Are you preparing your next trip to Istanbul and need some inspiration? Are you still not sure how to organize yourself so you don’t miss any of the must-sees in the Turkish city? To make it easier for you, we have made a complete list of all those places to see in Istanbul: from the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace or the Grand Bazaar.
Planning a vacation? Looking for an adventure? Here are 101 crazy things to do before you die.
Don’t worry, this fascinating enclave between East and West is so overwhelming that you usually don’t know where to start discovering it. Because Istanbul is exoticism, history and tradition: found in its bazaars, its imposing mosques and its palaces. But it is also avant-garde and modern: you only have to walk along the lively Istiklal Avenue one afternoon to be aware that Istanbul is constantly bustling.
Get ready because you will need a lot of energy to assimilate all that Istanbul has to offer: dozens of free plans, restaurants to taste the best Turkish cuisine, charming hotels in the heart of Istanbul… Here we bring you 12 essential places to see in Istanbul.
That we started with one of the great tourist and heritage attractions of Istanbul was clear: Hagia Sophia is an immense work of art that must be visited by anyone who sets foot in the Turkish city. Destroyed and resurrected on endless occasions, there is no one who is able to enter its heart without remaining with his mouth open.
Hagia Sophia has been rebuilt on three occasions. The original structure was built in 360 by Constantine, and the last important reform was carried out by Justinian in 537. What was the religious centre of the Byzantine Empire changed its course when Constantinople was taken by the Ottomans: it then became a mosque, so little by little new architects added various elements, such as its minarets. It was then that the beautiful Byzantine mosaics that adorned the walls of the temple were covered with lime, something that, fortunately, was recovered in 1846. In 1935 Atatürk decided to transform the basilica into a museum, giving it back its original appearance.
One of the elements that stand out most when contemplating it are its enormous buttresses, responsible for the fact that Hagia Sophia has survived until today. Inside, the large medallions hanging on the walls contain the sacred names of Islam in gold letters. One of the places to visit in Istanbul, without a doubt.
The Blue Mosque
And we will not have to go too far: in front of Hagia Sophia, contemplating each other, there is another of the treasures to be seen in Istanbul: the Blue Mosque.
The waterfall of domes that make up its spectacular facade is one of the reasons why everyone who visits the city ends up falling in love with this temple. Built at the beginning of the 17th century by order of Sultan Ahmet I, it was once a source of controversy because it was the only mosque in the world that dared to build six minarets: the same ones that Mecca had. The problem was quickly solved when Ahmet I financed a seventh minaret in Mecca: there is nothing that money will not solve!
Inside, the blue color of its tiles floods everything and makes us understand why it is named after him. Paying a visit at some point to coincide with prayer time is a sight to behold and one of the experiences to make in Istanbul.
Just two steps from the famous Galata Bridge is one of the oldest and most authentic markets to be seen in Istanbul: the Spice Bazaar. A universe of intense smells and colours in which to take the pulse of such a chaotic city. The shopkeepers shout out the prices in a loud voice, the locals buy and buy incessantly, and the tourists simply move forward as they can between streams of people, trying to imprint on their minds every moment lived inside. The market is L-shaped and has six different doors through which to enter. Here you can try and buy all kinds of typical products: from spices to cheeses and traditional sweets. A place to see in Istanbul, without fail.
Another of those points to see in Istanbul and that should not be missed is the mythical Galata Bridge, a link between the modern and traditional area.
It is a bascule bridge that reaches 490 meters long and is located in the estuary known as the Golden Horn. Much frequented by both locals and tourists, has at its bottom many businesses such as cafes and restaurants where you can drink a nice Turkish tea or smoke narghile while contemplating the beautiful views.
In the highest area, however, it is the fishermen who are the protagonists: at all times you can see how they wait calmly for their fishing rods to indicate that they have managed to catch something to take home. Waiting for the sunset and watching the sunset from the Galata Bridge is one of those experiences to do in Istanbul.
Another place to see in Istanbul is undoubtedly the majestic Topkapi Palace, whose construction work began shortly after Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453. From here all the sultans ruled their empire until the middle of the 19th century, when Abdulmecid decided to move his residence to another more western court palace: the Dolmabahçe.
With an extension of more than 700 thousand square meters, Topkapi reflects the imperial period of Istanbul and shows the power that reached Constantinople, but it is unmanageable if you have little time for the visit. If so, there are several places that cannot be missed: the Harem, where the sultan resided with his family and a group of between 500 and 800 women of a high cultural level; the Treasury, which has some of the most expensive objects in the world, such as “the diamond of the spoon” or “the Topkapi dagger”; and the rooms surrounding the Iftariye canopy. Touring its courtyards is also an unforgettable experience to have in Istanbul.
Boat trip on the Bosphorus
A different perspective is what the body asks of us, and for that, what better plan than to get on board one of the boats that make a tour of the beautiful Bosphorus. This strait where two seas converge, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is also the symbol of union-separation between the two areas of Turkey: the Asian and the European. Several companies offer short cruises that lead to contemplate the city from a different perspective, while the ideal is to sit at any of the tables or benches distributed by the ship and enjoy a rich Turkish tea while the landscape is changing before us.
During these trips it is possible to fall in love with the views of some of the emblems of Istanbul such as the palaces of Bylerbeyi, Ciragan or Dolmabahçe. A unique experience and another of the things to do in Istanbul.
