Istanbul might be my favorite city in the world. It is an ever-changing metropolis where one simply can never get bored. If you find yourself bored in Istanbul, I’d go as far as to say that you might be the problem. Many tourists limit themselves to Sultanahmet, knocking off attraction after attraction and opining on this massive city off of tourist traps. The Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s most iconic monuments. The Grand Bazaar is undeniably an experience. However, there is so much more to this city than what you can check off a bucket list.
This sprawling city of over 16 million people can be overwhelming and chaotic. Allow yourself to get sucked into Istanbul’s madness and you’ll find yourself falling in love. I immediately lost myself in the throes of Istanbul. Instead of trying to make sense of the city, I went with the flow. It took me to neighborhoods I would have never otherwise explored and unforgettable days and nights that I would have otherwise never experienced.
While most travelers won’t find themselves staying long enough in Istanbul to do all of these things, it’s a good starting point for truly immersing yourself in the city. With a good mix of bucket list staples and off-the-beaten-path adventures, here is your ultimate Istanbul bucket list.
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Climb To the Top of Galata Tower
The iconic Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. This tower dates back to the 14th century, and has been a symbol of Istanbul for as long as anyone can remember. For an unbeatable view of the city, climb up to the top. An entrance ticket costs 100 lira. However, if you purchase the museum pass, it is included in the bundle.
Where To Stay in Galata: Hostel Le Banc
Visit The Beautiful Sulemaniye Mosque
Of all the mosques in Istanbul, Sulemaniye Mosque might be the most impressive. It certainly was my favorite that I visited. It is within walking distance from the rest of old Istanbul, so it’s definitely worth checking out. You’ll pass through narrow bazaar streets and more along the way from Sultanahmet District. Sulemaniye Mosque is free to enter, and the grounds boasts magnificent views of the surrounding cityscape.
Wander Through the Historic Neighborhood of Balat
Arguably the cutest neighborhood in Istanbul is historic Balat. With colorful houses, intricate street art, and an abundance of cute cafes and restaurants, Balat is a wanderer’s paradise. You’ll have no shortage of colorful photo opportunities here, either. Despite growing in popularity, is still a quiet, residential neighborhood. For any digital nomads or remote workers looking to lay low, Balat is a great spot.
Walk Along Bustling Istiklal Street
It’s impossible to experience Istanbul without stumbling upon Istiklal Street. The busiest street in Turkey was where I first fell in love with Istanbul. I had gotten off the airport bus in Taksim Square and the chaos of Istiklal immediately energized me. I loved the chaos so much that I got an apartment right off Istiklal Street for an entire month. I’ll admit, the crowds can get annoying when you’re trying to get somewhere. More often than not, though, turning onto Istiklal Street was a “pinch me” moment to remind myself that, dang, I actually lived here.
Start Your Day With a Coffee in Cihangir
The neighborhood of Cihangir is one of my favorites in Istanbul. While still close to Istiklal Street and all of the action and nightlife of Beyoglu, it is calmer and quieter. The streets are less crowded. You won’t hear honking at all hours of the day. With a plethora of cafes and breakfast spots, Cihangir is perfect for the digital nomad or remote worker. Kahve 6, Valerie Coffee Company, and Cuppa are three of my favorite spots in Cihangir. Make sure to check out Rika Rooftop for a cocktail overlooking the city, and maybe get a little late night boogie in.
Where To Stay in Cihangir: Jumba Hostel
Visit the Extravagant Dolmabahce Palace
You can’t go to Istanbul without paying a visit to Dolmabahce Palace. It’s a bit further out of the main tourist center, but it can’t be missed. This palace is the epitome of opulence. It is a bit pricy to get in, but you can easily roam the palace interior and palace grounds for hours.
Roam Through Topkapi Palace and the Palace Grounds
Topkapi Palace was the best thing I did in the historic Sultanahmet district. This palace is massive, and you could easily spend the entire day here. There are so many different parts to Topkapi Palace, including a variety of museums, a library, and a room full of sacred relics. The most impressive parts are the interiors of the buildings. The intricately decorated walls and ornate ceilings are nothing short of breathtaking.
