17 Exciting Things to Do in Istanbul

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Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Not just because of its long and tumultuous history, but because it lies on the border of two continents; Europe and Asia.

It’s home to stunning palaces, incredible mosques, and warm, hospitable people. With so many historical landmarks to explore, you’ll never run out of things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.

View from Galata tower to Golden Horn
View from Galata tower to Golden Horn, Istanbul

If you’re planning a trip to the former ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire, and you’re wondering what attractions in Istanbul to add to your itinerary, then you’ve come to the right place.

This guide features all the unmissable things to do in Istanbul as well as a few hidden gems, so you can be sure to have a wonderful trip to the city and come away feeling like you’ve seen it all.

1.Visit the Hagia Sophia

dome and turrets of the Hagia Sophia mosque at sunset
Hagia Sophia at sunset | Source: Shutterstock

One of the most unmissable attractions in Istanbul is the historic Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia is one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul. It was a former Byzantine church but later became a mosque after the Ottomans took over Constantinople (the name given to the city by the Romans).

It was completed in 537 AD by Emperor Justinian I and is one of the largest surviving churches from the Middle Ages.

It was designed by the Greek architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles who decorated the building with mosaics and marble reliefs.

However, the most famous feature of the church has to be the dome, which was the second largest in the world at the time it was built, just after the Pantheon in Rome.

When we visited, a guide told us an Ostrich egg was incorporated into the dome to keep spiders out, but we couldn’t see it with our own eyes.

The church was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans seized Istanbul in 1453. It remained a mosque until 1935 when it was converted into a museum and eventually returned to an active mosque in 2020.

  • Hours: 24 hours
  • Address: Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Top tip: Make sure you check the prayer times before visiting, so you don’t visit during times of worship. These times change daily.

2. Marvel at the Mosaics of The Blue Mosque

the blue mosque at sunset with a beautiful orange sky
The Blue Mosque | Deposit Photos

Another one of the most popular things to do in Istanbul is to visit the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the most famous mosques in the world because of the stunning blue tiles that adorn its interior walls and arches (hence the name, Blue Mosque).

It was built in 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I and has been a center of Islamic worship for centuries. It can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers at a time and is known for its impressive collection of stained glass windows and 20,000 hand-carved Iznik tiles.

The Blue Mosque’s most iconic feature is its six 210-feet tall minarets. It was supposed to have four minarets, but there was apparently a misunderstanding between the sultan and the architect and it ended up with six. There are only three mosques in Turkey with six minarets.

Despite its popularity with tourists, the Blue Mosque remains an important religious site for Muslims and a working mosque, which means it is closed for tourists during prayer times.

Top tip: It is open to visitors from all faiths, but visitors must dress conservatively and follow the appropriate dress code. This means shoulders and knees must be covered, and women must wear a head scarf. Here are tips for women dressing modestly in convervative countries.

  • Hours: 9.00am – 7.00am
  • Address: Sultan Ahmet, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih

TOURS: Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque

  • Hagia Sophia: Entry with Guided Tour: A guided tour of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, which is the world’s largest place of worship, built by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD Book your ticket here
  • Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar Tour: Three top Istanbul attractions on one tour. Get your tickets here.

3. Climb Galata Tower

galata pointed tower at sunset with views of mosques in background
Galata tower

The Galata Tower is an iconic building in Istanbul since it can be seen from most parts of the city.

It’s a 63-m (205-ft) medieval stone tower located in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul. Built by the Genoese in 1348 as part of their walled fortress on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower was the tallest tower in Constantinople when it was completed.

When it was first built, the Galata Tower was used as a watchtower to help defend the city against invaders. It was also used as a lighthouse, marking the entrance to the Golden Horn for ships entering the harbor.

Nowadays, the Galata Tower is known for its observation deck that offers sweeping panoramic views of Istanbul. From the deck, visitors can see the city’s skyline, the Bosphorus Strait, and the Golden Horn. On a good day, you can even see the Asian side of Istanbul.

This Galata walking tour includes entry to the tower.

  • Hours: 8.30am – 10.00pm
  • Address: Bereketzade Mahallesi Büyük Hendek Caddesi, Numara: 2, 34421 Beyoğlu

4. Gorge on Istanbul’s Street Food

man grilling fish on street bbq istanbul
Ready for your fish sandwich?

Street food is a big part of Turkish culture, and if you’re foodies like us, you’ll be pleased to know there are plenty of delicious options to choose from.

One of the best street food dishes in Istanbul is the fish sandwich, or balik ekmek in Turkish. It’s made with fresh local fish that’s grilled and topped with a little bit of lettuce and onions, just enough to bring out the freshness of the fish.

