Istanbul, a melting pot of cultures, iconic architecture and diverse cuisine. With over 8,000 years of turbulent history and as the capital of three ancient empires, the city attracts over five million visitors a year, who arrive to enjoy the many magical things to see and do in Istanbul.
Divided by the Bosphorus strait, the city straddles both Europe and Asia. Joined by two suspension bridges across the waterway, its 15 million population makes it the largest city in Turkey and the fifteenth largest worldwide.
Two international airports on the outskirts offer easy access to visitors from around the world planning to make the most of the many attractions to see in Istanbul.
With an integrated transport system of trams and buses, subways, metro, water-taxis and ferries, Istanbul’s 70 plus museums and mansions, ancient bazaars, pavilions, palaces and numerous shopping malls are all within easy reach.
For that all-important downtime, you can stop off at one of the many coffee shops (kahvehans), tea gardens (çay bahçesis), kebab restaurants (kebapçıs) and Turkish bars (meyhanes) dotted around the city, where you can enjoy some light refreshment, lunch, or an evening meal, while picking out your next attraction to see in Istanbul.
Get the Istanbul Touristpass and save time and money with skip-the-line entrance to Istanbul’s top attractions
If you’re planning a visit to the city, in this blog, we’ve highlighted 25 of the best things to see and do in Istanbul, to help you make the most of the time you have available.
25 Best Things to Do in Istanbul
1. Topkapı Palace, a place of sultans, courtiers, concubines and eunuchs
Built originally in the mid-1400s, this stunningly beautiful palace was home to multiple sultans, their families and courtiers right up to the 19th century. Each of the numerous rooms has elaborate mosaic tiling on floors and walls.
You can tour the pavilions; and kitchens with their displays of cooking equipment. You can stroll the treasury with its religious artefacts and priceless jewellery collection, and look around scores of ornate rooms and chambers in its four courts.
If you want to visit the palace with a guide this Topkapi Palace Guided Tour also includes skip-the-line tickets.
2. Topkapi Palace, Harem section
Although an integral part of the palace, the Harem section is a separate tour that shouldn’t be missed. With its entrance situated below the Tower of Justice, the Harem was the private family quarter, Harem in English meaning ‘private’.
In its numerous sections and rooms, young girls would be educated in the Islamic culture, language, reading and writing, music and dance, how to apply make-up, dress, deportment and embroidery.
All to advance up the social ladder to ladies-in-waiting and eventually, possibly, being chosen as a wife.
On this tour, you can also learn the history of the Mosque of the Black Eunuchs, visit the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs and the Black Eunuchs’ Dormitories.
3. Visit Hagia Sophia, one of the most popular things to see in Istanbul
There are innumerable monuments in Istanbul dedicated to one religion or another, but Hagia Sophia, like so many incredible monuments to see in Istanbul, has, over the centuries, been both church and mosque.
In the early sixth century, Hagia Sophia was built by Byzantine emperor Justinian and consecrated as an Orthodox church in 537. In 1204 it became a Catholic cathedral, before it was converted to a mosque by the victorious Ottoman Empire in 1453.
In 1935 it was declared a museum by the then secular Republic of Turkey, before being reopened in 2020 as a mosque.
Its massive dome was considered the Byzantines most notable architectural achievement, and even today’s architects consider it something of an architectural phenomenon.
A guided tour around Hagia Sophia takes around 1 hour.
4. Visit the Hippodrome, for some time at the races
Okay, not quite a day at the races, unless you can time-travel back to Roman times. Constructed in the fourth century AD, the Hippodrome was once the venue for chariot racing. And in regular use for 1400 years by both the Byzantine and Ottoman conquerors.
Various emperors also used it to gauge the mood of the people, and as a place of mass execution. In its heyday, the racing arena included two levels of viewing galleries, start boxes, obelisks, statues and other adornments.
Today, three large obelisks remain, and the area is a popular meeting place where visitors and locals can catch up with friends and family to enjoy a drink, sample the street food from the vendors in the square and do a little promenading.
5. The Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul’s most photographed attractions
Close to the Hippodrome and constructed in 1616, the impressive Blue Mosque has the largest courtyard of any Ottoman mosque.
It has six minarets, over 250 windows, and a large central prayer area covered with over 25,000 blue Iznik tiles that give the Sultanahmet Mosque its popular name, the Blue Mosque.
As a working mosque and with its popularity as a visitor attraction, admission is controlled to maintain the hallowed atmosphere. It is also closed to non-worshippers 30-minutes before each of the five daily prayer times.
Head coverings are compulsory for ladies, with headscarves being available on loan from the mosque if required.
You can visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia with this Small Group Tour.
6. Visit Galata Tower and take a stroll along narrow Galata Streets
Built in the early 1500s by the Genoese at Bereketzade, Beyoğlu, the Galata Tower stands 52 metres high, and has been repaired over the centuries due to storm and fire damage.
