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What to see in Istanbul

Istanbul lies on two continents: Europe and Asia. In both parts, you can find what to see in Istanbul. 25 out of 39 districts belong to its European part. They have more ancient sights than Asian districts. If you are traveling to Istanbul for the first time, you are most likely to wander among them with great interest. If you want Asian authenticity and fewer people, head to the other side of the Bosphorus — to the Anatolian part of the city.

Map of Istanbul
You’ll see the great Istanbul sights on both continents:

The main tourist districts
It is impossible to tell about all the historic places in one article. Therefore, based on the juiciest reviews, we divided routes into two groups: classic walking routes and non-tourist trails.

If you don’t know how to get to Istanbul, just book a Kiwitaxi transfer now and enjoy your trip!

Classic places

In Fatih

In the historic district of Fatih, you will find the micro districts of Sultanahmet, Eminönü, Aksaray, Laleli, Beyazit, Sirkeci, Balat, Fener, and others.

Especially for those who are interested in what to see in Istanbul, here are the top must-see attractions for newbies:

The Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque

It is the main functioning mosque in Istanbul. Originally, it was a large complex: a mosque, a market, schools, seminaries, a hospital, and a caravanserai (everything is preserved, except for the last two).

Men are not allowed to enter the mosque wearing shorts, and women — with their heads, arms and legs uncovered. Worshippers enter the mosque through the central entrance and others — from the side.

Kia and PeterKia and Peter ATLAS & BOOTS

tell that the mosque is ready to provide you with the right clothes in case you do not have it:

Be warned that officials assess every visitor and if you fail to meet the Blue Mosque dress code (tut tut), you will be asked to cover up with a scarf, skirt or robe which the Mosque lends to you for free.

There are large numbers of tourists visiting the Blue Mosque every day.

Nat and RobNat and Rob LOVE&ROAD

know the time when this Istanbul sight is not that crowded:

If you visit it after 4pm there is almost no queue and you will not have to fight for space inside the mosque. Before visiting it, check the prayer time written on the boards outside the mosque. Tourists are not allowed during the prayer times.

Blue Mosque
Photo by moveablefeastofamess
Blue Mosque
Photo by moveablefeastofamess

Fluffy, the author of the moveablefeastofamess.wordpress blog, tells what distracted him from enjoying this Istanbul mosque interior:

You should also take off your shoes inside the mosque. That can cause a little bit of stuck crowd in front the entrance, all moving shoes at the same time, but it’s no way a long queue. Now I must confess a sin: while inside the mosque, all I can feel was the different smells of people’s socks on that carpet.

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 18:00 (from November to March), from 09:00 to 21:00 (from April to October). During prayer hours, the mosque is closed for tourists.
Entrance is free of charge

You can reach it by T1 tram if you get off at Sultanahmet stop.

The Hagia Sophia Museum

It is located opposite the Blue Mosque. First, it was аn Orthodox church, then — a Muslim mosque, and now it is one of the main museums in Istanbul.

The Hagia Sophia Museum
Photo by goodistanbulguide
The Hagia Sophia Museum
Photo by goodistanbulguide

There are plenty of legends and myths about Hagia Sophia. İlknur Demir, the writer for the goodistanbulguide blog, tells the story of the Crying Column which stands inside the building:

The Crying Column inside Hagia Sophia was a column in the house of Mary. One day they told the Virgin Mary that Jesus had been captured and he had been tortured. Mary could not stand the torture of Jesus and burst into tears, melting this column of one of the tears. While the Hagia Sophia was being built, the emperor brought this column from the house of the Virgin Mary to the holy place of Hagia Sophia. Therefore, the stone is seen as sacred. Those who have any wishes will insert their fingers into the hole created by the Virgin Mary in this column and make a wish.

Now, we will talk about ordinary things: prices, queues, and interiors.

Kia Abdullah, the author of the atlasandboots blog, knows how to avoid lines for tickets:

To avoid long queues at Ayasofya, buy an Istanbul museum pass beforehand from your hotel or hostel. The pass costs 85 TL and grants access to 12 attractions across Istanbul. It allows single entry into each museum and is valid for five days (120 hours) after first use. As a price comparison, a ticket to Ayasofya costs 40 TL and the same for Topkapı Palace, so the pass practically pays for itself even if you visit just two attractions (with the added bonus of express entry). You can buy the pass online but it’s likely easier to buy from your hotel.

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 19:00 (from April 15 to September 30) and from 09:00 to 17:00 (from October 1 to April 14). It is closed on Mondays.

Ticket price: 40 Lira. Ticket offices accept cash, while ticket machines — only chip cards. Magnetic stripe cards will not work.

The Basilica Cistern

Opposite Hagia Sophia, you will find the famous Basilica Cistern. Once there was a basilica above the water reservoir, and the cistern kept drinkable water for the needs of the city (then known as Constantinople). Now, it is a significant tourist attraction, which is included in many lists of what to see in Istanbul.

The Basilica Cistern was shot in a few famous movies and novels.

JB and RenéeJB and Renée Will Fly for Food

provide the names of the movies in which one can see this Istanbul sight:

Do you remember the James Bond movie From Russia with Love? There was a scene where 007 was rowing in a boat through a forest of columns. I don’t remember it but that scene was filmed here. For those with fewer gray hairs, you’ll know the cistern as the place where that climactic scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno was set. Seeking to curb the world’s population, Dr. Zobrist released his no-child policy virus here.

The Basilica Cistern
James Bond sailing inside the Basilica Cistern in ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963). Photo by jamesbondlocations

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 17:30.
Ticket price: 20 Lira. A Museum Pass is not valid. You can pay only in cash.

The Topkapi Palace

Until the middle of the XIX century, it was considered the main palace in the Ottoman Empire. You will reach the Topkapi Palace from the Basilica Cistern in just 6 minutes:

The way to the Topkapi Palace from the Basilica Cistern

The entrance to the Topkapi Palace is right behind Hagia Sophia.

Lots of travelers complain about long lines not only to the palace complex itself but also to each of its pavilions. Matt and Erin Lyle, the authors of the travelblog, tell about the most crowded places in the palace area:

There are two areas in the palace that you have to wait in a super long line to get in, the first being the treasury that has golden cradles, swords, and the jewelry of the sultans, and the second — the Holy Relics room which has the supposed staff of Moses and the footprint & beard hair from Mohammed.

the Topkapi Palace
Photo by chuckandlori

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 18:45 (from April 15 to October 30), from 09:00 to 16:45 (from October 30 to April 15)
Ticket price: 60 Lira. To enter the Harem and Hagia Irene, you will have to buy separate tickets.

In Beyoglu

In the district of Beyoglu, you can find the quarters of Karakoy, Cihangir, Galata, Cukurcuma, Pera, and others.

There are lots of interesting Istanbul sights in this area. We will tell you about a few of them:

Taksim Square

Local people consider this square to be the center of the European side of Istanbul.

Taksim Square
Photo by chinafinds

In the middle of the square, there is the Republic Monument with the sculptures of Ataturk and his companions.

the Republic Monument

Istiklal Avenue

We have paid tribute to the central square of Istanbul. Now, let’s go for a walk along Istiklal: it stretches from Taksim Square all the way to the Galata Tower.

On the iconic Istanbul pedestrian street, everyone sees different things:

  • the famous retro tram
retro tram
Photo by wunderhead
  • the St. Anthony of Padua church
the St. Anthony of Padua church
Photo by turkishtravelblog
  • street performers
Street performers on Istiklal
Photo by gosumitup
Street performers on Istiklal
Photo by gosumitup
  • lots of delicious food
Food on Istiklal
Photo by gosumitup
Food on Istiklal
Photo by gosumitup
  • shops and cafes

It is better to avoid alleyways surrounding Istiklal. They can lead you to the unsafe district of Tarlabasi.

The Galata Tower

Another iconic landmark in Istanbul — the Galata Tower — is seen almost from any spot in the city: its height is 61 meters. A lift inside the tower can take you to the very top of it — and on a small observation deck on top, among crowds of people, you can manage to take pictures of the Golden Horn Bay and the Sea of Marmara.

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 20:30
Entrance fee: 25 Lira

Photo by sid-thewanderer

Busy-retired, a TripAdvisor forums user, gives advice on when to take the best pictures from the Galata Tower:

My husband says morning would be better. If you take photos later in the day the sun will create a silhouette effect. If you want that shadow then afternoon is fine, but you will get clear photos in the morning.

Allison Green, the author of the eternalarrival blog, warns about long lines at the entrance:

If you want a panoramic view of Istanbul, there’s no better place than the Galata Tower. The only problem is everyone else agrees: lines can be long, and you can expect to wait at least an hour.

Lines at the Galata Tower
Photo by TripAdvisor

Or you can avoid these lines and simply enjoy the tower from the surrounding streets (by the way, some tourists think that views of the tower are much more magnificent than those from its top). Natalie Deduck, the author of the loveandroad blog, loves how it looks at night:

What I love about the Galata Tower is its impressive silhouette at night time. From the streets around you can take a nice photo of the illuminated tower contrasting with the dark blue sky. The possibilities of photos are endless.

In Besiktas

Besiktas is one of the oldest and greenest districts of Istanbul. Here, one can find lots of expensive hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. The most famous Istanbul sight in this area is the Dolmabahce Palace, which you can’t miss while thinking about what to see in Istanbul.

The Dolmabahce Palace

It is called the most ‘non-Turkish’ of all residences of Ottoman monarchs. Sultan Abdulmejid I was impressed by European architecture and ordered to build a Baroque-style palace. During the Ottoman Empire, the complex was home to six Turkish sultans, and after the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey, it became Ataturk’s summer residence.

