The Turkish metropolis is a never-ending story of history, culture, and architecture. The old town is a maze of cobblestone streets, elegant mosques, and ancient markets. There are plenty of activities to do from enjoying a Turkish bath to shopping at the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul is also a great place to have fun dancing, singing, and socializing at bars and clubs. Always remember to get some dolmas and Turkish coffee and don’t miss out on the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city. No matter if you are looking for a bit of history or just a nice place to wander, Istanbul has it all for you.
Ready to explore Istanbul? Here are 20 things you should do in Turkey’s king city.
1. Live History at Hagia Sophia (Aya Sophia)
Hagia Sophia is the largest cathedral of the Byzantine Empire. The church was started by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD and completed in the 13th century. The Church turn museum, and now a mosque, Agya Sophia is a whole book of history in itself.
Why visit the mosque?
The Hagia Sophia is considered the prime example of Byzantine architecture. The building is made up of marble, porphyry, and granite, and features a central dome, a large colonnade, and a series of smaller domes.
Must see: The Ayasofya was designed to be the largest and most impressive cathedral in the world and is a great place to visit to get a glimpse of what the church looked like during the Byzantine era.
2. The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
Often referred to as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It is an iconic mosque that must be visited. It was built between 1609 and 1616 by order of Sultan Ahmed I. The Mosque is the focal point of the Sultanahmet district, which is home to numerous other historic sites such as the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern.
Why Visit the Blue Mosque?
Although the Blue Mosque is known for its eye-popping blue tiles, the structure is most famous for its sheer size. Its interior is large enough to accommodate 25,000 worshipers at a time and features six minarets.
Must see: The inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque features a pool with two large columns (about 100 meters tall) that create a cool reflection effect in the water.
3. Shop at the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is a large covered market that was first opened in 1461 during the rule of Sultan Mehmed II. It’s now home to nearly 4,000 shops and is located on the European side of the city.
Why visit the Grand Bazar?
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. An ideal place to pick up reasonably priced souvenirs. In addition to colorful rugs, expensive jewelry, and Turkish delight, the Grand Bazaar also features dozens of small cafes where visitors can stop for tea or a snack.
Must see: The best time to visit the Grand Bazaar is during the week when there are fewer crowds and the shops are less crowded.
4. Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The Istanbul Archaeology Museums are made up of three separate museums: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Tiled Kiosk. All three museums are located within the Sultanahmet district. The three museums combine cover the history of Istanbul from the early Bronze Age to the Byzantine Empire.
Why visit the museums?
The Istanbul Archaeology Museums are home to some of the most amazing artifacts in the world. Prominent ones include a 2,000-year-old statue of the goddess Tyche and a nearly life-sized marble statue of Hadrian. These are among the best-preserved statues of the ancient era.
Must see: Visitors can take a guided tour of the museums and see the artifacts up close.
5. Explore the Grand Palace
Built for Sultan Abdülmecid I between 1853 and 1855, the Grand Palace is one of the largest palaces in the world. It is built in the Ottoman Baroque style and includes a mosque, a hospital, a school, and the royal mint.
Why visit the Grand Palace?
The Grand Palace is home to priceless treasures. These include 2,500-year-old mosaics and collections of rare Islamic miniatures. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the palace and see the palace’s many paintings and detailed ceilings up close.
Must see: The Grand Palace is home to the world’s largest collection of Islamic miniatures. Most of many of the paintings are on display in the palace’s 100-room museum.
6. Be Amazed at Ortaköy Mosque
The Ortaköy Mosque was built between 1663 and 1665 and is one of the popular structures in Istanbul. It is built in the Baroque style and is surrounded by a large park on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Why visit the Mosque?
The mosque, which is located at the tip of the Bosphorus Bridge, is known for its stunning view of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus Strait. It’s also home to a collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Must see: The mosque’s walls are covered with beautiful floral paintings, which are often illuminated at night.
7. Get Sipiritual at Chora Church
The Church of the Chora Monastery was built between 1204 and 1235 by order of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Although it was originally built as a Christian church, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque when they conquered the city in 1453.
Why visit the Chora Church?
The Church of the Chora Monastery is one of the best-preserved Byzantine churches in the world. Like many other churches in the city, it is known for its beautiful mosaics. The church is surrounded by a peaceful garden and overlooks the Sea of Marmara.
Must see: The church’s walls are covered with 1,000 square meters of stunning Byzantine mosaics.
8. Cruise Through The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is a narrow, 32-km body of water that separates the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Although it’s often referred to as a strait, it’s actually a natural sea lane that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Why visit the Bosphorus?
The Bosphorus is an excellent place for a scenic boat ride. Ferries run from Eminönü on the European side to various ports on the Asian side, including Beşiktaş, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy.
Must see: The “night cruise” is popular with local residents and tourists alike. A ferry ride through Bosphorus is a fun way to see the city. The last ferry leaves Eminönü at 10:15 p.m. local time.
9. Explore Dolmabahçe Palace
The Dolmabahçe Palace was built by order of Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1843. The palace, in fact, is one of the most well-known landmarks in Istanbul. It was the official residence of the Ottoman Empire’s last three sultans, including Abdülmecid I, Abdülaziz and Abdülhamit II.
Why visit the palace?
Dolmabahçe Palace is a great place to see how the Ottoman elite lived. It also contains a collection of stunning 19th-century French paintings and Neo-Baroque furniture.
