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The Best Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is like a whirlwind ready to sweep you off your feet at any moment. The noisy traffic, sizzling doner kebabs, and extraordinary architecture are just a few head-turning distractions. Strap yourself in for a beautifully chaotic and unforgettable wild ride!

Formerly known as Constantinople, the metropolis straddles the Bosphorus Strait which divides Europe and Asia. Istanbul's urban history extends as far back as the 7th Century BC. The Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires flourished in this strategic city along the Silk Road trade route.

Now dazzling artwork, thick stone walls, posh palaces, and religious sites act as a time capsule of the past. Millions of visitors come to Istanbul every year to experience this iconic mecca. The magnificent mosques with compelling calls to prayer, friendly cats wandering the streets, and glowing kaleidoscope lanterns are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression!

Brad and I stayed in Istanbul for one month exploring different neighborhoods, tasting Turkish cuisine, and visiting bucket list attractions. We balanced our sightseeing days with working ones to truly take our time.

I must admit, at first I felt a wave of culture shock similar to Mexico City. Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and took me by surprise! Prepare yourself for massive crowds, constant noise, cigarette smoke, pushy vendors, and gritty streets. It's a balancing act which I don't intend to sugarcoat.

Below I've prepared a HUGE list of things to do with restaurants and tips to help you organize a memorable trip. Planning is key, especially if you are short on time. Leave room for spontaneity, exploring, and most importantly, afternoon çay (tea) or Turkish coffee with a side of flaky melt-in-your-mouth baklava!

Beyoglu

If you want to be close to the action, but not smack dab in the middle of it, consider booking accommodations in the hip district of Beyoglu. Brad and I stayed here in an apartment and felt the vibes were more authentic compared to the touristy neighborhood of Sultanahmet.

The Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, is a captivating landmark and museum. Ascend 170 ft (52 m) to see 360-degree views of Istanbul from the observation deck. Afterwards, wander the radiating avenues and take a peek into local everyday life.

Beyoglu has its fair share of crowds too! Istiklal Street is a pedestrian avenue lined with clothing stores, restaurants, cafés, and businesses all vying for your attention. The bustling thoroughfare is fast paced and overwhelming, but a fun spot for shopping and people watching.

Take a ride on the nostalgic Taksim-Tünel tram which runs the full length of the street. Its ringing bell will alert you to get out of the way! Grab a snack or sweet treat to keep your energy levels up. Fresh boiled mussels stuffed with rice (midye dolma), Turkish delight, roasted chestnuts, and baklava are plentiful.

Cool off with a Turkish ice cream (dondurma) made with goats milk, natural flavors, sugar, mastic (plant resin), whipped cream, and salep (flour made from an orchid tuber). The densely delicious dessert has a chewy consistency and resists melting!

On the northeast end of Istiklal Street is Taksim Square. The modern plaza functions as a main transportation hub for bus and subway connections. Hundreds of Turkish flags flutter in the wind as a sign of national pride.

Admire the focal point, the Republic Monument, commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's founding father and first president, is portrayed on both sides as a triumphant military leader and progressive statesman.

Looking for a vintage souvenir? Check out the numerous antique shops in Beyoglu! Some owners have outdoor tables overflowing with one-of-a-kind items. Spend a peaceful afternoon hunting for treasure in this charming flea market.

Restaurants

Beyoglu has some of the most affordable and filling eats in Istanbul. Service is often at a relaxed pace, so be patient and enjoy the al fresco ambience while you wait. Here are my top picks for a flavorful meal!

• Lunch - Send your tastebuds into overdrive with the marinated tavuk şiş (chicken kebab) plate at Tomtom Kebap. Pair some charred pita bread with hummus, acılı ezme (spicy tomato dip), and pincur (grilled pepper and tomato salsa) for an appetizer. Follow the long line of locals to Sokak Lezzeti for a hearty balık dürüm (fish wrap). Grilled mackerel fillets are carefully deboned and combined with seasoned peppers, onions, lettuce, and sauces inside of a chewy bread blanket.

