Situated on the confluence of the Bosporous River and the Aegean Sea, Istanbul is by far one of the most magnificent cities in the world to visit. Steeped in culture, deep traditions, and history, a visit to Istanbul allows you to walk back in time through the winding, cobbled streets, and see some of the most striking sights along the way. Whether you are looking to delve into the past, learn about the current traditions, eat delicious foods, or shop in some of the most modern malls or oldest bazaars, Istanbul ensures there is something to suit everyone's taste and needs.
Whether you prefer to see the modern side of Istanbul or you are looking for a glimpse into the past, the city ensures you are spoiled for choice when it comes to planning a trip and exploring the city. While some sights are a must see, there are many hidden gems where only few tourists frequent. If you are looking to feast your eyes upon the famous sights and then step off-the-beaten path and see some of the cities greatest views and taste some of the best foods, look no further than these 22 fantastic places to visit in Istanbul.
1.Marvel at the Hagia Sophia
Once a Greek Orthodox basilica turned mosque, the Hagia Sophia, also known to locals as the Aya Sofia, is now a museum. Built in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia was originally commissioned as a Greek Orthodox cathedral. Once the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.
Dominating the skyline of the city, the Hagia Sophia is so marvellous and holds so much history that it was necessary to turn it into a museum. With a stunning interior filled with old chandeliers, ancient mosaics, and intricate details, a trip to the Hagia Sophia is a must. Located in the old town of Istanbul south of the Golden Horn river, it is easy to access the Sultanahmet Area by simply walking or by taking a tram, bus, or ferry.
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2. Walk Underground Through the Basilica Cistern
Across from the famous Hagia Sophia lies a tiny cement building with a stone staircase leading underground. Many tourists fail to see the signs to the Basilica Cistern, which is called the Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish. This particular cistern is the largest of hundreds that lie under the city of Istanbul.
One walk along the boardwalk passing the hundreds of marble columns will lead you to a quick realization of why you visited here. At the end of the boardwalk there are two giant marble columns that are supported by two Medusa heads. One head lies on its side while the other lies upside down, to ensure the viewers do not directly stare into Medusa’s eyes. Take in the simplicity of the Basilica Cistern and appreciate the complexity of this cistern, which was built in the 6th century.
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3. Stop by the Sultanahmet Mosque
Known as the Blue Mosque, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is another iconic piece of architecture that blesses the Istanbul skyline. Located directly across from the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is aptly named so due it its stunning blue tiled mosaic interior.
With thousands of tiny tiles completing an intricate mosaic on the sky high walls of the building, the Blue Mosque is a true sight to set your eyes upon. It is still used for prayers, so dress accordingly. With a fantastic courtyard and plenty of details, you will get lost in awe at the sight of this mosque. Spend some time in the gardens and beside the large fountain, as there are plenty of exciting sights to see!
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4. Catch the Sunset on the Kadikoy Rocks
When you tire of walking the cobbled and winding streets of the city, take a ferry ride across to the Asian side of Istanbul. On the south end of this part of the city lies the district of Kadikoy. Kadikoy is an incredible trendy place with plenty of bars, restaurants, and tiny stalls. It also boasts a seaside path that leads all the way from the Bosporous River along the Aegean sea coastline.
Make your way to the Bosporous coastline and sit on the massive rocks as you watch the sun set over the famous Fatih district, where the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Blue Mosque sit. You will not be disappointed in the beauty of the sunsets here. Many locals and expats alike bring beers and boardgames and sit until the sun goes down.
5. Grab Some Fish at the Eminonu Docks
A trip to the city of Istanbul is not complete without chowing down a “Balik Etmek”. Literally translated to “fish bread”, this delicious sandwich is comprised of a chunky bun filled with tiny little fish, that were most likely freshly caught from the rivers and seas that very morning.
Thousands of locals and tourists swarm these boats that sell the fish sandwiches everyday. Once you purchase your fish sandwich from one of the bobbing boats, make your way to one of the small tables surrounded by low sitting stools. Here, you can enjoy your delicious sandwich while watching the crowds go by.
