istanbul townscape

What to do in Istanbul

Posted by Pınar Unek on

Istanbul was always the ‘layover’ city during long haul flights for me. Then I met my husband, Murat, through a mutual friend. Murat was born and raised in Istanbul so I had the privilege, on many occasions, to explore Istanbul in great detail through the eyes of a local.


COVID-19 UPDATE: Please bear in mind that when travelling during the Covid-19 pandemic, you will be required to wear a mask at all times when outdoors and your temperature is measured before you enter a lot of places. Failing to wear a mask could result in you getting a monetary fine. When travelling, stay safe and protect yourself and others. 


Let’s start by telling you that Istanbul is a unique city because it is split between two continents, Europe and Asia. Many of the places I recommend below are in the European side of the city but you can easily travel to the Asian side by taxi or ferry (called a “vapur”). Based on my experience, here’s a list of suggested places to visit while in Istanbul.


Kapalı çarşı/ Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar opened in 1461. It is known to be one of the largest and oldest markets in the world. It is one of the most beautiful and colourful bazaars I have seen. It is so big that you will get lost in it. The great thing about the Grand Bazaar is that you can find very authentic Turkish products here. Some things I have bought and, to this day very much love, are:

  • Authentic Turkish ceramics – these are colourful and carefully handcrafted products you can use at home or in your kitchen.
  • Leather – Turkey is known to have some of the best leather products. Whilst I have only bought handbags, a good friend of mine bought a leather jacket some years ago and still talks about how great the quality is.
  • Jewellery – ok so this might come as a surprise but my husband bought me a wedding gift (sapphire and diamond earrings and chain) from an Armenian jeweller. He hand makes all his products and has been doing so for the last forty years. We came across his shop in the Grand Bazaar by coincidence.


Sultanahmet camii/ Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is within walking distance from the Grand Bazaar so I would recommend that after touring the Grand Bazaar, and if you have energy, you walk to the mosque.


In Turkish this mosque is called Sultanahmet camii. It is also called the Blue Mosque because the tiles surrounding the walls of the interior design are blue. The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616.


It is free to enter but you are not permitted to show much skin. At the entrance, you will be offered a cloth to cover your legs and arms (and hair for women). Needless to say, you cannot wear your shoes/ slippers inside the mosque.


This mosque is not just a tourist attraction. It is still being used as a place of worship and during Friday prayers (between 12-2pm) the mosque will not be open to tourists.


Aya Sofya/ Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sofia is walking distance from the Blue Mosque.


Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church (yr 337), then as a cathedral before it was renovated into a mosque. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, it was converted into a museum. When you enter Hagia Sophia, you will be mesmerised by the breathtakingly beautiful interior, you will feel the richness of the history and the wholesomeness of humanity. As of July 2020, the Hagia Sophia was converted back to a mosque therefore there is no longer an entrance fee and, like the Blue Mosque, you cannot enter during worship hours.


The history of Hagia Sophia goes back to 337 and you can read more about it here more information.


Yerebatan Sarnıcı/ The Basilica Cistern

This is walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque but there is an entrance fee to get in.


This is an underground water reservoir, which was constructed in 527-565 for Justinianus I, the Byzantium Emperor. You can read more about the Basilica here more information but the Basilica is well known for Medusa’s head, which remains in the Basilica.


The Palaces: Topkapı sarayı and Dolmabahçe Palace

These are a couple of the palaces which were occupied by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. These are breathtakingly beautiful and definitely worth a visit. Do bear in mind that the palaces are big and to tour them could take up a whole day.


İstiklal caddesi

The best way to really describe this is the Oxford Street/ Regents Street of London. It is very busy, you will see lots of people selling street food like simit (similar to Turkish bagel) or midye dolma (stuffed mussels) and in the evenings you may see people singing/ playing instruments. If you like you can take a tram ride, which takes you from one end of İstiklal caddesi to the other end.


If you have time for a coffee break, we would recommend that you stop at Mandabatmaz to have a traditional Turkish coffee.


