Looking for what to do in Istanbul? Here are the best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey that will make your trip memorable.
Istanbul is one of the most unique and beautiful cities in Turkey and Europe as a whole.
Lying on 2 continents with a mix of culture, tradition, and modernity, Istanbul is not only unique but also fascinating.
Istanbul is one of those cities that you’re bound to fall in love with the minute you step foot into it.
From the contrast it boasts by bringing together the Western and Eastern cultures, the hospitality nature of the locals to the impressive historical buildings, it’s not hard to see why Istanbul is one of the most visited cities in the world.
With so much beauty and culture, let’s look at some of the best things to do in Istanbul that will make you appreciate this Eurasia city even more.
However, before you travel to Istanbul, check out this Istanbul travel guide that will show you everything you need to know about Istanbul.
From the best time to visit, how to navigate the city, experiences not to miss, visa requirements to what not to do in Istanbul.
So without any delays, let’s look at some of the best things to do in Istanbul.
Best things to do in Istanbul
1. Visit the Hagia Sophia
One of the best places to visit in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia.
Having been declared a museum in 1934 to date, this architectural wonder that sits in the center of the old historic quarter of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet square was formerly an orthodox church (the largest in the world actually).
It was constructed in 537 AD but later transformed into a mosque in 1453 and later into its current state as a museum.
The Hagia Sophia is a marvel wonder with a huge dome, minarets, and buttresses that will make you admire its exterior.
But do not just stop at admiring the exterior, walk inside and go down memory lane as you admire the untouched interior art that depicts biblical figures and scenes.
Since the Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited Istanbul tourist attractions, you can expect a long line at the entrance so it’s better to buy a skip the line ticket beforehand.
It’s totally possible to visit the Hagia Sophia on your own but if you want to go deeper in understanding its history and significance, then you can book a guided tour like this one. It comes with a skip the line entry ticket plus a professional tour guide.
Entrance fee: 72 TL (Turkish Lira) and free for children under nine.
Opening Hours: 9 AM – 7 PM (April 15 – October 31) and 9 AM – 5 PM (November 1 – April 15)
Museum pass validity: Valid
Pro tip* Istanbul has a museum Pass that you can purchase to have access to a number of museums in the city.
This museum pass will help you skip the longs at those sites including the Hagia Sophia. On top of that, it comes with a professional tour guide to learn more about Istanbul’s top attractions in detail.
2. Sail the Bosphorus
There is no trip to Istanbul that is complete without sailing the Bosphorus to see both the European and Asian sides of the city.
Cruising on the Bosphorus will treat you to amazing and uninterrupted views of Istanbul’s major landmarks and the iconic bridge that connects Asia to Europe.
You’ll be able to clearly see the minarets of various museums that dot the skyline.
Aboard the cruise ship, you can expect to be treated to traditional Turkish entertainment and belly dancers to fully immerse yourself in the country’s culture.
Whether you choose to opt for an afternoon Bosphorus cruise to clearly see the landmarks or a dinner cruise to take in the shimmering lights from the same, a cruise on the Bosphorus is bound to give an amazing experience.
You can opt for a private Bosphorus cruise or just hope onto the public ships if you’re traveling Istanbul on a budget.
The only difference is the experience (which is dinner/lunch being served with entertainment or not) but both cruises cross from the European to the Asian side and vice versa.
3. Marvel at the Blue Mosque
Just next to the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed mosque which is commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to its blue-colored tiles is one of the best places to see in Istanbul.
It is actually the most visited and Photographed landmark in Istanbul and it’s immense beautiful architecture and history make it qualify as one of the major landmarks of Europe.
The impressive exterior architecture that features large dorms, 6 minarets that occupy Istanbul’s skyline, and a large well-maintained courtyard is what draws the huge crowds to this Iconic structure.
But it’s not just the exterior that impresses revealers, the interior is equally magnificent with well-decorated dorms and walls that are blue-tiled where this mosque derives its name from.
And the best part is that it’s absolutely free to visit the Blue mosque making it one of the free things to do in Istanbul.
Entrance fee: Free for all
Opening Hours: From 9 am to 6 pm every day except during the prayer time.
Pro tips* Since it’s an operational mosque, tourists are not allowed to enter during the prayer time.
