15 Best Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul. A romanticized history. An orchestrated present. When you're visiting a city situated in between the borders of Europe and Asia, expect that your trip will be filled with plenty of cultural stops. That's what Istanbul is all about. As one of the major cities in Turkey, you might be overwhelmed by the number of fascinating sights that could help you understand the country's history and culture.

If you should be lucky enough to find yourself in Istanbul, you should, of course, visit historic sites like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. But you should also check out the edgy parts of town where young Istanbulites show off their city’s curious and creative side.

The empires that once ruled this country were significant contributors to its identity right now. Once we go along this list, you'll realize how apparent the Byzantine and Ottoman empires are regarding their culture and lifestyle. Istanbul has a lot of faces. There are towns and tourist spots all over this city with different vibes and offerings. It's up to you what you want to see and what you want to feel.

Straddling both the European and Asian continents, Istanbul is exactly the clash of cultures you’d expect from such a uniquely placed city. Influences from Western Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and far flung Asia all mix together to create an incredibly vibrant city. And then, of course, there’s the famous bazaars, where rugs, spices and every other thing imaginable is sold.

No matter how typical or offbeat your list of things not to miss in Istanbul is, the sure way to beat the vacation blues and shopping fatigue is to go for a quick unwind session at a local pub and get some flavor of the Turkish pop music first-hand. Also, the ferry to the Asian side of the city is fun; not a whole lot to do there but the views are really nice and the lack of tourists is refreshing and peaceful.

Anyone who walks only in the most famous districts of the European side will not see anything from the real life of the Turkish people. You will not see the huge differences in social and living standards, the mundane diversity that one will only gain insight into as one travels through the districts of Asia. The more conservative way of life, for example, really shows itself by walking the streets of Üsküdar, and we can be most amazed at the new rich luxury in Europe in Bebek.

Most tourists travel to Istanbul for up to 1 week, and then very quickly realize that during this time only the most famous sights can be seen and only a few Turkish dishes can be tasted along. What really stands out in all of these places is the history, the architecture and the opportunity to learn about the evolution of a culture and civilization that literally shaped the world. If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, you must absolutely visit Istanbul.

This city has historically been the gateway to the world. It is riddled with millennia of history and there is just so much to learn here. For a start it is essential to tour Istanbul, a city full of history and modern at the same time. Go to Istanbul if you appreciate ancient architecture, you love exotic shopping, you’re interested in different cultures.

There are many things to do in Istanbul that appeal to ALL ages like, ferry rides, which are cheap, from the European side to the Asian; or from Kadikoy to Buyuk Ada (an island without cars only bikes and horse and buggies), many parks with walking trails and playgrounds, fountains and (if in early Spring) tulips. There are beaches and boat tours. You can climb Galata Tower and take in the 360 degree views while seagulls fly by shamelessly posing to be in your pictures.

How is Istanbul in winter time? It is very cold with lots of snow. If you can wrap up warm, good coat, hat, scarf and gloves and take the cold you can still have a fantastic time. It’s just so beautiful to see Istanbul with a different views than the summer time. The buildings topped with snow and the whole feeling is just something different to experience. Everywhere is still open for sight seeing or shopping.

Do not leave for the city without Akbil, i.e. Istanbul Kart. It can be said that urban transport is cheap in Istanbul, but with this card, we can further reduce the money spent on travel. Akbil is a travel card that locals also use. With this, the cheapest transport is possible, the balance can be topped up from vending machines and traffics in countless parts of the city.

It can be used on trams, buses, metros, metro buses, city-operated boats, lifts, and nostalgia trams. Attention: does not apply to Bosphorus touring boats and dolmus! This is also something you won't see much in the tourist section, but you can already try it in the outer districts, Üsküdarba, Kadiköy, Besiktas. Dolmus (dolmus in Turkish) is practically a direct taxi, a popular means of transportation for locals.

You probably won’t have time to see everything in Istanbul from the start, so it would be especially annoying if your daily program was crossed by the fact that that museum was just closed when you were bullied there. Also, as with transportation, you can save money with museum tickets if you buy a museum card.

For unconsciously hilly, Istanbul is constantly going up or down, not on any steep slopes. There are no sidewalks in many places, a lot of cobblestones, and if it rains a little, the asphalt slips like grease. It is definitely recommended to wear shoes or sports sandals that will grip your ankles and crease your sole training.

