There are a LOT of things you can do in Istanbul. But after traveling there for eight days, I can tell you three to five days is plenty of time to explore this city.
Most tourist attractions are very close to each other. (For example, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are about a five-minute walk from each other.)
Additionally, the public transit system makes the city really easy to navigate.
So, let’s explore the best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey
Things to do in Istanbul, Europe
1. Visit the Hagia Sophia (Free)
Of all of places I visited in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia was my second favorite.
Interestingly, the building was built in the 6th century as a church, then it was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Conquest. Ataturk (The founder of the Turkish democracy) re-established the building as a museum in 1935, and then in 2020 it was converted back into a mosque.
Sadly, since being converted to a mosque, the Christian mosaics have been covered up.
However, the architecture is still stunning.
2. Stop at the Blue Mosque! (Free)
As of 2021, the Blue Mosque is currently being renovated.
However, the Blue Mosque is a short (5 minute) walk away from the Hagia Sophia across the square. So, you might as well stop by and attempt to see one of the uncovered blue tiles!
Please note, the Blue Mosque has different hours than one might expect (especially for being an active mosque.)
In 2021, the Blue Mosque closed at 18:30 (6:30 P.M.).
Why? I never quite understood, and the locals I talked to did not understand either.
Plus, you will need to be careful, respectful, and plan your trip around the times of prayer, as the mosque closes 30 minutes before the Call to Prayer begins!
So, my suggestions is to check with this website to check out the best times to visit the Blue Mosque!
(One note: The Hagia Sophia as it is an active mosque too, so you will need to plan around that!)
3. The Basilica Cistern
Please note: The Istanbul Museum Pass is NOT accepted here.
Sadly, the Basilica Cistern was closed due to COVID-19 when I visited Turkey in 2021. And they have no idea when the cistern will reopen.
It is located about 500 feet away from the Hagia Sophia. You will cross the tram tracks to get there.
Be careful as carpet salesman like to hang out at that area and “help” the tourists! (Click here for more about safety in Istanbul.)
4. Find your way to the old Hippodrome and Obelisks!
The Old Hippodrome and Obelisk in Istanbul are sights to behold.
The obelisk was originally built during the 1400s BCE, and then it was moved to Constantinople during the 4th Century CE.
The Obelisk has most definitely been restored a couple of times, but it is a must-see in Istanbul!
Plus, there is a really good ATM nearby.
(Turkey Travel Tip: The Best ATMs within all of Turkey are related to the French Bank BNP. The Banks are named: Türk Ekonomi Bankası.
It has a green logo. These ATMs do not charge an absurd 7% service charge like most other ATMs in Turkey!)
5. Visit the Grand Bazaar in the Beyazit District!
The Grand Bazaar is located in the Beyazit district, which is about a 10-15 minute walk away from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Or, it is the next stop after the Sultanhamet train stop on the Istanbul rail system.
From the Golden Horn (where the ferries are), it is probably a 20-30 minute walk. Or, you can take the rail system, and it should be the 3rd stop.
In the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, you are expected to bargain for your items.
So, how do you bargain and why do it?
In these popular tourist spots, prices for items are highly inflated. (Probably ranging from 50-80% above the actual purchase value of the item.)
So, whatever price they give you, cut it in half immediately.
For example, I was shopping at the Grand Bazaar and found a pair of shoes I liked. He wanted to charge me 120 Lira, and I ended up paying 80 Lira.
(Not too bad, but the shoes didn’t last too long.)
Think of the extremely high price as a “tourist tax.”
Honestly, coming from the USA, these prices seem typical to what we would pay.
However, most items within the Grand Bazaar are counterfeit goods.
(Especially fake luxury brands like Gucci, NorthFace, and Rolex.)
Alright, let’s talk about the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world, as it became a mall in the mid 1400s CE. (Shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.)
It has 21 different entrances and exits, and it has 61 covered streets.
You can buy about everything in the Bazaar from rugs, to gold, and even the fancy lights that you see on everyone’s instagram!
From the Instagram
6. Avoid the Carpet Salesman (Cost= Being a nice person)
I met some awesome, friendly, and kind people in Istanbul.
But like anywhere, there were some not-so-nice people.
