The 19 best things to do in Istanbul
If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, chances are you’ll probably find yourself in Istanbul. Not only is it the largest city in the country, it’s also the only city in the world to spread across two different continents. So, you can imagine, there’s a lot of things to do in Istanbul!
If it’s your first time there, you’re going to need at least 2-3 days just to soak in all the local culture and visit the important sights.
Offering a variety of educational and cultural experiences, there’s always something things to do for tourists when visiting the city. Whether you’re a food lover, history fanatic or just looking for cultural vibes, Istanbul has something for everyone. Here are my suggestions…
1. Pay a visit to the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s main points of interest and why wouldn’t it be? Not only is its crafted exterior an incredible sight, but the inside is bathed in blue tiles leaving everyone who visits in awe. It’s this, and the cultural significance that makes it a popular attraction for tourists whilst remaining a functioning mosque for the Muslim religion. The mosque obtains a strict dress code – headscarfs are to be worn by women at all times and visitors are expected to remove shoes on entrance.
2. Visit the Hagia Sophia Museum
If you’re looking to learn more about the history of Istanbul, this is one of the things you need to do when you’re there. Located across from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia is a mosque-turned-museum where visitors can learn about the history of Istanbul and the origins of the Muslim religion. Enter on your own or ask a local guide outside the mosque to give you the grand tour (I’d definitely recommend doing the latter). Hagia Sophia is also the only place in the world where you can see Allah, Jesus and Muhammed together.
Tip: one of the things you should avoid doing is visiting Hagia Sophia during rush hour. The best time to go is in the evening, just before closing time.
3. Spend a day at the Turkish Baths
If you’re on the hunt for a cultural experience, try participating in a traditional Turkish bath. After being washed down by a local, you’ll receive a massage and facial to rejuvenate. This experience might not be for everyone but is definitely worth a visit and a thing you need to do when you’re there! If you’re visiting other areas of Turkey, make sure you do this at least once!
4. Check out the Grand Bazaar
Love a good market? Then this should be one of the top things to do in Istanbul on your list. It’s one of the biggest indoor marketplaces in the world, the Grand Bazaar sees over 250,000 visitors daily. With more than 4,000 stores spread over 61 streets, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals combined. Selling everything from novelty shirts to Turkish spices, the Grand Bazaar is worth a visit even if you aren’t interested in buying anything.
Tip: it might be a good idea to visit in September, when there aren’t so many tourists around.
5. Spice Bazaar
If you’re a foodie, or just love markets and couldn’t get enough of the Grand Bazaar you’ve got to head to the Spice Bazaar. It’s the second largest in Istanbul and one of the best things to do in the city when you’re visiting.
6. Try Turkish Cuisine
If you’re a foodie like me, travel is all about trying local food and Turkey offers up a great menu. Start of with some Pida (pronounced PEE-dae) is a Turkish flatbread often served with minced meat and cheese, followed by a slice of Lokum – traditional Turkish delights that come in different flavours like pomegranate, cherry and even cookies and cream. Wash it all down with a glass of apple tea. This, and all of the other eats, is one of the things many travellers do when visiting because the cuisine is just so delicious.
7. Try a Fish Sandwich
Speaking of Turkish cuisine… While you’re there you need (yes NEED) to try one of their famous fish sandwiches. It truly is one of the top things to do in Istanbul considering it’s the most popular street food in the city.
8. Watch a belly dance show
One of the best things to do in Istanbul at night: head out for dinner and a show and watch local belly dancers perform. Be dazzled by their costumes and their talent and perhaps even participate yourself… if you’re feeling brave.
9. Take a day trip to Troy
If you’re in Istanbul for a couple of days, Troy is worth an all-day trip to see the countryside and learn about some of the country’s history. Birthplace of the trojan horse, Troy is the perfect place to learn about the medieval times in Turkey and one of the most fascinating tourist attractions.
10. See the Basilica Cistern
The cistern lies beneath the city of Istanbul and is the largest to be found in the city. Although originally designed to service water to nearby mosques and palaces, the Cistern was once a dumping ground for corpses. Home to the famous Medusa Heads, the Cistern features 336 marble columns and is also the set from the 2016 movie Inferno, featuring Tom Hanks. So, whether you’re a fan of the movie or not, it’s definitely one of the many things to do when you’re in Istanbul.
11. Walk through Gulhane Park
Gulhane park is the perfect meeting point for any group, located within walking distance of all major sights. It is one of the best things to do if you’re a foodie because it’s home to food carts and historical monuments and every year in spring, the park is decorated in Tulips. Also, if you’re running low on money, this is a cheap and fun thing to do if you have a few hours to spare in Istanbul.
12. Jump across to Asia
Although Istanbul is considered a European city, Turkey itself is an Eurasian territory with 95% of land considered part of Asia which includes the country’s capital Ankara. That’s why one of the things to do in Istanbul is hop on a quick ferry ride over Bosphorus, the narrow that separates Europe and Asia, and step foot in a new continent.
13. The Galata Tower
One of the best things to do in Istanbul is head up the Galata Tower for the most incredible views making it one of the best Istanbul tourist attractions. Built in the mid-fourteenth century, it was originally a fire tower, barracks and a dungeon, but now it’s known as one of the best tourist spots there.
14. The Galata Bridge
Yupp, there’s a bridge too! The Galata Bridge has always been one of the things tourists love to visit in Istanbul. Why? Because it’s a bridge that spans the Golden Horn. The famous bridge has been talked about in Turkish literature, theatre, novels and even poetry.
15. Visit the Golden Horn
It might sound intimidating, but it’s one of the coolest things to do while you’re visiting. In Istanbul, the Golden Horn is a waterway that acts as an entryway between Turkey and Bosphorus. The Golden Horn also separates Istanbul’s historic centre from the rest of the city.
16. Dolmabahce palace
This palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul, and you won’t regret it. It’s located on the European coast and once served as the main administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire. On top of the history there, it’s also an incredible sight to see!
17. Visit the Archaeological Museums
These three museums are located in the Eminönü quarter. The three museums are the Archaeological Museum (which is in the main building), the Museum of Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art. All of them are incredible spots to visit when you’re in the city since they house more than 1 million items that represent all different areas of world history. Curious to know as much as possible about all the history? Take a guided tour!
18. Visit the Chora Church
This church is a must visit if you’re in Istanbul! It’s a medieval Greek Orthodox church that is now used as a mosque. It’s located in the Edirnekapi neighbourhood in Istanbul, and was converted into a mosque in the 16th century. When you step into the building, you’ll notice that the interior is completely covered with the oldest, and finest Byzantine Christian mosaics and frescoes that are still surviving to this day.
19. Head to Topkapi Palace
If you’re a big fan of museums you’ll want to go east of the Fatih district to see Topkapi Palace (aka Seraglio). It acted as the headquarters of the Ottoman sultans back in the 15th and 16th centuries, so to say there’s some history there is an understatement! The constructed started as far back as 1459 and actually wasn’t given the name Topkapi until the 19th century. Now, it acts as a museum that has hundred of incredible rooms and chambers to discover.