I always say that Istanbul is a lively city where you never get bored; everyone can find here something interesting to suit their taste and pocket.
As a city at the intersection of the two continents – Europe and Asia – Istanbul is full of ethnic, religious, and cultural contrasts: Christian monuments coexist with Islamic buildings and mosques, millennial ruins with modern art museums, traditional ancient Turkish cuisine with contemporary innovative cuisine, and so on.
Istanbul is home to about 15.5 million modern and hospitable people; it has about 3000 mosques and many skyscrapers; the city hosts centuries-old traditions and progressive innovations.
Once visiting Istanbul, I am sure you would fall in love with this city, so just be prepared to fill your camera with photographs and maybe gain a few kilograms.
Coming to Istanbul for the first time, you probably would like to know what can you try here as a tourist, so, in this article, I have prepared for you 25 must-do things to have an amazing experience.
1 – Taste traditional Turkish breakfast while enjoying adorable views
The first thing that comes to my mind is a good Turkish breakfast overlooking the Bosphorus and the two most popular sights of Istanbul – Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Turkish breakfast is a kind of Turkey’s symbol, as it is really tasty, hearty, varied, and also aesthetically pleasing to an eye.
The ingredients of Turkish breakfast may vary depending on the region, but mainly it includes bread, can be simit (a round bagel with sesame seeds) or açma (bun), boiled eggs, Turkish sausage sucuk, butter or kaymak (thick boiled sour cream), some fruit jams, honey, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, varieties of cheeses, all washed down with Turkish tea.
You can also have a typical omelet, be it with cheese or sausages, or menemen (scrambled eggs with tomatoes and bell peppers), and in some regions of Turkey, you may be offered mıhlama (a mixture of cornmeal and cheese).
These days, in many cafes in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, you can taste a full set of Turkish breakfast with menemen and mıhlama. My favorite ones are Seven Hills Restaurant, Kubbe-i Aşk Cafe, and Queb Lounge 360 Sultanahmet, where you can have breakfast for about 8 USD per person.
More hidden gem places for breakfast in Istanbul here.
2 – Admire the beauty of Iznik Ceramic tiles in the Blue Mosque
One of the main symbols of Istanbul is the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which has 6 beautiful minarets.
It is located in the European part of Istanbul, near the coast of the Sea of Marmara, in the historic center Sultanahmet.
The Blue Mosque was built by order of Sultan Ahmed I, by the architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, who was a disciple of the famous architect Sinan.
And, according to the legend, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha wanted to surpass the works of his teacher, so the mosque was built on a grand scale.
So why is this mosque called the Blue Mosque? It turns out that earlier this mosque was called Ahmediye in honor of the Sultan, but the Europeans named it blue because of the blue and white iznik ceramic tiles, which were used in its decorations.
Thanks to the combination of these details and the light that falls from the 260 windows, the interior of the mosque really looks blue.
Usually, during those days, mosques had no more than 4 minarets, since only the Great Mosque of Mecca – Masjid al-Haram, – which surrounds the Kaaba, had 6 minarets, and none of the other had to be compared with it in importance.
Legend has it that, according to the order of the Sultan, the architect was supposed to build a mosque with golden minarets, but he misunderstood the order and made 6 minarets (confusion arose due to the similarity of the Turkish words altın – gold and altı – six).
A scandal erupted, but Sultan Ahmed solved this problem by ordering the construction of a 7th minaret in Masjid al-Haram.
If you want to learn more about this amazing mosque and its mysteries, then click here.
3 – Make a wish at the Column of Justinian in the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque
Hagia Sophia is also a must-see place considered sacred. At different times, this temple, or rather the place on which the modern Hagia Sophia is located, was a sanctuary for pagans, Christians, and then, up to nowadays, for Muslims. It managed to combine Arabic scripts and Christian frescoes from Byzantine times in the interior.
Surprisingly, the story of Hagia Sophia is often associated with wonderful legends.
For example, they say that back in the 6th century, an angel appeared to Emperor Justinian with a model of a grandiose temple in his hands that later would become Hagia Sophia; or that when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople, on the wall at the altar, he left his bloody handprint, which is visible to this day.
