Top 26 Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey (2021 Guide)

by Fay

Since my partner and I moved to Istanbul city in Turkey, I’ve always wanted to sit and write about all the fun things to do in Istanbul. But first, I wanted to spend more time discovering this beautiful city to be able to list every single thing and place you can enjoy here. So, here is a detailed guide about all the cool and amazing things to do in Istanbul. 

For the best neighborhoods in the city, check out where to stay in Istanbul guide!

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Why Visit Istanbul?

Istanbul is the largest and most populous city in Turkey. Historically known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the only city in the word that straddles on the two continents, Asia and Europe.

This megacity is huge and culturally rich. Therefore, it has an enormous amount of things to do and places to see. Trust me, we spent one year and a half here and we still didn’t get to experience the whole of Istanbul yet.

This post will include things to do in Istanbul either at night or during the day, and I will be writing another post about where to eat in Istanbul and also day trips that are more than 1 hour from the city. 

Before you read on – we have various resources about Istanbul. For instance, check out the following:

  1. Istanbul Public transport guide
  2. 9 highly recommended mosques to visit in Istanbul
  3. What is the cost of living in Istanbul?

Our move to Istanbul

My husband and I have a strong emotional attachment to Turkey. We just feel comfortable being in the country. And since we have always had itchy feet for a change we decided to go for it and move to Istanbul, the most beautiful city in Turkey. Coming from two different countries in Africa, Istanbul was a launching point and the start of our travel journey.

fay and faheem from capetocasa

The first thing we did once we moved to Istanbul was looking for jobs to allow us to live comfortably while traveling through Turkey.

We were expecting a hard time finding jobs but it was actually the opposite. We both managed to get jobs in 3 months only. So, we have been living in Istanbul for a year and a half now and we are glad we moved here.

21 Unmissable Things to Do & Places to See in Istanbul

Istanbul is worth exploring during the day and at night so we divided this Istanbul travel guide into two main parts. Things to do in Istanbul during the day and things to do at night. Click to go straight to the section or read from the start to finish. Note that some of the activities can be done both at night or during the day.

Top things to do in Istanbul During the Day 

There are plenty of things to do in Istanbul during the day. But the most important factors that you need to consider in Istanbul are weather and transportation, depending on where in the city you are staying. Look out for the weather because Istanbul receives a fair bit of rain, all year round. In the colder months, you may even get snow. So if you have a few sunny days, you want to get these historical, mostly outdoor activities ticked off your list. These are the top-rated ones among tourists.

You migt also like: Why visiting Istanbul in Winter is a good idea

1. Wander in Sultanahmet Square 

The marvelous Sultanahmet Square ‘Sultanahmet Meydan’ in Istanbul accommodates several historical sights that date back to the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Some of these attractions are Hagia Sophia, The Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque, and many other churches, museums, and palaces. Sultanahmet Square was once a lively Byzantium hippodrome constructed in the 4th century by Constantine The Great. 

Sultanahmet Square

Sultanahmet served as a point of entertainment and socializing for centuries and it still does even now. All the landmarks are unbelievably well preserved which makes strolling around the square a travel-through-time experience. Moreover, Sultanahmet isn’t only for sightseeing, there are also plenty of restaurants and cafes to take a break, listen to Athan (Prayer call) and people watch.   

Sultanahmet Square is located in Fatih, Istanbul. The area is relatively car-free which makes it quite easy to explore on foot.  It is also easily accessible using public transportation.

Pro Travel Tip: Unlike the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque, the sights are not free so, I recommend purchasing the priority-pass Istanbul Museum Card that allows you to visit several paid sights at a reduced price or consider booking an inclusive package tour that will spare you the long lines and give you extra insights when exploring.  

2. Marvel at The Blue Mosque

Istanbul is famous for its iconic work of art, called The Blue Mosque. It is located in Sultanahmet Square so don’t be surprised if you hear people, mostly locals calling it Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Turkish: Sultanahmet Camii). The mosque was built in the 17th century by the renowned architect Ahmet Aga at the request of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I. The construction took almost 7 and a half years to be completed. 

Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

The Blue Mosque is considered to be one of the most unique mosques around the world. It was constructed with 6 minarets and unique architecture. The blue color of the tiles dominates the interior design which is as relaxing as praying on the spread red carpets.  

