Last Updated on September 20, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Once considered the center of the world, Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Here’s a power-packed list of things to do in Istanbul by my friend, Sean Lau from the Turkey Traveler.
Spanning across two different continents, Asia and Europe, Istanbul offers travelers a unique experience unlike anywhere else in the world. It has a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures, which can be seen in its architecture, food, and people.
Istanbul is a city of contrasts home to gorgeous mosques, opulent palaces, and massive bazaars. In recent years, Turkey has risen to become one the most visited countries in the world, and Istanbul – its crown jewel – is drawing in more and more travelers with its blend of East-meets-West and old-meets-new.
With this Istanbul guide, we hope you can get to experience Istanbul more than just a typical tourist because underneath the surface of Istanbul is a world of history and wonders waiting to be discovered!
Best Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey
1. Visit the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a former Christian cathedral that was converted into a mosque in the 15th century. Built in the early sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it served as the imperial palace chapel for centuries, and later as a mosque after the city fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It is now an active mosque and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
The Hagia Sophia is considered one of the great architectural wonders of the world. Its massive dome, measuring 33 meters in diameter, was the largest in the world for hundreds of years. The building’s interior is decorated with marble columns, mosaics, and intricate Islamic calligraphy.
2. Experience the Blue Mosque
Built in the early 1600s by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque is one of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul. At first glance, you might wonder why the Blue Mosque is named as such. None of its exteriors is very blue.
However, once you enter, you’ll understand the origin of the name. The Blue Mosque is decorated with beautiful blue İznik tiles. More than 20,000 of these hand-painted ceramic tiles cover the interior walls, giving the mosque its name and making it one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque is also notable for its six minarets, which only the most sacred mosque in Islamic culture had at the time. It is believed that there was a misunderstanding between the architect and Sultan Ahmed I when constructing the mosque.
The sultan resolved this by adding a seventh minaret to the mosque in Mecca, which was the only mosque with six minarets at the time.
3. See the Hippodrome
Just a few feet away from the Blue Mosque stands the Hippodrome of Constantinople (Constantinopole was the name of ancient Istanbul). Where the Sultanahmet Square stands today used to be a public arena mainly for chariot races, seating up to 100,000 spectators.
Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. The ancient stadium was filled with statues of gods, emperors, animals, and heroes. Today, only the Egyptian obelisk still stands today, along with a sculpture of three-headed serpents. If you’re interested in learning more about this neighborhood and its history, we recommend taking a guided tour of the Hippodrome.
4. Get Lost in the Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is a shopper’s paradise and a cultural icon of Istanbul. It’s one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, dating back to the 15th century.
The bazaar was originally built as a way to provide financial resources for the Hagia Sophia. Over time, it evolved into a bustling marketplace where merchants from all over the world sell their merchandise.
Grand Bazaar is worth visiting for its history, architecture, and shops. The bazaar is a labyrinth of narrow corridors and passageways, lined with shops selling souvenirs, handicrafts, jewelry, Turkish carpets, and lamps. It’s a great place to purchase a Turkish souvenir to remember your trip, but just remember to haggle or you’ll be ripped off!
5. Soak up the Smell in the Spice Bazaar
Situated just a short walk from Grand Bazaar is another one of Istanbul’s most famous places to visit. The Spice Bazaar, as the name suggests, is a covered market that specializes in spices, teas, and herbs. As soon as you enter the Spice Bazaar, the scent will overwhelm you.
Unlike the Grand Bazaar which is massive, the Spice Bazaar is rather small. It only has two streets, and most of the products sold here are similar. If you are in the market for some spices, herbs, teas, or Turkish delight, this is the place to go.
Even if you’re not interested in purchasing anything, it’s still worth visiting for the experience and to take in the sights and smells of this iconic Istanbul market.
6. Go Underground into the Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most historical attractions. It is a large underground chamber that was used as a water storage tank in the Byzantine era. The cistern was built under the Stoa Basilica, which was a major center of trade, justice, and art between the 3rd and 4th centuries. It is also where it received its name.
