Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is the largest city in Turkey and serves as the country’s economic, cultural, and historic hub. Straddling the Bosporus strait, it lies in both Europe and Asia and boasts a population of over 15 million residents.
Founded as Byzantium in the 7th century BCE, Istanbul’s rich history includes serving as an imperial capital for almost 1600 years across various empires. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a cosmopolitan city that attracts over 13.4 million foreign visitors annually.
Its unique blend of ancient architecture, such as the Hagia Sophia, and modern vibrancy makes Istanbul one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
Table of Contents
Attractions and Things to do in Istanbul
1. Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque
Right in the heart of Istanbul’s historic center, the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque remains an important symbol of power. This sacred Byzantine building has stood the test of time and continues to awe visitors with its architectural magnificence.
Travel Tip: Visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds and take your time to explore the intricate details of the interior.
2. Topkapı Palace
Topkapı Palace is filled with colorful stories of libidinous sultans and ambitious courtiers. This museum is a treasure trove of Ottoman history and art.
Travel Tip: Allocate a few hours to explore the palace, and don’t miss the Harem section, which requires a separate ticket.
3. Kariye Mosque
Istanbul’s Kariye Mosque is renowned for its drop-dead gorgeous mosaics and frescoes. Nestled in a serene location, it’s a must-visit for art and history enthusiasts.
Travel Tip: Consider hiring a guide or using an audio guide to fully understand the historical significance of the artwork.
4. Süleymaniye Mosque
Dominating the Golden Horn, the Süleymaniye Mosque is a landmark for the entire city. Its grandeur and architectural brilliance make it one of Istanbul’s most iconic sights.
Travel Tip: Dress modestly when visiting, and enjoy the stunning views of the city from the mosque’s garden.
5. Basilica Cistern
The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern, was built in 532. Its subterranean structure and mystical ambiance make it a unique attraction.
Travel Tip: Bring a good camera to capture the reflections in the water, and watch your step as it can be slippery.
6. Blue Mosque
Istanbul’s most photogenic building, the Blue Mosque, was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I. Its stunning blue tiles and grand architecture are a feast for the eyes.
Travel Tip: Visit during non-prayer times, and women should carry a scarf to cover their heads.
7. Grand Bazaar
The colorful and chaotic Grand Bazaar is the heart of Istanbul’s Old City. It’s a labyrinth of shops selling everything from spices to jewelry.
Travel Tip: Bargaining is expected, so don’t be shy to negotiate prices with the vendors.
8. Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace is a blend of various architectural styles and is known for its opulent furnishings and grand design.
Travel Tip: Tickets can sell out quickly, so consider purchasing them in advance, and note that guided tours are mandatory.
9. Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar offers vividly colored spices alongside jewel-like Turkish delight. It’s a sensory overload and a must-visit for food enthusiasts.
Travel Tip: Try before you buy, as many vendors offer samples, and don’t be afraid to explore the surrounding streets for more authentic local products.
10. İstiklal Caddesi
Once called the Grand Rue de Pera, İstiklal Caddesi is a bustling boulevard filled with shops, cafes, and historic sites.
Travel Tip: Walk the entire length of the street, and don’t miss the historic tram that runs along the avenue.
11. Beylerbeyi Palace
Designed by Sarkis Balyan in 1865, Beylerbeyi Palace is an opulently furnished building that delighted both Sultan Abdül and visitors alike. Its architecture and interior design are a testament to the grandeur of the Ottoman era.
Travel Tip: Combine your visit with a stroll along the Bosphorus for a delightful day out.
The Hippodrome was the venue for chariot races during the Byzantine era. Though not much remains today, it’s a significant historical site that once entertained emperors and citizens alike.
Travel Tip: Look for the ancient obelisks and monuments that still stand in the area.
13. Patriarchal Church of St George
Dating from 1836, the Patriarchal Church of St George is part of the Greek Patriarchate compound. Inside, you’ll find Byzantine mosaics and religious relics.
Travel Tip: Check the visiting hours as they may vary, and be mindful of religious ceremonies that may restrict access.
14. Pera Museum
Pera Museum offers an impressive collection of paintings featuring Turkish Orientalist themes. It’s a hub for art lovers and showcases both historical and contemporary works.
Travel Tip: Keep an eye on their website for temporary exhibitions, which often feature international artists.
15. Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Housed in three buildings near Topkapı Palace, İstanbul Archaeology Museums are home to many highlights, including sarcophagi from the royal necropolis of Sidon.
Travel Tip: Allocate enough time to explore all three sections of the museum, as each offers unique insights into different periods and regions.
16. Kadıköy Produce Market
An aromatic and colorful showcase of the city’s best fresh produce, Kadıköy Produce Market is foodie central for locals and tourists alike.
Travel Tip: Visit during the morning hours to experience the market at its liveliest and enjoy sampling local delicacies.
17. Museum of Innocence
This fascinating museum is a piece of conceptual art that captures the essence of a novel by Orhan Pamuk. The attention to detail is astounding and provides a unique literary experience.
Travel Tip: Read Pamuk’s novel “The Museum of Innocence” before visiting for a deeper understanding of the exhibits.
18. Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
Housed in an Ottoman palace, this museum showcases a rich collection of Turkish and Islamic art, including carpets, calligraphy, and ceramics.
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the ethnographic section, which offers a glimpse into traditional Turkish life.
19. Rahmi M Koç Museum
Dedicated to the history of transport, industry, and communications in Turkey, this museum is a delight for technology and history enthusiasts.
Travel Tip: Ideal for families, the museum offers interactive exhibits that are engaging for children.
20. Istanbul Modern
İstanbul Modern houses an extensive collection of Turkish art and stages constantly changing exhibitions of contemporary and modern art.
Travel Tip: Check the schedule for temporary exhibitions and guided tours to make the most of your visit.
Unique Activities in Istanbul
1. Sunset Yacht Tour
Embark on a relaxing yacht tour during sunset. Listen to an audio guide while you sail past iconic landmarks. Savor delicious snacks as you take in the breathtaking views of the city.
2. Turkish Night Dinner
Set sail on the Bosphorus for a memorable evening. Indulge in a sumptuous dinner while enjoying traditional Turkish entertainment. Benefit from unlimited drinks throughout the cruise.
3. Private Turkish Bath, Sauna, and Massage
Pamper yourself with a traditional Turkish bath experience. Relieve stress in the sauna and enjoy a rejuvenating massage. Experience the luxury and relaxation that Turkish baths are known for.
4. Turkish Mosaic Lamp Workshop
Dive into the art of Turkish mosaic lamp making. Craft your own unique lamp with guidance from experts. Take home a beautiful, hand-made souvenir that captures the essence of Turkish artistry.
Day Trips from Istanbul
Discover the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire and immerse yourself in its rich history. Bursa offers a blend of mosques, markets, and ancient thermal baths for a unique experience.
Travel Tip: Opt for the ferry and bus combo for a scenic and efficient journey from Istanbul.
Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne boasts stunning mosques like Selimiye and historic sites that reflect its past glory.
Travel Tip: Visit during the annual Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival for a truly unique cultural experience.
3. Princes’ Islands
A chain of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, it’s a serene escape from Istanbul’s hustle. Enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides and beautiful Victorian-era houses.
Travel Tip: Avoid weekends and holidays to dodge the local crowds and enjoy a more peaceful visit.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul, a city that bridges Asia and Europe, offers a unique blend of art, music, and culture. With over thirty centuries of history, it’s a place where you can find luxurious five-star hotels alongside budget-friendly accommodations. Whether you’re looking for a hotel with a view of the iconic Blue Mosque or a place near the bustling Taksim Square, Istanbul has something to offer for every traveler. The city is home to over 7,399 hotels and places to stay, ranging from the opulence of Ottoman heritage to modern chic designs.
1. Best Reviewed Hotel
ISG Sabiha Gökçen Airport Hotel (★★★★)
- Description: Modern rooms on the site of Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport with luggage transfer service.
- Price: €92 per night
- Rating: 8.7 (Fabulous)
2. Most Luxurious Hotel
Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul (★★★★★)
- Description: Five-star luxury accommodation with an exclusive rooftop pool and award-winning spa.
- Price: €286 per night
- Rating: 8.9 (Fabulous)
3. Budget Hotel
The Green Park Pendik (★★★★★)
- Description: Located in the center of the Pendik district, offering luxurious rooms with an LCD TV and a rain shower.
