Connecting two continents and overlooking two important straits, Istanbul has always been a prize for many invaders. It was the capital of three great Empires, and today it one of the most visited cities in the world. This city is famous for thousands of years of history and a mix of Oriental and European cultures that you can’t find anywhere else.
Istanbul is a fantastic city with many attractions. If you are short on time, deciding on the best things to do in Istanbul can be a daunting task.
City Passes for Istanbul
One of the best time and cost saver for foreign visitors is the availability of different tourist passes. If you are planning to visit multiple key attractions, consider saving money and skipping the long queues by using one of these tourist passes:
The Istanbul Museum Pass will enable you to visit Hagia Sophia and 11 other museums in Istanbul. This multi-pass will allow you to skip the waiting lines at these Istanbul tourist attractions and take your children under 4 with you for free.
There are a few details to note:
- They are personalized, and only one person can use it.
- It is valid for five days (120 hours). The clock starts ticking when you use it for the first time.
- You can visit each museum on the list just once.
One of the main attractions that is not included in the Museum Pass is the Basilica Cistern. Another alternative is the Istanbul Guided Museum Pass which provides access to 8 different key attractions (including the Basilica Cistern) and locations with an English guide
Note: There is also a multipass ticket, MuzeKart, but it is only for Turkish citizens and residents.
This “almighty” Istanbul Tourist Pass gets you free entry and guided tours to Hagia Sophia and many other attractions like the Blue Mosque, Maiden’s Tower, and Sea Life Aquarium Istanbul. All in all, you can visit 32 tourist attractions in Istanbul with just one ticket.
Besides that, you also get free internet on your phone for three days, free use of hop-on-hop-off buses and boats, free airport transfer, Prince’s Island and Bosphorus cruise tickets, and much more. The list doesn’t end there – you get discounts on some services and private airport transfers. You will also get a Whatsapp live tourist support, which can be extremely useful.
The prices start at €95 ($115) for two days, up to €145 ($170) for the whole seven days. The price for children’s passes is €45 ($60), no matter its duration.
Note: The Istanbul Tourist Pass can only be purchased online. Please do that before arriving in Istanbul so that you could use the airport transfer and mobile internet. The ticket itself is electronic, and you will receive it via e-mail. However, the mobile internet device is in physical form (mobile WiFi hotspot), and it will be delivered to your hotel or needs to be picked up in a meeting location. The company that provides them needs at least one day’s advance notice.
The Istanbul Welcome Card comes in selection of Classic, Premium and Deluxe. The mid-tier premium version will get you free skip-the-queue access to Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, and the Bosphorus cruise. An English-speaking guide will show you each of the four sites, and a complimentary digital city map will make getting around Istanbul much easier.
You also get ten free rides on Istanbul’s public transport (bus, tram, funicular, metro, and ferry). The card is valid for seven days.
Check out the other two tiers as well to see what fits your needs best.
Public transportation will help you get around the places of interest in Istanbul. If you want to save the hassle of buying tickets every time, the city transport card can be a good option. The card provides the option of 5 or 10 rides on Bus, Metro, Tram and Ferries. It can be delivered to hotels in Sultanahmet or Taksim areas.
Things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya)
This historical landmark of Istanbul has witnessed some troublesome times, and it is still a subject of many disputes. It was first built as a Christian Orthodox Temple – Hagia Sofia Church, then it was a mosque, then a museum, and now it is a mosque again. All of these periods left their mark on the Hagia Sofia Istanbul, and it leaves visitors overwhelmed.
Kids under the age of eight (foreign or Turkish) can get in without charge. Regular ticket price for Hagia Sofia is around $15.
April to October 9 am- 7 pm
November to March 9 am-5 pm
The best time to visit is right after opening or before closing time.
Tips. There is always a waiting line. Consider getting an entry with a guided tour to skip the queue.
Istanbul’s imperial Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I, or the Blue Mosque as tourists call it, is located in Old Istanbul, next to the Hippodrome and Hagia Sofia.
It is a beautiful and magnificent example of Ottoman architecture and one of the first things to do in Istanbul.
