There are only a handful of cities in the world that Natasha and I fell in love with instantly, one of those happens to be Istanbul. Ask any handful of seasoned travelers some of their favorite cities in the world and Istanbul will come up more than once. It’s a city packed that has been the crossroads of the world for millennia. Quite literally as it straddles two of world’s most historically rich continents Europe and Asia.
With thousands of years worth of history, there is a wide range of things to do Istanbul. The city has it all with arts, culture, history, food, art, and even natural landscapes. Istanbul is the kind of city that begs for you to lose yourself in and just wander into ancient streets, cafes, and markets. We can only scratch the surface, but here are some of the best places to visit in Istanbul and things to do.
For lovers of history and culture, Istanbul should be among the standouts in around-the-world destinations. At or near the top of most itineraries, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is a great way to kick off your stay in this exotic city. Constructed between 1609 and 1615, it was built by Sultan Ahmed the First, whose bad case of mosque-envy drove him to make it more majestic and eye-catching than the grand Hagia Sophia.
With majestic domes, minarets, and spires, you’ll know you’re not in Cleveland anymore. Perhaps the most visited site in the city and the most popular thing to do in Istanbul, it can be a bit on the crowded side. If possible, head out at non-peak times to avoid the masses. Since it’s a religious site still in use, remember to dress appropriately. Women are expected to wear headscarves, regardless of their faith or nationality. Both men and women will be given the appropriate dress at the entrance.
Istanbul is a city that’s relatively easy to get around in and many of the city’s attractions are clustered in pockets, which makes checking off that list of things to do in Istanbul pretty easy. With a fascinating history that has seen it as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Imperial Ottoman Mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia is considered one of the crowning achievements of Byzantine Architecture.
It was built in 537, but has been painstakingly restored to near-original condition after years of constant construction and maintenance, and is noted for its huge and impressive dome which was an engineering feat of epic proportions for the day. Standing and peering up into the nearly 150-foot-high dome’s interior, you’ll be inspired with a sense of awe that you may not have experienced in a long time. The gallery above is reachable by a spiral staircase and offers a great view of the mosaics, for which the mosque is also famous.
Topkapi Palace Museum
Construction started on the Topkapi Palace in the late 15th Century, and it served as the home of the powerful Ottoman Sultans for centuries. In 1924, after the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the area waned, the Palace was turned into a museum and has been one of Istanbul’s most popular sites ever since.
It’s also noted for its architecture, orderly grounds and the fascinating collections of pottery, art, and weapons, many of which are centuries old. There is also a restaurant, bookstore, gift shop and a coffee shop on site, where you’ll be able to get a cup of Turkish coffee, one cup of which will give you enough caffeine to swim to Italy and be back in time for a relaxing dinner.
In 2013, Huseyin Cetinel, began his street art project that has drawn plenty of Instagrammers in over the years. With different colors of bright paint he went to work to create the perfect rainbow staircase. The goal was to make people smile. By changing a dull crappy set of stairs into a beautiful work of art he may have changed thousands of lives put more color back into the city. There’s not much to do on these stairs, but they do make a fun photo. It can take a bit of hunting to find them, if you plug the Findikli metro stop and Café Nove into your GPS you should be able to spot them. This is one of the great free things to do in Istanbul so be sure to check the site out!
If you think the city’s water system is just a bunch of boring pipes and tubes that doesn’t warrant a visit, think again. Another bit of Byzantine engineering that will boggle your mind is the subterranean Basilica Cistern. Part of the massive system of cisterns and aqueducts that carried water from as far away as neighboring countries, Basilica Cistern is the largest of the complex of hundreds that lie below the city.
You’ll probably wonder how it was all possible with 6th Century technology and engineering. The kids and those travelers susceptible to the macabre may find its dimness and the echoing drips of water that reverberate off the tiled walls a bit eerie, but that’ll be half the fun. Make sure to look for the fish that live in the water and the inverted Medusa head at the foot of one of the columns. If you want to get a great photo (unlike the one we got below) make sure to bring a travel tripod.
Conveniently located just a short walk from both the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar is one of the things to do in Istanbul that shouldn’t be missed. Ranked among the largest enclosed markets in the world, and comprised of over 50 streets and nearly 5,000 vendors – yes, that’s not a typo – it can be a place that’ll make your head spin.