Every year millions of locals and foreigners visit the Blue Mosque to marvel at this uniquely built structure. Visiting the Blue Mosque whenever I can is one of my many favorite things to do in Istanbul. The mosque is open from 9 AM to 7 PM to tourists and the entrance is free for everybody. However, tourists are not allowed at the time of any of the 5 Muslim prayers which last around 1 hour, each session.     

Pro Travel Tip: The Blue Mosque is a holy place of worship for Muslims and they have specific dress codes when entering the mosques for both men and women. Thus, dressing modestly (not showing too much skin) is highly recommended. Also, a scarf can come in very handy for women to cover the head and shoulders when visiting the holy places in Istanbul.  

You may also like : 9 highly recommended mosques to visit in Istanbul

3. Travel Back in Time at Hagia Sophia Mosque

Since it was built 1500 years ago as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church, this marvelous building in Istanbul has ensured a lot of changes in terms of its function. Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya) was commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in 360 A.D. and served as a Basilica until it was burned down in 404 A.D. The building was repaired in 415 by Emperor Theodosios II. However, the Hagia Sophia was again burned down during the “Nika revolts” against Emperor Justinian I. 

Hagia Sophia when it was a museum

The old building was completely demolished and rebuilt again in 537 A.D. The result is the current Hagia Sophia you see. A remarkable building that can not be properly described with words alone. The materials used in building Hagia Sophia were brought from different parts of the world. For instance, the marble is brought from Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) and Syria, the wall bricks are from North Africa, and the 104 columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as well as from Egypt. 

During the Ottoman rise when Mehmed The Conqueror, Hagia Sophia was renovated and used as a mosque until it was designated as a museum by the Turkish government, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In July 2020, Hagia Sophia was once again re-opened as a mosque where Muslim prayers are held 5 times a day. 

The design and architecture, both inside and out are mesmerizing. I was lucky to visit Hagia Sophia as both a museum and a mosque. The issue of whether Hagia Sophia is a mosque or a church or a museum or all of the above is a topic that is up for debate. However, as a traveler, The Hagia Sophia’s classification as a mosque means that everyone can visit for free, which is awesome, especially for many people who couldn’t afford to take their families to the Hagia Sophia, previously.   

4. Be Mesmerized by Dolmabahce Palace Architecture

Dolmabahce Palace was built in the 19th century by Sultan Abdülmecid and it is definitely one of the most beautiful and prestigious places in the world. The place is estimated to cost five million Ottoman gold pounds which is the equivalent of 35 tons of gold. 

The palace also features a huge crystal chandelier with 750 lamps that was gifted by Queen Victoria. And this is not the only one found in the palace. There is a large collection of unique crystal chandeliers all around the palace. Dolmabahce Palace has historical significance for the Turkish/Ottoman period.

Istanbul Turkey dolmabahce palace entrance
Dolmabahce Palace

The palace was the last place to accommodate the Ottoman Sultans and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Dolmabahçe Palace became Atatürk’s Presidential Palace upon the declaration of the Republic. And also the place where Ataturk, the father of the Turks, died. 

Now Dolmabahce palace is an open museum sitting majestically on the Bosphorus making it hard not to notice. The palace’s European architectural exterior is as attractive as its bohemian style interior. There are 285 rooms, 43 halls, a ballroom, a ceremonial hall, and many other facilities waiting for your visit. 

  • Address: Beşiktas area in Istanbul
  • Entrance Fee: 100TL

5. Travel again in time in Topkapi Palace

A few steps away from Sultanahmet Square, Topkapi Palace (Turkish: Topkapı Sarayı) should be on your things to do in Istanbul bucket list. If I had to choose between Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace, I would definitely go for Topkapı, for its ancient history that dates back to the 15th century.

Topkapi Palace

The museum exhibits the imperial collections of the Ottoman Empire and an extensive collection of books and manuscripts in its library. Visiting Topkapi Palace and the museum is one of the must-do things to do when you first visit Istanbul. The experience allows you to take a close look at the Turkish culture inspired by Ottoman history. 

The museum features 4 courts, exhibition halls, a treasury section, and Harem. Some of the palace’s sections are not open to the public. The whole experience will probably take at least 2 hours if you wish to visit all the sections. At the end of the experience, you can go and sit in the cafe located in the garden of the palace. The views over the Bosphorus from there are breathtaking.  

6. Stroll through Istiklal Street in Taksim

This is one of the most visited and busiest streets in Istanbul. Istiklal Street in Istanbul is like Oxford Street in New York. This street is located within the historical Beyoglu district and contains a mix of traditional and modern shopping. The street stretches over a long distance and spotlights the diversity of Istanbul and Turkey. 

