29 Best Things to Do in Istanbul

Best Things to Do in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey, a riveting symphony of East and West, is a city that dances to its own vibrant rhythm. This is the place where the soul of two continents coalesce, where the footprints of Europe meander into the heart of Asia, creating a world unlike any other. Ah, Istanbul, you truly are a gateway of worlds!

The city’s irresistible charm, the palpable energy, the unbroken history; it demands months, even years, of exploration to fully comprehend. But fear not, from my four rewarding visits to this historic city, I’ve sifted out some absolute must-do’s. And let me tell you, traversing the metropolis that straddles the narrow Bosphorus, where the new world meshes with the Byzantium era and Ottoman Empire, is nothing short of fascinating.

Istanbul’s young blood bathes in the modern world’s glow while its roots stay deeply anchored in its heritage. Walk with me through the city’s winding alleys, and I’ll guide you to the very best that Istanbul has to offer.

Now, Istanbul’s charm lies in its walkability. Its top attractions are like beads on a string – close and connected. As you amble from the atmospheric Old Town and cross the age-old Galata Bridge, you’ll find the city unfurling at your feet. Walking, my friends, is undeniably the best way to unravel Istanbul’s wonders.

To ease your journey through Istanbul’s rich history, I highly recommend grabbing an Istanbul Museum Pass. It’s a golden ticket that’ll zip you past the serpentine queues at popular museums like the iconic Hagia Sophia, the grand Topkapi Palace, Harem, the mesmerizing Great Palace Mosaics, and more. Plus, the guided tour app that comes with it is the perfect companion for your historical deep-dive.

Istanbul is like a grand feast for the senses. It’s a whirlwind of flavors, sounds, and sights, making it one of the most exhilarating cities in Europe. So buckle up, because here are the ultimate things to experience in Istanbul to make your stay unforgettable.

Before we dive into the captivating sights and experiences Istanbul has to offer, let’s hit pause for a moment and ponder – where are you planning to hang your hat in this historic city? If you’re still mulling over accommodation options, fret not. I’ve got you covered with my comprehensive Istanbul where-to-stay guide.

1. Hagia Sophia

Starting off our journey with a bang, we have the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia, an architectural marvel that has been enchanting visitors for centuries. From its humble beginnings as a church to its transformation into a mosque, and now standing tall as a world-renowned museum, Hagia Sophia’s rich history is as captivating as its beauty.

On my initial rendezvous with Istanbul, I admired Hagia Sophia from the outside, never stepping within its historic walls. Oh, what a blunder it was! My second visit, however, had me basking in the grandeur of its interiors, a sight so magnificent it leaves you short of breath. Its intricate mosaics, exquisite calligraphy, vibrant tiles, and the Sultan’s lodge are a testament to the city’s rich history.

In 2019, Hagia Sophia was yet again transformed, this time back into a mosque. But worry not, it remains open to the public, inviting everyone to appreciate its artistry. Opt for this guided tour that takes you into the heart of Hagia Sophia, accompanied by a local guide who breathes life into its history.

  • Operation hours: April to October – 9 am to 7 pm daily. November to March – 9 am to 6 pm (closed on Mondays)
  • You can either gain free access with a museum pass or pay 72TL at the entrance.
  • The easiest way to get there is the tram, just hop off at the Sultanahmet stop.

2. The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, is a shining star on Istanbul’s skyline, and certainly a sight I recommend no one should miss. The city’s pulse seems incomplete without experiencing its awe-inspiring presence.

Affectionately named the Blue Mosque due to the azure tiles that cloak its interior walls, this landmark remains an active mosque. Still, its doors are graciously open to visitors who respect its sanctity. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately – long pants for everyone and women should have their heads and shoulders covered. Nestled within the old city, the Blue Mosque is an ideal start to your Istanbul adventure, with other significant sights just a stroll away.

This highly recommended tour offers a four-hour sneak peek into Istanbul’s heart. You’ll be under the guidance of a licensed professional who will introduce you to not just the Blue Mosque, but also the enchanting Hagia Sophia Museum, the historic Hippodrome, and the treasure trove that is the Grand Bazaar.

  • Opening Hours: 9 am to 7 pm.
  • Hop off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop.

3. Grand Bazaar

Stepping into Istanbul’s vast Grand Bazaar is like diving into a vibrant world where time stands still. Just a short stroll from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar is an unmissable stop on your Istanbul exploration.

