There are no cities in the world that are spread through 2 continents (Asia and Europe) other than Istanbul. The city of Istanbul is such a magical meeting place of East and West, Islamic and Mediterranean culture, old and new. As a result, there are numerous things to do, places to visit and food to try in this one-of-a-kind city. This blog will be my recommendations for Top 10 best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.
1. Visit the most iconic landmark of Istanbul – Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)
If you only have time for one thing in Istanbul, it should be the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). The Blue Mosque is a great example of Ottoman and Islamic architecture with an elegant composition of ascending domes and high-rise-above-the-sky minarets.
A visit to Blue Mosque will show you how stunning this architecture looks from outside to inside. Besides being a tourist attraction, the mosque remains to be an active place to worship. Keep in mind that large crowds are common things in Blue Mosque.
It is recommended to plan your visit ahead and follow the dress code and visiting etiquettes, including:
- Be aware of praying hours as this mosque is closed to non-worshippers. Pray happens 5 times a day and the mosque closes for 90 minutes at each prayer time.
- Arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
- Take off your shoes and put them into a plastic bag (free of charge) before entering the mosque.
- Dress respectfully (no shorts, short skirts, or shoulderless tops)
- Cover hair for women. Scarfs are available at the Blue Mosque entrance for free. However, bring your own scarves along to avoid the queue. And sometimes a good scarf will rock your outfit.
- Stay silent during your visit, don’t run and stand in front of anyone praying.
2. Visit one of the world’s greatest monuments – Hagia Sophia
Across the street from the Blue Mosque is another not-to-miss place in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s greatest monuments which reflects religious changes over the centuries. First built in the 6th century as a Christian church, Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque and then a museum in subsequent centuries, and reopened as a mosque in 2020.
Despite experiencing some significant transformations, Hagia Sophia stands still and maintains itself as a monument of coexistence. Its interior is decorated with mosaics (now is covered with sail-like drapes), marble pillars, and coverings of great artistic value.
As the Hagia Sophia is now again a working mosque, visitors are advised to follow the aforementioned dress code and visiting etiquettes.
3. Take the sunset Bosphorus Cruise
The Bosphorus is a narrow strait and natural boundary between Europe and Asia. Almost all Istanbul iconic landmarks are built along the Bosphorus including Dolmabahce Palace, Bosphorus Bridges, and Maiden Tower. As a result, viewing Istanbul from the cruise offers arguably the best way to admire this amazing city.
Keep in mind that different seasons, and different times of the day can enhance and alter the perspective of Bosphorus. And the best time to take the cruise is when the sky over Istanbul tinted with shades of rose and orange.
You don’t need to book the cruise in advance. Just go to Eminonu Pier and there comes some salespeople standing with a sign (all of them offer the same price). When the deal is done, a minivan will come and take you to the ship pier (where the cruise ship docks).
However, try to board the cruise earlier to get the best spot. I boarded the cruise at 4:30 pm and all the seats in the second floor deck were occupied.
The cruise sails down the Bosphorus and lasts for one and a half hours. Believe me, you will enjoy every second of this trip.
4. Walk all the way to the top of Galata Tower
As Galata Tower occupies a prominent place in Istanbul’s city scene, it can be spotted from all over the city. So what’s it like to be at the top of Galata Tower?
The answer will only be revealed until reaching the top. As a result, walking all the way to the top of Galata Tower is another best thing to do in Istanbul.
However, the witch’s-hat roof tower will not make you break taking as all you need is taking the lift and some steps. Once reached the top, there comes panoramic and breathtaking views of Istanbul. And it will be a great opportunity to take some aerial shots of Istanbul.
The balcony is narrow and open to weather so it is not recommended for those who suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights).
5. Try Fish Sandwiches under Galata Bridge
If you ask me what is the most note-worthy delicacy of Istanbul, it will not be lokum, kofte or simit…, but the Galata Bridge’s fish sandwiches (balık ekmek). These fish sandwiches are served daily in the traditional boats tied to the quay beneath the Galata Bridge.
After fishermen bring their catch from Marmara sea and Bosphorus back, the fish is grilled with herbs and crushed red pepper, and then placed inside a bread with a nice squeeze of lemon, and lettuce, tomato, onion, and even peppers. And it is allowed to capture some moments of the cooking process on the boat.
The fish sandwich tastes fresh but a little dry (since it is not served with any sauce or chili paste). It is recommended to try the pink colored turşu suyu (or pickle juice). Only when I saw someone take a sip did I know that it was a drink (At first, I thought it was a side dish which is similar to kimchi in Korea).
However, Istanbul’s historic fish sandwich boats were shut down by authorities and there is no replacement for the present boats.
6. See how extravagant the Ottoman Empire used to be at Dolmabahce Palace
Standing majestically on the bank of Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe Palace is one of the most magnificent symbolic structures of the Ottoman Empire. Built to cover up the military and financial decline of the Ottoman Empire, Dolmabahce Palace impresses the world with opulent design and lavish interior.
A visit to this palace will show you how extravagant the Ottoman Empire used to be. However, taking photos is not allowed inside the palace. Whenever someone raises his or her phone up, the staff will immediately give a reminder. However, some people still try to sneak a picture when the staff keep their eyes off.