Typically, these were the carpet salesman.
If you think a used car salesman is bad in the USA, you should meet a Turkish carpet salesman.
You will be walking around, (Even over by the Hagia Sophia!) and they will just start talking to you. Then, they will walk beside you for 5 minutes!
He will point to tourist places to visit, and then all of a sudden… you are in his basement, and he is showing you a rug!
This sounds like a really bad movie, but it happens all the time.
If you are really bad at confrontation (like me), the carpet salesmen can be a struggle in Turkey.
After talking to some other carpet salesman though, I learned that the carpet salesmen work on commission only. The average commission percentage is about 30%, so they rely heavily on sales.
7. Suleymaniye Mosque (Free)
My favorite place in Istanbul. (Except that you must climb a hill to get there…)
Besides the stunning architecture, this mosque has seen a lot of history too.
The Suleymaniye Mosque was built in the 1500s during the Ottoman Empire’s reign of Turkey.
It is home to the body of Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the most powerful and important Ottoman leaders.
If history is not your thing, the Suleymaniye Mosque also has stunning views of the Golden Horn.
Come during sunset for the best view of the city.
8. Visit the Balat Neighborhood (Free)
The Balat Neighborhood is the neighborhood that is made up of colorful buildings in Istanbul. However, not everything is as it seems.
The colorful buildings are cool. However, these buildings have been subjected to many controversies.
It’s really sad, as one building might be restored. Then, the next building is condemned by the Turkish government.
Getting to the Balat Neighborhood is tricky.
You have to walk west from the Golden Horn ferry stop for about 2-3 miles.
(Right now, construction is currently happening on the intersection that makes the route shorter.)
Additionally, it is on the top of a large HILL!
The best way to get to the Balat Neighborhood is via taxi if you do not like walking.
9. Galata Tower (35 Lira)
Built in 1348, the Galata Tower is a stone tower that has served in a variety of roles.
From serving as a prison to a fire lookout spot, the building has been used A LOT during the city’s time as both Constantinople and Istanbul.
Currently, the Galata Tower is used as a tourist attraction only.
There are nine flights of stairs to reach the top, but an elevator to the 7th flight is available.
The Galata Tower is open between 9 to 7, but I suggest arriving early in the morning. The lines can become long!!!
10. Walk across the Galata Tower Bridge (Free)
There are many good places to enjoy a sunset in Istanbul. (See above)
The Galata Tower Bridge is one of the best places.
It’s also the place where you can see numerous fisherman.
On the bottom side of the bridge, (You can walk on the top or bottom) there are numerous seafood restaurants. Beware, they are expensive!
11. Taksim Square (Free)
When visiting Istanbul, most people stay in either Sultanhamet or the Taksim Square region.
Taksim Square is very busy because of this, but it makes it easy to get around.
The metro has a station nearby, and there are places to eat everywhere.
However, there are also numerous nightclubs and bars here too.
This is also where I saw one of Istanbul’s famous scams in action!
I was not approached, but a friend was. So always be aware of your surroundings!
12. Dolmabahçe Palace & Dolmabahçe Clock Tower (90 Lira for Palace & Harem ONLY)
Like a lot of other places in Istanbul, a lot of rooms are undergoing renovation at the Dolmabahçe Palace.
However, this does not mean you cannot visit!
The Dolmabahçe Palace is the largest palace in Turkey, and it has 285 rooms and 68 toilets!
It was the main administrative power of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Additionally, it is also the place of the founder of Turkey (Mustafa Ataturk’s) death. All clocks in the room where he died are set to the time of his death. (9:05)
13. Rumeli Fortress (30 Lira)
Full Disclosure: It can take a while to get this far north.
If you like castles, the Ruemli Fortress is the place for you.
It was built in a very short amount of time (less than a year), as it was built for the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople.
I wasn’t that impressed with the Rumeli Fortress, as there was not that much to do.
But it makes for a good trip to see the outside of the city!
14. Cruise the Bosphorus Strait! (50-250 Lira)
There are numerous companies that operate Bosphorus Cruise Tours.
The cruises typically start around the Golden Horn ferry area, and they venture up to the Black Sea.
Some include dinner, entertainment, and others are reminiscent of a ferry boat.