We recommend getting it from one of the stands near the harbor, because those are usually made with fresh fish. You may even see many fishermen catching this fish from Galata Bridge, which attracts flocks of seagulls (an iconic setting in Istanbul).

Another street food you must try is stuffed mussels, or midye dolma in Turkish. These are mussels stuffed with seasoned rice and sprinkled with some lemon juice. Those are typically more difficult to find, but if you find someone selling them, make sure to stop and try them!

Lastly, don’t leave Istanbul without trying dondurma, or Turkish ice cream. This type of ice cream is known to be very thick and even a little chewy, which might not sound exactly the most appetizing. However, the flavor is quite nice and it makes the ice cream last longer so you can’t really complain!

The flavor is not the only reason why you should try Turkish ice cream…buying Turkish ice cream is more about the show than the ice cream. Be prepared to be tricked by the vendor a few times!

ISTANBUL FOOD & CULTURE TOUR

Savor the flavors of Asia and Europe on a food tour of Istanbul and conquer the cuisines of the city’s 7 hills. Follow a local to neighborhood cafés to find Kurdish food, typical drinks, and more. Reserve your place here.

5. Relax in a Turkish Hamam

outside building of hamman baths with pool of water out front
Hurrem Sultan Hammam

The Turkish Hamam, or Turkish Bath, is a must-see attraction in Istanbul for any visitor to the city. It’s an incredibly unique experience, combining aspects of both a spa and historic Turkish tradition.

You can spend anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours here, enjoying the various steam and sauna rooms, as well as the massage services.

Typically decorated with ornate tiles and mosaics, the architecture of a Turkish Hamam is gorgeous. Don’t forget to take a look at the ceiling, which is often intricately designed.

Sightseeing in Istanbul can be exhausting, so don’t forget to relax in a Turkish Hamam during your visit!

One of the most iconic Turkish baths in the city is the Hurrem Sultan Hammam, which was built in the 16th century by the Sultan. If you’re going to do it, you may as well go to one of the oldest and most traditional ones! This is certainly one of the most unique things to do in Istanbul.

  • Hours: 8.00am – 10.00pm daily
  • Address: Cankurtaran, Ayasofya Meydanı No:2, 34122 Fatih

6. Admire the Beauty of the Topkapi Palace

tiled courtyard and building with arched walkways of the topkapi palace
Topkapi Palace Istanbul, Turkey.

The Topkapi Palace is another attraction in Istanbul not to be missed. The Ottoman sultans used it as their primary residence for their families for nearly 400 years.

Though no longer used by the sultans, this Istanbul landmark still houses an impressive collection of artifacts from the Ottoman Empire.

The palace complex is vast and includes four main courtyards and numerous smaller buildings. The most notable features are the Harem, where the female family members of the sultan lived, and the Imperial Council Chamber, where the Grand Vizier held meetings.

The Harem in Topkapi Palace is one of the most beautiful palaces in Istanbul. It has a series of ornate rooms with walls and ceilings covered in intricate patterns of tiles and mosaics. The furniture is upholstered in rich fabrics, further exuding an unworldly opulence.

There is an extra entrance fee to the Harem but we think it is worth every penny! Get your Skip the Line ticket here.

  • Hours: 10.00am – 6.00pm in the summer, 10.00am – 4.45pm in the winter
  • Address: Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih

7. Get Lost in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

Various old lamps on the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Various old lamps on the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

If there is a place to do shopping in Istanbul, it is the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar.

Known as one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar has 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. It’s a maze of narrow alleys and corridors, where you can find anything from souvenirs to spices to rugs to jewelry.

The Spice Bazaar is located a few minutes walk from the Grand Bazaar, and it is much smaller in size. However, as the name suggests, it is home to vendors selling hundreds of different spices, herbs, and teas, as well as a great place to find Turkish delight.

Top tip: Be prepared to get lost! The Grand Bazaar is huge and it feels like a maze wandering around it.

Grand Bazaar

  • Hours: 10.00am – 6.00pm
  • Address: Beyazıt, Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22, 34126 Fatih

Spice Bazaar

  • Hours: 10.00am – 7.00pm
  • Address: Rüstem Paşa, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92, 34116 Fatih

8. Take a Bosphorus Cruise

Sunset Panoramic View over the Bosphorus Historical Center of Istanbul
Sunset Panoramic View Over Tourist Historical Center of Istanbul

If you’re looking for relaxing things to do in Istanbul, you can’t go wrong with a Bosphorus cruise.

It’s perhaps the best way to take in the beauty and magnificence of Istanbul. These tours take you on a scenic journey along the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

Along the journey, you’ll get to see some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, such as Dolmabahçe Palace, Bosphorus Bridge, Maiden’s Tower, and more. You’ll also get to enjoy stunning views of the city skyline from the water.

