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39 Best things to see & do in Istanbul

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Last updated: 20 June, 2023
Expert travel writer: Dana Facaros
  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

external facade of a large mosque with four turrets

Bucket List Experience

Hagia Sophia

A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, this world-renowned 6th-century marvel encapsulates the essence of the lost Ottoman Empire in stone.

With a great dome and marble columns adorned with frescoes and glittering gold mosaics, the Church of the ‘Holy Wisdom’ was the last major creation of classical antiquity and the centre of the Byzantine world for 1,000 years. Initially a cathedral, then a mosque, it’s now a museum as well as a functioning mosque – and a must-see in Istanbul.

Good for age: 13+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Exterior view of grand, waterfront palace on a sunny day

Bucket List Experience

Dolmabahce Palace

This luxurious, modern ‘European’ palace on the banks of the Bosphorus was built on the order of the Ottoman Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdulmecid I, and was built between the years 1843 and 1856. An extraordinary and unique architectural curiosity, the Dolmabahce blends Ottoman architecture with Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical details – it’s overwhelming to the point of kitsch, and so lavish that it bankrupted the Empire.

Don’t trust the clocks: they all say 9.05, stopped at the hour when the Turkish revolutionary statesman Ataturk died here on 10 November 1938.

Adult price: £9

Good for age: 18+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

After conquering Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror converted the Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church, into a mosque. By the 1500s, the sultans were transforming Istanbul’s skyline with spectacular granite, marble and tile mosques inspired by the Hagia Sophia – many including complexes of hammams, schools, libraries and markets to fund them.

The legacy was almost 3,000 mosques (more than any other city on earth) of which the magnificent Ottoman imperial mosques – the 17th-century Blue Mosque and Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosque – are the undoubted stars.

Good for age: 13+

  • Istanbul , Marmara Region, Turkey

Opulent red-carpeted staircase in palace

Bucket List Experience

Istanbul’s palaces

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror found the old Byzantine Great Palace uninhabitable, so he built a new one – the opulent Topkapi Palace – which set the style and remained the seat of power for centuries.

Other more flamboyant Sultans followed suit, no expense spared, in building their own palaces and monuments. The result was a legacy of 11 extravagant palaces, reaching a dizzying level of crystal chandelier splendour in the Dolmabahce Palace. Some of the palaces are summer houses and mansions, one (the Ciragan Palace) is now a 5-star hotel, but many are retained as museums.

Adult price: £2

Good for age: 13+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Palace building on a sunny day with trees in foreground

Bucket List Experience

Topkapi Palace

Built in 1459 to become the 15th and 16th-century home of the Ottoman Sultans, this enormous complex became the centre of the Ottoman world. Now it’s a perfectly preserved time capsule of life at the top in this most exotic of empires. Some parts of the palace, especially the harem and the sultans’ private quarters, rank among the finest works of Turkish architecture and art.

The museum holds Ottoman clothing, weapons, armour, miniatures, religious relics, and illuminated manuscripts such as the Topkapi manuscript. The collections the sultans piled up over the centuries – from glittering jewels to Prophet Muhammad’s tooth – are beyond belief.

Adult price: £17

Good for age: 18+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Aerial view of large mosque with six minarets with blue sea in the background

Bucket List Experience

Blue Mosque

Built on the orders of Sultan Ahmet I (1603–17) to rival the Hagia Sophia in grandeur and beauty – and completed in 1616, one year before his death – the Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is considered one of the last great mosques of the classical period, combining Byzantine elements with traditional Islamic architecture.

With six slender minarets and a beautiful dome, it dominates Istanbul’s skyline. The interior is decorated with 21,000 hand-painted (mostly blue) tiles and stunning stained-glass windows.

The whole area around the Blue Mosque was once the site of the Byzantine emperors’ Great Palace. Some of the palace’s recently discovered, lavish floor mosaics, dating from AD 450-550, are on display at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Good for age: 13+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Turkish dancers in traditional, white skirts spin in front of musicians playing Turkish instruments and wearing conical hats

Bucket List Experience

Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul

Dressed in long white robes with tall hats symbolising tombstones, members of the Mevlevi order (more popularly known as whirling dervishes) are followers of the 13th-century mystic Mevlana Rumi, who would spin into ecstatic circles overcome by his love for God.

The sema ceremony recalls Rumi’s spiritual journey as the dervishes whirl to the Sufi’s haunting, hypnotic music. UNESCO recently placed the dervishes on its Intangible Heritage of Humanity list.

The Hodjapasha Culture Center, an Istanbul cultural centre housed in a 15th-century bathhouse, stages a haunting sema of dervishes whirling to a classical Turkish orchestra, and other traditional dances from across Anatolia.

Dances of Colours perform traditional semas in an equally authentic setting: the 19th-century home of dervish Ismail Dede Efendi.

Adult price: £10

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 75 minutes

When: Tuesday - Sunday

Freq: weekly

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

World-class art in Istanbul

Bucket List Experience

World-class art in Istanbul

Its centuries as an imperial capital have also left it some extraordinary historical art to seek out – the gorgeous mosaics in the Chora and Grand Palace museums from the Byzantine era, and from Ottoman times, a hoard of beautiful things: miniatures, glass and metalwork, carved and inlaid woodwork, colour-drenched tiles, ebru (paper marbling) rugs and calligraphy. The Topkapi Palace offers a compelling intro, but it’s well worthwhile seeking out the art in Istanbul’s museums.

But in recent decades, a young, vibrant Istanbul has become a world-class centre for contemporary art too, with several new museums, as well as the Biennale and Istanbul Contemporary art fairs, creating a unique and enticing blend of old-meets-new.

Adult price: £-

Good for age: 18+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Intricate, illuminated Turkish lamps hanging from the ceiling inside a market

Bucket List Experience

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

It’s the oldest shopping mall in the world, and possibly the biggest, with 5,000 shops to browse through. Glittering like Aladdin’s cave, Istanbul’s Covered Market or Grand Bazaar consists of 66 streets covered with stone vaulting and enclosed by a wall.

All of Turkey’s treasures are on display, but it’s an everyday market too, selling everything from diamonds to dishcloths; during peak times there are as many as half a million people inside its walls. Maybe not the best place for bargains, but an unparalleled treat for the senses, and an essential part of the Istanbul experience.

Good for age: 8+

  • Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Brightly-coloured Turkish delights stacked in piles outside of a store

Bucket List Experience

Istanbul’s best food & drink

Turkish cuisine is one of the world’s finest, and Istanbul has always been the best place to eat it. Today it’s the epicentre of the slow-food-style New Anatolian Kitchen movement, led by celebrity chef Mehmet Gurs – discovering, reviving and riffing off thousands of nearly-forgotten dishes and ingredients from across Turkey.

Dishes are fresh and unfussy, served with the local olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes. Expect plenty of seafood, especially golden fried anchovies, and cured hams and lamb dishes.

Turkish food is ideal for vegetarians, with many of the meze dishes (cold and hot starters) based around yoghurt, aubergine and vegetables, with lots of fresh herbs, including mint, dill and parsley. The traditional accompaniment to a meal is raki, an aniseed-flavoured drink, rather like ouzo, which should be mixed with water and ice.

Adult price: £5

Duration: -