20 Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey

Tea for sale at Istanbul spice market

Istanbul is one of the most culturally colorful places I’ve been to. While walking on the streets of Istanbul you could see pieces of history simply incorporated into the everyday lives of locals. Their shops, markets, cuisine, all look like they’ve been frozen in time, but then you go to a concert, theater, or modern hotel and everything looks like the 21st century again.

The city is very safe and you can walk anywhere downtown, except if something is far like the Chora Church. When taking a taxi make sure to ask for the price before going in, because you don’t want them to try to trick you into paying more. As of January of 2021 Uber has restarted its operation in Istanbul, so that is another way of transport through the city.

This is the city where you will not only enjoy food, drinks, and talking to people, but also learn so much. Especially if you are coming from a western country and haven’t had any experiences with eastern cultures, this is a place to start.

Hagia Sophia

I enjoy visiting churches and monasteries so much, and Turkey is one of a few countries where you can see religious architecture from the first few centuries A.D. Hagia Sophia is simply stunning. The architecture, culture, history, and art that are combined in Hagia Sophia are unbelievable. I’ve spent three hours wandering around, taking photos, and enjoying views inside this gorgeous building.

In the past, Hagia Sophia served as an orthodox cathedral and as a Muslim mosque. Recently the president of Turkey allowed it to be used as a mosque again, but this will not interfere with tourist visits, as they are still allowed. However, the lines for entering Hagia Sophia, same as for Blue Mosque, are enormous. Although there is no fee to enter the museum, the fastest way to get in is with a guide.

The church was built in 537 as a patriarchal cathedral for Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). In the 13th century shortly it was used by a catholic church, and since 1453 it was converted to a mosque (since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire). In 1935 it was turned into a museum, and in 2020 as I already said, it was turned back to the mosque. This information is important to understand because of all the elements inside. You will see at the same time Orthodox frescoes and Muslim prayers.

The decoration inside consists of 30 million gold tiles, and a beautiful dome which was an extremely ambitious architectural decision in the 6th century. You can climb to the second floor and observe the dome a little bit closer. From the outside, the church is very colorful, and it is hard to believe it is 15 centuries old. 

Topkapi Palace

Today one of the largest museums in Turkey, in the 15th and 16th centuries it was the residence of sultans in the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed the Conqueror ordered for the palace to be built only 6 years after he conquered Constantinople. It looks marvelous to this day, with beautiful gardens, rooms, and halls.

Not the entire palace is accessible to tourists but you can see the impressive harem, library, apartments, and a lot of treasures on display. One of the most stunning locations in the palace is THe Gate of Felicity, which is the entrance to the third courtyard. For almost 400 years that sultans lived in the palace, this gate was dividing his private area from the rest of the palace. No one could pass this gate without the sultan’s approval. 

The exhibition includes artifacts from Ottoman history, and also some Prophet’s relics, like the grail from which Prophet Mohammed drank water, Prophet Mohammed’s beard hair, Prophet Mohammed’s bow, and more.

Parts of the palace that tourists are entering are Harem, Imperial Treasury, and First, Second, Third, and Fourth Courts. The courts, or the gardens, are as impressive as the architecture of the palace itself. You will see the Tulip Garden in the Marble Terrace, decorative pools, decorations with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and so much more.

The entrance fee is 100 TL and to the harem another 70 TL. Inside the complex, you can also visit Hagia Irene, an orthodox church from 532. When I was there I accidentally wandered inside and the symphonic orchestra was practicing for the concert that evening. The acoustics of the church were phenomenal and I stayed to listen to them till they finished playing.

Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed’s Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, was built at the beginning of the 17th century and it is still a functioning mosque. Tourists are allowed inside designated spaces for tourists, and the rest is dedicated to prayer. It is expected of tourists to be quiet, but with so many people that can be very hard to achieve. Millions of tourists come to the mosque every year, and waiting lines are enormous. 

When you enter the mosque you will be asked to take off your shoes and you will be given a plastic bag to put them in and carry them until the exit. Traditionally in mosques, the shoes are left at the door, but here because of so many people going through the mosque every day, there is not enough space to leave your shoes and come back for them.

I highly suggest you take a guided tour of the mosque, not only for faster entry but also because you will learn about impressive history and architecture. The interior is covered in hand-painted blue tiles and expensive carpets. Outside it appears white during the day but in the evening the entire mosque is lightened up and it turns blue.

