Cookies help us to deliver our services. By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies. By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn more.

Best things to do in Istanbul

I warn you that it is very difficult to decide between all the wonders of this chaotic city, but this list may help you. Enjoy!

Alex Grande

Alex Grande

Sep 14, 2021 • 8 min read

Best things to do in Istanbul

Istanbul in the background | ©Federico Scarionati

There are few who are not impressed by the capital of Turkey. Its culture, its customs, its food, its mosques... everything is unique and special in Istanbul.

1. Take a guided tour of the city

View of the Blue Mosque | ©Lokesh Anand
View of the Blue Mosque | ©Lokesh Anand

The first thing you need to know is that Istanbul is a big city in which there are many things worth seeing. You could spend weeks walking its streets and you still wouldn't have seen it all. The second thing you will realize during these walks is that in Istanbul everything is different and everything has meaning; from the names of the streets to the monuments to the gestures you will see people making in the bazaar. To decipher all this the best thing to do is to take a guided walking tour through the different areas of the Turkish capital.

In any of the tours and excursions that you can do around Istanbul, a local guide will accompany you for two or three hours and show you the main monuments of the city while explaining their significance using a discourse that goes beyond the standard information you can find in any guidebook for a very affordable price.

There are different options depending on the area of Istanbul you want to visit and also depending on the part of history you are most interested in. You will also find tours in several languages, some of which include hotel pick-up or bus tours. Regardless of the option you choose, the experience will be that of discovering the city from a different point of view than the usual tourist.

2. Sail along the Bosphorus on a cruise ship

Cruise along the Bosphorus with Istanbul in the background | ©Can yılmaz
Cruise along the Bosphorus with Istanbul in the background | ©Can yılmaz

The Bosphorus River separates the city of Istanbul into two areas: the European part and the Asian part. The same river in turn enters the European part in a stretch known as "The Golden Horn" dividing it between the old city and the Galata district. In short, the Bosphorus is not only a emblem of Istanbul, but sailing through it you can see the different areas of the city; for this reason the option of taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus is so popular among visitors to the city.

You don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy this experience. For a very adjusted price you can find a tour that, besides touring the Bosphorus River on a guided cruise, offers you to see the city from a chairlift and from a bus to have all possible perspectives of the beauty of Istanbul. I tell you all about it in this article about Bosphorus Strait Day Trips from Istanbul.

In addition to touring it by boat, the Bosphorus must be admired from the shore, specifically at sunset while the bustle of the city decays and you hear the call to prayer. That will be one of the images of the city that will be engraved in your mind and will become a symbol of your trip.

What you will see from the boat

  • The Galata Bridge
  • Rumeli Fortress
  • Beylerbeyi Palace
  • The Jewish quarter of Balat
  • The walls of Constantinople
  • Dolmabahçe Palace
  • Ortakoy Mosque

3. Taste the local gastronomy

You can't miss Turkish delicacies like baklava | ©Jeff Miccolis
You can't miss Turkish delicacies like baklava | ©Jeff Miccolis

Turkish gastronomy is famous all over the world and when you travel to Istanbul you realize that it goes far beyond the well-known kebab that has reached many other countries. Turkey has flavors that are worth discovering and one way to do it is by taking a gastronomic tour of Istanbul.

With a gastronomic tour of the city, an expert guide will take you to typical places of the capital to taste the main dishes while you learn details of how they are made and how food becomes a ritual in this country. This experience will also allow you to get to know the city from another point of view away from the tourist tours.

If you decide on this type of tour, do not hesitate to ask your guide for recommendations that may be useful during your trip. Some of the dishes you will try are Turkish pizza, simit, dolma or baklava. You can book it online and choose the day and time that suits you best; I recommend doing it on the second or third day of your trip when you have already toured the city on your own.

4. Escape to Cappadocia, Ephesus and Pamukkale

Take a balloon ride to enjoy the beautiful landscapes of Cappadocia | ©Gerardo Lazzari
Take a balloon ride to enjoy the beautiful landscapes of Cappadocia | ©Gerardo Lazzari

If you can make enough time during your trip, I highly recommend visiting other cities in Turkey even if your main destination is Istanbul. This is not always easy if you do it on your own, as finding your way around the country can be difficult if you have no experience in the country. To solve this there are excursions around Istanbul with which you will get to know places like Cappadocia, Ephesus or Pamukkale.

This type of organized tours allows you to free yourself from worrying about schedules and transportation as they include all travel, airline tickets and accommodation in case you are going to spend the night out. Although you can visit these cities in a day trip, my advice is to take a longer excursion to discover them in depth and without haste.

Most recommended places in Turkey

  • In Cappadocia you will find exciting landscapes whose colors seem to be taken from a painting. In this region you will find a subway city and the so-called "valley of the fairies" with castles carved into the rocks.
  • Ephesus is a lesson in ancient history. Its ruins are famous throughout Turkey and are one of the most visited destinations in the country.
  • Pamukkale, on the other hand, is a place known for its natural park and its hot springs. The name of the city means "cotton castle".

