Top 5 Things to Do in Istanbul (Outside the Old City)

Last Updated on: 23rd February 2022, 04:04 pm

Istanbul is a huge city, and most first-time visitors focus on the Old City area – particularly the neighborhood of Sultanahmet. But for those wanting to venture further out, trying to decide where to spend an extra day or two can be overwhelming. To make things easier, below are some of the top things to do in Istanbul outside the Old City and the trendy Taksim district.

Climb Rumelihisarı Fortress

Situated along the Bosphorus in the north of the city is the Rumelihisarı Fortress, one of Istanbul’s most significant Ottoman landmarks. It was constructed for the purpose of helping the Ottomans finally conquer Constantinople after multiple failed attempts.

Rumelihisarı Fortress Top Things to do in Istanbul
Rumelihisarı Fortress Top Things to do in Istanbul

By the time it was built in 1452, the Byzantine Empire had lost all its territory to the Ottomans, except for Constantinople itself. Even though the Ottomans had the Byzantines surrounded on all sides, Constantinople’s walls were so formidable that taking the city was no simple task.

Furthermore, the Byzantines could call on their allies for help. But Rumelihisarı Fortress was built to prevent this.

Rumelihisarı Fortress Top Things to do in Istanbul
Rumelihisarı Fortress Top Things to do in Istanbul

Previously in 1390, the Ottomans had built the Anadolu Fortress across the Bosphorus on the Asian side. And by building this fortress here, they could prevent any ships from coming to help the Byzantines via the Black Sea, namely from the Genoese colonies further north.

The Ottomans’ plan worked, as the year after the fortress was built, they finally managed to take Constantinople after a bloody 55-day siege.

Incredibly, the Rumelihisarı Fortress was built in only four months but it still holds up surprisingly well today. In fact, it’s probably the best-preserved of all of Istanbul’s fortresses. 

It consists of one main tower and over a dozen smaller one. And it even features a mosque. Unfortunately, all of the towers were closed at the time of my visit. Nevertheless, it’s one of the top things to do in Istanbul for those with a special interest in Ottoman history.

Rumelihisarı Fortress Top Things to do in Istanbul
A view of the Anadolu Fortress across the Bosphorus

Visit the Ortaköy Mosque

Ortaköy Mosque, located in the neighborhood of the same name, is one of Istanbul’s most photographed landmarks. Traveling throughout the country, I kept coming across posters featuring the mosque at various hotels and restaurants.  And I knew I had to go see it in person once I made it to  Istanbul.

While the mosque itself is quite small, it’s unique for its scenic waterfront setting, and crowds flocking here daily for photo ops.

Also known as the Great Mecidiye Mosque, it was completed in 1853, just a few years before the Ottoman sultans moved to nearby Dolmabahçe Palace (more below).

Its architects were an Armenian father and son duo named Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigoğayos Balyan. These were the same people, in fact, who Sultan Abdulmecid I commissioned to create Dolmabahçe.

Built in the Neo-Baroque style, the elegant mosque features a square plan with a dome atop the main structure. While the square-shaped building is only 12.5 m long on each side, its high ceiling and large windows make it feel much bigger.

In front are two minarets, along with a two-story summer palace built for the sultan.

The mosque has survived earthquakes and fires, while at one point a collapse was feared due to a weakened foundation. As such, it’s undergone numerous repairs and restorations over the years and is thankfully holding up well today.

Ortaköy Mosque Top Things to do in Istanbul
Ortaköy Mosque Top Things to do in Istanbul

Finished with the mosque, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, cafes, and food stalls throughout the trendy Ortaköy neighborhood. On Sundays, the area around the mosque is home to a market for antiques, jewelry and other souvenirs.

Ortaköy Mosque can easily be reached by bus from most districts.

Tour Dolmabahçe Palace

Following centuries at Topkapı Palace, inhabited since the conquest of Constantinople, Abdulmecid I moved the Ottoman royal residence to a new location. 

Construction of the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace took place from 1843-1856, and it was designed by the same Armenian architects, Garabet Amira and Nigoğayos Balyan, who were behind Ortaköy Mosque.

Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul

Despite being the seat of Ottoman power in the 19th century, the palace hardly appears Ottoman at all. Previously at Topkapı Palace, architects had already started fusing European and Ottoman styles. 

But Dolmabahçe Palace looks and feels entirely European, minus a few Ottoman-style embellishments throughout the interior.

Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul
Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul

Supposedly, Abdulmecid I gave the architects an unlimited budget, and his wild spending sprees would go on to bankrupt the empire. 

As out of place as it may feel, Dolmabahçe Palace is certainly one of the city’s most extravagant and impressive buildings, and a visit is easily one of the top things to do in Istanbul.

But before your visit, there are a couple of things that you should know. Even if you’ve bought the expensive Istanbul Pass Museum Card (see below), it doesn’t work here, as this palace is run by separate management.

The basic ticket (at the time of my visit) costs 90 TL, while the additional harem ticket costs 60 TL. However, you can buy a combo ticket for 120 TL.

But unlike the Topkapi Palace Harem, which is a must-see, the harem of Dolmabahçe largely resembles the rest of the palace.

Also note that the palace is closed on Mondays.

Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul

Another thing to be aware of is that photography is prohibited within the building. But many people were discreetly snapping some photos with their cellphones, and I couldn’t resist taking a few myself.

Comprehensive signage explains the function of each room, while visitors can also use a free audio guide. The palace can take 90 minutes or so to explore. And as impressive as some of the rooms are, it can get rather repetitive after awhile. 

Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul
Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul
Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul

While the private harem section more or less takes on the appearance of the public palace, there’s one particularly notable room inside. It’s in one of these rooms that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died in 1938, and all the clocks in the palace remain set to the time of his death.

Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul
Outside the harem section
Dolmabahçe Palace Top Things to do in Istanbul
The clocktower

While Dolmabahçe Palace would mostly remain the Ottoman seat of power until the empire’s demise in 1922, there was one interim period. From 1887-1909, Sultan Abdul Hamid II moved to the Yıldız Palace during his reign, fearing a potential seaside attack.

But he wouldn’t completely neglect Dolmabahçe, commissioning another Balyan family member, Sarkis, to design the clocktower. Yet this was this same sultan who’d become known for the ‘Hamidian massacres’ against the empire’s Armenian population.

Dolmabahçe Palace can easily be reached by bus or on foot from Galata/Karaköy area. 

Cruise the Bosphorus to Yoros Castle

One of the most popular day trips one can experience in Istanbul is a Bosphorus Cruise, which takes passengers from the city center to the mouth of the Black Sea. While some cruises end up stopping on the European side, I opted for a cruise to Yoros Castle on the Asian/Anatolian side.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Taking five or six hours from start to finish, the cruises typically depart at 10:35 from Eminönü, 10:50 from Beşiktaş and 11:05 from Üsküdar. There should also be afternoon cruises in the summer months, along with sunset cruises on Saturday evenings.

They’re operated by the Şehir Hatları company and depart every day. Check here for updated times and prices. When looking at the timetables online, note that ‘Rumeli Kavağı’ refers to the European side and ‘Anadolu Kavağı’ refers to the Anatolian side.

Once at the ferry pier, look out for the sign that says ‘Boğaz İskelesi’ and be careful of touts selling rip-off private tours.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Along the way, you’ll pass by all three sites mentioned above. While not a replacement for visiting them in person, Ortaköy Mosque, Dolmabahçe Palace and Rumelihisarı all look great from the water.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul Ortakoy
Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Passing Dolmabahçe Palace

The boat is unlikely to get too crowded, especially if you depart on a weekday. And don’t worry about preparing snacks and drinks beforehand, as you’ll be able to purchase them on the ferry.

Rumelihisarı Fortress

As you approach the Black Sea, you’ll pass by tranquil-looking waterside houses along with numerous ancient fortresses. Eventually, you’ll be dropped off at the final stop, Anadolu Kavağı’, where you’ll have three hours to spend as you like.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Anadolu Kavağı is home to plentiful restaurants and coffee shops where you can grab lunch. But the main highlight here is Yoros Castle.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Joshua’s Hill, on which Yoros Castle stands, was inhabited by ancient Greeks who built multiple temples at the spot. The Byzantines later established a fortress along with a similar castle over on the European side.

