Ten Things To Do In Istanbul

We spent five wonderful days in Istanbul. Although Cody and I were in this city before, we didn’t have enough time to see most of what was important and interesting. This time we made a detailed plan for our trip and tried to miss nothing. In this article I will tell you how and what to visit in Istanbul.

Table Of Contents (The Ten Things To Do In Istanbul)

  1. The Blue Mosque
  2. Hagia Sophia
  3. Basilica Cistern
  4. Süleymaniye Mosque
  5. Topkapi Palace
  6. Galata Tower and Galata Bridge
  7. Spice Bazaar
  8. Grand Bazaar
  9. The Bosphorus Cruise
  10. Istanbul Food Tour

The Blue Mosque

The first place we visited in Istanbul was the Blue Mosque. We stayed not far (3 minutes) from the central square and, of course, decided to start with the main tourists attractions.

Things to do in Istanbul: Blue mosque

By the way, I recommend the Hotel Uyan where we stayed. This is a cute boutique hotel with small but very comfortable rooms. The highlight of this hotel is the outdoor rooftop terrace, where the breakfast is served. It offers a magnificent view of the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia.

The view from the hotel roof
The view from the hotel roof

We left for the Blue Mosque at 9 am to avoid the crowd (we did not manage to do this; large groups of tourists from China were already gathering at the mosque). Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long and in just 10 – 15 minutes we got into the mosque.

Things to do in Istanbul: Blue mosque cortyard

Tip: Wear something that makes it easy to take off and put on your shoes. The mosque cannot be accessed with shoes on your feet, so everyone is asked to remove their shoes at the entrance and are offered plastic bags to carry the shoes in it. For hygienic reasons it is better to have socks.

Women cannot enter the mosque without their head covered, so it is best to take with you a headscarf. If you do not have anything suitable, in the central square (2 minutes from the mosque) there are souvenir shops that are selling them (price 30 – 50 lira). If you don’t want to buy one you will receive one at the mosque.

Blue mosqye cortyard

Unfortunately, the mosque was being repaired, so some of it was covered up. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that big of a crowd inside. Everyone was trying to get the best possible photo (which is extremely difficult) and squeeze into the center to get a better look at the mosque.

Blue Mosque inside

The left side of the mosque distributes various religious books and brochures for free, but unfortunately nothing about the history of the mosque. To see everything inside, we needed just 15 minutes.

Things to do in Istanbul: Blue Mosque

I admit that I was not as impressed with the Blue Mosque as, for example, Haiga Sophia or Süleymaniye Mosque, but this is the main mosque of the country, so it should be on your list.

Blue Mosque inside

Note: prayers are held at the mosque, so it is closed to visitors at certain times. Click here to check the prayer times.

Key Information

Hours: avoid the prayer times;

Price: free;

Address: Sultan Ahmet, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

2. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic landmarks not just in Europe, but in the whole world, therefore it is no wonder that tons of people want to see this place for themselves. It’s best to visit Hagia Sophia in the morning. The queue seemed long, but it took us only 10 minutes to get inside the museum.

Things to do in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

You can only buy your ticket directly from the Hagia Sophia ticket office, so don’t look for them online or book a guided tour unless you really want one. Since Hagia Sophia is a museum right now, women do not need to wear a headscarf.

Hagia Sophia

Only when we got inside did we realize how big and amazing it is. From the entrance you will get into a large side hallway made with marble of different colors, which is composed in a peculiar pattern.

Hagia Sophia fresco

Unfortunately, the central part of the cathedral was undergoing restoration, so part of the hall was fenced in. On the ground floor there is the main altar, the minbar, the Sultan’s lodge, Omphalos, the Pergamum marble urns, Sultan Mustafa’s tomb and the weeping column.

Things to do in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia inside

There is a belief that if you put your hand in the hole in the weeping column and feel the moisture, you can make a wish and it will come true. (I decided not to check, so I can’t tell if it’s true)

Be sure to climb to the second floor. Going out into the side hallway from the main hall you will notice the ramp leading to the second floor.

Hagia Sophia  the way to the second floor
The way to the second floor

On the second floor there are several important and old frescoes made during Christianity when Istanbul was Constantinople. Pay attention to the ceiling and ornamentation on it, in some places it is completely preserved and looks like it is made of velvet.

