There really is no definitive list of things to do in Istanbul. Honestly Istanbul is so large and so interesting that such a list would probably be endless. But I wanted to share a few interesting experiences that a traveler might want to indulge in during their stay in the incredible world city. You’ll find millennia of history among its ruins and cuisine. If you have others to share please let me know as well!
1: Learn how the Sultans lived in Topkapi Palace and get a peak into Royal life during the Ottoman reign. Be sure to pay the extra ticket price for the Harem as well.
2: Check out the Rumeli Fortress. Built for the conquest of Constantinople and still standing on the northern shores today. Not as visited by tourists as it’s a bit harder to get to, but worth the trip if you have the time.
3: Visit the impressive Dolmabahçe Palace in Beşiktaş which was the home to several of the later Sultans of the Empire and modeled to be a more “European” Palace. Be sure to notice how all the clocks have been stopped for the father of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal.
4: Go underground for a look at the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet, the largest of the hundreds of ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. Constructed in the 6th century it is one of only two cisterns open to the public. Be sure to keep any eye out for the mysterious Medusa heads carved into columns.
5: Relax in a Turkish Hammam after a long day of exploring the city. The Turks are famous for their hammams and you can find examples of them in many of the neighboring countries as well. But try it at the source in Turkey and enjoy the day steaming and then being scrubbed raw. You’ll never have felt so clean before.
6: Gape at the Hagia Sofia the impressive Church, Mosque, Museum in Sultanahmet. Formerly known as the Aya Sofya, the structure was built in the 2nd century as a church and then later converted to a mosque and museum. The minarets while impressive can be clearly seen as an add-on to the structure.
7: Be sure to also go across the square to the beautiful Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Camii. Known by its nickname for its impressive blue tiles, the Mosque is open to visitors and worshipers alike. Be sure to visit the courtyard and take care to known prayer times for openings and closings
8: Spend some time people watching in Taksim Square one of the main squares of the city. You’ll see lots of people gathering here from all walks of life. Be sure to wander the area but avoid the hawkers selling fake watches and perfumes.
9: Go for a walk down Istiklal Caddesi and remark at all the people, shopping, and food. Independence Street is probably one of the most famous streets in all of Istanbul and certainly full of life no matter what day or time you go. While you are here you can also take a ride on the red street car for another view of the area.
10: The 67m tall Galata Tower has some of impressive views of the city and the Bosphorus. You can dine in the restaurant inside or just go up for the 360 degree views from the tower.
11: Visit the Archaeological Museum and take a look back at the incredible history of the area. The Museum is actually a set of 3 museums and they are all fascinating to visit and experience. You realize just how incredible the history of the land is and if you get the chance to leave Istanbul you’ll realize that Turkey does not disappoint in historical locations.
12: Travel under the Bosphorus via the Maramaray. Opened finally in 2013, the Marmaray train is the only metro line linking the two continents. Much easier to faster than going by bus or ferry and quite the engineering marvel as well.
13: Check out the legendary Whirling Dervishes. The Sufi sect originated in Konya and if you can’t make it there, be sure to find a place to experience it in Istanbul. There are lots of “shows” around the capital that are a good look but for a much better experience head over to Les Arts Turcs for the opportunity to visit a real Sema and meet with practitioners of the faith.
14: Try some Simit the delicious sesame covered circles of bread. Don’t worry on where to find it, the vendors are quite ubiquitous along the streets of Istanbul. It also shouldn’t set you back more than one or one and a half lira. So a great cheap breakfast or snack.
15: Get stuffed with some Kumpir at one of the many stalls or restaurants. Similar to the jacket potatoes in England, Kumpir are large baked potatoes topped with an amazing variety of different things. You’ll question the logic of the toppings going together but strangely they end up delicious!
16: Eat a fish sandwich under the bridge in Eminonu or some of the other various seafood dishes. The fish sandwiches though are a very cheap and local dish to help get you through the day and will only set you back a few lira. Plain but satisfying.
17: Grab some Turkish Ice Cream (if you can). Dondurma or Turkish Ice Cream is one of my favorite treats in Turkey and slightly different than many of the western varieties. The Dondurma sellers tend to be a bit humorous and may try to play with you a bit before giving you your treat!
18: Sure you can take the tram, but why not walk the Galata Bridge and hang with the fisherman and remark on the impressive views of the Golden Horn. One of my favorite places to wander and always good for photo opportunities.
