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The 20 Best Things to Do in Istanbul for First Timers

Topkapi Palace

Istanbul is one of the major cities in Turkey, and it is considered the economic, historical, and cultural center of the country. It is one of the most popular urban destinations for tourists visiting Turkey, as there are so many things to see and do in this city. So that you can get the best experience possible in this location, it makes sense to plan your itinerary in advance. To help you enjoy the best vacation possible in this city, here are the 20 best things to do in Istanbul for first-timers.

Divella Bistro Restaurant

20. Dine at Divella Bistro Restaurant

Although there are many excellent places to dine in Istanbul, one of the highest-rated and best-reviewed restaurants is the Divella Bistro Restaurant, which is popular with both tourists and locals. Located just off the waterfront, this restaurant has both indoor and outdoor dining areas. Therefore, you can choose to sit in the comfort of the main dining room or enjoy an alfresco meal on the terrace. This bistro serves traditional Turkish fare, and you can order dishes tapas-style to sample different flavors. Those who have dined in this restaurant say the staff is friendly, the restaurant is clean, and there is an amazing atmosphere.

Istanbul Modern

19. View the Art at the Istanbul Modern

One of the top attractions in Istanbul for art enthusiasts is the Istanbul Modern, which is a gallery of contemporary art. It was the first Turkish museum of modern and contemporary art when it was opened in 2004. It showcases both Turkish and international art in both its permanent and temporary exhibitions. There is also an in-house cinema that screens independent films. These are programmed around stand-alone events, contemporary directors, and ongoing exhibitions.

Museum of Innocence

18. See the Exhibits at the Museum of Innocence

Time Out recommends a visit to the Museum of Innocence. It is an attraction inspired by the novel of the same name by Orhan Pamuk, and you will find it is the Cukurcuma quarter of the city. This museum won the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award. There are interesting collections that relate to the culture and history of Istanbul, as well as the events that unfold in the novel.

Gulhane Park

17. Stroll Around the Gulhane Park

One of the nicest outdoor spaces to spend some time in Istanbul is Gulhane Park, which is the largest park in Istanbul, and it is particularly famous for its springtime tulips. You will find the park next to Topkapi Palace, and it is a wonderful place to get away from the bustling vibe of the city.

Suleymaniye Mosque

16. See the Suleymaniye Mosque

Although there are many Mosques that you can visit during your time in Istanbul, one that you should try to include on your vacation itinerary is the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is less famous than the Blue Mosque, so there are fewer tourists, but it is worth seeing. The Mosque was designed for Suleyman the Magnificent by architect Sinan. It consists of a complex of buildings, including the main Mosque, a school, a hospital, and a kitchen. There are many impressive features to admire in all parts of the complex. Make sure you remember to visit the tombs of Suleyman and Roxalana, which are behind the Mosque’s graveyard. You should also see the tomb of Sinan outside the complex. While you are visiting this Mosque, visit one of the restaurants in Alley of Addicts.

Chora Church and Kariye Museum

15. Go to the Chora Church and Kariye Museum

Also known as the Church of St. Savior, the Chora Church is located next to the old city walls in Chora, and it is one of the most impressive religious buildings in the city. Inside the church, the walls and ceilings are covered in outstanding frescoes and Byzantine mosaics. Part of the church is a museum with religious artifacts. After visiting the church, take the time to see the old city walls and the wooden Ottoman houses.

Dolmabahce Palace

14. Visit Dolmabahce Palace

Sultan Abdui Mecit built this palace in 1856, and it has 285 rooms and 43 salons. The sultan had this palace built to prove that the Ottoman empire was not in decline, as the rumors stated. He spared no expense on the construction, and materials widely used throughout the palace include marble, crystal, and gold leaf. The excesses are particularly evident in the main bathroom, the ceremonial hall with its 4.5-ton chandelier, and the Baccarat crystal staircase. An interesting fact is that all the clocks in the palace show the time of Ataturk’s death in the palace in 1938. You will need at least half a day to tour the palace.

Archaeology Museum

13. Go to the Archaeology Museum

Some of the best collections of classical Turkish antiquities are housed in the Archaeology Museum, which is a hidden gem often missed by tourists. One of the highlights of a visit is seeing the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, which depicts various phases of his life. Other highlights include the Tiled Pavilion, the blue-tiled Karaman Mihrab, and the Treaty of Kadesh, which is the earliest surviving peace treaty in the world. There is even a children’s section of the museum, which boasts a model of the Trojan Horse.

Whirling Dervishes

12. See the Whirling Dervishes

People often mistakenly assume that the Whirling Dervishes are simply a performance that is used as a tourist attraction. However, they are much more important to the culture and religions of Turkey, as their dance is performed to create a bridge between God and humans through prayer and trance. Seats to watch the Whirling Dervishes are often sold out, so people miss seeing them during their stay in the city. The Istanbul Insider says that you should make sure you do not miss out by booking your tickets in advance.

