Are you planning a trip to one of the oldest cities in the world? Istanbul is known for being a lively and eccentric combination of hundreds of years of history. As a popular tourist destination, the architecture, food, and scenic views bring people to the city year after year.
There is so much to do that it is unlikely to be boring while you’re roaming the city’s welcoming streets. With all that the city offers, you should plan your trip and look at the best time to visit Istanbul.
Read on to discover some of the city’s best landmarks and activities.
Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Istanbul has the luxury of being one of the most culturally diverse and exciting cities. With such an eclectic mix of the east and west, it’s as if the city was made for exploring. There are endless opportunities to see something new when visiting.
Mosques, cisterns, tile patterns, and tulips are just a few of the trademark features of visiting Istanbul, Turkey. Here is a breakdown of some of the quintessential places to visit in Istanbul for an authentic Turkish experience.
Visit Istanbul’s Famous Mosques
It wouldn’t be a trip to Istanbul if you ignored some of the most significant landmarks that keep this destination famous. Mosques are an integral part of Istanbul living, with a whopping 3,000 mosques open yearly.
The majority of Istanbul’s population is Muslim. Although the state is secular, the people of Istanbul take pride in their faith. And in that devotion, we find some of the most beautiful architectural constructions in our lifetime.
The Hagia Sophia has a long history beginning in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian I. The structure was initially a Christian church, but when the Byzantine Empire fell to Ottoman rule, the religious denomination of the empire changed.
Modifications were made to convert the church into an Islamic mosque. Today you can find traces of Christian imagery beneath the structural changes implemented by the Ottomans. The most famous is the mosaic illustrations of Christ.
The mosque was turned into a museum in 1934 during the secularization of Turkey. However, since 2020 the Hagia Sophia has been a mosque once more. Previously you had to pay 100 Turkish Liras (about $5 US dollars) to enter, but now it is entirely free.
The interior displays a beautiful combination of Christian and Islamic iconography and is a marvel to view. However, now that it’s used as a place of worship again, you may have to check available times for a full tour of the mosque.
Note: The Byzantine Empire formed part of Rome. If you’re interested in learning more about ancient Roman architecture, have a look at these Vatican and Colosseum tours.
The Blue Mosque was built by royal architect Mehmed Ağa in 1609 and it was completed in 1616. Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the construction to complement the Hagia Sophia. The mosque became a symbol of Ottoman strength which can be seen in its perfect symmetry and massive size.
The mosque gets its name from thousands of hand-crafted Iznik tiles displaying various flowers and patterns. Blue hues imbued in the tiles shine vibrantly against the light of over 200 windows. The base of the mosque is supported by elephant foot pillars which hold the central dome and four smaller domes.
Another fascinating element of the mosque is the six minarets that line the outside of the construction. There was a translation error in which “gold minarets” were mistaken for “six minarets”. The only other mosque in the world with six minarets was in Mecca.
So the Sultan had to add an extra minaret to Mecca’s mosque. Because of its importance, the mosque is part of Istanbul’s historic area, dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Note: This is a working mosque, so you will need to check prayer times before your visit.
Wander Around the Grand Bazaar
Visiting Istanbul’s largest covered market is definitely for people who love to shop and explore. The Grand Bazaar spans 30,000 square feet and has 4,000 shops across 64 streets.
The bazaar has a vast variety of goods being sold daily, from carpets to lanterns, jewelry, and edibles. If you’re not snacking on Turkish delights, you may be bartering for a new tea set with a friendly hawker. You will have to bargain for every item you buy, so do your research by scouting different vendors and asking locals for help.
The shop owners at the bazaar are friendly, and all of them will offer you tea and a chance to chat while you view their items. If you plan to visit the Grand Bazaar, note that you won’t be able to see everything in one visit. The operating hours are from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm, Monday to Saturday.
Marvel At the Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was once the home of 30 Sultans ruling for nearly four centuries during the Ottoman reign. The palace was constructed in the 1450s after Constantinople’s capture. With every Sultan came new renovations and expansions to the building.
The architecture, style, and decoration often changed between Islamic, Ottoman, and European styles—the rapid changes left behind a bounty of furniture and decorations. You can still see these pieces of history in rotating furniture scenes hosted by the museum. Topkapi Palace became a museum in 1924 and is now a popular tourist spot.
With its glorious tile work inside and outside the palace, the view of the palace is awe-inspiring. The picturesque gardens and their locality to the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus Strait add to the appeal of the decorative structure.
If you plan on visiting, ensure you have 200 Turkish Lira ($10 US) per person or book and buy your tickets in advance.
What to Do in Istanbul If You Have More Time
Seeing all the landmarks and shops in Istanbul is a must-do, especially for first-time travelers. But what about an activity that requires a bit more adventure if you have the time?
Maybe you’d be interested in riding the waves of the Bosphorus Or perhaps you’d like to venture down into the bowels of the Basilica Cistern and tour the ancient water tunnels.
Keep reading to find out more about these activities.
Take a Boat Ride on the Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait is the river uniting the Black and Marmara Seas. It also separates the European and Asian halves of Istanbul. Thanks to the division of the river, Istanbul is the only city to be divided over two continents.
The Bosphorus is a crucial international waterway that allows for connections between the seas for trade. The Bosphorus Bridge is also a famous landmark as it connects the two sides of Istanbul. Locals and travelers can take a boat ride over the Bosphorus and see the sights of Istanbul’s east and west sides.
You can take an all-day trip or just cruise for a few hours and enjoy the insights of a local guide. You will also find boats docked on the Bosphorus harbor selling all sorts of goods. The most notable being balik ekmek, or fresh fish wrapped in warm bread. It is a very cheap meal and a staple of Istanbul’s food culture.
Explore The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul. This particular cistern is located 490 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian I and is 105,000 square feet in area.
The massive ceiling is held up by 336 marble columns 30 feet high and 16 feet apart. The decorative elements within the cistern include two columns carved with the face of Medusa as well as other decorative carvings.
The cistern used to be responsible for supplying water to the Great Palace of the Byzantine Empire. Now, the water level is kept low to allow visitors to marvel at its enormity. The Basilica is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm and requires an entrance fee.
Because of its impressive construction, exploring the Basilica Cistern is definitely a must on your visit to Istanbul.
More Things to Do in Istanbul
Aside from the massive attractions, there are some more staple things you can do in Istanbul. Here is a list of a few activities that weren’t mentioned above.
- Visit a local bathhouse or Hammam and enjoy a unique bathing experience. Get scrubbed, steamed, and soak in the relaxing waters of Istanbul.
- Enjoy the mass of tulips at Gülhane Park. This park has its own spot on the tram line and hosts the Tulip Festival every year.
- Finally, learn the symbolism of Turkish carpets at the Carpet Museum before buying your own at the Grand Bazaar.
Top Things to Do in Istanbul: Conclusion
Istanbul is a pleasure to visit with all it has to offer. Beyond the amazing activities and landmarks available you’ll have a great time just wandering from place to place.
The time in between your activities is guaranteed to be fun and interesting. If you plan a trip to Istanbul know these activities will be worth your while as you embark on your adventure.