The magical city where East meets West, Istanbul is home to a staggering number of impressive attractions that have stood the test of time. From mosques that glisten in the sun to bustling centuries-old markets and huge extravagant palaces, there are countless things to see in Istanbul.
The only pan-continental city that lies on two continents, Istanbul is simultaneously part of Europe and Asia. Its train terminal once marked the end of the famous Orient Express, the opulent journey that captivated Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway!
Although the historic route no longer includes Istanbul, it still attracts millions of visitors every year, each one keen to experience the buzzing atmosphere unique to the city. From shopkeepers standing outside their stores and chatting over cups of Turkish tea to vibrant festivals that celebrate the city’s spirited art and culture scene, Istanbul is full of life.
With so many wonderful things to see and do in the city, it can be tricky to know where to begin. To help you make your decision, we’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Istanbul. Add these incredible activities and attractions to your Istanbul bucket list, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time exploring one of the most fascinating cities in the world!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to Do In Istanbul
1. Be awestruck by the Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most important and famous buildings in Istanbul. Built in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. The cathedral was converted into a mosque in the 15th century before it was transformed into a museum in 1935. In 2020, it returned to its mosque status.
Because the mosque has had so many different uses, the inside is decorated with artwork and artifacts from various religions, times, and styles. Keep an eye out for the Byzantine mosaics, which feature portraits of important people from Istanbul’s past.
If you’re feeling lucky, visit the wishing column. The easiest way to spot it is to look for a long line of people waiting for seemingly nothing. At the end of the line, you’ll find a small hole in the column.
The legend goes that you should stick your thumb in the hole and turn it as far as you can. If your thumb gets damp, your wish will come true!
Even if you don’t step foot inside the mosque, the outside is still something incredible to behold. Its intimidating size, imposing towers, and stately domes are outstanding.
2. Watch the famous whirling dervishes
One of the best things to do in Istanbul in the evening is to watch a whirling dervishes show. There are several places throughout the city that put on the traditional show, but you’ll struggle to beat the offerings of the Galata Mevlevi House Museum.
The museum is set inside a restored 1491 lodge, which was transformed into an educational and cultural center in 1975. Here you can admire a treasure trove of artifacts, from calligraphy memorabilia to musical instruments and Mevlevi clothing. It’s a wonderful place to learn more about local culture and how it developed.
The highlight of the museum is definitely the whirling dervishes. The dance symbolizes their spiritual journey as they turn toward the truth of God. It combines four of the most fundamental elements of human nature (heart, mind, emotions, and body) and dates back more than 700 years.
Very few tickets are available at the door, so make sure you reserve your spot in advance.
3. Indulge in a traditional Turkish breakfast
Having a Turkish breakfast at least once is one of the must-do things in Istanbul. This breakfast is inconceivably huge and will probably be the largest, most comprehensive, and most varied breakfast you’ll ever have in your life!
A single-person serving includes different types of bread, pastries, cheeses, meats, eggs, yogurts, and jams, as well as salad leaves, tomato, cucumber, olives, and honey. It’s usually accompanied by various fruit juices and your choice of Turkish tea or coffee.
All this food and drink is sometimes considered to be the breakfast entrée, and a dessert of light chocolate mousse or fluffy pancakes will show up for dessert!
If the accommodation you’ve booked includes breakfast, it’s most likely a full Turkish breakfast. If not, there are plenty of places in Istanbul to try it. We highly recommend ordering one from Van Kahvaltı Evi. This place serves up one of the largest Turkish breakfasts we had in Istanbul.
For a delicious breakfast with an amazing view, make a reservation at GRACE Rooftop Restaurant. Here you can enjoy the classic spread with a stunning view that stretches across the city.
4. Relax on a Bosphorus River cruise
The Bosphorus River is what separates the half of Istanbul that’s in Asia from the half that’s in Europe. When you sail across the river, you’re literally crossing two continents!
The streets and roads lining the river are always buzzing with activity. But taking to the water is a great way to get away from the hectic goings-on and enjoy the bustle from afar.
If you’re on a budget, you can use the city’s official ferry, Şehir Hatları, to cross the river. It will cost less than the change you’ve got in your pocket, and you’ll get to experience both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul.
Alternately, sign up for the hop-on, hop-off Bosphorus cruise tour. It departs from Kabatas Pier and stops at several places along the river. The complete trip lasts 90 minutes, but you can get on and off as many times as you like for the duration of your ticket.
