So many chapters of history have unfolded in Istanbul that it’s almost impossible to list the most important cultural and historical sites in the city. And that’s just for people interested in that sort of thing: beach lovers, foodies, and the intrepid will also have tonnes of other Istanbul tourist attractions they want to visit while holidaying in this gorgeous city, meaning any trip here is likely to be jam-packed.
If you’re feeling too spoilt for choice and want somebody to tell you the must do things in Istanbul, then look no further: we at Orbzii have done the hard yards to make sure you get the best out of your trip, even if you’ve only got a few days to fit everything in.
Here’s our bucket list of things to do in Istanbul.
Spend the day in Sultanahmet Square
If there was a prize for the largest amount of cultural attractions crammed into one small spot, the area around Sultanahmet Square would certainly be in with a shout. The Blue Mosque, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, the Hagia Sophia – the list of historically and culturally significant structures in this small part of town is enough to excite any tourist. Realistically, if you’re looking for must do things in Istanbul, visiting here should be top of the list.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or Blue Mosque) was constructed in the early 17th century and is famous for its blue-tiled interior and the blue lights that bathe it at night. It’s free to wander in and open to the public throughout the day except during prayer times. However, if you do go in, please remember it’s an active place of worship: cover your head, shoulders, and legs, and be respectful.
Just a short walk away is the Hagia Sophia, emblematic of the city and its history. Originally a church built by Justinian I in the 6th century, it’s been a mosque, a church, a cultural museum, and is now a mosque again, although like the Blue Mosque is open to all creeds. The structure is known for its dome, but the entire thing is truly astounding to look at, and the building itself has been the venue for some of the most important events in all human history.
Aside from these gigantic, beautiful mosques, the square is near the Sultan Ahmet Park, the Arasta Bazar, several museums, the Walled Obelisk, and dozens of other attractions. Get here early in the morning and spend the day here: you won’t regret it.
Watch the sunset at The Prince Islands
The Prince Islands (also known as Princes’ Islands) is an archipelago just a short hop from the Istanbul coast, with plenty of different jumping off points for the ferry. There is basically zero car traffic on the island, so this is a massive change from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul proper. If you want to get around you will have to walk, or alternatively you can rent a bike. Some of the islands also have the infrastructure for horse and carriage rides, if the mood so takes you.
Although the islands don’t quite have the same cultural pull as the main city, there is still plenty to look at and learn about when you visit. There are a whole host of Ottoman-era mansions, showing off the architecture of the time, and even the boat ride to and from the islands is great as you can see other Istanbul tourist attractions from a new angle.
If you choose to come here, it will likely be at least a half day trip, and we’d recommend going later in the day so you can see the stunning sunset over the water, although if you do go super early with a private boat you might get the chance to see the sun rise over the city. Prices for ferries vary depending on the time of year and the company, and also where you are being picked up and dropped off. There are several islands, but the most famous is probably Buyukada, also the largest island. Heybeliada and Burgazada are the two other bigger islands, and then there are a few smaller, more secluded ones, if you just want to lounge on a beach uninterrupted.
Visit the Grand Bazaar
If you’re looking for fun places to visit in Istanbul then a trip to the Grand Bazaar is a must. Spanning over sixty streets, it’s one of the largest covered markets in the world, and between the 4,000 stores that call it home it sells almost everything you could think of and then some. Located in the ancient Fatih district within the Walled City of Istanbul, it’s a short tram ride from Sultanahmet Square.
It is incredibly easy to get lost in this vast complex, but that’s half the fun of this Istanbul tourist attraction. If you are on a schedule, you can find various guides online that explain what each section of the bazaar is like and which gate is best to enter for certain products, such as Zincirli Han, the carpet area.
Once you’re in, definitely try and get involved with haggling and bantering: the sellers are more likely to give you a good deal if you don’t fawn over everything. Don’t feel bad about accepting tea from them and not buying anything, either: that’s just classic Turkish hospitality. If you do feel pressured or uncomfortable by a seller’s tactics, then move on and don’t look back – you’re bound to find another stall selling something similar and they will have moved onto the next potential customer.
Take a Bosporus Cruise
While there are a fair few companies offering cruises down the Bosporus so tourists can see the best Istanbul tourist attractions from a new perspective, you can’t go wrong with Sehir Hatlari, who do a lot of the public transport in Istanbul and offer the cheapest, yet most professional outfit. You won’t get any tour guides giving you the history of Istanbul, but for the obscenely low price of TL 25 (GBP 2.50) you can get a return ticket on a ferry to cross the famous strait that divides Istanbul. From here, it’s easy to spot a plethora of sites, and taking the ferry means avoiding the overly congested bridges.
Stroll through the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood
Translating to ‘little raven’, this neighbourhood is an underrated Istanbul tourist attraction that should be on every bucket list of things to do in Istanbul. One of the most religiously diverse areas of the city, Kuzguncuk is home to synagogues, churches, and mosques, all standing side-by-side. Located on the banks of the Bosporus, the little district is also full of traditional stores and local artisans, maintaining a unique character despite a central location.
This is somewhat driven by a younger generation who have eschewed mass consumerism for local affairs, meaning a tonne of independent, forward-thinking businesses that see the local as king.
While there are a few things worth seeing here, it’s better just to turn up and stroll through the area, investigating anything that takes your fantasy.