There are so many things to do in Istanbul that it is impossible to see it all in one visit. Straddling the continents of Asia and Europe, Istanbul is situated at a fascinating cultural crossroads of Eastern and Western culture.
From cultural and historical highlights to the best places to stop and admire street art, Istanbul has something for everyone. This post runs through some of the best things to do in Istanbul during your first visit.
46 Incredible Things to do in Istanbul
Take a Guided Walking Tour
At first glimpse, Istanbul can seem overwhelming. This is the largest city in Turkey after all and it is a bustling megalopolis.
As a first-time visitor, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. It is difficult to establish where one neighborhood ends and another starts!
One of the best things to do in Istanbul shortly after you arrive is to participate on a walking tour. This can really help you to get your bearings in a new city.
Not to mention, exploring with a local guide means that you have an Istanbul “expert” on hand. You will be able to ask them for their recommendations on the best things to do in Istanbul, as well as the best spots to eat, drink and hang out.
A local guide can help you to have more context to the various structures and sights that you see around Istanbul. Better yet, they will help you to discover areas that you would not have found independently.
A selection of reputable Istanbul tours is detailed below. It is recommended to book your place a few weeks in advance of travelling to avoid disappointment.
- Best of Istanbul in one day tour
- Istanbul Food and culture tour: Taste of two continents
- Galata guided walking tour and tower entry
- Istanbul: two sides of the city half-day bike tour
- Three-hour evening food tour in Kadikoy
- Taste of Istanbul private food tour
Fall in Love with the Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmet Camii is a mosque in the heart of historic Istanbul. The mosque was awarded its nickname of the “blue mosque” on account of the intricate blue Iznik tile mosaics that make up its interior. Entrance is free, and non-worshippers can enter the building at various points throughout the day outside of prayer time.
The Sultan Ahmet Camii is always teeming with tourists. This is one of the city’s main attractions.
Venture here early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Keep in mind that it is important to dress conservatively if you want to enter the mosque.
This means that you need to cover your shoulders and legs. Women should not have any cleavage on display. If you don’t have a pashmina or a scarf of your own, you can rent one at the entrance.
Marvel at the Less Crowded Suleymaniye Mosque
The often-overlooked Suleymaniye mosque is one of the grandest Islamic structures in the city. It is perched on the top of one of Istanbul’s hills.
You can enjoy unparalleled panoramas of the city from its viewpoints. The mosque dates back to the 1550s.
It is encompassed by scenic gardens, forecourts, and fountains. The unique thing about this mosque is that many of its original annexes have been renovated and repurposed.
For example, the former imaret soup kitchen now houses a lovely coffee shop and tea room. After admiring the mosque’s interiors, venture out to the back garden and admire the view of the Bosphorus from the terrace.
You should also take some time to explore the narrow streets surrounding the mosque. There is an extensive collection of Ottoman timber houses on the streets of Namahrem Sokak and Ayrancı Sokak.
Drink Strong Turkish Coffee and Read Your Fortune
There is a Turkish proverb that says that “coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”. In Turkey, the coffee culture holds deep roots in history and tradition.
Turkish coffee is black, strong, and dense in texture. It is very much like Arabic or Greek coffee.
It is traditionally prepared in a copper briki and poured into small little cups. Once you are finished, tip the cup upside down and put a coin on the top.
Then, wait five minutes before asking a local to help you to discover your fortune. If there is no-one around to ask, you can find guides online on how to read Turkish coffee!
Admire the Architectural Wonder that is the Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly one of the most important structures in Istanbul’s long history. The original construction dates back to 337bc.
Over the centuries, the building has passed hands and changed purpose various times. It was originally a Byzantine church.
It was built by the Greeks back when the city of Istanbul was known as Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia was transformed into an Ottoman mosque, then a museum.
It has now been converted back into a mosque once again, as of July 2020. This was a matter of great controversy.
Many Greeks were unhappy with this conversion as the building has religious and historical significance for them too. Regardless, one of the best things to do in Istanbul is to visit the Hagia Sophia so be sure to carve time out of your itinerary for it.
