Istanbul -20 Must Do’s for Your First Visit



Istanbul left us speechless. Our first visit, a PR trip with Turkish Airlines to celebrate their new flights from Melbourne to Istanbul, completely exceeded expectations. Sure, we’d heard amazing things, but nothing prepares you for the vibrant beauty and energy of this city. With fantastic local guides, we explored iconic landmarks and hidden gems. Let us share our Istanbul favourites and insider tips, perfect inspiration for your own unforgettable itinerary.

Things to know before visiting Istanbul

Istanbul’s size will surprise you! To make the most of this city, plan ahead. Leave extra time for getting around and expect lines at popular attractions in the Sultanahmet area (unless you have skip-the-line tickets). You’ll definitely want more time than you think to explore everything!

Istanbul city view at sunset

Getting there:

We are based in Australia and were lucky enough to be invited to fly on Turkish Airlines new route from Melbourne to Istanbul. The flight is around 20 hours with a quick 1hr stopover in Singapore for refuelling and also a great break to have a refresh and walk around. Turkish Airlines along with Istanbul airport is one of the biggest in the world with direct flights to Istanbul from many countries. From the airport its about 40 mins drive to the centre of the city.

Tip: You can easily apply for your Turkish tourist e-visa before arrival online on the official government site here.

Adriana Maria on Turkish Airlines Business Class

How to get around Istanbul:

Istanbul has great public transport and loads of taxis so getting around is no problem. Just be aware traffic can be slow especially around peak hours and in touristy areas.

Public transport: you can get a IstanbulKart card from the yellow vending machines around the city which allow you to swipe on and off trains, trams, buses & ferries all over the city.

Taxis/Uber: theres loads of yellow cabs around, we highly recommend using Uber to book your taxis for safety and fair rates. Istanbul taxi drivers are notorious for charging tourists extra and taking longer routes. Just make sure the meter is reset at the beginning of your trip and that the taxi driver puts the right amount on the meter into the Uber app before you get out.

What area to stay in Istanbul


A great central are to explore the old laneways and to be in close proximity to both Sultanahmet and Taksim shopping area. Its popular with tourists but still holds a great local vibe.

Ecole St. Pierre Hotel

DeCamondo Galata

Art Pera Suites

Walton Galata

Galata Greenland Hotel

Fatih / Sultanahmet:

This is the most tourist centric area with its proximity to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topaki palace & Grand Bazar to name a few. If these are your primary sights and you are only in Istanbul for a short time it might be worth staying around here to save time. Theres also endless restaurant options, although they’re mostly touristy and overpriced. Keep in mind this area is busy and very tourist centric with less of an intimate vibe.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet

Orient Occident Hotel Istanbul

Mest Hotel


This upperclass residential neighbourhood is great for high end shopping, restaurants, cafes, boutique hotels and a local vibe.

The St. Regis Istanbul

The Stay Boulevard Nisantasi

The Stay Nisantasi


Transformed harbour side area near Galata is now home to some of the city’s luxury hotels such as the Peninsular and JW Marriott along with designer boutiques and trendy bars.

The Peninsular Istanbul

JW Marriott

The Bank Hotel Istanbul

20 things to do in Istanbul for first timers

1. Kuzguncuk: A Charming Escape on Istanbul’s Asian side

We absolutely fell in love with Kuzguncuk on Istanbul’s Asian side. This old Jewish neighbourhood is pure charm. Colourful Ottoman wooden houses, leafy streets, and a whole collection of adorable cafes and restaurants. Getting there is easy with the ferry from the European side. Don’t miss a delicious döner kebab at Metet Donner while you’re there.

2. Experience Istanbul from the Water: A Bosphorus Yacht Tour

Discover Istanbul’s unique beauty and feel the city’s energy from the water on a Bosphorus yacht tour. Rent a private boat with a crew for a luxurious experience, or hop on a lively public boat for a local adventure. Sail during the day to soak up the sunshine or enjoy a sunset cruise.

Tip: For a spontaneous and immersive experience, try a public sunset cruise like we did. Departing from Galata port, it was packed with locals and offered a fantastic way to connect with the city’s vibrant spirit.

Additional Details:

  • Public Cruise Routes: Public boats typically cover a shorter stretch of the Bosphorus compared to full-day private tours.

