13 Unmissable things to do in Istanbul – a comprehensive guide

View from Hagia Sofia

Table of Contents

If you are wondering whether there are any unmissable things to do in Istanbul besides eating lokum and drinking tea, I assure you that you will never be bored. Use this comprehensive guide to unique and fun things to do in Istanbul to create a practical itinerary for your Istanbul vacation.

The Istanbul tourism industry is well organised and the Istanbul tourist guides are knowledgeable and have a great love for the city and culture. There are are numerous tour operators offering guided tours of Istanbul and cities further inland.

While planning your trip to Istanbul I would recommend reading the following:

To learn more about Istanbul history, I highly recommend the Istanbul Museum pass that costs 185 Turkish Lira.

The museum pass is valid for 5 days and gives free entrance to twelve of the city’s most notable museums including Aya Sofya museum, Topkapi Palace Museum and Harem apartments, and the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam. The pass validity begins from the date of the first visit and each card can only be used once at each museum.

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Topkapi Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı)

The Topkapi Palace complex was the residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman rulers from the 15th to the middle of the 19th century. It sits on a headland overlooking the Golden Horn and has sweeping views of the Bosphorus Strait and Sea of Marmara. It was turned into a museum in 1924.

Getting to Topkapi Palace Museum

  • Topkapi Palace Museum is located in close proximity to Gulhane Park, Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque.
  • The closest tram stop is Gülhane near Gülhane Park, that is adjacent to the Topkapi Palace grounds.
  • It is also possible to take the metro to Sirkeci and walk a short distance through the park to reach the museum entrance.
  • Entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum and the Harem apartments are also included in the Istanbul Museum Pass.
  • Tickets for entrance to the museum areas are on sale on the right side of complex and cost 60TL for Topkapi Palace Museum, 35TL for the Harem apartments and 30TL for the Aya Irene Monument.

Things to do in Istanbul at the Topkapi Palace Museum

  • The kitchens of the Ottoman palace were extensive and many household cooking, serving and dining artifacts are on display. The extent of the operations to feed the royal family as well as all the people who worked in the complex is mind boggling. I thought I knew what beautiful crockery looked like, but the royal dinnerware of the 18th and 19th centuries takes it to another level. Unfortunately no photos are allowed of the displays.
  • The sleeping and living areas of the Sultan and the Crown Prince were huge for the time, although probably much in line with the size of a luxury hotel room in the modern era. The intricate mosaics are impressive and were also undergoing various stages of restoration.
  • The Harem was the living quarters of the female members of the ruling family and at the time of our visit it was undergoing restoration to its former glory. Part of the palace gardens was converted into Gülhane Park and is still accessible via one of the palace complex entrances.
  • There are vendors selling refreshments inside the complex and it is useful after spending a few hours inside to quench the thirst with a frosty drink. I sat outside in the shade people watching and sipping on a cold water after my excursion.
  • Although many areas are open to the public, visitors are forbidden from photographing certain areas. I was reminded of how destructive tourists can be in their quest for an Instagram worthy photo or selfie while observing two non-Turkish ladies getting inside an ancient tree to pose for a shot! Really!

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The Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)

Istanbul is the city of a thousand mosques and you can hear the call to prayer from most places during the day. The Blue Mosque, as it is known, is exceptional in its design and interior decoration using handmade Iznik tiles, and is one of the favorite places for visitors.

Getting to the Blue Mosque

  • The Blue Mosque is adjacent to the Hippodrome, and across the Hagia Sophia Square from the Hagia Sophia Museum.
  • The closest tram station is Sultanahmet, and it is a short walk from there across the Hippodrome to the Blue Mosque entrance.

Things to do in Istanbul at the Blue Mosque

  • The best view of the mosque is from the Hippodrome where one can see the unique feature of the 6 minarets.
  • The visitor entrance to the mosque is on the side, and they provide covers for anyone who is not appropriately dressed for an Islamic place of worship.
  • One also has to wear plastic covers over footwear to ensure that the red carpets are not damaged.
  • Worshipers are allowed to use the mosque for prayer and may enter through a different entrance than the one used by visitors.
  • The mosque is open for worship but closed to visitors during Friday prayer times and for approximately 30 minutes around each daily prayer time.
  • Visitors are reminded to exercise restraint in words and actions as this is a place of worship.
  • At the back of the mosque is the Arasta Bazaar retail area as well as the Mosaic Museum. The shops here are very tourist oriented with relatively high prices.

