Straddling two continents either side of the mighty Bosphorus River, Istanbul is a mesmerising meeting place of Europe and Asia that every backpacker should experience with their own senses. The scent of nargile pipes and roasting chestnuts, the sounds of prayers floating out of mosques, the flavour of kebabs, Turkish delight and ocean-fresh fish and the jaw-dropping sight of Istanbul’s minaret-pierced skyline – there’s so much to discover in this enchanting city. Don’t know where to start exploring? From centuries-old towers to subterranean playgrounds, sweltering saunas to bustling bazaars, these are the top things to do in Istanbul.
Firstly: is Istanbul safe?
Short answer, yes. Headlines about terrorism and a failed coup scared off visitors a couple of years ago, but backpackers are now returning in droves, and you should join them. You can never guarantee safety anywhere on earth, but if you’d be happy to visit other major cities then you shouldn’t sweat too much about Istanbul.
Turkey does share a border with Syria and Iraq, but that’s hundreds of kilometres from Istanbul. In fact, Turkey’s biggest city is way closer to Budapest or Dubrovnik than you might think. You’ll notice heavy security at the airport and big-ticket attractions, but that’s the reality of travelling anywhere in Europe these days.
Like all major cities, you should keep your guard up for pick-pockets and street scams, especially in crowded areas like the Grand Bazaar. The worst thing you’re likely to encounter? Being swindled by the trickery of an ice cream vendor – and that’s all part of the fun.
So here are our top things to do in Istanbul:
1. Admire the Blue Mosque
You can’t begin anywhere other than Istanbul’s most iconic landmark. Better known as the Blue Mosque after its colourful tiles, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is the work of — you guessed it — Sultan Ahmet, who constructed this masterpiece 400 years ago. Visitors are welcome inside, just check the visiting hours, cover your legs and shoulders (plus hair for women) and follow the signs to the tourist entrance. But Istanbul’s biggest mosque is even more impressive from the outside, gazing up at the six towering minarets and countless shapely domes.
2. Step inside the Hagia Sophia
Staring across the square at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is a much older and quirkier architectural marvel. Built as a church in the sixth century, converted into a mosque 900 years later and then transformed into a museum in 1935, this domed monument is a historic patchwork of art and design. Inside, the millennia-old Christian mosaics, intricately decorated domes and giant gold Arabic letters act as a time capsule through Istanbul’s history… not to mention fantastic Instagram fodder.
3. Dive into the Basilica Cistern
Like a scene lifted straight out of ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, this underground wonderland snakes beneath the earth next to the Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern supplied drinking water to the people of Istanbul as early as the sixth century and has been spooking out visitors for the past three decades. Tread the dimly lit boardwalks and wind your way through the hundreds of ancient pillars that support the roof, including two mysterious heads of Medusa staring back at her admirers.
4. Puff on nargile
You can’t go five minutes in Istanbul without catching a sweet-scented waft of smoke out of a ‘nargile’, also known as a hookah or shisha. You’ll find dozens of laid-back nargile lounges in the Tophane area north of the Golden Horn, where you can join the locals for a puff of fruit-flavoured tobacco, a cup of tea or coffee, a plate of ‘lokum’ (Turkish delight) and a spirited game of backgammon. Just make sure that when you post the pics online, your mum knows it’s not a bong.
5. Haggle at the Grand Bazaar
Lamps, coffee sets, clothes, rugs, jewellery, Turkish delight, wallets, tea, ceramics, chocolate, bags… whatever souvenir you’ve got in mind, you’ll almost certainly be able to find it at one of the Grand Bazaar’s 5000 stores. And no, that’s not a typo — this maze of markets contains five thousand stalls covering more than 60 covered streets that you can get lost in for hours.
The other market you need to add to your list of things to do in Istanbul is the Spice Bazaar just south of the Galata Bridge, an Egyptian bazaar brimming with edible eye candy.
6. Catch a ferry between continents
It normally takes a pricey plane ticket to travel from Europe to Asia. In Istanbul, it only costs three lira ($0.60/€0.50/£0.40). It’s a breezy half-hour ferry trip from the Eminönü or Karaköy on the European fringe of the Bosphorus to Kad?köy on the Asian side, with plenty of seating on the deck for that perfect photo of the Istanbul skyline across the water. Lots of companies offer Bosphorus cruises, but there’s no need to pay extra when the views from the regular ferry are so spectacular. The Asian part of Istanbul is worth exploring too — Kad?köy is one of the city’s coolest neighbourhoods, loaded with cool bars, eateries and street art plastering every spare patch of concrete.
7. Visit the Topkapi Palace
Topkap? is a palace fit for a king. Well, a sultan. Occupying a huge chunk of prime waterfront real estate over the Golden Horn, this elegant residence played host to Ottoman royalty between the 15th and 19th centuries. The ornate tile work and grandiose design is dazzling, but Topkap?’s sordid tales of debauchery are even more jaw-dropping. Sultan Murad the Third fathered more than 100 children, which should give you a clue about the sort of stuff that used to go on in the 300-capacity harem!
