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!).
History of Istanbul
The history of Istanbul is a rich and multifaceted tale that spans thousands of years, reflecting the city’s pivotal role in the development of civilisations and the evolution of human society. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, along the strategic Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul has been a coveted prize for countless empires and cultures throughout its history.
Istanbul’s history can be traced back to ancient times when it was known as Byzantium. Founded as a Greek colony in the 7th century BCE, it gradually grew in prominence due to its strategic location along the trade routes connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In 330 CE, Emperor Constantine the Great of the Roman Empire chose Byzantium as the site for his new capital, renaming it Constantinople. This marked a pivotal moment in the city’s history, as it became the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire.
Constantinople thrived as the Byzantine capital for over a millennium, from the 4th to the 15th century. During this time, it served as the epicenter of Byzantine culture, politics, and religion. The city witnessed periods of prosperity, artistic achievements, and religious developments, such as the construction of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most iconic and enduring symbols of Istanbul. It also endured numerous sieges, including those by the Huns, Arabs, and Crusaders, but it managed to repel these threats and maintain its status as a great metropolis.
The Ottoman Conquest:
In 1453, the Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror), achieved a historic victory by capturing Constantinople. This event marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of a new era for the city, which was renamed Istanbul. Under Ottoman rule, Istanbul flourished as the capital of a vast and powerful empire. The Ottomans left an indelible mark on the city’s architecture, culture, and society, with landmarks like the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque standing as enduring reminders of this period.
The Republic of Turkey:
Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul became the centre of the newly established Republic of Turkey in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, initiated a series of reforms that transformed Istanbul into a more cosmopolitan and secular city. The capital of Turkey was subsequently moved to Ankara in 1923, but Istanbul retained its status as the country’s largest and most influential city.
Today, Istanbul stands as a dynamic and diverse metropolis that bridges Europe and Asia. Its rich history is evident in its architectural heritage, with the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the historic city walls among its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city has continued to grow and modernise, with a thriving economy, vibrant culture, and a unique blend of traditions from various civilisations that have left their mark on its history.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Choosing where to stay in Istanbul depends on your preferences, budget, and the experiences you want to have during your visit. Istanbul is a vast and diverse city with many neighbourhoods offering different atmospheres and attractions. Here are some popular areas to consider:
- Sultanahmet: This is the historic heart of Istanbul, where you’ll find iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. Staying in Sultanahmet puts you within walking distance of these attractions and offers a glimpse into Istanbul’s rich history. Accommodations range from luxury hotels to budget-friendly options.
- Taksim Square and Beyoglu: If you prefer a more modern and vibrant atmosphere, Taksim Square and the Beyoglu district are great choices. This area is known for its nightlife, shopping, and a variety of restaurants and cafes. Istiklal Street is a bustling pedestrian street in Beyoglu, and there are numerous boutique hotels, hostels, and upscale accommodations in the vicinity.
- Karakoy: Located near the Galata Tower and the Golden Horn, Karakoy has transformed into a trendy neighborhood with art galleries, boutiques, and excellent dining options. It’s a great choice for those looking for a hip, urban experience. There are boutique hotels and guesthouses in this area.
- Eminonu: Situated near the Spice Bazaar and the Galata Bridge, Eminonu is a bustling area with excellent access to ferries, making it a convenient base for exploring both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. There are a variety of accommodations, including mid-range hotels and budget-friendly options.
- Besiktas: This neighborhood offers a mix of modernity and tradition. It’s home to lively cafes, restaurants, and shops, as well as attractions like the Dolmabahce Palace. Besiktas is also close to the Bosphorus, where you can take scenic boat rides. There are hotels catering to various budgets in this area.
- Asian Side (Kadikoy and Uskudar): For a more relaxed and local experience, consider staying on the Asian side of Istanbul, in neighborhoods like Kadikoy or Uskudar. These areas offer a more laid-back atmosphere, waterfront promenades, and a glimpse into everyday Turkish life. There are hotels and guesthouses on the Asian side, and you can easily access the European side via ferries.
