Last Updated on September 12, 2021 by Jim Ferri
If you’re contemplating a trip to Turkey, you’ll find many interesting things to do in Istanbul…
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Whether you come to Istanbul for the culture, the food, or the shopping, or just to be enveloped by its intriguing sights and sounds, you’ll likely be amazed by the city.
Istanbul is a fascinating city that takes you back in time. A very long time, in fact, since it’s been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. During those 50 centuries, it was the capital of two of the most powerful empires in the world: the Byzantine (330 – 1453AD) and the Ottoman (1453 – 1922). Both empires have left their marks on the city, which now blend almost seamlessly into our 21st-century world.
You may stay in a modern, luxury hotel but step out into the city, and you’ll see ancient minarets piercing the skyline. On the street, modern cars vie with vendors selling fruit from pushcarts.
You can enjoy dinner in comfort in a Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as sit on the bank of the Bosporus eating freshly caught fish right off a fisherman’s grill.
If you’re visiting Istanbul for only two or three days, as most people do, forget all the guidebook hype. Instead, focus on these 10 exciting things to do in Istanbul to make your trip memorable. And you can do them all on your own, without hiring a guide or breaking the bank.
Visit the Blue Mosque, One of the Things to Do in Istanbul
Widely known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles gracing its interior, it was completed in 1616. It was built by a 19-year-old sultan who wanted to out-do a nearby mosque and a church (converted to a mosque about 160 years earlier). Today it’s one of the most recognizable religious buildings in the world.
It sits in the middle of a vast marble courtyard that’s as large as its interior prayer area. Visit in the morning when the filtered sunlight gives a spectacular feel to the interior. In the evening and you’ll find its minarets set ablaze by the setting sun.
Whenever you visit, however, be ready for the muezzin’s call to prayer. Blaring loudly from the many loudspeakers hanging from the minarets, it’s a cacophony that will startle you if you haven’t heard it before. You’ll soon hear the call coming from other minarets across the city as well.
If possible, also visit the neighborhood in the evening when spotlights bathe the mosque in the soft evening light. Go to Sultanahmet Square, the former site of the ancient hippodrome, outside the mosque’s courtyard. In one of the nearby cafes, grab a drink or a bite to eat while enjoying the evening view of the mosque.
If You Go:
Sultan Ahmet, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7
Open 9am-7pm daily; closed at times of prayer.
Admission: free, although donations are welcome.
Note: to avoid times of prayer when the mosque is not open to visitors, it’s best to visit early in the morning or mid-afternoon. During May-September there is a sound and light performance each evening, alternating between Turkish, English, French, and German on different evenings.
Don’t Miss Hagia Sophia
Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is the beautiful Hagia Sophia, another of the best places to visit in the city. It is Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction.
Originally built as a basilica (the Church of Holy Wisdom) and later turned into a mosque, it now enjoys a third life as a museum…well, not quite…
Although it has been a museum since 1934, last year, the Turkish Council of State ruled that the iconic building must revert to being a mosque. As a result, oversight of the building was immediately transferred from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs to reopen it for worship. Visitors, however, can still visit Hagia Sophia.
Nevertheless, Hagia Sophia remains an incredible building, all the more so since it is still standing after 1500 years. During those years is has endured countless earthquakes, wars, and fires. It’s also outlived two empires.
Incorporating both Christian and Muslim influences – it was converted into a mosque in 1453 – it’s one of the most spectacular buildings in Istanbul. Its vast dome is over 100 feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet high. The marble floors below it are cracked and worn away by time.
Don’t miss going to the upper level and visiting early in the morning before tour groups arrive. And be careful walking outside since the large stones can be pretty uneven in some places.
II would also suggest that you check with your travel advisor or hotel regarding Hagia Sophia’s current opening hours.
If You Go:
Summer hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-6pm except during midday prayers.
Winter hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9:30-4:30pm except during midday prayers.
Admission: no fee although donations are welcome.
Since only recently has Hagia Sophia been reconverted to a mosque, check with your travel advisor or hotel regarding and changes to the above.
