Fascinating history, exotic architecture and trendy local neighbourhoods combine to create a truly cosmopolitan city. Here are our favourite things to do in İstanbul.
Originally founded as Byzantium by the Greeks, conquered by Persians, captured by Spartans, rebuilt by Constantine then eventually conquered by the Ottomans, İstanbul has lived a long and spicy history.
While the political clout moved to Ankara after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, İstanbul was left with iconic historical sites that would satisfy even the most world-weary of curious travellers. Yet this modern international city is continually in flux. New and interesting attractions regularly appear, rewarding awe-inspired visitors.
We’ve collected all the essential sights and experiences that should not be missed on a visit to İstanbul.
Soak up the vibrancy and variety of one of the most important historical centres in the world while admiring sublime modern art, cool neighbourhoods, local restaurants and friendly Turkish culture. See all the important İstanbul landmarks, traverse both continents and enjoy mesmerising cultural experiences.
There’s a host of enthralling things to do in İstanbul, these are our favourites. To help put them all together, read our Istanbul itinerary.
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1 – LIVE HISTORY IN HAGIA SOFIA (AYA SOFYA)
Built by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century CE, the church of Hagia Sophia was the largest interior space in the world. When the Ottomans captured the city just under a millennium later it was converted into a mosque. Then in1935 it was declared a museum before returning to mosque status in 2020.
It is this changing history at the centre of great empires and religions that makes Hagia Sophia so special. Inside, golden murals of Christian scenes look down to Islamic prayer niches. Inscriptions by crusaders etched into hand railings stand alongside massive medallions painted with the names of Allah. It is a remarkable journey through millennia of change and an unmissable thing to do in İstanbul.
In spite of becoming a mosque the building is still open to tourists, however, closes 1 hour before prayer time and reopens 30 minutes afterwards. As prayer happens 5 times a day Hagia Sofia is open to tourists from 8:30 am to 11:30 pm, 1 pm to 2:30 pm, and 3:30 pm to 4:45 pm On Fridays it opens to visitors from 1:30 pm.
There is no longer an entrance fee but a guided tour brings the stories behind the mosque alive.
2 – SHOP AT THE GRAND BAZAAR
The Grand Bazaar was built by the Ottomans shortly after they conquered the city in 1453. It is a warren of stalls selling anything you could possibly want and lots of things you wouldn’t. Soaps and spices, trinkets and trays, carpets and clothes, bowls and baklava, masks and mascara. But the most important and satisfying commodity at the Grand Bazaar is the endless hubbub and energy.
Navigate towards Çarşı Kebap where an old Turkish man with his head in the flames will be flipping kebabs. His clients are mostly other stallholders in the bazaar. Grabbing a table and joining them for lunch is a tasty local experience. If you’d prefer to be guided around join a tour that includes Hagia Sofia & The Blue Mosque.
3 – EXPLORE THE TOPKAPI PALACE
To cement the Ottoman victory over Constantinople, the Topkapı Palace was built on the hill from which the Acropolis of the Caesars overlooked their city. It was to be the main residence from where the Sultans would rule their massive empire.
Today it is a beautiful museum of grand buildings and courtyards, in an array of different architectural styles. Take time to admire the wood inlaid ceilings, stucco tiles and tree-strewn squares. In particular, don’t miss the intricately decorated Harem, or the Circumcision Chamber & Baghdad Pavilion tucked into the fourth courtyard with its great views of the city.
The palace also contains collections of art, cultural relics and riches from all over the Ottoman Empire. With 5 courtyards and numerous objects to explore, you can easily spend half a day at the Topkapı Palace. It’s a thoroughly sumptuous and extravagant icon and a wonderful thing to do in İstanbul.
Queues for tickets can be long and there’s a lot to see, so a skip-the-line ticket with guide can be helpful.
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4 – CRUISE THE BOSPHORUS
The Bosphorus is a narrow strait of water that divides the European and Asian sides of İstanbul. As a busy shipping route and a popular tourist destination, there’s always a buzz of activity on the river. Taking a tour on the Bosphorus via a ferry or a private cruise is a great way to have a break from the chaos of the city and capture some fine views.
The Hop-on-hop-off Bosphorus Boat Tour leaves from Kabatas Pier and visits a number of spots along the river with a single ticket. The full tour lasts 1.5 hours but you can use it all day and stop as many times as you like.
