19 AMAZING Things to Do in Istanbul

19 Things you NEED to do in Istanbul

Top 10 Things To Do in Istanbul (10)

Istanbul really is a place like no other. Spanning over two continents, the city’s exceptionally unique position is just one of the many ways Istanbul brims with juxtapositions. Although Turkey’s most-visited city exudes an eclectic modernity, the country’s deep-rooted history, culture and tradition still remains undeniably prevalent.

One minute, you can be perusing European designer handbags on the high street and the next you’ll be amongst a wild flurry of colourful rugs and insistent vendors at a marketplace. Walking down the street, you can pass by the sleek glass facade of a towering high-rise on the same stretch of road as a thousand-year-old stone wall. Even the spirituality of Istanbul comes with its contrasts. The largely Muslim city is a cornucopia of exquisite mosques, with calls to prayer filling the air at every street corner. Yet, Istanbul still remains home to one of the world’s largest cathedrals (now turned museum), the Hagia Sophia, which reflects the city’s era of Orthodox Christianity. These rich contrasts are just one of the many things that make Istanbul such a fascinating place to see!

With so much to see and do in this bustling and vibrant city, Istanbul has quickly become one of my favorite places to explore.  Without further ado, here are my top things to do in this amazing city…

PLACES TO VISIT

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1. The Blue Mosque

Possibly one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever entered, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as it is commonly known, is truly a sight to behold. This grand mosque is made up of five main domes and six slender minarets and the interior has been decorated with over 20,000 handmade tiles which are coloured blue. When visiting the Blue Mosque, you are given scarves to cover your head, but I suggest dressing modestly for your visit.

Check here for a guided tour of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia

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2. Basilica Cistern

This incredible underground cistern is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The cistern, which was originally built in 532 to bring drinking water into Istanbul, was constructed using 336 columns, mostly salvaged from ruined temples. Be sure to check out the column with a magnificent-looking Medusa head on its end.

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3. Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia reveals a timeline to Istanbul’s religious history. Formerly an Orthodox Cathedral from 532 to 1453, the building was then converted into a Mosque, until it became secularized in 1931 and turned into a museum. It is still technically considered to be the world’s second largest cathedral and is an awe-inspiring display of giant domes and intricate mosaics (even when half the building was covered in scaffolding)! I’d recommend booking a guided tour in advance so you can skip the queues.

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4. Topkapi Palace

Home to generations of Sultans and their wives, Topkapi Palace provides a fascinating look into the history of royals in Turkey. There is a lot to explore on the premises, including a treasury for the crown jewels.

If you want to skip the line, check out this option, or if you want a general guided tour with Topkapi and the Grand Bazaar, check here.

If you’d like to gain a deeper knowledge of Istanbul and it’s history, Serhat Engul is local tour guide in Istanbul who offers comprehensive tours through the city.  You can hire him to take you around and teach you about the fascinating Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history of Istanbul. To get in touch with him, head over to his Istanbul Clues travel blog.

 

GETTING AROUND

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5. Take a Ferry Ride down the Bosphorus

After spending days exploring this sprawling city, I came to the conclusion that Istanbul is best appreciated from the river. TURYOL run ferry services costing only 12TL for an hour and a half guided tours along the Bophorus. I would definitely recommend doing the cruise at sunset– it adds that extra bit of magic to the whole experience! Alternatively, you can make the experience a little more memorable and book a 3-course dinner cruise, which includes entertainment in the form of folk dancing and traditional music!

For other cruise options, check these:

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6. Catch the Tram at Taksim Square

To experience the true heart of Istanbul’s modernity, head to Taksim Square. Now a major tourist hotspot, you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and cafes, hotels and high-end shops in the area to keep you entertained. If you want to kick it old-school, catch the nostalgic tram from Taksim down Istiklal. The tram runs down an insanely busy street, which means the Tram Driver spends the whole time tooting to trying to get oblivious tourists off the tracks. When we rode the tram he even let us have a go at honking the horn! Make sure you also wander down Istiklal Street in the evening, when the area transforms into a lively hub of restaurants, bars, and street performers- it’s an Istanbul must-do!

