Istanbul is a city steeped in history, culture, and natural beauty, seemingly on everyone’s bucket list. With all Istanbul has to offer, it’s no wonder it made American Express Travel’s 2023 Trending Destinations List based on travel bookings by American Express cardholders for 2023. Located in the northwest of Turkey, Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia and has been a popular destination for centuries, making it an important hub for trade, culture, and religion.
In this guide to the best things to do in Istanbul, you’ll find everything from can’t-miss attractions and landmarks to more off-the-beaten-path destinations you’ll fall in love with. You can explore the city’s rich past, enjoy its many modern attractions, and create unique experiences that will stay with you long after your vacation; from its bustling bazaars to grand palaces and monuments, Istanbul offers visitors an unforgettable experience.
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15 Things To Do in Istanbul
1. See the Beauty of the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks, and a visit is easily among the most popular things to do in Istanbul. This stunning building was built in the 17th century and features eye-catching blue tiles, which inspired its name. The mosque has six minarets and an elegant courtyard with a large fountain.
Visitors can explore the mosque if they follow the dress code (covering your shoulders, arms, and legs). As a functioning mosque, the Blue Mosque is closed for prayer several times daily. Try to visit when it is open and marvel at the beauty of this iconic building.
2. Enjoy Turkish Cuisine
No trip to Istanbul is complete without trying the local cuisine. Turkey is known for its mezes (small dishes), such as stuffed vine leaves, hummus, and delicious kebabs. If you want something more traditional, try döner kebab (meat cooked on a vertical spit) or lahmacun (flatbread with a minced meat topping).
Do you have a sweet tooth? Try baklava (a pastry made with honey and nuts) and künefe (a dessert made from shredded wheat, goat cheese, syrup, and pistachios). Istanbul has no shortage of delicious options, so try as much local cuisine as possible!
3. Visit the Magnificent Hagia Sofia
The Hagia Sofia is one of Istanbul’s most impressive and beautiful buildings. This former Byzantine church was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. Today it is a museum/mosque showcasing its Christian and Islamic heritage.
The interiors are stunning, with ornate mosaics and marble arches, while the exterior features beautiful minarets and a grand dome. It’s worth a visit to admire the beauty of this building and learn more about its history.
4. Make Interesting Discoveries at the Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence is a unique museum dedicated to the works of Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. This museum, located in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, houses a collection of artifacts depicted in Pamuk’s novel.
Visitors can see old photographs, letters, and objects that tie into the novel’s narrative. This museum is a great spot for book lovers and anyone interested in exploring the city’s history and culture.
Do you have the novel? Bring the printed ticket at the end of the novel, head to the museum’s ticket booth and get it stamped in exchange for free entry.
5. Visit Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square, located in the old city, is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. It’s home to many iconic structures, such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum, and Topkapı Palace. The square also offers spectacular views of the Bosphorus.
Take a guided tour of Sultanahmet Square or wander alone and explore the many monuments, bazaars, and shops. Plenty of great restaurants are nearby if you want to grab a bite.
6. Find Hidden Treasures at Feriköy Flea Market
The Feriköy Flea Market is a place to find unique and interesting items. The market is held at Cumhuriyet, Semt Pazarı every Sunday, and it’s filled with antiques, vintage clothes, art, jewelry, furniture, and more. You will surely find some hidden gems if you don’t mind elbowing through the crowd.
You can also find some delicious traditional Turkish food at the market, including borek (a type of pastry), braided pastries called simit, and tavuk göğsü (a sweet pudding made with chicken). It’s a great place to pick up some souvenirs and taste the local culture.
7. Visit Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is a stunning example of Ottoman architecture and was once home to the ruling sultans. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards, each with a distinct character. You can spend hours exploring the buildings, gardens, and collections of artifacts.
