We love Istanbul: the call to prayer, the beautiful minarets, the Bosphorus, and, oh the breakfasts. Throw in some cute and cuddly street cats on top and some of the most delicious food in the Balkans, and we wouldn’t be surprised if you never wanted to leave.
Here are all of our favorite things to do in Istanbul!
Gaze in awe at the Blue Mosque
The most symbolic mosque of Istanbul, it’s hard to plan a trip to Turkey and not visit the Blue Mosque. Built between the years of 1609 to 1616, there are two stories behind the nickname of the mosque (its official name is Sultan Ahmet Camii, which is what the neighborhood of Sultanahmet is named after). The first and most obvious is for the blue İznik tiles which cover the interior; the other is
The most unique feature of the Blue Mosque and part of what gives it
The Blue Mosque is generally open from 9 AM to one hour before sunset each day, with the exception for a 90-minute period between each prayer time (and two hours at Friday noon prayers, the holiest of all). It can be sort of difficult to time this if you don’t know when the calls to prayer are, so we recommend you head to the Blue Mosque first when in Sultanahmet and if its closed for prayer, to visit the Hagia Sofia or Basilica Cistern while waiting for the Blue Mosque to reopen. You must dress conservatively or borrow something to cover yourself in order to enter the mosque.
Check out the enormous Sulemaniye Mosque
Completed in 1557 and taking eight years to complete, the Sulemaniye Mosque was constructed by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan. It was widely considered to be his masterpiece and was his largest design by a good margin. The mosque was built in tribute to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest-ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled from 1520 to 1566 and presided over a very fortuitous period in the empire’s expansion.
The mosque was badly damaged by a fire in 1660, but it was lovingly restored by the architect Fossati. Due to this, the mosque developed a more baroque style and it lost its original design. World War I also saw more damage to the historical mosque, when the courtyard which was being used to store weapons led to a fire: it wouldn’t be fully restored (again) until 1956.
Inside the mosque complex, you’ll also find a madrassa (Islamic school), soup kitchen, caravanserai (old inn on the Silk Road), bazaar, and tombs, some of which are still used today. As Sulemaniye Mosque is still an active mosque complex, be aware of prayer times and be willing to stop for a coffee break or snack if the mosque is closed when you try to enter. Like the Blue Mosque, you can borrow conservative clothing if you don’t have any of your own.
See layers of history at the Hagia Sophia
Perhaps just as symbolic of Istanbul as the Blue Mosque and directly across from it on Sultanahmet Square, the Hagia Sofia is often considered the “eighth wonder of the world” and has a convoluted history which mirrors the history of Istanbul. Hagia Sofia (which means Church of the Holy Wisdom) was originally a cathedral, built while Istanbul was still Constantinople.
The building today is actually the third church ever built on this site: two previous iterations of the church were built in 360 and 415 AD, but both were razed to the ground during the Byzantine era. Much of the edifice that can be seen today was completed between 532-537, making it older than the Blue Mosque by a good margin, commissioned by Emporer Justinian who wished for it to be Greek Orthodox Church that would outshine Jerusalem’s beautiful Temple of Solomon. It was converted into a mosque in 1453, after Constantinople was felled by the attacking Ottoman forces who would rename the city Istanbul and later make it their capital.
It would remain a mosque until 1935, when the secular president of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, converted it to be a museum. It’s stayed this way ever since. It’s one of the most popular sites in Istanbul and as such, lines to buy tickets and get in can be quite crowded. You can avoid this by buying a museum pass or a skip-the-line ticket with a guide.
See the lesser-visited Rüstem Paşa Mosque
Designed by the same architect who built the Sulemaniye Mosque, Mimar Sinan, this mosque was built to honor Rüstem Paşa, who served as Grand Vizier to Süleyman the Magnificent. Unfortunately, Sinan died in 1561, before the mosque’s completion in 1563, so he never got to see his vision come to life.
The mosque is worth a visit simply for its location at the foot of Galata Bridge on the Sultanahmet side of the Golden Horn near the Eminonu ferry, making it nearly impossible to miss.
