Istanbul Highlights: 9 Unique Experiences You Can’t Miss (& 2 to Skip!)

istanbul highlights

Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and later Constantinople, is one of the world’s greatest cities. Spanning across two continents (Europe and Asia), Istanbul has been situated at a crossroad of civilizations for thousands of years. As such, today it is rich in cultural influences, impactful history, and majestic beauty. And with so much to see and do you may wonder: which are the more unique experiences and unmissable activities to do in Istanbul? After spending a month in Turkey, here’s my round-up list of top Istanbul highlights.

PS: Don’t miss my 22 Things to Know Before You Travel to Turkey blog post which includes top tips on transportation, safety, dress code, cultural norms and more!

Istanbul Highlights: Unique Experiences & Activities in Istanbul

Cookistan’s Turkish Cooking Class 

Cookistan Class Review

One of the easiest ways to explore the local culture is through food. And what better way to culturally immerse yourself (while eating delicious Turkish food) than at a cooking class? Cookistan is owned by two Turkish women and run out of their gorgeously decorated home. 

The class begins by taking a small tour of their local neighborhood while going to different and unique markets to gather special ingredients. Students will also get to meet the vendors and go behind the scenes, from seeing how the local neighborhood women cook bread in a brick oven to tasting delicious Turkish delicacies fresh out of the oven and so much more!

As you enter their home, you are greeted by their sweet and helpful assistant who offers freshly poured Turkish coffee and sweets. The class menu/dishes change by season, but it’s usually about a 7-course meal with dishes that are more commonly made at home so you likely won’t find them at any restaurants! Half of our menu, I couldn’t find in any restaurants and were some of the BEST dishes I’ve eaten around the globe.

I highly recommend taking this class and learning how to cook with such a unique combination of spices and flavors!

Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

spice market istanbul

Speaking of spices, if you don’t have the budget or time to take a cooking class considering dropping into the Spice Bazaar to taste a little bit of everything. Here you’ll find hundreds of vendors selling not just spices and souvenirs, but different types of food! 

The Spice Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s biggest, most historic, aromatic, and photogenic bazaars. Dating back to 1660, the Spize Bazzar was (and still is) the center for the spice trade in Istanbul. It is located just next to the Bosphorus River, making it an easy stopover between everything else you’ll be doing in Istanbul.

Although it is a popular tourist location, it actually also draws many locals. Just outside and around the Spice Bazaar building, there are several other vendors where you can see other local shoppers as well — a great way to culturally immerse yourself in the local tastes of Istanbul.

Things to consider trying: figs, local honey, dried fruit, Turkish delicacies (such as baklava), pistachios, and of course fresh and dried spices.

In my opinion, if you have to choose between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, the latter is a much better experience. 

Istanbul Rooftops & Terraces

Some of Istanbul’s most iconic images take place on a rooftop or terrace overlooking the city’s most quintessential details such as the Blue Mosque or the Bosphorus River. Although some of the rooftops have been closed down (such as the “secret rooftop” floating around social media), there are still many others to consider visiting. If not for the epic photo opportunity, then to simply sit down with a book or some friends and enjoy the views over tea and snacks.

In a failed effort to find the “secret rooftop,” we ended up being guided by a local Turkish man who led us to this rooftop instead. It is a complex of open-air windows and rooftops connected with each other. You can enter the left side for free and explore on your own. And the right side is Kubbe Istanbul, a private open-air space which costs approximately $9 USD to enter and includes all drinks, snacks, and a photographer who helps you pose towards the rim of the building with a flock of birds in the background. I spent hours up here talking with friends, enjoying the magnificent views, and sipping tea/munching on the snacks.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Museum of Islamic Art Istanbul

This museum is located smack dab in the middle of the Historic Center (Sultanahmet), making it an easy addition to your bucket list. Formerly a palace, it has been converted to a museum under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century. Here you can learn more about Islamic Art, the history and cross-cultural influences of modern-day Turkey, and admire Islamic calligraphy, tiles, rugs, and various unique artifacts.

This is a MUST experience for travelers interested in history and culture.

Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya)

Hagia Sofia is one of those tourist attractions that you know will be crowded with lines, but is worth it because of its unique historical significance. Formerly a Greek Christian cathedral turned Ottoman mosque, this architectural marvel is now a museum that showcases the evolution of two of the most influential religions in Turkey today. You can see peelings of Christian figures in one hall and Arabic calligraphy in another. It’s one of the best ways to witness hundreds of years of ancient Constantinople’s history. If you can go with a guide to better contextualize your experience here.

Hamman (Turkish Bath) Experience at Kilic Ali Pasa

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami photography

Feel special in this 16th century Turkish Hamam, located in the gorgeous neighborhood of Karakoy. This luxurious treatment is comprised of a hot marble steam room, massage, body scrub, and relaxing with Turkish tea. By the time you leave, you will feel squeaky clean, relaxed, and nurtured from head to toe!

Dedicate at least 2 hours to enjoy some snacks and relax in the main room after the main experiences are over. Like in most places, access to the hammam is divided by gender: women in the morning and men in the afternoon.

