I get a lot of questions about this topic, so I want to share with you my favorite places to visit in Istanbul. Although I have been to the city twice, I have yet to write about it because it was before I was a blogger. The magical memories of visiting Istanbul remain vivid in my mind and I truly believe it’s a city that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Back in 2012 on my first trip through Turkey, no one I knew was even talking about the country, nor had they visited. In fact, Instagram was just a a couple years old and it wasn’t being used to influence our travels or inspiring places to visit in Istanbul. While I did do some internet research then, I actually bought books to read and learn.
I remember landing in Istanbul on one trip and arriving by boat on another. Each time I went to almost all the same places (because they’re that spectacular) and both times I fell in love with the city.
Places To Visit In Istanbul:
1. Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque).
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or better known as the Blue Mosque, is not only a popular site in Istanbul but a functioning Mosque that has the call to prayer 5 times a day. It was given the name “Blue Mosque” from the blue tiles that grace the inside. From the moment you walk in, the gorgeous grandeur of the design takes your breath away. It is truly a spectacular place to visit and one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
You will often find the Blue Mosque on many bucket lists because it is truly spectacular.
- free entrance
- no entry for the 90 minutes around and during the call to prayer
- you must remove shoes and put into a bag (free)
- you must be dressed appropriately to enter. Women must cover head and shoulders and no bare legs above the knee. Men should dress modestly and no shorts.
- no flash photography and do not photograph those who are praying
- keep quiet as it is a place of worship
2. Basilica Cistern.
Located below the city of Istanbul and about 500 feet away from Hagia Sophia, this is a must visit on your trip to the city. Rich in history and built during the 6th Century, one of the most fascinating things you”ll find while exploring down there is the Medusa head columns on their sides. No one knows just how they got there but that doesn’t make them any less special.
- You may have to wait in line outside
- Entrance fee is anywhere from $1-4 USD check exchange rates
- If you are claustrophobic, no worries, it is massive down there any you won’t feel closed in
- It is slippery, so wear appropriate shoes
- There are stairs (maybe a flight or so) to get down
3. Hagia Sophia.
If you are short on time, Hagia Sophia is truly one of the best places to visit in Istanbul and should top your list. Over the decades the use of the building has changed dramatically from a Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral to an Ottoman Empire Mosque, and now today stands open as a museum.
Hagia Sophia is easily one of the most stunning places I have ever been to and walking in you can feel just how grand it is. I highly recommend walking up to the top but it is uneven slopes to get there.
- Closed on Monday’s currently
- Entrance is about 60 Turkish Lira – there are exceptions for free entry. Check HERE.
4. Galata Tower.
One of the predominate landmarks and best place to visit in Istanbul, Galata Tower should not be missed. It was once used as a watch tower to watch over the city and now it remains and tourists can visit. There is a cafe on top offering a panoramic view of the city.
- There are elevators to the top BUT if you want to go to the very stop there are a few set of stairs to walk up
- Open Daily
- Entry is about 25 Turkish Lira
5. Taksim Square.
This is where you go for nightlife, shopping, restaurants, and to just walk and window shop. This is a rather modern section of Istanbul and you can find hotels in the area as well.
6. Topkapi Palace.
Currently a very large museum in Istanbul but a former residence of Ottoman Sultans. Topkapi Palace is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for history buffs. Built in the 1400’s but the Sultan’s did move in until the 1800’s. Later in the 1900’s it became a museum.
One of the coolest things to see at Topkapi is the trees! The had some sort of fungus that caused them to hallow out. While they are still standing, they are quite the site to behold.
- Entry is 60 Turkish Lira, The Harem is am additional 35 Turkish Lira
- There area areas where photography is NOT allowed – be cautious of this
7. Hippodrome of Constantinople. Today it is referred to as Sultanahmet Meydanı and remnants remain of the original structure. Formerly it was the sporting area of Constantinople.
- This area is free to walk around and in between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
- Be cautious of the all the people selling stuff, it can get aggressive.
8. Grand Bazaar.
One simply doesn’t visit Istanbul and not go to the Grand Bazaar. Unless of course it is Sunday, in which they are closed. One of the top tourist attractions in the world, the Grand Bazaar is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
The Bazaar attracts over 200,000+ people per day! That sounds like a lot, but the reality is that the Bazaar is 60+ covered streets and around 4,000 shops. You can actually get lost in this wonderful maze of Turkish Delight, apple tea, leather goods, tea sets, and carpets galore.
Whatever you are looking to buy in Turkey, you can find it here. Be prepared to negotiate and don’t take the first price.
- Bring cash, Turkish Lira recommended
- There are many people selling the same things all over the Bazaar and it is competitive.
- Negotiate prices.
- Make sure it was actually made in Turkey. A lot of people say “made in Turkey” and then you flip it over and it says “China.”
9. Spice Market.
Even though the Grand Bazaar is bigger, the Spice Market should not be missed. It is often said that the Spice Market is the most colorful, fragrant and a place to sample things. I remember coming here because the Grand Bazaar was closed and I stocked up on tons of incredible teas, spices and Turkish Delight to take home.
- Entry is free
- They ARE open on Sunday, unlike the Grand Bizarre
- Bring cash, Turkish Lira is your best bet
10. Cruise The Bosphorus.
Cruising the Bosphorus is one of the best things to do while in the city. You can actually see a lot of the best places to visit in Istanbul from the boat. Grab an apple tea and relax while you straddle Asia and Europe simultaneously.
11. Dolmabahce Palace.
The Dolmabahce Palace is most notable for being both a residence and an administrative space for the Ottoman Empire during mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Fun fact: Based on today’s values, the cost to build was over a billion dollars! Definitely look at all the details and amazing architecture throughout.
- Closed on Monday and Thursday
- Entrance fee is about $4 USD/$20 TL (check exchange rates)
12. Traditional Turkish Bath. One of life’s simple pleasures is getting a massage. However the Turkish do something extra special called a “Turkish Bath.” While the idea may seem daunting, its truly an experience not to miss. In summary, most places offer a shared Turkish bath experience where you strip down naked and lie on a stone where you get washed and massaged.
It is actually a pretty normal experience in Turkey and you should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to do this. I remember when I was first told what it was I immediately said no. I did not want to be naked around anyone. After hearing other people in my group rave about it, I went ahead and did it. It is one of the best experiences in massage I have ever had and the people are extremely professional and kind.
You will find a multitude of places around the city for the Turkish Bath, so feel free to pick any that stick out to you or come highly rated. Of all the places to visit in Istanbul, this will be the most relaxing and leave you feeling refreshed.
Tip: There are private Turkish Bath experiences as well. Don’t feel like you have to go in a room with other people.
Places To Visit In Istanbul: Summary
I realized after I put together my favorite places to visit in Istanbul that most of them are within the same area and walking distance to one another. There is an area where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, The Grand Bizarre, Spice Market, Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern, and the Hippodrome of Constantinople that are all a stones throw away from each other. In addition, you can easily find a Turkish Bath over here and access the Bosphorus.
While I did spend most of my time on the European side of Istanbul for this list, there is so much more to the city to see. I need to return back to Turkey and do more exploring and then I can update this list.
Tip: Please check with your government on travel advisories and visa information as these items tend to change.