16 Fantastic Things to Do in Istanbul on Your Visit

Steve Cummings

Beautiful woman cruises in ferry with view Galata bridge,Suleymaniye Mosque and Eminonu Town in Istanbul,Turkey

Istanbul was first established as the Greek Byzantium before being conquered by invading Persians and then captured by the Spartans. It was then rebuilt into Constantinople, and the Ottoman Empire conquered it. Although the political side of Turkey moved to Ankara, the capital, Istanbul still had iconic heritage and historical sites.

That’s not to say that Istanbul is stuck in the past because it is not. The city that has changed hands of power many times has constantly evolved. While the older structures and buildings offer a look back to its ancient history, the town has grown and developed. When you get there, Istanbul can shock the system, and you may find it overwhelming to decide what to do. We have compiled this guide to some of the best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.

1. Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace
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The stunning Topkapi Palace was built to celebrate the Ottoman Empire’s victory over Constantinople, and it is one of the things to see in Istanbul. It is built on a hill where the Acropolis of the Caesars stood, overlooking the city. The palace was built to be the primary residence of the Sultans, from where they could rule their vast empire.

Nowadays, it is a museum of courtyards and buildings in various architectural styles. While there, enjoy the tree-strewn squares, stucco tiles, and wood-inlaid ceilings. You must also check out the Circumcision Chamber, Baghdad Pavilion, and Harem, all of which have intricately designed interiors.

Many cultural relics and artwork pieces from the former Ottoman Empire can also be found here.

2. Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazar
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Turkey is famous for many things, including its many bazaars and marketplaces. One of the best things to do in Istanbul is visit the Grand Bazaar, one of the world's oldest markets. It was first built in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire following their successful city occupation. This is a labyrinth-like maze of stalls selling a wide range of unique and exciting things from mascara, masks, baklava, bowls, and clothes to carpets, trays, trinkets, spices and soaps, and just about anything else you can imagine.

However, one of the best things about a trip to the Grand Bazaar is its electric energy, which allows people to come and go, haggling, buying, selling, and conversing.

3. Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya)

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The Hagia Sophia was believed to be the most significant interior space in the world in the 6th century. Constructed by the famed Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian, it is one of the best things to visit in Istanbul. The building has a fascinating history because the church was transformed into a mosque less than 1,000 years later when the Ottoman Empire captured Istanbul. Bringing things up to more modern times, it was classified as a museum in 1935 and then a mosque again in 2020.

These changes, the various great empires, and the different religions that have shaped Hagia, Sofia, and Istanbul make the building essential and unique. On the interior, you will find golden Christian murals above Islamic prayer niches. There are various inscriptions by the Crusaders on the hand railings beside the huge medallions painted with Allah’s different names.

4. Karaköy Güllüoğlu

The sweet treat of baklava is an integral part of Turkish cuisine and culture. The rich, decadent filo pastry layers with sticky fillings and toppings are something you must eat. There are plenty of places to eat this high-calorie dessert or snack. However, if you want to know one of the best things to buy in Istanbul, it’s baklava from Karaköy Güllüoğlu. From the exterior, it may not look like a lot – a simple shop front. Even if you peered inside the front door, you may easily decide to walk away as it seems like any old buffet-style café.

However, trust us when we tell you that you should take the time to walk in and stand in the confusing queue. Why? The selection of different baklava is out of this world. They are all made to perfection.

5. Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmed Mosque

We have already mentioned Hagia Sofia, but if you are looking for more things to visit in Istanbul, Turkey, that showcase the importance of religion to the country and are rivals in elegance and grandeur, then you should explore the Blue Mosque. Officially named Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this was constructed on the foundations of the city's Byzantine emperor's Great Palace.

The name is striking and apt, highlighting the stunning blue tiles of its dome-shaped ceiling. A very calming shade of blue, it is lit up by large chandeliers that cast shadows and light across the thick carpets covering the floor. When you enter the Blue Mosque, you will find a tranquil place to escape from the chaotic hustle-bustle of modern Istanbul.

6. Misir Çarşısı (Spice Market)

Spice market
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If you are looking for unique things to do in Istanbul during your trip, how about a trip to Mısır Çarşısı, otherwise known as the Spice Market?  That’s right; it’s a market dedicated to spices and other ingredients that you can use to season and flavor your home-cooked dishes. Dried fruits, sweets, and nuts are also available from stalls in narrow laneways.

Be careful, though. With so many scented items for sale here, it can be a bit of a sensory overload. Take the time to acclimate yourself to it, and speak to the shop owners and stall merchants, haggle, or enjoy the atmosphere.

7. Turkish Hammam

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Another special thing to do in Istanbul for a truly authentic experience of this country and its heritage is to attend a Turkish Hammam. Like Roman baths, Turkish Hammams are public baths often found in ornately designed buildings. The process begins with a swift covering of water; then, you have time to take a break and relax on some heated marble.