Before you visit, make sure that you plan your visit well as it’s not open to tourists 45 minutes before the call of prayer, 30 minutes after the prayers, and every Friday morning until around 2:30 pm.
You’ll also need to dress modestly; Cover your legs, shoulders before you go.
4. Tour the Topkapi Palace
One of the historical places to visit in Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace which used to be the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans and their women as well as the administrative headquarters.
Having been transformed into a museum in 1924, the Topkapi Palace has become a popular Istanbul attraction among visitors with the focal point being the Harem.
The Harem is where the Sultans used to keep their wives and concubines.
Exploring the palace will treat you to the most impressive imperial collection of Treasury including the Ottoman dynasty artwork, jewelry, gold-plated throne of Sultan Mahmud I which are some of the most prestigious in Turkey.
Entrance fee: 72 TL
Opening Hours: The Museum is open every day except on Tuesday. Between October 30th – April 15th, the Museum, Harem, and Hagia Irene can be visited between 9:00 am – 4:45 pm.
And between April 15th – October 30th, the Museum, Harem, and Hagia Irene can be visited between 9:00 am – 6:45 pm.
Museum pass validity: Valid
Pro tips* To skip the long lines, you can book this skip the line guided tour. But if you bought the Museum pass or the Istanbul tourist pass, then you won’t need another ticket.
However, to enter the Harem and the Hagia Irene church, you need to purchase separate tickets that you can only buy at the entrance of the Palace.
But you can still book a combined guided tour of the Topkapi and Harem. This tour gives you fast access to both the Topkapi Palace and the Harem with a professional tour guide.
5. Climb the Galata Tower
There is no better place to take in the views of Istanbul like at the Galata Tower.
Located in the Galata quarter of Istanbul, this iconic medieval stone tower is one of the popular tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Even though it used to just act as a watchtower and a fire lookout in its early days, the Galata tower is now the perfect spot to get 360-degree views of the entire Istanbul city.
This impressive tower not only has an observation deck for the views but also a restaurant at the top to sit and unwind as you experience Istanbul.
But worry not, you’ll not have to climb the Galata tower as there are 2 elevators up to the 7th floor and you’ll only need to climb 2 more stairs up by yourself.
Climbing the Galata tower is truly one of the fun things to do in Istanbul if you want to take in the incredible views of the Bosphorus, the Topkapi Palace, and all other major places in Istanbul.
Entrance Fee: 35 TL and free for children below 7 years.
Opening hours: Open every day from 9 am to 7 pm.
Pro tips* If you don’t want to meet the crowds, you can visit the tower before noon. The tickets can be bought right at the entrance of the tower.
But to skip the lines and learn more about the Galata Tower, you can opt for this guided tour. With this tour, you won’t only visit the Galata tower but all it’s neighboring places while learning more about Turkey’s history.
6. Shop at the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world with over 4, 000 shops and 61 covered streets.
Even with the crowds of over 300,000 people per day, the Grand Bazaar is one of the places to go in Istanbul.
From the shimmering lamps, impressive hand-woven carpets, glittering homeware, jewelry, bags, to Antiques, there are soo many things you can buy/see in the Grand Bazaar.
It’s a great place to just browse around and see the local crafts of Istanbul or even buy some souvenirs.
It’s not just shops and restaurants in the Grand Bazaar, you can literally find anything there. From Banks, ATM machines to cafes.
But I have to warn you, the place is so big and crowded, you might get lost within it so make sure that you know where to enter from and where to exist.
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening hours: 8:30 am to 7 pm every day except Sunday and other Turkish public holidays
Pro tips* If you’re to buy anything, haggle haggle and haggle some more. It’s a norm in Istanbul, so chances are that the first price is higher and definitely not the last one.
Since the Grand Bazaar is crowded, there are chances of pickpockets and scams, so be mindful of your property and make sure you know where your money is at all times.
You can buy this money belt to hide in your money or this travel neck pouch.
Shop attendants can be aggressive when it comes to selling you stuff, but if you don’t want to buy anything, just stand your ground, say NO and move on.
Turkish people are very welcoming so it’s not rare to get invited for a Turkish tea/coffee in their shops. Their intentions are good but you might end up buying something out of guilt that you accepted the tea. So if you don’t plan on buying anything, just turn down the invite politely.
