Placed on the borderline between two different worlds, Asia and Europe, Istanbul, a city of thousands of years of history, bears the marks of the Ancient Greeks, the Persians, the Romans and Turks. This vibrant city represents a mix of civilizations, religions and cultures. Within the course of its history, Istanbul was a capital of two great Empires—The Byzantine and The Ottoman. Istanbul is Turkey's dazzling jewel in so many ways. Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus Strait into two parts—The European side and the Asian side. It’s the only city in the world residing on two continents. Istanbul is where the eastern and western cultures have organically intertwined and coexisted for centuries. This is a city of contrasts, bright colors, rich heritage, mesmerizing historical buildings, showcasing ancient Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. No wonder it’s one of the top-travel destinations, with millions of tourists choosing this place for their vacation and cultural enrichment.
Istanbul, Bosphorus Strait view
Top-10 things you should do in Istanbul
Visiting Istanbul without experiencing the best activities and fascinating sites is a true waste of time. Within this article, you will find out what Istanbul has to offer to its visitors: best places, tourist attractions, travel tips and life hacks. So buckle up, as you’re about to explore the city’s iconic landmarks, locations and fall in love with Istanbul’s unique atmosphere.
Admire the Hagia Sophia Mosque
There is one place you can’t miss when traveling to Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia is one of the Istanbul’s must-see attractions, and you can not leave the city without visiting this truthfully iconic landmark. The Hagia Sophia Mosque is the heart and soul of Istanbul, representing city’s mixed heritage within one historic building. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Hagia Sophia Mosque is a true symbol of Istanbul. The mosque’s stunning architecture displays the complex history of the city as a whole.
The Hagia Sophia looks startling on the outside but even more extraordinary on the inside, due to its murals. As you enter the mosque, the first thing that catches the eye is the Christian mosaics coexisting right next to the Ottoman signs and Arabic calligraphy, as well as quotes from the Quran written on the walls of the mosque. Indeed, this is a remarkable historical monument that has survived up to these days.
Hagia Sophia Mosque, murals
To those who are not familiar with the history of this unique place, this will come as a surprise, but the Hagia Sophia Mosque was first built as a Greek Orthodox Church in the 6th century by order of the Emperor of the Byzantine–Justinian. It was meant to outdo the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and become the world’s largest place of worship. In the 13th century the Istanbul city, then known as Constantinople–the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was stormed by the Ottomans. The largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years was converted into a mosque. From that point on, Hagia Sophia served as Istanbul’s main mosque for nearly 500 years. In 1935 though, Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey, converted it into a museum and it served as such until recently. In 2020, the status of Hagia Sophia was reconsecrated. Formerly a museum and architectural marvel, Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque again.
You can dive into Istanbul’s centuries-long history and uncover the secrets of Hagia Sophia Mosque on a half-day morning trip. Accompanied by a private local tour guide, you will explore the Istanbul Old city, admire what has left of the Byzantine architecture and follow the traces of the Roman Empire. For those who want to take it slow and explore the mosque’s history in depth, take a two-hour tour specially dedicated to Hagia Sophia Cathedral only.
Hagia Sophia Mosque
Visit the Blue Mosque
Within a stone's throw from the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, there is another remarkable site worth-visiting. The Sultanahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque due to its blue-tiled interior, is a historical monument and a place of worship right in the heart of Istanbul, built in the early 17th century. The Blue Mosque represents the Ottoman heritage. For the history enthusiasts, visiting the Blue Mosque is highly recommended. Apart from being one of the most important symbols of Istanbul, The Blue Mosque is the biggest and the last great mosque of the classical period of the Ottoman Empire. The main idea behind its fascinating architecture was to beat the Hagia Sophia's grandeur. The ascending domes and six slender soaring minarets of the Blue Mosque make up an essential part of the Istanbul’s skyline.
Blue Mosque, Iznik tiles
The Sultanahmet Mosque’s architecture is nothing like any other mosques, as it comprises classical Ottoman and partially Byzantine elements. Its interior will impress you with over 21 thousand handmade ceramic blue Iznik tiles and around 50 different tulip designs. The Blue Mosque interior also features verses from the Quran. Over 200 stained-glass windows bring light into the spacious hall of the Blue Mosque. Everything about this place will astonish you. Situated in the Sultanahmet central neighborhood, the Blue Mosque is one of the most visited places in Istanbul.