The cistern is an eerie and fascinating place. It is dimly lit with flickering lights, and the sound of dripping water echoes through the chamber. The cistern is supported by 336 columns, many of which are recycled from Roman temples.
If you’re looking for a unique experience in Istanbul, be sure to add the Basilica Cistern to your Istanbul itinerary! Book these tickets to skip the line!
7. Climb Galata Tower
Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower in Istanbul known for its history and views of the city. The tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese and was the tallest building in Constantinople. It was used as a watchtower to monitor the activities in the Golden Horn and Bosphorus Strait.
After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans used the Galata Tower as a prison and then as a fire watch tower, until it was damaged by a fire (the irony huh?). In fact, the tower has been damaged many times over the centuries but has been restored several times. The current restoration was completed in 2020.
One of the most iconic features of the Galata Tower is the 360-degree observatory deck, which sits over 50 meters high. From the deck, visitors can see the Golden Horn, Bosphorus, Sultanahmet, and even the Asian side on a good day.
8. Wander around Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is a must-see for any history lover visiting Istanbul. It was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years and is full of beautiful architecture and historical artifacts.
This Istanbul palace was built in the 15th century by Mehmed the Conqueror and has been renovated and expanded over the years. It is now home to several museums, including the Imperial Treasury, which houses one of the most impressive arms collections. The palace is also surrounded by lovely gardens which are worth exploring.
But perhaps the most fascinating part of the Topkapi Palace is the Harem (or “forbidden place” in English), the living quarters for the female members of the sultan’s family. The Harem was a secluded and opulent world unto itself, with its gorgeous mosaic-tiled chambers and private gardens. Though there is an extra entrance fee to enter the Harem, it is worth every Turkish Lira!
9. Admire the Süleymaniye Mosque
While the Blue Mosque is Istanbul’s most famous mosque, the Süleymaniye temple has a more dramatic setting and beautiful exterior than the Blue Mosque. The Süleymaniye mosque is located on the third of Istanbul’s seven hills, which overlooks the Golden Horn. You can see its grey domes and minarets poking high above the city’s skyline from afar.
It served as Sultan Suleyman I’s main mosque during Ottoman times and was constructed during the 16th century under Sultan Suleiman. Keep in mind there are long lines and long wait, so book your tickets in advance.
10. Stroll along Istiklal Street
No visit to Istanbul is complete without strolling down Istiklal Street, the city’s most famous pedestrian-friendly street. Located in the Beyoglu district, Istiklal Street is full of shops, cafes, restaurants, and historical sites.
The street dates back to the Ottoman Empire and was once known as the Grand Rue de Pera. It was renamed Istiklal Street (or “Independence Street”) after Turkey’s independence in 1923.
In the daytime, Istiklal Street is bustling with locals and tourists alike. At night, the street comes alive with music, and people of all ages enjoy the lively atmosphere. It is one of the best places to enjoy the nightlife in Istanbul, as there are several nightclubs and bars in the area.
11. Take the Historic Tram
One of the most iconic attractions on Istiklal Street is the historic Istiklal tram. Officially known as the Taksim-Tünel Nostalgia Tramway, this tram runs from Taksim Square (Istanbul’s transport hub) all the way down Istiklal Street to Tunel Square, servicing a total of 1.64 km (1 mile).
This bright red tram has become a symbol of Istanbul, but although it is a mode of public transportation, it is almost always faster to just walk down Istiklal street. The tram makes many stops due to pedestrian traffic.
12. Marvel the Biggest Mosque in Turkey
When it comes to mosques in Istanbul, visitors might immediately think of Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, but few will mention the Camlica Mosque. In fact, the Camlica Mosque is the biggest mosque in Turkey, an impressive achievement when the other mosques are already so big.
Completed in 2019, the Camlica Mosque is one of Istanbul’s newest and most modern mosques. The mosque is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, atop the hill known as Çamlıca, which offers stunning views of the city. The complex also has a museum, art gallery, library, conference hall, and underground parking lot for 3,500 vehicles. It can also accommodate around 63,000 worshippers.