Hagia Sophia second floor

Tip: There is a large screen and chairs at the right end of the hallway. I recommend that you first watch the movie or part of it, so that you know what to pay special attention to.

The whole visit took us about 2 hours.

Key Information

Hours: Monday to Sunday: 9 AM to 5 PM ;

Price: TL72

Address: Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

Note: since 2020 Hagia Sophia was converted back to a mosque. Therefore all the rules that apply to the Blue mosque now apply to Hagia Sophia.

3. Basilica Cistern

This place has become one of my favorites. And so I understand that this is a very touristy place and that there are always a lot of visitors, but even now, writing about the basilica, I feel goose bumps. Maybe this place caused me so much admiration because I read Dan Brown’s books, or maybe because the atmosphere was very mysterious.

Things to do in Istanbul:  Basilica Cistern

Three moments that were immediately etched into my memory are:

  • 1. The area of ​​the basilica is much larger than I expected;
  • 2. The soft ambient music played in the middle created an incredibly mysterious atmosphere;
  • 3. The red light is alarming, so an adrenaline rush is guaranteed.

How to visit the Basilica Cistern:

It is not far from Hagia Sofia, literally across the street. We were very lucky when we got here, the queue was very small and it took us 5 to 10 minutes to buy the tickets and take 52 steps down to the Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

The basilica was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 527. It was nick named “The Sunken Palace” due to the columns rising from water level. Because this huge underground cistern was at one point a basilica it got the name “Basilica Cistern”.

Weeping column
Weeping column

When you are entering the Basilica Cistern it seems like there are a countless number of columns. Every column is 9 meters heigh and there are 336 of them and they make 12 rows with 28 columns in each row. This cistern is 9,800 square meters and has the capacity of 100,000 tons of water storage. In old time the water to the Basilica Cistern came from the Belgrade Forest, which is located 20 km from the city.

Cody at the Basilica Cistern
Cody at the Basilica Cistern

There are two types of columns: the ones made of one piece of marble and there are others that contain two pieces of marble. At the very end of the cistern there are two special columns with medusa heads as a bases. These columns are most attractive to tourists.

Medusa Head
The Medusa heads are not by this sign (Go further)

Note: as you will walk around the cistern you will see the board with the information about the Medusa head columns. Do not search for them there (mistake of all the tourists) just go to the end of the walking pass and there you will find them lit up and surrounded by people.

Things to do in Istanbul: Medusa Head

Till now scientist don’t know where these Medusa heads come from, but it is known that they are from the 5th century. They are also considered to be masterpieces of sculpture art from the Roman Period.

There are many myths about why these Medusa heads were brought to the Basilica Cistern. As you probably know, Medusa is one of the three sisters, who are monsters of the underground world. And she had the power to turn everyone who looked her in the eyes into stone. In the ancient world Medusa sculptures were used to protect important places. So that is why people think the Medusa heads where put in the Basilic Cistern.

Things to do in Istanbul: Medusa Head

The Basilica Cistern was forgotten after the Ottomans installed their own water system. That is until Petrus Gyllius, French scientist and topographer in the 16th century rediscovered it. Petrus Gyllius published a book about his travels in Constantinople and at the same time introduced Western Europe to the Basilica Cistern.

During the renovation in 1985 – 1987 the Cistern was completely dried out and around 50,000 tons of mud where cleaned out.

Basilica Cistern

We actually spent an hour or so inside the Basilica Cistern just because I didn’t want to leave.  But you only need 20-30 minutes to see everything.

Key Information

Hours: Monday – Sunday: 9 AM to 5:30 PM ;

Price: TL72;

Address: Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

4. Süleymaniye Mosque

Things to do in Istanbul: Süleymaniye Mosque

Although the blue mosque is the main mosque of the country, it did not impress me like the Suleiman mosque. Probably because I am Ukrainian, and I was drawn to the story of my countrywoman Alexandra Lisovska (in some sources Anastasia Lisovska). Known in Turkey as Hurrem Sultan, she was a simple girl from a Ukrainian village who was abducted and sold to be a slave in Istanbul.

Things to do in Istanbul: Hurem Sultan
The Tomb Of Hurrem Sultan

There she was trained and educated to serve the Sultan’s concubines. But that is not what happened. Even though she wasn’t very beautiful, her intelligence and elegance, her smile, joyful disposition, style of conversation and musical talent helped her to win the Sultan’s heart and she became the main girl in the Sultan’s Harem.

