The very best and fun things to do in Istanbul – here’s how to enjoy to the fullest one of the most colourful and vivid cities I’ve ever seen.
Sunk in the muezzin’s calls from the towering minarets scattered all over the city and dressed up in endless carpets of tulips rolling out each spring, spread on two continents above and under the ground, Istanbul offers the perfect and most unexpected to-do list for any tourist.
Known as Second Rome, Byzantium or Constantinople, the nowadays metropolis used to be the capital of three big empires.
That makes each trip to Istanbul, Turkey, a symbiosis between fascination for mingling cultures and plenty of fun activities. From discovering an entire subterranean shadow city in the undergrounds of Istanbul to partying on the Bosporus-view rooftops, there are so many mysterious and entertaining places to discover.
I visited Istanbul numerous times for sightseeing, to study, to draw, for business, while visiting some local friends. And it never ceases to amaze me.
And I can definitely say everything starts with the hard working, warm and friendly Turkish spirit. The mere interaction with a local gives one energy and good mood. They like speaking to foreigners, inviting them to discover the merchandise, or even to have the traditional tea together from time to time.
Thanks to that, tourist experiences in Istanbul are unexpected and mesmerizing, going far beyond the architecture of Hagia Sophia or the crowded atmosphere of Taksim Square.
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Where to Start
🛎️ Accommodation in Istanbul: My list of boutique hotels in Sultanahmet area.
In a city with more than 15 million residents, that spans on 2 continents across Bopshorus and it’s dynamic and surprising, 18 things are not even 0.00001% of what you could experience. Istanbul inspired countlessly, being the enchanting muse of writers such as Agatha Christie, Mark Twain and Hemingway.
Though far the days of sultans, the opulence and diversity of all great, once-ruling empires are still felt in each and every corner.
When I’m in Istanbul, I love sitting in cafes where dervishes dance. It’s like a return to one self. I get obsessed with drawing in my sketchbook at the restaurant next to Hagia Sophia and eating roasted chestnuts. Then I walk for hours and hours to take pictures of old, colourful wooden houses, while sipping a street-made pomegranate juice.
One of my favourite moments is crossing from Gulhane Park towards Topkapi Palace on this narrow, ancient cobblestone street, Soğukçeşme Sokağı, that goes uphill next to a few beautifully restored Ottoman houses and a traditional bazaar.
But most of all, I like sniffing the printed books from the Topkapi Palace store. And getting them home, of course.
Or you can go right ahead and experience the whole list of wonderful things to do in Istanbul that I put together.
Taste the Turkish Ice Cream
Turkish Ice Cream Vendor, Istanbul, Turkey
Dondurma, as the Turkish people call it, is one of the most interesting ice creams in the world: extremely delicious, with a high consistency and resistance to summer temperatures.
The Turkish ice cream is constantly battered with some kind of long-handled paddles and apart from the main ingredients, milk and sugar, the mixture contains also an aromatic resin, mastic, that makes it stretchy and sticky and an orchids flour, salep, which gives it thickness.
But you must be really adventurous to go and get yourself one.
Besides being one of the cheapest things to do in Istanbul, getting an ice cream is also one of the funniest experiences. The moment you will want to buy it, you should be ready to be part of a small street show, as the main character. The vendors, dressed as in the Ottoman period, but with a modern sense of humor, will try to tease you serving the ice cream cone on a stick. The moment you got the cone in your hands, they will steal the ice cream on top of it by rotating the stick. Grab it if you can!!
What’s the catch? You can easily get annoyed by the famous Turkish prank or you can go all the way: endure, have fun and conquer your ice cream!
🍦 Best places to eat ice cream in Istanbul
- Vardarlı Dondurma – (4.6 ⭐)
- Damla Dondurma (4.7 ⭐)
- Mini Dondurma (4.6 ⭐)
- Bena Ice Cream (4.6 ⭐)
Go Watch a Dervish Dancing
Watching the dervishes of the Mevlevi Turkish order whirling is one out-of-this-world, almost magical thing to do in Istanbul.
