Istanbul, Turkey embraces a mixture of European and Asian culture and visitors will sense the contrasts with each turn. If there is one city that can truly claim the title of being the gateway to both Europe and Asia, it’s Istanbul.
To really explore and understand the culture and energy of the city one would need months or even years but we’ve highlighted our favorite things to do in Istanbul from our four different visits. Straddling two continents, Istanbul is a city divided by the narrow waterway known as the Bosphorus.
Top Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey
During our time in Istanbul, we witnessed young urbanites embracing the modern world while others cling to traditional values of the Byzantium period and the Ottoman Empire. These are all the things to do in Istanbul to make the most of your stay.
Istanbul Travel Tips
To get to and from the airport, we took TransferExpert.com. Their services were professional and friendly! It was nice to have a sign with our name on it waiting for us when we landed at the hectic airport.
Many of the top things to do in Istanbul are within walking distance. And while exploring the old town, the best way to get around is by walking. From the Old Town to crossing the Galata Bridge, there’s no better way to get around Istanbul.
A great travel tip is to get an Istanbul Museum Pass to skip the line to popular museums like Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Harem, Great Palace Mosaics and more popular museums in Istanbul with the guided tour app. Check out this pass here.
A visit to Istanbul will ignite your senses. it is one of the most exciting cities to visit in Europe and these are the best things to do in Istanbul to make the most of your stay.
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and is definitely one of the most popular things to see in Istanbul. It was once a church and a mosque but is now one of the most visited museums in the world. We didn’t go inside on our first trip to Istanbul, but we realized we were missing out so we made sure to go in during our second visit to Istanbul. The interior of Hagia Sophia is really a must-see in Istanbul.
For 916 years it was a church and then following the conquest of Sultan Mehmed, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and remained so for 482 years. In 1935 it was converted into a museum. IN 2019, Hagia Sophia was just converted back into a mosque but like most mosques, it is open to the public and you can still go inside to see its mosaics, calligraphy, tiles, and the Sultan’s lodge.
Book this entry to Hagio Sophia with a guided tour. Meet your local guide starting with a short history of the Old City. The tour explains the mystery of this important monument both for the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires.
- Opening Hours: April to October: 9am to 7 pm daily November to March – 9am to 6pm. (closed on Mondays)
- Free access to Hagia Sophia with museum pass or 72TL if paying at the entrance.
- Tram stop – Sultanahmet
2. Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is Istanbul’s most famous mosque in Istanbul and is definitely one of the top things to do in Istanbul. A visit to the city would not be complete without laying eyes on its beauty.
It’s known by its more common name, The Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of its interior. The Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque but visitors can enter if they follow the rules. Long pants should be worn and women must have their shoulders and heads covered. Located in the old city, it’s the perfect way to start your day before moving on to the other sights nearby.
This highly-rated tour takes you on a 4-hour introduction to the city of Istanbul. Your licensed professional tour guide will take you to Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar, to search for precious handmade carpets, jewelry, leather, and souvenirs.
3. Grand Bazaar
One of the best things to do in Istanbul is to get lost in the massive Grand Bazaar. Within walking distance from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace it’s just a short walk down the street that takes you to the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the most exciting shopping experiences you’ll ever have. There are more than 5,000 shops in the Grand Bazaar covering 60 streets.
The Grand Bazaar was an important trading center dating back to the 15th century. I can only imagine how it once was with traders coming in from Asia and Africa bringing their exotic items for merchants to peruse from Europe. Spending a day losing yourself in the giant labyrinth that houses Mosques, hammams, cafes, and jewelry stalls makes this one of Istanbul’s top attractions.
A great way to see all of the main attractions in the old city is to book this tour starting in the Sultanahmet district at Hagia Sophia. You’ll then discover the Basilica Cistern dating back to the 6th century before venturing into the Grand Bazaar and its 4000 shops that sell carpets, silks, ceramics and more.
