If you are planning a trip to Turkey and you are wondering what to do and what to see in Istanbul don't worry: the city is so big (it is divided into two continents, Europe e Asia) and is so full of markets, mosques and experiences to live that a little initial confusion is normal to have.
In this article I have collected 25 things to see and do that will make you hopelessly fall in love (as it happened to me) with one of the most beautiful cities in the world, one of the few (indeed perhaps the only one) where you are surrounded by a mixed European and Middle Eastern culture.
If you spend a few days in Istanbul and plan to visit most of the sites of interest and take part in the excursion I suggest you check out the Istanbul Tourist Pass here which includes, in addition to other thingsentrance to Topkapi Hagia Sophia, browsing on the Strait of the Bosphorus and bus Hop-on Hop-off.
Another tourist card to consider is the 5 Guided Museum Pass which will allow you to skip the line for enter the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, To Basilica Cistern, To Hagia Irene e al Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.Attention new 2021: FREE TOUR
Istanbul offers news in 2021! It is about two FREE TOURS not to be missed:
☞ ISTANBUL FREE TOUR: Delve into the magical atmosphere ofancient Byzantium in this free tour of Istanbul. The best way to get to know the city!
☞ Free tour of the Taksim neighborhood: Explore the more elegant and modern side of Istanbul and discover some of the most emblematic places in the city with this one free Taksim neighborhood tour
- 25 beautiful things to see in Istanbul
- 1 - Practice haggling in the Grand Bazaar
- 2 - Hagia Sofia
- 3 – Moschea Blu (Blue Mosque)
- 4 - Trip on the Bosphorus
- 5 - Look at the view from the Galata Tower
- 6 - Take Istiklal Avenue
- 7 - Smoking the shisha (also called Hookah)
- 8 - Watch the show of the whirling dervishes
- 9 - Try a hammam
- 10 - Listen to the Muezzin's call to prayer
- 11 - Imagine a king's life in Topkapi
- 12 - Cross the Galata Bridge at sunset
- 13 - Try the Turkish coffee
- 14 - Eat a doner kebab
- 15 - Immerse yourself underground at the Basilica Cistern
- 16 - Taste the baklava
- 17 - Buy a glass lamp
- 18 - Dine with a view
- 19 - Drink pomegranate juice
- 20 - Visit the Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye)
- 21 - Walk on the walls of Constantinople
- 22 - Visit the Spice Bazaar
- 23 - Eat the fish sandwich (balik ekmek)
- 24 - Play BackGammon
- 25 - Eat the konefi
- Other things to see in Istanbul
- 1 - Eminomu Square
- 2 - Rustem Pasha Mosque
- 3 - Ortakoy
- 4 - Fener and Balat districts
- 5 - Eyup Sultan Mosque
- Excursions from Istanbul
- 1 - Princes' Islands
- 2 – Pamukkale
- 3 - Gallipoli Historical National Park
- 4 – Troy
- 5 – Edirne
- 6 - Ephesus
- Map Of What to See in Istanbul
Istanbul What to See and Do
Spices, spices and more spices!
1 - Practice haggling in the Grand Bazaar
Il Grand Bazaar di Istanbul it is a place for shopping black belts. With more than 3000 shops (but some say there are even 5000) you are spoiled for choice.
Remember to bargain on the price, do not be shy thinking you will look stingy, for Istanbul shopkeepers bargaining is part of their culture and there is nothing strange about it.
Inside the Bazaar you will notice that it is divided into sectors: you will find some sectors where only jewelry is sold, others for culinary delights, others for fabrics and so on.
There are so many of those shiny things that you will surely want to buy them all.
Girls like me, get ready to empty your wallet!
Hagia Sofia on the outside is a bit massive but on the inside WOW
2 – Hagia Sophia
Today it is a museum, but in the past Hagia Sophia (Great Blessed Mosque of the Great Hagia Sophia) it was a Christian cathedral, Orthodox cathedral and mosque. In short, he went through all the colors.
ATTENTION: from July 2020 Hagia Sophia has been converted into a mosque!