But the biggest mystery of Hagia Sophia is connected with the Column of Justinian, to which tourists usually line up. It is said that by accidentally touching the column, Emperor Justinian cured of a continuous headache.
It is believed that if you lean your forehead against a stone, conceive a wish, insert your finger into the hole and turn it clockwise, then your wish will certainly come true.
Check here for more information about Hagia Sophia.
4 – Enjoy traditional Turkish meat dishes and drink ayran
Since you start exploring traditional Turkish cuisine, I advise you to try meat dishes that are presented in Istanbul and Turkey in a huge variety.
Of course, it is impossible to describe in one word all the meat varieties that can be found in Istanbul since cookers here are really masters and virtuosos of their craft.
Let us start with a juicy and aromatic kebap, as it is the most famous dish of Turkish cuisine, the popularity of which has gone far beyond its historical culinary homeland.
Kebap is a common name for grilled meat, but there is also a special secret – it lies in a delicate marinade that is cooked without adding acid or vinegar.
In Istanbul, you can try Döner Kebap (meat rolled in a flatbread – lavaş or yufka), Adana Kebap (minced flat skewers generously seasoned with pepper), İskender Kebap (thin layers of lamb meat baked over a fire, served in tomato sauce and on pide), Şiş Kebap (meat fried on skewers over the fire), etc.
To try a decent kebap, I advise you to visit the local Bayramoğlu Döner or Çiya Kebap, where you can taste about 100 types of kebap from different regions. In general, Istanbul is full of tasty kebap restaurants, which you can find here.
Another popular meat dish is köfte, grilled meat patties that are an integral part of Turkish cuisine.
Of the many local places, the most popular cafe chain is Köfteci Yusuf, and for truly authentic dishes you can visit Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta, where 4 generations of köfte masters have been working.
For lovers of non-standard meat dishes and for those, who want to try something unique, I advise you to check out kokoreç – fried mutton giblets wrapped in guts, served in a loaf of bread.
One of the places, where delicious kokoreç is served, is Kral Kokoreç Sirkeci, a kind of street food place, and İmparator Kokoreç – a modest cafe.
Be sure to wash it down with local traditional drink ayran (salted and diluted yogurt) after hearty meat, as it is good for the health of the stomach.
5 – Look into the eyes of the terrifying Gorgon Medusa in the Basilica Cistern
Did you know that there is a place in Istanbul that is famous all over the world for Hollywood films, as it has been used as a stage for some famous movie scenes? If you are hearing about this for the first time, it will be interesting for you to read about the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnıcı.
The world-famous landmark of Turkey is one of the largest and best-preserved ancient underground reservoirs of Constantinople, which has some similarities with the palace complex.
The Basilica Cistern was shown in the action thriller about the renaissance era called ‘Inferno’ with Tom Hanks. The movie is based on the novel written by Dan Brown, who is also the author of the world-famous books ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Angels & Demons’, etc.
It is not the first time for the Basilica Cistern to be used in movie scenes. This site was featured in some episodes of the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’, as well as the film with Russell Crowe ‘The Water Diviner’.
The Basilica Cistern is quite interesting for its columns, which differ in style since they were brought here from different ancient temples. But the most interesting is a constantly wet ‘crying’ column, and the two other columns, at the base of which is the head of a Gorgon Medusa.
You probably know that, according to Greek myths, a person who once looked into the eyes of this creature with a woman’s face and snakes instead of hair, will immediately turn into a stone.
Perhaps, this is why the heads of the Medusa are turned: one of them is located upside down, the other is turned on the side.
6 – Detox and gain strength in the Turkish hamam
While walking around Istanbul, do not forget to visit the local spa treatments – hamam. The Turkish hamam is not just a bath, every visit to it turns into a real ritual.
The first hamams appeared during the Ottoman Empire, and they were intended not only to cleanse the body and relax. In the Turkish bath, it was a custom to arrange business meetings, as well as to conduct conversations, discuss the latest events.
Turkish hamams were traditionally built in a form of a hand and five fingers, where the center of the bath was a steam room (göbek taşı). All other rooms were kept at different temperatures.
