Topkapi palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul

15 Best Things to Do In Istanbul

Istanbul, with its brilliant Byzantine and Ottoman mosques, palaces, and fountains, the Roman Hippodrome, modeled after Circus Maximus, the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets, and more, all sitting near the coast of the Bosporus and Black Sea, is full of dazzling sights and fascinating things to do. This post covers the best things to see and do in Istanbul.

Visiting Hagia Sofia is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sofia and A Fountain

About Istanbul

Istanbul was once known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, when it became the capital of Rome and the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. Today, it remains one of the largest cities in Europe, something that surprises many people. It’s also one of the largest cities in the world by population and the only city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, across the Bosphorus Straight.

The old city of Istanbul is magical, with it’s expansive coastline, exquisite, colorful mosques and their haunting call to prayer, its opulent Palaces, lovely parks, and its busy, blustery sea, which can be seen from Istanbul’s many rooftops.

Despite all this, its true beauty remains the heart of its people, who are proud, engaging and warm-hearted, making it one of my favorite cities. One I’ve visited twice and will probably do so again.

Topkapi palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace Terrace View

Best Things To Do In Istanbul

The old city of Istanbul, Sultanahmet, literally named after Sultan Ahmed I, is where most of the sites and best things to do are. It’s also the perfect place to stay, especially if you can find a place offering an amazing Turkish breakfast overlooking the Black Sea.

Hagia Sophia 

Visiting the Hagia Sofia is a must-see and definitely one of the top things to do in Istanbul. Once considered the largest in the world, this mosque is not only stunning in scale and design, its history is also fascinating.

Visiting Hagia Sofia is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia

Originally built in the 4th century as a Christian Basilica, it has been destroyed and rebuilt twice. The current structure standing was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century.

Visiting Hagia Sofia is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia

It was an Orthodox Church until the 15th century, when it was turned into a mosque. In the 1930’s it became a museum. During its time as a museum, you could go upstairs to see the ancient golden Byzantine mosaics, as well as a spectacular view of the interior from the 2nd floor balcony.

Visiting Hagia Sofia is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Byzantine Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

In July, 2020, this was reversed and it was turned back into a Mosque. Thankfully, visitors from all faiths can still enter during non-prayer hours, but unfortunately, the upstairs is now closed for renovation.

Byzantine Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

I’m so thankful I was able to see the second floor on my first visit and hope that it opens again soon as it was truly humbling to be in a religious building that honored and celebrated both religions.

Visiting Hagia Sophia

Entrance to the Hagia Sophia is free. Being one of the most popular sites in Istanbul there’s always a line to enter, so make sure to arrive early. Remember to dress modestly. If you need to cover up or need a headscarf, there is a booth selling them near the entrance. At the entrance you must remove your shoes and place them on the shoe shelf by the doors.

How To Get To Hagia Sophia: Hagia Sophia is walking distance from the Sultanahmet Tram Station and Sultanahmet Square. If coming from Taksim Square, it’s at the Sultanahmet stop of tramline T1.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Sultanahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosque

Another exquisite Mosque in Istanbul is Sultanahmet Mosque. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I in the early 17th century, it gets its English name, Blue Mosque, from the blue accents in the 20,000 hand-painted tiles inside.

Visiting the Blue Mosque is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Interior Detail of Sultanahmet Mosuqe

Visitors are also welcome here outside of prayer times and entrance is free. Headscarves are offered for free for women to wear if you do not have your own. You also need to take off your shoes and place them in the shoe shelf inside. There is often a short line to enter Sultanahmet Mosque, but it moves fairly quickly.

Visiting the Blue Mosque is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Sultan Ahmed Mosque

How To Get To Sultanahmet Mosque: This Mosque is less than a 5-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia.

Suleymaniye Mosque

Suleynaniye Mosque, named after Suleiman the Magnificent, was built during his rule in the 16th century. 

Suleymaniye Mosque is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Suleymaniye Mosque

The brilliant colors and details of its dome are also stunning. Non-Muslim visitors are also welcome here during non-prayer hours.

Suleymaniye Mosque is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Suleymaniye Mosque

How To Get To Suleymaniye Mosque: Located southwest of the Spice Bazaar, it’s a 20-30 minute walk from Sultanahmet Square.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is another must-see in Istanbul. This palace, built in the 15th century after the Ottomans took over, was not meant to be ostentatious, following religious theology. It is, however, stunning, especially the opulent harems quarters, which at one time held more than 300 concubines.

At its peak, the palace and surrounding area, housed around 10,000 people. In the 18th century, it became a museum.

Topkapi Palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace Entrance

The rooms of the harems quarters are sumptuous and quite exotic, with hand-painted and gold-leafed ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and fountains. The seaside lighting through its many windows also lends a beautiful ambiance.