Camlica Mosque is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul and yet it is a hidden gem!
13. Admire the Walls of Constantinopole
The ancient walls of Constantinople stood for centuries before they were demolished in the 19th century. Since the 1980s, many areas of the old city walls have been restored and opened to the public. The tower on the Wall of Constantinople’s Wall is one of the finest vantage points for seeing remnants.
This Byzantine tour takes you back in time to see Istanbul before Ottoman invasion. You’ll go through the city’s ancient walls and gates, as well as other sights outside of Istanbul’s Old City.
14. Take a Turkish Bath
The Turkish bath is, without a doubt, one of the quirkiest and funniest things to do in Istanbul. It was the highlight of our first trip to Turkey and an experience I’ll never forget. Commonly known as hammam, the traditional Turkish Bath is a quintessential part of daily life for locals. But for foreigners, it can be a peculiar and amusing experience.
First, you’ll need to be completely naked in a hammam (most hammams are single-sex). Then prepare to have strangers vigorously scrub you up and down with sizzling hot, foamy water. They tend proceed to massage your own body with all the strength they have! It’s strange, heavenly, and funny all at once. Book your Turkish bath here!
15. Eat Street Food in Kadikoy
Kadikoy is one of my favorite areas in Istanbul: it’s less visited by travelers and offers a more local experience. The Kadikoy market is home to some of the oldest restaurants and establishments in the area. It’s street food galore here, and there are tons of kebab stalls and lahmacun stands here.
Sample some of Istanbul’s most popular street foods including midye dolma, kokoreç and crispy pide. Remember to save some space in your stomach to savour the syrupy goodness of one of Istanbul’s oldest and most delicious baklavas. I recommend booking a Kadikoy street food tour with a local to understand more of Turkish culinary traditions.
16. Sip Turkish Coffee
Turkish Coffee has gained quite a name for itself around the world, for good reason. Istanbul is of course a great spot to try some of the best coffee in Turkey.
For a genuine Turkish coffee experience, I recommend heading to Okkali Kahave where you can sample a range of blended coffees and flavors from around Turkey. Many cafes are concentrated along the streets Mim Kemal Öke and Atiye and they serve a range of local coffees and yummy Turkish sweets.
Things to Do in Istanbul At Night
17. Catch Sunset at Ortakoy
In the evening, head over to the district of Ortakoy. It’s a lively area centered on its waterfront square, where locals gather to listen to impromptu concerts or sip tea on cafe terraces. Stands serving waffles or kumpir (stuffed baked potatoes) share busy alleys with souvenir stalls.
The ornate, light-filled Ortaköy Camii mosque sits at the water’s edge in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge. Catching sunset here is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Istanbul, especially for photographers.
18. Go on a Bosphorus Cruise
Istanbul is a city where East meets West, and there’s no better way to experience this than by taking a cruise down the Bosphorus. This narrow strait connects the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea and divides Istanbul into European and Asian sides.
From the cruise, you can see some of Istanbul’s most iconic sights, including the Bosphorus Bridge, Maiden’s Tower, and Dolmabahce Palace. The cruise also offers great views of Istanbul’s bustling waterfront neighborhoods, with their markets, mosques, and wooden houses.
There are many Bosphorus cruises to pick from: Some offer sunset cruises on yachts, while other Bosphorus dinner cruises include entertainment such as the traditional Turkish belly dancing and whirling dervishes!
19. See the Whirling Dervishes
Turkey is well known for the whirling dervish, clad head-to-toe in white and spinning expertly as if in a trance. But the dervish is much more than a visual spectacle, dating back over 700 years as part of Sufism and the Mevlevi Order.
In Istanbul’s Hodjapasha theater, you can watch the mystical ritual of the Mevlevi Order, whose whirling dance has been declared a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity. The Sema ceremony is a journey through man’s spiritual ascent to “perfection” through mind and love—a truly unmissable and astonishing experience of music and moves. Book your tickets here.
