Every city claims to be unique, but Istanbul is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no other city in the world that spans two continents, after all! Istanbul sprawls over seven hills and is split by the mighty Bosphorus River: Europe on one side of the water and Asia on the other.
We were utterly enchanted by Istanbul.
You’ll see Muslim women wearing hijab walking beside tattooed and pierced hipsters. Sophisticated restaurants share the same zip code as traditional teashops and spice markets. Istanbul is home to fishermen and millionaires, age-old mosques and H&M.
Although nearly 20 million people call this city home, it doesn’t feel too compact, and green spaces frequently break up development. Modern construction backs up to ancient ruins in a tangible marriage of new and old.
Because Istanbul is the meeting place of Asia and Europe, traces of both continents are found here, along with a presence uniquely its own. Influences from Christianity and Islam merge with the grandeur of ancient Roman civilization, and are then mixed with a pinch of Middle Eastern flair.
There are so many reasons to visit Turkey, but in our opinion, Istanbul city has a little bit of everything: Europe and Asia, old and new, upscale and authentic, Christian and Muslim. There is something incredibly charming and mesmerizing about how everything melds together in one beautiful masterpiece.
If you find yourself in this wondrous metropolis, you’ll be at no shortage of things to do, and the difficult part will be choosing how to spend your time.
We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite fun and cheap things to do in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
Free Things to Do in Istanbul
In a metropolis this big, it’s easy to get caught up in the big-city lifestyle of dining out and shopping ‘till you drop. But if you don’t have a big-city budget, you don’t have to miss out on the fun. We’ve rounded up some of our best suggestions for free things to do in Istanbul we think you will love.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour of Istanbul
Ever since our amazing walking tour in Medellin, one of the first things we do in a new city is take a free walking tour. Usually these excursions are led by young locals who can give you great insight to their city and the life its people lead.
You learn about this city’s history, its progression and the important places (including some stellar places to eat and check out on your own!). The free walking tour in Istanbul is a great introduction to this metropolis and its place in history.
Tip: Take the free walking tour on your first morning in Istanbul. That way, you’ll get a feel for how the city is set up and can decide where to best spend the rest of your time.
How to do it yourself: There’s no need to make reservations in advance. Just show up at the Sultan Ahmet Park (in between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia) at 10:30 a.m. Guides typically have a name tag and flag or umbrella. The tour usually takes 2.5 hours.
2. Picnic at Gulhane Park
This one may not be in your guidebook, but our picnic at Gulhane Park was once of our favorite afternoons in Istanbul. Pick up some fruit, wine and cheese from a local market, then buy a Turkish towel (great souvenir alert!) and head to park.
The mix of people lazily milling about in green landscaping creates an idyllic backdrop to an afternoon picnic.
How to do it yourself: Wander through Gulhane Park, located next to Topkapi Palace Museum. Find a grassy spot, spread out your blanket and watch the world pass by.
3. Explore Different Neighborhoods
Istanbul is a sprawling city and it can seem overwhelming at times, but think of it as a compilation of many smaller cities.
Each neighborhood in this metropolis has a distinctly different feel, and attracts people for different reasons. Spend an afternoon getting lost in narrow cobbled streets of Beyoglu, or window-shopping and people watching in Taksim.
Central Neighborhoods in Istanbul to check out:
Taksim: known as the “Time Square” of Istanbul, this shopping area is always crowded with people. This is where you’ll find the best shopping in the city, as well as several restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Beyoglu: This up-and-coming neighborhood has a bohemian feel and boasts many small shops and cute restaurants. Be sure to wander past the Galata Tower, and if you want views of the city, head to the top for 25 TL ($8.60 USD).
Kadiköy: We stayed in this neighborhood for its proximity to both Sultanahment and Taksim. We were impressed by the amount of trendy restaurants and soon discovered why this is often referred to as the “hipster” neighborhood.
Sultanahmet: This is where many of the main tourist attractions are, so as you may expect, it is very touristy. While it’s definitely a place to visit in Istanbul, we got tired of the restaurants’ inflated prices, the souvenir shops, carpet sellers and the lack of authenticity.