Alternatively take the official ferry, Şehir Hatları, for a very economical jaunt up the river. For something more festive, book a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus where you’ll be entertained by folk dance and the magic of İstanbul at night.
5 – DEVOUR THE BAKLAVA FROM KARAKÖY GÜLLÜOĞLU
Baklava is a rich sticky filo pastry sweet and a Turkish institution. No Turkish meal is truly complete unless finished with a calorific injection of this tasty goodness.
The best baklava is found at Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Housed in an unassuming shop front, it’s a buffet-type café you might easily ignore from the outside. But inside, it’s packed with both locals and tourists day and night. The queue can be confusing, the selection of baklava mind-boggling, but their swirling flavours and sweet goodness are not to be missed in İstanbul.
6 – MARVEL AT THE BLUE MOSQUE (SULTAN AHMED MOSQUE)
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, was built on the foundations of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors to rival the grandeur of Hagia Sofia.
It gets its name from the beautiful blue tiles that adorn the domed ceiling. This calming blue is lit by massive hanging chandeliers that cast light and shadows across the rich carpets covering the floor. It is a magical and uplifting place of calm in an often chaotic city.
The most dramatic approach is from the Hippodrome where the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque rise above the Roman obelisks that decorate the square.
The mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors; however, it closes for 90 minutes during prayer time.
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7 – SHOP THE INTOXICATING SPICE MARKET (MISIR ÇARŞISI)
Absorbing the sights and smells of the Spice Market (Mısır Çarşısı) is an intoxicating thing to do in İstanbul. Tucked within a few narrow covered laneways, piles upon piles of spices, nuts, dried fruits and sweets fill the air with a tantalising and confusing aroma. Make friends with the shopkeepers, join the hubbub of excitement and be overwhelmed by the magnificent sensory overload at the market.
Outside, the streets stretching in every direction around the Spice Market contain a few hidden gems. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the New Mosque are both nearby and worth popping into if it’s not prayer time. Join the queue at Kurukahveci Mehemt Efendi Mahdumlari, where they have been serving coffee to locals for over 100 years.
8 – GET SCRUBBED IN A TURKISH HAMMAM
Having a layer of skin scrubbed off in a Turkish Hammam is another unmissable İstanbul experience. Often housed in attractive domed buildings, a hammam is a traditional bath that has been around since Roman times.
The process starts with a quick dousing of water, followed by a short break on a heated marble platform to relax. Next, the attendant performs a vigorous wash with black soap and a special rough mitten to remove dead skin cells. Cold water is then mercilessly poured all over you. The experience finishes nicely with a soapy bubble wash.
Most hammams operate separate men and women’s sections at different times or in different spaces. The most traditional hammam is Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. One of the most deluxe is Hôtel Les Ottomans.
9 – EXPLORE DOLMABAHÇE PALACE
Growing tired of the lack of opulence at Topkapı Palace, Ottoman rulers moved the centre of their administration to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. Taking up a commanding position on the banks of the Bosphorus it is designed in Baroque Rococo and Neoclassical styles with traditional Ottoman influences.
More European than Turkish, it was so extravagant the financial burden it caused contributed to the empire defaulting on its debt in 1875.
The palace is split into two sections, the Harem (Sultan’s family’s private quarters) and the Selamik (official palace rooms). In our opinion, it’s worth paying for both. The showstoppers are the Blue Hall, Crystal Staircase and Grand Ceremonial. The audio guide that clicks in and out as you enter the various rooms is worth the extra cost. Allow 2 hours or so to wander around. Otherwise, join a tour and let a guide show you the best bits.
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10 – EXPERIENCE A WHIRLING DERVISH CEREMONY
The Mevlevi order is an Islamic religious order based in Konya, in central Turkey. It was founded by a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Most people, however, will recognise them as the Whirling Dervishes, named because of the flowing movements of their ritual dance during worshipping ceremonies (Sema).
Sema is performed every Sunday at 5 pm at the Galati Mevlevi Museum. The small octagonal building – holding no more than three hundred people – has seats on every side and a performance space in the centre. It’s a mesmerising tradition and a great thing to do in İstanbul. Get tickets in advance.
11 – VISIT CONSTANTINE’S TOMB IN AYA İRINI (HAGIA IRENE)
Through a courtyard scattered with Roman relics, Aya İrini is a large empty shell of a building, hiding a greater past within its imposing stone walls. The Byzantine church was one of the few not converted to a mosque and some of the original features, like the atrium, remain intact. Classical concerts for the İstanbul Music Festival are held here for the extraordinary acoustics and haunting atmosphere.
