Looking for things to do in Istanbul?
We spent six glorious days in this incredibly charming city, eating, drinking, and seeing as much as possible without burning out.
After returning home, we've condensed our urban experiences into this independent guide to the city break in Istanbul. Enjoy!
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A guide to Istanbul - the best things to see and do
Istanbul is in a unique position, straddling two continents of Asia and Europe. It was on the European side of the mighty Bosphorus Straits, where Byzantium, an ancient Greek colony, was founded in 657 BC.
Reintroduced to the world in 330 AD as the new capital of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine the Great, the city became known as Constantinople. Rapidly growing to become the wealthiest city in Europe, sitting at a hugely strategic point along the silk road trading routes between East and West.
Here's our take on the best things to do and see in Istanbul in just under a week.
1: Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
No visit to Istanbul is complete without visiting the famous Blue Mosque.
Constructed between 1609 and 1616, this marvellous historic building is quite breathtaking. The imposing five-dome structure surrounded by six minarets has been the icon of the Istanbul skyline for many years.
Known for its hand-painted blue tiles, the Blue Mosque's interior is as majestic as the exterior. The swirls of intricate Eastern patterns adorn the high ceiling and colonnades while bathing in the light of medieval chandeliers.
It's worth noting that the Blue Mosque is a fully functioning house of worship, not a museum. Thus, you must follow the dress code and remove your shoes before entering - pop them in the bags provided. Female visitors should dress modestly and bring a headscarf before entering the grounds of Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
Visiting the Blue Mosque is free and open for sightseeing in three sessions most days. We'd suggest checking the timings before your visit as it's closed to visitors during the prayer hours.
Arriving as early as possible is an advantage. We called in at 9 am, and it was ideal.
2: Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
First, a church, then a mosque and now a museum, "The Church of the Holy Wisdom", is a stunning piece of architecture and a must-visit landmark in Istanbul. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Because of its multiple uses throughout history, it's still home to both Christian and Muslim elements today.
When inside, you'll notice the walls, embellished with Byzantine mosaics, depict the scenes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. At the same time, the beautiful Islamic calligraphic roundels adorning the mihrab depict the names of the family members of Muhammad.
It is one of the city's most loved and admired buildings, so be sure to add it to your list of things to do in Istanbul. Better yet, join one of the many organised tours for a day filled with breathtaking experiences.
Opening hours: 9 am - 7 pm in summer, 9 am - 5 pm in winter. The mosque is closed on Mondays and during prayer times.
3: Topkapi Palace
Overlooking the Golden Horn, the stunning medieval residence of the Ottoman sultans, is one more place you'll want to explore during your visit to Istanbul.
Consisting of four courtyards and several smaller buildings within site, it has hundreds of rooms and covers around 400,000 square meters.
During the 15th - 19th Century, the Topkapi, meaning the Canon Gate, was an important political centre. With approximately 5,000 residents, it was the biggest palace in the world. However, the sultans abandoned it for the Dolmabahce Palace, the newly built European-style home across the water to the north.
Harem is perhaps the most spectacular part of Topkapi Palace, decked with beautiful cypress-dotted tiles across the rooms and hallways. It was occupied mainly by the sultan's wives and eunuchs and run by the sultan's mother. At its peak, more than 1,000 ladies and eunuchs inhabited the forbidden chambers.
The Harem is not included in the museum price. You'll have to purchase a separate ticket, but it's worth the extra pennies.
If you are interested in learning the historical side of Topkapi Palace, an excellent palace + Harem guided tour is available, including skip-the-line admission.
Opening hours: 9 am - 4:45 pm in winter and 9 am - 6:00 pm in summer. The museum is closed on Tuesdays, the 1st of May, the first day of Ramadan and the first day of the Feast of Sacrifice.
4: The chambers of the Basilica Cistern
We highly recommend adding the atmospheric Cistern to your list of things to do in Istanbul.
This impressive chamber, also known as Sunken Cistern, is supported by nine-meter-high columns and was built in the 6th Century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
The primary purpose of the Cistern was to store, supply and filtrate water to the city. It can hold 100,000 tons of water, but the water level is currently significantly lower as the Cistern is not in use.
As you walk through the dimly lit Sunken Cistern, look out for the Hen's Eye, also known as the weeping column. It's believed that the column grieves the enslaved people who perished during the construction of this massive Cistern.
Further away, you will see the iconic Medusa heads, a major tourist attraction in Istanbul. One lays sideways, the other - upside down, and until now, it's unclear why. Of course, there are legends about them being monsters or guardians, but presumably, the columns were placed this way for practical purposes.
