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What to See & Do in Istanbul

Last Updated on August 14, 2023

Istanbul is an endless city. No matter how long you stay, rest assured, you'll never exhaust the list of things to see and do. To say that Istanbul is a world unto itself would be an apt description. It's a melting pot of cultures, a repository of history, and a showcase of unending beauty. There's something about Istanbul that will captivate everyone. From its countless historical sites, luxurious streets, and authentic bazaars to its bustling boulevards, coastal districts, islands, cruise ships, activities, concerts, festivals, and so much more, this city has something for everyone.

sultanahmet-blue-mosque

Istanbul's Top Sights

I've compiled a list of the most popular tourist spots in Istanbul you should see when visiting Istanbul. While there are many more places to mention, these are the sights you should prioritize - your must-see list.

The first six attractions are located on the European Side of Istanbul, near Sultanahmet Square. You can visit all the main attractions in any order you prefer, and although it is just a short walk, bear in mind that it might be overwhelming to try to see them all in one day due to their historical richness. Also, remember that some historical sites near the Golden Horn can get very crowded during the day, so I recommend starting early and visiting the busiest ones first, such as the Hagia Sophia or the Basilica Cistern. If you're in Istanbul for a certain period and plan to visit all the historical sites, a museum card is highly recommended. This card is also valid throughout Turkey, so if you're planning a trip around the country, it will certainly make things easier for you. The Istanbul Museum Pass makes the sights quicker to access, and it can save you money.

Further down our list of tourist attractions, we move on to more contemporary places in this amazing city. Districts like Beyoğlu and Taksim not only boast incredible architecture and Art Nouveau buildings, but they also offer a plethora of cafes, shops, and restaurants. The blend of the new and old, the contemporary and authentic, is an amazing experience. As you stroll down the bustling shopping street of Istiklal, you'll suddenly hear the nostalgic tram passing by, still serving as a mode of transportation. This is what it means to be in Istanbul, the "capital of the world," as some call it.

Not a fan of crowded places? Don't worry, there's something for you too. How about escaping the city for a day on a ship and landing on the Prince Islands? These car-free islands are the perfect place to unwind and enjoy a relaxing day with your family and friends. You can ride a bike, hike, pack your swimsuits for a swim, enjoy dinner at a quaint fish restaurant, and savor a delicious ice cream before leaving the island.

What to Do in Istanbul

1. Topkapı Palace

Regarded as one of the oldest and largest palaces in the world, Topkapı Palace served as the home to Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years. Constructed in 1465, Topkapi Palace has welcomed countless visitors since its transformation into a museum. The palace was built after Istanbul was conquered by Fatih Sultan Mehmet, also known as Fatih the Conqueror, in 1453. Since then, it has been a shining beacon in Istanbul, overlooking the entire Bosphorus.

2. Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)

A monument that changed the course of Western architecture and served as the greatest church in Christendom for 1000 years, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most prominent landmarks in Istanbul, Turkey, welcoming millions of visitors each year. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

3. Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque

The Imperial Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the top historical sights to visit in the incredible city of Istanbul. Commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque due to its blue tiles, it boasts 21,043 tiles and 260 windows in the interior, making it a fine example of Istanbul's magnificent imperial Ottoman mosques. Though not the only beautiful mosque in the city, it's the most well-known.

4. Byzantine Hippodrome

The Byzantine Hippodrome was the political and recreational heart of Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul. It is flanked by the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque on one side and the Turkish and Islamic Museum on the other. You can also see an Egyptian obelisk within Sultanahmet Square where the Byzantine Hippodrome is located.

5. Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum

Located opposite the Blue Mosque on the Hippodrome, the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (Türk-Islam Eserleri Müzesi) is a treasure trove of beautiful objects from the Ottoman, Seljuk, and earlier periods beginning in the 8th century. If you have an interest in Islamic Art, this museum is a must-visit.

6. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)

An incredible hidden gem of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern, also known as the Sunken Palace, is where the myth of Medusa takes place. You can see the sculpture of Medusa's head in the Cistern, which is an incredible sight. As you might know, a scene from a James Bond movie was shot in this Cistern, attracting more tourists. In the past, it was an eerie subterranean reservoir with 336 marble columns that could hold 2,265 cubic meters (80,000 cubic feet) of water in case of drought or siege. Currently, it is used as an art exhibition venue, where artistic works are displayed.

7. Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)

Situated in the historical peninsula, the enormous Grand Bazaar has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1985. It is the ultimate medieval "shopping center," with 4,000 shops. Whether you buy something or just come for a visit, it is worth experiencing this environment. Every year, more than half a million visitors come to the Grand Bazaar, testifying to its incredible appeal.

8. Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)

The Egyptian Bazaar is a part of the Grand Bazaar. One of the quintessential parts of any trip to Istanbul is wandering through the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). Underneath the ornate vaulted ceilings, you will find all the delectables and souvenirs most appealing to tourists, all in one location. These include spices, dried fruit, cheese, sausage, jam, nuts, seeds, tea, dozens of flavors of Turkish Delight, and more. You can also find jewelry, ceramics, silver, and other handicrafts within the Spice Market.