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6. Wander Through Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is arguably one of the most iconic sights on the horizon of the Fatih district in the old town of Istanbul. Sitting alongside the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace spans much of the coastline along this way. With chamber rooms, gardens, harems, and more, the palace grounds are large and provide an excellent day out in the city.
Built for the sultans of Istanbul, here you can glimpse into the past and see what its like to live like a sultan for a day. Be sure to visit the famous harem and catch the excellent views of the city from the gardens. There are also plenty of artifacts and exhibits to view, so save a few hours to spend wandering the large palace grounds.
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7. Climb up the Galata Tower
The Galata Tower looks like something out of a fairytale. With its single circular tower rising above the five storied buildings of the city, the Galata Tower provides an excellent place to catch 360 views of the city and enjoy some food and drinks. The Tower has a restaurant as well as an outdoor deck where you can walk around and view the entire old city as well as the more modern districts of Mecidiyekoy and Levent. Sip some delicious cay, a black tea drank across the country, up the tower and watch the bustling city go by.
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8. Get Lost in the Streets of Taksim
Taksim is iconic in the city. Known for its fantastic nightlife and great shopping, the streets of Taksim are always filled with life. Take a trip to the iconic Istiklal Street, where an old red tram runs from one end of the street to the other. Shop until your heart is content and then spend a night out at one of the many clubs and pubs located along the main street and up the side alleys. There are plenty of pubs and clubs located seven or eight stories high, so talk to the locals and find out where the best places to go are!
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9. Sail out to the Maiden’s Tower
The Maiden’s Tower sits idyll out in the Bosporous river, off of the coast of the Uskudar district. Reachable by an incredibly short boat ride from Uskudar, the Maiden’s Tower provides a unique perspective of the city as well as serving up some of the best breakfast, lunch, and dinners in the city. Make your way here on a small ferry boat and spend a morning eating one of the world famous Turkish breakfast spreads. These spreads include a variety of different cheeses, honey, breads, eggs, omelettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and much more!
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10. Barter for Some Spice
Close to the fish boats at the Eminonu Docks lies the Spice Market. As the name suggests, the Spice Market is filled with tiny stalls selling every spice imaginable as well as loose tea leaves of all flavours, fruits, vegetables, and even designer purses. Try your hand at bartering at one of the many stalls and take home some spice as a fantastic memory of your time spent in the old city of Istanbul.
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11. Hike Up Camlica
Located on the Asian side of Istanbul in the Uskudar district, Camlica is a large hill that overlooks the Bosporous river and provides the ultimate view of the European side of Istanbul. With views of the old town as well as the newer areas of Galata, Besiktas, and Ortakoy, there is plenty to look at from this fantastic city view point. It is possible to take a bus close to the top, or if you are feeling energetic, you can hike up from the streets below.
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12. Exercise your Taste Buds at Karakoy Gulluoglu
Although Turkey is famous for sweet desserts including Baklava and Lokum, there are many places to get the sweet treats all over the city. However, nowhere truly compares to Karakoy Gulluoglu, an iconic Baklava and dessert restaurant located near the docks of Karakoy. With plenty of different flavours of Baklava to choose from including the original, pistachio, and chocolate, there is something to please everyones taste buds here. Pair your dessert with coffee or tea!
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13. Get Lost in the Winding Alleyways of the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is located a 5 minute tram ride from the Sultanahmet region. With over 4,000 tiny shops and stalls, the Grand Bazaar is a definite must see in the city of Istanbul. With tiny alleyways making up the covered bazaar and beautiful tall ceilings with plenty of mosaics and details, it is easy and possible to get lost in this stunning old shopping bazaar. Barter with the locals to get a good price on clothes, jewelry, treats, gold, and more! The colours in the Grand Bazaar will take your breath away and leave you wanting everything!
