Happy to see you are looking for things to do in Istanbul!
This enhancing ancient metropolis with a modern twist is packed full of indulgent cuisine, exceptional architecture, rich culture, friendly locals, and a great vibe.
We spent 6 glorious days in this incredibly charming city, eating, drinking, and seeing as much as we could without burning out. And to help you out, we’ve condensed our urban experiences down into this handy independent guide to the city break in Istanbul. Enjoy!
Breathtaking Places to Visit in Istanbul
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 the 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.
There are many unique and quirky things to do in Istanbul. But before you embark on your adventure, think of how you are going to tackle all the Istanbul attractions and bunch them up into areas to save excessive journeys. The good news is, that despite the sheer size, Istanbul is surprisingly easy to get around.
We suggest exploring Istanbul one area at a time to get the most out of your visit.
How to Save Money on Your Istanbul City Break
If you are planning to visit a number of museums and historic marvels in the city, you might consider getting the Istanbul Museum Pass.
The pass costs 185TL and is valid for 5 days. It will grant you fast track access to iconic landmarks such as Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul Archaeological Museums and many more.
To see if it’s a good value for you, pick the Istanbul attractions below that you want to visit and add up the admission charges at the end of this section.
Alternatively, you could get the Istanbul City Tourist Pass for 30+ most iconic landmarks in the city. Line-skipping is always a time saver so look out for the attractions below that have this option.
Here’s a Quick Budget Guide to Attractions in Istanbul
- Sultan Ahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque) – Free
- Hagia Sophia – 40TL
- Topkapi Palace – 40TL
- Topkapi Palace Harem – 25TL
- The Basilica Cistern – 20TL
- The Grand Bazaar – Free
- The Spice Bazaar – Free
- Dolmabahce Palace – 40TL, 60TL with Harem
- Galata Tower – 25TL
- Miniatürk – 15TL
- Panorama 1458 – 15TL
- Maiden’s tower – 20TL
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Top 4 Things to See and Do in Istanbul’s Old Town
1. Visit The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet 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 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.
Remember that the Blue Mosque is not a museum, but a fully functioning house of worship. You’ll need to take your shoes off before entering, bags to carry them are provided. Ladies should also cover their hair with a headscarf before entering the grounds of Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
Visiting the Blue Mosque is free and it’s open for sightseeing in 3 sessions most days. We’d suggest checking timings online before your visit.
It goes without saying that arriving as early as possible is an advantage. This way you will beat the crowds and get to enjoy the beautiful courtyard and grounds. We went at 9am and it was ideal.
2. Look Around Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
First, a church, then a mosque and now a museum, “The Church of the Holy Wisdom” is absolutely worth visiting. It’s hard to comprehend how old and how well preserved this ancient structure is.
An interesting sight inside this two-level church are the Islamic and Christian elements that are in perfect unity. The walls of this church/mosque are decorated with Byzantine mosaics depicting the scenes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. At the same time, the beautiful Islamic calligraphic roundels adorning the mihrab are depicting the names of the family members of Muhammad.
It is one of the most loved and admired buildings in the city so be sure to add it to your things to do in Istanbul list and get your skip-the-line ticket.
Hagia Sophia opening hours: 9am – 7pm in summer months, 9am – 5pm in the winter season. The museum is closed on Mondays.
3. Don’t Miss Topkapi Palace – It’s Beautiful
We nearly missed a visit to the palace when looking at the top things to do in Istanbul. It would have been a huge mistake as the Harem turned out to be one of the highlights of our Istanbul city break.
Overlooking the Golden Horn, this medieval residence of the Ottoman sultans consists of four courtyards and a number of smaller buildings within the 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 their newly built European style home across the water to the north, the Dolmabahce Palace.
The most spectacular part of the palace, no doubt, is the Harem. But to enter the “forbidden” chambers, you will have to purchase a separate ticket unless you have the museum pass mentioned above.
The Harem was predominantly occupied by the sultan’s wives and eunuchs and run by the sultan’s mother. This part of the museum is the most impressive with beautiful cypress-dotted tiles running across the rooms and hallways of the Harem. Well worth the 25TL.
