39 unmissable things to do in Istanbul

The definitive guide to the essential sights, activities, shopping, restaurants and nightlife in Istanbul

By Time Out Istanbul editors

November 2019: The glorious Istanbul continues to fascinate visitors and locals alike with its vibrancy and great variety. May it be in arts & culture, eating & drinking, shopping or sports there is always something new in Istanbul for everyone and every taste. A new must-see addition for art lovers is Arter that moved to its new and much bigger home and is currently showing 7 exhibitions simultaneously. For food lovers the return of a legendary Istanbul classic, Pandeli has entered our list, and for football fans there is the highly anticipated UEFA Champions League Final 2020 that will take place at The Atatürk Olympic Stadium on May 30, 2020.    

We invite you to discover Istanbul with our list of the best things to do on both the European and Asian sides of the city, including our pick of the must-see attractions and museums in the historical peninsula. As well Istanbul’s most important landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we've included plenty of activities off the tourist trail, giving you the low-down on digging for antiques in hip Bomonti or watching an opera in Kadıköy, which we have named one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world. From tasting the forgotten delights of Anatolian cuisine to getting a deluxe scrub inside a historic hamam, here's what not to miss in Istanbul.

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You can also find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world, or take a look at our list of the 50 best things to do in the world right now.

Best things to do in Istanbul

1. Marvel at the lofty dome of the Hagia Sophia

Museums Fatih

What is it? Completed in the 6th century on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a millennium until the completion of Seville Cathedral in 1520. Before being converted into a mosque in the 15th century and later into a museum in 1935, Hagia Sophia served as the centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Why go? The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul's most popular and iconic historic sites – and for good reason: its massive, transcendent dome is breathtaking and can easily be gazed at for hours. Considered to be an architectural marvel even today, its walls are adorned by Byzantine mosaics featuring feature portaits of bygone emperors and representations of Christ.

Don't miss: The are two runic inscriptions engraved into the marble parapets on the top floor gallery, thought to have been graffitied there by the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors during the Viking Age.

2. Wander inside the Topkapı Palace

Museums Fatih

What is it? Looming over the point where the Golden Horn meets the Marmara Sea, Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for more than four centuries.

Why go?: Among the gems of the historic peninsula, Topkapı's extensive rooms, chamber houses and fascinating objects, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, make the museum a must-see.

Don't miss: In addition to its extensive and illustrious permanent collections of weaponry, precious jewels and religious artifacts, it is a also home to a rotating cast of temporary exhibitions.


3. Be mesmerized by the tiles inside the Blue Mosque

Attractions Religious buildings and sites Fatih

What is it? The Sultanahmet Mosque, or better known as the Blue Mosque due to the prominent color of its majestic interior, is a historic mosque built in the early 17th century during the reign of Ahmed I. 

Why go? Among the city's most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque's interior walls are adorned with over 20.000 hand-painted blue tiles, which are bathed in natural light filtering in from more than 200 windows – a dazzling sight to behold. Note that the Blue Mosque is still a functional mosque and visiting is forbidden during prayer times.

Don't miss: The iron chain hanging over the central entrance to the courtyard was supposedly put in place to remind the sultan to lower his head in humility each time he entered the grounds on horseback.

4. Travel back in time to Byzantium at the Basilica Cistern

Attractions Historic buildings and sites Fatih

What is it? One of Istanbul's most intriguing attractions, the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı as it's known in Turkish, was built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century to store up to 80,000m3 of water and channel it to nearby palaces.

Why go? Featuring hundreds of ancient Ionic and Corinthian columns, the cistern is a relic of the Byzantine Empire's water system that visitors can explore first-hand. The cool and dark underground complex is also a great way to escape the summer heat.

Don't miss: The cistern features two column bases of unknown origin emblazoned with the upside-down head of Medusa, leaving bewildered visitors to speculate why they were situated that way.


5. Brush up on your ancient history at the Archaeology Museum

Museums Fatih

What is it? Established in the late 19th century as Turkey's first museum, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is divided into three sections: Archaeology, Ancient Orient and Islamic Art.

