13 Best things to do in Istanbul for a first-time visitor

Are you planning your first visit to Istanbul? Wondering what the best things to do in Istanbul are? See my recommendations below.

"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul." Alphonse de Lamartine

Istanbul, is a fascinating city that straddles two continents and boasts a history that spans millennia. With a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences, this Turkish gem is a melting pot of cultures and a feast for the senses. From the echoes of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires that can still be heard in its architecture and cuisine, to the bustling bazaars and modern art scenes, Istanbul is a city teeming with unforgettable experiences. Every building has its own story and history whispers anecdotes and tales from every brick and every stone.

We visited in March/April and it was cold, and often rainy - but we still loved it.

Here are the 13 best things to do in Istanbul for a first-time visitor

1. Topkapi Palace and Museum

Once the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapi Palace is now a museum that houses an extensive collection of some of the rarest Islamic artefacts in the world. The palace grounds offer beautiful views of the Bosphorus, and the lavish interiors are a peek into the opulence of a bygone era. We hired audio guides and did a self-guided tour. Unfortunately, we couldn't take photos inside.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

2. Blue Mosque aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque is undoubtedly one of Istanbul's most iconic landmarks, and one of the most famous and beautiful mosques in the world. Constructed in the early 17th century during the rule of Ahmed I, it is still actively used as a mosque today while also attracting millions of tourists every year. What distinguishes this mosque is the beautiful blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior, giving the mosque its popular name. With its six minarets, the Blue Mosque's grand silhouette adds to Istanbul's distinctive skyline.

When visiting, remember to dress modestly out of respect for its religious significance - women should cover their hair, and both men and women should wear clothing that covers their legs and shoulders. As it is a place of worship, visitors should also avoid visiting during prayer times.

things to do in Istanbul - blue mosque

Blue Mosque

3. Hagia Sophia

This architectural marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built as a cathedral in the 6th century AD during the Byzantine Empire, later converted into a mosque, and then transformed into a museum in 1935. Since July 2020, it has been declared a mosque again, and prayers have resumed there. Its grand dome, mosaics, and intricate designs are a testament to the city's rich history.

Things to do in Istanbul Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

4.Dolmabahce Palace

Built in the 19th century, the Dolmabahçe Palace is one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. Once the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the final residence of the Ottoman sultans, it is notable for being the first European-style palace in Istanbul.

Inside, you'll find 285 rooms, 44 halls, a 4.5-tonne chandelier in the ceremonial hall, which is one of the largest in the world, and other elaborate decor and furnishings.. The palace's setting along the Bosphorus is equally beautiful, with meticulously manicured gardens to stroll through. Please note that entry to the palace is by guided tour only, and it's worth checking the schedule before your visit.

When we visited, there was a long line waiting in the rain to get in.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

5. Basilica Cistern

Located just a short walk from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul's most surprising attractions. The largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city, it was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Known as "Yerebatan Sarnıcı" in Turkish, meaning "Sunken Palace", it offers visitors a glimpse into the complex system that once supplied Istanbul with water. Inside, you'll find 336 marble columns, each 9 meters tall, arranged in 12 rows, and some columns even feature carved Medusa heads. The cistern, with its dim lights and the soft sound of dripping water, creates an almost mystical atmosphere that transports you back in time.

things to do in Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern

6. Grand Bazaar

One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a vibrant sensory overload. With over 4,000 shops selling everything from spices and rugs to jewelry and ceramics, this is a shopper's paradise. Don't forget to haggle – it's part of the fun!

Outside the Grand Bazaar

Outside the Grand Bazaar

7. Bosphorus Cruise

Separating Asia from Europe, the Bosphorus is the soul of Istanbul. A cruise along the Bosphorus provides stunning views of the city's skyline, dotted with historical landmarks. You can take a public ferry for a budget-friendly option, or opt for a private tour if you prefer something more luxurious.

Dolmahbahce Palace from the Bosphorus Cruise

Dolmahbahce Palace from the Bosphorus Cruise

8. Istiklal Street and Taksim Square

Taksim Square is the heart of modern Istanbul. It's a major tourist and leisure district famed for its restaurants, shops, and hotels. The square is also known for the Monument of the Republic, which was erected to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey.

Things to do in Istanbul

Modern buildings in Istiklal Street

From Taksim Square, take a stroll down Istiklal Street. This bustling pedestrian street is lined with countless boutiques, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theaters, libraries, cafés, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants. It's the perfect place to soak up the city's dynamic atmosphere, day or night. The historic tram running down the middle of the street adds a nostalgic touch.

 

Things to do in Istanbul

Old tram in Istiklal Street

9.Galata Tower

The medieval stone Galata Tower is one of Istanbul's most distinctive landmarks. Originally built in the 14th century, it stands at 67 meters high, dominating the skyline in the Galata district. A trip up to the observation deck provides a 360-degree panoramic view of the city, including the historic peninsula, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. There's also a restaurant and café on the upper floors for those who want to dine with a view.

things to do in Istanbul

Galata Tower

10. Istanbul Modern Art Museum

For art enthusiasts, the Istanbul Modern is a must-visit. It houses a collection of modern and contemporary art by Turkish artists. The museum also offers panoramic views of the Bosphorus.

things to do in Istanbul

Istanbul Modern Arts Museum (cc: Archeologo via Wikimedia Commons)

11. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

Housed in the former palace of İbrahim Paşha, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum showcases a vast collection of artifacts spanning a thousand years of Islamic history. The collection includes beautiful examples of calligraphy, carpets, woodwork, ceramics, and more. The museum also offers a fascinating look at the evolution of Islamic art and its impact on the wider world. It's a must-visit for art and history enthusiasts alike.

12. Experience Turkish cuisine

Turkish cuisine is a delectable blend of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Balkan influences. Don't miss out on trying traditional dishes like kebabs, baklava and pides, Also, try gozlemes, lahmacun and ayran (a yoghurt drink). For a truly local experience, head to a neighborhood lokanta (restaurant) or a street food stall.

baklava

Baklava

Iskender Kebab

Iskender kebab - a local specialty consisting of meat, vegetables and yoghurt served with bread.

13. Egyptian Bazaar

For a feast of colors, smells, and flavors, make your way to the Egyptian Bazaar. This bustling market is a haven for foodies, with stalls piled high with exotic spices, dried fruits, nuts, and Turkish delight. Its name originates from the fact that the spices were originally imported from Egypt. Even if you're not planning to buy anything, the Egyptian Bazaar is worth a visit just for the experience. Take a moment to soak up the lively atmosphere and the enticing aroma of spices that fills the air.

Also highly recommended
1. Suleimaniye Mosque
2. Fish market
3. The Hippodrome

See here for a detailed guide on how to plan your 3-day Istanbul itinerary

To read more about Istanbul, go to Incredible Istanbul.

For a taste of Istanbul in South Africa, go to Nizamiye.

Read about our visit to Ephesus and Kusadasi.

Find the best accommodation in Istanbul here.  If you are a first-time tourist, the Sultanahmet area is highly recommended, as this is where most of the historical attractions are located.

Book your activities here

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best things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

5 comments on “13 Best things to do in Istanbul for a first-time visitor”

  1. I love how you include Egyptian bazaar on the list. This bazaar is awesome for shopaholics since everything is cheaper than the Grand Bazaar if you know how to haggle! 😀

  2. Turkey is on top of my bucket list for long and this list is crisp n easy to remember.thanks so much.hope to visit soon

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