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The Best Things To Do In Istanbul, Turkiye: 15 Must-Have Experiences For Every Traveler

Istanbul is a city that has to be experienced to be understood. These are the best things to do in Istanbul to discover the City of Seven Hills.

Blue Mosque seen through the doors of Topkapi Palace two of the best things to do in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkiye, is a city that blends cultures, traditions, and even continents. It’s a city of contrasts at one of the world’s greatest crossroads where, at times, it seems that anything goes. While the city is a melting pot of Asian, European, and North African cultures, it also very much retains its own identity. One that’s been carved out over thousands of years.

Istanbul is the only major city that has its feet on two separate continents. Eastern Istanbul sits in Asia, while across the Bosphorus Strait, Western Istanbul lies on the European continent. It’s a city that must be experienced to understand. And to really experience it, you must visit these top things to do in Istanbul.

About Istanbul

The Istanbul skyline with the Galata Tower seen from a rooftop cafe
Galata Tower from the Neorion Hotel rooftop cafe

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkiye, and one of the most iconic cities in the world. Along with being one of the best places to visit in Turkiye, the city is both mysterious and welcoming, and its fascinating duality is one that has been crafted over two millennia. Once named Byzantium, it was the heart of the Byzantine Empire before being conquered by Rome and renamed Constantinople in 330 AD and being named the capital of New Rome. It wasn’t until 1930 that the city’s name was changed to Istanbul.

The city’s storied past is woven throughout the city in these fascinating things to in Istanbul. Architectural wonders such as the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia along with the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace are a tapestry of wonders that span centuries of growth, change, and development for Istanbul.

It’s not just architectural marvels that draw visitors to this city though. Among the many places to visit in Istanbul, its stories are told in the bustling markets, diverse neighborhoods, and a thriving art scene that both embraces and contrasts the city’s rich history.

For families traveling to Istanbul, check out our complete guide to visiting Istanbul with kids, or read on for our top things to see in Istanbul.

The Best Things To Do In Istanbul

From the markets to the mosques, the food, and the Bosphorus Strait, a visit to Istanbul is a delight for the senses. Here is our guide to one of the most exciting cities in the world.

Hagia Sophia

Crowds wander through the cavernous Hagia Sophia
Crowds in the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya, is one of the most incredible attractions in Istanbul. At nearly 1,500 years old, this impressive structure stuns, not just with its age but its beauty as well. The Hagia Sophia isn’t just one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring structures in the world.

Originally a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. The mosque was eventually closed in 1935 for renovations and converted into a museum, and it’s now the most visited attraction in Turkiye.

I recommend visiting the Hagia Sophia early in the day to avoid crowds. By the afternoon, a long line often snakes around to the Hippodrome. But even if you get there at a busy time, the line moves quite quickly. My family went at peak time in peak season, and it took us about 30 minutes to get in the door.

If you book a guided tour here to enjoy a richer experience and skip the long line.

Blue Mosque

Intricately tiled domed ceiling of the Blue Mosque, one of the top things to do in Istanbul
Interior of the Blue Mosque

Sitting directly across Sultanahmet Square from the Hagia Sophia lies the largest mosque in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque. This stunning structure was built between 1606 and 1616 to complement the aging Hagia Sophia and as a show of strength by Sultan Ahmed I. It is, most definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Istanbul.

Visitors can marvel at stunning domes and intricate tilework while immersing themselves in Turkey’s rich history and culture. With its epic age and sheer size, I didn’t find the Blue Mosque to be as impressive as the Hagia Sophia, but it’s definitely a less crowded experience than its older brother and stunning inside and out nonetheless.

Keep in mind that the Blue Mosque is an active mosque, so tourists are not allowed to visit during prayer times. The local prayer times vary, but you can find them on the official page for religious affairs.

This highly-rated half-day Istanbul tour takes you to both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque along with the Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar.

Grand Bazaar

A boy gazes into an antique shop in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul
Antique Market at the Grand Bazaar

One of my family’s favorite experiences in Istanbul was our visit to the Grand Bazaar. Sprawling through 61 covered streets and home to over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is the best place for shopping in Istanbul, and it has been for centuries.