Signs of the building’s former religious past still remain. Once inside, look out for mosaics of the Virgin Mary.
These still exist from the building’s time as a church. You can also observe graffiti from the Vikings which has been scratched into the walls.
Treat Yourself to a Pamper Session at a Turkish Hammam
At the end of a long day of sightseeing, there truly is no better way to relax and unwind than to soak your cares away in a traditional Turkish bath (hammam). Hammams are a centuries-old tradition in Istanbul.
Once upon a time, there were hundreds of these bathhouses scattered throughout the city. Today, 60 hammams remain, but there are certainly those that stand out among the crowd.
In some ways, a hammam could be seen as an ancient form of a sauna. Turkish bathhouses are also comparable to Korean jimjilbangs.
Inside the hammam, visitors sit inside ornate marble steam rooms that get hotter than your average sauna. The steam is supposed to clear toxins from your pores.
You can purchase a treatment package from Turkish hammams. This commonly includes a hair washing treatment, an intense body exfoliation, and an oil massage.
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
Where: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı provides a traditional hammam experience fit for a Sultan. The building dates back to the 16th century.
Back then, it was built as part of a mosque complex. The building has been recently restored. Lay back beneath the intricate domes and glistening chandeliers as you enjoy a full-body scrub and massage.
Reservations at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı are highly recommended and the hammam is gender-separated. Ladies can stop by for treatments in the morning.
Treatments for men begin in the afternoon. Once your treatment is over, enjoy a glass of spiced cay tea in the gardens before continuing on with your Istanbul itinerary.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
Where: Cankurtaran, Ayasofya Meydanı No:2, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul
The Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı is as much of an architectural marvel as it is a wonderful place for spa treatment. Dating back to 1556, the hammam is set in lavish interiors with grandiose domed roofs, winding staircases, and separate sections for men and women.
It is possible to organize traditional Ottoman treatment packages here, just as nobles would have enjoyed centuries ago. Of course, classic modern spa and massage treatments are also available. Packages offered at the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı also include servings of Turkish mezes and desserts to follow your treatment.
Additionally, you can book live private musical performances. This may be one of the best things to do in Istanbul on a special occasion if there are a few of you celebrating.
Mihrimah Sultan Hamamı
Where: Karagümrük, Fevzi Paşa Cad. No:333, 34091 Edirnekapı/Istanbul
The Mihrimah Sultan Hamamı is a beloved favourite hammam among locals and tourists alike. It was constructed as part of the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque Complex in the 1500s.
This is a great budget option. Treatment packages here cost as little as just 30 TL ($6).
The hammam’s wooden interiors are still aesthetically pleasing. This is despite the fact that they lack the same grandeur as the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı or the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı.
The Mihrimah Sultan Hamamı offers gender-separated facilities. It boasts an extensive treatment menu that features everything from dry massages to more modernised spa treatments.
Watch Local Fishermen in Ortakoy
One of the best things to do in Istanbul is to head to Ortakoy early in the morning. At this time, you will be able to watch local fishermen prepare their boats and reel in their latest catches.
The sunset views from here are unparalleled. If you can get here before the tourists arrive, you can enjoy the serene atmosphere of the Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus bridge as the sun just starts to peep up over the horizon.
Lots of charming cafes and coffee shops line the Ortakoy waterfront and are a nice place to have brunch. Be sure to stop by one of the floating restaurants at one point and order yourself a balik ekmek (fish sandwich).
Haggle for Trinkets and Tapestries in the Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a little touristic and inauthentic, sure. However, it is certainly one of the “must-see” things to do in Istanbul.
The bazaar is essentially a rabbit warren of narrow passageways where vendors sell virtually everything imaginable. Here you will find everything from spices, candied dates, and Turkish sweets, to imitation designer handbags and sunglasses.
The market is not small and insignificant either. This is the largest covered market in the world and there are over 4000 stores spread across 60 streets here.
