Istanbul, Turkey, won’t necessarily spring to mind first for many travelers when dreaming up their next big vacation; after all, why would anyone want to travel to Istanbul if they could go anywhere else? However, you might be surprised by what kind of beauty, scenery, history, culture, and excitement you can uncover there for an unforgettable vacation experience unlike any others. Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, as well as the country’s hub of cultural and financial activity, is undoubtedly a sight to behold, with an impressive Byzantine-constructed skyline of brilliant mosques and Ottoman minarets surrounded by water on three sides and spread over a number of hills as well as over two continents. But besides its spectacular overall beauty and awesome grandeur, Istanbul offers a cultural and historical experience for the tourist in you. From fantastic food and festivals, sensational shopping, and never-ending nightlife to awesome architectural splendor in its many attractions, Istanbul is sure not to disappoint. Contrary to popular belief, Istanbul, Turkey is actually one of the safer European cities, and you’ll find plenty of local Turks to be friendlier than you might otherwise expect. Upon visiting Istanbul for the first time, you’ll get the immediate sense that the city is slowly getting back on its feet again in the aftermath of oppression, much like many Eastern European cities, such as Prague and Budapest, as well as Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest in Romania. The Sultanahmet, a small peninsula steeped in rich history, is the one area of Istanbul that is simply a must-see. The Haghia Sophia, an ancient church as well as Ottoman Empire mosque, should be your first stop. Other fantastic sights in the Sultanahmet include the superbly decorated and unique maze-like Topkapı Palace, which houses the famous harem and which for over 300 years was the center of Ottoman power; the world-famous Blue Mosque, as well as other nearby and beautiful mosques such as the Suleymanive or the Rüstem Pasa; and many, many more. The Grand Bazaar, for example, is a tourist favorite in Istanbul, Turkey. Claimed by many to exist as the world’s oldest shopping center, the Grand Bazaar is famous for its top-of-the-line fabrics and specialty clothing, as well as its impressive collection of jewelry. Most of the trading is done in the surrounding streets. When you’re in and near the Grand Bazaar, take some time for an authentic marble Turkish bath with a customary full massage. If you have the time, be sure to check out Istanbul’s Golden Horn, the Hippodrome, the Yerebatan Underground Palace, the modern Galata Bridge and the Galata Tower, which offers unparalleled views, the popular pedestrian street, Istiklal, and the bustling commercial center of Istanbul; Beyoglu. If you’re into history, head over to Mozaik Museum, the Archaeological Museum, or the Museum of Turkish Carpets for something interesting to see. Art lovers should head to the Istanbul Modern, one of the city’s newer attractions, which contains an impressive collection of modern and local-to-Istanbul art. Other essential stops for art lovers include the Museum of Fine Arts, Istanbul Museum of Paintings and Sculpture, and the Museums of Turkish and Islamic Art. Ready for some exciting nightlife? Expect to fork out a hefty chunk of change and to be partying with mostly tourists (as opposed to locals) for many of Istanbul’s “hot spots,” but some of the recommended joints include Galata Tower Night Club, Saki Restaurant in the new town, and Orient House in the old town. Turkish meals are made with olive oil and wide variety of spices, and include cold meze (mixed appetizer), hot meze, fish or other meat for a main dish, and a sticky sweet dessert. For authentic Turkish cuisine while in Istanbul, try the Kumkapi area in the old city, the Sultanahmet, or Cicek Pasaji food court in the new city.