Istanbul City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do

The magical place where East meets West, Istanbul is a mesmerizing destination and one of the most intoxicating cities in the whole world.

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It’s difficult to pick out the top sights in Istanbul when this spectacular city of contrasts is blessed with innumerable attractions to delight all visitors. Not only is it a place of enormous historical importance but it’s also a haven for tourists and the only city on earth that is in both Europe and Asia. Filled with layer upon layer of culture, history and fantastic food, Istanbul is a dream destination and a fascinating mix of the ancient and modern worlds.

 

If you want to make your time in Istanbul hard to forget, read our guide to discover which attractions and experiences are a must.

Blue Mosque

Without question, you’ll be blown away by the beauty of the Blue Mosque, with its curvaceous exterior and six minarets that stand proudly over the old city of Istanbul. Built between 1609 and 1616, this architectural masterpiece gets its name from the thousands of handmade blue tiles that adorn the walls of the interior. The Blue Mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hugely popular tourist attraction, admired by pretty much every single person who visits Istanbul. Otherwise known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque is still an active mosque and one of the most iconic religious buildings on the planet. 

Hagia Sophia

A ridiculously impressive example of Byzantine art and construction, Hagia Sophia is an enormous architectural marvel that sits immediately opposite the Blue Mosque. It was used as a Greek Orthodox Christian church for 916 years before it was converted into a mosque, but it now serves as a magnificent museum and has done so since 1935. Hagia Sophia never fails to impress with its giant spherical dome, huge interior, and colorful mosaics that were created over several centuries. Having been home to various cultures and religions, the Hagia Sophia is truly unique and easily one of Istanbul’s most majestic monuments.

The Grand Bazaar

With over 4000 shops and 60 covered streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar will not disappoint the shopaholic or culture buff. It’s one of the city’s main attractions, and you can easily spend hours exploring the thousands of stalls and kiosks selling everything from Turkish delight, colorful lanterns and local crafts to beautiful rugs, clothes and gorgeous jewelry. The Grand Bazaar is a buzzing place with a staggering variety of merchandise, and getting lost in the labyrinth of scents and spices as you browse the myriad of goods on display is all part of the authentic experience. Oh, and don’t forget to haggle for souvenirs whilst immersing yourself in the local culture.

Bosphorus Cruise

A cruise on the sparkling blue waters of the Bosphorus is high on most tourist’s itineraries because it’s just one of those things you simply must do when in Istanbul. Even when you have little time to spend in the city, a cruise is still one of the best things to experience as it’s a fantastic way to marvel at various landmarks from a different view and see Istanbul in all its glory. And as the Bosphorus strait divides two continents, you’ll get the chance to see both the European and Asian sides of the city. What’s more, it’s a good excuse to sit down and rest those feet for a few hours before, after or during a day of sightseeing.

Hippodrome of Constantinople

Located in what is now known as Sultanahmet Square in modern-day Istanbul, the Hippodrome of Constantinople used to be a public area that was used for chariot racing throughout the Byzantine period. The Hippodrome could accommodate up to 50,000 people, and traces of the old racecourse are still visible today. Now a landscaped city park called the Ay Meydani (Horse Grounds), the Hippodrome remains a popular meeting area in Istanbul’s historic district. Monuments that decorate this area include the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column, Walled Obelisk and German Fountain.

Topkapi Palace

Once used as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans between the 15th and 19th century, Topkapi Palace will amaze you with its harem (living quarters and private zone of the palace) and imperial collections. The palace, which is now a museum, is located on top of Istanbul’s most visible hill and based around four main courtyards, each serving a different purpose and containing gardens and imperial quarters. As the world’s largest and oldest surviving palace, Topkapi occupies an area of 700,000 square meters and offers breathtaking views of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.

Cistern of Philoxenos

Constructed in the 4th century, the Cistern of Philoxenos, or the Sunken Palace, is an astounding man-made subterranean reservoir and one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. While there are several underground water reservoirs in the center of the city, this one is a joy to visit because it doesn’t attract big crowds. The cistern is built on 224 columns that stand over 10 meters tall, most of which still feature masons’ marks. These days, the Cistern of Philoxenos hosts periodic cultural events, such as concerts and art exhibitions. 

Haven’t already booked a cruise that travels to Istanbul? Book our 7-Night Eclectic Aegean Cruise and you can enjoy an overnight stay in this mystical city.