20 things to do in Istanbul

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Istanbul is not the capital of Türkiye (Ankara is the capital), but it is the largest city and financial center of Türkiye. This city is unique because a part of Istanbul lies in Europe and the other part lies in Asia. So, the city is split in two with a water channel, the Bosphorus strait, that forms a boundary between the two continents. The waterway connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.  You should discover the two parts of Istanbul although most must visits lie in the European part. There is much to visit in this vivid, big city.

Tip: if you use public transport, it’s best to buy an Istanbulkart. It’s cheaper and you will save time. You can buy them at the ticket machines called Biletmatik near the metro or at some kiosks. Take the Anonymous Istanbul kart because the other ones are for students of the Turkish Universities or for Turkish Citizens.

Tip: buy the Istanbul Museum Pass which is cheaper than paying for everything separate. You pay one price, and you can enter 13 museums in 5 days. Purchase you Museum Pass Istanbul here.

The old Istanbul was built on the seven hills, that’s why they call Istanbul the Seven Hills city.

Learn the history of the Hagia Sophia

While you visit the Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Aya Sofya) you learn about a long history. It used to be the Cathedral of Constantinople and later it was transformed into an Imperial Mosque of the Ottoman Empire. So, this place was where Christians came together and after it served as a mosque. Now it’s possible to visit for everybody no matter what religion you have. Here you can see the Ottoman and Byzantium effects in one architectural piece.  

It is the oldest and fastest built cathedral. You can find this Masterpiece on the first hill of Istanbul, there are seven hills in total. The Hagia Sophia was constructed three times in the same place but with a different architectural understanding. Learn about the long history while you visit the Hagia Sophia.

Learn more about the Hagia Sophia on their website.

Wander around the Topkapi Palace Museum

The Topkapi Palace and harem has a long history and an amazing architecture. It’s an impressive palace that was the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Abdulmecid I. Read about the history on this website.

You need to know it’s a really large area to discover so it will take some time, at least 2 hours. I recommend taking an audio guide or personal guide to get all the information.

Tip: go early in the morning during opening hours, 9am, because it gets really crowded. Also, it has some closing days so make sure to check this in front.

Visit the Basilica Cistern

Stunning underground water filtration system. It’s the largest Byzantine cistern in Istanbul that survived. It filtered water for the buildings on the first hill like the Great Palace of Constantinople. Like many other places in Istanbul, this place has a long history. Go to their website for extra information.

Stand on the Sultanahmet Square

The Sultanahmet Square, which used to be a Hippodrome, is a famous tourist area in Istanbul. Best is to walk around the area and enjoy the views of some impressive buildings.

The Byzantium Hippodrome is from the 4th century and is built by Constantine the Great. Many races took place during the Byzantium period. It was built after the declaration of Istanbul as the capital of the Roman Empire. Now it’s called Sultanahmet Square.

On the Sultanahmet square you’ll find three monuments: Egyptian Obelisk, the Colossus and The Serpentine Column.

Discover the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque also called Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a famous mosque and one of the oldest in the world. You will be impressed by this unbelievable architecture. This mosque had a huge importance during the Ottoman Empire. It was the project of Sultan Ahmet I. Special about this mosque, besides the incredible architecture, is that it has six minarets which is more than other mosques during that time. Also, the courtyard is the largest of all the Ottoman mosques.

You can visit this mosque if you are non-Muslim but as a visitor you must enter through the South door. You can just follow the signs. The mosque is closed during the prayer times which is five times a day for around 30 minutes. On Friday it’s closed longer so I would avoid visiting it on Friday.

Tip: make sure you are covered up from head to toe and women should bring a scarf to cover up their hair. It is possible to lend one at the entrance.

Impressed at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

In the Arts Museum there is a large collection of handmade tiles, rugs, calligraphy and much more. It has more than 40,000 works of art. You’ll find the world’s largest carpet collection here. If you want to read more about this place, visit the following website.

Buy souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar you will find many amazing souvenirs. I’m sure you will find something in one of over 4,000 shops you have there. This Grand Bazaar is built around 1560 and it’s the oldest covered market of the city. You must wander around and get lost.

The Archeological Museum

It’s one of the largest museums in the world. There are many things to discover from the pre-Islamic period. More information you can find on this website.

Cross over the Galata Bridge

The Galata Bridge is the connection between the old city of Istanbul, Eminönü, and the modern district called Beyoğlu. Underneath the bridge you will find many restaurants and cafes.