Things to do in Istanbul: Süleymaniye Mosque

When I was planning to travel to Istanbul, one of the main places I wanted to visit was the tomb where she was buried. It is located by the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque

The mosque itself is incredibly beautiful. But the main highlight is the view that opens from the garden behind the mosque. Only here do you really realize how much Istanbul is an unusually beautiful city. The view of the Golden Horn, where you can see ships and white yachts, and the part of the city that is on the opposite shore is simply breathtaking.

The view from the garden
The view from the garden

Note: prayers are held at the mosque, so it is closed to visitors at certain times. Click here to check the prayer times.

Key Information

Hours: avoid the prayer times;

Price: free of charge

Address: Süleymaniye Mah, Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar Cd. No:1, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

5. Topkapi Palace

We headed to Topkapi Palace immediately after Hagia Sophia Cathedral and expected for an endless line, but fortunately we only had to wait 10 minutes to get inside. But this is not the end, you have to buy tickets. There was an extraordinary amount of people near the ticket office, but there was almost no one near the ticket machines, so we immediately went there and bought two tickets, spending only a minute. Why almost no one used ticket machines is still a mystery to me.

Things to do in Istanbul: Topkapi palace

The palace is located behind the Hagia Sofia and has access to the sea. If you come from Europe, where the word palace means a large multi-storey mansion with towers, you will be surprised. Topkapi Palace is a combination of several small houses that sometimes have only one room (where, for example, the Sultan hosted guests) and several larger mansions that were their personal space for example the Harem).

Topkapi palace

Tip: Although Topkapi Palace is incredibly beautiful, the best part is the Harem, so be sure to visit it.

The ticket to the Harem
The ticket to the Harem

The main highlight of the palace is Harem, which you have to buy a separate ticket at the entrance. I have to say it is worth it. We liked the harem the most out of the entire complex. Why? Here it is where you understand what was life like in the palace. Where the servants cooked food for the residents of the Harem, where important negotiations were held, and how important was the supply of water.

Harem inside

The harem’s beauty cannot be compared. Each room has its own characteristics, colors and atmosphere. And every room is admirable.

Harem at the Topkapi palace

We spent up to three hours exploring the Topkapi Palace and Harem. And after all parts of the palace of this great museum, the Harem turned out to be the best part.

Key Information

Hours: Tuesday – closed; Wednesday to Monday: 9 AM to 6 PM;

Price: entrance fee of Topkapi Palace is TL72 and it is an additional TL42 per person to visit Harem;

Address: Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

6. Galata Tower and Galata Bridge

Since we were staying at a hotel near Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Galata Tower was a bit far from us. Despite this, we decided to stroll to Galata Tower and not use public transportation or taxis. The walk was very enjoyable. On the way to the tower we had to go over the Galata Bridge.

This bridge has several features:

1. You can see a lot of fishermen who sometimes catch big fish and it’s fun to watch for those who love fishing.

Things to do in Istanbul: Galata bridge

2. The bridge offers a beautiful view of the Golden Horn, several mosques and the Galata tower itself.

Galata Tower

3. There are fishing boats at the entrance to the bridge where you can buy a delicious fish sandwich.

Therefore, for those who love street food and beautiful scenery, this is a must visit. The length of Galata Bridge is only 490 meters, so the walk will take only 5 – 10 minutes.

Galata Tower

From the bridge to the tower you will have to go up, but do not worry, this path also takes no more than 15 minutes. Galata Tower is a medieval tower located north of the Golden Horn in the Galata district of Istanbul. The tower was built in 1348 under Constantinople and was called the Jesus Tower. The height of the tower is 66 meters. The tower was used to protect the port from enemies and for spotting fires in the city.  Now the tower is open to visitors, and at the top is a restaurant.

Key Information

Hours: 9 AM to 10 PM ;

Price: Galata tower: 35 TL;

Address: Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey;

7. Spice Bazaar

Things to do in Istanbul: Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Spice Market, is next to Eminonu metro stop on the Sultanehmet side of Galata bridge. I have to say that the prices inside this market are not as good as just right outside, however it is a beautiful structure in which to take pictures. The vendors all speak English and you can easily spend 20 minutes having them just explain about some random spice.

Spice Bazaar

While it is an interesting place to learn about, and to take pictures of the spices beautifully laid out, I recommend going just outside behind the spice market to make purchases as the cost is more than 50% cheaper.

