The top free things to do in Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s positively bursting with art, culture, history and beauty. A big part of the city’s appeal is that it’s accessible to all, whether you have a wallet bursting with cash or you’re a traveller on a budget.
Here we we outline the very best free attractions in the city.
GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS
Every Thursday, modern art aficionados can gain free entry to the incredible Istanbul Modern - one of the best things to see in Istanbul. Take in the huge photography gallery, cinema hall and media art centre. This is cutting edge modern art at its finest, housed in a big two-storey renovated warehouse.
Location: Meclis-i Mebusan Cd, Karakoy
Museum of Energy
The superb Museum of Energy takes you back in time to the beginnings of electricity. The Energy Play Zone allows visitors to get in touch with their inner child, building magnetic sculptures, generate their own electricity and more.
Located in the new SantralIstanbul culture complex, Kazim Karabekir Cad. No:2, Eyup
Museum of Painting and Sculpture
Showing the works of 19th and 20th century Turkish artists, the Museum of Painting and Sculpture is Turkey’s first fine arts museum. it was founded in 1937 and since then has collected works by renowned artists like Osman Hamdi Bey, Bedri Rahmi, and Seker Ahmet Pasa, as well as pieces from international artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Location: Hayrettin Pasa Iskelesi Sok, Besiktas
if you’d like to know more about the birth of a nation, head to the former home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Sisli. The pink three-storey house is full of exhibits and information, and contains fascinating personal items that tell a story about one of the most famous Turks in history.
Location: Halaskargazi Caddesi No: 250 Sisli
Florence Nightingale Museum
it takes a bit of effort to gain entry to the museum celebrating the world’s most famous nurse. You’ll need to call ahead and send your passport details and time of arrival to gain permission from the Selimiye army who stand guard. But the effort is certainly worthwhile. The museum is located in the former hospital where Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses treated the Crimean War wounded. Make sure you walk up the winding narrow staircase in the corner tower to see the bedroom where it’s thought Nightingale slept.
Location: Birinci Ordu Komutanligi, Selimiye Kislasi
Ortakoy’s Sunday market is a feast of crafts, culture and food. Wander along the narrow, cobbled streets, get your portrait painted and sample some of the best street food in the city at the food market underneath the Bosporus bridge.
This exotic food market offers a wide range of herbs, spices and dried fruits and nuts. Health shops offer all kinds of lotions and potions, from anti-cellulite creams to herbal teas. Even better, it’s a great spot for people watching and taking in the sights and sounds - and smells, of course - of a busy city market. Location: Rustem Pasa Mahallesi
The Grand Bazaar
Surely one of the most famous markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a bewildering mix of fine jewellery, antiques, lush carpets and tourist tat. Haggle for a bargain or just take in the crowds and sights and sounds of this enormous market.
MOSQUES AND CHURCHES
Standing like a sentry on a hilltop near Istanbul University, Suleymaniye Mosque’s Ottoman architecture and skyline views have been attracting visitors for centuries. The 16th century mosque is one of the largest in the city, and has an incredible 53-metre high, 27-metre wide dome. Stroll around the gardens and enjoy the architecture and the Ottoman setting.
Location: Suleymaniye Mh., 34116 Fatih
The official name of this most famous mosque is Sultanahmet Mosque, but its better known moniker comes from the blue tiles that adorn the interior. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet i in the early 17th century, it was one of the last mosques in the city to be built in the classical Ottoman style. its six minarets caused quite the stir at the time - signifying as they did an ostentatious wealth and power reserved for the Prophet’s mosque. The mosque offers a fascinating, beautiful look at Istanbul’s history. Make sure you take the time to explore the garden at the mosque’s base.
Location: Sultan Ahmet Mh., Torun Sk No:19
Smaller churches and mosques
Visit Eminonu’s tiny, colourful Rustem Pasa Camii, and the hilltop Suleymaniye Camii in Fatih, recently reopened after a long renovation. There are many churches also worth a look: St Anthony of Padua Cathedral on Istiklal Caddesi has masses in English each day, and the Bulgarian St Stephen’s Church on the Golden Horn is a striking pre-fabricated cast-iron structure. There are mosques available to visit - such as the Ahrida Synagogue - but you’ll need to make an appointment for security reasons.
CULTURE AND HISTORY
Topkapi Palace was the seat of the Ottoman Empire between the 1470s and the 1850s. During this time it grew from a simple residence to a huge structure that included military barracks, a council chamber, large gardens and even a harem. The spectacular palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is well worth a visit. Explore the many nooks and crannies and pore over the spoils of an empire: fine porcelain, weaponry, armour, ancient manuscripts and jewellery.