This sprawling market is a true feast for the senses, with over 5,000 shops spilling over 60 streets. It’s a thrill like no other, losing oneself among the colorful maze of stalls selling everything from intricate carpets to glittering jewelry and exotic spices.

Rooted in the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar was a buzzing trading center that attracted merchants from far corners of Asia and Africa, bringing their exotic wares for European traders. Today, the labyrinthine market, housing mosques, hammams, cafes, and countless stalls, stands tall as one of Istanbul’s crown jewels.

Maximize your visit to the old city by embarking on this well-crafted tour. It begins at the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet district, takes you through the historic Basilica Cistern, and culminates in the heart of the Grand Bazaar, brimming with thousands of shops purveying a plethora of treasures.

Don’t forget to pay a visit to the aromatic Spice Market while in Istanbul. This city, being a crucial stop on the ancient spice route, hosts the Spice Bazaar within a stone’s throw from the Grand Bazaar.

  • Operating Hours: 10 am to 6 pm.
  • To get there, disembark at the Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı tram stop.

4. Süleymaniye Mosque

Perched on the third of Istanbul’s seven hills that overlook the glistening Golden Horn, the Süleymaniye Mosque paints an imposing picture. The Blue Mosque might be Istanbul’s most famous, but Süleymaniye Mosque steals the show with its magnificence on the city skyline. As the city’s largest mosque, it’s a proud testament to the grandeur of the 16th-century Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleyman.

This offbeat tour invites you on a deep dive into Istanbul’s hidden gems. Not only will you explore the awe-inspiring Süleymaniye Mosque, but you’ll also indulge in the age-old tradition of smoking hookah and savoring delectable Turkish pastry, borek. The tour concludes with visits to the Spice Bazaar and the Church of St. George.

  • Opening hours: 8 am to 9:30 pm.
  • Entrance: free.
  • Hop on the M2 tram to Vezneciler.

5. Beylerbeyi Palace

A symbol of royal opulence, Beylerbeyi Palace was the summer playground of the Ottoman Sultans. With its stark white marble exterior giving way to interiors decked out in art, invaluable vases, fountains, and crystal chandeliers, the palace offers a glimpse into the extravagant lifestyle of the bygone rulers.

A ferry ride will bring you to the palace, or you could opt for a hop-on-hop-off boat tour. This meticulously planned tour allows you to discover historical treasures along the Bosphorus. Starting at Emirgan, you’ll visit an 18th-century mosque, the picturesque Emirgan Park, and the Sabanci Museum. The journey then continues to Istanbul’s Asian side, where you’ll admire the royal pavilions of Kucuksu, Beylerbeyi Palace, and Beylerbeyi Mosque. Your adventure ends at the bustling local market in Bsiktas Square, from where you can catch a tram back to Taksim.

6. Hippodrome of Constantinople

Strolling through Istanbul, I often found myself humming “Istanbul is not Constantinople,” although it used to be! Constantinople was once the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Just a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque is the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople, a colossal stadium that once echoed with the cheers of 100,000 spectators watching chariot and horse races.

The testaments of time, the Egyptian obelisk and a sculpture of three-headed serpents, known as the Obelisk of Theodosius, still stand at the Sultan Ahmet Square. This place, the historical heartbeat of the old city, is a must-visit for history enthusiasts. Opt for a guided tour of the Hippodrome to uncover the fascinating stories etched into this neighborhood’s past.

7. Walls of Constantinople

Stepping back into time, the Walls of Constantinople hold countless tales of yore. Remarkably, many of these centuries-old fortifications remain intact, even though they were largely dismantled in the 19th century. Restoration efforts since the 1980s have brought new life to these ancient ramparts. The tower within the walls offers an unparalleled glimpse into the past. Embarking on this Byzantine journey along the Golden Horn, you’ll explore the untold stories of Constantinople before the Ottoman conquest. Walking the line of old city walls and gates, you’ll discover an Istanbul beyond the well-trodden paths of the Old City.

8. Galata Tower

Cross the Galata Bridge, spanning the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul, and you’ll come across one of the city’s crown jewels – the Galata Tower. Situated on the north bank of the Golden Horn, this tower hosts a breathtaking view of the city and the Bosphorus from its observation deck. Its panorama is simply one of the best in Istanbul, and I would never forgive myself for missing it.

Once a watchtower for city fires until the 1960s, the Galata Tower now welcomes visitors to wander around its balcony, located nearly at the summit of its 67-meter (220 feet) height. A walking tour of the vibrant Taksim and Galata neighborhoods provides insight into the historical significance of the Galata Tower, Tunnel Square (home to the world’s second oldest metro), and Dervish Lodge, while inviting you to immerse yourself in the lively markets and stores.