• Café - Once Brad and I discovered Valerie Coffee, our search for the ideal workplace café was over! The comfortable seating, friendly staff, reliable Wi-Fi, non-smoking section, and resident cat were purrfect! Try the honey mustard falafel wrap or a slice of the decadent San Sebastián cheesecake topped with gooey milk chocolate.

• Dinner - My absolute favorite meal in Istanbul was the handmade mantı (boiled meat dumplings) topped with caramelized tomato sauce, garlic yogurt, and brown butter at Cihangir Mantıcısı. Order the tangy dolma (rice-stuffed grape leaves) to cut the richness. Traditional dishes meet fast food buffet at Hayvore. Let your eyes guide your stomach in selecting the right combination. Each item is individually priced and the bill adds up as quickly as the pile on your plate! Sampling so many local delicacies in one place justifies the splurge.

Galata Bridge

Crossing the Golden Horn on foot is made possible by the Galata Bridge, which connects Karaköy (next to Beyoglu) and Eminönü (in the Fatih district). The views alone are worth the trek!

The underside of the bridge has several restaurants offering traditional Turkish dishes and fresh seafood. For a cheaper option, stop at any of the three elaborate boats with onboard kitchens located on the Eminönü side. Decide for yourself which has the most appetizing balık ekmek (grilled fish sandwich with lettuce, onions, and lemon juice).

Patient fishermen try their luck from dawn until dusk along the guardrails. Fathers teach their sons how to bait hooks, cast, and reel in keepers. Men and women display their hard-earned catch, typically sardines and mackerel, in plastic buckets for onlookers to see.

Balat

The rainbow neighborhood of Balat is another prime location to stay and a worthwhile addition to your itinerary. This historic area continues to undergo renovation work and attracts tourists with funky cafés, eclectic boutiques, and vibrant architecture.

Go in without a plan and get lost along the cobblestone streets, winding staircases, and narrow alleys. Don't forget to look up to find graffiti art, suspended umbrellas, and intricate façades. Must-see sites include the Colorful Houses, Phanar Greek Orthodox College with its red brickwork, and faded Rainbow Stairs.

Rest your feet at Gen Antik Café and savor a magical cup of herbal tea or Turkish coffee. Every hot beverage is served in antique porcelain cups and saucers on brass trays with lace doilies. Defy etiquette and raise your pinkie for a lighthearted adult tea party!

The fortified Walls of Constantinople resisted countless attacks throughout the centuries until Sultan Mehmed II conquered the Red Apple on May 29th, 1453, after an eight-week siege. Surviving sections include inner and outer walls commissioned by Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th Century.

Walk 20 minutes northwest from Balat to the Tekfur Palace Museum (Palace of Porphyrogenitus) to see the walls up close. Feel the rough stone as you appreciate the craftsmanship of this engineering marvel from the quaint courtyard and viewpoints.

The palace, a prime example of Late Byzantine architecture, was built between the thick walls and functioned as a residence for Byzantine emperors. The main façade features geometric designs made of red brick and white marble above a four-arched arcade. After the Ottoman conquest, the palace served as a menagerie, brothel, and ceramic factory up until its abandonment in the 17th Century.

Sultanahmet

A tour of Istanbul isn't complete without a visit to the busy neighborhood of Sultanahmet! You'll find soaring minarets, maze-like bazaars, and museums full of precious artifacts. An early start is a great way to beat inevitable crowds, but reserve afternoons for bazaar shopping so you can experience a lively atmosphere.

The following list of attractions is DIY friendly, but combination/private/group tours are available to book as well. A museum pass is a smart option to consider as long as the math adds up in your favor. Research the web for up-to-date ticket prices, reviews, opening hours, and renovation closures.

