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What to Do in Istanbul – Main Attractions & Activities

Let us tell you all about what to do in Istanbul – main attractions, best sights, points of interest and experiences to try in this marvellous and surprising city.

Throughout history, Istanbul has passed from one empire to another, changing the rulers, mixing cultures, enriching in more and more landmarks, monuments and stories to tell. Its rich history left a cultural footprint in the labyrinth of its streets.

There is a lot to see, so are you ready to start the discovery?

1. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia never fails to impress and amaze
Hagia Sophia never fails to impress and amaze

The first thing that always comes to mind when talking about Istanbul is the spectacular Hagia Sophia – the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. It was built by Emperor Justinian between 532 and 537, and 9 centuries later, in 1453, turned into a mosque. The cathedral is famous not only for its age and large dimensions, but especially, for the quality, quantity and richness of its mosaics. In 1935, the state leader Atatürk transformed it in a museum. Hagia Sophia is located on a hill, from the top of which you can see the entire city.

Read more about Hagia Sophia in Curiosities of Istanbul

2. Blue Mosque

The impressive silhouette of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque called the Blue Mosque; Istanbul main attractions
The impressive silhouette of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque called the Blue Mosque

If you wonder what to do in Istanbul next, go straight to the second most recognizable landmark of the city. The famous Blue Mosque is equally important as Hagia Sophia. Even if it’s smaller than the cathedral, it definitely impresses by its large dimensions and especially by the style and beauty of its architecture. It is flanked by six minarets that give it great refinement and elegance. Inside, it has more than twenty thousand blue tiles, hence the name given to the mosque.

3. Topkapi Palace

Fairytale interiors of the Topkapi Palace; Istanbul main attractions
Fairytale interiors of the Topkapi Palace

A visit to Istanbul is not complete without admiring the Topkapi Palace. The palace was completed in 1465, after the fall of Costantinople. It has an immense area of ​​seven hundred thousand square meters with several courtyards and buildings. You will visit the palatial rooms and gardens and the Archaeological Museum and the Harem – for which you have to take a separate entrance.

Interesting Facts about Istanbul – 20 Curiosities

4. The Grand Bazaar

Traditional Iznik ceramics in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Traditional Iznik ceramics in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

In Istanbul, main attractions are not only the spectacular UNESCO-enlisted monuments, but also equally famous landmark: the centuries old Grand Bazaar. There, the easiest thing in the world is to get lost, as its dimensions are huge, about 45 thousand square meters! Some tourists always end up being lost without knowing how to leave the bazaar until late afternoon, so it might be advisable to use a guide for this visit.

If you want to do shopping in the bazaar, you should bargain for the price, not only because the merchants often propose first overly high offers, but also because here bargaining is a cultural tradition.

Shopping in Istanbul, Souvenirs, Typical and Cheap Gifts

5. Egyptian Spice Bazaar

Exotic tea, herb and spices on The Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; Istanbul main attractions
Exotic tea, herb and spices on The Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

Another similar attraction is the Spice Bazaar, called the Egyptian Bazaar, which originated around the 17th century to sell spices from the East and Africa. Although smaller than the previous one, it also boasts large dimensions. It is very pleasant to walk around the bazaar and let yourself be seduced by the varied, spicy and exotic aromas of spices, teas, nuts, fruits, sweets and numerous delicacies that are sold there.

Euroviajar’s Tip:

One of the things to buy in Istanbul are pistachios, as the Turkish pistachios are reputed to be the best ones in the world. Turkey is a major exporter of pistachios known worldwide for their excellent quality – and here they are also very economical.

6. Galata Tower

Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey
Galata Tower in Istanbul

Another monument worth seeing is Galata Tower, built in 1348. With its nine floors, it is one of the tallest buildings in the city – 66 m. Despite the earthquakes that the area has suffered in the past, the tower is still standing, perhaps due to the thickness of its walls, about 3.7 meters(!) at the base.

It offers a unique 360 degree view of Istanbul, which is definitely something you don’t want to miss.

7. Basilica Cistern

The ancient Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey - Istanbul main attractions
The ancient Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern is a fascinating place with unique atmosphere. It is the largest of the several hundred subterranean cisterns build under the streets of Istanbul in the ancient times. This very particular basilica was constructed in the 6th century in Byzantium by Emperor Justinian. Its name comes from the fact that right above it was located a huge basilica – a public space for commerce and arts built in the 3rd/4th century of the Early Roman Age.

This enormous space is filled with a “forest” of 336 marble columns, 9 metres high. The water collected here was provided for use in the Topkapı Palace and other buildings.

8. Eyüp Mosque

Interiors of Eyüp mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Interiors of Eyüp mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Eyüp mosque is one of the pillars of Islamic culture and a mandatory stop during the visit to Istanbul. It has beautiful blue tiles, so characteristic for the Turkish art. Visiting the Eyüp mosque will allow you also to see a panoramic view of the city. There is also a monumental cemetary on the hill. To get to the mosque, you will take a cable car to the hill from which you will see the wide landscape. Nearby there is one of the most panoramic cafés of Istanbul – Pierre Loti (read more in #12 below).

9. The Walls of Constantinople

The Rumelihisarı Fortress seen from the Bosphorus - part of The Walls of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey
The Rumelihisarı Fortress seen from the Bosphorus – part of The Walls of Constantinople in Istanbul

The impressive ancient Walls of Constantinople surrounded and protected the city since it was appointed the capital of the Roman Empire, under the rule of Constantine the Great. They are considered among the most elaborate defence wall systems ever constructed, and the last great fortifications of the ancient times. Due to their historical importance they were enlisted by UNESCO.

