1. Stare at Hagia Sophia in Wonder, 2. Admire the Beauty of the Blue Mosque, 3. Learn the History at Topkapi Palace, 4. Go Down the Basilica Cistern, 5. Visit the Grand Bazaar or The Spice Market, 6. Check Out the View at Suleymaniye Mosque, 7. Witness the Local's Daily Life at Galata Bridge, 8. Go Up the Galata Tower at Sunset, 9. Visit Taksim Square, 10. Check Out the Maiden's Tower. Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Not just because of its long and tumultuous history, but because it lies on the border of two continents; Europe and Asia. It’s home to stunning palaces, incredible mosques, and warm, hospitable people. With so many historical landmarks to explore, you’ll never run out of things to do there. Below are the best things to do in Istanbul, Turkey, let's find out!
- Stare at Hagia Sophia in Wonder
- Admire the Beauty of the Blue Mosque
- Learn the History at Topkapi Palace
- Go Down the Basilica Cistern
- Visit the Grand Bazaar or The Spice Market
- Check Out the View at Suleymaniye Mosque
- Witness the Local’s Daily Life at Galata Bridge
- Go Up the Galata Tower at Sunset
- Visit Taksim Square
- Check Out the Maiden’s Tower
Stare at Hagia Sophia in Wonder
Hagia Sophia is the crown jewel of Istanbul. It was first built around 532 – 537 AD by the Byzantine Empire as a principal church for its capital city before it was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and converted into a mosque in 1453. Once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Turkish government decided to convert the mosque into a museum and began restoration work for the most part until 2020 when it was finally converted into a mosque again with much fanfare.
Back when it was a museum, you have to pay around 100 TRY to enter but now that is converted into a mosque for regular service, you are now free to enter as you please which is a welcome change despite all the fiery worldwide discussions over its conversion. Once you are inside, you will be surrounded by a breathtakingly gigantic domed hallway all painted yellow and 8 Arabic calligraphic roundels, huge circular wooden panels that bears the names of Allah, Mohammed, and his grandsons; Hasan & Hussein, and four caliphates.
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Admire the Beauty of the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is another impressive piece of architectural wonder in Istanbul that is located not too far from Hagia Sophia. The mosque was constructed by the Ottoman Empire in the 17th Century as an imperial mosque for the capital and it is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city. The Blue Mosque consists of a large main dome with 8 secondary domes surrounded by 6 narrow and tall minarets and within the mosque, you will find a large prayer hall and a tomb of the founder of the mosque and the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
The interior of the mosque is a beautiful prayer hall adorned with beautiful blue tiles and at night, the whole mosque gets lit up as the light from the secondary domes and the 6 minarets baths the structure in blue. The interior might not be as impressive as the one you see in Hagia Sofia but since it is close by, it is worth a visit just to see it. The Blue Mosque is open from 9 AM to 7 PM every day except during the prayer hours.
Learn the History at Topkapi Palace
Within the Topkapi Palace Museum, you will find all sorts of beautiful historical architecture spread out in several courtyards and many artifact collections as well as exhibition halls dedicated to preserving the history and the culture of the Ottoman Empire. This place is massive with 4 huge courtyards full of attractions and museums for you to visit. Topkapi Palace is definitely a half-day activity and it can take you more than 3 hours to see it all so you should spare some time for your visit.
Go Down the Basilica Cistern
Not too far from the Blue Mosque, you will also find another stunning tourist attraction you shouldn’t miss. The Basilica Cistern is the largest ancient cistern, one of the many that lie beneath Istanbul and it was constructed in the 6th Century to store rainwater for later use.
Nowadays, the cistern is kept with little water so that tourists can come down and explore the space freely. Inside the cistern, you will find a forest of over 360 massive marble columns supporting the city above some of which are more notable than the others like the one pillar with an upside-down Medusa head as its base and another with a sideway Medusa head as its base. It should take you around 30 minutes to go down, walk around the cistern, and get back up. The entrance fee to the Basilica Cistern is 30 TRY per person and it is open from 9 AM to 6:30 PM every day.
Visit the Grand Bazaar or The Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar is a great place to stroll around and get the feel of what it is like to be in a middle-eastern spice market. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world covering 61 streets and has over 4000 shops inside. It is a sprawling network of crisscrossing streets full of people and shops selling all kinds of goods like trinkets, jewelry, gifts, and souvenirs along both sides of the streets.
Once you are inside, all of your senses will be engaged from all directions with the sound of the people, the smell of spices, and the colorful visual of all the people and shops along the streets. If you are looking for something closer to the Old Town, the Spice Market is also highly recommended. The Spice Market and its surrounding areas will give you a similar experience to the Grand Bazaar but without you having to go very far from the Old Town area.
Check Out the View at Suleymaniye Mosque
Just outside of the gate, you will also find a stunning viewpoint where you will be able to see Istanbul’s Galata area in its entirety as well as the New Istanbul in the background. The mosque opens from 08:30 AM to 11:30 AM in the morning, 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM in the afternoon, and again from 3:30 PM to 4:45 PM with prayer breaks in between them. There is no entrance fee for the mosque.
Witness the Local’s Daily Life at Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge is one of the best places to go people-watching in Istanbul. It is a modern 2-level bridge connecting Karakoy district with Sultanahmet, the old town district. At the upper level of the bridge, you will find many locals fishing from the bridge on the sidewalks. You can even befriend some of the locals here and try your hands at fishing as well.
If you want to spend some time and relax by the Bosphorus, you can also do it at the lower level of the bridge where you will find a line of restaurants and cafes with a pretty stunning view of the Bosphorus strait. Or you can do it for free at the steps near Karakoy pier and enjoy an unbeatable view of the old town with a pretzel in hand bought from the street vendors nearby and a good book in another.
Go Up the Galata Tower at Sunset
One of the best sunset spots in the city is up at the top of Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower that dominates the city since the 14th Century and it offers an unbeatable panoramic vista of Istanbul’s historic peninsula. The tower is nine storeys tall and you can see all the major tourist attractions like Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque all the way from here. Once inside, you can take one of the 2 operating elevators to get to the top level where you will find a restaurant and a cafe if you wish to rest, or you can just walk out into the balcony and be blown away by the view of Istanbul cityscape.
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Visit Taksim Square
For a more lively part of Istanbul, Taksim Square and the shopping street leading up to it are one of the best places to stroll around and spend a day shopping for souvenirs or trying out all kinds of street food. The shopping street gets really crowded in the evening and the restaurants, cafes, and bars will be filled with people winding down for the day. It is a fun and lively area that contrasts with those you saw before in the old town area.
You can also take photos or even get on the iconic red Taksim heritage tram that connects the Asian and European sides of the city from here. The tram operates between 6 AM and 12 AM every day and it should be difficult for you to track it down once you are on the Taksim shopping streets.
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Check Out the Maiden’s Tower
Last but not least, as you walk down south along the coast from Üsküdar ferry terminal, you will see the Maiden’s Tower is an ancient lighthouse built on a small islet on the Bosphorus strait. The lighthouse was built in the 18th Century which isn’t very long ago but that didn’t stop a legend about its location and its name to develop among the locals.
According to one version, the lighthouse was constructed by an emperor whose daughter visited an oracle and received a prophecy that she would die at the age of 18 at the hands of a snake. The emperor constructed a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus to keep his daughter safe from this fate. The emperor is the only person who can visit her daughter and on her 18th birthday, to celebrate their success in avoiding the tragedy, the father brought her a fruit basket. Upon reaching the basket, a hidden snake sprung out from the basket, bitted the daughter, and she died in his arms, hence the name Maiden Tower.
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