The Grand Bazaar dates back to 1455 when it was constructed by Mehmet II. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the world.
Sip Apple Tea in the Ramshackle Marketplaces
Wander inside any store in Istanbul and chances are that the Vendor will invite you in for a cup of apple tea. This, admittedly, is part of a technique to get you to buy something.
However, you are under no obligation to do so. A lot of the vendors simply enjoy having discussions and sharing stories with travellers, and this is a nice experience to have while you are in Istanbul.
Sample Flavourful Turkish Street Food Delicacies
Turkey is a foodie paradise in general. However, aside from the kebabs, marinated meats, and sweet treats that give Turkish food its name, street food is also a big part of the culture.
This is especially the case in Istanbul. The city is home to various delicacies that cannot be found elsewhere in the country.
In Taksim square, be sure to order an Islak burger. This is a bite-sized mini burger that is drenched in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce and affectionately known as a “wet hamburger”.
It is much more appetising than it sounds! If you want to grab a quick snack on the go, you can also grab a kumpir.
This is a Turkish baked potato that is stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable. Stuffed olives, cheese, pickles and meat are all popular ingredients.
As you move around the city, you may see numerous vendors standing over a giant cauldron-like pot. They are tending to what look like small mini doughnuts.
These are lokma – sweet syrup-soaked pastries that make a nice treat at the end of a day’s exploring. Lokma are similar to the Greek dessert loukoumades.
Take a Turkish Cooking Class
There are few things to do in Istanbul that are more memorable than opting to take a Turkish cooking class. Opt to participate in a class held in a local restaurant or at a local’s home.
In doing so, you will have the opportunity learn to recreate classic dishes and desserts such as dolmas or sticky-sweet baklava. Some classes also include tours of local markets to procure the necessary ingredients.
When you fly back home, you can wow your friends and family with your international cooking skills!
Hang Out with Trendy Locals in Cihangir
A short walk away from Istanbul’s Taksim Square awaits Cihangir. This is one of Istanbul’s most quirky bohemian neighbourhoods.
The tree-lined promenades here are filled with coffee shops, art galleries, and eccentric tavernas. These establishments perfectly represent the creative types that call Cihangir home – mostly writers, artists, and actors.
Laidback Cihangir is a perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon. By day, grab a flaky borek pastry and a cup of cay from Savoy bakery.
Then, sit beneath the acacia tree by Firuz Aga mosque to enjoy it. Explore Cihangir’s narrow streets and the various vintage boutiques that are hidden away down them.
When night falls, Cihangir’s unpretentious nightlife scene is great for dinner or beers with friends. Meyhane are Turkish-style tavernas where you can enjoy meze platters accompanied by beers.
Hayat (Kılıç Ali Paşa Caddesi, Akarsu Ykş. Sok. 25/1, 34433 Beyoğlu) and Demeti (Kılıçali Paşa, Şimşirci Sk. No:6, 34425 Beyoğlu) are two places worth checking out. Then, continue on to Smyrna cafe (Kılıçali Paşa, Mahallesi, Akarsu Ykş. Sok. No:29, 34425 Beyoğlu) for drinks and good conversation.
Enjoy a Kahvalti Breakfast Overlooking the Bosphorus
Turkish breakfast (kahvalti) is a wonderful way to start your day in Istanbul. Most hotels serve breakfast and it is often included in the room rates.
However, there are also numerous excellent breakfast spots around the city that are well worth trying. Many wonderful breakfast and brunch spots come paired with a Bosphorus view.
Kahvalti is comprised of lots of little plates and dishes that serve a diverse “buffet style” array of foods. For instance, sliced cheeses, stuffed/marinated olives, cold cuts, sucuk, eggs, and warm pitta bread.
Individual breakfasts are laid out in front of patrons buffet-style and some rival banquets fit for a King! The best spots for kahvalti in Istanbul are outlined below.
