It may take some time for the people visiting Istanbul for the first time to grasp the size of Istanbul. Especially foreign visitors are amazed by the number of things to do in Istanbul.
In this mega city that has a population over 15 million, the life continues 7/24. While some parts of the city become quite silent at night, the entertainment lasts till morning in other parts of Istanbul.
In order to feel the vibe of Istanbul thoroughly, the visitors should spend time at Beyoglu, Besiktas and Kadikoy. This is due to the fact that Sultanahmet area, where the historical sites are plenty, falls into silence, except for Ramadan days, after 23:00.
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Best Things to Do in Istanbul (September 2023)
Our list of the best things to do in Istanbul (Updated for September 2023) consists of 26 topics. Although this long article is difficult to read at once, I hope it will be a guide that can help you with your travel plans. As a professional tour guide in Istanbul for about 15 years, I must say that it is a list based on my observations.
1. Historical Places in Sultanahmet
Istanbul has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires in history. The rulers of all these civilizations lived in what is known today as Sultanahmet. For this reason, the most important historical artifacts of Istanbul are located in Sultanahmet.
Not much remains of the Great Palace of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. However, Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans is still here. Sultanahmet, which hosts two other architectural works such as Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, is among the most important places to visit in Istanbul.
2. Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
After visiting historical monuments in Sultanahmet, it is customary to come to the Grand Bazaar at the end of the day. Grand Bazaar, built in 1461, charms people and attracts visitors like a magnet. Even people who are tired of waiting in line at the museums in Sultanahmet all day long cannot resist the idea of shopping in the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is home to 67 streets and more than 3000 shops and is one of the last representatives of traditional shopping in Istanbul. For shopping lovers, the Grand Bazaar is among the top 10 things to do in Istanbul.
3. Visiting Spice Bazaar
It’s a habit of the locals to come to Eminonu Square and visit the shops around Spice Bazaar on weekends. The square in front of the Spice Bazaar is the symbol of Istanbul Old City and is famous for its pigeons.
Even though Spice Bazaar is the star of the neighborhood, many different kinds of things can be found on the streets that surround the historical center. The cheapest of everything, be it textile items, bakery items, ornaments or toys can be found in this neighborhood.
Although the New Mosque stands out with its imposing architecture, there are also secret gems on the back streets. For example, Rustem Pasa Mosque which is decorated with the most beautiful examples of Iznik tiles should definitely be visited before leaving this neighborhood.
4. Trailing the Genoese at Karakoy
Karakoy used to be seen as a distant place on the other side of the Old City during the Byzantine era. As Galata Bridge that connects the two sides didn’t exist back then, the Byzantines called Karakoy (and Galata) as “Pera” which means “the other side”.
One end of the famous chain that protected Constantinople against enemy sieges was connected to Karakoy harbor. The other end of the chain extended to the Historic Peninsula, where the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors was located.
The Byzantine Empire collected high amount of taxes from the business in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The Venetian and Genoese trade colonies had an important place in this system.
The valuable silk and spices sent to Constantinople from Asia were exported to Europe by these two Italian colonies. The Genoese left magnificent structures such as Galata Tower in Istanbul.
When Ottomans took over, they didn’t want to ruin the established system and granted the same mercantile privileges to these Italian colonies. The center of this ages-old trade was Karakoy and Galata neighborhoods.
It’s still possible to see the traces of those days on the back streets of Karakoy. Tracing the Genoese in the back streets of Karakoy is among the different things to do in Istanbul.
5. Taking a Walk in Fener and Balat
Taking a walk in Fener and Balat is a golden opportunity for those who want to get off the tourist route in Istanbul and explore different places.
Fener and Balat districts, which have become more popular in recent years, stand out with their colorful houses. Hundreds of tourists share their photos on Instagram and contribute to the promotion of these cozy neighborhoods.
However, Fener and Balat actually have much more to offer you. These neighborhoods, where non-Muslims lived in the Ottoman period, have a great historical heritage.
In recent years, many 3rd wave coffee shops, restaurants and antique shops have opened in the area. Therefore, visiting Balat, which offers many things in the fields of culture, shopping and gastronomy, is among the cool things to do in Istanbul.
If you are interested, you can see the details from the article titled things to do in Fener and Balat, which I prepared for those who want to visit the neighborhoods.
