The best attractions in Istanbul
Istanbul is the border city between two worlds. Europe on one side, Asia on the other. This charming city rich in history will captivate you with the sumptuousness of ancient mosques, several museums, aromas and flavours of the spice and fruit bazaars scattered throughout the neighbourhoods, famous Turkish baths and the breathtaking architecture that you can see on a boat trip on the Bosphorus River. Istanbul boasts some of the most famous monuments in the world, such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque or the Topkapi Palace. Shopping lovers can have fun visiting the Grand Bazaar looking for textiles, fruit, sweets, souvenirs and local handicrafts. Even food lovers will not be disappointed. The many restaurants offer traditional Turkish dishes such as the Börek (savoury pie filled with potatoes, spinach or meat), the different Çorba (soups to try in different variations, both hot and cold), the delicious Baklava (puff pastry cakes with nuts, pistachios and syrup of honey), and, of course, the kebab, a meat dish well known all over the world and born in Turkey.
Private tour or self-guided visit?
The main attractions of Istanbul are located within walking distance of each other, mainly in the Sultanahmet district. To reach other places of interest, you can easily take the Tram (best option), the bus, the metro or a taxi. If you like to take your time, the best option is a self-guided tour.
If you prefer to arrange a private tour, you can rely on the web platforms Viator.com and GetYourGuide.com, where local operators advertise tours and activities in the city.
How many days do you need to visit Istanbul?
Three days are perfect for visiting all the city’s most popular attractions, shopping, and enjoying a charming cruise on the Bosphorus. With more days available, you can complete the visit with the minor attractions and arrange a day trip to one of the many archaeological sites not far from Istanbul.
Istanbul Attractions Pass
If you plan to visit several attractions, it could be helpful to buy online the Istanbul Welcome Card. There are different cards to save time, money and skip the ticket lines at the top attractions. Also, the museums lovers will find the Museum Pass. It’s a card valid for 5 days from your first visit and allows access to 13 museums under the Ministry of Culture, including Topkapi Palace with the harem section and Rumeli Fortress. You can buy it online on the official website or at the ticket office of one of the included attractions.
Let’s go to see the best attraction in Istanbul!
1. Hagia Sophia
The former Basilica of Hagia Sophia, now the Great Sacred Mosque of Hagia Sophia, is located in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the heart of the “Old City” from where the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires were ruled. Initially built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, it was destroyed in 404. Emperor Theodosius II rebuilt it in 415, but it was damaged again in the early 6th century due to numerous riots. Emperor Justinian built the “third” Hagia Sofia in 532 as the Imperial Church of Eastern Rome. In the following centuries, with the Ottoman conquer, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque until 1934, when the Turkish government decided to transform it into a museum. In 2020, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan converted the building into a mosque.
The visit takes about 1 hour. One of the most exciting things inside the mosque is the beautiful decorations with mosaics made over the centuries during the Byzantine period and its dome that makes it famous worldwide. The great dome of Hagia Sophia is located in the centre of the building and rises between two half domes, which together are equivalent to the diameters of the main dome. In addition to its superb architectural design, Hagia Sofia boasts stunning mosaics plated in gold, silver, glass, terracotta and coloured stones. The ceiling mosaics are original from the 6th century and feature beautiful floral and geometric motifs. Entrance to the mosque is free, and it’s open from 9 until sunset, excluding during prayer times.
2. Basilica Cistern
Close to Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, built by Emperor Justinian in 532 to supply water to the Byzantine Palace and other buildings. Its highlights are the 336 columns with Corinthian and Doric style capitals and the inverted head of Medusa – one of the 3 Gorgons – at the base of one of the columns.
The Cistern Basilica is open from 9 to 19, and the entrance costs 30 Turkish Lira. The tour takes about 30 minutes.
3. Blue Mosque
The famous Sultanahmet Camii is known as the Blue Mosque due to its magnificent interior decoration of blue Iznik tiles. It was built between 1609 and 1616 by the Ottoman architect Mehmet on behalf of Ahmet I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from 1603 to 1617. This mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul and features impressive domes, semi-domes and six minarets soaring into the sky. The interior is breathtaking and boasts huge chandeliers, more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs and the floor covered with fantastic carpets. The most important element inside the mosque is the mihrab, made of finely carved marble and finely decorated with Muqarnas, a typical decoration of Islamic architecture which consists of a series of smaller niches. Next to the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Square stands on the ancient Roman Hippodrome, started by Septimius Severus in 203 AD and completed by Constantine the Great in 330 AD. Unfortunately, there are very few remains of this place, but you can still see 3 ancient monuments such as the obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine Column, and the Column of Constantine.