Another reason that makes Aya İrini a wonderful thing to do in İstanbul is the very nondescript tomb that some historians now believe is that of Emperor Constantine. Constantine founded Constantinople and turned Christianity from a cult to the predominant religion in the west, making him possibly one of the most influential people ever to have lived.
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12 – STROLL THE BUSTLING İSTIKLAL CADDESI (ISTIKLAL AVENUE)
The ever busy pedestrian avenue Istiklal Caddesi, has a polarising effect on visitors and locals alike. At times drawing over 3 million people a day on weekends, it’s hard to know whether the street is the tourist attraction, or you are.
A good place to start is Taksim Square, a symbolic location to many Turks and the meeting point for demonstrations and protests. From there, amble down Istiklal Caddesi stopping in at the huge array of shopping opportunities and cafes.
There are also historic buildings, churches, modern art galleries and a few hidden passageways to explore. Make sure you duck into Hazzopulo Passage which was populated by Ottoman Greeks in the 19th century, and Suriye Passage with its second-hand retro stores.
13 – DESCEND INTO BASILICA CISTERN
Basilica Cistern is the largest of a complex network of ancient cisterns beneath İstanbul. It was built in 532AD to hold the ancient Byzantine city’s water supply. The cistern is 139 metres long, about the size of a cathedral, and is capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water.
The dark eerie space has been used in several feature films including From Russia with Love and the Dan Brown adaptation, Inferno. Don’t miss the giant pillar bases at the far end of the cistern with the famous Medusa faces. One is upside down, the other on its side. Many legends circulate as to why they were placed the way they are. Some believe it demonstrates that Byzantine builders saw ancient Roman relics as nothing more than building rubble. Others believe they possibly just fit better that way.
14 – BRUNCH IN ORTAKÖY
Ortaköy is a lovely İstanbul neighbourhood beside the Bosphorus. It’s a popular place to hang out, particularly on a weekend when the local streets fill with markets. Come here on Sunday and be rewarded by a convivial atmosphere and some of the finest brunches in İstanbul.
The pick of the cafes are on Firini Street. We went for Café Zemheri but there are plenty to choose from. After brunch, stroll past the flea market – a delightfully vintage strip of humble stores – and the covered market near the waterfront.
Commanding the most ostentatious position on the river is the Ortaköy Mosque. Shimmering against the Bosphorus, its intricate façade has two rows of windows which illuminate the dome ceiling covered in pink mosaics.
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15 – ABSORB İSTANBUL’S REMARKABLE MODERN ART MUSEUMS
The art scene in İstanbul can rival any of the major art centres in Europe with a Turkish twist that makes strolling galleries one of the great experiences in the city. Here are some top art galleries to visit.
İSTANBUL MODERN ART
The huge warehouse that is İstanbul Modern Art is widely considered one of the best modern art exhibitions in the world. The collection includes works in various media from prominent Turkish artists as well as an international collection. Several focus on contemporary social issues in Turkey. The exhibition is currently in a temporary space in Beyoğlu but aims to return to its normal home in Karaköy shortly.
TOPHANE-I AMIRE CULTURE AND ART CENTRE
The Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre houses a periodic modern art exhibition. A huge, cavernous area constructed of red brick and white stone with large arches, provides the perfect stage for some cool modern art. The lower reaches of the building house a rotating exhibition of eclectic modern art.
MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
The Museum of Innocence is an exhibition based on the novel of the same name by the author Orhan Pamuk. It evokes İstanbul of the 1970s, with objects displayed in cases corresponding to the chapters in the novel. The ground floor contains a spiral representing the present moment, from which the objects of the museum link moments in the characters’ lives. But, you don’t need to have read the book, it’s interesting enough without the backstory.
16 – ADMIRE BYZANTINE CHORA CHURCH (KARIYE MOSQUE)
The Chora Church is a medieval Greek Orthodox church in the Fatih district of İstanbul. Chora means country as the building was originally outside the city walls constructed by Constantine. The Byzantine construction has undergone a number of reincarnations, starting as a church, converting to a museum then returning to a mosque again. The current version was reconstructed from the 11th to 14th centuries.
