Are you planning a trip to Istanbul or have just arrived in Istanbul and want to see everything but don’t know where to start? That is exactly how I felt when I was in Istanbul. Luckily, I have compiled a list of top Istanbul attractions that I have visited myself, and am sharing my experience and tips/tricks for navigating Istanbul! *Please note current travel restrictions.
Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city and a must-visit destination as the bustling city offers a modern, yet historical vibe. Although you are surrounded by modern technology, there are buildings and artwork from the Byzantine era around you, and the many mosque’s ‘call to prayer’ can be heard several times throughout the day. Istanbul is also a transcontinental city since one part lies in Europe and the other part lies in Asia, so a popular activity is to ride a boat through the Bosphorus strait to see the sunrise. This is a must! Unfortunately, unless you plan to spend several weeks here, it is difficult to fully visit all the attractions listed on Google. No worries though! I was able to visit so many destinations within a few days and have compiled my top picks! Read on for detailed information.
Tips and information:
- Applying for a visa: Visitors from the U.S. must apply for a visa to visit Turkey. The visa is good for up to 90 days at once and is valid for up to 180 days. This can be done online and costs ~$25.
- Weather: Istanbul can be quite hot in Summer (~85 F) and cold and rainy (~32-40 F) in Winter. I went in Winter and was able to avoid larger crowds, but was greeted with some gloomy days. Summer is the most popular season and is VERY crowded. I recommend going during Spring or Winter if you do not mind the cold.
- English: English proficiency is pretty high here. For the most part, vendors and locals can speak English and they would be able to answer any questions you have.
- Dress Code: It is proper etiquette to dress in long pants, close toed shoes, and tops that aren’t too revealing as the country is more conservative. You will also be visiting locations of worship, and you are required to wear pants. Have a headscarf handy as women will be required to cover their hair when entering locations of worship.
- Internet Connection: Do not rely on wifi zones or locals to help you get around because few places offer free Wifi. You may purchase a SIM card at any airport. In the airport at the “Mobile Desk” station, you can purchase an unlimited data plan card for a select number of days. Expect to pay around $15 for a week of data. If you are travelling with other people, only 1 SIM card may be necessary because you can open up the hotspot for others to use. Do keep in mind that you must unlock your phone to use an international SIM card. Save time and do this before you leave for your trip! Learn about unlocking your phone HERE.
- Transportation: Lucky you! Istanbul has an excellent transportation system and getting around places is cheap and easy. I purchased the Metro Electronik Istanbul card. You may purchase day passes based on the number of rides you plan to take. Purchasing options can be found on the Istanbul Metro website. There is a stop nearby most attractions. Here is the map:
- Food: Food is everywhere, delicious, and SO affordable! You can get authentic food or Turkish fast food. Food can also be purchased at grocery stores and enjoyed there as well. One of the best meals I had was at Huma Cafe and Fast Food which I enjoyed on the way back from visiting Galata Tower. Food is so cheap and the portions were huge! I ordered a huge gyro wrap for 8 Turkish Lira (which at the time was around $1.80). It would now cost less as the conversion rate is $1 to 7 TL.
Another similar cafe we enjoyed was Cemre Cafe. A meal for 3 cost around $8!
- Housing: Hotels in Istanbul can be affordable. You can get high quality housing without breaking the bank. You may also opt for AirBnb’s or hostels. I recommend finding places that are walking distance from a metro station so that transportation is easy. Here are a few housing options that are low-cost and near metro stations for convenience:
- Entire townhouse, 5 min. from Taksim station. Taksim square is also home to many shops and restaurants. Night life is busy here! Click HERE for $15 off your booking (New users only).
- Entire apartment with Galata Tower view. Transportation to Galata Tower can be tricky so living next it is a huge perk.
- Entire apartment close to Taksim square. Taksim square is home to many shops and restaurants. Night life is busy here!
- Entire house, 5 min. from Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia is Istanbul’s top attraction.
- Entire apartment, near Grand Bazaar. Grand Bazaar is a must-visit destination and is extremely crowded. Living near is an advantage for sure!
- Use Hostelworld.com to search for hostels fit for you.
- Taksim Square Hotel
- Ferman Hotel Old City
- Ramada by Wyndham
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is perhaps Turkey’s top attraction. It was an important site of worship after Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. The architecture inside is breathtaking and is overall a significant building of religious, political, and artistic life. *The museum was recently converted to a mosque in 2020. Please check website before visiting.
