Things to Do in Istanbul: 8 Ways to Relax

In a city so vibrant and bustling like Istanbul, with people, shops, things to do and places to eat all around, it might seem like a challenge to find some calm and solace. Relax, it IS possible.

Colorful. Diverse. Lively. Probably no other city in the Mediterranean can be as intense and exhilarating as Istanbul, the metropolis that straddles both Asia and Europe.

Its rich, eclectic mix of the old and the new, the East and the West, Islam and Christendom – and everything in between – gives it a distinction that perhaps no other capital in the world can lay claim to.

For what other city can boast of 25 Byzantine churches, 400 fountains, dozens of minarets and several dizzying, extensive street bazaars? But having seen all that, you might now be looking for some change of pace.

Here are 8 things to do in Istanbul that will momentarily take you away from the hustle and fusion (or confusion) that is this magnificent city.

#1 Take a ferry on the Bosphorus


No other activity will make you realize that you’re right smack in the middle of the East and West as a cruise down the Bosphorus.

The narrow, 32-km strait connects the European half of the city on the west shore and the Asian half on the east.

Trips can be as short as 25 minutes for a one-way commuter ride in the busiest part of town, to a full day tour that carries you through the whole stretch of the river – from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south – with a leisurely lunch, sightseeing stops and commentaries along the way.

Depending on the package you choose, you’ll pass a number of the city’s popular attractions – Dolmabahce Palace, Ortakoy village, Galatasaray Island, the Rumeli Ruins, Maiden’s Tower, Leander’s Tower and a smattering of mosques, palaces and gardens.

It’s a must-do, a de-rigueur for every first-time visitor to Istanbul.

#2 Be enthralled by the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia with sunset on a background of clear sky

Though visitors queue for an hour to get inside this most-visited attraction, you can pay an extra 25 Turkish Liras (or about US $11) to get a fast-track entry and a tour.

The Church of the Divine Wisdom (in English) or Ayasofya (Turkish) is definitely among the best things to do in Istanbul. Once the grandest cathedral for more than 9 centuries, was built in 537 A.D. by Emperor Justinian who wanted to recreate the Temple of Jerusalem.

This historic edifice, with its 30 million gold tesserae (mosaic tiles) lining the interior and a humongous dome on top, is considered to be an engineering feat by the Byzantine Empire. Its antiquity seems to match the color and diversity of its past.

First it served as a church for almost a thousand years – initially as an Eastern Orthodox church, then a Roman Cathedral, then back to Eastern Orthodox – but from 1453 until 1934, it was a mosque. Now it’s a secular museum for all to enjoy regardless of religious beliefs.

#3 Catch the sunset at Galata Bridge

Galata bridge connects the old and new Istanbul. During the day, it’s a favorite haunt for people who like to fish. If you enjoy people-watching, taking photographs, or just looking out the river, this is the place to pass a quiet afternoon.

There are promenades under the bridge on each side, lined with cafes, bars and restaurants where you could hang out, enjoy Turkish tea, and watch locals smoke their hookah (cigar in a water pipe).

#4 Immerse in a hamam


Hamams are bathhouses offering a variety of cleansing services:  soaks, scrubs, saunas and massages. Rooms are segregated by gender and varying levels of heat. Though they’re public places commonly used for socializing, you can still get a little privacy if you find a quiet corner, tune out other bathers and relax, stretch out and enjoy the steam.

A body scrub is sure to invigorate, while a full massage can calm you from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.

#5 Escape to “The Islands”

For a truly authentic ambiance away from modern civilization, flee to any of the nine islets of Princes’ Islands off the Asian shore. It’s so-called because the Byzantine Emperor used to send off troublesome princes there to be exiled or executed.

Today, four of the islands have become resort destinations. Buyukada is the most popular; you can tour it on a horse-drawn carriage or rent a bike to explore on your own.

The place is a throwback to ancient times, as everyone goes around on foot, by pedal or horse-and-carriage; no private cars are allowed. Nonetheless, the island gets packed on summer weekends so be sure to go on a weekday if you happen to visit in July or August.

#6 Get archaic

Interested in history and art? Indulge yourself in ancient civilization at the Istanbul Archeological Museum, a complex of 3 museums showcasing more than a million objects from the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome.

Interesting pieces include busts of Alexander the Great and Zeus, fragments from the temple of Athena, glazed tile images from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, artefacts from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Arabia and Anatolia, and the oldest written peace treaty ever recovered, still preserved in cuneiform tablets from the time of ancient Egypt.

If you get tired of ogling these ancient treasures, take a break at the charming cafe in the courtyard, which is beautifully set against a forest of sculptures, rocks and old columns.

#7 Enjoy Turkish gida

Have some meze (appetizer), a pide or lahmacun (Turkish equivalents to pizza), some kofte (meatballs) or kebabs (skewered grilled meat), dolma (stuffed vegetables) and ayran (salty yogurt drink).

Throw in a baklava (pastry with nuts and honey) or a lokum (Turkish delight) for dessert. No trip to Istanbul would be complete without these obligatory yet delightful culinary staples.

Here’s something different you can try for a snack on the go: A kumpir, the Turkish cheese-and-butter-stuffed baked potato that’s loaded with all kinds of crazy toppings like slices of sausages, olives, peas, pickles, corn, yogurt, bulgur – it’s your choice.

Wash it all down with a thirst-quenching cup of sweet, tangy, freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. Both are available at street-stands everywhere.

#8 Sink in the sights and scents of the Spice Bazaar

Want to do some ethnic shopping but not willing to face the throngs and the dizzying passageways of The Grand Bazaar? Opt instead for the much smaller, less complicated and more navigable Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar, where flavors and fragrances rule.

Shop for spices, herbs, vegetables, aromatic oils, soaps, lotions, honey, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, jams, cheeses, sausages, loose-leaf teas, Turkish coffee and, yes, some lokum. Shopping for exotic spices is one of the best things to do in Istanbul if you want to see local culture and experience an ancient style marketplace.

The scents alone are enough to whisk you off to an exotic land, but you know very well your feet are on the ground and your mind is busy computing how much cash you have in your purse – or space in your luggage – to buy all the goodies you want.

Those are some of the best things to do in Istanbul. A city so rich, so crazy, so unparalleled in its history and culture. Visit a few days or a few weeks. But be sure to relax in between.


About the author

JD Lara

JD is a former travel writer-producer for TV. Now a work-from-home mom, she lives in a homestead with animals, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. She’d still love to travel but since family and farming have become priorities, she’s content with just armchair traveling via the internet.

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