This is done deliberately so that the body would not subject to high-temperature stress. A gentle air temperature, as well as a gradual immersion in a warmer environment, is easier to have and more comfortable.
As the legend says, after going through all five rooms, a person completely cleanses both the body and the soul. Indeed, the Turkish hamam is very useful for health, and the sensations after having such therapy are just magical.
The most famous and rather expensive hamams are the creations of the great architect Sinan – Suleymaniye Hamamı and Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, which are famous not only for their wellness procedures but also for the old Ottoman architecture from which your sense of beauty will delight.
You can find more details about hamams in Istanbul here.
7 – Taste all Turkish sweets
Not everyone can visit Istanbul and refrain from Turkish sweets since the local cuisine is distinguished by a wide variety of both traditional Turkish desserts and modern treats.
The most famous all over the world is baklava, and to taste it is a must. For me, the most delicious baklava can be found in Karaköy Güllüoğlu.
I think I will remember the magical taste of their baklava forever, and now I always compare this baklava with others.
More places of the best baklava in Istanbul here.
The other favorites that I sincerely advise you to try are kadayıf made from a special dessert dough that requires special skill for cooking and rolling, künefe made from the same dough but different in shape and served warm with melted goat cheese, and lokma – fried balls of dough soaked in honey or sugar syrup that melts in your mouth.
Be sure to try the Turkish ice cream maraş dondurması, made from goat’s milk with the addition of grated orchid roots – salep. You can also try Turkish sweets like lokum came to us from the pages of oriental fairy tales, helva, pişmaniye, and many others.
8 – Bargain with local sellers at the bazaar and buy souvenirs
Visiting one of the Turkish bazaars is also a must-do in Istanbul. Moreover, buying sweets and souvenirs is one of the favorite activities of tourists. And not everyone can bargain with local sellers and try out their orator’s skills on them.
The main bazaar in the Sultanahmet neighborhood is, of course, the Grand Bazaar – the largest covered bazaar in Istanbul (check here for more information about the Grand Bazaar), – and the second one is the Spice Bazaar.
I prefer the latter more because it is more atmospheric and has sweets and spices for your choice.
In Spice Bazaar, there are many colorful and eye-catching shawls, bags, other accessories, many bracelets for the evil eye – nazar boncuğu, which are considered common souvenirs from Turkey.
For a more practical gift, you can opt for natural olive or goat milk soaps, spices, dried fruits, as well as Turkish delights, and Turkish tea.
9 – Feel yourself as in the TV serial Muhteşem Yüzyıl at Topkapı Palace
If you want to please your eyes aesthetically and enjoy the luxurious decoration, or even remember some moments from the TV series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century), then go to the Topkapi Palace. This is a truly luxurious place: it includes a whole palace complex with a separate harem and glorious parks. Besides, this is one of the most visited museums in Turkey.
As we all know, Topkapı Palace has been the residence of the Sultans for 380 years. I will not go into the history, which you can check here, I better tell you interesting facts about the palace.
- Topkapı is translated from Turkish as a cannonball and a gate, a cannon gate. Perhaps, because every time a Sultan came to the palace, a volley of cannons was heard.
- The palace has been under construction for several decades, and the place was not chosen by chance: cape Sarayburnu is the only place where the waters of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn mix.
- Before the arrival of Hürrem Sultan, the harem was located far from Topkapı on Beyazıt. But in the 16th century, the beloved wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent wanted to be as close to him as possible and achieved the transfer of the harem to Topkapı.
10 – Test the strength of architect Sinan’s amazing creation – Suleymaniye Mosque
Do not forget about one of the major and largest mosques of Istanbul – Suleymaniye, where Suleiman the Magnificent and his beloved wife Hürrem Sultan were buried.
The whole mosque serves as a kind of reminder of this Magnificent Sultan under whom the Ottoman Empire passed its heyday.
The four tall minarets were a symbol of the rule of Suleiman, who was the fourth Sultan to rule in the Empire, and ten balconies on the minarets are designed to remind that he was the tenth in the dynasty.
