Travel: Top places to visit in Istanbul

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When a work colleague told me she was heading to Istanbul as part of her European escapade, I squealed with delight. Giggling at my enthusiasm, she asked if I could perhaps jot down my top recommendations.  This is what I wrote…

Topkapi Palace

Home to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th Centuries, Topkapi Palace is a must-visit for anyone travelling to Istanbul. A conglomerate of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, kiosks, audience chambers, and sleeping quarters, each room has been beautifully and intricately decorated with an exquisite and bold colour palette.  You will also find astounding jewel and weapon collections – my personal favourites were the Topkapi Dagger (because of its huge emeralds) and the teardrop-shaped 86-carat Kasıkçı (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond (because it’s the world’s fifth-largest diamond).

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The Harem, meaning ‘a holy place that not everyone is allowed to enter’, is also an interesting place to visit as it is where the Sultan lived with his wives, children, brothers, sisters, servants and concubines. Now totalling 300 rooms, it is well worth the additional entry fee.

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Tips: Arrive just before opening time (9am) to beat the crowds, especially from the cruise ships. Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays.

Hagia Sofia

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One a church, then a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sofia is riddled with history.

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From restored Christian mosaics to a dome that is second to only the Patheon in Rome, make sure you visit this important spiritual place.

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Tip: Arrive at opening time (9am) as it gets very busy!

Grand Bazaar

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Filled with every Turkish trinket possible, this is the place to purchase a souvenir for yourself or people back home. Enjoy haggling with the shop owners and remember to shop around before making any serious purchases. When the shopping all becomes too much, sit down and enjoy a well-earned Turkish coffee – highly recommended by yours truly!

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Tips: Buy cheaper souvenirs from sellers off the main drag who are down quieter alleyways. Their goods are MUCH cheaper and they generally don’t harass travellers as much. For example, purses I priced for 5 Lira in the main Bazaar area were only 1 Lira in the quieter areas. While I’m on the topic of purses, let me just say these make gorgeous gifts and every single female I gave one to adored it! Stock up big time – they’re lightweight to bring home too!

Basilica Cistern

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Built in 532 using 336 columns, the Basilica Cistern is the longest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. As you walk through the cistern, you will feel water dripping from the ceiling and you may even see carp swimming in the water. Its eerie atmosphere certainly explains why scenes of the James Bond film ‘To Russia With Love’ were filmed here!

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Tip: The Cistern is a cool place to visit on a hot summer’s day!

Blue Mosque

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The Blue Mosque looks amazing at sunrise and sunset so you might want to visit several times for the perfect photograph.

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Tips: Wear your own pashmina or scarf so you don’t need to borrow (a used) one. You will also be required to remove your shoes, so perhaps leave the Manolos back at the hotel. We all remember what happened to Carrie when she had to take hers off for that child’s birthday party…

Spice Bazaar

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With 85 shops selling a range of spices, jewellery, fruit, nuts and souvenirs, the Spice Bazaar is worth a trip! It also stocks the largest range of Turkish delight I have ever seen. Don’t like Turkish delight? You will after purchasing one of the many flavours for sale. I am now a convert!

Tips: The Bazaar is open from 9am-7pm on weekdays and 10am-6pm on Sundays. It is closed for religious and public holidays.

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Dear readers, are there any other places my colleague should visit? Please post your thoughts below!

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