The city of Istanbul is one of the most colorful and vivid cities I’ve ever seen. There are lots and lots of fun things to do in Istanbul apart from the usual activity of exploring cultural attractions. Due to Romania’s close location to Turkey, traveling to Istanbul has always been accessible for me. I went numerous times for sightseeing, to study, to draw, for business, while visiting some Turkish friends. And it never ceases to amaze me.
First of all, Turkish people are very hard working, warm and friendly. 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. 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
In a city with more than 15 million residents, that spans on 2 continents across Bopshorus and it’s dynamic, diverse, surprising, 18 things are not even 0.00001% of what you could explore. What I personally like is:
- sitting in cafes where dervishes dance;
- walking on the streets and take pictures of old, colorful wooden houses, while sipping a street-made pomegranate juice;
- drawing in my sketchbook at the restaurant next to Hagia Sophia;
- crossing from Topkapi palace to Gulhane Park on this narrow, ancient cobblestone street, Soğukçeşme Sokağı, that goes downhill next to a few beautifully restored Ottoman houses and a traditional bazaar.
But most of all, I like smelling the printed books from the Topkapi Palace store. And getting them home, of course. :))<
If this is your first time in Istanbul and you don’t know where to start, I would recommend taking a private tour or a sightseeing bus (this is how I get used to new locations). Or you can go right ahead and experience a whole list of wonderful things to do in Istanbul that I put together.
Taste the Local Ice Cream
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!
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 while listening to 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 advertise with street ads). However, if you want something more spectacular, like a one-time, unique Turkish experience, you can always book online one of these two:
Find That Lale
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.
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 runs 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.
Ride a Nostalgic 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 fairytale.
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-fueled 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. 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.
You can ride using the official Istanbul transportation card, IstanbulKart.
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.
Get a Peek of the Imperial Harem
The Harem (the confidential or forbidden) wing of the Topkapi Palace, added in the 16th century, used to be a mesmerizing, labyrinthical place that consisted of hundreds of beautifully decorated residential rooms and prayer spaces destined to Sultan’s family, his women, children and their guradians, eunuchs. These were built around luxurious courtyards and fountain gardens. Here, many mostly foreign women (oftenly, received as gift by the sultan) used to live and study, together with. The access was allowed only for Sultan, his sons and women.
The Harem area is only partially open today, but it still gives you a change to peek in the Eunuchs’ living headqaurters, the Sultan’s and Princes chambers, and of course the Courtyard of the Favorites that overlooks the Golden Horn. It is a good chance to get sense on how the Sultan and his family lived, as well as to perceive the architectural greatness of those times.
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. The blue tiles with compelx patterns dress up the rooms.
The entrance to the Harem is located in the second courtyard, Divan Meydani. You need an extra ticket for this. 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 alwayss lively and suprising.
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, its 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!
Address: Hüseyinağa, Grand Pera AVM, İstiklal Cd. no: 56 D:58, 34440 Beyoğlu – Google location >
Take a Traditional Paper Marbling 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.
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 color pigments and oily water, you learn how to scatter paint patterns similar to marble. The colors 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 fun workshop, 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 Les Arts Turcs, in Sultan Ahmet area, just behind the Basilica Cistern.
Have Your Fortune Told
When in Istanbul, you don’t need to look into astrology to confirm your mood swings. Because they have great coffee. And fortune tellers. 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 entertaining and fun things to do in Istanbul, especially if you want to taste the traditional sand-brewed type.
Coffee cups reading is in fact a procedure of predicting the future by interpreting or decoding the way coffee grounds look like, not on a rational basis. Most fortune tellers in Istanbul charge for the coffee prediction around 50 to 100 Turkish Liras.
Relax in a Hamamı
A hammam experience is all about you being pampered: a traditional Turkish wellness and rejuvenation treatment for locals and foreigners alike. As well as A MUST on any Istanbul to-do list.
If you have the change to visit Istanbul and any of these magical public Turkish baths, you should definitely not miss it. They offer an extremely charming ancient environment and attention to the smallest detail for physical and mental relaxation.
Hammams are spread all over the European shore of Istanbul, both sides of the Golden Horn. 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.
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. And let’s not forget about the Turkish delights, appetizers and tea that are served by most hamams during this wonderful experience.
Cross the 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 seventh century BCE, 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. I only had a few hours to explore the street and I ate near the bull statue at. But if you’re not in a hurry, you should try going to the more acclaimed Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası, a 100-year established, Turkish cuisine restaurant, Baylan traditional bakery or 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.
Eat an Istanbul Fish Sandwich
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 enjoy one in the Eminönü fishing boats area or at one of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge. I sometime buy it 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 a 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;
- 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 the place, but the people you are with that make an experience matter.
Stroll Around an Ancient Cemetery
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.
Photo by Berkin Üregen
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
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 mini, Turkish 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 – İstanbul – Google Maps Location (You can get 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 travelers, 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.
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.
Image Courtesy of the Lale Restaurant
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.
For tickets and visiting information, you can check the official website.
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.