Things to Do Near Istanbul
20. Take a Ferry to Princes’ Islands (Adalar)
Prince’ Islands are a set of nine small islands located in the Sea of Marmara, just south of Istanbul. The islands are a popular day trip destination for visitors to Istanbul, as they offer a quiet and peaceful escape from the city.
The most popular way to get to the Princes’ Islands is by ferry. Ferries depart from several points in Istanbul, including Eminönü and Kabataş. The journey takes about an hour, and ferries run frequently throughout the day.
Though there are nine islands in the Adalar archipelago, only 4 are typically visited by tourists. The biggest is Buyukada, which is home to historic mansions. The island has a ban on all fuel-driven vehicles, helping to keep the peace and the air quality clean. Some of the most popular things to do there include hiking its trails, going swimming on one of its beaches, and just strolling around town and admiring the gorgeous buildings!
21. Explore the City of Bursa
If you’re looking to explore more of Turkey’s history and culture, consider taking a day trip from Istanbul to Bursa. Located about 2 hours south of Istanbul, Bursa was once the largest center of the silk trade in the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It was also the capital of the Ottoman Empire before they took over Constantinople.
Today, it’s a popular tourist destination thanks to its well-preserved historical sites and Ottoman architecture. The city’s main attraction is the Uludag National Park, which is home to ski resorts, thermal baths, and hiking trails. But if you don’t have time to explore the park, there are plenty of popular sites in Bursa.
The Green Mosque is one of the city’s most iconic buildings, and its name refers to the color of its interior tiles. The Bursa Grand Mosque is another must-see, as it’s one of the largest mosques in Turkey. For a taste of Ottoman architecture, be sure to visit the Emir Sultan Mosque. And finally, no trip to Bursa would be complete without a visit to the Silk Market!
22. Visit the WWI Battlefields of Gallipolli
History buffs alert! The notorious WWI battlefields of Gallipolli are located around 3 hours from Istanbul, which is a little far for a day trip (I recommend staying overnight). Located on a peninsula right between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles straits, Gallipolli witnessed one of the biggest bloodbaths in history. Over half a million soldiers perished here and you can now pay your respects to the fallen ones.
Gallipolli is not just a significant part of European and World War I history but also a significant part of Turkey’s modern-day history. This guided Gallipolli tour will bring you to the the ANZAC Cove, where the troops first landed, visit the ANZAC Commemorative Site, and learn about the war from both perspectives as you view the Allied and Turkish trenches at Johnston’s Jolly.
Istanbul Travel Guide
How To Get To Istanbul
There are two active airports in Istanbul: the new Istanbul International Airport (IST) and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW).
Istanbul International Airport (IST) is the city’s primary airport and one of the busiest airports in Europe. It’s located about 40km (25 miles) outside of Sultanahmet (the historic center) . Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) is Istanbul’s second airport and is located on the Asian side of the city in Pendik, about 44km (27 miles) from Istanbul’s historic center.
Most international visitors will fly into Istanbul International Airport (IST), as it has a much wider selection of flights from around the world. You can get flights from New York to Istanbul as low as $500 round-trip and London to Istanbul for just $150 return.
Once you arrive at one of the airports in Istanbul, you’ll find plenty of options to get to the city center. For budget travelers, you can take one of the IETT public buses, HAVAIST or HAVABUS. Alternatively, if you don’t mind spending a bit more, there is Uber in Istanbul, and you can call one directly from the airport.
How to Get Around Istanbul
Public transportation in Istanbul is very efficient and can get you to most places you need to go. The city has an expansive metro, bus, and tram system that can take visitors pretty much anywhere they want. There is also the ferry system, which can transport passengers across the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
For the public transportation system, you’ll need to get yourself an Istanbulkart, which is a rechargeable contactless card that can be used on all of the city’s public transportation. You can purchase these cards at any metro station, bus station, or tram stop.
But perhaps the best way to get around Istanbul is on foot. The city has plenty of narrow alleys, bazaars, and other indoor attractions that you can only access on foot. Besides, there are so many things to see in Istanbul that almost every street is filled with something interesting.