Several museums within the palace grounds also house an impressive collection of Chinese porcelain, Ottoman weapons and armor, manuscripts from Islamic scholars, and other items from the imperial treasury. Topkapi Palace is a must-see for anyone interested in Istanbul’s rich history.
8. Explore the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, with over 4,000 shops and 35,000 workers, making a visit easily one of the best things to do in Istanbul, and a true bucket list travel experience! The bazaar dates back to 1461, and visiting it is like taking a step back in time. There are shops selling everything from souvenirs and clothing to carpets, jewelry, spices, and antiques.
Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, visiting the Grand Bazaar to experience its unique atmosphere is worth it. Meet the locals, bargain with shopkeepers, and sample some delicious street food while you’re there.
9. Take a Cruise on the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is an important waterway that separates Europe and Asia. It connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and has been a major maritime route since ancient times. Taking a cruise on this fascinating river from Eminönü to Anadolu Kavağı is one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery of Istanbul.
On your cruise, you’ll see some of Istanbul’s iconic landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Ortaköy Mosque. You can also visit some picturesque villages along the way, including Bebek, Arnavutköy, and Rumeli Kavağı.
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10. Experience the Hamam Ritual at the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is a traditional Turkish bath house that is still open and operating in Istanbul today. This 16th-century hamam offers visitors the chance to experience their “hamam ritual,” which involves steam baths, massages, and relaxation.
This unique experience is a great way to learn about Turkish culture and relax after a long day of sightseeing. Book your spot in advance to guarantee your place at this popular attraction.
Note: The Hamam is open to women in the morning and men in the afternoon.
11. Climb the Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks and offers spectacular city views. It was built in 1348 by the Genoese and stands at an impressive height of 205 feet. You can climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views of Istanbul or visit its café and restaurant on the lower floors.
If you visit the tower during the evening, you can enjoy traditional music and belly dancing. The building is a great spot to take in the sights of Istanbul and watch the sunset.
12. Enjoy Live Jazz at Nardis
If you want a fun night out, head to Nardis Jazz Club. This popular venue is one of the best places in Istanbul to listen to live jazz music and enjoy cocktails and snacks. It’s an intimate setting with a cozy atmosphere and great music. Take a one-minute stroll from the Galata Tower, and you’ll find yourself at this exciting spot.
Local and international jazz musicians perform here, so there’s always something new to hear. Reserve a table in advance to guarantee a spot in the limited 120-capacity venue, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this iconic jazz club.
13. Take in the Beauty of Nature at Belgrad Forest
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, go to Belgrad Forest. This lush forest is just outside of Istanbul and provides a peaceful escape from the busy city life. You can go hiking or cycling through the trails, explore nearby lakes, and observe the wildlife in its natural habitat.
Take a break and grab a bite to eat at one of the cafes or restaurants near the forest, or enjoy some peaceful time wandering through the trees. Belgrad Forest is a great spot to relax and unwind during your trip to Istanbul.
14. Board the Local Commuter Ferry
Taking the local commuter ferry is one of the best and most affordable ways to get around Istanbul. This ferry system runs along the Bosphorus Strait and offers stunning views of Europe and Asia. It’s a great way to see the city from a different perspective and to get around quickly.
You can hop on the ferry at any of its many stops, and it runs until late. Check out the different routes and plan your trip for an affordable and enjoyable way to explore Istanbul.
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15. See the Beautiful Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent
The Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is located in the city’s Old Town. This mosque was built by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the 16th century. It was renovated in 2010, and that accounts for its modern, pristine condition.
You don’t want to miss the mosque’s impressive façade, intricate decorations, and stunning interior. Take a guided tour to explore this incredible structure, admire its beauty, and learn about the history of this spectacular building.
Enjoy Your Stay in Istanbul
You can’t possibly have a boring time in Istanbul, with many places and activities to explore. Allow yourself to get lost in the city’s culture, discover its hidden gems, and try something new. These unmissable experiences will make your stay in Istanbul as much of an adventure as it can be.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.