Be sure to visit the Spice Market in Istanbul as well. This city was an important stop on the spice route and the Spice Bazaar is not far from the Grand Bazaar.
- Hours: 10 am to 6pm
- Tram Stop – Beyaz?t – Kapal?çar?
4. Süleymaniye mosque
The Süleymaniye mosque stands on the third of the seven hills that overlook the Golden Horn. While the Blue Mosque is the most well-known of Istanbul mosques, the Süleymaniye mosque is one of the most striking in the city skyline. The largest mosque in Istanbul, it was built during the Ottoman empire of the 16th century but the Sultan of Suleyman.
This tour takes you off the beaten path in Istanbul to not only see the Suleymaniye Mosque but you’ll also enjoy the ancient practice of hookah while sampling Turkish pastry called borek before heading over to the Spice Bazaar. This tour also takes you to the Church of St. George.
- 8 am to 9:30pm
- cost: free
- Tram Stop – M2 to Vezneciler
5. Beylerbeyi Palace
Beylerbeyi Palace was the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans and is a great place to visit in Istanbul to see the lavish lifestyle of the rulers. It has a white marble exterior and an opulent interior filled with art, priceless vases, fountains, and crystal chandeliers.
You can get there by ferry or if you have a hop on hop off boat tour, it is one of the stops. This is a great tour to explore the historic sites along the Bosphorus. It begins at Emirgan where you’ll visit an 18th-century mosque, Emirgan Park, and Sabanci museum. The boat then goes to the Asian side of Istanbul to see the royal pavilions of Kucuksu, then Beylerbeyi Palace, and Beylerbeyi Mosque before making your way to the last stop at a local market at Bsiktas Square before hopping on the tram back to Taksim.
6. Hippodrome of Constantinople
When walking through Istanbul, I couldn’t help but sing the song “Istanbul is not Constantinople.” But as a matter of fact, it was! Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire. Located just a short walk from the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome of Constantinople. An ancient stadium that held 100,000 people gathering to watch chariot races and horse racing.
The Egyptian obelisk survived the years along with a sculpture of three-headed serpents. Obelisk of Theodosius
Today it stands at the Sultan Ahmet Square and is the historical heart of the old city. A guided tour of the Hippodrome is great if you are a history buff and want to learn more about this fascinating neighborhood.
7. Walls of Constantinople
The Walls of Constantinople were largely intact until the 19th century when they were dismantled. But surprisingly many are still intact. There are many places to see the old city walls as they have been undergoing restoration since the 1980s. The tower in the Wall of Constantinople is one of the best places to see its remains. This Byzantine tour along the Golden Horn takes you on a journey to discover Constantinople before the Ottoman conquest. You’ll walk along the old city walls and gates and discover so much more outside of the Old City of Istanbul.
8. Galata Tower
Across the Galata Bridge crossing the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul you’ll find one of Istanbul’s top attractions, the Galata Tower. It is located on the North Bank of the Golden Horn and you can take tours up it to view the city overlooking the Bosphorus from its observation deck. It has one of Istanbul’s best views of the Bosphorus and is not to be missed.
The Galata Tower offers the best panoramic views of the city, the Bosphorus, and is an excellent vantage point to gaze upon Old Istanbul. Until the 1960’s it was a watchtower for city fires, but today it is open to tourists to walk around its balcony near the top of the 67 meters (220 feet) high tower. Take a walking tour of the Taksim and Galata neighborhoods where you’ll learn of the Galata Tower, Tunnel Square (second oldest metro in the world), and Dervish Lodge as you walk through its bustling markets and shops.
- Opening Hours of Galata Tower: 9 am to 7 pm
- Cost: 35 TL
We stayed in an apartment looking right at this tower and it was breathtaking. This is another amazing apartment with views of the Bosphorus. You can see them both on VRBO.
