Istanbul, sitting at the cross-section of Europe and Asia, is the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Throughout its history of thousands of years, it has seen the rise and fall of past empires. Today, it is Turkey’s economic and cultural hub, an amazing metropolitan mix of East and West influences.
Many travelers visit Istanbul to witness the fascinating historic beauty of the city, as well as experience the colorful local culture and delicious Turkish cuisine.
While Istanbul offers innumerable experiences, we have put together an insider guide of the top ten things to do in Istanbul.
1. Visit the iconic landmarks in Sultanahmet Square
Some of Istanbul’s top attractions are located in and around Sultanahmet Square, all within walking distance. You can visit them on the same day while exploring Old Istanbul.
The landmarks include:
- Hagia Sophia
- The Blue Mosque
- Topkapi Palace
- Byzantine Hippodrome
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are two of Istanbul’s most impressive attractions that provide visitors with insight into Turkey’s complex history and culture.
Hagia Sophia was originally built as the main cathedral of Constantinople and was converted to Istanbul’s first mosque upon the Ottoman Empire conquering the city. Across from Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, which is famous for its blue tiled decor. Both still function as mosques and are free to visit.
Byzantine Hippodrome that was once used to conduct chariot races during the Byzantine Empire is right next to the Blue Mosque. There isn’t much left from the Hippodrome’s structure, but ancient obelisks that were brought from Roman provinces for to decorate it still stand tall. Then a short walk away is Topkapi Palace. Previously the headquarters of Ottoman sultans, it has been converted into a museum housing a vast array of historical and cultural items including imperial jewelry, thrones, garments, and precious artifacts.
2. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest markets to still exist. Covering approximately 61 streets, it is also the largest covered market in the entire world!
Visit the Grand Bazaar and meander through the labyrinth of streets, passing over 4,000 shops as you take in the vibrant colors of cloth, unique trinkets, and delicious smells of Turkish snacks. It is a magical place where you can find everything from cheap local souvenirs to 22 karat gold jewelry and silk carpets. This is the perfect place to practice your haggling skills!
After shopping, you can relax in one of the traditional coffee houses inside the market and sip on some Turkish coffee.
3. Buy spices from the Spice Market
The Spice Market is a colorful and aromatic experience that you do not want to miss! Initially opened in 1664, it has long since been a place to buy an incredible array of spices, as well as Turkish delight, tea, nuts, candies, and other fun Turkish snacks. Wander through the market and pick out some unique local tastes to take home with you.
4. Take a cruise along the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is a stretch of sea that divides Istanbul in two, separating the Asian and European sides of the city. Cruising through the Bosphorus is a very pleasant and relaxing, one-of-a-kind experience.
While the boat zigzags between the two sides, you’ll get the chance to gaze upon amazing city views, including Ottoman palaces, mansions, mosques, and Byzantine fortresses. Enjoy this historical site-seeing experience while sipping on some delicious Turkish tea on the deck of the boat.
5. Watch the city views from Galata Tower and stroll around its boho neighborhood
Galata Tower was previously a military surveillance tower that watched the city walls. The Ottoman Empire used it as an elevated location to watch for fires before it was converted into a prison in 1546. Now it is a museum with an observation deck offering fantastic panoramic views of the city. It is a remarkable piece of history and architecture that is definitely worth visiting.
After your visit, you can enjoy some Turkish coffee in one of the cute cafes in the tower’s boho neighborhood. Then you can take a stroll on the bustling Istiklal Avenue and finish with a short ride on the nostalgic ruby-red streetcar to Taksim Square.
6. Watch a Whirling Dervish ceremony
Whirling dervish rituals go back around 800 years. They are a tradition within Sufism and the Mevlevi Order led by Rumi. The dervishes, who are devout followers of Rumi, wear white garments and spin in a trance-like motion to spiritual music played with ney flute. The dance symbolizes a remembrance of God and the oneness of being.
The Galata Mevlevihane Museum and Hocapasa Cultural Center host whirling dervish rituals. The ceremony usually lasts about one hour. You need to buy tickets in advance since capacity is limited.
7. Visit Istanbul Modern
After visiting the many historical masterpieces in Istanbul, you should also explore its modern art scene by visiting Istanbul Modern, the city’s first modern art museum, opened in 2004. It houses a number of collections that reflect Turkey’s culture and artistic identity.
The museum collects different types of artwork including paintings, photography, design, media, and architecture. While there are works from local artists, they also have international exhibits. If you are an art enthusiast, you will undoubtedly enjoy your time in Istanbul Modern.
8. Have a Turkish breakfast with tea and simit at a waterfront cafe on the Bosphorus
There are numerous cafes sitting along the Bosphorus that are perfect for enjoying a delicious Turkish breakfast. You can sip some authentic Turkish tea and eat simits, which are like bagels topped with sesame seeds. Simits are usually served with cheese, and sometimes with fruit preserves. Many people dip them in cream cheese.
While this is considered a breakfast-on-the-go, full traditional Turkish breakfast is one of the best in the world. So like locals, indulge in a full Turkish breakfast with gourmet foods such as many types of local cheese, olives, egg dishes, spicy Turkish sausage called sucuk, clotted cream and honey, tomatoes, cucumbers, and freshly baked pastries and bread filling up the table.
9. Shop designer boutiques in Nisantasi or Zorlu Center
For some designer boutique shopping, you can visit Nisantasi or Zorlu Center. Nisantasi is a chic neighborhood in the wealthier part of the city. Luxury boutiques of international and local designers line the streets. There are also many trendy restaurants and cafes that serve delicious local and international cuisine.
Zorlu Center is a beautiful shopping mall that is only a short ride from Nisantasi. It boasts many high-end stores, the Raffles hotel, a performing arts center, a cinema, and offices. Its chic cafes and restaurants are very popular among the affluent locals as well as visitors.
10. Have a steak at Salt Bae’s original location
You may recognize Nusret Gökçe, known as Salt Bae, from his many online viral videos of salting customers’ steak dishes. He is a chef and restaurateur who has a very unique way of seasoning meat with salt.
Nusret Gökçe owns multiple Nusr-Et restaurants, which are luxury steak houses. The original Nusr-Et is located in the Etiler neighborhood of Istanbul. It was opened in 2010 and continues to provide customers with delicious meat dishes, including lamb, steak, meatballs, and more.
For a memorable and delicious dinner, you should definitely check out the original Salt Bae location and order one of their signature meat dishes. If he is on site, you can even take a picture with him to post it on your IG.