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10 Amazing Things to Do in Istanbul

10 Amazing Things to Do in Istanbul

I consider myself very lucky. On my first visit to Istanbul, I cruised the Black Sea and had a professional tour guide show me all the top sights for two days. Then, tourism for Americans in Turkey (now Türkiye) ended for years. I returned in 2022 with Costa Cruises for a cruise and a couple of days for sightseeing. Just wait till you see how many amazing things to do in Istanbul there are—and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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1. Shop the Grand Bazaar

Whether you’ve been to Türkiye or not, chances are you’ve heard of the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market and oldest market in the world. There are 4,000 shops inside this giant shopping emporium, which covers 50 acres. It is a charming place to explore the culture of Turkey and the products the beautiful country is famous for.

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A few things you can expect to see, and way more than once, are carpet stores, tea and spice shops, Turkish Delight stalls, and those with leather goods, clothing, jewelry, Czech crystal chandeliers, and purses. You even have a whopping 11 gates to enter the Grand Bazaar from.

Pro Tip: Vendors are happy to haggle over prices; that is acceptable.

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2. Explore Topkapi Palace

Construction of the marvelous Topkapi Palace began in 1459. For over 400 years, the Ottoman Empire’s sultans lived at this state-of-the-art address overlooking the Bosphorus Straight and Marmara Sea.

Today, Topkapi Palace is an incredible museum (multiple buildings) housing priceless decor, armor, weapons, and works of art. One of the most prized possessions on display here is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, an 86-carat pear-shaped diamond surrounded by 49 old-mine cut diamonds in two rows. It was once worn by the Queen of France and is jaw-dropping! This ring is the 4th largest of its kind in the world.

You can also find many religious relics at Topkapi, such as Moses’s staff, David’s sword, and a glove of John the Baptist.

Other points of interest that were thrilling to me were the Imperial Gate and the portrait gallery. Areas able to be toured have ceased since 2020, so you may not be open to an accessible tour as I was before. Don’t miss the dancing fountains, or use the outdoor space and its benches as a place to rest.

Fun Fact: Topkapi and several other areas of Istanbul are recognized at UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1985.

3. Visit Hagia Sophia

Many people forego shopping at Grand Bazaar for one of the two most desirable tourist sites in town: Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. Hagia (pronounced hi-ya) Sophia is the Church of Holy Wisdom. It is massive inside, with impressive marble, huge light fixtures, and fascinating mosaics.

Rumor has it Hagia Sophia may be the most enormous enclosed space in the world, and to me, the most beautiful building in a city of 25 million people.

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The Hagia Sophia was the center of Orthodox Christianity for 900 years, then for 500 years, the jewel of the Muslin world and a grand mosque. In 1935, it was converted into a museum but has returned to a mosque as of 2020.

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Shoulders must be covered and no shorts allowed in this respectful religious establishment, a Mecca for tourists, so expect crowds day or night. You will remove your shoes upon entry, so wearing socks is my tip.

Once you enter, chances are most people will be filming or taking photos, so dodge them carefully as you wander around this spectacular architectural marvel.

Did You Know? Hagia Sophia is one of the only places in the world where both Muslim and Christian symbols are visible under the same roof.

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4. Explore Ancient Cisterns: A Most Unusual Things to Do in Istanbul

Istanbul’s Basilica Cisterns are fascinating. Where else in the world do you go and check out the underworld? I visited the ancient cisterns on my Istanbul trips and had a different experience with each.

First, we toured the long dark passages, saw the famous Medusa head, and heard the history behind the historic city. On the second visit, we were treated to a Disney-esque light and laser show in the (Theodosius Cistern) cisterns. It reminded me of the currently touring immersive art exhibitions (Van Gogh, etc.) around the US, only more theme park style. Tours are given every hour on the hour.

Fun Fact: There are several hundred cisterns underneath the city.

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5. See the Blue Mosque

As mentioned above, the Blue Mosque is one of the most desirable things to see in Istanbul, Türkiye. The official name of this stunning free attraction on the Bosphorus is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, built in 1609 in only seven years. You’ll see the Blue Mosque from miles away—it has six minarets pointing toward the heavens. 

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The entrance to Blue Mosque is the same as Hagia Sophia, but ladies must also cover their heads. There are scarves to borrow should you need one.

The Blue Mosque is amazing, almost hypnotic. Inside, 200 stunning stained glass windows and 23,000 handmade ceramic tiles ( blue, green, and turquoise hues) cover the walls in a captivating fashion. Then there is the one single wall-to-wall carpet, the biggest perhaps in the world, another wow factor. Black symbols on the wall with gold writing offered the signature of sultans, and impressive decor clamored for approval. 

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It is not uncommon to see people praying in the Blue Mosque, so please be respectful of their space and intimate religious relationship, as this is a functioning mosque.

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Be sure to look up—I think the ceilings and domes are the most beautiful part of this mosque.

Did You Know? The tile’s designs show fruits, roses, tulips, and trees.