This historic market dates back to the 15th century. It’s where traders from Asia, Africa, and Europe would bring their exotic goods to sell and trade. The Grand Bazaar is still one of the most exciting markets in the world, and you never know just what you’ll find while wandering through the mazelike streets.

Do yourself a favor and make a stop at the market’s antiques center. Here you’ll find some of the most fascinating goods for sale.

The Grand Bazaar isn’t just for shopping though, it’s one of the best places to eat in Istanbul. You’ll find some of the best Turkish coffee at Sark Kahvesi, which has been a staple in the market since 1958. You’ll also find many food vendors selling authentic Turkish food from Pide to Gozlemi.

This tour includes a guided look at some of Istanbul’s top attractions including the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul Food Tour

A chef cooks Kebab at a doner house in Turkiye
Doner kebabs on an Istanbul food tour

There is simply no better way to connect with a new city than through food. Food in Turkiye is particularly famous for its food, and I can vouch for just how scrumptious it is. Next to Morocco, Turkiye has some of the best food that we’ve ever enjoyed during our travels.

There are some absolutely amazing food tours in Istanbul. Choose one that takes you through the neighborhoods and delves not just in the foodoosing the right one is even more important. The Taste of Two Continents food tour is incredible. It’s capped at just 8 participants, so it’s very intimate. You’ll get the chance to sample a wide range of dishes and even try Turkish coffee and breakfast.

This Istanbul food and culture tour is another popular one for families. It focuses on Istanbul’s “Seven Hills” and pays special attention to the important food culture in the city.

Suleymaniye Mosque

The massive Suleymaniye Mosque on a hill above Istanbul places to visit
Suleymaniye Mosque

The Seven Hills of Istanbul overlook the city and represent some of the most important neighborhoods in the city. On the third of these hills, overlooking the Golden Horn, sits Suleymaniye Mosque.

The Blue Mosque might be the most famous of all of the mosques in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque is the one that is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. Dominating the Istanbul skyline, the Suleymaniye Mosque was built during the Ottoman Empire, around the 16th century. It was commissioned by the Sultan of Suleyman.

The mosque is the most grand of all of the religious sites in Istanbul, a fitting tribute for a man dubbed Suleyman the Magnificent.

This 30-minute guided tour of Suleymaniye Mosque takes you behind the scenes of this fabulous building.

Cruise The Bosphorus Strait

Fishermen watch boats cruise the Bosporos Strait in Istanbul
Fishermen watch boats cruise the Bosphorus Strait

Any first-time visitor to a city should start their city tour with a wide-angle view of the city. An experience that allows you to settle in, relax, and get your bearings. In a city the size of Istanbul, this is even more important. And there’s no better way to get settled into your family vacation in Istanbul than on a Bosphorus cruise.

Istanbul’s identity is linked to the Bosphorus. While the waterway divides the Asian and European sides of the city, it also helps connect the two continents in a very unique way. A cruise along the Bosphorus strait offers families a relaxing peek into this historic city. It also makes for a very unique angle to see the city from the same vantage point as many early explorers.

There are Bosphorus cruises in Istanbul to fit the style of every traveler. The public ferry departs from various docks throughout the city and connects many of the most important regions of Istanbul. This is definitely the most budget-friendly way to cruise, but you won’t get any information about the city along the way.

A public Bosporus Cruise is one of the best ways to see Istanbul. On these popular cruises, you’ll get all of the views while also having an onboard guide who points out all of the coolest parts of the town. We really enjoyed this Bosphorus Strait sunset cruise, which included a stop on the Asian side of the city.

Another option is to book a private charter. There are many of these in the city, and they usually include a guided tour of all of the stops at a much more relaxed pace than the public cruises. The prices are reasonable as well. This tour is particularly well-ranked.

Beylerbeyi Palace

The front of the Beylerbeyi Palace lit up by the late day sun
Beylerbeyi Palace seen from a Bosphorus cruise

Once the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans, Beylerbeyi Palace remains one of the coolest places to visit in Istanbul. The palace is grandiosely perched on the Asian side of the city on the banks of the Bosphorus.

