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Best things to do in Istanbul

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Where in the world: Europe  /  Turkey  /  Istanbul
Most tourists flock to Turkey's cultural capital to see the legendary Hagia Sophia, but things to do in Istanbul also include many versatile activities to suit those not into cultural sightseeing. A guided food tour is a great way to experience the unique melange of influences that shaped Istanbul into what it is today. You can spend hours feasting your eyes on the colorful array of offerings and bargain with merchants at Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi), one of the world's oldest and largest covered markets. Historic Areas of Istanbul--a World Heritage Site filled with minarets and church domes--remain the city's biggest attractions, while the northern side of the natural harbor offers lively nightlife.

Istanbul is best known for its Architectural Buildings, Sacred & Religious Sites, and History Museums.

Top 15 things to do in Istanbul

1. Hagia Sophia Mosque

Marvel at one of the most significant artistic and architectural achievements in Turkey--and the world--at Hagia Sophia Mosque. Commissioned by the Byzantine emperor in 537, the church was converted into a mosque in the 15th century by Mehmet the Conqueror. Finally, Ataturk declared the site a museum in the 20th century. The transformation of this structure is symbolic of the transformation of the region and its people through centuries of changing empires and governments. This stunning architectural feat is most often noted for its well-preserved mosaics, featuring 30 million gold tiles, and its 6th-century dome.
Suggested duration: 1h 30 min
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2. Topkapi Palace

Home to sultans for centuries, Topkapi Palace is a World Heritage Site with a rich history and superb Ottoman architecture. Built by Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century, the enormous palace's courtyards and buildings were, at one time, home to almost 4,000 people. Though much of the site is off limits to tourists, one of the highlights you can access is its highly ornate harem, with an intriguing history and notable interiors. Though royalty later moved to European-style residences along the Bosphorus, this palace is important for being truly Ottoman in spirit and design.
Suggested duration: 2h 30 min
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3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Nicknamed for the blue tiles that adorn its interior, Sultan Ahmed Mosque represents an imposing figure in the city's history and skyline. Located in the historic Sultanahmet district and built in the early 17th century, this impressive religious structure has a total of six minarets, one main dome, and eight secondary domes. Originally commissioned to reassert Ottoman power in Istanbul and across the region, this mosque still functions as a site of worship today. However, the site welcomes visitors of all faiths to view its spectacular design, which mixes traditional Islamic architecture with Byzantine elements. Keep in mind you'll need to remove your shoes and women should cover their head and shoulders.
Suggested duration: 1 hour
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4. Basilica Cistern

Explore the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns located below the city at Basilica Cistern. This fascinating chamber of the underground water systems, commissioned in 532 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, is remarkable for its practical and artistic value. After a complete renovation in the 1980s, the cistern became one of the most popular tourist sites in Istanbul's Sultanahmet district. Walk along the wooden platforms beneath the dark, vaulted ceilings of this cathedral-sized cistern and see its famous Medusa-head pillar and Hen's Eye column.
Suggested duration: 1 hour
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5. Chora Museum

See one of the best examples of Byzantine design in the region with a trip to Chora Museum, whose interior is entirely covered in fine mosaics and frescoes. Originally built by Constantine the Great, this church has been reconstructed five times. Most significantly, Ottoman rulers converted the structure into a mosque in the 16th century. A bit off the beaten path, you have to travel to Istanbul's Western Erdinekapı neighborhood to find this building, which opened as a secular museum in 1948. However, the masterful and aesthetically stunning interior makes this trip worthwhile.
Suggested duration: 2h 30 min
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6. Kapali Carsi

Wander the multitude of shops, feast your eyes on the colorful array of offerings, and haggle for traditional Turkish goods at Kapali Carsi, one of the world's oldest and largest covered markets. This bazaar, home to over 4,000 artisan shops, is essentially a maze of sheltered streets featuring Turkish carpets, ceramics, lamps, scarves, jewelry, and more. Located in the "Walled City," the site dates back to the 15th century. Today crowds from cruise ships swarm the bazaar in the summertime and visitors to the city spend hours bargaining with merchants. Enjoy the enthusiastic vendors, who will typically offer you Turkish coffee or tea while you peruse their goods.
Suggested duration: 2 hours
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7. Galata Tower

Take in dramatic panoramic views of the city and traditional Turkish fare atop Galata Tower. A recognizable symbol of the city's skyline, the tower stands 66.9 m (219.5 ft) high. Often referred to as the "Tower of Christ," it was the tallest and most important building during the time it was being built. Have a meal or enjoy a drink at the restaurant and cafe located at the top. After hours the upper portion turns into a lively nightclub.
Suggested duration: 1 hour
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8. Dolmabahce Palace

