11 Unmissable Things to do in Istanbul

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Istanbul truly is a city like no other in the world. It’s a place where east meets west and cultures intertwine to make the most beautiful combination of cosmopolitan flair and exotic history. There is no shortage of things to do in Istanbul during your visit. 

No matter where you go in this vibrant city you will feel like a kid in a candy store. There are photo opportunities around every corner, brushes with important historical events and natural beauty that will take your breath away.

Istanbul is a city that everyone should discover and it is no secret that it rates as one of the top cities on my travel list. 

11 Unmissable Things to do in Istanbul

Because there are so many incredible sites in the city, Istanbul has created the Istanbul Museum Pass. This Museum pass is valid for 5 days.

The card’s 5-day limit will start when you visit the first site and can only be used once at each museum. The pass also allows you to skip the queues but you will still have to wait to go through any bag checks.

The Museums that are included in this pass are Chora Museum, Hagia Sophia Museum, Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Istanbul Mosaic Museum, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Galata Mevlevi House Museum, Yildiz Palace Museum, Museum for the History of Science and Technology and Rumeli Hisar Museum.

As you can see there are a multitude of museum sites to discover in this vibrant city but the Basilica Cistern and Dolmabahce Palace do not accept the pass. The Museum Pass can be purchased at any of the museums listed above.

For transportation within the city, you can purchase the Istanbul Welcome card that includes 10 rides on public transportation, as well as a guided visit to both Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace.

Alternatively, there is also the option to purchase a one, two or three-day pass on the Big Bus HOHO tours. These passes give you unlimited hop-on, hop-off bus privileges along the entire route of the tour. Meaning you can stop and visit any site you want for however long you want. We love these and use them frequently in new cities. 

Hagia Sofia Museum - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Hagia Sophia Museum

One of the most jaw-dropping sites to see in all of Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia Museum. The sheer size of this architectural masterpiece is enough to stop you in your tracks.

It is absolutely stunning from the outside but just as impressive from within. It was first built in 537 AD and was used as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral for 916 years.

After the conquest by Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the Hagia Sophia was converted and used as a mosque for 482 years. Finally under the order of Ataturk, in 1935 this historical monument was converted into a museum so that all could revel in this historical wonder.

Inside the Hagia Sophia, you will be awed by the gigantic golden crested dome that towers 182 feet high. There are also 8 rounded calligraphic panes that were written by the famous calligrapher Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi between 1847-1849.

These panes are 24 feet in diameter and are written in gold on a green background made of hemp. They are the largest calligraphic panes in the Islamic world and each pane contains the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the four caliphs.

Throughout the entire museum, you will be impressed by a multitude of well-preserved mosaics. One of the most impressive to me is a figure of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus located in the center of the quarter dome. The vivid colors and minute details truly make one marvel at what was created so very long ago.

There truly is so much to see inside this UNESCO Museum. From the giant Emperor Door reaching 22 feet to the stunning marble altar with candelabras brought from the court of Hungarian King Mattias I, to the Weeping Column where it is said that if you put your finger into the hole of the bronze-plated column, you will be healed by disease.

The Museum really is an endless list of phenomenal pieces of history.

The price of a single ticket into Hagia Sophia is 60 TL and the hours of operation from April to October are 9 am to 7 pm, and from November to March is 9 am to 5 pm.

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Blue Mosque - Istanbul, Turkey

2. Blue Mosque

Just steps away from the Hagia Sophia are perhaps Istanbul’s most photographed monument called the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque).

Built between 1609 and 1616, this massive blue-tiled mosque has 13 domes, 6 towering minarets, and 200 gorgeous stained glass windows. Both the interior and exterior are truly impressive and this working mosque has become a major tourist attraction. 

Because it is an active mosque it is important to visit between prayer times.  Prayer takes place 5 times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at sundown.

During prayers, the mosque will be closed for 90 minutes as well as an additional 2 hours during the noon prayers on Fridays. It is best to check the official website for up to date prayer times. 

There is a dress code when entering the mosque. Make sure that you have your shoulders and your knees covered and for women make sure to bring a scarf to cover your head.

There are head coverings free of charge that can be borrowed if you don’t have anything with you. As well, you are required to take off your shoes as this is a Muslim tradition when entering a mosque.