  • Galata Tower opening hours: 9 am to 7 pm
  • Entrance fee: 35 TL

9. Savouring Turkish Delight

Just at the foot of the Galata Tower, you’ll find a lively square – a perfect place to sit back and relish some Turkish Delight as you watch the world go by. But Turkish Delight isn’t just available here; you can find it all across Istanbul. Don’t miss out on tasting this sweet treat.

10. An Evening of Belly Dancing and Whirling Dervishes

Rising nine stories high, the Galata Tower isn’t just for panoramic city views. It houses a restaurant, cafe, and nightclub where you can enjoy a thrilling Turkish show featuring belly dancers and whirling dervishes. If you’re looking for a night of entertainment in Istanbul, these mesmerizing performances are hard to beat.

The 1001 Turkish Nights Performance includes pick-up from your hotel and a drive along the Bosphorus to your dinner and show. Here, you’ll be captivated by the music, the Fasil orchestra, and the hypnotic movements of belly dancers. You’ll have a choice of wine, gin, vodka, Raki, or beer to accompany your evening.

Consider getting the Istanbul City Pass for access to 30 attractions, including a mesmerizing whirling dervish show in the Hodjapasha Hamam.

11. Istiklal Street

Imagine a street teeming with nearly 3 million people daily, echoing with the vibrant heartbeat of Istanbul. That’s Istiklal Street for you. Stretching across 1.4 km, this bustling pedestrian walkway brims with a diverse range of attractions – from nightclubs to cinemas, and stylish boutiques to cosy cafés. If you’re wondering where to start your nocturnal adventures in Istanbul, let Istiklal be your gateway.

It was here on Istiklal Street that I savored my first bites of Turkish Delight, and trust me, it’s as delightful as it sounds. Pharmacies abound here too, for when you need that emergency stash of meds. If your feet are crying out for a break, hop on the vintage tram that shuttles all the way to Taksim Square where the imposing monument of the republic stands.

If you’re strapped for time, consider booking a private, tailor-made walking tour of Istanbul. You can cherry-pick your preferred attractions and spread your exploration over 1 to 3 days.

12. Topkapi Palace

Visiting Istanbul without touring the iconic Topkapi Palace is akin to a meal without dessert – it just feels incomplete. A treasure trove of history and aesthetics, Topkapi Palace invites you inside its beautiful mosaic-tiled interiors, exhibiting ornate relics from the Ottoman Empire. Its library hosts a priceless collection of books, elucidating the life and culture from 1478 to 1856.

The palace was the administrative nerve center of the Ottoman Empire and served as the dwelling of the Ottoman Sultans. The tour through its lavish chambers feels like a vibrant time capsule. A special note to visit the Harem, the residence of the palace concubines and sultans, which is an intriguing add-on to your basic entry fee.

13. Archaeological Museum

Experience the joy of skipping ticket lines as you enter the architectural marvels of Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern with a local host. These passes are valid for three days, giving you the freedom to visit all three museums in one day, or savor them individually over different days.

Once inside the museum, your local host will share insider tips on how to make the most of your visit. Trust me, this museum tour is a historical deep-dive you wouldn’t want to miss.

  • Opening Hours: Wednesday-Monday: 9 am to 7 pm (November to March: 9 am to 5 pm).
  • Closed on Tuesdays.
  • Cost: 72 TL (please note this does not include the Harem). To book the Harem, it is an additional 42 TL.

14. An Epicurean Adventure in Istanbul

Indulging in Istanbul’s local cuisine is a sensory journey that’s not to be missed. To relish the authentic flavors of the city, I highly recommend dining with a local family. This immersive experience starts by being welcomed into a Turkish home and getting an intimate glimpse into their way of life. Then begins the gastronomic exploration with mezze, an assortment of delicious small dishes. Imagine biting into warm pita bread slathered with creamy hummus, savoring the tanginess of cacik, or digging into a vibrant tabbouleh salad. Main dishes offer a delightful surprise, from succulent kebabs to pizzas! The grand finale is a plate of scrumptious Turkish delight, sweetened further with a cup of traditional tea.

