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Destination Turkey: top 10 things to do in Istanbul

Our first impressions of Istanbul? A melting pot of… everything. Istanbul is the only city in the world connected by two continents (Europe and Asia), making it a unique spot where traditions mingle with modern trends and the old blends with the new. Istanbul acts as a bridge between East and West. So, where do you start when you want to discover this bustling, energetic city? Here are our top 10 things to do in Istanbul.

1. Do the must do’s first

You’ve must have seen hundreds of pictures of the amazing Blue Mosque, the magnificent Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sophia) and the fabulous Topkapi Palace… Visiting these iconic sites is an essential part of experiencing Istanbul.

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Luckily, Istanbul makes it easy to discover these sites as they are all situated in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city. While you may not see much of Turkish life here, it is a must-visit! Plan at least one or two days to explore these sites as there is a lot to see and admire. Trust us, you’ll be blown away!

Tip: Since you’re in the neighborhood, head west to explore the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.

It counts 61 covered walking street and over 3.000 shops, a dream for shopaholics (or a nightmare, you might get a shopping overdose or feel frustrated for not being able to visit all the shops, it’s really impossible). Haggling of course is a must if you want to buy something, so be prepared to spent quite some time in the bazaar if you actually plan to do some real shopping instead of just looking.

The Bazaar attracts nearly half a million visitors a day, so you might find it bit too busy. If so, there are other – smaller – bazaars to discover. Especially the Spice Bazaar (or Egyptian Bazaar) is a fantastic place to soak up the typical Bazaar-atmosphere.

2. See a stone cry

Istanbul cistern

Ever seen a stone column cry? Head down to Basilica Cistern – also known as the sunken palace or sunken cistern – and marvel at this little wonder.

Although the Basilica Cistern may not be one of Istanbul’s hidden gems (expect to wait in line to get in), it often gets overshadowed by the fame of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Surprisingly, only a few people know about this magical underground world.

What’s it all about? The Basilica Cistern is an underground pool, even inhabited by fish! It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul. Built by the Romans in the 6th century to provide drinking water for the city, it was forgotten for centuries until a Frenchman rediscovered it in the 1500s.

The underground water palace is one of the city’s most atmospheric sites. With 336 pillars, two of which are adorned with the carved head of Medusa, it exudes a mysterious aura. The Crying Column, another intriguing feature, appears as though it’s shedding tears when wet. It is believed to be erected in remembrance of the slaves who died during the construction of the Great Basilica.

Trivia: Did you know the Basilica Cistern was featured in the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”, released in 1963, you can have a look at the scene here.

3. Indulge in local cuisine

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While the fish restaurants under the Galata Bridge offer an excellent view, if you’re eager to try what the locals eat during a stroll around town, you must visit the Eminönü fish sandwich boats.

Located at the foot of the Galata Bridge, in front of the Spice Bazaar, these boats have been serving fish sandwiches for ages. A traditional bread filled with fish, green salad, and onion, the sandwiches taste fantastic. Despite the pleasant chaos on the boats, it’s a unique experience, and it’s probably one of the cheapest meals you’ll ever have.

Speaking of fish, the Galata Bridge is a popular fishing spot for locals. From morning till evening, you’ll see dozens of men fishing, chatting, and patiently waiting for a big catch.

4. Get ready for some serious steaming

Going to a Haman in Istanbul is an unforgettable experience, so get over the embarrassment of being naked in front of other people (mostly the men and woman have separate rooms and/or visiting hours, so why should you even care?). Be prepared for some serious steaming, washing and relaxing sessions.

Istanbul has quit a few traditional and historical Hamans, and we happened to stumble upon two of the most fancy Hamans in the city:

The Haseki Hurrem Sultan Haman, built by the legendary Ottoman architect Sinan in 1556. After being a Haman, a prison (!), a storage room for paper and oil and a carpet bazaar, it recently got renovated into a luxurious Haman, with 160 gold-plated bath bowls.

The Kiliç Ali Pasa Haman, also built by Sinan. It has a dome that is 14 meters in diameter and 17 meters in height.

