Things to do in Istanbul: 30 must-see places
Ready to discover the top 30 places to visit in Istanbul? Let’s begin!
1. Topkapi Palace, one of the best places to visit in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace was one of my favorite places I was able to visit in Istanbul. Construction began in 1459. From 1478 to 1853, it was the residence for the sultans of the ottoman empire, until sultan Abdulmecid decided to relocate to Dolmabahçe Palace, which is another must-see place in Istanbul.
Now a days, Topkapi Palace is a museum. It’s made up of several buildings that are connected by beautiful gardens and patios. The 4th patio was my personal favorite because it features beautiful doors, rooms, tiled walls, columns and incredible views.
Topkapi Palace has an entrance fee of 40TL ($2.50). This entrance does not include entrance to the harem. If you wish to visit the harem, you have to purchase an additional entrance that costs 25TL ($1.60) which you can purchase together with the general entrance ticket or inside the palace near the entrance to the harem. We did visit the harem and I highly recommend it.
I recommend visiting Topkapi Palace early in the morning. We visited the palace early in the morning and there were many people already. By the time we were done visiting, there was an endless queue to enter the palace.
There are cafes and restaurants inside the palace.
Hours of Operation:
Open from Wednesday to Monday.
From October 30 to April 15th: 9h – 16:45h
From April 16th to October 29th: 9h – 18:45h
You can book a guided 75-minute tour of Topkapi Palace using this link. It includes express entrance. If you want a more comprehensive visit, you can book a 3-hour tour of Topkapi Palace and harem using this link.
2. Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Just before Topkapi Palace, next to Gülhane park, you’ll find the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. It was inaugurated in 1891 by painter Osman Hamdi. It became the first museum in Istanbul.
You can find several exhibition rooms inside the museum. Among them, you’ll find rooms about classic archeology, Anatolian history, ancient eastern history, Turkish tile and ceramics, etc.
Hours of Operation:
Monday to Friday from: 9h a 19h.
3. Visit Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), one of the best places to visit in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic places in Istanbul. It was built between 532 and 537. From its construction until 1204, Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox cathedral. In 1204 it became a Catholic cathedral, until 1261, when it became an Orthodox cathedral again. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II made it a mosque. In, Hagia Sophia became a museum, until recently when it became a mosque once again.
We were unable to enter Hagia Sophia because it was under construction (I know, I have to go back to Istanbul just to enter the mosque). Hagia Sophia is known for being very beautiful. It is a must-visit place in Istanbul, do not miss it. Of course, there are long queues to get in, be patient.
Hours of Operation
From April 1 to October 31: from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
From November 1 to March 31: from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Entrance fee: 60 TL ($3.80)
Book a guided tour of Hagia Sophia. Includes express entrance.
4. Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) is one of the most important and iconic mosques in all of Istanbul. It’s a must-visit place in Istanbul. It was built between 1609 and 1617, during the rule of Ahmed I, and it sits next to Hagia Sophia. It is known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that adorn the interior of it. It is currently a mosque, therefore it is closed to tourists during times of prayer.
You can book in advance a guided tour of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia + Bosphorus cruise.
5. Take a break in Sultanahmet park
This park is located between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Although there are usually many people, it is a very pleasant square where you can go for a walk. It is colorful thanks to its flowers and gardens and has a fountain and several benches scattered around the square. I highly recommend finding a spot on one of the benches and sitting down for a while to enjoy the view of 2 of the most emblematic places in the city.
6. Basilica Cistern, one of the most unique places to visit in Istanbul
If you want to visit a unique place in Istanbul, I recommend visiting Basilica Cistern, located very close to the Sultanahmet Park. This underground water reservoir was built between 527 and 565 in order to have water reserves. It is located below what was once a basilica. Nothing else remains of her today.
Inside the basilica you will find 336 columns, 2 of them are based on Medusa’s head, a mythological being that turned anyone who looked at her into stone. It seemed like a very different and unique place to visit in Istanbul, thanks to its mystical atmosphere and the relaxation that the darkness and the sounds of the water provide. I highly recommend it!
