Straddling the Bosphorus, Istanbul now has a population of 15 million. Although a modern metropolis, its past is still inescapable. Built between A.D. 532 and 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1528. Home to generations of Ottoman sultans, Topkapi Palace contains an astonishing jewelry collection. And the majestic Blue Mosque provides a haven of serenity. The best way to encounter Istanbul for the first time is aboard a ship sailing up from the Sea of Marmara, an arrival that gradually unfolds one of the most romantic skylines in the world.
The Christian Mosaics of Hagia Sophia
When Mehmed conquered Constantinople, he ordered the Christian mosaics of Hagia Sophia to be plastered over. Today they are plainly visible, but many people miss the smaller ones — for example, the exquisite depictions of seraphim in the transepts, where four pillars meet the massive dome. The face of the angel in the northeast corner was only revealed in 2010.
Istanbul's Shopping Experiences
Shopping the Grand Bazaar can feel stressful because of all the vendors closely monitoring your browsing. I like to think of it as a game. Some tips: Dress simply. Don’t ask the price of an item unless you’re interested in buying it. Have your traveling companion forbid you to buy the item because of its expense. And if possible, assemble multiple items and ask for a deal. For a less intense and more overtly luxurious Turkish shopping experience, visit nearby Armaggan (Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 65).
Explore the Bosphorus by Yacht
A Bosphorus cruise is something every first-time visitor to Istanbul should consider, because the city looks especially magical and exotic from the water. I recommend booking a private yacht for the experience, such as the plush and well-maintained Zoe. The 56-foot yacht can take as many as 12, but there’s no reason a couple couldn’t charter it. The two-hour lunch and sunset cruises are my favorites.
Enjoy a Concert at Rumelihisari
In summer, I like to attend one of the open-air concerts staged in the dramatic crenellated fortress of Rumelihisari, built beside the Bosphorus by Mehmed the Conqueror when he was laying siege to Constantinople in 1452.
The Enduring Mystery of the Basilica Cistern
The Byzantine Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici) is a fascinating underground world that you can visit via concrete walkways. At the back of the cistern lies an enduring mystery. There, ancient Medusa heads were used to support two columns. One is upside down, but no one knows why for certain. Yerebatan Caddesi 1/3.
Terrace Drinks at the Seven Hills Hotel
I greatly enjoy the panoramic rooftop bar at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, but for an even better vantage point, cross the street to the Seven Hills Hotel. Order a drink on the terrace in time for sunset. It’s one of the most unforgettable views in the world.