If you are planning a trip to Istanbul and looking for a guide to the highlights of Istanbul, you came to the right place! In this post, I will break down Istanbul’s most iconic places and give you all the helpful tips for making the most of your trip to Istanbul. This magnificent city has taken my breath away with its monumental mosques, vibrant and busy neighborhoods, and capturing atmosphere. I firmly believe that Istanbul is a city that everyone should explore rather sooner than later in their life, and my week in Istanbul was filled with one highlight chasing another. So without further ado, let’s dive right in!
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Starting with a small FAQ, to answer questions that you might have about Istanbul in advance!
Where to stay in Istanbul? Which hotel to choose in Istanbul?
There are countless hotels in Istanbul, all varying in their offering and price range. In a poor attempt to save some money, I booked a place on their cheaper end of the money spectrum and it ended with me being disappointed. So I researched some places, that I would stay on a second trip to Istanbul instead.
How many days should I spend in Istanbul? How long to stay in Istanbul?
If you want to make the most of your stay in Istanbul, I recommend a minimum stay of 5 days. This will give you enough time to explore the various neighborhoods of Istanbul, see most of its sights, and also have time for recharging and relaxation.
Is Istanbul safe?
Traveling in Istanbul, I never had the feeling of not being safe. However, when you are there, you should be cautious in certain areas of the city. Just be as cautious as any time you travel. Whenever I travel, there are things I always do to stay safe, which include not going out alone in the dark and always keeping my personal belongings close to me in crowded areas.
What should I pack for a trip to Istanbul?
When visiting the mosques of Istanbul, you should in any case dress modestly and avoid showing too much skin. I opted for wearing long sleeves and skirts or Maxi dresses for example most of the time. I also brought my headscarf to wear in the mosques, because I don’t like borrowing them.
Let’s start with the jewel of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia. Translated it means Holy Wisdom and the history of the building is incredibly interesting. It was once a church before it was turned into a mosque, then into a museum, and finally turned into a mosque again in 2020. It is one of the most incredible places of worship, I have ever seen and I think everyone should see it at least once, if they get the chance.
- The mosque can be visited by Muslims and Non-Muslims alike, it is only closed for prayer times.
- The mosque is no longer free to visit, if you want to see it, you must pay an entry fee.
- Make sure to wear appropriate clothing when visiting the mosque.
- Plan to visit the Hagia Sophia first thing in the morning. The lines there can get quite long and if you visit it during the day, you will have to be quite patient!
- If you want to learn more about the Hagia Sofia, then make sure to also book a tour, to get more insights about this breathtaking place!
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
You don’t have to walk far to see the next highlight of Istanbul from this list when visiting the Hagia Sophia. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque has to be one of the most incredible mosques you can visit worldwide. With six minarets, it is one of the mosques with the most minarets in the world. Designed by Mimar Sinan, it is a true jewel of Ottoman architecture and one of the most breathtaking highlights of Istanbul!
- The mosque can be visited by Muslims and Non-Muslims alike, it is only closed for prayer times.
- Make sure to wear appropriate clothing.
Topkapi Palace Museum
The next highlight of Istanbul is also very close to the Hagia Sophia. Once, Turkey and more precisely the Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Sultans and they ruled from their palace, the Topkapi Palace. Today the palace is a museum and is open for you to visit! It is a beautiful area with marvelous architecture and wonders to discover at every turn you take. My favorite part was all the mosaics and details, which you can only see when taking your time exploring the complex. The Palace is divided into multiple courts, which were once more and more restricted. Today you can also visit the Sultan’s harem, the kitchen complex and many amazing areas more!
- Make sure to visit the Topkapi Palace first thing in the morning, to avoid lines and see everything more peacefully.
- Don’t miss out on taking a guided tour though the place! You will learn much more about it and it will make your visit much more insightful. We booked our tour via GetYourGuide and loved the entire experience!
- Inside you can move freely, but there might be a few places where you have to get in line, but they are all worth it!
- If there is a sign, not asking for you to take pictures in a room, you really shouldn’t take pictures in that room.
To all my shopaholics, I hope you came to Turkey with empty suitcases, because after visiting the bazaars of Istanbul, they will be filled in no time! Because right here in the Grand Bazaar, you can find everything you can imagine to find in a bazaar and more! Refill all your spices at home and try the tastiest Turkish Delight and find the perfect new magical carpet or lamp for your home!