Hours of Operation:
From 9:00 a.m to 5:30 p.m or 6:30 p.m, depending on the season.
Price: 20 TL ($1.29).
7. Views from Hotel Seven Hills or Four Seasons Hotel
One of the things that I enjoyed the most during my stay in Istanbul, and the one that I assure you that you will enjoy the most as well, were the views. Really, you can visit any terrace, rooftop restaurant, a hotel or a cafeteria and be mesmerized by the views of the city. They are a real DREAM! In capital letters yes!
There are 2 places that I recommend if you feel like having dinner or a drink during sunset with views of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Four Seasons Hotel or the Seven Hills Hotel. We were having a drink on the hotel’s terrace and it was a luxurious experience.
8. Museum of Turkish and Islamic art
I’ll tell you a secret, I don’t like museums. Unless there’s something I’m really looking forward to seeing, you’ll rarely see me inside one. But since these are my tastes and not everyone’s, I wanted to recommend the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. A total of 40,000 pieces are exhibited in the museum, from an immense collection of carpets to manuscripts, ceramic objects, stone, etc.
Hours of Operation:
Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m o de 9:00 a.m to 7:00 p.m.
9. Views from Hotel Arcadia Blue
Let’s enjoy more incredible views! Another terrace that we visited during our stay in Istanbul was that of Arcadia Blue hotel. It is quite close to Sultanahmet Park. You’ll be able to enjoy an incredible view of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque but from a different perspective. I highly recommend visiting this terrace or any hotel terrace mentioned before, Hotel Seven Hills or Four Seasons Hotel.
10. Grand Bazaar, one of the most traditional places to visit in Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar is a must-visit place in Istanbul. It is the largest indoor market in the world. In it you can find a wide variety of objects, from counterfeits from famous brands to beautiful shops selling traditional lamps. It is the best place in the city to go shopping and take home a good amount of souvenirs (if they fit in your suitcase). Don’t forget to bargain. If you do not intend to buy anything, as was my case, I also recommend visiting the Grand Bazaar.
Hours of Operation:
From Monday to Saturday 9:00 a.m to 7:00 p.m.
11. Spice Bazaar
Another place that I highly recommend visiting in Istanbul is the Spice Bazaar. The mixture of colors, textures and smells is something worth appreciating. It is a small market compared to the Grand Bazaar. It consists of wide and long corridor full of spice shops on both sides. You will also find some sweets and nuts. If you love to cook, surely you will not leave the market empty handed.
12. New Mosque
Near the Spice Bazaar and the Galata Bridge, you find the New Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. Despite its name, it was built from 1597 to 1663. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding its construction, as it was built in a Jewish community. This, added to other financial and political problems, lengthened the construction time considerably.
13. Rüstem Paşa Mosque
The Rüstem Paşa Mosque is less known and visited than other mosques mentioned in this post; however, I think it is worth a visit. Some describe it as a mini Blue Mosque, thanks to its blue tiles, but with far fewer people. It was built by architect Mimar Sinan, who died in 1561, before the mosque was completed in 1563.
14. Suleiman Mosque
The Suleiman Mosque is one of my favorite mosques in Istanbul. We decided to visit the mosque very early in the morning, so we could enjoy it with hardly any people. It is one of the most outstanding mosques in the city, since it is located on a hill. It is also the largest and has a beautiful interior. In addition, from the mosque you can enjoy very nice views of the city. Like the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, it was designed by Mimar Sinan. Its construction lasted 8 years, from 1550 to 1558.
15. Sehzade Mosque
The Sehzade Mosque, better known as the Prince’s Mosque, is was also designed by architect Mimar Sinan. This mosque was built by Süleyman I in honor of his son, who died at the young age of 21. It is located in the Fatih district and was completed in 1548.
16. The Aqueduct of Valens
It is very likely that during your visit to Istanbul, you will see from afar or pass under the Valens Aqueduct. This large aqueduct was built in the year 368, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Valens. It was the main source of water in all of Constantinople for a time. But with the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, the aqueduct lost importance.
