15 Best Things to Do in Istanbul, the Epicentre of Where East Meets West

15 Best Things to Do in Istanbul

The city is brimming with astonishing culture and history!

Straddling the Bosporus Strait, Istanbul has long been considered the gateway between Europe and Asia. To no surprise, the city has been at the centre of human history, and has developed a unique culture combining various features of other civilisations.

The fascinating contradictions of East and West, ancient and modern, and Europe and Asia, gives rise to a marvellous metropolis worth visiting. Aside from the culture and gastronomic delights, the rustic charm adds to the appeal of this alluring city. Read on to find out about the best things to do in Istanbul!

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Best places for sightseeing in Istanbul

1. Admire the magnificent Hagia Sophia

hagia sophia

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An intricate structure with both Christian and Islamic aspects, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a cathedral by the Byzantine Empire in 537 AD. Till today, it stands as one of the city’s most impressive architectural masterpieces.

hagia sophia

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That’s not all: The exterior of this structure is only surpassed by the interior, which features an immense dome with detailed mosaics. Ideally, one should spend two hours to appreciate the mosque in its entirety. But, as the mosque remains a place of worship, visitors should keep noise to a minimum and respect local customs. 

Pro tip: Visit the mosque after 9am or after 3pm when crowds are at a minimum.

2. Stand in awe at the Blue Mosque

blue mosque

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Just a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is the city’s most famous mosque. More commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue interior, the mosque sees close to five million visitors each year!

The interior is lavishly adorned with tens of thousands of hand-painted blue tiles, giving it an exquisite look. Following the blue theme, the exterior is bathed in blue lights at night for an even more amazing view.

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The Blue Mosque has five main domes, eight secondary domes, and six minarets. While the construction of these six minarets in 1616 was actually a mistake (as the architect misheard the Sultan), this mosque was only one of two in the world with this unique architectural feature; the other one was Saudi Arabia’s Great Mosque of Mecca

3. Visit the largest mosque in Turkey

camlica mosque

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Though not as famous as the Hagia Sophia, the Camlica Mosque is certainly by far the largest in Turkey. This mosque was built atop Camlica Hill, and was only completed in 2019. 

The sheer scale of this architectural marvel makes the mosque visible from wherever you are in the city! 

camlica mosque

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The facade of the mosque is unique as it combines modernity with tradition. In fact, the structure follows the Ottoman and Seljuk architectural styles coupled with a modern twist. 

Fun fact: The height of the main dome was intentionally built to be 72 metres to represent the 72 nationalities living in Istanbul.

4. Soak up the atmosphere at the Grand Bazaar

grand bazaar

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One of the best things to do in Istanbul? To wander through the Grand Bazaar looking for local trinkets, textiles, and other souvenirs. With the colourful stalls, energetic people, and chaotic atmosphere, this market tops our list of Istanbul attractions.

grand bazaar

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The megacomplex spans 60 streets, houses over 5,000 shops, and holds some of Turkey’s finest kilim (handmade carpets) and jewellery stores. This shopping paradise also holds the title of the oldest covered market in the world!

Pro tip: As one of the city’s best markets for souvenirs, be prepared to haggle for the best deals. 

Also read: From Tokyo to Istanbul, These Are the Public Markets Around the World That Deserve Your Attention

5. Appreciate the ornate beauty of Topkapi Palace

topkapi palace

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The Topkapi Palace was once the administrative seat of power of the Ottoman Empire. This stunning palace has numerous rooms with intricate tile designs, chamber houses, and an opulent 86-carat diamond in the palace museum.

topkapi palace

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On top of being a palace, this Istanbul attraction even doubled up as the Imperial Mint to produce gold and silver coins. The mint was first used by the Ottoman Empire, and later the Turkish Republic, until 1967 when it was decommissioned. 

Though you won’t be able to get gold coins here anymore, the palace offers a different kind of gold: knowledge. The palace library holds an extensive collection of books and manuscripts that is worth checking out!  

Pro tip: Plan your visit during spring as the gardens will bloom with tulips and hyacinths, making it a perfect place for photo ops.

6. Get a taste of royal life at Beylerbeyi Palace

beylerbeyi palace

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If you’re walking along the Bosporus, you’ll definitely catch a glimpse of the magnificent Beylerbeyi Palace. This palace was constructed as the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans and was often used to host foreign dignitaries. The palace was purposefully built to showcase class and wealth as evident by the white marble exterior.

beylerbeyi palace

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The neo-Baroque architecture exudes beauty at every corner. Walk in, and continue to be amazed by the 24 rooms and six halls. With French clocks and Bohemian chandeliers, this Istanbul attraction is one of the most lavish places to visit in Istanbul.

7. Gaze in awe at the Dolmabahce Palace

dolmabahce palace

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After visiting the Beylerbeyi Palace, you’ll have to cross the Bosporus to check out the grandiose Dolmabahce Palace. This palace is one of the most gorgeous Istanbul attractions and is perfect for all architecture buffs out there. As it was built in 1856 to replace the Topkapi Palace, extensive work was put into its grand design. Today, it boasts over 250 rooms and is the largest palace in all of Turkey!

dolmabahce palace

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This first European-styled palace in Istanbul was also an expensive one as it was filled with gold and crystal. Housing the world’s largest Bohemian chandelier, this Istanbul attraction is definitely one of the top places to visit to experience modern luxury.