The Dolmabahce Palace
Photo by willflyforfood
The Dolmabahce Palace
Photo by willflyforfood
The Dolmabahce Palace
Photo by willflyforfood

All clocks in the palace are stopped at the same time — 09:05. Guess why?

Arzu, the author of the arzuaslan.wordpress blog, will help you:

The first president of the Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died at 9:05 a.m. on November 10, 1938 there.

Here is the bed on which Ataturk died:

the bed on which Ataturk died
Photo by verityy

The palace is huge, so assess your strength soberly before visiting it. You can buy a ticket to visit the whole complex or only a part of it.

JodoKast1221, a TripAdvisor forums user, shares his experience visiting Dolmabahce and explains why he wanted to leave it after 10 minutes of being inside:

We liked Topkapi better because we were free to walk around and see everything in the time we wanted where at Dolmabahce we were herded through the rooms in a big group. Dolmabahce is much more lavish and opulent than Topkapi however all the rooms start to look the same after a couple and you are not allowed to take photos. The temperature inside Dolmabahce was unbelievable as well. Apparently they cannot have any sort of air conditioning because it will harm the furniture and art and whatnot. After about 10 minutes of being herded through rooms, not being able to hear the guide because of the size of the group, and the unbearable heat we were done and couldn’t wait to get out.

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 16:00.
Ticket price: to the harem — 20 Lira, to the selamlik (the part of the house where men lived) — 30 Lira, a combined ticket to both areas — 40 Lira.

The Dolmabahce Palace is conveniently accessible by T1 tram (to Kabatas stop).

Non-tourist places

If you want to bring home something more than pictures like ‘Me and the Blue Mosque’, here is a nonstandard plan of action.

Get excited under the arches of the Süleymaniye Mosque

Few people know that the Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul.

Süleymaniye Mosque
Photo by thewildlifediaries

And while tourists crowd inside the Blue Mosque, there are not many people in this one, so one can easily take pictures of its interior.

Süleymaniye Mosque
Photo by thewildlifediaries
Süleymaniye Mosque
Photo by thewildlifediaries

Opening hours: from 09:00 to 17:30, except for Fridays.
Entrance is free of charge

You can reach the Süleymaniye Mosque by T1 tram (to Beyazit stop).

Get lost in the neighborhoods of Balat and Fener

These two districts — Jewish Balat and Greek Fener — are not well-known among tourists. There are no crowds, hustle and bustle, and noise in these areas. This is the other side of Istanbul: slums, narrow streets, and poverty.

AnaAna Ani Anywhere

felt quite comfortable in these districts:

If you travel to Istanbul and, like me, you’re the kind of traveler who likes to walk, go off the beaten path and stay away from the crowds of tourists; then you should definitely include Balat and Fener in your Istanbul itinerary. During your walk, you will see lots of stray cats resting quietly, kids playing soccer, locals drinking tea and laundry hanging from house to house… Lots of photo opportunities at every corner!

A street of Fener
A street of Fener. Photo by anianywhere
The Phanar Greek Orthodox College
The Phanar Greek Orthodox College. Photo by anianywhere
Street of Balat
Street of Balat. Photo by anianywhere
Street of Balat
Street of Balat. Photo by anianywhere

❗It is dangerous to walk in these quarters late in the evening and at night.

Find Paris in the heart of Istanbul

The antipode to Fener and Balat is the district of Cihangir. Lots of travelers say that this place looks so much like Paris that they even forget they are in Istanbul.

The neighborhood of Cihangir is located near Taksim Square, so you can reach it from there on foot (walk down Siraselviler Street).

Photo by traveloffpath

See the ghost of the Orient Express at Sirkeci railway station

Of course, only those who are especially sensitive can manage to do that. However, you should definitely visit this legendary railway station. Add it to your list of what to see in Istanbul.

Museum opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, from 10:00 to 17:00
Entrance is free

Sirkeci railway station
Photo by mikestravelguide
Sirkeci railway station
Photo by mikestravelguide

Feel the Chanel №5 fragrance at Haydarpaşa railway station

Many bloggers think that Haydarpaşa is more luxurious than its railway brother Sirkeci. It also has a remarkable history.

Alina Rudya, the author of the wherever blog, tells what connects the legendary perfume and the railway hub:

My desire to visit Istanbul in the first place was triggered by seeing the heroine of Audrey Tautou in the beautiful 2009 Chanel commercial, directed by acclaimed director Jean Pierre Jeunet, and shot in Istanbul. In this commercial Audrey takes the Orient-Express to Istanbul, meets a good-looking stranger and falls into his embrace at the Haydarpaşa train station.

Haydarpaşa railway station
Photo by geriatricgapper.blogspot
Haydarpaşa railway station
Photo by geriatricgapper.blogspot

If you do not want to plan your Istanbul itineraries yourself, professional guides can do that for you. You can book any excursion here. They definitely know what to see in Istanbul.

Almost finishing:)

In Istanbul, everything is bright, juicy, and authentic. And no matter how many days you spend in this city, you will always feel like your vacation was extremely short.

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