Istanbul or Athens: Which Historical City to Visit?


Istanbul and Athens… Two mesmerizing and beautiful cities that are full of history. There are a lot of things that make you want to visit those places. While Istanbul is a great metropolis with amazing people, restaurants, and museums, Athens is the oldest city in Europe with great foods and open-air museums. They actually look a little bit similar in the sense of their culture, weather, and geopolitical and historical importance. But, after reading this post, you will be able to see that they are totally different cities, and I assure you that you will be fascinated by the beauty and impact of both Istanbul and Athens. And in this post, I will be talking about those great cities and will compare them in the sense of culture, people, currency, security, what to eat, where to go, what to do, festivals, weather, and transportation. And here is our guide.



Istanbul

Istanbul is a great cosmopolitan metropolis of Turkey. It is among the most populated cities in the world. Nearly 20 million people are living there. And you can imagine that during holidays with the tourists that visit this beautiful city, it becomes more crowded. With nearly 13 million tourists, Istanbul was ranked as the world’s eighth most visited city in 2019.

If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

Napoleon Bonaparte


Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire which dominated the city for more than 600 years, and before that, it was the capital of the big Byzantine Empire. This historical importance made this amazing city the center of religion. When you walk down the streets of Istanbul, you may easily see a church near a mosque. The most well-known religious places are:

  • Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque
  • Blue Mosque
  • Süleymaniye Mosque
  • Rüstem Paşa Mosque
  • Chora Mosque
  • Church of the Holy Trinity (Hagia Triada)
  • Saint Antoine (St. Anthony of Padua) Catholic Church
  • The Fener Greek Patriarchate & St. George Church
  • Neve Shalom Synagogue
  • Ahrida Synagogue


Every house, every tile, every bridge, and even every tree has a history and has something remarkable. You will never be able to hide your astonishment when you realize this. We can undoubtedly say that Istanbul is redolent with history. So if you are into history and love to learn more about humanity and religion, you should definitely visit Istanbul. If you have a historical tour in this city, two or three days never be enough. You will need at least one or two weeks. Try to visit all the museums and all the palaces. Start your palace tour by visiting Topkapı Palace, and then see Dolmabahçe Palace, and if you are lucky enough don’t forget to visit Yıldız Palace (I said ‘lucky enough’, because it has been restored and closed to visitors). You will be able to see the different architectural styles of those palaces. You will be amazed by the simplicity and pureness of Topkapı and adore the excellency of Dolmabahçe’s baroque style. A palace tour is a little bit expensive, but you should definitely see them all. 



After talking about palaces, we shouldn’t forget to talk about the cuisine. The Ottoman palace has a remarkable effect on the foods of Istanbul. There are a lot of delicious foods to try in this city. You may choose to relax by sitting on a bench and eating a simit and drinking tea by the seaside. Or you can try some fancy foods like lüfer, lahmacun, içli köfte, kuzu tandır, iskender kebap. Besides them, don’t forget the famous Turkish breakfast. It contains everything you can imagine of. You most probably won’t be able to eat them all. And try to drink some dibek coffee or Turkish coffee. The best desserts I can suggest are baklava, revani, and şekerpare.



Another fact that I love so much about Istanbul is that the cats are very friendly. That’s totally true. I heard it before going to Istanbul. But I didn’t believe it, and I said, “I think they will just run away from me like the other cats.” So I was very impressed when I was just sitting on a bench in Fatih and two cats came and sat near to me. So three of us just sat there for an hour. You can see this type of scene everywhere in Istanbul. They are very lively and friendly.



Athens

Athens is the oldest city in Europe. Its name comes from the mythology character Athena who is the goddess of wisdom, civilization, war, handicraft, and practical reason. It is also the hometown of democracy. And now Athens is the capital of Greece, and nearly 3 million people are living there.

Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts, and eloquence…

John Milton


If you love history a lot, then Athens is the other city that you should definitely visit. Acropolis, Parthenon, Erechtheion, Areopagus, and more are there to astonish you. You will be able to see ancient Greek architecture, and while you are walking on these historical roads, you will remember the myths. You will remember and commemorate gods and goddesses like Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Dionysus, Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes. You can visit the temples (Temple of Hephaestus, Athena Nike, Olympian Zeus, and so on), open-air museums, and archeological museums (Acropolis Museum, National Archaeological Museum, Museum of Cycladic Art, Museum of the Ancient Agora, Byzantine and Christian Museum, and so on) in Athens. This tour can be finished in a week. But don’t forget to get your hat or umbrella to protect yourself. Because those open-air museum areas are very hot, especially during the summer days.