Where: Mangerie Bebek, Cevdet Paşa Cd. No:69, 34342 Beşiktaş/İstanbul
Mangerie Bebek is a popular rendezvous point for Istanbulites. The cosy interiors of this place make it feel like you are having breakfast at a family home.
Better yet, you can tuck into your breakfast while enjoying a panorama over the Bosphorus. If you are travelling with people who would prefer a western breakfast, rest assured that you can also find classics such as eggs benedict here instead.
Where: No:10 Yahya Kemal Cd., Rumeli Hisarı, Sarıyer Istanbul
Kale is a popular kahvalti spot that sits right by the Bosphorus. While the establishment’s design is relatively simple, what Kale lacks in luxury. it more than makes up for with its large selection of dishes.
When you eat here, it feels as though you have an infinite number of plates set before you! Kale is a good breakfast spot if you want to sit shoulder to shoulder with the locals.
Çakmak Kahvaltı Salonu
Where: Sinanpaşa, Çelebi Oğlu Sk. No:8, 34353 Beşiktaş/İstanbul
Çakmak Kahvaltı Salonu is a happening breakfast spot in Istanbul’s trendy Beşiktaş neighbourhood. An assortment of kahvalti dishes, menemen, or western-style breakfast costs as little as 15TL per person.
You won’t find tourists here. Çakmak Kahvaltı Salonu is popular among trendy locals and students.
Watch the Sunset on a Bosphorus Cruise
One of the nicer things to do in Istanbu is to take a Bosphorus cruise. This allows you to see the city’s main architectural wonders and notable sites all at once.
Take the cruise by the day to have an excellent photo spot of Hagia Sophia, the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, and the Suleymaniye Mosque from the water. If you prefer to take the cruise after nightfall, some tour organisers offer dinner and dance performance packages.
A selection of reputable Bosphorus tours are detailed below for your consideration. It is advisable to reserve your spots in advance to avoid disappointment.
- Istanbul Bosphorus music and dinner cruise with a private table
- Bosphorus sunset cruise on a luxury yacht
- Bosphorus night dinner cruise
- Daytime Bosphorus sightseeing cruise from the old city
- Istanbul Golden Horn and Bosphorus boat tour
Eat Chicken Breast for Dessert
A dessert made from chicken breasts sounds pretty grim but hold on. This is more appealing than it sounds! Tavuk Göğsü is a sweet local delicacy that is made from shredding boiled chicken into little pieces.
Once shredded, the chicken is boiled once more and sugar, vanilla, milk, and rice flour is added before cinnamon is sprinkled on the top. The end result is pretty delicious, and you almost forget that you are eating chicken!
Get Back to Nature in Peaceful Buyukada
If you have a little longer to spend in Turkey’s largest city, it is worth taking a day trip out to one of the Princes Islands. The Princes Islands are a little archipelago located just a stone’s throw away in the sea of Marmara.
The largest of the islands – Buyukada greets you with beautiful woodlands, peaceful hiking trails, and quaint centuries-old monasteries and churches. No cars are permitted on the islands and traveling here feels almost like venturing back in time.
Ferries run daily between Istanbul’s Kadikoy port and Buyukada. The island provides some nice respite from the hustle, bustle, and chaos of big city life.
Recommended Princes Island Tours
If you prefer to not worry about the logistics of getting to and from the Princes islands independently, you can visit them on a tour. A few reputable Princes islands tour options are detailed below.
- Büyükada full-day walking tour
- Full-day Princes Islands tour with lunch
- Princes Islands trip with electric car tour and lunch
Check Out Sultanahmet Square
Many of the most important things to do in Istanbul are scattered around the Sultanahmet district. This area may be touristic.
However, it is of significant historical importance. The central Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani) was the city’s main square and gathering point during the days when Istanbul was Constantinople.
The crumbling remnants of historic buildings point to Sultanahmet’s ancient past. Look out for the sunbleached ruins of the Hippodrome.
This is an old stadium where the Byzantines would watch chariot races. At one end of the square, the Egyptian obelisk of Theodosius towers over the area.