Where To Stay in Sultanahmet: Cheers Hostel
Don’t Miss The Harem Apartments While You’re At Topkapi Palace
If you have the museum pass, then you can also check out the Harem apartments. They are attached to Topkapi Palace, but require a separate entrance. This section of Topkapi Palace is one of the most impressive parts of the palace grounds.
The Hagia Sophia. No Words Needed.
I mean, duh. The Hagia Sophia needs no introduction or explanation. It’s one of the most iconic sites in the world. Its history is one of the deepest of any building out there.
Browse Through the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Just across the Hippodrome from the Blue Mosque, you’ll find the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Despite being right in the heart of Sultanahmet, it often goes overlooked for the other attractions. It’s included in the Museum Pass, so we stopped by and it was well worth it. As the name suggests, it has a huge display of art, from rugs to paintings. However, it also includes ancient artifacts, like strands of hair from the beard of Muhammad and pages from the first copies of the Holy Koran.
Get Cozy at Ataturk Kultur Merkezi’s Library
Right off of Taksim Square is the Ataturk Cultural Center. As the name suggests, it is home to many cultural arts centers, like an Opera House. However, my favorite part of Ataturk Kultur Merkezi is their library. It is cozy, beautiful, and, admittedly, looks great in photos. The top few floors have English-language books covering all sorts of topics, and I often found myself staying here for hours perusing travel, photography, and design books. It’s free to enter, although I’m not sure if you have to be a Turkish resident to rent out the books. I was more than content spending the entire day here, though.
Go Bar-Hopping in Kadikoy
Kadikoy is my favorite neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is home to a younger, more international scene, and the nightlife reflects that. Kadikoy knows how to party. The neighborhood is as trendy as it gets. You’ll find no shortage of cafes and restaurants to spend time at during the day, but Kadikoy really comes alive at night. If you want a fun night out, be sure to hit up Kadikoy.
Where To Stay in Kadikoy: Yolo Hostel
Treat Yourself To Dinner at Divan Brasserie Beyoglu
If you want a fancy dinner and stunning views that won’t break the bank, then Divan Brasserie is the place to be. From the terrace, you’ll get gorgeous panoramic views of Istanbul. The food here is pretty dang good, too. While it’s more expensive than typical Istanbul prices, ordering a salmon dinner for about $8 ain’t too shabby at all. If you’re looking for a spot to treat yourself, this is it.
Visit the Merchants of the Grand Bazaar
Yeah, yeah. As touristy as it is, the Grand Bazaar is a staple of Istanbul. If you want to get some actual shopping done, I wouldn’t recommend the Grand Bazaar to anyone. However, it is so worth visiting just to walk through this piece of living history and imagine yourself in the footsteps of Silk Road traders and the merchants of old.
Hop on a Boat and Tour the Bosphorus River
For the unbeatable price of 30 lira, one can hope on one of the Turyol boats and take a “tour” of the Bosphorus. You’re basically on a boat for an hour and a half while a loudspeaker plays an automated recording telling you what you’re seeing. I didn’t pay attention at all because the wind was too loud, but I’ll gladly pay $3 to chill on a boat for an hour. It gives you a glimpse of the beauty of Istanbul beyond the tourist centers. Along the shore, you’ll find some of Istanbul’s most beautiful attractions, from palaces to forts to mosques and more.
Take A Food Tour of Two Continents
Istanbul is a foodie paradise. One of the best things I did in Istanbul was go on a food tour. The specific one I did was called a Tale of Two Continents, and it took me to both the European and Asian side. With nearly a dozen stops, it’s impossible not to feel satisfied with this incredible food tour. From recognizable treats like baklava to more local favorites like kokorec (lamb intestine) and midye (mussels stuffed with rice), this food tour had it all.
Vibe at an Electronic Rave in Klein Phonix
I love a good party, if the blog name didn’t hint at that. Some of the best parties in Istanbul are at Klein Phonix, a nightclub that always has some bumping electronic beats going. It is pretty far away from the main tourist centers, but if a good DJ is on that night, you can’t miss it.
Visit the National Archaeological Museum
With how modern Istanbul is, it’s easy to forget that this is a city with thousands of years of history. Immerse yourself in that history by visiting the National Archaeological Museum. It’s home to artifacts from the many empires that occupied Turkey, from the Byzantines to the Ottomans and Hittites. For anyone remotely interested in history or culture, Istanbul’s National Archaeological Museum is a must-visit.
