While Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey it’s the biggest city in the country with more than 15 Million people living here. Which means that you have a lot to explore during a city trip!
In this post I’ll tell you my personal “Best places in Istanbul” which you can’t miss while visiting the worlds only city which is situated on two different continents: Europe and Asia!
At the end of this post you will find a map with all the best places in Istanbul!
The best places in Istanbul
The Taksim square is located in the European part of Istanbul and considered as the center of the modern Istanbul with many shops, restaurant, food stalls which makes it to a major magnet for tourists and locals! It’s a great place to stay in the city as a starting point for sightseeing walks. We stayed in the newly opened Sofitel Taksim and absolutely loved it!
Main attractions at the Taksim Square are the Republic Monument which commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the Taksim Mosque.
From Taksim Square make sure to walk along the Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Avenue) for a stroll. You can find many shops, cafes, bars and much more along the small street just as the historic and popular red tram which is connection Tünel Square and Taksim Square.
From the Taksim Square you can walk to one of Istanbuls oldest and tallest buildings: The Galata Tower. It got built in 1348 and got used as a watchtower. Today it is one of Istanbuls most famous sights. To enter the Galata Tower you have to pay an an admission fee of 100 TL (around 9,50 EUR) which are definitely worth it! From the top you’ll get a panoramic view over the whole city and the Bosphorus!
The Galata Tower
The view from the top
One of the best places in Istanbul is the Dolmabahçe Palace – in my opinion the complex is even more spectacular and worth a visit than the more popular Topkapi Palace!
Dolmabahçe Palace is the largest palace in Turkey and used to be the residence and main administrative center of the sultans from the late 19th century to the 20th century. It is built in a beautiful Baroque and Rococo style with countless beautiful details and lots of pomp.
You can do a walking tour with a free audio guide through the entire palace and visit all private and administrative rooms – even the bedroom where president Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, passed away in 1938.
The entrance fee is 150TL (around 14 EUR) including the audio guide. Make sure to plan enough time to visit the Dolmabahçe Palace. We spent 2,5 hours in the complex including waiting in line for our tickets.
Bosphorus Ferry Ride
Coming from the Dolmabahçe Palace it is just a short walk to the ferry station from where you can ride to one of the other parts of the city. Istanbul is incredibly huge and the Bosphorus is dividing it in several parts which are all connected via bridges and ferries. A ride is less than one Euro per person and offers amazing views!
The Grand Bazaar
Of course you can not leave Turkey without visiting one of the legendary Bazaars and here in Istanbul you’ll find the biggest and oldest covered Bazaar in the world. It got built in 1455/56, with more than 4,000 shops of all kinds – which makes it to one of the first shopping malls in the world 😉 The market is visited by countless tourists and locals each day. Even if you’re not planning to buy anything, it is nice to stroll around, experience the atmosphere and have a look at colorful lanterns, spices, clothes and so much more!
The most interesting and famous building in Istanbul, which has an extremely moving history, is the Hagia Sophia. It got built in 537 AD and has been a church for almost 1000 years until Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul (which still has been Constantinople back then) in 1453 and turned the Hagia Sophia in a mosque. During this process minarets have been added to the building. President Atatürk turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1953 – exactly 500 years after the conquest – to symbolize the connection of Turkey with the western world. But just shortly – in 2020 – it got declared as a mosque again by president Erdoğan.
During our first visit in 2018 the Hagia Sophia still has been a museum and visitors could attempt an audio guide tour through the complex while admiring Christian as well as Muslim art pieces. Since the Hagia Sophia is a Mosque, visitors can still visit the complex but have to take off their shoes and women have to cover up. Of course there are no audio guides and signs in the Hagia Sophia anymore and women are not allowed to enter the very front part of the complex… Since the Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO heritage side, it is not allowed to remove any of the old Christian icons but during our visit we saw that some of them have been covered with white sheets.
The Blue Mosque
(Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
Opposite of the Hagia Sophia sits the historic Sultan Ahmed Mosque which got built between 1609 – 1611 during the Ottoman Empire. The complex is more popular under the name Blue Mosque since the interior is covered with hand-painted blue tiles and the mosque gets illuminated by blue light at night. During our first visit in 2018 we loved visiting the Blue Mosque and admiring the beautiful interior but currently it is under renovation which means that you won’t see much at the moment until the planned completion in 2022.
Like in all mosques you don’t have to pay an entrance fee but tourist can only visit in between prayer times, have to take off their shoes and dress properly. Which means that all visitors have to cover their shoulders and knees while women additionally have to cover their head.
Behind the Hagia Sophia you’ll find the famous Topkapi Palace which used to be the royal residence & administrative center of the Sultans in the 15th and 16th century. The Palace has hundreds of rooms and halls while only the most important ones are open for visitors. To visit the Harem, which is the part of the complex where the female members of the Sultan’s family lived, you need an additional ticket.
The palace is built in Ottoman architecture style with many colorful tiles, detailed ornaments and an extensive garden area.
We spent around 1,5 hours in total visiting the Topkapi Palace. The entrance fee is a bit higher: 200TL (around 18,50 EUR) per person including an audio guide but excluding the admission fee to the Harem.
During our first visit in Istanbul we loved exploring the Basilica Cistern under the city! There are hundreds of the cisterns which have been used as water reservoirs and provided the city with fresh water while the Basilica Cistern is the biggest one of them all. It got built in the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire and is absolutely impressive to visit due to the fact that it got built in the style of a cathedral with engraved columns. Thanks to its mystical atmosphere the Basilica Cistern got the scene for several movies or video games and if you have been reading Dan Browns Bestseller ‘Inferno’ you may especially know the unique Medusa head pillars. The entrance fee is only 30TL (less than 3 EUR) and absolutely worth a visit.
Unfortunately the Basilica Cistern has been closed for renovations during our last visit in September 2021 but will reopen soon!
If you’re done exploring the area around the Hagia Sophia and craving a nice dinner I can highly recommend you the restaurant “Garden 1897“. It is rated as one of the best restaurants in Istanbul without being expensive! They have a great selection of Turkish specialties like Manti (Turkish Ravioli) or Moussaka!
For a sweet afternoon snack you HAVE to try some Turkish Baklava! It’s a sweet treat made out of sweet puff pastry and different nuts which is absolutely delicious. A famous place to get them are the ‘Hafiz Mustafa 1864‘ shops which can be found several times in Istanbul – one of their shops is close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia!