Top 15 Things to Do in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

by Erlend Geerts

in Istanbul Tours & Itineraries, Practical Information, Sightseeing

Here are my top 15 things to do in Istanbul, in no particular order. I chose these not because they are popular, but because I think they are worth seeing or experiencing. Therefore, for instance, I didn’t include the world famous Blue Mosque, but suggest something different. I also draw attention to many hidden gems, often overlooked while preparing for your visit. Enjoy!

Bosphorus Cruise

Bosphorus Cruise in Istanbul, TurkeyA trip to Istanbul is not complete without a Bosphorus cruise. Not only provides it a nice overview of the city, both the European and Asian shores of the famous waterway have a lot to offer – century old palaces and mansions galore.

There are several cruises you can take: a short one (to the second suspension bridge and back), a long one (all the way to the Black Sea and back), and a sunset tour in summertime.

The latter used to be my favorite, but became victim of its success. These days I prefer to take the full Bosphorus day tour, or the shorter version if you are pressed for time.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, TurkeyThis splendid church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. After years of restoration works, the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is finally scaffolding free, enabling you to absorb its splendor as it was meant to be.

Standing in the middle of the staggering spacious nave under the 43 meter wide dome 65 meters above your head defies belief – and physics for that matter. Climb up the spiral ramp to get to the gallery and gaze at the splendid Byzantine mosaics, including Christ flanked by Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, TurkeyTopkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayı) is rightfully a sight you can’t afford to miss while in Istanbul. This complex of kiosks and pavilions contained by four lush green courtyards is where generations of sultans had their principal residence for almost half a century.

Top attractions at Topkapi Palace are the Harem, an adorned ‘cage’ of the sultan’s women, the treasury storing the crown jewels and containing the famous Topkapi dagger, and the weapon’s room boosting their fine craftsmanship even when it came to making swords and bows.

Also, don’t forget to walk all the way till the end for breathtaking views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul is not only fascinating above ground, but also underground with the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan). This exquisite piece of Byzantine engineering is a spectacular underground cistern, once bringing drinking water with aqueducts from current Bulgaria to Istanbul.

With its dimmed light and classical music to the background sound of dripping water, some find it romantic while others experience it as slightly spooky.

Tread the walkways and watch the fish swim between the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Walk all the way to the end to see the Medusa head, placed upside down as the base of one of the columns.

Archaeology Museum

Archaeology Museum in IsatnbulPeople often skip the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), and that’s a pity. This is a real hidden Istanbul gem, displaying one of the world’s richest collections of classical antiquities.

Top attractions here are the marvelous sarcophagus of Alexander the Great depicting important phases of his life, the blue tiled Karaman Mihrab, the beautiful Tiled Pavilion, and the Treaty of Kadesh – the world’s earliest surviving peace treaty. Not an option with kids? Wait until the see the model Trojan Horse in the children’s section.

You can reach the Archaeology Museum by going left down the hill in Topkapi Palace’s first courtyard, or via Gülhane Park.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, TurkeyThe Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is much more exciting than the name reveals. Housed in the former palace of Ibrahim Pasa — the most talented Grand Vizier of Süleyman — and overlooking the Hippodrome, the collection has over 40.000 items on display.

Each room concentrates on a different period or area of the Islamic world, also reflecting daily Turkish life from the 8th till the 19th century. Top features are the world renowned collection of gigantic carpets hanging from the ceiling, a recreation of a Turkic nomadic tent, and the peaceful Turkish coffee house where they brew Turkish coffee over an open fire.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, TurkeyBargain hunting at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Over 500 years old, but still one of the largest covered bazaars in the world. Its 60 streets contain no less than 5000 shops, 60 restaurants, 18 fountains, 12 mosques, and even a school.

This is not a tourist trap as some claim. Locals shop here every day, but odds are they’re better at bargaining than you are. The bazaar is very famous for its carpets, leather, ceramics, souvenirs and jewelry.

It’s hard not to get lost in this chaos, so try to remember where you entered before wandering around.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, TurkeyInstead of the iconic Blue Mosque, I prefer the less famous Süleymaniye Mosque. I think it’s the nicest and most impressive Istanbul mosque, and not invaded by thousands of tourists every day.

The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed by the famous architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent, and is a great tribute to both. It’s actually much more than a place of worship. It’s a complex of buildings containing a hospital, a kitchen, a school, etc.

Don’t forget to visit the tombs of Süleyman and Roxalana behind the graveyard, the tomb of Sinan outside the complex, and eat kuru fasulye (haricot beans) in one of the many restaurants in the Alley of Addicts.

Chora Church / Kariye Museum

Chora Church in Istanbul, TurkeyThe Chora Church, Church of St Savior, or Kariye Museum is a bit off the beaten track, but well worth a visit. Located in Chora/Edirnekapi next to the old city walls, it is one of the most amazing religious building Istanbul has to offer.

The walls and ceilings of this church are adorned with stunning Byzantine mosaics and fabulous frescoes. Some are considered as the most significant in the Christian world.

And while you’re there, enjoy the remains of the fifth century city walls and the wooden Ottoman houses.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, TurkeyDolmabahçe Palace is just fascinating. A few facts to demonstrate my point here. The palace is huge — 600 meters in length — containing no less than 285 rooms and 43 salons. It was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdüi Mecit, basically to prove that the declining Ottoman Empire was doing just fine, whereas the construction resulted in exactly the opposite.

Nevertheless, no expenses were spared, proof of which the excessive use of gold leaf, crystal and marble. Obvious key features are the Baccarat crystal staircase, the main bathroom, and the ceremonial hall with its 4.5 ton chandelier. Just seeing the latter is impressive!

After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk adopted the palace as its home, and died there November 10, 1938 at 09:05. As a tribute, all clocks in the palace show that time.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower in Istanbul, TurkeyThe Galata Tower is one of the best spots in town to get a 360 panoramic view of Istanbul. On a bright day you can even spot the Princes’ Islands from this 60 meter high tower. There is also a restaurant/cafe at the ninth floor, but feel free to skip that entirely.

Instead, walk around in the cozy streets of Galata surrounding the tower and have a drink or some food on one of the many terraces. Not only will you enjoy it much more, you’ll also get a much better deal.

Bebek and Ortaköy

Ortaköy in Istanbul, TurkeyBebek and — to a lesser extend — Ortaköy are two village by the Bosphorus worth visiting, yet lesser known among tourists.

Bebek is a lively, green, and wealthy neighborhood by the Bosphorus. It’s well known and frequently visited by locals during the weekends. It’s a local all-time favorite to have a (late) breakfast with a stunning view followed by a nice stroll on the boardwalk, topped with a drink in one of the many cafes. Other come later, and enjoy the buzzing nightlife.

If you took a Bosphorus tour, it’s hard to miss Ortaköy. Its cozy mosque by the shore just before the first bridge stands out. Another thing that draws a lot of attention is the Sunday crafts market, as well as the many car-free cobbled stoned streets filled with restaurants and cafes.

Visit Local Markets

Market in Kadıköy, Istanbul.Turkey’s kitchen is among the richest of all, blending flavors of different continents and cultures.

All these dishes are made with fresh produce, stuff you too can buy first hand by visiting local markets in Istanbul. These town markets (pazar) can look overwhelming at first, but be assured that you’ll receive a warm welcome by stallholders. Communication may be difficult, but the experience is priceless.

Istanbul’s Nightlife

Reina in Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul’s nightlife can compete with the rest of the world. Whether you want to enjoy a (local) live performance while sipping on your favorite drink, attend concerts of current and past world stars, or dance the night away in open-air venues by the Bosphorus or while enjoying a rooftop 360 view, Istanbul has it all.

Getting Scrubbed in a Hamam

Kilic Ali Pasa Turkish Bath/Hamam in Istanbul, TurkeyThere is nothing better to rejuvenate your body than getting scrubbed in a hamam. Just picture this after a long day of walking: wearing nothing but a cotton cloth, first relax in a steamy room laying on hot marble, listening to the echoes of running water. Then a brisk soapy body scrub, followed by a sultan’s massage until your skin is smooth and soft.

There are several hamams available in the city. Among the oldest are the (recently renovated) Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam. The first is right on Sultanahmet Square, the latter is in Tophane-Karaköy, not far from Istanbul Modern and Witt Istanbul Hotel.

Photo Source [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

What's Next

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Nishant Jha February 2, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Thanks once again! I just picked up my preferred option for our Hamam experience!

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam is the one!

Cheers,
Nishant

Reply

Erlend Geerts February 3, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Hi Nishant,

I think that’s an excellent choice.

Erlend

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Shalini March 19, 2014 at 12:52 am

Thanks a lot for this great website! Very useful info presented in nice articles. Eventhough it is not updated anymore, thanks for keeping it online :-)

Reply

Erlend Geerts March 19, 2014 at 7:25 am

Hi Shalini,

Thanks for the compliments.

The site still gets updated, but we moved to less frequent, but longer and more difficult topics. Of course comments are still moderated and answered on a daily basis.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Georg Boecker March 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Hello Erlend,
very nice website indeed! But, regarding 15 things to do in istanbul: why not include less known gems like Sokullu Mehmet Pasa Camii, Kücük Ayasofya or Semsi Ali Pasa Camii, and leave out the Hagia Sophia, which is visited by everyone anyway?
Thanks a lot and greetings – hope to stay with you one day
Georg Boecker

Reply

Erlend Geerts March 20, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Hi Georg,

You have a point of course, and who says that there won’t be a follow-up one day. On the flip side, if I had left out the Hagia Sophia, then I would get similar responses wondering how I could skip such a majestic world piece :-)

Hope to welcome you soon,
Erlend

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John March 26, 2014 at 7:10 pm

I am traveling with 3 others to Istanbul and staying at a decent hotel in the European -Old section, near the blue mosque.
the hotel offered to have a driver or taxi service pick my group up for 39 lire.
Someone else has contacted a private vip taxi service, with the gate check in and bag flow assistance for 4 x’s that = about 140 lira.

The four of us are well traveled guys..
Thoughts?

Reply

Erlend Geerts March 26, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Hi John, please check this and this post for details. Please also do go through the comments.

Erlend

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Liz March 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Erlend,
I have wanted to visit Istanbul for years and am finally going to get the chance.
I’m from a very small town in Missouri US and as yet have cruised Alaska and visited Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas… yes, I really like the beach (Alaska was a family mandate). I love this site! I can almost feel the city calling to me when I read it. I’ve read several in preperation, we’re hoping for October this year. 15 things is my favorite because it brings out the “what about” factor. PS, your patience and diplomacy with your answers is Fabulous! Kudos!

Reply

Erlend Geerts March 26, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Thanks a lot Liz for sharing your thoughts. I means a lot to me.

I hope you will have a nice stay, you’re certainly well prepared if your read all 100 posts :-)

Take good care and have a nice trip,
Erlend

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Betty April 6, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Hello Erlend!
After founding this great site and reading almost ALL comments on every recommendation I feel very well prepared for my upcoming visit to Istanbul. Thanks a lot for a fantastic Job!
I am travelling next week with my teenage daughter, and one of the things I’d like to enjoy, besides all the history and Sightseeing is a Hamam.

I booked already a massage in the Hürrem Sultan Hamam, but I am wondering, can I still go without having to take one of their packages? They are a bit pricey! Do I also have to pay an entrance fee? And, do you know if theres a limit on the time that can be spent there?
Again, thank you for your time, dedication and for sharing all your knowledge and love for Istanbul with the world!
Betty

Reply

Erlend Geerts April 7, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Hi Betty,

I’m afraid you won’t be able to go in without choosing one of their packages. If it’s not too crowded, after the massage is finished, normally you can hang around as long as you want.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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Ahmad April 14, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Thanks to the internet ….. NOW I AM ABLE TO KNOW WHAT TO DO IN ISTANBUL CAUSE IM TRAVELLING SOON ;)

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Ahmed Mohammed May 7, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Hi There,

I have read this Post and other Post’s of your’s and all of your Posts are very Helpful.
I would be travelling to Istanbul in couple of Weeks and all your Posts helped me Plan the Itenary.
Thank you again.

