Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

“See Naples and die,” the phrase widely attributed to the German poet Wolfgang Goethe, can be reinterpreted and perfectly applied to Istanbul. Former Byzantium, ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, re-named Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, this fascinating Turkish city amazes visitors for its layers of history, hectic bazaars and friendly people. Are you planning a trip? Here are some of the most important things to do in Istanbul.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

European capital of culture in 2010, this Turkish city has largely earned its fame among the other cities of the Old Continent thanks to its lively society and some of the most sophisticated collaborations of different styles, traditions and civilizations.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Istanbul’s Ayasofya

Its central district Sultanahmet is dominated by the city’s most acclaimed wonders staring at each other: beautiful Ayasofya and awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Even though pretty much undisputed stars of all Istanbul tour packages, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are far from being the only places to visit in Istanbul.

Going down the Basilica Cistern, haggling and shopping in the many bazaars, a cruise along the Bosphorus, or just sitting on the shore to smoke a hookah and sip on some black tea, after enjoying a dinner with kebab or the delicious Turkish pide, are some other things to do in Istanbul to fully enjoy the vibe this beautiful and historical city has to offer.

My trip to Istanbul was for only five days, but I tried to see and do as much as I could. If you are travelling on a budget, you might want to consider the free tour of Istanbul organised by Turkish Airlines.

The most important things to do in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya)

Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) is one of the world’s most stunning architectural masterpieces: centuries of artistic schools overlap, solemnly offering their contribution to the world of arts with its finest mosaics, including the famous Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Fresco in Ayasofya

Built in 532AD, the cathedral remained the most important church within the Christian world until Constantinople fell under Turks’ rule in 1453 and Sultan Mehmet decided to turn it into a mosque. Absolutely stunning, Hagia Sophia dome, 55 meters high, is made from bricks and mortar. They say when the Hagia Sophia dome was built, walls began to lean outward for the weight, so supporting walls had to be added.

Among the things to admire during your tour inside are the stunning Hagia Sophia mosaics and paintings

Today Hagia Sophia is obviously an Istanbul Museum, one of the most popular tourist attractions where visitors just can’t stop looking around in awe for this interplay of styles and cultures.

Hagia Sophia entrance fee: 40 TL for adults and free for children under 12.
Hagia Sophia visiting hours: 9 am-5 pm in winter, 9 am-7 pm in summer. Tickets are available both online and at the office before to the museum entrance.
Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Interior in Ayasofya, Istanbul

The Blue Mosque

Sultanahmet Camii, the local name of the Blue Mosque, stands aware of its timeless majesty in front of Ayasofya, giving the whole scenery the mysterious atmosphere of Scheherazade’s tales in the Arabian Nights.

One of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks, the Blue Mosque, owes its name to the cobalt tiles decorating the prayer room and is packed with tourists winter and summer alike, being exclusive Muslim prerogative only during the prayer time.

The suggestive beauty of softly-lit Sultanahmet by night is beyond imagination. Every attraction I visited made me gradually aware of how hard would have been to tear myself away from that half-European half-Asian jewel.

The city is studded with small, lesser-known mosques, each of them, samples of Arabian design. Five times a day, from every mosque the muezzin raise their voice to call the faithful to pray, filling the city with a captivating, ancestral lament.

Blue Mosque admission fee: Free
Blue Mosque dress code: Like in every other mosque, women need to be covered head to ankles. Head covering is available at the entrance. Men can’t wear shorts but can wear t-shirts.
Cameras at the Blue Mosque: Allowed free of charge
Blue Mosque visiting hours: All day, except praying times and Friday from 12-3. Best time to visit Sultanahmet Mosque: Saturday-Thursday From 8am-12pm.
Note: The prayers take place five times a day and the mosque closes for 90 minutes every prayer time. You will need to take off your shoes before entering and carry them with you in a little plastic bag.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Inside the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace

The Sultan used to make his way to the Blue Mosque from his residence, nearby Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), the immense cluster of buildings that dominate wide, evergreen gardens with breathtaking views.

