Top Picks for Istanbul (Plus a Photo Diary)


Top Picks for Istanbul (Plus a Photo Diary)

Istanbul is a city that requires great reserves of energy from the very start of your visit. It is an ancient city – it was founded by the Greek colonists around 660BC – with a great, seemingly endless array of historical sights, museums, mosques, shops, bazaars, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and whatnots. After all, according to some Istanbul is the largest city in Europe with the population of almost 15 million; however, since a considerable chunk of it is located in Asia, the largest city in Europe is in fact Moscow. The location of the city is stunning: it overspills from Europe into Asia across the glittering waters of Bosporus Strait, which forms a natural border between the two continents.


I suppose, like any other metropolis, Istanbul is the kind of destination where one needs to spend at least a few weeks in order to make it even remotely possible to explore and understand this vibrant city to its fullest. This metropolis is best visited in late spring or early autumn, when the temperatures are pleasantly warm and sunshine is abundant; this summer I made the mistake of going there in late July, and it was sizzling hot.DSC_5981

For my Istanbul post, I have handpicked a number of attractions, which I think are the ones that you ought to see if you have limited time in Istanbul.

Hagia Sofia

If you only visit one historical building in Istanbul, make it this venerable basilica, one of the most bold and innovative feats of architecture of its time, and testament to the genius of man. Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom”) is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, the basilica was consecrated as a Greek Orthodox Church in 537. The building was later converted into an Ottoman Mosque in 1453 and eventually secularised as a national museum in 1935. Hagia Basilica is perhaps the greatest architectural feat of antiquity; personally, I find Hagia Sophia more imposing than the Pantheon or the Coliseum in Rome. The basilica’s sheer size, the massive dome and the soaring height of its walls – considerably more impressive once you set your foot inside –  are what make Hagia Sophia such a stupendous building. Stunning, intricate and extensive Byzantine mosaics representing religious motifs have been recently uncovered during extensive restorations.


Kariye Museum (the Chora Church)

This small, off-the-beaten track museum is a real Byzantine treasure. Its walls and ceilings are embellished with spectacular original mosaics and frescoes: sublime art of antiquity inspired by zealous religious beliefs. Since in the past Muslim iconoclasts plastered over the Christian art, the mosaics here have remained more or less intact, as they have at Hagia Sophia. There are still some renovation works being undertaken to further improve the state of this beautiful Byzantine art. Also of note, since Kariye Museum is a little hard to find, it is much less crowded than all the big historical sights in Istanbul.


Rustem Pasha Mosque

Rustem Pasha Mosque, built in 1561 by the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha, is another hidden gem in Istanbul. This lovely mosque is located in the Western Districts, a short stroll from the Chora Church. The inside of the mosque is decorated with gorgeous blue tiles, plush red carpet and intricate chandeliers. Once inside, you are instantly overwhelmed with a sense of utter peace, since the majority of the time this mosque is virtually empty except for the welcome soft breeze caressing your face on a hot summer’s day.


Harem at the Topkapi palace

Regardless of the fact that the Harem forms a large chunk of the Topkapi palace, it seems to be overlooked by many visitors, since it has a separate entrance and an accompanying separate fee. The word harem originally comes from Arabic meaning forbidden. However, most people are mistaken in the actual concept of the harem: harem was the living quarters of the sultan and his extensive family, rather the erotic hothouse many people assume it to be. The “forbidden” aspect of harem stems from the fact that the living quarters of the palace were out of bounds for any men apart from the sultan, his sons and the black eunuchs, preferably from Sudan, who looked after the women. It offers a fascinating glimpse into what the daily lives of the royal family might have been like. The three hundred beautifully tiled rooms (only a handful of which are now open to the public) were once the living quarters for over a 1,000 women, children and eunuchs. Since Islam forbade enslaving Muslims, most of the girls living in the harem came from a Christian or Jewish background. The harem was usually ruled with an iron fist by the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire, the valide sultan or mother of the current sultan. Unfortunately, since the competition to become the mother of the ruling sultan was so fierce, the harem was a place of violence and unhappiness for the majority of its inhabitants.


Istanbul Modern Museum

Istanbul Modern Museum is a pleasant departure from the usual, expected Istanbul attractions. At some point during your visit, it is actually refreshing to take a break from the overwhelming abundance of history and get a feel for vibrant contemporary Turkish life and art.

This museum shows that contemporary Istanbul is so much more than grand mosques and palaces.   Here you will find some permanent and temporary art exhibitions in different types of media: paintings, sculpture, photography, film. The location of the museum just by the waterfront is wonderful, which allows for a break for a lovely cup of coffee or an iced tea overlooking the Bosporus following a couple of hours of strolling through the galleries. Another great advantage of the museum is that it is light, airy and uncrowded, offering an oasis of cool, which is much needed in the scorching summer months.


Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace is a stunning palace, made even more so by the fact that it contains the largest collection of Baccarat and Bohemian crystal chandeliers in the world (and personally, I have a real weakness for crystal chandeliers)! This palace is quite a drastic departure from the medieval Topkapi palace, which by 19th century was becoming out-dated and much less luxurious and comfortable compared to contemporary European palaces. Located on the European coastline of the Bosporus, this was the home of the six ruling sultans from 1856 until 1922. The largest palace in Turkey is an eclectic mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and Rococo styles interspersed with elements of Ottoman architecture. The highlight of the palace is the magnificent ceremonial hall at the end of the tour with a huge 4.5 tonne chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria – the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier – as its centrepiece.


