Like any of the world’s great cities, Istanbul has more to do than there are hours in the day. Unless you have the luxury of a super long visit or the willpower to forgo sleep, you’ll never see it all. Here are eight must-dos that should top your list of Istanbul attractions.

1. Shop Till You Drop at the Infamous Bazaars

Regardless of whether or not you were first in line to see the movie adaptation of Confessions of a Shopaholic, you can’t leave Istanbul without wandering through the world-famous bazaars. The Grand Bazaar ranks among the largest and oldest covered markets in history, and vendors hawk everything from hand carved chess sets to fake Gucci bags. It’s so big it even has its own street names! Visit early in the day to avoid the hard sell from salespeople eager to up their numbers for the day.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

The Spice Market, while much smaller, is no less overwhelming. In this case, that overpowering sensation comes from the thousands of herbs, spices and other delicacies on offer. Don’t be surprised if eager stall owners offer free Turkish delight samples to try to lure you into a sale.

Spice Market Istanbul

2. Hop Continents on the Bosphorus

As I wrote about before, my sunset Bosphorus cruise was one of the most interesting cultural experiences I’ve ever had. Even if you choose a more popular-with-tourists day cruise, the novelty of changing your Facebook status from: “I’m in Asia!” to  “Now I’m in Europe!” to “Now I’m in Asia” etc. should be worth the admission fee alone.

bosphorus cruise

3. Get Scrubbed Raw at a Turkish Hamam

Considering the availability of wonderful massages is one of my top reasons for living in Thailand, it should come as no surprise that having a Turkish bath was one of my favorite Istanbul experiences. You enter a large, beautiful sauna and relax in a hot tub before being soaped and scrubbed by an attendant who finds dirt you didn’t know you had.  You then go on to have a massage before relaxing with tea in the lovely luxury version of a locker room. The whole thing can take hours. It’s such a unique experience, and you can see why women’s social lives revolved around the baths for hundreds of years. Modesty lovers beware, though. In the words of my friend Elana: “Warning: you will be naked.”

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of this, as apparently it’s rude to get your camera out when people are in the buff. Plus, you know, steam is bad for cameras.

4. Breathe in History at the Aya Sofia

One of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks, the Aya Sofia has served many roles since it’s dedication in the year 360. It was built as a Christian cathedral before being converted to a mosque and now presently serves as a museum. The Muslim and Christian artwork and architecture competing for attention in one grand structure are a fascinating and symbolic sight.

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

5. Feel Like Royalty at Topkapi Palace

I had never heard of Topkapi Palace before this trip, but was totally swept away by it. The grounds and structures are amazingly well-preserved and it’s easy to picture the rulers of the Ottoman empire sauntering through the beautifully tiled walkways. The harem, or private residence of the sultan, requires as an extra entrance fee but is the highlight of the complex as it is far less crowded and offers a glimpse into the private lives of the one time rulers of the universe.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

6. Cool off in the Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is a quick, inexpensive and refreshingly cool stop between major tourist draws in Sultanahmet. Walking through the vast underground attraction you will feel drop of water dropping on your head and see fish swimming below your feet.

Local lore states that the cistern was “lost” for years before an astute city planner responded to hushed stories from local residents that they could get fresh water-and sometimes fish!- by digging up their basement floors.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

7. Explore the Many Mosques

The unmistakable domes dot the skyline. The haunting calls to prayer fill the air. It’s undeniable that the mosques of Istanbul are one of the features that define the city for any traveler.

We visited three mosques during our time in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is the most famous, the most touristy, and the most unimpressive from the inside. The outside view, however, deserves all the attention it gets.

Blue Mosque Ramadan

Blue Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque, which we visited spontaneously when we passed by it, was my favorite. The candy colored stripes and bright interior earned this location a spot as my Photo of the Week.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

Our final mosque visit brought us to the Asian side of Istanbul in order to view the country’s first female designed mosque. Locals were puzzled by our determination to find the “strange and ugly” Sakirin Mosque and expressed a dislike for its very modern look. When we were finally able to find it, we were blown away by the beautiful interior and feminine touches. Still, based on the mood inside it was the most conservative mosque we visited and had no other tourists, so I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out my camera inside. You can see some photos here (website in Turkish). I highly encourage a visit.