The stone column was built at Luxor’s temple of Karnak where it sat undisturbed for hundreds of years before being stolen by a Roman emperor in the 4th century BC and transported along the Nile. The column that you see today is just one third of its original size!
Notable things to do in Istanbul in this area include the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia which are situated just off the main square. There are also several museums here that are worth a quick visit if you have more time to spend in the city.
Those are the Mosaics Museum, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and the Vakiflar Carpet Museum. You could easily dedicate an entire day of your schedule to exploring the Sultanahmet area.
Explore the Eerie Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is located by the Hagia Sophia and is one of the most underrated things to do in Istanbul. This is just one of many ancient cisterns.
It was once a water network that ran beneath the city to provide water filtration for the buildings in the area.
The Basilica Cistern is particularly interesting because after it was constructed by the Byzantines, it was forgotten for several centuries. When it was re-discovered by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, they used it as a dumping ground for the bodies of enemies and traitors.
A visit here provides insight into Istanbul’s more sinister history. Look out for the giant medusa head statues. Nobody knows who made them or why they were placed here…
Visit the Former Summer Home of the Sultans
The grand Beylerbeyi palace is similar in appearance to Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace. However as one of the more “off the beaten path” places in Istanbul, it doesn’t share the same crowds and masses of tourists.
The palace was constructed in neo-Baroque style. It dates back to 1865 and was used as a summer home by the Ottoman Sultans.
The palace boasts over 30 rooms and features grand marble swimming pools, a traditional hammam, and intricately carved wood furnishings that were handcrafted by Sultan Abdülhamit II.
Hang Out with Hipsters in Besiktas
While Beşiktaş doesn’t have the same glamour and sleek architectural style as Istanbul’s more upscale neighbourhoods, it is well worth visiting. This trendy area is filled with quirky shops, eclectic coffee places, and dive bars.
It oozes hipster chic and is a popular place for young Istanbulites to hang out. Venture here on a Saturday morning to browse the Besiktas street market.
Dozens of local vendors set up shop here to sell everything from clothing to street food. There are more than 18 art galleries scattered throughout the district displaying the very best of Istanbul’s emerging contemporary art scene.
Observe the Life of the Sultans at Topkapi Palace
For centuries, Topkapi Palace was the home of various Ottoman Sultans. Construction on the palace first started in 1465.
However, the unique thing about the building is that construction has never really ended throughout its long history. Each Sultan that resided within the palace added his own annexes and extensions.
Over time, this has led to a unique and somewhat higgledy-piggledy layout that combines various different architectural styles. Today, Topkapi Palace is set out as a living museum.
The rooms and hallways are decorated with rich tapestries, ornate furnishings, and classic art pieces. The harem section of the palace requires a separate admission ticket but is well worth a visit.
Recommended Topkapi Palace Tours
- Topkapi Palace history tour
- Hagia Sofia & Topkapi Palace combo ticket
- Topkapi Palace skip-the-line ticket and audio tour
- Topkapi Palace guided tour and skip-the-line
Catch a Local Sports Game
Football is a big deal in Istanbul. There are several local teams that have great reputations.
Most notable of all though is perhaps Besiktas. Whether football is your thing or not, one great way to live like a local in Istanbul is to get tickets for a Besiktas match. After the game, head into the team’s namesake neighbourhood for a few beers.
Purchase Edible Souvenirs at the Istanbul Spice Market
The spice market (Mısır Çarşısı) in Istanbul’s Eminonu district dates back to 1664 and is one of the largest and most important covered bazaars in the entire city. Stepping inside is an attack on all the senses.
Vendors here a colourful array of saffron, spices, and Pul Biber chili flakes. They all fight for your attention, as the scent of cumin, coriander, and 10,000 other spices linger in the air.
Mısır Çarşısı is a great place to pick up an edible souvenir from your time in Turkey. If you don’t want to purchase spice mixes, you can instead opt for fruit teas, Turkish delight, or dried/candied figs and apricots which are also sold here.