Why go? A sojourn through Istanbul's old city is not complete without a visit here and to say its treasure trove of relics is well-stocked would be an understatement: the musuem holds a large collection of Ancient Greek, Roman and Turkish artefacts, as well as objects discovered in the Balkans, Africa, Mesopotamia and the Middle East. 

Don't miss: Make sure to come right as it opens, because a full day is necessary to explore its vast collection.

6. Admire the blooming tulips at Gülhane Park

Attractions Parks and gardens Fatih

What is it? Located next to the Topkapı Palace on the tip of Istanbul's historic peninsula, Gülhane Park is one of the city's biggest and most beautiful parks.

Why go? A popular destination on the weekends among local families, the park is a sanctuary in the crowded, dense old city.

Don't miss: Thousands of tulips bloom in the park during springtime.


7. Put your bargaining hat on at the Grand Bazaar

Shopping Fatih

What is it? Among the world's oldest and largest covered markets, the Grand Bazaar features thousands of shops spread across dozens of streets.

Why go? It's a worthy destination even for those not planning on buying anything, as the historic atmosphere of the widespread complex is its true appeal.

Don't miss: If you're planning on making purchases, be sure to bargain and show no mercy.

8. Shop for spices and souvenirs at the Spice Bazaar

Shopping Specialist food and drink Fatih

What is it? Smaller than the nearby Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, was built in the 16th century and features rows of stalls selling spices, sweets, tea varieties, dried fruits and other goods.

Why go? A great place to shop for spices, Turkish delights and other souvenirs, the Spice Bazzar is also a visual experience as the spice vendors prominently display their colorful wares in large, pyramid-like mounds.

Don't miss: Herbal remedies abound in the bazaar and you'll find spices or edible seeds allegedly good for things like memory, immunity, digestion and general well-being. We'll let you be the judge of what's known as Turkish Viagra, which is in fact dried quince stuffed with walnuts.


9. Scarf down a balık ekmek on the go at Eminönü

Restaurants Street food Fatih

What is it? Balık ekmek (fish sandwich) is one of Istanbul's most iconic street foods and a great meal for any time of day – granted not ideal for breakfast.

Why go? Though the fish unfortunately not longer comes from the Bosphorus (it has been imported from Norway for years), enjoying a balık ekmek cooked on a rocking boat in the Eminönü shore remains an Istanbul institution and a beloved weekend activity of families coming from all over the city.

Don't miss: You might be tempted to sit down at any one of the restaurants below the Galata Bridge to feast on these tasty sandwiches, but nothing beats tucking into a balık ekmek on the go as you soak up views of the Bosphorus.

10. Snack on classic candy at Altan Şekerleme

Shopping Chocolate and sweets Fatih

What is it? Opened in 1865, this classic candy shop is a blast from the past and a relic in a city that is changing by the minute.

Why go? This shop has been in the same family's hands since the very beginning and features a variety of age-old sweets that are hard to come by these days in Istanbul. While there are lots of lousy variations of Turkish delight to be found in Istanbul, Altan Şekerleme makes the real deal. 

Don't miss: If Turkish delight isn't your thing, then try their other speciality akide şekeri, a homemade rock candy. 


11. Pause for a moment of reflection at St. Antoine Church

Attractions Religious buildings and sites İstiklal Caddesi

What is it? The largest and most prominent Catholic church in Istanbul, the majestic St. Antoine on Istiklal Caddesi was built between 1906 and 1912 in the Venetian Neo-Gothic style.

Why go? St Antoine offers masses throughout the week in English, Turkish, Polish and Italian, and is a nice place to pop in for a moment of silent reflection after spending the morning traversing the crowded Beyoğlu district.

Don't miss: Before being elected as pope, Pope John XXIII preached at St. Antoine for a number of years when he served as Vatican's apostolic delegate to Turkey. He is commemorated by a statue located in the courtyard.

