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Things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in  Istanbul

Welcome to Istanbul

Once known as Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul's position on the Silk Road has made it an economical, historical and cultural center, serving as an imperial capital multiple times for the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. With both Asian and European sides to the city, there's a lot to explore. The old walled neighborhood of Sultanahmet is home to some of the most recognizable sights, such as the Hagia Sophia, with its dazzling mosaics and the enormous dome that has covered this space since the sixth century, when it was a Roman basilica. You'll also want to experience Topkapi Palace—containing lavish interiors and many Christian and Islamic relics—as well as the Blue Mosque and the giant underground Basilica Cistern. City views of the river suggest the next step: A Bosphorous cruise, navigating along the vast expanse of water that unites two continents, provides a wonderful way to see the banks of the Golden Horn. To delve into the local culture, as well as for help with haggling, visitors can take a private tour of the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, containing some of the richest smells in the world. For longer visits, tours from Istanbul can take visitors far and wide to the remarkable rocky landscapes of Cappadocia, the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, and even to the WWI sites of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Top 15 attractions in Istanbul


The Bosphorus Strait defines Istanbul. It is the divide between Europe and Asia, and the main connection between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Dotted with parks and elaborate Ottoman mansions, including Dolmabahce Palace, and spanned by three intercontinental bridges, the Bosphorus is the veritable heart of the city.More

Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)

Explore the grandeur of Ottoman architecture at the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), located on Istanbul’s Old City peninsula. Opened in 1616 to rival the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) across the way, the six minarets punctuating the Istanbul skyline and 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorating its interior are designed to inspire awe.More

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

Built in 532 as the world’s largest place of worship, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) shifts its identity with the times but never loses its grandeur. Converted from a church to a mosque during the Ottoman era and becoming a museum in 1935, the pink-hued Old City building is one of Istanbul’s don’t-miss attractions.More

Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)

Behold the imperial complex of Ottoman sultans at Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), the royal residence in Istanbul throughout the first 400 years of the Ottoman Empire. The palace contains myriad buildings and courtyards, including a treasury, harems, an armory, imperial halls, and royal chambers—all with intricate Iznik tilework and opulent architecture.More

Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani)

Built in the third century, the Hippodrome was the home of now-named Istanbul’s sporting entertainment during the Byzantine era, with a wide track for chariot racing. Today, the route of the old track is covered by Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani), a wide open space in the center of the old city, punctuated by ancient obelisks.More

Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi)

Built in an opulent European style, Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi) was the home of the Ottoman sultans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the fall of the empire. The giant crystal chandeliers, marble staircases, and lush carpets that adorn the interior reflect the shift toward Istanbul’s more European way of thinking.More

Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu)

The Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu) in Istanbul is one of three continent-spanning bridges over the Bosphorus Strait, connecting Europe and Asia. When it opened in 1973, the 5,118-foot (1,560-meter) bridge was the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world. And though it has since slid down the rankings, it is still an impressive sight to behold.More

Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

Built in the 17th century, the covered Spice Bazaar is Istanbul’s fragrant hub for all things flavorful. Piles of pepper, saffron, teas, and dried apricots nestle alongside shops selling colorful Turkish delight, silk scarves, and glass mosaic lamps. Take time to chat with vendors, sip tea, and haggle for the perfect price.More

Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

Rising high above its namesake neighborhood, Istanbul’s Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) dates back to the Genoese presence in Constantinople in the 14th century. An elevator takes you up to a viewing platform located under the roof, which offers panoramic views of the Old City peninsula and Beyoglu neighborhood.More

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

Beautiful yet eerie, Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) isn’t your average underground well. Dating back to the Byzantine era, the huge cistern was built in the mid-500s on the former site of a basilica. More than 300 marble columns provide a grand, serene atmosphere to what was essentially subterranean water storage.More

Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari)

Built over just four months, the 15th-century Rumeli Fortress played a key role in the fall of Byzantine Constantinople. Together with the Anatolian Fortress (Anadolu Hisarı) on the Bosphorus, Rumeli Fortress was used by the Ottomans to cut off aid and supplies to Constantinople. Today, it serves as both an open-air theater and site of historical interest.More

Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi)

Located on an islet in the Bosphorus Strait, just offshore from Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood, Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi) is a historical site that has inspired myths and legends. The Ottomans expanded and rebuilt the structure, and today it contains a restaurant and bar with views of the city.More

Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi)

Located in the shadow of Istanbul’s first bridge, Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi) was historically a summer residence for Ottoman sultans. The 24 rooms of the palace contain a mix of Ottoman and Western decoration, with 19th-century furniture from Europe and garden pavilions, and its ornate exterior is visible from the Bosphorus Strait.More

Sultanahmet District

Home to some of Istanbul’s most recognizable attractions, the Sultanahmet District is an ideal place to explore the city’s complex history. With the rose-colored Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) sitting across from the six minarets of the Blue Mosque and down the street from the energetic Grand Bazaar, this neighborhood packs in a wealth of culture.More

Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi) is the ultimate covered market. Its 5,000+ vendors hawk carpets, beaded bracelets, gold and silver jewelry, multicolored lanterns, leather goods, ceramics, belly-dancing outfits, and more. With goods available at all price points, you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir in the bazaar’s labyrinthine alleys.More
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All about Istanbul

When to visit

Spring is a beautiful time to explore Istanbul, when dolphin sightings are possible along the Bosphorus and the International Tulip Festival casts a wave of color through the city’s parks. To avoid the crowds, visit in fall when the cruise ships have left and the humidity drops—travelers on a budget will appreciate the post-summer drop in prices, too.

Getting around

Istanbul is famous for its traffic, but there are ways to beat the rush. Ride from Taksim Square to Tünel Square on the historic tram line. Metro lines pass through tourist attractions in Sultanahmet. Head to the Princes’ Islands or the Asian side of the city in a ferry crossing the Bosphorus. And there are two funicular lines, one running between Karaköy and Tünel Square and the other between Karaköy and the buzzy pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal.

Traveler tips

To avoid the crowds at the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, visit instead the no-less-stunning Eyup Sultan Mosque—constructed by the Ottomans in the 15th century and rebuilt in 1800 after an earthquake. After your visit, follow the steps through the adjacent cemetery to the historic Pierre Loti café, where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over the Golden Horn.

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People Also Ask

What is Istanbul famous for?

Known for centuries as Constantinople, Istanbul was capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, then later home to generations of sultans as center of the Ottoman Empire. Both civilizations left magnificent buildings and artworks, like the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul is also the only city in the world that straddles two continents.

Can you do Istanbul in 3 days?

Yes, but only barely. Count on a full day for knockouts like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet, and earmark half a day for Topkapi Palace. Factor in souvenir shopping in the Grand Bazaar and a photo stop at Galata Tower, and you’ll leave already planning your next Istanbul trip.

What is the best part of Istanbul?

Nothing says “must-see” like the sights of Sultanahmet. But many travelers prefer quieter corners of the sprawling city, like the colorful, winding alleys in the old Greek and Jewish enclaves of Fener and Balat. You can also take a day trip out to the Princes’ Islands by public ferry.

What is there to do in Istanbul?

If you’re itching for activities beyond the usual sightseeing circuit, consider a soak in a hammam (Turkish bathhouse); a ferry ride to either the Princes’ Islands or the hip, restaurant-filled neighborhood of Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city; or a Turkish delight and coffee shopping spree in the Spice Bazaar.

Do they speak English in Istanbul?

Yes, you’ll find English being spoken among shopkeepers and restaurant staff in many tourist areas, including Sultanahmet. Young people also often learn English as a second or third language. But if you want to get off the tourist track, learning a few basic Turkish words and phrases is a must.

What should I avoid in Istanbul?

Istanbul is massive and full of blockbuster sights. Avoid a “must-see-everything” approach and give yourself time to explore the city—it’s a wanderers’ paradise. Take advantage of the metro and public ferry. And while most locals in Istanbul are lovely, be watchful of potential scammers in tourist districts.


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