1. The Blue Mosque
Possibly one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever entered, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as it is commonly known, is truly a sight to behold. This grand mosque is made up of five main domes and six slender minarets and the interior has been decorated with over 20,000 handmade tiles which are coloured blue. When visiting the Blue Mosque, you are given scarves to cover your head, but I suggest dressing modestly for your visit.
2. Basilica Cistern
This incredible underground cistern is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The cistern, which was originally built in 532 to bring drinking water into Istanbul, was constructed using 336 columns, mostly salvaged from ruined temples. Be sure to check out the column with a magnificent-looking Medusa head on its end.
3. Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia reveals a timeline to Istanbul’s religious history. Formerly an Orthodox Cathedral from 532 to 1453, the building was then converted into a Mosque, until it became secularized in 1931 and turned into a museum. It is still technically considered to be the world’s second largest cathedral and is an awe-inspiring display of giant domes and intricate mosaics (even when half the building was covered in scaffolding)! I’d recommend booking a guided tour in advance so you can skip the queues.
4. Topkapi Palace
Home to generations of Sultans and their wives, Topkapi Palace provides a fascinating look into the history of royals in Turkey. There is a lot to explore on the premises, including a treasury for the crown jewels.
If you want to skip the line, check out this option, or if you want a general guided tour with Topkapi and the Grand Bazaar, check here.
If you’d like to gain a deeper knowledge of Istanbul and it’s history, Serhat Engul is local tour guide in Istanbul who offers comprehensive tours through the city. You can hire him to take you around and teach you about the fascinating Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history of Istanbul. To get in touch with him, head over to his Istanbul Clues travel blog.
5. Take a Ferry Ride down the Bosphorus
After spending days exploring this sprawling city, I came to the conclusion that Istanbul is best appreciated from the river. TURYOL run ferry services costing only 12TL for an hour and a half guided tours along the Bophorus. I would definitely recommend doing the cruise at sunset– it adds that extra bit of magic to the whole experience! Alternatively, you can make the experience a little more memorable and book a 3-course dinner cruise, which includes entertainment in the form of folk dancing and traditional music!
6. Catch the Tram at Taksim Square
To experience the true heart of Istanbul’s modernity, head to Taksim Square. Now a major tourist hotspot, you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and cafes, hotels and high-end shops in the area to keep you entertained. If you want to kick it old-school, catch the nostalgic tram from Taksim down Istiklal. The tram runs down an insanely busy street, which means the Tram Driver spends the whole time tooting to trying to get oblivious tourists off the tracks. When we rode the tram he even let us have a go at honking the horn! Make sure you also wander down Istiklal Street in the evening, when the area transforms into a lively hub of restaurants, bars, and street performers- it’s an Istanbul must-do!
7. Get an Istanbul Tourist Pass
If you are spending a few days in the city and planning to do a lot of the things on this list, pre-purchasing a 3 or 7 day Istanbul Tourist Pass could be good value for your money. The passes include everything from the entrance to all of Istanbul’s main attractions, a public transport card, a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise, Turkish Bath Experience, and Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour.
8. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
The most-visited tourist attraction in the whole city, the Grand Bazaar is a place you simply must experience during a stay in Istanbul. A never-ending hive of activity, you’ll find this marketplace overflowing with insistent locals selling everything from exquisite hand-embodied rugs to intricate silver jewelry to dazzling lanterns in every color of the rainbow. Shop owners seem to beckon from every direction, luring many in with cups of warm apple tea and samples of their delicious Turkish delight. Getting lost in this unique maze of Turkish goods may be a sensory overload, but it is an enchanting one at that.
9. Delight your senses at the Spice Market
Similar to the Grand Bazaar, the spice market will overwhelm your senses from the moment you walk in. If it’s a taste of Turkey you are after, you’ve come to the right place! Here, you can purchase just about every spice under the sun, alongside delicious teas, dried fruits, nuts, candy, baklava and of course, Turkish Delight. It is the perfect spot to purchase cheap, easy and edible souvenirs. Plus- the vendors love to give out samples to lure you in, and let’s be honest- who doesn’t love free samples?
10. Eat seafood under the Galata Bridge
If you want to eat dinner in Istanbul with a unique view, you can’t beat a seafood dinner under the Galata Bridge. Here, you’ll find a throng of slightly overpriced seafood restaurants that aren’t afraid to hassle you to get you through their doors. Skip these establishments and head straight to a local vendor, grab a fish sandwich, and enjoy unbeatable views over the shimmering Bosphorus river.
11. Visit a traditional Turkish Bathhouse
To truly immerse yourself in the culture of a country you sometimes have to get out of your comfort zone, and visiting one of Istanbul’s Hamams is the perfect way to do this. Hamams have been a Turkish tradition for thousands of years, used as both a place to socialize and a place to cleanse. Most bathhouses are separated by gender, and yes, it is normal for everyone to be walking around naked, or at least topless. A traditional Hamam experience involves transitioning through different rooms of varying temperatures, including a hot steam room and cold and hot pools. Once you reach the end, you generally receive a brisk scrub down by an attendant. Yep, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t forget in a hurry (plus, you’ll never feel cleaner)! If you are still hesitant about visiting a Hamam, check out Lonely Planet’s Guide to Istanbul’s Bathhouses.
12. Drink Turkish Apple Tea with a shop owner
Tea (or çay) is a very big part of Turkish hospitality and you will find it in virtually every café, restaurant, and house you go to. Along with regular cay, Turkish Apple Tea is a popular specialty and is a very sweet, delicious drink that resembles warm apple juice. Often, shopkeepers will offer tea to customers, a sign of friendship and hospitality. Make sure you say yes to the offer- doing so will give reveal to you the warmth and kindness of the Turkish people and allow you to gain a glimpse into one of Turkey’s strongest traditions.