12. Pandeli

Restaurants Turkish Fatih

Around the turn of the century, Pandeli, the son of a Greek shepherd from Niğde, moved to Istanbul and started what was to become a legendary culinary career. After working odd jobs as a dishwasher and a barber’s apprentice, Pandeli began selling piyaz (bean and onion salad) and köfte (meatballs) in the vicinity of where he would later open his eponymous restaurant. After half a century of operating eateries across Istanbul, Pandeli opened his current restaurant on the upper floor above the entrance of the Spice Bazaar, a location allocated to him by order of the state after his previous restaurant was looted during the 6-7 September pogrom of 1955. Hardships have always been part of Pandeli’s saga and the legendary restaurant closed down in 2016 due to financial difficulties. Now, thanks to new investors, the Istanbul icon has once again opened its doors and is looking as good as ever with Abdullah Sevim, its chef of 20 years, back in the kitchen. Pandeli’s hünkar beğendi, slow-cooked lamb served on a bed of charred eggplant puree, remains unparalleled, and the famous eggplant pie served with a leaf of döner kebap on top is still one of our favourite dishes in the city. Round it off with the oven-baked quince, which comes slathered with thick syrup and clotted Buffalo cream. As Pandeli is closed for dinner, stop by for lunch before or after visiting the historical peninsula. Pandeli is only open until 18:30 and no alcohol is served.


13. Eat classic Russian fare at 1924

Restaurants Russian İstiklal Caddesi

What is it? Picking up where the iconic Russian restaurant Rejans left off when it shut down following its 80-year run here, 1924 is an eatery that combines the old and the new, paying tribute to its precursor without completely relying on the past.

Why go? You can't go wrong with classic Russian dishes like borscht soup, beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev and pelmeni dumplings. Round it off with delights from the desserts menu like the chestnut cream profiterole or the moreish honey layered cake. 1924 is a place to visit for its historic feel as well as its good food. 

Don't miss: 1924's homemade vodkas make for a great apéritif or digestif and the lemon infused variety is particularly good. If you're feeling adventurous, try the salmon vodka – certainly not for the faint of heart.

14. Stroll through Çiçek Pasajı

Attractions Historic buildings and sites İstiklal Caddesi

What is it? Built in 1876, Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) is easily one of Istanbul's most beautiful arcades.

Why go? Its gorgeous interior is worth a stroll through, even while the waiters valiantly attempt to shuffle you into the beer halls and meyhanes lined along the sides.

Don't miss: Though the Beyoğlu area offers much better dining spots, the beautiful setting of Çiçek Pasajı makes its worth it to sit down and enjoy a beer with some french fries while soaking in the nostalgia.


15. Be entranced by whirling dervishes at the Galata Mevlevi Lodge

Museums Galata

What is it? The oldest tekke (lodge) in Istanbul to house members of the Mevlevi order, the adherents of Sufism, this 15th century building was converted into a museum in 1975 and remains an important cornerstore of Sufi culture. 

Why go? A treasure trove of artifacts are on display at the museum, including musical instruments, calligraphy, Mevlevi clothing and accessories, though its prime draw is the weekly sema (whirling dervish) ceremony that entrances large numbers of visitors every Sunday at 17:00.

Don't miss: Tickets can be acquired at the door or on online from Biletix. Since the performances are open seating, arrive early to secure a front seat. The Lodge also occasionally hosts Ottoman classical music concerts.

16. Get nostalgic at the Museum of Innocence

Museums Çukurcuma

What is it? Inspired by renowned novelist Orhan Pamuk's novel of the same name, the Museum of Innocence is nestled in the picturesque quarter of Çukurcuma, where much of the book transpires.

Why go? The winner of the European Museum of the Year Award in 2014, the Museum of Innocence is a must-see for readers of the book as well as anyone interested in the cultural and material history of Istanbul. The countless number of household objects and photographs displayed in the museum are connected to the bittersweet love story that unfolds in the novel.

Don't miss: Note that the ticket printed in the closing pages of the novel can be stamped at the ticket booth in exchange for an entrance to the museum.

Anthony Cragg

17. See contemporary art at Istanbul Modern

Museums Art and design Şişhane

What is it? Founded in 2004 as Turkey’s first museum of modern and contemporary art, Istanbul Modern was forced to move to a smaller, temporary location in Beyoğlu earlier this year due to ongoing construction work in Karaköy.

