Things to do in Istanbul, a mix of east and west and a cosmopolitan and modern city that is part of a young and struggling republic.
Istanbul is huge, with much to visit and learn. It is located in a strategic geographical point. The city extends on both banks of the Bosphorus River, which separates the European continent from Asia. It is possible to cross from one continent to the other in a short time through two of its bridges or by boat. This river, in turn, joins at its ends the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean Sea.
The European side of Istanbul is divided in two by another small river called the Golden Horn, leaving on its northern shore a more modern neighborhood called Beyoglu, and on the south coast, the neighborhood known as Sultanhamet, which is where the historical part and the highest concentration of hotels and restaurants are located.
Where to stay in Istanbul
If there is a good area to stay is the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet, close to many of the attractions to see in Istanbul. Our recommendations in this area are the following:
- Ayasultan Hotel: is an elegant hotel with spacious, bright and nicely decorated rooms. It has a bar with large windows and views of the city. Ideal for families.
- Boss Hotel Sultanahmet: near the bazaar and mosques, it is an upscale accommodation with excellent facilities and a lot of comfort. It has a very good breakfast. Ideal for couples.
- Honey Hostel: an economical option in the old town. Small but comfortable private rooms and clean shared rooms. Very good value for money.
Another good option to sleep in Istanbul is near Taksim Square, a safe place with a lot of commercial and nightlife. Our recommendations in this area are the following:
- Naumpasa Konagi Hotel: with modern and clean facilities, it is a hotel opened not many years ago. With elegant triple rooms, it is ideal for families.
- Kartal Palace Taksim Square: one kilometer from Istiklal Street, it is a nice accommodation for those looking for tranquility, good price and service.
- Stay Inn Taksim Hostel: just 10 minutes from the Galata Tower and very close to the pedestrian street, it is a hostel with shared and small private rooms. It has a cafeteria and bar.
Need more options? Check these hotels in Istanbul.
🏨 Need more options? Check these hotels in Istanbul.
📜 TABLE OF CONTENTS
History of Istanbul to understand our visit
To understand the things to so in Istanbul, we can divide it into four major periods of time:
At its foundation, in the 6th century BC it belonged to the Greek province of Thrace and was called Byzantium, because it was founded by Bizas. The site where the city was established was “predicted” by the oracle at Delphi.
Then came the Romans, not long after, around the end of the first millennium B.C. and the emperor Constantine refounded the city and it became known as “Constantinople”. They established here the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, many churches were built, among them the best known the Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and subway aqueducts were built to supply water to the city from the Basilica Cistern. The city was walled, being of such quality that it was very difficult to demolish, and the Golden Horn was closely guarded.
But the Ottomans arrived in 1453 and the fall of one Empire strengthened another. The city ceased to be called Constantinople to be recognized as Istanbul, and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. However, it was not until a decree in 1930 that the city was officially renamed as such. Istanbul begins to fill with mosques, even converting the Hagia Sophia into one of these. Sumptuous palaces were built where the Sultans and their families lived.
Later, with the glamour of the great European palaces such as Versailles, the Ottomans abandoned the traditional Topkapi Palace where they had always lived and moved to several palaces along the Bosphorus coast, for example, the Dolmabahçe Palace is one of them, in pure European style. In fact, Istanbul was known as the Paris of the East and boomed partly because of the famous Orient Express, the train that linked the French capital with the imperial capital.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire came the Republic and Atatürk. Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara because he considered Istanbul too vulnerable due to its maritime and river access. With this it loses much of its glory, but in the 80’s and 90’s it begins to be reborn with investments in infrastructure, transportation and tourism.
Consider doing a city tour
Having taken a quick walk through Istanbul history, consider doing a tour around the city:
Map of the things to do in Istanbul in 3 days
1) Hagia Sophia Museum
The now Hagia Sophia Museum was built in the 6th century as an orthodox cathedral to reaffirm the greatness of the Roman Empire. Dedicated to Divine Wisdom, it was for over a thousand years the largest cathedral in the world. When the Ottomans took power, they turned it into a mosque. They removed the bells, the altar and figures of Christianity and added the four minarets and the minbar (which is a stairway to the wall, the place where the imam gives sermons).
What is attractive is the mixture of details that can be seen inside: half-destroyed Christian mosaics, such as the Last Judgment; Islamic drawings painted over pre-existing Christian crosses; the large medallions hanging from the columns in the corners with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandsons of Muhammad, all next to Christian figures.