Plastic bags will be available so that you have something to carry your shoes in. Finally, entrance into the Blue Mosque is free of charge, however, there will probably be a queue to the entrance. 

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Hippodrome of Constantinople - Istanbul, Turkey

3. The Hippodrome of Constantinople

If you are visiting both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque there is no reason why you shouldn’t also spend a bit of time discovering the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and during that time the hippodrome was the sporting and social center. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular in the ancient world and hippodromes were a common feature in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

To raise the status of the capital, Constantine and his successors brought works of art from across the world to adorn the Hippodrome. In the center of the track, you will be able to see some of the original monuments that are in relatively amazing condition considering their age.

The Serpent Column was cast to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC. It was moved from the Temple of Apollo in Greece and at one time had a golden bowl held up by three serpent heads perched on top of the column.

Although the top of the column and the serpent heads were destroyed in 1700, the base still stands today and remnants of the serpent heads are displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Carved from pink granite, Obelisk of Thutmose III was brought to Constantinople from Egypt. Originally it was erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor in 1490 BC, however, Theodosius the Great brought it to the Hippodrome in 390 AD.

In order to transport the gigantic tower, Theodosius had to cut it into 3 sections. Although it was said to once stand as tall as 98 feet, the remaining sections still unbelievably stand at approximately 83 feet!

In the 10th century, Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus built another obelisk at the other end of the Hippodrome. It is called the Walled Obelisk and was originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.

Lastly, the German Fountain is another beautiful monument to discover. This gazebo looking fountain was constructed to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898.

It was built in Germany and then transported to Turkey piece by piece. It has 8 marble columns and the dome’s interior is adorned with gold mosaics.

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Basilica Cistern - Istanbul, Turkey

4. Basilica Cistern

Just across the square in Sultanahmet Park is the Basilica Cistern. Built-in 532 AD, it was designed to service the Byzantine Emperors at the Great Palace. Delivered from 12 miles of aqueducts it was able to hold up to 21 134 gallons of water!

The cistern was constructed with 336 columns that were salvaged from ruined temples and is known for its Medusa carved bases. The sheer size of this underground structure is pretty spectacular and it is a great way to escape the heat on a hot summer day.

The entrance into the cistern is 20 TL for adults and free for children. From April to October the Basilica Cistern is open from 9 am to 6:30 pm and from November to March it closes at 5:30 pm.

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Things to do in Istanbul

5. Istanbul Archaeology Museums

Located in the Eminonu District near Gulhane Park and Topkapi Palace is the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. It is a complex of three beautiful historic buildings that house artifacts from the Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman civilizations.

The Museum of the Ancient Orient has a collection of pre-Islamic items that were gathered from the Ottoman Empire. The Archaeology Museum has an extensive collection of statues and sarcophagi as well as an exhibit depicting Istanbul’s history.

And lastly, the Tiled Pavilion displays tiles and ceramics dating from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

Entrance into the three museums is 30 TL and you can purchase tickets from 9 am to 4 pm. The museum hours run from 9 am to 6:45 pm from April to October and during the winter months the hours are from 9 am to 4:45 pm.

Topkapi Museum- Istanbul, Turkey

6. Topkapi Palace Museum

Another one of Istanbul’s must-see sites is the Topkapi Palace Museum. Construction of the palace began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople.

It was originally called the New Palace but in the 19th century, it was given the name Topkapi which translates to Gate of Cannons. The palace was the political center of the Ottoman Empire and was the home of the ruling sultans and their families between the 15th and 19th centuries.

During the 400 years of reign at Topkapi Palace, each sultan added a different hall to the palace. This is why today you will see a maze of buildings centered around a series of courtyards.

At the height of its time, there were up to 5000 residents living in the palace and during festivals, it could reach up to 10 000 people. The palace was literally a city within a city and became the largest palace in the world.

At the end of the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum and in 1985 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though the palace has hundreds of rooms, only the most important are accessible to the public today.

The sprawling complex has galleries displaying such things as Ottoman clothing, weapons, manuscripts, religious relics (Moses’ staff) and even the Spoonmaker’s Diamond (an 86 carat pear-shaped diamond is considered to be the 4th largest of its kind in the world).

Not only is the palace and its courtyards a sight to see, but everything inside is absolutely spectacular as well.