Galata Kulesi/ Galata Tower

This is a medieval structure and at the time it was built it was known to be the tallest structure in Istanbul. You can climb to the top of the tower and can get some amazing views of Istanbul on a clear day. Note that there is an entrance fee for this. You can walk to this tower from İstiklal caddesi.



Kadıköy is on the Asian border of Istanbul and one of my favourite places in Istanbul. You can take a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul from one of the ports in Istanbul. If you visit the Galata Tower the closest port would be Karaköy. This would give you the opportunity to take a ferry ride across the Bosphorus and if the weather is good we recommend that you sit outside and watch as the waves splash and seagulls chase the ferry with the hope that someone would feed them bread.


Turkey is well known for its tea breaks, everyone is always drinking tea. We recommend that you have a tea break in Moda cay bahcesi when in Kadıköy.


If you like mussels, you may want to taste a traditional Turkish street food called midye dolma (stuffed mussels). When in Kadıköy we always go to Mercan Kokoreç and eat midye dolma and drink beer. You can order as many midye dolmas as you like.


Another street food that you would see everywhere is simit. This looks like a large bagel with sesame seeds on it. Whilst I love it, you may find that eating it on its own is dry so you may opt for simit with cheese in it or buy a drink with it.


Visiting the islands  

If you visit Istanbul you must visit at least one of the islands. There are nine islands in total and these are Büyük Ada, Kinali Ada, Heybeli Ada, Burgaz Ada, Sedefasi Ada, Sivri Ada, Yassı Ada, Kaşık Adası ve Tavşan Ada. There are many places to visit on each island so you won’t be able to visit all the Islands in one day (that would be too much to pack in one day)! We have visited Büyük Ada, Kinali Ada, Heybeli Ada and Burgaz Ada so I recommend visiting these. You can take a ferry from one of the ports on the mainland; once you are on the island you would be surprised to find that there are no vehicles and the only form of transport is either a bike or horse and carriage J You can also go to the beach or stay on the island overnight!


If you have more time…

Kız Kulesi

The literal translation of this is the Maiden’s Tower. This is an ancient tower dating back 2500 years and the story behind it varies. For more information you can read more. This is better seen and easy to visit from the Asian side.


Çamlıca Hill

This is the highest hill in Istanbul. On a good day, you can get some amazing views of Istanbul. This is also on the Asian side of Istanbul.



This is just located by the Bosphorus Bridge on the European side. Here you get amazing views of the Bosphorus and the Bosphorus Bridge. When walking around you will see many street vendors selling authentic Turkish products. If you are a big foodie like us, then you may want to taste kumpir. This is baked potato and you have the option of choosing many different types of fillings.


Mısır Çarşı/ Spice Bazaar

For those who like buying spices, we would recommend Mısır Çarşı (literally translated to Egyptian Bazaar but also referred to as the Spice Bazaar) where you will be able to find many different spices. This market is on the European side and whilst there we would really recommend that you eat balık ekmek in Eminönü. This is a fresh fish sandwich. The fish is freshly caught then fried. The sandwich comes with onions and some salad. You can buy pickles or pickle juice which compliments the fish sandwich.


How long to stay in Istanbul

Istanbul is one of those cities where you can spend a whole week without getting bored or even go for a long weekend. To fully explore the city we would suggest 7 days however you can also stay for a long weekend and visit the key highlights of the city. 



This is always a difficult topic. As a traveller you should listen to your gut instinct and your local government advice. However, from my experience as a British person, I found Istanbul to be safe. As always, you need to be streetwise and research and read reviews about the area you are staying in. People in Turkey are very friendly to tourist and like to help. Bear in mind that they are likely to overcharge you for things so you should barter prices of products before you buy them. Also, if you are female just be aware that you may get unwanted attention from local men.


One of our peshtemals would be the essential item to pack into your suitcase! You can use it as a blanket on the aeroplane, as a shawl in the evenings or to enter mosques across the city. At Pehstemall we have a broad range of beautiful peshtemal products in a range of colours, which can be used both indoors and outdoors. Enjoy shopping J


Before we end this blog we would like to leave you with a quote:


“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

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