There are so many things to do in Istanbul, Turkey to keep even the most fidgety person occupied. There’s one thing you need to know, however: when you’re sightseeing in Istanbul, you can forget about fashion. Seriously, you need comfortable shoes because you’re going to want to keep exploring!
Your feet will throb at the end of the day, but trust me, it’s oh-so worth it. I’ve never visited a city that’s enthralled me quite as much as Istanbul and even now, after so many years, I still find new places to see.
There’s no city on earth quite like Istanbul; with a history that dates back over 2500 years, you can expect to find plenty of old buildings and ruins here, but there’s so much more to this city than its past. Istanbul captivates me every single time, and I’ve visited on so many occasions now, I’ve lost count.
Of course, this is a huge city – it’s massive – so you’ll need to know the best places to visit in Istanbul ahead of your trip so you don’t end up wasting your time on things that aren’t to your taste. Within this post, I’ll share all my secrets, so you can start planning your time.
Best Things To Do in Istanbul
I’ve stayed in Istanbul for more than a month at a time on several trips to Turkey, and I go back with my husband every winter for at least a few weeks. I’m lucky that he has family there and, being Turkish, he knows the area inside out and can show me the best spots.
The problem with not knowing the first thing about Istanbul is that you can easily get lost and miss the best bits. Istanbul’s attractions are plentiful, but they can also be quite a distance away from each other. That’s why this list of things to do in Istanbul will come in very handy when helping you put together an itinerary.
1. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is without a doubt one of the most beautiful mosques you’ll ever see in your life, and it’s one of the top free things to do in Istanbul. I was blown away by the interior design, but the outside is just as breathtaking. It’s worth mentioning that this is a functioning mosque so remember that it will close (and reopen) at certain times of the day for prayers.
The scenery around Blue Mosque is extremely photographic, but I most enjoy simply walking around and soaking up the serene atmosphere; it’s quite rare to feel that way in such a big city. Of course, this is one of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul, so a guided tour will help you understand more. Click here for more details.
2. Dolmabahçe Palace
One of the most jaw-dropping attractions in Istanbul is Dolmabahçe Palace – a place so opulent it will take you a moment to get your head around it. You can’t take photographs inside, which bothered me a little at first because I’m all about taking photos, however, I was so lost in what I was seeing, I completely forgot about my camera.
This was the former home of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, but it was originally built in 1843 as a palace for the Ottoman sultans. The attention to detail is mind-blowing, and it’s no surprise this is one of the top places to visit in Istanbul.
3. Topkapı Palace
Topkapı Palace was the main headquarters of the Ottoman Empire, and it’s one of the best things to see in Istanbul. Constructed in 1465, it’s one of the most popular things to see in Istanbul. I’d recommend you go as early in the morning as you can as the queues build up pretty quickly and in my experience, they don’t move too fast.
However, once you’re in, you’ll be glad you waited. The gardens are almost as stunning as the interior, but with gold plated literally everything, and amazing views over the Bosphorus, this is a place that will transport you back in time. You could also consider a guided tour. I found this one really useful for understanding more about what I was seeing. Click here for details.
Address: Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul
4. Bosphorus Sunset Cruise
For me, one of the coolest things to do in Istanbul is take a Bosphorus sunset cruise. I’ve been lucky enough to see dolphins a couple of times and I hope you will be too! You can choose a cruise with dinner or just stick to sightseeing, but checking out the city from the water is one of the best things to do in Istanbul at night.
You’ll find lots of different companies offering cruises, but pre-booking takes the hassle away. If you go down to Karaköy ferry terminal or Eminönü you’ll see lots of vendors selling trips but choosing the right one can be stressful when you’re put on the spot and they’re all trying to get your attention at you at once. Click here for more information and to book.
Address: Most tours leave from Karaköy ferry terminal: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Genelev, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
5. Shopping at Cevahir AVM
If you’re looking for things to do in Istanbul for kids, especially on a rainy day, I’d recommend heading to Cevahir AVM. This is a huge shopping mall with stores, restaurants, cafes, and a huge Fun Lab, which is essentially a massive amusement center with rides and games for children. There’s also a cinema for those looking to do something indoors.
If you visit in December, you’ll see the entire mall decorated for New Year, with a huge tree (in Turkey, “Christmas” trees are used at New Year instead), and plenty of fun activities for the entire family. It’s a great way to beat a rainy or cold day.
