Top 10 things to do in Istanbul

Istanbul is a fascinating city that bridges Europe and Asia. It is littered with impressive architecture and ancient history but is also keen to look towards the future. Although it can seem a little full-on for the first-time visitor, Istanbul is a friendly city with activities to suit all visitors.

1. Sultanahmet mosque (Sultanahmet camii)

Built by Sultan Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616, this mosque (pictured above) is arguably the most famous monument in Istanbul. Its six minarets dominate the Sultanahmet region’s skyline. It is also known as the Blue mosque on account of all the iznik tiles used to decorate the inside. It is a working mosque, so non-muslims are not to enter at prayer times, signalled by the muezzin’s call to prayer (which is hard to miss). It is also respectful to wear long trousers and if female, to cover your hair with a scarf, as well as you arms and legs. Everyone should remove their shoes, however smelly their feet.

2. Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya)

Possibly the building that most highlights Istanbul’s position as the point at which East meets West, Haghia Sophia was built in 360 and was the largest cathedral in the world, until it was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople. Since 1935 though it has been a museum. You will be amazed by the mosaics on the interior.

Haghia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

3.Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)

Topkapi Palace interior, Istanbul, Turkey

You’ve heard about the Ottoman Empire and the sultans haven’t you? For almost 400 years Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans. As you explore the harem, courtyards and grounds of Seraglio point you can imagine the place bustling with concubines, children and servants. Many significant holy artefacts of the muslim world are housed in the palace and there is a collection of clothing worn by the Sultans as well as one of the greatest treasure collections in the world. The circumcision room is worth a visit simply to admire the beautiful tiles on the walls. Just try not to think about the purpose of the room.

4. Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

Built in 1348 as part of the Galata Genoese colony, the tower has a panoramic balcony, well worth a visit for the fantastic views over the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, Galata Bridge and Sultanahmet region. Dinner at the top is a bit of a treat too.

Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey

5. Dolmabahce Palace (Domabahce Sarayi)

The Dolmabahce Palace was the opulent home to later Ottoman Sultans, but is most revered by Turks as having been the home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. He died in the palace at 09:05 on 10 November 1938 and to mark this, the clock in his room in the palace is still displaying that time. The palace is on the shore of the Bosphorus and set amongst well-manicured gardens.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

6. Rustem Pasa Mosque (Rustem Pasa Cami)

Built in 1563, the Rustem Pasa mosque is nestled amongst shops in Eminonu. I used to consider it my ‘secret’ mosque, but judging by the crowds in there with me last time I visited, the secret is out. Somehow it retains its magic though. It is small but exquisitely decorated with Iznik tiles covering almost every surface on the interior as well as parts of the outside. Rustem Pasa is also a working mosque, so please be respectful of this.

Rustem Pasa Mosque interior, Istanbul, Turkey

7. Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)

The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest covered markets, where it is possible to buy almost anything. There are over a thousand shops, which are visited by locals as well as tourists. It is notoriously difficult to navigate and you should expect to get lost, but shops are, sort of, grouped by the type of goods sold there. It is fascinating to wander around, taking it all in, and the perfect place to hone your haggling skills. You can read more about the treasure hunting in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar here.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

8. Istiklal Avenue (Istiklal Caddesi)

Istiklal Caddesi is a grand avenue in the Beyoglu district, running from Taksim square to the Galata Tower. It is a pedestrian street, but beware of the tram that runs the length of it. It is lined with shops ranging from fashion and bookshops to patisseries. There are many eateries along the strip but the Cicek Pasaji is a fantastic group of restaurants and especially lively in the evenings.

Tram on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, Turkey

9. Ortakoy

Ortakoy is a trendy Bosphorus shore neighbourhood in the Besiktas district. Ortakoy mosque, built in 1854, juts out into the Bosphorus with the Bosphorus Bridge as a strangely modern backdrop. Along the shore are boutiques, cafes and eateries. There is also a street market on Sundays.

Ortakoy, Istanbul, Turkey

10. Bosphorus Cruise

Relaxing boat trips along the Bosphorus from either Eminonu or Kabatas towards the Black sea and back are a fantastic, if not essential, part of any trip to Istanbul. Istanbul’s magnificent skyline viewed from the water is amazing, but don’t forget to admire the Bosphorus-shoreline properties and imagine sunning yourself there too. You can read more about Bosphorus cruising here.

Rumeli Hisari castle seen from the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis


  • Jonathan Simmons

    Hi Liv, thanks so much for a great post. I guess everyone’s list of the top 10 things to do in Istanbul will be different. Here’s a recent list of Top 7 sights by a website called The Guide Istanbul:

    (Why it’s the Top 7 rather Top 10, I have no idea — maybe because Istanbul is supposed to have 7 hills???)

    Thanks again, and good luck with your travels!

    Jonathan Simmons

  • Aisleen

    I would also add, Get up to one of the rooftop bars/restaurants in the evening- around the time the prayer calls are made as u will hear the three mosques calling out, 'competing' with eachoher in turn – a slighlty eerie, but beautiful sound that will send tingles down your spine!!

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