Things to Do in Istanbul
A distinct Istanbul landmark, the world-famous Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii in Turkish) opened in 1616 and is renowned for its slender minarets and collection of domes. The Sultan Ahmet I conceived the structure to rival the nearby Byzantine Hagia Sofia which stands opposite the mosque in the city's busiest square. It was constructed over the site of an ancient hippodrome and Byzantine palace, and is one of the most beautiful mosques in Turkey.
Guarded by its six minarets and built around an enormous internal courtyard, the mosque's vast and curvaceous interior is ablaze with 20,000 delicate blue Iznik tiles—after which it gets its moniker of the Blue Mosque—featuring flowers, garlands, and intricate patterns.
The Blue Mosque can be visited on a small-group or private tour of the Sultanahmet neighborhood and is often paired with tours of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and the Hippodrome.
Originally built in the third century, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was the sporting and cultural center of the former Byzantine capital for over 1,000 years. With a U-shaped race track and two levels of spectator galleries, the Hippodrome likely held more than 100,000 people. While the Byzantine emperors (and later the Ottoman sultans) took great pride in the Hippodrome and devoted significant efforts to embellishing it, little remains of the original structure today.
Sultan Ahmet Square now covers the former site of the Hippodrome and largely follows its ground plan and dimensions. Pavement marks the course of the old race track and several interesting monuments remain as well. You can’t miss the towering Obelisk of Theodosius, the oldest monument in all of Istanbul. Made of pink granite, it was originally erected at the Amun Re temple at Karnak in Egypt, but was brought to Istanbul by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century.
Bosphorus, or the Istanbul Strait, functions not just as a border between Europe and Asia, but as one of the most beautiful sites in all of Turkey. Lined with scenic greenery, palaces, parks, and not to mention an absolutely gorgeous waterfront, Bosphorus has much more to offer than one may initially suspect.
One of its more popular landmarks, Dolmabahce Palace is one of the Ottoman Empire’s most significant and grandiose structures. With more than 240 rooms, and 43 hallways, Dolmabahce was a political hub in Turkey for the better part of one and a half centuries before the collapse of the empire.
If you’re looking to embrace the wonderful outdoors of the area, two of Bosphorus’ more beautiful parks are the Emirgan and Macka Parks. Where Emirgan contains a plethora of water-related scenery including ponds, waterfalls and the Bosphorus itself, Macka too shares views of the Bosphorus’ beauty, but is composed of charming valley terrain.
The Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsisi, is the mother of all markets, a treasure trove of gifts, souvenirs, essentials and fripperies. Heading into the cavernous bazaar from the daylight, it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust to this Arabian Nights visual feast of glimmering Turkish lights, brightly colored rugs and flickering candles.
Crammed into more than 60 domed alleys or streets, around 5,000 stallholders hold court in the labyrinthine covered market, parts of which date back to Byzantine days.
Calligraphy, carpets, beaded bracelets, gold and silver jewelry, curly-toed slippers, multicolored lanterns, flower-bedecked ceramics and belly-dancing outfits are just the tip of the iceberg in this shoppers’ cornucopia.
When the Ottoman sultans wanted to update their living space, they moved from the Topkapi complex on Seraglio Point to the Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi).
The sultans lived here from 1856 to 1922. With its columns and pediments, the opulent palace has a very European appearance, and the interior is a mid-Victorian statement in over-the-top luxury.
Gilt, marble and crystal abound, and also the home ot the world’s largest crystal chandelier, which was a gift from Queen Victoria.
Guided tours lead from waiting rooms to the offices of the Grand Vizier and other ornate apartments looking over the sea.
The palace has a special place in the hearts of modern-day Turks, as its where the leader Atatürk lived and passed away in in 1938.
Atmospheric music, rosy flood lighting and the lilting sound of water lapping on marble – entering the Underground Cistern known in Turkish as Yerebatan Sarayi - or Basilica Cistern, is an experience that charms all the senses.
Built to store water, this has to be the fanciest and most enormous well you’ll ever see. The cistern dates back to Byzantine days when the city was called Constantinople.
Built by Emperor Justinian in the mid-500s, the cavernous underground water-storage area has a vaulted brick ceiling supported by a forest of Corinthian-carved marble columns.
If this eerie, magical place looks a little familiar, you may recognize it from a scene in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love.
On your walk around the Basilica Cistern, seek out the two pillars that have the face of Medusa carved onto their base.
The Eminonu Pier is located along the southern end of the Galata Bridge and consists of multiple docks for ferries cruising along or crossing the Bosphorus.
