Straddling two continents and packed with history, this exotic middle eastern city still possesses a modern vibe. Here are our favourite things to do in Istanbul.


There are loads of things to do in Istanbul today, thanks in part to its chequered history. It began life as Byzantium, a Greek fishing town before Emperor Constantine made it the capital of the Christian Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. His empire lasted over a thousand years before the Ottomans came conquering in 1453, making it the capital of their own Islamic Empire and renaming it Istanbul.

This mix of religion and empire – of European and Middle Eastern influences, of the ancient and the modern – can be seen all over the city. It is what makes Istanbul so intriguing as a travel destination. During our 5 days exploring, we uncovered a host of things to do in Istanbul. But like a perfectly prepared baklava, some left a more lasting memory than others. Here are our top 10 moments in Istanbul.

1/ GAZING UP AT CHRISTIAN AND MUSLIM ICONS IN THE AYA SOFYA

Aya Sofya was built by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century CE and was converted to a mosque after the Ottomans captured the city just under a millennium later. It remained that way until being declared a museum when the secular government of Atatürk came to power after the First World War.

We entered late in the afternoon as the crowds were starting to diminish.  Passing under a gold mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of them All), we arrived in a mesmerising scene. Aya Sofya is not like other churches. It’s square in design, with a gigantic nave that culminates in a colossal dome. The space weathers the signs of conflict between empire and religion that has shaped the history of Istanbul. Ancient Christian mosaics adorn the walls telling biblical stories and Muslim calligraphy bares the names of the early caliphs.

The church is a living breathing museum and every corner holds clues to its backstory. Etchings by Vikings high in the upper galleries; mosaics damaged by invaders now converted to frescoes; a tomb to Dandolo the Venetian Doge whose crusaders had ransacked the city. With beams of late afternoon light interrupting the moody the darkness of the building, we stood awestruck by one of the most evocative things to do in Istanbul. 

Aya Sofya /9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr– Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺40 and another ₺30 for the overpriced audio guide, which if you have a decent guide book, you should skip.

2/ LUNCHING WITH LOCALS AT CARSI KEBAB IN THE GRAND BAZAAR

Strolling the lanes of the Grand Bazaar is one of the best things to do in Istanbul The Grand Bazaar was built by the Ottomans shortly after they conquered the city in 1453. It is a warren of stalls selling anything you could want and lots of things you wouldn’t want. Soaps and spices, trinkets and trays, carpets and clothes, bowls and baklava, masks and mascara. But mostly: hubbub and energy.

We spent an hour strolling the stalls, taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere. But it was time to eat and lunch can always be tricky in these places. Tourists are not repeat visitors, so quality often surrenders to location. We passed a number of tourists picking their way through bowls of chips and choosing from English language laminated menus complete with photos of each non-threatening food item.

So, we headed deeper into the maze, further west, away from the main entrance. And after 15 minutes, turning a few corners we found Çarşı Kebap. A few tables perched around a grill, where an old Turkish man with his head in the flames was flipping kebabs. His clients were all fellow Turkish stall holders in the bazaar, hungrily devouring his offerings. So, we joined the local throng, ordering by pointing at delicious looking food other customers were tucking into, and partaking in some quick charades. We got something close enough to what we wanted, but more importantly, had a thoroughly excellent experience. 

Grand Bazaar /8:30 – 19:00 Mon-Sat. Çarşı Kebap /9:00 – 22:00 Everyday.

3/ SPYING CONSTANTINE’S TOMB IN IRINI CHURCH

Tucked behind the Aya Sophia, at the top of a leafy lane, lies the seldom visited church of Irini. It is one of the few churches in Istanbul that hasn’t been converted into a mosque. It is a hulking shell of a building and its vastness is emphasised by its emptiness. A single black cross adorns the half-domed ceiling and appears to just hang in the air.

But while the church is impressive, we had come to uncover its little-known secret: the tomb of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Upon his death Constantine was placed in a tomb in the Church of the Holy Apostles and surrounded himself by 12 other tombs, representing the 12 Apostles. But the Church of the Holy Apostles was ransacked and destroyed, and ever since, historians have been looking for his tomb.

So that was our quest today, to locate Constantine’s tomb. Being one of the most influential characters in Christianity, we thought this should be fairly easy. But, no. There’s certainly no great shrine to this Christian cult leader and no hint that he is here at all. But, as we were about to leave, we spotted a small inner courtyard with uncut grass and an unmarked coffin. This is the tomb that many historians now believe is Constantine’s.

The courtyard is inaccessible to visitors, so we were peering through the bars on the gate to get an obstructed view of what is possibly the remains of one of the most influential men ever to walk this earth. As hardly anyone knows it’s here, Irini Church is one of the more mysterious things to do in Istanbul.