Before you travel, be sure to check out who Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was. Otherwise, you will look incomprehensibly at the face that will look back at you on street posters, often on the side of vehicles, flags, on the walls of every restaurant and office.

If you're planning to fly to Turkey and stay there for a week or two, you will see what the hype about Istanbul is about!

Follow this list as we give you the best things to do in Istanbul.

1. Visit Hagia Sophia

Acting as a church and later as a mosque, between Byzantines and Ottomans, Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) has stood the test of time. Quite literally. Apart from being a stunning structure to look at, the vibe in and around Hagia Sophia is a boon for one’s soul. Hagia Sophia was constructed in 537 CE and the construction finished in only 6 years.

Initially the arch was at a height of 105 foot which was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 558 CE and was reconstructed in 562 CE. The damages again occurred multiple times yet it couldn't stop the architecture to be built again. Hagia Sophia was earlier a church for Christians and under the Ottoman empire it was changed into a mosque. Hagia Sophia attracts over 3 million travelers every year and the count increases every year.

Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous spots in Turkey that you should see. And once you see it in person, you will instantly understand why it became so popular. This historical building is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the world. It used to be a church and a mosque. But as of the present time, it now serves as a museum for visitors to appreciate.

Aside from the actual monument, the garden in front is also worthy of being visited. It carries an additional charm to the whole place.

Women are not allowed to enter mosques with their shoulders and skirts/trousers upside down and above their knees. In larger mosques, which are frequently visited by tourists, clothing is checked in advance, and clothing is provided, if necessary, but in smaller mosques this is not always the case. If you know you’re sure to get into a mosque that day, listen to what you’re wearing.

In Istanbul’s more conservative, less frequently visited places on the streets, it’s also worth following this rule so as not to offend locals.

2. Wander in Topkapi Palace

Now converted as a remarkable museum, Topkapi Palace gives you a rather colourful and opulent peek into the lives of Ottoman empire. The rulers lived here with their family (and courtesans) before moving to the new palace, Dolmabahce at the Bosphorus bay. Both the palaces easily draw an audience of 2000-3000 tourists everyday, which increases around the weekend.

If you're curious about the Ottoman Empire's glorious past, you should head over to the Topkapi Palace. It houses plenty of information, imperial collection, and the remnants of the Ottoman civilization. You'll find a handful of books and manuscripts that carry a whole crazy bag of history.

Of course, once you arrive at the palace, the first thing you will notice is the intricate patterns that make up its entire architecture. Not to mention the many courtyards that you can find inside the grounds.

3. Be mesmerized with Blue Mosque

Do you know that there are over 80,000 mosques in Turkey? Over 3,000 are in Istanbul. The call to prayer happens through loudspeakers at every mosque, 5 times a day. This is not a shock, but some people still think they are very conservatives. In a single visit on your circuit through Istanbul you can visit, in just a few minutes, the Blue Mosque, the Dolmabahçe Palace and the most modern skyscrapers.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque) is the most famous one that tourists visit. Sultanahmet Mosque or the Blue mosque is a grand mosque with unique interior design.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is famous for its blue tiles that surround the entire religious site, thus the name. Its real name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, and it was built between 1609 and 1616, which makes it one of the most ancient sites in the country. Note that this particular site is an active mosque, so don't be surprised to find it closed for visitors during certain parts of the day.

That being said, visitors must dress appropriately as a sign of respect to the mosque and its worshippers. Their prayer happens five times a day and lasts about 90 minutes each, so plan your trip to the Blue Mosque accordingly.

4. Time travel at the Basilica Cistern

While people marvel at the architectural heritage that is Basilica Cistern, few years ago this largest (survived) Byzantine cistern in Istanbul got a makeover, all thanks to the popular Tom Hank’s movie, Angels & Demons. The place is a major crowd puller in Istanbul and carries a strong history since its conception in the 6th century.

With an out of this world charm and a wee bit touch of eeriness, the Basilica Cistern is a must-visit when going to Istanbul. It is known to be the largest Byzantine cistern in the entire city, with 336 columns. It's hard to imagine yourself walking right in the middle of a structure built in the year 532. It seems out of reach, but it is possible here in Basilica Cistern.

You may be fascinated by the fact that this was once an active cistern to supply water to nearby palaces until the emperors needed to relocate. It was only until 1545 that it was rediscovered.

5. Admire Gulhane Park

For a little quiet time after all the cultural tour, visit the Gulhane Park and be mesmerized by the flower beds and trees that complete the serene vibe of the entire area. You can visit this park right after touring around Topkapi Palace.

