GREAT MUST-HAVE EXPERIENCES IN ISTANBUL, TURKEY
The glorious and one of the world’s greatest cities Istanbul continues to fascinate. With its vibrancy and great variety whether it is art & culture, food & drink, shopping or sports. There is always something new in Istanbul for everyone and for every taste. We invite you to discover Istanbul with our list of the best things to do. Including our selection of must-see attractions and must-have experiences on the Historic Peninsula. This is what you should not miss in Istanbul. THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL.
Istanbul is one of the world’s largest cities. There are so many wonderful reasons why you should visit this city. Istanbul is old, thousands of years old, and with it, there are many historical places to visit.
Istanbul is beautiful, with its assortment of mosques and their colorful tile work and dramatic architecture. Istanbul is also charming. We have met so many hospitable, friendly and lovely people here. And finally, Istanbul is home to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque which are both amazing architectural achievements and world wonders.
If your planned Mediterranean cruise starts in Istanbul, you should know that there is a lot to see here and you could use a few extra days. It is absolutely not difficult to fill five days of your time in Istanbul. Hopefully, you have at least three days on your itinerary, but more time is ideal. Otherwise, this list might help you decide what you really want to see.
Straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia, İstanbul is etched with thousands of years of history. Bearing the marks of the Ancient Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Turks, and the Silk Road traders who’ve lived here over the centuries.
When visiting one of the world’s richest cities in terms of cultural heritage, 48 hours is hardly enough time to even scratch the surface. That being said, it was just enough time for us to get a taste of what İstanbul has to offer. Incredible architecture, great food, a fresh art scene, and shopping in some true one-of-a-kind markets. And although we wish we’d had more time, let’s just say we will be back.
For the best Cruise Port Hotels in Istanbul visit our website with all Cruisers’Choice Awarded hotels. Recommended by other cruise lovers.
What to expect in this blog?
We have put together a list of the best sights to visit. And ideas on what to do from which you can choose for your always limited time in the city. In addition, we have selected a special offer of the best tours where you can be sure that you get the best information and the best deal.
We put them in random order: THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CRUISE PORT ISTANBUL
- HAGIA SOPHIA
- TOPKAPI PALACE
- DOLMABAHCE PALACE
- BASILICA CISTERN
- BLUE MOSQUE
- OLD CITY WALL
- GRAND BAZAAR
- GALATA TOWER
- SHOPPING IN ZORLU CENTER
- SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE
- ENJOY A TURKISH HAMAM
- THE BEST ORGANIZED TOURS
If you only have time in Istanbul for one thing, then you must go and see the Hagia Sophia.
This cathedral was built in 537 AD. It was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for 900 years. The Hagia Sophia was the greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, when the Ottomans took over Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The mosque was a museum for a long time but has become a mosque again after years of litigation.
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular and iconic historical sites of Istanbul. And for good reason! The huge, transcendent dome is breathtaking and you can watch all the details for hours. Even today it is considered an architectural marvel. The walls are richly decorated with Byzantine mosaics depicting distinctive portraits of past emperors and representations of Christ.
Allow at least two hours to explore the entire building.
Click here for tickets & info for your Hagia Sophia Fast Track Entry and 30-Minute Guided Tour
This Ottoman Palace is known as one of the most beautiful landscapes that make up the skyline of Istanbul. It has a wealth of history on the Historic Peninsula. Topkapi Palace is one of the gems of historic Istanbul. It looms above the point where the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara meet.
The palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for more than four centuries. The elaborate rooms, chamber houses, and fascinating artifacts, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, make the museum a must-see. In addition to its extensive and illustrious permanent collections of weapons, precious jewelry, and religious artifacts, it is also home to a changing cast of temporary exhibits.
Tip: Discover the harem and the treasury of the palace.
Topkapi Palace is set in beautiful gardens covering an area of 700,000 square meters on the Eastern Roman Acropolis in Sarayburnu. 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-1800s. 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. Although Topkapi Palace was gradually abandoned in the mid-19th century as the dynasty slowly moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, it retained its historical importance and value.
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.
Click here for your Topkapi Palace VIP Tickets, Highlights Tour, and Audio Guide App
The old sultans felt that there was a lack of modern luxury in the old Topkapi Palace and decided to leave this ‘dated’ palace. In the 18th century, a bay in the Bosphorus was filled in to make room for several summer palaces in the European part of the city.
The current Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1856 by order of Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid. He then moved the entire court from the Topkapı Palace to this new palace. The Dolmabahçe Palace became the administrative center of the late Ottoman Empire, after which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, also lived there until his death.