Relax in a Turkish Bath

11. Relax in a Turkish Bath

If you are one of the many people who take a vacation to relax and get away from life’s stresses and strains, then one of the best activities to enjoy in Istanbul is the Turkish baths. There are many places in the city where you can enjoy the activity, and you will start by relaxing in a hot steam bath. It is customary to do this in the nude, so it is not an activity for prudes. After the bath, the staff at the baths give you a full body massage. Again, this is done by strangers while you are naked, so it is something that only those who are not self-conscious will enjoy.

Bosphorus Strait

10. Take a Cruise on the Bosphorus Strait

Half of Istanbul is in Asia, and the other half is in Europe. Visiting this city is a rare chance to go to two continents within a few minutes, and you will not even need to go through customs. Running between the two sides of the city is the Bosphorus Strait, You should take a cruise along this stretch of the city during your stay. These scenic cruises are a wonderful way to see both the European side of Istanbul and the European side of the city at the same time. You will see many of Istanbul’s important landmarks along the way.

Partying in Ortakoy

9. Go Partying in Ortakoy

Ortakoy was once a fishing village, but it is now one of the liveliest districts in Istanbul. It is a hotspot for celebrities visiting the city, as it is the best place to party. Ortakoy is much more upscale now, despite its humble beginnings as a fishing village. It is filled with bars, nightclubs, and various entertainment venues. The area is popular with young professionals who hand out in this hip district after work.

Eat with a Local Family

8. Eat with a Local Family

When visiting any location, trying the traditional cuisine of that country is a big part of the experience. In Istanbul, there are many outstanding restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Turkish cuisine. However, you can get a more authentic experience if you dine with a local family. It is possible to book a dining experience where you visit a local home, eat a traditional meal with the family, and learn about the local way of life.

Istiklal Avenue

7. Spend Time at Istiklal Avenue

Istiklal Avenue is considered the heart of Istanbul, and it is where a lot of the action takes place. You will find shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs along this avenue. There is also a cinema and several other attractions. A fun way to enjoy the sights on this avenue or to get from one end to the other is on the tram that runs along the street.

Galata Tower

6. Climb the Galata Tower

From the outside, the Galata Tower is breathtaking, especially when it is lit up at night. It is also possible to climb the nine stories of the tower, and it offers spectacular views across the city. You can also enjoy the views from the restaurant or café at the top of this tower. Inside the tower, there is also a nightclub, so it is a fantastic place to visit for a fun night out. You will find the Galata Tower in the Galata Quarter, just north of the Golden Horn.

Grand Bazaar

5. Shop at the Grand Bazaar

Although many people like to spend a little time shopping during a vacation, shopping at the Grand Bazaar is a shopping experience that you will have nowhere else in the world. Planet D says that the Grand Bazaar has more than five thousand shops over 60 streets. In addition to the shops, there are Mosques, cafes, jewelry stalls, and hammams in this huge labyrinth.

Basilica Cistern

4. Spend Time at the Basilica Cistern

The top four attractions of this list are known as Istanbul’s top four, and one of these top attractions is the Basilica Cistern. It is an underground hall that once stored water for the Byzantine emperors, and it looks like the inside of a palace. The hall is supported by 336 columns set over 12 rows. Some of the columns have been recycled from earlier structures, including the famous Medusa Stones, which have carvings of Medusa’s head.

Blue Mosque

3. See the Blue Mosque

One of the most significant landmarks in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, which was a gift to the city from Sultan Ahmet I. The Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, and it originally had six minarets to reflect the Grand Mosque of Mecca. A seventh minaret was added later. It earned the name of the Blue Mosque due to the thousands of Iznik tiles that decorate the interior. It is one of the most impressive sights you will see in this wonderful city.

Topkapi Palace

2. Visit Topkapi Palace

You should set aside at least half a day to get the most out of your visit to Topkapi Palace. It was built in the 15th century by Mehmet the Conqueror, and it was home to the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire until the 19th-century. The palace consists of a vast complex of structures that boast magnificent displays of Islamic art. There are also pretty courtyards that boast ornate, hand-painted tile-work. An interesting part of the palace to visit is the Harem, which is where the concubines and children of the sultans would spend their days. Another fascinating section is the Third Court, which was once the sultan’s private rooms. Now, the Third Court contains a collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad.

Aya Sofya

1. Go to Aya Sofya

According to Planetware, the best thing to do in Istanbul for first-timers is to go to Aya Sofya. It is a former church that was built in AD 536 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian to show off his wealth and status. Later, the impressive domed structure has been converted to a mosque. In the 20th century, it became a museum and one of Turkey's most visited landmarks. One of the religious structure's most impressive features is its dome.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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