Visitors to Istanbul may find it difficult to grasp the size of the city at first glance. Especially foreign visitors are amazed by the large number of places to visit in Istanbul. The list of 15 things to do in Istanbul summarizes what a first time visitor to Istanbul can do.
In this mega city with a population of over 15 million, there is a 24-hour life. In some parts of the city, the streets become deserted at night, while in other places the entertainment continues until morning.
In order to feel the energy of Istanbul, you need to spend time in Beyoglu, Besiktas, Ortakoy or Kadikoy districts in the evening. The Sultanahmet area, where the historical monuments are located, becomes silent after 23:00.
Top 15 Things to Do in Istanbul 2023
As someone who has been a private tour guide in Istanbul for many years, I know well the expectations of foreign tourists about Istanbul. Now I want to share with you my list of the top things to do in Istanbul for 2023, based on 20 years of observations.
1. Taking a Bosphorus Cruise Ride
One of the most fun things to do in Istanbul is to tour the Bosphorus with a boat. When it comes to taking a boat tour in the Bosphorus, there are three options.
If you are staying around Sultanahmet, you can take the 1.5 hour tour with Turyol, which is the closest option. If you are staying close to Taksim Square, Dentur departing from Kabatas will be useful. The third option is to take a full-day Bosphorus cruise tour with the Sehir Hatlari official Bosphorus ferry.
2. Historical Monuments in Sultanahmet
All local and foreign visitors who come to visit Istanbul start to explore the city from Sultanahmet. When we consider the historical monuments such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, of course they are right.
Istanbul’s Old City (Sultanahmet) was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Sultanahmet offers great opportunities for those who want to take photos in Istanbul with its magnificent historical buildings.
The museums in Sultanahmet, the old city of Istanbul, are very crowded in spring and summer. In order not to get stuck in the long queues, you may want to consider purchasing the Museum Pass Istanbul.
3. Shopping at the Grand Bazaar
After visiting historical monuments in Sultanahmet, it is customary to go to the Grand Bazaar and crown the day with shopping. The Grand Bazaar, with its history dating back to 1461, attracts people like a magnet.
Even people who are tired of visiting museums of Istanbul cannot resist the idea of going to the Grand Bazaar at the end of the day. The Grand Bazaar, which is a huge historical monument with 67 streets and more than 3000 shops, is the last representative of the traditional shopping style in Istanbul.
You can buy leather, jewelry, carpets and tiles from the Grand Bazaar. There are many options for buying Turkish rugs in Istanbul, and most of these options are found in shops in and around the Grand Bazaar.
4. Eminonu Square and Spice Bazaar
Going to Eminonu Square and visiting the Spice Bazaar is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. The courtyard of the New Mosque, which has become the symbol of Eminonu, is the point of feeding pigeons like the courtyard of St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Although the neighborhood is famous for its Spice Bazaar, the streets surrounding the bazaar are great for a local shopping experience. The streets between the Spice Bazaar and Sirkeci Tram Station are the ideal places to taste the best street food.
I say don’t go without seeing the small but precious Rustem Pasha Mosque, which is adorned with the most beautiful examples of Iznik Tiles. Rustem Pasha Mosque is only a five-minute walk from the Spice Bazaar.
The Mosque is located at the very beginning of Uzuncarsi Street, where you can go from the Spice Bazaar to the Grand Bazaar. Uzuncarsi Street (Uzunçarşı Caddesi) is a public market where you can find a wide variety of cheap products.
5. Tracing Genoese Colony in Galata
Galata was seen as a remote place as the opposite shore of Constantinople during the Byzantine period. Since there was no Galata Bridge joining the two sides at that time, the Byzantine people called Galata the Pera, which means “the other side”.
One end of the large chain that stretches between the two sides of the Golden Horn and prevents enemy ships from entering, was connected to Galata. The Byzantine Empire made huge incomes with the tax on spice and silk trade between Asia and Europe. Silk fabrics and spices from Asia were exported from Constantinople to Europe by Genoese and Venetian colonies.
The Ottomans continued their trade in the same way with the Venetians and the Genoese. Today, while visiting the streets of Karakoy, it is still possible to see the traces of the ancient port city of the past. Especially the Genoese have left a significant heritage in Karakoy and Galata neighborhoods.
6. Walking in Fener and Balat
Fener and Balat are two districts whose popularity has increased in recent years. These neighboring districts can be easily visited with a few hours walking tour.
These two districts, which reflect the Ottoman period Istanbul in the best way, have great historical importance. Fener and Balat districts represent the mosaic structure of Istanbul with the mosques, churches and synagogues they contain.
Fener, where the Greek Orthodox people lived, and Balat, which was the Jewish quarter, contain a considerable cultural heritage. To fully understand the history of Fener and Balat, it is recommended to visit these neighborhoods with a private tour guide.
7. Turkish Breakfast with Bosphorus view
Both the Asian and European coasts of the Bosphorus are very popular on weekends. You can experience Turkish breakfast with Bosphorus view which is very popular among Istanbulites.
Breakfast is also enjoyed in trendy neighborhoods such as Galata, Cihangir, Sultanahmet or Kadikoy. However, having Turkish breakfast with the Bosphorus view is definitely a more inspiring experience.
On the European side, Ortakoy, Bebek and Rumeli Hisari are the most popular breakfast areas. On the other hand, the Asian side stands out with its peaceful neighborhoods such as Beylerbeyi, Cengelkoy and Anadolu Hisari.