There are so many things to do in Istiklal Street. After strolling through on a leisurely journey through the Street, you can have a good meal, catch up on some shopping or have a cup of coffee while overlooking the endless passage of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan population.

The legendary Taksim Tramway

No visit to Istiklal Street could be complete without a ride on the vintage red tram. The tramway has been operating in Istiklal Street for decades, carrying shoppers up and down the street. Boarding the tram is another way to experience this bustling street but also a huge help to reach the end of it.

Istiklal Street is one of Istanbul’s antique icons, try not to be too distracted by the fancy shops and the busy vibes and take a look at the stunning old-fashioned architecture of the buildings. You will be impressed! 

An old building in Istiklal Street

7. Shop Until You Drop in The Grand Bazaar 

I’ve heard that the Grand bazaar in Istanbul is the world’s biggest covered market. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it definitely feels like it. I’ve never been able to navigate the whole bazaar. It has 66 streets, 22 gates and more than 4000 shops selling everything from clothes, jewellery and antiques to spices and Turkish food. 

The Grand Bazaar is literally a small city within a bigger city, Istanbul. You can find a tourist information center, a health facility, a police station and almost all bank branches.  

Whether you want to shop or just get a taste of the Ottoman era times, the Grand Bazaar tour is a must have. You will certainly get lost looking for a way out from this attractive maze but this is what the Grand Bazaar experience is all about.     

8. Marvel at The Old Walls of Constantinople

The old walls of Constantionple

The walls of Constantinople were initially built by Constantine The Great to protect the city of Constantinople from becoming ‘Istanbul’. It is said that these walls were only breached twice in history. The first breach was during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and the second one was during the conquest of Constantinople by the Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror, in 1453.

The Byzantine walls feature many historical gates that are still standing and they can be seen from different locations in Istanbul. We accidentally stumbled upon a part of the ancient walls in Topkapi Park. However, there are many places where you can see well-preserved gates and towers of the walls. The Byzantine Wall, Edirnekapı surları, Bizans Surları are some of the locations you can go to.

9. Take a Trip to The Maiden’s Tower

The Maiden’s Tower, known as Kiz Kulesi in Turkish, is a lighthouse tower built inside the Bosphorus. It was used as a watchtower by the Ottoman Turks during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.

The special thing about Kizkulesi Tower is the legend mystifies it. The most famous one is that a king had a daughter and an oracle had a prophecy that she would die from a snake’s bite on her 18th birthday. In order to protect his daughter, the King built this tower in the middle of the Bosphorus to lock his daughter inside until her 18th birthday.

The legend does not have a happy ending because the princess eventually died when a snake managed to enter the tower in a fruit basket on her father’s visit.

The tower has a café and restaurant. There are also small boats nearby, making trips to the tower several times a day.

Kiz Kulesi

10. Go on a Bosphorus Cruise

The Bosphorus cruise is a great experience to have in Istanbul. There are plenty of options, from private to public tours. We recently tried a 1-hour public tour from Ortakoy that takes you almost all the way to the end of the Bosphorus and back and guess what? We paid 12 TL (1,5USD) each. However, if for some reason you can’t do it, taking the daily ferry trips from the European to the Asian side of Istanbul is another great way to experience the Bosphorus.

Ferry from Erope to Asia!

You can take the ferry either from Eminonu or Besiktas to Uskudar or Kadikoy. You will need an IstanbulKart card to use the ferry.

Pro Travel Tip: The first thing you should do once you arrive to Istanbul airpot is to buy public transport card (Istanbulkart) using the vending machines called (BiletMatik) at the airport. You can also buy Istanbulkart from all public transport stations.

11. Climb to the Top of Galata Tower

I’m sure you’ve seen this iconic building on social media before. Galata Tower is the symbol and pride of Istanbul. The marvelous 66.9-meter (220-foot) high tower was built by the Byzantine Emperor in 507-508 A.D. 

The most important part about this marvelous building is its panorama balcony. From there, you can see the whole peninsula including the Golden Horn, Seraglio Point, and the old city.   