While the exterior is grand and lovely, the ornate Iznik tilework on the interior is what gives the mosque its claim to fame. Many of the tiles use a gorgeous red hue, which drew the envy of other Turkish tilemakers who struggled to produce a red hue (apparently, other cooler shades like blue, white, and green were far easier to produce)
Gape at the mosaics of Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi)
The Chora Church was a crucial part of medieval Constantinople, when Greek Orthodox was one of the dominant religious influences in the days before the Ottomans took over Constantinople. One of the best remaining markers of this bygone era is the Chora Church, now a museum. This church is truly stunning: full of murals with rich colors on a navy backdrop and gilded with tons of gold mosaics depicting saints and scenes from the Book of Revelations. Similar to the Hagia Sofia, it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman conquest and then back into a museum after the secularization of Turkey led by Ataturk.
It’s located a bit of out of the way from most public transportation, so you’d have to take an Uber (recommended) or try to figure out a bus out to the neighborhood of Edirnekapı, where the church is located. It’s located near the remains of one of the walls of Constantinople, so going out there you can do quite a few different interesting things on one side trip.
Alternately, you can visit Chora Church on a walking tour which explores medieval, pre-Ottoman Constantinople and teaches you about the history of the Greek Orthodox religion in Istanbul. You’ll learn about Byzantine art, particularly its mosaics and frescos, from your local guide, at the church, and wander around the 7th hill of Constantinople (and its walls). Still, you’ll also get the chance to explore the neighborhood independently, which I highly recommend as it’s quite a unique slice of modern Istanbul life away from the tourist crowds.
Palaces & Royal Buildings
Marvel at the extensive Topkapi Palace
The political heart of the Ottoman Empire is Topkapi Palace, which was the primary seat of power from the 15th century until the 19th century (when Dolmabahce would take its place). It was built over 12 years, starting in 1466 and ending in 1478, and was created by Sultan Mehmet II.
The name Topkapi comes from the Turkish “Gate of Cannons” as the cannons displayed outside its gates were used during the conquest of Istanbul, when they seized Constantinople from the Byzantines — which is one hell of a way to intimidate your enemies and would-be uprisers.
The palace was worked on bit by bit, each sultan adding a section to the palace; hence, the interior architecture is a bit of a design hodgepodge that reflects the changing tastes of the times. The oldest part of the structure is Cinili Mansion, a lovely tiled building that was built in 1472.
Briefly consider life as a concubine at the Topkapi Harem
My personal favorite part of Topkapi Harem, there is a separate entry charge for the Harem that, in my opinion, is 100% worth it. The word harem literally means ‘forbidden’ in Arabic, and that’s because this section of the palace was basically a mini-palace of its own which belonged to the wives, concubines, and children (both legitimate and illegitimate) of the sultan and was guarded at all times. At peak occupation, 474 women were living here!
The harem is incredibly ornate, full of beautiful Iznik tilework, lovely flowery courtyards, and beautifully-designed bedrooms and living areas. The idea was that the harem would be completely secluded and protected from the business of the Palace, and so the two buildings were largely quite separate through the design despite the fact that the Harem was on the Palace grounds.
Marvel at the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace
After Topkapi Palace faded in importance, the gorgeous Dolmabahçe Palace eventually came to take its place. It took 13 years to build and was finally completed in 1856; however, it wasn’t able to be used as long as its builders likely anticipated, seeing as the Ottoman Empire ended in 1922.
The palace has a wild mix of architectural styles, incorporating inspirations from everything as varied as Baroque, Neoclassical, rococo, and modern Ottoman: luxury in a million different ways. One of the most luxurious elements of the palace is the whopping 4.5-ton chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria, which is the largest chandelier made from Bohemian Czech crystal in the world.
Fun fact: beloved founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died in Dolmabahçe Palace. Because of this, the clock at Dolmabahçe has since been permanently set to the time that he died, 9:05 AM of November 10th in 1938.
While you can certainly visit on your own, we think the context of a guided tour makes a huge difference in the enjoyment of the palace, and we recommend this 3-hour tour of Camlica Hill and Dolmabahce for those who want a little historical context.
Historical Buildings & Places
Travel back in time at the Hippodrome
The center of public life during the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras, the Hippodrome served for centuries as the host from everything to political debates to chariot races and political riots.
It was built in 203 by Emperor Severus, and in its original standing, it could hold up to an estimated 100,000 people. The Hippodrome was at its peak use during the Byzantine era, where it was the center of daily Constantinople life. During the Ottoman era, it was renamed At Meydani (Horse Square), though it maintained a similar function as a center of public life.
Go deep at the Basilica Cistern
This is one of the coolest things to do in Istanbul, both literally and figuratively, as these cisterns beneath the city are a welcome break from the city heat in summer. The Basilica Cistern is just one of a hundred or of ancient cisterns (water systems) beneath the streets of Istanbul.