The palace also houses exhibitions of some of the most precious relics of the Islamic world.
A small part of me wished to have a guided tour in the palace as it’s such a historic and iconic place to visit. If you are interested in learning the historic side of Topkapi Palace, there’s a great palace + harem guided tour available which includes skip-the-line admission.
Topkapi Palace opening hours: 9am – 4:45pm in winter season, 9am – 6:45pm in summer months. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
4. Descend Into the Chambers of The Basilica Cistern
We highly recommend adding the atmospheric Cistern to your list of things to do in Istanbul (Get your skip-the-line ticket here).
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 store 100,000 tons of water but currently, the water level is 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 otherwise called the weeping column. It’s believed that the column grieves the slaves who died during the construction of this massive Cistern.
Further away, you will get to see the iconic Medusa heads, a major tourist attraction in Istanbul. One is placed 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 most likely that due to its dramatic atmosphere, the Basilica Cistern became featured in several films such as Dan Brown’s film adaptation ‘”Inferno'”(2016) and James Bond film “From Russia with Love” (1963).
Basilica Cistern opening hours: open every day from 9am – 5:30pm in winter season and 9am – 6:30pm in summer months.
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Check out our Istanbul City walk on gpsmycity.com
Top 2 Places to Discover in Eminönü Quarter
1. The Mesmerising Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar… Where to begin… It’s a maze of shimmering genie lamps, glowing lanterns, and magic carpets.
The Scheherazade tales aside, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Add it to your things to do and see in Istanbul list now!
The first things that catch the eyes are the yellow painted walls and arched ceiling, embellished with blue ribbons. Next, come all the sheen and glitter. Then come the shopkeepers offering you a carpet. When you tell them you can’t take it with you, in all seriousness, they promise to ship it for 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. It’s easy to get lost in 61 streets of this supposedly the first shopping mall in the world, but don’t panic. The deeper you go into the market, the more you discover.
Try to stray away from the busier 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, have a cup of Turkish tea or a haircut? Charlie had a pretty good trim at the Turkish barbers for €5.
Grand Bazaar opening hours: 8:30am – 7pm. The bazaar is closed on Sundays, religious and bank holidays.
2. The Intoxicating Spice Bazaar
It might be time for a quick Turkish delight.
Built in 1664, the otherwise entitled Egyptian Bazaar will blow your mind with its colours, scents, and textures. There are saffron, love tea, figs, dates, and lashings of Turkish coffee. It’s a cook’s heaven.
Out of all the colourful Turkish delight, try the chewy Lokum. You will see them neatly stacked in a pyramid-shaped tower. Stuffed with almonds and pistachios, they come in different flavours but are quite expensive. A kg of this delightful Turkish sweet starts from 60-80TL.
Coffee lovers, look out for the Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi shop. Just follow the fresh roasting smell. If you see a big queue of people next to a shop with large windows, you’ve found it. Here you can buy a small quantity of 120 g for as little as 5TL.
Whenever we see huge queues of locals, we always go to investigate. This is one of the ways to find something authentic. If it’s good for the locals, it must be good for the visitors.
Spice Bazaar opening hours: every day from 9am – 7pm excluding religious and bank holidays.
Explore Beşiktaş Neighbourhood
The Dolmabahce Palace was no doubt a highly luxurious place with countless rooms, decorated with oversized chandeliers and all-glass-staircase railings. Also, a more comfortable home from which to entertain the foreign guests compared to the medieval Topkapi Palace.
Here, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself occupied a small portion of the residence until his death in 1938. You can even see the room where he passed away.
Originally a harbour, the grounds of the palace provide a nice backdrop of Istanbul seen across the Bosphorus. However, this exquisite 19th-century European style palace impressed us the least on this fascinating Istanbul city break.
It must have been the lack of eastern style motives and the abundance of European palaces and stately homes we have previously visited in the UK and the rest of Europe. We found the Topkapi Palace a more worthwhile visit.
The admission to this palace is not included in the Istanbul Museum Pass and costs 60TL including the Harem. We highly recommend getting a fast track entry with audioguide as the queue was pretty lengthy.
Dolmabahce Palace opening hours: 9am – 4pm. The palace is closed on Mondays and Thursdays.
