Photo: Sultan Ahmet Park at night with Suleymaniye Mosque in background

The Sultan Ahmet Park at night, with Suleymaniye Mosque behind, attracts many families to its fountain with changing colors.

Photograph by Dave Yoder

By Daniel Bortz and Caitlin Etherton

Istanbul is located in the middle of...everything. A three-sea treasure trove of sights, sounds, and tastes, it bridges the gap between Europe and Asia, East and West, old and new, afternoon prayer and after-dinner nightlife. As Turkey’s largest city and seaport, it encourages one to wander—to be surprised by tumbling baskets of exotic spices, street-side barrel organ melodies, underground cisterns and swirling mosque interiors that make you feel like you’re floating in some Mediterranean blue dream of a Turkish poem.

Soaring minarets, colorful bazaars, 25 Byzantine churches and 400 fountains are a testament to the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, all hopelessly attracted to the beauty and position of this ancient city. With the help of our city guide of free activities, describing everything from tulip-filled parks to Topkapi Palace, you can make your way through the streets of Istanbul free as a bird—kuş gibi özgür.

Art/Museums

The Istanbul Modern is housed in a recently renovated two-story warehouse. It was the first modern arts museum to open in the city. Admission is free every Thursday, enabling tourists to see its expansive photography gallery, cinema hall, and new media art area.

Located within the new Santralistanbul culture complex, the Museum of Energy takes visitors on a tour through the history of electricity. Have fun in the Energy Play Zone, where interactive units give visitors a chance to build magnetic sculptures, touch thousands of volts, generate their own electricity, and participate in 19 other educational activities.

Believed to be the first fine arts museum in Turkey, the Museum of Painting and Sculpture promotes works of 19th- and 20th-century Turkish artists. Founded by the order of Ataturk in 1937, the museum houses pieces from such famous Turkish artists as Osman Hamdi Bey, Bedri Rahmi, and Seker Ahmet Pasa alongside works from international artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Visits to the museum are free every day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except on Sundays and Mondays, when the museum is closed.

Pay a visit to Ortakoy on a Sunday and revel in the wonder of this seaside suburb’s open-air market. Street artists paint portraits while selling their work to passersby strolling through the narrow cobbled streets. Some of the best street food in the city can be found here, at the food market adjacent to the crafts section, underneath the Bosporus bridge—the first bridge to connect Istanbul’s European border to Asia.

Attractions

Perched atop a hill, the Suleymaniye Mosque, located near Istanbul University's north gate, lures visitors with magnificent Ottoman architecture and scenic views of the city’s skyline. One of the largest mosques in Istanbul the Suleymaniye was completed in the 16th century and boasts an awe-inspiring dome at 53 meters high and nearly 27 meters wide. A walk around the well-kept courtyard treats visitors to lush gardens and columns made of marble, granite, and porphyry.

Once a frequent setting for state celebrations and royal entertainment, the Topkapi Palace served as the Ottoman Empire’s administrative headquarters from the 1470s to the 1850s. In the years following his conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II ordered for the construction of military barracks, a council chamber, a reception hall, and other official buildings on here on Seraglio Point, a promontory guarding the northern entrance to the Sea of Marmara. Throughout the following 400 years, these foundations evolved into a luxurious palace containing four courtyards connected by smaller buildings that once housed more than 4,000 people. Now part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace holds reminders of the fallen empire in maintaining large collections of porcelain robes, weapons, armor, Arabic calligraphy, ancient manuscripts, and Ottoman jewelry.

By the time you’re done planning your visit and gaining access to the Florence Nightingale Muzesi—a task that often involves calling ahead, and mailing your passport details, expected time of arrival, and permission from the Selimiye army that guards it—the museum may seem more like an elitist club than a museum, but it’s worth it. In the museum’s barracks, once an overcrowded, unsanitary hospital for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses developed the standard for modern nursing practices. Be sure to walk up the winding, wooden staircase in the corner tower to see the bedroom where some historians believe Nightingale slept during her time tending to injured Turkish army men. Located at Birinci Ordu Komutanligi, Selimiye Kislasi in Selimiye Kislasi. Call 90 216 343 73 10 for information on how to visit.

Admire the grandeur and art of Islamic architecture at the Sultanahmet Mosque, more popularly known as the “Blue” Mosque for its interior blue tiles. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I and built in the early 17th century, it was among the last of Istanbul’s Mosques constructed in the classical Ottoman style. It stirred controversy for possessing six minarets—a display of wealth and power previously reserved for the Prophet’s mosque—but today the site offers a beautiful glimpse into Istanbul’s history. Take time to stop and enjoy the peaceful park that sits at the base of the mosque. Visitors must enter the mosque through the north gate.

Food lovers rejoice: Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar (located at the southern end of the Galata Bridge) is one of the oldest covered spice markets in the world. The exotic food market sells a wide range of herbs, spices, nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, and nuts. Health shops also offer moisturizers, anti-cellulite lotions, ant-egg creams for unwanted body hair, and herbal teas for the mind and body.

The largest of several hundred ancient cisterns lying beneath Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern (Located in Sultanahmet Square) transports visitors to the sixth century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Marked by Medusa heads at the base of two of its columns, the cistern remains empty today but was built to store up to 100,000 tons of water for the city. It’s also a popular movie location, with scenes from hits like the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love and last year’s The International shot there. Donations suggested.

Antique aficionados and travelers interested in authentic Turkish goods can walk through some of the more than 4,000 shops at Kapali Carsi, the country’s largest covered market. It usually extends from Beyazit Square downhill to Eminonu, a transportation nexus located along the Golden Horn. Whether you’re in search of large Turkish carpets, shiny brassware, handmade pottery, or delicate lamps, the market promises it all, with a number of vendors ranging in costs to suit your taste. However, prices at the market aren’t fixed, so don’t be afraid to haggle.

