Top things to do in Istanbul for first timers

by Fay
Published: Last Updated on
Istanbul Turkey

Since my partner and I moved to Istanbul, 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. 

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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 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 for 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 half now and we are glad we moved here.

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

Sultan Ahmet 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 accesible using the 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.  

The Blue Mosque

Istanbul is famous for its iconi 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 spreaded 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 9AM to 7PM 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 lasts 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 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

Hagia Sophia Mosque

Since it was built 1500 year 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 Bizantine 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 the 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 demolitioned 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 conquered Constantnople in 1453, he named it Istanbul. The 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 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.   

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce palace was built in the 19th century by the 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

Topkapı 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 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 the 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 palaces garden. The views over the Bosphorus from there are breathtaking.  

Istiklal Street

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. 

The legendary Taksim Tramway

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.

No visit to Istiklal Street could be complete without a ride on the vintage red tram. The tram 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.

An old building in Istiklal Street

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! 

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.     

Old walls of Constantinople

The old walls of Constantionple

The walls of Constantionple 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 suring the conquest of Constantinople by the Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror, in 1453.

The Bizantyne walls features many historical gates that are still standing and they can be seen from different locations in Istanbul. We accidently stumbled upon a part of the anciant 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.

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.

Kiz Kulesi

The special thing about Kizkulesi Tower is the legend mystifies it. The most famous one is that a king had a daughter and and oracle had a prophacy that she would die from a snake’s bite on her 18th birthday. In order to protect his daugher, 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 fathers visit.

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

The public ferry transport

The Bosphorus cruise is a great experience to have in Turkey. 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 way to experience a Bosphorus cruise at as little as 1$.

Ferry from Erope to Asia!

You can take the ferry either from Eminonu or Besikas 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.

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. 

galata-tower-Istanbul-Turkey
Galata Tower at sunrise

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

Things to do in Istanbul at night 

things to do in Istanbul Turkey at night
Istanbul at night

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.

There are many agencies that offer bookings for the cruise. You can either book this great option through Get Your Guide here or you can ask your hotel to make a booking for you. The tour agency that you chose will pick you up from the hotel and take you to the yacht.

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

Whirling Dervishes show 

One of the other awesome things to do in Istanbul in the evening is the not to be missed whirling dervishes ceremony. This is a 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.

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 Besiktas 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 destinatination among locals and foreigners alike. The place has a variety 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 makes it one of Istanbul’s insta famous locations. Tourists come from all around the world to take pictures with the stunning Ortakoy mosque background.   

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