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Travel with me to Istanbul: Top 10 sights and hidden gems
Photo of Ra'eesah Manack Ra'eesah Manack
14 min read
Updated on May 14, 2024

This is part of the Been There, Done That series, where our expert globetrotters travel the world to get the insights and information you need to have a seamless travel experience.

By Ra'eesah Manack, iVisa Travel Journalist

Ah, Istanbul! This Turkish city is a tapestry of stories, and I've been lucky enough to weave my own threads into it. Whether you’re a museum maven, an architecture admirer, or a history enthusiast, Istanbul has a treasure for every taste.

I recently embarked on an unforgettable adventure to Turkey, a journey filled with vibrant cultures, historic wonders, and captivating landscapes. Here's my personal take on the top 10 things to do in Istanbul, a blend of iconic landmarks and hidden corners that I've fallen in love with.

A little tip: before you land, take a peek at the airport guides for Turkey by iVisa’s travel reporter (yes, me!):

istambul view from window Hello Istanbul!

To enter Turkey, many travelers need a visa. Check your visa needs with this handy Visa Checker Tool . Here’s some more info:

  • Turkey eVisa: With just a simple, online process, you can get your eVisa in just a few hours, saving you time and hassle.

Istanbul's must-see attractions

In a city as rich and diverse as Istanbul, steering clear of the clichéd tourist traps is often on every savvy traveler's mind. However, certain landmarks in this historic metropolis truly deserve their acclaim.

These aren't just stops along the well-trodden tourist trail, they're profound experiences that embody the spirit of Istanbul. While I generally seek the path less traveled, these iconic attractions in Istanbul are genuinely unmissable and worth every bit of the hype.

Hagia Sophia: A timeless echo

The Hagia Sophia is the most magical spot in Istanbul, period. If you only visit one thing in Istanbul, let it be the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia. It's more than a sight; it's an experience that bridges worlds and ages.

Initially built as a Christian basilica in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it transformed into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. In more recent times, it served as a museum before reverting to a mosque in 2020. Today, it stands as a vivid emblem of Istanbul's captivating cultural and religious heritage.

The stunning mosaics and towering minarets tell a story of a city at the crossroads of history.

  • How to get there: Take the tram to Sultanahmet, one of the main neighborhoods of the city center, or walk if you’re close enough.

  • Best time to visit: Hagia Sophia is generally open every day from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. It’s closed for tourists during prayer times. Weekends are extremely busy, so it's a good idea to plan your visit during weekdays or weekend mornings.

  • Entry: There is no entrance fee for Hagia Sophia because it’s a mosque, but queues can get long. Expect to wait 30 - 40 minutes or book a tour in advance. Both women and men must wear modest clothing that covers their shoulders, knees, and cleavage.

istambul sophia dome
The gorgeous dome of the Hagia Sophia

Cruising the Bosphorus: Between two worlds

The Bosphorus sea (no, it’s not a river!) is the heartbeat of Istanbul. Cruising the waters that divide the European and Asian sides of the city at sunset is surreal. The city's silhouette against the orange sky is a memory etched in my heart.

If you're lucky, you might even spot dolphins! We were thrilled to see a few during our ferry ride to the Eastern side. You have various options, from joining larger group tours to renting smaller private boats for a more intimate journey.

iVisa tip: For the best views, choose the right side (starboard) when heading to Asia and the left (port) towards Europe.

  • How to get there: Istanbul’s public ferries have two main lines: Domestic trips and Bosphorus tours. They operate every 15–20 minutes until 11 p.m. My advice is to take the domestic line from/to Eminönü to get a good glimpse of the Bosphorus for the most affordable deal, but any domestic ferry will take you over the waters to the other side.

  • Best time to visit: The Bosphorus is quite the bustling spot in the late afternoon and evening. To dodge the crowds, it's a good idea to head there early – and avoid the commuter hours.

However, catching the sunset over the Bosphorus offers a truly magical experience, making it worth braving the busier times.