It's due to its dramatic atmosphere that the Basilica Cistern appeared in several films, such as Dan Brown's film adaptation '"Inferno'" (2016) and James Bond's film "From Russia with Love" (1963).
Opening hours: Open daily from 9 am - 7 pm. Follow the link to get your skip-the-line ticket in advance.
5: The enchanting Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is a maze of shimmering genie lamps, glowing lanterns, and magic carpets - I highly recommend adding it to your list of things to do and see in Istanbul.
It's one of the world's largest and oldest covered markets and its mesmerising. The first things that catch the eye here are the yellow-painted walls and arched ceilings embellished with blue ribbons. Next come all the sheen and glitter.
You'll be hard-pushed to ignore the shopkeepers offering you a carpet - they promise to ship it for you when you tell them you can't take it with you. There's no excuse accepted!
Make sure to put aside a good portion of your day for wandering, tea-drinking and people-watching here. There are 61 streets inside this incredible shopping mall, so it's easy to get lost. But the deeper you go into the market, the more you discover.
For the best experience, avoid the busy parts around the edges and explore the hidden streets of the Bazaar. Have a wonder in the Antique Market (The Old Bazaar) at the centre, enjoy a glass of strong and sweet Turkish tea or maybe get a haircut? Charlie had a pretty good trim at the Turkish barbers for just €5.
Opening hours: 8:30 am - 7 pm. The Bazaar is closed on Sundays, religious and bank holidays.
6: The intoxicating Spice Bazaar
Dating back to 1664, the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar will blow your mind with its colours, scents, and textures. Saffron, love tea, figs, dates, lashings of Turkish coffee, you name it! It's a cook's heaven.
Out of all the colourful Turkish treats, try the chewy lokum. You will see them neatly stacked in pyramid-shaped towers. Packed with almonds and pistachios, they come in many different flavours.
If you love coffee, look out for the Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi shop. Here you can buy a small bag of Turkish coffee for as little as 5TL.
Opening hours: Daily from 9 am - 7 pm, excluding religious and bank holidays.
7: Dolmabahce Palace
The Dolmabahce Palace was undoubtedly highly luxurious, with countless rooms decorated with oversized chandeliers and all-glass-staircase railings. It was also a more comfortable home to entertain foreign guests than the medieval Topkapi Palace.
There are several reasons why you should visiting the exquisite European-style palace on your next trip to Istanbul. Originally a harbour, the palace grounds provide a pleasant backdrop of Istanbul seen across the Bosphorus.
Also, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself, occupied a small portion of the residence until he died in 1938. You can stop by the room where he passed away.
Opening hours: 9 am - 4 pm. The palace is closed on Mondays. We recommend getting a fast-track entry with an audio guide - the line for tickets was long when we visited.
8: Vodafone Park
If you're a sports fan, the Besiktas area is also home to Vodafone Park and the largest sports museum in Turkey. Taking Vodafone Park's Museum & Stadium Tour could enrich your visit to Istanbul.
9: The famous Taksim Square
Welcome to the modern centre of Istanbul!
With the large bus and metro hub, shopping street and hotels, the square is easily one of the most popular meeting points in the city.
You'll know you're in the square when you see the Independence (Republic) Monument. It's a masterpiece and a testament to the earlier-mentioned founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The two symbolic sides of the monument depict Atatürk in his early military days and, opposite, him dressed in modern Western clothes.
10: The European-style Istiklal Avenue
For a spot of shopping, head to Istiklal Avenue - a 1,4 km long shopping avenue. You'll find something to suit your style and budget, from international, boutique and luxury shops to trendy cafes and cinemas.
The fairy lights, buzz and the European vibe between the grand Ottoman-era buildings will make you feel like you're in one of the European capital cities.
If you are looking for that slightly more local vibe amongst the usual Istanbul attractions, look for a quiet alleyway (Olivia Gecidi) off Istiklal Street.
Tucked away in a narrow passageway, you'll find a small hole-in-a-wall-style coffee shop called Mandabatmaz. Grab a stool and order a drink of your choice - they make some of the best Turkish coffee, if not in Istanbul, definitely in the area.
11: Ortaköy Mosque
For a lovely view of the iconic Bosphorus Bridge, head to Ortaköy Mosque. Many visitors flock to this spot in Ortaköy village for stunning photo opportunities.
Perched on a pier, the mosque boasts one of the lovelies views of Istanbul's Bosphorus Straight and the elegant skyway structure spanning two continents, Europe and Asia.
