Top Places to Visit in Istanbul
Do you want to be in two places at once? Thinking of heading to one of the few cities that spans two continents? Hint: There are only 5 cities in existence today. Istanbul is definitely the most famous and spans Europe and Asia. Built in 657 BC, Istanbul was formerly known as Constantinople, with Romans, Greeks and Ottomans dominating the region throughout history. Today, it is home to almost 20 million people. There is so much to see and do in Istanbul, as it is crossed by the Golden Horn, multiple bridges and ferries and lots of diverse culture. Here are my top 10 places to visit while in Istanbul. You could easily spend 4-5 days exploring various areas of the city, but this list ensures you hit the highlights and capture the beauty in Istanbul.
1. Hagia Sophia
The top site in Istanbul (in my opinion) is the beautiful Hagia Sophia, which means holy wisdom, is the only building in the world that has been built 3 times and housed an Orthodox Church, a Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a museum. The current structure was built between 532-537 by Emperor Justinian I, who helped spread Christianity in what was Constantinople. It was the largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years. In 1054 the Hagia Sophia was the location of the church split for Catholics and the Orthodox Church. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was converted to a mosque. Much of the Christian mosaics were plastered over or removed and four minarets were added. It was a mosque for almost 500 years before becoming a museum in 1935. In 2020, it was returned to a mosque. However, many of the Christian mosaics that were uncovered when it was a museum still remain. As such, the mosque today covers the largest ones by three white sheets. It’s the only place you can see two religions combined like this. Take a free tour inside between daily prayers. To avoid long crowds, go early in the morning when it opens or after evening prayers.
2. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
Situated next to Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, just reopened to the public following restorations. It is free to enter outside of prayer times for non-Muslims but proper dress is required (head coverings for women and no shorts or tank tops). When Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) was built, legend has it that Sultan Ahmed I asked his architect for altn minare (minarets in gold) and the architect understood alt minare (which means six minarets). In order not to be outdone, Islamic Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) has added a 7th minaret to be the dominate mosque and most holy center for Islam.
3. Bosphorus River
You can take a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus, so even include dinner. The private cruise boats go further along the river, allowing you to see the famous, high-end Yalla houses (the top of real estate in Istanbul). If you don’t have time for a cruise, or are traveling on a smaller budget, make sure you still take a local ferry ride. You can use your IstanbulCard to hop on a ferry from Galata to Kadikoy or Karakoy. As of April 2023, single rides are 12 TL.
4. Topkapi Palace
Construction of this palace began in 1459 after the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed. Topkapi means Cannon Gate and was originally the new palace. It consists of four courtyards and many smaller buildings. Today it is a large museum, housing precious artifacts, crowned jewels and religious relics. I definitely suggest buying “skip the line” tickets in order to bypass the large crowds at entry. All tickets include a free audio guide or you can pre-download the app for easy access. Last entry is 3 pm, and you should allocate at least 2-3 hours to see everything. Separate tickets for the Haram rooms must be purchased once inside the second courtyard. Haram tickets are not included in general entry tickets and currently cost an additional 150 TL (April 2023). We didn’t have time to access this part of the palace, but I have heard the Haram is worth the entry fee. It shows private life of the sultans, including their many women. Sultans had as little as 40 wives and as many as 1200 mistress slaves. The Queen Mother lived in the apartments as well.
5. Underground Basilica Cistern
Built in the fourth century, the Basilica Cistern was a water storage for the city during the Byzantine era. It supplied water to the Great Palace, delivering water from 20km of aqueducts from the Black Sea. Take a tour next to the Hagia Sophia to visit the cathedral-sized cistern, with marble columns riding from the water.
The Hippodrome does not exist anymore in Istanbul. But head to Sultanahmet Square and you are in the heart of the ancient Hippodrome. It was the center of Byzantine life, including chariot races and riots. Today there are a few remaining monuments of this time in Constantinople (now present-day Istanbul). Look at the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpent Column from 3,500 years ago. The Obelisk was originally 35 meters tall, but Roman ships were only 20 meters long. So, when it was transported to Constantinople from Egypt, it was cut down to fit the ships! It stood in the center of the horseshoe shaped Hippodrome, so you can imagine the size of the stands around the square today. More than 90% of the original Hippodrome was destroyed during the Ottoman Empire.
7. Grand Bazaar
Chaos. Mass chaos. But also worth at least one walk through. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BAG/WALLET. This area is the most crowded in the city and ripe for theft. Today, most of the goods sold come from China, so if you are looking for a local, authentic souvenir, this is NOT the place for it. You can head to some local stores instead. The Grand Bazaar is still used for currency exchange and gold trading. If you need to exchange, these stalls have the tightest spreads, offering the most competitive bids. While we wandered around the Grand Bazaar, we saw carts FULL of cash! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Very little “security” but just shows how much money is still exchanged in the bazaar. You can also still find guys yelling on the phones like Wall Street traders for gold spots and futures. It’s an exciting trip! Free to wander, but you must bring your hard negotiating skills if you plan to buy anything you see. Good rule of thumb is to price check several stalls before going to one to bargain. I generally say start at 50% of what the going offering price is and go from there. Good luck!
8. Spice Bazaar
While less crowded, the Spice Bazaar, or Egyptian Bazaar) is not just spices. There are clothing stores selling fake knockoffs, linens or shoes. The spices are usually fresher (and cheaper) at the local supermarket, but if you plan to purchase from the Spice Bazaar, make sure you know the price per kilogram. They should be listed at every stall.
9. Taksim Square & Istiklal Street
Istanbul’s most famous pedestrian street, Istiklal Street (Independence Avenue) is in the heart of modern Istanbul. Lined with cosmopolitan shops, restaurants and bars, you can walk the street from Galata Tower to Taksim Square or take the nostalgic tram for 1 mile from Tunel Square. Trams come every 20-40 mins throughout the day. Buy a ticket before boarding or use your IstanbulCard. Ending in Taksim Square with the Republic Monument at its center. It is surrounded by street food and high-end hotels, with a metro station as well for ease throughout the city. However, be aware that it is also the center of political debate in the city. Check with your hotel beforehand to ensure no demonstrations or protests are expected in the square. You can take the funicular down the hill to the Kabatas tramway and the Seabus port.
10. Bosphorus Bridge or Galata Bridge
If you are looking for a fun people-watching location, walk the Galata Bridge. In the sunshine, it will be lined with local fisherman fishing off the top. It crosses the Golden Horn and offers many (touristy) cafes below along the waterfront.
If you are looking to straddle two continents, head to the Bosphorus Bridge, a long suspension bridge completed in 1973. It is not a pedestrian bridge, so drive across or cruise on a boat below it.
If you plan to visit the Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern, the Istanbul Welcome Card may save you a little money with guides. Hagia Sophia is also included (but entry is already free). It also includes a Bosphorus Cruise.
Are you planning a trip to Istanbul? There are so many unique things to do in Istanbul but hope this has whet your appetite for the city. Generally speaking, Istanbul is safe for Americans. Check out my post here on the tips to know before visiting Turkey, as well as this post of what to wear while in a Muslim country. Enjoy!