7. Get an Istanbul Tourist Pass

If you are spending a few days in the city and planning to do a lot of the things on this list, pre-purchasing a 3 or 7 day Istanbul Tourist Pass could be good value for your money. The passes include everything from the entrance to all of Istanbul’s main attractions, a public transport card, a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise, Turkish Bath Experience, and Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour.

VISITING THE MARKETS

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8. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar

The most-visited tourist attraction in the whole city, the Grand Bazaar is a place you simply must experience during a stay in Istanbul. A never-ending hive of activity, you’ll find this marketplace overflowing with insistent locals selling everything from exquisite hand-embodied rugs to intricate silver jewelry to dazzling lanterns in every color of the rainbow.  Shop owners seem to beckon from every direction, luring many in with cups of warm apple tea and samples of their delicious Turkish delight. Getting lost in this unique maze of Turkish goods may be a sensory overload, but it is an enchanting one at that.

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9. Delight your senses at the Spice Market

Similar to the Grand Bazaar, the spice market will overwhelm your senses from the moment you walk in. If it’s a taste of Turkey you are after, you’ve come to the right place! Here, you can purchase just about every spice under the sun, alongside delicious teas, dried fruits, nuts, candy, baklava and of course, Turkish Delight. It is the perfect spot to purchase cheap, easy and edible souvenirs. Plus- the vendors love to give out samples to lure you in, and let’s be honest- who doesn’t love free samples?

AMAZING EXPERIENCES

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10. Eat seafood under the Galata Bridge

If you want to eat dinner in Istanbul with a unique view, you can’t beat a seafood dinner under the Galata Bridge. Here, you’ll find a throng of slightly overpriced seafood restaurants that aren’t afraid to hassle you to get you through their doors. Skip these establishments and head straight to a local vendor, grab a fish sandwich, and enjoy unbeatable views over the shimmering Bosphorus river.

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11. Visit a traditional Turkish Bathhouse

To truly immerse yourself in the culture of a country you sometimes have to get out of your comfort zone, and visiting one of Istanbul’s Hamams is the perfect way to do this. Hamams have been a Turkish tradition for thousands of years, used as both a place to socialize and a place to cleanse. Most bathhouses are separated by gender, and yes, it is normal for everyone to be walking around naked, or at least topless. A traditional Hamam experience involves transitioning through different rooms of varying temperatures, including a hot steam room and cold and hot pools. Once you reach the end, you generally receive a brisk scrub down by an attendant. Yep, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t forget in a hurry (plus, you’ll never feel cleaner)! If you are still hesitant about visiting a Hamam, check out Lonely Planet’s Guide to Istanbul’s Bathhouses.

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12. Drink Turkish Apple Tea with a shop owner

Tea (or çay) is a very big part of Turkish hospitality and you will find it in virtually every café, restaurant, and house you go to. Along with regular cay, Turkish Apple Tea is a popular specialty and is a very sweet, delicious drink that resembles warm apple juice. Often, shopkeepers will offer tea to customers, a sign of friendship and hospitality. Make sure you say yes to the offer- doing so will give reveal to you the warmth and kindness of the Turkish people and allow you to gain a glimpse into one of Turkey’s strongest traditions.

13. Have Dinner with a local family

To understand the true meaning of Turkish hospitality, you can’t beat having a home-cooked dinner. Obviously, the most authentic way to experience this would involve getting invited over to a local’s house. However, if this isn’t possible, you can book in to enjoy a home-cooked feast with a local family in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet and get a deeper insight into the Turkish culture.

 

TRYING ISTANBUL’S STREET FOOD

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14.  Kumpir (Baked Potato)

Kumpir is a very popular street food in Istanbul and is definitely worth sampling. A giant potato is baked, cut down the middle, then the soft insides are mixed with a generous slathering of butter and cheese, then is finished off with an endless mirage of toppings.

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15. Corn on the cob

You can’t walk far in Istanbul without seeing the billowing smoke of a roadside vendor and the scent of freshly cooked corn. A street food classic, these vendors really know how to perfectly grill corn on the cob. It’s a perfect snack to have on-the-go… Just remember your toothpick!

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16. Gözleme

Possibly one of the easiest fast foods to find in Turkey, Gözleme is a favourite among locals. Similar to a crepe, this savoury Turkish flatbread is made from hand-rolled dough and is filled with various toppings, such as cheese, meat, vegetables or potatoes, then is sealed and cooked over a griddle.

