Through the continuous lockdowns since the first day of 2021, the quality of tourist attractions in Turkey has undergone quite a significant change. During the pandemic, the open spaces became more attractive to visit for both locals and travellers. Moreover, the historical jewels also underwent some restorations which made them preserved and look even better. Now that the summer season has arrived, the ratio of vaccination is increasing, all these signs show that it is the best time to visit Turkey again. Although the list of the best places to visit in Turkey is quite long, this blog post will be concerned only with the crown of it: the city of historical capitals Istanbul. This magnificent city which faced high demand for mass tourism offers a lot to travellers with its diverse cultures and lifestyles through its manifold heritage. There are more and more things to do in Istanbul now with the creative solutions of the locals. Moreover, during the pandemic, the construction of new metro and tram lines together with new ferry rounds created more ways to discover the age-old metropolitan city. From religious masterpieces to market hubs, from ancient technologies to very popular chilling spots, here we’ll share with you some of the most iconic and popular attractions in the city in 2021. I will also give you more tips about the current situation of those tourist attractions in 2021, so you know what to do in Istanbul once you arrive here.
1. Hagia Sophia
As a symbol for the unity of religions, Hagia Sophia is a work of excellent architecture that was originally built as a church by the order of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the first in the 6th century. The mathematician and architect Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus have been specially invited by the Emperor to build this masterpiece. Its being also the symbol of power many times, it witnessed a lot of historical events during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. In 2020 with the presidential decree, its status of ‘museum’ changed into the ‘mosque’ which was also the function of it during the Ottoman period. On the 24th of July, 2020, Friday prayers were performed again in Hagia Sophia after 86 years. The visitors can enter the Hagia Sophia without an entrance fee and they have to take off their shoes to be able to wander the inner sight of it. Together with this change, the upper galleries of the building have been closed to visitors. Now one can only visit the ground floor areas. In Sunni Islam belief, there are five prayer times for a day, and visiting early morning is the best to enjoy it the most. Also, travellers should keep it in mind to cover their bodies according to Islamic rules. As for female travellers, they should cover their heads with a scarf. Hagia Sophia is one of the best places to visit in Turkey. In regards to its changing status, it will continue to be the ultimate symbol of diversity and plurality. Due to the fact that it is now a mosque, it is open to visiting during all this time in 2021.
Check our blog post ‘Istanbul Bucket List: 100 Must-Have Experiences in Istanbul here.
Related post: Hagia Sophia: Cathedral or Mosque?
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2. Grand Bazaar
Welcome to the jungle of markets. Its first construction started in 1461 by the order of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Second, the conqueror of Istanbul. However, it took a bigger shape during Suleiman the Magnificent. However, it was built wooden back then, which make it easily subject to fire and earthquake. It has 65 streets and 3600 shops in it. The streets are named after the crafts made in that street. Apart from shopping, bargaining, and searching for the best quality of things, you can also have a coffee or tea in Şark Kahvesi, a historical cafe there, or you can reserve and have traditional food in Pandeli Restaurant in there. There is a great variety of goods here that you can find and buy as souvenirs such as spices, food, dried nuts and fruits, copper crafts, carpets, golden and silver jewelry, leather products, fabric and textile products, and so on. Due to the pandemic, the great market got a bad influence and there have been some big discounts on the products during 20th March – 20th April in 2021 to create a bigger economical action in the market. Now there is restoration work in the bazaar which is predicted to be completed in summer 2022. The Bazaar is open to visitors besides the restoration. Don’t hesitate to get lost in the streets of the market, I assure you, that you will meet a lot of surprises in it!
Related post: A Guide for Istanbul Grand Bazaar’s Best Stores
3. Galata Tower
One of the top-rated tourist attractions Galata Tower was built in the 6th century by the order of Byzantine Emperor Justinianos. However it’s been rebuilt by Genoese in the 14th century, while the Galata area was a colony of Genoese people back in that time, and this is the current version that you can still see. Located in the middle of the city, on private days like Mother’s Day or the championship of a football team, a light projection can be seen over the walls of the tower. It used to function as a fire watch tower during the Ottoman period. As for travellers, this tower can function as a compass as well. You can watch its roof which is visible from many sides of the city and find your way back to the city center. In 2020 the tower underwent a restoration again and the cafe that was operating before at its rooftop got closed and now the Galata Tower freshly had the status of a museum. What can you see in Galata Tower apart from the speechless 360-degree landscape? The pieces back from the time of the three great emperorship (Roman, East Roman, and Ottoman) are exhibited here. In 2021 now it is open to visitors every day and the entrance fee is 30 Turkish Lira. Climbing and seeing the view from the top of the Galata Tower is a must among the things to do in Istanbul.