- Sisli and Nisantasi: These neighborhoods are known for upscale shopping, dining, and a cosmopolitan vibe. If you’re looking for high-end hotels and designer boutiques, Sisli and Nisantasi are excellent choices.
Where we stayed
During our trip to Istanbul we stayed at the absolutely stunning Shangri-La hotel right on the Bosphorus. Our stay at the Shangri-La Hotel in Istanbul was nothing short of exceptional. From the moment we walked into the elegant lobby with its breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, to the level of service and attention to detail throughout that was truly outstanding.
With its prime location, stunning amenities, and top-notch service, I wholeheartedly recommend the Shangri-La Hotel in Istanbul to anyone seeking a truly memorable and indulgent stay in this remarkable city.
Getting around Istanbul
Getting around Istanbul is relatively easy thanks to its extensive transportation network, which includes various modes of transportation suitable for different needs and budgets. Here are the primary ways to get around Istanbul:
- Public Transportation:
- Metro: Istanbul has a growing metro system with multiple lines that connect various parts of the city. The metro is a quick and efficient way to avoid traffic, especially during rush hours.
- Tram: The tram system is particularly useful for tourists, as it serves many of the city’s major attractions. The T1 tramline, in particular, runs through the historic Sultanahmet area.
- Bus: Buses are a comprehensive mode of transportation, covering both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The network is extensive but can be crowded during peak hours.
- Ferries: Istanbul’s unique location on the Bosphorus means that ferries are a vital part of the city’s transportation system. They connect the European and Asian sides and offer picturesque views of the city.
- Taxis: Taxis are readily available throughout Istanbul. Be sure to use licensed and metered taxis. You can also use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, which operate in the city.
- Dolmus: Dolmus are shared minibusses or vans that follow specific routes. They are a budget-friendly option and can be a convenient way to get around.
- Walking: Istanbul is a city with a rich history and many attractions clustered in specific areas. Walking is an excellent way to explore neighbourhoods like Sultanahmet, Beyoglu, and Kadikoy. Wear comfortable shoes, as some areas have steep hills or cobblestone streets.
- Bicycles: Istanbul has been developing its cycling infrastructure in recent years, and there are bike-sharing programs available in some areas. However, keep in mind that traffic can be challenging for cyclists in certain parts of the city
When using public transportation in Istanbul, it’s a good idea to purchase an Istanbulkart, a contactless card that allows you to use various modes of transportation with ease. Additionally, consider the Istanbul Museum Pass if you plan to visit multiple museums and attractions, as it can save you time and money.
As traffic in Istanbul can be congested, especially during rush hours, I’d recommend sticking to the trams where you can!
Tours of Istanbul
If you’d rather explore the streets with a local, there are many excellent tours available in Istanbul that cater to a wide range of interests and preferences. Whether you want to explore the city’s rich history, savour its culinary delights, or experience its vibrant culture, there are tours designed to enhance your Istanbul experience. Here are some popular tours you can consider:
- Bosphorus Dinner Cruise & Show with Private Table (£20 per person): Take in sights of the Bosphorus on board a mega yacht. Enjoy the city view with a 3-course meal while you listen to live music and watch stage performances at private tables.
- Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern & Hagia Sophia Tour (£40 per person): See 3 of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks with this guided combination tour. Marvel at the iconic Blue Mosque, explore the mysterious Basilica Cistern, and see the grand Hagia Sofia mosque.
- Private Turkish Bath, Sauna, and Massage (£40 per person): Treat yourself with a pampering gift while in Istanbul with an authentic Turkish bath experience. Rejuvenate yourself by taking advantage of a historical tradition, combining it with a face mask, foam massage, or body scrub.
- Bosphorus Sunset Cruise with Live Guide and Drinks (£30 per person): Witness the sun setting over Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks on a guided yacht cruise. Snack on canapés and homemade lemonade and tea as you sail past Dolmabahce Palace and Rumeli Fortress.
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 Süleymaniye 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 Süleymaniye 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