Staring up at the exquisite frescoes and mosaics in Chora Church is a wonderful thing to do in İstanbul. Most of the mosaics depict the life of Jesus and Mary, including the stunning Genealogy of Christ. Most of the frescoes cover scenes from the Old Testament. Both the frescoes and the mosaics are beautifully preserved on walls which have seen centuries of history.
Like Hagia Sofia, Chora Church has also now been returned to a mosque, Kariye Mosque. Currently, non-Muslims are still permitted to attend, however check before you go.
17 – VISIT THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUMS
The İstanbul Archaeological Museum in Sultanhamet is made up of three sections: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. All three are worth exploring.
The neoclassical building of the Archaeological Museum houses a sprawling array of Greek and Roman statues and a thoroughly impressive collection of sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon and Ephesus.
The highlight of the Museum of the Ancient Orient is the Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs and numerous pre-Islamic items from the Ottoman Empire. Finally don’t miss the entrance to the Tiled Pavilion; a 14-marble column portico covered in stunning blue tiles. You can explore yourself but there’s a lot to see so a guide can be helpful.
18 – EXPLORE THE BUSTLING MARKETS IN KADIKÖY
While Istiklal Caddesi is great for people watching and indulging in the tourist side of İstanbul, Kadıköy on the Asian side is an altogether more local experience. With a young student population and a host of local markets, it’s a great way to see a different side of İstanbul.
Soak up the vibrant atmosphere with a stroll around Kadıköy Square and Fenerbahce Kalamis, grabbing a spot at one of the many cafes for some people watching. Pop into the busy collection of shops along Bahariye Street, admire the catch at the fish market and peruse the second-hand bookstores on Tellalzade Street.
Finally, join the locals for a meal eat at Çiya Sofrası. Serving southeastern Turkish delicacies, it was one of our favourite things to do in İstanbul. It’s easy enough to get across on the ferry, but another way to explore is on a food tasting tour across the two continents.
19 – ADMIRE THE VIEWS FROM SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE
The intricate interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque is considered one of the best examples of Ottoman art in Turkey. It was built in 1550 and reigned as the largest mosque in İstanbul for over 460 years. Inside, the single vast space is decorated simply with blue and turquoise floral tiles. The buttresses of the building have been ingeniously incorporated into the interior.
Süleymaniye Mosque takes up a commanding position on the Third Hill of İstanbul and offers some of the best views of the city. Head down to Aga Kapisi Café and have a coffee on their rooftop bar while absorbing the many personalities of İstanbul’s skyline. Turkish coffee is such a rich tradition in the country it’s been recognised on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
20 – ENJOY İSTANBUL’S ROOFTOP BAR SCENE
İstanbul has a rooftop bar scene that rivals some of the best in the world. With the seven hills undulating under the sprawling city, seeing it from above is one of the best things to do in this vibrant city and there’s plenty of bars to choose from.
The Seven Hills Hotel in Sultanahmet has stunning views over Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, with a pretty good seafood restaurant as well. 360 is an upmarket restaurant with a focus of Turkish meze mixed with international cuisine. Its balcony is arguably one of the best roof bar views in İstanbul with slick service, a wide range of cocktails and live music.
Leb-i Derya is a top-end restaurant set up more like an atrium rather than a rooftop bar, but the wine list is long, the food expertly prepared and (if you can get seated by the window) the views excellent.
At the other end of the scale, Snog Roof Bar has great views at a fraction of the price. Sip on cocktails or local beers with views across the Golden Horn and Galata tower.
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THE NEIGHBOURHOODS OF İSTANBUL
İstanbul is more than the sum of its parts. The eclectic mix of neighbourhoods provide an insight into the different cultures that have shaped this city of multiple personalities.
Taksim is the commercial centre of İstanbul and the focal point for nightlife, shopping and dining. The main pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi starts in Taksim Square. As one of the focal points for the city you’ll find everything from public demonstrations to tourist souvenirs.
Another entertainment centre of İstanbul, Beyoğlu is the go-to neighbourhood for good food, hip live-music venues and edgy hotels. Incorporating the residential districts alongside Karaköy, Beyoğlu has a bohemian local feel.
Once a gritty working area of İstanbul where locals would go to buy fish and hardware supplies, Karaköy is now one of the hipster centres of the city. Amongst its narrow laneways, cool cafes & funky bars vie with retro stores and classy boutiques.
Kadiköy is a laid-back residential neighbourhood on the Asian side of İstanbul. It’s most popular for the bustling fish market, supported by a host of other fresh food suppliers. Complete with an indie edge, the lived-in architecture is adorned with cool street art.