Not only do they have the capability to store massive amounts of water (the Basilica Cistern is the largest and can hold 2.8 million cubic feet of water), but they also provided necessary water filtration systems that kept people from getting ill.
It was originally built by Emporer Constantine in the fourth century, though it was enlarged quite a bit in the sixth century under Emperor Justinian. Locally, it’s known as Yerebatan Sarayi which means Sunken Palace: seeing as it’s literally the size of a small cathedral underground, so the name fits! The most interesting quirk you’ll find here are the two enormous Medusa heads which are used as the bases to pillars in the back of the cistern, one of which is upside down for some mysterious and still-unknown reason.
Ascend Galata Tower for incredible views
One of the highest and oldest towers in Istanbul, the Galata Tower is an icon of the city. It provides a stunning panoramic view of Istanbul’s Old Town with its winding streets and stunning Bosphorus views.
It was originally built in the 14th century by the Genoese, making up part of a defensive wall surrounding Galata, which at the time was on the opposite side of Constantinople and outside of its walls. The Genoese called the tower “Christea Turris” or “Tower of Christ.” The Ottomans would eventually seize control over the area of Galata and incorporate it into Istanbul, and during this time, the Galata Tower served many purposes: jail house, watchtower, and more.
Nowadays, it’s a popular tourist attraction and people love to take the elevator up to the top especially around sunset for epic 360-degree views of Istanbul’s skyline of skyscrapers and minarets, all turning on their night colors.
Stroll across the magical Galata Bridge
One of the loveliest, more atmospheric places in Istanbul is Galata Bridge, which becomes even more magical at sunset. The Galata Bridge dates back to 1845, though there’s evidence that a simpler bridge connecting the Golden Horn was built in 1453 during the Ottoman siege of the city.
The Galata Bridge was not only useful but also symbolic, linking the “old” Istanbul to the palaces of Topkapi and stunning mosques that asserted the Ottoman empire’s power.
Today, the Galata Bridge is a place where you can see countless fisherman trying their luck with their fishing rods bobbing in the Bosphorus as they chat and fish away the day. On the lower level, there are a number of fish restaurants catering to tourists with slightly overpriced meals – but with an atmosphere so lovely, you’re paying a bit for the experience. Not sure what to order? You can’t go wrong with balik ekmek, a sandwich stuffed with freshly grilled fish and veggies.
Markets & Shopping
Shop the historic, impressive Grand Bazaar
While you’ll definitely encounter people decrying the Grand Bazaar as a tourist trap, we’re here to vehemently disagree and fully believe that visiting the Grand Bazaar is a must-do in Istanbul. In Turkish, its called Kapalıçarşı, which simply means “covered market” as indeed the entire structure is inside of a building – making it one of the best things to do in Istanbul when it rains! It’s one of the largest (not to mention oldest) covered markets in the world – composed of over 60 individual streets and 4,000 shops.
It was created in 146 AD (no, I’m not missing a digit there!) by Mehmet the Conqueror and expanded rapidly to encompass thousands of shops, inns, and workshops. Now, the Grand Bazaar is basically a city within a city, and you’ll find a police station, a pharmacy, a post office, bank branches, and basically every Turkish souvenir item you could ever hope to won.
The Grand Bazaar can be quite overwhelming, so if you’re a shopping enthusiast, we recommend you go with a guide.
Delight your senses at the Spice Bazaar
Smaller than the Grand Bazaar by a good deal, but no less worth a visit on your trip to Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) is another essential place to visit in Istanbul. This market is full of colorful and fragrant spices, herbs, nuts, dried flowers, and teas.
It’s not nearly as old as the Grand Bazaar, but it still does have quite a bit of history, as it was built in 1664 as part of the complex including Yeni Camii (the so-called “New Mosque”). It has 88 rooms which make an L shape of two main streets. The vibe here is a lot less chaotic than the Grand Bazaar, so you can shop a little more leisurely here. This is where you can get one of the best prices on saffron in the world, but be sure not to accept anyone’s offer of saffron tea as you may get charged for the pleasure!
Tours & Experiences
Take a scenic Bosphorus River cruise
One of the most essential things to do in Istanbul is to take a gorgeous river cruise up the Bosphorus, the river that bisects the continents of Europe and Asia. Seeing Istanbul from the water is a whole different experience and truly gives you a sense of its scale and importance. On a Bosphorus cruise, you’ll pass by historical palaces like Topkapı, ancient fortresses like Galata Tower plus countless other Istanbul attractions and landmarks.