Today, the palace is open to the public as a museum, visiting various spaces such as the Glass Pavilion, the harem, and Atatürk’s room.
Opening hours Dolmabahçe Palace
The Dolmabahçe Palace is open every Monday and Thursday between 9 am and 4 pm.
The standard entrance costs 90 Turkish lira
For an extra 30 Turkish lire, it is possible to visit the harem too
For another 30 Turkish lire, you also get access to the clock museum and the Glass Pavilion
Skip the lines and buy your tickets online!
Click here for Dolmabahçe Palace Guided Visit
The Basilica Cistern is not one of the most famous sights in Istanbul. But that’s wrong. It is not a palace, but an underground water reservoir from the 6th century. It was made by the Byzantines. The local name is Yerebatan Sarayi, the other name is Sunken Palace.
You can easily overlook this landmark of Istanbul! It’s six meters underground! Descend underground Istanbul to one of the city’s ancient reservoirs. The Basilica Cistern is dark, chilly, and mysterious. An underwater palace, that’s how you can also call the Basilica Cistern. A wonderful place underground in Istanbul, which shows the richness of this city well.
The Basilica Cistern is built between 532 and 542 for Emperor Justinian. The cistern is 143 meters long, 65 meters wide and 9 meters high, making the capacity 80,000 m3 of water! In the past, it provided the water supply for the palace and the surrounding buildings and parks.
Paths have been laid above the vaults. 336 pillars support the whole. The outer walls are therefore 4 meters thick. At the end of the cistern are also two mysterious sculptures of Medusa heads.
Another fact: Sean Connery has been here to shoot some scenes from the movie From Russia With Love as James Bond.
A visit to the Basilica Cistern is more than impressive and special. The reservoir is still in remarkably good condition. And this is also one of the best photo locations in Istanbul. There is of course little light, but many cameras and mobile phones can handle that well these days.
Click here for online skip the line Basilica Cistern VIP Tickets
The Blue Mosque is located in the heart of Istanbul. The mosque is officially called Sultan Ahmet Mosque, but because of the blue color, everyone calls it Blue Mosque. It is a mosque that is definitely worth a visit. Not only the outside but also the inside part is more than worth it.
This famous mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I between 1609 and 1616. The most special thing is that this mosque has six minarets.
The blue tiles of Blue Mosque
Today, the Blue Mosque is one of the city’s major attractions. You can see the mosque in the distance. Including from the Bosphorus River, but also from countless other places.
The interior of the Blue Mosque is decorated with 20,000 hand-painted blue, green and red-brown tiles. Its nickname comes from the blue tiles on the columns and the blue-green paintings on the interior walls. Take the time to see everything. It is more than impressive.
Click here for skip the line online tickets for the Blue Mosque Guided Tour
OLD CITY WALL
If you go to Istanbul (the former Constantinople) you will automatically come across the Old City Wall. It is by far the most beautiful city wall in Turkey. These are also known as the Walls of Constantinople. They were famous for being nearly impregnable in the 14th and 15th centuries. Both from the seaside and from the land, the walls protected the city from raids.
This absolutely impressive Old City Wall was once the last barrier protecting the city. It was built in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II and later expanded. The city wall was necessary to protect the European part against incursions from overland.
In the centuries that followed, the walls were rebuilt several times by the Greeks and later by the Romans. The special thing was that the walls consisted of two layers between which rubble and stones were placed. This allowed any gaps to be filled quickly. This was commissioned by Theodosius II; part of the wall still bears his name.
The wall stretches from the Marmara Sea to the Golden Horn. The city has since swallowed the wall. You could walk along the 4 miles long wall. The Yedikule Hisari Fortress on the Sea of Marmara is a good starting point and is well served by train.
Yedikule Hisari Fortress
The Yedikule Hisari Fortress is also known as Golden Tower. This castle also functioned as a city gate for a long time. It was Emperor Theodosius I as well who initially had a monumental triumphal arch with three arches built on this site. There used to be a smaller gate in front of it, but it has unfortunately been lost.
The Golden Tower became one of the seven city gates in the city walls of Istanbul. The Golden Tower has an illustrious past. Part of it, the octagonal tower, was a prison in Ottoman times. Inscriptions of the prisoners can still be found on the walls. The southern gatehouse was used for a long time as an execution site. For example, Sultan Osman II died here in 1622. In 1831 the prison was transformed into a shelter for the lions of the palace. Today it is a museum.