However, if the idea of going to the Grand Bazaar alone scares you due to the crowds and not knowing where to go exactly, then you can book this guided tour.
With this tour, you won’t only visit the Grand Bazaar but also get an entry ticket to the Hagia Sophia if you choose that option.
7. Glare at the Bosphorus bridge from the Ortakay mosque
Beyond the amazing features that are in almost all Istanbul mosques, the Ortakay mosque is unique because of its location right next to the Bosphorus bridge.
Built between 1853 and 1855, the architecture of the Ortakay mosque represents the Ottoman style of building.
It is actually the best place in Istanbul to get the most beautiful views of the Bosphorus bridge.
This place is a picture-perfect spot where you get the Ortakay museum in the backdrop of the bridge showcasing both the classic and modern sides of this megapolis city of Istanbul.
Though the highlight of visiting this mosque is to take in the breathtaking views, a stroll inside the mosque will treat you to another beauty to admire.
From admiring the dome-shaped ceiling covered in pink mosaic to beautiful chandeliers overhanging on the ceiling, the interior is as impressive as the exterior.
So if you were looking for things to do in Istanbul, Turkey, a visit to this beautiful place is a must-do.
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening hours: Every day from 9 am to 6 pm but not open to visitors during the prayer time
Related post: Big mistakes to avoid when traveling in Istanbul
8. Take a Turkish bath
You can never visit Istanbul and not go for a Hammam which is also known as the Turkish bath.
A traditional Turkish bath is one of the best things to do in Istanbul to rejuvenate yourself as you enjoy this Turkish culture that has been in existance for hundreds of years.
Though there are different kinds of a Turkish bath; self-service and the traditional style, I recommend opting for the traditional hammam.
With the traditional one, an attendant with wash and massage you for a couple of minutes giving you ultimate relaxation while with the self-service, you bathe yourself which is not really fun as you don’t get to experience the real Turkish bath.
From the hot steam rooms, the cold water splashes to the dreamy bubble wash and massage, a Turkish bath is truly one of the activities in Istanbul not to miss.
Entrance Fee: The fee varies from the type of Hammam you choose whether, self-service, the traditional Hamman, or you even add other services like the fish pedicure or aromatherapy oil massage.
The Self-service bath is about 160 TL and you carry your own toiletries (soap and shampoo) and the traditional Hammam is around 255 TL.
Opening hours: Most Hammams open as early as 6 am and close as late as midnight but you’ll need to check the individual opening hours of the Hammam you’re going to.
Pro tip* There are two ways you can enjoy a Hamam. Either by opting for ones in big hotels or the real historical Hamams.
I recommend going for the historical ones as you not only enjoy the bath but also learn more about the history as you enjoy the traditional architecture of the hammams.
To go to a Hammam, you have to book in advance either individually or through a tour guide.
If you want everything prepared for you, then I recommending booking this traditional Turkish bath.
9. Go underground in Basilica Cistern
Lying under the city of Istanbul, Basilica Cistern is one of the unique places to visit in Istanbul that will blow your mind.
Basilica Cistern which was constructed in the 6th century (532) is the largest traditional Cisterns among the hundreds that lie beneath Istanbul city.
Though it was initially constructed to supply water to the Byzantine Palace and the city as a whole, today Basilica Cistern holds little water and has become a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul.
Taking a stroll through the hundreds of marble columns is pretty incredible but the highlight of the visit is seeing the 2 Medusa heads with one upside down supporting one of the columns and another one to the side.
Even though it’s still not yet known why the 2 Medusa heads were constructed the way they are, it’s still an interesting sight.
Entrance Fee: 30 TL and free for children under 7 years
Opening hours: 9 am to 6:30 pm in summer months and 9 am to 5:30 in winter months.
Museum pass validity: Not valid
Pro tip* Since the museum pass is not valid at Basilica Cistern, it’s better to buy this skip the line ticket guided tour in advance to avoid the long queues.
But if you choose to bear long queues, it’s only cash that is allowed, payment by credit cards is not accepted at the entrance.
10. Stroll the Spice Bazaar
Just like the Grand Bazaar, the spice bazaar which is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar is a market with over 100 shops selling spices.