The Bosphorus is 32 kilometers long and connects the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea: hence why it’s been so critically important to the development of Constantinople/Istanbul, despite its relatively short length. Within 90 minutes, you’ll see stunning palaces, centuries-old castles, beautiful seaside homes, and stunning bridges.
Food & Drink
Sample some delicious Turkish delight
One of the most beloved Turkish souvenirs with good reason, you simply can’t leave Istanbul without trying the city’s most famous candy, called lokum in Turkish. Made of a gel of starch and sugar and flavored with varieties such as rose, lemon, bergamot, and vanilla.
Often, some chopped nuts – pistachio and walnut are most common – will be added to the Turkish delight to add texture. They are usually coated in powdered sugar, but more specialty Turkish delight shops will also coat them with coconut flakes, rose petals, or a dusting of nuts. They are delicious enjoyed fresh at a local sweet shop, so be sure to try them from a confectionary while you’re in Istanbul – and then be sure to bring a few boxes home for loved ones (or yourself – this is a judgment-free zone here!)
Drown yourself in honey-covered baklava and pastries
While we’re talking Turkish sweets, do be sure that you don’t miss the chance to try traditional Turkish pastries while you’re in Istanbul. The obvious thing to try is baklava, a flaky phyllo dough pastry soaked in honey and filled with chopped nuts. Walnut and pistachio are the two most popular varieties; personally, I adore pistachio baklava.
Some other Turkish pastries you should look out for include künefe, lokma, and kataifi – but frankly, you should probably just order a little of everything from your favorite pastry shop. One of my favorite pastry shops is Lebon Pastanesi̇ on Istiklal Caddesi.
Sip on Turkish coffee (but watch for the grounds!)
True story, the first time I ever tried Turkish coffee was at the end of a large Turkish meal in NYC, and I ended up walking around the hotel in a caffeinated buzz until nearly 3 AM. This stuff is strong! But oh, is it ever delicious.
Turkish coffee is made in a metal pot (which makes a fabulous souvenir, by the way) called a cezve. It follows a very specific procedure for how it’s made: using a specific water-to-coffee ratio, cooked over the stove top until it starts to foam. It’s served with the foam on top, and there will be a layer of coffee grounds that settle at the bottom, so however tempted you may be to take that final sip – resist! If you’re curious to discover more about Turkish coffee, we recommend this Istanbul coffee tour.
Eat kebab, Turkey’s most famous food export
There are so many kinds of kebab that it’s hard to know where to start, but unless you’re a vegetarian/vegan, there’s no excuse to leave Turkey without trying kebab!
My favorite is Adana kebab, which is from the city of Adana. It’s a spicy kebab made with Turkish red chile flakes and beef (or a blend of beef and lamb). There’s also cağ kebab (pronounced “cha”, because #Turkish) which is made of lamb and cooked like a horizontal doner kebab over a grill, traditional şiş (shish) kebab made of chicken or other meat, and iskender kebab served with yogurt and butter (try this at Kebapci Iskender Restaurant!)
Eat your way through the city on a food tour
There are a number of excellent food tours operating in Istanbul that offer you the chance to try a number of Turkey’s most emblematic dishes over a short span. If you have to pick one, the best is the Taste of Two Continents tour which covers both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul and includes plenty of tastes, appetizers, a main course, dessert, four drinks, and shisha/nargile over the course of five hours so you have plenty of time to digest.
Another highly rated food tour is the Evening Food tour of Kadikoy, which is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and thus is a little less touristic. You’ll sample a variety of meze and drinks, learning about local Istanbul favorites and seeing a more local side of the city. It’s only 3 hours, so it’s a little less of a commitment time-wise.
More Istanbul Travel Resources
We have a ton of resources to help you plan your trip to Istanbul! We’re working on our massive things to do post in Istanbul, plus you can check out our guide to the best Instagram spots around Istanbul, our favorite Istanbul neighborhoods and where to stay, and tips for shopping in Istanbul.
If you want to be in the city for just a few days (four or less), check out our Istanbul city break guide, which breaks down the best of the city so you won’t miss anything!
For more general Turkey information, check out this guide to planning a trip to Turkey (including visa information) and this guide to other beautiful places to visit in Turkey. You can also check out our Balkan currency guide, which explains how the Turkish lira works and guidelines for tipping in Istanbul.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.