As they’d done at the Golden Horn, the Byzantines even connected the two fortresses with a huge iron chain to block enemy ships from entering the Bosphorus!

Yoros Castle switched back and forth between Byzantine and Ottoman hands in the 14th century, while the Genoese took control in 1414. They managed to hold it for forty years, losing it to the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople.

Bosphorus Cruise Top Things to Do in Istanbul

While there’s not a whole lot to see at the fortress itself, especially compared with Rumelihisarı, the hill offers clear views of where the Bosphorus Strait and the Black Sea converge.

Cycle Around Büyükada

While Bosphorus Cruises are widely known as one of the top things to do in Istanbul, relatively few foreign visitors know about Büyükada (‘Big Island’), the largest of the Princes’ Islands

After enjoying a pleasant ferry ride which takes around 90 minutes, you’ll be free to spend all afternoon exploring the island, situated about 20km east of the Fatih district.

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

But why visit Büyükada? For one thing, the entire island is car-free, making it the perfect getaway from the noisy city center. And as you cycle around the island, you can seek out traditional architecture and admire the views from the hilltop in the center.

All in all, it makes for a cheap but eventful day trip.

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Despite its semi-remote location, Büyükada is well known by locals and is a common day trip for Istanbul residents on sunny days. As such, even despite the lack of cars, the town center is bustling. But it only requires a couple minutes of cycling to escape the crowds.

Bicycle rental shops are abundant throughout town, but be sure to bring your passport, which they will hold onto until you return the bike. The shop I rented from cost 15 TL per hour, and while I didn’t shop around, I’m guessing that’s standard.

As there are so many similar-looking shops, be sure to remember the exact location of yours!

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
The largest wooden construction in Europe
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Büyükada’s main landmark is Hagia Yorgi Church, located at the highest point of the island. And on the way there, you’ll pass by interesting landmarks such as the Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage. 

As nearly all Greeks in Turkey had to leave following the population exchange of the 1920s, it’s now abandoned and in terrible shape. And that’s a shame, as it’s considered to be the largest wooden building in all of Europe! (Büyükada, however, is much closer to Istanbul’s Asian side.) 

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Before the steep, final stretch to the top, you’ll find a restaurant and stand selling snacks and water. There’s also a place to park your bicycle, after which you can walk 15-minutes or so up a scenic trail to the church.

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Hagia Yorgi Church was built in the 10th century. And while the church was inaccessible at the time of my visit, the main reason to come here is for the views. Overlooking the Sea of Marmara, you can see the other Princes’ Islands and even the skyscrapers of central Istanbul in the distance. 

From up here, hectic Istanbul feels like a world away.

Finished with the church and returning to your bicycle, you can take an alternate route downhill and ride along the island’s eastern coast. Here you’ll find the Museum of the Princes’ Islands, a small but informative historical museum.

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Inhabited since ancient Greek times, the Princes’ Islands were long used as a place of exile during the Byzantine period. Following a revolt in 802, Empress Irene was exiled to Büyükada, while numerous other royals and religious figures were sent  to neighboring islands following disputes.

In the 1920s, even Leon Trotsky spent time in Büyükada following his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

One interesting room of the museum displays quotes about the Princes’ Islands from various pieces of literature, while ancient archaeological findings are on display outside.

The former Nikola Monastery
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

In the Ottoman period, Büyükada was home to sizable Greek and Armenian communities, while wealthy Istanbul businessmen began building homes here in the mid-19th century. Cycling around the island, you can admire numerous Victorian-style homes which remain inhabited and well-preserved.

Note that while Büyükada is mostly car-free, there are some mini shuttle buses that speed down the roads, honking incessantly at cyclists in their way. 

As annoying as they are for cyclists, these electric vehicles are a good option for those who don’t want to cycle, having replaced the horse-drawn carriages that used to be commonplace.

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul
Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

GETTING THERE: Ferries for Büyükada depart from Eminönü and Beşiktaş. Note that many of them depart from the same area as ferries for the Kadıköy/Üsküdar neighborhoods on the Anatolian side. 