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17.  Simit

Another very popular street food, Simit lies somewhere between a pretzel and a bagel. The cheapest snack you’ll find on the streets, these circular bread are typically encrusted with sesame seeds and can be eaten plain or with preserves like jam, cream cheese or for an extra special treat, Nutella.

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18. Dondurma (Turkish Icecream)

It may look like normal ice cream, and it may even taste like normal ice cream, but Dondurma has a texture unlike any other ice cream in the world. The ingredients used make it resistant to melting and impart a sort of chewiness to the consistency. Dondurma vendors are known for putting on spectacular shows, spinning around giant masses of ice cream on long paddles and playfully flipping customer’s cones upside down. For more, check out my post on 14 foods you must try in Turkey!

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To learn more about Istanbul’s culinary scene, check out these tours

19. Get lost in the backstreets of Istanbul

Once you’ve ticked off your Istanbul tourist bucket list, it’s time to go a little deeper with this city. Make your way out of the touristy areas and instead, go and explore the local neighbourhoods dotted around the city. Here, you’ll be able to get a taste of genuine day-to-day life in Istanbul.

Where to stay in Istanbul:

When I visited Istanbul, I stayed in an Airbnb near Taksim Square. By using Airbnb, you can often score yourself a beautiful, self-contained apartment for a fraction of what you’d pay for a hotel. If you haven’t yet signed up to Airbnb, you can sign up here and get $45 credit towards your first stay!

If you don’t see an Airbnb you like, compare different hotels in Istanbul here.

Getting to Istanbul:

If you are planning to fly to Istanbul, I would recommend using Skyscanner to book your flights. It’s free to use and doesn’t have any hidden fees like other flight search engines, whilst still comparing prices across every airline to ensure you get the best deal possible. Plus,  You can download the free Skyscanner App on iOS or Android.

From the airport, you can book this transportation service to and from.

Staying Connected:

You can find Wifi at many hotels and restaurants in Istanbul,  however, if you want to stay connected to the internet throughout your time in Turkey, I would recommend getting a Mobile Hotspot. Rent n Connect offer portable modems provide unlimited, fast wifi for €5.99 per day which can be delivered directly to your hotel/ Airbnb (and if you use the discount code, NICOLA2018 you can get free shipping)!

Here is a little collection of photos from my wanderings through Istanbul:
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If I can leave you with a piece of advice it’s this- when visiting Istanbul, try let go of any pre-conceived ideas, expectations or plans. Instead, allow yourself to get lost in this unique and wondrous city and fully immerse yourself in the rich Turkish culture. In the end, isn’t this the essence of what travel is all about?

Have anything to add to this list of things to do when visiting Istanbul? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

 

N x

29 Comments

  • Reply
    Carly @ Let Us Wanderlust
    March 30, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I’m totally with you – I adored exploring Istanbul and after only a few hours, it quickly became one of my favourite cities ever! I also loved watching the sunset over the city – the mosque’s many minarets were so prominent in the golden glow of the setting sun and was beautiful beyond words! X

    • Reply
      Archaeologous-tours Turkey and Greece
      February 12, 2018 at 11:07 pm

      Just found your wonderful blog. we run guided tours through Istanbul, Izmir, Kusadasi ++. Your photos really capture the fun, sensuousness, art and colors of Istanbul. Well done! would you like to be a guest blogger?

  • Reply
    LisaLDN
    March 30, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    Saving this post for later, as I am dying to go to Istanbul! I’ve always wanted to see the Hagia Sophia! :)

  • Reply
    Lia
    March 30, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    Your photos are truly stunning! And oh, those mouth-watering ones! Visiting Turkey is definitely on my bucket list. Its richness in culture is my #1 reason to go!

  • Reply
    Catie
    March 31, 2016 at 12:49 am

    Wonderful pictures for a beautiful city! The ferry rides are my favorite! I lived there for 2 years. My husband and I are planning to move back this summer!

