Istanbul is one of the greatest destinations with its authentic atmosphere and lively city life.
Undoubtedly, there are countless extraordinary and enjoyable things to do in Istanbul. Yet, there are also many overrated places.
In this guide, as a Turkish local, I mentioned my top places and things to do and see in Istanbul. I packed my guide with lots of information that only locals would know.
I hope my guide will help you enjoy your travel to Istanbul.
1) Feel the Gothic Environment of Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is a mysteriously beautiful place that was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
The entrance of this underground cistern is located meters away from Hagia Sophia.
In the past, this cistern’s purpose was to supply water.
The city legend is that the cistern was forgotten for centuries and rediscovered after people became curious about a man who fished fish from a hole in Sultanahmet Square.
As soon as you enter this place, you will find yourself surrounded by columns rising out of water. The atmosphere of this underground cistern is both gloomy and magical.
Additionally, the famous Tom Hanks movie, Inferno, was shot there. The ambiance that the cistern provides is unique.
So, what else can you do besides admiring the beauty of the Basilica Cistern? If you visit this place, seeing the Medusa heads is a must-do. When I went to this cistern, I spent ages staring at them.
Also, don’t forget to make a wish! Many people throw coins into the water and make wishes.
2) Make a Wish in Hagia Sophia
In Turkey, we might not have a genie in a bottle, but we have some alternatives…
There’s a column named “Wishing Column” or “Crying Column” in Hagia Sophia.
A bronze plate surrounds the hole in the column. Many people get in line to make their wishes.
So, how can you actually make a wish?
First, you stick your thumb into the hole that’s in the column. Then you try to make a full circle. According to the belief, if your finger gets wet, then you’re lucky! Because that means your wish will be fulfilled.
3) Eat Fish Sandwich in Eminonu
Istanbul is a city that is famous for many things, including delicious street food. Undoubtedly, there are many delicious options you can try.
For centuries, fish sandwiches have been one of the most popular street food options. Eminonu can be considered the best spot to try fish sandwiches sold on boats.
Grilled Mackerel fish, salad, and onions served inside a half loaf of bread are called Balık Ekmek (Fish Bread).
Balık Ekmek is a simple meal but it’s an incredibly delicious way to make your entrance into Turkish street food.
4) Sip Your Tea at Pierre Loti Hill
Pierre Loti Hill is an amazing place to visit, both for tourists and locals. It’s located in Eyup and is named after Pierre Loti, who was a French novelist.
So, how can you get to this spot? From Eyüp, you can either take the cable car or prefer to walk.
This place offers you a fascinating view of the Golden Horn.
Pierre Loti Cafe is a great place to relax and have a peaceful time. You can sip your tea while watching the beautiful view.
Also, don’t forget to take some photos that will remind you of this spectacular visit.
5) Visit the Istanbul Aquarium
From time to time, it’s better to escape city life and travel to a different place. The right spot to visit is the Istanbul Aquarium.
This complex makes you feel like you’re literally walking underwater or on a different continent.
The aquarium is located in Florya and it’s the largest thematic aquarium in the world.
You can learn and observe the underwater life on Turkish seas as well as world seas.
I can easily say that the themes are far more realistic than I had expected. Therefore, I think you need to visit this place and have this unique experience.
Personally, my favorite region is the Amazon Rainforest. However, all areas are equally impressive and informative.
There’s also a 5D cinema which is quite enjoyable as well. If you wish to learn more, here is the website of Istanbul Akvaryum.
6) Watch a Concert at Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene is a Byzantine church that today holds music concerts. This fascinating church was built in the 4th Century.
Hagia Eirene is located in the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The architecture and the atmosphere of Hagia Eirene are beyond explanation.
As you can imagine, the acoustics of this place are quite spectacular. Many concerts took place at this church.
In fact, one of my favorite bands, Mor ve Otesi performed at Hagia Eirene. It was an amazing performance, and I still watch it from time to time. If you want, you can listen to it on YouTube.