Sakirin Mosque, Istanbul

8. Watch a Whirling Dervish Ceremony

As an alternative to cheesy belly dancing shows offered at travel agencies around Sultanahment, observe a ceremony of the whirling dervishes. They are members of a sect of Sufism, a mystical dimension of Islam founded in present day Turkey. They whirl as a form of prayer, in order to connect with their God. The ceremony is small and intimate. Use your camera sparingly and remember it is privilege to observe someone’s religious practice.

Whirling Dervish Istanbul

I have so, so much to say about Istanbul. I could blog about it for weeks. But as astute reader have noticed, I am tragically behind in blogging. And if I ever want to catch up, I’ve had  to cut my coverage short, with the promise that someday I am going to go back and write about these places with the depth they deserve.

And with that… we are on to Thailand!

To see the rest of my Istanbul photos (and you really should), see my Flickr set here!

  • I think this is one of my most favorite posts of yours! I loved every pic and I’m totally bookmarking it for when I eventually visit Istanbul.

    • Alex
      October 5 2011

      Thanks Andi! I think you would love Istanbul!

  • Kathryn
    October 5 2011

    Alex, it’s killing me that you don’t have my video clips of the Dervishes! I’ll burn a disk and bring it at Xmas for retro-fitting later if you want to.

    Please put up a link to the bath, if you can find one. That domed ceiling with tiny star windows above the heated platform where we lay waiting to get scrubbed is a must see!

    Final thought: you look more “come-hither” than spiritual in that light blue scarf….

    • Alex
      October 5 2011

      I wish I had all your video clips! Arghhhh.

  • Kris Koeller
    October 5 2011

    This is a great list. I think we did all of these things. The only thing I would add is to drive across the bridge and set foot on the Asian continent. Ok, not that cool, but the Asian side is quite nice; very modern with terrific restaurants.

    • Alex
      October 5 2011

      We only went to the Asia side to check out the one mosque, but I’m glad we stepped foot on it so that I didn’t ignore it entirely!

  • ayse
    October 11 2011

    Wowww…I miss there..:(

  • mustafa
    February 13 2013

    hi alex:) i liked that you had come to turkey. turkey is great country 🙂 and you might have liked turkey . greeting from turkey.

  • Gulsah
    February 3 2015

    I love your post but its most special than others! Because about Turkey, I live here and you wrote your ideas about here really good, lovely from Istanbul

    • Alex
      February 4 2015

      Thanks Gulsah — glad you enjoyed this post about your home country!

  • Morgan Sullivan
    July 8 2015

    This post is great! I’m heading to Istanbul in about six weeks, so this is just perfect for me. Thanks for the helpful tips 🙂

    • Alex
      July 9 2015

      So glad to hear that Morgan! Enjoy Istanbul. I found the city so exotic, I loved it!

  • qalbu82
    July 9 2015


    I love your blog, love your story about Istanbul because that was my dream place to go.. so this post really help me when I want to go there soon. Anyway kindly follow me too at my blog thank you and nice to meet you in here ^_~

    • Alex
      July 10 2015

      I hope you get to Istanbul one day! 🙂 Safe travels and happy blogging!

  • Amy
    September 1 2015


    Can you please provide me with more information of where you recommend to get a Turkish Hamam and where i can see the Whirling Dervish Ceremony?

    • Alex
      September 9 2015

      Hey Amy! Turkish hamams are all over Istanbul — I’d check a guidebook or ask at your hotel for a recommendation on which is right for you and your budget and desires. As for the whirling dervish ceremony, we also were sent there by our hotels and unfortunately I don’t recall any details beyond what’s posted here (I was a bad blogger back then!) Best of luck and enjoy your time in Istanbul!

  • Tissue
    July 20 2016

    Hi Alex, do you remember the name of the Bath you went to? I’m having a layover in Istanbul and that’s the 1 thing I would LOVE to do!

    • Alex
      July 25 2016

      Hey there! I’m pretty sure I went to the Süleymaniye Hamam. Enjoy!

  • Mutlu
    January 9 2019

    Hi Alex, You beautifully told the city I was born. I guess many travellers think that Istanbul has a small market square like we see in some cities in Europe and in couple of days you you can see everything. Istanbul is huge and some of the attractions are miles apart. One of the best ways of enjoying the city is that to visit Kadikoy district for bars, Princes’s Islands to see diverse culture, Boat trip to the north part of the city, Nisantasi district for shopping, Beylerbeyi district to see many wooden houses. Take care. Mutlu

    • Alex
      January 15 2019

      Thanks for the tips for next time 🙂 You have a wonderful home city!

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