One of the Top Things to Do in Istanbul: Visit Topkapi Palace
Home of the Sultans and the court of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, Topkapi Palace is set in a beautiful park just a few minutes walk from Hagia Sophia.
A series of pavilions renown for intrigue and drama, Topkapi Palace at one time housed 5,000 people, including the Sultan and his concubines, slaves, and eunuchs. Today its Treasury is home to an incredible display of wealth, including the 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker Diamond.
Don’t miss the incredible Harem, a labyrinth of 400 or so apartments, rooms, and halls. It’s where the Sultan’s wives, along with the Queen Mother, eunuchs, and the Sultan’s concubines, lived.
It’s one of the most popular attractions in Topkapi. Although you only get to see about 40 of the rooms, they provide a sense of the beauty and opulence of the place. Unfortunately, you’ll need to purchase a separate ticket for the Harem.
Also, time permitting, you can visit the Barrack of the Black Eunuchs, Courtyard of the Concubines, the Imperial Baths, Imperial Hall, and other areas.
If You Go:
Cankurtaran Mh., 34122
Tel: +90 212 512 04 80
Open Wednesday-Monday 9am-4:45pm (6:45pm during the summer months).
Admission: 200TL (about US$24); admission to the Harem is an additional 100TL). Children under 8 years are free. Note: Ticket booths close at 4:00pm in the winter, 6pm in summer.
Walk About the Sultanahmet District
To get an authentic feel for Istanbul and its people, spend some time each day walking about the Sultanahmet District, the old heart of the ancient city. I found it incredibly fascinating, colorful, and energetic.
On the European side of the city, Sultanahmet is the end of the thumb of land where the Bosporus meets the Sea of Marmara.
For thousands of years, Sultanahmet has always been the city center, and many of its top sights are found here. They include Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and many more. It’s also where you’ll find Sirkeci Station, the eastern terminus of the Orient Express.
Above all, it’s terrific sidewalk theater. Walking through Sultanahmet one day, I watched men having their cigarettes and coffee at curbside chairs and tables outside numerous little shops selling everything imaginable. Further along, I encountered vendors selling hot chestnuts and corn, both meant to be eaten as you strolled.
I passed a woman on a bench knitting while feeding a small flock of pigeons. Around the corner, an entrepreneur had set a bathroom scale on the sidewalk and was charging people to weigh themselves. In Sultanahmet, you’ll quickly find a gaggle of sights challenging to replicate anywhere else.
Visit Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, One of the Top Things to Do
For many travelers, the fabled Grand Bazaar, piled high with carpets and blazing with multi-colored lights, epitomizes Istanbul. It is a riot of color, confusion, and crowds that percolates with the hubbub of any Middle Eastern bazaar.
It was built in 1461 as the trading heart of the 15th-century Ottoman Empire. I discovered it decades ago when it was obscenely crowded. However, during a more recent visit found it about the same as any American mall during the holidays.
With its legendary pickpockets and other elements, the old Bazaar has been cleaned up over the past decades. (However, it’s still wise to hide your wallet while you’re in the Bazaar or anywhere in the city.) Now you’ll even find a police station among the legions of carpet sellers, jewelers, restaurants, cafés, lamp dealers, shoe shops, etc.
Enter, and you’ll find a maze of crowded alleyways. In them, you’re surrounded by locals seeking deals, women in veils, tourists, and boys running about delivering little glasses of coffee here and there. Tiny cafés allow everyone to enjoy a drink or bite to eat.
It’s the world’s oldest covered market, a mini-city of 4,500 shops on 60+ streets with 22 entrances. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.
If You Go:
https://www.kapalicarsi.com.tr (Turkish only)
Open: Monday-Saturday 8:30am-7pm
Note: the shops and markets on the streets outside the Grand Bazaar are usually open longer hours, as well as on Sunday.
…And the Egyptian Bazaar / Spice Bazaar
About a 15-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, you’ll find the Egyptian Bazaar, also known as the Spice Bazaar, in the direction of the Galata Bridge. It’s much smaller and less raucous than the Grand, and it’s a place where you’ll find more Turks buying their foodstuffs than tourists in search of trinkets.