  • Entrance Fee: 30 TL
  • Opening hours: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm (7 pm in summer).
  • Address: Bereketzade, Galata kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
galata-tower-Istanbul-Turkey
Galata Tower at sunrise

12. Visit the Süleymaniye Mosque

Suleymaniye Mosque was the biggest mosque in Istanbul for 462 years but after the construction of the new camlica mosque in 2019, it became the second-largest mosque in Istanbul. While the Sultanahmet and Hagia Sofia mosques are famous for being Istanbul’s iconic landmarks, the marvelous Suleymaniye mosque also holds ancient backgrounds to the Ottoman era.

Built by famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan by order from Suleyman  Magnificent in 1557. The mosque is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul offering a breathtaking view over the golden horn of the city as the picture shows. 

Suleymaniye-Mosque-Istanbul-Turkey

13. Eat Turkish ice cream (Dondurma)

I know! It sounds like a random thing to do in Istanbul but it’s not. The Turkish ice cream is different from the usual ice cream you know. Dondurma is known for its hard and sticky texture, a strong resistance to melting which is cool because nobody likes to walk around with melting ice cream, and its taste which is mmmm let’s just say different.  

Dondurma is all over the city but the best place to get it from is the street vendors. A small Spoiler: You will also enjoy a funny experience with vendors when they do tricks with the ice cream before giving it to you. 

14. Go on a day trip to the Princes’ Islands

Princes’ Islands are a great summer day trip from Istanbul. Princes’ Islands (Prens Adaları) are a group of 9 islands in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul. There are four big islands where most of the people go, Büyükada (“Big Island”), Heybeliada (“Saddlebag Island”), Burgazada (“Fortress Island”), and Kınalıada (“Henna Island”).  

The princes’ islands have been always a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul for both locals and tourists. The islands are completely traffic-free as the only means of transportation there are bicycles, horses, or carts. My trip to the islands was super fun and I enjoyed the calm vibes, nature, and the cute houses and streets.  

princes'-island-prens-adalar-Istanbul-Turkey

15. Visit Miniatürk 

Visiting Miniaturk park could be really fun and entertaining with kids, really. In case you are wondering, Miniatürk is a mini version of Turkey with small-scale recreations of structures found in Istanbul, Anatolia, and even some Ottoman structures found outside of Turkey. In Case you have no time to visit all the landmarks and fabulous places in the country, Miniaturk is another way to get an idea.  

Miniaturk Istanbul Turkey

16. Visit Istanbul Archaeological Museums

Istanbul Archaeological Museums are a group of three different museums in one place. The Archaeology Museum, The Museum of Ancient Orient, The Tiled Kiosk Museum are all located in the garden of Topkapi Palace. If you are a history buff you will love the experience if you are not you will still love it. 

17. Go underground at the Basilica Cistern

Located in the southwest of Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern is one of the old cisterns that can be found in Istanbul. What is attractive about the Basilica Cistern is the columns supporting it. Two of these columns are different, they are supported by two Medusa heads (Wow!) The heads were placed upside down and the weird thing is that nobody knows from where these heads were brought and for what purpose.

bascilica-citern-Istanbul-Turkey

18. Marvel at Chora Church‘s Mosaics

Known in Istanbul as Kariye Mosque (Kariye Camii), Chora Church is a medieval Greek Orthodox church located in the Edirnekapi neighborhood in Istanbul.  The church showcases some of the marvelous mosaics and frescoes that date back to Byzantine times. Similar to the Hagia Sofia, Chora Church was converted to a mosque during Ottoman rule, then a museum by Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Today Chora Church is a functional mosque as it was reopened again for worship in 2020.

chora-church-istanbul-Turkey

19. Visit the Rumelihisarı Fortress

Rumelihisarı is a medieval fortress located in Istanbul, Turkey, on a series of hills on the European banks of the Bosphorus. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II ordered the construction of the castle in the 15th century in order to prepare for a planned Ottoman siege on the then-Byzantine city of Constantinople. The fortress is strategically located just opposite its sister fortress Anadoluhisari on the Anatolian banks of the Bosporus. Both castles worked together to implement a maritime blockade of the Bosphorus.

things-to-do-in-Istanbul-Turkey-rumelihisari

20. Learn Canoeing & Rowing in the Bosphorus

Not many people know about this fun thing to do in Istanbul. There is nothing better than enjoying two amazing activities at the same time, marveling at the Bosphorus from a canoe. Bosphoruskurek sports club offers both canoeing and rowing courses. There are 4 and 8-hour courses and 50 to 60 minutes per session. Plus, you can book one only session like we did if you want to just have fun for 1 hour. 