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14. Wander Across the Galata Bridge
Located beside the Eminonu fish boats, the Galata Bridge is an old metal bridge that runs over the Golden Horn river near the confluence of the Bosporous river. The Galata Bridge is a must see in Istanbul due to the hundreds of fishermen that try their hand at the daily catch every hour. With so much life and excitement on the bridge, there is always something or someone to stop and watch. Underneath the bridge, there are plenty of fish restaurants that serve up the daily catch with a side of the countries most famous liquor, Raki, an aniseed beverage.
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15. See Some Colour in Balat
Off-the-beaten trail, the region of Balat lies a kilometre or so away from the Golden Horn river. Balat is known to locals for its beautiful coloured and shaped houses, shops and restaurants. The streets of Balat have a lot of life and are incredible to see in the city. If you are looking for something a little different, head to this area. There are many authentic restaurants around this area since tourists don't really frequent it, so expect cheaper prices and friendly locals.
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16. Come Back to the Present at Istanbul Modern
Istanbul Modern is located in the Karakoy district near to Besiktas, on the Bosporous. Istanbul Modern is a great art gallery that serves up local, national, and international art exhibits. With a laid back vibe and great views beside the river, Istanbul Modern is a must see for art lovers and those interested in culture and being expressive.
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17. Eat Kumpir at Ortakoy
Ortakoy is a neighbourhood located along the Bosporous river near to the first bridge that transports cars form one side of Istanbul to the other. Ortakoy is famous for one thing: the kumpir they serve up at the tiny stalls along the streets of the river. Kumpir is a large baked potato that is filled with a variety of different toppings. Grab a Kumpir and sit on the waters edge. At nighttime, the bridge lights up and the views are spectacular.
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18. Experience in Asia in Caddebostan
Caddebostan is located on the Asian side of Istanbul in the Bostanci district of the city. Caddebostan has a great shopping scene as well as fantastic nightlife. Located along the shores of the Aegean sea, Caddebostan is a great place to spend a day and an evening.
19. Marvel at the Views from Pierre Loti
Pierre Loti is located near the top of the Golden Horn river and provides the ultimate views of this fantastic river. With a famous cafe serving up coffee and tea at the top of the hill, called the Pierre Loti Cafe, the views from Pierre Loti are unbelievable. Spend sundown here or go up early in the morning to beat the locals and grab one of the best tables. You won’t be disappointed!
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20. Sail the Bosporous River
The Bosporous river is the most famous in the city of Istanbul and provides fantastic views of many of the famous attractions in the city. From the fortress of Rumeli Hisari in the north to the old town in the south, there is always something to look at when sailing along the Bosporous. Rent a small, private boat or go cheaply on one of the larger boats leaving from many of the ports including Eminonu and Karakoy.
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21. Take in the Views from Konak Cafe
If you can’t get enough of the spectacular views of the city, head up to Konak Cafe, located in the Galata district. Konak Cafe provides an incredible view of the Galata Tower, which is located close by. It also provides incredible views of the old town as well as a fantastic place to watch sunset. With delicious and affordable food, Konak Cafe is a must see in the city. It is possible to make reservations, however if you go during the weekdays it is possible to walk in and get a fabulous rooftop table.
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22. Spend a Day on the Islands
Many people go to Istanbul and forget that there are five islands located just out in the Aegean sea. These islands belong to the city of Istanbul and provide a great escape from the hustle and bustle of chaotic city life. With five different islands, each one offers something a little different. The biggest island is Buyukada, which means “big island” in Turkish. The big island offers fantastic hikes as well as horse and cart rides around the small town.
The second largest island is Heybeliada, where there are some beaches and places to swim on this island, as well as a monastery located near to the top. The monastery and garden are a great place to explore, as well as providing fantastic views of the city of Istanbul in the distance. The other three islands are slightly smaller and mostly are frequented by Istanbul’s wealthy who own homes and boats on these islands.
Exploring the old city of Istanbul is an incredible experience. With thousands of years of history, lots of traditions, and a fascinating culture mixed with modern and old values, Istanbul provides endless adventures and explorations. Wandering these streets can take you thousands of years back in time as well as give you a glimpse into the modern future the city has achieved.
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Comment below to add any other must see destinations in Istanbul, whether they are more commonly known attractions or off-the-beaten path!
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