Long story short, I highly recommend attending a concert at this beautiful place. It can be one of the most amazing experiences you could ever have.
7) Enjoy the Meyhane (Tavern) Culture of Istanbul
This is one of my favorite activities in Istanbul. Nevizade and Cicek Pasaji in Taksim are the best places to enjoy Turkish Meyhanes.
Meyhanes or in other words “taverns” in Istanbul have their own unique culture. People usually visit meyhane with their loved ones and have fun together.
Meyhanes provide a cozy place where people have intimate and enjoyable conversations.
When you go to a meyhane, you will often see friends singing songs or laughing together. This beautiful view and the place itself give a sense of candidness.
Meyhane culture goes way back to the Byzantine Empire. Today, it’s still one of the most popular activities in Istanbul and it is a great way to experience Turkish culture.
You can drink Turkish Raki, eat fish and try different kinds of mezes.
“Meze” is a Turkish word that can be described as an appetizer or tapas. Each meze is unique and choices are very diverse.
Some delicious mezes are
- Fava- made with mashed dried broad bean with olive oil. Sometimes it is mixed with dill and onions.
- Haydari – Turkish yogurt mixed with cucumber and olive oil on top
- Şaksuka – Fried eggplant, green pepper, and potato served with yogurt and tomato sauce on top
- Arnavut Cigeri – fried liver, served with onion and lemon.
Additionally, melon and white cheese are very preferable as well. These go great with Turkish Raki. In average meyhane, you will have at least 20 choices of mezes.
It is believed that fish goes very well with Raki. There is even a Turkish saying “fish will cry if you eat it without raki.”
Most of the time I skip the main meal or fish and instead I order calamari as a side dish along with various kinds of mezes. Most meyhanes serve a fruit plate at the end of dinner.
8) Visit the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae
The Church of St. Mary of Blachernae is usually called the “First Day of the Month Church.” It’s translated as “Ayın Biri Kilisesi” in Turkish.
People visit this church on the first day of every month. Not only Christians but mostly Muslims, visit this Eastern Orthodox church as well.
If you want to wish for something, you can buy a candle and a key. Afterward, you keep the key, and if your wish comes true, you will return it.
The faith is that every wish is a door, once you open the door (or in other words when your wish becomes true) you return the key.
It’s one of the most popular churches in Istanbul, and many people visit this place on the first day of every month.
9) Join one of the Bosphorus Tours
It would be a shame to visit Istanbul without having a Bosphorus tour. It’s a great way to discover Istanbul and its beauty.
The full Bosphorus tour starts at Eminonu and takes you to the historical sites of Istanbul. The last destination is Anadolu Kavagi which is an amazing place to visit.
Some boat tours have guides and some have music. You should consult the type of entertainment before you buy your way on the boat tour.
The months of April and May are ideal for attending this tour.
You do not need to attend a tour to explore Istanbul from the sea. Another alternative is the city public ferries. Buy your simit (bagel) and order the tea on the ferry and enjoy your ride.
10) Visit Rahmi M. Koc Museum
Rahmi M. Koc is a very popular museum that has many sections, from transportation to toys. You can take a look at ships, classical cars, and perfect toys.
This museum was opened in 1994 by Rahmi Koc and it’s located in Beyoglu. Rahmi Koc also founded Koc Holding, one of the biggest corporate conglomerates in Turkey.
Even though all the sections were impressive, my favorite part was observing the cars. There’s a replica of the “flying car” that we know from the movie “Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber.” I lost my mind when I saw that car and stared at it for a long time.
Long story short, I really think you should visit this museum. It’s one of the best things you can do in Istanbul.
For more details, you can check the official website of the Koc Museum by clicking here.
11) Attend the Istanbul Jazz Festival
As you might imagine, many festivals happen frequently in Istanbul. The Istanbul Jazz Festival is one of the most popular ones of all.
