One of the best things to do in Turkey is to pay a visit to historic Istanbul. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Istanbul for families, rest assured the city has plenty of family-friendly attractions. Things to do in Istanbul with kids include visiting Miniatürk and heading to the beach at Büyükada. On the other hand, things to do alone in Istanbul include doing a street food tour and visiting a traditional hammam (Turkish bathhouse).
As for things to do in Istanbul at night, don’t miss seeing a traditional Turkish dance performance at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. Finally, when looking for things to do in Istanbul in January, escape the cold and head indoors to historic attractions like the Hagia Sophia Museum. Continue reading for more fun things to do in Istanbul.
1. Hagia Sophia Museum
When it was built in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel. Over the centuries, it’s been both a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral and an Ottoman Imperial mosque, but today it’s known as the Hagia Sophia Museum, which is open Tuesday through Sunday. Featuring a large dome with gold mosaics and marble interiors, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the finest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.
2. The Blue Mosque
Traditionally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque gets its name from the hand-painted blue tiles adorning its interior walls. Constructed in the 17th century, the building still functions as a mosque today and attracts large tourist crowds. However, note that it’s only open to tourists outside of the five daily prayer times. Located next door to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque features five main domes, eight secondary domes, and six minarets.
3. Topkapi Palace Museum
Located on the hilltop of a small peninsula, the 15th-century Topkapi Palace Museum was originally the political center of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. Each sultan added a different section to the palace, so it’s a maze of buildings centered around interior courtyards. Opening as Topkapi Palace Museum in 1924, its exhibitions include sultan costumes, arms and weapons from the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Treasury artifacts, and an extensive European porcelain and glassware collection.
4. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest marketplaces, with nearly 4500 shops spread across 61 covered streets and alleys. Popular with locals and visitors alike, between 250,000 and 400,000 people visit the Grand Bazaar daily. Some of the top things to purchase here include hand-painted ceramics, colorful Turkish lamps, world-famous kilim rugs, silver and gold jewelry, and Turkish delight of course. Just remember that bartering is expected and encouraged.
5. Galata Tower
The Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi in Turkish) is a nine-story medieval stone tower offering panoramic views over the city and its historic peninsula. Measuring nearly 220 feet in height, it was the city’s tallest structure when it was built in the 14th century. Today, Galata Tower is open to the public, with a restaurant, nightclub, cafe, and observation deck dominating its upper floors. When looking for things to do in Istanbul, check out this view.
6. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square was historically the Hippodrome of Constantinople – the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today, it’s a popular meeting point as it’s surrounded by many dining options and the city’s top historic attractions, including Topkapi Palace Museum, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. In the heart of Sultanahmet Square, you’ll also find historic monuments like the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column, and the Statues of Porphyrios.
7. Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus (or Bosporus) Strait is a narrow strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The internationally significant waterway also acts as the continental boundary between Europe and Asia. Over 48,000 ships pass through the Bosphorus Strait annually; making it busier than both the Suez and Panama Canals. If you want to experience the Bosphorus Strait for yourself, you’re in luck as several local tour companies offer scenic sightseeing cruises.
8. Emirgan Park
One of the city’s largest public parks, Emirgan Park actually started life as a Byzantine-era cypress forest. Today, the popular hillside park is home to a variety of pine, cypress, and lime trees, as well as a beautiful lake, walking trails, playgrounds, terraces with views over the Bosphorus Strait, ample open space perfect for picnics, and three restaurants and cafes located inside its 19th-century pavilions. Emirgan Park also hosts a popular tulip festival every April.
9. Basilica Cistern
Built in 532 AD underneath the Stoa Basilica, the Basilica Cistern is the city’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern. It was constructed using over 300 columns from ruined temples and was designed to service the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding buildings. Open to the public since 1987, the underground tourist attraction is a cooling retreat on summer days. So if you’re looking for unique things to do in Istanbul, check out the Basilica Cistern.
10. Kadıköy Produce Market
For a (literal) taste of local life, head to Kadıköy Produce Market. Located on the Asia side of the city, the best way to reach the market is by local ferry. Overflowing with fresh food and produce, some of the top things to try include authentic Anatolian dishes from Çiya Sofrası and Fazıl Bey’s Turkish coffee. To experience the market from a local’s perspective, why not join the Street Food Tour with Istanbul on Food?
A hammam is a Turkish bath. First established for sultans during the Ottoman Empire, today both locals and tourists enjoy visiting Turkish bathhouses, which are located across the city. Aga Hamami has existed since 1454 and offers a list of services, including oil massages and kese, a special cleaning method used during the Ottoman Empire. Alternatively, the most stunning interior award goes to Cağaloğlu Hamam, while Çırağan Palace Kempinski offers a traditional bath experience too.
One of the world’s largest miniature parks, Miniatürk has 135 models 1/25th of their original size. Across the park, visitors can see an assortment of historic structures from Istanbul, Anatolia, and Ottoman territories outside of Turkey, including the Mostar Bridge, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. Miniatürk is also home to the Crystal Museum, the Victory Museum with displays on the Turkish War of Independence, a restaurant and cafe, and a souvenir shop.
13. Princes’ Islands
The Princes’ Islands is a nine-island archipelago located southeast of the city in the Sea of Marmara. Predominantly car-free, the islands are known for their horse-drawn carriages. The largest and most popular island to visit is Büyükada, which can be reached by ferry. Rent a bike and spend the day cycling to sights like the beach, the Wes Anderson-style Splendid Palace Hotel, Leon Trotsky’s summer house, and Aya Yorgi Church, which offers beautiful panoramic views.
14. Sea Life Istanbul Aquarium
If you want to visit the first public aquarium in Turkey, then you can explore the Sea Life Istanbul Aquarium. This is a great family activity and one of our favorite things to do in Istanbul with kids. With over 10,000 animals, this aquarium has so many interesting exhibits to take in and sea creatures to observe. One of the most popular exhibits is the Shark Encounter – a collection of 61 sharks from 15 different species from around the globe. As the Sea Life Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in all of Europe, we think that it is a must-see during your time in Istanbul!
15. Spice Market
One of the city’s largest bazaars, the covered Spice Market (Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish) is known for both its color and fragrance. Established in the 17th century, the Ottoman-era marketplace contains overflowing containers filled with every herb and spice imaginable, which sit alongside stalls selling Turkish coffee and tea, and food like dried fruits, baklava and Turkish delight. Located in the Eminönü district, the market is open from 9 am to 7 pm every day.
16. Hodjapasha Cultural Center
One of the most fun things to do in Istanbul at night is to see a traditional Turkish performance at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. It’s located inside a striking 15th-century bathhouse, with high-dome ceilings and a large circular glass dancefloor. There are three different performances to see at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center: Whirling Dervishes (listed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List), Rhythm of the Dance, and White Rose, which includes traditional and modern dance choreography.