Ortaköy: Popular with locals and visitors alike, this neighborhood features a picturesque mosque on the Bosphorus and boasts some pretty cute restaurants and bars.
Fener & Balat: Get off the beaten path in this colorful neighborhood that makes for some pretty epic Instagram backdrops with brightly painted houses and kids playing in the streets. You’ll see traces of Jewish, Orthodox and Armenian communities living peacefully together in these winding streets.
How to do it yourself: The metro is very convenient and is the cheapest way to get around. The taxi drivers are known for ripping off tourists (as in many big cities), so this was our preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll need to purchase an Istanbulkart card.
Buy this from one of the machines at the metro station for 10 TL and it will come preloaded with 4 TL on it. Even if you are traveling with multiple people, you only need one card. Simply pass it back once the first person has gone through the turnstile.
4. Stroll Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue is both the local and tourist center of Istanbul in the heart of the city. Would you believe this single avenue is visited by nearly 3 million people every single day? The nearly mile-long stretch of pedestrian walkway is home to restaurants, boutiques and even nightclubs. However, even with the chain restaurants creeping in, there is still a feel of old Istanbul here.
5. Catch the Sunset on the Galata Bridge
Istanbul has some killer sunsets, so be sure to catch at least one. Whether you’re on a rooftop or near the water, you’ll be enchanted by the orange sky and flapping seagulls.
Our favorite sunset-viewing spot was on the Galata bridge where we could watch the fishermen pack up for the day and see spectacular views of at least three mosques.
Look up the time of sunset, and make it to the Galata bridge (or whatever spot you wish to watch the sky fade to orange and purple) a bit ahead of time. Find a comfortable spot to relax and get ready to be wowed.
6. Cruise the Bosphorus River
Ok so this one isn’t exactly free, but we found a way to do it on the cheap so we figured we’d include it in this list!
Taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus was something we didn’t get to until our very last day in Turkey, but we’re sure glad we squeezed it in! Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents, it is pretty cool to cruise between the two, seeing Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
Tip: While there are several tour companies who operate boat trips along this river, we did this this little cruise the cheapest way possible by taking the government ferry on the short trip, which took 2 hours in total.
How to do it yourself: If you want to cruise on the government ferry, go to the office right next to the bridge (No need to buy a ticket online or at a tour agency. There are a bunch of scams out there so be careful). It leaves at 2:30 p.m. and costs 12 TL ($4 USD).
Historical Sights in Istanbul
You can’t visit a city whose history is rich with Roman, Greek and Ottoman influence and not visit some of the most historically significant sights it boasts. Here is our list of can’t miss historical sights to see in Istanbul.
7. Visit Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & Basilica Cistern
Being that the city of Istanbul spans two continents, it’s not surprising that it holds an incredible amount of historical significance. There are 3 buildings that should be on every history-lover’s Turkey Bucket List and each has its own allure.
Take in the beautiful tile work of the Blue Mosque, see images of Christianity and Islam side by side in the unparalleled Hagia Sophia and walk underground in the eerily captivating Basilica Cistern. All three buildings are on the same block, so it’s possible to explore them all before lunchtime!
How to do it yourself: Located in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, visit these attractions in the same morning. The Blue Mosque is free to enter, but you must cover shoulders and legs and wear a head covering. (There are coverings available to borrow free of charge.)
Tickets to the Basilica Cistern can be purchased at the entrance for 20 TL ($7 USD) each. Tickets to Hagia Sophia cost 40 TL ($14 USD) and can be purchased at the entrance.
8. Tour Topkapi Palace
Feel like royalty as you walk the halls of a palace where generations of sultans at the head of Ottoman Empire kept their primary residence during the 15th century.
Be sure to glimpse the Harem, an adorned room where the sultan ‘kept his women’, the treasury of the crown jewels and the weapons room, as your navigate through the palace. And don’t forget to check out the views from the courtyards as you can imagine they are some of the best views in the city!
How to do it yourself: Entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum will set you back 72 TL (about $12 USD) and you can roam the palace and grounds as you please. Be sure to check out the official website for visiting hours as they change by the season and the ticket booth closes as early as 4:00 p.m. on certain days.
