Istanbul is a city straddling the West and East, and it's visible in the city's food, architecture, lifestyle, and more. It has a long history, and you'll find traces left from the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Lycians, Byzantines, Ottomans, as well as more modern eras. Although the city is pretty large, many of the main tourist attractions are located in a couple areas, meaning it's easy to walk around and discover them or hop on public transportation to get around longer distances. Here are the top five not-to-be-missed places:
1. The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is a must for visitors to Istanbul. The building, which was constructed in the 530s under the orders of Emperor Justinian I, has done service as a Christian cathedral, Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Roman Catholic cathedral, and imperial mosque. Now, it functions as a museum, offering visitors a spectacular view into the past. It's one of the world's finest examples of Byzantine architecture with its domed interior, and it was the largest cathedral in the world from the time of its completion until the completion of the Cathedral of Seville almost 1000 years later.
2. The Sultanahmet Mosque
Near the Hagia Sophia, you'll find the Sultanahmet Mosque, often referred to as the Blue Mosque due to the tile-work in its interior. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this still functions as a mosque in the present day, so it offers you a great look into modern-day Islamic prayer in Istanbul. It's not quite as old as the Hagia Sophia but still has a history stretching back roughly five hundred years. Many people find the intricate interior design to be even more interesting and beautiful than that of the Hagia Sophia, so it's definitely well worth a visit!
3. The Grand Bazaar
Even if you're not a shopaholic, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar should be on your list of places to visit. The meandering halls will confuse even someone with an excellent sense of direction, as you wander past shops selling spices, jewelry, clothing, antiques, and more. The bazaar dates back hundreds of years and is one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world—and in 2014, it was the most popular tourist attraction in the world as well! Be careful if you're shopping for souvenirs, though: prices in the bazaar are frequently more expensive than elsewhere—but it can offer you a great chance to try your hand at bargaining.
4. Galata Tower
Across the water from the Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, and Grand Bazaar, you'll find Galata Tower—it's an easily-recognizable part of the skyline. The tower has a long history as well, said to be the site of one of the first transcontinental flights (performed by Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi in the early 17th century, when he flew across the Bosphorus with a set of artificial wings). That said, the real reason you should visit the tower is for the views it offers you across all of Istanbul. You'll be able to see the Asian side, the Hagia Sofia and Sultanahmet Mosque, and far out to the horizon. It's definitely one of the most scenic viewpoints that the city has to offer!
5. The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is an important part of life in Istanbul, offering both nourishment and an easy way to travel from one part of the city to the other. There are companies that offer boat cruises up the Bosphorus, allowing you to see the city from the water, but a cheaper alternative is to hop the commuter ferries. You'll get some great people-watching in, and the ferries can take you to plenty of destinations—even all the way out to the Prince's Islands!—for a fare only slightly higher than riding the metro or buses.
Istanbul is a fascinating city to visit. Explore the unique juxtaposition of East versus West, Islam versus Christianity, and ancient versus modern, while basking in the warm sun and enjoying the culinary delights and the friendliness of the people. There truly is no other city on earth that is quite like it—so what are you waiting for? Get traveling!