Descend beneath the surface for a mystical underground journey inside the Basilica Cistern. Alternating golden hues and deep blues light up 336 marble columns with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capitals. The chamber is approximately 453 ft (138 m) by 213 ft (65 m) and was built in the 6th Century.

Sporadic droplets of water continuously fall from the Byzantine brick cross vaults and arches enhancing the sensory space. Be sure to pay homage to Medusa, the Gorgon who guards the cistern and turns unwanted trespassers into stone with her gaze, by tossing a coin sealed with a wish into the shallow lagoon.

A remnant of the Roman Empire is the Hippodrome, a U-shaped arena used for epic chariot races. Monuments were imported to line the center of the track, including a pink granite obelisk from the Karnak Temple in Egypt and the Serpentine Column from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. You'll find one of the missing bronze snake heads in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

Restaurants

Sultanahmet has a variety of dining options, but be aware of exuberant prices and hidden service fees. No matter your budget, a çay is always affordable and tastes even better with a rooftop view!

• Lunch - Share a few mezzes (small appetizers) and piping hot falafel at Arapça Restaurant & Café. The vibrant decor and cute plates enhance the scrumptious food. My cheapest meal in Istanbul ($2 USD) was a classic tavuk döner (chicken sandwich) and soda at Elif Büfe. The waiter made me feel right at home as I ordered from the no-frills counter next to the rotating vertical spit.

Mosques

More than 90% of Istanbul's population is Muslim and the city has a plethora of mosques in various sizes to accommodate worshippers. The hypnotizing call to prayer is heard five times a day and led by the muezzin (a person who ensures an accurate prayer schedule for a mosque).

Tourists are allowed to visit mosques outside of prayer times and must adhere to a strict dress code otherwise entry will be denied. Women have to conceal their hair with a headscarf. Both men and women need to cover their shoulders and legs. Don't forget to bring a pair of socks to wear if you don't want to walk around barefoot since shoes aren’t allowed inside!

Begin your circuit with a visit to the Eastern Orthodox church which inspired the architectural style of other mosques in the city: Hagia Sophia. The crowning jewel of the Byzantine Empire was completed in 537 AD. Greek architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, achieved the unthinkable by creating a central pendentive dome-upon-dome design with arched windows, marble columns topped with basket capitals, and glittering gold mosaics.

In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II transformed Hagia Sophia into a mosque with the addition of a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), minbar (pulpit), and minarets. In the 19th Century, eight massive wooden medallions featuring golden Arabic calligraphy were added. Standing inside of this holy space is indescribable, especially while a call to prayer is echoing off the domes!

Munch on a simit (sesame bagel) with cream cheese or corn on the cob while admiring the pink tulips and playful fountains of Sultanahmet Park. Take a break on a bench and get ready for your next showstopper only a few steps away.

Commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I in the 17th Century, the Blue Mosque has five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. Its splendorous design incorporates both Byzantine and Islamic architectural styles. A continuous vaulted arcade surrounds the open courtyard with a central hexagonal ablution fountain.

More than 20,000 handmade Iznik ceramic tiles and 200 stained glass windows decorate the extravagant interior! Traditional tiles adorn the lower level whereas ornate tiles portraying fruits, cypresses, and flowers embellish the gallery level. Notice the hanging ostrich eggs on the chandeliers to help repel cobwebs. Apparently spiders can't stand the horrible smell undetectable to humans.

Looking for an opulent mosque you can enjoy all to yourself if only for a few moments? Make the uphill climb to Süleymaniye Mosque and arrive between 8:00-8:30 AM. The photo opportunities justify an early alarm!

The 16th Century mosque features a forecourt with a central fountain, colonnaded peristyle, and four minarets. The stunning interior dome and semi-domes create a light and airy effect. Pops of red and blue elegantly contrast against the ivory walls. Its modest aesthetic is a 180-degree switch from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Behind the mosque is an octagonal mausoleum and cemetery with marble headstones. Purple irises adorn the graves to convey devotion, honor, and remembrance. Don't forget to check out the spectacular view of the Golden Horn before you leave!