6. Having Breakfast in the Bosphorus
There are many breakfast places in Sultanahmet and Taksim, which are the main tourist areas of Istanbul. However, it cannot be compared with the pleasure of having breakfast in the Bosphorus.
There are amazing breakfast places in the Bosphorus. Especially having a Turkish breakfast in Ortakoy, Bebek or Rumeli Hisarı is among the must-do things in Istanbul.
If you need some advice to have breakfast on the Bosphorus, you can also take a look at the article on the best places to have breakfast in Istanbul.
7. Visiting Historical Turkish Baths
If you visit the Turkish baths in Istanbul, you can both refresh yourself and observe centuries-old structures. Most of the traditional Turkish Baths in Istanbul are located in Old City and Beyoglu.
Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hammam, next to Hagia Sophia, stands out in the Old City of Istanbul. On the other hand, Kilic Ali Pasha Hammam, which stands out with its proximity to Taksim Square, is also very popular.
Apart from these two baths, there are many historical Turkish baths in Istanbul. For more information about this, I recommend the blog post titled Best Turkish Baths in Istanbul.
8. Walking from Ortakoy to Bebek
Ortakoy is one of the most popular places to watch the Bosphorus views and have a good time with friends on weekends. Istanbulites love to walk to Bebek after a nice breakfast or lunch in Ortakoy. The road from Ortakoy to Bebek is the most beautiful route to walk along the Bosphorus.
Accompanied by the sweet breeze coming from the sea, you can watch the surrounding architectural structures and take photos of the fishermen. After walking from Ortakoy to Bebek, you can drink Turkish coffee in Baylan, one of the best local restaurants in Istanbul.
9. Taking Bosphorus Cruise
Taking a Bosphorus cruise in Istanbul is a fun activity. In this way, you see the size of the city and appreciate its architectural richness.
On the 6-hour tour organized by Sehir Hatlari, you can go to the northern shores where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea. Here you can climb Yoros Castle and take pictures.
After returning from the castle, you can have lunch at the fish restaurants on the shore and return with the same ferry. Taking a Bosphorus cruise is one of the romantic things to do in Istanbul for couples.
10. Going to Pierre Loti Hill via Cable Car
I have previously suggested visiting Sultanahmet and Fener & Balat neighborhoods. Now, let’s dig deeper and talk about Eyup neighborhood.
Pierre Loti Hill, which is located on the top of Eyup, is suitable for taking great photos in Istanbul. Going to Pierre Loti Hill via the cable car is one of the most fun things to do in Istanbul.
Eyup Mosque, which is regarded as the holiest mosque in Istanbul, is in this area too. After visiting the mosque you can also go to Miniaturk Museum containing small models of all the historical monuments in Turkey.
11. Going to a Harbiye Open Air Concert
Harbiye Open Air Theater, where the most famous Turkish artists perform, is in the heart of the city. It’s such a joy to listen to Turkish pop stars like Sertab Erener or Tarkan on a warm summer night and going to Istiklal Avenue after the concert.
After activities such as going to a match or concert, people usually go to Istiklal Avenue. Side streets such as Nevizade and Asmali Mescit are full of bars, pubs and taverns. Having fun with the locals in these streets is among the best things to do in Istanbul at night.
12. Taking Photos on Galata Tower
You can climb up Galata Tower and view Istanbul in 360 degrees. The Tower enables its visitors to view the seven hills of the Old City as well as the Beyoglu district, and the Bosphorus. If you climb up the tower when the sunshine is not too bright, you can take amazing photos.
Moreover, in the square surrounding Galata Tower, wonderful cafes have been opened in recent years. It’s one of the most enjoyable activities to spend time around Galata Tower and explore the back streets in Istanbul.
Climbing up the Galata Tower and watching Istanbul is the best thing to do in Istanbul in 2023. The recently restored Galata Tower has become a brand new museum and will become a tourist attraction again this year.
13. Exploring Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue is a place where people of every age meet and spend time together. In spite of the recent controversial environmental planning in the area, Istiklal Avenue is still an important center for tourists.
While you explore Istiklal Avenue, you need to digress from the main road and enter the passages. It’s possible to come across invaluable historical structures on uninteresting corners that don’t look attractive at first.
You can find details about these historical passages in an article called shopping places in Istanbul. We should also note that this avenue used to be called “Grand Rue de Pera” by the foreigners during the Ottoman era.