9. Indulge in Turkish Delight
There’s a great square at the base of the Galata Tower where you can enjoy some Turkish Delight while people watching on the terrace. But you can pick up Turkish Delight anywhere in Istanbul. Make sure to give it a try. Dave hates it, but I love it. However, I am a fan of Big Turk chocolate bars here in Canada.
10. Belly Dancing and Whirling Dervishes
The Galata Tower itself is 9 stories high with a restaurant café and nightclub where you can watch a Turkish show complete with Belly dancing and whirling Dervishes. If you want to take in an Istanbul show, there is nothing cooler than seeing talented Belly Dancers and Whirling Dervish do their thing.
The 1001 Turkish Nights Performance will pick you up at your hotel where you’ll drive along the Bosphorus to your dinner and show. You’ll enjoy music, a Fasil orchestra and belly dancing. It includes your choice of wine, gin, vodka, Raki or beer.
The Istanbul City Pass gives entry to 30 attractions including a whirling dervish show in Hodjapasha Hamam
11. Istiklal street
Visited by nearly 3 million people daily, Istiklal Street is the beating heart of the city of Istanbul. This 1.4 km long pedestrian walkway houses everything from cinemas to nightclubs and boutiques to cafés. If you are looking for places to visit in Istanbul at night, this is a great place to start.
It’s also on Istiklal Street that we tried our first Turkish Delight treats and bought some much-needed medication from the pharmacies. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the historic tram all the way to Taksim Square to view the monument of the republic.
- In a Hurry? Book this tour of Istanbul. This private walking tour can be tailor made to see the top Istanbul attractions ranging from 1 to 3 days.
12. Topkapi Palace
One of the most iconic places to visit in Istanbul. A tour of Topkapi Palace is a must. It is not only filled with history, it is also beautiful. Go inside to view the beautiful mosaic tiles and ornate treasures from the Ottoman Empire. The Topkapi Palace Museum has a collection of books in its library outlining the history and culture of life here from 1478 to 1856. Get a skip the line ticket that includes a guided tour of the Audience Hall, High Court, Historical Kitchens, and The Treasury.
The administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, was also home to the Ottoman Sultans making this lavish palace is a fascinating tour through time. Make sure to visit the Harem, home to the palace concubines. It was also the living quarters of the Ottoman sultans so it is must visit addition to the basic entry fee.
13. Archaeological Museum
This tour offers Skip the ticket lines to enter the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern with local host. The passes are good for three days so you can choose to visit all 3 museums in 1 day, or the three of them separately on different days. Once inside the museum, your local host will give you tips on how to discover the museums in the best way.
- Opening Hours: Wednesday-Monday: 9 am to 7pm (from November to march 9 am to 5pm) Closed on Tuesdays.
- Cost: 72 TL (note this does not include the Harem) To book the Harem, it is another 42 TL)
14. Eat with the Locals
Eating in Istanbul is a feast for the senses and to truly appreciate the cuisine, you must join a family for an authentic local experience. It starts by meeting a family and learning about their way of life. And then the feast begins with an array of small dishes known as mezze. Mezze platters include pita bread with hummus, cacik, and tabbouleh salad. Main dishes include kebabs and believe it or not pizza! The feast ends with Turkish delight and sweet tea.
15. Visit a Local Family
You can book many dining experiences in Istanbul and the best way is to spend time with a local family. We joined two different local tours in Istanbul, was with the “Other Tour” Where we met our guide’s mom and we also booked one through Get Your Guide where we had a private guide take us to see Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque at night.
Insider Istanbul Tip:
In Istanbul, you will often meet friendly people that invite you for dinner. The people of Istanbul are very friendly and even if you don’t go to their home, you will often find yourself sitting down for tea and becoming fast friends. To really experience Turkish food and culture book this top rated tour that takes you on a food and culture tour of Istanbul food followed with dinner at a local family’s home.
