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
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
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
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.
4. The Grand Bazaar
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.
5. Egyptian Spice Bazaar
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.
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
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 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
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 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
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
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.
12. Cafés with a View
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
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
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
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!
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.
Do you have questions or your own experiences to share? Write them in a comment below!