Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul
Istanbul, the only city in the world that’s both European and Asian, waits for no one. Istanbul has a lot to offer, and a Top 10 or Top 20 list may not do it justice. If you’re a history buff or a foodie, Istanbul is the place to be!
With good local transportation, you may not need to splurge on taxis as one of the best ways to see the city is through the local ferry system and shared taxis called dolmuş. Take the Kadıköy ferry to Beşiktaş for a view of Topkapı and the Üsküdar ferry to Beşiktaş for a great view of the Marmara Sea and the bridge.
For more amazing views of the Asian side and Istanbul’s famous bridges, head to a neighbourhood called Ortaköy and then up the road to Bebek and indulge in some Turkish coffee or an amazing late brunch Turkish-style with a local bagel called “simit”.
For the art lover, there are tons of museums, but first do get your fill of the famous sights such as the Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya Museum and the Blue Mosque. Discover some hidden gems at the Archaeology museum and at Istanbul Modern where if you go on certain days, you can even get in for free!
Here are the Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul for first-time visitors!
1. Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Mosque
The Blue Mosque is probably the world’s most famous mosque. The mosque incorporates some traditional Islamic architecture as well as Byzantine features with many domes and minarets and is an iconic part of Istanbul’s skyline.
Known for its use of turquoise ceramic tiles, hence the name “Blue Mosque”, the mosque was built by the decree of Sultan Ahmet I and designed by Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa, a pupil of Mimar Sinan, the imperial Ottoman architect.
Features such as 20,000 Iznik tiles, stained glass windows and calligraphy are prominent throughout the mosque’s lower and upper floors. In the evenings, the mosque is lit and the stained glass windows and chandeliers add illumination. It’s a sight to behold. Today, it remains an important religious site with daily prayers held.
Other sites such as the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome and the Obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III are also in this area. From there, visit the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum to see traditional carpets, rugs and calligraphy among other ethnographic artefacts. There’s also a small bazaar where you can buy souvenirs to take back home.
If you wish to stay in this area, then there are many accommodation options for many budgets. The Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet has an amazing view of the square where you can enjoy a Turkish coffee, tea or even a meal. There are many local eateries in the area for you to pick up a local döner, but if you wish to relax in the evenings with some drinks and a hookah/shisha in your hand, then you can try Şiva Cafe & Restaurant. For hearty Turkish soups and dishes, head to the unpretentious Erhan Restaurant.
ENTRY FEE: FREE
OPENING HOURS: YOU CAN VISIT BETWEEN 6 AM AND 9 PM
ADDRESS: BINBIRDIREK, SULTAN AHMET PARKI NO:2, 34122 FATIH/İSTANBUL
TRAMWAY STOP: SULTANAHMET
2. Hagia Sophia Museum
One of the world’s largest cathedrals for nearly a thousand years, Hagia Sophia holds an important place as a place of worship. Its changing and controversial history make it one of the most important religious site in the history of the world.
With its massive dome, the Hagia Sophia also has a pulpit and a mihrab built by the Ottomans. Together with its chandeliers and its unique mosaics, it is truly a unique shrine. Having been a seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it was also used as a Catholic Church, then converted to a Mosque. For almost 90+ years, the site is now operating as a museum. It remains Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction today.
The 1500-year-old Byzantine building’s mosaics are very popular among tourists. But the building today is the third building constructed, as the earlier two versions were made of wood and succumbed to fire, wars and sacking. Since then, the building has had a tumultuous history but has survived through earthquakes, wars and conquests.
Decorative portraits of religious figures such as Christ, Virgin Mary and angels adorn some of the walls. There are also marble columns and decorative ceilings and features. Medallions featuring important Islamic names are displayed in the central part of the structure today.
Chandeliers and natural light filtering in due to the many windows illuminate the interiors beautifully. Head to the second floor to see some of the mosaics up close, and a view of the central nave from the upper galleries.
ENTRY FEE: 100 TL
OPENING HOURS: CLOSED ON MONDAYS, VISIT BETWEEN 9 AM AND 6 PM, 7 PM (SUMMER HOURS)
ADDRESS: SULTAN AHMET, AYASOFYA MEYDANI NO:1, 34122 FATIH/İSTANBUL
TRAMWAY STOP: SULTANAHMET
3. Topkapı Palace
Serving as the seat of power as well as the residence for numerous Ottoman Sultans, Topkapı Palace is a huge complex of numerous buildings. As a UNESCO World Heritage site and a part of Historical Istanbul, it now operates as a museum. A day is well spent here admiring the many courtyards, kiosks, rose and tulip gardens and the invaluable artefacts.
The views from some of the pavilions are unrivalled as the palace was built at the point where the Marmara Sea and Bosphorus Strait meet, also called Seraglio Point. The palace is a reminder of the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire and the impact it had on the history of the world.