Maybe from the outside it is a little bit disappointing, very massive, but inside the decorations and mosaics are really wonderful and inspired the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.
Below you will find 2 options of tickets Skip the line and guided tour with a historian:
- ☞ Click to view Skip-the-line ticket for Hagia Sophia
- ☞ Click to view Guided tour of Hagia Sofia with a historian!
3 – Moschea Blu (Blue Mosque)
La Sultan Ahmed Mosque it is the most famous and most visited site in Istanbul. The name derives from the over 20.000 (think over twenty thousand) blue tiles that adorn the dome and its walls.
Although the mosque is still in operation today, it is possible to visit it inside. Don't forget to use proper behavior and dress appropriately: it is a place of prayer.
The best way to admire it is from theracecourse (located on the west side of the mosque).
4 - Trip on the Bosphorus
If you don't have many days to see everything Istanbul has to offer, go to cruise on the Bosphorus is a great way to get a glimpse of the main points of interest in the city - you'll cruise alongside the Dolmabahçe Palace, To Maiden tower, to the beautiful villas and flower gardens.
Anyone who has time is also a nice hike sail along the Corno D'Oro until you reach the Black Sea.
Below are 4 different choices of Bosphorus cruises available:
- ☞ Click to view Simple 90-minute cruise on the Bosphorus
- ☞ Click to view Evening Bosphorus Cruise with Dinner and Entertainment
- ☞ Click to view 2 hour Bosphorus cruise
- ☞ Click to view Bosphorus cruise to the Black Sea
5 - Look at the view from the Galata Tower
La Galata tower it is located in Beyoğlu and looks like a tower from a fairy tale. There is something magical in fact in its shape with the conical roof.
it was built by the Genoese (like me!) and is just under 70 meters high.
Every year it is besieged by millions of tourists and even if there will be the price of the queue, it is absolutely worth it: from the external balconies on its top you can enjoy a breathtaking view over the city, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait.
6 - Take Istiklal Avenue
The beating heart of Istanbul, Istiklal Avenue it is a 1,4 km long pedestrian street where most of the cafes, clubs and restaurants are located. If you don't feel like doing it all on foot, you can take the famous historic tram to get there Taskim square where the monument to the republic: in my opinion it is better to walk, with the 3 million visitors who cross it every day, the tram often remains bottled up without being able to advance and it could take longer than walking.
Ok, despite my face I swear it was just tobacco!
7 - Smoking the shisha (also called Hookah)
Le water pipes they are very popular in Istanbul (as in almost all Muslim countries) and even if you are a non-smoker, not trying it would be a crime, here it is almost a status symbol.
The tobacco used for the Shisha is a flavored tobacco (it seems almost mixed with molasses) with various flavors: lemon and mint, apple, grape, but my favorite is the orange one even if it is difficult to find.
For the avoidance of doubt, since here the shisha is often used with other substances: there is no drug / narcotic inside, it is simply flavored tobacco.
8 - Watch the show of the whirling dervishes
If you want to know a fundamental part of Turkish culture, you cannot fail to go and see it dance of the whirling dervishes.
In fact, Turkey is the homeland of Order of the Mevlevi, that is, a brotherhood of Sufis. The dance is actually a ritual during which the dancers reach mystical ecstasy. In Istanbul today it is possible to see the dance of the whirling dervishes both as a show for tourists, and to participate in the real ritual (which however lasts 3 hours and is located in difficult to reach areas of the city, in addition to which you will have to observe various rules).
My advice is to participate in the dance show made for tourists that you find below:
- ☞ Click for see or purchase the Whirling Dervish Show
Here's where you can watch the dervish dance in Istanbul. These places are called dervishane or mevlevihane:
Yenikapi Mevlevi Lodge: University of Fatih every last Friday of the month, from 19 pm free admission ceremonies.
Tourist shows: You can also see tourist shows at the Sirkeci train station or at the Hocapaşa cultural center.
9 - Try a hammam
Even if you have problems with inhibitions, definitely try a hammam. There are several, some beautiful for tourists, but my advice is to try a public one (even if sometimes the hygiene leaves something to be desired) to have a real “local experience”.
