Things to do in Istanbul
by Daniel | Last Updated November 20th, 2019
Istanbul is a city that's known for its rich history and culture, beautiful scenery, and mind-blowing architecture. There are dozens of things to do while visiting Turkey, but there's something special about Istanbul that's just breathtaking.
Here's our guide outlining the best things to do when in Istanbul. If you need any help planning your trip, contact us today to learn more insider tips about this amazing city!
History is a major part of Turkey, but especially in Istanbul. For those who love learning about history and culture, these spots are must-sees.
Hagia Sophia is the former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral. It was used as a church for over 900 years. When Istanbul was conquered by Faith Sultan Mehmed in 1453, it was converted into a mosque and used as such for 482 years. Finally, it transformed into a museum in 1935. The original building's architects were Anthemios and Isidoros, and the building is currently in its third phase of construction.
The interior museum is filled with mosaics and marble pillars, and the dome is 55.6m (182 ft 5 in) from floor level. Art historians and architects are particularly interested in the building, as it held the record for the largest dome in the world for many years. It is supported by a unique construction method called pendentives, which are triangular pieces beneath the dome. These pendentive pieces make the dome appear as if it's hanging in the air, which explains why so many architects revel at the construction of the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia is worth a trip to Istanbul not only to see the breathtaking Byzantine architecture but also to marvel at the art contained within its walls and museum. History buffs, aspiring architects, and art appreciators alike will love to visit this museum.
Galata Tower originally named the Tower of Christ, is a medieval stone tower built by the Genoese colony in the 14th century as a part of their defensive wall. The tower is 220 feet in height (66.9 meters) and was used for surveillance of the harbor and to detect fires. Today, Galata Tower offers the best panoramic views of Istanbul.
At the base of the tower, there's a bustling square with cafes to enjoy Turkish coffee and dishes while people-watching. It's the perfect place to go on a cool night.
Topkapi Palace is a large museum located in Istanbul, Turkey. It exhibits several artifacts and treasures from the Ottoman Empire. It also houses an extensive museum of books and manuscripts. The palace itself served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire court between 1478-1856, and became a museum in 1924. The Byzantine architecture and design influence of the palace is a big tourist attraction.
The palace is composed of several courtyards, the first of which was for ceremonies and processions. The second courtyard was reserved for official visitors and members of the court, and contains the palace kitchens. The third courtyard was the private residence of the sultan. Only he and a select few could enter. The harem was the sultan's living quarters, which contains a courtyard and the apartments for the sultan's family and staff.
The palace now serves as a museum for over three million visitors a year, and houses artifacts that reportedly belonged to prophets like Moses, Joseph, and Mohammed.
Make sure to tour every part of the museum including the harem, as these were the beautiful living quarters of the sultan and his family.
Blue Mosque, formally named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is a historic mosque known for its hand-painted blue tiles adorning the interior walls. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still used as a place of worship. It is closed to non-worshippers during the five daily prayers.
Shoes must be removed and placed in a plastic bag at the entrance and women must wear head coverings while entering the mosque, but plastic bags and head coverings are offered for free. The dress code is enforced as the Blue Mosque still serves first and foremost as a mosque, but it's a small price to pay to be able to see the magnificent architecture and tile work once you enter.
Food and Shopping
For foodies and those who like to go shopping, here's a list of the most popular places to eat and shop in Istanbul.
As one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, Grand Bazaar is a sight to see. It takes up a total area of 30,700m and attracted over 90 million visitors in 2013. Due to its history and size, it is often regarded as one of the world's first shopping malls.
There are over 4,000 shops in Grand Bazaar offering a multitude of products such as Turkish coffee and coffee sets, ceramics, food, decor and gifts, and other amazing items. Tons of unique items such as earrings hand-crafted by Turkish artists or hand-painted backgammon sets that are one-of-a-kind.
Grand Bazaar is organized, on a large scale, by the items that each individual shop sells. For instance, if you're in the market for a new musical instrument, you'll need to go to Galata. In this way, the Grand Bazaar makes it easy to find items and also drives competition between sellers.
Even if spending money isn't the goal when visiting, the Grand Bazaar is definitely worth seeing and experiencing in-person.a
Istiklal Avenue is a 1.4 kilometer-long (0.86 miles) pedestrian walkway in Istanbul, Turkey that houses dozens of shops, cafes, restaurants, theaters, and nightclubs. During the weekends, the street is visited by over 3 million people daily. Be aware that Istiklal Avenue is often quite crowded, so be sure not to carry much with you.
This destination is attractive to shoppers and foodies, but it is also fun for architecture lovers: it is composed of mainly Ottoman Era buildings, with some Art Deco style buildings from the Turkish Republic era.
If shopping is your main goal, be sure to walk up and down the street and do some window shopping first, before circling back and going into stores. This way, you'll get a feel for what each boutique has to offer.
