Istanbul has a timeless charm that owes much to its rich history. The city was historically referred to as Byzantium and Constantinople. It served as a focal point of several ancient empires. Numerous architectural wonders, remnants of these empires, still stand tall in the heart of the city. These include the Hagia Sophia, which stood the tests of time and continues to invite awe with its display of dazzling mosaics. 

    Besides Istanbul’s historical sites, you can find modern skyscrapers and malls. There are cool spots in and around the city to escape to, some of which offer breathtaking views over the city and the Bosporus Strait. Read on for more ideas on things to do in Istanbul, to help you discover the best of this alluring Turkish city and cultural melting pot. 

    What are the best things to do in Istanbul?

    1

    The Blue Mosque

    A magnificent historical sight also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque

    The Blue Mosque is an iconic historical landmark in Istanbul and one you shouldn’t miss. Once inside, you’ll discover where the mosque got its name – from the thousands of blue handcrafted İznik tiles that adorn the interior walls. The tiles depict traditional Ottoman patterns, flowers, fruit, and more. You can also see the mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed I, 6 elegant minarets, and the impressive 43-metre central dome.

    As a fully functional religious building, it’s important to respect the rules and not make too much noise. Men and women need to cover their knees, shoulders and upper arms; women must also cover their hair. Unless you want to pray, plan your visit outside of the 5 daily prayer times. Entrance is free, but donations are welcomed.

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    Location: Sultan Ahmet, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih, Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 7 pm

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    2

    Sultanahmet Square

    The heart of Istanbul

    As Istanbul’s historical hub, the Sultanahmet Square puts you right in the centre of the city’s most prominent and historical attractions. To be at the centre of it all, it is recommended you book your accommodation in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. Obelisks and fountains adorn the park, and the square has remnants of an ancient hippodrome. From here you can easily view 2 of the city’s grandest landmarks to its north and south. These are the Hagia Sophia, a famous 6th-century mosque that is now a museum, and the namesake Sultanahmet Mosque, which is also fondly referred to as the Blue Mosque. 

    Location: Binbirdirek Mh., Sultan Ahmet Parkı No:2, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey

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    3

    Galata Tower

    The best place to watch a sunset in Turkey

    Galata Tower is where to be in Turkey for some of the most dramatic sunsets. Nothing beats a view of the Istanbul peninsula and its surroundings than from the top of the 67-metre fire watchtower. It was constructed in the 6th-century and rebuilt and restored numerous times during the subsequent centuries. It is among the oldest towers in the world.

    Nowadays, the tower serves as a tourist attraction only, with an open panorama balcony on the upper floors. You can walk the entire perimeter and soak up 360-degree vistas – the experience is especially magical at dusk.

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    Location: Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Daily from 8.30 am to midnight

    Phone: +90 (0)212 245 41 41

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    4

    Grand Bazaar

    Istanbul’s main marketplace

    Istanbul borders the narrow Bosporus Strait where the waters of the Black Sea meet the inland Sea of Marmara. It was historically a main point of arrival for trade ships. You can wander the cramped alleys of the covered Grand Bazaar to see the city’s colourful commercial activities alive and kicking. This huge market comprises a network of indoor souks (smaller marketplaces) and lanes lined with peddlers. They sell everything from carpets and leather items to jewellery and trinkets, including the typically sought-after nazar evil eye ornaments.

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    Location: Beyazıt Mh., 34126 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Monday – Saturday from 9 am to 7 pm, closed on Sundays

    Phone: +90 (0)212 519 12 48

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    5

    Çamlıca Hill

    It’s one of Istanbul’s best viewpoints

    If you’re looking for a great view of Istanbul, head up to Çamlıca Hill. It’s one of Istanbul’s highest hills and offers breathtaking skylines over the city. You can find a café at the peak as well as a park that makes for a cool resting spot to take in the memorable sights. You can view both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul with its tall buildings, and the outlines of the Bosporus strait and its bridge. From the city centre, it’s around a half-hour drive across the bridge and up the hill. But you can also book a hotel in the Uskudar district to be near.

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    Location: Kısıklı Mahallesi, Çamlıca Tepesi, 34692 Üsküdar/İstanbul, Turkey

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    photo by toyancyazgan (CC BY 2.0) modified

    6

    Dolmabahçe Palace

    Istanbul's largest and most flamboyant palace

    Dolmabahçe Palace is an elegant European-style Baroque monument on the Bosphorus and is an impressive sight to see. Sultan Abdülmecid built the palace between 1842 and 1853 because he wanted to live in a residence that rivalled European palaces. And on a self-guided audio tour, you'll understand why this palace is one of the grandest in the world.