Their graceful dance is in fact an ancient form of Persian meditation, tracing back more than 800 years of Sufi tradition. Sufism is considered to be Islam’s mystical core, standing between legend and belief, while a Dervish is nothing more and nothing less than an initiate of the Sufi religious path.
These shows give you access not only to a quite impressive dance program, but also to traditional music and a more complex Mevlevi Sema ceremony historical understanding, a ritual that used to be fulfilled by men only. By repeatedly spinning their bodies on music, the Dervishes focus on the center of the human being, on God, trying to reach the source of all perfection.
You can always join a Turkish restaurant or a café for a whirling show during your meal (many advertised in street ads). However, if you want something more spectacular, like a one-time, unique Turkish experience, you can always book online one of these three:
- The Whirling Dervishes Show at the HodjaPasha Culture Center, a restored 550-year-old Ottoman Turkish bath transformed into a wonderful events venue;
- Whirling Dervishes Experience in the iconic Orient Express station;
- A mix of traditional performances, including not only dervish, but also other Turkish folk dances. As the Whirling dervishes might seem a bit monotonous, this is a perfect choice for people getting bored fast.
Find That Lale | Istanbul Fun Scavenger Hunt
Before Holland, there was Constantinople. And its wildly-growing Lale (or lâhle in old Persian).
The tulips were brought from the Ottoman Empire to Europe only in the 16th century. And one of the stories goes that a few bulbs were stolen from a French researcher’s private garden, who used to teach in a University in Holland. And they were so beautiful that they just spread.
The amazing history of tulips in Turkey can be read here.
Every year, in spring, for a few weeks, Istanbul is immersed in tens of millions of tulips that feel at ease to bloom. And Gülhane Park, which unfolds along the old walls of Topkapi palace, is one of those places worth enjoying during the Tulips Festival.
I got to the festival at the end of an April, but I would recommend an earlier visit and a bit of pre-departure research on the official website as the event keeps slightly changing its date.
A tulips scavenger hunt can be one of the fun things to do in Istanbul. The tulip was so highly appreciated in the Ottoman Empire that they used it as a motif to decorate ceramics, textiles, architecture, throughout homes and palaces.
You can download the free Lale Bingo Card and take the Istanbul fun to a whole new level.
Ride the Nostalgic Istanbul Tram
Istanbul used to have an impressive tram network in the 19th century. Almost incredible for our contemporary society, the fact that these trams were once drawn by horses seems like taken out of a fairy tale.
Even if, they were gradually replaced by electricity-powered carriages, the tram system did not survive for long.
In the mid 1960’s, it was shut down completely and a modern bus network was developed. Compared to the old fashioned means of transportation, the new system was meant to improve the mobility inside the city. But the increase of petrol-fuelled vehicles made streets uncontrollably even more crowded.
Almost nothing of the old Istanbul tramway network exists nowadays. With small exceptions: the two nostalgic Istanbul, old-style tram lines that run (on electricity!) on both continents.
🎟️ You can ride these trams by using the official Istanbul transportation card, IstanbulKart. It can be bought inside the airport from one of the Biletmatik ticket machines. A good alternative is Istanbul Travel Card.
They were revived in the beginning of the 90’s, especially for touristic purposes and they are completely separate:
– one on the European shore (T2), that takes you from Taksim Square to Tünel Square crossing the famously overcrowded pedestrian area, İstiklal Caddesi, It’s rather cheap and probably a better option compared to walking if you’re in Taksim square and want to reach Galata tower, for example.
– the other on the Asian side (T3 line) that runs from Kadıköy to Moda.
They can’t carry too many people at once and they run veeeery slowly, but that is part of an old-time charm! Even if, from outside, they feel like museum exhibits, riding the small heritage trams is an incredible and novelty experience fi you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to do in Istanbul.
Get Lost in the Grand Bazaar
Built in the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar or the historic Kapalı Çarşı is Turkey’s largest covered market.
