A huge list of things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.
Istanbul is the city that stole my heart. It is my absolutely most favorite city and I visit it gladly every year. And, somehow, I always find things to do there. I love everything about the place: its history, people, arts, architecture, food, etc. I love its spectacular sunsets, insolent seagulls, tea in tulip glasses, delicious simits and kebabs, loud bazaars, coffee aroma and calls of muezzins. Hopefully, you will love this city as much as I do!
Now, let’s get to the list of the things to do in Istanbul.
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Things to do in Istanbul: Fatih district (Sultanahmet, Eminonu, Laleli, etc.)
1. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is undoubtedly the most important place to visit in Istanbul, but if you ask me I would give the laurels to Suleymaniye. But about it later.
Officially called Sultanahmet Camii, the mosque was erected on the very place where the palace of the Byzantine emperors used to be and got the name ‘Blue’ thanks to the thousands of handmade tiles that decorate its interior.
But it is not only the tiles that are worth a tourist’s attention. The Blue Mosque has six minarets, and at the time of its construction this privilege belonged only to the mosque in Mecca. Of course, the Meccans were offended, and Sultan Ahmet I had to rectify the mistake by donating money to build the seventh minaret. As the legend has it, this whole situation was the architect’s fault: he heard ‘altı’ (six) instead of ‘altın’ (golden) when sultan ordered the construction. Nowadays the Sultanahmet Camii is just one of the mosques with six minarets.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is the historical rival of the Blue Mosque, which was built to surpass the Byzantine church, so now it is up to you to decide which one of them is more magnificent.
Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia served as a Christian cathedral for about 900 years until it was converted into a mosque after Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453. I knew the history of the place before I visited it, but, nevertheless, it seemed too strange to see Byzantine Christian mosaics side by side with Muslim inscriptions.
It kept serving as a place of worship till 1935 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared it a museum. When you are inside take the stairs to the upper floor: the view is breathtaking!
NB: in 2020 Hagia Sophia lost its museum status and was converted into a mosque. Entrance is free now, from what I’ve heard, but, I suppose, it is closed to tourists during prayers, just like the Blue Mosque.
As I mentioned already, Suleymaniye is the only rival to the Blue Mosque. Suleiman the Magnificent ordered its construction to the famous Mimar Sinan, the most skillful of Ottoman architects. It is worth mentioning that Hagia Sophia served as an inspiration.
In the cemetery next to the mosque there are the mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent himself and his beloved wife Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). The garden behind the mosque offers breathtaking views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
In general, to my inexperienced eye there are not any big differences in the exterior of all the mosques in Istanbul, but it is Suleymaniye’s interior that makes it so special. When I entered it I could not believe my eyes: it was so colorful, bright and cheerful, so different from everything I saw before. It is not as huge as the Blue Mosque, and it does not need to be: it is amazing the way it is. I mean, it is truly magnificent!
4. Grand Bazaar
I think it is safe to assume that Grand Bazaar or Kapalıçarşı is a small town: it even has its own streets. Trust me, it is huge and it is easy to get lost there.
The construction of the bazaar began right after the conquer of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, and today there are more than 4,000 shops where you can buy clothes, bags, rugs, textiles, spices, delights, jewelry, souvenirs, crockery, lamps, etc.
The place is crowded, with thousands of people coming there daily. It is a touristic place, so it is obvious that the goods are overpriced. Haggling is a crucial skill if you want to spend some money here.
5. Egyptian Bazaar
Egyptian Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar is another famous covered market of Istanbul. It is located relatively not far from the Grand Bazaar, but is much cheaper.
It is much-much smaller and has around 85 shops. As the name suggests it, it was a place to sell spices, but with tourists coming in, the range of goods has significantly enlarged and includes delights, dried fruits, nuts, jewelry, souvenirs, crockery, lamps, etc.
This grand palace is an amazing sample of the Ottoman architecture. It was Mehmed the Conqueror who ordered the construction of the palace that has four courtyards and numerous buildings, pavilions, gardens, squares, etc. Actually, the palace complex is so huge that you will need more than 3 hours to really see it. And considering that Topkapi is one of the most famous sights in the city, expect long queues first at the ticket offices, and then everywhere inside, especially at the Treasury.