When you're getting a little overwhelmed with all the Easter eggs brought about by the information you got from different museums, you can claim your much-needed rest for your eyes and head at the Gulhane Park. There are sunflower beds for you to gaze at, park benches to sit on and relax, and food stalls where you can quench your thirst and satisfy your cravings.

While some claim it’s a city getting overwhelmed by its own history, others argue it’s a street food lover’s paradise, especially because of its history. From mouthwatering food to shopping bestseller rugs to breathtaking architecture to the entertaining Belly dance, everything in Istanbul comes with its own story.

6. Tour Dolmabahce Palace

The Dolmabahce Palace is probably the most glamorous among all the other palaces we've listed here. Its fancy-schmancy interiors will light up your eyes and curiosity. Just the display of giant chandeliers, artworks, and deliberate design of the walls will leave you in awe. Once you see it at night with all the lights surrounding the facade, you might want to stay there and admire it for hours.

This palace is one of the many images of the past that shows the Ottoman Empire's grandeur.

7. Visit Beylerbeyi Palace

The Beylerbeyi Palace looks a little bit stripped of grandiose compared to the Dolmabahce and the Topkapi Palace. But you'll be surprised to see what the inside looks like. It is filled with exquisite pieces from the Ottoman Empire, showing proof of how extravagant they were and that they go big when it comes to all the design details of the palace.

The stairs are enough to make your jaws drop, but not until you enter the garden where you will find different kinds of trees and a fantastic view of the Bosphorus strait.

8. Walk through Sultanahmet Square

This city is also one of history’s most important, a fact driven home by the ancient architecture of the Sultanahmet district, which is truly mind-blowing. Just walk through Sultanahmet Square where the Blue Mosque is!

9. Stroll around Galata Tower

There is also the Suleymaniye mosque, the Galata Tower, Taksim Square and a dozen other tourist attractions. A landmark as popular for its conical structure as it is for its spectacular panoramic views of the skyline, Galata is not just another tick on your travel attraction list.

A peek into the history and a direct check-in to the most current scene happening in the city, an evening stroll around Galata Towers and watching the sunset from the top is an experience in itself. And if that’s not enough, go ahead and take up the virtual helicopter ride for the unforgettable view.

10. Find solace at the Galata Bridge

Amidst the crowd and chaos in the streets of Istanbul, people find solace at the Galata Bridge with their fishing rods in hands and no hurry in their heads. Everyday, it makes for a gripping view to watch hundreds of locals enjoy fishing, whether as a profession or a pastime, on the top level of Galata Bridge.

Just underneath the bridge, there is an equally compelling sight- the fish market selling fish catches of the day. You can rent fishing equipment for a lazy day well spent or simply find a suitable corner and soak in the view.

11. Check out Suleymaniye Mosque

Another mosque on the list, Suleymaniye mosque is a visual treat for tired eyes. The mosque was built around 15th century and is one of the most beautiful mosques Istanbul boasts of. The highlights are the central fountain, the garden inside the mosque and the lovely view that the four minarets make along with their respective 10 balconies.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out the rooftop restaurants around it for a remarkable view of the city.

12. Maiden's Tower

The Maiden's Tower stands tall in the middle of the Bosporus. It has intrigued various visitors who sees it during their trip. Today it houses a restaurant. Anyway the legend goes that it was built to protect the young daughter of a Sultan in light of the fact that a priest had foreseen that she would be killed by a snake when she turned 18.

The tower was the home for the Sultan’s daughter and she was frequently visited by her father. Upon the arrival of her eighteenth birthday celebrations, the father gave his daughter a beautiful box of bright natural items without knowing that a poisonous snake was hiding in it.

13. Take a ferry to Buyukada

Want to get off the tourist trail and enjoy Istanbul like a local? Take a ferry to the Princes’ Islands. The king of the nine Princes’ Islands, Buyukada comes with as rich a history as its title. The island has a strict no-car policy, so you rely on bicycles, horse chariots or your own sturdy feet to explore the scenes, or finding Nemo for that matter.

Treat yourself with our traditional Turkish breakfast. Stroll around the island. Cycling is also a good idea. Explore Kuzguncuk as well. Take a seat at a local cafe and order yourself a cup of Turkish coffee. Just like a real Istanbulite.

