With its lively streets layered with history, just walking around Istanbul is an attraction in itself. You can feast on street food for pocket change or visit the city’s marvelous mosques, markets and parks for no cost at all.
Here are the best free things to see and do in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis.
Explore the world in comfort with the latest travel insight from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Reconsecrated as a mosque in 2020, Aya Sofya is now free to visit © DANNY HU / Getty Images
1. Step inside the Byzantine basilica of Aya Sofya
One of the grandest buildings of the ancient world, the Byzantine basilica of Aya Sofya has been free for visitors to enter since its reconsecration as a mosque in summer of 2020. Its towering dome was the second-largest in the world when it was built in the 6th century and still inspires awe, with light filtering through its 40 windows to cast an ethereal glow on the building’s rich frescos, mosaics and multicolored marble.
Istanbul’s many Ottoman-era mosques, including Süleymaniye Mosque, are all free to visit © Darkdiamond67 / Getty Images
2. Head up to the elegant Süleymaniye Mosque
Splendid Ottoman-era mosques, all free to visit, top the historic seven hills of Istanbul’s Old City and adorn many streets. The elegant Süleymaniye Mosque is the finest of them all, with a grand complex of buildings around it and an impressive perch overlooking the Golden Horn.
3. Visit the intimate Rüstem Paşa Mosque
Tucked away in the bustling market streets of Eminönü, the intimate Rüstem Paşa Mosque boasts wonderfully rich tile work. As with all mosques, non-worshippers should avoid going inside at prayer times, which are displayed near the entrance. All visitors must dress modestly, and women must cover their heads.
4. Take a picnic to Gülhane Park
Two favorite local pastimes are picnicking and promenading, and there are some lovely parks and gardens in Istanbul open to the public. With its stately old trees and winding paths, Gülhane Park – once part of the Topkapı Palace gardens – is particularly beautiful.
5. See the 4th-century Aqueduct of Valens
The 4th-century Aqueduct of Valens once carried water into Istanbul and is still an impressive sight, towering over a multi-lane roadway. The Women’s Bazaar that sits in its shadow is a colorful neighborhood square lined with popular kebab restaurants.
6. Meander around the Grand Bazaar
Often referred to as the world’s oldest mall, the Grand Bazaar sprawls over 61 covered and maze-like streets. The best exploring is in the crumbling hans (caravanserais) along its fringes, where a few artisans still ply their long-practiced trades.
You’ll find more souvenirs than spices today in the Mısır Çarşısı © Izzet Keribar / Getty Images
7. Shop for souvenirs and snacks around the Spice Bazaar
You’ll find more souvenirs than spices today in the Mısır Çarşısı, better known in English as the Spice Bazaar, but the streets around this Ottoman-era marketplace in Eminönü are a great place to get a taste of the vibrant local shopping life.
Along the bazaar, outdoor stalls are piled high with dried fruits, nuts and other edible goodies in case you need fuel before plunging into the maze of streets and hans behind it, full of shoppers buying everything from clothes to kitchenware.
8. Check out traditional and organic street markets
Traditional weekly street markets retain a loyal following, despite the proliferation of modern malls and grocery stores. The Wednesday Market in Fatih, which tumbles through the streets surrounding the Fatih Mosque, is among the biggest and best. On Saturdays, head to Feriköy for Turkey’s first organic bazaar.
9. Snap a few photos at the Kadıköy Produce Market
A stroll through the Kadıköy Produce Market, a lively strip of mostly open-air shops near the ferry port, makes for great photographic opportunities, with its colorful, carefully arranged displays of olives, produce, dried fruit and nuts, fish, cheese, pickles and more.
Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars is one of the most architecturally unique sites in Istanbul © Caner CIFTCI / Getty Images
10. See the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars
Istanbul has a number of still-functioning Christian churches, many with great historical significance. Perhaps the most distinctive is the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars, assembled from 500 tons of cast-iron pieces shipped in from Vienna along the Danube on dozens of barges. A restoration completed in 2018 has this cross-shaped basilica and its ornate interior gleaming.
11. Marvel at the Hünkâr Kasrı, a pavilion fit for a sultan
This private pavilion used by the sultan during his visits to the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) is resplendent with tiles, carpets, inlaid wood and stained glass. Access to the Hünkâr Kasrı is through a long enclosed ramp behind the mosque.
12. Take in an exhibit at the Pera Museum
Well-curated temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and a fine collection of Orientalist paintings by European and Ottoman artists are the draws at the Pera Museum, which offers free admission every Friday between 6pm and 10pm.