Spices in Istanbul

Key Information

Hours: Monday – Friday: 8 AM to 7 PM; Saturday: 8 AM to 7:30 PM; Sunday: 9:30 to 7 PM;

Price: free of charge;

Address: Rüstem Paşa, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

8. Grand Bazaar

Things to do in Istanbul: Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous tourist destinations in all of Istanbul, and quite possibly the most famous bazaar in the world. It is also one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the entire world. There are 61 streets and over 4000 vendors inside the complex and they sell everything from clothes to food, appliances to art. There are even multiple sit down restaurants inside the bazaar if you want to take a break and eat.

Grand Bazaar inside

The complex was started in the mid-15th century, shortly after the conquering of the city by Ottoman forces. It was meant to be not just a central market where people can do their shopping, but also a meeting/gathering place for friends. It is located in the Fatih district of Istanbul, and is surrounded by plenty of other important sights to see, such as the Sulemaniye mosque.

Grand Bazaar

The prices in here definitely cater to tourists, just like with the spice bazaar, but it is a place you’ll want to at least visit. Some shop owners will let you take pictures inside their shop if you ask, and some will ask to pay a small fee.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

The grand bazaar attracts between 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily and over 90 million annually.

Key Information

Hours: Sunday – closed; Monday – Saturday: 9 AM to 7 PM;

Price: free of charge;

Address: Beyazıt, Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

9. The Bosphorus Cruise

Things to do in Istanbul: The Bosporus Cruise

The Bosphorus Cruise was something that we almost didn’t do. It was only when we realized we had some free time in the morning that we decided to do it. After a bit of research about which one to take, we found the best option. If you want to save money, and still get the same value, you should take the cruise by the Kadikoy Hatti ticket office. I’ve outlined the location where we paid to board in red on the picture so you can find it. The ticket price is 25 Turkish Lira, and it was the most affordable way to see the Bosphorus by boat.

The Bosporus Cruise enter
The area in the black circle is where you can buy a ticket

There are no stops on the cruise, the boat just goes all the way down to the second bridge, makes a U-turn, and returns to the same port that we departed from. The entire cruise took about 2 hours, and we were able to see the Dolmabahce Palace, and many other impressive villas along the way. By the second bridge there is even a walled fortress which was quite interesting to see.

Dolmabahce Palace Istanbul
Dolmabahce Palace

While this is not one of the must do things in Istanbul, it is definitely something that could be a nice relaxing activity for those with extra time.

Things to do in Istanbul
Ortakoy Mosque

Key Information

Hours: 1,5 – 2 hours ;

Price: 25 TL;

Address: Hobyar, 34112 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey;

10. Istanbul Food Tour

This may just be one of the best food tours I’ve ever taken. It is over 6 hours long and includes at least 12 stops. Everything from breakfast (our guide picked up tons of food from the stalls around the spice market) to Turkish coffee, fantastic street food and dessert, this tour had it all. The tour starts by the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Market) which is where the group met. Our tour guide, Latif, was wildly knowledgeable not just about food, but about Istanbul and Turkey as a whole, and that made the tour all the more enjoyable. Breakfast included simit, menemen, tea, cheeses, olives and more, and was a perfect start to the day.

Things to do in Istanbul: Food tour
Baked Pumpkin Dolmabahce Palace

From there we took a ferry across the river to Kadikoy (the Asia side) where the majority of stops were. We had some Turkish coffee with lokum, and then went to the world famous Ciya Sofrasi where we were presented with over a dozen different dishes to try.

Lachmacun -  flatbread with herbs and spices
Lachmacun – flatbread with herbs and spices

The following three hours consisted of walking around the Kadikoy area and hitting 9 more vendors with delicious food. I can guarantee by the end of this tour you will be far from hungry, and will probably decide to skip dinner.

Cig Kofte
Cig Kofte

You can read Cody’s full in detail guide for the Istanbul Food Tour here, including all addresses of the restaurants and tons of pictures. Booking is super simple, and can be done here.

Key Information

Hours: 9 AM – 3:30 PM;

Price: 500 TL;

Address: meeting point at the Spice bazaar;

Check out 5 Foods In Istanbul You Have To Try

Ten Things To Do In Istanbul

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  1. Cody | 15th Nov 19

    Great list! Love Istanbul.

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