4. Blue Mosque
The Ottoman masterpiece of the 17th-century mosque borrows its name from the color of the tiles used in its interior design. The number of blue tiles is more than 21 thousand. It took 11 years to complete the mosque between 1603-1617 by the head-architect Sedefkar Mehmed Ağa during the reign of Sultan Ahmed the first. There are of course a lot of stories related to its construction such as the reason behind the 6 minarets. It is not a coincidence that it is neighboring to Hagia Sophia which represents a cultural dialogue especially during the call to prayer. This mosque is especially significant for its huge space which can accommodate approximately 10,000 people at a time. In recent years this mosque became a spot for the introduction of Islam to many travellers. Once you visit it you will see a lot of information related to Islam hanged on the walls of the mosque complex. In 2021 the mosque is going through a restoration process which started in July 2017. Due to the huge scale of the mosque complex, the duration of the restoration took quite a long time and it is predicted that the restoration will be completed in the year 2022. During this time it is open between 9 am and 19 pm. Before paying your visit to the mosque don’t forget to check the praying times because during the praying time you are not allowed to get inside if you are not going to pray. Blue Mosque is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul and excellent for anyone interested in the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire and Islam.
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5. Basilica Cistern
Built in the same period as Hagia Sophia in the 6th century by the order of the East Roman emperor Justinianos the first, this cistern is another miracle of Roman technology. This cistern which is one of the most fascinating destinations in Istanbul is still standing after a lot of earthquakes. There are 336 columns standing in the water storage and the upside-down head of the Medusa is a must-see for the visits of the cistern. This cistern was very vital for the Romans because it was preserving and storing water. During the wars especially its function became very essential however after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453, it didn’t serve as drinking water to the people anymore. It is also in the center of the old town, very close to Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Thanks to its humid nature, since November 2020, the Basilica Cistern has been closed to visitors due to the Coronavirus cases. And a restoration plan is on the way for the cistern in 2021. Once the pandemic measures decrease, the cistern will be open to the public again.
6. Maiden Tower
The golden piece of the silhouette of Istanbul, The Maiden’s Tower is the sight of legends, myths, and fairy tales. It is located on a tiny island 150-200 meters further from the seaside in the Üsküdar district at the Asian side of the city. There is no certain information about the date of its construction. However, in some sources, it is mentioned that it was constructed around 341 B.C. The current version of the building that you see is from its refurbishment in the 19th century. Due to its rare location over the Marmara Sea, it had various functions such as exile place, lighthouse, and defense tower. After the proclamation of the republic, it has served as a cultural center. Since 2000 it has functioned as a restaurant. However, not only the bad news came with the pandemic. Its function will change into a cultural center again by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The concerts and exhibitions will take place again in Maiden’s Tower. Even though it is currently suspended its activities temporarily due to the Covid-19 measures, it will become again one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
7. Topkapı Palace
Located within the center of the historical peninsula, Topkapı Palace was built in the 15th century over the place of the old East Roman Palace Complex. It has been built in 18 years and it consists of many sections and houses. Topkapı Palace was the reign in the Ottoman Empire where most of the Ottoman Sultans lived their life. Its magnificent architecture and historical significance made it one of the most popular destinations in Istanbul. On 3rd April 1924, its status was changed into the museum and now it is one of the richest museums in the world with its holy relics, treasures, jewelry, and many more. In 2021 it is open for visitors between 10 am and 16 pm and it is closed on Tuesdays. Many visitors are so happy with the fact that wandering around the palace became way more comfortable due to the absence of mass tourism. Don’t miss the chance to visit the palace in its relaxed atmosphere!
Here you can find our trip designer Ayşenur Ergin’s trip plan named Historical Peninsula Tour, purchase it to get the full itinerary.
8. The Church of St. Stephen
Located between the Ottoman Christian and Jewish neighborhoods of Fener-Balat, by the seaside of the Golden Horn, this Bulgarian church is one of the most popular churches in Istanbul and it is a must-see for all visitors. It is also known as the iron church because it was built out of cast iron which took 37 years between 1859-1896. Since the completion of its great restoration in 2018, it became one of the most visited tourist attractions during 2019. It is frequently visited by Christian travellers especially thanks to its inner decorations which take great attention both for the locals and travellers. In 2021 it is open to visitors between 8 am-17 pm and on weekends between 9 am-17 pm.
You can find this spot and many more in the Balat area trip plan by the trip designer Diana Mısır, purchase it for the full itinerary.