  • Entry: For a budget-friendly choice, consider taking a ferry, like me! Crossing the Bosphorus by ferry in Istanbul is an amazing deal at only roughly €1 (US$1.20). In about half an hour, you're treated to the city's culture, history, and stunning scenery. You can use the Bosphorus ferry with the Istanbulkart.

sunset cruise view
Sunset splendor on the Bosphorus.

Grand Bazaar: A labyrinth of wonders

I lost myself (quite literally!) in the alleys of the Grand Bazaar. It's a kaleidoscope of colors and crafts. Each shop is a treasure trove, and the air is thick with the promise of discovery – from spices to silk, everything is a story.

Expect a lively atmosphere filled with chatter, crowds, and even the occasional friendly stray cat seeking a lap to sit on (a delightful experience I had!). Vendors here are enthusiastic, to say the least, but a visit is an absolute must when you're in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar is more of a visual spectacle than a shopping destination, as its myriad of stores, selling everything from carpets to spices, are known for their steep prices. While negotiation is part of the experience, be aware that similar items are often available in other towns at much lower, fixed prices.

iVisa tip: Keep calm, stay friendly, know the conversion rates from Turkish Lira, and wear sunglasses. It’s a ride!

  • How to get there: The Grand Bazaar is located in the Sultanahmet area, near the neighborhoods of Çemberlitas and Beyazit. The nearest tram stop, taking line T1, is Beyazit Kapalıçarşı.

  • Best time to visit: Stalls are open from Monday to Saturday, from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. On Sundays, they close. The first hour of the morning is the quietest to visit the place and haggle without stress.

  • Entry: The price of admission is free. There are 21(!) entry gates, but the main entrance is Beyazit gate, across from the Beyazit tram station.

grand bazaar
The vibrant pulse of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

Off the beaten path in Istanbul

Istanbul holds countless well-known wonders, but beyond these famous sites lies a different world, waiting to be discovered. Let’s explore some lesser-known treasures of Istanbul, exploring unique neighborhoods, quaint cafés, and hidden alleyways.

iVisa tip: Looking for a winter getaway? Look no further than Istanbul! The city gets magical in the colder months, as you can read in my blog here.

Balat's streets: More than Instagram

Balat is like a painting come to life. Famous for its vibrant houses, it’s a popular spot in Istanbul, often gracing Instagram feeds. But there's much more to this neighborhood than just its colorful facades, which is why it's on my list of hidden gems in Istanbul. I spent hours meandering, sipping tea with locals, and soaking in the artistic ambiance.

If you want to peek at the famous houses, the top three spots are Kiremit Caddesi's colorful houses, Merdivenli Yokuş's steep streets with a cozy café, and Yıldırım Caddesi's winding roads adorned with 19th-century homes and vibrant street art.

Göç Antik Cafe, a family-run shop nestled on the steep street leading to Phanar Greek Orthodox College, is one of my favorite spots for treasure hunting. This unique store, set in a charming low-ceiling stone room, is brimming with fascinating items from various faiths, including Buddhist, Jewish, Sufi, Islamic, Christian, and Yazidi artifacts.

Yasin, the friendly owner, has a passion for religious artifacts, but his collection offers much more. He’s been a Balat local for over 30 years, and turned his antique collecting hobby into this wonderful store five years ago. Spending time with him over a çay (tea) or Turkish coffee is a delight, as he's always eager to share stories about his items and their origins. Don't worry if you don't speak Turkish - Google Translate comes to the rescue!

Remember, bargaining is part of the experience in Turkish markets, so don't hesitate to haggle if something catches your eye.

  • How to get there: Balat is located in the district of Fatih, sometimes referred to as Fener Balat, on the European side of Istanbul. Here is the exact location.

You can also walk to Balat from Karaköy (around 40–50 minutes) or Eminönü (around 30–40 minutes).

  • Best time to visit: Balat is a stunning destination to visit any time of the year. For a more peaceful experience, consider visiting on a weekday, as weekends tend to draw large crowds, even during winter.

istambul balat tourism
Balat has more to offer than colorful houses, but they sure are cute!

Süleymaniye Mosque: A whisper of solitude

If you don’t feel like beating the crowds to the Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque, I found solace in the Süleymaniye Mosque. Its understated elegance and panoramic city views offered a moment of peace amidst the bustle.