As soon as you miss the chaos that so well defines Istanbul, there will be a place to meet it again: the Grand Bazaar is a real labyrinth of corridors and shops where you can get lost until you get bored. It’s that simple.
And here the figures say it all: 45 thousand square meters and more than 3,600 shops distributed in 64 streets where about 20 thousand people work. Souvenir shops, shops selling typical products, cafés, restaurants, Turkish baths, mosques, exchange offices and even homes: to feel the essence of Istanbul’s biggest market you have to let yourself go, chat with the shopkeepers and be patient. And, of course, if you are willing to take something home with you, be well trained in the art of haggling, something absolutely necessary in this immense bazaar. One of the places to visit in Istanbul before returning home.
Much of Istanbul has an underground underworld in which cisterns are the protagonists. This is because ancient Constantinople, in case it was attacked, wanted to have enough water reserves to be supplied without any problem. The best known is the Basilica Cistern, also called “the Submerged Palace”, built in the underground part of a basilica during the reign of Justinian (around the 6th century) to supply the Byzantine Palace. Today it can be visited.
This peculiar area in the bowels of Istanbul has a total of 336 columns of about 9 meters high, each of them in a different style: they were reused from other various monuments, so they do not follow a common pattern. At the end of the 20th century, a series of wooden walkways were set up that can be walked on today: before that date, one could only move around the cistern by boat. When visiting it, do not forget to look at the two columns that have a base in the shape of the head of Medusa. One of the most emblematic visits to make in Istanbul.
Built between 1843 and 1856, the Dolmabahçe Palace is one of those beautiful places you must see in Istanbul. It was precisely in 1856 when it began to be used as a residence for the sultans, and it would be until the caliphate was abolished well into the 20th century.
More European in style than the Topkapi, the Dolmabahçe combines rococo, baroque and neoclassical, although it retains some Ottoman inspiration in certain elements. Although it’s true that it’s a little further away from most of the city’s icons, and that the visit is only possible on a guided tour, just for the beauty of what is considered the largest building in all of Turkey, which spreads over 15 thousand square meters, 285 rooms, 43 halls, 68 bathrooms and 6 Turkish baths, it’s already worth it.
Divided into four main parts, the most interesting and well worth a visit are, once again, the Harem, and Selamlik, where the administrative offices and official rooms are located, such as the incredible Throne Room.
The Galata Tower
This is one of the oldest towers in the world, how could we not include it among our proposals of what to see in Istanbul? Although its height is not too striking, as it is only 61 metres high, it is true that from the top there are beautiful views of the Turkish city.
However, what is most striking about this tower, which was originally used as a lighthouse, is the thickness of its walls, which varies as you climb to the top. In fact, here are the facts: at the base the walls measure approximately 3.7 meters, while at the top, just 20 centimeters.
The first version of the Galatian Tower was built in wood in 528, but it would be rebuilt by the Genoese already in 1384. In the mid-fifteenth century, when the conquest of Constantinople took place, it was taken by Sultan Mehmet II. So for its historical significance, its beauty and the curiousity of its construction, the Galata Tower deserved to be one of the places to see in Istanbul that we recommend.
Considered the true heart of the European part of Istanbul, Taksim Square is the preferred place for Turks to hold all kinds of celebrations and social events. In fact, it was the protagonist of the protests and demonstrations that took place between 2010 and 2013 during the so-called Arab Spring.
However, what is most striking about this bustling square is the amount of shops and life around it. Restaurants, cafes, luxury hotels and businesses of all kinds crowd the surrounding streets, turning them into a whole urban and tourist shopping centre: without doubt, one of those places to see in Istanbul. It is also home to both the Waterboy Monument – this was the place from which, in the 18th century, water was distributed to the whole city – and the Monument to the Republic.
One of the most famous avenues in Istanbul starts from Taksim Square. This is Istiklal Caddesi, which can be crossed in an old tram that recalls times gone by and where a great part of the city’s life is also concentrated in the form of cafes, restaurants and shops.
Dominating one of the seven hills it has, the Suleiman Mosque could not be missing among our suggestions of places to see in Istanbul. The reason? Well, because it may not be the biggest, nor the oldest, but it is undoubtedly the most majestic mosque of all those scattered around the city.
Due to its location, it is visible from many points of the city and a reference in the skyline of Istanbul. It was ordered to be built by the richest and most powerful of all the sultans who ruled Constantinople, Suleiman the Magnificent, and once built was the fourth imperial mosque in Istanbul. The project was undertaken by the most famous imperial architect of the time, Mimar Sinan, who asked to be buried in this mosque upon his death. To contemplate the beautiful tiles of Iznik, 90 kilometers from Istanbul famous for its excellent production of ceramics, is a must when visiting this beautiful place. A more than deserved end to this article of places to see in Istanbul.
Thinking of traveling to Istanbul? Would you like to travel through Turkey? Then perhaps you will find inspiration in these other articles:
10 free things to do in Istanbul
6 restaurants in Istanbul to eat well and cheap
Top 15 things to see in Turkey
10 charming hotels in Istanbul
Turkey, the Turkish Golden Triangle, a tour of Istanbul, Cappadocia and Pamukkale
Turkish Airlines Carry-on Baggage: 9 must-have tips