Where To Stay In Istanbul
Without a doubt, the best neighborhood to stay in Istanbul is Sultanahmet, or the historic center. This area is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in Istanbul, such as the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cistern. Not to mention, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area.
Budget: Cheers Vintage Hostel
If you are looking for a budget place to stay in Istanbul, Cheers Vintage is my favorite option. This hostel is situated in Sultanahmet, just minutes away from the famous Blue Mosque. The most outstanding feature of this hostel is its charming vintage decor. Besides comfortable dormitory-style rooms, guests can enjoy a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus Strait from the balcony! Check rates here.
Mid Range: Kaftan Hotel
If you are looking for an affordable hotel with good value for money, I highly recommend the Kaftan Hotel. This accommodation is situated in Sultanahmet, so visitors are within walking distance of all the main sights. The rooms are comfortable and spacious, but perhaps its best feature is the huge dining area where an amazing breakfast buffet is served every morning. Check rates here.
Luxury: Magnaura Palace Hotel
Magnaura Palace Hotel is arguably one of the best luxury hotels in Istanbul (pictured). Situated in Sultanahmet, its cozy rooms offer panoramic views of the city’s beautiful mosques. Most rooms also have a balcony, where you can snap the perfect photo for your Instagram! The interior is decorated with traditional Turkish textiles, making your stay in this hotel a unique experience! Check rates here.
Where To Eat In Istanbul
There are plenty of amazing restaurants in Istanbul and visitors are never going to run out of options. Here are some of the places we like.
Mivan Restaurant & Cafe
If you are looking for a trendy restaurant to try some Turkish cuisine in style, then Mivan Restaurant & Cafe is the perfect place to go. Located in the Sultanahmet district, this restaurant serves a wide variety of dishes such as kebabs, meze, casseroles, and more.
The meat dishes are some of the most flavorful and freshest you’ll find in Istanbul. The service is also great, and the staff is more than happy to help you choose the perfect dish. Book a table here!
Fish Home Ahhir Kapi Restaurant
Istanbul is surrounded by water, so naturally, it has some of the best seafood in the world. One of the best places to sample some of it in Sultanahmet is Fish Home Ahhir Kapi Restaurant.
They have a wide range of seafood dishes, including grilled fish, calamari, oysters, mussels, and more. If you are not sure what to get, the sea bass is a must-try in Istanbul. The best part about this restaurant is the complimentary dessert! Reserve a table here!
Seven Hills Restaurant
If you are looking for a restaurant with a view of Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, then head to Seven Hills Restaurant. This restaurant is located on the top floor of a hotel, so you can enjoy stunning views of the city while you eat.
The menu features Turkish and international cuisine, and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available. Just be sure to make a reservation in advance if you want to get a good table on the terrace. We recommend coming for sunset!
Cost of Travel in Istanbul
Istanbul (and Turkey) used to be one of the most expensive places to visit in the world. But the country’s economic crisis has devalued the Turkish Lira so much that it has become a popular destination even for budget travelers.
Though that doesn’t mean that visitors won’t find luxury here. There are plenty of places where you can splurge, such as a nice historic hotel, restaurants with spectacular views, and more.
But for budget travelers, there are plenty of ways to keep your expenses low. Simple things such as staying in a hostel, eating more locally, and taking public transportation can already save you tons of money.
For budget backpackers, it is possible to visit Istanbul on a daily budget of 35 to 40 USD!
Further Reading on Turkey
I hope our comprehensive Istanbul guide has given you everything you need to plan the perfect trip to Istanbul! It is one of our favorite cities in the world and we want you to enjoy it as much as we did!
If you’re looking to read more on Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, check out these articles:
About the Author: Sean Lau
Sean is the co-founder of The Turkey Traveler, the #1 travel blog on all things Turkey related. Offering insider tips, recommendations, and guides, The Turkey Traveler is your ultimate resource to help you plan the perfect trip to Turkey.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links i.e. if you book something through my link, I’ll earn a small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you. Thank you for your support!
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