3. Üsküdar Coastal Walkway – The Perfect Sunset Spot

Escape to the Asian side for a breathtaking sunset at the Üsküdar Coastal Walkway. Watch the iconic Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi) and the Istanbul skyline transform at sunset. This historic tower, once a toll station for ships entering the Bosphorus, adds a touch of history to the scene. In summer, the steps around the area are set up with carpets, and nearby cafes offer service.

4. Discover Topkapi Palace: Heart of the Ottoman Empire

This breathtaking palace and museum is one of our favourite things to do in Istanbul. It served as the court of the Ottoman Empire and residence of its sultans. There’s a lot to explore here, so it can easily take up a large part of your day. The architecture and colourful tile motifs are breathtaking. Our highlights were a visit to the Harem, where the sultan’s mother and wives lived, and the pavilions of the fourth court, such as the Baghdad and Revan Kiosks. Get to Topkapi Palace early (opens at 9 am) to avoid crowds. You can buy tickets for the palace plus Harem at the ticket booths on the right hand side near the main entrance

Additional Details:

  • Opening Hours: 9 am to 6 pm (Summer season: April 1st – October 1st), 9 am to 4:45 pm (Winter season: October 1st to April 1st)
  • Closed: Tuesdays
  • Website: Topkapi Museum

5. Yeni Cami Mosque

One of Istanbul’s most iconic waterfront mosques, this Ottoman imperial mosque near the Galata Bridge is open to the public outside of prayer times. It’s particularly spectacular at dusk, making it the perfect stop after watching the sunset from the Galata Bridge.

Additional Information:

  • Dress Code: Modest attire is required (covered knees and shoulders, headscarf for women).
  • Hours: Generally open to visitors between prayer times. Check current times, as they can change during religious holidays.
  • Admission: Free, but donations are welcome.
Things to do in Istanbul - Yeni Cami Mosque at dusk

6. Spice Up Your Trip at the Egyptian Bazaar

Right next to the Yeni Cami Mosque, you’ll find the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), one of Istanbul’s largest and most vibrant covered markets. This historic center of spice trade boasts an explosion of colors and aromas. From the moment you step inside, you’ll be surrounded by mountains of spices, fragrant teas, and an endless variety of Turkish delights (lokum). Be sure to haggle for the best deals on everything from exotic spices like saffron and sumac to fragrant blends like Turkish apple tea.

Additional Information:

  • Hours: Open daily from 9 am – 7 pm. Closed on major religious holidays.
  • L-Shaped Design: The bazaar has six gates for easy access.

7. Experience the Magic of Galata Bridge at Sunset

This iconic bridge connecting the Fatih and Beyoğlu districts really comes to life at sunset. Watch fishermen cast their lines against the backdrop of an amazing skyline while locals gather to soak up the golden hour. For a truly local experience, hop on a public harbour cruise departing from this area and witness Istanbul’s beauty from the water as the city lights shimmer to life.

8. Explore the charm of Balat

We had such a great time exploring Balat! a vibrant neighbourhood known for its iconic colourful houses, charming cafes, and unique shops. While it’s a popular spot, it’s definitely worth the visit. Here’s a suggested route:

  • Start: Begin near Balatte Gelato on Akçin Street.
  • Iconic Houses: Wander uphill towards the neighborhood’s most picturesque streets.
  • Back Downhill: Descend towards Vodina Street, lined with cafes, boutiques, and antique treasures.

Additional Tips:

  • Comfortable Shoes: Balat’s streets can be steep and cobbled.
  • Respectful Exploration: Remember, Balat is a residential neighborhood.

9. Seven Hills Restaurant: Your Iconic Istanbul Instagram photo op

Craving that perfect Instagram shot with seagulls soaring against a backdrop of the Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque? Head to Seven Hills Restaurant’s rooftop terrace. Keep in mind this is a Instagram hot spot so gets very busy and the prices are inflated.

10. Explore the Eerie Beauty of the Basilica Cistern

Descend into a captivating subterranean world at the Basilica Cistern. Rows of ancient marble columns disappear into the dimly lit expanse, creating a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. Seek out the mysterious upside down Medusa heads, their enigmatic presence adds another layer of intrigue. This cool, refreshing escape from Istanbul’s heat is a must see for history lovers.