In terms of searching for a unique Turkish item, there are a few things to look out for. Sumac is a burgundy-coloured spice that is widely available at the market and can be added to salad dressings in place of lemon juice for a little extra pizzazz.
Pul Biber and Isot Biber are dried red pepper flakes. They can be used to season meats and soups.
Climb Galata Tower for a Wonderful Panorama of the City
Ascend to the top of the 54-foot, 13th-century Galata tower for incredible panoramas over Istanbul and the Bosphorus. There is practically always a queue here.
However it tends to move pretty quickly and so it is worth the wait. For the best views, head to Galata tower in the early evening.
That way, you can gaze out to the Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet district both by day, and at night. As the sun sets, the city is illuminated by hundreds of twinkling lights.
Shop for Vintage and Quirky Fashions in Galata
The narrow alleyways and cobbled streets that surround the Galata tower are a great spot to indulge in some retail therapy. This is particularly true if you like thrift shops, vintage stores, and independent boutiques. This is a great place to find one-of-a-kind items that nobody else has.
Take an Istanbul Food Tour
From dolmas to sis kebabs, and from balik ekmek to pide, there are countless delicacies to sample while you are in Istanbul. That said, a lot of the restaurants in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, and those that are close to the main tourist attractions are overpriced tourist traps that are distinctly lacking in quality.
To ensure that you are sampling only the very best Turkish dishes at eateries that are frequented by locals, consider embarking on an Istanbul food tour. Such tours help you to find the hidden hole-in-the-walls that you may not have discovered alone.
Recommended Istanbul Food Tours
- Istanbul Food and culture tour: Taste of two continents
- Three-hour evening food tour in Kadikoy
- Taste of Istanbul private food tour
Catch a Whirling Dervishes Show at Hodjapasha Square
Watching a whirling dervishes show provides a beautiful glimpse into Turkey’s culture. It helps you to learn about the importance of Mevlana and Turkey’s Sufi mystic roots.
The best place to catch such a show is in the cultural city of Konya, in central Anatolia. Since Konya is quite a trek from Istanbul and isn’t a popular stopping point on most people’s Turkey itineraries, the next best thing is to purchase a ticket to see a performance at Hodjapasha Square.
This experience may feel a little touristic. However, the dance is so captivating and emotive that you will quickly forget about the other travellers around you.
Roam the Streets of Balat, Istanbul’s Jewish Quarter
Balat is one of the oldest districts in Istanbul. Historically this was home to the city’s Jewish population.
However, today most of the appeal for coming here lies in the brightly coloured wooden buildings that line the cobbled streets. Balat is a photographer’s dream!
The atmosphere in Balat is unlike anywhere else in the city. Many of the pastel-coloured buildings have now been transformed into restaurants, antique stores, and cafes.
The neighbourhood is quite hidden away. Opt to take a metro to Haliç by the Golden Horn and follow the coastal road through the various parks that lead you to historic Balat. Its eclectic streets and its open-air artistic markets are sure to capture the hearts of even the most well-travelled adventurers.
Get a History Lesson at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum
If you only have time to explore one museum in Istanbul, make it the archaeological museum complex. The complex is actually comprised of three different museums.
Namely, they are: the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, the Ancient Orient museums, and the Tiled Kiosk museums. Together, the trio contains over a million artifacts that have been recovered from various different regions and civilizations.
They have been assembled into fascinating displays. The “Istanbul through the ages” exhibit is particularly interesting. So too is the “Neighbouring Cultures of Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Palestine” exhibition.
Search for Treasure at the Antique Stores of Cukurcuma
Cukurcuma is a tiny Istanbul neighbourhood nestled between Galata and Cihangir that you would perhaps miss if you didn’t know it was there. The district boasts the largest concentration of antique shops in the city.
Since every other store sells antiques, one approach to exploring Cukurcuma is to simply walk around and see what catches your eye. That said, there are some stores that are worth making a beeline to.
