15 Best Istanbul Tours

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Though it has had many different names over the ages, Istanbul has been continually inhabited for more than 3,000 years.

Since the beginning, it has been ruled by a number of nations and ethnic groups, and its strategic location near the Black Sea has made it one of the area’s cultural, artistic, and economic hubs for centuries.

Now with a population of nearly 15,000,000 residents, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world.

It lies at the junction of Europe and Asia and features an alluring mix of exotic cultures and history, as well as contemporary attractions that make it a big hit with travelers from all over the world.

Below are 15 of the best tours of Istanbul.

1. Hagia Sophia Skip-the-Line Ticket and Guided Tour

Hagia Sophia in IstanbulSource: Darkdiamond67 / shutterstock
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most prominent attractions.

It features majestic and awe-inspiring architecture that reflects elements of Christian and Muslim design, and over the years, it has served as both a church and a mosque.

Guests of this walking tour will meet their local guide at the Sophia’s entrance, get an overview of the things they’re about to experience, and waltz past the long lines of visitors waiting to explore the fantastic site.

Tours include both guided and free time for sightseeing and quiet reflection and are often one of the most memorable experiences of many visitors’ trips.

2. Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour

Basilica Cistern in IstanbulSource: Sergey Dzyuba / shutterstock
Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

This short but popular skip-the-line Basilica Cistern tour is proof that you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to have an amazing travel experience.

The cistern was originally built in the 4th century to store water for the Great Palace, and it’s now one of the city’s most historically significant attractions.

It’s also a marvel of engineering that is capable of storing more than 70,000 cubic yards of water; this is delivered by a complex system of aqueducts that carry water from a reservoir near the sea.

Tours last about 30 minutes and include the site’s entrance fee and an English-speaking guide.

3. Bosphorus Sunset Cruise on a Luxurious Yacht

Bosphorus Sunset CruiseSource: Travel Turkey / shutterstock
Bosphorus Sunset Cruise

According to previous tour guests, watching the sunset over the ancient city of Istanbul from a luxurious yacht on the Bosphorus is a truly breathtaking experience.

It’s a big hit with those traveling in small groups, and for couples interested in spending a romantic and unforgettable evening away from the crowds.

You may feel like you’ve taken a giant leap back in time as you experience towering minarets bathed in shades of bronze and rose, warm desert breezes, and exotic aromas drifting across the waterway.

Tours include live commentary, seasonal fruits, fresh sherbet, and a complimentary traditional Turkish beverage.

4. Istanbul Aquarium and Aqua Florya Shopping Mall Tour

Istanbul AquariumSource: ymphotos / shutterstock
Istanbul Aquarium

There aren’t many attractions that combine retail therapy and biology into one convenient package, but the Florya Shopping Mall and Istanbul Aquarium do just that.

After being picked up from their hotel, guests of this five hour, mid-morning tour will spend a truly memorable day with their local guide.

The aquarium features more than a dozen individually themed areas that are home to hundreds of species of fish and marine animals from all over the world.

Perennial favorites include sharks, rays, and octopus in tanks that resemble their natural environments.

Tours also include unguided shopping time at the multi-level mall that features restaurants, coffee shops, and internationally known apparel brands like Lacoste and GAP.

5. Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus in IstanbulSource: Tminaz / shutterstock
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus in Istanbul

Whether you’ve got 24, 48, or 72 hours to spare, hop-on-hop-off bus tours are fun and inexpensive ways to see lots of attractions.

Unlike traditional tours, guests can focus on the things that interest them the most and ignore those that don’t.

While on the bus, participants will have access to complimentary headphones, so they’ll learn about the things they’re seeing. If the spirit moves them, they can get off and explore individual attractions at their own pace.

Highlights include the Port, Naval Museum, and Galata Bridge, to name a few.

Entrance fees to some sites are included, and tours feature complimentary route maps and free Wi-Fi while on the bus.

6. Lonely Planet Experiences: Istanbul Market Tour and Picnic

Spice Bazar in IstanbulSource: Wojtek Chmielewski / shutterstock
Spice Bazar in Istanbul

For lovers of food and culture, there’s really no better way to experience immersion than by visiting a bustling market.

On this 3 ½-hour tour, guests and their guide will delve into Istanbul’s famous Spice Bazar and experience exotic sights, sounds, and aromas that they aren’t likely to find elsewhere.

Along the way, participants will visit many stalls, talk with vendors, and sample a variety of products, ranging from local cheese and baked goods to dehydrated beef and Turkish olives.

Tours end with a casual stroll along the Bosphorus and a relaxing drink at a traditional tea shop.

7. Half-Day Turkish Coffee Tour with Tasting

Traditional Turkish CoffeeSource: vsl / shutterstock
Traditional Turkish Coffee

Turks prefer their coffee dark and strong, and on this half-day tasting and tour, guests will learn about coffee’s cultural significance and enjoy it in all its splendor.

Tours get underway at a popular museum that details the history of coffee in the region dating all the way back to the early 16th century, when it was originally brought by Ottomans from Egypt.

Guests and their guide will visit some of the city’s most historic coffee houses, learn the basics of preparing traditional Turkish coffee, and sample a number of blends with unique flavor profiles.

Tours include hotel pick-up and entrance fees and begin in the early afternoon.

8. Whirling Dervishes Show at the HodjaPasha Culture Center

Whirling Dervishes Show in IstanbulSource: evantravels / shutterstock
Whirling Dervishes Show in Istanbul

Whirling Dervishes dance shows have been an Istanbul tradition for more than 800 years, and for many visitors, they’re the most iconic of all the city’s attractions.

The HodjaPasha Culture Center is housed in a Turkish bath facility left over from the era of Ottoman rule more than 500 years ago, which adds to the already amazing dance spectacle.

