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Istanbul, the city of seven hills, is one of the great wonders of the world – a dazzling sight of towers, domes, and minarets that stretch from the water’s edge to the sky. Istanbul offers countless wonderful things to do and attractions that you can discover on a visit.

During the day, the streets are flooded with the bustling activity of fifteen million people – the avenues are full of people going about their business. Parks and cafes are filled with people sitting down for lunch (perhaps Çiğ Köfte, a popular Turkish street food) or simply enjoying a relaxed cup of tea, sometimes sharing their company with some of the city’s famous ubiquitous and well-fed cats.

Our Istanbul tips for the best sights and activities

One of the top Istanbul things to do: view of the Galata Tower from the Bosphorus
View of the Galata Tower from the Bosphorus

Five times a day, from early morning until deep into the evening, the call to prayer echoes from almost three thousand mosques across the city. As night falls, millions of lights glitter on the Bosphorus Street and the Golden Horn, their waters endlessly traversed by dinghies, ferries, and freighters on their way to distant ports on the Black Sea.

Founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC as a colony then called Byzantium, this city is one of the most significant in history: the last seat of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of the Silk Road, and in modern times the capital of the Turkish Republic. As a vast metropolis spanning the continents of Europe and Asia, it is truly fantastic, with more to discover and experience than one could expect in a lifetime.

If you are fortunate enough to stroll through Istanbul’s countless avenues, quiet side streets, peaceful green parks, or bustling coastlines, here are some suggestions for places you can explore. You will also find great experiences to discover in this monumental city of wonders.

1. Hagia Sophia

One of the most important Istanbul things to do! The Hagia Sophia is located in the Fatih district on the European side of the city and is surrounded by trees and extensive gardens. It is an iconic building of great significance. The Hagia Sophia was built in the year 360 and was rebuilt in its present form by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian after a fire in 532. In this prime example of Byzantine architecture, Christian frescoes of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and multi-winged Seraphim meet Islamic calligraphy in the vaults. The marble floor houses the Omphalion, a series of prismatic marble circles on which, according to some traditions, the kings of ancient Byzantium were crowned. Beneath the structure lies a series of forgotten water basins and tunnels, which legend says should reach as far as the Princes’ Islands.

Visiting the Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous things to do in Istanbul

Under the Byzantines, the complex was initially a church, under the Ottomans a mosque, and then was converted into a museum by Turkish state founder Kemal Atatürk. After lengthy debates, the site was converted back into a mosque in 2020. Even outside of prayer times, visitors are warmly invited to enter the mosque and admire the splendor of this magnificent structure. As it is an active place of worship, it is important to observe the entrance rules: shoes are not allowed on the carpets, women must wear a head covering, and men must wear long pants that cover the entire leg.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from the inside
The Hagia Sophia from the inside

Amidst the fairy-tale splendor of the structure, you might come across the Wishing Column, where wishes are fulfilled by putting your thumb into the hole in the column and turning your hand. If you look closely, you’ll discover a strangely out-of-place runic graffiti etched into the stone at one spot.

All in all, the Hagia Sophia is a must for anyone visiting Istanbul, whether to admire the unique architecture or in the hope that a special wish will be fulfilled.

2. The Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Park

The Blue Mosque, also called the Sultanahmet Mosque, is one of the many architectural wonders of Istanbul. It was built in the early 1600s by order of Sultan Ahmet as a symbol of Ottoman power and gets its name from the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior. From the outside, you can see the mosque’s thirteen domes and the somewhat unusual number of six minarets. Inside, when sunlight pours through more than 200 stained-glass windows, you can enjoy the power of the calming, hypnotic patterns of the Blue Mosque.

Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the background
Sultanahmet Park with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the background

Allegedly, somewhere on the large chandeliers, there are a number of ostrich eggs that repel spiders and thus keep the room free of cobwebs. In the immediate vicinity of the mosque, you can take a walk or rest in Sultanahmet Park, admire its charmingly designed trees and gardens, and visit the tomb of Sultan Ahmet. Nearby, there is also the Basilica Cistern to explore.

3. The Grand Bazaar

One of the most enduring and well-known Istanbul things to do is visiting the massive, labyrinthine complex of shops and covered alleys that make up the Grand Bazaar (Turkish Kapalı Çarşı). It’s easy to get lost in this place: as you step through one of the many gates of the bazaar, you enter a different world. More than 4,000 shops selling clothing, furniture, carpets, lamps, sweets, tea – anything and everything – wind through the corridors. As you stroll along the aisles, you can delight in the diverse architecture of the complex, from the arched brick ceilings of the Sandal Bedesten to the delicately painted vaulted ceilings of the Jewelers’ Street. If you feel overwhelmed by the chaotic atmosphere, with a bit of searching you can find a spot to enjoy a delicious, soothing Turkish Çay.