At this festival, many concerts happen in various venues throughout June and July.
Music lovers can watch performances of artists coming to Istanbul from various countries around the globe.
It’s better to remember that this festival isn’t only about jazz music. You can also listen to different kinds of music genres as well. That’s why it makes it more appealing to attend.
Believe it or not, plenty of people love listening to jazz in Istanbul. Many people who could not escape holiday resorts look forward to this festival every year. People usually go with their friends and have an enjoyable time together.
Even if you go alone, it’s nearly impossible not to have a good time.
For more details, you can check the official website of the Istanbul Jazz Festival.
12) Have a Nice Dinner at Viktor Levi Wine House
Without a doubt, Moda is a very popular spot in Istanbul. There are many famous restaurants in Moda. That’s why sometimes it can be hard to decide where to have dinner.
Viktor Levi Wine House is one of my favorite places in Moda. Many people celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries at this place.
I used to take my dates to this restaurant to impress my girlfriends.
It’s both a cozy and elegant wine house, which is highly preferred. This place can be the best option to have a nice dinner and drink fine wine.
You can have dinner in the garden of this wine house, which has an amazing atmosphere. You can go alone, sip your wine, and read a book.
Predictably, there are plenty of different kinds of wine. Therefore, if you’re not an expert, you can have some help from the waiter.
For more details, you can check the official website of Viktor Levi by clicking here.
13) Turkish-German Bookstore & Cafe
I’ve always thought bookstores are one of the best spots to spend some time and relax.
Turkish-German Bookstore & Cafe is an exceptionally perfect place for that. The place is a fusion of a bookstore, a cafe, and a pub.
The bookstore is located on Istiklal Street in Taksim, which is one of the most popular places in Istanbul.
Since 2015, it’s also been a cafe. You can order a German dessert and drink your coffee or hot wine in peace.
14) Visit Istanbul Toy Museum
Even when we get older, toys still have an important place in our hearts. Many people can’t say goodbye to their toys even after years.
The Istanbul Toy Museum is a beautiful place for both children and adults. This museum is located in Goztepe and was founded by Sunay Akin who is an author.
In that museum, you can see many toys Sunay Akin has collected in 20 years. It’s a vast collection of toys that come from over 40 countries. Here is the official website of the Toy Museum, if you wish to know more.
15) Pray at the Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi)
The Church of St. George is one of the most popular churches in Istanbul. It’s located in Buyukada, which allows you to see this excellent island as well.
This church is on the highest hill in Buyukada. Therefore, the view is so beautiful that it’s hard to describe. You can see all of Istanbul plus the Marmara Sea.
To get there, you can rent a bike, take an electric carriage, or simply just walk.
It’s better to remember that this Orthodox church is also visited by Muslims. People usually visit the Church of St. George (or Hıdrellez Church) on April 23 and September 24.
Additionally, Hıdırellez is an important celebration in our country. It’s celebrated on the nights of May 5 and May 6. Special events take place around these days, but it is very crowded.
16) Explore the Beautiful Streets of Balat
As you can imagine, there are plenty of beautiful places to visit in Istanbul. Especially lately, Balat is one of the places that are at the top of that list.
The colorful buildings in this place make you feel like you’re in a painting. Therefore, it’s a great spot to take some photos as well.
You can walk around the streets of Balat and stop for a cup of coffee when you get tired.
Additionally, many Turkish series are filmed here. So, we can say that its popularity keeps increasing each day.
Balat is full of history and it is the old Jewish quarter of Istanbul. Fener Greek Patriarchate, The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Church of Our Lady of the Mongols (Bloody Church), and the Balat market area (filled with vintage and antique shops) are a few historical places to explore.
17) Visit the Istanbul Biennial
The Istanbul Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition that is quite popular.
The event happens every two years, and almost everyone looks forward to this art exhibition.