The surrounding area is also the perfect place to eat Kumpir, a jacket potato-like dish overflowing with delicious ingredients. There's no better way to enjoy the cityscape than with a hearty portion of Turkish street food.
12: Galata Tower
Next up is the Galata Tower in the Galata district - one of the oldest medieval towers in the world.
Initially constructed in 528 AD as a lighthouse, it offers fantastic 360-degree panoramic views of Istanbul, so don't miss it!
There's a cafe on the top floor and a restaurant one floor below. The latter is pricey, but the cafe is a lovely place to chill with Turkish tea. Grab a seat next to a window for gorgeous views if you can.
Opening times: Open daily from 9 am - 8:30 pm.
13: Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge is a symbolic part of the city - it connects the imperial and the modern side of Istanbul, so be sure to take a leisurely stroll.
As you walk the bridge, pause to witness the daily life of a local fisherman. Enjoy the picturesque view of the fishing rods lining the railing and peek into the buckets full of mackerel.
Most catch of the day gets sold to the boats beneath the bridge. The barge chefs grill the fish for the famous Balik ekmek, the iconic fish sandwich. If you're not keen on mackerel, you'll find the pathway underneath the iconic bridge dotted with restaurants.
14: The funky Karaköy district
Of all the sights to do in Istanbul, visiting Karaköy will add yet another flavour to your trip. Old converted warehouses along the harbour will soon lead you into the narrow streets filled with hipster cafes, restaurants, museums and lively nightlife.
The best thing about this are is that despite the new swanky establishments, the older bakeries and family businesses seem to be doing fine, which is nice to see.
For a dose of contemporary art, Spend an afternoon in Istanbul Modern or pop into Ottoman-era Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı.
Karaköy is also home to the flakiest Turkish baklavas in town. If you're in the area, head to Karaköy Güllüoğlu and join the hungry crowds for the ultimate sweet tooth experience in Istanbul.
15: Bulgarian Iron Church
Traditional sightseeing in Istanbul is incredible, but locating quirky and unusual things in this city can be equally exciting. The Bulgarian Iron Church is one such landmark.
After the original wooden structure burnt down, the current, neo-Gothic style basilica was constructed entirely out of prefabricated cast iron. Besides, this Bulgarian St Stephen's Church is one of the world's few surviving prefabricated cast-iron churches.
It's a long walk from the central area of Istanbul to reach the church, but the peaceful waterfront views reward the effort.
Address: Merkez Mahallesi, Abide-i Hürriyet Cd No:70, 34381 Şişli/Fatih/İstanbul.
16: Magical Miniatürk - Turkey has shrunk!
Did you know there is a model village in Istanbul?
Visiting Miniatürk is hands down one of the quirkiest and most unusual things to do in Istanbul. We found it impressive and so much fun to explore.
It's the only miniature park in the country that brings together all the significant landmarks into one place, including the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. We spent several hours exploring every nook of this open-air theme park and it felt like taking a great road trip through Turkey!
How to get to Miniatürk: Buses no 36T or 38T go directly to Miniatürk from Taksim Square. Or you can take a taxi - it costs around 50TL from the centre.
Address: Sütlüce Mahallesi, İmrahor Cd. 7/1, 34445 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
Opening hours: 9 am - 7 pm in summer and 9 am - 5:30 pm in winter.
17: Maiden's Tower
Maiden's Tower (Kizkulesi Tower) is another excellent spot for panoramic 360-degree views of Istanbul. It was initially built in the 5th Century as a water surveillance tower.
The locals say that the name comes from a legend. The story goes that the Byzantine emperor locked his beloved daughter in the tower to protect her from her fate - a deadly snake bite.
But even the water surrounding the tower couldn't protect her from her destiny. The snake, unsuspectingly, was brought in a fruit basket as a birthday gift by the emperor himself. Sneaky!
How to get to Maiden's Tower: Take one of the shuttle boats from Kabatas to Uskudar. You can buy your boat tickets at the pier booth.
Opening hours: Open daily between 9:15 am - 6:30 pm.
18: Panorama 1458
For unusual things to do in Istanbul, check out Panorama 1458 Historical Museum.
Inside the museum, you'll find an impressive panoramic painting. Stretching 38 meters in diameter, it depicts the battle of Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquering Istanbul in 1453.
Opening hours: Open daily from 9 am - midnight. The ticket costs 250TL - cash only.
Address: Merkez Efendi Mahallesi, Topkapı Kültür Parkı, 34015 Zeytinburnu/İstanbul
Read more: Why it's easy to fall in love with Turkey.
