One of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia. It’s a frequent point of call on many Istanbul tours and shouldn’t be missed during a trip to the city.
Known as Istanbul’s eighth wonder of the world, the Hagia Sophia is home to an intriguing blend of Christian and Islamic legacies. Built as a Christian church and later converted into a mosque, the Hagia Sophia is a unique religious building.
After surviving centuries of turmoil from both foreign invasions and earthquakes, Istanbul’s centerpiece still stands proudly in the city’s historic heart. Today, the Hagia Sophia is open to anyone to visit, but it's advisable not to enter during prayer time.
The Byzantine architecture dazzles both inside and out, with lofty ceilings, minarets and chandeliers that will have you grabbing for the camera. It’s one of the most photogenic places in the city. The domed roof is the crowning glory, lined by a row of windows that allow magical light to cascade across the colossal nave.
The Blue Mosque is another star feature on guided Istanbul tours. It’s rare for a non-Muslim to be able to enter a mosque, and this is one of the few in the world that welcomes visitors. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this magnificent venue has to be seen to be believed.
The historic mosque was built in the 17th century, with a stunning collection of domes that appear almost ethereal. The mosque gets its name from the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn the interior. It’s a sight to behold, especially when the light casts a blue glow at certain times of the day.
Inside, the atmosphere is peaceful, and you are welcome to enjoy a moment of reflection while sitting on the carpet. During your visit, you’ll learn about the history of the Blue Mosque and hear fascinating stories about the construction.
The mosque is closed to non-worshippers during prayer times so remember to check the schedule before arriving. You’ll need to wear appropriate clothing as the dress code is strictly enforced.
For a different perspective of the city, take to the water on one of the many Istanbul boat tours. You’ll cruise along the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe from Asia. Sailing between continents is a once-in-a-lifetime experience with plenty to see on either side of the riverbank.
From your comfortable seat on board the boat, you’ll gain a better appreciation of the essence of Istanbul. Here, you’ll see first-hand the enchanting mix of ancient and modern districts, punctuated with palaces, basilicas and minarets. Don’t forget to keep your camera close.
Some sightseeing boat tours offer guided visits at some of Istanbul’s top sights. The Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace are common inclusions. Longer trips whisk you off to the Black Sea, where you’ll visit the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi.
For an extra dash of romance, opt for a sunset cruise, and catch the day’s dying light as it dances on the water. You’ll see the buildings glowing orange while enjoying drinks and canapes to toast the evening.
Walking tours are one of the best ways to explore the city, and it’s even better when they’re free. These Istanbul tours take in some of the iconic sights and landmarks as well as a handful of hidden gems along the way.
During your tour, you’ll pass by popular places like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. A particular highlight is the Grand Bazaar, which is the oldest shopping area in the city. Here, you’ll discover everything from exotic spices to colorful lanterns.
Head underground to the eerie Basilica Cistern and check out the Hippodrome for a true flavor of old Constantinople. Exploring with an expert local guide will reveal the city’s authentic side – you’ll learn lots about Turkey’s heritage and culture during your walk.
If you’re keeping an eye on your budget, free excursions give you access to a wealth of local knowledge without breaking the bank. You just tip the guide at the end according to how much you enjoyed the experience.
The lavish Topkapi Palace was built in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed II. It later became the Ottoman Empire headquarters until it was turned into a museum in 1923. Today, the palace is home to a wealth of Ottoman artifacts, including pottery, jewelry and weapons.
At the heart of the palace complex is the Harem, which was the private quarters of the Sultan and his concubines. The rooms and hallways in this part of the building are the most elaborate, with colorful tiling making for pretty photos. Entrance to the Harem usually costs extra but it’s worth every cent.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is also famed for its gardens and courtyards, which are scattered around the royal complex. Keep an eye out for the splendid Gate of Felicity and the viewpoint overlooking the Golden Horn as you explore the grounds.
After visiting Topkapi, head over to the Royal Dolmabahçe Palace to take in a more modern slice of luxury. This ornate residence was completed in 1854 and rivals contemporary palaces across Europe.
When you’ve ticked off the top Istanbul sights, head to the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia and see a different side of Turkey. These overnight tours put you center stage in your own fairy tale in the blink of an eye.
The panoramas of Cappadocia are known for their lunar-like qualities. The region is a geologist’s paradise with unusual landforms and hidden valleys that wouldn’t look out of place on Mars. It’s a place where hikers will be in their element, and nature is never very far away.
One of the best experiences to have during your trip is a Cappadocia hot air balloon ride. The ultimate way to appreciate the surreal terrain in this famous area is from the air. You’ll rise with the sun and float over the region, admiring the fairy chimney rock formations from above.
To reach Cappadocia you can travel by bus or plane, with guided excursions on arrival. Highlights include visits to the Göreme Open Air Museum and the underground city at Derinkuyu.
When evening falls, it’s time to let your hair down with a bit of Istanbul-style entertainment. Many visitors head along the Bosphorus on a dinner cruise, taking in the city sights by night. The illuminated buildings and bridges make for a romantic backdrop.
The dinner cruises are a luxurious affair, with multi-course meals to enjoy while floating along the river. Expect to be wowed by traditional cuisine as well as plenty of international flavors to keep everyone happy. Free-flowing local beers, spirits and soft drinks are included in your ticket.
Live entertainment is an integral part of your dining experience. You’ll enjoy a Turkish dance show during your meal, with local tradition at the heart of it all. Belly dancing is often the headline act, with the sensuous performers wiggling their hips at an astonishing speed.
Whirling dervishes and folk musicians sometimes make an appearance, with a live DJ to get you in the party mood. Don’t forget to look out of the window and watch the city passing by.
The most delectable of Istanbul tours focus on introducing you to both Turkish and Asian food. Visiting the local markets, cafés and restaurants with an expert guide means that you’ll get more out of your visit. You’ll also discover places away from the beaten tourist trail.
These excursions take in both the European Side and the Asian Side of Istanbul. The food in each area takes its inspiration from the different cultures that have been long-established in the city. You’ll experience so many unique dishes that you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in two different countries.
First up is the old town in the European part of the city. You’ll visit a spice market and tuck into a local Turkish breakfast of cheeses, buffalo cream, pastrami and olives. Enjoy traditional tea and scrambled eggs before continuing your quest.
Next, you’ll cross the Bosphorus to explore the Asian Side of Istanbul. Here, in the trendy Kadikoy district, you’ll visit another market, try freshly brewed coffee and tuck into sweet baklava.
The Galata District is another of Istanbul’s popular neighborhoods. Located on the Golden Horn, lively Galata sits on the European side of the city. A stop here is included on several Istanbul tours as the area is steeped in history.
Narrow cobblestone streets, ancient churches and hidden synagogues make up this delightful district, with museums and bars adding a modern twist. During the excursion, you’ll venture into historic markets, taste local street food and pop into traditional music shops.
The pinnacle of a visit to this charming area is ascending the medieval Galata Tower. Dating back to the Genoese period, this monument was built as a watchtower and later served as a fire detection lookout and a prison.
Today, the Galata Tower has an elevator that will take you up to the top. From here, you’ll enjoy sweeping views across the city that are second to none. You’ll be able to spot the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, as well as the Marmara Sea and even the Princes’ Islands.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without seeing the famous whirling dervishes. While watching a live show you’ll experience the mystical Sema Ceremony, which combines an 800-year-old ritual with traditional Turkish music. It’s an emotional journey, and you can’t help but be drawn in by the mesmerizing dance.
The whirling dervish ceremonies were developed by the Sufi community, as a form of deep meditation. A dervish is someone who wants to discover divine truth – they are all members of the Mevlevi Order. Each dance symbolizes the performer’s spiritual ascent to perfection.
This theatrical act has been included in the UNESCO Heritage of Humanity list and is a frequent inclusion on Istanbul tours. The performance involves Sufi men dressed in traditional white gowns, spinning in circles to reach a trancelike state.
Whirling dervish shows are usually around an hour long and include a live orchestra to bring the movements to life. During your visit, you’ll also learn about the history of the whirling dervishes and have a chance to explore the museum.
Famously known as the city where east meets west, Istanbul sits at the intersection of two continents. It straddles the Bosphorus Strait and used to be Turkey’s main seaport. An intoxicating blend of European and Asian influences, this popular Turkish city is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Formerly called Constantinople and once the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Istanbul of today is a modern city with ancient roots. Everything from its architecture to its food is steeped in history. Walking through the atmospheric old town is like taking a journey back in time – heading out on foot is the best way to explore.
Visitors are attracted by the palaces, mosques and bazaars, as well as the photogenic streets and squares. The city has been the backdrop for many famous films, including Murder on the Orient Express, Charlie’s Angels and three different James Bond movies.
Often combined with a visit to other hotspots in Turkey like Cappadocia, Dalaman or Antalya, Istanbul is easy to reach. The city is served by flights from around the globe, with great transport connections allowing seamless onward travel. Most visitors spend two or three days in Istanbul before continuing their adventures down on the Mediterranean coast.
If you’re spending a few days in the city and want to visit as many attractions as possible, it’s worth buying the Istanbul Tourist Pass. This gives you entry to multiple sites including the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. You’ll also have access to free guided Istanbul tours around places like the Dolmabahçe Palace and the SEA Life Aquarium.
Another pass that will save you money is the Welcome Card, which offers skip-the-line entrance and public transport rides. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Museum Pass is a cost-effective option if you’re into history. Over 10 venues are included, including the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Istanbul is a big city with busy traffic, but it’s easy to navigate using the metros and trams. First-time visitors should take an Istanbul hop-on hop-off bus tour. These routes take you into the heart of the city, and you can jump on and off the bus at your chosen destinations.
When it comes to staying in Istanbul, there are several districts to choose from. Sultanahmet is a good bet if you want to be close to the attractions – this is the historical center. Those looking for shopping and nightlife should base themselves in the Taksim area.
If it’s your first time in the city, you should concentrate your sightseeing in the Sultanahmet area. This is where you’ll find all the major attractions, including the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. For shopping and restaurants, head to the Şişli district – this is one of the best places to eat out.
Once you’ve ticked off the iconic spots, there’s still lots more to see in Istanbul. The Süleymaniye Mosque stands on one of Istanbul’s seven hills and is the final resting place of Suleiman the Magnificent. Then there’s the Hippodrome, which once sat at the center of Byzantine life. Today, it’s known as Sultanahmet Square.
Don’t miss a visit to the Asian side of the city, either by crossing the Bosphorus Suspension Bridge or taking an Istanbul boat tour. Here, you can visit the Beylerbeyi Palace, which is a splendid former Ottoman residence. If you’re exploring on a river cruise, you’ll also pass by the Rumeli Fortress.
Looking for free things to do in Istanbul? There’s no charge to enter the Hagia Sophia basilica or wander around the Grand Bazaar. Gülhane Park can also be visited for free – it’s a popular spot for a stroll and a picnic.