Nonetheless, overlooking the Golden Horn, it remains one of Istanbul’s most noticeable landmarks.
With a lift that carries you to the observation deck and top floor restaurant, it is a popular attraction to see in Istanbul, with visitors looking for views across Istanbul’s fabulous old-city skyline.
While in the area, take a stroll down the narrow, cobbled street of Galata with its tall, pastel-coloured, terraced houses and businesses. You can do a little shopping, take a few photographs, or stop off for a bite in one of the many local cafes.
You can also cross the pretty Galata Bridge, which connects old Istanbul with some of its newer neighbourhoods.
7. The Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir dating back to the 6th century
Located at Yerebatan Caddesi, Sultanahmet, the roof of this massive underground reservoir is supported by 336 uprights, in 12 rows of 28 columns each.
The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I and used to hold 80,000 cubic metres of water to feed his nearby palaces.
It also houses two columns of unknown origin, which have carvings of the head of Medusa at their base.
If out-of-the-ordinary attractions tempt you, add a visit to your things to do in Istanbul list.
8. Visit the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and its thousands of artefacts
Located at Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu Sokak, Gülhane Park, Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum was opened in the late 1800s and is divided into three sections of Archaeology, the ancient Orient and Islamic Art.
Many of the original exhibits are from the Topkapi Palace collection, curated by Ottoman archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey, the museum’s first director.
The Archaeological section features statues and tombs, including such gems as the sarcophaguses from Sidon, Lebanon, again attributed to Osman Hamdi Bey. In the same area, you can also learn the history of Istanbul through the ages.
The Oriental section specialises in artefacts, pre-Islamic art and heritage from across the Middle East. While the third section, known as the Tiled Building, houses an extensive collection of ceramics and pottery.
9. Shopping in the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), one of the top things to do in Istanbul
If you’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy the buzz and atmosphere of an Asian bazaar, think magic carpets and colourful lampshades, and include a visit to the Grand Bazaar near the top of your things to do in Istanbul list.
Trading from the early 1500s, at Divanyolu Caddesi in the old city quarter, this wholly covered market stretches between the Beyazıt Mosque and the Nuruosmanıye Mosque.
Entry is through one of eleven gates, where the winding walkways will guide you past hundreds of colourful shops and stalls.
Here, you will find everything from the aforementioned carpets and lampshades; to scarves, shawls, tablecloths, cushions, jewellery and kaftans, to tiles and ceramics, pots and pans, lamps and lanterns, and plenty of visitor souvenirs.
Most products are gathered in specific areas, making browsing for particular items much easier.
Remember, if you are buying, bartering is the name of the game. Don’t be shy. The shopkeepers and stallholders expect it and enjoy it. They already know the minimum they need to take – what you’ve got to do is find it.
Read also: Where to stay in Istanbul
10. Enjoy a little ‘Turkish Delight’ at the Spice Bazaar
If replicating those favourite local dishes you enjoy during your Turkish holiday is part of your holiday experience, add a visit to the Spice Bazaar to your list of things to do and see in Istanbul.
Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, it is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in stature.
In existence since the 1700s, you will be greeted by stall upon stall of colourful spices arranged pyramid style on display trays.
You will also find vendors selling Turkish Delight (locum), peppers, dried fruits, nuts, a range of teas and sweets, and herbal products purporting to help improve digestion, memory, the immune system, and overall wellbeing.
This bazaar is very popular with cruise ship passengers, so if you want to avoid the crowds, try to visit in the morning or after 4 pm.
11. Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace, where east meets west
Located at Dolmabahçe Caddesi, Besiktas, and built in 1854 by Sultan Abdulmecid as his main residence, Dolmabahce Palace is heavily influenced by the European style of architecture and sumptuous furnishings of the time.
The interiors are a mix of Baroque and Rococo, Ottoman and Neoclassical, with massive crystal chandeliers, plenty of gold-leaf and luxurious French furnishings.
The palace was also the official residence of Ataturk, founder of the modern-day Turkish Empire, who died here in 1938. While here, stroll the gardens with their colourful flower borders, basins and ornamental fountains.
You can book a Dolmabahçe Palace Admission and Guided Tour here.
12. Visit the Chora Church (Kariye Cami) and its world-famous mosaics
Just outside the walls of old Constantinople city, at Kariye Cami Sokak, Edirnekapı, stands the ancient Church of Chora ( full name Church of St. Saviour of Chora).
Thought to have been built originally in the 5th century, the church through the years required some serious surgery and parts of the building you see today were refurbished between the 11th to 14th centuries.
Although originally a church, it was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest until 1945. Then, it was turned into a museum until 2020, when it reverted to being a fully operational mosque.