2) Blue Mosque
Another of the main attractions to see in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, which was built in the early 17th century by Sultan Ahmet I (hence the name of the mythical Turkish quarter) to rival the neighboring Hagia Sofia. The reason is that the latter has traces of its past as a “cathedral” and the new building would be the first great mosque of his empire.
The Blue Mosque has 6 minarets on the outside, the only one in Istanbul to have so many, and a large prayer hall. It was built on the site of the former site of the Great Palace of Constantinople, where Roman emperors have lived.
Unlike the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque is on duty, and it can happen to you (as it did to us) that we had to wait outside while inside the locals were praying. However, it was curious the call to prayer that we heard from the minarets, which are synchronized with those of other mosques in the area so that when one sounds, the other does not. It seemed as if they were talking to each other.
Admission is free.
3) Other mosques to see in Istanbul
If there is still more desire to visit mosques, you can enter two more that are of importance. One is the Yeni Camii or New Mosque, which is one of the newest, but is already about 400 years old. It is the one next to the Galata Bridge, so you will pass by there many times. Then, behind the bazaar and up a hill is the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Istanbul.
Entrance to both mosques is free.
4) Topkapi Palace
Let’s start with the visit to one of the great imperial palaces of Istanbul. The first is the Topkapi Palace, where the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived for about 400 years.
The Topkapi Palace is divided into 4 rooms through which we can observe how was the life of the Sultans and the staff who worked there, with some stories and extravagant details, luxurious rooms, large kitchens with an enviable exhibition of Chinese porcelain, ceremonial rooms and audiences, the priceless treasure of the sultans, gardens and so on.
It is necessary to dedicate at least half a day to the visit, and all the rooms can be visited with the general entrance of the Palace. However, for the harem and the Hagia Irene the entrance fee is paid separately.
5) Dolmabahçe Palace
The other palace to see in Istanbul, is the Dolmabahçe Palace, from the mid-nineteenth century. It was widely criticized for its European style and not recognized as Ottoman heritage. The palace clocks do not work: they have stopped them at 09:15, which is the time Atatürk died in 1938. The palace can be seen in its splendor from the Bosphorus River when you take the boat ride.
After paying the entrance fee to the palace, the visit is done by tours in English or Turkish (access is controlled). Inside you can’t take pictures, although I stole at least one.
6) Basilica Cistern
Returning to Sultanhamet and in front of the Hagia Sofia you have to find, a little hidden, the entrance to the Basilica Cistern. It dates from the 6th century, from the time of Emperor Justinian, and is known as such because it is built under the Stoa Basilica.
It was used to store and supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and then the Topkapi Palace. It was closed for a time and was rediscovered in 1545. It has 336 columns in 12 rows and the water was transferred through a network of 20 km of aqueducts.
Besides walking along the wooden platforms and throwing a coin to make a wish, do not miss the two columns at the foot of which a Medusa’s head is carved in stone.
7) Grand Bazaar
Like any predominantly Muslim country, you can’t miss the bazaars where you can stroll among stores and buy souvenirs. The main one in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar, labyrinthine, has more than 4000 stores of whatever you can think of in its more than 50 covered streets. Around the bazaar there are many places to eat a kebab at low prices and delicious.
And if you are a fan of shopping there is also a Spice Bazaar, known as the Egyptian Market for selling products that came from that country.
8) Bosphorus boat trip
In your visit to Istanbul you can not miss a boat ride. There are many tours to do along the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn.
We did 3 of them:
a) Boat ride on the Bosphorus to the Black Sea
Actually, our boat did not go all the way to the Black Sea as such, but the option is there. It was a tourist boat from which we observed the palaces, such as Dolmabahçe, fortresses, and beautiful houses built on the shore. We passed under the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, and discovered the ruins of the 15th century Rumeli Hisari fortress on the European side of the Bosphorus and the Anadolu Hisari fortress on the Asian side. Both control the narrowest point of the strait.
b) Golden Horn Boat Trip
We sailed from Galata Bridge to Eyüp. Once we arrived at the port, we went to the cable car where we climbed the hill and took the classic tea on the terrace of Pierre Loti Cafe (do not miss it, we tell you about it below).
This is a public boat where local people travel. You can pay with the same transport card as for the metro and streetcar. We bought a card for two and charged it with credit, which is deducted for each passage.
c) Boat ride to the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kadikoy harbor
We crossed with the pretense of watching the sunset on a hill near the harbor, but we were a bit late so we watched it from the same boat over the Sea of Marmara and over Sultanhamet, which was equally impressive.
