Walking along the historical streets of Istanbul, trying traditional local dishes, and exploring its authentic atmosphere are the best things to do in Istanbul.
People often travel to Istanbul to explore the remains that are inherited by the greatest civilizations of all time: The Byzantines and the Ottomans. This gorgeous city of the Marmara region has been the center of business, trade, and economy throughout the ages. However, it stands out with its historical aspect for visitors.
We all know that there is an endless number of historical landmarks in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower, and Topkapi Palace can be sorted as the most famous ones. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The megacity of Istanbul has a lot to offer for everyone.
Istanbul Travel Guide: Why Istanbul?
The number of foreign visitors to Istanbul reached 3 million in the first quarter of 2022. A great part of these visitors chooses to live in Istanbul after a few visit because the city charms everyone with its fascinating ambiance.
People choose to travel to Istanbul for 3 reasons at first: Culture, business, and health. Thanks to its well-preserved historical monuments, cultural tourism occupies a great percentage of Istanbul’s GDP.
In addition, the city has become more famous for health tourism over the past few years. The main reasons for that are the practicians’ years of experiences and training backgrounds, affordable travel costs, and low operating expenses. It’s two birds with one stone; you can also enjoy unique experiences with a small budget in Istanbul.
Foreigners always struggle when it comes to planning a trip to Istanbul. There is always more to discover, more to savor, and more to conquer in this city. However, with a well-thought plan, it’s possible to capture the essence of the city’s history, culture, habitat, and cuisine altogether! Let’s discuss the best things to do in Istanbul.
Where should you visit in Istanbul?
Istanbul has a multi-dimensional aura that anyone can appreciate without having any information about the city. Making a list of places and deciding what to see in Istanbul is an important task and difficult one.
There are certain things to consider for your Istanbul travels such as the season. For example, some activities are best to do during the summertime or the spring. Some places will give you much joy if you visit them during the winter.
There are also seasonless activities, which give you different feelings in different seasons but are best to experience both in summer and winter.
Pro Tip: The city is always working hard to carefully preserve its landmarks. There are always dozens of restoration works going on in Istanbul. We suggest you check out the current status of the historical monuments on your list if they’re under restoration and make your plan with the correct information.
The Bosphorus is the most attractive aspect of Istanbul. The boat tour on the Bosphorus is a unique adventure that every tourist needs to experience. While on the tour, you will be able to observe the seafront historical mansions of Istanbul up close.
The picturesque views of the historical peninsula with the silhouette of the Galata Tower and Topkapi Palace at sunset will dazzle you to your core. You can enjoy the astonishing views of this historical city with the calming voice of the waves smiting upon the boat in the background.
There are also exclusive boat tour events at midnight. You can sail around the Bosphorus surrounded by the splashy street lights under the moonlight.
A Quick Visit to the Motherland of the Traditional Fish and Bread: Eminonu
As a multicontinental city bordered by the Marmara and the Black Sea, the sea culture had deep meanings for Istanbulites since the city’s foundation. The locals have gained inspiration from the geographical advantage and sprinkled its essentials into the culture.
And today, the most famous food in Istanbul is the traditional street food called “Balık Ekmek” in Turkish. The concept is a sandwich including mackerel and optional garnishes such as onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. You can take a bite whilst enjoying the gorgeous views of the Golden Horn (Haliç) and the Galata Tower.
A Small Trip to Historical Peninsula: The Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia & Sultanahmet Mosque
The Historical Peninsula is mostly known as “Suriçi” by locals. This area is the oldest settlement of the city when it was called “Byzantion”. According to the legend, Byzas founded the city in 657 BC just on these lands of the historical peninsula.
A prophecy was the main reason for Byzantion’s foundation. It is believed that an oracle said the lands opposite the civilization of the blind must be conquered by Byzas, the ruler of Megarians.
“The land of the blind” refers to Khalkedon, a settlement formerly centered around today’s Kadikoy. In a way, the seven-hilled Byzantion was a promised land of Ancient times.
But why this area is quite important now? The historical peninsula is full of surprises, especially for history and architecture geeks. You can trace the footsteps of former civilizations from Romans to the Ottoman Empire. Even there are trails of western communities such as Genoese or Venetians.
The hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, and the Sultanahmet Mosque should be on your Istanbul must-see list. Today, the area is known as Sultanahmet Square. The hippodrome was built attached to the Roman palace that doesn’t exist today.
However, the monuments which were separating the racing circuit were still visible on the square. The obelisk which was shipped from Egypt, other obelisk dedicated to Theodosius, and the serpent column are still on display. There would be more to see if most of the monuments wouldn’t be destroyed during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.
There aren’t enough words to describe the glorious church of holy wisdom. This massive church of Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by the emperor Iustinianus.
If we need to explain the greatness of the church by numbers, we can start with 107 columns in the interior space. The longest column is nearly 20 meters tall; the average weight of columns is 70 tons.
The stone columns were gathered from all around the world. Some of them are from Heliopolis in Egypt, some of them were brought from the Temple of Arthemis in Ephesos, and there are a few are from Baalbek in Syria.