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17. Fatih Mosque
Construction on Faith Mosque began in 1463, 10 years after Constantinople was conquered by the ottomans. It was completed in 1470. In 1766, an earthquake destroyed the mosque and had to be rebuilt. Now a days, all that remains from the original construction is the main door, some parts of the garden and the remains of Mehmet II and his wife.
18. Discover Balat, one of the best places to visit in Istanbul
The Balat neighborhood is one of the trendiest areas in Istanbul. Its streets with colorful buildings, modern cafes and art galleries have made this neighborhood very popular in recent years. Now it has become one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. I recommend strolling through its streets. You will never cease to be amazed when you discover places with a lot of charm.
19. Eyüp Mosque
Eyüp Mosque is one of the most important mosques in Turkey because it is located over the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a close friend of Muhammad. It can go up to the mosque by taking a cable car located near the Golden Horn. Despite its historical importance, it is not one of the most visited mosques in Istanbul.
20. Hav something to drink at Cafe Pierre Loti
Pierre Loti is one of the most famous cafes in Istanbul because it offers beautiful views of the Golden Horn. It is very close to the Eyüp Mosque, so I recommend going after visiting the mosque. The best time to go for a Turkish coffee or tea is at sunset, as the light makes the landscape even more beautiful.
From the mosque, you can go to the cafe by getting on a cable car or by walking. If you walk you will pass by a very nice cemetery that is worth visiting.
21. Go on a cruise on the Bosphorus river, a must during your visit to Istanbul
One of the most popular activities to do in Istanbul is going on a cruise on the Bosphorus river. I recommend going during sunset, since the views of the city are much more beautiful as a result of the sunset colors. It is a very interesting, beautiful and romantic way to learn about the history of the city. Plus, who doesn’t love a boat ride?
22. Visit Galata Tower
Galata Tower is one of the most emblematic places t visit in Istanbul. It is located in the Galata neighborhood. The tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese during their expansion through Constantinople. Measuring 67 meters high, Galata Tower offers one of the best views of Istanbul.
Warning, there is always a long line to go to the observatory. If you want to avoid queuing, I recommend going first thing in the morning. Although the best time to go up is at sunset, since the views is a bit better.
Hours of Operation:
From 9:00 a.m to 8:00 p.m.
Price: 25 TL ($1.60).
23. Have a snack or drink at Galata Konak Cafe & Restaurant
I have to admit that I did not go up to Galata Tower because when I went there was a long queue and I was a bit lazy. However, on 2 occasions I went to Galata Konak Cafe & Restaurant, a restaurant located on a terrace near Galata Tower that also has impressive views. I highly recommend going if you want to enjoy a good sunset while you have a drink.
24. Stroll through Istiklal avenue
Istiklal Avenue is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. It is the most important shopping street in Istanbul. You will find many shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. In addition, the famous red tram passes through this street. I liked it a lot because it’s a very lively street and very different to other areas in the city.
25. Visit Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace was once the residence of the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Construction cost 5 million Ottoman gold pounds. I will only tell you that 14 tons of gold were used to decorate the ceilings. In addition, it has 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and 6 Turkish baths.
I thought it was beautiful both inside and out and I think it is well worth a visit. By the way, don’t miss the gates that lead to the Bosphorus River.
26. Ortaköy Mosque, a must-see place in Istanbul
Although the mosque is small in size compared to others in the city, it’s proximity to the Bosphorus river and bridge make Ortaköy mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. We didn’t get to opportunity to enter the mosque but it was very beautiful from the outside.
27. Watch the sunset from Üsküdar
After visiting Ortaköy Mosque, I recommend taking the public ferry to Üsküdar, the Asian part of the city, and walk to the Carpet Café, located almost opposite of the Maiden’s Tower. It is a well-known place where you can enjoy one of the best sunsets in Istanbul while having a drink and sitting on a carpet on the floor. We went during sunset and really liked it. To return to the city center, you can take another public ferry.
28. Maiden’s Tower, one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul
If you visit the Carpet Café, you will see Maiden’s Tower, also known as Leandro’s Tower, very closely since it is located on a small islet 200 meters from the coast of Üsküdar. It is one of the oldest buildings in all of Istanbul and has had various uses throughout history. It is open to tourists and also has a cafeteria and restaurant. I encourage you to go and discover the history of this tower.
