Top 14 Things to Do in Istanbul for an Amazing Vacation

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is one of the many tastes of Istanbul
Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is one of the many tastes of Istanbul | © Pulse Creates / Getty Images
Feride Yalav-Heckeroth

A rich city visit combines niche attractions with the big-hitting classics. Read on for Culture Trip’s curated selection of things to do in Istanbul, from soaking up the sights of Sultanahmet to trying your hand at Turkey’s world-renowned glass art.

1. Istanbul Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes Show & Exhibition

Historical Landmark

Experience the mystical ambiance of the Mevlevi Sema ceremony at Istanbul’s Hodjapasha Culture Center. This authentic event showcases the 750-year-old Sufi tradition, recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance. Watch the whirling dervishes perform their spiritual dance to a live orchestra, and deepen your understanding of this ancient ritual, Rumi’s poetry, and Sufi traditions through an enlightening exhibition. This unique performance offers a profound insight into one of Turkey’s most distinctive cultural expressions.

2. Sultanahmet and the Old City


Interior view of The Blue Mosque,Istanbul,Turkey
© Izzet Keribar / Getty Images

Istanbul’s most celebrated historical sites are located in Sultanahmet Square, including the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern. The square is also dotted with vendors who sell typical Turkish snacks such as freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, simit (a circular bread typically encrusted in sesame seeds) and roasted water chestnuts. Just a short walk from Hagia Sophia is Sultanahmet Koftecisi, a restaurant open since the 1920s and famed for serving delicious grilled kofte (meatballs). Plan your sightseeing in the Old City during the early-morning hours to safely avoid hordes of tourists and the queues that form outside major sights. Planning your trip during spring or fall is also a good way to avoid crowds in the high season, which begins at the end of May and lasts until August. About a 10-minute walk away from this square, you’ll also find the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered bazaars in the world with more than 4,000 shops selling everything from carpets to jewellery and more.

3. Get to know hipster Istanbul

Historical Landmark

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Courtesy of Petra Roasting Company

After you’ve seen all the essential landmarks, get to know the trendier side of Istanbul by getting lost in the labyrinth alleyways of the city’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods. Take the metro to Osmanbey (one stop away from Taksim) and walk to the Teşvikiye neighbourhood, located right behind the Teşvikiye Mosque. Sip some excellent third-wave coffee and eat a home-made brownie at the local favourite Petra Topağacı, which has a stylish Parisian vibe. To check out work from local artists and photographers, head to the Milli Reasürans Art Gallery, and in the evening go to Efendi Bar, where Istanbulites like to meet up for an after-work cocktail or to make a start into the weekend. If you want a place to sit at the many cafes that line the streets of Teşvikiye, opt for a weekday to explore this neighbourhood. On the weekends (especially when the weather is nice) the whole area teems with people and it’s hard to find a seat.

4. Istanbul Topkapi Palace and Harem Small-Group Guided Tour

Historical Landmark

Explore the grandeur of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace without the wait with this small-group tour. Skip the line to uncover the rich history of the Ottoman empire’s heart, guided through the imperial kitchens, royal courts, relics room, and beautifully landscaped gardens. Admire the intricate tilework of the Harem and enjoy panoramic views of the Bosphorus Strait, all while learning from an expert guide.

5. Check out a contemporary gallery

Art Gallery

Istanbul’s art scene has moved away from the city centre to more commercial neighbourhoods such as Dolapdere and Mecidiyeköy. Head to Dirimart Dolapdere, a contemporary art gallery housed in a 1,000-sq-m (10,765-sq-ft) space that was designed by architect Markus Dochantschi (who also founded Studio MDA in New York). Then make your way to Mecidiyeköy neighbourhood to wander through Pilevneli’s newest gallery – an exhilarating avant garde building designed by French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and commissioned by Mustafa Atatürk, who was a revolutionary and the first president of Turkey. Destroyed in 2012, the structure was rebuilt in its original aesthetic and now houses some of the city’s best contemporary art exhibitions.

6. Taste of Two Continents - Food Tour

Historical Landmark

Embark on a full-day culinary tour of Istanbul, exploring both its European and Asian sides. Begin your journey with a Turkish breakfast, then cross the Bosphorus to discover the flavors of Kadikoy. Savor Turkish coffee, visit vibrant spice markets, and dine in diverse neighborhoods. This small-group tour, limited to eight participants, includes ferry tickets and offers an immersive experience into Istanbul’s rich culinary landscape.

7. Head to Princes’ Islands

Natural Feature

Take a ferry over to Princes’ Islands, located just a stone’s throw away from heady Istanbul. To avoid the holidaying crowds, you could choose to visit the more laid-back island of Burgazada instead of the always-bustling larger island of Büyükada where most tourists go. Most of the island locals here were once city dwellers who quit their jobs to open businesses on Burgazada. Have a coffee at Four Letter Word Coffee and check out the concept store 3 Things on an Island, right next door to the coffee shop, which sells local handmade goods. Try to visit Burgazada in the warmer months, and take a swim at Madam Marta Koyu, a hidden cove on the other side of the island where locals like to hang out on the beach and even camp.