This activity has no maximum cost, so you can pay as much or little as you want!
Things to do in Istanbul, Asia
One general notice between the European side and the Asian side of Turkey: The Asian side of Turkey is much cheaper!!!
A street simit (bagel) on the street cost 5 Lira in Sultanhamet.
In the district of of Uskudar, I found a bakery selling fresh simit for 2.5 Lira!!!
15. Fisherman’s Market in Kadikoy
Most people imagine the restaurants or bars of Kadikoy, but walk around the corner and you might run into the fisherman’s market!
There is plenty of fresh fish, but also produce and small food shops!
The shops in Kadikoy are the best places to purchase your baklava and Turkish delight!
16. Visit the Maiden’s Tower (Free or Paid; Depends on if you visit the island)
The best way to get to the Maiden’s Tower is via ferry.
Look for the ferry that goes to Uskudar.
From there, you can visit the tower for 30 Lira.
There is also a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
However, there are dress requirements for dinner, and it is a set menu. The cost is about 250-300 lira.
Everywhere in Istanbul
17. Food (Depends)
From high-quality vegetables available in the markets to the street food with shredded beef and chicken, Istanbul is a foodie’s dream.
Breakfast is a tradition in Turkey, and you can eat it anywhere from 8 in the morning until night.
Usually, breakfast is bread, cheese, hard boiled eggs, some fruit, and maybe a jam/jelly spread.
However, you can occasionally find a Turkish staple called menemen. Menemen is an egg, tomatoes, pepper, and cheese served with bread. (The bread is the silverware.)
Speaking of bread, I want to warn you of something.
Bread is served at almost every meal in Turkey, so if you are allergic to gluten…. Turkey is going to be a difficult place to eat.
My favorite part of Turkey was the desserts, and I don’t know if I have ever seen as many sweets ever in my life. (And I am from the USA!!!) Baklava, Turkish delight, cookies, and more await you here.
And if you ask me, the baklava tastes way better here in Turkey than it does in the United States. (The honey just tastes different.)
18. Admire all of the cats and dogs (Free)
My 7th TikTok video was a video of a cat in Istanbul.
It received 70,000 views and 10,000 likes.
These cats and dogs are taken care of by the local people, and it’s not uncommon see pet shelters for these animals.
The reason for this is cats and d0gs (especially cats) are revered in Islam.
Interestingly, the dogs with tags on their ears have received their shots, and they are spayed/neutered by the city of Istanbul.
Then, they are placed back on the streets.
19. Just explore the history
There is a lot of history that has happened in Istanbul.
First, it played an important role in the Eastern Roman Empire as Constantinople. Then, it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Now, it may not be the capital of Turkey. (That’s Ankara.)
But it’s definitely the cultural and economic capital. Most of the historical sights in Istanbul, Turkey are located in the Sultanahmet District.
The Blue Mosque, Obelisks, Hagia Sophia, and the old setting of the Hippodrome are a short walk from each other. (Probably about 5 minutes.)
Next door, the Topapakpi Palace housed the Ottoman heads of state for some time. (Please note: As of 2021, most of the palace is being renovated. That is why the Topapakpi Palace is not on this list.)
History in Istanbul is just one of the things that happens.
Even if you hated history in school and want to avoid it, you are going to walk by it.
20. Stare at the beautiful graffiti (Free)
I probably should not agree with this one from a moral standpoint, but the graffiti in Istanbul is awesome!
You can find it anywhere, from alleyways to the metal coverings of the shop owner’s stores
21. Drink a lot of coffee and tea (2-10 Lira)
Tea and coffee are traditions within Turkey.
Expect to be offered tea at every meal, during every conversation, and if you are purchasing something!
One time, I drank 4 cups of tea during one meal!!!!
There are two main types: Apple Tea and Turkish Tea.
Both are delicious!
However, if you can find cherry tea… 11/10!!!!
Istanbul, for some, can be very overwhelming.
There is a lot to do, and people are everywhere!
After all, it is the largest city in Europe and one of the largest in the world!
It makes a great layover destination if you are flying through Turkey, as you can see as much or as little as you want in 24 hours!
Have you ever been to Istanbul?
If so, what things did I miss on my best things to do in Istanbul list?