Sultanahmet Square (Hippodrome)

  • The square is actually a rectangular area known formerly known as the Hippodrome, that dates back to early Byzantine times.
  • The Hippodrome was used for chariot races in front of the Great Palace (where the Sultanahmet Mosque is now located).
  • Various Roman Emperors adorned the area with monuments looted from their colonies in Egypt. These include the pink granite Obelisk from the Temple of Karnak and the Serpentine Column (Tripod of Plataea) from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

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Hagia Sophia museum (Aya Sofya Museum)

The building was turned into a museum in 1935 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. To avoid the long queues I would recommend buying tickets in advance if you do not have a museum pass. Summer opening hours are from 09:00 to 19:00 and in Winter from 09:00 to 17:00.

Getting to Hagia Sophia Museum

  • Aya Sofya is located on Aya Sofya Meydanı (Hagia Sophia Square) and is within walking distance of the Topkapi Palace Museum, the Blue Mosque and Hippodrome in the historical center of Sultanahmet.
  • The closest tram stops are at SultanAhmet and Gülhane on the T1 line.
  • Taxis and uber also service this area.

Things to do in Istanbul at Hagia Sophia Museum

  • The first church was built over the site of a pagan temple and constructed on the orders of Emperor Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD. It was all but destroyed by fire during riots and then subsequently rebuilt.
  • The second church was completely destroyed during a revolt in the 6th century AD and all that remains are a few marble blocks scattered around in the grounds.
  • The third church was constructed on the same site by Justinian the Great, and was the largest Christian cathedral for over a thousand years. Numerous earthquakes during the time since its construction have resulted in additions and buttresses to strengthen the walls and domes.
  • After 916 years of use as a church it was converted to a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II soon after he entered the city after a long and crippling siege.
  • Structural supports and minarets were added by Ottoman architect Sinan and additional restoration was done over the years.
  • There are beautiful mosaics, calligraphic panes and murals wherever you cast your eye and it is even possible to access the upper levels if you can climb the stairs.
  • The cobalt blue tiles around the altar and the Sultan’s tomb may have inspired some of the tile work at The Sheikh Zayed Mosque as they appear to have similar colors and motifs.
  • If you are brave enough to check out the first floor via the rickety stairs then you will be rewarded with an iconic view of the Blue Mosque.
  • The toilet facilities are in a separate building in the gardens at the museum and there is also a museum shop and café for expensive refreshments.

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Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam

The one thing I was convinced of after seeing every exhibit in this museum was that Muslims have not achieved much in the fields of Science and Technology over the past three hundred years, if not more. Our greatest inventions and innovations came when we were united in brotherhood for advancement of the common good, instead of splintered across nationalistic, political, ethnic and social lines.

Getting to the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam

  • The Museum is located in the former Imperial stables of the Topkapi Palace that now forms part of the Gülhane Park.
  • The Gülhane tram stop is right outside the Gülhane Park near the main gate, close to where the Museum is located. There is also another entrance to the park at the coastal path on Kennedy Caddesi at the Saray Burnu.
  • The Sirkeci metro station is down the road and a few minutes walk from the park.

Things to see at the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam

The museum showcases the scientific discoveries and inventions of Muslim scientists in fifteen (15) fields including the following:

  • Astronomy
  • Mathematics
  • Geography and Cartography
  • Physics
  • Chemistry

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Gülhane Park

This park is located adjacent to Topkapi Palace and is large and expansive with the furthest entrance overlooking the ocean.

Getting to Gülhane Park

  • The entrance to the Gülhane Kandil Cafe at Gülhane Park is located very close to the Gülhane tram stop and the Sirkeci metro entrance is a few minutes walk.
  • The main entrance to the park is adjacent to Topkapi Palace with another entrance in Kennedy Caddesi on the ocean side of the park.

Things to do in Istanbul at Gülhane Park

  • Over the years the park has gone from a near derelict zoo and scary space with many beggars, to a beautiful family friendly urban escape.
  • It was previously part of the palace grounds and has the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam located in the old Ottoman Imperial palace stables.
  • There is also a café serving delicious breakfast and other meals with a beautiful view of the park. The authentic Turkish breakfast is one of the best I have had in Istanbul. Plus it has a beautiful park view.
  • This is a place to relax, breath the fresh sea air and reflect on how blessed we are.