The building’s white marble exterior and lavishly decorated interior make it a piece of artwork on its own. But decorating the building shows that the attention to detail goes even deeper. The halls are decorated with priceless artwork, pottery, and elegant chandeliers.

Beylerbeyi Palace was the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans and is a great place to visit in Istanbul to see the lavish lifestyle of the rulers. It has a white marble exterior and an opulent interior filled with art, priceless vases, fountains, and crystal chandeliers.

The palace is best experienced on a hop-on-hop-off cruise along the Bosphorus that takes you to other Istanbul attractions including Emirgan Park and Sabanci Museum.

Topkapi Palace

Kids explore Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Wandering through Topkapi Palace

One of the most important attractions in Istanbul is another must-stop for first-time visitors to Istanbul. For those looking for a “step back in time,” Topkapi Palace highlights the life of the city’s Sultan during the mid-19th century. You’ll get an intimate glimpse into the life of the city’s most powerful resident and some features that might bring up some questions, like the Sultan’s private harem.

Among the amazing displays are a stunning collection of jewelry and a very cool private collection of weapons from the age. A bonus for families visiting Istanbul in summer is that Topkapi Palace offers some much-deserved respite from the heat.

Hippodrome Of Constantinople

A boy stares up at an obelisk in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in Istanbul
Obelisk in the Hippodrome of Constantinople

The Hippodrome of Constantinople is the center of the action in Istanbul. What was once an ancient chariot racing arena, located at the heart of Byzantium, the Hippodrome was where the majority of the city’s entertainment, politics, and cultural gatherings took place.

Two thousand years later, that’s still the case!

The Hippodrome now acts as a magnificent square that connects some of the most important attractions in Istanbul such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern. While it no longer holds its original glory or purpose, the Hippodrome now acts as a gathering place for visitors to the city and a meeting place for locals.

When you visit, pay special attention to the artifacts dotting the center of the Hippodrome. You’ll find relics from Egypt and Greece including the Serpent Column of Delphi, the base of which my family saw while visiting Delphi, Greece a few months before as well as the Walled Obelisk and the Obelisk of Theodosius.

Galata Bridge

Spanning the beautiful Golden Horn and linking the European and Asian continents, Galata Bridge, a visit to Galata Bridge is one of the best things to do in Istanbul.

For centuries, the Galata Bridge has been a place for public gatherings, commerce, and leisure in the city. And for its life, evening sunsets are paired with countless anglers tossing lines into the waters below.

The lower level of the Galata Bridge is packed with restaurants and is one of the most popular places to eat in Istanbul for both visitors and locals alike.

Galata Tower

A tall stone Galata Tower stands above the skyline in Istanbul
Galata Tower

Directly across the Galata Bridge from the European side of the city is one of Istanbul’s top attractions. This former fire watchtower stands 220 feet high and offers panoramic views of the city and the Bosphorus Strait.

A walking tour of the nearby neighborhoods offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the tower and the communities that surround it. It includes stops in the second oldest metro in the world and the Dervish Lodge where the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order practice their hypnotic dance.

While you’re visiting the tower, don’t miss the restaurant, which often features shows including belly dancers and “whirling dervish” performers.

Experience A Genuine Whirling Dervish Ceremony

Dancers twirl in at a Whirling Dervish ceremony in an ancient Caravanserai in Cappadocia, Turkiye
Whirling Dervish Ceremony in Cappadocia

Founded in the 13th century in the Turkish city of Konya, the Mevlevi Order is a religious sect that has gained fame for its mystical and enchanting dance ceremony. Whirling Dervishes are known for a dance called the “Sulfi” in which they spin repeatedly in a pattern in order to enter a state of nirvana.

There are two types of Whirling Dervish experiences in Istanbul. The first is a Whirling Dervish “show,” which is essentially trained dancers performing the dances of the Mevlevi Order. One of the most popular examples of this is the HodjaPasha, possibly the most “touristy” Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul.

The second experience is to partake in a Whirling Dervish “ceremony.” The best of these is at The Foundation of Universal Lovers of Mevlana. Keep in mind that this is a genuine religious ceremony. As such, only a handful of seats are reserved for visitors. The proceeds go towards sustaining the organization.

