Istanbul things to do

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Aya Sofya

Price guide: Mid-range
#2/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Best for First-time visitors -
Expert overall rating:4.8 (out of 5)

Awe-inspiring Byzantine building with a rich, complex history.

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Topkapı Palace

Price guide: Expensive
#3/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Best for Romance -
Expert overall rating:4.7 (out of 5)

Grand Ottoman royal complex full of beauty and treasures.

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Kariye Museum

Price guide: Mid-range
#4/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Expert overall rating:4.7 (out of 5)

Beautiful small church with stunning frescos and mosaics.

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Rumeli Fortress

Price guide: Budget
#6/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Best for Posing -
Expert overall rating:4.6 (out of 5)

Impressive waterfront fortress with great Bosphorus views.

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#10/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Expert overall rating:4.4 (out of 5)

Fine collection of carpets, ceramics, and other traditional crafts.

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#11/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Best for Escapists -
Expert overall rating:4.4 (out of 5)

Classy art and artefacts museum with gorgeous setting and stunning views.

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#16/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Expert overall rating:4.3 (out of 5)

Lovely small mosque rich with colourful İznik tiles.

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Blue Mosque

Price guide: Free
#17/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Expert overall rating:4.2 (out of 5)

One of the finest, and most famous, mosques in the world.

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Basilica Cistern

Price guide: Budget
#18/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Best for Families -
Expert overall rating:4.1 (out of 5)

Atmospheric underground structure that once supplied Istanbul with water.

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Dolmabahçe Palace

Price guide: Expensive
#19/20
expert-rated things to do in Istanbul
Expert overall rating:4.1 (out of 5)

Lavish imperial residence with a stunning waterfront view.

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Istanbul hums with tourists, especially in the summer months, so it’s worth getting up early on a weekday to hit the most popular attractions, particularly Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya, and the Bosphorus Tour, and saving your explorations further afield for the weekends.

Most museums are closed on Mondays.

With notable exceptions, many museums and other sites are not as well-signed in English as one might hope, and the tour guides staked out in front of the biggest attractions are often not worth the price. It’s probably a better investment to get a guidebook like Rick Steves’ Istanbul, which includes extensive guided tours, or Eyewitness Istanbul, which is full of detailed maps and diagrams.

Don’t be afraid to go beyond my recommendations; if you like art, for example, the Cihangir, Galata, and Teşvikiye neighbourhoods are full of galleries and the big banks on İstiklal Caddesi often have interesting exhibits as well.

Be sure to save some time to people watch, wander, and soak in the atmosphere of Istanbul’s many diverse neighbourhoods.

How I’ve picked my things to do: 

Choosing just 20 top attractions in a city with 2,000 years of history -- including stints as the capital of two great empires -- and a vibrant present was a difficult challenge. I’ve listed the sights that visitors shouldn’t miss, as well as some personal favourites that even frequent travellers to Istanbul might not have explored.

Set focus

Choosing just 20 top attractions in a city with 2,000 years of history -- including stints as the capital of two great empires -- and a vibrant present was a difficult challenge. I’ve listed the sights that visitors shouldn’t miss, as well as some personal favourites that even frequent travellers to Istanbul might not have explored.