Last Updated March, 2020
Visiting Istanbul earlier this month was absolutely eye-opening. I had no idea how many sensational sightseeing spots this city has. And how much it captivates with its charm and mix of cultures.
Istanbul is a multi-ethnic metropolis with a rich history and beautiful oriental motifs. This city in Turkey is an ideal option for a weekend trip, one week vacation, romantic getaway, shopping or just a layover. One visit here is never enough. There is so much to do and see that it may get confusing where to go and what to do, especially if you are coming for the first time.
The city of seagulls, ferries, the most delicious baklava, liters of tea, cool vibes and good-hearted people definitely knows how to surprise.
I would love to offer you a few Istanbul sightseeing ideas that I think are absolute must-sees. Either this is your first visit or fifty-first, take a look at this list. It also suggests a few unique things to do in Istanbul.
VISIT TRADING ROWS AROUND THE SPICE BAZAAR
The Spice Bazaar or as visitors call it Egyptian Market, and by locals, Mısır Çarşısı, is a really cool place to visit in Istanbul. It’s not only a sightseeing spot for tourists but one of the most favorite bazaars among Turks.
Since this market is one of the most popular Istanbul places to visit, expect it to be really crowded. A lot of sites in Istanbul are overcrowded, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. But this market always attracts more people. Despite a bit of craziness and rush, here you’ll find some of the finest foods, snacks, and coffee. See where locals shop and how exactly they do it.
What to try: grilled olives, pistachios, Tulum cheese, Turkish donuts with cream and definitely Turkish Mehmet Efendi coffee.
HOP ON A FERRYBOAT FOR SOME OF THE BEST ISTANBUL SIGHTSEEING
One of the most romantic ways to see Istanbul is from the water on a ferry. And in my opinion, the best routes for that are from Eminonu to Kadikoy (or back,) from Karakoy to Uskudar and from Eminonu to Park Emirgan.
To be honest, which route of these three you choose does not really matter. They are all great. The one to Park Emirgan is the longest and more expensive but it helps you enjoy the scenery of the European and Asian side in full. The time of the year for ferry also does not matter. Even the mood you are in on that day does not matter as well.
Warm deck, hot tea or cold orange juice along with seagulls’ singing guarantee you’ll have a fabulous time. Also, this entire experience is going to introduce Istanbul in a completely different light. So if you are not in good spirits, the ferry ride alone will improve that.
In summer, if you get lucky there is even a chance to see dolphins.
MUST-DO ISTANBUL ATTRACTION: WALK ON A GOLDEN HORN METRO BRIDGE
If you have more time in the city and plan to go to both Eminonu and Beyoglu Istanbul neighborhoods, instead of using public transportation, walk on a Golden Horn Metro bridge. The view of both sides of the waterway is much better than from Galata Bridge.
Right on the bridge, there is a metro station Halic, but the bridge itself has a walking path for pedestrians.
If you walk from Eminonu and once you cross the bridge to the other side, turn right on a boardwalk along the river. It is a really nice place for evening walks or if you are on the way to Galata or Karakoy.
On your walk to Galata bridge, try the most delicious (as some people say) fish sandwich. It is sold as street food and also in a few restaurants. The choice is yours.
PAY A VISIT TO HISTORICAL BASILICA CISTERN
Basilica Cistern is the oldest underground reservoir of Byzantine times which resembles an underground palace. It was built in the 6th century under a large public square and until this day its cisterns collect and store rainwater for various uses.
Every Istanbul sightseeing tour has this place on their itinerary and rightfully so. It is a truly mysterious and unusual thing to do. You won’t find anything like that anywhere else in the world. And seeing it will not leave you indifferent. When we went, we met some of our friends who were visiting Istanbul with kids. Even their little ones enjoyed this trip.
The ticket price is 20 lira and the cistern is open daily from 9 am to 5:30 pm. I recommend taking the first tour since it is less crowded. The museum pass card is not valid here.
SPEND A FEW HOURS IN SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE
Among all the mosques in Istanbul, I would recommend going to only a few. And one of them would be definitely Suleymaniye Camii (mosque.) It is the largest and, as some people say, the most beautiful mosque in the entire city. For me personally, this mosque became a favorite one.
