Istanbul is a city where you can have a European experience with an Islamic grace. Spires and domes of mosques, medival architecture dominate the skyline. At dawn, you can see people going to mosque for the first prayer as you hear the call of muezzin rebound from the ancient minarets. Meanwhile, you see clubbers making their way home from the nightclubs and bars while their neighbors kneeling on the prayer rug. Istanbul has a very unique ability to make so many diverse things rhyme together.
If you are traveling in Istanbul, then you're perhaps going to be spending around 2-3 days in Istanbul before you start exploring the other parts of Turkey. In my opinion, 2-3 days is fairly enough to enjoy the must-see places in the city, and to be able to say "I've been there". However, for a local experience, you should definitely stay at least a week to let Istanbul cheer you with it's history, culture and help you understand why it has been the capital of four big empires.
You are asking for specific reasons?
Probably, you will start exploring Istanbul from the historical peninsula where the old city resides. I'm sure you Hagia Sophia is going to be one of the first stops. It was the largest cathedral for more than thousand years when it was built. There is a little surprise waiting for you, because it was converted to a mosque when Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. So, you will get to experience this hybrid holy place that has magnificent symbols both from Christianity and Islam. Hagia Sophia was secularized and made into a museum by the Republic of Turkey. It is waiting for you to get a taste of wisdom, wealth and power.
Then, you can walk to the Blue Mosque, the Ottoman response to Hagia Sophia, and be amazed by looking at its big dome and brightly colored tiles. Apparently, it took around 22.000 special Iznik tiles to decorate the walls of Blue Mosque.
After that, you can walk into the Basilica Cistern. Justinian ordered the construction of it in 532 to supply water to Byzantine Palace primarily.
Then, you can walk few minutes and enter the home of Ottoman Sultans, Topkapi Palace. It's like the White House for Ottomans for four hundred years. You will be impressed as you explore the things in the palace such as the largest Chinese ceramic collection outside of China, and maybe you will get to hear some whispers of the palace walls telling you the stories of Ottoman Sultans who ruled the world for more than six hundred years.
Then, you step into the Harem section, and you suddenly acknowledge that "What happens in Harem stays in Harem". You start asking around, read your articles in hand to learn little more about the life of all these women sharing their home with one single man, the Sultan. You learn about the important women figures of the Ottoman History, such as Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana) and Kosem Sultan, and realize how women played a big role in world politics by influencing the Ottoman rulers.
Next, you follow the beaten path and find your way to Grand Bazaar, one of World's oldest shopping malls with around 4000 shops in it. I guess it's time to buy some hookahs, tesbihs, rugs, souvenirs..
Are you hungry? Guess what?
You are at the right place. You remember that spicy, gourmet rice that you have at authentic restaurants? Not a big deal. Here is a Turkish version of that rice served in a mussel as a part of Turkish street food cuisine. It's called "midye dolma", stuffed mussels, the best appetizer that can keep a Turkish Beer company.
You can find it in almost every crowded neighborhood -usually at night. You should just look for the big tray full of mussels sold by a vendor on the street. Be careful who you buy it from though. In summer, it is wise to just have stuffed mussels from well-known restaurants.
There are many more incredible dishes you can try in Istanbul. Here is a list of those dishes that you should consider having in Istanbul.
Getting warmed up? OK, then join the commuters with their daily commute from one continent to the other. Sit on the side benches of the ferry, eat your simit, and sip on your Turkish Tea while you watch the waters of Bosphorus carry you to the other side. This is one of the experiences always give an authentic feeling, even if you do it everyday. These waters are very energizing, the view is spectacular.
Want to make plans for the night?
You want to go out at night like a Sultan? There are many ways to accomplish that goal in Istanbul. One of them would be renting a yatch to take you to one of the nightclubs by the Bosphorus. Reina is one of the most famous ones that houses well-known musicians and DJs throughout the summer. You will see the celebrities and chic crowds of Istanbul dancing to the latest dance songs.. If you are into electronic music, then check out this list.
If you don't feel like pretending like a sultan, and just want to be yourself. Then, give Taksim/Beyoglu a shot. Istiklal Avenue is one of the best people watching spots of Istanbul. You can walk through the fish market and find yourself a street bar with tiny round tables and friendly atmosphere where lively Istanbul people will be joining your night with their laughter.
You watched enough Turkish people, you partied enough to Turkish electronic music, and now what? Next day you decide to do something different. Now, it's the time you should let Bosphorus relax you with its beautiful blue waters and the yali's, which were mostly owned by the viziers of Ottoman Empire. Nowadays, you don't really need to be a vizier anymore -costs around $30-40M. Soon, you will understand that you are almost at Black Sea once you notice the incredible Rumeli Fortress.
Suddenly you realize that it's dinner time. Who is going to deal with traffic to go to a restaurant. You decide to step onto one of the Bosphorus restaurants deck with an amazing view. Now, it's time to take the veils off, it's time to taste the Raki.. but be careful, because it has 48% alcohol in it. Raki would be the best company to a fish from the Bosphorus. The fish is so tasty that you don't need to marinate or spice it up. Just a bunch of arugula. That's it!
How about games?
You decided to learn backgammon from a local pro? There are so many nargile "hookah" cafes that would be happy to keep your coals replaced while you get your first lesson on backgammon and take puffs from a mango flavored hookah accompanied with apple tea.
Are we getting more and more authentic here?
Not yet, if you haven't been to Cagaloglu Hammam and have your whole body washed and massaged.
Hey! Don't forget to watch the Whirling Dervishes before you leave!!