Do you want to have a real local experience?
Try the Aga Hamami hammam one of the most famous Turkish baths in Istanbul: you can book it at this link at a great price!
Don't worry if you feel ugly and fat, no one cares what you are and no one will notice, in fact you will be treated like kings and queens.
The tapered and elegant minarets of the Blue Mosque
10 - Listen to the Muezzin's call to prayer
They are very many the sounds of Istanbul: the sirens of the boats that cross the Bosphorus, the horns of the cars, the music in the clubs, the song of the seagulls, the shouts of the sellers who call customers.
But the real sound that enchants, captivates and marks the day is theadhan or the call to the prayer of the muezzin. Five times a day the muezzin climbs the minaret (now they use loudspeakers) and intones a chanted litany which serves to remind the faithful that it is time for prayer.
In this single call, so penetrating that it seems to pervade everything, all the 5 cardinal points of the Islamic religion.
11 - Imagine a king's life in Topkapi
Residence of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years Topkapi Palace it is so big that to visit it in depth you would have to spend at least a full day inside.
Apart from the courts, the gardens, the halls and the royal treasury (with really huge emeralds not to mention the wonderful Diamond of the Spoonmaker, the 5th largest in the world), don't miss theharem where the 1000 wives and concubines of the Sultan lived.
The panorama over the Bosphorus is beautiful.
- ☞ Click for buy the ticket for Topkapi Palace and Harem INCLUDED with guide and skip the line priority entrance
Istanbul silhouette at sunset viewed from Galata Bridge
12 - Cross the Galata Bridge at sunset
The best way to experience Istanbul at the top of its magic is to do one walk on the Galata Bridge (which connects the old part of the city with the modern one) at sunset, when the mosques on the hill form elegant silhouettes against the red, pink and blue sky and the scent of water pipes invests the air with apple and mint aromas.
The bridge (the one now quite ugly I would say) has a troubled history, but it is a symbol of the city. Just think that Leonardo sent his project to build it and the sultan of the time refused, calling instead Michelangelo who declined the invitation.
13 - Try the Turkish coffee
Try it even if I think you won't like it. The Turkish coffee in fact it is prepared by pouring very fine ground coffee powder directly into boiling water and then letting the bottom settle. Don't be like me and try not to gulp down the residue of the ground powder, it's terrible.
Did you know that it is from the very bottom of Turkish coffee that the caffeomancy, that is, the divinatory art of reading the future at the bottom of the cup?
14 - Eat a doner kebab
The kebab is a dish of Persian origin and simplifying a lot it is cooked grilled meat skewered. The Döner kebab, the vertical roll that we all know here was invented not in Turkey but by Turkish immigrants in Germany who reworked their traditional dish to meet the favor of the Germans (strange isn't it?).
15 - Immerse yourself underground at the Basilica Cistern
La Basilica Cistern it is the largest underground cistern found in Istanbul. Born as an underground Basilica, due to the need to have water it was converted into a cistern by Justinian. There are 336 columns of which two, the most impressive, are supported by two heads of Medusa, one upside down and one rotated 90 °.
The two heads are probably recycled pieces of some other ancient monument. Further on there is another considered very important: it is a column with tears carved and it is said that it has the power to make wishes come true.
16 - Taste the baklava
Or rather like getting your teeth out by eating the sweetest thing the human brain can ever conceive. Probably native to Turkey, but widespread in practically all the countries of south-western, central and Balkan Asia, the baklava is a complex dessert consisting of layers of phyllo dough (a variety of puff pastry) buttered and stuffed with nuts, pistachios and dried fruit before being baked and then soaked in a solution of sugar and lemon, sometimes honey, and with the addition of spices.
In short, a low-calorie thing, not really recommended for those suffering from high triglycerides.
Typical Turkish glass lamps for sale in the Grand Bazaar
17 - Buy a glass lamp
I took a red one and was happy as a child. The Istanbul glass lamps they are generally made with mosaics of many small pieces of glass of different colors, but you can find every one: from those to hang to those for bedside tables, from those in transparent glass to red ones. In short, there is only the embarrassment of choice.