Why go? While its temporary home is a far cry from its original seafront location, Istanbul Modern still continues to host cutting-edge exhibitions by artists from Turkey and abroad as well as those curated from its permanent collection. 

Don't miss: The in-house cinema regularly screens independent films programmed around ongoing exhibitions, contemporary directors and stand-alone events.

BarisAras & ElifCakirlar

18. A New Start for Arter


STATE OF THE ART  EARLIER THIS YEAR, Arter left the historic building it had occupied on Istiklal Caddesi since 2010, where it presented some of the most ambitious exhibitions in the city, with past solo shows by Mona Hatoum, Marc Quinn and the Chapman Brothers. With its new home in Dolapdere, which will be unveiled to the public on September 13, Arter is set to become a fully fledged contemporary art museum complete with performance halls, learning areas, a library, a conservation laboratory, an arts bookstore, a café, a sculpture terrace, and six exhibition galleries spread out over six floors. Londonbased firm Grimshaw Architects have designed the lofty edifice, which boasts 18,000 square meters of indoor area characterised by open spaces, high ceilings, and window-clad facades designed with the purpose of reaching out to its blue-collar neighbours. An initiative of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, a major patron of the arts, Arter will also host performances and events across disciplines in its new location. The Foundation will repurpose Arter’s old building as a new arts and cultural institution named Meşher, meaning “exhibition space” in Ottoman Turkish, set to open concurrently with the museum in Dolapdere.   SEVEN EXHIBITIONS THE NEWS OF ARTER’S ARRIVAL has already led to a frenzy of art-related activity in Dolapdere; the galleries Dirimart, Pilevneli and Evliyagil set up shop here while construction for Istanbul’s new landmark was underway. A definite new addition to th


19. Listen to live jazz at Nardis

Music Jazz Galata

What is it? Known to be perhaps the go-to jazz bar in Istanbul, Nardis is situated at the foot of the Galata Tower.

Why go? Nardis features live jazz music from local and international acts practically every night and is a must for visiting jazz enthusiasts.

Don't miss: Nardis is a pretty intimate spot with a capacity of 120, so make sure you call them up in advance to reserve a table.

20. Hop on the Tünel, the second oldest underground train in the world

Travel Train stations Tünel

What is it? The funicular between Karaköy and Tünel Square opened in 1875 as a means of allowing the traders and merchants in the area a faster way of commuting up and down the steep hill.

Why go? Bearing the distinction of being the oldest underground train in the world after the London Underground, the Tünel still operates today and is a popular way of reaching Beyoğlu for those alighting at the nearby Karaköy Pier.

Don't miss: The commute takes approximately 90 seconds and trains run every 5 minutes.


21. Have a night out at Bomontiada

Things to do Şişli

What is it? One of the buzziest spots on the European side of town, the ambitious Bomontiada complex is home to the iconic music venue Babylon, multi-disciplinary art space Alt, Leica Store and Gallery, the Ara Güler Museum and five different restaurants.

Why go? Bomontiada's opening inside the old and long-abandoned Bomonti beer factory has singlehandedly transformed the sleepy neighbourhoods of Bomonti and Kurtuluş, prompting a flurry of creative activity and new openings in the area.

Don't miss: Free outdoor concerts and film screenings take place in Bomontiada's breezy courtyard during the warmer months.

22. Go to a concert at Salon IKSV

Music Music venues Şişhane

What is it? Maintained by the Istanbul Arts and Culture Foundation (İKSV), Salon is a music venue housed in the beautiful Nejat Eczacıbaşı building in the Şişhane quarter of Beyoğlu.

Why go? Consistently featuring some of the best international bookings in the city, Salon's calendar is jam-packed with the hottest names in jazz, rock, alternative, classical, experimental and world music. 

Don't miss: The expansive upper floor provides an underrated vantage point from which groups can be watched in comfort.


23. Tuck into a profiterole at İnci Pastanesi

Restaurants Pâtisseries İstiklal Caddesi

What is it? The iconic İnci Pastanesi opened in 1944 on İstiklal Caddesi, quickly becoming famous for its profiteroles and classic interior.