If you're looking to eat, don't be afraid to try out some street food. Street food is often cheap and made right in front of you, so you can see the food being prepared. It's also a great way to interact with locals and encourage conversation, and it contributes to the local economy. Don't forget to grab a Turkish coffee!
Cevahir Mall is the largest shopping mall in the city of Istanbul. It's open 365 days a year and houses over 200 stores across six floors. It also has restaurants, cafes, and movie theaters. Cevahir Mall is also the site of the largest enclosed entertainment center in Turkey, containing rides and games.
Cevahir Mall is usually crowded, just as the Grand Bazaar and Istiklal Avenue are often crowded, so remember not to bring much with you when shopping and, as always, don't forget the Turkish coffee.
Nightlife is an important part of any trip if you like to go out. Here are some of the best places to eat, drink, and dance the night away in Istanbul.
Ortakoy was once a fishing village, but the bay is now filled with restaurants, art galleries, bars, and clubs. Hookah bars, outdoor cafes, and beer pubs are abundant in this neighborhood, along with more upscale bars scattered around. It's a great place to walk around and have a fun evening bar hopping.
Ruby is a three-story mansion located on the shore of Bosphorous. It offers a panoramic view of the city and the water, and a variety of food and drink choices. There are two separate nightclubs as well, one on the bottom floor and one on the top floor. For an unforgettable night indoors or outside in their waterside garden, go to Ruby.
Ulus 29, located atop Ulus Hill, also offers panoramic views of the Bosphorous and Asian side of Istanbul. They have a spacious restaurant that serves traditional and modern Turkish meals, as well as a bar and night club. Reservations are suggested to ensure availability.
360 is located in a penthouse of a 19th-century apartment building and offers 360-degree views of the Bosphorous and Golden Horn. During the daytime, it's mainly a restaurant, but during the night the venue offers DJ's, live performances, and parties until late.
Where to Stay
Finding a place to stay in Istanbul, Turkey is one of the most important things to do. There are an abundance of hotels and hostels to stay at, or you may book an Airbnb. Here are some of the top hotels in the Istanbul area, as well as some options for Airbnb.
The Elysium is a hotel in the heart of Istanbul that features an exclusive restaurant and bar, spa, Turkish bath, and a sauna.
The duplex rooms are soundproof and have beautiful panoramic views of Istanbul. The restaurant, Fanus, has an open buffet for breakfast and select dishes from around the world for dinner. The spa features a variety of professional services such as massages, facials, and body treatments.
The Elysium is close to several amenities such as Cevahir Mall and Zorlu Center, and there's a shuttle bus station nearby. This is an excellent hotel to stay at in the heart of Istanbul so you can be close to everything.
Hotel Amira Istanbul
Hotel Amira is located at the center of Istanbul and is steps away from Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. There are only 32 rooms in the hotel, so the service is quite personalized.
The hotel features a rooftop bar and terrace, buffet breakfast, and a large fitness center. It's one of the most popular hotel options in Istanbul, so be sure to call far in advance for reservations.
As in any other country, Airbnb is an excellent option for staying abroad in Istanbul, especially if you want to stay in the city but don't want to pay hotel prices. There are some apartments that have amenities like balconies, cleaning services, kitchenettes, Turkish baths, and other conveniences.
Shop around to see which Airbnb is perfect for your trip.
Other Fun Things to Do in Istanbul
Browse the Spice Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar, as the name implies, is home to thousands of spices, teas, and sugars. Turkish delight can also be picked up here for a delicious and inexpensive treat. Outside the bazaar, there's a market where vendors sell goods like cheeses, vegetables, and Turkish coffee grounds.
Take the ferry from Europe to Asia. Istanbul is the only city that spans two continents, and there's conveniently a ferry boat that can take you from Europe to Asia without a passport or immigration check. Not many people can say they've been on two continents in one day.
Take a trip to the Princes' Islands. The Princes' Islands are a small archipelago off the coast of Istanbul. There is no motor traffic, and most transportation happens by bicycle, as well as a horse and cart. It's a great place to get away from the bustle of the city and relax.
Enjoy the cats. Istanbul is known for its huge population of cats. These cats are strays, but they are fed and cared for by the public of Istanbul. They love attention and are usually friendly.
Check out Miniaturk Amusement Park. Miniaturk one of the world's largest miniature parks. It is situated in Istanbul and contains 122 models in 1:25 scale. Miniature museums aren't for everyone, but it's definitely worth a look.
Istanbul, Turkey is a beautiful city that is not only rich in culture and history but is also jam-packed with hundreds of things to do. It's pretty much impossible to run out of activities. From historic sites like Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to nightlife at 360 and Ruby, you're unlikely to get bored.
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My name is Daniel and I am a full-time world traveler and constantly on the move.