Go Vintage Store Hopping in Galata
The historic neighborhood of Galata is home to countless vintage stores and boutiques. My first few days in Istanbul, I felt severely underdressed. Thankfully, those vintage shops helped me step up my game and fit in better with Istanbul’s stylish residents.
Sip on Some Turkish Coffee or Turkish Tea
I quickly learned that Turkish coffee and cay aren’t simply drinks. They are a lifestyle. I became addicted very quickly.
Visit the Spice Bazaar in Eminonu
Close to Galata Bridge and Eminonu Pier, you’ll find the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s set in a beautiful building dating back to several centuries ago. While the spices, tea, desserts, and other things are overpriced here, it is pretty dang photogenic. It’s a one stop shop for souvenirs, though, so if you don’t mind paying a little more, it’s a hassle-free shopping day to bring some Turkish flavor back home.
Check Out Ortakoy and Its Picturesque Mosque
The neighborhood of Ortakoy is home to one of Istanbul’s most picturesque views. A stunning mosque along the river with the majestic Bosphorus Bridge in the background makes it a popular photo-taking spot. The neighborhood is a nice place to roam, and not one that many travelers make it to.
Walk Along Galataport’s Waterfront
One of the new and trendy parts of Istanbul is Galataport. It’s a little boardwalk along the river, lined with a few restaurants and shops. If you’re looking to go for a jog or just have a nice sea breeze on your face, this is the spot to hang out.
Go to the Blue Mosque
Just as iconic to the Istanbul skyline as the Hagia Sophia, no visit to Istanbul is complete without paying a visit to the gorgeous Blue Mosque. It’s right across from the Hagia Sophia, so most travelers knock both out with one trip to Sultanahmet.
Have A Mouthwatering Adana Kebab
Ideally, you should have an Adana Kebab in Adana itself, but having one in Istanbul is almost just as good. Adana is a region in Turkey renowned for its meat. If you see Adana kebab on the menu, make sure to try it at least once. It’s one of the essentials of Turkish cuisine that any traveler should try.
See a Whirling Dervish
A whirling dervish is a religious ceremony performed by Sufis. However, it’s become popular for people to watch one of these ceremonies. The men whirling in their long religious garb have become a symbol of Istanbul. You’ll see little figurines being sold all over the city, but you can catch a live performance as well.
Have A Drink Overlooking the City at Aga Kapisi
Istanbul has no shortage of places with gorgeous terrace views. Aga Kapisi in Sultanahmet is one of my favorites. You’ve got a stunning view of Galata Tower and the Bosphorus Bridge on one side. Right behind you, you have the stunning Sulemaniye Mosque.
Party Hard in Beyoglu
Istanbul has an excellent nightlife scene. For travelers, the side streets just off of Istiklal Street will guarantee a good party. Some of my favorite spots in Beyoglu are Kastel, Gizli Bahce, and Eskici. For some chill drinks, check out Piba or Ispanak. Yuri Gagarin and Backstreet are good spots for travelers as they typically have a pretty touristy, international scene.
Walk Through Akaretler in Besiktas
Besiktas is the bustling heart of Istanbul. Besiktas may not be a favorite among tourists, but the neighborhood of Akaretler is well worth a visit. It’s full of trendy cafes, bars, and restaurants. Besiktas has a very lively, youthful scene, making it excellent for nightlife. It’s further away from the tourist centers of Sultanahmet and Galata, so the scene is much more local.
Where To Stay in Besiktas: Puffin Hostel
Go to a Hamam (Traditional Turkish Bath)
A must-do in Istanbul is to get a traditional Turkish bath, or a hamam. It’s quite the experience, and no visit to Turkey is complete without treating yourself to a uniquely relaxing Turkish spa day.
Have a Beach Day on the Prince Islands
Did you know there are islands in Istanbul? A popular day trip from Istanbul is a visit to the Prince Islands. There are three of them, with the largest one being Adalar. An escape from the chaos of the city is just a boat ride away.
Walk Across Galata Bridge
You’re probably going to end up doing this anyway, but this was one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul. Whenever I was bored, I’d just walk along the bridge, take in the gorgeous panoramic views, and watch the fishermen at work. At golden hour, there are few places in the world that I’d rather be than Galata Bridge.
