Looking toward the Blue Mosque from the Galata Bridge. Photo by Travelationship.
Istanbul. Ancient and modern structures live side by side in this city, and the streets overflow with cultures, cuisines and languages. There is more to see, do and taste in Istanbul than anyone could accomplish in one lifetime. Luckily, we’ve got the official list – The Best Things to Do in Istanbul.
Let’s see the top 10, shall we?
1. Visit the Hagia Sophia
Everyone has to visit the Hagia Sophia. It’s the official symbol of Istanbul, and appropriately so. The Hagia Sophia physically embodies Istanbul’s history as nothing else can.
Inside one of the vaulted domes of the Hagia Sophia. Photo by Diane Wong.
This grand building started life centuries ago, as a Christian church in 360 AD. It was saved by its grandeur – when the Muslim Ottoman Empire rose to power, they didn’t destroy the church, instead converting it to a mosque. Centuries later, it was transformed once again, now into a museum is filled with religious history.
Tip: Take the guided tour. They’re pros for a reason – they know everything. And don’t miss the box structure inside the museum.
2. Shop in the Grand Bazaar
This place helped invent shopping – it is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. And it’s the best place to connect with real day-to-day Istanbulian culture. These streets buzz with locals and tourists alike shopping for traditional household goods: lanterns, pottery, rugs, scarves, leatherwork, spices and more.
Tip: When you need a break, look for a tea shop. Locals refresh mind and body with delicious hot tea – and so can you.
3. Ride the ferry
Travel like the locals do. Hop a ferry to cross the Bosphorus, and explore the other side of Istanbul. The city grew up around this waterway, and its European and Asian halves each have their own aesthetic, identity and local pride. And they’re all part of the same city.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, take the ferry further up the Bosphorus. A ferry trip to a charming village can be a wonderful outing from the big city.
4. Visit the Blue Mosque:
The Blue Mosque (a.k.a. the New Mosque, the Yeni Camii Mosque, or Suleymaniye) is the largest mosque in Istanbul. The stunning structure is seemingly never-ending, and its striking architecture, detailed landscaping, and great view of the city will give keep you exploring for hours.
The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. Photo by Ellowyn.
Tip: The Mosque is flanked by the Spice Bazaar and Galata Bridge. See all three for a perfect sightseeing day trip.
5. Spice Bazaar
This bazaar will overwhelm your senses. Its powerful aromas will entice you from across the city – and once you’re inside, prepare yourself. Nearly 100 merchants sell thousands of spices – every scent, shape, flavor and color are on display.
As the second-largest bazaar in Istanbul (second only to the Grand Bazaar), the Spice Bazaar will entice cooks and foodies to stay for hours, dreaming up creative new dishes.
Tip: Not a hardcore foodie? Take a break for a sweet treat – try simple and delicious Turkish Delight, a traditional Turkish sweets sold widely here.
6. Eat All the Street Food
Like all densely populated cities, Istanbul has a vibrant street food scene. And they’re all delicious.
Local specialties include börek (a type of pastry), kebap (kebab, usually lamb), döner and meatballs (köfte). And if you’re seeking the best and most exotic street foods, learn more here: 5 Best Turkish Street Food in Istanbul by Daniel Ang.
7. People-Watch in Taksim Square
Taksim Square is the bustling heart for modern Istanbul. It’s also a great area for restaurants and shopping. Spend some time people-watching: you’ll see more “real” Istanbulians here than in the touristy districts.
Tip: It’s touristy but fun: indulge in a ride on the old-fashioned tram here.
8. Stroll Through the Balat Neighborhood
Balat is the traditional Jewish sector of Istanbul, and the neighborhood feels like a walk back through time. Most of the buildings look exactly the same as they did a hundred years ago or more – this neighborhood is charmingly dilapidated, brightly colored, and feels very authentic.
Note that the Balat district is extremely residential, so shops and restaurants are very rare here. On the other hand, residents here are generally very friendly, and will be flattered if you ask to photograph their charming home.
9. Explore the Basilica Cistern
This ancient city has a stunning amount of history, buried beneath layers of living. One of the most striking underground locations is the Basilica Cistern. This ancient water chamber was built by the Romans to support Constantinople’s growing population.
The highlights of this echoing historical chamber are the two massive Medusa heads. Tradition says they are placed sideways and upside-down to negate the power of their gaze, but physics says it was so they would properly support the pillars.
10. Escape to Anadolu Feneri
This peaceful area is actually just a short trip from the city center. The rocky shore looks out onto the Black Sea, and has been used as a navigation point for millennia by sailors heading in to the bustling metropolis. This heritage is still embodied by the tall Anadolu Feneri lighthouse.
Tip: Check out the historical lighthouse. It’s open to the public as a historical artifact, and you can talk with the family who lives inside.
Have these Istanbul gems inspired you? See the full list of unmissable places in Istanbul now!