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The Grand Bazaar Istanbul (Kapalı Çarşı)

The Grand Bazaar is one of oldest shopping malls in the world, and comprised of over 61 covered streets and more than 4000 shops and 500 stalls. The market is open every day except Sundays and Public Holidays. The area around the Grand Bazaar is covered in the Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter food tour.

Getting to The Grand Bazaar Istanbul

  • The Beyazit tram stop on line T1 is across the road from the Grand Bazaar entrances on Yeniçeriler Caddesi. Apparently there are 22 entrances in total from all sides of the bazaar.
  • The Grand Bazaar Istanbul is also within walking distance from the Laleli and Çemberlitaş tram stops and is a few minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Museum.
  • You may enter the covered market via eleven different gates, all of which now have security access controls and bag scanning to ensure the safety of locals and tourists.

Things to do in the Grand Bazaar Istanbul

  • I would recommend that female solo travelers ignore the cat calls and attempts at conversation from stall holders or shop owners, unless they actually want to buy something. It always seems like the younger male shop assistants in the bazaars feel obliged to flirt with any woman who acknowledges them. This is not true however, outside of the bazaars where the Turkish men are generally very well-mannered and courteous.
  • The prices quoted to tourists are often ridiculous and most of the items will be cheaper outside the covered market, or in the alley ways around the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. Haggling is obligatory since many shops sell the same thing but remember that the sales pitch can get quite aggressive.
  • The walk ways at the Beyazit gate entrance are paved with gold… not literally, but the entire covered street is lined with jewelry shops, selling both gold, sterling silver and precious stones.
  • There is an Antique market set further back into the inner arcade area of the bazaar where they have shops selling old paintings, drawings, jewelry, books and other items. If you suffer from any allergies please be careful as the dust in the air may cause hay fever or worse.
  • There are ridiculously expensive and  beautifully colored ceramics and tea sets aimed squarely at tourists. The Turkish people don’t drink out of fancy tea sets and believe that simpler is better, so that they can see the quality and clarity of the tea. At most they will have a thin gold or silver rim on the tea glass or a patterned saucer.
  • There are carpets and kilims at the han in Takkeciler Caddesi and textiles in Yağlıkçılar Caddesi.
  • I always stop for refreshments at one of the cafes that has been there since my very first visit to Istanbul in 2000. They have Turkish favorites but recently added some Italian flair with a range of desserts and mocktails.

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The Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)

I could spend hours in the Spice Bazaar aka the Egyptian Bazaar and the surrounding streets and alleys. The legacy of the ancient hans and caravanserais is apparent and many of the old buildings are in use by specific business groupings, making it easier for locals to find what they need.

The area around the Spice Bazaar was also the starting point for the Culinary Secrets of the Old City food tour.

Getting to the Spice Bazaar

  • The best time to visit is early in the morning as it gets crowded by 11 am. There is a distinct section for every class of items as they are organized according to trade or business.
  • The closest tram stop is at Eminönü on the T1 line with a crossing over the main road or via a subway underpass.
  • It is also within walking distance of the Sirkeci tram and metro stations.

Things to do in Istanbul at the Spice Bazaar

  • The Spice bazaar is where my favorite baklava shop, Güllüoğlu, is located. They vacuum seal all items for travelling.
  • My favorite Turkish delicatessen and my favorite tea shop are also located here.
  • If you start in the early morning I would recommend buying a few Simit and Açma from the cart at the Eminönü subway entrance and then getting some kaymak from the cart in the alley in front of the coffee building and have it with tea inside as we did on our food tour.
  • The area around the Spice Bazaar is a bargain hunter’s paradise. If you want to do serious shopping then the Eminönü area, from the subway tunnel stalls where we found good quality clothing items, to the back streets where I got a bargain set of suitcases, is the place to go.
  • The low buildings facing the sea to the right side of the Spice Bazaar are Ottoman era Hans that have been converted to retail space. Each area is designated for a specific trade, making it easier for shoppers to find exactly what they need.
Dolmabahçe Palace gates

Dolmabahçe Palace by Kayra Sercan via unsplash

Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı)

One of my favorite places to visit was the Dolmabahçe Palace in the Beşiktaş district. The Sultans moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in the 1850’s when the Topkapi Palace became outdated and unsuitable for royal entertaining and official ceremonies.

Getting to Dolmabahçe Palace

  • The nearest tram stop is at Kabataş on the T1 line, a ten minute walk away from the palace.
  • There is also an underground funicular connecting Taksim to Kabataş.
  • Taxis and uber service this area but not many taxi drivers speak English.

