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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Turkey

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Bosphorus
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269 Tours and Activities

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.

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Ephesus (Efes)
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The ancient Greek city of Ephesus, also know as Efeze. Famed for its Temple of Artemis, it is also one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Ephesus’s most spectacular site has to be the façade of the Library of Celsus. Constructed between 110 and 135AD, the library originally had three floors, but an earthquake destroyed the building in the 10th century.

Other sites include the Theater, Basilica of St. John, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, Church of Mary, House of the Virgin, the Isabey Mosque, the Prytaneion, the synagogue and the Temple of Hadrian. All the sites are in varying states of disrepair. Unfortunately, all that remains of the Temple of Artemis, rumoured to have been four times as large as the Parthenon, is one column standing in a marshy basin.

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Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
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Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, built to be the world’s largest place of worship by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. The church became a Mosque under the Ottomans, and its mosaics and decoration were plastered over. They have been successively revealed since the 1930s, when the building was declared a museum by Turkey’s legendary ruler, Atatürk. The Hagia Sophia’s golden mosaics are rivaled only by Ravenna’s, and its design was the inspiration for the basilica of San Marco in Venice. The huge complex is a riot of domes and minarets, focusing on the huge central dome which for centuries was unrivaled as an architectural masterpiece. Inside, the lofty interior is a soaring sequence of domed and arched spaces, centering on the shell-like apse and the massive dome, which seems to float unsupported and gives the church its amazing sense of space.
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Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
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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.

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Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
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Synonymous with Ottoman style architecture, the Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul’s most historical landmarks. Resident to Sultans for over 400 years, the palace is a measure of its empiric significance. Visitor interested in understanding the culture and pride of Turkey’s people would benefit from a visit to the complex.
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Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani)
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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.

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More Things to Do in Turkey

Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)

Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)

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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.

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Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi)

Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi)

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187 Tours and Activities

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.

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Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

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The heady scents of saffron, cloves, sugar and spice fill the air at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and Market, or Misir Carsisi, one of Istanbul's oldest markets. Aisle after aisle of stallholders sell their wares in this cavernous covered market, built in 1660, under the market's vaulted ceiling lit by Turkish lamps. Baskets filled with every spice under the sun add colors of gold, orange, yellow and green, and the array of dried fruits and nuts is astounding. Stock up on Turkish delight, dried apricots, pistachios and walnuts, honey sweets and top-quality saffron. This is a place to simply dive in and wander. Don't have an agenda, just walk the crowded stalls and get lost. Stop for a tea, stop to chat with a carpet seller. If you're in a rush, you're missing the point.
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Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu)

Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu)

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The Bosphorus Bridge is one of two bridges that spans the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. It stretches from Ortakoy on the European side to Beylerbeyi on the Asian side and is sometimes referred to as the First Bosphorus Bridge. At 1560 meters long, the Bosphorus Bridge was the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1973 and was the first bridge to connect Europe and Asia since a bridge spanning the Dardanelles in 480 B.C. Today, it is the 21st longest suspension bridge in the world. In 2007, an LED lighting system was installed to illuminate the bridge at night and the computerized system is now used to create a colorful light show every evening. While the bridge is typically closed to pedestrians, it opens each October for the Istanbul Eurasia Marathon – the only marathon that crosses from one continent to another.
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Camlica Hill (Camlica Tepesi)

Camlica Hill (Camlica Tepesi)

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Just a few kilometers from Uskudar in Istanbul, Camlica Hill offers a different perspective of the city. Split into two hills – Big Camlica and Little Camlica – it is a popular destination for residents to picnic and barbeque on the weekends.

At 267 meters above sea level, Big Camlica is the highest point in Istanbul and, not surprisingly, offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. From the top, you can see the Bosphorus Bridge, Eminonu Peninsula, the Sea of Marmara and the Princes’ Island. On the clearest of days, you can also see as far as Mount Uludag near Bursa. Tea gardens, restaurants and a variety of vendors are also scattered around the hill. Little Camlica is the quieter of the two hills. Despite its pleasant gardens and walking trails, it attracts fewer visitors than its counterpart.

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Pigeon Valley (Güvercinlik Vadisi)

Pigeon Valley (Güvercinlik Vadisi)

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Pigeon Valley, just outside Göreme in Cappadocia, is one of Turkey’s most beautiful landscapes.

The unique rock formations known as fairy chimneys, or peri bacalar, which are made from wind and water erosion on soft volcanic rock, rise high from the valley floor like chimneys and are dotted in their tops with birdhouses. Some reach at tall as 130 ft (40m). Pigeons live in these dovecoats carved into the rocks and cliffs. Years ago the pigeons were used to carry messages from this remote region, and their droppings have long been used by local farmers for fertilizer. Today, however, there are fewer pigeons in the valley.

Pigeon Valley is a great place for hiking. The whole area around Göreme is made up of valleys with almost no fencing and there are well-marked trails. The mildly hilly trail through Pigeon Valley is free of charge and about 2.8 miles (4 km) long running between Göreme and Uçhisar.

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Sultanahmet District

Sultanahmet District

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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.

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Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

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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.

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Isa Bey Mosque (Isa Bey Camii)

Isa Bey Mosque (Isa Bey Camii)

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Isa Bey Mosque was built in 1375 near the ancient city of Ephesus in what is today Selcuk, Turkey. Parts of the mosque were built using stones and columns from the ruins of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis. It was designed asymmetrically instead of a more traditional symmetric layout and includes a large courtyard. The mosque uses a Selcuk style of architecture rather than the Ottoman style that was used more often in later years.

Visitors can admire the facade on the western side which is covered in marble and carved with geometric designs and calligraphy inscriptions. You can all see the brick minaret that has survived over the centuries on the north side of the mosque and two domes in the center. The mosque sits below the citadel near the Basilica of St. John. From the mosque, you can look up at the impressive ruins of the citadel and the basilica. The view from the hill where the basilica sits gives an impressive perspective of the mosque as well.

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Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari)

Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari)

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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.

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Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi)

Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi)

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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.

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Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

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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.

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Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

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The Celsus Library is the most famous part of the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey. It was built between 110 and 135 AD by Gaius Julius Aquila in honor of his father, Celsus Polemaeanus. Unfortunately his father died before the library was completed, and his tomb was placed in a special room beneath the ground level of the building. A statue of Athena was placed at the entrance to the tomb because Athena was the goddess of wisdom.

The library was two stories high and had three entrances in the front. The entrances were designed with exaggerated height in order to give the building the overall appearance of being bigger than it was. The building faces east which allowed plenty of morning light to shine into the reading rooms. The Celsus Library was once the third largest library in the ancient world, after Alexandra and Pergamum, and could hold more than 12,000 scrolls.

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Ortaköy

Ortaköy

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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.

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