You can find it in Old Town, in the Vefa neighborhood on the third city hill. The territory of the Suleymaniye Mosque is huge and you would probably need a few hours to explore everything. It feels more like visiting a smaller town inside of a huge city. Besides the Mosque, you can also find on the same territory a hammam, religious school, library, and observatory.
Behind the mosque, there is a cemetery and two mausoleums: with Suleiman the Magnificent and his beloved wife Roksolana.
By the way, the hammam is open until this day. It offers a mixed bath to both men and women. However, singles are not allowed, only couples and families. The entrance fee is 35 euros. For more information check their website.
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VISIT AYASOFYA MOSQUE (MUSEUM)
On a rainy day (even on a sunny day) or if you have more time in Istanbul, visit a beautiful Ayasofya Mosque museum. The location is the opposite of the Blue Mosque and difficult to miss.
The mosque is so grand that you want to stop and just stare at it for a few minutes. No wonder, for a long time it was one of the largest temples in the world. In fact, before the arrival of the Turks, Saint Sophia was a Christian temple. After the fall of Constantinople, Turks decided not to destroy it, but transform into a mosque by attaching the minarets.
For many years, it was a prayer house for Muslims, but in 1935 the government made a decision to turn it into a museum.
Saint Sophia impresses with its size. The length of the cathedral is 81 m, width 72 m. Light comes in through 40 windows and due to a large amount of light, it seems that the dome is floating in the air.
The cost of visiting is 60 lira. You can buy a museum card for 185 lira which gives you access to various sights of Istanbul for 5 days, including this one.
CHECK OUT FLOWER PASSAGE ON ISTIKLAL AVENUE IN THE BEYOGLU DISTRICT
Istiklal walking street is always crazily busy and noisy. Not many people enjoy this place but they still go there to try some of the best food in Istanbul and shop at reasonable prices.
Chance are you’ll be curious enough to see this street for yourself too. This is why I am including a flower passage, otherwise, if you decide not to go, there is not much else to do in the area.
The passage originally was designed as an arcade for cafes, shops, and luxury apartments. Later it became a flower market where impoverished Russian women were selling flowers. Today this passage is full of fish taverns, various cafes, and restaurants that sell Turkish food. The old building allows you to plunge into the atmosphere of Ottoman time, try local cuisine and listen to Turkish folklore.
VISIT BUYUK VALIDE ROOFTOPS IN FATIH FOR SOME OF THE BEST VIEWS OF ISTANBUL
If you are in search of some of the most instagrammable places in Istanbul and want to get the best view of the city, this is the neighborhood to choose. Being right next to Grand Bazaar and at the first site looking a bit sketchy, it offers absolutely breathtaking views.
It may seem a bit challenging to find the right stairs to get up to the top but in reality, it is easy enough. You may always ask locals (even if they don’t speak English) and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Do not confuse this place with Buyuk Valide Han which used to be a cafe before and where you have to pay to get in. The roofs I am talking about are free to go to and there are hardly any people. Sometimes locals come there to distract but tourists do not know much about this place.
VISIT CUTE DISTRICT ARNAVUTKOY
If you are looking for unique things to do in Istanbul, come to Arnavutkoy.
This is probably our favorite district in Istanbul and it may become a favorite one for you too. Even though the location is a bit far from the city, a visit here will make you feel like you are somewhere else in Europe but not in Turkey.
It became popular because of unique architecture, namely – wooden houses in Ottoman style right near the sea. Arnavutkoy is one of the greenest areas in Istanbul. Here, you can find a few stunning gardens and parks.
The territory is inhabited by a small Greek community, which has its own church – Taksiarhi Rum. It is the largest Greek church in Istanbul and is worth a visit. It will impress you with its ancient architecture, mosaics, and frescoes.
But the main reason I recommend to visit is not even that. The entire neighborhood is absolutely cute and peaceful. It differs so much from the rest of Istanbul. Nice houses, cozy coffee shops, popular bars and actually the nicest waiters in entire Istanbul are here. It is so relaxing and entertaining to walk the narrow streets of Arnavutkoy.
Since it is a bit far from the center, you’d need to go there by bus. The best way is to catch a bus in Besiktas that goes to Bebek and exit in Arnavutkoy.
From the sea, this district looks like a small Amsterdam, seriously.
Is it going to be your first trip to Istanbul? Could you add any other Istanbul sightseeing spots to this list if you’ve been already there multiple times? I would love to hear from ya!