A first time traveler guide to all the best things to do in Istanbul
Choosing the best things to do in Istanbul is quite the challenge!
We're talking about one of the greatest cities in the world, where the modern western ideal is combined with the traditional eastern one, a melting pot of divergent civilizations and people. İstanbul is the scent of history, it's brimming with art, joy, colours, a vessel of new experiences, which, lucky for you, usually cost way less that what you're used to in Europe!
The scent of nargile pipes and roasting chestnuts, the sounds of prayers floating out of mosques, the flavour of kebabs, Turkish delights and ocean-fresh fish, the jaw-dropping sight of Istanbul's minaret-pierced skyline… so many things to do, so little time! Well, why don't you start by having a look at our Istanbul Vlog down below?
Before jumping right straight into the top 10 cheap things to do in Istanbul we have picked out for you, let's debunk one of the greatest preconception everyone seems to have when thinking about travelling to Turkey:
Is Istanbul Safe? Yes, indeed!
So many things have been written about terrorism, immigrants, failed coup etc. and, while there's surely some truth to that, you should always take into account the general inclination the news have to overplay every situation. Nowadays, being safe while traveling is a major wildcard whetever you're staying in Europe or crossing its borders: we can esily say that right now Istanbul is as potentially dangerous as any other big metropolis. Turkey does share a border with high-risk Syria and Iraq, but that's hundreds of kilometres away from Istanbul; in fact, the country's biggest city is way closer to Budapest or Dubrovnik than you might think. You'll notice heavy security at the airport and big-ticket attractions, but that's the reality of travelling anywhere in Europe these days. Like all major cities, you should keep your guard up for pickpockets and street scams, especially in crowded areas like the Grand Bazaar.
Now that your worst fear has been put to rest, let's dive into the fun part! We have pin down the top 10 things to do in Istanbul if you want to save your money AND have the time of your life exploring this amazing city. Here we go!
1. Let yourself be mesmerized by the Blue Mosque
Your journey to the discovery of Istanbul should start with one of its most symbolic places, the Blue Mosque. Its six minarets (most mosques have only four!) and countless shapely domes makes it extremely impressive from the outside. However, it's the inside the best bit: the mosque or Sultan Ahmet Camii is known as the "Blue Mosque" because of the many blue tiles covering the interior walls! It was built by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616. It is generally open to visitors during the day, save for a short time during praying time so please, remember to always check the visiting hours. You should also cover your arms and legs before entering any mosque in the city: women should cover their hair as well. Fun fact: because the Blue Mosque floor is covered with rugs as the general religious tradition wants, you have to take your shoes off as well!
- Where to stay: If you're looking for a cheap accomodation in the city center but with that little something extra that will spice up your holiday, then we couldn't raccomend Cheers Hostel more! Located only 5 minutes away from the Blue Mosque, it offers the comfort of beautiful designed doorms and a breathtaking panoramic Terrace Bar from which you can enjoy the best of Istanbul's view cocktail in hand!
2. Get Lost in the Hagia Sophia
Locally known as Aya Sofya, today the Hagia Sophia is considered one of the most important museums in Istanbul and UNESCO World Heritage Site, however it was truly the longest journey to the splendour it has gained nowadays! Hagia Sophia was born as Greek Orthodox cathedral, strongly wanted by Constatius II as seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, but was then turned into an Ottoman mosque after the city was invaded by the enemy forces.
It’s thanks to all this different layers of history piled one on top of each other that Hagia Sophia is now belived to be one of the greatest meeting point of the world’s religions and cultures. The shining gold mosaics, the rich marble floors and the engraved column capitals made it one of the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture, a domed masterpiece where art and design merge into a new reality.
3. Loose yourself in the maze of the Grand Bazaar
Looking for an original souvenir idea to bring home? Then the Grand Bazaar is where you need to be; we’re talking about 5000 stores gathered all in one place! It’s thanks its maze of five thousand stands and shops covering more than 60 streets that the Grand Bazaar has gained the title of biggest covered market in the world. Let yourself get lost in the blaze of colours, scents, sounds and voices of the beating heart of Istanbul and get ready to long bargaining with the sellers; in the end, maybe you’ll be able to snatch some hot deals as well!
From antique Turkish shops packed with accessories, home decors and paintings to lavishing textiles and rich carpets, from embrodied traditional clothes to hand-painted ceramics, there’s so much choice that you’ll surely find your fit! The other market you need to add to your list Top 10 things to do in Istanbul is the Spice Bazaar, located near to the Galata Bridge, for a taste of Turkish famously spicy dishes!
4. Cross the borders for almost free (even without your passport)
Normally, you would need to buy extraordinary expensive tickets to travel from Europe to Asia, but not when you’re in Istanbul. All you need to do is buy a €0.50 (£0.40) ferry ticket and enjoy the ride with plenty of seating on the deck for that perfect photo of Istanbul skyline across the water.
How is it possible? Well, Istanbul is actually the only city in the world that belongs both to Europe and Asia! It's cut in the middle by the Bosphorus strait, which you can cross with a breezy half-hour trip from Eminönü or Karaköy harbour on the European borders of the Bosphorus to Kadıköy, on the Asian side.
There are a lot of companies offering Bosphorus cruises but we highly suggest you to go with the standard ferry ride and save your money to explore the non-Europian part of Istanbul as well.