Things to do in Istanbul at the Dolmabahçe Palace

  • The Dolmabahçe Palace is open to visitors daily between 9am-4pm, except on Mondays and Thursdays when it is closed.
  • Regrettably it is not included in the Museum Pass and visitors are not allowed to tour the palace unaccompanied. You are obliged to take a guided tour and photography inside the palace is not allowed.
  • The construction of the palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecit I and in it’s day it cost the equivalent of thirty five tons of gold. The interior of the palace is decorated in a European style, from the chandeliers to the furnishings.
  • The enormous crystal chandelier hanging down from the ceiling remains spectacular more than a century after it was installed.
  • What I loved most about this museum was the obvious care and attention to detail in every piece of furniture and decoration. From the delicate white marble basins in the hammam to the beautifully crafted chairs in the reception rooms.

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Istiklal Avenue and Taksim

Istiklal Avenue or Independence Avenue, is completely pedestrianised and is the busiest street in Istanbul, if not the country. This area was mostly inhabited by non-Muslims during the Ottoman era and was also the location of many churches and foreign embassies.

Getting to Istiklal Avenue and Taksim

  • Istiklal Avenue and Taksim is serviced by the Sishane and Taksim metro stations, the Nostalgic tram line and metered taxis on the side streets.
  • The Tünel underground funicular connects the the Sishane end of Istiklal Avenue to Karaköy.

Things to do in Istanbul in Istiklal Avenue and Taksim

  • People from all over the city come to enjoy the many designer stores, art galleries, churches, restaurants and nightclubs.
  • The cafes lining the main thoroughfare are notoriously expensive while one can find better food in the side streets.
  • Taksim square is at the end of Istiklal Avenue and is home to the Independence monument. The area is undergoing improvement to the pedestrian walkways as well as the Nostalgic tram line.
  • A few stops on the Hidden Beyoğlu food tour were in the streets around Istiklal Avenue.

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Galata Tower and sunset at Karaköy

Visitors staying on the Northern shore of the Golden Horn may be familiar with the port area of Karaköy on their way to the Galata Tower.

Getting to Galata Tower and Karaköy

  • The closest tram station to Galata Tower is at Karaköy on the T1 line.
  • Visitors staying in or around Istiklal avenue can reach Karaköy via the Tünel underground funicular station. It is a short walk away from the Sishane metro station on the M2 line.

Things to do in Istanbul at the Galata Tower and Karaköy

  • At sunset this place transforms from a commercial zone to a play ground with numerous eateries and red-light district.
  • The Galata Tower is a nine story high medieval tower constructed in the fourteenth century during the Genoese colonization of that part of Constantinople.
  • There are a restaurant and cafe on the upper floors with expansive views over the Bosphorus.
  • There is also a nightclub where visitors can take in a Turkish show. The upper floors are accessible by two elevators.
  • The sunset is quite spectacular and you have a view from both sides of the bridge as well as across Istanbul from the top of the Galata Tower.

Bosphorus Cruise

A Bosphorus cruise is an unforgettable experience and one gets to see both sides of Istanbul from the sea. If you are booking an evening cruise make sure that you know whether it is a dinner cruise or just a sightseeing one, so that you make the necessary arrangements for dinner.

Getting to a Bosphorus cruise

  • The quickest way to take a short Bosphorus cruise is to take a public ferry ride or cruise from Eminönü, Kabataş, Beşiktaş or Üsküdar on the public sea transportation routes.
  • Many tour operators offer longer Bosphorus cruises or dinner cruises and these can be booked at the hotel or online.
  • For the longer cruises the tour operators will provide transportation to and from the hotel.

What to expect on a full Bosphorus cruise tour

  • The cruises are between ninety (90) minutest and four (4) hours long, along the length of the Bosphorus Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.
  • The shores on either side are lined with historical palaces converted to hotels and wooden summer mansions from the Ottoman periods.
  • Depending on the starting point of the cruise the points of interest may include Golden Horn, Galata Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace , Ciragan Palace (now a Kempinski Hotel), Bosphorus Bridge, Fatih Bridge, Ortaköy Mosque, Beylerbeyi Palace, Rumeli and the Anatolian Fortress.
  • The evening cruises and dinner cruises often include entertainment in the form of belly dancers.

