11 Things to Do in Istanbul

I recently returned to the States after spending nearly three months in Istanbul as part of my dissertation fieldwork. I was taking Kurdish language classes, doing participant observation (that’s the fancy anthropology term for “hanging out,” basically), and conducting interviews with Kurdish university students. I sometimes find it difficult to write about a place while I’m still in it. With all that has been going on in Turkey lately, I found myself spending a lot of time and energy just trying to wrap my mind around the current socio-political climate and how it might be having an impact on my research.

Since returning, I have continued to need to try to make sense of what appears to be a further deteriorating socio-political situation in Turkey. To be honest, I can’t most of the time. And, I’ve been utterly devastated by news of continuing violence in the country that I have seen as a second home for more than five years. Most recently, my heart was broken (again) by news of the bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, a place that has welcomed me or bade me farewell nearly a dozen times.

I love Istanbul. It is beautiful, hospitable, and bustling. It is bursting at the seams with history and amazing food. Every time I leave, I cannot wait to go back again. That is still true, despite the things I see in the news. Perhaps more so. My heart aches for Istanbul and Turkey, and it makes me nostalgic for happier times spent there. And so, here, in no particular order, are eleven things I love to do when I’m there:

Yerebatan Sarnıcı
  1. Go underground. Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern) is one of my favorite tourist attractions Istanbul. It is an especially nice place to take a break from the heat of the summertime. It is cool and damp and a little creepy, but the vastness, highlighted by the reflection of columns and barrel-vaulted ceilings in the water, fascinates me. Highlights include carp watching and two columns set atop giant Medusa head sculptures.
  1. Experience a little divine wisdom. I have written about my love of Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) before. It is grand. It is beautiful. It oozes history. It is a must see.
Süleymaniye Mosque
  1. Explore the grandeur of the city’s mosques. There are countless mosques across the city, including many beautiful architectural works of art. Some of my favorites are Sultan Ahmet Mosque (commonly called the Blue Mosque), Suleymaniye Mosque, and the New Mosque.
  1. Bargain. There is plenty of shopping to be done in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. All manner of souvenirs can be found. You’ll likely be invited for tea as you pass by shops. Feel free to partake and peruse the wares on offer. There is no expectation that you’ll buy just because you said yes to tea. If you are interested, try your hand at bargaining before settling on a price and carrying on with your new treasures.
Breakfast at Van Kahvaltı Evi
  1. Experience the amazingness of Turkish breakfast. A full Turkish breakfast is not just a meal; it’s an event. It typically involves a wide variety, including tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, eggs, jam and other sweet and savory spreads for bread, and an endless supply of bread and tea. My favorite place to go for Turkish breakfast in Istanbul is Van Kahvaltı Evi, a charming little restaurant just down the hill from Taksim Square.
A view of Heybeliada from the ferry
  1. Go island hopping. The Prince Islands, just a ferryboat ride away from Istanbul, provide a welcome respite from the bustle of urban life. Especially so if you visit on a weekday when you’ll have little company. There are no vehicles on the Islands (other than a few necessary service vehicles). To enjoy the Islands, you can walk, ride a bike, or go for a carriage ride. Büyükada and Heybeliada, the two largest islands, are particularly enjoyable.
Roasted chestnuts on Istiklal Street
  1. Sample the street foods. Istanbul has mastered the art of street food. I recommend trying it all: Simit (a sesame seed crusted ring of bread, sometimes called a “Turkish bagel”), roasted chestnuts, roasted corn, midiye dolma (mussels stuffed with seasoned rice and drizzled with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice), balık ekmek (literally “fish bread,” these fish sandwiches can be found along the Bosporus), and çiğ köfte (a vegan treat made from kneading cooked bulgur with tomato paste and spices before forming it into small patties that are rolled up in lavash bread with lettuce, parsley, pomegranate molasses, and a little lemon juice).
  1. Travel from Asia to Europe on foot. Istanbul straddles the line between Europe and Asia. Each November, the First Bosphorus Bridge is closed to traffic for one day to accommodate the Istanbul Intercontinental Marathon, 15k, 10K, and 8k Fun Run. If you happen to be in Istanbul for it, it is quite fun and gives you pretty cool bragging rights. How many of your friends can say they’ve run/jogged/walked from one continent to another?
  1. Satisfy my sweet tooth. I love Turkish food. This is true of both savory and sweet treats. Some amazingly wonderful sweets can be had in Istanbul. Baklava, lokum (Turkish delight), künefe (a cheese filled pastry soaked in sweet syrup), and dondurma (ice cream) all delight.
Newroz exhıbit at Depo
  1. Get in touch with the city’s artsy side. During my last stay in Istanbul, I was pleased to learn of Depo, an old tobacco warehouse turned “culture and debate center.” The space has a frequently changing line-up of exhibits. During my stay, I was able to see exhibits devoted to exploring: media representations of Newroz (Kurdish/Persian new year), lingering evidence of Turkey’s diverse past, memories and ghosts of the Armenian Genocide, and the cities of Turkey as seen through the eyes and camera lenses of young people. Each exhibit was well curated. Any future visits to Istanbul will include a stop here to see whatever may be on offer.


  1. Tea. I’m pretty sure tea should be a verb in Turkish. To tea. Tea is not just a beverage here; it is a way of life. Browsing the shops of the Grand Bazaar? The shopkeepers will offer you tea. Going to visit a friend? You will be served tea as soon as you take off your shoes and cross the threshold. Having a meal out with friends? As soon as the plates are cleared, tea will materialize in front of you. Chatting? Not without a steaming hot glass of tea. Not surprisingly, then, there are teahouses all over Istanbul. Find one (preferably with a nice shady garden or a rooftop view of the city and/or Bosphorus). Sit. Sip tea (Be careful not to burn your tongue! Tea is served piping hot in Turkey.). People watch. Enjoy life.

9 thoughts on “11 Things to Do in Istanbul

  1. It is so funny I feel exactly the same about Istanbul about looking forward to return each time. Lovely post next time I will explore a bit more the artistic side of the city!


  2. Very nice post and pictures. I recently visited and had fears about traveling but those fears quickly subsided after arriving. A really beautiful city. I still look forward to revisiting Istanbul some time soon.


  3. I love Istanbul. I’ve been to the Basilica Cistern three times now, the first alone on a lighting visit, the second to show others the marvel.

    And how grand and glorious is Ayasofya? What a marvel! There is history and the tread of emperors on the marble floors. It gives me goosebumps.

    Thanks for the images, both in words and photographs.

    Liked by 1 person

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