The Top Things to See and Do on the Bosphorus in Istanbul

Ancient Galata Tower in the centre of Istanbul, Turkey
Ancient Galata Tower in the centre of Istanbul, Turkey | © stoyanh / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Ayse Huseyin
5 May 2021

Istanbul is in many ways a crossroads. A crossroads between land and sea, Europe and Asia, Byzantine and Islamic architecture, the past and the present. When in Istanbul, marvelling before the Bosphorus, here are some essential activities for you to try.

Ferry Cruise (Bosphorus Strait)

Natural Feature
Map View
Tourism or Ferry boat on the Bosphorus Strait betyween Europe and Asia at Istanbul, Turkey.
Ferry boat on the Bosphorus Strait | © Roy Conchie / Alamy Stock Photo

When in such a culturally and geographically fascinating area, any traveler would not be able to resist a ferry cruise of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Those aboard will be able to enjoy the bustling Istanbul skyline and the novelty of sailing the bridge between two continents: Europe and Asia. Most of the cruise companies have comfortable and well-furnished boats and pass closely enough to the shore for excellent photo opportunities. Occasionally you may even have your ferry stop to allow a mighty cargo ship passage into the city; a truly authentic glimpse of Turkey’s historical naval prowess.

Maiden's Tower

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Maiden's Tower, Istanbul
Maiden's Tower | © EVREN KALINBACAK / Alamy Stock Photo
There are many stories surrounding the origin of the Maiden’s Tower (or Kız Kulesi). The most popular is one that has been spread by word of mouth in Turkey for generations. The story is told within the stone tower thorough large painted murals upon its walls. You will learn the story of the Emperor, the prophecy and the cursed maiden, plus more about the tower’s history if you take the short ferry trip to the tower and go on one of the guided tours from the ground up to the top balcony.

Basilica Cistern

Architectural Landmark
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The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Much like Paris’ famed catacombs, the Basilica Cistern is one of many hundreds lying beneath the former Constantinople. The cistern famously features in the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love.Some notable sights you can expect are pillars propped up by intricate carvings of Medusa’s head, a pillar carved with peacock feathers designs, and even a café within for refreshment! Best of all, you can on occasion see the ceilings of the cistern, perfectly reflected in the still waters.

Topkapi Palace

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Library, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
Library, Topkapi Palace | © F1online digitale Bildagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
The Topkapi Palace is the largest palace in Istanbul that housed the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for approximately 400 years. It was also used as a place to entertain royal guests and ambassadors during the empire’s peak, though now it acts as a museum showcasing the former extravagance of Turkey’s leaders. The palace was declared an Unesco World Heritage site in 1985 and remains one of the most majestic examples of Ottoman architecture and artistry.

Istanbul City Port

Architectural Landmark
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As well as those attractions situated along the coast of Istanbul that look out onto the Bosphorus, the port itself is a highly attractive location to tourists and locals. The Port is right in the heart of the city and boasts restaurants, shops, convenient underground parking and a beautiful modern design. It is ideal to stroll along, just taking in the atmosphere or watching the ships pass to and from the coast. Often a hub of activity, you won’t be bored for a moment at the port, which bustles with the electrifying energy unique to Istanbul.

Rumeli Fortress

Historical Landmark
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Istanbul, Turkey, October 8, 2011: Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari) on the banks of the Bosporus.
Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari) on the banks of the Bosporus | © LizCoughlan / Alamy Stock Photo
Locals and tourists agree that the Rumeli Fortress, offers a truly indescribable view of the city, unlike anywhere else. It is built at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus Strait where defense was would have been the greatest concern to the Sultan. This triumph of fortification, watches over the Bosphorus as it has done since its construction in 1541. The fortress consists of 3 main towers (named respectively after the men that built them), 13 watchtowers and encircled by walls that are 7 meters thick. It can be slightly difficult to access but undoubtedly worth the extra effort.

Galata Tower

Map View
Galata Tower | © JOHN BRACEGIRDLE / Alamy Stock Photo
The Galata Tower or ‘Galata Kulesi’ or ‘Christea Turris’ (Tower of Christ), is one of the crowning landmarks of Istanbul’s Bosphorus. The tower is 9 stories tall, with an open observation deck for a 360 degree view of Istanbul. There is a restaurant and café in the upper floors of the restaurant that will definitely result in a once-in-a-lifetime dining opportunity too. And fear not, for those who don’t feel like heaving up 9 flights of stairs, the Galata tower also has two working elevators to transport visitors to every level.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Building, Mosque
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The Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the largest and best-known monuments in Turkey. It is a magnificent building whose tall minarets and vast domed chambers exquisitely combine Byzantine and Islamic architectural influences. Even if not religiously inclined yourself, the decadent interior of this mosque, as with most mosques in Istanbul, offers a spectacular insight into the geometry of Islamic art, and the beauty of Muslim places of worship. This is an example of Turkish culture at its finest.

Hagia Sophia Museum / Church (Ayasofya)

Cathedral, Museum
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Saint Sophia,Hagia Sophia, Ayasofia historical landmark Istanbul, Turkey
© Olga Demina / Alamy Stock Photo
Hagia Sophia the most well known of the surprisingly many churches in Turkey. Though a predominantly Muslim country now, this church has been preserved and is now an incredibly popular museum, and reminder of the Christian inhabitants of its past. The Church contains a large array of Christian antiques and was the world’s largest cathedral until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. Its design was the very first of its kind, said to have revolutionized architecture from the time of its construction. A visit to this significant landmark is not to be missed.

Istanbul Aquarium

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Set slightly more inshore than the rest of the attractions on this list, the Istanbul Aquarium is in the ranks of the greatest in the world for its large and varied quantity of sea creatures. On your walk from one vast tank to another, you travel the world, seeing tanks of fish, specifically arranged according to the region they come from. Gaze around you and bask in the bountiful creatures that exist beneath the waves, right before your eyes. The aquarium is a brilliant day out for families with children or a group of adults.
These recommendations were updated on May 5, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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