Eminonu Halec Iskelesi (dock) is the furthest west of the docks and is the departure point for Sehir Hatlari Golden Horn ferries. The other dock west of the Galata Bridge, the TurYol Eminonu dock, is where you will find TurYol ferries to Uskudar, Haydarpasa and Kadikoy, as well as Bosphorus cruises. Follow the pedestrian way under the Galata Bridge and you will come to remaining five docks, with ferries heading to Uskudar and Kadikoy, as well as a car ferry heading to the Harem Otogar on the Asian side of Istanbul and multiple ferries cruising across the Bosphorus.
Before or after your ferry journey, try a fish sandwich from a boat at the pier, peruse the goods being hawked by merchants along the pier and sample some of the bites offered by other vendors.
The medieval Galata Tower adds a fairytale element to the hilly Beyoğlu district, on the north side of the Golden Horn.
Capped with a conical tiled steeple and gold finial, the 67 meter (220 foot) stone tower was built by the Genoese in 1348. Visit the outdoor observation area at the top for a stunning panorama across to Sultanahmet, have dinner or a snack at the tower-top restaurant, or watch a Turkish belly-dancing show at the nightclub.
More Things to Do in Istanbul
The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora is one of the most beautiful Byzantine churches still in existence today. Originally built in the 5th century, it was part of a monastery complex that stood outside the old city walls of what was then Constantinople. The name “Chora” refers to that location and even after it was mostly rebuilt in the early 11th century, the church retained the name.
An earthquake in the 12th century caused a partial collapse of the church and repairs weren’t completed until the early 14th century that it was completed thanks to funding from the great Byzantine statesman, Theodore Metochites. Most of the gorgeous mosaics and frescoes in the building date to that period and represent the best of the Palaeogian Renaissance. The mosaics depict various biblical scenes, including the birth of Christ and the journey of the Magi, as well as major events in the life of the Virgin Mary.
It’s been said that music, rhythm, and dance are universal languages that can transcend borders, ethnicity, race, and time. This is certainly true at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center, where ancient Turkish and Anatolian traditions are rhythmically weaved right before your eyes in an historic and intimate theater. The cultural center building itself was once an enormous Turkish bath dating back to 1470, and the building continued to serve as a bath up until 1988.
Today, however, this modern and captivating performance studio regularly hosts a variety of dance shows that manifest a spiritual beauty. Of the center’s three different dance performances, the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony is the most traditional, and features Whirling Dervishes who hypnotically spin in a mystical ancient routine. Other performances—such as Rhythm of the Dance—are more modern, upbeat, and lively, and belly dancers and troupes of both male and female dancers perform tales of Anatolian folklore.
Leave the present day behind and take a wander around Old Istanbul, the wonderful old Sultanahmet district.
This World Heritage-listed district is crammed with historic buildings and enough magical atmosphere to keep you enthralled for days.
Drink in the majesty of Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), a museum-church-mosque all in one, and admire the Blue Mosque that mirrors it. Spend days amid the riches of Topkapi Palace, and discover the underground world of the Basilica Cistern.
Then shop for everything from curly-toed slippers to magic lanterns in the massive Grand Bazaar.
The largest mosque in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque was built between 1550 and 1558 on the orders of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It is widely known as imperial architect Sinan’s greatest masterpiece.
You will enter the mosque through an impressive courtyard featuring columns of marble, granite and porphyry and four corner minarets – a number only allowable for a mosque commissioned by a sultan. Constructed as an almost perfect square, the interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque is grand in its simplicity, with basic designs in ivory and mother of pearl and a subtle use of Iznik tiles. The mosque was designed as part of a larger complex that included a hospital, primary school, a caravanseri, four madrassahs, a medical college and a public kitchen. Two mausoleums stand in the gardens behind the mosque, including the tombs of Suleyman I and his wife, daughter, mother and sister, as well as several other Ottoman sultans.
Istiklal Street, known in Turkish as Istiklal Caddesi, is one of the most well-known avenues in Istanbul. Stretching for about three kilometers, it is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the city and welcomes as many as 3 million visitors on any given day.
Known as Grand Avenue during the Ottoman Period, the avenue was renamed Istiklal (Independence) in 1923 to commemorate the declaration of the Republic of Turkey after the Turkish War of Independence. Running from the Galata Tower to Taksim Square, it is lined with late Ottoman era buildings built in a variety of architectural styles, ranging from Neo-Classical to Art Deco. Istiklal experienced a downturn in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the late 1980s a massive restoration project was underway to revitalize the historic area. Historic buildings along the street were restored, pavement was laid for full pedestrianization and the tram that once ran up and down the length of the avenue was reinstalled.
The Rumeli Fortress sits on a hill on the European side of Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus at its narrowest point. Built by Sultan Mehmed II prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the fortress was intended to help him control traffic along the Bosphorus and prevent aid from reaching the city from the Black Sea during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. With the help of thousands of workers, the fortress was completed in just over four months.