This palace is the largest in Turkey with 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets. It was also the administrative center for the Ottoman Empire for over 50 years and is quite highly regarded among the Turks. As you walk through the palace, notice the influence of Arabic and Persian culture, which predated the Ottoman Empire. Keep in mind that you cannot see the whole palace; some areas are off limits.
Suggested duration: 2 hours
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9. Suleymaniye Cami

Witness the work of famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan at , a majestic religious structure that dominates the Golden Horn and shares similarities with Hagia Sophia. This mosque was commissioned by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1550 and completed seven years later. Though it may be less ornate than other elaborate religious structures in the city, the mosque's Byzantine influence has gained it recognition for its blend of architectural styles. Having experienced damage from natural disasters and wars over the centuries, the building is fully restored and now one of the most popular attractions in Istanbul.
Suggested duration: 1 hour
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10. Turkish Baths

Leave the vibrant streets of the sprawling metropolis behind and experience a centuries-old relaxation technique at one of Istanbul's many hammams. You'll literally feel time slowing down as you enter a classic Turkish bathhouse, where experienced staff awaits to give you an energizing body scrub and a rejuvenating massage. Shorter visits will leave plenty of time to admire the hammam's Ottoman architecture, but you can also choose a longer half-day tour that combines a visit to a Turkish bath with some retail therapy at the famous Grand Bazaar.
Suggested duration: 1h 30 min
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11. Food Tours

Experience the unique melange of cultural influences that shaped Istanbul into the symbolic and literal bridge between Europe and Asia on a guided food tour. Follow your foodie guide off the beaten path and into the city's backstreets in search of barbecue restaurants, traditional "meyhane" taverns, and famous markets, as you learn about the origins of local delicacies like roast kebab, flaky "borek" pastry, and sweet "baklava." Some guided experiences will even allow you to step into a local family's home and enjoy authentic Turkish hospitality in a cozy private setting. Most tours are limited to small groups and can last from 3 to 8 hours.
Suggested duration: 4 hours
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12. Historic Areas of Istanbul

The four zones collectively known as Historic Areas of Istanbul contain some of the city's greatest sites, earning World Heritage status in 1985. Turkey's cultural capital, Istanbul is often considered the connection between East and West because of its strategic location between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and between Anatolia and the Balkans. The four areas that make up this World Heritage Site are the Archeological Park, Suleymaniye quarter, Zayrek quarter, and the zone of the ramparts--altogether they contain over 2,000 years of historic sites, including the Galata Bridge, Beyazit Tower, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque, to name a few.
Suggested duration: 2h 30 min
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13. Rahmi M. Koc Museum

Board a 1944 U.S. naval submarine or enter the cabin of a propeller-driven aircraft at Rahmi M. Koc Museum, dedicated to Turkey's industrial past and the history of transport and communications. The museum displays an eclectic collection belonging to its founder Rahmi M. Koç, member of the wealthiest Turkish dynasty. Exhibits include topics like racing, sports, classic automobiles, an amphibious car, lifeboats and ferryboats, aircraft, and an olive oil factory, as well as items like a Thomas Edison telegraph patent model. Don't miss the selection of 19th- and early 20th-century vehicles featuring a sultan's carriage, a steam engine locomotive, and an Istanbul tram.
Suggested duration: 1h 30 min
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14. Bosphorus Strait

Gain sweeping panoramic views of the city and travel along the border between Europe and Asia with a boat ride on Bosphorus Strait. The body of water connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and separating two continents, the strait runs through the heart of Istanbul, dividing its European and Asian parts. To best experience the culture along this strait, take a ferry ride, short cruise, or longer day trip on the water, up to the Black Sea. See the various landscapes of Istanbul, take in panoramas of its skyline, and view several sites from the water, including the Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Hisari, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque, as well as traditional Ottoman-style homes along the shoreline.
Suggested duration: 1h 30 min
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15. Ortakoy

An artsy neighborhood under the first Bosporus bridge, Ortakoy offers trendy boutiques, seaside nightclubs, cafes, restaurants, and many historical monuments. This small fishing village literally "in the middle" of the European Bosporus became a cosmopolitan area during the reign of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The communities of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews all left their mark on the neighborhood, which features historical baths, palaces, mansions, mosques, a church, and a synagogue. Stop for refreshment at one of the tea terraces overlooking the strait. Do not miss the Ortaköy Mosque, a late example of Istanbul's imperial mosques, and the Çırağan Palace, which houses one of the most luxurious hotels in the city.
Suggested duration: 2h 30 min
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