We experienced an authentic Whirling Dervish ceremony while in Cappadocia at the 13th-century Saruhan Caranvaserei. You can read about that and more things to do in Cappadocia here.

Turkish Ice Cream at a Dondurma

A young boy laughs at a dondurma Turkish ice cream show
All smiles at the dondurma in Istanbul.

My kids vehemently exclaimed that Turkish ice cream was the best they’d ever had. After traveling to more than 30 countries, my boys have had a LOT of ice cream, and I wholeheartedly agree with them.

There is a distinct texture and consistency to Turkish ice cream (called dondurma, locally) that makes it completely unique. It’s a chewy, stretchy consistency similar to taffy that is thoroughly enjoyable.

To add to the draw of dondurma is the unique delivery system that many Turkish ice cream vendors in Istanbul have begun to adopt. The dondurma show involves clients (usually kids) ordering an ice cream while the vendor makes the process of taking the ice cream very difficult. These Turkish ice cream can be found throughout the best places to visit in Turkiye.

Princes’ Islands 

Birds fly past a boat near Princes' Island Istanbul
Birds flying near Princes’ Island

When I first arrived in Istanbul, so many of my friends who were living in the city or had visited in the past told me that their favorite place to visit in Istanbul with kids was Princes’ Island. Princes’ Island is actually an archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara and is one of the best day trips in the city.

Of the Nine islands, four of them are accessible to visitors: Buyukada, Kinaliada, Heybeliada, and Burgazada.

Most tours visit Buyukada and Hebeliada on day tours from Istanbul. While some are half-day tours, I recommend a full-day tour that includes lunch, as the ride out alone takes about one and a half hours. This is one of the highest-rated tours to the islands.

Buyukada is the largest of the islands and offers horse-drawn carriage rides to explore the island chain’s historic downtown. Don’t miss Agia Yorgi Kilese or the Church of Saint George. This is believed to be the largest wooden structure in Europe.

On the islands, you can rent bikes, explore the historic neighborhoods, and just enjoy a peaceful nature escape that is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern

A towering undergound cistern with columns and water
The towering Basilica Cistern under Istanbul

If the dondurma was the favorite treat, Basilica Cistern was the favorite attraction for my family. And to be honest, it blew me away as well.

Basilica Cistern, also known as “Yerebatan Sarnici” in Turkish, is an awe-inspiring underground wonder located within steps of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. This stunning marvel dates back to the sixth century during the Byzantine era. According to ancient texts, the cavernous structure was a water storage and filtration system that contained gardens surrounded by a colonnade that faced the Hagia Sophia.

It was largely forgotten about until 1565 when French traveler Petru Gyllius left a record of being rowed between columns and seeing fish swimming in the waters.

Today, the Basilica Cistern is a testament to its architectural prowess. The towering columns and arched roof, which sit 150 feet beneath the surface of the city, offer an ethereal experience. The water-filled base is lined with art installations that complement the beautiful sculptures of the site’s intricate details.

This often-overlooked site is one of my top recommendations for those visiting Istanbul with kids. Not only does it make for a wonderful break from the summer heat, but it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Where To Stay In Istanbul

A man relaxes in a hot tub while his children swim behind him
Relaxing at the spa in Neorion Hotel

If you want the best experiences in Istanbul, finding the right place to stay is just as important as knowing where to go. We stayed at the Neorion Hotel, which is a great accommodation in  Sultanahmet. The hotel has an indoor pool and a spa and sits within easy walking distance of both the waterfront and popular attractions such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Other great places to stay in Istanbul include:

Kaftan Hotel

Tucked away in the historic heart of Istanbul, just a short walk from Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, The Kaftan Hotel welcomes families looking to experience genuine Turkish hospitality. With a historic exterior paired with a modern interior, the city blends the best of Istanbul.

While the hotel doesn’t have a pool, it does have a terrace and a garden. You can find their rates and availability here.

Ulusoy Old Cıty

One of the most highly-rated, hotels in Istanbul is Ulusoy Old City. This hotel not only ranks very well but it’s rated among the most sustainable hotels in the city. Every unit has a private bathroom and walk-in shower, air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, and a fridge. Some units have a balcony and/or a patio with garden or city views.