9. Climb Galata Tower
Erected in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, this medieval stone tower was built in 1348 and stood as the tallest building in the city at the time. Today, it’s height gives an advantage to those who climb it (or let’s be honest, take the elevator to the top) to see the views!
If you’re looking for the best 360 degree panoramic view of Istanbul, there is no better place than at the top of the Galata Tower.
Once you’ve had a chance to check out the views, skip the restaurant in the tower and wander the neighborhood instead to find a nice rooftop to enjoy a drink or an afternoon meal.
How to do it yourself: Head to the Galata neighborhood and follow the tower on the horizon until your at the base. Get in line and get comfortable as it might be awhile before you get your chance to enter. You can purchase tickets for the tower at the ticket counter inside the base for 35 TL (about $6 USD) and then take the elevator to the top floor. The last story will be climbing stairs until you reach the rooftop. The tower is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
10. Check Out Istanbul’s Archaeology Museums
Displaying one of the world’s largest collections of classical antiques, the Archaeology Museums are some of Istanbul’s hidden gems that are often missed by tourists. The Archaeology Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art are the three museums clustered in the Eminönü district of Istanbul. Each with its own unique collection, they are great places to learn a bit more about the history of the region.
How to do it yourself: The museums are open to visitors everyday of the week except Mondays, so be sure to plan your schedule accordingly. Hours of operation vary by season so check out the official website and note that the ticket offices close promptly at 4:00 p.m. everyday. A museum entrance ticket will cost 30 TL.
Culinary Experiences in Istanbul
If you know one thing about us it’s that we love a good beer, almost as much as we love food! For us, visiting a new place is as much about the culinary experiences as it is about the cultural ones.
We’ve put together a list of our absolute favorite culinary experiences in Istanbul, some of which are very budget-friendly!
11. Take a Turkish Cooking Class
A country’s culture is tied closely to its cuisine, and you can learn about one by exploring the other. If you like to eat (and let’s be real, who doesn’t?!), taking a cooking class when visiting a new country is one of the best things you can do!
Turkish cuisine has complexities you won’t pick up on as an outsider, yet many dishes are easy to recreate at home. Istanbul has many classes to choose from, but the team at Cookistan was exceptional! In this class you’ll not only learn, but you’ll leave Turkey with a souvenir that keeps on giving – a recipe and the knowhow to recreate it at home!
How to do it yourself: Make a reservation on our favorite cooking class website, Cookly.
12. Indulge in a Turkish Breakfast
The Turkish breakfast is unlike any breakfast I have ever experienced – and this is coming from a breakfast food fanatic! The traditional breakfast spread is usually a decadent affair consisting of variations of cheese, bread, jams and spreads, vegetables like cucumber and tomato, and of course olives. Top it off with a Turkish coffee or tea (always black!) and you have yourself a true Turkish delight.
Experience it for yourself: Whether your at a five-star restaurant or a local hole in the wall, every place in Turkey will offer their variation of a Turkish breakfast spread. Try out a few and decide which Turkish breakfast staples are your favorites.
13. Eat and Drink Everything!
After taking a cooking class (see #5), you’ll understand why we were surprised by the cuisine!
You’ll find some amazing Turkish food in Istanbul. While you’re in this city, try the street food, sit down at a local restaurant, and don’t forget to try Turkish tea and coffee.
Wander the bazaars, sampling local cheese and Turkish delights (yes, sampling is encouraged!). Snack on dried fruits and nuts, and save room for baklava.
Be sure to try kaymak. Just do it and don’t check the calories! It is a type of clotted cream and is best eaten with a drizzle of honey and fruit or served with a dollop of Nutella on bread.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll leave Turkey wowed by the food!
14. Have a Local Pint
As you know, we are big fans of beer. Craft beer, that is. After spending 7 months drinking the light stuff Asia has on tap, we were itching to have something a bit darker, stronger, better.
And we found our fix at BBC in Istanbul. BBC, which stands for Bosphorus Brewing Company, serves up a plethora of their own brews as well as a wide selection of imports. The night we visited, Guinness was on tap for under $3 USD, which Ben just couldn’t resist!
Sample a flight or have a pint of your favorite style brew in a cute garden setting outside the tourist zone.