In addition to three main towers, the fortress had one small tower and thirteen watchtowers, as well as three main gates next to the three main towers. It also had wooden houses for soldiers, a small mosque and a large cistern that distributed water to the fortress through three wall fountains. The shaft of the mosque’s minaret and one of the water fountains remain in the fortress today. After the conquest of Constantinople, the fortress served as a customs checkpoint before later becoming a prison.
Located on the shores of the Bosphorus, on the Asian side of Istanbul, the Beylerbeyi Palace was a summer residence for Ottoman sultans and a guest house to entertain foreign heads of state. Sultan Abdulaziz ordered the construction of the palace in 1863 and it formally opened two years later. Over the years, it hosted visitors such as Empress Eugenie of France, Emperor Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden and Nasireddin, the Shah of Iran. It also served as the last place of captivity for deposed Sultan Abdulhamid II, who lived there until his death in 1918.
The two-story stone palace consists of six halls, 24 rooms, one hamam and one bathroom. The interior decorations mix Western neo-classical elements and traditional Ottoman design, with much of the furniture coming from Europe. The elegant reception hall is known as the Hall with Mother-of-Pearl and leads to a fine seaside room covered with rich wood paneling.
Once a small village, Ortakoy is now a neighborhood in the Besiktas district on the European side of Istanbul. With a plethora of bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs, Ortakoy buzzes with locals and tourists alike and is a great place to spend a day – especially a Sunday, when the street market comes to life.
During the Ottoman area and in the early years of the Turkish Republic, the area was home to a mix of Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Though the population today is primarily Muslim, remnants of the neighborhood’s historic diversity are still visible in the form of Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and other Christian structures.
On the waterfront, you’ll find the Ortakoy Mosque, built in the mid-19th century and featuring a blend of baroque and neoclassical influences. Behind the mosque looms the Bosphorus Bridge, which makes for a classic photo opportunity exemplifying the old-meets-new character of Istanbul. You might also check out the Ciragan Palace.
Maiden’s Tower, or Kiz Kulesi, is an ancient site in Istanbul located on a tiny islet in the Bosphorus Strait that has a history of both practicality and folklore. The origins of the tower aren’t completely known, leading to legends such as one attesting that it was built to lock away a princess after it was prophesized she would die from a snake bite on her 18th birthday.
The origin of Maiden’s Tower is believed to date back over 2,000 years, though the tower itself has changed over the centuries. Originally built of stone, a wooden tower was added in the 12th century after the Ottoman Turks conquered the area. This led to the tower’s downfall when a fire ravaged it in the 1700s. The tower was rebuilt in stone and in the 1800s a light was also added to the top. During this time, Maiden’s Tower also switched from being used as a defense tower to being intermittently used as a lighthouse and as a quarantine facility for those affected with cholera.
Istanbul is often referred to as the city where east meets west due to its bordering of two different continents, Asia and Europe. This sentiment is literally true when it comes to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Located over the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, one end of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is rooted in Europe while the other end sits in Asia. Residents of Istanbul who use Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge as their daily commute don't think twice about residing on one continent while working in another, but visitors to Istanbul will likely find it to be quite the novelty and will enjoy a drive across the bridge.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was built in 1988 and is one of the longest steel suspension bridges in the world. It is named after Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror who took control of Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, though the bridge is also commonly referred to as the Second Bosphorus Bridge.
See how the royalty of Istanbul’s past lived centuries ago with a visit to Küçüksu Palace, also referred to as Küçüksu Pavilion or Küçüksu Kasri. Built in the mid-1800s after being commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecit, Küçüksu Palace was used by Ottoman sultans as a summer palace where they headed for some hunting and relaxation.
Küçüksu Palace is smaller compared to other royal summer residences in Turkey, but still has an impressive façade and interior that blends together both European and Ottoman styles from the time period with intricate carvings along the exterior and gilded accents inside. Both history and design buffs will enjoy visiting the palace and learning more about life within its walls and outdoor gardens. The palace still reflects a stately Turkish home from the 19th and 20th centuries with traditional furniture along with a large collection of artwork.
Spanning the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s Galata Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in Turkey. The bridge has been a symbolic link between the old city center, with its imperial palaces and religious structures, and the more commercial neighborhoods that were populated by foreign merchants and diplomats. It also appears frequently in Turkish literature, poetry and theater.
While a bridge has stood in the same location since 1845, the current structure dates back only to 1994. The previous bridge (the fourth), was damaged in a fire in 1992 and moved further up the Golden Horn. Stretching from Karakoy to Eminonu, the present-day bridge is actually the fifth Galata Bridge to stand on those shores. At 42 meters wide, it has 3 lanes for traffic and one walkway in each direction. The lower level of the bridge is now lined with lively cafes and restaurants offering a magnificent view of the Golden Horn and the old city.
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