There are a number of different companies offering Bosphorus Cruises, so be sure to do your research before booking one. We recommend a luxurious one that includes refreshments onboard.

You can even opt for a sunset cruise which is a great thing to do in Istanbul at night. These cruises tend to have drinks, and some even have entertainment such as dancing performances and live music.

  • Hours: dependent on cruise
  • Address: boats usually leave from the harbor in Eminou

9. Watch a Whirling Dervishes Dance

people in white dresses spinning around in a whirling dervishes ceremony
Whirling Dervishes Ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey.

If you’re looking for unique things to do in Istanbul at night, then you should make sure to watch a Whirling Dervish show.

The whirling dervish ceremony is a beautiful and unique experience that the whole family will enjoy. During the ceremony, dancers whirl around in a circle while chanting religious prayers.

This ritual is not only graceful and elegant but it is said to help the dancers achieve a sense of spiritual unity and oneness. The dervishes who perform the ceremony are clothed in long white robes and hats to symbolize the shrouding of their egos.

The whirling dervish ceremony originates from Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century, a famous Sufi Muslim mystic and poet that believed you reach God through dance and music.

There aren’t many groups that still perform the dance today, so it really is a unique thing to do in Istanbul. If you can, try to see one of the performances by the Mevlevi Sufi Order. They are the original performers of the Whirling Dervishes. You can book tickets for their show here.

10. Take a Day Trip to Princes Island

buyukada island street view istanbul
Buyukada Island street view

The Princes’ Islands, also known as the Adalar, are an archipelago of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Istanbul.

The Princes’ Islands are a popular tourist destination, especially the largest island Buyukada (“Big Island”). Visitors can take ferries from Istanbul, and the journey takes about 1.5 hours.

Historically, the islands were used as a place of exile for princes and princesses during the Byzantine Era, which is how it earned its name.

But under the Ottoman Empire, the rich built beautiful mansions here and used the Prince’s Islands as a place to have their summer home. Nowadays, it is the perfect place for a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul since all fuel-driven vehicles are banned on the islands.

There is plenty to explore on the Princes’ Islands – from crystal-clear water to sandy beaches and pine-forested hiking trails to extravagant mansions! If you are wondering what to do in Istanbul for a week, then you could easily spend a relaxing couple of days here.

11. Ride the Tram on Istiklal Street

Heritage red tram on Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul
Heritage trams of a Taksim-Tunel Nostalgia Tramway

Istiklal Street is one of the most popular and well-known streets in Istanbul. It’s a pedestrian street that runs for about two kilometers through Beyoglu, from Taksim Square to Galata Tower.

The street is lined with restaurants, cafes, boutique stores, art galleries, churches, and more. And of course, the famous red Istanbul Nostalgic Trams! Riding the tram is a must-do when visiting Istiklal Street.

Though you might get stuck in pedestrian traffic for a considerable amount of time, it is quite the experience in itself. The trams are over 100 years old and used to be a vital part of the public transportation of Istanbul. Now, they’re more of a tourist attraction than anything else.

The Istiklal Tram is crowded, and if you want to actually ride it comfortably, we recommend going early in the morning.

  • Hours: 6.00am – 12.00am (every 5-10 minutes)
  • Address: Istiklal Street, Beyoğlu

12. Explore the Jewish Neighborhood of Balat

Bright colorful old houses and cozy streets of jewish district in Istanbul.
Bright colorful old houses and cozy streets of Balat

Balat is a historic neighborhood located on the European side of Istanbul. It’s one of the city’s oldest Jewish neighborhoods and has been home to a large Jewish population for centuries. Balat is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that makes up the Historic Areas of Istanbul.

Nowadays, there are only a handful of Jews remaining in Balat, but the neighborhood still retains its characteristic charm with beautiful synagogues, kosher bakeries, and Jewish schools.

But perhaps what Balat is most known for nowadays is the beautiful and colorful buildings and quaint cobblestone streets that are a photographer’s dream. There is also a variety of local restaurants and charming cafes where tourists can relax after exploring this hilly neighborhood on foot.

If you are looking to explore a more relaxed side of Istanbul, make sure you check out Balat.

Tour Idea: Fener and Balat Small-Group Walking Tour

Discover Fener and Balat in Istanbul with a guided small-group walking tour and a ferry ride along the Golden Horn. Book your tour here.

13. Watch the Sunset over Maiden’s Tower

short tower with Turkish flag flying in the middle of the river at sunset
Maiden’s Tower at sunset

With plenty of things to do in Istanbul, it can be easy to forget that the city is also home to some of the most beautiful sunsets. One of the best places to watch the sunset is from Uskudar on the Asian side of the city.