The palace contains the imperial treasures that offer a comprehensive glimpse of the luxury kings lived in, despite the general poverty of the rest of the population, as it usually happens when it comes to royal residences: emerald-studded golden cradles, precious silk clothes, relics of the Prophet Muhammad.

Topkapi Palace Museum visiting hours: 9 am-4.45 pm in winter, 9 am-6.45 pm in summer. Topkapi Palace is open every day except Tuesdays.
Topkapi Palace admission fee: For adults 40 TL (Turkish Lira) each person and you visit everywhere except the Harem Section. Ticket for the Harem and the Dormitories of Halberdiers is 25 TL. So if you want to see everything in the Topkapi Palace, you need to get two tickets 40+25=65 TL.
Free admission for children 12-year-old or younger except for the Harem. Here kids under 6 or younger enter free of charge. You can purchase the tickets online or at the entrance and pay either cash or with credit/debit card.
Cameras: Allowed.
Dress code: Topkapi Palace does not have a dress code.

–>> Looking for a hotel in Istanbul? Click here for information on availability and latest prices.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Gardens in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

A cruise along the Bosphorus

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

No tour of the city can be considered complete without cruising along the Bosphorus, the stretch of water between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea that works as a natural barrier between the Asian and the European Continents.

Fascinated by the idea of finding myself between two worlds, I booked my cruise with Italian-Spanish-English-speaking guide Alparslan. After leaving from Eminönü bay, we headed to the other side of the coast, managing to shipwreck on our way back, just to make sure to add the thrilling (and funny) ingredient to an already exciting trip.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar

Although most people barely speak a little English, bazaars’ shopkeepers will welcome you in every language, and at my usual question: “Where did you learn Italian so well?” the answer was unavoidable: “Here at the bazaar, of course!”

Even though very touristy, I absolutely loved dawdling about the Grand Bazaar, where I ended up buying only a small narghilé “for personal use”, and staring at the traditional clothes, shoes, head-scarves, veils, that strongly reminded me of Samantha Stephens in Bewitched.

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

If you are not a master of bargaining, be aware that at the end of your visit to the Grand Bazaar you will have bought something you don’t need at a higher price than its real value.

My short stay was undoubtedly made more pleasant by the friendliness of Turkish people, who made even the most nerve-racking bargain a hilarious chat, ranging from flattering adulation to unpredictable proposals.

With some 60 streets and 5000 shops (but who’s counting), restaurants, hammam (Turkish baths), cafes and two mosques, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world and absolutely one of the most popular Istanbul attractions.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9:00 – 19:00. Closed Sundays and national holidays.
How to get to Istanbul Grand Bazaar: Take a tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci or if you are in Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque area, it is about 15 minutes walk to Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul Grand Bazaar official website: www.grandbazaaristanbul.org

Istanbul Spice Bazaar

While I enjoyed my tour of the Grand Bazaar, I’m glad I made it also to Istanbul Spice Bazaar, a feast of colors, scents, spices, herbs, teas, and flowers. So if your Istanbul shopping spree is not over, head here to fork out some more cash.

Just like the main market, also at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar sellers spoke pretty much every language, and quite predictably, I bought tea and spices for a year.

I promise you will be carried away by the fragrances and the variety of goods and products from all over the world, especially Asia.

Istanbul Spice Bazaar opening hours: Daily 8 am-7.30 pm

Things to do in Istanbul, fascinating Turkish city where East meets West

Small café near Galata Tower, Istanbul

Taksim Square

After visiting all the must-see sites in the city center, my friends and I went to the Galata Tower from Taksim Square, to have a taste of what is a less touristy Istanbul, and all of a sudden all the obsessive bargaining and tricks aimed at foreigners were gone. We experienced a tangle of narrow back alleys, studded with small, picturesque cafés and tea houses, and populated with friendly locals who were interested in simply say ‘hi’ to travelers.

Needless to say, although I loved the city’s architectural majesty, I was completely captured by this more authentic ride, that was actually what makes me want to go to Istanbul again.