But even if it widely seen as one of the earliest existing shopping malls, this place is not only about shopping. It is more about surrounding yourself with all that Turkish means: enjoying the sight and learning about the traditional crafts, smelling all kinds of spices and trying the best Turkish sweets while getting involved in conversation with local vendors. They are very friendly and they might even offer you a tea to drink!
Inhere, you can get lost for hours and hours on the more than 60 long, crowded corridor streets to explore the famous handcrafted carpets or the mosaic chandeliers, fine jewelry, clothing and leather goods. And when you get tired you can sit at one of the wonderful interior cafes and drink that long waited Turkish coffee.
- 📌 Address: Beyazıt, Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey (Google Maps);
- 🌊 Minyatür’s Nautical Instruments: deep in the heart of the Grand Bazaar, in the special Antiques section, a small museum & shop full of steampunk, nautical-themed wonders.
Get a Peek Into the Imperial Harem
The Harem (confidential or forbidden) wing of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, added in the 16th century, used to be a mesmerizing, labyrinthine place that consisted of hundreds of beautifully decorated residential rooms and prayer spaces.
These were destined to Sultan’s family, his women, children and their guardians, eunuchs. And were built around luxurious courtyards and fountain gardens. Here, many mostly foreign women (often received as gift by the sultan) used to live and study, together with. The access was allowed only for Sultan, his sons and women.
Still, a visit gives only a glimpse pf that what once used to be the Harem: the Eunuchs’ living headquarters, the Sultan’s and Princes chambers, and of course the Courtyard of the Favourites that overlooks the Golden Horn.
For example, the Imperial Hall, pictured above, was the gathering place for the sultan’s family to celebrate various special occasions such as religious holidays. Its architecture is a combination of the classical Ottoman and some late baroque influences. Traditional Tulip Era blue tiles dress up the rooms.
The entrance to the Harem is located in the second courtyard of Topkapi, Divan Meydani. If you want to know more about what was happening behind the closed door, the intrigues and love story of between Hurem and the sultan, I wold suggest getting a Turkish guide. Their stories are always lively and surprising.
Meet & Greet Suleiman the Magnificent
If you’ve been searching for the Sultan at the Topkapi Palace, you might have noticed he’s not there. His new permanent residence is now on the crowded İstiklal street.
Hosted by the unbelievable Madame Tussauds, Suleiman the Magnificent wax sculpture shares a spectacular Islamic setting with other remarkable figures of the Turkish and Ottoman times such as the Sufi mystic Rumi, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the the founder of modern Turkey, or Sabiha Gökçen, world’s first female fighter pilot.
Madame Tussauds, one of the most popular tourist attractions worldwide, gets a new kind of charm in the Istanbul mount.
With an unexpected scenario, the replicas break once more the barriers of time while embodying people who were never supposed to meet. Ottomans who’ve never heard of Instagram stand proud next to superstars like Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe or the notorious Einstein.
If you’re in Istanbul for an authentic Turkish cultural experience, go and give them a hug!
Take a Turkish Paper Marbling Art Lesson
Ebru or paper marbling is an ancient, fascinating technique of painting on top of the water and transferring the result on a piece of paper. If you’re looking for some artsy things to do in Istanbul, Ebru should be on top of your list. I had the opportunity to try it and learn during my Islamic patterns study trip.
But one of the three below might worth a try.
Each Ebru workshop is a hands-on, (generally, 2-hour long) authentic Turkish experience where you learn different styles of traditional paper marbling, a UNESCO-listed art form dating back to Seljuk and Ottoman times.
By using horsehair brushes with rose twigs handles, natural colour pigments and oily water, you learn how to scatter paint patterns similar to marble. The colours float on the top of the plain oily aqueous surface and the sinuous shapes can be gently modified with a needle. Once the design is done, it is transferred onto the paper by carefully placing the paper on the water.
A really fun workshop in Istanbul, both exciting and relaxing, suitable for adults and children alike.
Write Like the Ottomans Used To
If you are a graphic designer or an artist, if calligraphy is your hobby or you simply want to try your writing skills in the way Ottomans used to do it, a workshop with a Turkish tutor would be quite an experience.