Tip: cross over the bridge during the day and night because it’s a different vibe.

Climb the Galata Tower

You will see this 67-meter-high tower sticking out of the buildings. It used to be the tallest building in the city for centuries. It’s from the 14th century, so built during the colonial times. You must climb the tower; it takes around 15 minutes, and you will be amazed by the beautiful views over the city. Read more about this place here.

Tip: go early in the morning during opening hours at 8:30 am or right before sunset.

Walk on the street İstiklal Caddesi

İstiklal Avenue (Turkish: İstiklal Caddesi) is a street for pedestrians only and it’s one of the famous avenues in Istanbul. It’s located in the Beyoğlu district. You must walk around this street. If you want to go shopping, this is the place to be.

Dolmabahçe Palace Museum

This palace used to be the most expensive residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. It lays along the Bosphorus and in total there are 285 rooms and 6 hammams. It’s built by Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid and it’s the largest palace in Türkiye. It was made to replace the Topkapi Palace which was not suitable anymore for the Ottoman royals. Read more about this place on the following website.

The island Maiden’s Tower

The Maiden’s Tower is also called Leander’s Tower which is on a small islet on the Bosphorus. It’s the symbol of love in Türkiye. You can take a ferry and enjoy the monument from close by. There are many legends like the ‘legend of the princess’ and the ‘legend of the two loving towers’, but there are many more.  

The legend of the princess is about a princess whose future was foreseen by a prophetess. She would die of a snakebite. The king immediately built this tower in the middle of the water to protect her. In a fruit basket the snake was hidden which bit her and so she died exactly how it was predicted.

Views from the Rumeli Fortress

The Rumeli Fortress is a must visit to have a beautiful view over Istanbul. The fort also has a long history and played a big role in the Ottoman Empire. It has a good military support for the empire. More information about this fort you can find on this website.

Yedikule Fortress

Another amazing fort to visit is the Yedikule fortress. It’s also called the Fortress of the Seven Towers and it used to play a big role because it was once the entrance to the Byzantine capital. The complex was important for the Ottomans.

Get lost in the Asian part of Istanbul

The Asian side of Istanbul is also called the Anatolian side. Best thing you can do is wander around and get lost in this part. You can easily get on the ferry from Eminonu, Kabatas, or Besiktas.

Some places you can visit are the following:

  • Discover the Yeldeğirmeni Neighbourhood.
  • Take the heritage tram located in Kadıköy through the streets of Altiyol, Bahariye, and get off at Moda.
  • Walk around the Moda Tea Garden and enjoy the nice views.
  • Go shopping at Bağdat Avenue or Bahariye Street.

Visit the many beautiful mosques

There are many mosques in Istanbul. A few you should visit are:

  • Suleymaniye Mosque
  • Grand Mecidiye Mosque
  • Kariye Mosque
  • Eyüp Sultan Mosque
  • Fatih Mosque
  • Yeni Cami Mosque
  • Nuruosmaniye Mosque

There is also a beautiful Catholic church to visit in Istanbul called Sent Antuan Kilisesi.

Extra: a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait

There are many tours on the Bosphorus. You can do a dinner on a boat and watch the sunset. There are long tours for around 6 hours or short tours from only 2 hours. You will find many tour operators to do a tour. Check the Google reviews and take a tour that matches your values. A good tour you can book on the following website of Bosphorus Tour.

Extra: have fun at Miniaturk or the aquarium

Two fun activities to do is visiting Miniaturk and the aquarium in Istanbul. Miniaturk is open every day from 9 am until 7 pm and is nice to visit, also a nice activity with kids. It’s a small model of the big country Türkiye. If you want to know more about this activity read more on their website. All the models you see are 1/25 of the real size and there are 137 models.

The aquarium is another nice activity which is great to visit with children. If you like aquariums you should definitely go there. More information about the aquarium you can find on their website.

Extra: relaxing with a Turkish bath

There are many places where you can enjoy a nice Turkish bath in Istanbul. I recommend you to visit websites and read reviews, decide for yourself which place you like. Some good places where you can relax are the following:

Many more hammams are available in Istanbul, this is just a selection.

These are the 20 things you should do when you visit Istanbul. Of course, there are more things to do but don’t forget these must visits. We always recommend you to wander around, meet new people and discover the city. If you want to learn more about Türkiye, read the blog What to know about Türkiye.

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