Perched on Istanbul's third hill, the four minarets of this breathtaking mosque have graced the skyline since 1557, even predating the Blue Mosque. Here, unlike the one-way flow of visitors elsewhere, you have the freedom to wander, pause, admire, or just sit and breathe.

  • How to get there: The nearest tram station to Süleymaniye Mosque in Fatih is Gülhane, a 5-minute walk away from the mosque’s entrance.

  • Best time to visit: Muslim visitors can enter during prayer time, while other visitors are expected not to enter on Friday morning and wait until the prayer time is over. If you find yourself in the neighborhood during this time, have a sip of tea at one of the terrace cafés and check out a panoramic view of Istanbul while you wait.

  • Entry: You can visit for free, but donations are encouraged. There’s no need to book tickets, and it’s pretty quiet most of the time.

Princes' Islands: A secluded paradise

Escaping to the Princes' Islands was a refreshing change of pace. The sound of horse hooves, the serene beaches, and the charming houses were like stepping into another world, a peaceful respite from city life.

Here, you can stroll or cycle around, ride an old-fashioned horse carriage, admire quaint houses and distinctive architecture, enjoy fresh seafood, and explore charming shops. The serene beauty of these scenic islands, surprisingly close to Istanbul's lively tourist spots, makes them one of my favorite hidden gems in the city!

This charming cluster of nine islands, in the Marmara Sea, get their name from a Byzantine legend about princesses exiled there. Today, visitors can explore four of these enchanting islands, each with its own unique allure.

  • How to get there: The Princes' Islands in Istanbul are accessible from Kabataş, situated in the European region of Istanbul and near the Dolmabahce Palace.

Regular ferries and faster sea buses connect Istanbul to the four public Princes' Islands: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Kınalıada, with the journey taking approximately an hour.

  • Best time to visit: The best time to visit the Princes' Islands is during the months from April to October. At this time of the year, the islands remain comparatively less crowded, and you'll easily get the ferry rides to the islands.

istambul princess islands
Traveling back in time on Heybeliada Island.

Nevmekan Sahil: Hidden literary oasis

My visit to Nevmekan Sahil, a café and library in Uskudar, sparked a lot of interest among my friends – and for good reason! It's one of those hidden gems in Istanbul that you'd only know about through a local's recommendation.

Tucked away in the cool Uskudar neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, its exterior is unassuming, but inside, you'll be wowed by walls lined with books, tables with waterfront views, and a stunning domed ceiling.

The cozy atmosphere makes it a perfect spot to unwind, especially in the winter. Whether you're there for a drink, a meal, or just some downtime, Nevmekan Sahil is the ideal place to relax, read, and soak in the serene vibes of one of Istanbul's secret treasures.

  • How to get there: Most people stay on the European side, and the best ways to get to this neighborhood are the ferry or the metro ‘Marmaray’ from Yenikapi Station to Uskudar Station.

  • Best time to visit: Nevmekan Sahil is open from 10 am-11 pm daily.

  • Entry: Simply walk in, but be sure to keep quiet as people use it as a space to relax, study, or work.

Pierre Loti Hill: Panoramic perch of Istanbul

Pierre Loti Hill offers a unique viewpoint of Istanbul, perfect for those seeking a slightly offbeat experience!

At the top, you'll find a viewing platform that overlooks the Golden Horn. This spot is special because, unlike other viewpoints in Istanbul that offer vistas of Europe and Asia, here you're surrounded by European land divided by water.

Don't miss the Pierre Loti Hill Cafe at the summit – a charming spot with plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy the same spectacular views (but be ready to pay tourist prices – it's worth it this time!).

  • How to get there: Nestled near the Eyup Sultan Mosque, you can either walk up the hill through a cemetery or take a cable car.

  • Best time to visit: For the most stunning views, head there in time to watch the sunset over the city. Cable cars typically run until about 10pm, but be sure to double-check before you set out.

  • Entry: The cable car is accessible with your Istanbulkart.

istambul pierre loti hill
A beautiful winter evening in Istanbul.