If you want to buy them, don't buy them in the Grand Bazaar where prices are inflated, you can find them practically everywhere in the city.
18 - Dine with a view
The restaurant Hamdi it is actually a kebaberia and they serve typically Turkish dishes. Unfortunately, the fact of being mentioned in famous guides made it a little touristy. It is not a luxury restaurant, but the 180 degree view of the old city and the Bosphorus is worth the cost of the dinner.
Pomegranates and oranges for sale in a kiosk on the street
19 - Drink pomegranate juice
Scattered throughout the city you will find stalls selling juices and freshly squeezed juices. The best for my taste is that of pomegranate which is an institution here (I had already drank it in Israel to tell the truth) and thanks to the antioxidants it is also excellent for health.
After all the sweets that you eat when you visit Istanbul some vitamins are not bad and more and are cheap.
20 - Visit the Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye)
Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque are the two best known mosques in Istanbul, but the Suleymaniye Mosque it is the greatest of all. It is hard to get to the top through uphill alleys full of little shops selling anything. But the effort paid off in full.
21 - Walk on the walls of Constantinople
If you don't have the boxes full of walking yet, the 7 km walk on the walls of ancient Constantinople it is a nice choice, especially because it is not very touristy. The walls were built to protect the city and were a masterpiece of majesty: the inner wall was 12 meters high, the outer one 5 separated by a 20 meter wide moat which today has become… a vegetable garden.
The 96 towers scattered along the walls are still standing today and the signs of erosion testify to the passing of time.
22 - Visit the Spice Bazaar
Smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar however, it is the second largest covered market in Istanbul. It is also called the Egyptian Market or Misir Carsisi and walking in its streets is a 'sensory experience complete.
Perfumes, smells, colors in short, all your senses will be stimulated to the maximum (even the taste given the numerous tastings that will be offered to you). Inside the bazaar you will find practically all kinds of spices you can imagine, dried fruit, tea leaves, Turkish coffee up to the exquisite Turkish sweets.
23 - Eat the fish sandwich (balik ekmek)
A Eminonu, at the far end of the Galata Bridge, you will find some little boxes serving the famous sandwich with fish. Absolutely one of the most famous street food, know that it presents risks. I ate it (at the time I wasn't a vegetarian yet) and I'm still alive: unfortunately sometimes the fish used is not very fresh so you risk stomach ache.
Everywhere in Istanbul you will see people very busy playing Backgammon games
24 - Play BackGammon
I never understood how to play and indeed the only time I tried it I lost sensationally, so I refused to play it again (I hate losing, especially against Massi). The Backgammon it is a game that is more than 5000 years old (it dates back to the Persian Empire) and in Istanbul you will find many people playing it: at the tables of bars and cafes, in the squares and on the thresholds of shops.
25 - Eat the konefi
By now I think it has been understood for some time: Istanbul is not the ideal destination for those who want to stay on a diet, simply because you cannot resist the delicacies of Turkish cuisine.
My favorite is the konefi, needless to say that I who are on a diet ALWAYS ate it by shovelfuls, making the efforts of months spent feeding on lettuce leaves in vain.
Konefi is a cheese made in filo pastry, sweetened, baked in the oven and covered with peanuts: it is an absolute goodness, but since it is cooked at the moment you will not find it everywhere. Ask it and then when you come back you tell me what you think.
Other things to see in Istanbul
So far I have listed the best things to do in Istanbul. actually there are many others.
If you spend a few more days in Istanbul, keep in mind to visit them or take an excursion in the surroundings (there are some beautiful ones!)
1 - Eminomu Square
Eminonu it is a very busy and slightly chaotic place, but beautiful for its atmosphere.
This port area is located on the Golden Horn, and from here you can visit the mosques, the spice market, famous restaurants or take a ferry that will take you anywhere in Istanbul.
Stop and look around - this is Istanbul in action, a hive of activity that starts in the morning and continues throughout the day.