The mosque is located downtown, right next to Hagia Sophia, and nearby other attractions like Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, and Archeological Museum. The mosque is unique because of its six minarets and because of its size since it can accommodate 10,000 people at once. There is no entry fee, even for tourists.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern is a place like no other. It is one of the largest cisterns below the city of Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian I, and now only a little water is kept inside so that tourists can visit it. Since it was located beneath the large public square, the First Hill of Constantinople (the Stoa Basilica), it was given the same name, Basilica.

It is believed that they used to have a garden, and that about 7000 slaves were involved in building it. The cistern provided a water and filtration system for centuries, first to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and later to Topkapi Palace.

The impressive architecture includes 336 marble columns, mostly in Corinthian style, and some in Doric style. It is the size of a cathedral and can hold 80 000 cubic meters of water. When you finish looking at the exhibits, you can sit in an underground cafe and observe this architectural marvel a little longer. The entrance to the museum is 30 TL.

Istanbul Hippodrome

Hippodrome is a huge square in the city center, steps away from all the attractions, including the Blue Mosque. It is the best area for taking photos and making memories. It is also the best place to grab a simit, around crunchy bread covered with sesame that is sold out of red carts. You can buy it plain or with Nutella, and enjoy it while walking around the square.

This location wasn’t always the square. In the Byzant times, it was a circus, and the name hippodrome comes from the horse races that were held here. This was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, similar to the Colosseum in Rome.

The hippodrome was 450 meters long and it could fit 100 000 spectators. The area was filled with statues of gods, animals, heroes, and other artwork from that time. Nowadays you can see several remaining monuments of the hippodrome: Serpent Column, Obelisk of Thutmose III, Walled Obelisk, and Statue of Porphyrias.

Istanbul Archeology Museum

Of all the archeological museums I’ve visited, this one has surprised me the most. I didn’t expect to see so many artefacts from ancient times, but there are rooms and rooms filled only with those. And that is not all there is in the museum. You can spend hours walking around the museum and looking at sculptures, sarcophagi, amphoras, and so much more.

The museum consists of three separate museums under one roof: Archeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art. There was no line to enter the museum although the other locations in the city were very busy, so this is not as popular as let’s say Hagia Sophia, but it should not be missed.

The museum was established in 1891 by the Ottoman sultan Abdulaziz, who was fascinated by the archeological museums around Europe. The museum was built in place of the Topkapi outer gardens, in neo-Greek style, resembling the ancient architecture which perfectly fits with the artifacts.

Some of the highlights of the exhibition are a beautiful statue of Alexander the Great, a statue of Puzur Ishtar, a statue of emperor Valentinian II, pediment and shafts of a temple, obverse from the old Babylonian period 1900 to 1600 BCE, the Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty, and more. You can also see four sarcophagi from the Ayaa necropolis in Sidon. The entrance fee is only 60 TL.

Tea for sale at Istanbul spice market

Grand Bazaar

Have you ever tried to haggle? IF you haven’t this is the place to experience it. They love discussing prices and showing off their skills in bargaining. You can also snack up some great deals this way for high-quality silk, jewelry, or carpets.

Many travelers come with extra luggage to Turkey, because they know they will fill it up with all the authentic clothing items, jewelry, spices, and souvenirs. The prices are more than good for most of the items sold here, but if you want to score the deal you can visit other, less touristy markets in Istanbul, like Tophane, Nisantasi, or Kadikoy.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, with over 4000 shops, and 61 streets. In a single day, this shopping epicenter is visited by almost half a million people. Here you can buy kilims, ceramics, lamps, nargile, jewelry, and other decorative items.

Suleymaniye Mosque

This beautiful mosque was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1557. Right next to the mosque is the mausoleum of the sultan and his wife Huram. There was a very popular TV show that depicts their life, The Magnificent Century.

The architecture of this place is stunning, with a water fountain in front of the entrance, Iznik tiles on the walls, and marble columns. In every corner of the courtyard, there is a minaret, and in the total of 4 minarets, there are 10 galleries. The main dome is 53 meters high, and at that time it was the tallest dome in Turkey.

The mosque complex was designed to serve not only as a place for prayer but also for cultural events. There is a school, a hospital, public baths, and a public kitchen inside the complex. There is no admission fee and usually, it is not as crowded as some other popular mosques.

Spice Bazaar

Spice bazaar is the second most famous market in Istanbul. This has always been the best place to buy spices in Istanbul, but in recent years some of the spice shops have been replaced with other souvenir shops. If you go there in the tourist season it is going to be swamped with tourists, and shopping here can feel a little bit confusing. But since spices are so light, you should not leave Istanbul without a bunch of them.