In the last century of the Ottoman Empire (19th century) this area became lively, which still displays the examples of the cosmopolite life of the period.
The best examples of this cosmopolite life can be seen by the front side of the buildings on Istiklal Avenue. If you look at them carefully, you will see that various architecture styles were mixed in building these structures and surprisingly they create a unique harmony.
14. Visiting the Antique Shops at Cukurcuma
Cukurcuma is one of the unique neighborhoods in Beyoglu. This neighborhood also houses Museum of Innocence on which world famous novelist Orhan Pamuk’s book is based. Cukurcuma is famous for its antique shops.
It’s great fun to visit the antique shops that are lined on Cukurcuma Street and do shopping. And if you are into photography, you will definitely take great shots in this neighborhood.
Cukurcuma and the neighboring Cihangir are two of the best places to take a walk in Istanbul. Moreover, you can end your day on Cezayir Street (full of bars and cafés) to get rest by entertaining yourself.
15. Visiting the Byzantine Era Structures
After the Roman Empire was divided into two, Constantinople remained as the capital the Eastern Roman (aka Byzantine) Empire until 1453. There are many structures in the city built with Roman architecture and are over 1000 years old.
Even though some of the Byzantine era structures were demolished during the Sack of Constantinople (4th Crusade) in 1204, it’s still possible to visit the places like Chora Church, Church of Sergius and Bacchus, Pammakaristos Church and Monastery of the Christ Pantocrator today.
You can follow the trace of the Byzantine Empire in neighborhoods like Sultanahmet, Vefa, Zeyrek, Fener, Balat and take some great photos. You may also check Byzantine Monuments in Istanbul blog post for more information.
Discovering the Byzantine heritage allows you to get off the tourist route. Chasing the mysterious past is among the unusual things to do in Istanbul.
16. Discovering the Mosques in Istanbul
We can say the mosques in Istanbul are divided into two in terms of their architectural style. The mosques in the first group are the “Classical Ottoman Architecture” built during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The ones built in the late Ottoman period are the mosques with Baroque and Neo Classical styles, which we call “Modern Architecture”.
Classical Ottoman Mosques
We see mostly the examples of the Classical Ottoman mosques in the Old City of Istanbul. Some of these mosques are Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Sehzade Mosque and Fatih Mosque. These imperial mosques were built by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire during 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
Modern Ottoman Mosques
On the other hand, the Ottoman Empire began to be influenced by the architectural movements in the world as of 18th century. The marks of this era can be seen on the mosques that are lined up along the Bosphorus. Some of these Modern Ottoman mosques are Nusretiye Mosque, Ortakoy Mosque, Dolmabahce Mosque, and Beylerbeyi Mosque.
More About the Mosques of Istanbul
Of course, neither of these two architectural styles are superior to the other. Both of these styles still carry the marks of a culture that reigned in Istanbul for 500 years. While the Classical Architecture is characterized by a low-key, simple and big-sized structures, the Modern Architecture style puts emphasis on elaborate decoration arts.
You can also take a look at this article I wrote to dive deeper into the history and architectural features of the historical mosques in Istanbul. In this article, you can find more information about the 25 famous and great mosques of Istanbul.
17. Taking a Ferry Ride to the Prince Islands
Taking a ferry ride to the Prince Islands is one of the best things to do in Istanbul for families. The islands can be very crowded as locals flock to them on the weekend. For this reason, you can choose to go on weekdays. The most popular of the Prince Islands are Buyukada, Heybeliada and Burgazada.
Buyukada (The Largest Island)
If you visit Buyukada, you can rent a bicycle and ride it on the historical streets of the island. Additionally, it’s a must do thing to visit The Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi Kilisesi) on the highest point of the island.
Heybeliada (Oldish Streets and Buildings)
And if you prefer to get to Heybeliada, you can visit the Theological School of Halki on the top of the island and trail the past experiences in the school. This school is one of the most important legacies of Orthodox Christianity in the city.
Burgazada (Cozy Place for Eating-Drinking)
Burgazada, on the other hand, is famous for Sait Faik Abasiyanik Museum. (Sait Faik was a famous Turkish poet) Moreover, Burgazada is a heaven-like place if you like a quiet and cozy atmosphere. You can also enjoy one of the cafes on the island during your visit.
18. Watching Istanbul from Camlica Hill
Camlica Hill is a spot where you can enjoy the breathtaking Istanbul view from the widest angle possible. Climbing up Camlica Hill and taking some great shots is one best things to do in Istanbul with your friends.