There is no entrance fee, it’s completely open and free for all visitors, but there are some things to consider when planning a visit:
- It is a functioning mosque, and it’s closed to visitors during prayer time. (45 minutes before the call to prayer and 30 minutes after it). If you are wondering how you will know when it is- don’t worry, you will hear it. A fascinating mosque has an equally fascinating sound speaker system.
- There is a dress code: men should wear long pants, and women should cover their hair and shoulders. If you don’t have such a piece of clothing, don’t worry. The mosque lends some of these clothing free of charge at the entrance to the Blue Mosque.
- Like in any mosque, you have to take your shoes off. You will leave them in a provided free plastic bag.
Tourists and non-worshippers enter the Blue Mosque through the south side entrance. As mentioned, there is no admittance fee, but all donations are welcome. There is a dedicated spot for them at the exit.
A word of warning: You will probably be approached by people offering to get you inside the mosque without waiting in line. It’s just a trick, and they will probably try to sell you something or take you to some shop. The best way to get in is to wait in line. The queues may look long, but they usually move fast.
This is a trinket and knickknack paradise. Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world – it has over 4000 shops and hosts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors each day. You can find everything you ever wanted but didn’t know where to look. Visiting the Grand Bazaar is one of the must do things in Istanbul.
It can take you an entire day to go around it because it spans over 61 streets. You might even get lost because it has 22 entrances. So, you might need a strategy. The same type of shops is concentrated in the same areas. In one street, you will find just jewelry, clothes in the other, the third street will be full of spice shops.
And this fierce competition between vendors brings about some practices that some foreigners find charming, while others find a bit annoying. The sellers can be a bit pushy in getting you to buy that thing you just touched or looked at.
Remember- you don’t have to buy it. Just walk away. There is a saying amongst the locals – if the seller is really pushy – his merchandise is bad. It is also alright to haggle at Grand Bazaar, and probably expected. You will be amazed at how low the prices can go.
Visit a Turkish Bath (Hamam)
You can’t go to Istanbul and not visit a genuine Turkish bath. All modern and fancy spa centers have evolved from these old oriental baths. So, why not visit the original? Give your body a treat and indulge yourself in a soothing environment. It’s one of the most relaxing things to do in Istanbul.
I got such a good scrub from the staff that the sponge was totally destroyed after he was done with me. Say bye to all your dead skins in one of these bathes.
Hygiene was always a big part of old Orient culture, so there are centuries-old but functional baths everywhere. However, some are more popular than others.
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, from the 6th century, Galatasaray Hamam from the 15th century, Süleymaniye Hamamı, Kılıç , Ali Paşa Hamamı, Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, all from the 16th century.
All these hamams have impressive architecture. There is no gender mixing, and you can choose between several levels of service. The prices start from $50 and can go up to several hundreds of dollars for the most luxurious service.
Basilica Cistern, or Cisterna Basilica, is the largest of hundreds of antique cisterns located beneath Istanbul. It was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Besides its enormous size (almost 105,000 sq ft), the most distinctive feature is a forest of tall marble columns supporting the ceiling. There are 336 columns in total, each 30 ft high.
The impressive underground space is the filming location for many world-famous movies, and if you visit it, you will understand why. It is one of the eye-opening things to do in Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern is near the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Hippodrome, so you won’t have to walk much. However, you can expect to wait in line because this is one of the biggest attractions in Istanbul. You can skip the line if you take a guided tour.
While the Hippodrome was a center of life in old Constantinople, there isn’t much left of it now. Today it is a city park known as At Meydanı. It is a beautiful park, placed right in the middle of all Old Istanbul attractions. That makes it a great place to relax and catch your breath between all the sightseeing that Istanbul is constantly enticing you to do.
Underneath the Hippodrome park is the Basilica Cistern. You will find Hagia Sofia across the street, Topkapı Palace is just beyond it, and the Istanbul Archeological Museums are only a few meters away from Topkapı.
In the park, you can see a 3500-year-old Egyptian granite Obelisk, remains of the city’s aqueduct system, fascinating old fountains, and monuments.
The park also has a free WiFi network, compliments of the city of Istanbul.