Topkapi Palace Museum is open every day except Tuesdays. Entrance into the complex is 72 TL which is about $13 US, but it costs an additional 42 TL to enter the Harem and 36 TL to enter the Hagia Irene Monument.

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Dolmabahce Palace - Istanbul, Turkey

7. Dolmabahce Palace

As European influence was spreading across the world Sultan Abdul Mecit believed that Topkapi Palace was becoming too old-fashioned for his liking. He thus ordered a new palace to be built with spectacular views of the Bosphorus Strait.

After the completion of Dolmabahce Palace in the 1850s, this extravagant palace became the official residence of the last Ottoman sultans and the administrative center of the Empire. Dolmabahce is the largest palace in the country containing 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 hammams, and 68 toilets.

The palace layout and decor is a prime example of immense opulence and houses such treasures as the largest chandelier in the world that was given by Queen Victoria of England. Interestingly enough it is said that the construction of the palace actually contributed to the bankruptcy of the empire in the 1870s.

One room that is noteworthy is Ataturk’s room. This is the room where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk spent the last days of his life. He passed away at 9:05 am on November 10th, 1938 in a bedroom located in the former harem are of the palace. The clock in this room still displays 9:05.

Dolmabahce Palace is located in the district of Besiktas and is open every day Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm.  It is important to note that the Istanbul Museum Pass is not valid for this Palace.

Admission for a regular palace pass is 60 TL and the Harem entrance costs an additional 40 TL. There is a combined ticket that includes the palace, harem and clock museum for 90 TL.

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Suleymaniye Mosque - Istanbul, Turkey

8. Suleymaniye Mosque

Although Suleymaniye Mosque may not be as well-known as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, it is a prominent landmark in Istanbul’s skyline that sits high upon one of the city’s seven hills. 

Commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent and designed by the imperial architect Mimar Sinana this Ottoman imperial mosque was inaugurated in 1557. It has an outer and inner courtyard with four minarets in the corners.

Two of the minarets stand 242 feet tall and have 3 balconies on each. Like all important mosques in this period, it was built as a complex that housed a library, hospital, madrasa, kitchen, and hospice for the poor.

Like the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque is open to visitors every day but not during prayer times. Because it gets significantly fewer visitors I feel like you can have a much more peaceful and authentic experience than that of the Blue Mosque.

Remember to make sure that your shoulders and legs are covered and that women have something to cover their heads with.

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Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

9. The Grand Bazaar

A trip to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without some time spent at the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. The original core of the bazaar was completed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461 and it still retains its intricately painted ceiling. 

Although it no longer serves as the commercial center of Istanbul, it really is a fun way to get a taste of the beautiful handicrafts of Turkey. The sheer size of the bazaar is unreal, as it is a whopping 30 700 square meters with over 60 streets and 4000 shops.

It is said that there are between 250 000 and 400 000 visitors each day! Getting lost in the alleyways of the bazaar is just part of the adventure and remember that haggling for a cheaper price is all part of the experience.

Don’t feel pressured to see the entire thing as it truly would be a tad overwhelming. Instead, relax and marvel at the amazing products and perhaps enjoy a cup of traditional apple tea with one of the shop owners. The Grand Bazaar is open from 9 am to 8 pm daily with the exception of Sunday being closed.

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Galata Tower- Istanbul, Turkey

10. Galata Tower

If you are looking to get a great snapshot of Istanbul’s skyline head to Galata Tower. Located at the end of Istiklal Street near the popular Taksim Square, this stone tower has panoramic views of the Bosphorus.

It was first erected in 1348  by the Genovese after an invasion. When it was built, it was the tallest structure in Istanbul at just under 220 feet. It was designed with military purposes, at one time used as a prison but now serves as another iconic tourist attraction.

There are two elevators that can take you to the viewing balcony as well as a set of stairs. If you are there for sunset perhaps book a reservation at the formal restaurant on top. The tower is open to the public at 9 am and admission is 35 TL.

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Princes' Island - Istanbul Turkey

11. Princes’ Island

If you have an extra day to spare I highly recommend exploring the Princes’ Islands. The Princes’ Islands consists of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara that are located about 12 miles from Istanbul. Only the four largest islands are inhabited and the biggest and most popular is called Buyukada.