Additional Information:

  • Opening Hours: Generally 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM, but may vary by season.
  • Website: Basilica cistern
Insite basilica cistern sultanahmet
Medusas head at Basilica cistern

11. Grand Bazaar: A Feast for the Senses

Step into a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and aromas at the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. Explore over 4000 stalls and 60 laneways bursting with treasures in the heart of Istanbul’s Fatih district. Even if you’re not a shopper, the Grand Bazaar is a captivating experience. Get lost in the vibrant tapestry of colourful carpets, fragrant spices, sweet Turkish delights, gleaming lanterns, antique jewellery, leather bags and countless other shops.

Additional Information:

  • Hours: Open daily, approximately 9 am to 7 pm. Closed on major religious holidays.
  • Haggling: Expect to bargain – it’s part of the experience.

12. Explore the iconic Galata Tower

Sadly, the iconic Galata Tower was under renovation during our visit (might be for a while). But don’t worry, the surrounding cobblestone streets are a treasure trove in themselves. Think quirky shops, gorgeous architecture, buzzing cafes, and hidden bars. You can even stroll uphill towards the start of the legendary İstiklal shopping street. And the best part? You can indulge in the famous San Sebastian Cheesecake with chocolate – it’s practically a requirement here, and you’ll find it at tons of cafes along Büyük Hendek street.

Thing to do in Istanbul- Galata tower 2024

13. İstiklal street Taksim Square: Istanbul’s Vibrant Heart

Get swept away by the energy of İstiklal Street (Grand Avenue of Pera), Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian shopping zone. We found a mix of local boutiques, international brands, cafes, and restaurants nestled amongst stunning Ottoman-era buildings. This lively 1.4km avenue stretches from Galata to Taksim Square. Be prepared for crowds, especially in the evenings – it’s one of the most buzzing streets we’ve ever experienced! And don’t miss the iconic red tramway that adds a classic touch to the scene.

Istanbul, Things to do. Catch the iconic red tram

14. The Blue Mosque: A Place of Beauty and Tranquility

The Blue Mosque is an integral part of Istanbul’s identity, and stepping inside, we immediately understood why. The dazzling blue Iznik tiles created a breathtaking atmosphere. We were amazed by the vast dome and the intricate details that adorned the space. There’s a sense of tranquility here, a reminder of its purpose as a place of worship. Remember to visit outside of prayer times, dress respectfully, and show reverence for this awe-inspiring landmark.

15. Exploring Hagia Sophia: A Masterpiece of History and Architecture

Hagia Sophia is absolutely unmissable in Istanbul. This awe inspiring structure, built in 537 AD under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, has a rich history. It has served as a church, a mosque, a museum, and again as a mosque, reflecting Istanbul’s own complex past. Its massive dome, minarets, and vast interior adorned with intricate mosaics are a sight to see. Be sure to explore the upper gallery for exceptional views. This UNESCO World Heritage Site leaves a powerful impression.

Additional Information:

  • Opening Hours: Summer Season (April 1 – October 1): Open 09:00 – 19:00 (Last entry: 18:00) Winter Season (October 1 – April 1): Open 09:00 – 17:00 (Last entry: 16:00)
  • Dress Code: Modest attire is required. This includes covering shoulders and knees, and a headscarf for women. Complimentary robes are usually available at the entrance if needed.

Tip: Like everything around Sultanahmet, get there super early to beat the crowds.

16. Enjoy Sunrise at Ortaköy Mosque

A visit to Ortaköy Mosque isn’t just about the stunning building itself, but the entire scene. Located right on the Bosphorus with the bridge looming in the background, it’s one of the most picturesque spots in Istanbul. We headed there to catch the sunrise, then relaxed on a nearby bench, soaking up the atmosphere. Watching local photographers on fashion shoots, vendors hawking fresh Turkish bagels, and ferries starting their first trips across the river made for a unique morning experience. In the evenings, street food vendors here specialize in roasted potatoes stuffed with fillings of your choice. With about 50 vendors to choose from, it’s definitely another unique sight.

Sunset over Ortakoy mosque istanbul Bosphorus

17. Beylerbeyi Palace: A Serene Escape on the Asian Side

Escape Istanbul’s bustle and discover the tranquility of Beylerbeyi Palace, nestled on the Asian side’s waterfront. Arrive early (doors open at 9 am) for a peaceful visit. The highlight for us was relaxing at the charming cafe by the fountain in the palace gardens – the perfect spot for a Turkish breakfast in the morning sun.