6. Hagia Sophia
One of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia. Formerly a mosque, then a church, then a museum, and now a mosque again, this is one of the most beautiful and oldest buildings in Istanbul, dating back to 537 AD. Hagia Sophia sits directly opposite the Blue Mosque and the square is colorfully decorated with flowers all year round.
It’s free to enter Hagia Sophia, however, contributions are welcomed. This is another functioning mosque, so remember that it will close for a short time during prayer. A guided tour is always recommended to help you learn more. Click here for more details.
7. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern surprised me in all the best ways possible. This is one of the top tourist attractions in Istanbul, but it’s deep underground, so unless you know about it, it can be easy to miss. Don’t let that happen – this is one of my favorite things to do around Istanbul.
Built in the year 532, it was originally designed to ensure water supply to Topkapı Palace, but it’s so much more than that. The pillars are so intricately carved, and you can even see old statues of Medusa. What stood out for me was the atmosphere; maybe it was because I was underground, but I felt like I was surrounded by whispers of the past.
8. Gulhane Park
It might surprise you to learn that there are many open, green spaces in Istanbul, but Gulhane Park is one of the best and can be found directly behind Topkapı Palace. I think this is one of the best things to do in Istanbul for families because the wide open spaces are ideal for children to run free and let off some steam.
The first time I visited here with my husband it had been snowing a little, and it felt just like Narnia. It’s such a beautiful space with benches, statues, and lots of wildlife if you look closely. There’s also a cafe to buy tea, coffee, soft drinks, and ice cream.
When you’re planning your itinerary for Istanbul, I’d highly recommend a walk around here, for a break from the hustle and bustle of Sultanahmet if nothing else.
9. Bosphorus Ferry from Europe to Asia
There are lots of fun things to do in Istanbul, but I love taking the ferry from the European side over to the Asian side, and feeding the seagulls as I go. This is actually just public transport, as people go from one side to the other for work and general life, but it’s a great experience, and the views are amazing.
Buy a simit (bagel) from the cafe downstairs and throw pieces into the air as the ferry travels; the greedy seagulls will thank you and arrive in their droves. The crossing takes around 15 minutes and you can sit outside, but definitely take a coat (even if you think it’s warm) – those Bosphorus winds can be wicked.
Address: Ferries leave from Eminönü, Beşiktaş, and Karaköy. Eminönü is the busiest port: Hobyar, Reşadiye Cd. No:8, 34112 Fatih/İstanbul
10. Grand Bazaar
One of the best places to visit in Istanbul for traditional shopping is the Grand Bazaar. Built back in 1455, this is one of the oldest and largest covered markets on the planet. It’s a maze of shops that demands at least a couple of hours to navigate but the atmosphere is so much fun.
This is high on my list of places to visit in Istanbul every time because I always manage to grab some bargains. However, if you’re visiting with children, make sure you hold their hands tightly as this place can get extremely busy, and it’s easy to get caught up in the crowds.
Address: Beyazıt, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul
11. Egyptian Spice Bazaar
If you’re on the lookout for some spices to take back home, you must visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. This is another covered market, although much smaller than the Grand Bazaar and easier to navigate. It’s a super colorful place and is an excellent spot for photographs.
Here, you can buy all manner of spices, Turkish delight, nuts, and other treats. It should definitely be on your list of things to see in Istanbul, although it shouldn’t take more than an hour to explore.
Address: Rüstem Paşa, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul
12. Eat Fish at Nevizade
A visit to Nevizade is one of the top things to do in Istanbul for couples, and it’s a vibrant spot to visit no matter the time of day or night. There are many beer places here, but it’s most famous for its long line of seafood restaurants, all serving the freshest catch. A meal with some raki on the side is a traditional thing to do.
While you’re eating, you’ll find musicians moving around the street serenading willing customers. It can be quite loud, but it’s a really enjoyable experience, and although I’m not the biggest seafood fan, I particularly enjoyed my meal at Ney’le Mey’le.
Address: Hüseyinağa, 34435 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
13. Visit Ortaköy
Right by the huge Bosphorus Bridge, you’ll find the Ortaköy district – a fun spot that’s home to food and merriment all year round. You can also visit the beautiful Ortaköy mosque, which dates back to 1854. If you’ve ever seen any photographs of Istanbul, you’ve most likely seen one with the bridge and the mosque together.
A visit to Ortaköy is one of the top things to do in Istanbul, and I always enjoy grabbing a kumpir (jacket potato) from one of the outdoor stalls. You can pile it high with as many toppings as you think you can manage and it’s a famous dish from this part of the city. Oh, and waffles! Don’t forget the waffles.