Must see: The palace’s most famous room is the Peacock Room, which is decorated with gold leaf and a large, colorful painting of peacocks.
10. Get Inspired at Pera Museum
Located in the Beyoğlu district, Pera Museum is one of the largest museums in Istanbul. It was originally built in 1892 as the Pera Palas Hotel. The museum now houses a collection of paintings, photographs, decorative arts, and historic artifacts.
Why visit the Pera Museum?
The Pera Museum is home to an impressive collection of rare and valuable paintings. These also include a collection of works by Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and J.M.W. Turner. The museum also contains the world’s largest collection of Orientalist paintings.
Must see: The museum is also home to a collection of works by famous 20th-century artists. These include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, and Marc Chagall.
11. Enjoy at Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Theatre
The Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Museum is a small public park located on the Asian side of Istanbul. The area is home to a large collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins.
Why visit the museum?
The museum is home to a collection of ancient Roman columns, capitals, and statues, and is a great place to learn about the region’s ancient history.
Must see: The museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics are among the best in the world. The mosaics are especially popular with kids. So, if you are visiting Istanbul with your children, i would highly recommend visiting the place.
12. Meet the Sultan at Topkapı Palace
Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years and is the site of the world’s oldest surviving harem.
Why visit Topkapı Palace?
Lovingly referred to as “Denmark with a Turkish face”, Topkapı Palace is the largest palace in the world. It is also the last resting place of the Ottoman sultans and their families. The palace grounds are comprised of the sultan’s private quarters, the royal kitchens, the royal stables, the imperial audience chambers, and a whole lot more.
If you’re lucky enough, you might even get to watch the traditional changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place daily at noon.
Must see: The “Harem”, a complex of private living quarters housing the concubines and family members of the sultans.
13. Feeel Earie at the Basilica Cistern
Built in the 5th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern is an enormous underground water reservoir used for the storage and distribution of water from the Belgrade Forest, which was the source of the city’s water supply at the time. While the cistern was used for a few more centuries as a water distribution center, it was abandoned in the 11th century after the aqueducts supplying the city with water broke.
Why visit the Basilica Cistern?
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most magical places you’ll find in Istanbul. The cistern’s vaulted ceilings are supported by 336 marble columns, making it look like a palace made of water. You’ll get a feeling of total isolation: it’s an eerie, almost supernatural experience to wander among the columns in total silence and only the sound of the drip, drip of water.
14. Tour the Princes’ Islands
Take the Metro to “Istanbul Modern.” Walk north one block to the shore of the Bosphorus. Walk west along the shore until you reach the ferry dock. Take a ferry to one of the Princes‘ Islands.
Why visit Princes’ Islands?
The Princes’ Islands have a lot to offer to the visitor in terms of natural beauty. Forests, beaches, fauna, and flora – each of the islands has a different feel. The sea is calm and swimming is safe due to the fact that the islands are protected by the Kınalı Bay and the entrance of the Bosphorus.
14. Spice Up in the Egyptian Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi)
The Egyptian Bazaar is the oldest and largest covered market in Istanbul. The market was originally called the Spice Bazaar but was later renamed the Egyptian Bazaar. Make sure to distinguish it from the nearby Spice Bazaar located at the Eminönü docks.
Why visit the bazaar?
The bazaar is a great place to shop for Turkish handicrafts, spices, and herbs, and is a definite must-see for every visitor to Istanbul. The best part about shopping at the Egyptian bazaar is that it’s a great place to bargain for goods, so make sure that you are mentally prepared to haggle for a good price.
Must see: The bazaar is also home to a number of gold and silver shops. So, if you are interested in buying some silver or gold, you can check out some of the shops here.
15. Explore the Rüstem Pasa Mosque
Rüstem Pasa Mosque is a 16th-century Ottoman mosque located on the European side of Istanbul. The mosque is located in the historic peninsula of Old Istanbul and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The building is one of the most beautiful mosques in the city.
Why visit the mosque?
Although the mosque does not have the same historic value as the famous Hagia Sophia, it is a great place to visit for those interested in Ottoman history.
Must see: The mosque is home to a large collection of Ottoman calligraphy. The mosque is also a popular place for locals to get married. So, if you are visiting Istanbul, I would highly recommend visiting the mosque at sunset.
16. Chill Out in Taksim Square
Taksim Square is the most popular square always bustling with people. The square is home to the Taksim Gezi Park.
Why visit Taksim square?
If you haven’t visited the square in the evening or night, you probably have no idea what bustle in Istanbul looks like. The famous Istiklal street is also here. The street is a popular shopping avenue and is full of shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Must see: The square is home to the Taksim Square Fountain, a famous landmark that has been featured in many movies.
17. Dance With Whirling Dervishes
A whirling dervish is a dervish (a Sufi mystic) who performs a ritual called the Sama. Dervishes believe that by whirling they are drawing closer to God and are able to achieve a trance.
The ceremony is religious in nature but has become a traditional show to entertain tourists. It begins with a long and highly emotional poem. Whirling Dervishes believe that the faster they spin, the closer they are to God. So, they spin in circles for hours at a time, often until they collapse from exhaustion.
The Sama is performed at the Galata Mevlevihanesi, a building located in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul. The building was built in 1575 and is the home of Turkey’s only remaining Dervish lodge.
Did you visit Istanbul already? What other things would you recommend visitors to do?