What makes this monument so popular are the striking Byzantine mosaics and frescoes that date back to the 14th century and depict the life of Jesus Christ through stories in the New Testament.
13. Visit Eminonu Square, Istanbul’s waterside hub
Sometimes it’s just nice to do a little exploring independently, without the time and other restraints associated with organised excursions.
Eminonu Square, nestling on the waterfront between Yeni Camii Mosque and the Galata Bridge, is one such place, where you can take in the sights and sounds of working Istanbul at your own pace.
Historic buildings surround the square, with street food stalls selling grilled fish, and cafes and restaurants where you can rest and do a little people-watching as the ferries and trams drop visitors off and pick up new passengers.
If you want to go native, pick up a ‘Balik Ekmek’ from one of the stalls or fishing boats around the harbour. Delicious grilled fish served with chopped raw onions and salad in a large chunk of white bread. Enough to satisfy the heartiest of appetites.
You are also close to other things to do in Istanbul, with the Spice Bazaar and Yeni Mosque being close by.
14. Have a day on the water with a Bosphorus River Cruise
Starting from the Eminonu Ferry Port, you can just lay back and relax, in between snapping those must-have photographic memories of course.
You will head up the river towards the Black Sea, with plenty to keep your attention during the trip. Around midday, your cruiser will dock at the pretty fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi, where you can enjoy lunch.
After lunch, a pleasant 15-minute stroll will take you to Yoris Castle, where you can explore the fortress and take in the fabulous views across the Black Sea.
Re-embarking your cruiser, you can once again relax as the landscape glides past as you head back down river, to tie up at the ferry terminal.
The cruise is a fabulously relaxing way to split up a heavy trip of sightseeing. So add it to your things to do in Istanbul list.
You can book your Istanbul Lunch Cruise on Bosphorus and Black Sea here.
15. Explore Istiklal Street and Taksim Square
Another great way to split up a busy itinerary of sightseeing. Independence Street (Istiklal Caddesi) is a bright, airy, wholly pedestrianised street, except for the colourful trams that shuttle locals and visitors back and fore.
A bustling shopping area full of modern shops like Gap and Nike, local cafes and Starbucks, restaurants and hotels, you will also find the more unusual, like music stores, art galleries, chocolate shops and ice cream vendors.
You can enjoy just a couple of hours browsing, or a full day, seeking out nearby local attractions, combined with some tourist shopping. You will also be able to tick off a few other items on your things to do in Istanbul list.
16. Ride the world’s second-oldest underground railway
Constructed in 1875, to help traders move their goods from Karaköy up the steep hill to Taksim Square, the two-minute funicular ride starts near Galata Bridge, and the cars run every five minutes. Do it because you can.
17. Take some time out in Maçka Park with its Military Museum
Just past Taksim Square you will come to Maçka Park. With wide-open spaces filled with picnickers, joggers, outdoor exercise equipment, a doggy run, a kiddies playground and public toilets, it’s an ideal place for the little ones to burn off that excess energy.
Close to the park you will also find the Military Museum, a large sprawling building with military displays dating from the 13th century to the present day. It is also home to a military band with various concerts held throughout the year.
18. Treat yourself to a night out at the magnificent Haydarpasa Train Station
Designed by two German architects and built U-shaped in neo-renaissance style, Haydar Pasa was the epitome of Turkish affluence in the early 20th century.
Inaugurated in 1908, the station’s interior is as breath-taking as the exterior, with garlands and trailing cartouches, marble stairways, balconies, circular turrets and large stained glass window.
One of its regular visitors was the Orient Express, picking up passengers from Europe who wanted to continue their journey to Bagdad.
Mythos Restaurant inside the station is still packing in the diners with its nostalgic, sumptuous surroundings and excellent cuisine.
19. Looking for something a little different to see in Istanbul, take in the Whirling Dervishes Show
Held in the Hodja Pasha Cultural Centre, a converted 500-year-old Turkish Bath, this colourful dance extravaganza dates back over 800 years.
An hour in length, Sema depicts a spiritual journey made by the soul as it matures, to God. Before returning in human form to serve humanity on earth. It demonstrates in dance, the belief that everything on earth is linked to the universe.
The Sema ceremony is divided into seven sections starting with a Turkish classical music concert. You can enjoy the dances of the whirling dervishes, the drumbeat and hypnotic chanting as dancers reach a ceremonial climax. The show is held every Sunday at 17.00.
Book your The Whirling Dervishes Show at the HodjaPasha Culture Center here.
20. Enjoy Contemporary Art at the Istanbul Modern
Recently established in its new home at Asmalı Mescit, Meşrutiyet Cd. No:99, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, the city’s leading Museum of Modern Art, was established in 2004.
With its thousands of years of history, ancient monuments, churches and mosques, it is easy to forget that Turkey also has a modern side. The Istanbul Modern balances the scales, with works from contemporary Turkish artists and others on display.
