Top 12 Things to Do in Electrifying Istanbul, Turkey

Last updated: November 2021

Before heading to Istanbul, the cross-continental epicenter of Turkey, we heard a comparison of the sprawling, former Ottoman metropolis as “New York City on steroids.” While we don’t think Istanbul can accurately be compared to anything, this descriptive comes somewhat close. 

A view looking out to Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

The truth is, tackling this city can be overwhelming – especially for first time visitors. But fear not! In our latest Lama List, we give you our top 12 picks of what to see and do (plus where to eat, drink and sleep!) in this streamlined, self-curated travel guide to epic Istanbul, Turkey.

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A rooftop view of Sultanahmet (Old City) and the Bosphorus Strait beyond.

Editorโ€™s Note: Travel is complicated right now. While there are many factors that will result in your decision of whether or not to travel, this decision is ultimately your responsibility. Travel rules, restrictions and entry/exit requirements, as well as Covid policies, are subject to change frequently. Please check with both your home countryโ€™s official advisories as well as those of Turkey prior to traveling for up-to-date information. 

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Beautiful Turkish carpets in Istanbul.
Lokum (Turkish Delight) for days in Istanbul, Turkey.
Call to prayer at Hagia Sophia.


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Related: Top 10 Things to Do, Eat & See in Otherworldly Cappadocia, Turkey

Istanbul’s 16th-century Kursunlu Han, a former caravanserai (marketplace & inn for merchants traveling the Silk Road).
Endless spices at Istanbul’s sprawling Spice Bazaar.
A simit (Turkish bagel) vendor in Istanbul, Turkey.


1) EMBRACE your inner tourist and get your lay-of-the-land Istanbul crash course by riding the hop on, hop off Big Bus the entire loop. Yes it’s touristy but YES, it will give you an incredible overview of the city (visually and factually thanks to the included audio guide) in just a matter of hours.

Istanbul Travel Guide: Best Things to Do, Eat and See // The Lama List // // Photo by @travelinglamas
Crossing from Europe (right) to Asia (left) on Istanbul’s Hop On, Hop Off Bus.

2) SEE can’t-miss cultural, historical & religious sites. There are many to see throughout the centuries-old city, however these Istanbul icons should be at the top of your list: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern.

The castle-like entrance to Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
Inside Istanbul’s iconic and ever-evolving Hagia Sophia, a church (537) turned mosque (1453) turned museum (1935) turned back into a mosque (2020).
Hagia Sophia at night, Istanbul.
Looking towards the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.
The Gate to the Bosphorus Strait at Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul.

3) EAT YOUR WAY through both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul with Culinary Backstreets‘ immersive street food tour. It’s the best thing we did during our time in the city. Not only (a LOT of) food, you’ll get a serious dose of culture while visiting places you’d literally never even know were there. Be sure to request Senem as your guide!

Stopping for Turkish tea in the 16th-century Kursunlu Han (marketplace) with Culinary Backstreets.
The proprietor of Omer Cay (Tea) House in Kursunlu Han, Istanbul.
Wandering through the local Kadikoy Market with Culinary Backstreets.
Mezze and fried anchovies in Kadikoy Market with Culinary Backstreets.

4) BE MESMERIZED by the Mevlevi-order Sufi Whirling Dervishes at Hodja Pasha Cultural Center, a former 15th century hamam (Turkish bath house). Head’s up: As you are witnessing a sacred religious performance, photos and video of any kind are strictly prohibited.

5) EXPLORE Istanbul’s many museums. Our top picks: Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul Archeological Museums, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and Pera Art Museum.

Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art
One of Istanbul’s many beloved cats, catching a nap outside the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum.

6) GET LOST in the maze of the 15th-century Grand Bazaar. Marvel at the historic arches and painted motifs (don’t forget to look up!), and get ready to barter at any of 4,000 shops stretching through a grid of 60+ streets. TIP: Make sure to wander through Zincirli Han while there, a former caravanserai (marketplace & inn designed for traveling merchants).