From the tower, you can see how the wall cuts through the landscape. Allotments and cemeteries line the wall. Time seems to have stood still here. But you also see busy roads and houses. There is no path. It’s best to keep walking to the left of the wall until you reach the water of the Golden Horn. There you can easily take the ferry back.
Various parts of the wall have since been restored. Other parts are as good as gone. You can go out on your own to explore the walls, but there are also guided walks.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı in Turkish) is one of the most famous marketplaces in the world. This gigantic shopping center is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Inside you will find a labyrinth of streets with more than 1200 shops and stalls.
Although you will find a variety of things in the thousands of shops in this covered market, the market is mainly known for carpets, antiques, and jewelry. But you can also find fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat, herbs and fabrics, clothing, bags, and souvenirs. This is one of the places in Istanbul where you will see more tourists (including Turkish ones) than the locals.
Note the often illegally copied clothing brands, are officially not allowed to be imported with impunity.
The market welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists daily from 9 am to 7 pm. The market is only closed on Sundays and public holidays. Like most places in Istanbul, it is quieter here in the morning and on weekdays. Because it is almost always busy, it is advisable to arrange a map as it is possible to get lost.
Don’t forget to haggle when you decide to buy something at the market. The market is located in the Fatih district, easily accessible from Sultanahmet and Sirkeci via the tram (line T1).
Another covered market in Istanbul that is well worth a visit is the Mısır Çarşısı or the Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Bazaar. Located in the Eminönü district. It is the second most famous shopping center in Istanbul after the Grand Bazaar. As the nickname Spice Bazaar suggests, this market is mainly focused on food and you will find many stalls selling spices and herbs, as well as lots of fresh fruit, dried fruits, nuts, and more.
The Egyptian Bazaar is located near Galata Bridge, south of the Golden Horn.
After a visit to the market, it is also recommended to walk along the banks of the river for a view of the Galata Bridge with the many silhouettes of mosques, palaces, and the Galata Tower behind it. You also have to think about the photos after all….
One of the symbols of Istanbul is the Galata Tower, the old tower north of the Golden Horn. You will find these in the European part of the city.
The original tower was built of wood as early as the 6th century, but it was destroyed during the Crusades. In 1348 a new tower of stone was built by the Genoese, which was conquered by the Ottomans a century later. Galata Tower in Galata is a Roman structure with a height of 66.90 meters. This made it the tallest building in Istanbul at the time of its construction in 1348. The tower consists of 9 floors, a cafe, a restaurant, and a nightclub.
The observation deck on the top floor offers great photo opportunities with great views. You can reach the tower by walking from Taksim. It is open every day between 9 am and 8 pm after paying about 35 Turkish Lire entrance fees.
Click here for tickets for Galata Tower & Rooftop Breakfast
SHOPPING IN ZORLU CENTER
You might not think so, but Istanbul is a great city for shopping! As you may know, my roots are in designing menswear collections and we loved Istanbul to get inspired.
Istanbul is full of shopping centers of different shapes and sizes, yet Zorlu Centrum is an outsider. Firstly, there is a very varied offer here. Zorlu Centrum has many types of shops varying in prices such as Bulgari, Burberry, Mango, Louis Vitton, Adidas, Prada, but also a gigantic H&M. There is an impressive Apple store that is two floors in size and much more!
In addition, there are also several cafes and restaurants to choose from. Like most shopping centers like this one, Zorla also has a large cinema. But there is also a theater here where many artists have already performed.
Oh, and there’s another reason to visit this huge mall. Zorlu Centrum makes transportation easier than ever as there is a connection to both the metro and Metrobus station in Zincirlikuyu.
TIP: Due to its convenient location, Zorlu can always be added to your schedule at the last minute.
There are really hundreds of mosques in Istanbul. And in addition to the most famous buildings, there are many more mosques that are definitely worth a visit. One of these is certainly the Süleymaniye Mosque.
After the takeover of Constantinople by the Ottomans, many new mosques were built. Most are modeled on the Hagia Sophia. But none came to be taller than this famous edifice.
The Ottoman sultan Süleyman I saw himself as a second Salomon. He wanted to have an even larger mosque built to display this representation.
So the Süleymaniye Mosque was built on the third hill of Istanbul and therefore towers over the city. The building looks bigger than the Hagia Sofia, but it is not. Still, it is worth a visit. It is surrounded by a large park around the mosque from where you have a nice view of the city.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is also open to the public despite the fact that it is an active mosque. Here too, admission is free. The mosque does close during prayer times.
