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 of pre-purchasing a 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.
Ephesus is the only other city we have visited in Turkey. Both are amongst the most picturesque cruise ports we have visited.
Save on your trip with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or VRBO (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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What is on your Istanbul must-see list?
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I love Turkey, it is such a beautiful country but never made it as far as Istanbul
Istanbul looks so beautiful! What a stunning place to visit especially during the summer months.
never heard of this place before, but looks like it’ll be worth visiting, it has really a nice view
Ryan K Biddulph
Wasn’t that Cistern neat Rhonda? We loved it there. Cool, humid, a chill in the air and environment. I went back centuries, underground, enjoying that creepy Medusa head with a few snaps. Me and wifey walked the Galata Bridge 1-2 times daily. Cool seeing all the fisherman.
Pretty architecture of the buildings…But my fave is the fishing advneture off the bridge…cool. I miss fishing…it has been a while
I love the architecture on those buildings! Seems like a productive vacation!
Istanbul is so very intriguing! I’d love to travel here one day
Your link on Istanbul caught my eye at Our World Tuesday blog. We visited twenty years ago and loved the city. Shopping at the Grand Bazaar was a unique experience – fabulous carpets and leather goods, the tea drinking customs, and the excitement of weaving around the maze of shops. Topkapi Palace was interesting also.
I am super envious of those people that have been to Istanbul.
Mama Maggie's Kitchen
Wow! Istanbul is such a wonderful place! Wish I could be here right now!
Wow I must visit Instabul soon! It is extremely beautiful.
I love Istanbul but unfortunately have never been there, I have seen the Blue Mosque being featured on tv and magazines and would love to head there someday.
How I wish I can visit Istanbul soon for a mini city break. The place indeed looks splendid with all the architecture and the history behind it.
Wow – what a glorious place! Thanks for sharing your wonderful images and information.
Amazing! I have a long list of places I want to see and I’ve just added Istanbul!
I was in Istanbul many years ago and I can’t tell you how much I love this city. I also bought beautiful and colorful boots from the grand bazaar. I still remember we have to take off our shoes to enter the blue mosque, it is simply stunning. You have a great compilation list of things to do in Istabul. Well written.
The magic of Instabul which now seems even stronger and more beautiful thanks to the victory of these days!
I would love to visit here someday! I love all the architecture. It’s amazing.
Explore The 6
I enjoyed reading this post as I’ve been to Istanbul and visited all of these. Great list 🙂
I would love visit Istanbul one day. I had no idea it was so incredibly beautiful there!
I have heard a few tales about the carpet shops in Istanbul. Fun to talk about afterwards, but awkward to get out of at the time.
Mum, you forgot to write about the Turkish delight we bought. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm… 😀
Fabulous photos. Will you adopt me?
Very nearly bought a carpet in India and it truly was beautiful. Luckily better sense prevailed since we were right at the beginning of our adventure and it would have made a significant dent in our travel budget