The Best Things to Do in Istanbul

Istanbul is a metropolis with a deep, tumultuous history, where you can haggle at centuries-old bazaars, marvel at palace tilework, and brush up on the latest in contemporary art. As you explore, from mosques to museums, make time to wander down charming cobbled side streets, unwind at Turkish baths, and admire the glittering breadth of the Bosphorus. Here are some of the best things to do in Istanbul.

If these walls could talk they’d recite plans for military campaigns and tales of love, lust and betrayal that make this former residence and imperial seat of the Ottoman Empire so intriguing. Walk the dazzling tile-and-mosaic-lined corridors, see the jewels the sultans wore, the baths where they washed, the rooms where they entertained, the quarters that housed their concubines, and the kitchens that created feasts for 5,000 residents.
Karaköy, Bankalar Cd. No:11, 34420 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
The Ottoman Bank Museum is in the basement of SALT Galata, an arts center located in the former Ottoman Bank. It’s a destination that will appeal mostly to those interested in the history of the Ottoman Empire in its decline at the end of the 19th century. But doesn’t everyone find the late Ottoman period fascinating? The struggles that characterized the era, with a country torn between its Ottoman past and a desire to both modernize and Westernize, played out at the bank. The institution that would become the state bank of the Ottoman Empire was founded in 1856 as a joint venture of British and French banks and the Ottoman government and was managed by a committee of British and French financiers until it was effectively dissolved during World War I. The museum includes many surprisingly engaging displays and documents tracing the bank’s history—its commercial ventures, demographic information on investors and employees, charts detailing the economic turmoil of the period. Architectural plans of the headquarters illustrate its unusual design that featured a neo-classical entrance facing the European quarter and an Ottoman-inspired rear elevation, facing Istanbul’s Old City across the Golden Horn. Deposit slips, photos of employees, and old bank notes in the original vault are on display in almost exhausting, encyclopedic comprehensiveness. If your interest wanes, you don’t need to feel any pressure to linger—entrance is free.
İstiklal Ave
The lifeblood of modern Istanbul is the two-mile-long pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), running from Taksim Square to the Tünel train station. It’s equal parts touristy and local, commerce and culture, and strolling down the avenue to shop, dine, or just socialize is a favorite pastime of many Istanbullus. (The beloved red-and-white tram is out of service for the foreseeable future while the street gets some much-needed maintenance.) Though many complain about encroaching international chain stores and shopping malls taking the thoroughfare’s distinct character away, there are still plenty of gems if you follow the backstreets and duck into the historic passages. Don’t forget to look up: Many of the art nouveau and Ottoman-era buildings house rooftop cafés and businesses above street level.
Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Hasırcılar Cd. No:62, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
After a few days in Istanbul you will have likely heard the name Mimar Sinan (1489–1588) many times, and before long you will have seen some of the architect’s works, from the kitchens of Topkapı Palace to the city’s largest mosque, the Süleymaniye. The 16th-century architect is considered the master of classical Ottoman architecture, whose buildings are soaring achievements that built on the Byzantine goal of creating voluminous spaces under floating domes. Just slightly off the tourist trail, at a few hundred yards to the west of the Spice Bazaar, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque is a gem by Sinan that deserves a detour. You’ll get to experience the architect’s work on an intimate scale, while another highlight is the İznik tilework that was at its peak in the 16th century. In the more famous Blue Mosque, much of the tilework is high above visitors’ heads, but here it is at eye level—all the better to appreciate its details. If some of the spiritual atmosphere of other mosques is lost with the crowds of visitors, at Rüstem Pasha it is still possible to admire the blue tiles, surrounded by silence, before heading back out into the city.
Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:99, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
A cultural hub for Turkish and international art, Istanbul Modern opened in 2004 as a permanent home for the contemporary Istanbul Biennial. The 8,000-square-foot warehouse sits along the Bosphorus next to the Golden Horn, a historically important port for thousands of years. The water views rival the exhibitions for your attention and appreciation, and the museum has an excellent restaurant and terrace to take advantage of the location. Back inside, the permanent collection shows contemporary and modern artists from Turkey, with rotating exhibitions of photography, design, and new media. The downstairs cinema has several screenings a week of films that complement exhibitions or feature distinctive work, often accompanied by panel discussions. The gift shop is one of the best places to buy unusual and beautiful souvenirs such as upcycled jewelry and kids’ coloring books of museum art.
Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Enjoying a hammam experience while traveling in Istanbul was at the top of my list, but it was hard to choose where to soak! After all, the ritual of Turkish bathing wasn’t one I was willing to just “leap” into; after stripping down to their bare essentials, bathers are soaked, washed and dried by same-sex attendants, typically in the sanctity of a mosque. But still, I didn’t want to pick just “anywhere” to get naked and clean. Luckily, I stumbled upon the refined, spotless, inspiring and simply gorgeous space at the Kilic Ali Pasa complex near the Istanbul Modern Museum. I couldn’t ask for a more swanky, special or amazing way to spend a relaxing afternoon, delving into Turkish tradition. When you’re pruny and happy, they have a beautiful boutique next door to purchase lovely souvenirs to take home. For hours, policies, and booking see the link below and ENJOY!
Küçük Ayasofya Mh., Küçük Ayasofya Cami Sk. No:20, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
One of Istanbul‘s oldest churches, later turned mosque, is an easy ten-minute walk from the Hippodrome and its namesake, the Hagia Sophia. Construction on the Little Hagia Sophia (or Küçük Ayasofya in Turkish) began in 527 AD and was completed in 536, predating the Hagia Sophia, which was built from 532 to 537, by just a few years. The church, dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, has often been described as a trial run for the grand building up the hill, though this perhaps overstates the case. While both buildings are believed to be by the same architects and have a similar open plan under soaring domes, there are significant differences in their structures. Regardless of debates about its architectural pedigree, the building, which was converted to a mosque at the beginning of the 16th century, provides an opportunity to admire Byzantine architecture without the crowds. Don’t miss the gorgeous marble columns on the ground floor and the second-floor gallery.
15 Alemdar Caddesi
Gülhane Park, recently renovated with the zoo and other structures removed, sits on Sarayburnu peninsula at the base of Topkapı Palace of which it was formerly a part. In April, millions of tulips bloom in colorful displays to celebrate Turkey’s national flower, but all year round the promenade, green lawns, and tea gardens overlooking the Bosphorus are a great place to unwind and watch the world go by.
On the Asian side, south of the First Bosphorus Bridge, Kuzguncuk is a charming detour from the well-worn tourist trail and easily combined with a visit to nearby Beylerbeyi Palace. The neighborhood’s multicultural past is very much present, with synagogues, Armenian and Greek churches, and mosques located side by side. You can also expect to find cafes, art galleries, and fresh produce shops. Venture off the leafy main street (Icediye Caddesi) to admire the pretty facades of narrow townhouses and decorative wooden Ottoman abodes, many dating back to the 19th century. To find Kuzguncuk, take the ferry or Marmaray Rail to Üsküdar and follow the Bosphorus shoreline about a mile north (by foot or blue minibus) to Icediye Caddesi.
Salacak Mahallesi, Üsküdar Salacak Mevkii, 34668 Üsküdar/İstanbul, Turkey
The Maiden’s Tower, which seemingly floats in the Bosphorus off Asia, is one of the more popular symbols of the city. Once a Byzantine tollbooth and later an Ottoman lighthouse, it’s most famous for a legend involving a princess and a prophecy that she would die from a snakebite. Her father exiled her to the tower in the hope of protecting her but, alas, the prophecy could not be avoided—a snake made its way to the island, either in a bouquet of flowers or a basket of grapes (depending on the version of the tale).
Kartal/İstanbul, Turkey
A multipurpose contemporary art center that opened in November 2011 in the Ottoman Bank building, Salt has a library with thousands of shelves of art publications—the most important, impressive collection in the city.—Sylvia Kouvali
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Adorned with more than 20,000 blue handcrafted İznik tiles, stained-glass windows, and the golden brushstrokes of a 17th-century calligrapher, the Blue Mosque is the legacy of Sultan Ahmet I (1590–1617). The young sultan audaciously wished to outdo the builders of Hagia Sophia, commissioning six minarets to match the number at Mecca’s Sacred Mosque (which now has seven minarets as a result). Today, this magnificent mosque is a place of worship for thousands who visit from around the world.
Beyazıt, Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Soon after conquering Constantinople and defeating the Byzantines in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II commissioned the beginnings of the Grand Bazaar to reinvigorate trade with the city. More than 550 years later, the bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, with a labyrinth of 61 streets connecting over 4,000 shops selling all manner of treasures and souvenirs, from jewelry to silk carpets. Make a beeline for Sivasli Istanbul Yazmacisi, whose quality textiles are popular with interior decorators. Looking for currency exchange shops? You’ll find the best rates in Istanbul here.