Walk around Hippodrome of Constantinople
The third most important attraction of the Old City is the ancient Hippodrome—yet another historical and architectural heritage of the Byzantine Empire. It was built in 203 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and reconstructed later by the Byzantine ruler Constantine I in 330 A.D., which brought the Hippodrome its real glory. Back in the days, it used to be the epicenter of the Byzantine social life. Apart from being the place for chariot races, it also served as an arena for gladiator fights, official ceremonies and celebrations.
Now, it’s one of the Istanbul’s most popular meeting places that is shaping out the city’s recognizable skyline. Paying a visit to this special place while walking around the Istanbul Old City is a must for any traveler.
Shop in the Grand Bazaar
One of the highlights of a trip to Istanbul is shopping in the Grand Bazaar, which is yet another historical place in the city. It has been Turkey’s biggest and oldest Bazaar existing since 1461. It used to be the focal point of trade during the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Bazaar is an incredibly unique market with centuries-long history. To these days, it’s the world's greatest shopping place, spanning over 30 thousand square meters. It’s probably the most fun place for your shopping spree with its bright colors and unique atmosphere unlike any other. No wonder visiting the Grand Bazaar is on every top list of things to do in Istanbul. Being a home to around four thousand shops, it’s a paradise for shopaholics.
The Grand Bazaar is the best place to check your bargaining skills and, if successful, even knock some prices down a bit and make a profit from it. The Istanbul Bazaar has the best authentic stores, where you can buy things like ceramics, handmade carpets, leather goods, textiles, middle-eastern sandalwood scents and other stuff that could liven up your home interior and make it unique, for instance. And of course, Grand Bazaar is the place to try famous Turkish coffee, as Turkey is renowned for its coffee culture. All shops in the Grand Bazaar are open from Monday to Saturday 09:00—19:00.
Even if you don’t want to waste your time on shopping during your trip to Turkey, you should consider making an exception in this case, cause the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest cultural experiences Istanbul has to offer, and you can’t miss it. It’s a must-visit destination not only in the country’s capital but also in the whole Turkey. The Grand Bazaar is vibrant and chaotic, yet it’s way more than just shopping for souvenirs. It leaves a spicy aftertaste of an incredibly beautiful culture with its rich history.
Explore Topkapi Palace
The charm of exploring the Istanbul Old City is that all the main attractions are in the walking distance from each other. So you can start with Hagia Sophia Mosque, then head to the Blue Mosque, walk around the Hippodrome, then visit Topkapi Palace, an astonishingly beautiful mansion of the Ottoman Emperors, who lived there during their reign. Built in the 15th century, the palace served as a residence to around 30 sultans and their families for almost four centuries, until Abdulmecid I decided to move his residency to a more modern Dolmabahçe Palace, that was built in the 19th century.
Once a residence of Turkish sultans, now the Topkapi Palace is not only an architectural monument with centuries-long history but also a museum featuring over 86 thousand valuable artifacts, great imperial collection of books, manuscripts, armor, clothing and personal belongings of Turkish, Ottoman rulers and their family members. The palace stretches across seven hundred square meters, with four courtyards and a myriad of rooms and buildings. The most popular parts of the Palace are the Treasury Chamber and the Hareem complex.
Topkapi Palace, Iznik ceramic
Hareem is a massive structure with over 400 rooms. It was a home to the Sultan's mother, wives and around 300 concubines. The Treasury Chamber is where some of the most valuable objects and relics are held like precious gems, jewel-encrusted Sword of Suleyman the Magnificent and the most famous the Topkapi Dagger, which is also known to be the most expensive weapon in the world, made of gold and encrusted with emeralds.
The Topkapi Palace is one of the most iconic and famous Turkish museums to visit in Istanbul. Taking a tour to this palace is a must. Around three million visitors come to see this historical place every year. Due to its historical importance and archaeological value, the Topkapi Palace is on a UNESCO World Heritage list. The palace displays four centuries of architecture as it has been rebuilt, restructured and expanded through the course of its existence.