The Treasury in the third courtyard houses jewelry, stones, Koran covers, etc., but its most famous exhibit is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond of 86 carats. During the high season the crowds here are really huge, and you might consider yourself lucky if you actually see those stones.
The Harem is another place of interest, so make sure not to miss it. And the fourth courtyard is a place of breathtaking views of the city.
Hagia Irene is a part of the Topkapi complex as well, but the tickets have to be bought separately. Personally I did not go inside so I can’t say if the visit is worth the money and time.
7. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan is the biggest subterranean reservoir in Istanbul: it can hold about 80,000 cubic meters of water. The ceiling of the cistern is supported by 336 marble columns; two of them – located in the corner – have Medusa heads. Their origin is unknown, but it is believed that the columns might have been removed from a Roman site. The cistern is widely known enough, but the last movie Inferno based on Dan Brown’s book made it even more famous.
This is a nice park next to the Topkapi Palace offering amazing views of the Bosphorus. Before the renovation there was a small zoo, but it was removed. Now Gulhane (Rose park from Turkish) is a typical park where you will see lots of locals and tourists walking around, sitting on benches, picnicking, taking pictures, etc.
In its old days the park served as an outer garden of Topkapi, and was closed to public.
9. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of museums, unless they have a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt. I was not very keen to visit it, but I do not regret doing it. The museum is located in Sultanahmet square, and holds a vast collection of amazingly decorated Koran books, examples of Islamic calligraphy, and carpets.
The building used to be the palace of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, the grand vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent. The name should sound familiar to you if you watched the famous Turkish television series ‘The Magnificent century’.
10. Sultanahmet Square
The Byzantine knew it as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the center of the city’s social life, today it is Sultanahmet Square. The Blue Mosque and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts are just some of the places to see in the square. Don’t forget to have a look at the German Fountain, The Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column, and the Constantine Obelisk. I made a more detailed review of the square here.
11. Chora Museum
The Chora Museum or Kariye Church is tightly connected to the Byzantine past of Istanbul. The first mentions of the church date back to the 4th century. The place was in decay and was rebuilt numerous times in the 6th, 11th, 12th, and 14th centuries. Some elements of the previous restorations can still be seen in some parts of the church.
Metochites was the most famous and thorough restorer of the church: he built domes, narthexes, ordered marble and mosaic decorations. Some documents even suggest that he built a library inside the monastery.
Naturally after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman the church was converted into a mosque, but it is worth mentioning that it did not happen immediately.
Lots of the mosaics and frescoes are still preserved, including the most famous ones depicting the life of Virgin Mary in the chronological order.
12. Istanbul Archeology Museum
You can easily spend a couple of hours in this fantastic museum: there are thousands of exhibits here! You can see artifacts from the ancient world, including Greece, Egypt and Rome, and, of course, those from Byzantium and Turkey itself. Nevertheless, the most famous exhibit is the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. And you will be happy to finally see the head that is missing from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome Square!
By the way, the buildings themselves are quite some masterpieces!
13. Pierre Loti viewpoint
This viewpoint is on a hill in Eyüp, and the views from above are spectacular!
Pierre Loti is a French author who fell in love with Istanbul and settled in this part of the city. Later the hill was named after him.
Locals and tourists alike come to the place to enjoy a cup of coffee and sunset. There is a restaurant there as well, but I can’t comment on the food or service because it was full when we were there.
But don’t just spend all the time at the restaurant: go a bit further and you will come upon a small food market. You can buy snacks there and go back to the restaurant to enjoy the views.
Getting there: you will have to take a cable car up the hill. Luckily, you can pay by Istanbulkart there!
14. The Ecumenical Patriarchate
The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the highest one in the Orthodox Church, and Istanbul (primarily Constantinople) has been its seat for more than 17 centuries. The Church of St. George was a convent and was converted to the patriarchal offices at the end of the 16th century. While it is unimpressive outside, the interior decorations are spectacular.
One of the most important and ancient relics of the church is a part of the column of Christ’s flagellation. It is the very column to which Christ was bound and whipped by Roman soldiers. You can see it in the far right corner of the church.
15. Ancient walls
Ancient walls of Istanbul are quite an impressive sight. They were built during the Byzantine Empire to protect the city from invaders, and had to be re-built and extended as the city grew. During the hundreds of years of their existence they had to be repaired, but today every visitor to Istanbul can see them for free.