One of the main entrance gates to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Inside Istanbul’s 15th-century Grand Bazaar.

7) CLIMB the historic Galata Tower (stretching all the way back to Byzantine era in the 500s) for sweeping, 360-degree views of Istanbul, the Golden Horn Inlet and the Bosphorus Strait. If there’s a line, trust us – it’s worth the wait! And P.S. You don’t actually have to climb the tower. There’s an elevator. 

Stunning views of Istanbul from Galata Tower.

8) STROLL across iconic Galata Bridge, stretching across the Golden Horn inlet to connect Sultanahment (Old City) with Karakoy and the rest of modern Istanbul. A whopping five bridges have stood on the site since the original in 1845; the final (and current) only completed in 1994. Go in the morning to find the 490 meter stretch dotted with local fisherman reeling in the day’s catch, or any time of day for jaw-dropping views of the surrounding waterways and (endless!) cityscapes.

A fisherman (and a hopeful cat) on Galata Bridge, Istanbul.
Scenes from Galata Bridge, Istanbul.

9) WANDER down bustling Istiklal Street (“Independence Avenue”) in the city’s lively Taksim neighborhood. Pedestrian-only save for the heritage tram that has been rolling through since it’s 1990 revival, this approx 2 km grand boulevard connects Taksim Square to the north with Galata Tower to the south. Along the way? A colorful whirlwind of shops, eateries, street vendors, street performers, historic architecture and more – enjoyed by a lively mix of tourists and locals alike.

Istanbul Travel Guide: Best Things to Do, Eat and See // The Lama List // // Photo by @travelinglamas
Taksim Square, the start of Istiklal Street in Istanbul.
Istanbul Travel Guide: Best Things to Do, Eat and See // The Lama List // // Photo by @travelinglamas
Istiklal Street and its heritage tram, Istanbul.
Istiklal Street, Istanbul.

10) SAIL the Bosphorus on a “Turkish Night” Dinner Cruise. Yes it’s touristy but trust us – you’ll be having too much fun to care.

Bosphorus views.
Belly dancers during the “Turkish Night” dinner cruise.
Sunset on the Bosphorus.

11) EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY at these best restaurants throughout Istanbul:

Mikla Restaurant: rooftop fine dining; Beyoglu.

Zubeyir Ocakbasi: delicious, freshly grilled kebab dishes; Taksim.

Karakoy Lokantasi: traditional Ottoman cuisine; Karakoy.

Karakoy Gulluoglu: to-die-for baklava from a family that’s been mastering the craft since the 1800s; Karakoy.

Sehzade Cag Kebap: your go-to lunch spot for quick, mouthwatering doner kebab; Sultanahmet (Old City).

Roof Mezze 360: traditional Ottoman dishes with a view! Sultanahmet (Old City).

Ciya Sofrasi: Turkish comfort food; Kadakoy.

The 20th Floor Panorama Bar at The Marmara Taksim: epic views await, especially at sunset; Taksim Square.

Outdoor dining at Zubeyir Ocakbasi, Istanbul.
Firing it up at Zubeyir Ocakbasi, Istanbul.
Mezze goals at Roof Mezze 360.
Horizontal doner kebab at Sehzade Cag Kebap, Istanbul.
Kebab (and all the trimmings!) at Sehzade Cag Kebap, Istanbul.
Drinks with a VIEW at the 20th Floor Panorama Bar at The Marmara Taksim, Istanbul.

12) STAY at Istanbul’s best boutique hotels: Aren Suites (Sultanahmet/Old City), the historic Pera Palace (Beyoglu) and The Marmara Taksim (Taksim Square).

Related: Where to Stay in Cappadocia, Turkey: The Best & Most Beautiful Cave Hotels

Room with a view at Aren Suites, Sultanahmet (Old City).
Turkish breakfast at Aren Suites, Sultanahmet (Old City).
The exterior of Istanbul’s historic Pera Palace Hotel.
The Golden Horn Room at Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul.

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All photos in this post courtesy of your favorite pair of @travelinglamas.

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