Why go? In 2012, the gentrification that has driven almost all of the original small business owners on İstiklal also forced İnci to move to a nearby backstreet, abandoning its home of nearly seven decades. Though the new location isn't quite the same, the taste of its heavenly profiteroles hasn't changed in the slightest.

Don't miss: As İnci remains open until midnight, its common practice around Beyoğlu to ditch dessert after dinner and head straight here for the real deal.

24. Wine and dine at Mikla

Restaurants Haute cuisine Tepebaşı

What is it? Helmed by acclaimed Swedish-Turkish chef Mehmet Gürs, Mikla is not only one of the best restaurants in Turkey, it's among the best in the world, having been chosen as among the top 50 in 2018.

Why go? Located atop the Marmara Pera Hotel, Mikla features sweeping views of Beyoğlu, the Golden Horn, and the Bosphorus and a menu with some of the most creative fine-dining cuisine in Istanbul, made with local ingredients and identifiably influenced by both Turkish and Scandinavian techniques.

Don't miss: The poolside roof terrace bar is famous for its martinis and is an unbeatable spot to watch the sun set over the city.


25. Dig for hidden treasures at the Feriköy Flea Market

Shopping Markets and fairs Şişli

What is it? Taking place inside the vast covered marketplace in Bomonti every weekend, the Feriköy Flea Market and Organic Bazaar is a great place to shop for fresh produce and hunt for antiques.

Why go? The Saturday food market features a wide array of 100% organic produce including vegetables, fruit, honey, cheese and jam sourced from different corners of Turkey. In the early hours of Sunday, antique dealers replace the greengrocers and set up their stalls selling all manner of antiques, knick knacks, vinyl records, old books, magazines, original film posters and treasures waiting to be found.

Don't miss: Try some of the excellent fresh gözleme served by the elderly ladies near the entrance.

26. Eat out at the classic Karaköy Lokantası

Restaurants Turkish Karaköy

What is it? Karaköy Lokantası is one of Istanbul's most iconic restaurants and a popular lunch spot located in the eponymous historic harborside neighbourhood.

Why go? The classic eatery is perhaps best known for its heavenly hünkar beğendi, a remnant of Ottoman palace cuisine made with slow-cooked beef on a creamy bed of mashed eggplant. At dinnertime, Karaköy Lokantası becomes one of the meyhanes in town with its outstanding meze.

Don't miss: The fava bean purée is an excellent starter while the grilled octopus is our favourite main dish on the menu. Best enjoyed with a glass of rakı.


27. Walk inside a wooded wonderland at Belgrad Forest

Attractions Forests Sarıyer

What is it? Perhaps the most cherished green space in Istanbul, the Belgrad Forest is a wooded wonderland spread out across more than 1300 acres.

Why go? A popular weekend destination, the forest has designated picnic areas and a 6.5 km track used by joggers and walkers. It begins at the Neşet Suyu fountain and has markers every half kilometer so you can track your distance. Once you've taken a few steps into the forest you'll quickly feel the revitalizing touch of the fresh, clean air.

Don't miss: Enjoy the walking paths, make sure to pack a picnic lunch and pay a visit to the nearby Atatürk Arboretum, a lesser-known yet equally divine green space that features stretch after stretch of leafy green and numerous ponds.

28. Stuff your face with kumpir at Ortaköy

Restaurants Street food Ortaköy

What is it? Turkey's answer to the jacket potato, kumpir is a quintessential Istanbul street eat and a great way to fill up on the cheap.

Why go? There is no better place to wolf down a baked potato the size of a human head than in Ortaköy, where you'll find a strip of stands serving kumpir that are wildly popular among tourists and locals alike. Pick your spud and toppings and see if you can take down the beast.

Don't miss: Head over to the incredibly photogenic Ortaköy Mosque nearby to savour the seaside views while you eat on your feet.


29. Get a full body scrub at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı

Health and beauty Hammam Beyoğlu

What is it? The work of the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı was built in between 1578-1583 to serve the levends (marine forces in the Ottoman navy) and was reopened to the public in 2012 after a major restoration.