These includeModern Tarih – a store that focuses on exotic items sourced from Mongolia, China, and Africa. A La Turca is also worthy of your time.
The store contains an exquisite collection of fine Ottoman antiques. If you want a break, duck inside Café Cuma for a freshly baked pastry and a strong cup of coffee.
Ride the Old Street Car from Istiklal to Taksim
There is a small, old-fashioned street trolley that runs between Istiklal to Taksim. You will probably see it pass you when you are meandering around the cities.
The streetcars date back to the 1950s and hopping on board is more for the experience and a slice of nostalgia than it is to get somewhere fast. However, it is a nice, fun, touristic thing to do.
Tread Along the Former Walls of Old Constantinople
Back in the days when Istanbul was Constantinople, the entirety of the city was surrounded by towering defensive walls. Numerous invasions, as well as time and the elements, have worn the walls down over time and so only a small section remains.
That said, the remaining portion still extends over 7 kilometers and provides a pleasant walking route through the city. You could opt to wander along its length, stopping here and there to observe street art, duck into shops and stop at cafes as you go.
Befriend the Friendly Felines of Istanbul
Stray cats are everywhere in Istanbul. They hog seats in coffee shops, wander around the grounds of the Blue Mosque, etc.
Istanbul’s cat population essentially runs the town. Many felines of Istanbul are well looked after by the people that live in those neighborhoods.
You will often see locals stopping to feed them or to give them the leftovers from their meals. However, at the same time, there is absolutely an issue with stray animals in Turkey and the government does little to address the problem or neuter the cats.
There are several local charities that you could get involved with or donate food/supplies/funds to. Joint the Facebook group Cihangir Cool for Cats to find out ways you can help.
See the Tulips at Gülhane Park
Fields of fragrant tulips are something that you associate more with places such as the Netherlands than you do with Turkey. However, during the spring months, the grounds of Gülhane Park come alive with hundreds of beautiful rosy red tulips.
Gülhane Park runs adjacent to the Topkapi palace. It is worth stopping here briefly while you are in the area.
Hang Out with Friendly Locals and Expats Via Couchsurfing
If you are travelling to Istanbul alone like I did, then chances are that you are going to want to meet some fellow travellers and friendly locals to hang out with during your trip. You will find many events and hangouts posted via Expat Facebook groups, Couchsurfing and Meetup.
Istanbul has an excellent Couchsurfing community made up of dozens of locals and expats. They tend to meet weekly for dinner, drinks, and language exchanges and anyone can go along.
Visit Dolmabahçe Palace
The grand Dolmabahçe palace is perched on the shores of the Bosphorus in Besiktas. It is a grand structure known for its neoclassical exterior and over-the-top interior decorations.
Dating back to the 19th century, the palace replaced Topkapi Palace as the home of the Ottoman Sultans. The lavish decorations are quite a sight to behold.
The rooms and ceilings are gilded with gold and crystal. Dolmabahçe Palace oozez extravagance at every turn.
Try Turkish Delight from a Centuries-Old Candy Shop
There are dozens of Confectioners in Istanbul selling piles of Turkish Delight, among other sweet treats. That said, if you are going to try something new, you may as well try the best of the best.
Hacı Bekir is a Turkish confectionery that has been producing sweets since 1777 and it has been passed down through the same family for five generations. Buy a little box of lokum (Turkish delight) to take home.
There are dozens of different flavours available. However, rose and pistachio are the classics. Kayısı tatlısı is another treat worth trying and is comprised of apricots stuffed with cream.
Admire a 1000-Year-Old Church
Modern-day Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. However, historically, the country was home to many people of the Christian or Orthodox faith.
As such, many ancient churches still remain. One of the most interesting places of worship is the 1000-year-old Chora church.
This is a Byzantine Greek Orthodox church whose ceilings and interiors are decorated with bright, vivid frescoes. The vibrant interior paintings depict various scenes of Jesus’ life.