You can see the pieces of various artists, which makes it more appealing. Once every two years, you can enjoy yourself by observing unique arts at this place.
Even if you’re not a big fan of the arts, I assure you that you will have a good time. Visiting this art exhibition can give you a splendid experience.
You can check the homepage of the Istanbul Biennial for art activities.
Topkapi Palace is now a museum but it was once the home of Sultans.
18) Visit Topkapi Palace Museum
In Topkapi Palace Museum, you will see all the items once used in the glorious Ottoman Palace.
Besides many historical and religious artifacts are on display.
The sacred relics that I saw here amazed me. Some of these items are Abraham’s Pot, Joseph’s Turban, Moses’s Staff, David’s Sword, scrolls of John the Baptist, and Muhammad’s footprint.
My wife, on the other hand, was charmed by the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It’s an 86-carat diamond, which is one of the biggest diamonds in the world.
If you want to take a closer look at these masterpieces, you should definitely visit Topkapi Palace.
19) Visit the Room where Ataturk stayed in Pera Palas
Pera Palas is one of the most elegant hotels in Istanbul and was built in 1892. The Founding Father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, stayed at this hotel many times, starting in 1917.
Additionally, many famous names, like Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth II, Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Shah Reza Pehlevi, stayed at this hotel as well.
However, the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stayed at this hotel makes this place extremely significant.
Today, Room 101 where Ataturk stayed, is converted into a museum.
If you are wandering around Taksim, it may be an excellent idea to visit this museum to check it from your bucket list. Here is the website of the museum and the hotel.
20) Eat Dessert at Asuman
When I hear the word “dessert,” I automatically think about chocolate. If you’re a chocolate lover like me, I think you need to visit Asuman.
Asuman is a chocolate store that is located in Kadıköy. You can see people getting in line to eat dessert at this place.
You can ask yourself, “Is it really that delicious?” Well, believe me, it is.
The most famous dessert in this place is called “Asuman.” This dessert is a combination of melted chocolate, strawberries, and whipped cream. It might seem simple to you, but it’s so delicious.
There are also other delicious desserts with Turkish women’s names. For instance, some other desserts are Feride, Leyla, Piraye, etc.
Lately, they even started to open new stores abroad. For more, you check Asuman’s official website.
21) Wander in Eminonu Markets
Eminonu is not home to the Ottoman Palace, Blue Mosque, and other historical sights. The district was not only the heart of the empire’s administration but also it was the center of the Ottoman Empire’s Commerce.
You can easily wander a day around the markets of Eminonu. The most popular shopping venues are Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Market.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. In this historical bazaar, you can find textiles, jewelry, carpet, ceramics, and much more.
The Grand Bazaar is an excellent place to buy gifts or just to walk around for both locals and tourists to visit.
You can buy beautifully designed scarves and unique bags. Ceramics are also quite impressive with different kinds of motifs and patterns on them. You can use these as decorations in your house or buy them as a gift.
Egyptian Market (Mısır Çarşısı) is another unique place to visit. Historically, this place sells Turkish food items and spices that arrive in Istanbul via trade routes.
Check out my other articles about Istanbul
- Where to Stay in Istanbul? A Local Answers with Map
- Istanbul – What Do You Need to Know Before Visiting?
- 21 Fun and Unique Things To Do in Istanbul (A Local’s Guide)
- A Local’s Guide to Unique Day Trip Ideas from Istanbul
- Why and When did Istanbul Become Constantinople? A Local Answers
- Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local
- Is Istanbul in the Middle East? Location, Culture, Climate, and More
- Is Istanbul Rich or Poor? A Local Answers with Statistics
- How to Order Food Online in Istanbul? A Local Answers
- Which Water Should You Use in Istanbul? Answered by a Turkish Local
- What Languages are Spoken in Istanbul?
- Fashion in Istanbul – Places to Shop, Brands, Designers, and more
- A Local’s Guide to Istanbul – Everything You Need To Know