From time to time the church was sacked, plundered, burned, and distorted, but still managed to survive numerous natural disasters and attacks. The Hagia Sophia still stands in the very same spot for almost 1500 years. This magnificent landmark is a must-visit!
Just across the Hagia Sophia, our eyes meet with the Blue Mosque, which was built in the 17th century for the name of Sultan Ahmed I. This glorious mosque dominates all existence around its premises and also challenges the splendid church of Hagia Sophia.
The interior space is filled with hundreds of glazed tiles, which gives the building its colloquial name the Blue Mosque. The ceramic tiles placed all over the interior space up to the massive dome fascinate you with their detailed work. Don’t forget to visit the Blue Mosque, it’s a wonderful representative of the ravishing Ottoman architecture.
Tip: If you want to travel back in time, check out black and white photographs of the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque). You can check out the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection to see old versions of these historical landmarks.
Visit the Greatest Ottoman Palaces
Several rulers of the Ottoman Empire built separate palaces in time. However, the most famous Ottoman Palaces are Topkapi Palace and the Dolmabahce Palace.
The Topkapi Palace was home to Ottoman sultans for a long period, nearly 400 years. It was built right after the city’s conquest and was regularly used until the construction of Dolmabahce Palace. Today, the great palace of the Ottoman Empire sits on 80.000 sqm of land.
You can see the Topkapi Palace on a ferry trip. This great palace is nestled on the cape hill of the historical peninsula. The complex is a museum now, the personal belongings of Ottoman rulers and their hareem are on display. There are also metalworks, woodenware, artifacts, parchments, and manuscripts which was produced only for the palace.
If you ever take a ferry trip to the islands or the Anatolian side, you can observe and see the enthralling silhouette of the Dolmabahce Palace, built on 250.000 land on the Bosphorus strait.
The construction of the Dolmabahce Palace was finalized in 1856. Its eclectic design represents the harmony of essential details of the neoclassical, baroque, and rococo styles altogether. While visiting the Dolmabahce Palace, you’ll witness the captivating ambiance creating a contrast with astonishing Bosphorus views.
The palace has numerous sections attached with long corridors. The well-preserved interior space is filled with crystals, golds, gifted artisanal decorative furniture, and so much more. At some point, you may even be confused about where to look at.
Tip: Since it’s a pretty big palace, we suggest you make up your mind about spending 4-5 hours there. And also don’t forget to visit the Painting Museum which is located right next to the hareem building. You can see the portraits of Ottoman rulers, and breathtaking artworks of Aivazovsky, Salvatore Valeri, and Osman Hamdi Bey.
Explore the Authentic Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi)
Grand Bazar is one of the major places to see in Istanbul for an ultimate Ottoman experience! It is one of the largest bazaars in the world, and one of the earliest versions of a shopping center.
The Kapalicarsi was established right after the conquest of Constantinople and still active since then. There are 61 streets and 4000 shops, offering products such as numerous herbs, spices from all over the world, handmade jewelry from gold to diamond, and high-quality textile products.
If you are a shopaholic, give a visit to the Grand Bazaar for an authentic shopping experience.
Take an Effortless Trip to Beyoglu and Galata
A trip to Beyoglu and Galata is perfect for a Dolce far Niente, an effortless day of random discoveries. Beyoglu was known as Pera during the Ottoman period. Pera and Galata were the main residence and trade centers of European tradespeople during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the region is mostly visited for leisure activities, a lovely walk among baroque buildings, elegant museums, and art galleries.
Istiklal Street is the main attraction spot and the busiest street in Beyoglu. The street is bordered by European-style historical buildings which can be dated to the 19th century. After walking down from Taksim Square, the end of the street connects to the Galata Tower and the narrow streets of Galata.
We suggest you visit the Kamondo stairs leading to the former Ottoman Bank, functioning as a culture center today: Salt Galata. You can find an old money safe right in the middle of the library. The money safe is open for a visit, you can witness the Ottoman banking system with your own eyes!
Tip: If you don’t have enough power to climb through the upslope of Galata, take a 2,5 minute trip with the funicular. You will be at the Istiklal Street again in no time!
Go to Uskudar Coast to See Maiden’s Tower Up Close
Let’s switch sides and travel to the Asian Side of Istanbul. Uskudar is a famous historical settlement of the city and among the best places to visit on the Asian Side of Istanbul. The Uskudar coast is among the perfect places for sightseeing. The best location to see the famous Maiden’s Tower in the middle of the Bosphorus is the coast of Uskudar.
You can sit back and enjoy the pretty views of the Maiden’s Tower with the silhouette of the historical peninsula in the background, accompanied by the chantings of seagulls.
Explore the Concept Venues of Kadikoy and Moda
Kadikoy is a historical settlement and one of the liveliest places on the Asian Side of the city. The endless number of activity options, entertainment and shopping centers, events, and concept venues make Kadikoy heaven of opportunities.
Especially the historical Sureyya Opera House which is designed by an Armenian architect with a Parisian style is a must-see! It’s a place where you can get in touch with the intelligentsia and intertwine with art and culture.