Additional Information:

  • Hours: Open Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 9 am – 6 pm. Closed on Mondays.
  • Getting There: Easily accessible by ferry from the European side, followed by a short taxi or bus ride.

18. Escape to the Princes’ Islands: A Perfect Day Trip

If you crave a break from Istanbul’s bustle, the Princes’ Islands offer a delightful retreat. About an hour ferry ride away, this chain of 9 islands feels like a different world. We visited Büyükada (the largest) and Burgazada (the smallest), and loved their relaxed coastal atmosphere, quaint wooden cottages, and complete lack of cars. Think leisurely walks and exploring by electric buggy. Ferries to the islands depart from Kadıköy, Bostancı, and Beşiktaş for an easy escape.

19. Sunset cocktails at Biz Istanbul

For sunset cocktails in an stylish setting overlooking the Bosphorus and Asian side of Istanbul head to Biz Istanbul.

20. Try the local cuisine

You could spend a lifetime trying new Turkish food and restaurants in Istanbul. Our trip was pretty short but our Turkish friends took us to some low key non touristy spots for great food around town.

Turkish Breakfast

Our favourite, Turkish breakfast is seriously so good. Its designed to eat slowly, think a big sunday brunch. With a huge selection of cheeses, eggs, olives, pastries, jams, honey and yogurts. Its one of the best breakfasts we’ve had travelling. Most hotels will have a similar selection but you can also order a full Turkish breakfast at many large cafes such as at Çeşme Bazlama Kahvaltı Nişantaşı or Cafe Privado.

Turkish breakfast

Doner Kebab Durum

The classic grilled rotisserie beef or chicken wrapped in flat bread, you can find it all over Istanbul. One of the best we had was in Kuzguncuk at Metet Közde Döner.

Turkish Dumplings

A must try in Istanbul are Turkish dumplings or Manti. They resemble ravioli, like pasta pillows with meat inside topped with a tomato sauce and fresh yogurt. We had some recommended by our local Istanbul friends at a spots that serves a unique combination of fried and steamed Manti, Casita Bistrot.

Turkish dumplings Manti at Casita Bistrot


We had a great kebab meal with grilled meats, chicken and veggies over charcoal at 4ten4e Ocakbaşı in Beyoğlu.


A classic favourite in Türkiye, Pide is a baked dough base with toppings like cheese, ground beef or lamb then wood fired. We went for our last dinner with our Turkish friends to Pide Sun in Kadıköy.

Pide sun restaurant istanbul


You can find these delicious Turkish bagels from street vendors all over Istanbul. They may look simple but they are addictively good with their crispy sesame outer and dense doughy inside, you can have them plain or with Nutella, cheese or just plain butter. So simple but so good, I’m still dreaming about them!

Simit turkish bagels

San Sebastian Cheesecake

If you have a sweet tooth, San Sebastian cheesecake covered in milk chocolate sauce has become very popular in Istanbul even thought its originally from Spain. You can find it at most good cafes around town especially around the Galata tower area. We had ours at Sirkeci lokantası 1921 Cafe in Fatih.

Explore Istanbul: Top Sights and Experiences - Adriana Maria trying San Sebastian cheesecake


You can find baklava all over Istanbul but some of the best can be found in Mustafa Hafiz confectionary stores around the city. they usually have a retail show room downstairs and a cafe upstairs to enjoy baklava or Turkish delight with a tea of coffee

Istanbul Must-Sees: What to See and Do - Mustafa Hafiz treats

*Note Google maps is not commonly used by locals in Istanbul for finding restaurants. You cant really go by the reviews, good restaurants sometimes have little to no reviews and bad restaurants aimed at tourists are flooded with fake reviews.

Things to do in Istanbul Türkiye

Istanbul has a way of lingering in your memory long after you’ve left. It’s the scent of spices in the Grand Bazaar, the vibrant sunset reflecting off the Bosphorus, and the warmth of its people that stays with you. Our only regret is not having more time there. Whether you dream of exploring its rich history or experiencing its incredible cuisine, Istanbul is a city that never ceases to amaze. If you haven’t yet been we definitely recommend adding a trip to Istanbul high on your bucket list.

More Travel Inspo

For more travel inspo make sure to check out our south of France Itinerary here or our best things to do on Milos Island Greece.

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