- Price: €58 per night
- Rating: 7.0 (Good)
4. Hotel for Family
CVK Park Bosphorus Hotel Istanbul (★★★★★)
- Description: Situated in the heart of the city, just 150 meters from Taksim Square.
- Price: €290 per night
- Rating: 8.9 (Fabulous)
5. Hotel for Couples
Uranus Istanbul Topkapi (★★★★★)
- Description: Featuring a chic indoor pool, this hotel boasts a spacious wellness & spa center, sauna, and Turkish bath.
- Price: €141 per night
- Rating: 8.2 (Very good)
6. Hotel for Solo Travelers
YOTEL Istanbul Airport, City Entrance
- Description: Located at the Istanbul Airport, offering rooms with air conditioning and free WiFi.
- Price: €211 per night
- Rating: 8.0 (Very good)
Did you know? Facts about Istanbul
- Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, straddling both Europe and Asia, and serves as the country’s economic, cultural, and historic hub.
- The city was founded as Byzantium in the 7th century BCE by Greek settlers and has served as an imperial capital for almost 1600 years across various empires.
- Over 13.4 million foreign visitors came to Istanbul in 2018, making it the world’s eighth most visited city, and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century, was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years and has served as both a church and a mosque.
- The city’s location at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn has historically provided ideal defense and a natural toll-gate for trade.
- Following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II revitalized the city, welcoming people from all over Europe and initiating a massive program of restorations.
- The Ottoman Dynasty claimed the status of caliphate in 1517, with Istanbul remaining the capital of this last caliphate for four centuries.
- Istanbul underwent great structural change in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with new public squares, boulevards, and avenues constructed throughout the city.
- The nearby North Anatolian Fault makes Istanbul vulnerable to earthquakes, leading to significant infrastructure development and building code upgrades to mitigate the risk.
- Istanbul’s climate is temperate, transitional between the Mediterranean climate and the oceanic climate, with warm to hot summers and cool, rainy winters.
FAQ about Istanbul
What are the Historic Areas of Istanbul and Why are They a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Istanbul’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflecting the city’s rich history as a hub for various empires. The historic areas include iconic landmarks like Hagia Sophia, the Bosphorus Bridge, and Galata Tower, showcasing a blend of cultural, economic, and historical significance.
How Can I Explore the Blend of European and Asian Cultures in Istanbul?
Istanbul is uniquely positioned, straddling both Europe and Asia. Visitors can explore this blend by crossing the Bosphorus Strait, visiting local markets, tasting diverse cuisines, and experiencing the architectural marvels that reflect both Western and Eastern influences.
What Role Did Istanbul Play in the Silk Road, and How Can I Experience It Today?
Istanbul served as a beacon of the Silk Road, playing a key role in trade and cultural exchange. Today, travelers can visit the Grand Bazaar, explore ancient trade routes, and discover artifacts in museums that tell the story of this legendary trade network.
How Can I Experience Istanbul’s Rich Byzantine and Ottoman Heritage?
Istanbul’s heritage as the capital of both Byzantine and Ottoman empires is evident in its architecture and museums. Visitors can explore the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and the Basilica Cistern to delve into this rich heritage.
What Opportunities Does Istanbul Offer for Seaside Resorts and Coastal Exploration?
Istanbul’s location near the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara offers numerous seaside resorts like Şile and Kilyos. Travelers can enjoy coastal activities, beach relaxation, and explore picturesque islands like Büyükada and Heybeliada.
How Has Istanbul’s Modernization Effort Impacted Its Historical Sites and Urban Landscape?
Istanbul’s modernization has led to new public squares, boulevards, and infrastructure. While some historical buildings have been preserved, others have been replaced. Visitors can witness this blend of old and new in various parts of the city.
What Precautions Should I Take Considering Istanbul’s Earthquake Activity?
Istanbul is near the North Anatolian Fault, making it prone to earthquakes. Travelers should be aware of safety guidelines, stay in buildings that comply with modern construction standards, and familiarize themselves with emergency procedures.
How Can I Experience Istanbul’s Diverse Climate and Enjoy Its Seasonal Activities?
Istanbul’s climate is transitional, with warm summers and cool, rainy winters. Visitors can plan activities accordingly, such as enjoying seaside resorts in summer or exploring historical sites and indoor attractions during the cooler months.