While visiting the mosques, you might have noticed that Ottoman Turkish calligraphy is all over the walls and ceilings, associated with geometric and floral Islamic patterns. In the past the art of calligraphy was used not only to write letters or make beautiful books, but also in art and architecture to create meaningful decorations. It has remained as one of the most important arts in the Islamic world as the primary means for the preservation of the Qur’an.
A calligraphy workshop would teach you about:
- the instruments used (the reed or bamboo sticks pen called kalem, and the striking, colorful inks to burn materials such as pine and linseed oils);
- the old Ottoman scripts such as Diwani;
- composition, intensities, and esthetics of the special writing style.
Learning calligraphy is mostly about the dynamic tracing of the letters in such way that the result can satisfy both decorative and communicative requirements.
Most beautiful workshops are hosted by C.I.P Cultural Interactions Point, a cultural centre in Beyoglu.
Have Your Fortune Told
When in Istanbul, you don’t need to look into astrology to confirm your mood swings.
Because Turkey has great coffee! And expert fortune tellers. Completely irrational prediction, having your future decoded during a coffee cup reading can be an opportunity for laughs and positive vibes.
That is why, even for the pragmatic minds, Turkish coffee reading (kahve falı) can be one of the most entertaining and fun things to do in Istanbul. Especially if you want to taste the traditional sand-brewed coffee.
- 🎟️ Price: Most fortune tellers in Istanbul charge TRY50 – TRY100;
- ☕ Recommendation: Melekler Kahvesi, an old café from Beyoğlu neighbourhood.
Relax in a Hamamı
A hammam experience is all about you being pampered inside a charming public Turkish bath. A MUST on any Istanbul to-do list.
You can enjoy the Turkish hospitality in a way that was once reachable only by the Ottoman aristocracy: full-body scrubs, bubble baths, aromatherapy, food massage, face masks. Traditional wellness and rejuvenation treatment for locals and foreigners alike.
Added to all that, delights, appetizers and tea are served by most hammams during this wonderful experience.
Hammams are spread all over the European shore of Istanbul, both sides of the Golden Horn. Some of the best rated can be found above. 👆
Being extremely popular since the oldest times, many of the historical hamams are still in use and some of them are still located in old, hundreds-year old brick and stone buildings.
Cross the Mighty Bosphorus
On the European side, the historical Sultanahmet area is known for what was once called Constantinople.
It is the oldest part of the city which makes it one tremendously popular tourist destination, especially due to famous Byzantine and Islamic landmarks: the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace or the wonderful Kapali Carsi, the oldest Bazaar in the world. And lots of ottoman-style, wooden houses.
Still, on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus Strait, just a 20-minute ferry trip away, there is another, parallel world: Kadıköy.
Facing the historical center from the other side of the water, Kadıköy is the cosmopolitan, residential district. Its history dates back to the 7th century BC, when ancient Phoenicians settled in the area. Later, they were followed by Armenian, Greeks and Germans, as well as wealthy Turkish and law makers, which developed a diverse population of the area.
Today, this modern Istanbul district is famous for its colorful streets and linden trees, for the cafés and traditional bakeries, antique bookstores and lively markets. The symbol of the Asian side is a 19th-century bull statue, gifted by the German Empire to the Ottoman Empire.
How to get to the Asian side in Istanbul?
I got to Kadıköy by taking the ferry from Eminönü station, located in the Sultanahmet area. It was cheap and fast, but most of all it was truly scenic, especially in a slightly windy summer day.
If you’re not in a hurry, you should try going having lunch or dinner at Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası, a 100-year established, Turkish cuisine restaurant, sweets inBaylan traditional bakeryor visiting Tellalzade Street, ideal Turkish cluster for antiques shops.
Crossing Bosphorus to the Asian part by ferry is definitely an experience that should not be missed when visiting Istanbul. If you don’t want to explore alone, you can always get a personal guide here.