Have a Balik Durum (Fish Wrap) in Karakoy
My mouth is watering just thinking about this one. Along the river in the neighborhood of Karakoy, you’ll find a fish market. All along that street, you’ll find seafood offerings to your heart desire. My favorite is the balik durum, an absolutely mouthwatering fish wrap drenched in sauce and spice.
Feast on Some Desserts at Hafiz Mustafa
There are a number of Hafiz Mustafa locations all throughout Istanbul. My favorite is the one on Istiklal Street which has an outdoor terrace on the top floor overlooking Istanbul’s busiest walking street. The desserts here are to die for. Despite being a popular dessert chain, the menu is reasonably priced for the explosion of ecstasy that your mouth is about to experience.
Follow in Anthony Bourdain’s Taste buds
Anthony Bourdain is one of my heroes, and he was no stranger to Istanbul. There were quite a few spots in Istanbul that he was fond of, and taking a food tour of the city can show you exactly where. The best part? Most of the places were cheap, local, and absolutely delicious.
Catch a football match (just know it gets very chaotic)
Istanbul is home to several football teams. Some of the biggest and most famous are Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, to name a few. Those intercity matchups can get absolutely wild and chaotic. It’s definitely a must-have experience for dedicated football fans.
Have a Picnic at Yildiz Park
A perfect place for some peace and tranquility is the massive Yildiz Park. Come here to immerse yourself in nature, as well as catch some amazing views of Istanbul. It is arguably the best of Istanbul’s many parks and green areas.
Have Some Soup at Lezzet-i Sark
Yes. I am suggesting that drinking soup is one of the must-do things in Istanbul. Seriously. There’s a place in Eminonu called Lezzet-I Sark that has the best soup I’ve ever had. You can try the lamb soup, or the cow’s cheek soup. Both are to die for.
Walk Along the Golden Horn at Golden Hour
One of my favorite nameless parks in Istanbul is the one right along the shores of the Golden Horn. It’s a great place to watch the sun go down. The vibe here is fantastic during golden hour, and you’ll run into people jogging, biking, or just watching the sunset. It doesn’t seem like it has a name, but here’s the location on Google Maps.
Visit the Ancient Hagia Irene Church
One of the oldest churches in the world, the Hagia Irene dates back about 1700 years. If you visit Topkapi Palace and have the museum pass, you can visit the Hagia Irene. It only takes a few minutes to walk through, but it is impressive nonetheless.
Explore the Karakoy Neighborhood
The Karakoy neighborhood is fast becoming one of Istanbul’s trendiest tourist hubs. It does cater to the more upscale traveler, but even roaming around this neighborhood along the water can make for a great afternoon. It’s home to many cute boutique stores and trendy restaurants. If you feel like treating yourself to a nice hotel overlooking the water, you’ve also got options in Karakoy.
Browse Through the Art Museums of Istanbul
One thing that Istanbul has no shortage of is art museums. From contemporary art to more traditional galleries, you’ve got a wide array of them to choose from. Arter, Yapi Kredi Museum, and Istanbul’s Modern Art Museum are a few of the ones I visited and enjoyed.
The Grand Camlica Mosque on the Asian Side
This grandiose mosque, recently built in 2019, spared no expense. It cost a whopping $110 million dollars, and is one of the most extravagant buildings in Istanbul. It is the largest mosque in all of Turkey, and one of the largest in the world. If you happen to pop over to the Asian side of Istanbul, it’s worth checking out.
Yeni Cami (New Mosque) and Plant Bazaar
The girl I was seeing in Istanbul loved flowers, so I was no stranger to the plant bazaar in Eminonu. Daisies, a faux Christmas tree, I was making multiple trips a week here. It’s a great place to just sit and people watch also. The New Mosque in the backdrop makes for a gorgeous spot to hang out. It’s right outside the Spice Bazaar. There’s also a local tea spot right here, so stop by for a 3 lira cup of tea and take in the views.
This list is just bound to continue to grow as I come back to Istanbul over and over again. Keep in mind that these are just some of the spots I visited, and there are thousands more to check out and discover on your own. One could spend years in Istanbul without ever running out of things to do and places to see. But, this is as good a starting point as any. Now get yo’ booty out there.
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