Besides the historical tour, if you want to just relax with your family or your friends, you should definitely pay a visit to Plaka or National Garden. Plaka is a small district that you can find a lot of shopping areas and buy some souvenirs for your friends in your hometown, or there are good restaurants that you can taste the best meze, souvlaki, Greek salad, moussaka, fish soup, and lamb chops. But the best thing I love so much about Plaka is the beautiful and colorful flowers that you can see in summer. They smell so amazing and the whole area is full of this colorful and lively spirit. While in National Garden, a very green land will welcome you. This is the best place to forget all your worries. There are ducks and turtles to meet, and also a small zoo to visit. In my opinion, this is the most family-friendly place in Athens.



What I love so much about Athens is that you can see any historic thing anywhere and any time. They just welcome you all of a sudden. This could be a small monument or a long column. That means that every road you walk has a history, and you travel through the time and find yourself in ancient times.



Istanbul or Athens

After this short introduction to these two cities, we need to ask which city to visit. This is actually a very hard question. Because both cities have something really mesmerizing to see. So in this part, we need to compare them in every aspect.  



Culture

Istanbul is among the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. While Muslims make up the majority of the population, the city is a melting pot of ethnicities, origins, and, of course, cultures. Its population is made up of Turks, Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. It is a city where one can really immerse oneself in both Middle Eastern and Western cultures. Its bridges in Bosphorus also symbolize an abstract bridge between Asian and European traditions. Athens, on the other hand, does not have that mixed culture. Of course, it has a very rich culture, but the ethnicity is not that mixed. So that is why Athens is not a cosmopolitan city. Still, you can find a lot of spectacular traditions that continue living from ancient times to today. They still praise the Greek gods and goddesses, and they celebrate some traditional festivals (but we will talk about them later). You can find traces of Paganism and Christianity in Athens.



Currency

It is generally important to know which money currency they use before traveling to a new country. In comparison to many major cities across the world especially in Europe, Istanbul may be considered a low-cost city to travel to for tourists. On the other hand, compared to other Turkish cities, Istanbul has a high cost of living. Istanbul’s official currency is the Turkish lira. Credit cards are generally accepted at most places and restaurants, and ATMs are extensively available around the city. And when it comes to Athens, they use the Euro like most of the European countries. Athens is considered a low-cost metropolis in comparison to other European cities.



Festivals

There are a lot of annual festivals that shouldn’t be missed in both cities. If you are a movie lover, you should definitely go to International Istanbul Film Festival in spring or Athens International Film Festival and Athens Open-Air Film Festival. If you are a theatre lover, you should attend International Istanbul Theater Festival in spring or Athens Epidaurus Festival in summer. If you are an art lover, you should attend International Istanbul Biennial in autumn or Art-Athina. If you are into music, you can go to the International Istanbul Jazz Festival, Efes Pilsen Blues Festival, and International Istanbul Music Festival in Istanbul, or Rockwave Festival, and Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival in Athens. If you are a book lover, Tüyap Book Fair in Istanbul or Athens Book Fair in Athens is the best destination to go to. And besides those festivals, there is Tulip Festival in Istanbul during the spring days that you should definitely visit or the August Full Moon Festival that everyone in Athens celebrates the brightest moon of the year with some concerts and other fun activities and don’t forget to go to Apokries, the Greek carnival. So in these two cities, you will never get bored throughout the year with these joyful festivals.



Hotels, Restaurants, Street Food and Shopping Districts

Both cities have good destinations to stay. Being two important cities worldwide, they both have very famous and safe hotels and restaurants. You may want to avoid the old and small motel-like hotels in the backstreets, but overall they have very good choices. And when it comes to restaurants, they are mostly clean and the food is fresh. But again, some backstreet restaurants may be dirty and the food may not be fresh. So pay attention to the well-known touristic hotels and restaurants in these two cities. When it comes to street food, you may not want to try them. But if there is a long queue waiting for a portion of street food, that generally means it is safe and trustworthy. So you can give it a try. Because you will never want to miss a chance to eat midye dolma in Istanbul streets or meze in Athens streets. And when it comes to shopping in two cities, there are a lot of choices. In Athens, Plaka is the best destination to buy some souvenirs. In Istanbul, The Grand Bazaar is an amazing destination to buy anything you can imagine of from food to souvenirs. And, of course, both cities have great malls if you want to go. Istanbul’s 5 best shopping malls are:

  • İstinye Park
  • Zorlu Center
  • İstanbul Cevahir Mall
  • Marmara Forum
  • Venezia Mega Outlet

And Athens’ 5 best shopping malls are:

  • Attica Department Store
  • Georgia Square Mall
  • Athens Heart Mall
  • 3Quarters
  • Shopping Street


And there are some restaurants that every tourist should definitely go to and try their dishes. Istanbul’s 3 best restaurants are:

  • Asitane Restaurant – Edirnekapı (the best place where you can try special Ottoman palace cuisine like cabbage rolls with chestnuts, gerdanniye, goose kebab, different kinds of seafood, and stuffed quince with molasses)
  • Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta (you can try the best köfte/meatballs there)
  • Maiden’s Tower (this is the place where you can eat very delicious foods while you are covered with beautiful Bosphorus scenes in the middle of the sea.)

