Top 8 things to do in Istanbul for first time visitors

Top 8 things to do in Istanbul for first time visitors

3024 3192 Daria Piasenti

Planning to spend a weekend in Istanbul, but don’t know where to start? Not sure what to see or skip?

Istanbul is huge, so you will have to make some choices. In this post, I picked the 8 things I liked the most and that I’m so glad I did not missed.

Suspended between Europe and Asia… Istanbul is known as the gate to the East: for centuries people crossed the Bosphorus carrying precious goods, looking for new businesses and encounters.

Although the capital of Turkey is Ankara, Istanbul is with no doubt its most famous city and the best place to start exploring the country.

Recently, Paulo Coelho wrote an autobiographic novel about his first adventures as a teenager, including a journey in search for dervishes on the riverbanks of Bosphorus.

Visiting Istanbul for the first time made me feel like drunk. Unusual smell of tasty mezzes, crazy taxi rides, uncountable silhouettes  of minarets at sunset, inebriating sound of muezzin’s call to prayer…

Istanbul is fascinating, it’s noisy, it’s gorgeous and packed with history: I loved it at first sight.

Packing for your first visit in town? Here is a list of top 8 things do to in Istabul for beginners:

1. Get a 360° insane view from the top of Galata Tower

City views are on top of my list. They are my first to-do-thing when I arrive in a new town. 

It is also quite useful for orientation. Suppose you’ve just landed (..and you’re jet lagged!): you probably want to make your mind about where the mayor sights are located and get a rough idea of distances and directions. The easiest way to do it? Obviously, from above!

The Galata Tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese, replacing an older tower dating back the 6th century BC: for a long time it has been the tallest building in Istanbul, about 70 meters tall.

According to the Roman belief, “if a man and a woman in the tower first come together at the same time, they are absolutely married” (not sure he knew about it, lol) 

The Galata Tower boasts a 360° insane panorama on Istanbul and the Bosphorus that will blow your minds away.

2. Get lost in the Topkapi Palace

In 1459 Mehemed III commissioned the construction of a brand new royal palace, to be Istanbul administrative center, right on top of a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn.

For the following 5 centuries, the Ottoman sultans lived in the Topkapi Palace with their families and concubines.

Wandering from the harem pavillon to the council chamber, from a courtyard to the next, it’s easy to get lost here, captured by the impressive decorations.

As for all the popular attractions, the earliest the better. Topkapi Palace opens at 9 am.

3. Learn more about Islam at Suleymaniye Mosque

There are plenty of mosques to visit in town. From the very moment of your arrival, you will hear the recurring sound of muezzin’s call to prayer. Uncountable minarets define the skyline of Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque is one of the symbols of Istanbul and a must-see attraction when spending a day in the Sultanahmet. From 2017, the interior of the Blue Mosque is going through an extensive restoration which eventually doesn’t allow visitors to admire the ceiling and the atmosphere ends up to be a little claustrophobic.

Located in the Bazaar district, the Suleymaniye Mosque represents a good alternative to the Blue Mosque. 

This mosque as well hosts an active Islam information center. Here, volunteers and members of the community welcomes visitors, answer questions about Islam. They even supply free copies of Koran and other educational books and leaflets. 

I was moved by the effort the locals put in sharing the message of love, peace and inclusion of their religion.

If you’ve ever wonder:

“Why do muslim women wear the veil? Are Jesus and Virgin Mary recognized by muslims? Are muslims terrorists?”

If you are curious to learn more about this ancient religion, then you should add a visit to the Suleymaniye Mosque to your itinerary.

As a woman, what you need to enter the site is to wear a simple scarf to cover your head and clothes that cover at least your knees.  Although this is not an extremist country, showing respect for the local habits it’s always a good manner of traveling.

If your outfit doesn’t match the requirements, they will loan you everything you need on the spot, completely for free. 

4. Hunt for the Hen’s Eye down the Basilica Cistern

The Basilica cistern was built by the Emperor Justinian I, as water filtration system for the buildings. It has a capacity of 100.000 tons of water. Today it is the biggest remaining Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.