19: Chat with friends while you drink your fill of Turkish tea at the various cafes and restaurants around the city. No meal is complete without at least one glass and be sure to have several of these piping hot beverages. There are various flavors as well from lemon to apple (try and find the non-artificial ones) although you can’t go wrong with the traditional black tea
20: Haggle for a carpet or other souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar. One of the largest Bazaars in the world and covering over 60 streets and 4000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is one of the highlights a trip through Istanbul. Buying a carpet is worth it if you have the money and the space for it. Expect it however to be a long affair with lots of haggling and glasses of tea.
21: Check out the beautiful İstanbul Haydarpaşa Terminal on the Asian side in Kadıköy. Definitely one of the more impressive train station in Turkey and also famous for being the start of the Hejaz Railway that snaked its way down through Arabia and was blown up during the Arab Uprising following WW1.
22: Shop for spices and sweets at the Spice Bazaar in Eminonu. You would think it was all spices in this market but it is also a great place to pick up sweets including Lokum (Turkish Delight) and also various other regional sweets such as Cevizli Sucuk and Bastik.
23: Wash it all down with a cool glass of Ayran. The ubiquitous cold salty yogurt drink can easily be found throughout the city and the country and worth a try for the parched traveler. Be sure to find a place serving fresh Ayran as while the small boxed version is good it definitely does not compare.
24: Eat your fill of Lokum (Turkish Delight) while wandering around the city. People either love or hate these small gelatinous little cubes. You’ll soon discover though that the ones in Turkey are far more varied than the ones you find outside of the country.
25: If you can’t visit them all in Turkey why not visit them in Miniatürk. Definitely an interesting exhibit and one that allows you to see some of the best of Turkey in miniature form. Perhaps not the first stop on a trip but an interesting one nonetheless.
26: Take day trip to the Princes’ Islands. These beautiful set of islands are an easy getaway from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Istanbul. You can take a horse and carriage ride or better yet rent a bicycle to easily navigate your way around.
27: Take a look at the Süleymaniye Mosque. While the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque may be more famous, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest and a very impressive sight to see. Designed by the famed architect Sinan it is worth the trek to marvel at this architectural wonder.
28: Wander the streets and check out the cafes and restaurants of Bebek. The wealthy neighborhood of Bebek is probably not as well visited by tourists but it is beautiful and has some great restaurants and cafes. Certainly one of my favorite neighborhoods. Sitting in a café overlooking the water is a nice way to take some time out from the day.
29: Check out the Ortaköy Mosque and bridge and find one of the most lovely places in the city. The neo-baroque style Ortaköy mosque is small but incredibly beautiful which is why it features in so many photographs and advertisements for the city.
30: Drink the famous Turkish Coffee while having your dessert or breakfast in the city. If you feel confident you might even want to get your fortuned read from the grounds at the bottom of your cup.
31: Take in the Asian side of Istanbul. As the only city to “straddle two continents” you will really feel as if you are in two different places as you travel between the two sides of the Bosphorus. The Asian side is far less touristic and has a far more “local” feel as more of the population lives on this side of city. The areas closer to the water though these days are more developed but still worth wandering for their great restaurant and people watching options.
32: Get lost in the streets of the city. One of the things I love best in Istanbul is the variety of its neighborhoods and places. Don’t be limited to simply just what your tour guide states. Grab breakfast in Bebek, or check out the eclectic stores in Galata, or the street art and cafes in Kadikoy. Istanbul has interesting finds around all corners and you’ll have a more memorable experience from what you find.
33: Smoke Shisha (Hookah) at the beautiful Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi and feel transported back in time. This 800 year old school come café is a beautiful location to while away some hours and meet some locals and tourists as well.
34: Istanbul and Turkey might be a majority Muslim country these days but there is so much beautiful Christian history here that remains. The head of the orthodox church still has his seat in Istanbul and some of the churches are beautiful and worth the visit. Be sure to check out the Chora Church near the walls of the old city for one of the most beautiful that remains.
35: Spend time in Istanbul after dark. There is so much to do in the city in the evenings and some of the neighborhoods are at their best at night. Whether its smoking shisha in an ancient school, or having tea in a beautiful café, or partying with tourists and locals at a rooftop bar, there is so much to do in the evenings that you will certainly not be bored.
36: Grab some roasted chestnuts from the various vendors along the road. One of my favorite treats, these chestnuts are especially great on a cold autumn or winter day.
37: Wander the walls of the ancient city. With the current size of Istanbul you almost forget that the former Constantinople was a walled city. There is still quite a bit of the walls remaining and worth a wander if you have time.
38: Ride the funicular tram to get yourself up the hill quickly. Don’t be stupid like me and think you’ll just walk up haha. There are two in the city one that connects Kabataş and Taksim and another that connects Karaköy and Tünel. My favorite is the Tünel tram which is one of the oldest in the world.