The bazaar was opened in 1660, right after the Great fire of Istanbul in the same year. There are a total of 85 shops, and today you can buy Turkish delight, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts, aside from the world-famous spices. The place is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar.

Dolmabahce Palace

Looking over the Bosphorus, Dolmabahce Palace is among the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul. It was built in 1853 and it was used as the administrative center for the Ottoman Empire at that time. Sultan Abdulmecid, who ordered for the palace to be built, lived there with his family. He lacked the comfort and luxury of European courts in Topkapi palace, that is why this is the most luxurious building in Istanbul. The price of the palace was $1.9 billion in today’s money.

Until the ablation of the Caliphate in 1924, the palace was home to 6 sultans. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, used the palace as his summer residence. This is also the largest palace in the country, with 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 hammams, and 68 toilets.

The palace was built in a mix of baroque, rococo, and neoclassicism styles with the traditional Ottoman architecture. The decor resembles those of royal courts in western Europe, like France, Italy, and Austria. The ticket for entering the palace is 40 TL, and in selamlik and harem photography is not allowed. Also, you will get a plastic cover for your shoes when you go inside.

Chora Church

One of the highlights of my visit to Istanbul was the Chora church and museum. Even though it is far from the city center and to get there you have to get a taxi, it is worth spending so much time in transit. The church is used as a mosque today, but originally it was built as an orthodox church, and it is one of the oldest orthodox churches in the world.

Built in the 4th century as part of the monastery, it was right outside of the Constantinople walls. You can still see the remains of the walls on your way to church. The inside of the church has stunning frescoes that are severely damaged by time. It appears dark inside, but once your eyes get used to it you will see all the beautiful bright colors.

The entrance fee is 54 TL, or it is included in the Istanbul Museum Pass if you prefer to have all the tickets in one place. Visiting Chora will not take longer than one hour unless you get a guide to tell you all about the history of this amazing place.

Galata Tower

If you are looking for picturesque locations in Istanbul this one is on top of my list. This medieval stone tower is only a short walk from Bosphorus. It overlooks the historic downtown and it can be seen from many places in the city.

It is 51.65 meters tall and has 9 floors. The top floors are reserved for a cafe, restaurant, and nightclub that hosts a Turkish show. The tower was built in Romanesque style in 1348, by Genovians in Constantinople. In the 18th century, the tower was used for spotting fires in the city. 

The entrance is 100 TL and the closing time in summer is midnight. This is the best place for sunset watching in the city. From here you can see the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and the entire peninsula. Since 2013 Galata Tower has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Whirling Dervishes at Galata Mevlevi Lodge Museum

At the end of a famous pedestrian street, Istiklal street, you will find this small museum, where you can see authentic dervishes. The dervish tradition started in the 13th century in the city of Konya, but you are not missing any elements of the show when you watch it in Istanbul.

Although it is observed by tourists and looks like a performance, it is still a religious ceremony. It is recommended to stay quiet, and not take photos with flash while dervishes are performing. The ticket costs 50 TL and you can get it only on Saturday because the show is on Sunday at 5 pm.

If you miss the ceremony you can catch it on Thursday at a tekke in Fatih district. The maximum capacity of Galata Mevlevi Hall is 150 people, and tickets get sold out fast, so make sure that you are at the ticket office on Saturday at noon.

Dervishes belong to the Sufi fraternity of Islam, and they share universal values like love, compassion, and deserting ego in service to God. What we see as a performance for dervishes is called dhikr, and it is a religious practice to attain the ecstatic trance to reach God.

Istanbul skyline

Galata Bridge

Wandering around the streets of Istanbul is the best way to get the feeling of the city and what life is like here. To go to the other shore of the city you can use the Galata bridge that you can walk on. The bridge has a road for cars on the top, and below the road, there is a pedestrian area with shops, cafes, restaurants, etc.

A walk across the bridge can take hours if you stop to soak in the views, get a coffee, or buy something. When walking over the bridge you are passing across the famous Golden Horne. The bridge is connecting the south and north sides, or Europe and Asia.

Don’t be surprised to see anglers fishing from the bridge. In the seafood restaurants on the bridge, the food is fresh and delicious. Stop for the views when crossing, and try to be there at “golden hour”, which is the hour right before the sun sets down, a perfect hour for taking photos.

Istiklal Street

This popular street is historically known as Grand Avenue of Pera. It is the main shopping area and it is visited by 3 million people every day in the summer season or over the weekends. It is 1.4 km long and offers some of the best boutiques, souvenir shops, shoe shops, book stores, cafes, and bars.

