I have recently spent a week in Istanbul and what made this trip so special was that it also was my second time flying since the start of the pandemic so I did spent a lot of time looking forward to this trip. It also was my first time visiting Turkey and it is always exciting to visit a new country.
But first of all, Istanbul is an incredible city and a week was definitely not enough to see everything! There is so much to see and do in this city that even a month would probably not be enough. Anyway, here are some of the 13 best things to do in Istanbul.
Planning a trip to Istanbul?
Find the cheapest flights with Skyscanner. Or book with Turkish Airlines directly, from a lot of cities you can actually fly to Istanbul for pretty cheap (I paid €130 for a return flight from Amsterdam with Turkish Airlines).
Looking for accommodation? Check out Booking.com for the best hotel deals or Hostelworld for a huge selection of hostels. I stayed at Cheers Hostel in Istanbul, which was pretty fun.
1. Visit Hagia Sophia Mosque
Hagia Sophia is located in the Sultanahmet district, just opposite of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque). It was built in the sixth century, originally as a Christian church. Later on, in 1453 it was repurposed into a mosque and then became a museum in 1935. As of recently, 2020 to be precise, Hagia Sophia was converted back into a mosque.
Hagia Sophia is free to visit for tourists and I highly recommend you do so, if you are travelling to Istanbul, as it is one of the most impressing buildings from both the inside and outside.
2. Go on a Free Walking Tour
A walking tour is always a great way to get a good first impression of a city and learn some background information about the most popular attractions. Having a local tour guide show you around their city is one of the best things to do in Istanbul when you first arrive. And like in any big city, Istanbul has many free walking tours to offer.
Most of the free walking tours will take you around the most touristy area, which is Sultanahmet neighbourhood. But there are also walking tours in Taksim, Galata or other areas of Istanbul.
Most walking tours take around 2.5 to 3 hours and while they are free, a tip to the tour guide of course is expected. Compare walking tours in Istanbul.
3. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest markets in the world and even if you are not planning on buying anything, absolutely still worth a visit. It covers around 30,700 square metres and includes more than 4000 shops.
Here you can find a wide variety of shops selling anything from spices to clothing items to bags to lamps or carpets. While you can probably find most of these items in other places and markets in Istanbul as well and they might be a little cheaper there, the Grand Bazaar is probably one of the most unique shopping locations.
It is also a common practise that when you start talking to the shop owners, they will offer you tea and invite you inside their store. Also, they will ask you where you are from, not only to know in which language to communicate but also to see how high to probably set their first price suggestion as you will have to bargain at the Grand Bazaar. Unless of course you see fixed prices written down.
The bazaar is located in the district of Faith, just a walk away from Sultanahmet or Sirceki. There are multiple entrances and exits all around the Grand Bazaar so you can enter it from any side you are arriving to.
4. Egyptian Spice Bazaar
While the Grand Bazaar is certainly the biggest market, it for sure isn’t the only bazaar in Istanbul that is worth a visit. Like the name suggests, you will be able to find a variety of spices but not only that, head to the Egyptian spice bazaar for a selection of teas, nuts, Turkish delight or dried fruit. And also around the entrances to the bazaar you can find countless shops selling anything your heart desires.
The bazaar is located in the Eminönu quarter within the Faith district, just a short walk away from the ferry station or the Galata bridge.
5. Taksim Square
Taksim square is also located on the European side of Istanbul, however, compared to the spice or Grand Bazaar it is located on the other site of the Galata bridge. The square can easily be reached by metro from Sultanahmet neighbourhood and the whole Faith district but also walking is possible.
It is a popular spot for both tourists and locals and in the area you can find a wide selection of bars, restaurants, shops and hotels. There is large and modern shopping street leading to the square where you can find Turkish as well as international brands. There is also an old tram that makes its way through the shopping street and ends at Taksim square.
6. Galata Tower
The Galata tower is located in the Galata area and was built in 1348, which makes it one of the oldest towers in the world. It is also one of the highest towers in the city and if you choose to visit the observatory you will be rewarded with some of the most stunning views of Istanbul.
The tower is open to visitors every day of the week and the entrance fee is 100 Turkish Liras (about € 6.75).
7. Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or also known as the blue mosque, is located right next to Hagia Sophie mosque. The blue mosque, however, is much younger and was constructed between 1609 and 1616. It is one one of only five mosques in Istanbul that have six minarets.
You can visit the mosque outside of prayer times and it is free to do so. However, when I visited in November 2021 the mosque was under construction so I did not get so see the full picture of how pretty it would look like from the inside.
8. Istanbul Archaeology museum
You can find the museum near Topkapı palace next to Gülhane park. Entry to the museum is 60 Turkish Lira (around €4.15) and with that you will get access to the three museums: Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient and the museum of Islamic Art. A visit to the archaeological museum would also be included when you decide on purchasing the Istanbul museum pass.
Üsküdar is a district located on the Asian side of Istanbul, right by the Bosphoros. Like anywhere in Istanbul you can find a lot of beautiful mosques, but the best part of Üsküdar is its long promenade by the water. You can go for a walk along the Bosphoros and spot attractions such as the Galata tower on the European side from the Asian side of Istanbul.
Getting to Üsküdar is really easy. You can simply take a ferry or, even easier, take the Marmaray metro, which connects Asia and Europe. If you get in at Sirceki it is only one stop and only takes a couple of minutes to get to Üsküdar.
Similar to Üsküdar, Kadiköy district is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. There are busses running between the two districts but you can also walk it. I walked, but it wasn’t the most straightforward walk so it took me a while, but if you have the time it is nice to also walk through some areas and don’t see many tourists for a little bit.
In Kadiköy you can find restaurants, stores, bars, markets and much more. There is a ferry station and you can easily get to Kadiköy by taking the ferry from Eminönu.
11. Take a ferry ride
Of course you can also take a proper boat ride along the Bosphoros but if you do not have enough time but still want to see the city from the water, a ferry ride is the perfect solution. Tickets are really affordable and you can also just use your Istanbul card if you have one.
12. Topkapı Palace
Back in the 15th and 16th century Ottoman sultans used to reside at Topkapı palace. It consists of four main courtyards and a lot of smaller buildings. After the end of the Ottoman empire in 1923, the palace was transformed into a museum.
Entrance to the palace is 150 Turkish Liras (around € 10).
13. Look at all the Cats
Of course seeing stray cats is always pretty sad but it is still fascinating to see cats running around everywhere. I’ve seen cats in book stores, restaurants or trees, which is really fun to watch for any cat lover out there.
In the tourist spots that I visited most of the cats seemed well fed and I saw people feeding and petting them or little houses put out for them on the street. However, sometimes there were cats around that did not seem as well taken care of and I assume in some less busy areas this will also be the case.
And this concludes some of the best things to do in Istanbul. Of course there is much more to do and some activities would be equally as great or even better but I can only talk about things I have visited myself. Have you been to Istanbul? If so, what is your favourite thing about the city?
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