15. Dining With a Local Family

Istanbul’s food scene offers a plethora of dining experiences, but the best, in my opinion, is the chance to spend time with a local family. I embarked on two such adventures in Istanbul, one with the “Other Tour,” where I met our guide’s delightful mother, and another booked through Get Your Guide, where a private guide led us on a moonlit exploration of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

Insider Tip: In Istanbul, you’ll often encounter generous locals inviting you for a meal. The city’s inhabitants are incredibly hospitable and, if not dinner, you’re likely to find yourself sharing tea and conversation, forming new friendships. To truly savor Turkish food and culture, I recommend this top-rated tour that combines a food and culture tour with dinner at a local home.

16. Ortakoy – Istanbul by Night

If you’re wondering where Istanbul’s heartbeat is most palpable after sundown, Ortakoy is the answer. Once a humble fishing village, this neighborhood has transformed into the city’s upscale hotspot, frequented by celebrities like Madonna. Its waterfront is a vibrant tapestry of bars and clubs, a go-to destination for the city’s hip, young professionals.

To truly experience Istanbul’s diversity, spending an evening in Ortakoy is a must. Now, I may not qualify as ‘hip’ or ‘young,’ but I did meander through the city, enjoying a delightful glass of wine amidst the youthful vibe!

17. Ortakoy Mosque

Situated on the picturesque Bosphorus, Ortakoy Mosque is an enchanting architectural marvel well worth your time. Accessible by ferry, visiting this mosque offers a taste of Istanbul’s everyday life. Post-visit, you can unwind at one of the many nearby restaurants or coffee shops. A quick reminder: remember to dress appropriately when visiting any mosque in Istanbul to respect local customs.

18. Relishing the Authentic Turkish Coffee

If there’s one thing I’ve always been eager to try right in its birthplace, it’s the Turkish Coffee. Having tasted it in various corners of the globe, experiencing it in Turkey was nothing short of divine. Preparing this tiny cup of rich, potent brew is an art in itself, but every bit of the effort translates into what I can safely say is one of the most sumptuous coffee experiences I’ve ever had.

Just a quick tip: Be sure not to down it all – the cup’s bottom is usually filled with coffee grinds. Perhaps that’s the secret to its allure? Keen on unveiling more gastronomic and cultural secrets? The Istanbul Food and Culture Tour will lead you on a culinary journey across two continents.

19. Stroll Along the Galata Bridge

Walking across the Galata Bridge was a daily ritual during my first visit to Istanbul, made convenient by our nearby apartment rental. This spot is a scenic delight, offering a spectacular view of the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. Watch out for the jovial rows of fishermen who are always up for a chat as families take leisurely strolls, drinking in the picturesque views. It’s also a great spot for budget-friendly gourmet adventures, especially if you have a craving for a delectable fish sandwich.

20. Cruise the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus, this narrow water strait splitting Istanbul’s European and Asian sides, is always abuzz with ships and tourists. Hop on a ferry or a private cruise for a respite from the city’s hustle and bustle and to capture some breathtaking views.

You have a few options:

  • Day Cruise – A 2-hour guided tour around the Bosphorus and Golden Horn.
  • Sunset Luxury Yacht Cruise – A 2.5-hour journey on a luxury yacht, witnessing the mesmerizing sunset.
  • Dinner Cruise – Indulge in a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus to marvel at Istanbul’s nighttime magic.


Alternatively, opt for the official Şehir Hatları ferry for a budget-friendly voyage.

Keep a lookout for the charming Maiden’s Tower, or Leander’s Tower, standing tall on a tiny Bosphorus island. Although a structure has graced this island since 3rd century BC, the current tower is a more recent addition from the 1700s. Make a pit-stop here to enjoy Turkish cuisine while soaking up the city views and exploring its intriguing museum.

Looking for things to do in Istanbul at night? Book this Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Entertainment for an enchanting nighttime view of Istanbul, coupled with a delightful Turkish cultural experience.

21. Ride the Local Commuter Ferry

Cruises might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you’re on the hunt for a more wallet-friendly option, the commuter ferry is your perfect match. Picture this – hopping across continents, from Europe to Asia, in just a matter of minutes without any custom checks. Isn’t that something?

On my trip, I managed to squeeze in a quick hop over to Asian Istanbul, right after a lovely cruise along the North and South shores. If you have time, make a pitstop at Kanlica near the port – it’s famous for its thick yogurt drizzled with honey, and believe me, it’s worth the detour!

22. Basilica Cistern

Next, venture underground into the enigmatic Basilica Cistern. While Istanbul houses hundreds of cisterns, the Basilica stands as the largest of them all. Originally built for water storage, today you can stroll through its ancient confines. A stone’s throw away from Hagia Sofia, this underground world boasts art exhibits, a labyrinth of columns, and two mysterious Medusa heads acting as bases – a sight that’ll leave you pondering.