Cruise across the Bosphorus Strait
Back in the days, the Bosphorus Strait played a major role in the world trade, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and then through the Dardanelles strait, linking up with the Mediterranean. To these days, the Bosphorus keeps shaping Istanbul’s life and culture.
Among top best things to do in Istanbul, a cruise across the Bosphorus Strait is probably one of the most enjoyable and picturesque one, as it offers stunning views of the Istanbul’s skyline. During the cruise across the world-famous Bosphorus Strait that usually lasts several hours, you will be able to see the Istanbul’s landmarks like Hagia Sophia Mosque, Galata Tower, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace from afar.
There are many Bosphorus cruises and boat tours, but if you’re looking for something special, you should take an Istanbul historical Bosphorus cruise. This tour offers a VIP-experience with a private guide and a private luxurious yacht. The Bosphorus cruise lasts 10 hours, and the program is fully packed with historical city sights and unforgettable experiences. You will be enjoying drinks and snacks offered onboard, while admiring the Bosphorus Strait’s landscape and enjoying Istanbul’s beautiful skyline with its most iconic landmarks. In addition to that, you’ll get to visit some of the most prominent attractions without having to line up for the tickets in order to get inside. The organizers got you covered on that one with a skip-the-line pass.
There is also an evening Bosphorus cruise that will give you a chance to enjoy Istanbul’s evening lights while having a nice dinner on a luxurious boat. The dinner comes with a Turkish show, live music and performances. This is a great way to spend an evening in Istanbul admiring a stunning sunset while sipping wine on a luxurious yacht.
Climb up the Galata Tower
For the best panoramic views of Istanbul, you should consider getting to the top of the Galata Tower, one of the oldest towers in the world. This cone-capped building is one of the most iconic structures in Istanbul, dating back to the 14th century. The Galata tower was built in the 16th century as a lighthouse or a watchtower, mainly for the defense of the city as it was a crucial part of the defense wall surrounding the district. Now the Galata Tower is open for the tourists and serves as an architectural monument and a museum with exhibition halls.
In order to get to the top of the Galata building, you’d have to climb up 146 steps, but the panoramic views are worth every effort you made to see this stunning beauty of Istanbul and the Bosphorus Strait. However, there is an elevator that can take you to the topmost floor of the building in case you’re not ready to do this on foot.
See the whirling dervish show
Attending the whirling dervish show is one of a kind experience every traveler must have when in Istanbul. It’s one of the most visited ceremonies and very popular with tourists. Although the whirling dervish show is more than just an entertainment, it’s a cultural heritage full of rituals and religious elements. The Whirling dervish is a spiritual dance that is believed to help dancers attain a union with God. This mind-altering experience is on every list of top things to do in Istanbul. You don’t want to miss it for the world.
Explore the Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is one of the most mystical underground constructions in Istanbul. Built in the 6th century, it served as an underground water reservoir with a capacity to store up to a hundred thousand tons of water. Now the cistern is a museum, and it’s among Istanbul’s top-visited places. The Basilica Cistern is really easy to find as it's in a walking distance from the Hagia Sophia Mosque.
Enjoy the Turkish Cuisine
Turkey is renowned for its delicious cuisine, which is among the reasons why travelers opt for a trip to Istanbul, for instance. Turkish food is something worth traveling to Turkey in order to try it. Istanbul’s mix of cultures has had its impact on the variety of food choices, so there is plenty to choose from. For all the foodies out there, we definitely recommend going on an Istanbul Street Food Trip. The walking food street tour, lasting for two and a half hours, will be accompanied by a local guide that will take you to the best places of the Old City of Istanbul for you to have an unforgettable experience. You’ll be enjoying the most delicious cuisine while exploring the historical part of Istanbul, walking around iconic attractions. Taking a street food tour is among the best things to do in Istanbul, no doubt. Eat. Drink. Walk. Explore!
Going beyond an average tourist experience
We’ve got a little bonus here for experienced and more sophisticated travelers who want to try something unique…. In case you’ve already visited all of Istanbul’s main landmarks, and you are looking for something more than just an ordinary trip to an overcrowded tourist site, here’s a list of things you can do in Istanbul that goes beyond an average tourist experience for all the savvy travelers out there.
