Unmissable Things to do in Istanbul
The definitive guide to the essential sights, activities, shopping, restaurants and nightlife in Istanbul
The glorious Istanbul continues to fascinate visitors and locals alike with its vibrancy and great variety. May it be in arts & culture, eating & drinking, shopping or sports there is always something new in Istanbul for everyone and every taste. A new must-see addition for art lovers is Arter that moved to its new and much bigger home and is currently showing 7 exhibitions simultaneously.
We invite you to discover Istanbul with our list of the best things to do on both the European and Asian sides of the city, including our pick of the must-see attractions and museums in the historical peninsula. As well Istanbul’s most important landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we’ve included plenty of activities off the tourist trail, giving you the low-down on digging for antiques in hip Bomonti or watching an opera in Kadıköy, which we have named one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world. From tasting the forgotten delights of Anatolian cuisine to getting a deluxe scrub inside a historic hamam, here’s what not to miss in Istanbul.
1. Marvel at the lofty dome of the Hagia Sophia
What is it? Completed in the 6th century on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a millennium until the completion of Seville Cathedral in 1520. Before being converted into a mosque in the 15th century and later into a museum in 1935, Hagia Sophia served as the centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Why go? The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul’s most popular and iconic historic sites – and for good reason: its massive, transcendent dome is breathtaking and can easily be gazed at for hours. Considered to be an architectural marvel even today, its walls are adorned by Byzantine mosaics featuring feature portaits of bygone emperors and representations of Christ.
Don’t miss: The are two runic inscriptions engraved into the marble parapets on the top floor gallery, thought to have been graffitied there by the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors during the Viking Age.
2. Wander inside the Topkapı Palace
What is it? Looming over the point where the Golden Horn meets the Marmara Sea, Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for more than four centuries.
Why go?: Among the gems of the historic peninsula, Topkapı’s extensive rooms, chamber houses and fascinating objects, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, make the museum a must-see.
Don’t miss: In addition to its extensive and illustrious permanent collections of weaponry, precious jewels and religious artifacts, it is a also home to a rotating cast of temporary exhibitions.
3. Be mesmerized by the tiles inside the Blue Mosque
What is it? The Sultanahmet Mosque, or better known as the Blue Mosque due to the prominent color of its majestic interior, is a historic mosque built in the early 17th century during the reign of Ahmed I.
Why go? Among the city’s most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque’s interior walls are adorned with over 20.000 hand-painted blue tiles, which are bathed in natural light filtering in from more than 200 windows – a dazzling sight to behold. Note that the Blue Mosque is still a functional mosque and visiting is forbidden during prayer times.
Don’t miss: The iron chain hanging over the central entrance to the courtyard was supposedly put in place to remind the sultan to lower his head in humility each time he entered the grounds on horseback.
4. Travel back in time to Byzantium at the Basilica Cistern
What is it? One of Istanbul’s most intriguing attractions, the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı as it’s known in Turkish, was built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century to store up to 80,000m3 of water and channel it to nearby palaces.
Why go? Featuring hundreds of ancient Ionic and Corinthian columns, the cistern is a relic of the Byzantine Empire’s water system that visitors can explore first-hand. The cool and dark underground complex is also a great way to escape the summer heat.
Don’t miss: The cistern features two column bases of unknown origin emblazoned with the upside-down head of Medusa, leaving bewildered visitors to speculate why they were situated that way.