5. Visit two continents in one day

Istanbul cruise

Here’s your chance to set foot on two different continents in one day. Istanbul is the only city in the world that lies on two continents, and they’ve made it really easy to jump from one continent to the other.  Just hop on one of the Bosphorus-boats, sit back, relax and enjoy the cruise.
Taking a cruise is a fantastic way to have a new perspective on the city, and when arriving on the Asian side, you’ll immediately noticed the difference between the two sides (the Asian side is definitely more traditional, and, well, more Asian of course).

There are a lot of companies offering cruises on the Bosphorus (some of them with dinner and a show), but we went for short and simple and cruised with Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s official ferry company. It offers three great Bosphorus tours: Short Circle Bosphorus Cruise, Full Bosphorus Cruise and the Full Bosphorus Cruise by Night (the availability of these tours changes according to the season, check out the website). You can find the Şehir Hatları Bosphorus lines on the left docks of Eminönü when coming off the Galata Bridge.

6. Ecape the city

Istanbul can be a bustling and lively city, but if you’re in need of some peace and tranquility (and if you have enough time, this can be a day trip done right), consider visiting the Princes’ Islands. These islands form a chain of nine small islands located in the Sea of Marmara and were historically used as places of exile.

Today, the islands have become a popular retreat for relaxation, offering a unique blend of nature and serenity. Motorized vehicles are prohibited, so if you wish to move around quickly, you can either rent a bike (which is easily available) or opt for a charming horse-drawn carriage (our preferred choice, of course!).

While exploring the islands by bike or carriage, you’ll have the opportunity to admire the islands’ distinctive architectural style: beautiful wooden Victorian cottages. Isn’t that fascinating?

Out of the nine islands, only four are open to the public: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Kınalıada. Especially Heybeliada is worth a visit. To reach Heybeliada, you’ll need to take a ferry ride that lasts approximately 90 minutes (be sure to check the timetables for the return journey!).

Pro Tip: When on Büyükada, don’t miss Hagia Yorgi, an ancient monastery located at an elevation of 202 meters, providing breathtaking views of Istanbul.

7. Indulge in Sweet Delights

As if Turkish cuisine isn’t already fantastic (our one-week stay in Istanbul resulted in an extra 2 kilos of weight gain—it still hurts!), the city is also renowned for its delectable and addictive sweets and pastries.

Two of the most famous examples are Baklava and Turkish Delights. Baklava is a Middle Eastern pastry consisting of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey (and it tastes heavenly!). Turkish Delights, on the other hand, are small sweet cubes made with chopped dates, pistachios, hazelnuts, or walnuts, bound by a gel-like substance.

istanbul sweets

Tip: The Hafiz Mustafa 1864-bakery & coffee shop has been around since 1864 (hence the name). But be warned, if you have a sweet tooth, it can be an incredibly tempting and dangerous place—you might end up spending hours indulging in one heavenly delight after another. Consider yourself warned!

And in defense of all the other sweet bakeries in Istanbul, we’ve tried quite a few (okay, a lot!) of them, and they were all delicious.

8. Snap that view

The Galata Tower has served many purposes throughout history: a lighthouse, a defense tower, an asylum for war captives, and even an observatory. However, it has primarily been one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks.

istanbul galata tower

Located in the Beyoglu area, the tower offers panoramic views of the city that are well worth the wait in the inevitably long queue.

Fun Fact: In 1638, a man named Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi used the Galata Tower as a launching point for the world’s first human flight. Equipped with artificial wings, he jumped from the tower and flew all the way from the European to the Asian side of Istanbul. So, here you have it: a historic site associated with the first-ever intercontinental flight.

9. Take a ride

istanbul tram

While not a standalone activity, riding the Tünel can be a convenient and time-saving experience if you happen to be in the Karakoy to Beyoglu neighborhood. The Tünel is the second oldest underground metro funicular in the world and has been in continuous operation since 1875. Originally steam-powered, it now runs on electricity.

Although riding the Tünel is more of a practical choice (since it’s just a short journey), it spares you from climbing the 500-meter uphill stretch, saving you an elevation change of 61.5 meters.

The funicular line connects with the vintage red nostalgic tram, which traverses 1.64 kilometers along Istiklal Cadessi (Istanbul’s main shopping road), linking Taksim Square with Galatasaray and Tünel Square.