In total, the construction of Suleymaniye (the complex) took about 7 years, and as a result, the architect Sinan managed to erect a strong and durable building, which he himself predicted eternal existence.
And after several centuries, his words were not doubted for a split second. The mosque survived 89 strong earthquakes, a fire in 1660, but was never destroyed.
If everyone knows about the tomb of Sultan Suleiman and Hürrem Sultan, then few people know that the architect Sinan himself was also buried here – his tomb is located next to the madrasah. You can also find more about the Suleymaniye Mosque here.
11 – Get lost in the colorful and atmospheric streets of Balat neighborhood
Balat is considered one of the oldest districts of Istanbul and is like a city within a city, as its architecture is very different from the rest of the metropolis. Recently, Balat has become quite popular with tourists thanks to the Turkish TV serial industry.
The famous Turkish crime series ‘Çukur’ was filmed here that inspired many tourists to visit this place. However, I advise you to visit Balat because of its atypical buildings and many Christian and Jewish churches.
Balat is historically an area inhabited by Jews; 12 synagogues were built here, and mainly Jewish houses are usually painted in different colors.
For a long time, until the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population peacefully coexisted with the Armenians and Muslims, but later, they had to move to other areas of Istanbul.
Here, be sure to wander the narrow and steep streets of Balat, see local sights like Fener Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi, Aya Theodosia Kilisesi, Aya Yorgi Kilisesi, Merdivenli Yokuş Sokağı, Stefan Sveti Bulgar Kilisesi, Ferruh Kethüda Camisi, etc.
Also, check the local coffee shops, each with a unique atmosphere and style. For example, Balat Kadraj Kafe is a cafe where you can find everything about Turkish cinema, or the antique Cafe Naftalin K, or Atölye Kafası ‘Hangar’ which is in a former hangar, etc.
More about Balat you can read here.
12 – Meet a colorful and memorable sunset at Ortaköy
You should come to Ortaköy, firstly, to try one of the local street foods kumpir – a hot boiled fried potato, the filling of which you choose yourself.
Secondly, visit the only baroque mosque in Istanbul Büyük Mecidiye Camii, which is also famous for its natural lighting. The place, where the mosque situates today was once called by Byzantians ‘the key to the Bosphorus’.
Thirdly, while sipping Turkish tea on the terrace of one of Ortaköy’s cafes, enjoy the amazing sunset that will open to you in full glory. There is also Starbucks and Mado cafe familiar to all; of the good, but not so popular – Ortaköy Yat Kulübü, Destan Meydan.
And do not forget to take a photo of the embankment against the backdrop of the Bosphorus, Ortaköy Mosque, and Bosphorus Bridge illuminated by the bright reddish light.
13 – Enjoy the wonderful architecture of Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace is the second residence of the Sultans after Topkapı, made in the baroque and rococo architecture styles.
This site is the largest palace in Istanbul, in which lived six generations of Ottoman Sultans and later, the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Inside the palace, you can find many interesting sights, for example, the room where the Father of the Nation lived, worked, and passed away.
There are also a luxurious crystal staircase and a bohemian glass chandelier presented by the British Queen Victoria, paintings by the famous Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky, beautiful gardens, the harem, snow-white lavishly decorated gates of the Palace, and much more.
14 – Take a Bosphorus tour and have a superficial sightseeing
‘Life can’t be all that bad,’ I’d think from time to time. ‘Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus’.Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City
If you still decide to visit magnificent Istanbul, then for your visit to be complete, you should explore the beauty of the Bosphorus. People call it ‘the soul of the city’ – a waterway is a connecting line between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea and the border separating Asia from Europe.
The Bosphorus really impresses with its views, so, a must-do for tourists is a tour of the Bosphorus, which, in half an hour will show you all the sights of Istanbul that are located along the shore. For those who are in the city for a short time, this is the best option.
You do not have to choose the services of a particular carrier. When you are on the promenade, near the pier of Eminönü or Kadıköy, you can see kiosks with posters advertising Bosphorus tours – choose any official carrier – Turyol or Şehir Hatları – and go for a tour. The fact is that such carriers have fixed tariffs, while private companies have a much higher cost.