39: Check out the beautiful Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. As one of the largest empires in the Islamic world, the Ottomans were able to collect a great many incredible artifacts. Many of them are on the display and the museum is well laid out by region and era.
40: Now a public square be sure to check out the former Hippodrome between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. You’ll see lots of local families and foreigners sitting around and enjoying the atmosphere. Be sure to take a look at the fascinating Egyptian Obelisk that takes center stage.
41: Sample the incredible cuisine of Turkey. There are so many regional cuisines in Turkey and while in Istanbul you’ll have a chance to sample so many of them. One of my favorite types of restaurants have the various dishes on display and you point and choose which ones you want from the various trays on display. Don’t be afraid to experiment and its certainly better than living of döner kebabs your entire stay!
42: But even if I pick on it you should have some Döner Kebab while in the city as well. While I’m sure most travelers know it as a mainstay of late night eats in cities across the world, it is one of the most famous dishes from Turkey and definitely worth a try while in town. Although the most famous Iskender Kabob was invented supposedly in nearby Bursa.
43: Visit the former Sultan summer residence of Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Don’t be fooled into thinking all the great sites are on the European side!
44: Same the delicious Baklava one of my personal favorite desserts in Turkey. Now for those in the know you should really sample it in the Eastern city of Gaziantep (supposedly the city where all baklava chefs train) but for those who can’t make it there Istanbul has plenty of great options to sample the delicacy.
45: Get some nature at the large and lovely Emirgan Park. One of the things I feel that Istanbul lacks is the amount of green space although this park certainly is a great escape.
46: Take a wander over to the Valens Aqueduct and take a look at how the ancient is incorporated into the modern. Not one of my favorite sites but definitely worth a visit if you haven’t seen an aqueduct before (there are a lot of examples through Turkey if you travels take you out of Istanbul). I do find it fascinating how the modern roadway makes its way through the arches.
47: Take a look at the other famous tour in Istanbul the Maiden’s tower and learn of its infamous legend. Supposedly a wealthy king imprisoned his daughter here to protect her from a snake. But like all legends her fate was sealed anyway and it was hiding in a basket of fruit brought to celebrate her birthday. On a separate note I find it amazing how many of these types of towers with a similar legend exist in this region of the world.
48: For some more great greenery be sure to take a walk through Gülhane Park located adjacent to the Topkapi Palace. Also be sure to check out the views of the Bosphorus before you leave. Renovated in more recent years, the walkways have been expanded and the public areas improved. Also a great place to check out during the annual Tulip Festival.
49: Check out the incredible ancient wooden mansions of Balat in old Istanbul. A photographers dream for its old architecture and feeling of stepping back in time. Be sure to check out some of the incredible old Jewish areas as well including the old hospital and several synagogues.
50: After all the running around, be sure to take some time at a nice bar or café with a view of the Bosphorus an skyline. Options are abound on both sides of the Bosphorus and I’m impartial to several on the water in Bebek and Ortokoy myself but don’t limit yourself that way. There are too many to list for all budget ranges.
Other things to Note
Where to Stay:
Sultanahmet: If you have only a couple days perhaps stay in Sultanahmet to be close to all the activities. However don’t expect much in terms of life after dark and it can be a bit overpriced as tourists seem to flock to this neighborhood.
Beyoğlu: Stays in Beyoğlu are great and usually my choices of locations on where to stay. You can stay near Taksim to be close to easy access to lots of transportation and activities. However you might want to avoid hotels around Istiklal if you want to get some sleep in the evenings. Some of the areas around Pera and Şişhane have great local and international options.
Kadıköy: Staying on the Asian side might save you some money and give you a different view of Istanbul. However if its your first time in the city stays in this area might be inconvenient if most of your activities center on the European side of the city. Honestly I do like staying in this area especially for the restaurants and cafes that are quieter and quite delicious.
What to Avoid:
Be wary of scams while in the city. I have seem quite a few where people pretend to chat you up and invite you to a café where they rob or overcharge you (and force you to pay). I have seen this attempted on me several times while walking the streets solo and have noticed it more often in recent years.
Bosphorus cruise while lovely can be a bit of an expensive and long activity especially if your time is constrained. While I did enjoy it, you can see quite a lot from the various ferry rides you will inevitably take while in town. Save your money for other experiences.
Avoid taxis while in the city. Honestly the traffic is so bad in Istanbul that it won’t save you much time and you’ll end up paying through the nose for trips around town. If the place is out of the way or closer by taxi then consider a ride but try to avoid if possible.
Pay attention to issues in the city particularly around the large squares. For instance Taksim, while a lovely central point is often also a flashpoint for protests and other demonstrations. Don’t be worried but also be aware of your surroundings.
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