Also read: 10 Must-Visit Royal Palaces and Fortresses in South Korea

8. Snap perfect pictures while on a Bosporus cruise

bosporus cruise

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Taking a cruise on the Bosporus offers stunning views of Istanbul and its historical sites. There are a host of operators providing tours of the Bosporus, ranging from short three hour journeys to entire day cruises. Whichever you end up picking, it certainly is an unforgettable experience!

Pro tip: Many of the operators also offer audio guides during the cruise which provide you with additional information about the many attractions along the strait.

9. Walk the historic Istiklal Street

istiklal street

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Regardless of where you are in Istanbul, you’re sure to pass by Istiklal Street, a bustling site considered to be the beating heart of the city. In fact, this 1.4-kilometre-long street sees close to three million people daily. With numerous shops, cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs along this street, the atmosphere is always vibrant. 

Additionally, the historical significance of the street makes it one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.

istiklal street

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Istiklal Street is also home to the historical tram that travels between Galata and Taksim Square. These red trams are an iconic symbol of the storied street and are the only vehicles allowed in the street. Hop on a tram and whiz past the crowds as you make your way through the busy street! 

10. Go to the top of Galata Tower for a panorama of the city

galata tower

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As you walk along Istiklal Street, you might catch a glimpse of the staggering Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the Galata Tower was the tallest structure in the city for centuries — until it was eclipsed by the Beyazıt Tower in 1749. Despite just being watch towers in the past, both have become iconic landmarks that stand above the city today.

galata tower

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Located near the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul, the tower overlooks the Bosporus Strait. A short climb up here will bring you to the observation deck, offering a panoramic view of the city. Safe to say, this tower (and deck) is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul before continuing on your tour around the city.

Also read: 5 Beautiful Places in Turkey You Need to Visit

Istanbul attractions to immerse in culture

11. People-watch at Eminonu Square

eminonu square

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The massive Eminonu Square by the Golden Horn might look disorganised with the constant flow of people, vehicles, and ferries, but don’t let that fool you! This square actually acts as a transit hub and is well connected to several mosques, restaurants, and bazaars across Istanbul.

eminonu square

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Several boats along the nearby shore serve as food stalls, which are popular with both locals and foreigners for serving mouth-watering bites.

One such example is an Istanbul classic, Balık ekmek (a fish sandwich). This iconic street food is suitable for any time of the day and is quintessential to any Istanbul trip. 

12. Sit back and sip on some Turkish coffee

turkish coffee

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Of course, one cannot leave Turkey without indulging in a cup of their world famous coffee. This coffee is made in a cezve (a specially designed copper pot) and has become part of Turkish culture. With locals drinking coffee as a means to share their happiness or sorrows with trusted friends, visitors should definitely try a cup and indulge in this experience! 

turkish delights

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Plus, travellers will be spoilt for choice as there are several cafes across the city. Many of these will provide you with authentic Turkish coffee and amazing views. To start, we recommend Pierre Loti, Emirgan Tarihi Çınaraltı, and Okkali Kahave.

Fun fact: After drinking coffee, people use the remains of the ground coffee beans inside their cup to predict their fortune.

13. Be captivated by whirling dervishes

whirling dervishes

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People often assume that the mesmerising display of the whirling dervishes is a performance. In reality, it is a sama (a religious ceremony of prayer) and the “dance” is a form of worship. These ceremonies take place in a Mevlevihane (a special hall designed for whirling) and are a sight to behold. 

whirling dervishes

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The entire ceremony takes roughly an hour and with a certain level of decorum to follow. Spectators are asked to respect the ceremony and not talk or use their cellphones. 

The HodjaPasha, Galata Mevlevihanesi, and Yenikapi Mevlevihanesi are some of the best places to visit in Istanbul to catch these ceremonies.

Also read: 10 Best European Countries That Won’t Break the Bank

14. Wash your worries away at a Turkish bath

turkish bath

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When in Turkey, do as the Turkish do, and pamper yourself at a hammam (Turkish steam bath) for a break from exploring the city. The hammam is a part of Turkish culture and has existed for centuries. 

turkish bath

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A traditional bath includes washing, scrubbing, foam washing, and a massage to ease the tension in one’s body. While originally used for religious activities, the hammam has become a part of social life. Nowadays, people gather at these baths to relax and socialise with their friends and neighbours. 

Pro tip: While guests will be provided with a personal cotton towel to cover up, you can still bring along additional garments if you feel uncomfortable with nudity.

15. Marvel at the intricate works at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

turkish museum

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Finally, it’s time to head back to the Hagia Sophia to round off your trip in Istanbul: with a close look at Turkish art. To do this, visit the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, which houses the richest collection of Islamic art in the world. 

The museum is famous for its extensive carpet collection and boasts an impressive range of artefacts. After an afternoon learning about the history of the Islamic world, head over to Erhan Restaurant for a scrumptious Turkish meal. 

Also read: 8 Airbnb Listings in Istanbul Where East Meets West

Rife with culture, history, and food, this cultural capital has an acclaimed history and is certainly a bucket-list city. The symbolic gateway between Asia and Europe houses a fusion of cultures that everyone can come to appreciate. 

With that, its time to pack your bags, and get ready for a phenomenal holiday in this mind-blowing metropolis! 

About Author

Sarvaesh Mohan

Sarvaesh is always on the lookout for the next adventure and loves to get his adrenaline pumping. When he's taking a break from travel, he loves to play video games and watch historical documentaries.