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

The Grand Bazaar has suffered a lot in its 600 years of existence – earthquakes and fires have repeatedly devastated it, but it has withstood the test of time and remains one of Istanbul’s unique and inspiring sites.

4. Galata Bridge

The Galata Bridge connects the districts of Eminönü and Karaköy over the Golden Horn. If you cross it early in the morning, perhaps on your way to the ferry station to the Princes’ Islands, you can watch the fishermen preparing for the day, warming themselves by rough campfires and casting their lines into the water.

Beneath the pedestrian walkway and the road, restaurants are hidden. If you stand in the middle of the bridge, you have a magnificent view of both sides of the European half of the city and the distant shore of the Asian side. At sunset, you might be able to watch the restaurant staff throw the day’s seafood to the seagulls. With a bit of luck and if you keep your gaze on the water for a long time, you may even spot dolphins playing there. The Galata Bridge is not the first at this location – four other bridges have spanned the same spot – but it stands today as a connection between two breathtaking and very different districts of Istanbul.

The Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey

5. Galata Tower

Even if you’ve never been to Istanbul, it’s not unlikely that you’ve seen the Galata Tower before. This nearly 700-year-old Genoese watchtower is the landmark of Istanbul – and for good reason: It can be seen everywhere, from postcards to keychains to countless Instagram posts. From the top, you have a 360-degree view of the entire city.

It is said that the universal scholar Ahmed the Wise undertook the world’s first intercontinental flight from the top of this tower, sailing across the Bosphorus to land in the Asian neighborhood of Üsküdar. Those who want to visit this iconic monument should definitely arrive early – in the high season, the queue can snake around the tower in serpentine lines. But if you manage to escape the crowds, you shouldn’t miss a visit and enjoy a spectacular view of Istanbul.

The Galata Tower in Istanbul

6. Istiklal and Taksim

The Istiklal Street is perhaps the most frequented street in Istanbul and is also among the most important Istanbul things to do. The wide pedestrian zone is lined with various architectural styles, and a stroll along the Istiklal can be a lovely part of a cool, sunny day. Here, you can admire the unique flair of the magnificent street, listen to the numerous street musicians, and visit the many shops and cafes that line it. In the side streets, there is a multitude of bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs.

Bustling activity and historic tram on Istanbul's Istiklal Street

If you don’t feel like walking, you can also take the historic tram of Istiklal, which constantly runs up and down the street. If you walk to the end of the street, you’ll arrive at the Taksim Square, a large open space in the pedestrian zone around the Republic Monument, which commemorates the founding of the Turkish Republic.

Here, there are a variety of restaurants and shops where you can grab a bite to eat or simply sit down after a long day of strolling. In this area, it’s important to be cautious of scammers. It often happens that you’re invited by a stranger to eat or drink, only to be left with a high bill at the end of the meal. Another common scam is that a shoeshiner drops his brush when walking in front of you – if you give in to your friendly instinct and pick up the brush to hand it back to him, he’ll repay you with an unsolicited, very dirty shoe shine, and then demand payment. However, these scams can be easily avoided if you’re aware of them, allowing you to enjoy a lovely walk through this beautiful, car-free street.

7. Barhopping in Kadıköy

Istanbul has a vibrant, ecstatic nightlife. When the sun goes down and people take to the streets, bars and clubs all over the city open their doors, and the party continues into the early morning hours. The district of Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city, which some compare to Berlin, is filled with countless places where you can spend a fantastic night. The streets are lined with bars and music clubs featuring live bands. A prime example of this is Güneşli Bahçe Sokak, which boasts groovy nightspots along its entire length. Even if you’re out late and craving a snack, there’s no need to worry – cafes and restaurants stay open until late at night.

Barhopping in Istanbul is another great thing to do in the city

Whether you want to enjoy a quiet beer at an outdoor table, listen to live music, or dance the night away, you’ll find what you need in Kadıköy.

8. Bosporus Boat Tour

Since Istanbul is a port city, it makes sense to explore the city from the water as well. You can either join a boat tour or simply hop on one of the many ferries that navigate the city. On board a ferry, you can buy a simit and a çay, sit back, and enjoy the ride. During the journey, you can take a close look at the Maiden’s Tower, cast a panoramic view over the various districts, and watch the moonrise over the Bosphorus.