Besiktas is also home to Vodafone Park and the largest sports museum in Turkey. So, taking Vodafone Park’s Museum & Stadium Tour could really enrich your visit to Istanbul.
What’s in the Taksim Area?
The Taksim Square
The eminent square is considered to be 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.
The Independence (Republic) Monument is the most important masterpiece in the square and a testament to the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The two symbolic sides of the monument display Atatürk in his early military days and opposite, him dressed in modern western clothes.
If you fancy an afternoon of shopping, the 1.4 km long Istiklal Avenue could be the perfect spot. From boutique shops to cinemas, you can find pretty much everything here.
Maybe it was the fairy lights or the crisp air that reminded us of Regents street in London. But most likely it was an overall European vibe lingering between the grand Ottoman-era buildings. It’s a shame that the picture-perfect red tram was under repair during our visit.
If you, like us, are looking for that slightly more local vibe amongst the usual Istanbul attractions, look for a quiet alleyway (Olivia Gecidi) off the Istiklal Street. The tiny Mandabatmaz coffee shop makes some of the nicest Turkish coffee if not in Istanbul, definitely in the area.
If it’s not yet then Turkish coffee sipping should be on your list of top things to do in Istanbul. Any coffee lover will agree with me on this! It’s chocolatey, smooth and delicious!
Fun Things to Do in Ortaköy District
If you are looking for a great view of the iconic Bosphorus Bridge, head to Ortaköy Mosque. Located on a pier in Ortaköy village, the mosque provides a rather picturesque backdrop for those Instagram shots.
Right behind it, you will be presented with one of the nicest views of the elegant bridge stretching across Bosphorus from European all the way to the Asian side of Istanbul.
This is also the place to eat Kumpir, the jacket potato-like dish overstuffed with colourful ingredients. And what a better way to enjoy the view if not with a hearty portion of Turkish street food.
Enjoy the Galata District
Climb the Galata Tower
For 360 degree panoramic views of Istanbul head to Galata Tower in Galata district.
This medieval tower, one of the oldest in the world was constructed in 528 AD as a lighthouse. It was devastated and repaired several times during its existence. Ironically it was damaged by fire while it was used as a fire watchtower.
The tower is not that tall. The viewing platform is only on the 8th floor, but being built on a hillside it offers fantastic views over Istanbul.
There’s a cafe on the top floor and a restaurant one floor below. The restaurant is slightly overpriced while the cafe is a nice space to chill with a cup of Turkish tea. Try to get a seat next to one of the windows for some lovely views.
Galata tower opening times: open every day from 9am – 8:30pm.
Cross the Galata Bridge
If you haven’t walked the Galata bridge, you haven’t really seen Istanbul. The Galata bridge is quite a symbolic part of the city as it connects the imperial and the modern side of Istanbul.
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.
The fish caught on the day will be sold to the boats beneath the bridge. The men on the boats will grill the fish for Balik Ekmek, the iconic fish sandwich.
As one of the things to do in Istanbul, take a walk underneath the bridge to have a lovely view of the city. You might even want to sit at one of the restaurants lining the bridge during the summer. Though it might not be as appealing in colder months.
Explore the Funky Karaköy
Out of all the sights to see in Istanbul, visiting this area is what makes the ancient Istanbul city so exciting. Old converted warehouses along the harbourside will soon lead you into the narrow streets filled with hipster cafes, restaurants, museums and lively nightlife.
Despite the new swanky establishments, the older bakeries and family businesses seem to be doing just fine. Spend an afternoon in Istanbul Modern for a dose of contemporary art or pop into Ottoman-era Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı.
Here is where you should try the flakiest Turkish baklava in town. Head to Karaköy Güllüoğlu and join the hungry crowds for the ultimate sweet tooth experience in Istanbul.
Traditional sightseeing in Istanbul is incredible but seeking out quirky and unusual things in this city shouldn’t be left off your itinerary either.
Unusual Istanbul Attractions
Unusually sounding Istanbul attractions such as the Bulgarian Iron Church and Miniatürk caught our attention instantly. If you too are looking for unusual sights in Istanbul, save the below recommendations on your map.
