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.
Best Things to Do in Istanbul 2020
Our list of the best things to do in Istanbul consists of 26 topics. Although it is a little difficult to read at once, it can be a resource that provides tips about Istanbul. 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
All domestic and foreign tourists visiting Istanbul, begin their trip at Sultanahmet and it’s easily justified considering historical places such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace are in this area.
Naturally, Sultanahmet is the most important area of the Old City that served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
2. Shopping at Grand Bazaar
It’s a habit ending up at Grand Bazaar and shopping at the end of the day after visiting Sultanahmet. Grand Bazaar, built in 1461, charms people and attracts visitors like a magnet.
Even people who get tired while waiting in long lines to enter the museums at Sultanahmet can’t help but end their day at Grand Bazaar.
Grand Bazaar is a huge site with its 67 streets and more than 300 shops and it’s the last standing representative of the traditional shopping style today.
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 front yard of the New Mosque, the symbol of Old City, is the point to feed the pigeons like the ones at St. Marco’s Basilica in Venice.
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 as a historical structure thanks to its huge size and location, there are 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 (or Galata) as “Pera” which means “the other side”.
An interesting piece of information for the readers is that one side of the chain to prevent the enemy ships from entering inside the Golden Horn (during battles) was tied to Karakoy Port.
The Byzantine Empire collected high amount of taxes from the business in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The skilled Genoese and Venetian sailors took 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.
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.
5. Taking a Walk at Fener and Balat
Fener and Balat are becoming more and more popular among tourists. These two neighborhoods can be visited with a few hours of walk easily since they are next to each other.
Fener and Balat reflect the life in the Ottoman era very clearly and, therefore, they play an important role in the history of Istanbul. Fener and Balat neighborhoods are the best spots that reflect the cosmopolite way of life in Istanbul thanks to the mosques, churches, and synagogues that are lined on neighboring streets.
These neighborhoods used to be where the non-Muslims lived heavily and they still preserve the rich cultural heritage of these communities today.
In order to find your way in the complex streets of Fener and Balat, I suggest you to visit the region with a private tour guide.
6. Having Breakfast in the Bosphorus
Both European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus are so active on weekends. The highly popular breakfast culture of Turkey is adopted in Istanbul too and it’s reflected in every corner of Istanbul.
Even though there are amazing breakfast areas like Galata, Cihangir, Sultanahmet or Kadikoy, having breakfast in the middle of the Bosphorus can’t be replaced.
Ortakoy, Bebek and Rumeli Hisari (Rumeli Fortress) are the best places to have breakfast on the European side. On the Asian side, Beylerbeyi, Cengelkoy and Anadolu Hisari compete with the other side with its neat and well-preserved neighborhoods.
7. Visiting Historical Turkish Baths
Since 2000 when the tourism began to improve, tens of hotels have been opened and many historical Turkish baths have been restored.
The most beautiful Turkish bath that has been restored recently is The Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamam that neighbors Hagia Sophia. This striking and interesting bath was built by Mimar Sinan in the 16th century.
Apart from the Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamam, there are some other historical Turkish Baths in Istanbul; such as Cemberlitas, Cagaloglu, Kilic Ali Pasa and Galatasaray Hamam.
8. Taking a Walk from Ortakoy to Bebek
We have mentioned having breakfast in the Bosphorus above. One of the best things to do in Istanbul on weekends is having breakfast in Ortakoy and walking to Bebek or Rumeli Fortress.
Arnavutkoy, which is between Ortakoy and Bebek is the best spot where you can jog or run by the Bosphorus. You can feel the breeze and fresh air from the sea, watch the bridges and mansions and watch the people fishing.
9. Bosphorus Ferry Ride
One of the tourists’ most favorite activity in Istanbul is taking a ferry ride in Istanbul. You have two options to choose from if you wish to take a Bosphorus cruise tour.
You can either take part in a cruise on a “Turyol Bosphorus Boat” for 1,5 hours OR you can take the “Sehir Hatlari Ferry” and reach Black Sea coast and spend your whole day taking a boat tour.
10. Climbing up the Pierre Loti via Cable Car
We have previously suggested visiting Sultanahmet, Eminonu and Fener&Balat Neighborhoods. Now, let’s dig deeper and talk about Eyup neighborhood.
Pierre Loti Hill, which is on the top of Eyup, is one of the best places to take photos in Istanbul. Climbing up the 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, a short bus or taxi ride will take you to Miniaturk, if you wish to visit it.
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.
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, Beyoglu district, and the Bosphorus. If you climb up the tower when the sunshine is not too bright, you can take amazing photos.
Moreover, the Galata’s square known as Kuledibi has become more active thanks to the recently opened cafes. It’s one of the most enjoyable activities to spend time around Galata Tower and explore the back streets in Istanbul.
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 discover 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 novel 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 (Byzantine) Empire until 1453.
There are important historical structures in the city that was built in Roman architecture for more than 1000 years. 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 structures 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.
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 period architecture in the Istanbul Old City. 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 mosques are Nusretiye Mosque, Ortakoy Mosque, Dolmabahce Mosque, and Beylerbeyi Mosque.
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.
17. Going on a Ferry Ride to the Prince Islands
Visiting the Prince Islands is one of the most entertaining activities on the weekend in Istanbul. The most popular of the Prince Islands are Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Buyukada.
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.
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 (Asian Side)
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.
The most popular of these are Istiklal Street in Taksim and Vali Konagi Street in Nisantasi. The most popular shopping street on the Asian side of Istanbul is Bagdat Street. Starting from Bostanci and extending to Kadikoy, Bağdat Street is filled with luxury shops and cafes.
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 and include this activity in the list of best 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 tens 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.
The fresh fish delivered from Kumkapi Fish Market is consumed in accompany with traditional Turkish drink raki. Listening to fasil (classical Turkish music) with a group of friends is a great way to spend your evening in Istanbul.
24. Explore the Nature of Istanbul
In Istanbul, where urbanization is everywhere, the word “being in touch with nature” seems to lose its meaning. However, there are still beautiful natural areas that make us forget that we are in the city. The most beautiful places to explore the nature of Istanbul are Ataturk Arboretum and Yıldız 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.
Yıldız Park, on the other hand, is located in the middle of one of the busiest districts of the city like Beşiktaş. As soon as you enter the park, you are isolated from Beşiktaş’s traffic and crowd.
Going for a nice walk in the park and watching the squirrels like the one above are among the best things to do in Istanbul. I also took the photo above while walking through the park to visit the Yıldız 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, there are many places to swim on the Marmara and Black Sea coasts of Istanbul.
There are quite remarkable beaches in parts of Istanbul such as Sile, Kilyos, Riva and Prince Islands. These beaches are just like the resorts on the Mediterranean coast with their activities. For more information on this subject, our article on beaches to visit in Istanbul may be useful.
26. Enjoy Turkish Taverns in Istanbul
Drinking raki and eating fish in Istanbul is a tradition that has been going on for centuries. The historical districts of Istanbul have hosted many taverns for a long time.
The most famous taverns in the Ottoman period were Greek taverns. In the 19th century, when one third of the population of Istanbul was non-Muslim, there were districts such as Kurtulus, Pera (Taksim) and Balat, which stood out with their taverns.
Today, Istanbul’s best taverns are still located in these districts. Apart from these districts I mentioned, there are also pleasant places in Besiktas, Arnavutkoy on the Bosphorus and Kadıkoy on the Asian side.
Best Things to Do in Istanbul Blog by Serhat Engul