This is one of the coolest activities to do in Istanbul and well worth the investment!

Explore the Diverse Neighborhoods 

One of the best ways to experience Istanbul’s top activities and highlights? Walking without a fixed plan! You can take breaks in the zillion things you’ll see along the way as you make your way from one neighborhood to the other. And each neighborhood can offer a distinct history, style, or culture from the other. For instance, some are more religiously conservative while others can almost mirror a liberal neighborhood in New York City!

Karakoy, Galata & Beyoglu Neighborhoods 

Combine a nice day of walking, shopping, art galleries, and sightseeing by combining a visit to three of Istanbul’s most popular neighborhoods: Karakoy, Galata and Beyoglu. Start your self-guided walking tour in Karakoy for breakfast at one of the many cute restaurants or bakeries. Next, walk past the beautiful artsy streets and make your way to the gorgeous SALT Art Gallery at the base of the Galata neighborhood. Then you can start your mini-hike up the many steps, passing by cute shops and restaurants and all the way to the famous Galata Tower. Next, you can continue on to Istiklal Street — one of the most famous shopping streets in Istanbul. Here you can shop at modern chains or local shops, stop by Let’s Relax for a foot massage, head into the Turkish-German Bookstore & Cafe to get some coffee/a snack and pick up a book. Finally, finish at the iconic Taksim Square

Other Amazing Neighborhoods:

    • Sultanahmet (the historic old town) – a couple of the Istanbul highlights are here so you’ll definitely get to see this part of town
    • Balat & Fener (food cart pictured above) – gorgeous, cute, hip part of Istanbul full of shops and restaurants
    • Kadikoy & Moda – A MUST visit. More information detailed below.

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Bosphorus Ferry to Kadikoy & Moda for $1

ferry to uskudar

Did you know there’s a way to cross from Europe to Asia in 20 Minutes? Since Istanbul is located where these two continents meet, it’s possible to spend your morning in one continent and your afternoon in another. There are several companies selling Bosphorus Ferry tours, but you can just cross the Bosphorus yourself for about $1 on the local public ferry. These commuter ferries are a clean, comfortable, and smooth ride away from the more populated and touristy parts of Istanbul. 

antique shops in kadikoy

Consider hopping off at Kadikoy: Istanbul’s cool new neighborhood– for antique shopping, eating, drinking, and checking out the local art scene. Then head over to Moda which is considered the Los Angelos-meets-Brooklyn neighborhood of Istanbul. Moda is one of Istanbul’s underrated gems with it’s quaint, spacious, green, and socially progressive vibes. You can walk from Kadikoy to Moda and finish at the Moda Sahili Park to people watch, taste the local rice-stuffed mussels, or just relax in this beautiful park overlooking the Bosphorus Strait!

Crossing over to the European side of Istanbul is a must-do experience to feel a more local side of this cosmopolitan city. 

If you’d like to stay in Moda, I highly recommend this Juliet Rooms & Kitchen Hotel + Hostel. They have delicious food, clean amenities, beautiful rooms, and are located in a gorgeous street.

Things to SKIP in Istanbul (IMHO)

blue mosque construction istanbul
As of late 2019, the Blue Mosque is under construction!

It’s likely that you can’t do it all on your next visit to Istanbul. So if your time is more limited, here are the two things I’d either save for last/consider skipping entirely for better activities in Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) – Skip

Just read the reviews on Trip Advisor and you’ll see that a lot of visitors leave the Grand Bazaar feeling a bit underwhelmed or disappointed. While it’s a gorgeous building with 500+ years of history, the shops are kind of redundant and overpriced. Unlike the Spice Bazaar (listed above as an Istanbul highlight experience), this market is actually almost entirely frequented by tourists. In fact, it’s one of the world’s top tourist attractions with almost 100 million visitors annually! As such, the prices are inflated, more vendors will whistle and psstt you to come over, and the experience just feels… forced. So if you only have time for one bazaar, I suggest the Spice Bazaar listed above.

Blue Mosque: Long Lines & Under Construction – Skip

You can admire the Blue Mosque from top floor windows and rooftops, by walking past it, or by gazing at it on the horizon from one of the many ferries leaving Istanbul. But is it worth to go actually go inside the Blue Mosque? I don’t think so. While it’s free, you will be losing a lot of your precious time waiting on a very long line that wraps around the entrance under the hot sun. Moreover, at this time the Blue Mosque is under construction. So when we went inside we couldn’t see the full details of the structure as they were blocked off by scaffolding.

Perhaps some may find spiritual or cultural fulfillment here, but it may be hard with its swarming crowds of tourists and the very little space to connect with the surroundings. So for me (at least for now), going inside the Blue Mosque is a skip! I also heard through the grapevine that there are other historical mosques without crowds whose interior rival the Blue Mosque’s, such as the Suleymaniye Mosque.

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Hope you enjoyed these 9 Istanbul Highlights & Activities in Istanbul that you shouldn’t miss! 

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