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6. Eat Like a King or Queen

What does one eat in Istanbul? Turkish foods run the gamut from meat Kebabs and grilled vegetables to bread, baklava, and the freshest fish. Sidewalk cafes are popular, with attractive seating arrangements, great for people-watching.

It is also prevalent to drink Turkish tea; I prefer the apple tea with one sugar cube.

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I always try to order the Döner kebab, a great mix of slow-roasted skewered lamb, beef, or chicken. Rice or grilled vegetables are a perfect accompaniment, plus any bread (pide, rolls, or flatbread). If you can try the traditional cheese of Istanbul, Kars Gruyere, get ready for a little bite of heaven. Yum!

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My favorite place to eat is Pierre Loti Aziyade Restaurant in the town of Pierre Loti. Our guide Honifi took us there, and to this day, it remains one of my all-time best meals.

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7. Sample Turkish Delight

Turkish delight was created in the 18th century and has been Turkey’s most famous sweet treat. It is available on nearly every street corner and mostly everywhere in between. The confection is starch and sugar, formed like a log or cube form (often dusted with powdery sugar), and contains chopped dates, hazelnuts, pistachios, or walnuts. They are often flavored, like rose, orange, or lemon.

Though there are probably hundreds of Turkish delight variaties, my favorite is the one with dried apricots and a layer of nougat. It also makes a great souvenir. Pair it with some flavored teas from the Spice Bazaar, and you are all set.

turkish-delight-candy -hop

8. Cruise the Bosphorus Strait

There are two choices for cruising the Bosphorus Strait: a full day (6 or 8 hours) or a two-hour one (short circle), which to me is plenty. Boarding for the cruise takes place at Kabatas Pier and is easy to get to. The cruise is only $1 or so, but this will require you to obtain your own ticket, and with the language barrier, it may be a little daunting.

Another choice is to book with Viator for a 90-minute boat cruise, complimentary refreshments, and an audio guide app in ten languages as you sail the beautiful Eurasia waterway. Tickets are around $10 for this option and can be purchased online. Some of the landmarks you will see and have excellent photo ops for are Galata Tower, Topkapi, Hagia Sophia, Rumeli Fortress, and Beylerbeyi Palace. 

Please note this tour is not wheelchair-accessible, but strollers are okay.

Did You Know? Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents. Double the amount of people lives on the Asian side than the European.

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9. Wander Dolmabahçe Palace

Another ornate palace to explore is Dolmabahçe Palace, located in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, Türkiye. This is one of the most pristine palaces in the world, situated on 175 acres along the Bosphorus. Dolmabahçe was the main admin center of the Ottoman Empire for 50 years or so in the mid-1850s and early 1900s.

The awe-inspiring attraction has 285 rooms with 44 halls, silk carpets, over 200 oil paintings, and six Turkish baths or hammams. Ornamental alabaster, bearskin rugs, oil paintings, and substantial Turkish carpets decorated the palace. I would love to show you the beauty, but pictures are strictly prohibited, and tours are only available with a guide. You’ve got to see this place to believe it.

I was surprised to see a painting of Old Faithful in the palace. It was a gift from the United States.

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Fun Fact: The palace’s crystal chandelier was a gift from Queen Victoria of England and is the largest in the world. It has 750 bulbs and weighs a whopping 9,000 pounds. Besides this piece, there are dozens more Bohemian Baccarat lights.

One More Fun Fact: The 31st Sultan built Dolmabahce as he wanted a more modern palace than the one at Topkapi. In today’s currency, the price tag would be 1.5 billion dollars or one-quarter of the tax revenues collected annually.

10. Take a Guided Tour

I was fortunate to have a privately hired guide (Honifi of Tours by Locals) on my first visit to Istanbul (we had him for 24 hours over two days) and with a Costa Cruises excursion on the last. Having a nice mix of educational offerings and free time to explore and see the unexpected parts of the metropolitan city is essential. 

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While one could drone on about the historical aspects of Istanbul for hours, the beauty is every bit as much of a draw. I enjoyed watching the street vendors preparing food for the crowds, hearing the Ezan (call to prayer) six times a day, and admiring the attractive gardens and fruit trees.

I appreciated the free time to photograph the obelisks, architecture, and blue skies. And be sure to save time for exploring Hippodrome Square.

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Digesting Info from My Tour Guide

During a religious service, the mosque would be full of men only, standing shoulder to shoulder in straight lines across the carpets in prayer. Prayer in this part of the country (Muslim) occurs five times a day. A loudspeaker inside the minarets broadcasts a chant or song that calls everyone to worship. This was the most different thing to get used to in Istanbul. Sometimes hear many of the calls at once, with each one making different sounds, and boy, are they loud!

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Having never been to a Muslim country, I was surprised to learn that Muslims believe in Jesus Christ. They do not think he was the son of God but only a prophet.

There are so many amazing things to be discovered and explored in Istanbul, one of the world’s greatest cities. I hope you will love it as much as I did.

Thanks to Costa Cruises for hosting me on this cruise FAM which included visits to Turkey and Greece. As always, reviews and opinions are 100% mine and unbiased.

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