And no, it’s not just spices, but also different kinds of nuts, Turkish delights and all kinds of sweets. It’s like a sweet Heaven in Istanbul waiting for you to indulge in.
With the entire place packed with spices, sweets, and thousand s of people, its easy to get overwhelmed but try to be calm and explore this delicacies’ market.
Actually, the spice bazaar is the best place in Istanbul to buy Turkish delight and other hand made sweets.
And like the advice I gave you while exploring the Grand bazaar, it still applies here when it comes to buying, dealing with the sellers, and keeping your property safe.
If you want to buy some sweets, look for established shops that will let you taste a bit before you decide on what you want to buy. But also try not to just taste everything and buy nothing – not cool at all.
Actually, even if you don’t plan on buying any Turkish sweets or spices, exploring the Spice bazaar is one of the best things to do in Istanbul.
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: From 9 am to 7 pm every day but closed on all religious holidays.
Pro tips* If you want to explore the spice bazaar but don’t want the hustles it comes with, then you can book this guided tour to take you around. This tour is actually combined with an afternoon Bosphorus cruise.
The tour guide will also recommend the best sweets to buy or the best Turkish delights to take home as souvenirs. And if you’re a foodie, then you can book this Istanbul food tour.
11. Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace
Considered one of the most glamorous palaces in the world and the largest in Turkey, Dolmabahçe Palace is a European-style palace constructed between 1843 and 1856 on the European side of Istanbul.
The Palace is not only relevant in Ottoman history but also in modern Turkey as that’s where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic resided in the summer and later died in the same palace in 1938 at 9.05 am.
Even up to now, that time of 9:05 am is displayed on all the Palace clocks to honor his death and the role he played in forming modern Turkey.
Covered in gold and crystal, the Ottoman empire spared no riches to make this palace what is it just to prove that the empire was doing ok financially.
Though its construction threw the ottoman empire into bankruptcy during that time because of the fortune they spent on it, it is well worth it now as it’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in Istanbul.
Even though every little inch of the palace is worth seeing, some of the features you should not miss on your visit include; the Baccarat crystal staircase, the ceremonial hall which has a 4.5 tons chandelier, and the incredible ceilings which used 14 tons of gold.
The Dolmabahçe Palace also has the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world. It is truly a beautiful place that is worth a visit while in Istanbul.
Entrance fee: 90 TL but you’ll need to pay an extra 60 TL to visit the Harem. However, you can buy a combined ticket at 120 TL to visit the Palace, Harem, and the Clock Tower.
Opening hours: From 9 am to 4 pm for the main building but other sections of the palace close at 5 pm. The palace is open every day except on Monday.
Museum pass validity: Not Valid
Pro tip* Do not waste time in long queues at the Dolmabahçe Palace by buying this skip the line guided tour or just this ticket with an audio guide to even learn more about both the Ottoman empire and Modern-day Turkey.
12. Indulge yourself in Turkey’s delicious cuisines
For all food lovers, Istanbul is the perfect destination to indulge yourself in Turkey’s delicious cuisines.
With a variety of dishes, you’ll not fail to find what you drool for in Istanbul.
Whether it is the homemade dishes served in the many restaurants or the delicious street foods and snacks, you’ve got to walk this gastronomy journey in Istanbul.
Some of the popular and delicious dishes you should try out include; Kebabs (there is a variety of them like the Yogurtlu, Sis, and Doner), Pide which is more of a Turkish Pizza, Dolma, Meze, Simit which is the Turkish Bagel and so many others.
Protip* While you can do the food tasting on your own, you can book a food tour to fully indulge yourself in the Turkish cuisine.
This Istanbul food tour lasts for 3 hours and it includes tasting the Turkish homemade dishes, street foods, and the mouth-watering pastries.
There you have it folks! That was the list of the best things to do in Istanbul to make the most of your trip.
But before you go, check out these posts below to Inspire your Istanbul sightseeing adventure and Turkey at large.
More posts to help you plan your Turkish trip
- Things to know before traveling to Istanbul
- Free things to do in Istanbul
- How to enjoy Istanbul on a budget
- Big mistakes to avoid while in Istanbul
- Things to do in Istanbul at night
- Best places to visit in Turkey
- Fun facts about Turkey
- Is it safe to travel to Turkey now?
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