Sultanahmet is the unavoidable centre of the old town housing the biggest attractions in İstanbul including Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar. With the city’s most popular tourist attractions, don’t be surprised by inflated prices and attentive hagglers. Plenty of Istanbul city tours explore this area in detail.
Ortaköy is an attractive river-side neighbourhood with few large visitor attractions except for the beautiful Ortaköy Mosque. Come here on a weekend to stroll the local market and enjoy a classic Turkish brunch before a relaxing walk down the river.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN İSTANBUL
In a city as diverse and full of interesting attractions as İstanbul we had to be selective. But, if you have some more time, here are other great experiences that might capture your attention in İstanbul.
Gülhane Park is a historical green space in the Eminönü district near Topkapı Palace and a great place for a picnic. Surprisingly the café in the park is pretty good too.
Galata Tower, the medieval stone tower in Karaköy has great views over the city centre but the queues to ascend can be long.
Although not a heavily-visited attraction in İstanbul, the Rüstem Pasa Mosque is an excellent example of Ottoman architecture, as is the beautiful Süreyya Opera House.
One attraction that very nearly made our list is Little Hagia Sophia. The former Greek Orthodox church was built around 535 and converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. It’s a surprisingly quiet part of the city with several local restaurants around the perimeter.
Finally, for an extra dose of history, head to the 1453 Panorama Museum and the ancient walls of the city, which are best seen by taking the T4 tram from Topkapı to Edirnekapi.
WHERE TO STAY IN İSTANBUL
The best areas to stay in İstanbul are Beyoğlu, Karaköy and Taksim. The atmosphere is alive and kicking in the evening with plenty of great restaurants and bars, but it’s far enough away from the busiest places to allow for some peace and quiet. It’s easy to get around the city with the excellent transport links in these areas.
We suggest avoiding Galatasaray and the centre of İstiklal Caddesi. Both are very noisy late into the night.
Here are some recommendations from us.
Hotel Sari Konak is a great value properly in the centre of Istanbul, right near Sultanahmet. With stylish yet traditional finishings and one of the best-located roof terraces in the city, it’s a great choice for your Istanbul break.
These modern apartments have a well-equipped kitchen as well as a living room, lounge and separate bathroom. The location near Galata Tower could hardly be better for exploring the vibrant Istanbul nightlife.
Pera Palace is a magnificent old building in neoclassical, art nouveau and oriental styles. With terraced lawns and three restaurants, and a world-class spa, this is a perfectly located touch of indulgence.
USING THE İSTANBUL MUSEUM CARD AND İSTANBUL WELCOME CARD
With so many big attractions in İstanbul, we recommend picking up the İstanbul Museum Pass. It provides access to 12 museums, allowing you to skip the queue and save some money. The card is valid for 5 days from first use.
If you want to pay a little extra for a little more, the İstanbul Welcome Card provides access to the 12 museums, plus professional historians to take you on a guided tour of 3 of them. It also offers a cruise on the Bosphorus, transportation vouchers, plus other discounts.
If you are only going to pick off the big sites then consider skip-the-line with guided tickets. The Hagia Sofia, Basilica Cistern and Topkapı Palace can have long queues and are such fascinating places that a guide can be useful. Also if you don’t want to risk not getting tickets to see the Whirling Dervishes, book advance tickets to see them at the HodjaPasha Cultural Centre.
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BEST TIME TO GO
The best time to visit İstanbul is between late April and October.
Many of the official museums in İstanbul have summer and winter opening times. In winter the sites shut 2 hours earlier, which significantly curtails how much you can see. Turkey also gets very hot in summer, so if you love walking around a city, we suggest you aim for the shoulder seasons.
If you want some of the big sites to yourself, coincide your trip with Ramadan. Very few Turks travel during Ramadan, so everything is much less busy. The downside is some of the restaurants are on a limited menu or reduced hours, but we never found this a problem during our visit.
Finally, the Turkish currency has been very weak recently, making Turkey a very cheap holiday destination. Our advice: go earlier rather than later if you plan to visit Turkey.
Ramadan 2023 – In 2023 Ramadan will be 22 March to 21 April.
MORE READING FOR TURKEY
While Istanbul is one of our favourite cities, Turkey is a bewitching country with ancient ruins, scenic countryside and incredible places to visit. Here are some more of our guides from Turkey.
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