Where east meets west
Doing some research before coming here, a cheesy slogan would always come up “where east meets west”..cheesy as it may be, it’s 100% true. Beyond being the only city in the world located on two continents, Istanbul's identity is defined by its beautiful mix of "European" and "Asian" culture, food, traditions, and music. There’s an inevitable sense of enchantment in the air in Istanbul. Especially at that magic hour around sunset. It may be a combination of the birds flying over the Bosphorus, the taste of a spectacular turkish tea, the smell of the spices and kebabs, and the breathtaking views of the mosques scattered across the city landscape. It's no wonder this was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires! (Funny that it isn't the capital of Turkey now...)
Sultanahmet (European Side, south of the Golden Horn)
All the main touristy things are located in the Historic Peninsula. Just to list off a few must-sees: Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, Tokapi Palace, The Basilica Cistern, and The Grand Bazaar. A few more cool extras would be the New Mosque, the Spice Market, and checking out one of the famous Turkish Baths. I could go on forever about how beautiful each of these attractions is, but the truth is, you just have to go and see them in person. Put these on your bucket list STAT.
Taksim, Beyoğlu and Galata Tower (European Side, north of the Golden Horn)
You've probably heard of Taksim Square, considering its prominence in the news as a crucial gathering point for political protests; but coming to this area, you might find İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) as the attraction to not be missed! It's a crazy packed strip lined with stores, bars, hookah (nargile) joints, Turkish Delight shops, and street food. Its side streets reveal cozy restaurants and fruit, fish, and artisanal markets that stay open late into the night. Walking around this area at night will offer a surreal, "city-that-never-sleeps" experience that will leave you wide-eyed and ready to party! Walking all the way down İstiklal, you will see how the neighborhood transforms. A more laid-back area with chic cafés, art galleries, design firms, boutiques, and restaurants brightens up the area near Galata Tower. It's easy to spot, considering there's this huge tower (66.9-meters / 220-feet) at it's center. The 1348-year old tower overlooks the Bosphorus offering panoramic views of the city. The best is to check it out at sunset during a call to prayer.
Beşiktaş (Europen Side, futher north of the Golden Horn)
The name might sound familiar if you're a soccer fan, but there's more to see in Beşiktaş beyond the soccer stadium. Windy streets filled with bustling restaurants and possibly the best fish market in all of Istanbul make this another great area to discover. We were lucky enough to stumble in during a soccer game. All the screens were playing for the die-hard fans as they downed some Raki and Turkish-style tapas. Encouraged by the vivid energy surrounding us, we decided to do the same. Just as we sat down, a man came up to us for our oder, clearly trying to be quick so he could move back to his prime soccer-watching spot. He brought with him a huge tray of Turkish tapas for us to choose from. We pointed at the rice-filled oysters, an octopus salad, and, since we were feeling adventurous, SHEEP BRAIN. Once the game was over, we felt like locals, stumbling down to grab a taxi happy and full of delicious food and raki.
Kadıköy (Asian Side, mainland)
This area, located in the Asian side of Istanbul, is mainly known for its incredible fish market and mellow atmosphere, but over the past few years, a new bohemian-art scene has emerged, making the new hip-place-to-be. New bars, restaurants, and vintage shops seem to be popping up around every corner in the Kadikoy area. It's the perfect place to wander and explore.
Princes' Islands (Asian Side, Sea of Marmara)
To escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city life, many flock to The Princes' Islands (known as the 'Adalar', Turkish for 'Islands'). Apparently, members of dynasties who fell out of favor were sent to exile there during Byzantine and early Ottoman period. Out of the nine, the ferry drops you off at the first four. We chose island #3, Heybeliada. The first thing you'll notice is that there are no cars. Only horse-drawn carriages and bikes! The architecture is also strikingly different from anything you'll see in the other areas of Istanbul. Charming Victorian-style beach cottages fit in perfectly with the easy-living feel of the island.