Regards
Ahmed Mohammed

Reply

Deepti May 12, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Hi,

This is a very useful & informative website. We are travelling to Istanbul and will be staying at Sirkeci and I believe most of the above mentioned places are close by, do you suggest we go through a tour guide or we can do on our own. Tours offered to us are crazily priced.

Also if we have half a day after we land in the afternoon, can we go to Bosphorus cruise for a short circle and then go for cable car and Pierri Loti Cafe.

Regards,
DEEPTI

Reply

Erlend Geerts May 12, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Hi Deepti,

Yes sure, you can do all these by yourself. And yes, you can enjoy a tea at Pierre Loti after doing the Bosphorus cruise.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Trevor May 29, 2014 at 4:54 am

My fiancee and I are going to Istanbul for our honeymoon before adventuring through Europe for a bit.

The bosphorous cruise with the sunset sounds romantic. Does anyone have any experience with this? I’ve read that the lines are very long to get on these boats and the trip is not what it used to be.

We are traveling this July.

Reply

Liz Waggener July 27, 2014 at 7:09 am

We will be in Istanbul October 3-6th – I have read this is during a religious holiday and many things are closed. We very much want to see the Grand Bazaar – will it also be closed during this time?

Reply

Erlend Geerts July 27, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Hi Liz,

This post on religious holidays and this one on the feast of the sacrifice should provide the info you’re looking for.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Maz August 18, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Hi Erlend,

I am visiting Istanbul in a week and am interested in buying mens suits while there. Do you know which shops I should check out? I am looking for a good mix of quality and price. I have heard of Sarar and own a few suits by them. I don’t care about brand name that much as long as it is a nice suit.

Thanks,
Maz

Reply

Erlend Geerts August 19, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Hi Maz,
I’m sure you’ll find a nice selection of both famous and local brands in Istanbul’s top shopping centers. Alternatively, you could browse around in Nişantaşı, but prices will be higher.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

glenn August 20, 2014 at 8:54 am

hello… weird question but does anyone know if the scaffolding is still up inside the Aya Sofia dome?

Reply

Erlend Geerts August 23, 2014 at 1:28 am

Hi Glenn,

Last time I was there, there was none.

Cheers,
Erlend

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Chiara September 4, 2014 at 10:42 am

I am trying to decide whether to book the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam or the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam. Is it correct that the latter has different operating hours for men and women? That would mean that my husband and I would have to go in different times of the day which is kind of inconvenient. Does the Ayasofya Hamam work the same way? From the site it isn’t clear.

Thanks for your help.
Chiara

Reply

Erlend Geerts September 5, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Hi Chiara,

You’re right that the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam has different service hours for men and for women. So they basically made the choice for you. Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam doesn’t have this, but keep in mind that although you can enjoy the hamam at the same time, you will be in different rooms.

Kind regards,
Erlen

Reply

Kathy September 7, 2014 at 2:05 am

Hi there

What a fabulous and very informative web site/magazine. My husband and I are visiting Istanbul for the first time in 4 days on 10 September and will have 3 full days before returning back to the UK on Sunday 14 September. I have found all the articles featured here so valuable. I have pinned your site on my mobile phone and laptop so that I can refer to your advice/articles whilst in Istanbul and have also printed off your advice on how to get from the Airport to our hotel and all about taxi scams.

Thank you so much for all this invaluable information.

Kind regards

Kathy

Reply

Erlend Geerts September 8, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Hi Kathy,

It’s my pleasure.

