A city that spans two continents, is home to 14 million people, and is an international hub— the grandness of Istanbul will leave you in awe. Istanbul is as much modern as it is traditional, with a brand-new bridge, underwater train (Marmaray), and luxurious skyscrapers and shopping centers, juxtaposed next to mosques that are hundreds of years old and modest dress among most locals. With its rich history and remnants of world empires, there are seemingly countless things to do and see in Istanbul. I am going to list some of the absolute best things to do in Istanbul.
Transportation in Istanbul
When you fly into Sabiha Gökçen (the airport in Istanbul found on the Asian side) or Atatürk (the airport found on the European side), you can take the Havabus shuttle to get to some of the most central places in Istanbul on either the Asian or European side. You can check their times here. The price for one ticket was 18 TL at the time of this post.
Note: Istanbul is opening a new airport, called the Istanbul Airport, which will also likely have the Havabus running to central places like Taksim (European side) or Kadıköy (Asian side).
When traveling around the European side, the T1 Kabataş-Bağcılar tramway will get you to many of the places on this list of best things to do in Istanbul. For details about the tramline you can visit their site here.
Another great form of transportation is the ferry, vapur in Turkish, which will take you from the European side to the Asian side in about 15-20 minutes. Even if you don’t have much to do, it is an enjoyable ride and you can get on by using your IstanbulKart, which you can purchase at any tramway or metro station.
Turkey uses the Turkish Lira (TL) as their currency. My go-to site to check exchange rates is xecurrency, where you can find current exchange rates of dollar to lira.
At the time of this post, the exchange is 1 USD ~ 5.42 TL.
Best Things to Do in Istanbul
The advantage to this list of best things to do in Istanbul is that many of them are near one another, but it is impossible to do all of these things in a day. These sites often have long lines and fairly steep entrance fees ranging from 40-90 TL, which can add up quick. Depending on your budget and time constraints, you should decide which places are your highest priority and begin with those, while also planning for proximity of each.
Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
The Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, was completed in 1616 by Sultan Ahmet (hence the name). He commissioned its construction after a terrible loss in the war with Persia to reaffirm Ottoman power in the region. Sultan Ahmet died in 1617, and he was buried close to the mosque. A mausoleum was built over his tomb, which can be seen by tourists when they visit.
Since Sultanahmet Mosque is a place of worship and not a museum, there is no entrance fee required to enter as a visitor. However, they do require modest apparel. Women must cover their hair before entering. There are clean scarves available for free that women can borrow while they visit the inside of the mosque. Women absolutely will not be allowed inside if they do not cover their hair.
The line to enter can seem very long, but it moves fairly quickly. They also require shoes to be removed and will give you a plastic bag to place your shoes in. This does create a slightly unpleasant smell, but it passes.
The inside of the mosque is split into two sections. A side for visitors and a side for those who are praying. The interior of the mosque is covered in ornate designs reminiscent of ottoman style. The tiles are designed with the izni style, which is unique to the Ottomans.
It is worth noting that the mosque is closed for a time on Friday for Friday prayer, which is sacred in Islam. It opens up again around 2:30 pm. You can get here by taking the tramway and getting off at the Sultanahmet stop. To find more information about Sultanahmet Mosque, you can visit their website here.
You may have seen the Hagia Sophia Mosque from our time in Trabzon, Turkey; but the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul is, in my opinion, the belle of Istanbul. It is a beautiful, orange-pink structure that was originally built during the Byzantine Empire in 537 AD and known particularly for the large dome built on top.
Later it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and today it is open for visitors as museum. An important note: The Hagia Sophia is closed to visitors on Mondays. It opens at 9:00 am and closes at 7:00 pm, and the last visitors will be allowed inside at 6:00 pm. You can find more information about the Hagia Sophia Museum here.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the best cultural experiences you will have in Istanbul as you observe tourists and locals alike shopping around for various items, and salesmen trying to woo you in and strike a deal with you. In Turkey, bartering is part of the culture and you are not required to take the first price given. If you need some bartering advice for the Grand Bazaar, look no further.
The Grand Bazaar sells a number items like Turkish lamps, rugs, tea glasses, coffee sets, purses, scarves, spices, teas, nuts, and the best of all, Turkish delights! This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a good start to what you can expect to find in this large indoor market! You can get here using the tramway and getting off at the Beyazit stop.
Topkapı Palace may not be as popular as Sultanahmet Mosque or Hagia Sophia, but it certainly deserves a spot on the list of best things to do in Istanbul! This gorgeous palace was built over the course of 18 years and completed in 1478. This is where the sultans of the ottoman empire resided, including their concubines. The sultans of the ottoman Empire resided here until 1850 when they moved to the newly constructed Dolmabahçe Palace.