The mosque is generally open from 8.30 until one hour before sunset, excluding 90 minutes for each moment of prayer and two hours during Friday midday prayers. On Fridays, the mosque opens at 1.30 pm. Admission is free.
4. Topkapi Palace Museum
Topkapi is the symbol of Istanbul and was the Grand Palace of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th century. It hosted 22 different sultans and their respective families during these four centuries. In 1924, the Palace was converted into a museum by order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It houses an exquisite collection of precious gems, the sultans’ jewellery thrones, dresses worn by the sultans and their families. Its main attractions are the Spoonmaker diamond (an 86-carat diamond classified as the fifth largest in the world) and the private residence of the Ottoman Sultans known as Harem.
The Palace is open every day (except Tuesday) from 9.00 to 17.00 (from mid-April to the end of October until 19.00, last entry at 17.30), and the ticket is 100 Turkish Lira. An additional ticket of 70 Turkish Lira is required to visit the Harem section (pic below). The visit takes about 3 hours.
5. New Mosque and Spice Bazaar
In the Eminonu district, about 15 minutes on foot from Topkapi Palace, is the colourful and lively Spice Bazaar, one of the most famous markets in the city. Known as the Egyptian Bazaar, this large L-shaped covered market filled with small shops is perfect to buy typical local products such as spices, sweets, cheeses, and dried fruit. Adjacent to the market, you will find the New Mosque (Yeni Camii – pic of the cover), a religious building built in 1600 which boasts a spectacular dome over 30 meters high and interiors finely decorated with carved marble.
The market is open every day from 08.00 to 19.00. Sunday from 09.00 to 18.00. You can visit the mosque from 9 to sunset (excluding prayer times).
6. Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge faces the Spice Bazaar and connects the Beyoglu and Eminonu districts. The bridge is always crowded with thousands of people crossing from one side to the other, street food vendors, and fishermen who spend their days trying to catch some prey. More than a real attraction, the Galata Bridge is the right spot to enjoy fresh fish and typical Turkish dishes in one of the many restaurants located on its lower level.
7. Suleymaniye Mosque
Situated on the top of one of the city’s seven hills, this mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) was built by the legendary architect Mimar Sinanand and completed in 1557 as a tribute to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It is the largest mosque in Istanbul, and the complex includes a madrasa, a dining room, a caravanserai, a library and a back garden with the tombs of Suleyman and his wife. The size of its dome is impressive, and the interior is elegantly decorated.
The mosque is open from 09.00 to 17.30 (excluding prayer times).
8. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the most famous covered market in Istanbul and was the commercial heart of the old city. It is a labyrinth of streets and passages with more than 4000 shops divided into sections according to the goods sold. Strolling through this bustling market, you will find the gold and silver section, the sellers of carpets and kilims, jewellery and ceramic plates, copper objects, trays, water jugs, clothes, leather goods and of course, many souvenirs. Undoubtedly, it is a place not to be missed, a combination of colours, lights and sounds that create an exotic and unique atmosphere. The funniest thing is to haggle with sellers, giving them your “best price” and pretending to go away looking for other stores until the seller calls you back.
Grand Bazaar is open from 09.00 to 19:00 (closed on Sunday). From 18:30 onwards, the lights in the bazaar start to turn off and the shops close one by one.
9. Dolmabace Palace
The Palace, built in Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical style, was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid and completed in 1856 as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire until 1922. It is the largest Palace in Turkey and boasts 285 halls and 43 rooms. In 1984, it was converted into a museum. The visit to the Palace is divided into 4 parts, but the most popular guided tours are the Selamlik “and the” Harem “. Tours depart every 20 minutes.
Dolmabace Palace is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm (in winter until 3 pm). The entrance ticket costs 60 TL; the Harem tour costs 40 TL, while the combined tour costs 90 TL.
10. Beyoglu district
Near the Dolmabace Palace is the cableway that leads to Taksim square in the Beyoglu district. The name Taksim means “distribution” in Turkish, as this square was where the city’s water distribution took place. Taksim square is the beating heart of Istanbul, and all the celebrations, protests, official ceremonies and many other activities take place here. In the centre of the square stands the Monument to the Republic, a memorial sculptural group to honour the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. From Taksim Square begin Istiklal Caddesi, the most famous shopping street in Istanbul, crowded and full of trendy shops, bars and restaurants. This elegant pedestrian street can also be crossed aboard an ancient and fascinating tram.
11. Galata Tower
At the end of Istiklal street is the Galata tower, a cylindrical stone tower built in 1348 by the Genoese community living in this area. The Galata Tower served as a prison, observatory and lookout tower during the Ottoman period. The tower is about 60 meters high and has a diameter of 16.5 meters. By paying a 25 TL ticket, you can reach the top of the tower and enjoy one of Istanbul’s most beautiful panoramic views.