Events include an introduction to the area’s dance traditions, alluring music, a memorable dance performance by professional performers in vibrant garb, and a complimentary drink upon arrival.

This event is among the most authentic of its kind, but restrictions apply, so click the link below.

9. Bosphorus Cruise with Dinner and Entertainment

Bosphorus CruiseSource: Denis Dymov / shutterstock
Bosphorus Cruise

For those looking for a memorable executive-class combo tour, this Bosphorus cruise with dinner and entertainment would be a great way to spend an evening.

Tours last about 5 hours and include free pick-up from your hotel between 7:00 and 8:00 PM.

Once on board the cruise ship, guests will enjoy a complimentary beverage as they relax, take in the sights along the Bosphorus Straits, and enjoy a traditional performance including music, and belly and folk dancing.

Tour sights include illuminated bridges, Ottoman palaces, and impressive views of the city skyline. At the end of the evening, guests will be transported back to their hotels by midnight.

10. ‘Big Night Out’ 7-Hour Pub Crawl

NightlifeSource: Roman Samborskyi / shutterstock

Though it doesn’t often rank as one of the world’s biggest party destinations, the nightlife scene in Istanbul is surprisingly vibrant.

This 7-hour pub crawl includes transportation to and from a convenient meeting point near the city center, after which guests and their guide will visit a number of the city’s trendiest after-hours venues.

The cost of the tour covers admission, and at each location, participants will enjoy a complimentary welcome drink.

It’s common to meet an eclectic mix of locals and international travelers, and each group gets a free bottle of Raki Turkish liquor as well.

11. Contemporary Art Walk

Istanbul Museum of Modern ArtSource: IV. andromeda / shutterstock
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

In addition to being a center of history, culture, and cuisine, Istanbul also features a trendy contemporary art scene that is well worth checking out for amateur artists and all-around art appreciators.

This four-hour guided walking tour gets underway in the morning and takes participants to several galleries and museums that display works by many of the city’s most renowned and cutting edge artists.

Though art is definitely the tour’s focus, elements of history, culture, and socioeconomics are also present, making for a comprehensive overview of what makes the city such a unique place.

Tours visit a number of neighborhoods and require a moderate amount of walking.

12. Istanbul Old City Full-Day Tour

Old Town of IstanbulSource: Boris Stroujko / shutterstock
Old Town of Istanbul

Istanbul is a dizzying array of glimmering mosques, Ottoman palaces, royal tombs, and some of the region’s most bustling and exotic bazaars.

Needless to say, for many visitors, it’s like no place else they’ve ever seen, and it really should be experienced with a knowledgeable local guide.

This full-day tour hits many of the city’s most prominent attractions like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, the Roman Hippodrome, and the Church of St. Sophia.

It’s a whirlwind experience that’s a perfect fit for those who want to pack as much value as possible into their tight vacation schedules, and it touches on many different aspects of local culture like architecture, history, and religion.

13. Dolmabahçe Palace Guided Tour with Admission

Dolmabahçe Palace in IstanbulSource: AlxYago / shutterstock
Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul

In generations long past, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire spared no expense when it came to setting themselves and their families up in the lap of luxury.

The Dolmabahçe Palace is one of the largest and most opulent royal palaces in Istanbul. This tour includes the cost of admission and the services of a local English-speaking guide.

Tours begin inside where guests will see priceless works of art, massive chandeliers, and ceiling mosaics inlaid with real gold.

Though the palace was last used as an official residence in the early 1920s, it retains much of its splendor and is one of the city’s must-visit attractions.

14. Historical Turkish Bath Experience

Çemberlitaş Hamam in IstanbulSource: myhsu / Flickr | CC BY-ND
Çemberlitaş Hamam in Istanbul

Rumor has it that the Çemberlitaş Hamam Turkish Bath has been serving customers since the end of the 16th century.

It’s conveniently located just a short walk from the city center and is the perfect place to experience a true Turkish bath experience in its most traditional form.

Another of the city’s must-experience activities, it is the perfect place to spend a relaxing few hours after a long day on your feet.

Though you may be new to the Roman-inspired bathing culture, you’ll get all the guidance you’ll need at every step along the way.

Admission, scrubbing, foaming, and towels are also included.

15. Samatya Armenian District Walking Tour

Samatya Armenian District in IstanbulSource: Kayihan Bolukbasi / shutterstock
Samatya Armenian District in Istanbul

Though it doesn’t get as much foot traffic as many of the city’s other attractions, the Samatya Armenian District is a fun and culturally significant place to explore with a local guide.

It sports an abundance of mosques and churches that feature some of the city’s most impressive architectural elements with a variety of ethnic influences.

Guests will learn about the history of Armenians in the country that stretches back more than 1,000 years, see many photo-worthy sites, and visit one of Istanbul’s largest and busiest fresh seafood markets.

Tours last about four hours and include hotel pick-up and drop off.

15 Best Istanbul Tours:

  • Hagia Sophia Skip-the-Line Ticket and Guided Tour
  • Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour
  • Bosphorus Sunset Cruise on a Luxurious Yacht
  • Istanbul Aquarium and Aqua Florya Shopping Mall Tour
  • Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
  • Lonely Planet Experiences: Istanbul Market Tour and Picnic
  • Half-Day Turkish Coffee Tour with Tasting
  • Whirling Dervishes Show at the HodjaPasha Culture Center
  • Bosphorus Cruise with Dinner and Entertainment
  • ‘Big Night Out’ 7-Hour Pub Crawl
  • Contemporary Art Walk
  • Istanbul Old City Full-Day Tour
  • Dolmabahçe Palace Guided Tour with Admission
  • Historical Turkish Bath Experience
  • Samatya Armenian District Walking Tour