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The Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul

By Belmin Pilevneli Curious artist, fine art enthusiast and Istanbul native Belmin talks top tips and how to appreciate the ancient city’s magic.
29 October 2020
The Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul

Edited by Holly Stark

Surrounded by an oriental skyline of domes and enriched with a rich history and culture, you'll find plenty of great things to do in Istanbul. From wandering through its towering minarets, underground Byzantine cisterns and steamy bath houses to exploring quaint cobbled streets and glistening blue waters of the Sea of Marmara, to cobbled streets and vibrant emporiums, there’s always something stunning to see. Istanbul’s attractions are accessible on foot, by bus, by boat, by metro, which connects the two continents, and via a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus. Istanbul is built on seven hills like Rome and unique in its location between two sides of a majestic waterway; the meeting point of two continents; Europe and Asia. The charm of its setting lies in the intermingling of land and water, cobbled streets, ornate pavilions, pulsing entertainment districts, art galleries, ancient land walls and fusion food scene. Here’s your bespoke top 10 things to do in Istanbul guide to kickstart your trip, which takes into consideration the city’s turbulent history, great Istanbul beaches, the best places to sample traditional Turkish food and the best things to do in Istanbul at night.


Explore Sultanahmet and The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet is incredible; full of jewellery, antiques, exquisite Turkish fabrics, leather and traditional food and aromatic spices. It’s a magical place everyone should see. Home to around 5000 shops, The Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarşi) was constructed in 1461 and was a vibrant hub of international and local trade. The Grand Bazaar is one of the best activities in Istanbul; a lively labyrinth of glittering delights and the ultimate Turkish shopping experience. It’s one of the largest covered markets in the world, with beautiful hand crafted ceramics, colourful trinkets, pretty lanterns and Turkish souvenirs. Soak up the aromas of coffee, oils and spices, be amazed by the jewels glinting in the sun, and enjoy an uplifting Istanbul experience.

Walk around Kadikoy Carsı Ciya

Located on the Asian shores of the city, Kadikoy is a relaxed neighborhood, most known for its vibrant entertainment scene, tree-lined streets and fish and produce market. It’s one of the best neighbourhoods in Istanbul; quirky, free-spirited, fairly quiet and very artsy. With a choice of art and cultural Istanbul attractions to dive into, you can spend a lot of time walking the Kadikoy streets. Adorned with an array of cosy cafes, narrow streets, relaxed bars, local restaurants and hostels, Kadikoy makes a good choice if you’re wondering where to stay in Istanbul. The area is in close proximity to a transportation hub that serves the whole city, including the ferry which takes you to the European Side and sightseeing in 20 minutes. The meandering streets point towards a beautiful city landscape; stretching across the sea of Marmara to the Sultanahmet skyline. It’s the meeting point of the urban and the historic; and is an entrypoint to the Bosphorus with transportation on rail, water and land. Vibrant street art, independent shops, live music venues, coffee houses and popular eateries line the streets. The art, fountains, hidden courtyards, tombs, towers, Turkish Baths, pavilions and parks of Kadikoy embody the true spirit of Istanbul. This one is not to be missed.

Soak up the sights of Fenerbahce

Fenerbahce really epitomizes what Istanbul is about. It’s a small, quiet neighbourhood situated in the Kadikoy district on the Asian side and is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. Peacefully located by the seaside, Fenerbahce has some of the best sunset views in the city and is a great way to spend an evening. Brimming with with smooth beer, potent raki (the strong, national drink also known as Lion’s Milk) and well-loved Turkish dishes and appetizers, Fenerbahce'scafes and restaurants line the marina. Fenerbahce Park provides a serene pause from the hustle and bustle of the busy city streets. The area is accessible by public transport. From the European side, you can take the ferry from Eminonu or Karakoy which lasts around 20 minutes, then a 'dolmus' or taxi and you'll be there in about 15 minutes. Take a walk, enjoy the views and explore a seaside area of Istanbul.

Wander through Bagdat Caddes

From Kadikoy to alt Bostancı, yellow minibuses are available to transport you to the picturesque coastal district of the southeast region. Upon reaching Bostancı, look out for the famous Bagdat Caddesi street and start your walk along the coastline of the Sea of Marmara back to Kadıkoy. Bagdat Street offers a feel of the real Istanbul, where locals shop, meet for drinks and go for a night out. The most popular part of the street is filled with boutiques, cafés, restaurants and benches. Mornings are best if you want to window shop and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the boulevard. Well-known for its posh shops with world famous and local brands, shopping malls, department stores, both local and international cuisine restaurants, cafes and pubs, Bagdat Street is great for anyone who loves shopping, eating and drinking. Since this is an Istanbul nightlife area as well as a shopping district, evenings and weekends are lively and atmospheric.