View from Chihannuna Restaurant… not a bad spot for lunch!

Have a lunch, dinner or drinks with a view

You cannot leave Istanbul without experiencing some of the best panoramic city views from the numerous rooftop restaurants and bars that this great city has to offer. Here are my favourites from all the ones that I tried:

Best for lunch: Cihannuma Restaurant

This restaurant is located on top of And Hotel in Sultanahmet , a stone throw’s away from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. This is actually the best place to get a coffee or a snack, since the area is teeming with overcrowded tourist traps. Cihannuma Restaurant has the most magnificent 360 degree views of the historical monuments and the Bosphorus. The food perhaps could be a little better, but I suppose most people (in the know) come here for the views.

Best for dinner: Topaz Restaurant

This fine dining restaurant with floor to ceiling windows has stunning views of the Bosphorus, the first bridge and the Dolmabahçe Mosque to go with delectable Turkish and Ottoman food. The prices are on the expensive side, but come here for a special occasion.

Best for a drink: NuTeras

From all the rooftop bars I tried, NuTeras offered the most incredible views. The bar itself is on the very edge of the roof, in the style of an infinity pool, ending with the beautiful view of the Bosphorus and city skyline. Try to go there on a weekday, since the bar gets incredibly busy on weekends, which would in defeat going the purpose of going there for a magnificent view.


Best places to eat

Best for modern Turkish: Lokanta Maya

Very chic interior, dimmed lighting and delicious contemporary take on Turkish cuisine. I think this might be my favourite dinner spot in Istanbul from my last visit!

Best for lokrum and all other things sweet: Hafiz Mustafa 1864

You cannot leave Istanbul without gorging, at least once, on some Turkish delight and baklava. “I do not have a sweet tooth” is not good enough of an excuse… Hafiz Mustafa is an inviting, bustling café just off Taksim square selling delicious local sweets, Turkish tea and coffee. It is open until late, so it is also perfect for a late night snack.

Best for Ottoman food: Asitane restaurant

A very elegant establishment with beautiful al fresco dining area. Just like the Chora Church, this restaurant is tucked away in a quiet street, slightly off-the-beaten path. Actually, SO off-the-beaten path, that our taxi driver accidentally dropped us off two miles away, pointing down some random busy street and telling us “ Go straight. Very close” Well, I always think its good to get some exercise to work up that appetite. I had a delicately delicious almond soup to start with, followed by some local white fish prepared simply but apparently ottoman style.

Best for coffee: Manuel Deli & Coffee

If you start craving some some excellent, Western-style coffee, head to this trendy coffee shop and deli, in the quiet street not far from the bustling İstiklal Avenue.

And of course a photo diary to finish this post!!!



Hagia Sofia




Topkapi palace


Ferry en route to Princes Islands



There is a proliferation of cats in Istanbul… no matter which way you look! Good if you are a cat person!



Part of spectacular Deësis at Hagia Sofia


Istanbul Modern Art

Istanbul Modern Art


Cistern Basilica

Cistern Basilica



Topkapi Palace

Terrace at Park Bosphorus Hotel

Terrace at Park Bosphorus Hotel


My lovely sisters

Turkish Delight at Hafiz Mustafa

Turkish Delight at Hafiz Mustafa


Gorgeous tiles at the Harem

Gorgeous tiles at the Harem



Eating roast chestnuts around Taksim Square: amazing that they are in season here in the summer!

Eating roast chestnuts around Taksim Square: amazing that they are in season here in the summer!



Dolmabahçe Palace


Inside Rustem Pasha Mosque

Inside Rustem Pasha Mosque



Stained glass windows at the Harem

Stained glass windows at the Harem


İstiklal Avenue

İstiklal Avenue


Kariye Museum



Carpet inside the Blue Mosque

Carpet inside the Blue Mosque


Light in Babylon performing on İstiklâl Caddesi

Light in Babylon performing on İstiklâl Caddesi



Strolling in the parks of Dolmabahçe Palace

Strolling in the parks of Dolmabahçe Palace



Rustem Pasha Mosque

Rustem Pasha Mosque


My bedroom at the Park Bosphorus Hotel

My bedroom at the Park Bosphorus Hotel


12 responses to “Top Picks for Istanbul (Plus a Photo Diary)”

  1. Amber Rhodes says:

    It all looks so amazing! Wonderful descriptions and your photos are fantastic.

  2. yvonnelaura says:

    Gorgeous photos! I love the architecture and the paintings/art of the city!

  3. Such gorgeous pictures! Istanbul is on my list (although maybe I’ll wait until the ISIS craziness calms down). That city is so vibrant and has so much life, and your pictures capture that.

    • Olga says:

      thank you, Kate! that city is a little mad, but soooooo unbelievably gorgeous! I was really struggling with picking the photos for this post!

  4. Nicole says:

    Wow these photos are gorgeous!! Looks like you had a great trip! 🙂

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  5. Teresa says:

    Beautiful photos! So jealous of your travel!



  6. Floortje says:

    Amazing photos! Looks like a really good time in a beautiful city!


  7. Tea says:

    I’ve seen most of the touristy stuff, but now I regret not going to the Istanbul Modern Museum :(: I guess it’s a good excuse to go again.

  8. GORGEOUS photos! Wow! I came back from Istanbul in November and fell in love with the city. Your photos have made me want to go back ASAP in summer!

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