7. Search for Medusa’s Head at Basilica Cistern
Among hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets of Istanbul, Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving one. This Byzantine cistern was made up of 336 marble columns rising from the water. The highlight of this subterrain area is a reversed Medusa Head on the far left.
Suspended walkways, ancient decoration and dim lights create a mysterious atmosphere for this subterrain area. Walking along its wooden platforms, it feels like being in an adventure searching for Medusa’s head.
8. Get lost in the “1001 nights world” at Grand Bazaar
Spanning across the area of 30,700 m2, Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest covered market in the world. Once inside, you will find a variety of shops including carpets, ceramics, lamps, jewelry, Turkish delight.
It’s like getting lost in the “1001 nights world” where the historical texture comes together with magnificent tastes of Turkish delight. As a result, Grand Bazaar always topped the best things to do in Istanbul’s list.
However, a visit here is not just about shopping, but a glimpse into Ottoman culture and Turkish hospitality. Shopping is fun but keep in mind these following tips to avoid disappointment:
- Don’t look at any store if you are not interested. Once the store keepers catch your eyes, they will invite you inside the store. And every store visit will “last forever”.
- Try to shop around and compare a few basic prices before handling any payments.
- ALWAYS make a bargain (30 – 50% off from the original price)
9. See Ottoman Empire’s heritage at Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace previously served as an administrative center and main residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th century. The palace now becomes a museum which exhibits the imperial collections of the Ottoman Empire including books, manuscripts, weapons and furniture.
As a result, there is no better place to admire the Ottoman Empire’s heritage than Topkapi Palace. And this is the reason why visitors flock to see this place.
The Topkapı Palace consists of four main courtyards and a harem (additional ticket). Don’t cost an extra ticket for the harem as it is not well worth it (This area consists of a series of buildings, structures and relics with barely no signs or directions). Spend your time in the terrace area instead.
Set on top of the most visible hill of Istanbul, Topkapi Palace offers stunning views overlooking the Golden Horn, where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Marmara Sea. Definitely the best view of the city.
10. Honor Istanbul’s hustle and bustle vibes at Taksim with caution
Widely known as the heart of modern Istanbul, Taksim is a popular destination for both tourists and locals filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and museums. This is the reason why this area is always packed with people no matter what time of the day.
Believe me, it will be difficult to walk in a straight line for more than a couple of seconds. However, bustle and hustle is not always a good thing. I will tell you my story.
When I went back to my hotel in the evening (about 8:30 pm), I passed through a group of 2 young men and women. They were talking normally but suddenly fought each other.
And they threw their slippers at each other, but it didn’t hit any of them, but me. Me and my group go straight forward as quickly as possible because we don’t want to get hit by any other slippers again.
Besides these aforementioned 10 things to do in Istanbul, here are some honorable mentions:
Honorable Mention 1: Enjoy Turkish hospitality and be God’s guests
“The mentality of Turkish hospitality is, whatever religion you are from, whichever country you come from, whatever language you speak, you are god’s guest”. Hospitality is on the next level in Turkey which is different from any other place on earth.
Being the most visited of the country, Istanbul is where you can experience Turkish hospitality to the fullest. During my trip to Istanbul, I met many people who welcomed me with warm smiles and incomparable services.
Among them, Mr. Mahmod is the one that we can not forget. We came across his restaurant on the first night in Istanbul. At first, we didn’t want to have dinner here, however he turned up and invited us. And we had such a good time here (you can see in the video below)
If you are satisfied with the service, don’t forget to give them 5-stars and recommendations on TripAdvisor.
Honorable Mention 2: Get yourself the famous Doner kebab
Seasoned meat stacked in the shape of an inverted cone turning around the rotisserie cart is a common thing to see in Istanbul. Once you see this, it will be a good chance to fill up your belly. And here comes one of the most famous dishes of Turkey – doner kebab.
And you may not know that doner kebab is no stranger to Vietnam. It was first introduced to Vietnam around the 2000s and soon became a favorite dish. Yes, I have eaten doner kebab since then (and of course anyone wishing to try doner kebab in the place of origin).
Doner kebab in Istanbul tastes different from what I have eaten before. In Vietnam, doner kebab is made from pork while that of Turkey is made from lamb and beef. Moreover, doner kebab is served in a baguette or sandwich in Vietnam, not on a plate, accompanied by braised tomatoes and peppers, rice or tomato bulgur like the original version.
Summary: Top 10 best things to do in Istanbul
a. Istanbul travel tips
– If you plan to visit Istanbul during a layover, it is recommended to take Touristanbul which is provided complimentary by Turkish Airlines (of course for those who fly with Turkish Airlines). For more information, kindly see this link.
– Buy Museum Card Istanbul to save money and time when visiting Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and many other tourist destinations in Istanbul. See
– Book your accommodation in Taksim or Sultanahmet as these two boast unique charm and central location. You can search for accommodations in the interactive map below
b. Summary: Top 10 best things to do in Istanbul
These are my recommendations for “Top 10 best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey”. If you need any further information, kindly see other posts:
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