Tourists especially flock to the upper terrace for the views. However, it’s the interiors that attract the most with marble and hand-made tiles in a multitude of colours.
Displays of artefacts are scattered throughout the complex in beautiful rooms that previously had a specific purpose, such as those used by the imperial consorts and the sultan’s families. Artefacts include imperial collections, gifted jewels, wardrobes and portraits, rare manuscripts and relics from many Prophets are stored here. If you have more time, you can check out the Archaeological Museum nearby too.
ENTRY FEE: 100 TL, 70 TL (EXTRA FOR HAREM QUARTERS)
OPENING HOURS: CLOSED ON TUESDAYS, VISIT BETWEEN 9 AM AND 6 PM ADDRESS: FATIH, ISTANBUL
TRAMWAY STOP: GÜLHANE
On the opposite side of the above tourist sites is “Asian Istanbul“, and its district called Kadıköy. A mostly residential part of the city, it’s a bustling district with modern hotels, transportation links to the city’s second airport, shopping districts such as Bağdat (Baghdad) Avenue and universities. Haydarpaşa Terminal in Kadıköy was to be the starting point of the Ottoman Railways that would connect Istanbul and Baghdad and even further to Medina in Saudi Arabia but due to WWI, it was never fully completed.
It is a calmer part of Istanbul, with mostly residential areas but good links to the Princes’ Islands via the urban ferry systems and a seaside promenade linking it to upscale but cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of Moda, Fenerbahçe and Suadiye. Enjoy the chaotic local street bazaars here that have fresh fish and local delicacies such as honey and pickles. Listen to street musicians, shop in local designer boutiques and enjoy sweets in some of the smaller squares leading away from the sea.
The main thoroughfare leading up to a bronze statue of a bull, a symbol of the area, will bring you to Bahariye and Bar street. Enjoy a jolly evening here with friends and locals, or you can even enjoy wine at Viktor Levi’s wine house. Explore the smaller streets to find yourself in Moda or take a tram there and enjoy a glass of Turkish tea with a view at Moda Tea Garden.
ENTRY FEE: FREE
ADDRESS: KADIKÖY/ MODA CAFERAĞA
METRO/FERRY STOP: KADIKÖY
5. Princes’ Islands
Island hopping in Istanbul is a possibility as the city is home to four big islands conveniently connected from both the European and Asian parts. The fastest way to get there is to get on a ferry from the Asian side. You’ll be on the big island called Büyükada in less than 30 minutes, and you’ll be crossing the Ottoman-built ferry terminal to come to the island’s main square. Aim for a weekday as weekends can get very crowded.
Here you can take a stroll, admiring the Ottoman-era architecture and of course, take in the view of Istanbul as a whole. Find a few gems such as the Aya Yorgi Church, east-meets-west hotels such as the art nouveau Splendid Hotel, Leon Trotsky’s house and other summer residences built by Ottoman Istanbul’s wealthy Greeks, Christians, and Armenian families.
There are horse-drawn carriages still in use today, but you can rent a bike. Bring your walking shoes or a bathing suit to take a dip in some of the tiny beaches scattered around the island. There are no motorways allowed on the islands.
Try a local fish restaurant but a picnic is also a possibility as prices are high due to the location. Finish or start your day with some local island ice cream on the street right opposite the ferry terminal. If you have more time, you can hop onto another ferry that takes you to the other islands, but they have much less to offer than Büyükada.
ENTRY FEE: FREE
FERRY STOP: BÜYÜKADA + THREE MORE ISLANDS
6. A Bosphorus Ferry trip
A trip from Asia to Europe in 30 minutes? That’s only possible in Istanbul!
A Bosphorus cruise with live entertainment and dinner is an option, but if you prefer to spend your days checking out historical sights and places on the cheap, then taking the urban ferries is a great way to see the city. Some of the ferries offer seating areas that allow you to take in views from the top deck. They offer services to around 45 docks in the city.
A shorter cruise will take you from Üsküdar to Eyüp and that costs just 3 Liras one way. Longer trips from Eminönü to Sarıyer in the north of Istanbul and back can last a whole day or around 6 hours with some time spent at Anadolu Kavağı.
There are other boat companies offering services as well, but it’s better to stick with the ones offered by the Istanbul Municipality.
ENTRY FEE: 3 TL ONE WAY, 15-25 TL ONE WAY/BOTH WAYS
ADDRESS: EMINÖNÜ, KABATAŞ, ÜSKÜDAR AND OTHER DOCKS
FERRY STOP: KABATAŞ, ÜSKÜDAR
7. Galata and Galata Tower
Called Karaköy today, the Galata area was part of the bigger Beyoğlu/Pera district. It’s a lively cosmopolitan neighbourhood with popular cafes and museums such as the Ottoman Bank Museum and the Jewish Museum of Turkey.
The 5th-century Galata Tower dominates the landscape here and offers unparalleled views of Istanbul. Queues and wait time for the 360-degree views are long but after you get to the top, you can even have a great dining experience at the tower’s only restaurant. Early reservations are recommended. Sunsets at the panoramic balcony is an experience like no other.
The area surrounding the tower offers great cuisine at nearby Antiochia restaurant or hip diners near the sea. It’s also a shopping destination for local textiles, souvenirs and soaps. You can catch a ceremonial Sufi Dervish whirling show at the Mevlevihanesi Museum for 100 TL per person.
Take the inclined rail up the hill from Tünel to the end of İstiklal Caddesi. There are many options for where to stay, suitable for all budgets. Renovated and restored buildings such as Karaköy Rooms or the House Hotel are good choices. Don’t forget to enjoy a stroll on the Galata Bridge and watch the local anglers fish for the catch of the day from the Golden Horn.
ENTRY FEE: 100 TL
OPENING HOURS: VISIT BETWEEN 9 AM AND 7 PM
ADDRESS: BEREKETZADE, GALATA KULESI, BEYOĞLU
TRAMWAY/FERRY/BUS STOP: KARAKÖY
8. Taksim and İstiklal Street
The Taksim area and Istiklal streets are important transportation and commercial hubs of Istanbul, where public holidays/events are held and celebrated. Along the way, you can shop, eat and visit bookshops, galleries and cultural centres such as the French Cultural Institute and the Atatürk Cultural Centre, both at Taksim Square. It also has many high-end hotels such as the InterContinental. You can also find cheaper alternatives here such as the Bunk Hostel.
The Square itself is an important meeting point for locals and served by a metro station, taxis and an inclined rail system. A popular destination for locals and tourists alike, the long pedestrian avenue is connected by the iconic red tramway.
You can try some street food such as islak hamburger or traditional sweets such as Turkish delights and baklava at Hafiz Mustafa. Walk down the alleyway to discover historical landmarks and elegant buildings that house international shopping brands, national embassies and consulates, all the way to Şişhane. At nights, the area is lively with bars and restaurants. Be sure to check some out such as Tren Pera or indulge in a pub crawl in the area.
ENTRY FEE: FREE
OPENING HOURS: VISIT ANYTIME, EVENINGS MOSTLY
ADDRESS: TAKSIM MEYDANI GÜMÜŞSUYU
METRO/TRAMWAY STOP: TAKSIM, BEYOĞLU
9. Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market
One of the world’s biggest covered bazaars, the Grand Bazaar, along with its spice market (called the Egyptian Bazaar) is an experience that can only be described as a labyrinth that one is willing to get lost in. The architecture of the place is evident in the colourful tiles of the archways and gates, but it needs renovations and better maintenance.
The bazaar sells ceramics, jewellery, household goods, leather, perfumes and its adjacent Spice market sells food, tea, dried herbs, nuts and seeds. Buy rose petals wrapped Turkish delight or local cheeses here. There’s also a second-hand books market where you can find some old manuscripts.
ENTRY FEE: FREE
OPENING HOURS: CLOSED SUNDAYS AND EVENINGS AFTER 7 PM
METRO/TRAMWAY STOP: BEYAZIT, FATIH
10. Ortaköy, Arnavutköy and Bebek
The Ortaköy Mosque stands out as a unique place of worship in Istanbul due to its Neo-Baroque architecture. Built by the Ottomans who were influenced by European trends, it’s probably one of the only mosques having these features.
The area around the mosque is now a popular place with restaurants, cafes and small boutiques. It attracts both foreigners and locals as it has become a popular place to photograph the Bosphorus Bridge.
Try Mado cafe for local sweets and ice cream in the summer months or upscale Banyan for Asian fusion with some of the best views of the bridge. Alternatively, you can try and enjoy street food such as baked potato with numerous toppings called Kumpir. Buy one near the Mosque or sit down at a cafe overlooking the water. Travel up the road and you’ll find Sortie, a stylish restaurant that turns into a club at night.
Travel further up the road and you’ll reach Arnavutköy and Bebek. Upscale neighbourhoods with historical waterfront mansions and a seaside promenade, these are where the wealthy reside in Istanbul. Indulge in some Turkish coffee at the smaller cafes that overlook the sea or have a relaxing brunch Turkish-style i.e. a Turkish breakfast at Lokma.
In Arnavutköy, you can stroll the streets while admiring the old wooden mansions that are still intact today and have local fish. Quaint cafes and pubs in Bebek are the place to people-watch and see local celebrities and stylish locals!