Bulgarian Iron Church
After the original wooden structure burnt down, the current, neo-Gothic style basilica was constructed entirely out of prefabricated cast iron. The Bulgarian St Stephen’s church is one of the world’s few surviving prefabricated cast-iron churches.
It’s a fair walk from the central area of Istanbul, but you get to walk along the peaceful waterfront most of the way.
Address: Merkez Mahallesi, Abide-i Hürriyet Cd No:70, 34381 Şişli/Fatih/İstanbul.
Magical Miniatürk – Turkey Has Shrunk!
Did you know that there is a model village in Istanbul? It’s impressive, well built and easy to navigate.
This one and only miniature park in the country brings together all the significant landmarks to one place, including the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. It’s like taking a great road trip through Turkey! We spent a lot of time in this open-air theme park.
To have a better idea of the scale of the models, check out this short, two-minute video. You can also watch it on our YouTube channel. Don’t forget to like and subscribe!
How to get to Miniatürk: buses nr 36T or 38T go directly to Miniatürk from Taksim Square or a taxi costs around 50TL from the centre.
Address: Sütlüce Mahallesi, İmrahor Cd. 7/1, 34445 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
Miniatürk opening hours: 9 am – 7 pm in summer, 9 am – 5:30 pm during winter months.
Download this article as a self-guided walking tour on your smartphone.
Check out our Istanbul City walk on gpsmycity.com
Things to Do in Istanbul Away from the City Centre
Maiden’s Tower (Kizkulesi Tower) is another great spot for panoramic 360-degree views of Istanbul. It was originally built in the 5th century as a water surveillance tower.
The locals say that the name comes from a legend. And so it is said that the Byzantine emperor locked his beloved daughter in the tower to protect her from her own fate, a deadly snake bite.
Even though the tower was surrounded by water, she could not escape her destiny. The snake, unsuspectingly, was brought in a fruit basket as a birthday gift by the emperor himself. Sneaky!
To get to Maiden’s Tower, take one of the shuttle boats from Kabatas going to Uskudar. You can buy your boat tickets (20TL) at the pier booth.
Maiden’s Tower opening hours: open every day between 9:15 am – 6:30 pm.
If you are looking for unique attractions in Istanbul, you should definitely head to Panorama 1458 Historic Museum.
Inside the museum there is a panoramic thirty-eight-meter diameter painting, depicting the battle of Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquering Istanbul in 1453.
Panorama 1458 opening hours: the museum is open every day from 9 am – 6 pm.
Address: Merkez Efendi Mahallesi, Topkapı Kültür Parkı, 34015 Zeytinburnu/İstanbul
Read more: Why it’s easy to fall in love with Turkey.
Day Trips From Istanbul
If you have any time to spare during your Istanbul city break, the Princes’ islands offer a nice day trip from Istanbul. The archipelago consists of a chain of 9 islands, 4 of which (Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinaliada) are open to visitors.
Vehicles are not permitted on the islands making them a perfect getaway from the buzzing streets of Istanbul.
To reach the islands, take one of the speedy domestic ferries from Sirkeci and Kabatas districts on the European side. To beat the crowds, try getting the earliest boat possible. You can check the ferry timings and prices here.
Alternatively, you can get your round-trip ferry tickets to Princes Islands here.
Spend a Day on Istanbul’s Asian Side
Ok, so this is not exactly a day trip from Istanbul, but it feels like it! An extra day on your Istanbul city break itinerary will give you a great opportunity to visit the Asian side of Istanbul. Often neglected by visitors, it has a lot to offer from cosy cafes to the great food scene and the former sultan’s summer residence.
Enjoy Üsküdar, Kadıköy and buzzing Yeldeğirmeni, the hip neighbourhood. Maybe pop into the bar street locally known as Barlar Sokak and mingle with the locals?
To get to the Asian side, get a ferry to Üsküdar from Beşiktaş or a ferry to Kadıköy from Kabataş, Karaköy or Eminönü.
Eat Your Way Through Istanbul
The final and the most delicious thing to do in Istanbul is – as you have already guessed from the title – eat. Turkish food.
