Energy levels were high as our ship pulled into the port of Istanbul. Exotic yet familiar, it’s a city filled with an extensive history, intricate architecture, gastronomic delights, and culture. With our Istanbul must-see list whittled down to seven key sites, we were ready.
Istanbul is a city that deserves more than one day, but as a cruise port, that was what we had, and we made the most of it. Opting to hire a driver at the port, we presented our Istanbul must-see list, negotiated a price, and we were on our way. We are flexible and comfortable with this style of travel.
Had we been nervous travellers, a tour would have been a better option for Istanbul sightseeing. Both private and group tours offer a cushion of safety. See below for our recommendations.
Istanbul must see #1: Blue Mosque
One look at the over 20,000 handmade blue Iznik tiles intricately decorating the interior, and we knew it was worth the long wait to get inside. Entrance to the mosque is free, and donations are accepted.
Note that to enter the Blue Mosque, women should cover their heads, shoulders, and knees, while men should wear long pants. It is closed to non-Muslims during prayer times, found here.
Istanbul must see #2: Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century masterpiece. As the world’s largest place of worship, it has been a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica, an Ottoman imperial mosque, and is now a national museum. It was important to both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It really should be tied for #1 on this list.
And while it was fabulous, once inside the queue to enter seemed endless. Our guide actually bought skip-the-line tickets from someone on the street, something I would never have been brave enough to do on my own. Especially now that I know how easy it is to reserve a Hagia Sophia Skip-the-Line Ticket with guided tour.
Or, take a top-rated private or small group tour that visits both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. As a bonus, you will also see the Hippodrome while discovering its importance in the city’s social and political life. Reserve your Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia tour here.
Note that Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays.
Istanbul must see #3: Basilica Cistern
Storing up to 80,000 cubic meters of water, the underground Basilica Cistern was originally built in the mid 6th century AD under the Basilica of Illus which no longer exists. The four-metre-thick walls and soft lighting add to the mystery created by the two giant heads of Medusa at the waterline. Basilica Cistern is a short walk from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
Another place with the option to pre-purchasing your Skip-the-Line Guided Tour.
Istanbul must see #4: Hippodrome of Constantinople
Today called the Sultan Ahmet Square, the Hippodrome was once the sport and social centre of the Byzantium Empire’s capital city, then called Constantinople (now Istanbul). Two of the interesting features are:
- Obelisk of Theodosius: an Egyptian Obelisk erected in 390 AD to decorate the Hippodrome.
- German Fountain: constructed in Germany and erected at the Hippodrome in 1900.
Istanbul must see #5: Taksim Square
Modern Turkey’s gathering place is Taksim Square, and the surrounding streets are filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and entertainment. The Republic Monument stands in the centre of Taksim Square.
Istanbul must see #6: Galata Bridge
They say sunset is the best time to walk across the Galata Bridge, but if you’re like us and in Istanbul as a one-day cruise port, then this might not be possible. Either way, Galata Bridge is an opportunity to get a taste of local life. The bridge spans the two sides of the Golden Horn. Its lower level is lined with restaurants and cafes.
Istanbul must see #7: Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
We were in Istanbul on a Sunday, the only day of the week the Grand Bazaar is closed. However, the spice market was open, and in addition to spices, they sell clothes, water pipes (nargile), and even ice cream.
Don’t forget to try something new
When we accepted the gracious offer from our guide for a cup of authentic Turkish apple tea at his cousin’s shop, we hadn’t realized we were about to have a carpet shopping experience. “No one comes to Istanbul to buy a carpet, but everyone leaves with one.”
This said we were made to feel welcome. They are experts at sizing us up. We were shown carpets and rugs in our price range, while others we know from the ship were shown substantially more expensive items.
The workmanship is impressive, the apple tea divine, and the overall experience interesting. It gave us another insight into the culture, something that we lack an opportunity to get when cruising as we don’t spend enough time in any one spot.
We may not have spent long in Istanbul, but we sure ate well. For starters, I am a big fan of Turkish-style food and Turkish coffee.
The first photo is of a street vendor near Hagia Sophia, and the second is an ice cream vendor near Taksim Square. (Yes, that white creation is handmade ice cream and experiencing it should be on any Istanbul must-see list!)
Istanbul city tours
We were happy to find a guide at the port and explore parts of Istanbul on our own. However, if we hadn’t been, we would have opted for one of these tours to show us our Istanbul must-see list.
Small-group ‘Istanbul in a day’ tour
This highly rated 8-hour tour hits all the highlights. In a group no larger than 14 people, you will visit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. Reserve your small group 8-hour tour here
Istanbul old city full-day tour
This eight-hour tour will visit most of the Istanbul must-see venues. Highlights include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar, five tombs of the Ottoman Sultans, and the imperial residence of the former Sultans. (Note: it does not visit the Basilica Cistern except on Monday when Hagia Sophia is closed.) Reserve your old city tour here
Big Bus Istanbul: Hop-on-hop-off
An opportunity to do it all on your own while travelling between venues on a bus, providing commentary in eight optional languages, including English. In addition to the key sites listed on this page, the bus crosses the Bosphorus Bridge into Aisa to see the Beylerbeyi Palace. Reserve your hop-on-hop-off pass here.
Know before you visit Istanbul
- The official language is Turkish.
- The currency is the Turkish lira. While credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, hotels, and larger establishments, cash is often needed for smaller purchases.
- We had Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports to do our research while on the ship. (We try to avoid using the overpriced shipboard internet.)
- Portions of Istanbul lie within Europe, while other portions are in Asia.
- While Constantinople (Istanbul) was the capital of the Byzantine empire, Ankara is the capital of modern-day Turkey.
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What is on your Istanbul must-see list?
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