Many of these boats may have Kadıköy as their final stop, but most Büyükada-bound boats will stop at Kadıköy along the way. Be sure to ask a staff member to confirm that your ferry is indeed headed for Büyükada.

With multiple companies running hourly boats, you should have no problems getting back to the city whenever you’re ready. 

Büyükada Top Things to do in Istanbul

Even More

A complete list of all the top things to do in Istanbul could go on forever, be here are a few additional tips: Another worthwhile activity is spending an afternoon on the Anatolian side of the city – namely the Kadıköy and Üsküdar neighborhoods.

While Kadıköy doesn’t have much in the way of major landmarks, it’s a youthful, vibrant neighborhood that’s full of shops and cafes. I enjoyed spending a few hours here walking around and shopping for clothes.

Üsküdar, meanwhile, is home to one of Istanbul’s most-photographed landmarks: Kız Kulesi, or Maiden’s Tower. The 17th-century tower, built atop a small islet, features a cafe and is accessible by boat. Most simply come to enjoy the view from the mainland, however.

Also on the Anatolian side is Beylerbeyi Palace, an Ottoman summer palace built around the same time as Dolmabahçe.

Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Back on the European side, there are a few interesting locations within walking distance of Galata Tower. One is the Galata Mevlevi Lodge Museum, or former lodge of the Whirling Dervishes.

Another is the unique Underground Mosque (Yeralti Camii), featuring arched pillars and tombs of two ancient Arab martyrs. During Byzantine times, it’s also believed to have housed the long iron chain which connected to the city walls across the Golden Horn.

Top Things to Do in Istanbul
Top Things to Do in Istanbul

Additional Info

While the list of top things to do in Istanbul above focuses on locations outside the Old City, you’ll still want to spend a good portion of your trip there. Especially the Sultanahmet district, which is home to many of the city’s other famous historical sites (Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, etc.). Accordingly, there are plenty of hotels to choose from around here.

I stayed in the Eminönü neighborhood to the west of Sultanahmet, which I found perfect for getting around. Not only is the neighborhood within walking distance of Sultanahmet, but it’s also near the ferry port from which Bosphorus cruises depart, along with boats to the Anatolian side and Büyükada.

If you’re a budget traveler, there’s a certain section of Eminönü just southwest of the Haliç Metro Station that’s home to numerous cheap hotels.

Most of them aren’t listed online, but you can simply walk around and pick one out. I stayed at a place called Ferah Otel which only cost me 75 TL per night for a private room/bathroom and with decent internet. It was a bit rough around the edges, but there are slightly fancier hotels around the area as well.

Many visitors choose to stay in the Taksim district, as did I during my first visit to the city. But as nice as Taksim is, it’s not the most convenient base for visiting Istanbul’s major attractions.



Booking.com

Given its population of over 15 million people, Istanbul’s public transport system is surprisingly substandard. While the city has both a subway and  a tramway, there are many significant landmarks and bustling neighborhoods that neither rail system will take you to.

I found public bus to be the most convenient way to get around Istanbul, though traffic jams are a frequent problem. The bus routes are marked on Google Maps, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting around as long as you have internet access.

If you’re based in the Sultanahmet or Eminönü districts, many of Istanbul’s major attractions will be walkable.

And for those visiting the Anatolian side, frequent ferries depart from Eminönü and Karaköy.

Before beginning your explorations around the city, you may want to consider buying an Istanbul Museum Card.

As one might expect, the entry fee for attractions in Istanbul are considerably higher than in other parts of the country, and this pass is one of the few that actually saved me money.

At the time of my visit, the pass cost 325 TL. Valid for 5 days, it allowed access to Galata Tower (30 TL), the Istanbul Mosaic Museum (30 TL), the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (50 TL), Hagia Irene (60 TL), Topkapı Palace (100 TL) and Harem Apartments (70 TL), and numerous other attractions.

It also included the Chora Church, though that should already be a free mosque by now.

As prices are always changing in Turkey due to inflation, be sure to check the current prices of everything before making your decision.

While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.

I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.

Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.

Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.

Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.

While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.

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