Bazaars

Shop till you drop in any of the numerous bazaar markets in Istanbul! Practice your bargaining skills, interact with locals, and find special keepsakes to take home. These cultural centers are overflowing with possibilities. Just be sure to reserve a big enough void in your suitcase for your new souvenir collection!

Make an effort to build rapport with a friendly conversation and ask permission before touching items. A polite smile and positive attitude go a long way. If a store owner likes you or wants to butter you up for a sale, he may offer you a çay. Brad and I only felt comfortable accepting this gesture when we made a purchase.

A good bargaining rule of thumb is to start with a counteroffer that is one third of the initial price and meet somewhere in the middle. Negotiating can be awkward at first, but realize you can always walk away before making a deal. Most shops accept credit cards, but you'll often get a better price if you pay with cash.

Test the waters with a low-key trip to the Arasta Bazaar nearby the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. This small avenue has approximately 70 stores selling authentic goods such as textiles, ceramics, teas, jewelry, handicrafts, and clothing. If you detest body-to-body crowds, this clean, quiet, and stress-free bazaar is ideal!

Once you step foot inside the Grand Bazaar, you'll feel like an ant maneuvering its way through a foreign colony with a daily minimum of 250,000 visitors! The bazaar is one of the biggest and oldest in the world with approximately 4,000 stalls along 61 covered walkways.

This labyrinth, located in the Fatih district, threw us for a loop! During our first visit, we encountered a few rude salesmen and didn't have any luck bargaining. I was totally overwhelmed by the crowds, atmosphere, and constant pestering. Fortunately, our luck improved during our second visit. We bought a small Anatolian rug, took loads of pictures, enjoyed a hearty meal, and felt more at ease.

Pass by rows of t-shirts, fake designer handbags, and refrigerator magnets to discover one of the best sections: The Antique Market aka Old Bazaar. It's a shopping playground full of pendants, vintage watches, silver dinnerware, rings, religious icons, artistic pipes, and oil lamps.

Illuminated manuscript pages, Turkish rugs, ceramic tiles, pashmina scarves, glass tulip tea sets, nazars (blue eye protection amulets), and mosaic lanterns are some of the quality souvenirs I recommend to buy. Most stores will offer international shipping for large items.

If you desire to purchase herbal teas, nuts, dried fruits, exotic spices, or chewy Turkish delight, consider the Spice Bazaar aka Egyptian Bazaar in Eminönü. Jovial vendors hang out in front of spacious stalls and entice customers with free samples. Although touristy and a bit overpriced, the 85 shops still merit a walk-through.

Museums

Peel back the layers of Istanbul's history with visits to the following bountiful museums. Audio guides are available in several languages in addition to information placards in English and Turkish.

Unfortunately, I was unable to marvel at the intricate mosaics inside of the Great Palace Mosaics Museum and Chora Church (Kariye Mosque) due to renovation closures. Hopefully you'll be able to add them to your itinerary!

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is adjacent to the Hippodrome and houses over 40,000 pieces. The Damascus Documents are some of the most precious and consist of thousands of pages of the Quaran al-Kareem dating as far back as the 8th Century. Dazzling Seljuk carpets, geometric glazed tiles, wood shutters, and intricate Medieval metal works attest to the beauty of Islamic art.

The relics gallery has a stone footprint of the Prophet Muhammad along with capsules of his beard hair and teeth. Don't skip the lower level ethnographic section with female attire, scenes of Ottoman life, and Karagöz shadow theater puppets. Learning about Islam and Turkish culture enriched my Istanbul trip!

Pretend to be a sultan or sultana for the day with a mesmerizing stroll through the opulent Topkapı Palace. Rulers of the Ottoman Empire spared no expense decorating their home with turquoise tiles, gilded accents, and lavish marble columns.

