13 Fantastic Things to Do in Istanbul on Your First Visit

13 Fantastic Things to Do in Istanbul on Your First Visit

From shopping in the Grand Bazaar to marvelling at Hagia Sophia, here are some of the must-dos in the magnificent Istanbul.

The huge Turkish city of Istanbul is a hotbed for culture, history, cuisine, and the arts. A fascinating place where East and West truly do meet, Istanbul straddles two continents and is at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. You can easily cross the city and the Bosphorus Strait to visit two of the world’s continent in the same hour! With a wealth of fascinating attractions and an abundance of places to eat, drink, sleep, and shop, it’s little wonder that Turkey’s most populous city attracts many visitors each and every year.

Planning a trip? Here are some of the best things to see and do:

1. Marvel at Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most significant and striking pieces of architecture. It was built on the orders of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, as a church in the 500s. Later, when Islam spread across the nation, it was converted into a mosque. There are glorious paintings, mosaics, and domes, and the building is impressive both inside and out. It is now a museum and one of the city’s major sights.

2. Explore Topkapi Palace

With a long and interesting history, the glorious Topkapi Palace dates back to the 15th century. It was built by Mehmet the Conqueror, the fearsome Ottoman Sultan who was responsible for ending the Byzantine Empire. The leader lived in the grand palace until his death and it was later home to subsequent sultans. Explore the extensive grounds before entering the main buildings; be sure to buy tickets that include admission to the beautiful quarters known as the Harem.   

3. Admire the Blue Mosque

The beautiful Blue Mosque takes its name from the rich shades of blue found inside the splendid religious building. The six minarets and main dome present an impressive sight from the outside, and the interiors can only be described as sublime. The mosque is open to non-Muslims, though you may be asked to wear over clothes and head coverings (provided). Visitors are reminded to act respectfully and remember that the mosque is still an active place of worship and a sacred site.

4. Descend into the Basilica Cistern

Hidden beneath Istanbul’s bustling streets lies a rather unusual attraction: the dark and gloomy Basilica Cistern. Built in the year 532, it features more than 300 columns. Flickering lights cast an eerie glow throughout the large damp chamber and water still drips from the high ceiling. Fish swim through the waters and there are also some interesting carvings. The grand water chamber became disused and was forgotten about for many years.   

5. See the ornate Chora Church

Image credit: Isen Majennt

Officially named the Kariye Museum but usually referred to as Chora Church, this Byzantine monument is a real beauty. It has a striped appearance on the outside, thanks to the use of rose-coloured stones and paler blocks, and the insides have many lavish paintings and mosaics.

6. Wander through Taksim Square

Taksim Square is often thought of as being at the heart of the city. There are many restaurants, cafes, accommodations, and shops on the roads leading away from the large square, and a few street food vendors set up around the edges. Try the roasted chestnuts—they’re delicious!

7. Visit Eyup Sultan Mosque

A short way from the city centre and close to the Golden Horn, Eyup Sultan Mosque has a major religious shrine. The present mosque was built in the 19th century, though it stands on the site of a much older building and uses decorative tiles from various time periods gathered from a number of historic sites.

8. View various artefacts at the Museum of Turkish and Islam Art

Housed in a former palace, the Museum of Turkish and Islam Art contains a diverse collection of historic books, paintings, textiles, rugs, and more. Ethnographic exhibitions provide insights into the nation’s various ethnic groups. The building itself is well worth seeing, with a history that dates back to the 1520s.

9. Time travel at Istanbul Archaeology Museums

There are three nearby but separate sites that make up the fascinating Istanbul Archaeology Museums. The main building houses the Archaeological Museum, with interesting exhibits that include tombstones, statues, coins, coffins, and carvings. The smaller buildings contain the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of the Ancient Orient. Collectively, the museum buildings boast more than a million items, offering insights into various historical periods from right across the globe.

10. Shop in the Grand Bazaar

Although you probably won’t find the best prices on items at the Grand Bazaar, it’s still a terrific place to browse a huge selection of goods and soak up the vibrant energy. From spices, teas, and sweets, to hookah pipes, lanterns, clothing, and trinkets, the market sells a huge assortment of goods. Remember to haggle if you do decide to buy anything. Be sure to allow plenty of time for exploring too—there are around 4,000 shops across more than 60 covered streets!

11. Soak up the views from Galata Tower

The impressive Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s oldest and biggest towers. The medieval stone tower is photogenic in its own right, but a highlight is to head on up to the observation terrace for amazing panoramic city views. You can spot many of the city’s major landmarks from the high vantage point.

12. Enjoy a boat trip along the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus Strait cuts through Istanbul, dividing the city between Europe and Asia and connecting the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea. Several operators provide boat trips along the waterway, letting you get a different perspective of the city and see many beautiful landmarks from the water. Relax as you sail under bridges and past places of interest.

13. Sample local cuisine

There are many restaurants throughout Istanbul catering to diverse tastes. Whilst it’s not difficult to find a selection of international cuisine, do be sure to taste the delicious local fare too. From grilled meats, kebabs, and stuffed leaves, to salads, pizza-like meals, and tasty bread, there’s something to please most palates. Dishes to try include lahmacun, lentil soup, meatballs, pide, pilav rice, and durum. There are plenty of sweet treats to savour too.

Other things to do

Relax in a traditional hammam (steam bath), enjoy Turkish tea with Turkish delights, admire an abundance of stunning architectural marvels, visit a multitude of museums and religious sites, catch a football match, take a puff on a nargile water pipe (shisha/hookah), and make many awesome memories in captivating Istanbul.

About Author

Sarah W
Sarah W

Sarah W is a travelling cat-lover who enjoys exploring places that are a little bit quirky or away from headline attractions. Favourite things include delicious falafel, snuggling under a thick duvet, (badly) belting out karaoke at the top of her lungs, and, of course, her family, friends, and furry pets.


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