5. Visit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

Santa Sofía | ©Julio Roman Fariñas
Santa Sofía | ©Julio Roman Fariñas

Istanbul is a city full of mosques and temples that you will see as soon as you land in the city. It is practically impossible to visit them all, but you can not miss the two main ones: Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, located a few meters from each other.

These two mosques are two of the city's most famous and visited works of art. To enter the Blue Mosque, women must cover their hair, so it is always advisable to carry a scarf in your backpack for this purpose. These places of worship are entered barefoot and, although you will be provided with plastic bags at the entrance, it is advisable to bring an extra pair of socks for comfort.

Although it is imperative to visit the interior, the exterior of both buildings will impress you in itself, so do not hesitate to delight in walking around and looking for the best perspective for what will be one of the most iconic photographs of your trip. Take your time for this visit because it will be one of the most memorable of all your visits to Istanbul.

6. Enter the Topkapi Palace

Fourth courtyard of the Topkapi Palace | ©Carol Beatriz
Fourth courtyard of the Topkapi Palace | ©Carol Beatriz

The Topkapi Palace is the symbol of the power that reached the region of Constantinople as the seat of the Ottoman Empire. His visit is essential highlighting in the same its wonderful gardens, the Harem Hall and the Treasury Hall.

The most important thing to know is that access to the complex can be overwhelming. You can buy tickets at the door or online at the ticket machines or at the ticket office. Once you have your tickets you will have to access through turnstiles.

Since the entrance is at timed intervals the queues can be quite significant, especially if you go in the central hours of the day. Add to this the fact that the queues in Istanbul are not an orderly line as you can expect in other European countries; you may have to give more than one push to get into the palace... However, once inside the agglomerations disappear and the experience is worth it; there are amazing places to photograph.

7. Bargaining in the Grand Bazaar

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar | ©*SHERWOOD*
Entrance to the Grand Bazaar | ©*SHERWOOD*

One of the most fun experiences you will have in Istanbul is to go shopping in the Grand Bazaar. Important: go without haste and without calculating times, because, although it is easy to get there, getting out can be a authentic labyrinth. Most of the stalls of the Grand Bazaar are inside and there the crowds are relaxed but there will always be people wherever you look. The real hive is in the stalls outside, so be patient if you feel like you are going around in circles.

What's in the Grand Bazaar? Everything: spices, handicrafts, food... and the best imitation handbags and shoes you've ever seen in a street market. Bargaining is the norm for buying any item and they will always offer you a higher price up front; don't be surprised if the vendor literally chases you around the bazaar when you refuse to offer a lower price than his first offer.

There are few places where you can shop more authentically than here. Important tip: leave room in your suitcase.

8. Enter to the Basilica Cistern

Cisterna Basilica | ©Andrés Suárez García
Cisterna Basilica | ©Andrés Suárez García

A short distance from the Topkapi Palace is located one of the main sights of Istanbul: the Basilica Cistern. This is a water reservoir of 336 columns and nine meters high that will leave you speechless as soon as you cross its threshold. Be prepared to queue at the entrance and always bring something warm to visit the interior due to the humidity.

The best way to describe this place would be like an optical illusion in which the columns surround you and the water acts as a mirror. No matter how many photos you take inside you will not capture its true essence: you have to live it and experience it, so enjoy the experience and forget about your camera.

9. Climb the Galata Tower

The Galata Tower protruding from the rooftops of Istanbul | ©adam hles
The Galata Tower protruding from the rooftops of Istanbul | ©adam hles

Personally, I always say that every city has a mythical point to climb to enjoy the aerial views. Of all the ones you will find in Istanbul, my recommendation is that you choose the Galata Tower, located in the wonderful neighborhood that gives it its name.

Although it is only 61 meters high, it stands out for its huge diameter and the views are perfect to appreciate the details of the famous area of the Bosphorus Horn. The tower is located in one of the most cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Istanbul; since it is open until late in the afternoon, I recommend that you go up before sunset and then walk around the neighborhood and taste the Turkish delicacies that you will find in its cafes.

10. Enjoy a Turkish bath

Entrance hall to a bathhouse in Istanbul | ©Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho
Entrance hall to a bathhouse in Istanbul | ©Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

The pace of the city of Istanbul can be stressful. When this happens to you, take advantage of an infallible remedy that the city has to combat fatigue and that is also a cultural emblem: the Turkish baths.

This type of enclosures are the Ottoman version of the well-known Roman thermal baths. It is a place created for relaxation and cleansing of the body, but nowadays it functions more as a place for social gatherings. In the more traditional ones, women are separated from men. You will find all kinds of options and prices, but if you opt for the most authentic ones do not expect great luxuries because the Turkish baths are not a spa. However, the experience is always worth it.

Things to do in Istanbul