5. Admire works of art at the Istanbul Biennial
Even if you’re not particularly into art, one of the coolest things to do in Istanbul is to check out the Istanbul Biennial. Held every two years, this festival is one of the best international art events in the world and is also hosted by other major cities, such as Sydney, São Paulo, and Venice.
For two months, over 30 locations throughout Istanbul display excellent examples of contemporary art. More than 50 visual artists, as well as neuroscientists and oceanographers, show up each year to display their works and share their knowledge.
From paintings, drawings, and photography to huge sculptures, digital works, and video art, the festival covers every type of art form there is. In addition to the exhibitions, Istanbul Biennial also features talks from major artists, discussions on current major events, and music concerts.
Dates, times, and venues change each year. So check the website to see what’s happening during your trip.
6. Sip a cup of cay
When you need a break from all the Istanbul sightseeing, pop into the nearest cafe and order a “cay.” The local name for a cup of Turkish tea, cay is a type of strong tea that’s served black in small glass cups. Wherever you go in the city, you’ll undoubtedly see people selling and drinking this iconic Turkish staple.
Cay tastes pretty similar to black breakfast tea. It’s a wonderful way to wake up in the morning or to get a much-needed boost in the afternoon after you’ve spent hours on your feet. When you order cay, it will most often be served with a small bowl filled with sugar cubes if you need even more energy.
Everywhere in Istanbul that serves beverages serves cay – even street vendors. And the prices are strikingly cheap. You can sit down to a cup at a cafe just outside one of the city’s major landmarks and still pay less than $1!
7. Step back in time at the Basilica Cistern
A visit to the Basilica Cistern is one of the most unique things to do in Istanbul. This obscure attraction was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I to store huge amounts of water and channel it to the nearby neighborhoods that needed it. Today it’s an intriguing attraction unlike anything else you’ll find in the city.
Step down into the Basilica Cistern, and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with hundreds of ancient Corinthian and Ionic columns. There are loads of fascinating hidden gems to discover here. Make sure you find the two-column bases decorated with the upside-down head of Medusa.
No one knows when these columns were built or why they were designed that way. Use your imagination and come up with your own story!
Not only is the Basilica Cistern a great place to visit if you like attractions that are more on the unusual side, but it’s also an ideal spot to explore if the summer heat is getting to be too much for you.
8. Appreciate contemporary art at the Istanbul Modern
Istanbul is home to a small number of art galleries, and Istanbul Modern is one of the best. Founded in 2004 as Turkey‘s first museum of contemporary and modern art, the gallery boasts avant-garde exhibitions with pieces from artists from all across the country and many displays from international artists.
Here you can admire many different types of artwork, from intricate sketches, bronze carvings, charcoal drawings, and Plexiglas sculptures to movies, geometric prints, artifact collections, and tapestries.
Make sure you check out the in-house cinema. It shows indie movies related to the current exhibitions, as well as films about important people heavily involved in the arts.
If you’re traveling with kids, find out if there’s a child’s workshop running during your visit. These workshops are specially designed to help young ones gain a better understanding and appreciation of artists and their work. At the end, they’ll get to create their own masterpieces to take home.
9. Go shopping at the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the most popular Istanbul attractions, and you’ve got to check it out during your visit. This ancient mall is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It encompasses a staggering 61 streets and more than 4,000 stalls.
Each stall puts on a remarkable display to encourage you to step inside. From colorful dried fruits piled unbelievably high and barrels of aromatic dried herbs to velvet trays of sparkling gold jewelry and wonderfully detailed handmade clothing, everything here looks stunning.
The Grand Bazaar’s passageways are surprisingly wide, so if you just want to experience the atmosphere without getting bombarded with people trying to sell you things, you totally can. The stall owners are often so busy selling their goods that you can easily browse without attracting attention if you don’t want to.
Haggling is a must here. All the prices are inflated as standard, so make sure you get the best bargain you can. Do your homework before you haggle and pay attention to the exchange rate. You don’t want to waste everyone’s time accidentally haggling over cents!
10. Take a stroll around the Topkapi Palace
For some of the best sights in Istanbul, head to Topkapi Palace. Perched high on the spot where the Marmara Sea meets the Golden Horn, the glamorous palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years.
Today, the palace is a gorgeous museum made up of a complex of grandiose buildings, charming courtyards, and beautiful gardens. There are so many dazzling things to see within the palace that you could easily spend a whole day here.
Permanent collections feature everything from weapons, artwork, and cultural relics to religious artifacts, ornate fountains, and precious jewels. Take the time to seek out the incredible 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It’s a stunning pear-shaped gemstone that’s considered to be the fourth-largest diamond in the world!
Because the palace is so high up, you get some great views from the courtyards and gardens that you can’t find anywhere else in the city.
11. Gorge on pide
If you’re a fan of pizza, you’ve got to try pide! This moreish dish is made up of a flatbread with the edges folded over to create an amazing puffy crust that’s soft and crunchy at the same time. The flatbread is then filled with ooey-gooey Turkish cheese before being topped with the extras of your choice.
Some of the most common toppings include Turkish beef sausage, spiced lamb, baked eggs, onions, peppers, and spinach. One pide is pretty large and is easily enough to fill you up. If you’re traveling with someone, consider ordering one between you and add on a few extra dishes so you can sample as much yummy Turkish cuisine as possible!
You can find pide all over Istanbul, from simple street food stalls to fine dining restaurants. Hocapasa Pidecisi is one of the best places for pide. This unassuming restaurant has specialized in pide since 1964 and has pretty much every topping you can think of.
12. Rejuvenate your skin in a hammam
One of the most fun things to do in Istanbul is to visit an authentic Turkish hammam. Unlike the Turkish baths you might have relaxed in as part of a spa day, hammams in Istanbul are a little more intense.
These baths have been around since Roman times and very little has changed as to what goes on inside them. Your experience begins with a quick shower before you have a chance to unwind on a heated marble platform.
When you’re relaxed, your massage therapist will perform a vigorous body wash with black soap and a mitten that’s been specially designed to remove dead skin cells. To close your pores and wash off any remaining dead skin cells, your therapist will pour icy-cold water all over you.
Finally, you’ll get to warm up and relax again with a soapy bubble wash. The one-of-a-kind experience is bizarre, but it’s definitely something you should try during your visit!
Cagaloglu Hamam is one of the most stunning and authentic Turkish baths in Istanbul. At the end of your experience, you’re invited to enjoy a cup of Turkish tea, homemade sherbet, and Turkish delight.
13. Discover your new favorite bean at the Coffee Festival
Attending the city’s Coffee Festival is one of the best things to do in Istanbul if you visit in September. The caffeinated festival is held over four days each year and gives you the chance to try a huge range of coffee from all over the world.
During the festival, KüçükÇiftlik Park comes alive with a bunch of stalls run by coffee bean sellers, coffee shops, and talented baristas. You’ve got countless opportunities to buy coffee beans and grounds directly from the producers, sample pure coffee the way it was intended to be enjoyed, and experiment with all kinds of exciting new coffee combinations you’ve never tried before.
To soak up the coffee, there’s also a great range of food trucks selling snacks, light bites, and gourmet nibbles. If you want to learn more, you can take part in workshops, have one-to-one professional brewing sessions, and attend lectures and discussions held by coffee experts.
14. Have your breath taken away by the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque) is one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring buildings in all of Istanbul. It was built in the early 17th century on the spot of the former Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors to challenge the grandeur of Hagia Sofia.
With its six tall towers and iconic domes, the building looks beautiful from the outside. But step through its doors, and you’ll be left speechless.
The inside of the mosque is decorated in incredible detail. Every inch of the columns, arches, windows, passageways, and ceilings all feature intricate designs that would take you weeks to fully appreciate. There are more than 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles and over 200 captivating stained glass windows!
No matter how crowded the Blue Mosque is, you’ll always be able to find an empty, quiet spot to sit down and take it all in. Keep in mind that it’s still a functioning mosque, so entry for visiting purposes isn’t allowed during prayer times. There’s a sign outside that lists the prayer times, so take a glance before you line up.
15. Soak up the views from a rooftop bar
One of the best ways to relax after a long day in Istanbul is to visit a rooftop bar and enjoy your favorite cocktail while taking in the gorgeous view. There are loads of rooftop bars and restaurants to choose from in the city, so you’re sure to find one that suits your budget and style.
The Seven Hills Hotel has an excellent rooftop restaurant with remarkable views of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Here you can dig into fresh fish and seafood caught that very morning in the Sea of Marmara.
If you’re looking for something a little livelier, consider 360. This restaurant dishes up a fantastic selection of mixed meze alongside creative cocktails and live music. If it’s a bit too cold to sit outside, there’s an indoor section with floor-to-ceiling glass windows so you can still enjoy the view while staying warm.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Istanbul. What’s your favorite thing to do in Istanbul?
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