8. Eat seafood on the Galata Bridge
You’ll probably spot the dozens of fishermen dangling their lines into the Golden Horn off the Galata Bridge. They’re reeling in some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever sink your teeth into! Head to one of the garish boats selling ‘bal?k-ekmek’ (grilled fish sandwiches) or grab a table at one of the restaurants on the lower level of the bridge for a taste of Turkish cuisine with views to match. Sure, it might be touristy, but munching on a fish sandwich as you stroll across the Galata Bridge at sunset is one of the quintessential things to do in Istanbul.
9. Scale the Galata Tower
Look, there’s no way around it, the Galata Tower always attracts a queue… but it’s worth the wait! Soaring 67 metres over the streets below, the Galata Tower delivers a 360-degree panorama of Istanbul that helps you appreciate how mammoth — and breathtakingly gorgeous — this city is. There’s also a restaurant at the top of the tower, but you’ll find cheaper food and drink at plenty of nearby rooftop bars, including the legendary 5.Kat.
10. Stroll up Istiklal Avenue to Taksim Square
Besides the 670-year-old tower that looms over it, the Beyo?lu district has a distinctly modern vibe. The northern half of Istanbul’s European side is home to the city’s busiest pedestrian street, ?stiklal Avenue. It’s pretty much Turkey’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, but with kebabs instead of crêpes. Follow the vintage red streetcars ding-dinging their way up to Taksim Square, or wander down a side street for a drink at a ‘meyhane’ (tavern). The pubs and clubs of Nevizade Sokak buzz into the wee hours seven nights a week.
11. Work up a sweat at a hamam
Weird? Yes. Invasive? Sure. Relaxing? Depends how comfortable you are with a stranger aggressively massaging your naked body. But one of the most memorable things to do in Istanbul? Absolutely. The hamam — or Turkish bath — is an Istanbul institution, a piece of Ottoman culture that’s survived in the new millennium. Visitors strip off, lie on the hot stone, enjoy (or endure) a full body scrub and then dunk into the plunge pool. Most hamams are separated by gender and many cater to first-timers, so there’s no need to be nervous.
12. See the Süleymaniye Mosque
It might not be as big as the Blue Mosque, but Istanbul’s second largest sacred sight is every bit as majestic. Perched high up on one of the city’s Seven Hills, the Süleymaniye Mosque doesn’t attract as many tourists as its crowded big brother — and that only adds to its grandeur. After stepping inside the monumental mosque and the lavish tomb of its patron Suleyman the Magnificent, spend the afternoon in the immaculately curated courtyard gazing over the Golden Horn.
13. Catch a game of football
Turkish people are passionate about a lot of things, but nothing matches their fanaticism for football. Three huge clubs dominate Istanbul’s football scene — Galatasaray and Be?ikta? on the European side, plus Fenerbahçe in Asia — and if you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket, you’ll be treated to an eardrum-busting atmosphere that echoes around the sporting globe.
14. Check out the bling at the Dolmabahçe Palace
In 1843, Sultan Abdülmecid decided that the Topkapi Palace wasn’t quite comfy enough for his family, so he built a new royal residence on the banks of the Bosphorus. Sure, the new palace cost five million Ottoman lira — the equivalent of 35 tonnes of gold or $1.5 billion in today’s money, plunging the Ottoman Empire into financial ruin soon after — but the result was opulent over-the-top luxury that’s still sparkling almost two centuries later. Don’t miss the crystal staircase, the 4.5-tonne chandelier and the peacocks strutting around the waterfront gardens
15. Watch the Whirling Dervishes
Istanbul is home to countless captivating sights, but the Whirling Dervishes might be the most entrancing. Spinning around in flowing white robes to the rhythm of their hypnotic chanting, these performers follow the Sufi branch of Islam and believe that their mystical dance moves bring them closer to God. The ritual began in the Turkish city of Konya, but the Dervishes have spun their way into Istanbul where there are now six ‘Mevlevi tekkes’ (lodges) where visitors can watch a show, including the Galata Mevlevi Museum just off Istiklal Avenue.
16. Escape to the islands
Sitting 20 kilometres south of the city, the Princes’ Islands are the perfect day trip from Istanbul. This small archipelago is a car-free haven of colourful wooden villas, turquoise water and quaint horse-and-carriage rides down flower-lined laneways. It’s like taking a trip back in time that’s just a short ferry ride from the crowded city streets. Regular boats from Eminönü and Be?ikta? on the European side and Kad?köy on the Asian side sail to the islands of Büyükada, Heybeliada and Burgazada, making this day trip an easy addition to your list of things to do in Istanbul.
So, are you feeling inspired and ready to start exploring Istanbul? Perhaps it’s already one of your favourite cities and you have some more tips to add? Let us know in the comments!
And why not check out hostels in Istanbul?
About the author
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.