The museum also offers stand-alone events, cultural activities, photography displays, social and educational programmes, a library, café, shop and an in-house cinema.
If art museums and galleries are what you want to see in Istanbul, the Beyoğlu district also houses Pera museum, Yapi Kredi Kultur Sanat, SALT Beyoglu, and other commercial galleries located around the Nisantasi area.
21. Pamper yourself with a Turkish Bath at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
Forget your next spa day, and instead enjoy an invigorating Turkish bath at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı.
Built between 1578-1583 for the benefit of serving members of the Ottoman Navy, the old Turkish baths underwent a major refurbishment in the early 21st century and reopened to the public in 2012.
The process involves being unceremoniously drenched with water before being laid out on a heated marble platform.
Then, using rough mittens and black soap, you will be washed by your attendant to exfoliate dead skin from the face and body, before being rinsed with cold water.
The final phase is a relaxing soapy bubble bath before rinsing and drying. The after-effect is a feeling of smooth, clean, fresh skin like you’ve never felt before.
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is open in the morning for women and the afternoon for men.
22. Visit Aya Irini (Hagia Irene), the tomb of Constantine The Great
At first glance, you may even wonder why you added a visit to this dilapidated old building on your things to do in Istanbul list, but look closer. The courtyard has numerous Roman relics to be examined, and once inside the imposing walls, you begin to feel the aura of history.
Constantine adopted Christianity as the primary religion of the Roman Empire, and this church (Aya Irini) is one of the few not converted to a mosque. Some of the original architecture, such as the atrium, still stands.
More recently, historians have concluded that the tomb in the church is that of Emperor Constantine himself, giving the church greater historical value.
Through the summer months, with its excellent acoustics, you can also enjoy classical music concerts in the church, as a part of the Istanbul Music Festival.
23. Be amazed by the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque
Standing on the third of Istanbul’s seven hills and overlooking the Golden Horn, the Süleymaniye Mosque was commissioned by the Sultan Süleymaniye the Magnificent. It was built between 1550 and 1557 and is one of the most popular mosques to see in Istanbul.
Although not the biggest of the Ottoman period mosques, its claim to fame is its majestic façade and the sheer elegance of its four minarets and ten balconies.
Legend has it that Süleymaniye was the fourth Osmali sultan to rule the city, and the tenth after the empire was established.
Another interesting fact is that many of the mosque complex’s original buildings have survived and been adapted for modern-day use.
It was built as a place of worship, but it also contained a hospital, seminary, soup kitchen, bazaar, library, restaurants and inn, as well as its tombs. Many of which continue in service to this day.
The mosque has no entrance fee, relying instead on donations from believers and those who come to visit.
24. Istanbul Aquarium, one of the best things to do in Istanbul with kids
Whether touring as a young family or an older couple, a visit to this cutting-edge aquarium should be on everyone’s list of things to see and do in Istanbul.
Billed as the largest thematic aquarium in the world, the layout follows a geographical route that runs for over a kilometre, guiding the visitor along a path that takes in a rainforest and 17 different themes that travel from the Black Sea through to the Pacific.
The 66 tanks hold 7,000 cubic metres of water, and contain 17,000 animals from 1,500 species. There is also information on the cultural, historical, architectural and geographical properties of each area, as well as interactive games, films and graphics.
The aquarium also has a large car park, three cafes, a restaurant and a gift shop. You can buy tickets online.
25. Make your final memories of Istanbul with a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise
There are many Bosphorus trips available, and we’ve already mentioned one to put on your list of things to do in Istanbul, the Bosphorus trip to the Dead Sea.
What better way to end a week of hectic sightseeing, than with a relaxing 3-course meal aboard a catamaran or ferry cruising the Bosphorus at sunset.
You’ll be offered a complimentary cocktail as you’re welcomed on board, and drinks throughout your evening are included.
You could be entertained by a Turkish belly-dancer, colourful folk dancers, or background music from your onboard DJ.
You’ll get a whole new perspective of Istanbul’s magnificent architecture as the lights come on in the mosques, waterside mansions, villas, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, throwing their reflection across the water on a star-filled night.
Your cruise will last three hours, and hotel pick-up and drop-off are included.
Book your Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Entertainment here.
So there we have it. 25 of the best things to do in Istanbul.
With its spread-out, multicultural neighbourhoods, the best way to get a real feel of life in this enchanting metropolis, is to spend a little time strolling the streets, lanes and waterfront areas of the places you choose to visit.
Soak up the bustling, laid-back atmosphere of open-fronted shops, markets and bazaars.
Sample varied cuisine in the many cafes and restaurants on both the European and Asian side of the city, and get a feel of why the local population is the beating heart of irresistible Istanbul.