Seating in both Europe and Asia, Istanbul offers a glance of past Roman and Ottoman Empires in the Old Sultanahmet, stepping into religious changes at the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and the vibrant site of the Istanbulite life of modern Beyoglu. Last but not least, don’t leave without tasting Turkish cuisine! Find out more about the Top Things to Do in Istanbul for your next trip.
Top Thing to Do in Istanbul
Each building in Istanbul is like a museum; each stone has its history. If you have to focus on a few areas, the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, should be your top three visits. The ever-changing status of Hagia Sophia is fascinating. First, a basilica in the 6th century, which then became an imperial mosque in the 15th, to end as a museum in the 20th. No wonder the Hagia Sophia is is such an essential part of Istanbul. The Byzantine architecture is, of course, stunning. Don’t miss the second floor for a better view of the nave and admire the mosaics dated back to the 8th century.
The 17th-century Blue Mosque is also called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but takes its more popular name from the 20,000+ mosaic blue tiles that compose the building, with tiles varying in hues from marine to purple. The 200 stained glass windows allow the lights to come through, so many sure to walk around and look up the ceilings from different angles. Friday prayers tend to be very busy.
The home palace for the Ottomans during 400 years, the Topkapi, is massive, which will take several hours of exploration. Ceremonial rooms and courtyards compose what is considered to be one of the best Ottoman architecture; use your imagination to picture how life was there at that time. A must-see if the Imperial Harem, which features 400 rooms, many you can visit and admire the beautiful mosaics and carved woodwork.
The Basilica Cisterns are not as visited as the nearby Hagia Sofia or Blue Mosque, but the 6th-century water system is worth visiting. The columns are an exciting mix of several Greek styles, and the cool temperatures make it for a nice break during the hot summer temperatures.
Considered one of the oldest in the world, the Grand Bazaar features over 3,000 stalls. Shop for coloful lanterns, carpets, leather bags, and silver ornaments! Check the beautifully decorated ceilings as you walk the hallways.
The largest mosque in Istanbul, the Imperial Mosque was built in the 16th century by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Head to the hills of Istanbul and enjoy the quiet mosque, a more peaceful visit than the Blue Mosque. Enjoy the views of the Sultamanet from the hills.
Egyptian Spice Bazaar
If you want to stock on spices of all colors and tastes, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar should be high on your list. Turkish delights, of course, but also dried fruits, and sweets!
Kariye Museum (Chora Church)
The medieval Greek Orthodox Church, which was, however, built in the 4th century, has been transformed into a museum in what is today the Edirnekapi neighborhood. Make sure to step inside the church where you can find some of the oldest Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. While not the largest Byzantine church, the beauty and state of these magnificent tiles make it stand out.
You can’t miss the Galata Tower as it stands on the top of the hill in Beyoglu, the more modern side of Istanbul. Once at the top, enjoy the 360-degrees view of Istanbul, covering the Golden Horn, the Old Town, the European side, to the Bosphorus and up to the Oriental side of town.
Istiklal Caddesi & Taksim Square
The mile-long pedestrian street has become the symbol of cosmopolitan Beyoglu. There you will find fashion shops, Kebab restaurants, trendy cafes, and busy bookstores; the road leads you to the popular hangout Taksim Square.
The 18th-century palace is the largest in Turkey and features Baroque, Rococo, as well as Neoclassical styles. Located on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait, the palace became the full-time summer residence of the Ottomans thanks to its extended comfort over the Topkapi Palace.
The Ottomans turned this small village into a trendy neighborhood, popular today with its religious monuments, art galleries, and busy bars. Worth checking is the Ortaköy Mosque for its beautiful neo-baroque style, as the mosque stands on the Bosphorus Strait shores.
An impressive Ottoman fort built in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed II at the narrowest point of the strait to protect himself from naval attacks when he conquered Constantinople, which was the name of Istanbul at the time of the Eastern Roman Empire was changed and established the roots of what would become the Ottoman Empire. Rumelihisari is worth a visit for sure.
Splurge in a Turkish Bath
One cannot visit Istanbul and not treat him or herself with a Turkish bath. Istanbul is packed with hammams, with a wide choice of settings, locations, and of course, prices. Many hammams are in historical buildings like the 18th-century marble Cagaloglu Hammam. Of notes are the Çemberlitaş Hamam, considered one of the oldest hammans in Istanbul. Or the Beylerbeyi Hamam popular with its wooden structure.
Cruise the Bosphorus Strait
Cruising the Bosphorus is an excellent way to discover the other areas and aspects of Istanbul. Pass by Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Fortress, and Ortakoy, or head to the Oriental side of town. As travel tips, make sure to board a cruise that will stop at these different attractions so you can combine that boat ride as a full day of sightseeing.
Savor Turkish Cuisine
Spice up your Kebab, and discover Pilavüstü (over rice) or İskender (with tomato sauce and hot butter). Splurge in meze, traditional appetizers such as hummus, yogurt, olives, various types of feta cheese, cucumber salad, and dips of all kinds. Go beyond Turkish delights – called lukums in Turkey, and taste Revani – a dense semolina-based sponge cake, or Aşure – a fruity pudding composed of figs, apricots, raisins, and other secret ingredients.
Whether you are a history buff, a food amateur looking to excite your taste buds, or simply eager to discover the millennia-old city, Istanbul is sure to charm you.
What to Do in Istanbul Itinerary 3 Days
Day 1: Sultanahmet in Old Istanbul
Explore the Old Town of Istanbul: The Sultanahmet And Around
- Start with the Hagia Sophia as early as possible to avoid the crowd that will come mid-morning. Plan for at least two hours there.
- Head to Topkapi Palace nearby. Another popular site in Istanbul and likely to be busy as well. Schedule to spend two hours there too.
- Have lunch around one of the nearby restaurants but if you can, try one with a rooftop for incredible views of Hagia Sophia
- Next visit the Basilica Cisterns where the cold temperatures will be a nice break from the usually hot temperatures, especially in the summer months
- The following steps would be the Suleymaniye Mosque. Be sure to check the praying hours as mosques are typically closed to visitors during these times
- Finish your day at the Grand Bazaar or the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Shop for spices, fabrics, teapots, food, and anything in between!
Day 2: Head to Beyoglu and Beyond
- Start your day by visiting the Kariye Museum (The Chora Church)
- Head back towards one of the bridges that link the Sultanahmet area to Beyoglu and watch boats and people hurrying around
- Walk around up to the Galata Tower but stop at one of the outside cafés around for a cup of Turkish coffee or Turkish tea
- Go up the Galata Tower for stunning views of Istanbul and Bosphorus
- Walk along the Istiklal Caddesi and shop along. It’s along with a good place for a lunch break.
- Spend some time people-watching at the Taksim Square
- Return to the Sultanahmet and treat yourself with a Hamman or Turkish bath
- Dine on Istanbul cuisine
Day 3: Day trip from Istanbul
You don’t have to go far to enjoy other experiences around Istanbul
Ideas for Day Trips from Istanbul:
- Bosphorus cruise to experience Istanbul from the water
- Dolmabahçe Palace
- Rumeli Fortress – these two attractions are in Istanbul, but away from the “centers” of town, hence they need a bit more preparation and time. You can combine both as a day trip.
Any other recommendations to add? Any feedback on Istanbul? Please comment below!
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