The walls, built in the 4th and 5th century, saved the city many times and they were never invaded by any enemy. Throughout history, the walls were expanded, modified and rebuilt many times. In the 5th century a double line of the Theodosian Walls was constructed. Most parts of the great city walls survived intact until the Ottoman period. Later, unfortunately they were partially dismantled in the 19th century, to expand the growing city.

The fortifications include numerous gates, towers and fortresses that are visitable.

10. Restaurants by the Bosphorus

Vivid nightlife along the shore next to the Galata Bridge - the view from Galata Tower - Istanbul main attractions
Vivid nightlife along the shore next to the Galata Bridge – the view from Galata Tower

Along Bosphorus, you will find some of the best and most scenic restaurants of Istanbul. Turkish cuisine, delightful and full of surprises, accompanied by the fascinating exotic view of the illuminated mosques, towers and bridges makes it a memorable experience.

11. Rooftop Bars, Nargile & Live Music

Turkish sweets and tea in a bar in Istanbul - Istanbul main attractions
Turkish sweets and tea in a bar in Istanbul

Istanbul is a very dynamic, energetic city. You will notice it immediately: both during the day and night it is busy and crowded. Istanbulites stay out until late, so you will surely find a lot of people on the streets. So what to do in Istanbul in the evening? For a really unforgettable Istanbul experience, go to a few rooftop bars in the evening – they are great, when you sit propped by colourful cushions with fresh breeze and fantastic views. Go also to places with live music.

You can’t leave Istanbul without having eaten in a meyhane. These are typical bars in the area where traditional beverages of artisanal elaboration are served, such as wine, local beer, raki with meze – selected appetizers. Some of these establishments have live musical shows which invite you to immerse in the authentic atmosphere of the city while tasting the local cuisine and mingle with people.

Best Hotel Deals in Istanbul – Updated Daily

12. Cafés with a View

Deluxe Golden Horn Hotel Cafe (photo from www.deluxegoldenhornhotel.com)

In Istanbul, main attractions are often best seen from above, since the city is built on 7 hills. There are different areas from which you can admire the city from a panoramic point, such as the Galata Tower and various terraces. The mix of ancient and modern architecture of the city, illuminated by night in a pictoresque way, makes the view from the best cafes and restaurants unforgettable.

Among the places with the best view, we recommend fantastic Deluxe Golden Horn Hotel Cafe, which boasts one of the finest views in the city – both on the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

Pierre Loti, located on the hill is one of the most popular traditional cafes among tourists. It is definitely worth visiting for the typical atmosphere, panoramic terrace and beautiful old-fashioned interior.

13. Turkish Bath – Hammam

Traditional Turkish bath - hammam - what to do in Istanbul, Turkey
Traditional Turkish bath – hammam

And what to do in Istanbul to rest after a day full of walking around the city? Nothing makes you more relaxed than a spa – so head to a traditional Turkish bath called hammam. There are 60 hammams in Istanbul, so you have a great choice. Hammams are an exotic and pleasant experience, with funny old-fashioned wooden shoes to wear, water poured from copper buckets and beautiful mosaic patterns on the walls.

We recommend you these great hammams:

  • Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam – Address: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu / İstanbul
  • Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı – Address: Cankurtaran Mahallesi Ayasofya Meydani No:2, Fatih / İstanbul
  • Cemberlitas Hamami – Address: Vezirhan Cad. No: 8, 34440 Çemberlitaş / İstanbul

14. Boat Trip on the Bosphorus

A view across Bosphorus at Topkapi Palace (left) and Hagia Sophia (right) - Istanbul main attractions
A view across Bosphorus at Topkapi Palace (left) and Hagia Sophia (right)

Crossing the Bosphorus by boat is one of the main attractions of Istanbul. If you wonder what to do in Istanbul to cool down on a hot summer day, it’s a perfect solution, because besides being a short and quite cheap trip, it allows you to explore the surroundings. You may visit nearby towns such as Kadiköy on the shore of the Marmara Sea, or the pictoresque village of Anadolu Kavağı, closer towards the Black Sea. But most of all, the trip lets you admire the hills of Istanbul with their mosques, the towers and old city walls, and densely constructed areas from the water.

15. Princes’ Islands

Archipelago of Princes Islands in Istanbul
Archipelago of Princes Islands in Istanbul

The Princes’ Islands are an archipelago of 9 small islands on the Marmara Sea close to Istanbul. You can reach them by a nice boat trip or ferry across Bosphorus. During summer, they are a popular beach destination for Istanbulites. The interesting fact is that there are no cars on the islands – only horse carts!

Interesting Facts about Istanbul – 20 Curiosities

Other Istanbul Attractions

In Istanbul main attractions can be listed endlessly – it’s one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. The rich and varied history, influences from multiple cultures, its national and international importance throughout the history and still nowadays, make it a very special spot. It’s also very pleasant to be in – its sunny climate invites you to spend most time on the streets, squares and cafes, enjoying vibrant and dynamic atmosphere of this great city.

Check out the best hotel deals in Istanbul – updated daily.

Do you have questions or your own experiences to share? Write them in a comment below!

Author

Małgorzata Kmita

Chief Editor & Writer of euroviajar.com, a serial expat - I've lived in 7 countries, I speak 7 languages, and I travelled to 39 countries so far. I have a deep interest in understanding the culture and lifestyle of various countries and regions. I'm always looking for the authentic local habits, tastes and surprises that give a certain place its character.

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