The Top 10 Things to Do for First-Time Visitors in Istanbul

Istanbul | © Scott Dexter/Flickr
Istanbul | © Scott Dexter/Flickr
Photo of Feride Yalav-Heckeroth
23 February 2018

Apart from the major touristic attractions, there’s a whole lot more to explore in Istanbul for first-time visitors. Whether it’s the Asian side or a Bosphorus tour, check out some of the best activities for your first time in the big Turkish city.

Visit the major Sultanahmet sights

Alright, so the major historic sights should definitely be on your list if you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time. We’re talking about Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Topkapı Palace, the Chora Church, the Grand Bazaar and the Archeology Museums, which are all in the city’s historic quarter.

Hagia Sophia | © Ivan Mlinaric/Flickr

Visit the lesser-known sights

After you’ve become familiar with the touristic hotspots, how about the lesser-known sights that are not as popular but just as beautiful? Make sure to see the Pammakaristos Church, the Yavuz Selim Mosque, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the St. Stephen Church or the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Balat.

Pammakaristos Church | © fusion-of-horizons/Flickr

Get out of Sultanahmet

If it’s your first time in Istanbul, you may have chosen to book a hotel in the old city to be close to all the touristic action, but make sure to get out of Sultanahmet as well and see Istanbul’s other neighbourhoods. We suggest you cross the Galata Bridge and discover Karaköy, Çukurcuma and Galata to get to know local life.

Karaköy | © lawepw/Flickr

Take a Bosphorus tour

No visit to Istanbul is complete without seeing the city from the water. You can book a private Bosphorus tour or just enjoy the long Bosphorus tour offered by the city’s public transportation ferry that takes off daily from the Eminönü station. Make sure to check out our Bosphorus tour guide.

Bosphorus Ferry | © Harold Litwiler/Flickr

Visit the islands

Istanbul’s islands are the most popular getaway on weekends – and you’ll soon understand why. Cars are not allowed on any of the islands, which means people travel by foot or via bike and there are beautiful Ottoman-era mansions everywhere that are at one with the natural landscape. In summer, there are plenty of beach clubs where you can also go swimming or just head to one of the many fish restaurants to enjoy delicious food by the water.

Büyükada | © Joseph Kranak/Flickr

Check out Arnavutköy’s nightlife

The upscale neighbourhood of Arnavutköy, famous for its fish restaurants, is also very popular for its cocktails bars. If you want to see the locals partying, then head to one of the many bars on Arnavutköy Bebek Caddesi.

Go to a hamam

After all that walking, exploring and sightseeing, a real Turkish bath experience is the best way to unwind in Istanbul. Make an appointment at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam and let yourself be washed and massaged in a cloud of soap bubbles, after which you’ll want nothing but to take a nap in your hotel room.

Courtesy of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam

Explore Turkish cuisine

Turkish cuisine is much more than just kebabs and döners, so make sure you get a good introduction. Make reservations at some of the city’s best Turkish restaurants where you can taste a variety of different dishes from the country’s various regions and make sure to eat fresh fish by the Bosphorus.

Go to the Asian side

The Asian side of Istanbul is often ignored by first-time visitors, so try to catch a ferry that will take you to Kadıköy. We recommend wandering around the Moda neighbourhood and enjoying the local life, where you’ll almost never come across any tourists.

Moda | © Michel Huhardeaux/Flickr

Go to a meyhane

You can’t visit Istanbul without checking out a real meyhane (tavern), where drinking rakı, eating meze and having long conversations are a must. Some of Istanbul’s best meyhanes are the ones that have been around for many years with menus that have also remained constant and delicious.

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