Popular across the globe, Turkish cuisine is a melting pot of intoxicating spices and exotic flavours. And it stretches far beyond the usual doner kebab. Thus, the only way to find out what Turkish food is like is to try as much as you can on your trip to Istanbul.
The restaurants in Istanbul serve top-class dishes at very reasonable prices and street food – which is perfectly safe to eat – is not to be sniffed at too. The locals take great pride in their culture, including food, and therefore it’s unlikely to come across a really bad restaurant in Istanbul.
But if you want to be fully prepared, we have a list of top 8 affordable restaurants in Istanbul that you don’t want to miss. We reveal our top secrets in our Where to Eat in Istanbul guide. Enjoy.
How to Get to Your Accommodation From the Airport?
Most likely, you will be flying to Istanbul (Atatürk) Airport. From here you have 3 main options:
Get a taxi. Depending on your destination, a taxi will set you back 45TL and up.
Metro/tramway. We ditched the taxi option and took the metro from the airport. Even though it took us around 1 hour, the ride was enjoyable and easy.
To get to the central (downtown) area or Galata, take the M1a (red line) going to Yenikapı. At Zeytinburnu change to the metro to T1 tram going to Kabataş (blue line). This route goes right through the old town area.
Havataş shuttle bus. This is a good option if you are on a budget. The shuttle buses can be found outside the airport and cost 11TL per journey. But beware that the drop off point is the Taksim area (The Point Hotel) so it might not be that convenient if you are staying in the old town.
How Easy is it to Get Around Istanbul?
What makes Istanbul city break great, on top all the things we mentioned above, is also the ease of getting around. If we can, we prefer walking and finding our own way and we found the city 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.
There’s a downloadable Istanbul Metro map here.
How to buy tram/metro tickets in Istanbul. The best thing to do is to buy Istanbulkart which you can use on metro, trams, and buses. You can purchase the top-up card for 6TL at the vending machines placed at the stations or newspaper stands.
If you don’t have the exact amount, the machine will not give you your change. Instead, it will add the remaining amount as travel credit to your card.
Buses can get pretty crowded but are another good way of getting around Istanbul. The stops are announced on the screen making it easy to know when to get off. Although sometimes there can be a slight delay so be vigilant, we missed the Miniatürk stop.
Bus fare is 2.50TL per journey.
Taxis are abundant in Istanbul and not too expensive at 2.50TL per km with the meter starting at 4TL. As in most places, avoid drivers without a meter and always have smaller change. Otherwise, you’ll have to look for a place to change your notes to pay for your journey.
Where to Stay in Istanbul? What are the Best Places?
If you want to be close to the local life and buzz of Istanbul, try Airbnb accommodation in Beyoglu and Taksim. We stayed in an apartment block in Akyol Sokak.
While we found our particular street way too noisy for our liking, we were only 5 minutes away from the famous Taksim square, cosy cafes, and restaurants.
If you are planning to have a short break in Istanbul and prefer staying in the old town, then the Empress Zoe Hotel might be one of the best places to stay in Istanbul. This beautifully decorated Turkish townhouse is conveniently located near the major interest points of Istanbul.
For a luxury stay in Istanbul, check out the Istanbul Place Apartments. This stylish place offers 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments as well as a loft studio with panoramic views of historic Istanbul.
Otherwise, follow the link to check the many other fabulous hotels in Istanbul.
When is the Best Time to Visit Istanbul?
We visited in November and thought it was a great time to visit Istanbul. Cheaper accommodation and less crowded touristy areas definitely added to the whole experience. The queues for the main attractions were minimal.
Weather-wise it was slightly chilly but sunny. If you are planning to travel to Istanbul from northern Europe, November should feel pretty mild to you at 14C to 20C in the daytime.
Is it Safe to Visit Istanbul?
A lot of people asked us this question. Personally to us, 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 haven’t seen elsewhere.
Bad and unfortunate things can happen anywhere and 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 in the world and we will no doubt return for another extended Istanbul city break.
Download this article as a self-guided walking tour on your smartphone.
Check out our Istanbul City walk on gpsmycity.com
Have you visited Istanbul? What was your highlight? Planning to go? Please drop any questions or thoughts in the comments below…