Outdoors

As part of the "coasts will belong to the people" campaign, Istanbul's Kilyos beach has recently been opened to the public. It is only about 35 kilometers north of the city center. Lifeguards, bathrooms, and changing and shower cabins are provided.

Every April, three million tulips bloom across Istanbul's parks and public spaces in an array of designs and colors just in time for the International Istanbul Tulip Festival. The tulip is so essential to Turkish history that some people refer to the entire reign of Sultan Ahmed III as the "Tulip Era." After touring the tulips through town, visitors should head to the center of this free festival, Emirgan Park, to enjoy concerts, art exhibitions, photo competitions, and live performances by marbling artists.

When in search of shade from the relentless Turkish sun, pay a visit to the tree-filled grounds of Gulhane Park, formerly the Topkapi Palace’s royal gardens. Since becoming Istanbul’s first public park in 1912, it has served as one of the most popular locations for city residents to while away the afternoon. If you don’t mind crowds, plan your visit during one of the free public concerts that occasionally take place in the park on summer weekends. And Yildiz Park, once a part of the Yildiz palace, offers great views of the Bosporus and outdoor fitness areas with exercise machines to use free of charge. The park's porcelain workshops, put in place by Sultan Abdulhamid II, are open to the public and are still in use today.

Music

Born in Istanbul in 1928, star soprano Leyla Gencer sang her way through almost four decades of leading roles in operas throughout Turkey and Italy. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) has now established a re-creation of the Milan residence of "La Diva Turca," open Wednesday through Saturday on the second floor of their new headquarters in Sishane. Visitors can check out Gencer's piano, library, awards, medals, accessories, costumes and even a set-up of the dining room where she and her guests would feast on her favorite Turkish cuisine. Admission is free, but reservations should be made ahead of time.

Tünel, one of the world's oldest metros (with only two stations and a 1.5 minute ride), also gives its name to the surrounding neighborhood, a nerve center of music for the city of Istanbul. Walking around and beyond the neighborhood square, you can often listen to street-side music as you explore the small music stores and cafés. Thanks to musician Panos Ioannidis, visitors in Tünel during the summer months have the opportunity to hear music from a barrel organ, an instrument that, though historically tied to the area, has been absent for the past 100 years. If you're looking for a place to sit down, nearby Babylon or Otto Tünel (one of several Otto restaurants and clubs in the area) are both loved by locals for good food and live, energetic music.

The International Istanbul Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 17th year in 2010, is spreading through more and more of the city. In fact 2010 marked the first year of Tünel Feast, "a festival within a festival," that turned the alleys and cafés of Tünel into a giant feast area where audiences could hop from one free concert to another late into the evening. Museums and parks across the city host plenty of free concerts during the three-week festival in July, giving those in Istanbul a chance to hear not only local Turkish jazz music, but musicians like Tony Bennett, Imogen Heap and even the Panorama Jazz Band straight from New Orleans.

A smaller jazz festival, the Akbank International Jazz Festival held in Istanbul in late September and October, is a smaller and more intimate jazz jam that focuses solely on the music. While most concerts during the week require tickets, the festival also offers free workshops on things like jazz photography and T-shirt design.

Film Festivals

During the end of March, beginning of April, Istanbul hosts an annual Mountain Film Festival. The week-long festival features photograph and book exhibitions, seminars and dozens of films and documentaries on diving, mountaineering, rock climbing, base jumping and other ways of exploring nature. All film screenings are free of charge.

Also in the spring, Istanbul celebrates the International Istanbul Film Festival, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts. The festival is two weeks long and brings together filmmakers from all over the world. Visitors can attend free panel discussions and master classes if the register ahead of time.

An entire week of short film screenings happens at various venues throughout Istanbul in November during the Istanbul International Short Film Festival. Every year roughly 12,000 people enjoy free screenings of fiction, animation, experimental and documentary films, all with English subtitles.

Nightlife

Dogzstar, a small neighborhood club in Beyoklu, doesn’t charge a cover and infuses a relaxed, hip vibe with neo-punk energy to create a homey feel. Resident DJ Ari mixes new and old beats that add to the club’s smoothness, proving the space as a good bar for both dancing and drinking.

Popular among both travelers and locals for its modern Turkish cuisine and views from its Nu Teras rooftop restaurant, the Nu Club hosts one of the city’s hottest party spots in its basement setting located within the Nu Pera complex in the Beyoglu neighborhood. A guest DJ from France joins local legends Yunus Güvenen and Bariş Türker each month. Together they help build a fun, cool atmosphere for this intimate club. No cover charge.

Looking for a place to eat, drink, and dance without having to move from one spot to another? Cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs line Akbiyik Caddesi, a street that cuts through the heart of Sultanahmet. Known as the “Avenue of the White Moustache,” this famous street always promises a lively night out, with a handful of eateries placing tables and chairs on the street for diners to enjoy an alfresco meal outdoors under the cool night sky.

Erenler Cay Bahcesi, an old teahouse located near Istanbul University, serves as a popular alternative to a night of drinking and dancing at one of the city’s expensive clubs. Its tables are occupied with students and adults alike who enjoy smoking nargileh out of a hookah—long a favorite Turkish and Middle East pastime—and don’t mind sitting shoulder to shoulder with the person next to them. The water pipes aren’t cheap, but there’s no cover charge, which calls for a stop to experience the atmosphere of this famous hookah bar.

More Information

Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts

National Geographic Istanbul City Guide

Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture

Time Out Istanbul

U.S. Dept of State Turkey Country Page

Turkey Tourism Office

Official Istanbul City Website

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