Enjoy your holiday,
Erlend

Reply

Junaid September 20, 2014 at 11:01 am

Hi there. Just wanted to know that is it possible to walk the suspension bridge( the one in the bhosphorus cruise photo) or is it strictly reserves for vehicles only. Thanks in advance.

Reply

Erlend Geerts September 21, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Hi Junaid,

No one is allowed to walk on or over the bridge, simply to prevent suicide jumps. There are police checkpoints on either side.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Sondes October 12, 2014 at 2:43 am

Hi Erlend,

I would like first to thank you for the information you are sharing with us. The website is so helpful and easy to use.
I will be visiting Istanbul at the begining of November for a week .
Could you please suggest a romantic and nice restaurant for a dinner (trying to surprise by partner for his birthday).
I thought about the bosphorus dinner cruise but I am not sure if they operate in November as it may be cold.

Kind regards
Sondes

Reply

Erlend Geerts October 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Hi Sondes,

I would stay clear of the Bosphorus cruise dinner at that time of the year for sure. Have a look at Mikla (you’ll find links in the Locals Share category). Have a look at it, it’s a very famous restaurant with great views. Alternatively, you could go with 360 at BuzAda, the fabricated island on the Bosphorus. Views are obviously great, and you need to get there with there own boat shuttle, maybe a nice extra touch. Go in time though, because after 22:00 it may turn into a nightclub. The same goes for all the other places mentioned on the nightclub post.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Iftekhar October 21, 2014 at 4:59 am

Hello

I’m a 23-year-old student visiting Istanbul for the first time from Friday January 9th till Saturday January 10th on my transit to New York. I’ll be arriving at the Ataturk Airport on the morning of 9th and leaving on the morning of 10th. I’m completely clueless as to where I should stay, where I should go for siteseeing, for the food, etc. (I’m not really into museums, etc but would definitely like to see some famous landmarks). Your website seems to have some good information but if you could possibly give me some information about which safe budget hotel to stay in so that I’m within walking distance to most of the attractions, and which places I should definitely visit, I’d really appreciate it.

Thanks and regards,
Iftekhar

Reply

Erlend Geerts October 21, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Hi Iftekar,

We never give hotel recommendations, but since you have an early flight, you might stay close to the airport. We have plenty of pages on what to see, eat, and do. Pick what you think you must have seen, since you can’t do it all in one day.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

alqabaly mohammed October 26, 2014 at 10:35 am

HI
I am a 19 years old student who was thinking to spend my vocation in germany for this summer but after reading this article , I intend to visit Turkey firs .Thank you very much for openning my eyes on such beauty .

Many thanks,
M.Qabaly

Reply

ponting October 27, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Hi,
Wow, what a wonderful site.
We are visiting in 1st week of November for 4 days. Are there any good sites for kids ( 4 years). We stay near Sultanahmet.
Thank you

Reply

Erlend Geerts October 27, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Hi,

Have checked out this page for activities in Istanbul with kids?

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

ponting October 28, 2014 at 11:11 am

Thank you very much. I will check the link.

Reply

Paul Jake November 11, 2014 at 8:20 am

Is Istanbul a gay friendly place?
Do they have gay scenes or Hamam for gay clients?

Please advise.

THanks

Reply

Erlend Geerts November 11, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Hi Paul,

Istanbul has a large and active gay community. Unfortunately, I can’t give you many details. I’m sure there are blogs geared towards the gay community.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

Echa Khusnul November 21, 2014 at 5:34 am

Hi Erlend

i just got back from istanbul, i stayed at asian side, at kadikoy. and all i can say is… im in love with istanbul, such a great city. but i think you have to expose the asian side also, because there is so many good place too. your blog is really helpfull and makes me wanna go to istanbul again. hopefully i can go to istanbul again next year.

regards
Echa

Reply

Erlend Geerts November 22, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Hi Echa,

Glad to hear that you fell in love with Istanbul. I have two pages on the Asian side of Istanbul, but maybe you overlooked those.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Reply

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