Best Things To Do in Istanbul
Touring Istanbul's ornate houses of worship and palaces could keep history buffs and culture hounds busy for weeks. Most attractions are clustered... READ MORE
Touring Istanbul's ornate houses of worship and palaces could keep history buffs and culture hounds busy for weeks. Most attractions are clustered in the Fatih area, though districts like Beyoglu (where Taksim Square resides) and Besiktas (which features Ortaköy and Dolmabahçe Palace) are no less exciting. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia Museum are essential, but simply exploring the street traffic and observing daily life here are equally fascinating. Food is a central part of the culture, so menus should be studied just as seriously as a map (which is also a must). And you should check out the many bazaars around town when looking for souvenirs, but if you only have time for one, be sure to visit the largest and most famous: the Grand Bazaar.
Updated July 29, 2020
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Sultan Ahmed I was determined to build a mosque that rivaled the nearby Hagia Sophia, and most would agree that he accomplished this task – or, at least, came close. Since the early 1600s, the Blue Mosque has been quite the sight to behold, with an array of domes, semidomes and minarets (or narrow towers). It's also one of the biggest tourist draws in Istanbul.
Visitors say this mosque offers "stunning architecture inside and out." It can, however, get busy, so consider arriving early. And remember, the Blue Mosque is an active religious site, so dress conservatively. Women should wear headscarves, as is custom. If you forgot to bring one, you can borrow one from the mosque.
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Tourists flock en masse to the Hagia Sophia Museum for its stunning architecture, glorious interior views and historical significance. Built between 532 and 537, the building was a church for nearly a thousand years. It then served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, before becoming the secular museum that it is today.
Once the biggest cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia is considered the magnum opus of Byzantine architecture. Some visitors say the building is symbolic of the eclectic history of Istanbul itself, with beautiful Christian mosaics alongside brilliant Islamic calligraphy. Others simply describe it as a "must-see" attraction. However, a few caution that the property's exterior is currently undergoing renovations, so scaffolding may appear in your photos. Another negative: the long lines to get inside.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Istanbul0.5 miles to city centerFree, Churches/Religious Sites, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND0.5 miles to city centerFree, Churches/Religious Sites, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Nestled within Istanbul's historic Fatih district by the Golden Horn, Istanbul University and the Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque is considered one of the city's most impressive Ottoman mosques. Built between 1550 and 1557 after being commissioned by its namesake, Süleyman I, this grand structure features multiple gardens and a large dome, plus high-end finishes like mother-of-pearl window shutters, painted corbels, traditional ceramic tiles and stained-glass windows.
Recent travelers described their time at this mosque as "amazing" and "peaceful," adding that it is just as stunning as the Blue Mosque and cannot be missed. What's more, this attraction is not as central and popular as others like the Hagia Sophia Museum, meaning you won't have to rub elbows with lots of tourists while visiting. But remember, like other religious sites in the area, Süleymaniye Mosque hosts six prayer services every day, so expect occasional closures and dress conservatively. If you forget to wear long pants or pack a scarf to cover your head, the mosque offers loaner coverings at its entrance.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Istanbul0.5 miles to city center0.5 miles to city centerMuseums, Castles/Palaces, Historic Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans from 1478 to 1856 and is one of Istanbul's most popular attractions. It officially became a museum in 1924, shortly after the end of the Ottoman era, and features brilliant architecture, manicured courtyards and extensive weaponry, porcelain, cutlery, art and fabric collections.
Previous visitors loved admiring the palace's architecture and perusing its exhibits, saying you'll need several hours to take in everything there is to see. Popular exhibits include the kitchens, the calligraphy area and the armaments room. Many also recommend strolling through the property's "magical" gardens and refueling at the on-site coffee shop, where picturesque views of the Golden Horn await you.
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Located within walking distance of must-visit sights like the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and Süleymaniye Mosque, the Grand Bazaar is one of the biggest and oldest covered shopping markets in the world. It regularly overwhelms visitors with its 60 streets of 5,000-plus shops, each accompanied by an overzealous vendor. Products range from carpets and clothing to art and chessboards, and restaurants, cafes and even two hammams (or Turkish baths) can be found here.
Despite the size and the chaos of this bazaar, shoppers say you'll find yourself strangely at ease with the rhythm of the market, thanks in part to the friendliness of the vendors, who are far from pushy. Remember, though, that Westerners are often quoted higher rates for items here, so come prepared to bargain. Most merchants will drop their rates by as much as 50 percent when a customer refuses to pay full price. What's more, additional discounts are often given to those who pay with cash, although most vendors do accept credit cards.