10. Conclude Your Day with a Rooftop Cocktail

Rooftop bars have been thriving in Istanbul for several years now, offering the perfect setting to unwind after a full day of exploring the city. The breathtaking 360° views they provide, coupled with a delightful sundowner cocktail, create an unforgettable experience. With numerous rooftop bars to choose from, each boasting amazing views, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

istanbul rooftop

Fancy a night on the town? Istanbul is packed with cocktail bars, jazz cafés, and nightclubs so put on your dancing shoes and show your moves.

The Beyoglu district is where you’ll find most of the action, ensuring you’ll have no trouble finding the entertainment you seek.

Istanbul at a glance

POPULATION

15.84 million

CLIMATE

hot summers, chilly winters

MUST VISIT/MUST SEE

3,000 mosques, 120 museums

Where to Take Photos

Istanbul is a city rich in photogenic spots. Here are some of the best places to capture Instagram-worthy pictures:

  1. Hagia Sophia: The iconic former church-turned-mosque-turned-museum offers stunning architecture and historical significance.
  2. Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque): Known for its magnificent blue tiles and intricate design, it provides a captivating backdrop for photos.
  3. Topkapi Palace: This opulent palace complex boasts beautiful courtyards, ornate rooms, and panoramic views of the city and Bosphorus.
  4. Galata Tower: Climb to the top of this medieval tower for panoramic views of Istanbul’s skyline, including the Golden Horn and Bosphorus.
  5. Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar): Capture the vibrant colors and bustling atmosphere of this traditional market filled with aromatic spices, sweets, and unique products.
  6. Ortakoy Mosque: Located by the Bosphorus, this small yet picturesque mosque, with its stunning waterfront setting and intricate architecture, is perfect for photos.
  7. Istiklal Avenue: Istanbul’s bustling pedestrian street offers a lively atmosphere, lined with historical buildings, shops, and vibrant street art.
  8. Balat Neighborhood: Wander through the colorful streets of Balat, known for its charming houses, antique shops, and vibrant facades.
  9. Princes’ Islands: Take a ferry to these car-free islands near Istanbul and capture the serene landscapes, charming houses, and horse-drawn carriages.
  10. Bosphorus Cruise: Enjoy a boat tour along the Bosphorus to capture stunning views of Istanbul’s skyline, bridges, and waterfront mansions. 

Remember to explore beyond these popular spots and discover your own hidden gems in Istanbul, as the city has much more to offer for unique and captivating photographs.

Istanbul, the magic city that straddles two continents, is a symphony of beauty and enchantment, where every step reveals a hidden treasure and every corner unfolds a tale of wonder.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish author known for exploration of complex social issues and her ability to bridge cultural divides through her writing.

Location

  • Istanbul is located in the northwestern part of Turkey.
  • It is situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, spanning the Bosporus Strait.
  • The city is positioned on the European continent, with its western side in Europe and eastern side in Asia.
  • Istanbul is strategically positioned between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

So there you have it, our top tips for visiting Istanbul. We hope you find them helpful, and if you feel that something is missing, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

  1. I’ve never been to Istanbul Nina but you have totally sold me! This is a great round up with more than just the obvious famous sights! The hammam and grand bazaar remind me a bit of my Marrakech trip and I know I’d definitely gain more than 2 kg given my love of Baklava!

    1. Thanks Shikha, the hammans and bazaar are indeed a bit like in Marrakech. Still haven’t lost the 2 kilo’s, damn you Baklava! 🙂

  2. Super post 🙂 I can see that Istanbul had a very similar effect on you, as it did on me. Of course your stay was far longer than mine, officially envious of that! So that meant that you got a fuller feeling and more time to investigate this fabulous city. I loved what I saw, and isn’t it amazing what a different and immense perspective one gets from the water, when on a Bosphorus boat trip.

    1. Hi Jackie. Yes, Istanbul blew us away! 🙂 We did stay there for a longer time, but we still feel it was too short. And it’s true: when on a boat trip the perspective changes completely, it’s really a must. We also found the perfect blend between traditions and modernness, between old and new so amazing. Can’t wait to go back and if you have any tips: welcome!

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