Things to do in Istanbul
With such a rich cultural past, there's no shortage of things to do in Istanbul. If you have very limited time in the city, you should concentrate on the historic district and put Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia at the top of your list. If you have a little more time, visit the nearby museums. The Istanbul Archeology Museum is easily accessed through the Topkapi Palace or Gulhane Park. This museum, located in the Eminönü district, is actually a group of three museums, the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), the Museum of the Ancient Orient (EskiŞark Eserler Müzesi), and the Tiled Kiosk (ÇiniliKöşk). The Archaeology museum houses sarcophaguses and mummies from the ancient Turkish Empire. It also has a children's museum where the most popular attraction is a life-size rendition of the mythical Trojan horse.
No travel to Istanbul would be complete without heading over to the city's world-renowned markets, filled with extraordinary tapestries, beautiful ceramic tiles, and unparalleled and colorful fabrics. Your top stop: The Grand Bazaar, which is among the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.
The labyrinthian Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood can be disorienting for shoppers, especially tourists hunting authentic goods at the best bargains. Those seeking old-world jewelry should stop into Can Diamond and Jewel inside Rabia Han in the southeast corner.
Inaugurated in 2004, this converted warehouse, directly on the Golden Horn, is Turkey’s first museum of contemporary and modern art—although in a city that can trace its roots to the late Mycenaean era, “modern” is a relative term, and the collection includes painters from the late 1800s.
In the stranglehold that eventually throttled Constantinople in 1453, the Rumeli Hisar (castle) served as the lynch pin. Constructed on the narrowest point of the Bosphorus north of the city, it blocked Byzantine access to the Black Sea.
Cult favorite Ümit Ünal, a longtime neighborhood resident, sells his avant-garde women’s designs here.
Atop a drab tourist hotel across from the Four Seasons is an insider's secret: a rooftop terrace with an unobstructed panorama of the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and the Sea of Marmara. The drinks menu is nothing to write home about: Keep it simple with an Efes Pilsen beer.
If you want to bring baklava back home, don’t buy it in the city—you’ll get syrup all over your luggage. Buy it here.
An essential part of any visit to Istanbul is a scrub-down at a hamam (Turkish bath). The top destination for tourists is the 300-year-old Cagaloglu Hamami in the center of Sultanahmet.
Beyond the ancient city walls on the south bank of the Golden Horn, this stately mosque—one of Istanbul’s most sacred Muslim sites—is flanked by massive cemeteries.
Colonized for centuries by non-muslim minorities and foreign traders, the district of Beyoglu (pronounced be-yoh-LU and formerly known as Pera), across the Golden Horn Strait from the historic center, has always been the cosmopolitan heart of Istanbul.
A much more manageable affair than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market (a.k.a. the Egyptian Bazaar) is the place to find caviar and saffron, honeycombs and coffee, plus fun souvenirs like prayer beads.
Time your visit with the sunset—and the evening call to prayer. That’s when young locals file in for cocktails, like fresh-ginger–and–muddled-lime mojitos, and jockey for steel stools on the open-air terrace overlooking the city’s two coastlines and the Bosporus strait in between.
This is not a luxury spa—don’t expect aromatherapy or an oxygen facial—but it’s a perfectly serviceable salon for basic freshening-up if you’re in need of a shampoo, blow-dry, shave, or manicure.
Set in a lavish 19th-century mansion overlooking the Golden Horn, the privately funded museum stages exhibitions such as a show of Kutahya pottery and Orientalist portraits from the late Ottoman era.
A day trip to Heybeliada, the second-largest and arguably the prettiest of the Princes Islands, feels remarkably refreshing after a few days of Istanbul’s traffic.