Istanbul has over 2500 years of rich history, culture, and traditions going back to the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras, the most vibrant nightlife, unique landmarks, and breathtaking views. A perfect city to visit where Asia meets Europe. The city has so much to do and see that several weeks there is not enough. But most of all, anything you do during your visit is definitely rewarding beyond your dream. Sultanahmet Square and Byzantium Hippodrome are some of Istanbul’s most famous historical sights. While strolling around, you must visit Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace Museum, Hagia Sophia Museum, the Egyptian Obelisk, the German Fountain, and much more.

The Bosphorus Bridge
The Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia

How much time should I plan for Istanbul?

If you want to explore Istanbul as stress-free as possible, we suggest you stay for about five nights. That way, you will have enough time to visit all the main sights and make a trip to the Asian side of Istanbul. But, of course, more time is always better. You will absolutely still discover new corners of Istanbul even if you stay longer.

Getting There and Around

If you are taking an international flight, chances are you will be landing at Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST). About an hour’s drive to the city center. My accommodation, Erboy Hotel, was about 45 km from the airport. Usually, you can prearrange airport pickup through your hotel (most convenient); otherwise, the followings may help you make the correct choice based on your priority.  

Taxi: Taxi is widely available at the airport and one of the most convenient options. However, I recommend getting only an official taxi from outside the terminal; avoid the hustlers offering you a ride inside.

Airport Shuttle Havabus Service: Havabus is reliable and can be found outside the terminal, departing every 30 minutes. This is the cheapest option, but the only downside is that they don’t have any stops at the Sultanahmet or Sirkeci area, where most of the hotels are; you need to get a taxi from Taksim Gezi Park to get to your hotel.

Visa Requirement

Turkey is one of the top destinations in the world. To enter Turkey, you must check visa requirements and apply for a Turkish visa if needed. Then, depending on your nationality and individual circumstances, you’ll be allowed to stay in Turkey between 30 – 60 days. The visa for Turkey is an electronic travel authorization that grants e3ntry to citizens from over 100 nationalities. It is also known as the Turkey evisa (electronic visa). Click here for more on eVisa.

Places of Interest in Istanbul

Things to do and see in Istanbul

Visit Hagia Sophia

Once the largest church in the world, dating back to 325, then became a mosque and is now a museum. It is one of the world’s greatest architectural works and is accepted as the 8th wonder of the world. However, the Hagia Sophia is probably the most important landmark and one of the absolute highlights of Istanbul. Visiting the world-famous building is undoubtedly a must on a trip to Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most visited attractions, so there may be a waiting line at the entrance (especially in high season). Therefore, depending on the time of day and the season you visit, we recommend buying your ticket in advance.

Hagia Sophia from Blue Mosque

Historic Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)

Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Istanbul and the world. It was built in the 17th century (1603-1617) with the order of Sultan Ahmet I. The architecture inside and outside is beautiful with stunning blue interior, and one of Istanbul’s most visited sights and mosques. Before visiting this mosque check the dress code. All visitors of a different faith are allowed enter the mosque for free – but only outside the prayer times. Shoes must be taken off at the entrance, and women are also required to cover their hair with a cloth and to cover their clothing if it is considered too tight.

The Hagia Sophia (also called Hagia Sofia or Ayasofya) interior architecture, famous Byzantine landmark and world wonder in Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace

The third highlight of Sultanahmet is the aristocratic Topkapi Palace. It is located north of Hagia Sophia on a triangular peninsula dominating the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The Topkapi Palace was once the residential and governing seat of the Sultans – today, it is one of the most important sights of Istanbul and a museum exhibition showcasing the historical rule of the Ottoman Empire. The palace consists of several buildings with countless rooms. First, however, make sure you don’t miss Harem, the highlight of the Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi Palace Istanbul
Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Visit Basilica Cistern, the Underground Cathedral

Hundreds of ancient cisterns are hidden underneath the streets and houses of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici) is the largest of the two in Istanbul that is open to the public. The entrance is across the street from Hagia Sophia. This vast 143 meters long and 65 meters wide underground water container was built during the era of Emperor Justinian I in 532 to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. Now it is one of the most impressive and mysterious buildings acting as a museum. During the Byzantium period, the water came from the Belgrad Forest, 19 km north of the cistern, via two aqueducts on the water transfer centers.

The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern – underground water reservoir build by Emperor Justinianus in 6th century

Evening Walk Across the Galata Bridge

If you are staying around Sultanahmet or Sirkeci area, then walking across Galata Bridge is the best way to spend an evening. The two-stored bridge spans the Golden Horn and connects the historic city center (Sultanahmet) with the northern part of Istanbul’s Karaköy neighborhood. The upper section of the bridge is for traffic, while the lower level is home to numerous restaurants. The harborside area in Karaköy is dotted with cafes, late-night cocktail bars, and traditional local bakeries that come alive in the evening. The iconic Galata Tower is about 15 minutes walk from the bridge.

You could spend hours on the bridge watching the anglers, or if you are a travel photographer, you will get a gorgeous view of Sultanahmet, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and Suleymaniye Mosque from the center of the bridge.

A view around the Galata Bridge.