From here, you can see where the sun dips behind the Maiden’s Tower, a historic tower that sits 200 meters from the coast of Uskudar.

The tower is believed to date back to the Hellenistic period and has been used for a huge variety of purposes, such as a lighthouse, a defense tower, a place of exile, and much more.

While visitors can visit the Maiden’s Tower by taking a short boat ride from Istanbul, watching the sun dip behind the building is equally rewarding.

From Uskudar, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating that offer views of the tower. You can also watch it from the promenade, which many people decide to do, especially since the cafes and restaurants can be quite pricey.

This is a good place to look for the street food we mentioned earlier.

  • Hours: 24 hours
  • Address: Üsküdar, İstanbul, Turkey

14. Visit the Largest Mosque in Istanbul; Camlica Mosque

white mosque with turrets on green hillside with views of Istanbul
Istanbul Big Camlica Mosque, sunset panorama, beautiful aerial view.

While mosques like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque might be more famous, they certainly pale in size when compared to the Camlica Mosque.

Perched on top of Camlica Hill on the Asian side of Istanbul, the Camlica Mosque is not only the largest mosque in Istanbul but the largest mosque in Turkey!

This is one of the best-hidden gems in Istanbul because it was only completed in 2019. Many of the guidebooks you find on Istanbul were written before this Istanbul mosque was even built!

Camlica Mosque has the capacity to hold up to 63,000 worshippers at a time. In addition to being a mosque, visitors will find an art gallery, conference room, and library here.

The Camlica Mosque is quite unique in terms of its architecture, and it looks like it was built yesterday with clean white marble everywhere. It combines modern architecture with traditional religious significance, and the result is a very unique mosque.

We recommend visiting Camlica mosque even if you are not religious. The sheer beauty and size of this landmark are absolutely mesmerizing. It is also situated on Camlica Hill, which has a lush green park with stunning views of Istanbul.

From there, you can have a good view of the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.

  • Hours: 24 hours
  • Address: Ferah, Büyük Çamlıca Camii، 34692 Üsküdar

15. Have Breakfast With Incredible Views

glass of Turkish tea against the background of the center of Istanbul and Bosporus, Turkey
Like a view with your Turkish tea?

You might have seen pictures on social media of people sitting on Turkish mats and cushions with views of the Bosphorus in the background, and swooping seagulls in the air.

There are plenty of restaurants with rooftop terraces that offer this view, but they can be incredibly crowded during the day, especially at sunset. You’ll not only have to queue for a table but queue for a photo spot, which is not a valuable use of your time.

This is why we recommend going for breakfast at one of these rooftop restaurants. You can enjoy the views and fewer crowds, as well as try a delicious Turkish breakfast.

One restaurant that serves delicious breakfast options and has an incredible view is Nova Santiye Cafe in Eminou. You can also order more international dishes for those fussy eaters.

  • Hours: 8.00am – 12.00am
  • Address: Süleymaniye, Siyavuş Paşa Sk. No: 24, 34116 Fatih

16. Admire the Courtyards of Suleymaniye Mosque

elaborate arched courtyard of Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

If you’re not tired of seeing mosques by now, you should make sure to add the Süleymaniye Mosque to your itinerary. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1550 and the building is stunning.

The mosque was the largest in the city until the Camlica Mosque overtook it in 2019. It has fantastic views of the city and the Golden Horn from the garden behind it, which is a great place to sit and have a picnic.

What brings most people to this mosque though is its courtyard and mausoleums, where Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife are buried.

  • Hours: 8.00am – 9.30pm
  • Address: Süleymaniye, Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar Cd. No:1, 34116 Fatih

17. Check Out The Basilica Cistern

Columns of underground water reservoir Basilica Cistern Istanbul, Turkey
Underground water reservoir build by Emperor Justinianus in 6th century

We mentioned there was a lot of history in Istanbul, and we’ll finish this list with one of the most magnificent historical landmarks in the city.

The city is built over several cisterns which were built by the Romans and used to store the city’s freshwater supply. There are a few cisterns open to the public, but the biggest and most impressive is the Basilica Cistern.

The cistern was made famous after it appeared in the movie Inferno starring Tom Hanks.

  • Hours: 9.00am – 7.00pm
  • Address: Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih

All photos, except no 2, sourced from Deposit Photos.

Where to stay in Istanbul

We have hand-selected a few top rated hotels in Istanbul for you to save you time researching. We look for high guest ratings, great reviews, good location, and clean rooms and facilities travelers enjoy.

If you’re looking for other accommodation in Istanbul, you can use the map below to compare hotels and short-term rental options.

Popular Tours of Istanbul

Here are a few of the most popular and interesting tours in Istanbul

More Posts about Turkey

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