Tip: Our favorite BBC beers were the chocolate stout and the IPA. We hadn’t heard great things about the food, so we just stuck to one appetizer, but it was actually pretty good!
15. Eat a Fish Sandwich on the Bosphorus
Lining the Galata bridge are crowds of fishermen, and beneath the bridge are an assortment of restaurants that all have one thing in common on their menus: fish sandwiches.
According to our Free Walking Tour guide (see #1), they no longer make the restaurants in the traditional way over coals, but instead focus on getting them out as quickly as possible. He said to expect soggy bread and wilted lettuce. No thanks.
But we were still determined to eat a fish sandwich on the Bosphorus. And we finally found one that was worthy of our quest.
Located right next to the Bosphorus in the Kadiköy neighborhood, on a street not frequented by travelers, there is a small stand where one man cooks up a mean fish sandwich over coals and tops it with roasted peppers and onion, fresh cucumbers and herbs, a squeeze of lemon and Turkey’s famous pomegranate molasses. Mmmmm…
How to do it yourself: Head east on the Galata bridge. Once you reach the end of the bridge, turn left 180 degrees and aim for the water.
Walk north close to the water, dodging restaurant owners trying to lure you in, and you should find the man with the charcoal grill making the holy grail of fish sandwiches. Be sure to order one with all the fixings!
Cultural Things to Do in Istanbul
Istanbul is a melting pot of cultural influences and there are so many opportunities to experience traditional and authentic cultural experiences. Here are some of our best suggestions to dive into the culture of Istanbul.
16. Witness a Whirling Dervish Ceremony
While it may seem like a tourist attraction, the hatted men wearing skirts and spinning in unison is actually a ceremony of Mevlevi order, a branch of Sufism. It was founded in 1273 by followers of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, a Muslim saint and Anatolian mystic.
There are few places in the city where you can witness a ceremony for yourself. Aside from the designated cultural centers, you can head to the Galata Mevlevi House (sometimes referred to as the Galata Lodge) to see the dervishes ‘whirl’.
How to do it yourself: The sema dances are held every Sunday at the Galta Lodge at 5 p.m. during the summer months, and every other week during the winter months. Tickets will cost 70 TL (about $12 USD) for the ceremony, and they don’t have seat numbers so be sure to get there early for a good seat!
17. Get Scrubbed Down in a Turkish Hammam
There are plenty of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to choose from around Istanbul that range from basic to straight up luxurious. If you’re on a budget, look no further than Aga Hamami. This historic hammam is over 560 years old and the basic package costs just 70 Turkish Lyria (TL) ($24 USD) per person.
A comparable experience at other, more luxurious bathhouses average around $85 USD. One of the things we enjoyed most about this hammam is that as a couple, we were able to experience it together. Many bathhouses are completely separated by gender, but this hammam features a central room that we could hang out in together.
How to do it yourself: Just show up! Check the hours of the hammam you choose to be sure they are open. (The one we went to is open from everyday 10 a.m to 10 p.m.)
The staff should be able to explain the procedure to you in English. Prices range from about $30 USD to $85 USD, and vary in luxury according to cost. And if you are traveling with children, they will love the experience too. Our friends over at The Educational Tourist wrote about their Turkish bath experience with kids.
18. Browse the Bazaars
Istanbul is known for its variety of Bazaars, and we’d recommend taking a gander. Breathe in the scents of the Spice Bazaar, but if you want to purchase anything, step outside, where prices are cheaper.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar, and wander through the Little Bazaar, both of which mainly sell souvenirs. We wanted to get a taste of where the locals shop, so we wandered through the farmer’s market in the Tarlabasi Pazari neighborhood.
It felt far less touristy than the main bazaars and had unbeatable produce prices, which tempted us into buying more cherries than two people should be able to consume. Oops! But we aren’t most people.
19. Experience Istanbul’s Nightlife
A city as big as this is bound to have a booming nightlife scene and Istanbul is no exception. Whether you’re looking for loud electronic dance music, hip upscale lounges, or a live performance, Istanbul has no shortage of bars, clubs and venues to dance the night away. The neighborhood of Ortakoy on the Bosphorus is particularly popular for a good party.