The next part of the process is when one of the attendants gives you a rough wash using black soap and a coarse mitten to remove dead skin. Following that, you are showered in water. If this sounds a bit harsh, don’t worry. It is topped offwith a relaxing bath in soapy bubble water.

8. Miniaturk

So far, we’ve included a lot of sacred and religious places, which, while worthwhile and fascinating, may not appeal to all of your traveling party. For instance, if you are looking for things to do in Istanbul with kids, you will need more than mosques. That’s where a wonderful place called Miniaturk excels. This fan- and family-focused tour allows you to see and marvel at Turkey's most important and famous landmarks in just a few hours.

What is it? Turkey in miniature. Covering 650,000-square-foot gardens, Miniaturk has over 100 intricately detailed buildings built to an impressive 1:25 scale. You will find the Ataturk International Airport, with runways, taxis for Turkish Airlines passenger jets and terminals, and other sites like Blue Mosque. Although it is not technically in Istanbul’s borders, it sits only 20 minutes away on the Golden Horn's northeastern shore.

9. Spend Some Time in Ortaköy

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Among the many fun things to do in Istanbul is a visit to the beautiful and trendy Ortaköy neighborhood. Located beside the iconic Bosphorus, it is an especially great place to be during the weekend when the local streets are full of markets and bursting with life. If you go there on a Sunday, you will experience an amiable atmosphere and can savor the delights of the best brunches in the city.

You will find the best cafes and eateries on Firini Street. Café Zemheri offers a tasty selection of food and drink. Then, there are some vintage stores, a flea market, and a covered market beside the riverfront.

10. Explore the Modern Art Museums and Galleries of Istanbul

Although you may have yet to consider it, Turkey has a thriving and exciting art scene. One of the must-do things in Istanbul is exploring the various art museums and galleries throughout the city. Not only is the art on display of an international standard, but the buildings themselves are a marvel for the eyes.

Take Istanbul Modern, for instance. This big and densely packed warehouse is considered by many to be one of the finest exhibitions of modern art in the world. Much of this collection is dedicated to work by famous Turkish artists, with different mediums showcased alongside pieces that focus on critical social issues in the country. You’ll also find the work of celebrated international artists.

11. Monument to Tombili

What if you have a few hours to spend before your flight? There are some things to do near Istanbul Airport, and one of the most curious things that offers excellent insight into modern Turkey is the monument to the famous street cat Tombili. Tombili, the Turkish word for chubby, was a street cat living in Istanbul.

Why is a cat famous? As the statue shows perfectly, the cat became a national treasure when he was photographedreclining on a sidewalk. He was not only renowned in Turkey but around the world.

12. Süleymaniye Mosque

Many of the things to see and do in Istanbul have been mosques because of the city’s connection to Islam. One of the most famous is the Süleymaniye Mosque, an amazing example of traditional Ottoman art. This was constructed in 1550 and was the biggest mosque in the city for more than 460 years. On the interior, there are simple turquoise and blue floral tiles. Its buttresses have been incorporated into its interior.

It is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul and provides some of the most breathtaking views across the city.

13. Enjoy the Rooftop Bar Scene in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey
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If you want to enjoy some tasty Turkish drinks and sights across the city, one of the most intriguing things to see and do in Istanbul is to enjoy the atmosphere of the rooftop bar scene. You can take in some of the most impressive views, particularly of the seven hills. Among the best venues is the Seven Hills Hotel, which is based in Sultanahmet and has fantastic views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It also has a decent seafood restaurant.

360 Istanbul is a great restaurant that focuses on a traditional Turkish meze menu that combines elements of international cuisine. The balcony offers the city's best views and has excellent live music, a stunning selection of exciting cocktails, and some of the best customer service.

14. Chora Church (Kariye Mosque)

As you will see, religion is very important in Turkey, and another of the great things to see in Istanbul is Chora Church, otherwise known as Kariye Mosque. This was a medieval Greek Orthodox place of worship within the faith district of the city. The word Chora was translated into the country when it was built outside the city walls that Emperor Constantine had constructed. It was reconverted from a museum to a mosque in 2020.

15. Basilica Cistern

credits: Basilica Cistern/depositphotos

There are various things to see and do in Istanbul. Basilica Cistern is a massive, intricate network of old cisterns beneath the city. It was constructed in 523 AD and carried the ancient Byzantine water supply. It is 139 meters long, similarly sized to a cathedral, and can hold 80,000 cubic meters.

16. Istiklal Caddesi

If you are looking for exciting things to see and do in Istanbul and have some spare moments, head over to Istiklal Caddesi. It can be polarizing for locals and visitors. Sometimes, more than 3 million people will visit it during the weekend, and it can be hard to know if the street is a tourist attraction or if you are a tourist attraction while you are there.

Final Thoughts 

Turkey is a beautiful and exciting country to visit. As we hope you can see, there are many great things in Istanbulthat will give you insight into its history and heritage. Whether it's a long weekend or two weeks, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend there. You will have a great time. 

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