It’s officially called the Egyptian since to finance its construction in 1660, taxes were levied on Egyptian imports.
It became known as the Spice Bazaar in later centuries because spices were the main products sold within its walls. Today, you still find an abundance of spices along its aisles and many other things, including plenty of better-priced tourist knickknacks than at the Grand Bazaar.
If You Go:
Mısır Çarşısı No.: 92
Tel: +90 212 513 65 97
Open: everyday 9:30am-7pm (winter) and, in the summer, 8am-7pm weekdays, 8am-7:30pm Saturday, and 9:30am-7pm Sunday.
Note: the bazaar is not open on all Islamic religious holidays and on October 29 (Republic Day)
See the Basilica Cistern
Built during the 6th century as a huge underground water-storage tank to ensure a constant water supply for the city, the Basilica Cistern once held more than 18 million gallons of water. It covers an area of 105,000+ square feet; go down into it, and you’ll find a maze of Byzantine marble columns and fish still swimming in the water.
If you’re short on time, give the Cistern a pass. But if you’ve never seen one before, especially one this immense, it’s worth a look for the 30-lire entry fee. Used for the occasional movie location as well as concerts, it’s Istanbul’s most unusual attraction.
You’ll also find a little café down in it and (surprise!) a gift shop on the way out. Be careful, however, since the marble steps can be pretty slippery, so take your time entering and exiting. You’ll find it less than 10 minutes from Hagia Sophia.
If You Go:
Yerebatan Cad 13
Tel: 0 (212) 512 15 70
Open 9am-6:30pm daily.
Admission: 30TL (about $3.50)
Visit the Church of St. Savior in Chora
This is a gem – one of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. But, unfortunately, although it’s one of the top things to see in Istanbul, most people never see it. That’s because it’s located outside the “tourist area” of the city, although it’s only a 20-minute / 22-lire cab ride.
Also, unfortunately, in August 2020, as was Hagia Sophia, its status changed back to a mosque. If you are able to visit this incredible former church, it’s best to check with your hotel or the tourist office regarding admission.
With that said, St. Savior in Chora is worth a visit, especially if you appreciate Byzantine art. It’s a beautiful 11th-century church, quite quaint and historic, with about 100 stunning 14th-century frescoes and mosaics that depict biblical images. (Unfortunately, the day I visited, the central part of the church was closed for restoration work, but it was still very much worth the trip).
Leave yourself time to wander about the small neighborhood to see an authentic slice of working-class Istanbul. It’s all relatively clean and slightly hilly, but you’ll likely find its narrow cobbled lanes and old wooden houses interesting.
Take the Trolley, One of the Fun Things to Do in Istanbul
From the Galata Bridge, take a taxi to Taksim Square, the hub of busy Beyoglu, the modern area of the city. All is not modern here, though.
From the square, catch the old Taksim-Tünel bright-red trolley (the T2 Line) that wends its way along crowded Istiklal Street back down to the area near the Galata Tower.
It’s a great, fun ride, much like those in San Francisco and Lisbon. It’s one of the fun things to do in Istanbul that many people miss. And watch the small boys who jump on the rear of the car as it sets off on its journey.
If You Go:
Fare: 5TL (approximately $.60)
Note: you can board the trolley at either terminus: Taksim Square or Tünel Square.
Stroll Through the Galata Tower Area
You can see the Galata Tower across the Bosphorus from the old city and reach it by taxi or walking across the Galata Bridge. Go up to the top for a good view of Istanbul.
After you come down, walk around the streets of Karakoy, a great little area on the European side of Istanbul, where you’ll get a feel for the city’s real life. It’s safe and fantastic; just wind through the streets, always walking downhill towards the river.
When you reach the Galata Bridge, go down to the riverside on the right. You’ll find the bank lined with outdoor grills where chefs cook fish sandwiches (5 lire each) that you then eat at the tables along the water’s edge. You’ll find just as many Turks here as tourists.
After a while, you’ll likely feel you could care less about that Michelin-starred restaurant in that maze of buildings on the other side of the river.
If you go:
Turkish Tourist Office
821 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 687-2194