However, Topakapı continued to house many important treasures and relics and was the site of important ceremonies. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had the palace converted into a museum in 1924, after the fall of the Ottoman empire and establishment of the Turkish Republic.
Topkapı Palace is made up of several courtyards and beautiful gardens. The facilities are extensive, and you can easily spend several hours wandering the area. The interior design of the facilities where the concubines (harem) stayed are made of beautiful ceramic tile with ornate designs. The entrance to the palace and harem is 95 TL. You can get off the tramway at the Gülhane or Sultanahmet stop and walk from there.
Gülhane Park is located right next to Topkapı Palace and it is especially lovely in the spring when many tulips bloom. This is a nice place to get away from tall buildings or museums and just sit for a while. There are many grassy areas for those who enjoy picnics (FYI: Turks love picnics in the park). Also, walking through the park is free.
Basilica Cisterns (Yerebatan Sarnıçlar)
The Basilica cisterns are underground cisterns built during the Roman Empire. It is located very close to Sultanahmet Mosque and Hagia Sophia. There are large columns made of marble lining the cistern and a few of the columns are supported by Medusa’s head! Well a large marble carving of Medusa’s head, that is. You’ll just have to see her for yourself.
I had been to Istanbul several times before my most recent trip, but this was my first time visiting Dolmabahçe Palace. I don’t know how I missed it before! This lavish palace was occupied by the sultans of the Ottoman empire from 1850 when it was constructed to 1922 when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved.
Ataturk primarily lived in Ankara, which is the capital of Turkey, but stayed in a small section of the palace on his visits to Istanbul. He died here in 1938, and there is a section of the palace dedicated to him where he spent his final days.
The distinction in architecture between Topkapi and Dolmabahçe is striking, where the former is of Ottoman architecture and design and the latter is evidently European. Walking through Dolmabahçe felt like walking through a palace in England. The chandelier in the ceremonial hall was a gift from Queen Victoria herself, and is said to be the world’s largest bohemian crystal chandelier.
Photographs are prohibited while walking through the palace. It takes about 2.5 hours to get through the main palace and the quarters where the concubines stayed during the Ottoman Empire’s final days. Entrance fee for both the palace and the harem was 90 TL.
Bosphorus Boat Tour
If you want to get away from walking through museums, old mosques, shopping centers and crowds in general, then taking a boat tour of the Bosphorus is an excellent choice. The cost is affordable at ~20 TL and the tour last about 1.5-2 hours. You can get on at the ferry station closest to Dolmabahçe on the European side (near the Beşiktaş neighborhood).
The boat will go up and down the Bosphorus passing Dolmabahçe, Beşiktaş, Ortaköy Mosque, Rumeli Castle and a number of other beautiful sites. You’ll notice beautiful villas built on the mountainside next to the water, which will leave you wondering about the lives of the people who own and live in these fabulous homes. This was really relaxing after walking around for hours on our first day.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is sort of underrated, since the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque gets a majority of the attention of visitors. I think this mosque is equally as beautiful and it was nice that it had so many less people around. If you love architecture and are interested in Ottoman architecture especially, this mosque is a must-see.
It is located next to a few nice cafes where you can stop for some tea and overlook the city and the Bosphorus to rest for a while.
More Places to See in Istanbul
As if this list wasn’t long enough, there are still countless more places to see in Istanbul! If you have more time, here are some other great locations to stop by.
A smaller version of the Grand Bazaar that may be less crowded. I bought a few scarves and some pomegranate tea while I was there.
It is a trek to get up the hill to the tower, then if you are really ambitious you can climb up many flights (20+) of stairs to reach the top. There is no doubt an amazing view of Istanbul from the top!
Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi)
You can see this lovely tower as you take the ferry from the European side to the Asian side (and vice versa).
A street full of shops, restaurants and so much life all the time! It is located on the European side close to Taksim Square.
A great choice to get away from the city and explore these quaint islands. Fall is really the prime time to go.
So you may or may not have noticed that everything on this list is on the European side of Istanbul, but what about the Asian side? Kadıköy is a fun neighborhood with many restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops. The seaside in Kadıköy is also beautiful and there is one coffee shop in particular that you must stop by!
Story Coffee Roasters
This is sort of a plug because a friend of mine opened this café a few years ago, but their coffee is great. All of their food and desserts are home-made, as well. I highly recommend stopping by for a cup of coffee! Instagram: storycoffeeroasters
To read about the best places to see beautiful Turkish tiles in Istanbul visit 48in48 Travel Blog and find out where Andrea recommends going!
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