- It is easy to get lost in the Grand Bazaar, which is normal. Don’t panic and check your Maps app every now and then.
- Don’t forget to bargain with the sellers, it is part of the experience.
- Keep your belongings tightly with you, it can get very crowded.
Ok, the Suleymaniye Mosque might be my favorite mosque among those I cover in this post about the highlights of Istanbul. It was designed by the same architect as the Blue mosque, by Sinan, and in my opinion is even more breathtaking. I fell in love with the gorgeous courtyard and impressive mosaics both inside and outside. One of my favorite places in Istanbul!
One thing that I love about Istanbul is that it has the cutest and most charming neighborhoods that come with amazing restaurants and small shops. Karaköy is one of those and I could have spent much more time there than just one afternoon! We strolled along the main road, trying and shopping for delicacies, buying amazing soap at a Hamman store, and having the best fish kebab in the world. The area right there is famous for its fish kebap and if I end up recommending only a single thing to you, I wish it was this!
The Galata Tower is one of the sights of Istanbul, that you can already see from afar! The beautiful tower can be visited for some awesome views of Istanbul from above. Just be careful of who you bring with you to the Galata Tower – there is a legend that says that the first person you climb the Galata Tower with is the one you will end up marrying. So if getting up the Galata Tower with your travel buddy is a risky thing to do, an alternative to climbing the tower is to sit down in the wonderful café right next to it and have the famous San Sebastian Cheesecake.
- The entry costs 650 Turkish Liras (2024) and should be booked in advance
- Better be there early, because the lines can get very long
Hamman Spa (Raffles Istanbul)
After so much sightseeing, one should not forget to take a break now and then! And how amazing is it to combine a spa experience with experiencing Turkish culture firsthand? The Hamman Spa originally served as a place to perform the ablution and is therefore usually located close to the Mosques. Here people would come to wash themselves even in times when not everyone had access to water facilities. For women especially, the Hamman was also a place of entertainment and community, where beauty tips were shared and potential marriages were discussed. Separated by gender in the Hamman you can experience the traditional ritual of washing, scrubbing, and steam bathing.
- There are many Hamman Spas and Turkish baths in the city. You can choose between those who are public and cheaper and those who are less frequent and more expensive. My personal highlight was the Spa at the Raffles in Istanbul.
- If you are a traveling couple and still want to experience the Bath experience together, check out the spas of the bigger hotels in the city. There you can rent out a whole Hamman Suite, where you can enjoy the scrubbing and massage together.
Grand Mecidiye Mosque (Ortaköy Mosque)
Visiting more mosques than in any other country in the world might be my personal highlight of Istanbul! The Grand Mecidiye Mosque is a wonderful small mosque, directly next to the Bosporus and a phenomenal view. If you booked the Raffles Hamman Suite, it is actually the perfect place for a little walk and breakfast before your hamman adventure!
- If you want to have the best experience, make sure to be at the Grand Mecidiye Mosque early! There will be a lot of people around and not having them in your shots, makes the experience much better!
Nova Santiye Cafe
It is one of the most wonderful things to see Istanbul from above and one of the best places to do so, is the Nova Santiye Cafe. From there, you will get the best view of the Suleymaniye Mosque, as well the the other directions (bless the 360 degree view here). This place is perfect for having every single meal (we did at some point) and if you pay some additional money, you can also use the photoprops for an amazing photoshooting!
Adalar (Prince’s Island)
Istanbul is a busy busy city, so if you are staying more than a few days, it might be the best to escape the city for a little while. And the best thing to do so is a trip to Adalar, or the Prince’s island. It is a wonderful place with amazing restaurants and beautiful houses. It is perfect for a little stroll and relaxation, far away from the hectic and noise of Istanbul. You can easily book your transfer online via GetYourGuide. Don’t forget your medicine if you are getting seasick easily.
Seven Hills Hotel Rooftop Bar
Last but not least, I want to end this list with a banger! The Seven Hills Hotel Rooftop Bar is the perfect place for a meal at any time of the day. But it also does much more than that. It has the single most amazing view on the Hagia Sophia.
That’s all for now! If you liked these highlights of Istanbul, make sure to pin this post for later. If you want to support me and my photography further, please also check out my Etsy shop and consider buying my screensavers. It would mean the world to me. Thank you so much!