The biggest of the several hundred ancient cisterns located beneath Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern dates back to the sixth century and the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian i, when it was used to store up to 100,000 tonnes of water for the city. The cistern has two Medusa heads at the base of two of its columns. You might recognise the location - a scene from the 1963 Bond film From Russia With Love was filmed here.
Location: Sultanahmet Square
This imposing tower is located at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus on the Asian side. It was completed at the end of the 14th century, in preparation for the second siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1395. It was used to control and monitor traffic going in and out of the strait. The 25 metre high tower is now an open air museum and is well worth exploring.
Location: Anadolu Hisari Mh., 34810 Beykoz
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Blow away the cobwebs with a walk along the narrow Bosphorus waterway. On one side of you: Ottoman palaces and waterside mansions; on the other, the oil tankers, cargo ships and other vessels that travel through the waterway each day. The best stretch for walking is on the European side, from the waterfront village of Ortakoy to the striking 15th century Ottoman fortress of Rumelihisar. Walking north will take you to Arnavutkoy and Bebek, where there are beautiful promenades and mansions. Above Bebek there is a lovely park, a great spot for a picnic and a little dolphin spotting.
Kilyos’s golden sands are located about 35 kilometres from the city centre. The nice beach with its sea breezes mean it’s a popular escape from the heat of the city. You can enjoy beach activities like sailing and beach volleyball, as well as eating and drinking at the restaurants and bars along the shore. Be careful: waves can be big and currents strong at the beach. Burc Beach is owned by a university alumni association, but visitors are welcome. The beach is small but the village has a decent number of shops and restaurants - as well as clubs. Caddebostan’s beach is almost a kilometre long, and is probably the best of the Marmara Sea beaches. The beach is packed during the school holidays, and there are lots of umbrellas, lifeguard towers, deckchairs, changing areas and restaurants for visitor convenience. Forty kilometres from Istanbul on the Black Sea coast, Riva is a peaceful beach resort well worth a visit, and is striking due to the remains of Riva Castle, overlooking the beach. Nearby Sile is also an alternative for those seeking some tranquility. The former Greek colony has a number of small restaurants.
Each April, three million tulips bloom around Istanbul’s parks in a dazzling array of colours. if you’re in Istanbul at this time head to Emirgan Park, the centre of the international Istanbul Tulip Festival to enjoy concerts and performances. Gulhane Park was once part of the Topkapi Palace’s royal gardens, but became Istanbul’s first public park in 1912. The leafy park is popular, thanks to its free summer concerts. Yildiz Park, once part of the Yildiz Palace, has amazing Bosphorus views and outdoor fitness areas, free of charge. There are also porcelain workshops here, built in the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid ii, that are open to the public.
Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (iKSV)
Leyla Gencer is a household name in Turkey and italy. The soprano, who was born in Istanbul in 1928, sang in a wide variety of roles over four decades. The IKSV has now recreated “La Diva Turca”’s Milan residence on its second floor. it’s open Wednesday through Saturday, and visitors can examine Gencer’s piano, library, awards, costumes and learn a bit about the star diva. it’s free to enter but you’ll need to make a reservation.
Location: Nejat Eczacibasi Binasi, Sadi Konuralp Caddesi, No: 5, Sishane
Tunel is Istanbul’s music heart. Start from the square and wander around the streets - you’ll hear music floating out of cafes and music stores, and see street performances. During the summer months you can hear barrel organ music, which is experiencing a revival in the area. Tunel is also the centre of the International Jazz Festival (see below).
Location: Tunel Square, Istiklal Caddesi
There are two annual jazz festivals in Istanbul. The International Istanbul Jazz Festival has been around for over 20 years and turns Tunal’s alleys and cafes into a free open air music event. Museums and Parks around the city also host events during the three-week July festival that gives festival-goers the chance to hear local and international acts. The smaller, more intimate Akbank International Jazz Festival is held in late September and October. While a lot of concerts do require tickets, there are free workshops offered.
Istanbul has long been a centre for film aficionados, and the many festivals throughout the year certainly reflect this. The Mountain Film Festival is a week-long festival at the end of March, featuring exhibitions, seminars and lots and lots of films on diving, mountaineering, rock climbing, base jumping and other such sports. All screenings are free. The Istanbul Film Festival in the spring is a two-week festival that hosts filmmakers all over the world. Visitors can attend free panel discussions and master classes, although you’ll need to register. The Istanbul International Short Film Festival is a week of short film screenings throughout Istanbul in November. Around 12,000 people attend the free screenings. All of the films have English subtitles.