9. Beyoğlu (Pera)

Beyoğlu, the authentic, romantic district of Istanbul, is filled with incredible old architecture and small side streets. Starting at the end of the popular Istiklal Street and flowing down to the Galata Tower until Karaköy, Beyoğlu is filled with small shops, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, and much more.

10. Galata Tower

The Galata Tower, one of the most prominent architectural gems, welcomes thousands of visitors every year, offering an extraordinary panoramic view of the entire city of Istanbul. Located in the historic Beyoğlu district, the tower has dominated the skyline since 1348 and has never lost its gleaming glory since then.

11. Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the European shore of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, is a fitting symbol of the magnificence and decadence of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. It is one of Istanbul's must-visit locations and has many beautifully decorated rooms. Not only is Dolmabahce Palace an incredible piece of Baroque architecture, but it also holds a magnificent history within its walls. It has been home to six different Sultans, as well as the first President of the Turkish Government, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

12. Bosphorus Cruise

One of the best things to do in Istanbul is to embark on a cruise ship and experience the incredible city from a different perspective by taking a Bosphorus Cruise. The best time to go on a cruise is just before sunset, so you can enjoy a beautiful view of the setting sun over Istanbul. The cruise takes you from the historical peninsula and passes by the European coast where you can see the Karaköy, Ortaköy, and Arnavutköy districts with their incredible mansions lying beside the Bosphorus.

From there, it turns under the Bridge, which gives you an incredible feeling, and moves on to the Asian Side, where you have the Çengelköy, Kuzguncuk, and Üsküdar districts. Upon reaching Üsküdar, you will have an incredible view of the Maiden's Tower beautifully situated on the Bosphorus. There are different kinds of cruises, offering various experiences. You can either opt for a private cruise ship or a public one, depending on your preference and budget.

13. Princes' Islands

When we say that Istanbul is a world unto itself, we are absolutely right. Apart from all the beautiful historical sites, sometimes you might want to escape from the hustle and bustle of the crowded city. The perfect place to escape the city is the Princes Islands, named Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada.

The first two islands are the biggest and most touristic ones, whereas the other two are more relaxed. Being car-free, the islands are the perfect option for those who want to cycle, hike, go for a swim, picnic, and spend some relaxed quality time.

Taking a Guided Tour & Hiring a Guide

Taking a guided tour or hiring a guide in Istanbul can greatly enhance your experience. Here are some reasons why you should consider it:

  1. Expert Knowledge: Guides provide valuable insights and historical context, making your visit more meaningful.
  2. Efficient Sightseeing: Guides know the best routes and can help you navigate through the city, saving time and ensuring you don't miss important sights.
  3. Hidden Gems and Local Experiences: Guides can take you off the beaten path to discover authentic local experiences and hidden gems.
  4. Cultural and Language Assistance: Guides bridge cultural gaps, offer language assistance, and facilitate interactions with locals.
  5. Personalized Experiences: Guides can tailor the tour to your interests, allowing you to delve deeper into specific aspects of Istanbul.
  6. Insider Tips and Recommendations: Guides provide recommendations for the best places to eat, shop, and explore, helping you discover the city beyond the usual tourist spots.

Remember to choose a licensed and reputable guide or travel agency for a high-quality experience. Fill out the form below to be connected with our top tour operators.

More Istanbul Sights

If you have more time, check out the next list of More Top Sights in Istanbul. These sights are also important but more difficult to get to, or of narrower appeal. Want to see whirling dervishes? Want to visit a hammam (Turkish bath)Sites farther out (Kariye mosaics, City Walls, Tekfur Saray, Ecumenical Patriarchate) can easily be visited on a Kariye & City Walls tour.) I've also made self-guided walking tours or you can take Efendi Travel's value-for-money Old Istanbul Guided Walking Tour.

If you're looking to take a day trip out of the city, see our list of Excursions from Istanbul.

No matter what their age, there's something to appeal to children in this list of Best Things to do with Kids in Istanbul.

As you can see, Istanbul has something to offer everyone. If you haven't visited Istanbul yet and are still undecided, consider this a sign to start planning your trip. I guarantee you'll fall in love with this city, creating memories that will resurface time and again.

Visit Istanbul

Istanbul is a city that is home to many historical sites. From the historical wonders of Sultanahmet Square and beautiful mosques to the vibrant atmosphere of Taksim Square, the city is rich in history and culture. Exploring the spice markets and indulging in traditional Turkish food and beverages, such as Turkish coffee and Turkish tea, is a must. A guided tour allows you to delve deeper into the city's treasures.

Don't miss the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus Strait from the Galata Bridge. With many attractions within walking distance, Istanbul showcases its rich heritage and serves as a captivating historic site. Plan your visit and immerse yourself in the wonders of Istanbul.

"Iyi Gezmeler" have a great trip, as we say in Turkey.

—by Tom Brosnahan, updated by Julide Koca

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