5. Feel like a royal in Topkapı Palace
Jump on the bandwagon and add Topkapı Palace to your top 10 things to do in Istanbul. Opulent, decadent and steeped in history, it offers visitors a chance to get to know the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire rather more intimately. Topkapı's sordid tales of debauchery are as jaw-dropping as the gold decor and the lush carpets covering every inch of the palace. Sultan Murad the Third fathered more than 100 children, which should give you a clue about the sort of stuff that used to go on in the 300-capacity harem! And to add even more stravaganza to the mix, just know that the Palace is the resting place of Mohammed’s cape, beard and… tooth!
- Where to stay: Keeping up with the "fancy" vibes of the Palace, we can't forget to mention the Istanbul Taksim Hotel and Hostel Green House. The private rooms are to die for: the huge bed framed by delicate white curtains and the pastel colours of the decor just screams top-rated comfort and relax! The bathroom is ensuite and the common kitchen is super cute! You have to check it out.
6. Refresh your body and soul at one of Istanbul's famous Hamam
There’s no other way to put it: Istanbul is the ultimate wellness destination and it’s all thanks to its magical Hamams. But what is an Hamam in a nutshell? Think about a public bath dated back to the Roman ages with high domes and luxury decorations. Whatever it’s located in a century old palace or in modern hotel, you’ll find yourself lying on a hot stone bench enjoying a full body scrub before dunking into the nearest plunge pool… quite the relaxing experience if you ask us!
Of course, all kind of massages and beauty treatments are available for extra charge. One last thing: if stripping down in a public areas is not your thing, keep in mind that Hamams are 99% of the time separated by gender and the staff is well aware of the hesitation of every first-timer and is always eager to put you at ease!
7. Explore the unspoiled nature of Princes Islands
Princes Islands, Adalr in Turkish, are an archipelago of nine islands off the Asian coast of Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. However, only four of them are actually inhabited and annualy visited by tourists and locals alike: Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinaliada. You can easily reach them by regular or fast ferry from different parts of the city; from Bostanci, Kadikoy and Kartal neighborhoods on the Asian side, from Sirkeci and Kabatas neighborhoods on the European side.
Why, you may ask, I should spend my time in Istanbul in a tiny, isolated island instead of enjoying the usual tourist activities in the city center? Well, for starters, it’s the perfect spot for a hot, sunny afternoon. You can swim in the clear waters and enjoy a nice picnic on the beach, along with many locals returning to their summer houses for the season. But the coolest feature is definitely having to move around by bike or… horse-drawn carriages! All motorized vehicles are strictly banned from the roads, leaving the islands surrouned by a peaceful and quite rare silence! No wonders we’re rating it the most relaxing thing to do in Istanbul!
- Where to stay: Spending the night in any of the Princes Islands may not benefit your budget very much... what about a cosy bed for 14.00EUR per night? We're talking about #bunk Taksim Hostel, with killer prices and a roof top lounge bar (with unbelivable comfy sofas) that will make you appreciate Istanbul landscape even more!
8. Enjoy the best of Turkish Cuisine
Following the country miscellaneous heritage, Turkish cuisine has proven to be a melting pot of different traditions and unique tastes. Caught in the middle of both Balkan and Asian influences but still loyal to the original Ottoman recipes, Turkey offers a wide range of dishes led by the world-wide famous kebab and with a general inclination to spice it all up, with large use of mint, currant, pepper and cinnamon. Just a quick heads-up: the well-known Turkish yogurt is much more acid than what we’re used in Europe and it’s used in combination with salty dishes! And as far as coffe goes… well, don’t expect a creamy expresso! Go for a cup of strong, black tea instead; you’re welcome!
But what about desserts? The king of sweets is the baklava, made by layering thin pieces of phyllo dough brushed with melted butter and dusted with crushed pistacchios or chopped nuts. The final result is a rich, crispy dessert that will make your mouth water! Güllüoğlu bakery it’s the only place in the city where you can taste the best baklava of your life: it is said that it was the Güllü Family the first ever to start baking the dessert in the city!
9. Give a try to Turkish water pipe, Nargile
The traditional Turkish water pipe, also known as hookah or shisha, has been around for centuries and you can't go five minutes in Istanbul without catching its sweet-scented waft of smoke. There are many water pipe cafés where you can enjoy the bless of a few hours chilling with your friends, but Thopane has definitely the higher concentration (that’s why it’s locally called the "Nargile Central"). Just choose your favourite tobacco flavour and have fun!
10. Show some love to the Anatolian side of Istanbul as well
Kadıköy district is the young and “cool” area that has shed light on the Asian side of the city, brimming with chill places to eat and street art plastering every spare patch of concrete. Moda is its newest neighbourhood, where locals and tourists alike can listen to live music, visit an edgy art exhibition, socialize in trendy cafés or grabe a bite in chic restaurants with smart prices. We highly suggest you to take the chance to visit it before its popularity really hits the roof and becomes as crowed as its sister Europian side!
- Where to stay: Hush Hostel Lounge sums up the best of the Anatolian side of Istanbul: a colourful indor lounge area and two spacious outdoor gardens to chill for a few hours and make new friends. They also hold open-air yoga classes!
Do you think we covered all the top 10 things to do in Istanbul or do you feel there's something missing? We would love to hear your feedback! Hit us on Facebook or Instagram and share your experience in Istanbul (or even better your holiday plans!) with our travel community! See you there!