Last fall I had been itching to go somewhere a little more exotic and different than Western/Central Europe, and was thrilled when I found cheap flights to Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. For a long weekend, I wandered around the city with a friend to explore a place neither of us had been to. Immediately we were in awe, as the city blends the east and the west, evidently seen through the culture and architecture. The people were friendly and the streets were bustling. Since we just had a few days there, we set out on hitting the major must-see attractions, but also walked around plenty in the attempt to stumble upon random shops and cafes. Here are a few must-see things we did that I highly recommend you do if you find yourself in Istanbul:
Head to the top of the Galata Tower for a fantastic view of Istanbul. Once at the top, you slowly make your way around the tower which gives you an amazing panoramic view of the city, the water, and the mosques in the distance. Look down and people watch those walking around the streets or dining at an outdoor cafe.
The Topkapi Palace was one of my favorite places we visited. Nestled on a hill, there are spectacular views of the city and the water surrounding the castle. The rooms throughout the palace are covered in bright colored tiles and stained glass windows that add to the grandeur of the former stomping grounds for the Ottoman Sultans. Inside the palace was the jewel room, which I LOVED. You aren't allowed to take photos in the jewel room, so I only have my memories - think swords and other weaponry completely covered in gems, decorative bowls, and large chests with giant, pure emeralds.
The mosques in Istanbul are grand and elaborate from the outside, but even more so on the inside. While we didn't have a chance to go to Hagia Sofia (something to do next time), we did get to the Blue Mosque and the New Mosque. Being inside the mosques was relaxing and peaceful. I instantly felt a sense of calm. Make sure to dress conservatively in the mosques with covered shoulders, knees, and toes, plus a head scarf for women.
Grand Bazaar/Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market were two places I weren't very fond of, but nevertheless are interesting to experience. The shop salespeople were mainly men who were very pushy and annoying just to get you to look at their items. The Grand Bazaar was large and there was a ton of selection on Turkish goods, plus some of the typical souvenir stuff. The Spice Market had a ton of spices (of course), and if I were one to cook, I would've stocked up on everything from paprika to cumin to pepper. The Spice Market also had shops with plenty of Turkish gifts to buy, including traditional Turkish foods like baklava. While these weren't my favorite places to go to, I'd still recommend a look around because there is quite a variety of shops.
There is plenty more to do in Istanbul, and these four essentials only scratch the surface - but will definitely make for a trip to remember as part of your weekend itinerary.