Eyüp Sultan Mosque is one of the most sacred sites in Istanbul © Sanatkar / Getty Images
13. Make a pilgrimage to Eyüp Sultan Mosque
One of the most sacred sites in the city, Eyüp Sultan Mosque is surrounded by grand tomb complexes and a leafy cemetery stretching up the hillside, affording fine views of the Golden Horn from the top. The mosque complex is said to be the burial place of Ebu Eyüp El Ensari, a close companion of the Prophet, making it an important pilgrimage spot for Muslims.
14. Attend an event at a SALT cultural center
Housed in the beautifully restored former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, SALT Galata is a cultural center and library that hosts exhibitions and special events, including free talks and film screenings that are sometimes held in English. Its sister institution up the hill, SALT Beyoğlu, has similar programming and is worth a visit too.
15. Soak up the scene at Beyoğlu’s art galleries
Istanbul’s vibrant contemporary art scene is on display throughout the Beyoğlu district, particularly around İstiklal Caddesi and in the Karaköy, Tophane and Tomtom neighborhoods.
You could easily spend half a day perusing a range of intriguing galleries and other exhibition spaces – including Meşher, Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat, Akbank Art, Depo, Galerist and Mixer – whose rotating shows can be visited for free.
Enjoy a picnic or a leisurely stroll through Yıldız Park © Runoman / Getty Images
16. Stroll along the well-kept paths of Yıldız Park
Well-kept paths, plenty of trees and some charming Ottoman-era mansions make hilly Yıldız Park in Beşiktaş a lovely place for a picnic or a stroll. There’s a stellar view of the city by the path leading down from the historic Çadır Köşkü, now serving as a restaurant.
17. See another side of the city’s history at the İstanbul Arastırmaları Enstitüsü
From urban planning to street animals, the Istanbul Research Institute presents different, often lesser-known aspects of the city’s history through exhibitions that draw on its rich archival collection of photographs and documents.
18. Learn something new at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations
One of the country’s top higher-education institutes, Koç University supports research into the history, art, architecture and archaeology of the centuries of civilizations that have called today’s Turkey home. Some of the fruits of this research are regularly displayed in exhibitions at the Koç University Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations on İstiklal Caddesi.
19. Get a peek at early 20th-century upper-class life at the Aşiyan Museum
The sweeping panorama of the Bosporus may be its most eye-popping feature, but the Aşiyan Museum also offers a glimpse into early 20th-century upper-class life in Istanbul. Full of vintage furniture and photographs, this sweet little house-museum was once home to noted poet Tevfik Fikret.
20. See the tulips in bloom at Emirgan Park
Above the shores of the Bosphorus, pretty Emirgan Park (Emirgan Korusu) is especially lovely during the Istanbul Tulip Festival each April, when millions of bulbs planted around the city bloom in a riot of colors. The park has play and picnic areas, a jogging track and three Ottoman mansions-turned-cafes. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos.
21. Head downstairs to see the Nakilbent Sarnıcı
Underground cisterns for water storage that date back to Byzantine times are dotted around Sultanahmet. The Nakilbent Sarnıcı (Nakilbent Cistern) was rediscovered during the building process for the Nakkaş carpet store and preserved underneath the shop for any visitors to see. The Binbirdirek Sarnıcı (Cistern of Philoxenos) on the opposite side of the Hippodrome is occasionally open for exhibitions and other events.
Historic landmarks dot the Byzantines’ ancient Hippodrome in Istanbul © IgorZh / Shutterstock
22. Wander through Sultanahmet’s historic Hippodrome
Not much remains of the Byzantines’ old chariot-racing venue, but the historic Hippodrome in Sultanahmet is still an evocative place to take a stroll. From the southeastern corner of the Hippodrome, follow Nakilbent Sokak as it winds down to see the towering remains of the Sphendone. This semicircular end of the ancient stadium gives a real sense of how massive this structure once was.
23. Go for a run or just chill out in Maçka Park
Though less historic than some of the central city’s other green spaces, Maçka Park in Şişli is a favorite place for locals to while away a sunny weekend afternoon, with children’s play areas, a dog park and a small jogging track.
24. Gain insight into the Turkish bath tradition at the Turkish Hamam Culture Museum
You won’t get a scrub, but you will get an insight into the hammam (Turkish bath) tradition at the Turkish Hamam Culture Museum, where bathing accessories and depictions of the ritual are displayed in the restored chambers of an early-16th-century bath.
25. Spend some quiet time at the Beyazıt State Library
The oldest and largest library in Istanbul, the architecturally impressive Beyazıt State Library is worth a peek for its multi-domed reading room and artful restoration blending old and new.