Notes: There is typically a long line to enter. Women did not have to cover their hair. After the mosque conversion, this rule may be different. Shoe coverings are not required. Ticket price: 100 TL ($15). Purchase ticket at ticket office in-person. You are permitted to take photos inside. The closest metro stop is Gulhane Station.
2. Boat ride through Bosphorus Strait
Wake up early and take a boat through the Bosphorus Strait to see the sunrise. On the ride, you are able to see the Bosphorus bridge and many mosques throughout the city. The cruise has an upper and lower deck, both with indoor and outdoor options. Drinks and snacks can be purchased on board for around $1. A 2 hour boat ride costs around 15-20 TL ($3-4). More information HERE.
3. Sulemaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque is Istanbul’s greatest and largest mosque. It is free to the public and although it is lesser known than Hagia Sophia, it is the most magnificent (in my opinion). There are not usually large crowds and you can even experience the call to prayers in the afternoon! The closest metro stop is Vezneciler Station.
4. Galata Tower
Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower that offers a panoramic view of Istanbul. The view is absolutely breathtaking, as you are able to see the Bosphorus Strait and many major mosques in Istanbul. This is a significant landmark of the city and is a must-visit! The architecture nearby is in Medieval style and there are many quaint stores and coffee shops to shop at.
Note: It cost 35 TL ($5) to go to the top of the tower. Purchase tickets once you are inside the tower. The tower is very crowded at the top so limited numbers of people are allowed to go at once. Expect to wait in line. The line is outdoors. There are elevators and a few stairs at the very top. There is a cafe at the top. At the top of the tower, you must walk around the tower counter clock-wise because it is nearly impossible to squeeze by people as space is limited. The closest metro stop is Sishane Station.
5. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is a cistern beneath Istanbul. It is very close to Hagia Sophia, so I recommend visiting both places in the same day. The cistern does not have much water left so that visitors can visit, but it is quite humid and damp on the inside. It is very dark and can be slippery. If you visit, you must see the Medusa heads that are used to support a few columns! Tickets are 20 TL ($3). The closest metro stop is Gulhane Station.
6. Topkapi Palace Museum
The Topkapi Palace is a large museum that is home to Ottoman artwork, clothing, relics, and more. The Palace also showcases its architecture and art from the 15th and 16th century as it was home to Ottoman sultans. The museum is extensive and requires different tickets to visit different sections. The main ticket cost 100 TL ($15).
7. Blue Mosque: Blue mosque is an Ottoman era mosque that is built primarily with blue tiles. The walls and ceilings all include intricate blue designs. The mosque is free to visit and is next to Hagia Sophia. The mosque is closed to the public during prayer. Unfortunately when I went, the mosque was under heavy construction so I do not have any photos.
8. Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace is a palace located right next to the Istanbul Strait. It is the largest palace in Turkey and contains Baroque and Rococo architectural elements. The interior is very elegant and grand, especially the staircase, and is home to many colors. Architecture inside is quite different from Western European palaces and should definitely be seen in person. Pictures inside are not permitted. The nearest metro station is Kabatas Station. I had to walk around 20 minutes to get to the palace. The ticket costs 90 TL ($15) for general admission. You will need additional tickets to visit select rooms.
9. Grand Bazaar and/or Spice BazaarLast but not least it Turkey’s Grand Bazaar! The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest, covered markets in the world and is a maze of items on the inside! You can find a variety of items such as gold, Turkish delights, rugs, lamps, and more. The Grand Bazaar is a sight to behold because it is crowded with people and goods and is quite fast-paced. The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are similar so I would recommend just the Grand Bazaar.
Note: The Grand Bazaar is free to visit but items here are overpriced. Even with haggling, you will pay more than what you would pay a few blocks away since the Grand Bazaar is a tourist location. Keep a very close eye on your personal items because pickpocketing is VERY common here! Instead of purchasing items here, you may enjoy a cup of tea or coffee in one of the local food stands inside. Grand Bazaar is a must-visit for the atmosphere. The closest metro stop is Vezneciler Station.
I hope you found this Istanbul Guide to be useful in planning your next trip to Istanbul If you have any additional questions, you may leave a comment or contact me in the “Contact Me” tab and I will be sure to get back to you! I visited other places in Turkey as well and will be posting more travel posts soon.