If you’re looking for a city that is full of history and culture, look no further than Istanbul.
This vibrant city is located on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, and is home to some of the most amazing attractions in the world. Whether you’re interested in exploring ancient mosques or taking a boat ride down the Bosphorus, there is something for everyone here.
In this travel guide, I’ll discuss the 10 best things to do in Istanbul during your next visit. But first, a quick shoutout to the Turkey Museum pass. If you’re looking to go to multiple museums during your visit it’s worthwhile considering purchasing the museum pass which gets you entry to 13 museums. You can purchase the pass from various spots throughout the city which are listed here (click me!).
And now, on with the guide for 10 things to do in Istanbul!
1) See the colourful streets of the Balat region
The Balat region is one of the most colourful and vibrant neighbourhoods in Istanbul. Located on the historic Golden Horn, this eclectic district is home to a diverse mix of cultures and religions.
When researching Istanbul you’ve likely seen photos similar to the one I’ve popped below showing the colourful houses and steps. The good news is that these insta-famous locations are marked on google maps so are very easy to find! But remember, Balat is more than just a street of colourful houses, be sure to check out the cute cafes and local shops you can find too.
2) Explore the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar of Istanbul are two of the most famous markets in the world. Located in the heart of the city, these vibrant markets are home to a vast array of products. From spices to souvenirs, there really is something for everyone.
Now I’m going to be honest here and say that I found the bazaars in general to be both very fun and just a tad stressful, there are just so many people wandering around it’s easy to feel overwhelmed! My recommendation would be to just take an hour or two maximum to wander around the bazaars. After that I’m sure you’ll feel like you’ve had your fill and be ready to move onto somewhere much quieter.
3) Step inside the Suleymaniye Mosque
The mosques of Istanbul are some of the most beautiful and impressive in the world.
From the Blue Mosque to the Suleymaniye Mosque, these stunning buildings are a must-see for anyone visiting the city. Each mosque is unique in its own way, and offers a different glimpse into Islamic architecture.
The Sulemaniya Mosque is one of the most famous and the most beautiful. Located in the Fatih district, this mosque is known for its intricate architecture and stunning interior. Unlike the much busier Hagia Sophia, you don’t need to pay for a scarf to cover your head on arrival. There also aren’t any queues to enter!
4) Visit the Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. Located in the heart of the city, this ancient cistern is home to a stunning array of sculptures and architecture.
While Istanbul is home to several cisterns, this one is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern. More recently (as of 2022), the cistern was reopened to visitors after completion of restoration works that started in 2017. Nowadays, the cistern is somewhat of an art installation. You can spend an hour or two wandering around admiring the various sculptures on display.
Now the Basilica is really popular, so I’d recommend getting there as soon as doors open at 9am if you can. You can also opt for a guided tour which allows you to skip the queue, but to be honest I tend to prefer exploring places solo!
5) Wander around the Galata area
The Galata district is one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Istanbul and home to the famous Galata Tower.
This iconic tower is known for its stunning views of the city and its impressive architecture. It was built in 1348, and is one of the oldest towers in Istanbul. While we didn’t climb the tower (due to it having very long queues and us not being so bothered), it’s highlighted as a top thing to do in Istanbul so go for it if you’ve got the time!
The neighbourhood itself is a buzzing hive of cafes and restaurants that is lively at all times of the day. During the evening it becomes a truly atmospheric place to explore.
6) Get lost exploring the streets of Old Town
Now my top tip for exploring any new city is to just get lost. The only real way to discover the true vibe of a place away from the tourist traps is by putting away your google maps for a few hours and wandering around aimlessly!
Now of course you want to wander around everywhere, but if I had to pick my favourite area for getting lost in was definitely the old town. I was in awe of the vast array of architecture, smells of food wafting from street vendors and just the business of it all!
7) Say hello to all the cats
There is no doubt that Istanbul is a city that is rich in culture and history. But did you know that it is also home to legions of cats? These furry felines can be found everywhere in the city, and they are a beloved part of the culture. From ancient mosques to busy markets, these cats can be found wherever there is food to be had.
My top tip for making friends with the cats of Istanbul is to bring a packet of treats with you and head to one of the many parks around the city. Here you’ll literally be surrounded by swarms of cats and kittens who are all super friendly and ready for a cuddle!
8) Book a traditional Turkish Hamam
If you’re looking for an unforgettable experience while in Istanbul, be sure to book a session at a traditional Turkish hamam. These bathhouses date back to the Ottoman Empire, and offer a unique glimpse into Turkish culture and history
Hamams are often considered to be one of the most relaxing experiences that you can have (…depending on how ticklish you are). They are a great way to loosen your muscles and take away the dirt of the city after a long day of sightseeing, I promise you’ve never felt so clean in your whole life!
9) See the views from the Arnavutkoy Neighbourhood
The Arnavutkoy neighbourhood is one of the most beautiful and scenic neighbourhoods in Istanbul. Located on the European side of the city, this neighbourhood is home to stunning views of the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn as I’ve highlighted in the picture below!
This district is one of the more ‘local’ districts, in the sense that you wont see many other tourists wandering around here. Instead, you’ll find lots of local people going about their lives and get a sense of the real Istanbul.
10) Watch the sunset over Ortakoy Mosque
The Ortakoy Mosque is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. Located in the Ortakoy neighbourhood, this beautiful mosque is known for its stunning architecture and its incredible views of the Bosphorus Strait. Originally built in 1853, the Ortakoy Mosque really is a must-see.
I would recommend planning your visit to go and see the mosque either at sunrise or sunset so you can get it framed by wonderful pink clouds. Nearby there are also plenty of street vendors selling waffles and Kumpir (a traditional baked potato style dish with a load of toppings).
Now I know I only said 10 things to do, but just for reading this far here’s 3 bonus tips:
- Explore the grounds of the Tokapi Palace. This place is absolutely huge so I’d recommend just choosing 1-2 areas. The palace is also home to the 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker Diamond!
- Head to Mimar Sinan Terrace Cafe. One of the few rooftop cafes in Istanbul that isn’t a total touris trap with gorgeous views of the city.
- Go and see the fisherman on the Galata Bridge, also a great place to catch the sunset.
And there we have my top 10 things to do in Istanbul! Let me know if you’d add any more in the comments below and happy exploring.
Lots of love,
The Chaos Diaries
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