Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities. There are so many wonderful reasons why you should visit this city. Istanbul is old, dating back thousands of years, and with that, there are many historical places to visit. Istanbul is gorgeous, with its assortment of mosques and their colorful tile work and dramatic architecture. Istanbul is charming; we met so many welcoming, friendly people here. And finally, Istanbul is home to the Hagia Sophia, an amazing architectural feat and one of the Wonders of the World.
If you have plans to visit Istanbul, you should know that there is a lot to see here. You can easily fill five days of your time in Istanbul. Hopefully, you have at least three days on your itinerary, but more time is ideal.
Either way, if you are like us, you will be dreaming about returning to Istanbul someday. It’s just that kind of city…it stays in your heart long after you leave.
Must-Have Experiences in Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia
If you only have time for one thing in Istanbul, it should be the Hagia Sophia.
This cathedral was constructed in 537 AD. For 900 years it was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia was the single greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, when the Ottomans took over Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. It functioned as a museum until July 2020. Now, it is a mosque.
Step inside this amazing wonder. The Hagia Sophia still retains the elements of Christian and Islamic religions.
Allow about two hours to tour the entire building.
The Blue Mosque
Walk across Sultanahmet Square to the Blue Mosque. Built in 1616, the Blue Mosque is famous for the intricate blue tile work the covers the interior of the building. It is free to enter, and if you have never been inside of a mosque before, this is a good one to start with. There are particular rules you must follow when entering a mosque, and because of the large numbers of tourists that visit the Blue Mosque everyday, the entrance procedures are well explained here.
The Grand Bazaar
For us, one of the highlights of Istanbul was shopping in the Grand Bazaar. Normally, shopping can be a drag for kids. But not in the Grand Bazaar. Even Tyler and Kara were excited about our return visits here. With its kaleidoscope of colorful lanterns, its friendly people, and its maze of hallways, the Grand Bazaar is a joy to explore.
LEARN MORE: Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
The Basilica Cistern
Descend underground Istanbul to one of the city’s ancient reservoirs. The Basilica Cistern is dark, chilly, and mysterious. See if you can find the two slightly creepy Medusa heads.
Cost: 20 TL, cash only, no credit card, not included on the Museum Pass
Hours: April 1 to October 31 9 am to 6:30 pm; November 1 to March 31 9 am to 5:30 pm
Skip-the-Line Tour: Click here for skip-the-line tickets into the Basilica Cistern
The Chora Church (Kariye Museum)
The Chora Church is a Greek Orthodox Church famous for its frescoes and mosaics. These mosaics portray the life of Jesus Christ.
Cost: 54 TL, included on the Museum Pass
Hours: April 1 to October 31 9 am to 7 pm; November 1 to March 31 9 am to 5 pm; ticket sales end one hour before closing
The Galata Tower
The Galata Tower was built in the mid 14th century and was used as a fire tower, barracks, and a dungeon. From the top of the tower you get one of the best views of Istanbul.
Cost: 100 TL, not included on the Museum Pass
Hours: 9 am to 7 pm
The Topkapi Palace was the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. This Palace was used for 400 years until Dolmabahce Palace was constructed in the mid 1800’s. One of the best places to visit in Topkapi Palace is the Harem, where the mother of the sultan, his wives, and his concubines lived.
Topkapi Palace is a beautiful spot in Istanbul. Room after room is covered in exquisite tile work. If you are here in the springtime, the gardens are filled with tulips and hyacinths. Plus, the views of Istanbul from here are amazing.
Hours: Summer 9 am to 6:45 pm; winter 9 am to 4:45 pm; closed Tuesdays
Cost: 100 TL + an additional 70 TL to visit the Harem. Included on the Museum Pass.
Official website: For updated hours, pricing, and the full schedule of closing dates, click here.
Skip-the-Line Tour: If you want to take a guided tour of Topkapi Palace and skip the line, here is a tour that gets great reviews.
Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent
This mosque gets our vote for the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul. It was renovated in 2010, which accounts for its sparkling interior. This mosque is actually older than the Blue Mosque, but only by 60 years. It was built by the sultan Suleyman the Magnificent during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.
Eminonu is a very busy, slightly chaotic spot in Istanbul. This harbor area sits on the Golden Horn, a famous waterway that runs through the city. From Eminonu you can visit mosques, the Spice Market, famous restaurants, or catch a ferry that will shuttle you to any number of places in Istanbul. Take in the scene here. This is Istanbul in action, a hive of activity all day long.
This bridge spans the Golden Horn, joining the older sections of Istanbul with the more modern neighborhoods. A walk across this bridge is a must while in Istanbul.
Rustem Pasha Mosque
Rustem Pasha Mosque is a very small mosque that is famous for its Iznik tile work. It does not look like much on the outside, but it’s what is on the inside that counts, right? Well, the tile work in this mosque is some of the best in Istanbul.