19. Shopping at Bagdat Street
There are many ways to shop in Istanbul. If you wish, you can visit the historical bazaars in Old Istanbul. Or you can visit Europe’s biggest shopping malls. In addition, there are shopping streets that are kilometers long.
European Side of Istanbul has “Istiklal Avenue” in Taksim and “Abdi Ipekci Street” in Nisantasi. On the other hand, the most popular shopping street on the Asian side of Istanbul is Bagdat Street.
Starting from Bostanci and extending to Kadikoy, Bagdat Street is filled with luxury shops and cafes. Here you can follow the flow of local life and enjoy the Western-style life of Istanbul.
20. Visiting Boutiques at Nisantasi
Nisantasi is a very important spot that houses the best boutiques in Istanbul. If you are fond of fashion, Nisantasi will definitely be worth visiting.
If you want to buy something special instead of casual clothes that you can find at any shopping center, Nisantasi will be your number one destination.
In Nisantasi you can visit the boutiques of the most important fashion designers in Turkey and follow the fashion closely. Moreover, Nisantasi is one of the best places for unique coffee shops in Istanbul.
21. Taking Part in Eurasia Marathon
Thousands of sports lovers take part in Eurasia Marathon every year. This day is the only day when the Bosphorus Bridge that connects Europe to Asia is closed to traffic. In Eurasia Marathon, the participants cross from one continent to the other by running.
In addition to the locals of Istanbul, foreign athletes and tourists show interest in the event too. I recommend this marathon to everyone whether young or old. Participating in the Eurasia Marathon is among the free things to do in Istanbul.
22. Watching Hidirellez Celebrations
A really fun activity is organized at Sultanahmet, the heart of the Old City, every year. The activity organized at Ahirkapi, the Old City’s gate that opens to the Marmara Sea, is to celebrate the coming of spring.
The gypsies enliven this activity with their music and dance, and joining their spring celebration is definitely one of the best things to do in Istanbul.
Hidirellez Festival that announces the coming of spring is celebrated enthusiastically all around Turkey, but the atmosphere at Ahirkapi is unique.
23. Enjoying Raki and Fish at Kumkapi
Kumkapi is a historic neighborhood located in the most central point of the Old City. Kumkapi is next to Sultanahmet and the tourists visit Kumkapi frequently. It’s where hundreds of people from different nationalities come together and create a colorful and fun scene at nights.
Kumkapi is one of the best places to eat fish in Istanbul. While you enjoy your meal, you can listen to street musicians and enjoy your evening in a beautiful atmosphere.
24. Explore the Nature of Istanbul
In Istanbul, where urbanization is everywhere, the phrase “being in touch with nature” seems to have lost some meaning. However, there are still beautiful natural areas that make us forget that we are in Istanbul. The most beautiful places to explore the nature of Istanbul are Ataturk Arboretum and Yildiz Park.
Ataturk Arboretum is like an oasis in the desert for Istanbulites who want to escape from the busy city life. In the arboretum, it is possible to take a walk in nature and take great photos.
Yildiz Park, on the other hand, is located in the middle of one of the busiest districts of the city like Besiktas. As soon as you enter the park, you are isolated from Besiktas’s traffic and crowd.
Going for a nice walk in the park and watching the squirrels as above are among the adventurous things to do in Istanbul. I also took the photo above while walking through the park to visit Yildiz Palace.
25. Sunbathing on the Beaches of Istanbul
When it comes to sunbathing on the beach, we cannot say that Istanbul is the first place that comes to mind. However, the sea water measurements carried out by the Ministry of Health in Istanbul show that swimming is possible in many places.
There are quite remarkable beaches in parts of Istanbul such as Sile, Kilyos, Riva and Buyukada. You can read our article on the best beaches in Istanbul to discover places to go swimming in Istanbul.
26. Drinking Raki in Turkish Taverns
The most famous taverns in the Ottoman period were Greek taverns. In the 19th century, when one third of Istanbul’s population was non-Muslim, there were districts such as Kurtulus, Pera and Balat, which stood out with their taverns.
Today, Istanbul’s best taverns are still located in these districts. Apart from these, there are also delicious places in Besiktas, Arnavutkoy on the shores of the Bosphorus and in Kadikoy on the Asian side.
Written by Serhat Engul