The main entrance into the Palace Harem has an inscription above the door from Verse 53 from the Ahzap Surah of the Koran: ” 0 believers, do not enter the houses of the Prophet without permission.”

Entrance To Harems Quarters

The Imperial Hall, which was used as the Sultan’s ceremonial and reception hall, is an explosion of color.

Topkapi Palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Imperial Hall

It’s easy to spend a few hours at Topkapi as it’s like a small city with various buildings and rooms to explore, including the Sultan’s privy chamber, the dormitories, the hammam of the eunuchs, kitchens, libraries, gardens, terraces, Mosques, halls, museums, and more.

Topkapi palace is one of the top things to do in Istanbul

Topkapi Palace is very popular, so it’s best to arrive early for tickets. The lines start getting very long around 10AM, so try to arrive when they open at 9 AM, or shortly after.

After you purchase your ticket to enter that palace, you must wait in a second line if you want an audio guide. To borrow a free audio guide, they will hold your ID, so make sure to bring one. If you don’t want to give them your passport, bring a drivers license or other ID.

How To Get To Topkapi Palace: Topkapi Palace is a 5-minute walk from Sultanahmet Square.

Gulhane Park

Gulhane Park is an island of greenery in the bustling city. I was here during Eid, an important muslim festival held the three days after Ramadan. It was awesome to see this park full of families celebrating. It’s also a great place to experience local culture.

Visiting the Gulhane Park is one of the top things to do in Istanbul.
Gulhane Park

How To Get To Gulhane Park: Gulhane Park is located just northwest of Topkapi Palace.

Istanbul Archeological Museums

The Istanbul Archeological Museums are a group of three archeological museums located very close to Topkapi Palace. It includes the archeological museum, the museum of the ancient Orient, and the museum of Islamic art. They’re full of amazing artifacts, so I highly recommend!

Just one of many highlights here is the 13th century BC Treaty of Kadesh. This peace treaty between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, which is carved in stone, is the earliest known surviving peace treaty.

How To Get auto The Archeological Museums: Located near Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park, it‘s a 2-minute walk northeast.

Roman Hippodrome

In Sultanahmet Square’s center are the remains of the ancient 3rd century, Roman Hippodrome. During Constantine’s rule, this arena held up to 100,000 spectators for chariot races and performances, modeled after Rome’s Circus Maximus. All that remains today are the obelisks from the center of the arena. 

Hippodrome

How To Get To The Hippodrome: The Hippodrome is located in the center of Sultanahmet Square.

Grand Bazaar, or Kapalicarsi

Another one of the top things to do in Istanbul is to visit the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world. This is where you’ll find just about anything and everything Turkish, although today, much of it is touristy.

With around 4,000 shops, it covers over 60 streets! Be careful though, as this also means it’s easy to get lost.

You will need to bargain to purchase. Ask for an estimated price at your hotel in advance and start at about half that. You can always walk away if you can’t agree on a price. Remember to keep it light-hearted though, as that a few Turkish Lira may mean a lot more to the shop-owner than its loss means to you.


How To Get To The Grand Bazaar: To get to the Grand Bazaar you can take the Tram from Sultanahmet to Beyazit, where it’s a 5-minute walk. Or it’s a 15-minute walk west of Sultanahmet.

Spice Market, or Misir Carsisi

The spice market, once solely for spices and dried fruits, now also features other items.

How To Get To The Spice Market: The Spice Market is located in the Eminonu quarter. It’s a 10 minute walk north of the Grand Bazaar and south of Galata Bridge.

Basilica Cistern

Not far from the Hagia Sofia is another popular attraction, the Basilica Cistern. Although there are several hundred underground cisterns in Istanbul, this one is the largest.

Built in the 6th century by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, this colossal cistern holds up to 80,000 cubic meters of water and has over 300 marble columns.

Basilica Cistern is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Basilica Cistern

The water from this cistern was used for Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the many area fountains in Sultanahmet. Today, it’s a museum.

This cistern has been recently renovated and now has a large area to walk around in the cisterns. Make sure to walk to the back and see the Medusa heads carved in some of the column bases.

Basilica Cistern is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Medusa Head Column In The Cistern

Visitin the Bisilica Cistern is the perfect thing to do on a hot day in Istanbul, as the cistern is underground and quite cool. This is, however, another site that always has a long line, so allow extra time.

How To Get To The Cistern: Located at Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd., 490’ (150 m) southwest of Hagia Sophia.

Cross Galata Bridge

Multiple bridges span the city, often full of fishermen (and a few fisherwomen). I found an afternoon wandering near the park and along Galalta Bridge to be a very colorful and cultural experience.

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge is one of the most famous bridges here and often used by pedestrians. It spans from old Istanbul to modern Istanbul where Galata Tower is located.

