Istanbul, Turkey is truly an extraordinary city. As the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul (formerly known as Constanstinople) was the meeting point of many cultures, religions, and people.
Today, Istanbul is the corner where East meets West and where old meets new. From towering mosques and enchanting ancient marketplaces to the lapping shores of the Bosphorus, and so much more, Istanbul has plenty to explore solo. Because of the city’s layout and great public transport, it’s easy to get around and explore all that this ancient wonder has to offer.
Whether you like exploring new cities completely on your own or seeking out travel companions among other solo travelers, Istanbul is a great location for your next solo trip.
Istanbul sees plenty of travelers from all over the world, and it’s remarkably easy to meet other backpackers at hostels and guesthouses. It’s also got so much to experience completely on your own, so you’ll never find yourself without new places to explore.
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So without further ado, here are 9 things to do in Istanbul as a solo traveler:
1. Explore Istanbul’s History through a visit to Hagia Sophia
Istanbul’s most iconic landmark, Hagia Sophia, has gone through an incredible number of transformations over the course of Istanbul’s long history.
Created in 536 as a Christian Cathedral in the center of then-Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was later transformed into a mosque complete with its iconic minarets in the 14th Century.
Hagia Sophia has been through as many drastic changes as the city of Istanbul itself, and the living history layered within the walls of the mosque itself is a testament to how incredible this landmark is. As you make your way through the mosque, you’ll gaze upon centuries-old frescos and breathtaking architecture that’ll transport you to another time.
And a reminder—as Hagia Sophia is an active mosque, modest clothing, removing your shoes at the door, and a quiet, respectful aura are required to enter. A good practice for women visiting Istanbul is to carry a scarf or sarong with you to cover your head upon entering the mosque. Also, keep in mind prayer times on Friday. In addition to avoiding huge crowds of worshipers, you won’t be able to visit during prayer hours.
We recommend booking this best-selling tour HERE.
Pro tip: most people don’t realize this, but Hagia Sophia is open 24/7! If you want to beat the crowds, you can visit Hagia Sophia either very early in the morning or late at night. One of my personal favorite experiences in Istanbul was visiting Hagia Sophia at 2am with a group from my hostel. That being said, I’d only recommend this if you find a group of people to visit with-I’d definitely *not* recommend walking around a city alone at night!
2. Learn about Islam with a visit to the Blue Mosque
Across the courtyard from Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is the next iconic landmark of Istanbul — the Blue Mosque. This Mosque was built in 1609 and is adorned by thousands of hand-painted blue tiles on its inside walls.
They also have an information section complete with pamphlets and books where visitors can learn more about muslim prayer, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Qu’aran, and Islamic traditions. It’s a great way to learn more about religious tradition in Turkey and contextualize Istanbul’s magnificent ancient mosques.
I recommend this popular tour from Viator HERE.
3. Hunt for treasure at the Grand Bazaar
Located only a walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar is a must for any Istanbul itinerary.
As you enter the covered bazaar, you’ll instantly be transported back in time. In the market, you’ll discover the bustling market stalls and shops selling anything from jewelry, to rugs, to scarves, and oil lamps, and so much more.
This is your opportunity to bargain with shopkeepers to hunt for your perfect souvenir to commemorate your time in Istanbul!
4. Catch the views at Galata Tower
The Galata tower is much more than an observation deck. Established in the 14th Century, the tower functioned as a prison and observation tower given its views of the Bosphorus.
Today, it boasts multiple floors of museums outlining the history of the tower and surrounding area. If that isn’t enough to convince you to make the visit, Galata Tower also has a killer 360 view of the city, and you can catch glimpses of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque among the red-rooflines of the city.
5. Live like a Sultan at Topkapi Palace
Nestled right next to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace is an extensive Palace complex that once housed Istanbul’s Sultans and Vizors.
Today, you can walk through the old intricately-adorned Palace libraries, meeting rooms, and more all situated in a gorgeous garden courtyard. I’d definitely recommend getting the audio guide or booking a tour to get a better context of the place because of how massive it is.
6. Learn Turkish History Through Istanbul’s Museums
Istanbul is incredibly old and rich in culture and history. So, it’s only fitting that it’s got a popping museum scene. Depending on your interests, there’s plenty of options to explore and learn more about Istanbul.
If you’re into ancient history, I’d recommend the Archeological Museum of Istanbul, which boasts ancient relics from all over the historic Ottoman empire. In addition to Istanbul’s more history-oriented museums, Istanbul also has museums dedicated to Islamic art, mosaics, and contemporary art.
7. Sip Turkish Coffee on a Rooftop cafe
If you’re looking for that iconic photo of a rooftop café in Istanbul complete with Turkish rugs and hoards of birds flying around that you saw on Instagram, you’re in luck.
All around the Eminönü neighborhood there are plenty of rooftop cafés that offer classic Turkish coffee, shisha, and an incredible view of Istanbul. If you’re looking for a chill way to pass the afternoon, treat yourself to a coffee and enjoy a spectacular view of Istanbul.
8. Take the Ferry to Asia
Yet another unique fact about Istanbul is that it is the *only* country to span two continents! The more touristic and historical parts of the city (like Beyazıt, Eminönü, and Karakoy) lie on the European side, while the much larger and more residential Kadikoy and Moda districts lie across the river in Asia.
You can take the ferry that’s part of Istanbul’s public transport system for 1.50 Turkish Lira (around 0.10 USD). When you arrive in Asia, you’ll find plenty of cool restaurants, shops, vintage stores, and more to explore. I’d definitely dedicate at least a full afternoon to venturing around this side of Istanbul, it’s such a cool way to get a feel for daily life in the city!
9. Sample some Turkish Street Food and Sweets
One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its street food. As you make your way throughout Istanbul, you’ll come across plenty of food carts selling Simit (a thin bagel-like Turkish bread), Kebap, fresh fruit juice, and so much more.
If you’re interested in sampling some Turkish treats, you’ll find plenty of sweet shops on the streets around Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar with mountains of Baklava and Turkish Delight to taste.
Most likely, friendly and eager shopkeepers will let you sample a few flavors and invite you in their shops for a cup of tea. Don’t even know where to begin with Istanbul’s food scene?
Take a street food tour! Plenty of hostels and guesthouses in Istanbul have connections with local guides and you’re sure to have a memorable and educational experience tasting your way through Istanbul.
Guest Post by Emma from All Over the Place