Here you can spend the entire day, trying out chocolates and Turkish delight, drinking coffee, shopping, and in the evening visiting bars and nightclubs. The buildings in the avenue are built in Ottoman style with popped-out windows and a lot of wooden details.

Through the Istiklal street runs a historical red tram, which is as much of city transportation as it is a tourist attraction. In Istanbul, in general, you have to be very careful where you are walking, because trams are passing through the pedestrian areas and are very quiet, but the streets are busy and if you step on their path you can accidentally get hit.

The best place to take a break from shopping in Istiklal street is in the gorgeous Flower Passage, where many cafes and restaurants are located. The second best place to visit in this street is the Atlas Arcade, which reminds me of Galleria Umberto I in Naples, Italy.

Bosphorus Cruise

Get a completely different perspective of the city from a boat tour in the evening. You will taste some amazing food and wine, sail on the yacht and see both sides of the shore with all the landmarks nestled on both sides of the Bosphorus.

The licensed guide will explain the history of Istanbul and point to the remarkable architecture you will be passing by. The best part of the trip is a sunset you will watch while sipping on a glass of delicious wine or other non-alcoholic beverages.

Istanbul’s Nightlife

The best feature of Istanbul nightlife is rooftop bars. Summer is long in Turkey and you can visit these bars comfortably from May to almost November. The views are impressive, the music is modern, and the people are amazing. Turkish people are very friendly and you will make a lot of local friends along the way.

Istanbul is one of those cities that “never sleeps”. You can dance until morning hours in electric bars and clubs. Here are a few top-rated places you can check out: Reina, X-Large, Suada Club, Ruby, and Beat. For a more romantic night out go to Sortie, Anjelique, or Supperclub.

If you travel alone or don’t know how to get around the city, there are also some tours available where you can visit several pubs and bars in one night. Tour guides are usually locals who know the clubbing scene and also know where the best beers and cocktails are.

Visit a Hammam

Turkish hammams or Turkish baths are public steam baths that consist of three rooms: a hot room to steam, a washroom to scrub, and a cooler room to relax. Not all the hammams have this layout, but you can get an idea of what to expect.

When you purchase a package in one of these hammams it includes services like 45 minutes washing, traditional body scrubbing with a handwoven washcloth (kese), a foam wash, and a relaxing massage. In most hammams, you get a thin towel wrap for your body and another towel to use after a shower.

Although it depends on the location and how popular the hammam is, prices range from 200 TL to about 1000 TL. The packages differ and you can just get an admission ticket and use the bath, or you can purchase the massage.

Food and sweets tour

I consider the entire trip to Istanbul to be one long food tasting tour, but you can also book a tour through the tour services or get recommendations from a local. Sometimes I ask the receptionist in a hotel for the best place to eat or buy food, because all of them are locals. It is a good start for a first day in the city, and later on, you can explore on your own.

To be honest, I never tried anything I didn’t like, while in Istanbul. Even a local Starbucks had amazing sandwich options. The food you should try in Istanbul consists of street food like icli kofte, balik ekmek, and kokorec, and some more traditional meals like sis kebap, manti, corba, doner, and lahmacun.

Turkey has a long tradition of delicious desserts. From baklava and kadayif to firinda sutlac, everything is extremely sweet and delicious. Try also lokma, adure, and kazandibi. You can find these in many stores or even in cafes. Usually, Turkish coffee is served with Turkish delight, and you can start from there.

Museum of Innocence

Have you ever heard of Orhan Pamuk? He is the most prominent 20th-century writer in Turkey. His works have been translated into more than 30 languages and he is a Nobel prize winner (2006). If you haven’t read it yet, get his book “Museum of Inconvenience” or “Istanbul” and read it on your way to Turkey.

The writer created the museum at the same time as he was writing the book. On display, there are clothes and items that his characters have worn or used in the book, and it represents the time frame from the 1950s to the 2000s. It is a book about love that follows the lives of two families through time.

The museum was opened in 2012, and the book was published in 2008. The ticket to this unique place is only 50 TL and usually, there are no waiting lines. If you are lucky enough you will stumble upon a novelist while walking around the museum.

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About the author

Lauren Juliff

Lauren Juliff is a published author and travel expert who founded Never Ending Footsteps in 2011. She has spent over 12 years travelling the world, sharing in-depth advice from more than 100 countries across six continents.

Lauren's travel advice has been featured in publications like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan, and her work is read by 200,000 readers each month. Her travel memoir can be found in bookstores across the planet.

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