Try the Delicious Balık Ekmek
All around Eminönü ferry station, one of the most famous Istanbul fast-food treats awaits you: the historical fish sandwich known as balık ekmek. It is a very simple sandwich made with freshly-caught, grilled fish, some green salad and a loaf of bread. Even if it looks simple, it is a very, very tasty Turkish experience.
You can get one in the Eminönü fishing boats area or at one of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge.
I buy it sometimes from the Ottoman-decorated fishing boats because the people from the restaurants are extremely persistent in gathering clients. And if I am not in the mood to sit in a restaurant, I find it a bit annoying. If you want to go to a restaurant then I would recommend, from my experience, Cansın Fish & Grill.
If you are a convinced foodie and want more than a sandwich, than you can have a larger treat by opting for a private tour with a local: a culinary walk & taste in the most dynamic areas of Istanbul.
Enjoy an After-Sunset Bosphorus Dinner Cruise
I consider the daytime in Istanbul to be made for exploring the beautiful sights or visiting the interior of architectural masterpieces. But, at night, you can always choose to enjoy the city’s magnificent silhouette from afar, in a Turkish traditional setting.
When the sun sets down and the bridges and all monuments light up glamorously, from around 35 euro/person, cruise ships start to offer all-in-one experiences for dinner:
- an incredible night panorama of both European and Asian shores;
- traditional Turkish cuisine;
- belly dancers & dervishes shows;
- sometimes, professional photography dressed as an ottoman (at an extra cost).
I tried this Istanbul to-do with a group of mixed friends: Romanian, Serbian and Turkish, and it was really memorable. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about the food, so it must have been average. But I do remember it took a lot of time for the vessel to leave the port. And their traditional alcoholic drink was similar to vodka, but too strong and weird for my taste.
What I enjoyed most was dancing and laughing with my friends, taking open air pictures with the lights of Istanbul as well as the dedicated photoshoot dressed as the sultan and his harem. We had a lot of fun that evening.
All in all, sometimes is not only the place, but the people you are with that make an experience matter.
Stroll Around an Ancient Cemetery
Photo by Berkin Üregen
The Eyüp Cemetery (Google maps location) is a beautiful, historical burial ground on the European side of Istanbul. Here, you can have hare a peaceful walk while observing how burial art and architecture have changed since Byzantine times. The cemetery hosts ancient tombs and graves of Ottoman sultans and high officials, military people or intellectuals as music composers or poets.
The graveyard incorporates also the Eyüp Sultan Mosque which was built after the Turks conquered Constantinople. These prayer house was built in the honor of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (a close companion of prophet Muhammad), on top of his grave.
Crossing the cemetery uphill, will take you to Pierre Loti café and its spectacular panorama of the Golden Horn and whole Istanbul. If you want to save some energy, you can always take the on-site cable car.
Image Courtesy Pierre Loti Tepesi
The café got its name after a French writer and 19th-century Istanbul resident, the author of Azıyade, a forbidden-love novel. Except for the amazing view, Pierre Loti gives you the chance to drink traditional tea in tulip glasses and have some delicious Turkish pastry.
In case you don’t feel like going alone to a graveyard and prefer a local to guide you around, this Fener & Balat colorful tour will eventually take you to Pierre Loti.
Be like Gulliver in Liliput
Ulu Camii – Bursa Grand Mosque
One of the things I love doing in my design & digital fabrication workshop is building scale models. Maybe because I am an architect. Maybe because I never had a doll house as a child. Therefore, I always try visiting places displaying such exhibits like miniparks – Mini Bulgaria, Mini Europe etc. Turkey has, of course, it’s own miniature landmarks park.
On the other side of the Golden Horn, in Beyoğlu neighbourhood, a Turkish mini-universe of more than 130 scale models spreads on over 60,000 square meters.
A short visit to Miniaturk can give you an insight on all important Turkish buildings. Not only the ones from Istanbul, but also from Anatolia or old Ottoman lands that today are out of Turkey’s territory. This being said, caravanserais, castles, mosques bridges, ancient temples, fairy chimneys of Cappadocia or the travertine terraces of Pamukkale are all in the park and more.