While Athen’s 3 best restaurants are:

  • Orizontes Restaurant (this is the place where you can try the best Medditerrian dishes with Greek touches with a unique and breathtaking view on Lycabettus hill)
  • Klimataria (this is the best place to experience the traditional Greek music and dance while eating the delicious Greek and Medditerrian dishes)
  • Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani (you can try the authentic Karamanlidika cooking recipes and traditional Byzantine pastries. They are famous for pastourmas, kavourmas, soutzouki)


People

Both cities have distinct cultures and traditions. But the thing that will astonish you most is the friendly, lively and hospitable people in these two cities. Greek and Turkish people are even similar in their looks. They will welcome you with a big smile on their faces. They will try to help you if you need anything. Greek and Turkish people both have huge respect for their elders. And they may want to see the same respect from you. For example, in Istanbul, they expect you to kiss the elder people’s hand and then put this hand on your forehead to show your respect. And in Athens, elderly people have great authority and get great respect from youngsters. They may be sometimes too talkative but in a good way of course. They generally ask a lot of questions to get to know you better. Getting to know new people is always a big pleasure and an amazing opportunity. In Istanbul and Athens, you will get the best experience by meeting and talking with those amazing people.



Security

Wherever you go, of course, there is a risk about your security. You may get pickpocketed or you may be attacked by some terrorists or you can get caught in a natural disaster. So it is important to learn before going somewhere that whether the place you will go is safe or not. When it comes to both Istanbul and Athens, they are pretty safe. But if we will compare these two cities, Athens is a little bit safer than Istanbul. Because natural disasters and sexual assault risks are very very low in Athens. Only on hot summer days, sometimes forest fires can occur. The highest danger is caused by pickpocketers and scammers to the tourists in Athens. So be careful about the people who look like to help you. They may try to steal your bag. On the other hand, Istanbul’s biggest problem is again pickpocketers and natural disasters. Especially very crowded and tourist center squares like Taksim and Sultanahmet are the places where pickpocketers can be seen very often. And natural disasters are the riskiest things in Istanbul. During hot days, forest fires can occur, and also it is in the earthquake zone which makes it more dangerous. And for solo women tourists, night times can be risky to travel in Istanbul. There are dangers everywhere in the whole world, of course. So don’t worry and don’t hesitate to travel to those cities. You can easily get a precaution and if you be more open-eyed, you will never be regretful for your trip to Istanbul or Athens.



Transportation

It is very important to learn to go where and how. Transportation is always a big problem in big cities. And Istanbul is one of them. Its traffic is so unpredictable and can ruin all your plans. One of the best ways is, of course, taxis. But if the traffic is too heavy, you should use the tram or metro or bus. You can get an Istanbul Kart to use public transportation. It will be faster and more planned. And there are Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tours for tourists that will help you to go to the well-known places. And the airports are New Istanbul Airport and Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport. While in Athens, walking is a fantastic way to get a feel for the city and see the important sites, especially because many of the city’s key areas are in the heart of the city. But if you need to go further distances, the Athens public transportations can take you to the most remote locations like Piraeus and Rafina. You can use the metro, bus, tram, or taxi as public transportation. They are all safe and secure. Athens International Airport is the most used airport in Athens.



Weather

A very important question is when to go to those cities. That is very significant. Because you will never want your travel to be an indoor hotel activity while it is raining so much. When it comes to Istanbul, There’s no need to be concerned about the weather in Istanbul. The city has hot and humid summers, as well as chilly, rainy, and often short snowy days in winters. But the best time to visit Istanbul would be from May to July. You will be able to enjoy the sunshine and seaside more during these months. You can get on a ferry and have a great Bosphorus tour. On the other hand, from May through September is the ideal season to visit Athens. Summers are hot and winters are warm and rainy. You can even have a Greek islands tour for a week after traveling to Athens. This would be a great activity to do in the summer holiday.



An Overall Look

In the table belove, you will be able to see the overall look and total scores of these two cities according to the things we have mentioned so far:



Final Words

Istanbul and Athens… One of the oldest cities in the world. They have seen a lot of civilizations and people throughout time. There are a lot of things to see and visit. One is the place where democracy was born and the other one is the place that was the capital of very important empires. There are a lot of amazing things to do and to see in those cities. We tried to cover nearly every aspect that you need to know and learn before visiting those cities from the places to go, security, weather, and the things to eat to how to travel in the cities. In my opinion, every history lover and every food lover should visit those places. Two of them have both advantages and disadvantages, of course. But you will be the one who will say the final words. There is still an unanswered question waiting for your answer: Which historical city to visit: Istanbul or Athens?

Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I love Istanbul. I have been to 10 different countries. Istanbul is in the top 3 cities. I like to play soccer too :)

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