 

If you are ready to travel to Istanbul, check out the hotel offers on Booking, you will find pretty sweet deals that will convince you to book your ticket!



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46 Comments
  1. Assolutamente da vedere!

  2. C’est MAGNIFIQUE !

  3. Love the pictures. Job well done.

  4. I would love to go to Istanbul. It’s been on my list for awhile!

  5. I love Istanbul or I would say I love Turkey as a whole! Lovely photos

  6. Great rundown of what to do in Istanbul! I will be there in two weeks and haven’t done any research – this is just the info I needed!

    • This is just a small rundown, if you stay quite long there are plenty of things to see, you’ll love even just sit in one of the parks in Sultanhamet or along the Bosphorus!

  7. Thank you for this walking tour of Istanbul. What a treat to find Galata Tower and a more authentic experience. Lovely photos, as always!

  8. Gorgeous pictures of a place I’m DYING to visit!

  9. Ohhh you got some great shots. I loved Istanbul and want to go back.

  10. Great shots! Istanbul is one of my favourite places on this planet..

  11. I never really thought about going to Istanbul. But I got to tell you, this post is making change my mind. I am particularly interested in the intricate and beautiful architectural masterpieces that you’ve depicted in your gorgeous photos. And I am especially endeared to know that the people are wonderful as well. Awesome post!

  12. Really want to visit this place. It looks like it’s full of amazing photo opportunities.

  13. Thank you for the beautiful description of our precious city. Hope you come back. Best regards from istanbul.

  14. Istanbul is…beyond words. It’s been ten or more years since I have been back, but I dream of taking my family with me. I especially love the spice market and the gardens in Topkapi Palace. Beautiful pictures!!!!

  15. I love Turkey and Istanbul..Im goign back there in October…can’t wait to be there!!

  16. Lovely photos! But one nitpicky thing: I think you meant 532 CE not 532 BC :)

    • Thanks for noticing, ehalvey, actually I didn’t mean CE, I meant AD, of course :) I always confuse them as in Italian and Latin they are the opposite than in English! Correct now :)

  17. Gorgeous photos! I love the one Inside the Topkapi Palace. The colors are just so pretty!

  18. Honestly, I’m just dying to get here someday! I loved your photos – especially the spice market!

  19. I love Istanbul… It’s my favourite city in the world! It still feels like the ‘centre’ of the world it used to be! My favourite place is sitting under Galata Bridge at sunset having a narguile and watching the silhoutte of Sultanahmet! Pure Bliss!

  20. Looks amazing! I must admit, I don’t know much about what to expect in Istanbul. Your blog post shows a beautiful side of it that’s intriguing!

  21. nice text & pictures.
    Thank you.

  22. And you’re yet to make it back? We’re sure you’ll be here again soon. We love the Taksim area, too. :)
    Julia

  23. hello.good post.istanbul photos & pictures now here…thank.

  24. In the Name of Allah, the Companionate, the Merciful

    My soul be devoted to you Dear Prophet of Allah,

    Dear Muslim youths, Muslim Nations and noblemen,

    When Arab nations rose against their corrupt regimes (those who support Zionist regime) and on the other hand when, Crucified infidels are terrified and they are no more supporting human rights, United States of America with the help of Zionist regime made a sacrilegious movie insulting all the religions not only Islam. All the Muslims worldwide must unify and stand against the action. Muslims should do whatever is necessary to stop spreading this movie. We will attack them for this insult with all we have. All the Muslim youth who are active in the cyber world will attack American and Zionist web bases as much as needed, such that they say that they are sorry about that insult. We, cyber fighters of Izz ad-din Al Qassam will attack the Bank of America and New York Stock Exchange for the first step. These targets are properties of American-Zionist capitalists. This attack will start today at 2 pm. GMT. This attack will continue till the erasing of that nasty movie. Beware; this attack can vary in type.

    Down with modern infidels.

    Allah is the Greatest. Allah is the Greatest.

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