The Best Istanbul Tours Led by Locals

Certain locations have that special ability to transport visitors back in time and Istanbul is one of those spots. Having spent 7 years as a high school Global history teacher, my husband is used to including a history tour or 2...or 5...on our trips.  Since the Byzantine Empire was part of my curriculum, he prepared himself for a lot of history...and happily reports that he had a blast!  Of our 5 days in Istanbul, I opted to do 3 days of tours.  Here’s the rundown of what to expect and why you may want to consider a private guide for at least part of your trip.

Hagia Sophia exterior

First, why choose SRM Travel for activity planning?

In a city as rich in history as Istanbul, I had select my points of interest carefully, and called upon a local tour company who knew the ropes.  SRM Travel customized an itinerary specific to our requests, but also helped with logistics like purchasing our tickets for historical sites ahead of time, translating when needed, and assisting with our transfer to Cappadocia.  In essence, they helped with all the finer details.  During the day, the guides showed us the must-see sites , but also made sure to give us an authentic experience by taking us to off-the-beaten-path restaurants, or simply introducing us to the local people. 

Option 1: History Tour through Istanbul

On our first day, we toured the Hippodrome (or where it used to stand), the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.  For the history lovers out there, the Hippodrome hosted gladiator fights, sporting events and was center stage of the Nika Riots during the Byzantine Era.  Although it no longer exists today, our guide enthusiastically brought the stories of the past to life.  Currently, there is a marketplace where it once stood; tourists can browse the shops and see glass blowing right in front of your eyes!

Glass blowing

Without question, the star of the show that first day was the Hagia Sophia.  In the classroom I have students read primary sources from travelers in the 6th century AD, describing how awe-struck they were to lay eyes on the church.  It had the same effect on me, 1400 years after its construction.  In a city filled with stunning buildings, the Hagia Sophia is the crown jewel.  Words will never do it justice -- just go and see it for yourself! (See interior shots below).


Our last stop was Topkapi Palacethe throne of the Ottoman Empire. This place deserves a day on its own of exploration!  I was pretty tired at this point (8 hours of touring), but I would love to return one day and take my time exploring the hidden nooks and crannies in the gigantic palace grounds.

Hagia Sophia interior
Hagia Sophia interior
Hagia Sophia interior

Option 2: Bosphorus Strait and the Local Side of Istanbul

Once you have your fill of the rich history, it’s time to see what life is like for the locals!  Did you know that Istanbul spans two continents, Europe and Asia?  The Bosphorus Strait flows in between the two sections of the city, and if you want a completely unique view of the city, make sure to book a ferry ride.


This second day started with a walking tour through the Sirkeci neighborhood, down to the Sirkeci Train Station (which was the last stop of the famed Orient Express).  We boarded a ferry, and geared up to learn more about the influence of the Bosphorus on Turkish history.  When we disembarked, our guide took us to a local spot for lunch on the water.  We explored a neighborhood called Taksim and finished the day shopping along Istiklal Street.  As a heads up-- it gets pretty crowded on this road!  Think: 5th Avenue.

Istikal Street

Option 3: Suleiman and Spices

The last day started with a tour of the Mosque of Suleiman, which was amongst my favorite highlights of the trip.  Gazing up at the geometric arabesque design inside felt like looking through a kaleidoscope.  Suleiman was one of my favorite historical subjects to teach in Global History, so it was an extra special treat to visit the mosque dedicated to him.  


The final stop included touring the various bazaars including the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.  Get ready for a busy network of alleys, shops and restaurants, and be sure to stop and smell the roses -- or taste the baklava in this case.  

Suleiman mosque
Suleiman mosque
Suleiman mosque

What would I do differently if I visited Istanbul today?

I loved all 3 tours with SRM Travel, but it's good to know that: 


  • Each of the above excursions lasted approximately 8 hours!  I was game for a full day of go-go-go, and loved experiencing both the history and local culture.  However, if you prefer a half day experience, SRM travel will customize your itinerary.


  • Next time I'd like to spend one day touring the Hagia Sophia and dedicate a separate day to the Topkapi Palace.  It was a lot to digest in one day!


  • Update 2020:  The Turkish courts recently ruled to revert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque (and no longer a museum).  As of now, tourists will still be allowed in, but further details are still pending.


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