Nearly every item you could want or imagine is sold here – from art, food, toys, and tools, to bedding and silverware. I got my favorite pair of pants here years ago and still wear them all the time. Perhaps the most fascinating – especially for food lovers – are the large barrels of exotic spices and ingredients, many of which you may never have seen. Remember, when engaging in a little friendly negotiation with a vendor, they often initially quote prices that are as much as twice as expensive as what they’re really willing to let the item go for, so don’t be shy with those counteroffers, or just walk away if you think you’re being conned. There are also cafes and restaurants nearby that are great places to fill up and do some people watching.
Though not nearly as popular as the aforementioned places, the Archaeology Museum is one of those rare gems that will make you happy that you went. A good place to escape the crowds and enjoy some much-deserved air conditioning, it houses an assortment of antiques, art and housewares, many which are centuries old. And, if you thought sarcophagi were just for Egyptians like I did, you’d be wrong, because Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus is here; it gives a fascinating account and recording of his life and historical importance.
You’ll also find the magnificent Tiled Pavilion and the world’s oldest surviving treaty – The Treaty of Kadesh – which was a pact between the Egyptians and Hittites after a conflict in the 13th Century. There’s also a mock-up of the famous Trojan Horse in an area specifically for kids.
Though not nearly as overwhelming and exalted as many other sites you’ll see in Istanbul – or famous squares in other countries for that matter – Taksim Square is impressive in its own right. A bustling and modern area located in the Beyoglu district, it’s chockfull of cafes, bars, shops, and hotels. There’s also a monument – the Taksim Republic Monument – commemorating the founding of the country which occurred in 1923, so needless to say, it’s an important place for proud Turkish people. The area can be on the busy side due to its location and the fact that it’s a transportation center, but it’s really one of those things to do in Istanbul that you shouldn’t pass up.
For some travelers, being near the water is an essential component of any vacation. And while you probably didn’t come to Istanbul for the beaches, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the water. During busy times, the view along the Galata Bridge, with its crowded anglers and their mishmash of fishing rods, will make you feel like you’re in a postcard.
If you’re interested in joining them, you can buy the things you’ll need to test your luck in the waters below. Unconfirmed rumors have it that you can rent a rod and tackle from the locals too. Like fisherman the world over, these ones know that fishing can be the best in the early morning and evening, so plan your trip accordingly. There’s also a great view of the city from the bridge, especially at sunrise and sunset.
If you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys getting off the beaten path once in a while, then Ortakoy is a place where you’ll be able to distance yourself from the crowds and enjoy its noticeably slower pace. Located on the Bosphorus waterway, you’ll need to take a bus, ferry or taxi to get there, but you’ll be rewarded for your effort.
The town’s meandering streets, lined with shops and vendors, will make you feel like you’re farther away from the big city than you really are, though at times even these streets will seem crowded. The town comes to life when the sun goes down, making Ortakoy a great thing to do in Istanbul at night. There are enough trendy bars and restaurants to keep you occupied until late. Since the town is a favorite of the young, wealthy and hip, the prices aren’t on the low side.
Istanbul Modern Art Museum
A swank and modern private museum exhibiting the work of many internationally renowned artists, Istanbul Modern should be on your to-do list, especially if you’re an art lover or are tired of looking at so many things from antiquity. There’s also a restaurant on site, and in keeping with their sparing use of words, they’ve named it Istanbul Modern Restaurant.
It serves up classical Turkish dishes, to many of which they’ve added new and trendy twists. Their Turkish coffee is also delicious, especially when enjoyed relaxing and overlooking the scenic Bosphorus after a long day on your feet. The museum isn’t open every day and has extended hours on some days so ask in town or check their website before you go.
Located on the side of the European side of Istanbul, the district of Beyoglu is home to the Galata tower, from which you’ll get the most picturesque view of Istanbul. Restored to its near-original condition in the 1960’s, the tower is atop a hill across from the Golden Horn. At the top, you’ll find a cafe and amazing views, but you will have to earn them with some steps up.
Try Turkish Baklava and Sweets
Have you heard of Baklava before? The sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts held together with syrup or honey is said to actually have originated from Istanbul thousands of years ago. You can find Baklava and other Turkish Delights all over Istanbul and it’s the perfect place to try some if you haven’t before!
