While not everyone can spend one week in Istanbul, I do think there are some things that should not be missed. Istanbul is incredible, rich with culture and plenty to do and see. That said, I think you can miss a lot of it if you try and DIY your own trip. Yes – you can put together an itinerary of the best sites in Istanbul, but you’re missing out if you don’t engage with the locals to go beyond the surface.
Never fear – I’ve put together the 5 most incredible Istanbul tours that we took so that even if you have limited time in Istanbul, you can pick and choose your favorite things to do in Istanbul and build your own itinerary around those interests.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Take a Guided Tour of the Hagia Sophia
Friends, you are missing out if this tour of the Hagia Sophia isn’t the first one of the Istanbul tours that you take. Not only is it breathtaking, but it’s rich with so much history of the evolution of Christianity and Islam that isn’t always known. I’ll admit it – we visited the Hagia Sophia before we took a tour. While my breath was taken away, I didn’t understand anything significant about what I was seeing and my guidebooks did little to explain it.
Our Hagia Sophia guide, Muhammet, made the entire mosque complex come alive and provided a conscientious and thoughtful discussion about the evolution of the Hagia Sophia from church to mosque to museum over the course of history. Prior to touring the mosque, he took us to visit some of the ruins of the ancient city. I always find subterranean ruins jarring – it’s difficult to imagine that there are likely entire civilizations below the we walk every day.
In addition to visiting the underground city, Muhammet also took us to a rooftop to view the Hagia Sophia from another angle. Both perspectives are valuable to better understanding the mosque complex. Muhammet was also able to point out the seven hills of Istanbul, which gave us a better understanding of how the city was laid out, which you can’t see from every vantage point in the city.
From there, Muhammet took us on a guided tour of the Hagia Sophia, pointing out the architectural details of the mosque and explaining things that had changed over the years. His knowledge started at the founding of the structure and ended with the current discussions about whether or not it should be a mosque of a museum. In all discussions, he was measured – sharing a bit of all perspectives and stopping to encourage questions.
Muhammet’s deep knowledge of religion (both Christianity and Islam) helped us to put historical events in context and better understand the evolution of Istanbul. His excitement for sharing his knowledge was palpable, he encouraged questions, and he took time to give measured answers – and ensure that he answered your question.
The Turkish people are known for their hospitality – and that reputation is not unfounded. That being said, Muhammet was the best guide that we had in Istanbul. While this was supposed to be a small group tour, we were the only participants and he was still very invested in it. I would book a private tour of anything he wanted to share with us about Istanbul when we go back. I truly felt that Muhammet worked hard to establish a rapport so that we felt comfortable asking questions because he truly wanted to show off his city and teach us as much as he could.
Turkish Marbling Class in Istanbul
Okay, so technically this isn’t one of the best Istanbul tours, but I consider classes and experiences tours when I’m putting together experiences. An Ebru class will teach you a little bit more about Turkish art, culture, and history and we loved doing this – even though neither Tom nor I are artistically inclined.
Ebru was developed in the 15th century Ottoman Empire. It’s a water-based art, and historically, vegetable dyes and natural fibers were used to create art, line the inside of books, and more. In some cases it was used as the background for calligraphy. Ebru designs range from the abstract (the typical marbling you think of) to more concrete designs like flowers or birds. This marbling class in Istanbul allows you to try your hand at both!
This art class takes place in the trendy, artsy neighborhood of Beyoğlu near the famous Istiklal Street, as well as Galata Tower, so it’s worth allowing time in your schedule to visit some of the restaurants, galleries and shops nearby. (We found it to be a very easy to walk from the JW Marriott Istanbul, even in the rain!)
The class starts with a brief introductory video on the history and technique of Ebru. This was helpful for us because I didn’t know anything about Ebru other than the fact that I’ve always found it to be beautiful and it sounded like a fun thing to do in Istanbul. From there, we were provided a live demonstration of the different techniques by an expert instructor.
Tom and I both had the opportunity to choose our colors and create our own art pieces with guidance from the instructor. We practiced the traditional abstract designs, flowers, and because Tom was so much better at this than I was, he was guided blindly through an intricate design of birds and flowers. Overall, I found it to be very relaxing (even though I was so nervous). The staff was so very kind and accommodating – it felt like being with friends, rather than professionals.
While our paintings were drying, we were invited to head up to the the gallery’s terrace for tea and beautiful views of the Bosphorus. Our art was perfectly packaged into shipping tubes and they made it home without issue. They made great Mother’s Day gifts for our moms.
Tour Istanbul’s Spice Market
While the Grand Bazaar can be overwhelming (but wildly entertaining – don’t miss it), I really loved touring the Spice Market in Istanbul. The Spice Market (Misir Carsisi) is one of those places where I feel like I needed a few more sets of eyes to take everything in. At times, it might feel like many of the stalls are selling the same things, which is why a tour can help you sort through all the offerings. I strongly recommend touring the Spice Market in the morning. It’s less crowded and the vendors are able to take more time with you. Yes, some just want to tell you something – but others want to help you find the right products for you.
If you want to DIY your own tour of the Spice Market, I recommend heading of Masala 49 and talking to Mohammed. Mohammed asked about what we liked to cook, what we had enjoyed in Istanbul, and allowed us to try a lot of different spices. I had no idea I would enjoy tasting dry spices, but everything we tried was rich with flavor. We learned about how to identify real saffron, how to make a tasty soup with dried vegetables and olive oil, tried Turkish delight, and various teas.
We purchased a lot of spices to bring home as souvenirs and gift. Everything was vacuumed sealed and made it through customs without issue. I purchased these spice jars to repackage them for friends and family.