15 – Try original Turkish coffee in a cozy cafe
As you know, Turkey is an oriental country rich in traditions, and one of the most delicious and enjoyable among them is the ritual of making and drinking coffee.
Although coffee is not grown in Turkey, it is rightfully considered the national Turkish drink. Turkish coffee is worth trying as it has a more delicate and richer nutty flavor, which differs from other types of coffee.
My favorite place to visit is Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, which is the first to produce Turkish coffee in all Turkey. There you can also buy coffee beans and take as a souvenir to your country.
You can find other places for high-class coffee here.
16 – Climb to the Istanbul Sapphire and have your head spinning
To see Istanbul as a modern metropolis and to feel its scale, be sure to visit the Istanbul Sapphire observation deck.
From there you will have a mesmerizing panoramic view of Istanbul. Sapphire is the tallest residential building in Istanbul and the 4th largest skyscraper in the city; the height of Sapphire is 236 meters.
Be sure that this view will allow you to feel yourself in a metropolis with a 15.5 million population, and your head will spin from the height as the view here is 360 degrees.
17 – Go up to the Galata Tower with your soul mate
Galata Tower can be considered one of the most ancient of all popular attractions in Istanbul. It was built by the Genoese in the middle of the 14th century named ‘Tower of Christ’.
For centuries, Galata Tower has been used both as a fire tower, as a starting point for air travel (in 1633, a certain daredevil started from here on artificial wings), and as a place for panoramic images of Istanbul. And in 1965, Galata was opened to the public.
Now, to climb Galata Tower and to look at Istanbul, you will need to stand in a huge queue of tourists; but the views of Istanbul from there are really impressive, and you can even reach the seagulls with your hand.
A beautiful belief is associated with Galata Tower that if a couple goes up there together, they will definitely get married; and the locals really believe in this.
You can check for more stories about Galata Tower here.
18 – Shop at the coolest shopping malls in Istanbul
How to come to Istanbul and not shop?
This is a strange question for me because I adore Istanbul also for its incredibly huge selection of local shops, world-famous luxury brands, outlets, local bazaars, shopping centers, good discounts, and the opportunity to find something that suits you perfectly.
And given the season of sales, this is just a paradise for shopaholics.
Here in Istanbul, you can also find old trade areas such as Laleli, a lot of flea markets, like Tahtakale, or classic bazaars.
In the Şişli area, there is the Cevahir shopping center, which is the largest store in Europe and is among the top 5 best shopping centers in Istanbul.
For luxury shopping, head to Zorlu Center, where you can even meet local celebrities, or the Nişantaşı area, which is famous for its luxury shopping arcades. For budget shopping, there are Moda, Bakırköy districts, and many local outlets.
There are also ordinary shopping centers in every district, so you can always shop wherever you are. Here you can see the shopping centers that we have selected as the best.
19 – Watch the mystical dance of the derviş
Dervishes are members of Muslim religious brotherhood, a kind of wanderer monks, adherents of Sufism. The followers of this group have an extremely interesting history of life and rituals, including the so-called dance of the dervishes sema.
The participants in this ritual are members of the Mevlevi Order, which was founded in the 13th century by the mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi, better known as Mevlana.
You may have seen a photo or a video of men in white robes and high hats as if whirling in ecstasy; so, this is the sema ritual.
Sema includes music, dance, and prayer, while to become a participant in such a ritual, novices go through a long path of spiritual enlightenment.
If you happen to be in Istanbul, I strongly advise you to see this ritual live; it is unlike anything you could see before. To do this, you can visit the Galata Mevlevi Museum or the Sirkeci Train Station Whirling Dervish Show. Tickets can be purchased online or in advance on the spot – from 13 USD.
20 – Join the crowd of passers-by on İstiklal Street at Taksim
Taksim is one of the most visited tourist destinations, and along the İstiklal Street, where numerous hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, and nightlife are located, it is rumored that about 2 million people pass a day.
The place is very lively, as it is a major transport hub and people come here to see the many sights in the vicinity of the square, for example, Taksim Square, the 11-meter Republic Monument, Church of St. Anthony of Padua, Galata Tower, Museum of Madame Tussauds, etc.
