Istanbul is a city where east meets west – a beautiful fusion of cultures and history. It is hard to get bored, when there are just so many things to do in Istanbul.
I have visited this city several times and would go again in a heartbeat, even though I still have a long list of other cities I want to visit.
You’ll see that my list of things to do in Istanbul is largely around food and drink. That is because there are just so many interesting foods to try.
The list I have put together is in no particular order and everything I have listed below, I have personally done by myself.
So let’s get into it!
Marvel at the history of Hagia Sophia
No visit to Istanbul will be complete without a visit to Hagia Sophia.
Over its history, this site has played a significant role for 3 different religious groups – the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Muslims. And today it has turned into a museum that continues to enchant its visitors with its incredible mosaics, artifacts and interesting history.
Don’t let the lines deter you from visiting this magnificent place – read up on my post about Hagia Sophia and how to make the most of your visit.
Enjoy sunset drinks at the Marmara Pera Hotel Rooftop
There are a number of rooftop bars around Istanbul, but so far the view from the Marmara Pera has impressed me the most. When I was last there, the bar opened at 6pm in the summer, just in time to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sun set over the vista of Istanbul.
Stroll down Istiklal Caddesi
Located in the Pera District, the Istiklai Caddesi is home to so many wonderful cafes, bistros, restaurants, shops, bakeries, art galleries… you name it. The area is car free, but watch out for the antique red tram that rides up and down the avenue.
Be in awe by the intricate interior of the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is another site not to be missed. The interior is made up of some of the most beautiful and intricate tile designs I have ever seen.
Still an active mosque, so keep in mind prayer time and for females, keep a scarf handy as you will need to wear this when you enter the mosque.
Snack on a BBQ Corn
As you stroll along the streets of Istanbul, you’ll see food vendors selling all kinds of different foods. Keep an eye out for the vendors selling corn – it’s a perfect snack between all your sightseeing.
Drink a real Salep with the locals
Salep is mainly drunk during the winter, but you may be able to get it all year round. It’s a warm, creamy drink made up of primarily milk, rosewater and a wild orchid powder. The orchid powder is said to come from the roots of a mountain orchid in Turkey.
Garnished with cinnamon and chopped pistachio, Salep is a soothing and delicious drink, especially when it’s freezing wintertime.
Take a break at the waterfront restaurant at the Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is another site worth visiting. Historically, it was one of the main residences for the Ottoman sultans. The area is huge, so give yourself at least a few hours to walk through the gardens and explore the various buildings. The Harem is worth the visit, but be prepared to wait in line.
There is a waterfront restaurant at the Topkapi Palace that has a beautiful panoramic view of Istanbul. The food and drinks are more on the expensive side, but the view makes it worth it.
Cruise along the Bosphorus to the Princes Island
The Princes Island is a lovely day visit. Simply hop onto a ferry and cruise along the Bosphorus over to the Princes Island. The island I recommend stopping at is Heybliada.
There are many lovely seaside restaurants that serve up some delicious seafood dishes. And if you have a sweet tooth, try the freshly made lokmas from one of the bakeries on the island.
Haggle your way through the Grand Bazaar
This 15th century Grand Bazaar is an oriental shopping feast. The mere size of the bazaar is awe-inspiring
Packed full of thousands of shops, you will find just about anything at the Grand Bazaar – high quality textiles, colourful glass lamps, souvenirs, leather products, antiques, ceramics etc. And if you plan to do any shopping, be prepared to bargain.
Quick tip – any price the salesperson says, aim to bargain the price down by at least 30-60%. And remember, keep calm and patient.
Watch the fishermen at the Galata Bridge
All along the Galata Bridge, you will find hundreds of locals fishing off the bridge. It’s really quite an interesting sight. And many of the fishermen are really friendly and happy to show you their days catch.
The walk across the bridge is an interesting walk and you will also find a range of eateries serving up local food. I wouldn’t recommend the seafood under the bridge, as I have heard of some people getting sick after eating there.
Smoke a sheesha pipe
There are many cafes around Istanbul where you can smoke sheesha. There are many different flavors to try. The most popular being ‘apple,’ but you can also try other flavours such as watermelon, cherry, strawberry, mint, and coffee.
Try a freshly baked Simit
Simit is like a sesame bagel, but not as chewy and thick. You’ll usually find these sold by street vendors who stack the simit on a tray and carry it either by hand or balancing it on their head. I like eating a simit for breakfast with butter and jam.
Try Ayran, that salty yoghurt drink
I always wondered what that white drink was that all the locals were drinking during their meals. Turns out it’s a slightly salty yoghurt drink. I was a bit spectacle to try it at first, but I gave it a shot. It actually pairs well with a stew or any of the tomato based dish.
Drink an Apple Tea or a Turkish Black Tea
Drinking tea is an integral part of the Turkish culture. Everywhere you go you will see locals drinking tea, no matter the time of day.
The Turkish Black Tea (‘cay’) is a strongly brewed black sweet tea, served in a short, tulip shaped glass. Usually milk and lemon is no added. The Apple Tea tastes more like a warmed apple juice, with a hint of tea flavor… some varieties even taste like an apple pie.
Visit a Sweet Shop and check out the Turkish Delight
There a numerous fantastic stores around Istanbul that sells a huge range of Turkish Delight and other sweets. In these stores, Turkish delight comes in all sorts of flavors and my favorite version is the honey based ones.
If you get to Safronbolu, which is a few hours drive from Istanbul, you have to try the saffron Turkish delight.
Detox with a fresh Pomegranate Juice
As you might already know, Pomegranate is a good source of anti-oxidants so it’s healthy. After a day full of sightseeing, take a refreshing break and get a pomegranate juice. You’ll find street vendors around the city making fresh juices, including pomegranate juice that is freshly squeezed in front of you.
Scrub away at a Turkish Hamam
Visiting a Turkish Hamam is quite a unique experience. There are many hamams around Istanbul, but I would recommend visiting a better-known bathhouse.
The bigger Hamams have interiors lavished with beautiful tiles and impressive ceilings. For the full experience, get a full body scrub and finish off with a body massage.
Visit the Asian side of Istanbul
It is interesting that the most popular part of Istanbul to visit is the European side, even though it only makes up a very small percentage of the country’s size. But because most of the major sightseeing spots are located on the European side, tourists will flock to this side of town. As such, you will find less tourists on the Asian side.
Nevertheless, it is worth a visit after a few days of sightseeing on the European side. The best way to start is to take a ferry or train to Kadikoy and explore the markets and eateries.
Ride the Metro with the Locals
Traffic on the road is a nightmare in Istanbul. No matter the time of day, you can never really predict the status. So I found that the best way to get around was to hop onto the metro. It’s easy to use and affordable. Once you get to the Sultanahmet side of town (Old City), then the light rail is best.
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