With a bit of luck, you can even observe dolphins and porpoises swimming, and on sunny days, you’ll see huge swarms of jellyfish passing by. A boat ride is an essential part of Istanbul’s city life and a lovely opportunity to relax and view the city from a unique perspective. Moreover, you get an entirely different perspective on the typical Istanbul attractions, such as the Bosphorus Bridge.

Ferry on the Bosporus in Istanbul

9. The Princes’ Islands

Speaking of boats: At the end of the Galata Bridge on the Eminönü side, you’ll find the station for the ferries that take you to the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago in the Sea of Marmara. This is the right choice if you want to take a break from the urban chaos of Istanbul. Arrive early at the ferry port to beat the crowds, and start your day by grabbing a tea from a wandering çay man, hopping on the early boat, and sailing out to sea.

View of the Princes' Islands off Istanbul, Turkey

There are four different islands open to the public, and each has something to offer – all of them have restaurants and cafes, and you can explore each island at your leisure – some offer bicycle rentals, and cars are not allowed. Büyükada (literally: “Big Island”), the most popular of the islands, is home to numerous antique villas from the Ottoman period, and on a hill there’s a restaurant offering Turkish cuisine and a breathtaking view of the sea and the other islands. There’s also an abandoned orphanage, the second-largest wooden building in the world. On all the islands, you can stroll through the forests along the backroads to reach eerie, decaying buildings that are of great interest to any explorer.

If you feel like taking a dip, you can walk along the coast and swim in the sea – but be mindful of the weather conditions and don’t go in if the water looks too rough. A visit to the Princes’ Islands is a great way to enjoy a sunny, temperate day, whether you want to take a leisurely stroll or have a little adventure.

10. Turkish Breakfast

In addition to the typical Istanbul things to do, this is, of course, something you shouldn’t miss: A proper Turkish breakfast in Istanbul brings a certain lightness and cheerfulness to your morning – and probably to your life as well. A delicious selection of dips, cheese, olives, fresh vegetables, nuts, and eggs, served with bread, provides a relaxed, light meal that invites enjoyment. Like a contemplation, you can mix and match the various ingredients as you please while sipping your Turkish coffee. A great accompaniment is Gözleme, a pastry filled with cheese and vegetables. At the end of the meal, you’ll surely feel full and be in a good mood to start your day.

A typical breakfast in Istanbul

There are many restaurants offering Turkish breakfast (Kahvaltı). A few good starting points are Yiğit Sofram Gözleme ve Kahvaltı and Velvet Café, Balat, both of which offer the traditional Kahvaltı and much more.

Speaking of food: You definitely shouldn’t miss the typical Turkish street food, Çiğ Köfte. This vegan snack made of wheat bulgur, tomatoes, and a lot of spices is a wonderful dish. Whether served on a plate or wrapped in a dürüm for take-away, Çiğ Köfte is one of the most delicious and unique dishes in Istanbul.

Further Information about Istanbul

Weather and Seasons in Istanbul

Istanbul can get very hot in the summer and snowy during the winter months. The best time to visit is spring when you can enjoy the many beautiful outdoor options the city has to offer, including beaches and cafes.

Transportation in Istanbul

Istanbul is served by buses, trams, subways, and ferries, all of which run on the Istanbul Card, which you can buy at a kiosk in the subway station. Google Maps is very useful for navigation. There is also the option to use the Dolmuş, minibuses that carry only a small number of passengers – these are usually payable in cash only. And don’t be surprised if people in front of you pass your money to the driver – your change will find its way back to you!

If you prefer, you can also take a taxi – the Uber app works, and the apps BiTaksi and iTaksi are additional options.


The currency in Turkey is the Lira, with a current exchange rate of about 20 Lira per Euro.

Istanbul Things to Do – Conclusion

Istanbul, with its brilliant architectural examples, wonderful food, friendly and kind people, unique attractions and things to do, is a city unlike any other in the world. A fabulous spectacle where different eras overlap, all within reach and waiting to be explored. Take your time at this magical place to experience everything Istanbul has to offer, and you will find yourself a wiser, more enriched person, surely leaving the city with a wealth of stories to tell.

Have you ever been to the Turkish capital? Do you have any more tips for great Istanbul things to do? Leave us a comment.

Photos: Photo 1 (View of the Galata Tower): Denis OREA/shutterstock.com – Photo 4 (Sultanahmet Park): Efired/shutterstock.com – Photo 8 (Tram): RauL C7/shutterstock.com