Istanbul's modern marvels

While Istanbul is renowned for its rich history, the city also boasts a vibrant array of modern attractions that showcase its contemporary side. Explore the sleek, cutting-edge landmarks and cultural hotspots that bring a fresh, dynamic energy to this ancient metropolis.

Galata Tower: History at new heights

Climbing the Galata Tower was like walking through history. Reaching the top, Istanbul spread out beneath me, a blend of old and new, chaos and beauty. The view is breathtaking – literally and figuratively.

Constructed in the 14th century by the Genoese, it’s not technically a modern marvel. Initially, it served as a testament to their influence and a strategic lookout tower. Throughout its storied past, the tower has transformed from a military prison to a fire watchtower and now a beloved local attraction.

Here’s where the ‘modern’ part comes in. Long an inspiration for artists, the tower has evolved from a historical landmark to a hub of Istanbul's contemporary art scene. The Galata Tower Art Project was launched in 2006 and transformed the tower into a vibrant space for art, hosting various exhibitions, performances, and installations from both local and international artists.

Today, the tower stands not just as an architectural marvel but as a beacon of creativity and artistic innovation in Istanbul.

  • How to get there: To get to the Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey, take the M2 green line metro to the closest station, Sishane. From there, it’s just a 5-minute walk.

  • Best time to visit: For a more peaceful visit to Galata Tower, aim to be there early in the morning, right at its opening time of 8:30 am. This way, you can beat the crowds and enjoy the tower in a quieter, more serene setting.

  • Entry: The entrance fee for Galata Tower is 650 TL per person (about US$20). From my experience, I would say that you don't need to book ahead for Galata tower, but it depends on the season.

istambul galata tower
There's something special about Istanbul's Galata Tower, both historically and now.

Istanbul Modern: Art in motion

Istanbul Modern was an unexpected delight. The art spoke of a city constantly reinventing itself, a place where tradition and innovation converge. It's a window into the soul of modern Istanbul.

When I first laid eyes on the newly reopened Istanbul Modern, perched over the Bosphorus, its architecture left me in awe. One of my favorite experiences inside was catching glimpses of the Bosphorus's distinctive turquoise waters through the expansive windows, framed perfectly by the silhouette of the old city in the background.

The permanent exhibition at Istanbul Modern offers a captivating journey through modern Turkish art alongside significant international displays like Steve McCurry's portraits from the last roll of Kodachrome film. The rooftop of the museum offers an incredible view over the city and the Bosphorus Sea.

  • How to get there: You can get to Istanbul Modern by tram, bus, or ferry. I recommend taking the tram (line 1), as it takes you along a beautiful route across the Golden Horn over the Galata Bridge.

  • Best time to visit: Anytime! The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the opening hours are extended on Friday nights until 8 p.m. Istanbul Modern is closed on Monday.

  • Entry: Explore the wonders of Istanbul Modern with regular admission at 350 TL and special discounted rates of 230 TL for students and seniors 65+. You can conveniently reserve your time slot online here, however you must still pay for your tickets at the front desk.

istambul modern museum View on Istanbul from Istanbul Modern art museum.

Before you go: Get ready for your trip to Turkey

Planning a trip to Turkey? Here's some essential information to ensure a smooth journey:

Get a visa for Turkey

To enter Turkey, many travelers need a visa. Check your visa needs with this handy Visa Checker Tool . Here’s some more info:

  • Turkey eVisa: With just a simple, online process, you can get your eVisa in just a few hours, saving you time and hassle.

  • Turkey Embassy Visa: Need more detailed information or specific guidance on applying for a Turkish Embassy Visa? Check out our comprehensive blog, where our travel reporter shares firsthand insights and tips on the application process.

Turkey Airport guides

Navigating Turkish airports can be daunting, but don't worry, we've got you covered. Our Turkish Airport Guides from our expert travel reporters provide you with all the information you require, from arrival tips to connecting flight advice, ensuring a smooth experience.

Check them out here:

Armed with this information, you're all set for an amazing trip to Turkey. Happy exploring!

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