The most famous walls called Theodosian Walls (as they were built by Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century AD) are along Beylerbeyi Caddesi and 10 Yil Caddesi. Then, along the seaside on Kennedy Caddesi, there are the ruins of the so called Sea Walls. And while you are walking along Kennedy Street, have a look at the ruins of Bukoleon, a Byzantine palace.
Things to do in Istanbul: Beyoglu, Taksim, Karakoy, Sariyer
Istiklal is definitely the most popular street in Istanbul. First of all, it is pedestrian, and secondly, there are many-many shops and restaurants there. This is a place to buy Turkish delights, clothes (European brands like Mango, Zara, H&M, etc. and local ones), bags, cosmetics; but frequent travelers advise to go to shopping malls as it is cheaper there.
Let me say you that tourists – including me – leave a lot of money here 🙂 Just buy yourself an ice-cream, stroll along the street, and feel the atmosphere and vibe of the place. But remember that it is always crowded!
This is by far the most amazing palace in Istanbul! Dolmabahce is the place where I would never stop exclaiming ‘Wow!’, if I was alone there.
It was built exactly on the shore of the Bosphorus to become the new residence of Ottoman sultans, who required more comfort than Topkapi could offer. The construction cost about 1,5 billion dollars (if converted to modern values), but the empire did not have the money and Sultan Abdülmecid I had to borrow it. 14 tons of gold were used to decorate the interior of Dolmabahce. The palace contains a huge collection of paintings, and houses the largest chandelier – a gift from Queen Victoria – that weighs about 4,5 tons.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away in Dolmabahce: the clock in his bedroom is set to show 9:05, the time when he died.
Some practical info: tourists are allowed in only in guided tours, and photographing inside is strictly prohibited, but if you are artful enough, you can take a picture 🙂
18. Yildiz Palace
Yildiz Palace is not as lavish or as famous as Dolmabahce, its interior is much more modest and closer to European designs. The construction started in the 19th century, and the palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans in the early 20th century.
Yildiz itself is set amid a park, and is located off the beaten track. I guess this is the only reason that explains why there were no tourists when we visited it. If you decide to go, keep in mind that the palace is on the top of the hill, and there is no public transportation going there, so you will have to walk. The tours are guided, I am not sure that you can walk around by yourself, especially considering that photographing is not allowed inside. We were lucky to join a group of tourists who arrived by bus, but I am sure there are local guides at the palace.
19. Galata Tower
This tower is in Beyoğlu (or Pera), one of the most modern districts of Istanbul. It was built by the Genoese residents of Constantinople in 1348, and was used as an observatory, prison, and fire lookout till it ended to be a touristic sight with panoramic views of the city.
The Tower is 67 meters high, its outer diameter is about 16 meters, so the structure is quite impressive. But tourists come here for the best views of Istanbul, not the tower itself.
20. Rumeli Hisari
This is another building ordered by Mehmed the Conqueror. It was constructed in 1452 on the European side of Istanbul in the narrowest part of the Bosphorus. It stands opposite to another fortress Anadolu Hisari built about 50 years before Rumeli Hisari. The fortress was to guard the strait and prevent the aid from coming to Constantinople that was conquered by Sultan Mehmed a year after the construction.
Besides its historical significance, the most important thing about the fortress to me, the lover of breathtaking landscapes, is the view of the Bosphorus and Asian part of Istanbul that you get when you climb to the top.
21. Taksim Square
This is one of the most famous places in Beyoglu district. If you ask me, there is nothing special about it: it is just a square surrounded by restaurants, international food chains, and hotels. I guess the facts that Istiklal ends here and that it is a stop of the famous tram made the square popular.
The most important monument in the square is the centerpiece which was erected to commemorate the foundation of the Turkish Republic. It portrays the founders of the republic and 2 communists from the Soviet Union.
I love this place! It took us some effort to get there as it is quite far from the tourist center of the city, but it was totally worth it!
Opened in 2003, this park contains miniature versions of the most prominent Turkish landmarks and some that are now outside Turkey (but were part of the Ottoman Empire).
