Seated in both Europe and Asia, Istanbul offers a glance of past Roman and Ottoman Empires in the Old Sultanahmet, diverse religious heritage with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and the modern Istanbulite life in buzzing Beyoglu. And of course, Turkish cuisine is a must-eat! Read on to find out more about the best things to do in Istanbul for your next trip.
Insider Tip: The best way to see all that Istanbul has to offer is by booking a tour with a local tour guide.
Istanbul’s Old Town – The Sultanahmet And Around
1. Hagia Sophia
With such a rich past, Istanbul is almost like a walking museum where each building and each stone have a story to tell. But if you are short on time, Hagia Sophia, together with the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, should be on your must-see list in the Sultanahmet District.
The ever-changing status of Hagia Sophia is a testament to the importance of the monument. First a basilica in the 6th century, an imperial mosque in the 15th, and a museum in the 20th, the Hagia Sophia is a wonder of Byzantine architecture. Make sure to visit the second floor for a better view of the nave, and to admire the mosaics that date back to the 8th century.
Buy your entrance tickets online in advance and skip the long lines to the Hagia Sophia.
2. Blue Mosque
Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the 17th-century Blue Mosque takes its name from the 20,000 handmade mosaic blue tiles, with hues from marine to translucent purple. As the outside lights peer through the 200 stained glass windows, make sure to wander around the mosque to get different perspectives of the ceilings.
The mosque is of high religious importance and will have long queues for Friday’s prayers.
3. Topkapi Palace
Be prepared to spend several hours at the Topkapi Palace. The primary residence of the Ottomans for over 400 years, the palace includes several ceremonial rooms and courtyards, and is known to be one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture. Don’t skip the Imperial Harem and its 400 rooms, many with fine mosaics and woodwork.
4. Basilica Cisterns
The Basilica Cisterns are dwarfed in popularity by the nearby Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, but the 6th-century water system is worth visiting. Not only are the cisterns quiet and cool – a nice break from the busy streets and hot summer days – the columns have interesting architectural designs featuring different Greek styles.
5. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest markets in the world, and one of the largest, with 3,000 stalls. Shop for leather bags and shoes, colorful lanterns and silver ornaments! Check out the beautifully decorated ceilings as you walk the hallways.
6. Suleymaniye Mosque
The largest mosque in Istanbul with four minarets, the Imperial mosque as it is also known, was built under Sultan Suleyman – Suleyman the Magnificent – in the 16th century.
Located in the hilly part of Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque is less visited than the Blue Mosque and is quieter, a better representation of this symbol of prayers and reflections. Enjoy the views of the Sultanahmet from the hills.
7. Egyptian Spice Bazaar
If you want to stock up on spices of all colors and tastes, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar should be high on your list of best things to do in Istanbul. The selection of Turkish delights, dried fruits, and sweets is also endless.
8. Kariye Museum (Chora Church)
The medieval Greek Orthodox Church built in the 4th century is now a museum in the Edirnekapi neighborhood. Inside the church lay some of the oldest Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. While not the largest Byzantine church, the beauty and state of these magnificent tiles make it stand out.
Beyoglu and Beyond
9. Galata Tower
You can’t miss the Galata Tower as it stands on the top of the hill in Beyoglu, the more modern side of Istanbul. Once at the top, enjoy the 360-degree view of Istanbul, covering the Golden Horn, the Old Town, the European side, the Bosphorus and up to the Oriental side of town.
10. Istiklal Caddesi & Taksim Square
Walk your way through the commercial Istiklal Caddesi, a mile-long pedestrian street that has become the symbol of cosmopolitan Beyoglu. With fashion shops, Kebab restaurants, trendy cafes, and busy bookstores, the street leads you to the popular hangout Taksim Square.
11. Dolmabahçe Palace
Built on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait, the 18th-century palace is the largest in Turkey. Featuring Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles, it was an imperial garden and a much-appreciated summer palace by the Ottoman sultans. Gradually it became the full-time residence, as it presented more comfort and luxury than the Topkapi Palace.
Initially a small village turned into a trendy neighborhood under the Ottoman, Ortaköy is still popular today with its monuments of various religious origins, as well as numerous art galleries and bars. Of note is the beautiful Neo-Baroque Ortaköy Mosque standing by the shores of the Bosphorus Strait.
13. Rumeli Fortress
Rumelihisari is an impressive Ottoman fort located at the narrowest point of the strait, and is well worth a visit. It was built by Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century with the goal to protect himself from naval attacks as he set out to conquer Constantinople, the former name of Istanbul under the Eastern Roman Empire. His conquest would establish the path to the Ottoman Empire, and change the name of the city.
Experience Istanbul Differently
14. Savor Turkish Cuisine
Spice up your kebab, and discover Pilavüstü (over rice) or Iskender (with tomato sauce and hot butter). Splurge in meze, traditional appetizers such as hummus, yogurt, olives, various types of feta cheese, cucumber salad, and dips of all kinds. Go beyond Turkish delights – called lukums in Turkey, and taste Revani – a dense semolina-based sponge cake, or Aşure – a fruity pudding composed of figs, apricots, raisins and other secret ingredients.
Insider Tip: Eat like a local and visit a typical Istanbul family household for a home-cooked meal with this amazing tour from Viator.
15. Cruise the Bosphorus Strait
Cruising the Bosphorus is a nice way to discover the other areas and aspects of Istanbul. Pass by Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Fortress, and Ortaköy, or head to the Oriental side of town. Choose a cruise that will stop at these different attractions and turn your cruise into a full day of sightseeing.
16. Splurge in a Turkish Bath
One cannot visit Istanbul and not have a Turkish bath. Istanbul is packed with hamams, and the choice is yours in terms of price, setting, and location. Many hamams are in historical buildings, like the 18th-century marble Cagaloglu Hamam, Çemberlitaş Hamam, one of the oldest in Istanbul, or Beylerbeyi Hamam, which has a wooden structure. No matter which one you choose all make you feel like royalty.
That’s it, those are the best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey. Whether you are a history buff, a food amateur looking to excite your taste buds, or simply eager to discover the millennia-old city, Istanbul is sure to charm you.