The park also includes a fairy tale tree, a Ministadium, a maze and a giant chess table. It is one of the biggest of its kind and it should be on your list of things to do in Istanbul.
- 📌 Address: Örnektepe Mahallesi, İmrahor Caddesi, No.7 Sütlüce 34445 Beyoğlu (Google Maps);
- 🚍 Getting there: by taking a bus, line 36T – Taksim Square / line 47 – Eminönü.
Meet Fellow Travelers @ the Pudding Shop
Ages ago, in a world without cell phones or internet, there was a worldwide famous Istanbul bulletin board at the Pudding Shop.
The Istanbul Lale Restaurant is a busy and lively caeteria-style eating house in Sultanahmet area, serving reasonably priced and tasty food. Sounds like the casual, well-located, useful-in-need, better-than-average restaurant, right? But, in fact, it is not as simple as it sounds.
Back in the 1960’s, a time when tourism blogs did not exist, but people did madly love to travel in their pretty Volkswagen vans, this place was a well-known hangout spot among travellers, and in particular, hippies.
The Çolpan brothers founded Lale Pastahanesi (nowadays, Lale Restaurant) in 1957 and it became popular not only for its tasty puddings, but also as as a meeting place for adventurous tourists.
Image Courtesy of the Lale Restaurant
Having Istanbul at the crossroad of the 2 continents, people traveling on land between Europe and far East, Asia or India stopped in this little restaurant to meet and make new friends, share expenses or experiences, sell their cars etc.
The walls of the Pudding Shop are a temple of the bygone days, being covered in old photographs. And the restaurant, among other tasty foods, still serves a selection of traditional Turkish puddings.
Bonus: The Pudding Shop was featured in the 1978 movie Midnight Express.
Time Travel to the 1970’s Istanbul
If it happens to have on your Istanbul to-do list a must visit to an out-of-the-ordinary museum, then try the Museum of Innocence or Masumiyet Müzesi. It all started with a fiction novel written by Orhan Pamuk, the book that meticulously managed to capture all the despair and sentimentalism of a complicated love story in the 1970’s Istanbul.
Image Courtesy: The Museum of Innocence
In the book, Kemal, coming from a Turkish rich family falls for Füsun, a poor, lower middle class girl, and, over a period of 8 years, he obsessively collets objects that map his love journey.
The physical Museum of Innocence was taken out of the book and set up in a Çukurcuma neighborhood, 19th-century house in which the hero’s fictional family lived. The museum is a collection of objects and photos that tell stories of the old Istanbul. Object of the past are organized by following a social and psychological, yet fictional plot line.
In other words, the Museum uses as a leitmotif the novel in order to become a wide panorama for the city that the author experienced in his youth.
Follow the 19th Century Orient Express Trail
Visiting Istanbul gives you the rare opportunity of traveling back to the days of the Orient Express, the famous train that once connected the capital of the Ottoman Empire to Paris.
Mainly because Istanbul is the home of the impressive Oriental-Gothic-façade train station which used to be the eastern terminus of the old, luxurious train operated by Wagon-Lits Company.
The Sirkeci station, as it is called, has been renovated, but hasn’t lost its architectural beauty and retains some of its old days charm. Now, the building hosts a small, pretty memorabilia museum, an elegant restaurant and from time to time, dervishes shows in one of the halls.
But it’s not all about the train station. If you recall Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it seems the book was written in Pera Palace Hotel, in Istanbul, a hotel that still exists today.
Room 411 was the room where Agatha Christie stayed for a few times while visiting Istanbul in the 1930’s. At that time, Pera Hotel was one of the most modern hotels in Istanbul. Charles King used to describe it as “the grandest Western-style hotel in the seat of the world’s greatest Islamic empire”.
The room can be visited when it is not occupied and it keeps some of the original antique furniture, as well as books and items reminding of the author. Or you can book it for a night and watch the 1974, Hercule Poirot movie.