Irini Church /9:00 – 16:30: Price: ₺20 Location: Behind Aya Sofia and the Archaeological Museum just here.

4/ GETTING STICKY WITH BAKLAVA AT KARAKÖY GÜLLÜOĞLU

Baklava is a rich sticky filo pastry sweet that is a Turkish institution. No Turkish meal is truly complete unless finished with a calorific injection of this tasty goodness. Upon arriving in Turkey, we were amateurs in the world of baklava. We assumed one baklava was pretty much like every other baklava.

But of all the baklava we tried, one stood out. We had just finished lunch at Akin Balik on the shores of Karaköy and needed our sugar fix. A few hundred metres along the front stands Karaköy Güllüoğlu. It’s a pretty uninspiring place from the outside. A buffet like café, which one might easily ignore. But it was packed with locals and tourists alike on an otherwise quiet early afternoon. So, we headed in.

Amongst a group of locals, I broke procedure and headed directly for the baklava instead of going to pay first; such was the temptation of this sweet goodness. After some coaching, I paid, selected our baklava and took our plastic tray out to the tables outside. The baklava was simply divine. A perfect soft sticky creation that rose above all the other soft sticky creations we tried in Istanbul. Did we go back for more? I’ll leave you to guess. A must stop on any Istanbul trip and surely one of the best things to do in Istanbul.

Karaköy Güllüoğlu /7:00 – Midnight. Location: Rıhtım Cad. Katlı Otopark Altı No: 3-4 here’s a map.

5/ WATCHING THE WHIRLING DERVISHES WHIRL

The Mevlevi order is an Islamic religious order based in Konya, in central Turkey. It was founded by a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Most people, however, will recognise them as the Whirling Dervishes, named because of the flowing movements of their ritual dance during worshipping ceremonies (Sema).

Sema is performed every Sunday at 5 pm at the Galati Mevlevi Museum. We entered into a small octagonal building – holding no more than three hundred people – with seats on every side and a performance area in the centre. With baited breath we sat and waited to see the Whirling Dervishes whirl. And it took some time.

The ceremony began with a couple of musicians creating a tinny din. Soon a lone voice from the choir warbled above the noise of the percussion. The blend of sounds built into something that was somehow less than the sum of its parts. We had been there 30 minutes, and nothing was whirling yet.

But slowly the Dervishes took to the floor. And their movements – which at first were little more than bowing and solemn handshakes –  began to build. With eyes closed, arms extended and heads tilted they spiralled around the floor. Never looking and never breaking their trance they moved in and out of each other, twisting and turning and rolling with the rhythm of the music.

It was a mesmerising experience. The once restless crowd was transfixed, as were we. I didn’t understand the significance and I still don’t, but it’s definitely one of the more interesting things to do in Istanbul.

Mevlana Museum /The Sema is at 17:00 on Sundays at the Mevlana Museum in Beyoğlu (Şahkulu Mh., Galip Dede Cd. No:15). Tickets must be purchased in advance from a man sitting at a table just outside the Museum on Saturday morning. Price: ₺70 each.

6/ TAKING BRUNCH IN THE BACK STREETS OF ORTAKÖY

Ortaköy is a small neighbourhood of Istanbul. It lies on the shores of the Bosphorus, a waterway that connects Istanbul to the Black Sea. This suburb has a much-photographed mosque perched on the waterfront and on Sundays locals visit the market and sit on benches overlooking the scene.

After exploring the mosque and market we headed a couple of hundred meters back from the waterfront and found ourselves in a warren of small streets. Flea market stalls were dotted here and there, with 70s memorabilia lining the curb. The smell of fresh bread and strong Turkish coffee filled the air.

We hit upon Eski Bahçe Sokak a narrow pedestrian lane that is the backbone of Ortaköy for the Sunday brunch crowd. Young couples, odd couples, families of three generations, and groups of friends were catching up on the week activities.

We pulled up a chair at Cafe Zemheri and ordered big. Cheese packed pastries (borek), baskets of Turkish bagels (simit) and spicy scrambled eggs (menemen). It all comes with jams and preserves; cucumbers, pickles and olives; a variety herbs and bottomless sugary tea. Brunch in Turkey is a slow affair; grazing on delicious morsels over the late morning. For a local experience, brunch in Ortaköy is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. 

Café Zemheri /8:00 – 22:00 everyday. Location: Eski Bahçe Sokak, No 9/A

7/ CATCHING UP ON TURKISH POLITICS IN KADIKÖY

It’s great to have a friend in a foreign city. Not just for the helpful things like where to eat and where to go out, but also to get that local perspective on life in their city.