Visit Sapanca and Masukiye regions
For experienced travelers, who are always thinking outside the box and want to go beyond basic tourist package, we would recommend exploring Turkey’s countryside and enjoy a great day out surrounded by Turkish beautiful nature. Taking a tour to the Spanaca and Masukiye regions is one of the best things you can do to escape the noise and bustle of Istanbul.
Spanaca, a small town just a 1.5-hour drive from Istanbul, is a great getaway. It’s the best place to experience the serenity of nature. While exploring this beautiful town, consider visiting Turkey’s natural wonder, Spanaca Lake. It is the crown jewel of the area and one of the most important freshwater lakes of Marmara. As a part of this tour, you’ll get to see the local way of life in the village of Masukiye. A trip to Turkey’s countryside is one of the most enjoyable experiences. You will visit Masukiye waterfalls, considered being the most beautiful waterfalls in the whole Turkey. You’ll get to see the stunning landscape and enjoy the splendor of Turkish nature. You will spend some quality time enjoying the authentic atmosphere of this place.
Besides Istanbul’s famous landmarks like Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Bosphorus and the Blue Mosque, there are so many more things that attract tourists. Sure enough, beautiful historical sights, the most prominent attractions and delicious food along with famous Turkish coffee are among the most obvious reasons, but there are some other great and fun activities that drive millions of tourists to Istanbul as well. ATV Biking in the Belgrad Forest is a great example. If you want to have yourself an adrenaline-boosting activity. This is the one. You will be riding in the wilderness of the Belgrad Forest for a half an hour session. With a help of a local guide, you will ride through a challenging track. The best part is that you don’t need a driving license for that! So enjoy the ride, guarantee, you will have the best time biking in the Belgrad Forest.
Visit Bursa - an ancient Ottoman Empire city
Bursa is one of Turkey’s most prominent historical city. It used to be the first capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1326 to 1363. Bursa city is easily reached from Istanbul by a regular ferry that goes across the Marmara Sea. Bursa is famous for its gorgeous silk products, religious monuments, mosques, old streets and historical sights dating back to the Ottoman era. One of the most popular things to see here is the Green Mosque with the carved marble doorway built in a new Turkish style. On a Bursa Day Tour you will enjoy astonishing views, having the best time while exploring the city. This tour lasts for 14 hours, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore the city in no rush. A local tour guide will help you get around. As a part of this tour, you will go on a road trip to the Uludag Mountain, which is known in mythology as a place where the Gods watched the Trojan war. You will definitely enjoy your time in Bursa and your walks along the ancient streets, admiring the ottoman architecture.
Explore the Princess Islands
Another way to escape the chaos and noise of Istanbul is to pay a visit to the Princess Islands, representing a chain of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara. It’s a popular tourist attraction in Turkey, but not an obvious one, lying on the surface. These islands are a true oasis of peace and serenity. To make this trip even better, take the Princess Islands cruise where a local guide will tell you the story of these islands and explain where did the name come from. While on a boat, you’ll be offered a delicious Turkish cuisine at lunch. You will enjoy breathtaking views of the Marmara sea, see the picture-perfect Islands from afar and visit some of them. The Princess Islands are one of the best preserved natural areas and sights. It’s an eight hours cruise, so prepare to have the best time both on and off board. A day trip to the Princess Islands is an unforgettable experience and one of the best things to do when visiting Istanbul.
Relax in Turkish Hammam with 500-year-old traditions
One of the best things you can do while in Istanbul is relax in Turkish hammam. Hammam is an indispensable aspect of Turkish culture, offering relaxing and refreshing time for every visitor. This is among the best things one can experience in Istanbul, no doubt.
Hammam was a part of a daily routine in the Ottoman Empire. Traditional hammam is a Turkish version of steam baths and traditionally has been a place for public bathing as well as a place of purification of body and mind. While in Istanbul, you can have yourself a 500-year-old hammam experience. Vezneciler bath is providing this service for five centuries now, offering the best bathing traditions and ultimate relaxation. It is highly recommended to visit this place when in Istanbul.