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Üsküdar & Çamlıca Hill (Büyük Çamlıca Tepesi)

My first visit to Çamlıca Hill in the Spring of 2000 seemed to take forever. A long walk to catch a bus (129T) in Taksim then what seemed like a bus ride that lasted forever and finally dropped us at the foot of the hill. After the walk up to the rest areas at the top of the hill, a cup of hot Turkish tea and the best simit I have ever eaten were a welcome respite. Later we had a lunch of lamb grilled in an underground pit at a traditional restaurant at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps I was very hungry that day but the lamb was tender and the smell alone was mouth watering.

Getting to Üsküdar and Çamlıca Hill

  • Üsküdar may be reached by ferry from Eminönü, by metro via the Marmaray tunnel, by car, taxi or bus.
  • To reach Çamlıca Hill take the M5 metro line to Altunizade and exit at Mahir İz Caddesi. It is a 10 minute walk to up the hill from there.
  • From Üsküdar Marmaray you can take bus No. 5 to Valievleri and get off at Altunizade Cami / Koşuyolu 1 Yönü. It is a few minutes walk up the hill from there. 

Things to do in Istanbul at Üsküdar and Çamlıca Hill

  • Behind the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Üsküdar is a warren of streets with covered markets selling honey, cheese, fruits, vegetables, traditional Turkish preserved fruits, meat and fish. You can read more about it in the Born on the Bosphorus food tour.
  • The Çamlıca Hill is located in Üsküdar a more traditional neighborhood on the Asian side of the city and is the highest point in Istanbul.
  • The views from the top of the hill are spectacular and you can see both the European and Asian sides clearly.
  • On a subsequent solo visit a few years ago I tried to find out where this magical place was located and one of the staff at the hotel I was staying at suggested a tour that included Beylerbeyi Palace and made a stop on the hill near the end of the tour. It was an overcast day and everywhere below the tree line was covered in thick heavy fog… more reminiscent of the Day of the Triffids than anything else.
  • Since that trip a few years ago the new Çamlıca Mosque has been built on top of the hill and was inaugurated in May 2019.

If you find you still have some time on your hands after all of this then I would recommend a food tour:

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Jasmine Watts
    July 15, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    Never been to Istanbul but if given a chance, YES! I would love to go to this place someday.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 16, 2019 at 7:46 pm

      It is one of the most underrated cities, and very affordable by regional standards. I hope you visit some day 🙂

  • Reply
    Christopher Mitchell
    July 14, 2019 at 5:17 am

    I lived in Istanbul for 3 years, and I can say with confidence that it’s one of the greatest cities on the planet!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 16, 2019 at 7:45 pm

      I have never lived there but live it enough to go back ever so often, even if only for the fresh air, tea and baklava.

  • Reply
    Liz Bayardelle
    July 13, 2019 at 8:11 pm

    Wow! I knew Istanbul was a historical city but I had no idea how beautiful it was! This makes me want to add it to my travel list even more. Great post!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 16, 2019 at 7:44 pm

      Thanks Liz. Istanbul really is stunning. Mountains, sea, beautiful weather, lovely people and awesome food. That’s all I need for a happy vacay 🙂

  • Reply
    Indya | The Small Adventurer
    July 11, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    Wow, there are a lot of gorgeous buildings in Istanbul! I’ve always loved going to museums and anything involving art, so I’m going to have to put a lot of these places on my travel wish list 😍

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 16, 2019 at 7:43 pm

      It seems like there is a museum or historical place on every street so you won’t run out of interesting things to see.

  • Reply
    Annaliese
    July 11, 2019 at 1:32 am

    What a comprehensive and helpful guide! I’ve never visited Turkey before but you make it sound incredible!

    xoxo A

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 11, 2019 at 10:12 am

      It is well worth the trip if you ever decide to visit that side of the world. Fellow travelers have indicated that it is much better value for money than Greece.

  • Reply
    Viano Dee
    July 11, 2019 at 12:39 am

    I have heard of Istanbul but only very few times. The hype about Istanbul isn’t as much as that of Dubai so I really didn’t think it was that great. However, your post has made me realize otherwise. Some countries get so much hype because they are really popular but there are not to popular ones that are just as beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 11, 2019 at 10:11 am

      I live in Dubai and love it here, but Istanbul is on another level altogether. There is so much history and beauty that you are spoilt for choice.

  • Reply
    Melissa
    July 10, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Wow, this post was fascinating and comprehensive. I never thought of adding Istanbul to my list, but you’ve sold me on it!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      July 10, 2019 at 8:02 pm

      I must confess, I love the city and have even gone on a trip a few years ago for birthday so I could buy baklava from the shop in the Spice Bazaar 😂

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