Try Turkish Coffee
You’ve probably had coffee before, but have you had Turkish coffee? This is a method of preparing very finely ground unfiltered coffee, and therefore can be very strong. It’s a must to have Turkish coffee or tea while visiting Istanbul. If you want to blend in you’ll drop an entire sugar cube in as the Turks do. You can generally find Turkish Coffee just about anywhere in Istanbul for around 10 Turkish Lira. It’s a great non touristy things to do in Istanbul as you can rock up just about anywhere and enjoy local life.
Legoland Discovery Center
If you’ve been pulling your hair out trying to find a kid-friendly way to spend a day – or at least a half of one – then look no further. Created with children up to their mid-teens in mind, Legoland Discovery Center has more than enough activities to keep your child occupied and give them a fun and creative diversion from all the cisterns, mosques and museums they’ve silently endured. There’s a tour of the factory, rides, a cinema and creative workshops where staff will assist your children in making something memorable. It’s one of the best things to do in Istanbul for families and for the little ones between 1 and 5, there’s a Duplo Farm. Check out their website for hours of operation.
Made up of a chain of nine tiny islands in the Sea of Marmara, Prince’s Islands have become a convenient escape for the city dwellers get away from the chaos of one of the world’s largest cities. Only four of the islands are open to the public, but you’ll be so content you’ll never miss the five that are off limits. Everyone will think they’ve gone back in time when they get their first glimpse of the horses and carriages that convey people around the islands. The islands are set up for walkers, and there are no cars to worry about; if you’d like to speed around more quickly, bicycles are available to rent and a good way to get around.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Though the name probably doesn’t conjure images of excitement and contentment for kids, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts will most likely be one of those things to do in Istanbul that you’ll remember long after you’ve returned home. With thousands of items from different eras and cultures on display, everyone is sure to find something that piques their interest. You’ll also get a surprising sense of just how advanced civilizations were ages ago.
The museum gives an interesting glimpse into the daily life and history of the average Turkish citizen, dating back to the 8th Century. Large tapestries and carpets are among the most impressive attractions, and things you’ll be happy you got to see
Where to stay in Istanbul
Budget: Taksim Prelude Hotel
This hotel is only 100 meters Istikal Street and is set in a 19th-century Ottoman style building. This hotel is a fantastic and comfortable option for couples on a budget.
Mid Range: Ayramin Hotel Taksim
An exceptionally clean hotel with great WiFi and an excellent buffet breakfast. At around $100 a night you this hotel is in the city center and everyone raves about the fantastic staff.
Luxury: Pera Palace Hotel
Ever want to stay in a palace? Well the Pera Palace was established in 1892 and is a neoclassical museum hotel. The views from here are some of the best in the city and most of them have a balcony. If you can swing it and are on a romantic trip (or a business trip with someone else footing the bill) Pera Palace is a great place to stay in Istanbul.
What to pack for Istanbul
Fleece: Temperatures range in Istanbul, especially in the Spring and Fall months. Make sure to bring a good fleece jacket for night time (my favorite is Patagonia).
Sunglasses: We swear by Smith Chromapop sunglasses. They may be expensive, but as long as you aren’t prone to losing all your sunglasses they are worth every penny.
Scarf: A scarf or shawlis never a bad thing to have especially when you are traveling in a Muslim country. They are great to cover your shoulders and head with.
When is the Best Time to Visit Istanbul?
Istanbul is truly great any time of year. It’s a massive city so there is always something fun going on. We’ve visited in both August and in November and I honestly preferred November more. August was sweltering hot!
If you want mild and comfortable weather, we would suggest traveling to Istanbul in April, May, September, October, and November. Plus traveling in the shoulder season is always a favorite time of year for us. Read more about the best places to visit in October or winter destinations in Europe.
Plan Your Trip to Istanbul
- Accommodation in Istanbul: To feel more at home we use Airbnb you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or just take this coupon for your first stay!
- Rent a car: Compare car rental prices here.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Water: The tap water in Turkey can be questionable. if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.
- Adapter: Remember that Turkey uses the Europlug. Make sure you find a good adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land.