8. Istanbul Cagaloglu Hamam Experience in Old City

Historical Landmark

Immerse yourself in the rich heritage of an 18th-century historic hammam located in the heart of Istanbul’s Old City. This stunning example of Ottoman architecture features intricate marble designs and separate sections for male and female guests with skilled same-gender therapists. Enjoy an authentic kese and massage for total rejuvenation of body and spirit, all while being ideally situated for further exploration of Istanbul’s vibrant historical areas.

9. Explore Turkish Gastronomy


Explore the many flavours of Turkish cuisine
© Ben Pipe / Getty Images

Istanbul’s gastronomy scene is wide and varied, from small backstreet eateries that serve up the best of regional recipes from all over Turkey to fine dining and more modern interpretations of classics by up-and-coming chefs. Try your hand at Turkish cuisine by taking a cooking class at Cookistan, located in the multi-ethnic Kurtuluş neighbourhood. Go shopping for ingredients at some of the oldest markets in the area, including three organic bazaars that are held on Saturdays. Once you have your ingredients, you’ll get a hands-on lesson preparing six different dishes. Afterwards, enjoy a communal meal of home-made delicacies accompanied by rakı (a popular anise-flavoured alcoholic drink). Another popular place to take a cooking class in Istanbul is Turkish Flavours, which offers laid-back cooking sessions with a knowledgeable local in their own home. Students prepare classic Turkish dishes together and then share a meal accompanied by Turkish wines. Turkish Flavours also hosts Istanbul Food Walks, which take participants through the city’s best gourmet markets and shops for an authentic taste of the city.

10. Create world-renowned Turkish glass art at The Glass Furnace

Historical Landmark

The Glass Furnace in Istanbul is a cultural centre dedicated exclusively to glass art. Located in a peaceful haven by the Riva River, the centre is said to be the country’s largest and most well-equipped, and hosts frequent workshops. The Turks were once world renowned for their glasswork, an art form that reached its peak during the 16th century under Ottoman rule. This legacy is seen around Istanbul today in galleries, bazaars and through the work of local artists. At the Glass Furnace, you can learn the whole process of making glass art, from the basics such as how hot glass is formed in a furnace to making colourful beads out of glass that can be used for jewellery or creating glass animals through flamework. Beginners and experienced artists alike are welcome.

11. Bosphorus Sunset Cruise on Luxury Yacht

Historical Landmark

Experience Istanbul’s splendor on a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus. This relaxing journey on a luxury yacht features stunning views of landmarks like Dolmabahçe Palace, Ortaköy Mosque, and Rumeli Fortress, all under the enchanting evening light. Enjoy complimentary drinks and canapés while learning about the history of these iconic sites from your onboard guide. The cruise is available year-round, weather permitting, departing from a convenient location near public transport.

12. Enjoy local live music

Music Venue

Bomontiada, İstanbul
Courtesy of Bomontiada

Istanbul’s music scene is a nod to its diverse cultural make-up, and Babylon has been the city’s most important local music venue for years. Having left their famous location in the middle of the Beyoğlu neighbourhood, they still host arguably the best concerts in their new (and larger) location Babylon Bomonti. Located inside a renovated beer factory, they features Istanbul artists regularly, such as psychedelic group BaBa ZuLa and singer Gaye Su Akyol.

13. Istiklal Street - The home of the city's street art

Architectural Landmark

Kadikoy district of Istanbul as part of the Mural Street Art Festival
© Arif Hudaverdi / Getty Images

Anyone who has walked down Istiklal Street will have noticed the many walls covered in urban art. The annual Mural Istanbul Festival is one of the reasons street art in the city is flourishing. Working alongside the municipality, the organisation allows local and international artists to paint building-high murals in the city. You can find the giant Mural Istanbul pieces in the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood on the Asian side as well as Sarıyer on the European side. Look out for the iconic panda bear by local artist Leo Lunatic, colourful cats from local artist Max on Duty and a portrait of a young woman sitting in contemplation by Croatian artist Lonac. Street Art Istanbul is a helpful app to guide you through the stunning art pieces.

14. ISTANBUL BEST : Iconic Landmarks FullDay Private Guided City Tour

Historical Landmark

Explore Istanbul’s historic Old Town with a private guide on this personalized sightseeing tour. Visit key landmarks like Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque at your own pace, with the comfort of knowing your guide is there to prevent you from getting lost in places like the Grand Bazaar. The tour is customizable, allowing you to adjust the itinerary to suit your interests and delve deep into the city’s rich history.

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