The Galata Tower is open every day from 9 to 20. The entrance costs 25 TL.
12. Cruise on the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus cruise between Europe and Asia is an attraction not to be missed. While navigating between the two continents, you can enjoy the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces, some villas and elegant houses, the Rumeli Fortress, the Bridge of the Victims of July 15, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and a fantastic sunset that warms the hills of the city with its orange rays.
You can arrange a shared cruise (starting from 20 USD) through one of the many agencies or go directly to the Eminonu pier, near the Galata Bridge. Alternatively, if you want to save more, go to the Karakoy (Turyol) ferry terminal and take one of the many scheduled ferries that cross the Bosphorus.
13. Church of San Salvatore in Chora
San Salvatore in Chora is an interesting Byzantine church with superb frescoes and mosaics that reflect the magnificent heritage of Byzantine art. Built between 1316 and 1321 under Theodore Metochite, the church was transformed into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. In 1958, it was converted into a museum and opened to the public.
The church is open every day from 9.00 to 17.00 (in summer until 19:00), and the entrance ticket costs 45 TL.
14. Eyup district
There is the Eyup Mosque (Eyup Sultan Camii) in this lively district, one of Turkey’s holiest and most important mosques. It is located on the site of the tomb of Eyup al-Ansari, friend and standard-bearer of the Prophet Muhammad, killed during the first Arab siege of Constantinople in 670. The current building dates from the early 19th century (the first complex dates back to 1450). Its interior is elegant in design, with a decorated dome measuring 17.5 meters in diameter and supported by two half domes. Next to the mosque, take the cable car that climbs to the top of the hill where the Pier Loti Café is located and from where you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Golden Horn. The Café is named after the French novelist and Turkophile who came here to find inspiration. After enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee and enjoying the view, you can walk down through the ancient cemetery of the mosque.
15. Other attractions
In addition to the main attractions, Istanbul boasts numerous exciting museums (including the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and the Pera Museum). You can also visit the Asian side neighbourhood of Uskudar with its mosques and the Maiden tower; many traditional hammams (there are also more Western spas) to relax; the Yedikule Fortress, built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II; other interesting mosques such as that of Rustem Pasa, built around 1560 with the interior decorated with wonderfully intricate hand-painted tiles in blue, red and green, or the small Hagia Sofia, built by Emperor Justinian to check if the building of Hagia Sofia would work structurally; the Istanbul Aquarium, an aquatic paradise made up of 16 marine environments and over 1500 species.
Our 3-day tour
Day 1: The first attraction we visit is Hagia Sofia, then the nearby Basilica Cistern and the Blue mosque. Leaving the mosque, we cross the square that covers the ancient hippodrome, and we stop for lunch in the Sultanahmet district. After lunch, we reach on foot the Spice Bazaar and the nearby New Mosque. From here, we always move on foot to the Suleymaniye Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Dinner in a restaurant in Sultanahmet district.
Day 2: We start the tour from Topkapi Palace, and after the visit, which lasts about 3 hours, we have lunch in a nearby food stand. We get on the Tram – Line T1 at the Gulhane Istasyonu Stop until we reach Kabatas. From here, in a few minutes on foot, you can get to the Dolmabace Palace. After the fascinating guided tour, we take the nearby funicular to reach Taksim Square, the city’s beating heart. We continue on foot along the crowded Istiklal Caddesi until we reach the Galata Tower to enjoy the view from its top. We end the day with a seafood dinner in a restaurant on the Galata Bridge.
Day 3: We catch the Tram getting off at Eminonu, and with a short walk, we get to the small but beautiful mosque of Rustem Pasa. The visit is quick, but despite the small size of the religious building, its highly decorated and colourful interior is worth visiting. In front of the mosque is the Eminonu bus terminal, from which we reach the Eyup district with a ride of about 30 minutes (Halit Bulvari stop). In a few minutes, we are at the mosque dedicated to Sultan Eyup, one of the most important religious buildings in the country. The visit is relatively short as the mosque’s interior is less spectacular than other mosques we visited. From here, by cable car, we reach the Pier Loti’ Café, where, sipping a cup of tea, we enjoy the fantastic view of the Horn of Asia. We go down from the hill on foot, passing through the cemetery of the mosque, and we stop in a restaurant for lunch. In the early afternoon, we take a taxi to reach the church of San Salvatore in Chora. Its mosaics are truly superb, and even if it remains slightly out of the way, it is worth a visit. By 4 pm, we are at the Eminonu pier (taxi ride) to end our visit to Istanbul with the fascinating Bosphorus cruise.