Address: Ortaköy, 34347 Beşiktaş/İstanbul
14. Galata Tower
I couldn’t possibly miss Galata Tower off of this list. This huge tower has looked over the city for centuries and is now a museum with a small restaurant at the top. The views are like nothing you’ve ever seen before and offer spectacular sights right over to the Asian side and beyond.
If you’re scared of heights, this might not be on your list of things to do in Istanbul, but you can still visit and take photos from ground level. When you’re walking around the top of the tower, it can get crowded, and you’ll need to walk in a single file. If you’re traveling with children, be sure to keep a tight hold of them.
15. Süleymaniye Mosque
You’ll need some comfortable walking shoes to walk up the pretty big hill to Süleymaniye Mosque but it’s more than worth the effort. The mosque complex itself is simply stunning in architecture, and it’s such a peaceful and serene area. The views over the Golden Horn are breathtaking.
This is one of the best Istanbul activities for adults, and there are some nice cafes around the mosque which offer a great place to rest your feet after making the trek to the top. Thankfully, walking back down is much easier. If you want to learn more, consider taking a guide with a local. Click here for details and to book.
16. Çamlıca Hill
Whenever I want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, I jump in a taxi to Çamlıca Hill with a bag full of snacks ready to enjoy the peaceful vibes. Here, you can see the whole city and capture some of the best photographs possible. It’s a real delight in the summer, but equally as beautiful when it’s snowed.
You could say this is one of the best-kept secret things to do in Istanbul because it’s tucked behind Üsküdar on the Asian side, and is primarily popular with locals. I love watching the sunset from here, but even if you don’t stay for so long, it’s one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
17. Go to a Soccer Match
Even if you don’t have a particular allegiance to an Istanbul soccer team, going to a match is one of the top things to do in Istanbul. I’ve been to see Beşiktaş and I’ve been to Galatasaray several times, mainly because my husband is a big fan. And I have to say, it’s a fun, family-friendly experience; I really didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did!
The crowds can be a little intense, and there’s a lot of shouting, but you just have to go with the flow and join in. I went to see a Champions League match, and I had so much fun. I’d definitely recommend catching a game if you can.
18. Eat Street Food
While making your way through this list of places to visit in Istanbul, you’re going to work up an appetite. Now, there are countless restaurants, and you should try as many as you can, but street food is the way to go. For me, Istanbul is the street food city of dreams, and there’s an almost endless amount of things to try.
In fact, I’d say this is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. You can try pide, kokoreç, kumpir, börek, halka tatlısı, balık ekmek, doner, köfte, gözleme, the list goes on. I tend to eat too much on the go and then don’t want dinner, but there are so many delicious treats around, that it’s hard to say no.
19. Rumeli Fortress
Once upon a time, Istanbul was constantly under attack from different armies trying to conquer what was then known as Constantinople. To warn of impending attacks, Rumeli Fortress was built on the European side of the Bosphorus, with another castle directly opposite the Asian side. Today, visiting Rumeli Fortress is one of the best things to do in Istanbul.
The reason I like this attraction is that it’s not right in the middle of the city, meaning you’re already breathing in fresher air. The views from the top are mind-blowing, and it’s one of the best places to visit near Istanbul which is hardly ever overly crowded.
20. Visit Bebek
Hands down, one of the best things to do near Istanbul without being right in the middle of the city is to take a day trip to Bebek. Located down the Bosphorus, away from Beşiktaş, this seaside section of the city feels like you’re a million miles away when in reality you’re only about 20 minutes away from the Bosphorus Bridge.
Bebek is an upmarket neighborhood in Istanbul, and many local TV series are filmed here. It’s a great place for seafood and steak restaurants, but I enjoy grabbing a takeaway coffee and walking along the waterside, watching the huge tankers slowly edging their way along the Bosphorus strait.
Address: Bebek, 34342 Beşiktaş/İstanbul
21. Maiden’s Tower
Maiden’s Tower should be on your list of things to do in Istanbul, especially if you’re visiting as a couple – it’s a very romantic and picturesque place to go. There are a lot of legends about why this tower is stuck in the middle of an islet on its own, but either way, it’s one of the most famous sights in the city.
You can eat lunch or dinner at the restaurant inside the tower, but you’ll definitely need to reserve a table ahead of time. Alternatively, you can take a memorable private helicopter tour over both Maiden’s Tower and Galata Tower, for an experience you’ll never forget. Click here for details.
22. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
The Istanbul Archaeological Museum is packed with amazing things to see, and it’s one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul, Turkey on a rainy day. Here, you can see artifacts from throughout history, especially from the Ottoman period. This museum is part of a trio, including The Tiled Kiosk Museum and The Museum of Ancient Orient.
History lovers should make sure to carve out some time to head here, and it’s an ideal place to visit with older kids too as they’ll learn as they move around the different exhibitions.
Address: Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul
Galataport is one of Istanbul’s newest attractions, and it’s one of the top things to see in Istanbul if you’re looking for good views and food. It’s basically a large shopping center, but it offers the best views over to Asia and across the Golden Horn. It’s also a great spot for gastronomy and features Salt Bae Burger, part of the Nusr-et chain.
There are many events held here throughout the year, and it’s the perfect spot for an afternoon coffee with a view. Alternatively, you can head there in the early evening, enjoy a meal, and check out an amazing sunset.
24. Breakfast Street in Beşiktaş
There’s no better way to start the day than with a hearty breakfast, and Turkey knows how to do breakfast in style. Known locally as kahvalti, this is a feast and a half, and my favorite ‘foodie thing’ to do. So, imagine my delight when I discovered that Beşiktaş has a whole street dedicated to breakfast restaurants, known as Kahvalti Sokak.
This is hands down one of the top things to do in Istanbul in the morning, and you’ll be full up until dinner. My favorite breakfast restaurant is Eleven Brothers and they also offer amazing desserts, including chocolate-covered crepes.
25. Nostalgic İstiklal Caddesi Tram
One of the most unique things to do in Istanbul is to take the Nostalgic İstiklal Caddesi Tram in Taksim. This transports you from the top of Taksim Square, right down to the bottom of İstiklal Caddesi, passing tired shoppers as you go. You’ll definitely do your feet a favor by doing this and will get a good view of the street to see where you might want to double back to.
However, the tram is very small, and there aren’t many seats so you should expect to queue. It’s also quite ‘jerky’ thanks to its age, so remember to hold on tight.
Things To Do in Istanbul: FAQs
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about visiting Istanbul:
Istanbul is known for its rich history and culture. However, it’s also packed with modern-day fun and some of the best food on the planet.
November to April are excellent times to visit Istanbul because the weather is cooler and it’s easier to handle the crowds. It can often snow in December-February. Despite that, Istanbul is a year-round destination.
Istanbul is 100% worth visiting. History, culture, nightlife, shopping, gastronomy, nature, amazing scenery – what more could you want?
While you will be able to see a small portion of Istanbul in around three days, I would recommend staying for at least a week. This will allow you to see more comfortably, without having to rush around.
Istanbul is as safe as any other large city. You simply need to remember to practice common sense and take regular safety precautions such as not walking with large sums of cash or flashing valuables in crowded spaces.
Exploring the Sultanahmet area is the most popular thing to do in Istanbul. Here, you’ll find the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace, and Basilica Cistern. This is the most historic part of the city.
Istanbul is a top place for foodies. Pide, lahmacun, Börek, and Adana kebab are great options to get you started.
Three days will allow you to see some of Istanbul, but a week will give you a better chance of seeing more.
Yes, you can drink alcohol in Istanbul.
Yes, you can kiss in Turkey, but remember that this is a Muslim country, so openly kissing in the street may direct some stares your way and draw some unwanted attention.
Yes, you can wear shorts in Istanbul, however, if you want to visit a mosque, you will need to change into long trousers/pants, or a long skirt.
Istanbul is as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. There are many ways to cut costs, such as eating local and street food, but there are some extremely luxurious restaurants and hotels to choose from too.
Yes, it is safe to go out at night in Istanbul, however, as with any large city, it isn’t wise to walk around on your own in quiet places or show off any of your valuables. If you’re around the Taksim/Beyoğlu area, I’d advise catching a taxi home rather than walking.
Yes, a woman can certainly travel alone in Turkey as long as she takes the regular safety precautions that you would take in any country around the world. Turkey is a very welcoming country, and many women travel here solo.
To me, Istanbul is magical. I don’t know anyone who’s ever been before and not wanted to go back. I hope that’s the case for you, and with this list of things to do in Istanbul, you’ve got a lot to work through.
While Istanbul might not be the capital city, it’s certainly the biggest by far, and I believe it showcases Turkey as the wonderful and cultural country that it is. Yes, it’s famous for its ridiculous traffic, but look beyond that, and you’ll see a city that’s home to everything you could possibly look for in a destination, and so much more.