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9. Taksim Square
Taksim is the never-ending fashion center of the metropolitan city of Istanbul in the Beyoğlu district. This is where the heart of the city beats! 5 kilometers from the historical peninsula, this area used to be the place for the ambassadors and embassies in the 19th century. Many Christian communities used to live in this area as well. It became the western face of Istanbul where you can see the most fashionable goods and shops. It also became the center of entertainment. The cosmopolitan nature of urban life is at its peak in Taksim. Just walking through the 1 kilometer 400 meters long Istiklal street and looking at the faces of the people is even a great joy for many people. What is also very characteristic about İstiklal Street is the buskers. Here you can find crowded streets, popular restaurants, cafes, bars, and shopping centers. Although the venues are not allowed to have cultural events such as concerts, in 2021 one can see the nightlife alive here until the last minutes of the evening lockdown at 21 pm on weekdays. There are also a lot of changes here since the start of the pandemic in Turkey. One of the amazingly good news is that the symbol of the Taksim Square, Ataturk Cultural Center’s long-lasting reconstruction is almost completed and it might open in 2021. There it will be possible to see theatre, ballet, and opera events. Also, the construction of the Taksim Mosque which is at the opposite side of the Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox Church is opening in May 2021. There are a lot of new spots around Taksim Square that are continuing to pop up. Don’t forget to also support the local shops which had a difficult time during the pandemic.
Check this amazing Beyoğlu area trip plan by the trip designer Eda Sökmen, purchase the plan to get all detailed information through your route.
10. Pierre Loti Hill
Now it is time to climb to the high hills and enjoy the clean air and amazing panoramic view of the Golden Horn all together in the Eyup district. Pierre Loti is the name of the hill in Eyup which is known to be a religious district due to the significant shrine of Eyup Al-Ansari. He is also the origin of the district’s name. Why having a French name in a Muslim neighborhood, you might think. This is the charm of the cosmopolitan nature of the centuries-long history of emperorships. Pierre Loti became the center of meetings and encounters for lovers. Its historical tea garden and the top hill have an amazing aura that one can desire to stay for hours long. Having Turkish tea at the cafe on Pierre Loti Hill is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. Especially during the pandemic, it is highly recommended that you visit the place early in the morning so that you don’t meet the crowd which is the result of the inevitable popularity of the spot. There are two options to get to the hill. It is a great adventure to get on the air funicular and feel the awe while seeing the great Eyup graveyard on the land; however, if you are interested in staying in the open air, you can also climb down the hill.
Related Post: Best Viewpoints in Istanbul
11. Rumeli Fortress
Located in Sarıyer district, by the seaside, this sight is one of the best places in Istanbul to feel the history. Due to the fact that it is a historical area at a relatively far distance from the historical peninsula, almost 17 kilometers away from Sultanahmet Square, it is far more preserved and even the soil there feels ancient. This fortress was built only four months before the conquest of Istanbul in 1452. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was a very intelligent leader and he ordered this fortress to be built to be able to prevent attacks and block aids coming from the north side of Bosphorus to the East Roman Empire. It is amazing to imagine the past through the great gates and towers. Here if you climb high enough, you can also have one of the best views of Istanbul. During the pandemic, a restoration phase also started in the Rumeli Fortress. This fortress is in museum status and the entrance fee is 30 Turkish lira and in 2021 it is open for visitors every day except Monday. Don’t miss this chance to experience the real feeling of the past and the witness of the struggle to capture the amazing Istanbul.
12. Gülhane Park
Near the Topkapı Palace, Gülhane Park is a rare green area in the middle of urban life. It is difficult to find the right spot to chill in the very crowded European side of Istanbul. Here comes the Gulhane Garden into the plan. It is not just a random garden, it was historically a leisure place during the Ottoman period as well. Here the poets walked and felt emotional. The lovers flirted and more crucially here the edict of reforms was proclaimed in 1839, which created equalization of all Ottoman citizens. So this garden became a symbol of equality, human rights, and modernization back in that time. Now locals are mostly here to relax in between their historical peninsula excursions, enjoy with their kids or meeting their lovers and have some quiet moments to digest the beauty and the history in general.
If you are interested to make a trip through the historical peninsula, this self-guided plan designed by the trip designer Ayşenur Ergin is just for you. Purchase it to unlock the names of the locations and spots.
13. Kadıköy Moda Coast
Here is one of the most popular sights on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is worth it to take a ferry and arrive in Kadıköy district to get to the Moda Coast. It is where the beauty of Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, and the green meets. Here locals come to chill and relax, have conversations, do sports, and enjoy the view. Especially after the pandemic this spot became even more visited than before because this coast became an essential spot for people to meet and enjoy their time securely in the open air. Considering the fact that many cafes were closed for a long while, Moda Coast was just like an open cafe for everyone during the lockdown. One of the best things to do is sitting down on the rocks by the sea and watching the horizon. In 2021 this spot is still very rich in terms of social gatherings and so. All of these destinations should be on every list of must-see places in İstanbul.
If you are interested in a full-day itinerary through the Kadıköy district, check this plan from the trip designer Alt Watmough: Exploring Chalcedon and purchase it to get the full information about the locations.
You can also view our Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Istanbul
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I’m a detail hunter born and raised in the cosmopolitan nature of Istanbul, I love traveling and discovering the plurality of languages and cultures. For me, traveling is one of the best ways to awaken one’s third eye.