7 Best Things To Do in Istanbul, Turkey
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
Planning your first trip to Istanbul but don't know where to start? You're at the right address! Istanbul is an immense city and there is so much to see and do that it can be difficult to make decisions. Istanbul is not the capital city of Turkey, but it’s known as the country’s economic, cultural and historic center. Formerly known as Constantinople, this city goes back thousands of years. There are many historical places to visit as well as lots of interesting art, architecture, culinary heritage, and a vibrant local atmosphere. We visited Istanbul in November 2021 and we loved this city. In this article, we highlight 7 of our favorite things to do in the city. These activities are perfect for a 3 to 5 day city trip.
Check out our video on Istanbul to get a sense of what it's like there!
Where is Istanbul?
Istanbul is located in the northwest of Turkey and is the largest city in the country. With 15,636,000 people it has the largest population in Turkey. We recommend staying at least 3 to 5 days in this bustling city to be able to enjoy the many things to do.
Best things to do in Istanbul
Before diving into the top 7 best things to do in Istanbul we want to mention some activities that are also very nice but didn't make it into our top 7:
A boat tour from the European to Asian side
Going to a rooftop bar or restaurant to enjoy the view
Strolling around colorful Balat
Visiting the Mosaic Museum or Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Visiting the Basilica Cistern, which sadly was temporarily closed at the time of our visit
You can also watch our video on the best things to do in Istanbul.
7. Stroll through Istiklal Street
The seventh-best thing to do when in Istanbul is to visit the vibrant Istiklal Street. Istiklal is the busiest street in the city, comparable to Oxford Street in London, Fifth Avenue in New York City, or Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. This long street of 1.4 kilometers or 0.87 miles has a wide range of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and much more. It’s the perfect place to try the local cuisine, such as kumpir, döner, or a traditional Turkish breakfast. We highly recommend to do a food tour to get the best experience.
6. Relax at a Hamam
The Turkish bath, or hamam, is an important part of Turkish culture. It’s a type of steam bath and also a place of public bathing that was used primarily within the Ottoman Empire starting in the 16th century. The hamam promoted hygiene but was also a meeting place for people of every rank. Its purpose is to purify your body and mind. This is achieved by sweating and rinsing your body in a steam room for about 30 minutes. Then, you'll get a full-body scrub to remove dead skin which we found pretty rough. However, it’s also an essential part of the experience! There are about 60 baths in Istanbul, offering just the traditional bath or including massages. The price can range from $15 to $50.
5. Walk the Galata Bridge
At number five we have the Galata Bridge in the heart of Istanbul. This bridge spans the Golden Horn and stretches between modern Istanbul on the north and the Old Town of Istanbul on the south. The Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosphorus river, which forms the border between the European and the Asian continent. It was once an important trading post and still has a lot going on today. From fishermen lined up on the bridge, to the bustling eminönü square, and the New Mosque on the south end.
4. Wander around Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is an architectural highlight in Istanbul and therefore ranks at number 4. Home to the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, this palace was the heart of the vast Ottoman Empire. The palace has hundreds of rooms decorated with beautiful tiles, gold, and other decorations. Some rooms are more like a museum where you can find artillery from the Ottoman Empire. Make sure you plan enough time in for Tapkapi Palace because you can walk hours in this stunning place but there is also often a long line of people waiting to get in.
3. Enjoy the view at Galata Tower
The third best thing to do in Istanbul is to visit the Galata Tower. This historic tower sits high above the city and is visible from all angles. It was once used as a watchtower, but is now converted into a museum. It is great to enjoy one of the best views in Istanbul but we also really enjoyed learning about its importance and use over time. It’s possible to get an audio guide at the entrance, which we also recommend.
2. Shop at the Grand Bazaar & Spice Bazaar
The runner-up activity is to shop at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Both are located in the old town of Istanbul, near the Galata Bridge. The Spice Bazaar is a giant covered market with the majority of shops selling food. You can find the traditional Turkish delight and other Turkish delicacies here such as olives, figs, and pistachios. The market is also close to the Grand Bazaar, which is the true center of hustle and bustle. With over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar has a little bit of everything. From ceramics, to gold, leather and Turkish carpets. Indulge yourself in the local culture, but don’t forget to bargain if you want to buy something!
1. Emerge yourself in Istanbul's history at the Hagia Sophia
The best thing to do in Istanbul is to visit the Hagia Sophia. Located in the heart of Sultanahmet, this is one of the most impressive and important buildings ever constructed. It was once the greatest church in Christendom, and during the Ottoman Empire, was converted into a mosque. Later on, it was established as a museum in the hope to make Turkey more secular, but in 2020 it reverted back to a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia is the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey with 3.7 million visitors per year. It’s now free to enter, but to fully understand the importance of this building we encourage you to go on a free walking tour. Free walking tours run daily at 10:30AM. And in addition to the Hagia Sophia, the tour also passes by the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. It’s a great way to learn about the city and its history while also getting to know some new people.
Things you need to know when visiting Istanbul
1. Traffic jams are out-of-control
Try to avoid taking a bus or taxi because traffic is very slow in Istanbul. The best way to get around is by walking or taking the metro or tram. However, getting a transportation card can be a bit challenging as the machines often malfunction. Get help from an official transportation officer at the ticket booth to get one that suits your needs best.
2. Watch out for scams
The second thing we learned is that you really need to watch out for scams in Istanbul. Especially in the old town and around touristic highlights. At first sight, the people you meet in that area might seem friendly, but they often want to get you into their shop. Show respect, but don’t follow them if you’re not interested in buying anything. We were pulled into a small shop ourselves in that area and had to buy pillow cases just to get out of the store after a lengthy discussion with the shop owners.
3. Major tourist attractions in Istanbul can get busy
Finally, Istanbul is a huge city with a large number of tourists. Keep in mind that most of the popular attractions have long waiting lines. We stood in line at Topkapi Palace for 45 minutes even though it was the end of the day. And we had the same experience at Galata Tower. So it’s best to choose a few activities for the day, especially if you have a limited amount of days in the city.
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More Helpful Info About Istanbul
If you still need more information about things to do when visiting Istanbul, make sure to check out these other great articles below:
22 must-have experiences in Istanbul, Turkey by Earth Trekkers
14 must-do things on your trip to Istanbul by Lonely Planet
Planning to visit more places in Turkey?
Check out our Turkey travel guide and other helpful articles about Turkey: