in central Istanbul that puts you in the middle of it all, or a convenient spot near the airport that make business getaways easy, TRYP by Wyndham hotels provide an easy modern experience that will suit your needs. TRYP by Wyndham Istanbul Taksim is centrally located near the metro station and some of Istanbul’s most famous attractions. TRYP by Wyndham Istanbul Airport makes it easy to access conference centres during working hours and unwind afterward with hotel ammeneties including a sauna and heated pool.