336 granite columns made up this underground cistern which rewards the visitor with its evocative atmosphere. .

Making your way to the famous Medusa head, look for the Hen’s Eye, or Weeping column: this column was decorated with carved eyes and meant to be a tribute to those slaves who died in the construction.

5. Sip tea with locals in the back-shops of the Grand Bazar

Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is a classic activity for first time visitors in Istanbul. Since it opened in 1455 it has always been the heart of trade and business in town. 

f you want to buy a carpet, a lamp, or maybe a souvenir; if you need a new colorful hijab or fancy a nice jewel, the Grand Bazaar is the place for you.

If you want to stroll around what’a probably the oldest shopping mall worldwide, the again this labyrinth made up by more than 4.000 shops is the place to be.

While finding the best shopping deals, take a moment to look up at the beautiful ceiling of this bazaar.

When in need of a break from the frenetic shopping, exit the bazaar and head to the back-shops.

On the alleyways adjoining the bazaar there are plenty of cozy tea houses where you can grab a cup of tea, sip and relax or chat with local shoppers.

6. Take a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus

Lonely Planet entered a boat trip along the Bosphorus in the list of the top sights to see in Istanbul.

I was actually afraid it was going to be kind of tourist trap, but it isn’t. For a reasonable price you can reserve a seat on one of the numerous ferries cruising the Bosphorus.

The tour lasts about 90 minute: sunset is the best moment of the day to enjoy a cruise on the Golden Horn and see both Asian and European shores lighting up in a very evocative atmosphere.

We boarded from the pier adjoining the fish market, near metro station Karakoy, but you can start from any of the shores, at any time.

7. Stay at a Boutique Hotel

One of the most important thing when travel is where you’re staying.

Although you might not spend much time in there, the hotel is often the business card of the destination, the very first impression you will have of that place.

Booking you accommodation in advance, you can get pretty convenient rates at some incredibly stylish boutique hotels..

I felt crazy in love with the Daru Sultan Hotels Galata and its unique ottoman style. In particular, the decor of rooms and lobby is lovely and each floor received the name of a sultan.

Thanks to the location is right 350 mt from the Galata Tower, this boutique hotel offers amazing views from almost every room. I especially liked that they served us breakfast at the top roof terrace.

We reserved it on Booking.com, which is one of my travel essentials apps. They have fidelity and referral programs, a reliable help center and a match prices policy, as well.

8. Street art in Karakoy and Galata neighborhoods 

The Karakoy neighborhood, right in front of the Old Town, is one of the oldest of the European side and in addition to its commercial purpose, it’s well known for the nightlife and street art.

Firstly flourished during the Byzantine empire as the heart of financial activities with many banks and insurances, it hosts today an impressive concentration of plumbers, electricians and hardware shops which have risen up one next the other, on every single street of this area.

I find this old habit pretty smart thou: if you need a lighting fixture all you have to do is reach that certain street and then compare offers and products. Does it make sense? It sounds good both for customers and for a healthy competition in the market.

Together with the Galata neighborhood (located just few steps away) Karakoy has become popular for the nightlife, the elegant bistros, the design hotels and, of course, the street art. 

To walk around these areas without an actual purpose allows to find hidden gems such as trendy cafes, elegant boutiques, local designers; above all, it is perfect to make some funny street art discoveries. 

To sum up, a weekend in Istanbul is not enough to see it all, but you can always go back to explore further.

In fact, Istanbul it is the perfect choice for a stop over: its leading company Turkish Airlines is today flying to more countries than any other airline in the world.

From 2019 April 6th after “the great move”all flights are now operated from/to IST Airport, one of the biggest in the world (the surface reaches 76 million square meters). The great move only took 33 hours.

They completed the first part of the project in a record-breaking period of 42 months and it will later host up to 200 millions passengers.  This brand new airport is splendid and by its own it’s worthy a visit.

What about you? Have you been to Istanbul? Which sights did you visit? Any tip or recommendation? Would love to hear from you.