Built during Suleiman the Magnificent reign, it was the largest mosque in Istanbul for almost 500 years – until the Çamlıca Mosque was completed in 2019. However, this is still a landmark of the old city and one of the must-sees in Istanbul.
The mosque complex is designed to let the air through and still protect from the elements, so you will never feel stuffy inside. You will also find mausoleums of Suleyman and his wife here.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is a functioning mosque, so the rules about dress code, shoes, and prayer times also apply here. The entrance to the mosque is free of charge. Süleymaniye Mosque is roughly 20 minutes by foot from Hagia Sofia, but just 5 minutes from Grand Bazaar; you might want to consider that when scheduling things to do in Istanbul.
Although it’s termed as a river, Bosphorous is actually a strait and a pretty significant one. It is a busy and lively sea route that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Cruises and tours make a big part of the traffic there. There is a large selection of companies that provide this service, and the prices start from $30 for short (2.5 hour long) cruises. Longer cruises with several stops, full course meals, and onboard entertainment (national music and dancers) can go up to $60 or $70. If you prefer a smaller crowd, another popular option are to tour the Bosporus on yachts.
Tip: Most of the cruises and tours start at Eminönü docks. Do not go there and try to choose the boat on the spot. There are some dishonest boat operators that will try to overcharge you, promise something, and won’t deliver, or take you on a shorter tour. Check the companies and buy a ticket online because there is a limited number of seats. Istanbul’s official ferry company is Şehir Hatları, it’s a good place to start the search or find options with reviews on tour sites.
Located near Hagia Sofia, it was the court of the Ottoman Empire and home of every Sultan from the 15th to the 19th century. So much history makes it an almost mandatory entry on our things to do in Istanbul list.
There you can see the four Courts, the Harem that once housed over 300 concubines, the Sultan’s Treasury, and so much more. Unlike the European courts, which are mainly in one colossal building, Oriental Courts are a series of interconnected buildings. This enormous complex is simply captivating.
Topkapi Palace Museum -about $15
Harem and Halberdiers with Tresses Dormitory – about $6.
Tip: This is another popular attraction where you can also get a guided tour to skip the line.
Take your time!
Istanbul is an incredibly exciting city, and it requires more than just a weekend trip to see all that it has to offer. If you are planning a visit, try to make it a longer one. You don’t want to just rush around from one tourist attraction to another without really soaking in the history and the atmosphere.
The Hop-on Hop-off bus is a convenient and comfortable way to travel between attractions and see the city. This can be an efficient option if you want to maximize your time.
You can make a list of things to do in Istanbul to plan your itinerary, but don’t forget to be a little bit adventurous. After all, The Orient was never about planning and precision, but magic and mystery.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is a touristic destination frequented by both backpackers and holiday makers. Similarly, there are a range of accommodations catering to different types of visitors. Here are some popular options to consider.
Hostels in Istanbul
Hostel Le Banc: Known for having an amazing atmosphere and it’s good location, the hostel has simple, modern interior with sturdy wooden beds in the dorms. Each bed is also fitted with curtains for extra privacy.
Archeo: The dorms in Archeo has stairs to access upper deck beds, eliminating the need for clumsy climbing. In addition, the beds are shaped like a capsule giving a really cozy feel. The hostel also has a cafe with character at the lobby. You can easily access the metro and some sites of interest.
Cheers Hostel: If you are looking to stay right in historic center of Istanbul, Cheers hostel is definitely an option to consider. Featuring a bar within the hostel and a cozy, colorful interior, this is a good place to meet other travelers.
Hotels in Istanbul
Glamour Hotel Istanbul Sirkeci: How about breakfast with a view, that is one of the main draws of the Glamour Hotel. Known for their sea view terrace and fulfiling breakfast, this hotel is also in a good location for exploring the Turkish capital.
Dream Bosphorus Hotel: Classic style, clean hotel that is centrally located in the tourist zone. It also has a rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus river.
Catch Hotel Sultanahmet: If you are looking at a more differentiated and homely option, Catch Hotel Sultanahmet is essentially a series of houses from the Ottoman period. You get a cozy and quiet rest place after all a full day of exploration.