9) Galata Bridge
Galata Bridge connects the two parts of European Istanbul: the old part of Sultanhamet with the new part of Beyoglu. You should go there at all hours: early in the morning, at sunset, to see the fishermen, the life in the port and the thousands of tourists, cars and noise. It is almost essential to eat a fresh fish sandwich in one of the boats moored there, which are like street food stalls, or eat right there at tables set up for that purpose.
10) Galata Tower
Embellishing the skyline of Istanbul is the Galata Tower, another of the main attractions to see in Istanbul, which is located on the north coast of the European side of the city. It dates back to 1348 and became the highest point of the city’s ancient fortifications. It can be climbed, after paying an entrance fee, although the most beautiful thing is to see it from all sides and at all hours.
11) Taksim Square
In the modern part of Istanbul, is located Taksim Square and there begins the Istiklal Cadessi, a pedestrian street full of businesses and people everywhere. In the center of the street, the mythical red streetcar runs from end to end. This streetcar, called Tünnel, was the first electric train in the world.
In Taksim Square is the Monument of the Republic, created by an Italian sculptor in 1928 and represents Atatürk, his assistant and successor Ismet Inönü, and other revolutionary leaders.
12) Terrace of the Pierre Loti cafe
As we had mentioned before, one of the classic stops of the boat that sails along the Golden Horn is in Eyüp, where the Pierre Loti cafe is located, up the hill. It is not difficult to climb, either by walking through the cemetery or by cable car.
Café Pierre Loti, so named because this French novelist has come here for inspiration, has a terrace with incredible views of the Golden Horn. There we had a nice sweet tea.
12+1) Incredible experiences to live in Istanbul
After an arduous day of walking the streets of Istanbul, what could be better than soaking in the warm waters of a historic hamam. Hamams (or Turkish baths) are usually traditionally decorated and, in addition to relaxing in their waters, offer services such as massages and beauty treatments.
– Enjoy a whirling dervish show
The traditional dance performed by the whirling dervishes has over 800 years and has been named Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.
The whirling dervishes are members of a Mevlevi Sufi order, that is, a Muslim religious brotherhood of ascetic or mystical character. With their whirling dance and their outstretched arms they make a devotion to their God trying to get in contact with him. It is a spiritual journey where the soul of man rises to perfection. The music and illumination, in addition to the dance, promotes a mystical atmosphere that is worth enjoying.
– Try the incredible tukish food
To try the local food, you can go to any tourist restaurant, but perhaps the best experience is to get lost in the bazaars in search of food stalls. If you don’t know where to start, it might be worth taking a food tour and then wander around on your own.
Amazing tours to do from Istanbul
Finally, there are many more things to do and see in Istanbul, from museums, squares, the walls that still resist from the old city, when it was Byzantine… but in only 3 days we have had enough time to do what we have told you. Our advice is that, if possible, you have to spend more than 3 days, not only to do more things but to do everything more quietly and to enjoy it more.
Besides, Istanbul is a great base from which to make excursions within the country. Check this out:
Useful information to visit Istanbul
Buy your travel insurance and travel safe!
🚑 Take a look at these tips for choosing the best travel insurance (updated to 2023 and with juicy discounts) for the type of traveller you are, and they will also help you clear up the most common doubts. Travel safe!
– Getting to Istanbul
The Atatürk International Airport is 23 kms from Istanbul and can be reached by train or metro, so many hotels usually include airport transfer in the price. Istanbul has excellent connections to both European and Asian destinations, and even direct flights from some parts of South America. The flag carrier is Turkish Airlines.
You can also reach Istanbul by bus or train from different parts of the country and even from neighboring countries. The Istanbul bus station is huge and chaotic and is located 10 kms to the west. It has a metro line, so you can combine this with the tram to get to Sultanhamet.
🚊 Buy your Interrail and Eurail pass! This pass is a train ticket with which you can travel on almost all trains in Europe. With it you have access to 40 rail and ferry companies in 33 countries. Absolute freedom to discover Europe at your own rhythm. See our Interrail and Eurail Guide here.
Discounts and useful resources to save on your trip
- Cheap flights with Skyscanner
- Rent a car with Auto Europe
- Interrail Pass
- Eurail Pass
- Train Tickets with OMIO
- Bus tickets with OMIO
- Ferry tickets with OMIO
- Asia tickets with 12Go