The Blue Mosque

Facing Aya Sofya or the Hagia Sophia Museum across a small park and mirroring its domed silhouette, the early 17th-century Blue Mosque is one of only a handful of mosques in the world to hold six minarets. It’s one of the best historical places in Istanbul. Also known as the Sultan Ahmet Camii or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the breathtaking building is one of the most majestic Ottoman mosques in Turkey. Constructed between 1609 and 1616, by architect Mehmet Ağa and instructed by Sultan Ahmet I. Designed as an imperial show of strength to complement the imposing Hagia Sophia, which faces it across Sultanahmet Square. It holds over 20,000 handmade ceramic Iznik tiles that decorate the interior, featuring many different tulip, rose, carnation, and lily designs and is lit by 260 windows.

Spend a Night in Bebek

The Bebek neighbourhood is located right by the beautiful Bosphorus and is a well loved area for delicious cocktails, like mojitos and satsuma vodka. Lucca is a great, fancy spot, loved by locals in the Bebek area. At 11pm, the bistro transforms into a vibrant bar where people can be seen dancing and enjoying quality music. It’s one of the first places that comes to mind for socialising, eating and drinking. Many locals head here after work to feed their stomachs with delicious food and their souls with good music. It’s open til late - around 2am. Squeeze this one into your Istanbul night tour.

Topkapi Sarayi

Topkapi Sarayi

Topkapi Palace is one absolute must-see when in Istanbul and is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Istanbul; home to generations of sultans and their families. Opulent, decadent, and steeped in history, it offers visitors a chance to get to know the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire more intimately. Built in 1461, the palace grounds are home to a lush leafy courtyard, the Imperial Treasury, an 86 carat diamond, and beautiful views over the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus, and Golden Horn. The secretive harem family quarters are a warren of lushly-tiled rooms encompassing a gem of a Turkish bath. You can easily spend three hours in the gigantic Topkapi Palace as there’s simply so much to see. The entrance fee is 40 Turkish Lira per person. To visit the Harem it is an additional 25 Turkish Lira per person.

Visit Yerebatan Sarnici

One of the top Istanbul attractions, the Yerebatan Sarnici or Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. The cistern, located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia, on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565). The big underground water reservoir is called as “Yerebatan Cistern” because of the grand, underground marble columns. There used to be a basilica in the place of the cistern, so it is also known as Basilica Cistern. The head of each column bears different features. 98 of them reflect the Corinthian style and part of them reflect the Dorian style. Two Medusa heads, which are used as supports under the two columns at the northwest edge of the cistern, are a great work of art from the Roman period. Legend has it that Medusa is one of the three Gorgonas, or female monsters, in the underground world in Greek mythology. The snake-head Medusa has the power of gorgonising the ones that happen to look at her. The head of medusa was put in the cistern for protection.

Check out Turkish Art and Music

Istanbul is steeped in culture, art, and music. There are many galleries and places to enjoy traditional Turkish music. Head for an Istanbul meyhane (tavern) and enjoy a raki-fuelled night of Turkish fasil (song and dance). A great night spent in Istanbul is at Bina Kadıkoy, a record event exhibition where you can drink wine, play old records and buy the records you’re listening to. With a laid-back atmosphere, the spot is representative of Istanbul’s great music scene. Bomonti is another great space for live music. Formerly the factory for Bomonti beers, the huge renovated area has become one of the best places to hang out in the Şişli neighborhood at night. Bomontiada has everything in one area; restaurants, bars, and a live concert venue. Have a few drinks at a bar then head to The Populist which often has live DJ music, or hit up the Babylon concert hall for a night of live performance. Check out the Pilevneli Gallery for exhibitions and contemporary art.

Try Traditional Turkish Ice Cream Dondurma

Ice cream is the queen of desserts in Istanbul, along with Turkish delight, and offers numerous flavors as well as presentations. An age-old tradition means enjoying the slightly chewy, delicious ice cream from a local vendor dishing up refreshing and original flavors. In the quaint neighborhood of Moda, since 1969, Dondurmacı Ali Usta has served up some of the most traditional scoops of Turkish ice cream such as Santa Maria, Hazelnut, Walnut and Melon. As the city's most historically famous neighborhood ice cream shop and landmark of the ice cream world, in both summer and winter, queues can form outside of the shop. But it’s well worth the wait for the chewy delight.