Sunset from Galata Tower, The Best Lookout Point

A visit to Galata Tower is definitely rewarding for a breathtaking bird’s eye view of Istanbul, especially during the sunset. Initially called the Tower of Christ, Galata Tower has operated as a watchtower, a fire watch post, and a naval station and is now a popular tourist destination. An elevator takes you nearly to the top, so you only have to hike the last two floors. However, the viewing platform is very narrow, so it can be tight up there, especially during the sunset.

Galata Tower
The view from Galata Tower to the Topkapı Palace on the topand Golden Horn

Visit Beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) is an Ottoman imperial mosque on a Hill. The mosque was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan.
The easiest way to get there is by tram to Beyazit-Grand Bazaar or Laleli-University, from where it is a short walk. Moreover, it is close to other famous sights, so you can combine your trip with Spice Bazaar, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and Grand Bazaar.

Suleymaniye Mosque
View of Suleymaniye Mosque and Rustem Pasha Mosque from Bosphorus

Checkout Spice Bazaar

The colorful Spice Bazaar is definitely worth a visit. Not far away from Gelata Bridge, Suleymaniye Mosque, and Grand Bazaar, or a short walk from Sultanahmet, will take you there. The bazaar was built in 1664 as part of the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) complex. You will find typical Turkish spices, fruits and vegetables, and all kinds of goods.

Spice Bazaar
Inside Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

Grand Bazaar – Kapali Carsi 

The historic Grand Bazaar is more than just a regular shopping market. The bazaar dates back to the 15th century after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul (previously Constantinople). The bazaar is enormous. Inside you will find thousands of shops and alleys easy to get lost. You can buy leather, jewelry, textile goods, souvenirs, sweets, and more. So remember Istanbul trip is not complete without visiting Grand Bazaar.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Inside Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Grand Bazaar
Historic Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Bosphorus Sightseeing Cruise 

Bosphorus Sightseeing Cruise is the best way to see Istanbul from a different perspective. The cruise usually tours the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. You will have the opportunity to have a fresh look at Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Maiden’s Tower, Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, Bosphorus Bridge, and more. A great experience to see the Bosphorus coastline on the European side from the cruise and see a string of villages on the Asian side. Above all, I had the great opportunity to capture stunning pictures of the vibrant city of Istanbul along the water on this scenic cruise.

A view from Bosphorus Sightseeing Cruise

Beyoglu: Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square

In the modern district of Beyoglu, you will find the city’s most famous shopping street lane: the Istiklal Caddesi. It stretches from the south -near the Galata Tower (more on that later) – all the way to the famous Taksim Square in the north.

Right in the middle of the pedestrian zone, you’ll see the red, historic tram make its way through the crowds. Unlike other shopping streets, the Istiklal Caddesi is buzzing all day and all evening long. When night falls, the crowds retreat into the nearby bars and restaurants.

Famous ancient walls of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey

Visit Dolmabahce Palace

Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid built Dolmabahce Palace between 1843 and 1856. Later it was the home to six sultans and the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdülmecid Efendi. The palace is open to visitors as a museum. Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace was built as a single large building with several pavilions and a large garden around this building. The Gate of the Treasury and Gate to the Bosphorus on the Bosphorus side is the most famous structure. To get there, you can take tram F1 from Sultanahmet to Kabatas( the last stop), and the palace is about 10 minute’s walk.

View of Dolmabahce Place from Bosphorus
The front gate of Dolmabahce Place

Asian side of Istanbul

Even if it’s just for an hour or two, a trip to the Asian continent is a must on an Istanbul city break, especially when it’s so close! Only 20 minutes by ferry to be exact. A good starting point to explore the Asian city of Istanbul is Kadiköy. Suddenly all those international brands that you just saw at Istiklal Caddesi are but foreign words. The city is the same, but the atmosphere on the Asian side is definitely something else – that much we can promise you.

Visit Camlica Hill on The Asian side

For a breathtaking panoramic view of Istanbul city and the Bosphorus, Camlica Hill is the best place. Take a little break for lunch here and enjoy the view while you are eating your delicious meal. Ortakoy is a cosmopolitan area bordering the waters of the Bosphorus. Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are leaving here. The neighborhood hosts many different religions. It is also a popular local spot with art galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants.

The Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe and Asia
View from the Camlica Hill, Istanbul

Where to stay in Istanbul, Turkey

Best Western Empire Palace Hotel & Spa

Best Western Empire Place Hotel & Spa is on the edge of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district; this special-class hotel has Turkish hammam massage services, and free WiFi is available throughout the entire hotel. A rich buffet breakfast is available in the mornings at the restaurant. Contact the tour desk to book your tours, hire a car, or arrange airport transfers. The hotel is opposite Gülhane Park and Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Sophia and Spice Bazaar are within walking distance.

Erboy Hotel Istanbul Sirkeci

The Erboy Hotel Istanbul Sirkeci features a terrace with panoramic city views and a complimentary breakfast made from fresh, local ingredients. Historic Hagia Sofia Museum, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cisterns, Spice Bazaar, Hippodrome, and Topkapi Palace are within walking distance. You can start the day with breakfast on the property and enjoy various traditional food and beverages at Pasazade Restaurant, the ground floor restaurant themed after 19th Century Ottoman architecture.

My Opinion and Last Word

Have you been to Istanbul, Turkey? Any cool tips to share?

I loved being in Istanbul, Turkey, and want to go back again. I hope my story has motivated you to visit Turkey.

Please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you to improve my knowledge. 

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Hasan Mahmud

Traveler, Blogger, and Travel Photographer!

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