29. Go on a day trip from Istanbul
From Istanbul, you can go on day trips or visit other parts of the country. If you are looking for a day trip, I recommend visiting Prince Islands. These islands are an oasis of tranquility outside the city. From Istanbul, you can take a public ferry to 4 of the 8 islands that make up the archipelago: Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada or Kinaliada. Büyükada is the largest of all. Once you arrive, I recommend renting a bike and getting strolling around the island.
If you want to visit other parts of Turkey but have little time in the city or don’t really feel like planning day trips, I recommend booking one or several day trips:
If you are going to visit Cappadocia without a tour, I encourage you to take a look at my post on what to do in Cappadocia to be able to plan your visit.
30. Enjoy a Turkish bath
You’ll surely need some rest after visiting all these places. Is there a better way to rest in Turkey than in a Turkish bath? The hammam (Turkish bath) consists of a steam bath to cleanse the body and relax. I’m sure you’ll be as good as new when you finish! I recommend Aga Hamami Turkish bath.
Where to stay in Istanbul
One of the most time-consuming steps, apart from planning a trip, is choosing where to stay. Not only do you have to choose a hotel, but also an area, since Istanbul is huge. I advise you to stay in the European part, since that is where most of the city’s main attractions are located.
The areas that I recommend the most are Sultanahmet, Galata and Karakoy. The neighborhoods of Galata and Karakoy are on the other side of the Golden Horn, but you can get to the center very quickly by crossing the Galata Bridge. In addition, accommodation in this area is cheaper.
We stayed at the Golden City Hotel Istanbul, located in Galata neighborhood. The room was a bit small but everything was very clean and had everything we needed. The best thing about the hotel is the rooftop restaurant, where breakfast is served. There are beautiful views of Sultanahmet and the food was very good. I recommend it!
Tips to visit Istanbul
Here are some tips before planning a trip to Istanbul, Turkey
APPROPRIATE CLOTHING FOR A TRIP TO TURKEY:
Remember to wear appropriate clothing to enter the mosques. Men must wear covered shoulders and long pants. Women must be covered, arms preferably covered up to the elbows and hair covered.
I recommend taking a large scarf to cover your head. If you do not have, in the mosques you can borrow scarves and long skirts. I had to use both because I didn’t have a scarf and had distressed jeans as well.
SAFTEY IN ISTANBUL:
Turkey is a safe country and this is how I felt in Istanbul: safe. I spent a couple of days alone in the city before my boyfriend arrived and had no issues. Still, I always say that you have to be careful in every country in the world, so take basic precautions and you’ll be fine. I highly recommended purchasing travel insurance in case you run into medical issues.
AIRPORT TO ISTANBUL:
Two airports service the city of Istanbul: Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen (SAW). Flights to Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) are usually more affordable but the airport is further away. From SAW you can get to the center by taxi. I shared it with 2 other people and it cost me $10.
From Istanbul Airport (IST), you can take a taxi or a direct bus that takes you to the center. In both cases I recommend taking the taxi right there but if you prefer to booked a transfer from home, you can do it here.
If you visit Turkey, you have to try the local Turkish food: döner kebap, lahmacun, kebap, balık ekmek (fish sandwich), pide (bread filled with different ingredients), red lentil soup, köfte (typical meatballs), etc. I didn’t try many of the dishes because I don’t eat meat but I did eat vegetarian versions of some of them and they were very tasty. I recommend the vegetarian restaurant Cafe Naftalin (Balat).
GUIDED TOURS IN ISTANBUL:
If you have little time or want to know the history of the city, I recommend booking a private tour of Istanbul. Being private, you can choose which sites to visit during the 8 hours tour.
You’ll visit İstiklal, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Hippodrome Square, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and includes a cruise on the Bosphorus river. Or if you prefer, you can do a free tour!
I hope that this post about what the best places to visit in Istanbul has been very useful to you in planning your trip to this beautiful city in Turkey. If you have more questions, feel free to leave a comment or email me. Until next time, traveler!