ENJOY A TURKISH HAMAM
Steam, scrub, soap suds, and a silky massage. Ahhhh… Few bathing rituals in the world generate the decadent pleasure (and squeaky clean feeling) of a Turkish hammam experience!
Spending some time in one of the traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul is a must when visiting the city. There are some 237 hammams in Istanbul and about 60 are still in use. Of course, you want the hammam to be spotless and highly reputable. Mainly because, well, you’ll be naked. Swimwear is also allowed if you prefer that.
By the way, “hammam” is the original Arabic spelling while “Hamam” is the Turkish spelling. Both are used today to refer to Turkish baths. (“Hamma” in Arabic means “warm-up”.) Sometimes you see the word “hamami” too. Historically, traditional Turkish hammams were a place to cleanse both body and soul. They were often found near mosques. So that the Muslim believer could cleanse the body before praying. Not only did you sweat out toxins, but you also achieved spiritual purification.
How does it work?
In a private locker room, you undress and tie a silk-and-cotton Pestemal (wrap) around your waist. You will then be led to the “warm room”. This is a large octagonal marble room with a high vaulted ceiling, marble sinks, and gold taps. Clouds of steam whirl around. Sitting on a marble slab you lazily pour warm water over yourself from a gilded bowl while you relax and enjoy the heat.
An attendant will then scrub you from head to toe with an exfoliating goatskin glove until your skin is baby smooth.
Now comes the dreamy part. From what looks like a pillowcase, your attendant squeezes huge clouds of tiny soap bubbles over you and covers you with a duvet of fluffy softness, as you lie on warm marble.
Finally, you will be massaged with soapy foam. After our two-hour hammam treatment, we felt like we could float away. Light of body and mind.
Women and men:
The Hamams usually follow the classic Ottoman bathing style, but men and women today each have their own sections in the marble hammam.
When planning your trip through Turkey, make sure to visit one or more of them! Experience Turkey in a Hammam!
Here are some of the best hammams in town:
1) AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam (WEBSITE)
One of the best hammams in Istanbul – and perhaps the most opulent – is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. Almost 14,000 square feet of Marmara marble was used and 160 gold-coated bath bowls were crafted for guest use.
2) Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami (WEBSITE)
Like the Aya Sofya, Kilic Ala Pasa Hamam (or Hamami) was also designed by the great architect Mimar Sinan. But located in the port district of Istanbul, it was built between 1578 and 1583 to serve the Ottoman Navy, not the sultan’s wife.
Restored in modern times after seven years of work, it is another elegant Turkish bath in Istanbul. The impressive main dome is one of Sinan’s largest domes in Istanbul (a towering 55 feet high and 45 feet wide).
Open every day, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami has separate hours for men and women:
- Women: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm (last reservation 2:30 pm)
- Men: 4:30 pm to 11:30 pm
3) Cağaloğlu Hamam (WEBSITE)
Another beautiful hammam in Istanbul is the Cağaloğlu Hamami, which was built in 1741. These historic baths, featured in the New York Times bestseller ‘1,000 Places to See Before You Die’, have been featured in more than 138 films.
Over the years, they have attracted a swarm of celebrity clients, from Florence Nightingale and Franz Liszt to, more recently, Kate Moss and Cameron Diaz. Are you next?
4) Ritz-Carlton Istanbul hammam (WEBSITE)
For those who find a hammam in a hotel a fine idea, this is a tip. At the spa at the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul – in the cocoon of the marble Turkish couples hammam suite – steam, scrub, and bubble massage helped us overcome jet lag while visiting Istanbul. The Ritz-Carlton is also close to the tram which takes you to the Old Quarter of Sultanahmet, where you find the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, and other historic sights.
THE 5 BEST ORGANIZED TOURS
Because it can be quite difficult to find your way in Istanbul, it is very nice that you can book the best-organized tours. A safe and easy way to see the best sights in Istanbul. Often also cheaper than the excursions organized by the cruise line.
We have researched a number of them and these are the absolute must. Of course, it depends on the time you have in this city, but we have listed a few. We definitely recommend booking your tickets online in advance as things can get a bit disorganized in this busy city. Traffic, also for taxis, is a disaster because it is really busy so keep that in mind!
1-Full-Day: Classic Istanbul Tour Including Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace
8 hours (Approx.)
Experience Istanbul’s timeless sights on a full-day tour of the city’s stunning historic places. Listen for the ancient echoes of pounding hooves and charioteers at Hippodrome Square and spot the distinctive tiles of the Blue Mosque. See the Byzantine mosaics and minarets of Hagia Sophia, then follow in the footsteps of powerful sultans, courtiers, and generals at Topkapi Palace. Finish your tour in the vibrant Grand Bazaar, browsing bright displays of handicrafts, carpets, and souvenirs.