19: Istanbul's Asian side
Hopping to the Asian side of the city could be one of the most exciting things to do in Istanbul. Often overlooked by visitors, it has much to offer, from cosy cafes and an excellent food scene to the former sultan's summer residence.
Enjoy Üsküdar, Kadıköy and Yeldeğirmeni, the buzzing hip neighbourhood. Or pop into the bar street known as Barlar Sokak and mingle with the locals.
How to get to the Asian side: Board a ferry to Üsküdar from Beşiktas or Kadıköy from Kabataş, Karaköy or Eminönü.
20: Princes' Islands
The Princes' Islands offer a lovely day trip from Istanbul. The archipelago, located 14,958 km from the mainland, consists of a chain of nine islands, four of which - Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinaliada - are open to visitors.
The best thing is vehicles are not permitted, making the islands the perfect getaway from the buzzing streets of Istanbul.
How to get to Princes' Islands: Take one of the speedy domestic ferries from the Sirkeci and Kabatas districts on the European side. To beat the crowds, board the earliest boat possible.
Alternatively, get a round-trip ferry ticket to the Princes Islands in advance.
21: Eat your way through Istanbul
Indulging in Turkish food is one of the ultimate things to do in Istanbul when visiting this ancient city.
Famous across the globe, Turkish cuisine is a melting pot of intoxicating spices and exotic flavours.
Many restaurants in Istanbul serve top-class dishes at very reasonable prices, and street food is not to be sniffed at either. If you plan it well, you'll have an unforgettable foodie experience suitable for all budgets.
For top tips, follow our mini-guide to the best restaurants in Istanbul.
Top Tips for visiting Istanbul
How to save money on your Istanbul city break
If you plan to visit several museums and historical marvels in the city, consider getting the Istanbul Museum Pass.
The pass costs 1,750TL and is valid for five days. It will grant you fast-track access to iconic landmarks such as Topkapi Palace, including the Harem, Galata Tower, Istanbul Archaeological Museum and many more.
Alternatively, you could get this Istanbul City Tourist Pass with over 85 attractions & services included. Line-skipping is always a good idea.
How easy is it to get around Istanbul?
The ease of getting around makes Istanbul a great city - we found it pretty walkable.
Metro and Trams are great for getting to places of interest in Istanbul. Both are spacious, clean and well-maintained.
You also get to see a lot of Istanbul while getting from place to place on a tram. You can download the Istanbul Metro map here.
How to buy tram/metro tickets in Istanbul: With the smart contactless Istanbulkart, you can travel on the metro, trams, and buses. Cash payment are not accepted on these transport systems.
You can purchase the top-up card for at the airport, vending machines in stations or newspaper stands. As a visitor, you'll want to pick the ordinary card or so-called Anonymous Istanbulkart.
Buses can get crowded, but they're a good way to explore Istanbul. The stops are announced on the screen, making knowing when to get off easy. But be alert; sometimes, there can be a slight delay - we missed the Miniatürk stop.
Taxis are abundant in Istanbul and quite affordable, but avoid drivers without a meter and always have some change handy.
Where to stay in Istanbul? What are the best places?
To be closer to Istanbul's local areas, consider Airbnb accommodation options in Beyoglu and Taksim. We stayed in an apartment block in Akyol Sokak - five minutes from the famous Taksim Square, cosy cafes, and restaurants.
If you plan a short break in Istanbul and prefer staying in the old town, the Empress Zoe Hotel could be one of the best places to stay in Istanbul. This beautifully decorated Turkish townhouse sits near Istanbul's major points of interest.
For a luxury stay in Istanbul, check out Istanbul Place Apartments. This stylish place offers one, two and three-bedroom apartments and a loft studio with panoramic views of historic Istanbul.
Follow the link to check out the many other fabulous hotels in Istanbul or use the tool below for more options.
When is the best time to visit Istanbul?
We visited in November and thought it was a great time to visit Istanbul. Cheaper accommodation options and lesser crowded areas added to the whole experience. The queues for the main attractions were also minimal.
Weather-wise, it was slightly chilly but sunny, with the temperatures reaching between 14 - 20 C in the daytime.
Is it safe to visit Istanbul?
A lot of people asked us this question. Istanbul didn't seem any less safe than any other country we've visited. There was a noticeable armoured police presence around the main attractions, but nothing we hadn't seen before.
Bad and unfortunate things can happen anywhere; the best you can do is be cautious and sensible. If you feel uncomfortable in a place or situation, walk away.
Istanbul is easily one of our favourite cities, and we can't wait for another extended visit to Turkey.