Why go? The hamam ritual is an unmissable experience for anyone visiting Istanbul and there's no better place to do it than inside this architectural masterpiece dating back half a millenium. Note that the hamam is open to women in the morning and to men in the afternoon.

Don't miss: You can buy your own peştamal, the classic cotton hamam wrap, from the shop located outside the building.

30. Gorge yourself on a full Turkish breakfast spread at Emirgan Sütiş

Restaurants Sarıyer

What is it? The main branch of the classic pudding shop Sütiş is among the most coveted weekend breakfast spots in Istanbul.

Why go? Sütiş is a bit on the pricy side, but its breakfast spreads and egg dishes are fantastic, not to mention that you're sitting at the edge of the Bosphorus.

Don't miss: A place to see and be seen, be prepared to encounter lots of fancy automobiles crowding the valet.


31. Taste forgotten Anatolian recipes at Çiya Sofrası

Restaurants Turkish Kadıköy

What is it? Çiya serves a variety of Anatolian dishes (mostly Eastern Mediterranean and Southeastern Anatolian), all made with ingredients imported from their native regions.

Why go? Their wide selection of delicious dishes are accompanied by an assortment of herbs, most of which you’ve probably never have heard of. The two-storey venue offers such unusual dishes as mualle (aubergine and lentil stew with pomegranate molasses), maş (mung bean) soup, sitti simidi (thin cracked wheat rice), and yeşil erik tavası (green plum stew).

Don't miss: If you still have room, try the plum dessert coupled with terebinth coffee. Çiya has two more branches on the same street where you can try kebabs as well as local dishes.

Süreyya Operası sahnesi
© Cemal Emden

32. Catch an opera or ballet at the Süreyya Opera House

Music Classical and opera Kadıköy

What is it? Housed in a beautiful building built by the politician Süreyya İlmen Pasha in 1927, the Süreyya Opera House is the prime location to catch an opera or a ballet on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Why go? Due to the fact that its stage remained incomplete, Süreyya functioned as a movie theatre and wedding hall for many years until its restoration in 2007. Now re-opened to fulfill its original purpose, Süreyya is worth a visit for its architecture alone. Nostalgia gleams from the walls of this building and its art deco foyer, which was modeled after the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris.

Don't miss: Performances here sell out pretty fast, so we recommend checking their website well in advance.


33. See an independent film at Kadıköy Sineması

Cinemas Independent Kadıköy

What is it? Opened in 1967, the family-run Kadıköy Sineması is one of Istanbul's oldest cinemas.

Why go? Undoubtedly one of the best places to catch a film on the Asian side, Kadıköy Sineması is nestled in an arcade on the main shopping street in Kadıköy and regularly screens an array of domestic, international and independent films.

Don't miss: Kadıköy Sineması is the only surviving cinema in Istanbul to maintain its original decor – most notably the auditorium's striking ribbed ceiling.

34. Dine on meze inside a historic train station at Mythos

Restaurants Seafood Kadıköy

What is it? Mythos is an old-school meyhane nestled inside the Haydarpaşa Train Station, one of Istanbul’s most treasured historical landmarks.

Why go? A Kadıköy favorite that can get packed every night of the week during the warmer months, Mythos always makes for a memorable night out with its offer of delicious meze, expertly grilled fish and free-flowing rakı in a nostalgic setting. 

Don't miss: While the train station is currently undergoing major renovations after a 2010 fire, visiting Mythos is a great excuse to see the historic building up close.


35. Hang out with a cocktail in hand at Arkaoda

Clubs House, disco and techno Moda

What is it? Ever since setting up shop on the bar street Kadife Sokak in 1999, this iconic establishment has had a pioneering role in Kadıköy’s transformation into Istanbul’s hippest neighbourhood. 

Why go? Antique velvet armchairs, good music and cozy dim lighting make Arkaoda a great place to chill with friends for hours at a time. A cosy café by day and an ever-popular bar/club by night, Arkaoda is our favourite watering hole on Kadife Sokak, Kadıköy’s main bar street.

Don't miss: Arkaoda's calendar is peppered with a diverse selection of underground DJs from Istanbul and abroad, with live shows taking place on the upper floor.


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