    Discover the impressive gold leaf-embellished ceilings of the palace, plus the world's largest Bohemian crystal chandelier given to the Sultan by Queen Victoria. Even the main staircase is a masterpiece – complete with bannisters of brass, mahogany, and Baccarat crystal. Finish your extravagant experience at the outdoor cafe with fantastic Bosphorus views.

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    Location: Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş, Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Tuesday–Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm (closed on Mondays)

    Phone: +90 (0)212 236 90 00

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    7

    Theodosian Walls

    Stroll along ancient fortifications surrounding Istanbul

    The Walls of Constantinople is a historical landmark in Istanbul that also goes by different names, such as the Theodosian Walls, the Istanbul City Walls, and the Historic walls of Topkapi. These are a series of stonewalled fortifications that have surrounded Istanbul since its founding as Constantinople by Constantine the Great. You can still see pretty much of these medieval borders with most of its sections and towers intact. The walls are surrounded by parks with spaces where your kids can play. 

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    Location: Topkapı, 34093 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey

    Phone: +90 (0)212 512 04 80

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    photo by Freedom's Falcon (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    8

    The Hagia Sophia

    An architectural wonder with mesmerising mosaics

    This is one of the magnificent landmarks in Istanbul’s historical centre. The Hagia Sophia, whose name translates to “holy wisdom”, was built by the East Roman Empire in the 6th century. It was then converted into a mosque and fortified following Mehmed the Conqueror’s rule in 1453. You can admire this architectural wonder’s marbled structure, as well as its dreamy interiors. It features calligraphic panels and bronze lamps, and most of its walls are covered in beautiful mosaics made of gold, silver, and colourful stones. 

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    Location: Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm (until 7 pm in summer)

    Phone: +90 (0)212 522 17 50

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    9

    Maiden’s Tower

    A scenic lighthouse in the Bosporus Strait

    This lighthouse sits on top of a tiny islet in the Bosporus Strait, which you can reach on a 15-minute boat ride from the docks in Üsküdar. It dates to the 12th century and is steeped in a mix of legends, particularly of a princess who met her tragic fate, hence its moniker. Climb up to the top floor of the lighthouse, and you can enjoy a hot cup of coffee or tea at the rooftop café with amazing views of both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

    Location: Salacak Mahallesi, Üsküdar Salacak Mevkii, 34668 Üsküdar/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Daily from 9.15 am to 6.45 pm (Saturdays and Sundays also from 8.15 pm to 12.30 am)

    Phone: +90 (0)216 342 47 47

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    photo by CherryX (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    10

    Hodjapasha Cultural Center

    See whirling dervishes in a 15th-century bath house

    • Couples
    • Nightlife

    For a taste of Turkey’s tradition in performing arts, you can head down to this cultural centre that’s near Istanbul’s magnificent central landmarks, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. The Hodjapasha Cultural Center is housed in a former 15th-century hammam, yet now features strikingly decorated interiors under its high dome ceiling, where vibrant dance performances regularly take place. Among the mystifying dances are the famous whirling dervishes, which is a mystical ritual of the Mevlevi Order, usually accompanied by Rumi poems. 

    Location: Hoca Paşa Mahallesi, Ankara Caddesi, Hocapaşa Hamamı Sokak 3/B, 34110 Sirkeci/Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Whirling dervishes usually start at 7 pm

    Phone: +90 (0)212 511 46 26

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    photo by Kemal.kubbe (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    11

    Go for a hammam

    Pampering, Turkish style

    • Couples
    • Luxury

    This is often a must-do on travellers’ lists to Turkey. Hammams in Istanbul come in various price ranges, but all typically feature a sauna, a steam, a full body wash, and massage. Istanbul has lots of hammams around the city, each offering the traditional Turkish bath and centuries-old spa experience. More modern hammams incorporate contemporary spa elements such as aromatherapy and use of essential oils. Prominent hammams include the Beyazit and Sulemaniye baths, and the Kilic Ali Pasha Hamam in Beyoğlu.

    Location: Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Daily from 8 am to 11.30 pm

    Phone: +90 (0)212 393 80 10

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    12

    Galata

    Discover Istanbul’s cool bar scenes

    • Nightlife

    There are a few fun ways to enjoy Istanbul by night, and one of them is by joining a pub crawl. Istanbul’s popular pub crawl regularly kicks off from The Tower Pub, where you can gather with new friends and hop from one bar to another, ending up at a club where you can party into the wee hours. Besides flowing drinks and cocktails, you’ll also enjoy games as well as fun challenges to complete. It's just across the river from the city centre, so you may want to choose a hotel in the neighbourhood of Galata.

    Location: The Tower Pub, Bereketzade Mahallesi, Galata Kulesi Sk. 4/1, 34000 Beyoğlu/Istanbul, Turkey

    Open: Friday – Saturday from 9.30 pm to 5 am

    Phone: +90 (0)554 805 96 05

    Map
    Ari Gunadi | Compulsive Traveller

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