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Taksim Square is a vibrant, modern area located in Istanbul's Beyoglu district. Scores of shops, restaurants and bars fill the surrounding streets, as well as popular hotels like the InterContinental Istanbul and the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. The square also features notable landmarks like the Taksim Republic Monument (Taksim Cumhuriyet Aniti), which commemorates the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Recent travelers had mixed feelings about Taksim Square. While some said it's a wonderful area to visit, others characterized it as "nothing special," especially when compared to squares like Tiananmen in Beijing and Tahrir in Cairo.
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While the area surrounding Taksim Square draws the vast majority of partygoers, the small neighborhood of Ortaköy happily enjoys its less popular status. You won't simply stumble onto this cool enclave; located north of Beyoglu along the Bosphorus, you'll need to take a ferry or a bus from the Kabatas tram stop to reach it. Hopping a taxi will be a necessity in the nighttime, but the journey will be well worth it.
During the day, you can explore the narrow streets that divide a dense array of market stalls and shops. But when the sun goes down, crowded restaurants and bustling bars take over. Ortaköy is a nightlife hub for Istanbul's trendy and wealthy young people, so expect to pay dearly for that breathtaking view of the Bosphorus and your delicious food or drink.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Istanbul0.4 miles to city center0.4 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
At the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, which opened by Topkapi Palace Museum in 1869, you'll find more than one million antiquities displayed throughout three buildings – the Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. Artifacts housed inside include Islamic coins, three sarcophagi and a tomb monument that dates to the first century.
Some past travelers said this museum complex's collections were boring, while others described it as a hidden gem. If you decide to visit, expect to find parts of the main building off limits while it undergoes renovations.
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A private museum aimed at collecting and exhibiting artwork of contemporary significance, Istanbul Modern appeals to locals and international visitors. Artists represented inside include Sarkis Zabunyan, Richard Wentworth and Yoko Ono.
Tourists find the museum's impressive permanent and temporary exhibits a welcome respite after looking at scores of old structures. What's more, many praise Istanbul Modern Restaurant, the on-site eatery, which dishes up tasty Turkish coffee and meals alongside glorious views of the Bosphorus.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Istanbul2.2 miles to city centerMuseums, Churches/Religious Sites, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.2 miles to city centerMuseums, Churches/Religious Sites, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Originally built as a Byzantine church, later converted to a mosque and now serving as a secular museum, the Chora Museum is definitely deserving of a visit. There, you'll find a series of beautiful mosaics and frescoes that many consider some of the best surviving examples of Byzantine art in the world.
Although this museum does not sit within walking distance of other top attractions, many previous visitors said its stunning artwork is worth the trek. However, some noted that a large chunk of the property is currently closed for renovations, while others suggest paying extra for a guide since historical information is not provided inside. Guides are available by the museum's entrance.
- #11View all Photos#11 in Istanbul0.4 miles to city centerSightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND0.4 miles to city centerSightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
The Basilica Cistern is Istanbul's largest surviving Byzantine cistern and one of its most unique historic sites. Constructed in 532 for Justinianus I, this sprawling underground water reservoir – which is roughly the size of two football fields – once supplied water to the Great Palace of Constantinople, a large palace that served as the main residence for local emperors for centuries. Though the palace no longer exists, the cistern was rediscovered in 1545 and renovated in 1985 to welcome visitors. It's most noteworthy feature is a pair of Medusa heads that sit upside down at the base of two columns.
According to past travelers, the Basilica Cistern is easy to miss but worth checking out, despite its lack of interior attractions. Many said the site is beautifully preserved, but queues to buy tickets and enter can get quite long, so several recommended visiting with a tour group. Multiple half- and full-day tours that include stops at the cistern are offered on Viator; tour prices range from $39 to $686 per person.
- #12View all Photos#12 in Istanbul2.2 miles to city center2.2 miles to city centerMuseums, Castles/Palaces, Historic Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Sitting along the Bosphorus near the Kabatas tram stop and the Besiktas ferry port, Dolmabahçe Palace's jaw-dropping beauty and historical importance impresses visitors. Built in the 19th century, the palace was used by the final Ottoman sultans as their primary residence and administrative seat. The interior and exterior architecture showcase a mix of European and Arab designs that can only be found at this global crossroad.
Past travelers were wowed by the palace's extravagant interior, although some wished photography was permitted and felt tours were rushed and lacked information. Several visitors also reported long ticket lines, and the property's website cautions that the ticket office closes early once all passes have been distributed for the day, so plan on arriving early.
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For perhaps the best view of Istanbul from Beyoglu, head up the Galata Tower. This landmark crowns the hill opposite the Golden Horn and was once used as a jail. After a copula was added during a 1960s restoration, this historic structure's observation deck opened to visitors. A restaurant and nightclub are also available at the top.
Travelers praise the Galata Tower's jaw-dropping vistas and historical charm, however, several were disappointed with the attraction's pricey admissions – adult tickets are $25 Turkish lira ($7). Others bemoaned the long wait times to get to the top but said you can avoid crowds if you arrive early.
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