  • Reply
    Shelby
    March 31, 2016 at 3:17 am

    everything sounds and looks unreal! Istanbul has always been on my list it just looks like no other there :] The Fernweh Wolf / Travel & Lifestyle Blog

  • Reply
    Suvi
    March 31, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Istanbul is so lovely. It’s such a shame people will be too scared to travel there right now.

    The food is amazing. One should also sample Lahmachun (Turkish pizza) and Pidele. And drink raki and Efes beer :P

    Did you go to the Asia side of Istanbul? That’s also a must-see.

  • Reply
    zuleikaconte
    April 5, 2016 at 7:22 am

    I love how detailed and vibrant all of your posts are, this really makes me want to go back to Istanbul! This, and the food – love Turkish breakfasts and their ridiculously strong coffee!
    http://www.zukiniz.com

  • Reply
    Sasha
    April 10, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Love, love, loved this post. Turkey is so high on my list and these pics get me so excited!

    http://www.sevencontinentssasha.com

  • Reply
    Carina
    April 22, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    Istanbul has already been on my bucket list for quite a while, but after reading this I want to go even more. And how stunning are your photos? What camera did you use? Marvellous!
    Hugs from a German girl in Spain,
    Carina

  • Reply
    Miles of Happiness (@milesofhappines)
    April 25, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    It looks fabulous. Istanbul must be such an exciting destination (and delicious!)

  • Reply
    Ella
    May 24, 2016 at 2:59 am

    This is a very informative and detailed post with so many beautiful photos! I really want to visit Istanbul.. it’s close to me and I’ve been toying with the idea of visiting some day soon. I’ve been finding Istanbul so incredibly intriguing, so I’m glad I came across this awesome post :)

  • Reply
    Elona
    June 22, 2016 at 3:46 am

    I have to say being a female and traveling solo was a little bit disappointing for me. Your pictures are fantastic and show a very warm side of the Turkish culture. I had a few separate occasions of men trying to talk to me and pulling my arms in public places. =( I’m glad you had a wonderful experience.

    • Reply
      polkadotpassport
      June 29, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      I do understand where you are coming from. Although I had a great experience and most of the people I interacted with were very friendly, I also had a few uncomfortable experiences similar to what you’ve described. I mostly traveled Turkey in a group which felt a lot safer. When I was travelling by myself, I had to be a lot more careful. I think visiting any country like this as a solo female traveler you must be prepared for this and be as safe and cautious as possible.

  • Reply
    turkey travel
    July 24, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    What a wonderful compilation of tips on experiencing Istanbul. Thank you for sharing a very nice, post including great tips about Istanbul and I loved your photos. Who want to visit to Istanbul, they should read this post which gives all Istanbul attractions and they are must-see.

  • Reply
    betul
    August 5, 2016 at 4:46 am

    These photos are really stunning! Whenever I see Istanbul photos why I don’t know I feel sad. Like city of poets.

  • Reply
    Zeynep
    August 9, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Heey! This post is fascinating. I like your photos. <3

  • Reply
    ACanuckAbroadsther
    November 18, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Tunis has been helpful in planning our upcoming trip to Istanbul. 365trvl.wordpress.com

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Chitwan
    January 28, 2017 at 3:59 am

    I have been to all these places in istanbul, but your photos have left me speechless. You really captured the place!

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  • Reply
    Sara More
    July 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Awsome! Really great photos 😍👌🏾 what kind of camera did u use?

  • Reply
    Dmitry Pavlenko
    August 11, 2017 at 1:52 am

    Thanks so much for your interesting post and wonderful photos! Very useful information about Istanbul

  • Reply
    weareloc
    December 5, 2017 at 9:06 am

    I am going there the day after tomorrow and after seeing your pics, I am already smitten!

  • Reply
    theminiamlistninja
    March 1, 2018 at 4:56 am

    I am in Istanbul right now and can’t wait to check out your recommendations! :)

  • Reply
    sherryaggarwalherry
    March 29, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    Lovely article… you have covered all the aspects in such a great detail :)

  • Reply
    tarkan
    June 2, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    great post, great shots! we offer great cruise on the Bosphorus, check our cruises out on http://www.bosphorustour.com

  • Reply
    eliana
    July 3, 2018 at 8:36 am

    amazing! love this post. Ill be there in 1 month, question, could I connect with my husband at the same wifi hotspot?

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