You can see an old tram traveling along İstiklal Street. Take a ride on it, since it is very easy to do as it is a part of the city’s public transport.
21 – Admire views from the Pierre Loti hill while drinking apple tea
Cafe Pierre Loti was one of the favorite places of the French writer Pierre Loti, who was inspired by the city.
This place is quite popular and is located on a high hill with magnificent views. It is a real pleasure to enjoy an aromatic apple tea here while watching a sunset.
Moreover, here you can also check the observation deck, which you can climb by cable car on a teleferik. There is also the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, the most important shrine for Muslims on the same level as Medina, Mecca, and Jerusalem.
22 – Feel a little pleasant sadness at Maiden’s Tower
The Maiden’s Tower has been standing on a tiny island of the Bosphorus for several centuries and beckons with its stunning views and romantic stories. However, legends about the Maiden’s Tower do not have happy ends but still, people like to listen to them.
The most common story tells about a young man who crossed the Bosphorus every evening to meet his beloved imprisoned in this tower.
Every night the girl turned on the light and helped the young man find the way. But one day the fire went out and the young man drowned in the waters of Bosphorus.
His beloved could not resign herself to the loss and also threw herself into the water from this tower later called the Maiden’s Tower.
This tower also has a decent restaurant that can only be reached by boat. You can admire the tower from the Üsküdar embankment, which is also very beautiful.
23 – Taste mouth-watering seafood in Istanbul’s best restaurants
Be sure to visit the fish restaurant In Istanbul, as this city is very rich in fresh delicious seafood.
One of my favorite restaurants is Lacivert Restaurant, which is right on the edge of the Bosphorus; prices there are above average, and it takes a long time to get there. But you will remember the taste of the freshest grilled fish for a long time.
You can check our suggestions on fish restaurants here.
In addition to fish, I advise you to try mussels, be it midye tava (fried mussels) or midye dolması – a popular Turkish dish of mussels dipped in rice and served with a lemon.
It can also be shrimps in oil or with vegetables and a variety of other things to your taste.
24 – Feel the delights of nightlife at Kadıköy on Kadife Street
Kadıköy is also becoming quite popular among tourists as it combines quite different entertainment destinations.
For some, Kadikoy is the Moda district, which is famous for its diverse shops, but for others, it is popular among young people Kadife Street (Kadife Sokak) or also called Barlar Sokağı, which means the street of bars in Turkish.
This street is the center of Kadikoy nightlife. It is adored by young people, students, they gather here to have fun, dance, listen to music, etc.
It attracts fans of rock music, lovers of jazz, those fond of theater, painting, playing the guitar, etc. Some of the bars are known as centers of culture and art, they host exhibitions, concerts, film screenings.
So, for the fullness of sensations, be sure to check out here in the evening, maybe not to party, but to feel this lively young atmosphere. You can read more about Kadıköy here.
25 – Rent a bike and go around the whole ecologically clean island of Büyükada
Finally, do not hesitate to visit beautiful Prince’s Islands, namely the largest island in the Sea of Marmara, Buyukada.
To preserve the purity of the air, tourists can only move around the island on foot or by bicycles; electric cars are also working nowadays – they replaced riding phaetons with horses.
On the island, in addition to beautiful gardens and forests, you can see typical wooden houses, representatives of Ottoman architecture, painted in light colors – white, blue – giving the impression of a foreign seaside resort.
I highly recommend Buyukada for tourists who decide to escape from the crowded metropolis. Life on the island is calm and provincial, especially in winter, and in summer, a beach opens here for lovers of sea recreation.
Here, at any time of the year, visit the fish restaurants that will delight you with fresh fish caught here in the coastal waters of Büyükada. Prices do not differ much from Istanbul prices, and the atmosphere of privacy will allow you to relax.
Istanbul, as a cosmopolitan city, lives with its own dynamic rhythm, which is easy to join and get used to. Once have been to this fantastic city, you will definitely want to return.
Fortunately, it is quite challenging to complete all the 25 must-do things from this list in one trip. So, take your time; you are always welcome here.