Throughout history many bridges connected these two two shores of The Golden Horn. The first was built by Emperor Justinian I in 6th century, although the bridge that stands here today was built in the early 20th century.

There are three other iconic bridges here. They connect the European side of Istanbul with its Asian side including the Bosphorus Bridge, Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and the Yavus Suktan Selina Bridge. These bridges are best to see while taking a cruise in the Black Sea.

Galata Tower

The Galata Tower was originally built of wood in the 6th century BC, then rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 15th century, and restored in the 20th century.

Galata Tower is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Galata Tower

It has been used as a lighthouse, an observatory, an attempted flight, and a prison for slaves. Now it’s a popular tourist attraction with sweeping views of Istanbul at the top.

Galata Tower is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
View From Galata Tower

It’s best to take the elevator up, then walk down the stairs as there are different exhibits and shops to see on different floors.

One of the floors has a video recreation of the attempted flight by scientist Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi in the 17th century. He glided from the observatory deck of Galata Tower to Uskudar’s Dongancilar Square. The video simulation starts when someone stands in the center of the room.

Flight Simulator Galata

Galata Tower is located in the Beyoglu area, which has a very hip vibe. It’s full of unique shops selling jewelry, musical instruments, clothing, souvenirs, and more, as well as many restaurants and cafes. It’s easy to make a half day visiting Galata Tower answer the surrounding area.

Galata Tower Area

As with many sites in Istanbul, Galata Tower usually also has a long line, so leave extra time.

How To Get To Galata Tower: Galata Tower is about a 30-minute walk north of Sultanahmet, crossing Galata Bridge.

Istiklal Street

Visiting lively Istiklal street near Taksim Square is another of the top things to do in Istanbul. Considered the heart of Istanbul, it’s full of modern shopping, souvenir shops, patisseries that look like museums, musicians, restaurants, and entertainment.

This is also where you’ll find the uber charming Taksim trolley, which is popular for selfies.

Istiklal Street is one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Taksim Trolley

There are also some cool alleyways to check out, like Cicek Pasaji below. Its name means flower passage and is a must-visit dining and tavern area.

Cicek Pasaji

Also make sure to visit a patisserie or two, which look like museums, to try some delicious Turkish sweets.

Visiting Istiklal Street is one of the top things to do in Istanbul.
Turkish Delights & Other Sweets

How To Get To Taksim Square: North of Galata Tower, you can easily get to Taksim Square from Sultanahmet via the tram. Take it to the last stop, Kabatas, then switch to the metro, taking it to Taksim Square.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1843, during Sultan Abdulmecid I’s rule. It sits on the European side of the Bosphorus Straight, northeast of Galata Tower. As this palace is more modern, it has western style architecture and decor.

Dolmabahçe Palace

How To Get To Dolmabahçe Palace: Take the tram from Sultanahmet to the last stop, Kabatas. Dolmabahçe Palace is a 5-10 minute walk northeast of this stop at Visnezade, Dolmabahce Cd.

Take A Ferry To Istanbul’s Asian Side

Originally independent, Istanbul’s Asian side was incorporated into the city in the 19th century. This is mainly a commercial zone, but is definitely worth a day trip via the ferry.

There’s many markets, cafes, and coffee shops to explore. The area near the port has a younger, hipper, more relaxed vibe to it. I honestly didn’t have much time to explore this area, so will need to do that on a later visit.

Ferry

How To Get To Anatolia: The ferry is the most interesting and enjoyable way to visit. Walk to Eminonu’s waterfront and catch a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. The ride will take about 20 minutes.

Rooftop Galata

I spotted this when I was on the observatory deck on Galata Tower. Rooftop Galata is a rooftop location just below Galata Tower where you can rent classic Ottoman gowns or long fluttering dresses for amazing photo shoots over the Bosphorous or Galata Tower. There were several people here doing photo shoots and it really looked fun. They also do photo shoots for weddings and other special events in Istanbul.

Where To Stay In Istanbul

On my most recent visit to Istanbul, I stayed in a private room in Sultan Hostel & Guesthouse Hostel. The location is nice and staff is helpful, but noise seemed to echo throughout the building when excited guests arrived in the middle of the night. This happened every night! Because of this, I don’t really recommend it. And although it has a free (basic) breakfast, it’s not on a rooftop breakfast, which is a must-do in Istanbul! I loved the place I stayed prior to this, but it is now closed.

One of my favorite things to do in Istanbul is to stay in the heart of old town, just a few minute walk to the major sites, preferably one that has a rooftop terrace overlooking the sea so you can admire the amazing views here. All the following suggestions have these except the Splurge accommodation listed last (although you can get rooms with sea views here which is technically better than a common terrace).