Originally these islands were used as a place of exile. If any members of the royal family from the Byzantine or Ottoman days were caught misbehaving they were sent to one of the islands as punishment. This was how the name Princes’ Islands came to be.

Getting there you will be able to travel by ferry across the Bosphorus and see the picturesque Istanbul skyline from a different vantage point. There are two types of ferries and both depart from Kabatas – sea buses operated by IDO (Istanbul Fast Ferries) and regular ferries operated by Sehir Hatlari.

Sea buses are the quickest at just under an hour and cost 10 TL for a one-way ticket. Regular ferries are half the price but could take up to an hour and a half as they make stops at different islands.

One piece of advice is to definitely check when the last ferry leaves from Buyukada to Istanbul as soon as you arrive. Although it is a lovely place you probably wouldn’t want to get left behind.

Once on Buyukada you can relax and relish in the laid back, tranquil atmosphere. Princes’ Island is an oasis for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city All motorized vehicles are banned and the only mode of transport is either by bicycle or horse-drawn carriages.

Right off the historic pier is the market square where you can find cute little bistros, restaurants, and shops. Because everything is within walking distance it is fun to explore the town and wander upon the most beautiful 19th-century wooden mansions.

On the highest peak of the island, you will find the Aya Yorgi Monastery. It is considered to be one of the two most important Christian pilgrimage sites in all of Turkey. The other being the House of Virgin Mary in Ephesus.

Each year on April 23rd and 24th Orthodox Christians climb the hill and make a wish when tying a thread on the trees leading up to the church.

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Istanbul Travel Planning Essentials

Things to do in Istanbul

When to Visit Istanbul

Like most destinations where the summer tends to get hot and probably a bit more crowded with tourists, the best time to visit Istanbul would be in the shoulder months of spring and fall. 

No matter what time of year you do visit however, I assure you that there will be plenty to see and like myself, Istanbul will cast a spell on you too.

Istanbul, Turkey

How to get to Istanbul

There are two airports in Istanbul, however, the busiest and most likely of airports that you will land will be the Ataturk International Airport (IST). Even though the airport itself is only about 12 miles from the city center, travel times vary depending on how heavy traffic is.

The quickest and probably easiest way to get into the city with your luggage would be by taxi. Depending on the traffic it could take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and a half to get into the city center.

Taxis are available 24 hours a day and there should be a long queue of them waiting outside of the arrivals gate. It is best to set an agreed price before you get into the vehicle and a reasonable rate would be about $30 US. 

Uber is another option in Istanbul as they are readily available and sometimes can be cheaper. The only downside is that wait times tend to be longer and it is not uncommon for your Uber order to cancel while you are waiting. 

Havaist is the Airport Shuttle Service that operates several bus lines between the airport and different locations within the city. The fares are much lower, at less than $5 US per person and the travel time is very similar to that of a taxi.

Like with any shuttle service you would have to wait for the departure times, but fortunately, Havaist leaves every 30 minutes. Another bonus of taking a shuttle bus is that it is equipped with WIFI and USB charging docks. 

Istanbul has a very well-run metro system. The Airport Railway Station is just a few minute’s walk from the airport. Although this is a much cheaper option it may be a bit more inconvenient if you are arriving with jet lag and your luggage. The metro trains can be very crowded and you would have to transfer lines at least once. 

If you are planning to spend more than a couple of days in Istanbul it might be beneficial to purchase an Istanbulkart. This is a re-loadable card that allows you to pay for all public transportation. The cards are sold at all IETT (public transportation) counters or even newspaper stands and street kiosks.

No matter what you decide to do when you are in Istanbul you won’t be disappointed. There truly is something for everyone. It is a traveler’s playground and a photographer’s dream.

Simply put, Istanbul is intoxicating and I wouldn’t be surprised if once you visit it too becomes one of your favorite cities in the world.

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About Heather Halpern

Based in Edmonton, Canada - I caught the ‘travel bug’ many years ago when I was a competitive rhythmic gymnast and haven’t been able to quench the thirst for exploring the world. Even though I live a pretty regular life with a full time job, I aim to take at least one overseas adventure a year. This means, I skimp, save and try to live the happiest life possible throughout the year so that I can experience my one true love…travel!

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