An early start is crucial! Brad and I began at the Harem, which requires an additional ticket, to see where hundreds of concubines, eunuchs, and children resided. The rooms, courtyards, corridors, and hamans (Turkish baths) ooze regality.

Unfortunately, the expansive grounds turned into an obnoxious zoo after 10:30 AM. Tour groups shoved passed us as we took our time in the Outer and Imperial Treasuries to see armor, embellished books, and jewels. The famous Topkapı Dagger with its three enormous emeralds was a brilliant highlight and made up for the annoying crowds!

The Istanbul Archaeology Museums consist of three sections: The Archaeology Museum, The Tiled Kiosk Museum, and The Museum of the Ancient Orient (the latter two were closed at the time of my visit). Approximately 15,000 artifacts from ancient civilizations including Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia are on display.

Grand Roman sculptures, miniature cuneiform tablets, and Byzantine religious objects take you on a historic pilgrimage. The Alexander Sarcophagus, unearthed in the ancient city of Sidon in 1877, has exceptional Hellenistic deep sculptural reliefs. The two longest sides depict the Battle of Issus, where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia in 333 BC.

Kadıköy

A 20-minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus Strait is all it takes to reach Asia! Having never been, Brad and I couldn't pass up on the opportunity to spend a day walking on the continent. Take in the breathtaking views while keeping an eye out for dolphins and the Maiden's Tower.

Kadıköy is a residential neighborhood often overlooked by tourists. Its relaxed vibe is a refreshing departure from the European side of Istanbul. You'll find authentic markets with organic produce, cozy cafés, and rustic architecture. The streets are inviting, pleasant, and clean.

Indulge in a glistening donut full of decadent custard as you admire balloons, umbrellas, and tiny nazars swaying in the breeze. There aren't any attractions to check off or strict schedules to follow in this off-the-beaten-path place.

Restaurants

Kadıköy has an abundance of no-frills establishments serving up hearty fare. Try a pide (flatbread pizza), kebap (grilled minced meat), çig köfte (spiced bulgar), or bowl of mercimek çorbası (red lentil soup). These tasty items are easy on the wallet.

• Lunch - When hunger strikes, head to Rulo Lezzetler for a falafel wrap bursting with customizable ingredients. I paired my moist falafel with fries, herbs, crisp vegetables, hummus, quinoa, and spicy sauce. It was the best falafel I ate in Istanbul!

• Snack - Satisfy your sweet tooth with a Turkish taffy from one of the street vendors along the waterfront. The rainbow spirals of goo come in various flavors such as lemon, vanilla, strawberry, lime, and orange. It's deliciously soft, sticky, and gone in about three bites!

Helpful Tips

Navigating a city with over 15 million people can be intimidating, but the convenient public transportation system makes it easy! Istanbul's ferries, trams, buses, and metros use the same affordable payment system. Purchase a reloadable Istanbulkart or single-use pass with three rides. The kiosks are often located next to popular transit hubs and have multilingual instructions.

Beware of dishonest taxis and scams. Most drivers won’t take the best route or add mysterious surcharges to the final fare. Brad and I only used Uber once from the Istanbul International Airport, which happened to be a yellow taxi. We took a coach bus, HavaIst, back to the airport from Taksim Square. The website didn't allow us to make a reservation, so we just showed up with plenty of time to spare and bought a ticket prior to boarding.

Istanbul is a more conservative city compared to Antalya and Izmir. A simple way to show respect for Islamic culture is with appropriate clothing. Men and women should consider packing items that cover the shoulders and extend to the knees. I avoided wearing tank tops and shorts. You'll garner less attention with loose-fitting items. A scarf is a valuable accessory to have on hand for mosques and chilly nights.

To flush or not to flush? An important question you'll need to ask at your hotel, apartment, or hostel. Most bathrooms at restaurants and attractions have signs to help you with your business. Don't be surprised if you encounter a squat toilet! Carry a pack of tissues and travel hand sanitizer just in case.

Istanbul is run by a gang of cats!