Try Some New Foods
While in Istanbul, try some of the local foods. Kofte are meatballs made with lamb or beef. Pide is “Turkish pizza.” Meze are cold appetizers. Dolma are stuffed vine leaves or vegetables. Sis Kebabs, skewers of cooked meat, are delicious. Doner is a meat sandwich made from lamb, beef, or chicken. Turkish delight (lokum) and baklava are two delicious options for dessert.
Cruise the Bosphorus River
Istanbul is the only city to span two continents, Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus River divides these two continents. If you have the time, a cruise on the Bosphorus River is a great way to see more of this city.
The cruise leaves from Eminonu in the morning and travels north towards the Black Sea. Midday, have lunch in the small fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. From Anadolu Kavagi, walk fifteen minutes uphill to the Yoros Castle. From here, you will have excellent views of the Black Sea.
By 5 pm you will arrive back at the Golden Horn in Istanbul. This is a low key day, a perfect day to put midway through your tour through the city. Most of the time you sit and watch Istanbul glide by as you cruise the Bosphorus.
Take the Commuter Ferry
For the best, cheap experience in Istanbul, take the commuter ferry from Eminonu across the Bosphorus River to Kadikoy. This round trip excursion takes about an hour and when we did it, it cost just $1 per person.
If you don’t have time to do the full day Bosphorus River Cruise, this journey on the commuter ferry is the perfect alternative. Mix in with the locals and enjoy the views back to the the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. If you are traveling with kids, bring some bread to feed the seagulls that follow the ferry. This is a great activity to do at sunset because the views back to the Sultanahmet District are amazing.
Ortakoy is a trendy neighborhood in Istanbul. Stroll the shops, dine at one of the restaurants, and see the iconic Ortakoy Mosque.
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Istiklal Street is a famous street in the New District of Istanbul. It is a pedestrian street that can get very crowded. This area definitely feels different than the rest of Istanbul. It is here that you will find Gap and Starbucks and Nike. But it is a beautiful street, especially with the tram that runs up and down the road.
The Spice Market
This is your place to buy Turkish Delight, fresh olives, figs, pistachios, and of course, spices.
The Neighborhoods of Fener and Balat
Leave behind the more popular tourist areas and stroll through the colorful neighborhoods of Fener and Balat.
Walls of Constantinople
These giant walls were built in the 5th century. They stretch for 3.5 miles from the Sea of Maramara to the Golden Horn. Designed to keep invaders out of Constantinople, these walls were only breached twice: first in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and later by the Ottoman invasion in 1453.
While in Istanbul, you can walk a portion of these walls. From here, you are overlooking the neighborhoods of Fener and Balat, getting a unique perspective of the city.
Eyup Sultan Mosque
This is a mosque much less visited by tourists than the other mosques on this list. Located in an area outside of the main touristic zone, when you are here, Istanbul really feels “authentic.” This is a beautiful area of the city. From the mosque, follow the walking trail uphill through the cemetery. It is a beautiful walk and from the top you get a great view of the Golden Horn and Istanbul.
Built in the 4th century AD, the Hippodrome was the site of chariot races.
In the Hippodrome are two obelisks. The Obelisk of Theodosius (the one with hieroglyphics in the photo below) is the ancient Egyptian obelisk of King Tuthmosis III. It was erected in the 15th century BC at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. It was moved to Istanbul in the 4th century AD by Roman Emperor Theodosius I.
The Walled Obelisk, the older looking of the two obelisks, is actually younger than the Egyptian obelisk.
Meet the People
Istanbul is home to some of the friendliest people we have met while traveling. Are you visiting Turkey with kids? Your children will be treated like royalty. The warmth and friendliness of the Turkish people are one of the main reasons why we fell in love with this country.
Istanbul Museum Pass
The Museum Pass is a card that covers your admission to several of the main museums in Istanbul. It is valid for 5 days and with this card you can skip the ticket lines. It costs 325 TL.
If you visit four of the main sites that are covered in the Museum Pass (Chora Church, Topkapi Palace and the Harem), your grand total is 224 TL. The Museum Pass offers no savings, although it does allow you to bypass the ticket lines. In my opinion, it is not worth it to purchase the Museum Pass, unless you plan on visiting more sites that we do not include in this article.
Click here to learn more about the Museum Pass.
Where We Stayed
Hotel Uyan. This small hotel is located within walking distance of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We stayed in the Blue Mosque Corner Room, a room that is relatively large for a European hotel. We had plenty of room for our family of four. From the windows we could see the Blue Mosque and the top of the Hagia Sophia. Every morning we awoke to the sound of the muezzin from the Blue Mosque. The hotel has an upper deck with awesome views over Istanbul.
If you are planning a visit to Istanbul and have questions, comment below! For those of you who have been to Istanbul, what was your favorite experience?
More Information for Your Trip to Turkey:
- TURKEY: 10 Day Turkey Itinerary: Istanbul, Cappadocia, and Ephesus
- CAPPADOCIA: Best Hikes in Cappadocia with Kids
- SELCUK & EPHESUS: 7 Experiences to Have in Selcuk
- CAPPADOCIA: A Hot Air Balloon Flight over Cappadocia
Planning a trip to Turkey? Read all of our articles in our Turkey Travel Guide.
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