2 - Rustem Pasha Mosque
The mosque Rustem Pasha is a very small mosque famous for its Iznik tiles.
It doesn't look like much on the outside, but it's what's on the inside that matters, right?
Well, the tiles in this mosque are some of the best in Istanbul, if you pass them take a look.
3 - Ortakoy
Ortakoy is a trendy district of Istanbul.
Stroll through the shops, dine at one of the restaurants and see the iconic Ortakoy Mosque.
4 - Fener and Balat districts
Leave the most famous tourist areas behind and stroll through the colorful districts of Fener and Balat.
5 - Eyup Sultan Mosque
This is a much less visited mosque by tourists than the other mosques in Istanbul.
Located in an area outside the main tourist area, when you are here, Istanbul feels truly "authentic".
This is a beautiful area of the city. From the mosque, follow the path uphill through the cemetery.
It's a nice walk and from the top you have a great view of the Golden Horn and Istanbul!
Excursions from Istanbul
The largest city in Turkey is a huge and vibrant metropolis, an architectural marvel and undoubtedly a cultural gem.
If you are like me, the hustle and bustle of the city will give you a lot of fun, but if you stay a few days longer it could be nerve-wracking.
Luckily there are some from Istanbul day excursions that you can do and that give you the chance to visit epic places like Troy, Pamukkale, Edirne.
Needless to tell you that it is worth visiting them, each of them.
1 - Princes' Islands
Very popular with Istanbul locals, the Princes' Islands they are the perfect place for those wishing to spend a quiet day away from the busy city life.
You can get there by taking a ferry from Kabatas and in just half an hour you will be surrounded by beautiful beaches and forests on islands dotted with traditional Ottoman-style houses.
2 – Pamukkale
Another full day tour that this time includes a flight, Pamukkale it is about two hours from Istanbul.
You will have to take a plane and make a land transfer, but if you are tireless, think about it, you will visit one of the most beautiful places in all of Turkey.
If you still don't know what Pamukkale is, know that it is a series of terraces of thermal pools and azure water cascading over each other.
The dramatic landscape is definitely worth the trip, offering endless opportunities to relax, take amazing photos, and explore one of the most unique places in the world.
3 - Gallipoli Historical National Park
Located on the unbelievable Gallipoli Peninsula with its verdant shores and idyllic coastal views, you will also find the beautiful Gallipoli Historical National Park, dedicated to the commemoration and honor of the soldiers of the First World War.
The cemeteries themselves, although melancholy, are gorgeous to look at and it's easy to spend hours wandering around being fascinated by them and the various other memorials.
The highlights here are Anzac Cove, Chunuk Bair, and 57 Alay, all with their own distinct yet fascinating historical significance.
4 – Troy
Having held the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site for over 20 years, Troy is one of the most iconic ancient sites in the world, thanks to the fascination for its mythological history fueled by popular media and history lessons.
I mean, we've all heard of the Trojan horse, haven't we?
The site is home to ruins of the outer walls, fortified cities and a temple of Athena, which, while leaving something to the imagination, are all beautiful to visit.
5 – Edirne
Famous for being the second capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne it is a surprisingly opulent city, filled with historic buildings including mosques, museums and an enchanting and mysterious old town.
In terms of noteworthy buildings, the Selimiye Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, complete with eye-catching spiers and a monstrously large central dome.
Also worth a visit is the Edirne Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, housed in the courtyard of the mosque and exhibiting fascinating pottery, textiles and wooden objects from the Ottoman kingdom.
6 - Ephesus
Ephesus it is a day trip not to be missed when visiting Istanbul.
Although the cheapest and fastest way to get there is by plane, it's definitely worth it.
The ancient city has some of the most incredibly well-preserved monuments in Turkey, including the House of the Virgin Mary, where she allegedly spent her last days.
Also not to be missed is the Temple of Artemis, officially one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Unless you want to explore on your own and save some money, the best way to visit it is to take a guided tour, where you will be taken to the best places and not have to worry about arranging transport.
Map Of What to See in Istanbul
Below is the map with the major points of interest in Istanbul mentioned in this article.