Other than the cultural aspect, the Kadikoy district also has a perfect place for shopaholics! The most famous shopping area on the Asian Side is Bagdat Street in Kadikoy.
It wouldn’t be wrong to refer the Bagdat Street as the Champs-Élysées of Istanbul. It’s a perfect place for you if you’re fond of glamorous designer brands and luxury. Give it a visit to Bagdat Street to treat yourself before leaving the city!
Take a Boat Trip to the Princes’ Islands
It is possible to trace the silhouette of the Princes’ Islands from the upper floors of the towers in Istanbul. But the picturesque views of the islands are not enough to describe their captivating ambiance. There are 9 islands of all sizes but the most famous ones are the Buyukada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinaliada.
These islands have the opposite atmosphere in comparison to the city itself. It’s impossible to find a fraction of the chaotic city life. Especially during the summertime, the islands become major holiday spots for a quick getaway from the hustle and the bustle of the city.
You can sit in a boutique local restaurant by the sea, enjoy the warm climate on the beach, and enjoy the clean atmosphere on the islands. Taking a walk at sunset or riding a bike among the narrow streets and the coastline is a must-do in Princes’ Islands.
A Small Escape to the Heart of the Nature: Şile
This calming settlement resembles a European town nestled by the lake. The biggest highlight of the region is its well-preserved nature. It is a favored vacation spot of the locals on the northeastern part of the Asian Side of Istanbul.
The wonderful climate and geographical wonders of the Şile make the district an authentic vacation destination. Şile is a paradise within the city to spend unforgettable moments with your loved ones on weekends.
Tip: There is a place called “Ağva” in the northeastern part of Şile. Ağva is the most picturesque place for a romantic getaway!
Take a Small Break from the City Life and Visit Ataturk Arboretum
If you are a nature enthusiast, this place is heaven with hidden gems for you! This place is filled with numerous types of trees, greeneries, and botanical gardens on a 296-hectare plot.
You can observe all of the vibrant shades in the color wheel from red to green, purple to yellow in here. Other than its peaceful atmosphere, the arboretum seems like a different dimension popped up from a postcard. The picturesque views and calming ambiance will give you a different kind of joy in finding your inner peace.
What to Eat and Drink in Istanbul and Where?
The most famous dishes to eat in Istanbul are the fish sandwich in Eminonu, white beans in Suleymaniye, and steamed wet burger in Taksim.
A historical settlement’s gastronomic culture moves in parallel with the city’s occupation. So it is not wrong to say that Istanbul’s cuisine go long way back to the Byzantines and Megarans.
Today, we still keep some of the traditions alive. Most of the traditional practices we pursue today come from the Ottoman period. We’ve listed things to see in Istanbul above; let’s discuss what to eat in Istanbul and where?
Turkish Bagel and Tea in the Ferry
The most iconic street meal is the Turkish Bagel and tea in Istanbul. The bagel and the tea are the best combinations especially if you are planning to take a trip to the other side or the islands by ferry.
You will realize that seagulls won’t leave the ferries alone during the whole trip. It is an unspoken tradition to feed the seagulls with some pieces of Turkish Bagel. Don’t leave the city before experiencing this authentic meal.
Kuru Fasulye (White Beans) in Suleymaniye
The most underestimated experience is eating white beans at local restaurants right next to the Suleymaniye Mosque. If you are wondering what is the best time to visit Istanbul to eat this traditional dish, it’s winter. Eating hot white beans on top of the tasty pilaff after visiting the gorgeous Suleymaniye Mosque is a unique experience!
Islak Hamburger (Steamed Wet Burger) in Taksim
Locals often address this exceptional burger as “Islak Hamburger”. It is a small burger with buns covered with an exclusive tomato sauce. There are places where you can eat the steamed burger in each city, however, Taksim in Istanbul is its motherland. Don’t leave Taksim before trying this delicious taste!
Meetballs in Sultanahmet
The meatballs of Sultanahmet are a renowned dish among tourists and also locals. The fame of the meatballs has reached all over the country; however, the main restaurant near Sultanahmet Square is the perfect place to try it the first time. There are different types of meatballs, you can eat on top of the rice pilaff or as a meatball sandwich, it’s your choice. But, we suggest you try the “Pideli Kofte”, which is flavored with a tomato sauce on top, pitta bread, and Turkish yogurt.
Kumpir (Baked Potato) in Ortakoy
Kumpir is among the most famous dishes in Istanbul. It is made from special and relatively bigger potatoes and filled with stuffing depending on your wishes. The most common stuffings are sliced sausages, olives, Russian salad, corns, pickles, and any other garnishes you wish to add. We suggest you try this delicious taste before leaving!
Bonus: Warm Chestnuts and Corns
Let’s add a bonus. Warm chestnuts and corns are not a meal but more of a quick bite on the way. The warm chestnuts and corns from small carts are perfect snacks, especially during the winter season.
Together with the cozy ambiance of the city, you will warm up to your core with these tasty snacks. You can find these carts from all over the city. But they're most likely around ferry ports and the historical peninsula.
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