16. Ortakoy – Where to go in Istanbul for Nightlife
One of the city’s best places for nightlife is in the Ortakoy neighborhood. Our guide told us that Madonna and other famous celebrities love to party in Ortakoy. Once a fishing village, this district is now the area for upmarket chic looking for a place to party. The waterfront is filled with bars and clubs and this is where the hip young professionals of the city hang out.
Istanbul is home to both traditional and modern ways of life and the contrast between the two cities is immense. To really experience Istanbul you must spend some time in Ortakoy. Dave and I clearly didn’t hang out here late into the night as we’re neither hip nor young, but we did take a stroll through the city and had a glass of wine!
17. Ortakoy Mosque
Ortakoy Mosque is another beautiful mosque in Istanbul that is worth a visit. Located directly on the Bosphorus it can be reached by ferry. Visiting this area gives you a feel for local life in Istanbul. There are many restaurants and coffee shops around the mosque that you can sit back and relax in after visiting. Make sure to dress appropriately when visiting any mosque in Istanbul.
18 Sip Turkish Coffee
If there is one thing that we wanted to try in Turkey, it was Turkish Coffee. We’d had it all over the world, but to have it in its country of origin was beyond heavenly. It takes great preparation to make this tiny little cup of caffeine, but the effort is worth it as it’s one of the most delicious and rich blends of coffee you will ever have.
Hot tip: Don’t drink it to the last drop though, the bottom of the cup is filled with coffee grinds. (the secret ingredient perhaps?) Want to explore more food and culture? Istanbul Food and Culture Tour takes you on a walking tour through 2 Continents as you explore Turkish food and culture.
19. Walk Across the Galata Bridge
It was easy for us to do our daily walk across the Galata Bridge during our first visit to Istanbul. We were staying right near it in an apartment rental. This is a beautiful place to take in the best Istanbul view of the Blue Mosque, views of the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. Keep an eye out for rows of friendly fishermen who are happy to chat as families stroll across taking in the views. It’s a great spot for cheap eats, especially a delicious fish sandwich.
20. Cruise the Bosphorus
You must visit the Asian side of the city when visiting Istanbul! A cruise of the Bosphorus offers beautiful views of the Istanbul skyline including the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and different views of the Bosphorus from the other side. We took a yacht cruise to take in the sights, and this cruise takes you on a 2.5-hour boat cruise of the Bosphorus Strait takes you passed the city’s landmarks and monuments including the Galata Tower and the Dolmabahçe Palace, both the Asian and European Coasts and a stop at the 19th-century Küçüksu Palace which was the hunting lodge of the Ottoman Empire.
Keep an eye out for the Maiden’s Tower. Also known as Leander’s Tower, the Maiden’s Tower stands on a small island in the Bosphorus. A structure has been on this island since the 3rd century BC, but this current tower dates back to the 1700s. Visitors can stop here to enjoy some Turkish food while taking in views of the city and perusing its museum.
If you are looking for things to do in Istanbul at night, book this Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Entertainment for an evening view of the city of Istanbul and a fun Turkish experience.
21. Take the Local Commuter Ferry
If a cruise isn’t in the cards and you are looking for a more affordable option, hop on the commuter ferry for the chance to pop over to the Asia side of Istanbul. How often can you visit two continents in a matter of minutes and not even have to go through customs?
We popped over to Asian Istanbul after a scenic cruise checking out the shores of both North and South. A good stop near the port is Kanlica, famous for its thick yogurt with honey.
22. Basilica Cistern
Head underground to tour the Basilica Cistern. The Basilica cistern is only one of the city’s cisterns, there are hundreds of cisterns under Istanbul but it is the largest. Cisterns were used to store water but today you can tour it. Located just a short walk from Hagia Sofia, there are art exhibits, a fortress of columns, and two medusa heads acting as a base. What is up with that?
23. Play a Game of Backgammon
When strolling through the city, you’ll see many older gentlemen playing games. The game of choice is Backgammon and you must give it a try. Look for a local café offering boards to use, sit down and order a coffee or tea and play until your heart’s content. This popular game dates back 5,000 years in the Persian empire and is going strong today in the city of Istanbul.