Take a Day Trip to the Cute Village of Anadolu Kavağı
If you are looking to experience Turkey away from the chaos of Istanbul, you will welcome a trip down the Bosphorus to the cute little village of Anadolu Kavağı. Here, stilted wooden houses sit along the waterfront and have been painted in delicate pastel shades. There are lots of excellent restaurants and cafes here.
Anadolu Kavağı looks like a quaint little village. However, its location means that it is still technically within the city limits of Istanbul, and the port can easily be reached via a boat that runs daily from Kadikoy port.
Smoke Hookah (Nargile) at a Local Shisha Bar
Alcohol is available in Istanbul. However, a more popular way to unwind with friends at the end of the day is to do so while smoking shisha.
Locals will order some flavored tabacco and a selection of snacks and treats. It’s not difficult to find a hookah spot, especially in the Sultanahmet district where they occupy virtually every street corner.
The quaint Çorlulu Ali Paşa Nargile Café just outside the Grand Bazaar is a very popular spot housed in a 300-year-old building. Despite being close to many of Istanbul’s main attractions, most tourists seem to miss this place.
Venture inside and join the locals by ordering some flavoured hookah paired with warm salep. For hookah with a Bosphorus view, head to the chic Lulu Hookah lounge at the Anjer Hotel.
Venture Inside the Little Hagia Sophia
One of the lesser-known things to do in Istanbul is to visit the “little” Hagia Sophia. This building was given its name on account of its resemblance to the Hagia Sophia.
It is a former Eastern Orthodox church (the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus) that currently operates as a mosque. It is believed that the church was constructed by the same architects that built the Hagia Sophia as something of a pre-cursory project.
Hunt for Street Art in Karakoy
Karaköy is not only one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Istanbul, but it is also one of the most interesting places to explore. Aside from its long history, the local art scene is what has really put Karaköy on the proverbial map in recent years.
The Museum of Modern Art opened here in 2004 and injected a new lease of life into the area. Today the largest concentration of street art in Istanbul lies in Karaköy and the little streets that surrounded the Museum of Modern Art.
Turkish artists have built excellent reputations from the art that they have created here, and openly produce graffiti in the streets. Some of the cafes and restaurants here feel like open-air art galleries.
Learn About Local Culture at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art
Istanbul’s Museum of Islamic Art is one of several museums that await in the city’s Sultanahmet square. The vast collection of artifacts, art pieces, calligraphy works, and beautiful carpets are housed inside a former Ottoman palace that dates back to 1524.
This is one of the best things to do in Istanbul if you have an interest in history. Entrance to the museum costs 60 liras per person. Admission is free for children under 8.
See Important Turkish Sites in Miniature
One of the more alternative things to do in Istanbul is to spend a day exploring the Miniaturk amusement park in the Golden Horn. If you have ever enjoyed strolling around model villages, this place will be right up your street.
Here you can see teeny tiny recreations of numerous notable Turkish structures across Istanbul, Anatolia, and other Ottoman territories. Buses connect central Istanbul to the site. Admission is just 15 lira per person.
Window Shop in Bagdat
If your shopping preferences are more high-end than high street then Bagdat Avenue (Bağdat Caddesi) is the place to indulge in a little retail therapy while in Istanbul. Several notable Turkish and International designers have branches here.
The laidback tree-lined promenade is often referred to as Istanbul’s Champs Elysees. Bağdat Caddesi is situated on the Asian side of Istanbul. As such, it provides you with the opportunity to visit the less-explored side of town.
Explore Taksim Square – the Heart of Modern Istanbul
Taksim Square is the beating heart of modern-day Istanbul. The various streets that veer off from here can be considered as being Istanbul’s answer to the high street.
Renowned retailers like Topshop, H&M, and Zara run along its length. This is also one of the best places in Istanbul for street food.
Have any further questions about the best things to do in Istanbul, exploring Istanbul as a solo female, or Turkey travel in general? I have explored this beautiful country extensively and I have been to Istanbul five times in the last few years. I would be happy to help you as much as I can.
Feel free to drop me a comment below. Safe travels! Melissa xo