Shoestring 

Cheers Vintage Hostel is located in the heart of old town and offers a terrace with sea views. You can also book a private room with sea views at a higher price point.

Budget 

Hotel Pennisula is also located in the heart of old town and offers a buffet breakfast on their terrace with sea views. These units also have a refrigerator.

Ligos is located about a 7-minute walk to Hagia Sofia and has a terrace with sea views where they offer breakfast.

Mytra Hotel is located in the heart of old town just a few minutes walk to the Hagia Sofia and has a terrace with amazing views and a buffet breakfast.

Moderate

Henna Hotel Istanbul is located in the heart of old town just a 5-minute walk from Hagia Sofia. It has a restaurant on its terrace with views of the Hagia Sofia and the sea.

Terrace Guesthouse offers sea views from the balcony and is a 5-minute walk to the Hagia Sofia. 

Splurge

AJWA Sultanahmet – a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts is a newly built luxurious Ottoman style hotel located in the heart of old town. It also offers an indoor pool and a spa. Altitude it does not have a terrace, you can select from rooms with a city or an ocean view.

Istiklal Street Entertainers

This post may use affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you choose to make a booking or purchase through one of these links. This is at no additional cost to you. If you find my content helpful, please consider booking through me as it is completely win win!

Restaurants In Istanbul

There are many great restaurants in the Sultanahmet area. The area closest to most of the accomodation I’ve list above has a line of interesting places, but they’re bit more on the touristic side. These are the type of places that hire someone to stand out front and talk you into eating at their establishment (especially a if you’re a solo blond…sigh).

The guys they hire are quite charming, so it could be entertaining, but I don’t really like all the attention. In fact, I learned to avoid walking down this row of restaurants from my room as it’s just so time consuming to stop and chat every time you pass.

Restaurant Row in Sultanahmet
Sultanahmet

If you want more traditional restaurants (which I recommend), explore places closer to the heart of Sultanahmet. My three favorites are the following:

Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta is a simple traditional Turkish restaurant serving good shish kabob at a great price. This is where locals eat! It’s just across the street and down a bit from Hagia Sofia.

Green Corner Restaurant and Cafe serves a variety of foods from Turkish to burgers, salads, and omelets in a comfortable setting just north east of Hagia Sofia. It’s a little touristy, but has a nice variety and they do not harass you.

Seven Hills is more about the location than the food. It sits in the heart of old town with views of the sea and Hagia Sofia from its rooftop dining area. You really should try this once. It’s here I took my photo of the Hagia Sofia above.

How To Get To Sultanahmet

The newest, and now main, airport in Istanbul is (IST). You can take a taxi, bus, shuttle, drive, or take the metro to Sultanahmet.

Metro

The metro is the least expensive option. Line (M11), which operates between the IST airport and the Kagithane neighborhood, opened in January 2023. From there, you can take another metro line, the tram, or a taxi to your final destination. See the metro map here for details.

Taxi

Taxi will take 45-60 minutes depending on traffic. The longer it takes (traffic), the more it costs, somewhere between $30-40. Tolls are additional.

Bus

Havaist is the bus going from IST to Sultanahmet, taking a 70-110 minutes. Follow the signs inside the airport to Sultanahmet to find the bus area. You will need to buy a InstanbulKart (using Turkish Lira). Current cost is around 25t (around $3). The card can be used for buses, trams, and subway, so add more if you want.

Shuttle

Your hotel can arrange a private or shared shuttle in advance, costing around $35-50.

Self-Drive

The drive will take around 45-60 minutes. Driving in Istanbul is crazy through, so it’s not recommended. There’s not much parking either.

Want To See More Of Türkiye?

Türkiye is incredible. I’ve been here three times now. I’ve not only been amazed with each city I’ve visited, there’s still so much more to see!

My favorites include the following.

Cappadocia, with its fantastical fairy chimneys, cave dwellings, and fascinating history is truly amazing. You really need at least three days in this city to explore all it has to offer.

Ancient Ephesus, which has the best Roman ruins in the Mediterranean is in the modern city of Selçuk.

Pamukkale, with its unusual ‘cotton cloud’ spa terraces is interesting. I found the terraces to be a little overly touristic, but loved the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis up behind them.

Antalya, on Türkiye’s stunning southern coast, has calm, turquoise waters framed by the beautiful Taurus Mountains, a charming old town, Kaleiçi, picturesque old harbor, and fabulous Roman ruins. Visiting the Greco-Roman ruins of Perge and taking a cable car ride up Tunek Tepe for panoramic views of the city are great day trips from Antalya.

To plan your trip, see my Türkiye Travel Guide, which features the top places to visit, how to get around, safety, scams, logistics, and more to help make your visit epic.

Fountain Near Hagia Sophia

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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