- If you need someone to play Backgammon with This Tour it includes an evening out in their tours.
24. Smoke a Hookah
Also known as Shisha or waterpipe, Hookah lounges are very popular in the city. Hookahs are flavored tobacco smoked through a water pipe. It became popular in Turkey in the 17th century and was a status symbol for those in the city. Dave and I are ardent non-smokers, but to visit Istanbul without giving a Hookah a try would be criminal.
25. Visit a Turkish Bath
You cannot visit Istanbul without experiencing the weirdness and wackiness of a Turkish Bath, also known as a traditional hammam. Be prepared to strip down to your birthday suit and have strangers vigorously bathe and massage your entire body after a hot steam bath. It can be painful, strange, and heavenly all at once. You may or may not like it, but I can tell you one thing for sure, you will never forget it.
If you don’t want to take a chance of a shady Turkish bath, book this Turkish Bath Experience that some call one of the city’s best. The historical Çemberlita? Hamam with a traditional Turkish bath including a scrub and a massage. Once you finish you can spend as long as you like in the Hammam.
26. Istanbul Modern
If you are spending some time in Istanbul, you may want to check out the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (aka Istanbul Modern). It has become a very popular museum in Turkey showcasing modern art through permanent and temporary displays from the 20th century to today. There is a cinema, cafe and a library with more than 11,500 books.
27. Dolmabahce Palace
One of Istanbul’s most beautiful historic sites is Dolmabahce Palace. It was Turkey’s first European-style palace and they went all out. It is a large palace on the water filled with gold and crystal. It is certainly an over-the-top palace, but that was for a reason. It was built to hide the fact that the Ottoman Empire was falling. Once built, it was newer than Topkapi Palace so the Sultan moved to enjoy its more modern luxuries.
This guided tour takes you through the largest palace of the Ottoman Empire where you’ll learn of the differences between Dolmabahçe and Topkapi Palaces. Make sure to look up to see its ornate ceilings with Baccarat and Bohemian chandeliers including the biggest Bohemian chandelier on the planet.
How to Get Around Istanbul
Istanbul is a busy and vibrant city and the best way to get around is by tram. It’s affordable, fast, and easy. We hopped on the tram to take us everywhere from the old city to Taksim Square, took Ubers, and booked Transfer Expert from the airport. But in our opinion, the best way to discover Istanbul is on foot. Lose yourself in Sultanahmet, explore the streets of Constantinople, and get lost in the Grand Bazaar.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
There are many great places for accommodation in Istanbul. These are three places that we stayed, but we also stayed in a few apartment rentals in Istanbul as well.
- Swissotel The Bosphorus – This five-star luxury hotel right is in the centre of Istanbul on the European banks of the Bosphorus. It is a perfect location for exploring Istanbul with a rooftop pool and free WiFi. Check out Availability & Prices at Booking.com/Trip Advisor
- Sura Hagia Sophia – Located in Sultanahmet, this 5-star hotel is perfectly situated to all the main attractions. The hotel also offers a well-designed garden with an attractive pool area and Free Happy Hour. Check out Availability & PricesBooking.com/Trip Advisor
- Elite World Europe Hotel – Situated close to the airport, this newly-opened hotel offers luxury at budget prices. Perfect for a layover or to avoid Istanbul traffic if you have a flight leaving in the early morning hours. Check out Availability & Prices Booking.com/Trip Advisor
And these are all the things to do in Istanbul that we recommend. It is one of the most exciting cities in the world and if you get a chance to go, be sure to spend at least a week exploring both the old and new cities. There are so many things to do in Istanbul, you will want to go back again and again.
What did we miss? We have visited Istanbul three times and still, I know there is so much more there, I’m sure you have some favorite things to do in Istanbul that we didn’t get a chance to do ourselves.