23. Play A Game Of Backgammon

As you wander the streets of Istanbul, you’ll notice a common sight – elderly gentlemen deeply engrossed in their games, particularly Backgammon. Embrace the local tradition and join in! Find a local café that offers game boards, order yourself a coffee or tea, and play to your heart’s content. This game, with roots dating back 5,000 years to the Persian empire, is still alive and thriving in Istanbul.

In need of a Backgammon partner? This Tour has you covered – they include an evening of games in their itinerary.

24. Experience a Hookah Session

Even if you’re a non-smoker, like me and my travel companion, Dave, sampling a Hookah in Istanbul is an experience you shouldn’t miss. Known also as Shisha or waterpipe, Hookah lounges are a staple in the city’s social scene. Smoking flavoured tobacco through a water pipe emerged as a popular trend in Turkey in the 17th century and became a status symbol among the city’s populace. To visit Istanbul without trying a Hookah would almost feel like missing out on a key cultural experience.

25. Embrace the Eccentricity of a Turkish Bath

Istanbul and Turkish baths – they go together like bread and butter. Trust me, stepping into a traditional hammam is something you absolutely can’t miss. Picture this: you’re in your birthday suit, and a stranger is giving you an intense scrub-down and massage following a steamy hot bath. It’s a unique mix of discomfort, strangeness, and bliss. You might end up loving it or simply shrugging it off, but one thing is certain, it will make an unforgettable memory.

To avoid any sketchy hammam experiences, consider booking this highly-rated Turkish Bath Experience. Your package includes a time-honored treatment at the historic Çemberlitaş Hamam, complete with a traditional scrub and massage. Once your session is over, you can luxuriate in the hammam for as long as you wish.

26. Explore Istanbul Modern

If you’re spending a fair amount of time in Istanbul, you might want to add the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (commonly known as Istanbul Modern) to your itinerary. It’s swiftly become one of Turkey’s most popular cultural hubs, showcasing an impressive collection of modern art spanning from the 20th century to the present day. It’s not just art though – the museum also houses a cinema, café, and a library boasting over 11,500 books.

27. Dolmabahce Palace

Istanbul’s collection of historical marvels wouldn’t be complete without the Dolmabahce Palace. Turkey’s first palace designed in European style, Dolmabahce is nothing short of breathtaking. Imagine a grand waterfront palace decked out with gold and crystal – it’s exuberance personified. But here’s a fun fact: this opulence was built to mask the declining Ottoman Empire. The Sultan, lured by the palace’s modern luxuries, promptly shifted from the older Topkapi Palace.

Want to delve into the fascinating history of the palace? This guided tour takes you through the Ottoman Empire’s largest palace, unveiling the differences between Dolmabahçe and Topkapi Palaces. And remember to crane your neck – the palace’s ceilings are adorned with exquisite Baccarat and Bohemian chandeliers, including the largest Bohemian chandelier in the world!

28. Indulge in Baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Baklava, that deliciously rich, sticky filo pastry, is a Turkish institution that, in my humble opinion, is the perfect sweet ending to any meal. And trust me, the best place to find this heavenly treat is at Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Don’t be deceived by its modest exterior; the moment you step in, you’ll find a buffet-style café buzzing with locals and tourists alike, day in and day out.

Navigating the queue may feel like an adventure of its own and choosing from the mind-boggling baklava selection could be somewhat daunting. But let me assure you, the whirl of sweet, nutty flavors and the experience of sinking your teeth into that sticky goodness is a culinary delight that should be high on your Istanbul bucket list.

29. Aya İrini (Hagia Irene)

As I sauntered through a courtyard strewn with Roman relics, the Aya İrini – a vast, bare shell of a building – captivated me with its grandeur. The beauty of this Byzantine church is in its starkness; one of the few structures not converted into a mosque, it has managed to retain original features like the atrium.

When the Istanbul Music Festival is on, classical concerts echo through the church, leveraging the incredible acoustics and ethereal ambiance – I highly recommend trying to catch a performance.

But the most intriguing part of Aya İrini, which makes it a must-visit in Istanbul, is a simple, unassuming tomb believed by some historians to be that of Emperor Constantine, the founder of Constantinople. Constantine was instrumental in transforming Christianity from a fringe cult into the predominant Western religion – his influence reverberates through history, making a visit to his possible final resting place an awe-inspiring experience.

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