I am sure by the time you have visited this place, you will have seen Topkapi, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and in Miniaturk you can see them again, but this time you will be the giant 🙂
Things to do in the Asian part of Istanbul
23. Anatolian Fortress
Rumeli Hisari or the Rumelian Fortress is much more known than the Anatolian one. It is quite understandable: the former is bigger, better preserved and is in the European part of Istanbul, which makes it easier for tourists to visit it.
It is true that the Anatolian Fortress isn’t as impressive: it is in ruins, just some parts of it still stand. But it’s almost 60 years older than Rumeli Hisari. It was built by Sultan Bayezid I when he was preparing to siege Constantinople, and nowadays it is the oldest surviving Turkish building in Istanbul.
If you come to see the fortress, don’t go away immediately, but have a stroll around the area: it is quite picturesque and nice.
24. Beylerbeyi Palace
Beylerbeyi Palace is another stunning residence of sultans. It was built in 1865 as a summer residence, but served as a place for the visiting royals as well. Just like Dolmabahce and Yildiz, this one has exquisite furniture, rich decorations, columns, heavy curtains… I would say it’s a place not to miss!
Did you know? Abdul Hamid II was the last sultan who actually had power over his country. He spent his last in exile in Beylerbeyi Palace.
25. Maiden’s Tower
Maiden’s Tower is one of the most prominent buildings in Istanbul. Now, I will possibly share a very unpopular opinion, but, if you ask me, this tower is interesting from a tourist point of view just because it offers magnificent views of the city. There is nothing interesting inside it, so for me it was a disappointment. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit just for the views only.
The thing that tempted me to visit it is that it is a legendary place, meaning there are a couple of legends associated with it. According to one of them, an emperor’s daughter was prophesied to die on her 18th birthday because of a snake bite. The emperor built this tower and hid his daughter there. On her 18th birthday he brought her a basket with fruits and a snake that hid there bit the girl and she died.
26. Haydarpaşa Terminal
The first Haydarpaşa Terminal was built in 1872, but when the traffic increased a new, larger building had to be erected. Two German architects opted for neo-classical style and finished it in 1909. What will be interesting to tourists here is the building itself: it’s simply magnificent and looks like a castle!
Interesting fact: during reconstruction they found an old Byzantine town at the terminal.
27. Kadikoy streets and bull
Of course, no one should miss the famous Kadikoy when they visit the Asian part of Istanbul. It is a lively area with shops and restaurants, so reserve some time for it. Just go to the bull, buy a snack and walk along the streets.
Tours of the Bosporus and Golden Horn
Would you like to see Istanbul from a ship? That’s totally possible! Many companies offer tours of both the Bosporus and Golden Horn, and the views are spectacular!
I personally like the Bosporus cruise as it starts at Kabatas pier, goes up to Fatih Sultan Mehmed Bridge and has several stops on the way. Considering that getting to some places on the Asian part can be challenging for non-locals, we used the tour to get to the Anatolian Fortress and Beylerbeyi Palace as the ship stops there. Just make sure you have thick clothes on because it is chilly close to water.
The bridges of Istanbul
Galata bridge over the Golden Horn unites Karaköy and Eminönü. Namely here you will see locals fishing, and next to Yeni Mosque at the waterfront there are stalls where you can buy the famous balik ekmek (bread with fried fish). When we were there, a balik ekmek cost 10 Turkish liras. It is nice to buy one, sit on the stairs, eat, and enjoy the view.
Two other famous bridges that connect Europe and Asia are the First Bosphorus Bridge (15 Temmuz Şehitler Köprüsü) and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and both of them are quite spectacular.
Things to do outside Istanbul: Prince Islands
A visit to the Prince Islands is an absolute must! The largest of the islands is Büyükada, a place of exile for Byzantine officials, members of Ottoman families, and Soviet politicians. It is obvious that these people were not used to living in shacks, so you will have enough time to wander around the island and enviously think that you would love to live in one of these cute houses.
The highlight of the island is Aya Yorgi monastery on the top of the hill, but in my opinion it’s the breathtaking views from the top that attract so many tourists.
So don’t hesitate, get a ferry ticket and go! For more info on the Prince Islands check here.
Do you know any other things to do in Istanbul?
Well, in any city you travel, you have to stay somewhere 🙂 When I search for accommodation, I always use two options: it is either AirBnB or Booking.com.
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