8. Visiting a Historical Turkish Bath
Istanbul has two historical Turkish baths that have been successfully restored in the recent past. These are Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan and Kilic Ali Pasha Hamams. Both Turkish Baths were built in the 16th century by Sinan, the most important architect of the Ottoman period. In addition to these, Cemberlitas, Cagaloglu, Suleymaniye and Galatasaray Hammams are among the best historical baths in Istanbul.
Going to a Turkish bath is one of the most fun things to do in Istanbul. If you are interested in history and architecture, you can enjoy this traditional atmosphere. If you need a detailed resource for choosing one of the baths in Istanbul, you can read this article on Turkish baths.
9. Walking from Ortakoy to Bebek
In the upper lines, I suggested having breakfast on the Bosphorus in Istanbul. One of the top things to do in Istanbul is to have a Turkish breakfast in Ortakoy and then take a walk along the Bosphorus to Bebek.
The coastal road between Ortakoy and Bebek is the most convenient route for walking and jogging activities along the Bosphorus. You can photograph the Bosphorus bridges, mansions and fishing people on this road. If you enjoy, you can extend the walk to Rumeli Fortress.
10. Cable Car to Pierre Loti Hill
We have already suggested visiting the Sultanahmet, Eminonu, Fener and Balat neighborhoods of the Historic Peninsula. Let’s go deeper and talk about Eyup district.
Pierre Loti Hill, located in Eyup, is one of the best places to photograph in Istanbul. Taking the cable car to the top is among the best activities to be done in Istanbul.
Eyup Mosque, which is considered the most sacred mosque in Istanbul, is also within the borders of this district. After visiting the mosque, Miniaturk Museum can also be visited with a short bus or taxi ride.
11. Going Up to the Galata Tower
Galata Tower, which gives you the chance to see the seven hills of the Historical Peninsula, provides a bird’s-eye view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. If you go up to the tower at an hour when the sun is not so strong, you can take beautiful photos.
The square just below the Galata Tower has become an activity area with wonderful cafes and art galleries opened in recent years. Spending time around the Galata Tower and exploring the side streets are recommended things to do in Istanbul for 2023.
12. Strolling through Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street, a pedestrian road passing through Beyoglu, still bears the traces of the cosmopolitan life of the Ottoman period. You will notice that many different architectural styles are mixed together and create a unique harmony on Istiklal Street.
Istiklal Street, where museums, art galleries, cafes and restaurants are lined up side by side, promises you a wonderful walking experience. You can find the coolest neighborhoods of Beyoglu such as Cihangir, Pera and Galata in the streets branching from Istiklal Avenue.
Istiklal Street is also one of the most important stops of Istanbul food tours. Due to its cosmopolitan structure in the Ottoman period, the cuisine of many cultures was blended with each other. One of the best places to see this in Istanbul is Istiklal Street.
13. Antique Shopping in Cukurcuma
Cukurcuma is the neighborhood where the Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is located. The neighborhood is mostly identified with antique shops.
It is quite enjoyable to visit the antique shops lined along Cukurcuma Street and to shop as much as your budget. If you’re keen on taking pictures, there’s no doubt you’ll get great memories here.
Cukurcuma and adjacent Cihangir districts are famous for its boutique cafes and restaurants. Istanbul’s most unique boutique cafes, pizzerias and wine houses are located in this neighborhood. Cihangir is also considered as one of the best area to stay in Istanbul.
14. Byzantine Heritage in Istanbul
The Romans’ history in Istanbul dates back to the reign of Septimus Severus. In 330, Emperor Constantine declared Istanbul the second capital of the Roman Empire. After the division of the Roman Empire into two, Constantinople remained the capital of Eastern Rome (Byzantine Empire) until 1453.
Istanbul, which has been the capital of the Byzantines for 1000 years, still has an important Byzantine heritage. There are cisterns and palace ruins from the Byzantine period, as well as a considerable number of Byzantine churches. Today it is possible to visit some of these churches as museums.
In the old districts of Istanbul such as Sultanahmet, Fener and Balat, Vefa and Zeyrek, Edirnekapi you can visit the Byzantine heritage sites and take great pictures.
15. Visiting the Mosques of Istanbul
We can say that the imperial mosques of Istanbul are divided into two in terms of architecture. The first is the Classical Ottoman Architecture, which peaks with Architect Sinan, and the second is the Modern Ottoman Architecture, bearing the signature of the Balyan Family.
In the Historic Peninsula of Istanbul, we see the architectural works of classical period. For example, the mosques built by the sultans such as the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque and Fatih Mosque reflect the classical period of the Ottoman Empire.
From the 18th century onwards, the Ottomans began to use neo-classical and baroque elements with European influence. Ortakoy Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace and its Mosque and Beylerbeyi Mosque, such as mosques in the Bosphorus, you can observe this new period architecture.
Of course, the two styles have no superiority to each other. Together, they describe the evolution of a culture that reigned in Istanbul for 500 years. While Classical Architecture preferred a more simple style; Modern Architecture uses eye-catching decoration techniques.
There are beautiful mosques in Istanbul, such as Rustem Pasha Mosque and Ortakoy Mosque, which have just been restored. Over the past few years, the Blue Mosque has also undergone a major restoration. Visiting these three mosques is among the top things to do in Istanbul in 2023.
Written by Serhat Engul