One of the most charming neighbourhoods of Istanbul is perhaps Arnavutköy which literally means Albanian village. Take some pictures. By the way, while crossing from Europe to Asia or vice versa, don’t forget to feed the seagulls with simit, which is a a type of ring-shaped bagel coated with molasses and covered in sesame seeds. They’re used to this tradition, if you don’t give them a piece of your simit, they’ll come and take it from you.

14. Go for a sweet tasting at Istiklal Caddesi

Islak Burger is famous on Istiklal Cad. Also, try a soup place. Turks swear by the soups for warding off hangovers.

Go for a sweet tasting at either Baltepe Pastanesi near the weekly Faith Bazaar or if you’re exploring Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, just do yourself a favour and land at Hafiz Mustafa. For here’s where you’d find additional raspberry flavour for Trilece soaked in three different kinds of milk and a great range of Turkish delights.

For a wholesome dinner, Al Madina restaurant is a MUST TRY. Beyond the menu, what people love here the most is the unique experience you get here, from the theatrics with which the food is presented to the overall look and feel. If you’re lucky, you might get a surprise dance performance from the staff too!

Don't forget to devour a mouthful of baklavas and Turkish ice cream too when you're here! Istanbul is also a city that is obsessed with Turkish tea and coffee. It doesn’t matter what store, restaurant, hotel, tourist spot, you go into, you will be offered tea. There are more than two dozen types of tea served here and it can get overwhelming to the uninitiated. Let go of your inhibitions and try them out.

Stay energized to experience the nightlife as well. Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, Istiklal Caddes, and the crossroads called Nevizade, have nightlife, clubs, bars, and plenty of restaurants and cafés open until dawn. Also, anyone who has outgrown their partying era should go at least once and see how they party there because it is guaranteed to be poorer with a cool experience for those who miss it. Night cruising on the Bosphorus is a must!

Best Things to Do in Istanbul

15. Shop at Grand Bazaar

And no, it’s not just all about Grand Bazaar, although a thorough stroll through the market is highly recommended. In the huge market of over 4,000 shops, there is a lot you can find and shop to your heart’s content. The Grand Bazaaar has plenty of shops and its kind of a city within a city. Amazing place to spend a day, get the shopaholic out of you and checkout interesting items.

There seems to be a plethora of secrets hidden of the Ottoman past when you go shopping at the Grand Bazaar! Unless you go to a department store assume that perfumes, branded clothes, DVD’s, electrical goods are fake. This doesn’t mean that they’re not good quality but you get what you pay for. The prices are steep here, so be prepared to bargain!

Bargaining is a must in the markets and street stalls, it’s great fun and expected. The exceptions to this are food and gold/silver. Generally cut the price in half and meet somewhere in between.

To describe the Grand Bazaar as massive is an understatement. It takes up a vast portion of the city, making it one of the world's biggest shopping centers. In fact, it's so big you will need to have a map with you to find what sort of items you are looking for. You can find certified authentic Turkish trinkets right here, from fancy silks and scarves to antique pieces, and even well-liked Turkish snacks.

There are also a handful of stalls that sell handmade pots and clay items that can be a perfect addition to your overall home aesthetic. You can test your haggling skills when you're visiting the Grand Bazaar. But be sure to treat the sellers with the utmost respect.

The Grand Bazaar is, of course, a special concept, a worldwide popular institution that is a must see. It is obligatory to take photos, talk and bargain with vendors, and absorb the cavalcade of flavors, smells, and colors, but it is not necessary to buy here. Of course, you can also get a souvenir from here, but if you want to buy it cheap, don't choose it at the Grand Bazaar.

It is better to look around, for example, in Eminönü, the Spice Bazaar right next to the beach. Even the locals come here and all the essentials can be found here as well. However, the real place to shop is the steep and winding road connecting the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar, where cheap but good goods can be found.

On the other side of the Galata Bridge, in Karaköy, mainly men can bargain, because here are the technical goods and tools. If we want to see a real vegetable, fruit and fish market, where we can buy a million kinds of olives, original Turkish cheese and freshly ground Turkish coffee, among other things, we have to sail to the Asian side, Kadikoy.

Istanbul has a colorful background and history backed with tourist spots that make it a desirable place to visit on your next holiday.

You might encounter strict rules and regulations when you go to this city, but that's only a tiny portion of the trip that will make you better understand where they are coming from.

Overall, Istanbul in Turkey is a delightful place to explore.
Kalyan Panja