Tour of Topkapi Palace and Harem
In mind mind, Topkapi Palace is another one of those Istanbul tours that you need to book. Yes, you can wander around on your own and the grounds are lovely, but you want to know what you’re seeing! The Palace has multiple buildings, spread across multiple courtyards, each of which leads you deeper into the Palace. The more important you (or your role), the further into the palace you were allowed. All of this is by design. Our Topkapi tour guide, Oziel, pointed out the different layers of the Palace and explains more about who would be allowed in which areas. He helped to paint a better picture of daily life in Topkapi Palace.
After the tour, you are free to roam the grounds and visit the side exhibits. (The Harem is included on this particular Topkapi Palace tour.) I found the room of relics to be one of the more interesting side exhibits that we visited because it allowed me to see a few parallels between Islam and Christianity and expanded on what I learned on the Hagia Sophia tour with Muhammet.
I highly recommend visiting the smaller buildings of the Topkapi Palace. Some of the smallest rooms offered the most beautiful beautiful tile and glass throughout the palace. The colors, especially the blues, are simply gorgeous. (If the tiny sliver we saw in the Sultan Ahmed and colors in Topkapi Palace are any indication, the Blue mosque is truly going to be breathtaking when its complete.) If you need a break after your tour, there is a cafe (Konyali) that overlooks the Bosphorus where you can enjoy a drink before exploring the Palace further.
Don’t forget to stop by the Arasta Bazaar when you finish your tour of Topkapi Palace. It’s only a short walk from the palace complex.
Sunset Bosphorus Cruise
While we didn’t have great weather while we were in Istanbul, I am so glad that we did book a Bosphorus cruise. This ended up being one of the last Istanbul tours were took, and it was worth it. I would fit it in wherever you can and would aim for a sunset tour. Our tour started in the late afternoon and stretched through golden hour and blue hour. Even with overcast skies, it was magical to see Istanbul slowly turn on its lights and come alive.
Our cruise boarded in Karaköy, which is a trendy neighborhood near the Galata Bridge. We cruised around the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, where our guide pointed out some less-touristy neighborhoods to consider visiting, as well as some “major” tourist attractions that you could see from the boat. What I appreciated was that the narration was not constant, so you could engage the guides in conversations and ask questions about what you were seeing. We were able to learn more about Istanbul and engage in some conversations about local events and world affairs. Our guides were extremely warm and welcoming. (They also did a great job encouraging folks to get off their phones and enjoy the view.)
We were able to move around freely and enjoy the open-air roof top seating of the boat. When it was too windy, we ducked back downstairs to the glass-enclosed lower level. We were not able to dock on the Asian side of Istanbul because of local restrictions, but the captain did a great job of getting close and pointing out various landmarks.
One of the bonuses of this Bosphorus tour is that one of the guides was also a photographer. He went around to the various groups, took photos, and printed them out and put them in an album for purchase. I was more than happy to buy the album since we rarely take photos together unless I book a professional photographer. My only regret is that I didn’t know that, so I didn’t wear make-up… so now you know!
Other Istanbul Tours to Consider
There is no shortage of things to do in Istanbul. A lot of what you should see will depend on your interests. That said, I highlighted the Istanbul tours that were most impactful for us on our first trip to Istanbul. I’ve also listed a few below that we booked that you might consider if they are more interesting to you.
- Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Tour – This is a great introduction to the Hippodrome and the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. Since the Blue Mosque is still under significant restoration, it wouldn’t be my top recommendination, but it’s still a great tour.
- Book a private guide and visit the Süleymaniye Mosque – I loved the Suleymaniye Mosque and we had a wonderful guide. I read about it 1001 Places to See Before You Die and it did not disappoint. At all. There is a cultural center on site where you can talk with locals about everything from the mosque to Islam. They also have presentations, if that’s more your style.
- Visit a traditional Turkish hammam spa. We took advantage of the spa at the Four Seasons Bosphorus because it was more convenient for us, but if your hotel doesn’t offer a spa, there are plenty of spa tours available in Istanbul. As a heads up, men and women’s facilities are usually very separate because of long-standing traditions. Even at the Four Seasons, tradition is observed, and the sauna and spa areas were very separate.
- The Cistern wasn’t open when we were there, but it was at the top of my list of Istanbul tours before finding out it was closed. It’s absolutely on my list to visit.
- I had booked a tour of the Chora Church (Kariye Camii), and I was so disappointed when our tour was canceled. We took a cab over there only to find out that it is closed for renovation and restoration. Everyone we met in Istanbul said that it’s worth visiting, so I would strongly encourage you to see if its one of the Istanbul tours offered when you decide to go. (Very little information is available when restoration and renovation projects will be complete.)
- Private airport transfers to and from Istanbul – After a long travel day to Istanbul, it was nice to have our ground transportation from IST to our hotel booked in advance. Our driver was very professional and efficient. We didn’t anticipate booking a private transfer back to the airport, but we had a lot of trouble with the iTaxi app and getting taxis at certain times of the day. Instead of chancing it at 4:00am, we booked a second private transfer from our hotel to IST. It was a very good decision.
Since this was our first trip to Istanbul, we wanted to see the big sites, learn more about the city (it’s huge), and get a better sense of what we wanted to see. We had debated booking private guides for months, but ultimately decided that we didn’t know enough about the city to be able to put together an itinerary that made sense – or even tell a guide what we would want to see. I had saved enough mosques that we could have visited a different one very morning and every afternoon, but I didn’t know why I would be visiting them.
Now that I know more, I would be more comfortable hiring private guides to customize our Istanbul tours based on our interests. Private tour guides are very reasonable in Istanbul, and now that we’ve had an overview of the “big’ attractions in Istanbul, I would like to dive beyond the surface of the popular Istanbul tours and go deeper into the culture and off the beaten path sites.
Need More Info? Check out my more extensive Istanbul itinerary, including where to stay.