We met our friend in Kadıköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. We strolled around the fresh produce market, stopping at all the best stalls before grabbed a couple of beers to get the debrief on Turkish politics. Over the course of the next two hours, we learnt about the changes in Istanbul life over the last 10 years. How a city that had seemed to be becoming European, was now looking more Middle Eastern. How Western tourists had been replaced by Asians and Arabs. How a liberal way of life was increasingly becoming more traditional, religious and conservative. And how you can see this change every day in the streets around you.

We moved on to camp at a tiny table indulging in extremely tasty southeastern Turkish food at Çiya Sofrası.

You often read about the politics in different countries. You hear about new leaders and new laws. You might worry about the trend of change for the world or the impact it might have on you in times to come. But being able to learn from people first hand, about political change sweeping a country and how it impacts day to day it one of the highlights of travel.

Çiya Sofrası /11:00 – 22:00 everyday. Location: Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. 48/B Kadiköy

8/ ADMIRING THE MOSAICS IN CHORA CHURCH

Just inside the ancient walls of the city, which had defended Istanbul for almost a thousand years, lies Chora Church. It is a Byzantine masterpiece which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current version was reconstructed from the 11th to 14th centuries.

As we descended from the ancient walls and made our way through the back streets, the little Chora church slowly appeared. An initial rush of excitement was replaced by the usual anxiety as you approach a Turkish church or mosque – exactly how much scaffolding will be covering it. Chora church had plenty.

But as we entered the western door our fears subsided, and we were faced with the most majestic golden mosaics and painted frescoes one could hope to see. We spent an hour just taking it all in. The fact that this small church in suburban Istanbul has such magnificent and detailed mosaics is extraordinary.

Chora Church /9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺15; LocationDervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No:8

9/ DECIPHERING MODERN ART IN A BEAUTIFUL GALLERY IN KARAKÖY

Istanbul is an eclectic mix of old and new. And nothing shouts modernity more than the fantastic array of modern art galleries centred around Beyoğlu and Karaköy. Unfortunately, Istanbul Modern Art Museum in Karaköy – which we have been to before, and is excellent – was closed for renovations.

But just across the road is the old city foundry, built in the 15th century CE, where military weapons and cannon were made. It is now the Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre which houses periodic modern art exhibition. Entrance was free and the space is amazing. A huge cavernous area constructed of red brick and white stone with large arches and small octagonal windows provide the perfect stage for some cool modern art.

The lower reaches of the building houses the specially prepared art exhibition. We were treated to an eclectic mix of modern art from the Merey Collection: Story of a Passion, that follows the portraits created by a family over four generations. It was a great break in the middle of a hot day, and a great hidden secret in Istanbul for art buffs.

Tophane-I Amire Museum /8:30 – 17:30 Mon-Fri (only when exhibits are showing) Location: Next to Tophane tram station at Bogazkesen Cad. Defterdar Yokusu No:2 Tophane

10/ HOLDING ONTO OUR KEBAB AS GALATASARAY WIN THE LEAGUE

Istiklal Caddesi is the main shopping street in Istanbul. But it is also so much more than that. It is the life and soul of this modern city. Where the young come to drink and eat and party. In the evening it has a raw energy that bounces along the streets and between the buildings.

In spite of our approaching middle age, on Saturday night, we headed deep into this chaotic vibe. We trawled the backstreets as music pumped, drinks clicked, words slurred and prostitutes leaned out of windows calling out for customers on the streets below. We found a quieter street, sat down on a couple of chairs on the pavement and ordered food and drinks.

But our quiet street turned out to be anything but. For in the middle of Istiklal Caddesi is Galatasaray, a neighbourhood of Istanbul with a soccer team in the Turkish league. They were playing this night and their supporters were wedged into the tiny restaurants that lined our street as their team scored the goal that won them the league.

And within seconds pandemonium ensued. Thousands rushed onto the street, singing songs and chanting. The very ground under our feet rumbled. Flares were lit sending red and pink flames into the air. Some were laughing, some were crying, all were happy. A short peaceful crush ensued and we allowed ourselves to be swept up into the emotion and excitement of the moment. For a Luton Town supporter, it was a moment of joy I have never been lucky enough to experience, and probably never will. It was a moment of exuberance I will remember for a very long time.

Galatasaray /most of the night time action occurs on the streets around Kameriye Sokak and Nevizade.



MORE READING | For more background about this fantastic city, read our take on Istanbul’s uncertain future. Got time to add more places in Turkey? We highly recommend Cappadocia and we have put together some great walks in the area.


MORE READING

For more background about this fantastic city, read our take on Istanbul’s uncertain future. Got time to add more places in Turkey? We highly recommend Cappadocia and we have put together some great walks in the area..


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