Eyüp Merkez Mahallesi, 34050 Eyüp/Istanbul, Turkey
Overlooking the Golden Horn in Eyüp, Pierre Loti Hill offers a spectacular panoramic view of Istanbul’s seven hills. Linger here for a while and partake in keyif—the Turkish art of idle relaxation—at one of the rustic teahouses and restaurants that immerse you in one of Istanbul’s most captivating locations. The hill is named after Pierre Loti, a French novelist and naval officer who wrote his first novel, Aziyadé, after sojourning in the teahouses here in 1876. The novel, originally published anonymously, detailed a semi-autobiographical story about Loti’s forbidden affair with a Circassian harem girl named Aziyadé. The love between the 27-year-old officer and the 18-year-old woman was so enduring that Aziyadé died of a broken heart when Loti left Istanbul. Legend also says Loti always wore a gold ring inscribed with her name. Loti’s subsequent novel, La Turquie Agonisante (Turkey in Agony), went on to win the hearts of the new Turkish Republic, which then named a cafe and avenue on Eyüp hill in honor of the author. The name has stayed, the tales remain, and the view continues to inspire the artist within many. To get there, take a bus or ferry from Eminönü to Eyüp, then take the cable car near Eyüp port to the top, or wander past the Eyüp mosque and up through an old Ottoman cemetery. Avoid going on the weekends when crowds vie for the best seats in the house. Alcohol is forbidden due to the proximity to Eyüp mosque.
Örnektepe Mahallesi, İmrahor Cd. 7/1, 34445 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Tower over the sites of Turkey like Gulliver, from “Gulliver’s Travels” at Miniaturk. This innovative open-air amusement park, located on the Golden Horn in Sütlüce, allows you to see 1:25 scale miniature models of significant Istanbul landmarks, hover over replica landscapes of Turkey, and get up close to the architecture of the former Ottoman Empire. Spend a few hours here to walk the Bosporus Bridge, visit South Eastern Turkey’s Nemrut and Mardin, and peer into Istanbul’s modern structures like Ataturk Airport or the Galatasaray Football Stadium. There are more than 100 models to explore as well as a flight simulator, a mini train ride, and a crystal museum. If you’re planning a family day out, pair Miniaturk with a visit to the Rahmi M Koç Industrial Museum on the Golden Horn, about two miles south of Miniaturk. This impressive museum exhibits planes, trains, automobiles, and more from a bygone era.
Merkez Mah., 34421 Fatih/Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
There are two ways to walk up to the Galata Tower from Karakoy Tram Station: One is to follow the pedestrian traffic and ascend an uninviting steep staircase close to the tram way; the other is to take the more picturesque Kamondo (Camondo) steps on Bankalar Caddesi. Neo-Baroque and early Art Nouveau styles were fused here in the 1870s to create this curvaceous thoroughfare up one of Istanbul’s steepest hills. Abraham Salomon Camondo, of the wealthy Sephardic Jewish Camondo family, funded the construction. He inherited the banking and business success of his forefathers and went on to become the prime banker for the Ottoman Empire in the district of Galata where the stairs are located.
Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey
This decadent palace, which overlooks the Bosphorus from the European side, holds great importance to Turkey. The late-19th-century sultans resided here and ruled the Ottoman Empire from here, and while the Turkish Republic’s capital is in Ankara, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, stayed at the palace whenever he visited Istanbul. It was here that Atatürk took his last breath, on November 10, 1938, at 9:05 a.m.—the time displayed on the palace clocks today.
1 Yeni Cami Caddesi
I had just left the Spice Bazaar behind me when I noticed the entrance to Yeni Camii (New Mosque). It was late afternoon, and I was already exhausted from a very long day of sightseeing. I wanted nothing more than to call it a day but I was already here so I thought I would just quickly dart in and out. One foot inside and the plan changed—the domed interior is an intimate space with a stunning design. As in the Blue Mosque, calligraphic discs hang from just below the edges of the ornately painted domes and soaring sections of walls are covered with beautiful Iznik tiles. Gold paint and thick wool carpeting create a luxurious, inviting feel. As tired as I was, I didn’t want to leave anytime soon. I discovered that Yeni Camii has a visitors’ section and found my spot on the carpet and discretely watched a slice of local life unfold before me—men and women praying, people having conversations in hushed tones, and a few tourists milling about. Enveloped by the quiet of this serene space, I felt rejuvenated in no time.
Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art in the gardens of Topkapı Palace make up the trio of Istanbul Archaeology Museums. An array of permanent and temporary exhibits display items from sculptures and sarcophagi from the Archaic and Roman eras to treasures uncovered from archaeological projects in Egypt, Troy, Istanbul and beyond. The Royal Necropolis of Sidon sarcophagi and the oldest peace agreement (set in stone) are just two highlights here.
Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
There’s no cost attached to one of Istanbul’s most distinctive photo ops, and the only lines are from fishing poles. Cross the historic Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge, where fishermen from every walk of life jostle for space, and tourist restaurants line the lower level (stop in for a drink if you’d like, but the food tends to be overpriced and mediocre). Galata Bridge isn’t beloved for its architecture (fun fact: It is supposedly the bridge for which the card game is named), but rather its views: Topkapı Palace and several domes and minarets in the Old City on one side, and the Galata Tower on the other.
Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
A city as ancient as Istanbul has many layers of history, and you’ll have to go below the surface to see the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the underground cisterns. Built in the sixth century for the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the atmospheric reservoir is supported by 336 columns, many of which have been repurposed from other ruins over the centuries. The Medusa-head column bases are a favorite to photograph, along with the carp that swim silently in the dimly lit waters. The cistern is located between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and the best time to visit is simply whenever the line looks short, especially on a hot summer day—it’s always cooler underground.
Dervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No:8, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
According to Islamic tradition, only God can create images of holy beings, including angels and prophets. Therefore, when the Ottomans converted Chora Church into a mosque in the 16th century, they covered the 14th-century Byzantine mosaics and frescoes depicting the life of Christ and Mother Mary. Hidden behind wooden shutters were some of the finest mosaics in the world, which were restored following World War II and can now be viewed in all their glory.
Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
The medieval round Galata Tower built in 1348 has played many roles for Istanbul over the years: A watchtower for Bosphorus trade, an observation deck for spotting fires, the setting of a legendary flight across the Bosphorus, and now a tourist attraction offering 360 degree views of Istanbul. Hands down, it’s the best way to see how the city spreads across its European and Asian sides. Go for sunset, but arrive early to beat the queue.
Beylerbeyi Sarayı
This beautiful 19th-century palace on the Asian shoreline near the First Bosphorus Bridge served as a summer retreat for sultans and visiting dignitaries. Designed in a French neo-Baroque style, the palace features six halls and 24 rooms adjacent to an expansive garden. Complete with halls devoted to the harem, it is also famous for being the place of house arrest of one of the last sultans, Abdülhamīd II, who died in the palace in 1918.
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Meydanı Sok. No:46, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Closed for many years for restoration, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum reopened in late 2014 and is located on the edge of the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet. The building was once the palace of Ibrahim Pasha (1493-1536), the Grand Vizier, son-in-law and friend of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It is the only private Ottoman mansion to have stood the test of time since the 16th century - largely because the tradition was to use wooden material for Ottoman mansions rather than the masonry used here. Inside the former mansion lies the remnants of the vaulted western wall of the Hippodrome, uncovered in excavations of the ground floor from 2012-2014. Upstairs are the galleries that feature religious artifacts dating back to the 8th century including the Damascus papers and Korans from the various dynasties of the today’s Middle East that feature exquisite calligraphic work. The remnants of each dynasty is presented in chronological order which culminates in the woodwork, carpets, metal work and ornaments from the Ottoman and Seljuk eras. The highlights for many visitors are the sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammad and the highly decorative metal doors and door knobs of Great Mosque of Cizre. Ethnography exhibits will also reopen here in the near future. The museum is a good diversion for an hour from the crowds of the Hippodrome for those interested in Turkish and Islamic art. Use your 72-hour Museum Pass for free entry, otherwise check the website for entry fees.
Büyük Valide Han Çakmakçılar Yoluşu No:31 / 82, Mercan Mahallesi, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Visiting the 17th-century Büyük Valide Han in Eminönü is my all-time favorite experience in Istanbul. It’s an Ottoman inn that accommodated traveling merchants over 350 years ago and also stored the Oriental and European wares from the wooden ships moored in the Golden Horn. The han is hidden away in the backstreets of the Spice Bazaar, though got some big-time exposure when featured in a montage in the 007 movie Skyfall. Artisans still make and repair some of Turkey’s well-known handicrafts in the timeworn workshops upstairs, but my favorite feature is the view from the roof. To experience this you need to locate the building off Çakmakçılar Yokuşu. Then go up the steep stairs and say, “Merhaba” (hello) to the craftspeople. If you’re lucky, the caretaker will agree to unlock a door that hides a secret staircase to the roof. Do give him a tip for his kindness and time because the view of the Bosporus, dividing Europe and Asia, is spectacular. A little word of warning: The roof is flat (with some domes), and there are no safety rails—so watch your step. Please respect the history of the building too and collect only memories and leave only your fondness for Istanbul to waft away in the Bosporus breeze.
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