- Full-day tour of Istanbul’s essential sites
- Choose a small-group tour for a more personal experience
- Relax over lunch at a traditional restaurant
- Learn about Turkish history and culture
- Free hotel pickup and drop-off
- Entrance fees included
- Guaranteed to skip the long lines
- Air-conditioned vehicle
- Hotel pickup and drop-off
- Professional guide
- From €56.24
2-Small Group Tour: Essential Istanbul
8 hours (Approx.)
Explore the top attractions in Sultanahmet (the old city) on a full-day tour with a knowledgeable guide. Take in UNESCO World Heritage sites and famous monuments in Istanbul including the stunning Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Hippodrome. Then follow your guide through the Grand Bazaar, browsing the shops of hundreds of vendors with an array of textiles, jewelry, perfumes, spices, and more. Your guide shares the long history of Istanbul with your small group, which is limited to 10 participants to ensure a more intimate experience.
- Small-group tour of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old city
- Admire the breathtaking architecture and decor of the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Visit the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, both gorgeous monuments from the Ottoman Empire
- Hear about the role of the Hippodrome in the days of the Byzantine Empire
- Browse the shops in the vibrant and historic Grand Bazaar
- Learn about the long history of Istanbul, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire
- Small-group tour with a maximum of 10 participants provides a more customized experience
- Professional English speaking guide
- Hotel/port pickup and drop-off
- Transport by air-conditioned minivan
- Museum entrance fees
- From €51.05
3- Istanbul New Airport Private Transfer
Worry-free and book today a transfer With Minivan Car New Istanbul Airport, a one-way Private transfer. Enjoy a smooth friendly, and hassle-free transfer service, With this private transfer your driver will be waiting at the airport just for you or hotel pickup/drop-off. They don’t have any extra payments for the flight delay.
- Price is only for One way Private transfer and pls send us Telephone number for meeting information
- Bottled water
- Air-conditioned vehicle
- Private transportation
- WiFi on board
- All Fees and Taxes
- From €20.00
4-Sunset Cruise on Luxury Yacht Istanbul Bosphorus (Small-Group)
2 hours 30 minutes (Approx.)
Along a 2.5-hour evening sunset cruise, enjoy unique views, comfort, and a relaxing environment on board with a private yacht. Aboard the glass-encased luxury yacht, enjoy Istanbul’s main attractions at dusk, including the Maiden’s Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Fortress, Ortakoy Mosque Bosphorus Bridge, and much more… Savor a delicious traditional Turkish drink such as demirhindi and canapés as you cruise the strait and delight in the magic of Istanbul’s urban shoreline as night falls.
- Delicious canapés and snacks served aboard
- Hotel pick-up and drop off
- Soft drinks, Coffee and/or Tea
- Unbeatable and unique and photo opportunities during istanbul bosphorus sunset
- Seasonal Fruits Plate
- 1 Glass Red/White Wine
- From €36.96
5-Bosphorus Dinner Cruise & Turkish Night Show (All Inclusive)
3 hours (Approx.)
Set sail along the Bosphorus, the meeting point of Europe and Asia, on this evening cruise. Experience Istanbul at its most atmospheric as you cruise past the illuminated city skyline and admire landmarks including Dolmabahce Palace, the Bosphorus Bridge, and the Maiden’s Tower. While on-board, tuck into a 3-course dinner and enjoy a variety of entertainment including whirling dervishes, belly dancing, and DJs.
- Magnificent views of Istanbul’s illuminated landmarks from the water
- Delicious 3-course dinner with unlimited soft drinks
- Live on-board entertainment inc. belly dancing and Whirling Dervishes
- Hassle-free hotel transfers: avoid navigating the city after dark
- Air-conditioned vehicle
- Hotel pickup and drop-off
- Dinner & Unlimited drinks
- Local taxes
- Tour programme as in the itinerary and 3,5 hours bosphorus Cruise
- Restroom on board
- From €36.92
Istanbul is magical. Where Asia and Europe meet. The city that gets under your skin. Don’t make the mistake of staying in your hotel but book a tour and discover the specialness of this fascinating city. Yes, it is very busy and full but when you look further you discover things that you will never forget. And I’m sure you will run out of time in cruise port Istanbul and want to come back. I think this list of WHAT TO DO IN ISTANBUL makes it easier for you to select your choice!
Did I miss an important tip? Leave your remark below!