You can find their rates and availability here.

How To Get Around Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge city, and both of its airports are quite a large distance away from the city center. Because of this, taxis and shuttles are an important part of getting around in Istanbul.

The city also has an excellent bus and tram system that conveniently covers most of the popular places to visit in Istanbul. However, if you plan on taking public transit in Istanbul, be aware that they don’t have any maps in the vehicles, and stops are not announced. You’ll need to rely heavily on Google Maps or another navigation app in order to know exactly where you are and when you need to get off.

The most common metro route in Istanbul is the M2 between Hacıosman and Yenikapı, which passes through the business and shopping districts around Levent, Taksim Square, and Şişhane in Beyoğlu and across the Golden Horn. Do yourself a favor and pick up the IstanbulKart. This makes paying for public transit much easier.

If you plan on driving in Istanbul, be aware. While traffic rules are well respected in the country, the sheer size and population of Istanbul mean driving in the city is a challenge. It’s an ancient city and many of the roads, especially in the old town, are very narrow with few places to park.

If you plan on exploring the old town, don’t be afraid of walking. Istanbul, especially the popular core, is a very walkable city.

Tips For Travel In Istanbul

A family smiling for a selfie at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Greetings from Hagia Sophia

Travel in Istanbul can be wild, adventurous, and educational. But you want to make sure that you do it right so that everyone comes home with happy memories. These tips for traveling in Istanbul will get you started.

For some other great resources check out our Turkiye travel guide.

  • Pack for comfort, not style. Istanbul is a busy city that borders on chaotic at times. No matter what your plans are, you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Make sure that you dress for the weather and wear comfortable shoes.
  • Be flexible in your plans. The city is very busy, and the crowds can be overwhelming for young children. Be flexible in your schedule so that they enjoy the sites as much as you do.
  • Istanbul MuseumKart. Plan your visits ahead of time to know whether the Turkiye Museumkart is worth buying. We ended up getting a three-day pass for our time in Istanbul, but because our four weeks in Turkiye was divided by a one-week Greece Cruise, the math didn’t add up for the 30-day card.
  • Dress appropriately. While Istanbul is a modern Islamic city where you’re as likely to find crop tops as you are burkas, keep in mind that many of the top places to visit in the city are religious, and dressing appropriately is important. Many sites have headwear for women to use. But you’ll also want to ensure that shoulders and knees are covered for both adult men and women.
  • Watch out for scams. Istanbul is a fairly safe city. But it is big, and in any big city there are people who look to take advantage of those who are unfamiliar. Make sure that you confirm taxi rates ahead of time and ensure that taxis always turn on the meter. If you feel that you’ve been taken for a ride, report it. Istanbul is also a popular place for pickpockets. Keep your wallets and purse secure. And if you find people (even children) brushing against you or “dropping things” near you, pay special attention.
  • Carry cash but not too much. Turkiye, Istanbul especially, uses credit cards and debit cards extensively. Have some cash on you, but not too much, just in case your money goes missing.

Tips For Family Travel In Turkiye

Family travel in Turkiye, especially in places like Sanliurfa and the Southeast, requires some planning and a little bit of luck. Some areas of this country can be closed due to political unrest, so it’s always a good idea to check out current travel advisories and stay informed of the current travel status.

Check out our Turkiye Family Travel Blog for everything that you need to know about family travel in Turkiye and watch ouf Tips for Family Travel in Turkiye video below to help you plan an unforgettable visit to this mesmerizing and wonderful country.

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Enjoy These Amazing Things To Do In Istanbul

Many of my friends in the travel world regularly talk to me about how Istanbul is their favorite city. After visiting the city with my family, I completely understand why they feel that way.

Istanbul is dramatic, beautiful, ostentatious, and vividly exciting. It’s a city where the street food is just as good as the five-star restaurants, and it’s hard to find a street that doesn’t tell a story.

If you’re planning on traveling to the city, I hope that our guide to the best things to do in Istanbul has helped you plan. It’s a city that you’ll never forget.

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