21. Take pictures in Fener & Balat neighborhoods

The lovely Fener and Balat neighborhoods in Istanbul are famed for their narrow cobbled streets and colorful wooden houses where you can snap some of the most beautiful pictures for your Instagram or Pinterest accounts. Visiting these Instagram-famous places is one of the recommended things to do in Istanbul for first-timers. Fener and Balat districts also offer entertainment and shopping to their visitors. In the main square, you will find plenty of hip cafes, restaurants, and cutting-edge boutiques and galleries.  

22. Brunch at the French Street in Istiklal street

Located in the heart of Istiklal street, the French-style street in Istanbul is one of my favorite spots. Here you can get a taste of France through the narrow alleys and streets, cafes, and restaurants offering some of the best in French cuisine. 

23. Istanbul Sapphire View (Skyscraper)

Sapphire is the 5th tallest structure in Istanbul and a famous viewing point for the entire city. The Skyscraper Sapphire is located in the central neighborhood of Istanbul, Levent. Featuring a 261 meters height, Sapphire is an ecological building with a shopping center and residence. If you are not able to visit every corner of Istanbul, go to Sapphire and enjoy the 360 degrees panoramic view of the city.    

Things to Do in Istanbul at night 

24. Have a Romantic dinner on a Bosphorus cruise 

Enjoy a romantic evening in Istanbul by going for a Bosphorus Dinner cruise. There is no better way to enjoy Istanbul than to watch the city come to life at night. Enjoy a leisurely cruise around the Bosphorus strait and watch the iconic monuments and landmarks such as the Blue Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, the Maiden’s Tower, famous Bosphorus Bridge by sitting on the deck of the cruise boat.

Enjoy sumptuous food and unlimited drinks (note that vegetarian options are limited here), entertaining Turkish dance and the famous belly dance. The 3.5 hours cruise kick starts with dinner being served followed by a traditional Turkish folklore show. The show finally builds up to the classic awe-inspiring belly dance.

Once the show is over, head over to the deck to watch the city glimmer in gold at night. The illuminated Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge that connects both Asia and Europe is a sight to behold.

Note: The tour agency does not provide for a hotel drop-off so you will have to make your way to the hotel on your own.

  • Entrance fee: Approx 380 TL

25. Attend the Entertaining Whirling Dervishes show 

One of the other awesome things to do in Turkey especially when you visit Istanbul is the not-to-be-missed whirling dervishes ceremony. This is an evening ceremony, where Sufi dervishes spin themselves into a trance-like state. Also known as a Sema Ceremony, this spinning dance is said to free the soul from worldly affairs and elevate it closer to God.

Today the Sema Ceremony is a part of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

dervishes

A great place to attend such a ceremony is at the Hodjapasha Culture Centre which is located in Sirkeci, not far from the main tourist attractions. The setting is an old Turkish bath that is over 550 years old, which makes the experience even more special.

Upon arrival, you’ll watch a short 5-minute introduction video that explains the ceremony, this will be followed by a 10-minute Sufi music concert, and then a 45-minute whirling dervishes ceremony. The cost to attend is $33 USD per person.

Note: Because the Whirling Dervishes show is a sacred ceremony, no video, no photography, and no applauding is allowed. Also, late arrivals are not permitted once the ceremony has begun, so guests are advised to arrive 30 minutes before the start time.

26. Eat Classic Kumpir at Ortakoy Square 

Ortakoy coast is a vibrant and lively place to visit in Istanbul during the day as well as at night. I love it so much that I have to pay a visit whenever I’m in Beşiktaş area. My favorite part of Ortakoy is the breathtaking views of the ships sailing the Bosphorus, the birds, and the chilling vibes at night. Ortakoy is located under the Bosphorus Bridge, so imagine how the place will look like when the bridge lights up at night. Just Waw! 

Ortakoy is famous for its nightlife destination among locals and foreigners alike. The place has a variety of things to do like cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and shops selling handicrafts and Turkish souvenirs. Ortakoy is also known for its culinary local experience, the delicious baked potato dish, called Kumpir. One of the famous foods in Turkey.  

Another reason to visit Ortakoy is Ortakoy Mosque. The mosque was built in the 19th century by Sultan Abdulmacit. Its ancient history, elegant architecture, and unique location by the Bosphorus make it one of Istanbul’s Insta famous locations. Tourists visit Turkey from all around the world to take pictures with the stunning Ortakoy mosque in Istanbul.   

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