Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Istanbul

Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Istanbul

Istanbul is incredible. Straddling the straits of the Bosphorus, it is the only metropolis in the world to span two continents (Asia and Europe). It’s famous for historic marvels such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, but its real charm lies in the winding streets and alleys away from the major tourist sites.

Make no mistake: Istanbul is a city made for wandering. While you should visit the top attractions if you’re in Istanbul for the first time, you should also set aside time to get lost – you never know what hidden gem you’ll stumble on! If you get tired from walking, there are cafes galore to rest in (thanks to the steep price of alcohol and the city’s large Muslim population, Istanbul has a strong cafe culture).

My only regret is not having more time to explore. I was in Istanbul for three days and I packed a lot in during that time, but it still wasn’t enough. I plan on going back, but in the meantime, I’m sharing my favorite (and not-so-favorite) spots in the ultimate first-timer’s guide to Istanbul below. This includes where to stay, what to see, and of course, where to eat!

Fellow Instagram lovers can also check out my Instagram guide to Istanbul for a list of the city’s most photo-worthy spots.

Happy travels!

*Starred places are Top Picks

PLANNING & LOGISTICS


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BEST TIME TO VISIT

Spring (April to May) and fall (September to mid-November) are the most pleasant weather-wise and have less tourists. Prices are moderate.

Summer (June to August) is high season but it can be incredibly hot. If you don’t mind the cold, winter (mid-November to March) has the cheapest hotel rates.

I visited in late March-early April and it was quite chilly. The temperature was between 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, which would’ve been fine had it not been for the wind. The wind was brutal. It dropped the temperature by least 15 degrees. On the bright side, we ate a lot because our constant shivering burned off all the calories from our meals within two hours of eating them.

That being said, if you want more temperate weather, I suggest going later in April or May.

ENTRY & EXIT

US citizens require a visa to enter Turkey. The process is fast and easy. Fill out a simple form online and they’ll email you a confirmation with a link to payment ($20 + a $0.55 processing fee). Once you pay you’ll receive an e-visa you can download and print immediately.

To find out your country’s visa requirements, click here.

Your passport must be valid for six months after your departure date.

AIRPORT ARRIVAL

International flights arrive at the new Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gökçen Airport. Istanbul Airport became fully operational on April 6, 2019 and replaced Istanbul Ataturk as the city’s main international airport.

Sabiha Gökçen Airport

Approximately an hour to the city center by car.

We arrived at Sabiha Gökçen Airport at night and it was hectic. There were multiple lanes, cars everywhere, and no signage as to where we were supposed to wait or which section of the arrivals area we were in (Istanbul, in general, is not big on clear signage). We had to resort to landmarks (i.e. “we’re by the five flags,” “we’re outside Burger King”) to find our driver, and even then it took us at least half an hour.

If you didn’t arrange for a private transfer with your hotel, you can take a taxi (which should cost around 110 TL to Taksim or 125 TL to Sultanahmet) or the Havabus airport shuttle towards Taksim. The fare is 18 TL and it will take an hour and a half. Once you arrive in Taksim, you can take the Taksim metro or a taxi to wherever you need to go.

Istanbul Airport

Approximately 50 minutes to the city center by car.

You can also ride the New Airport Transit Bus, which will take 30 to 90 minutes depending on your destination. You can pay for the bus using an Istanbulkart (more on that in the Transportation section below).

The metro will eventually be available from the new Istanbul Airport into the city in 2020.

TRANSPORTATION

Public Transportation:

Istanbul has an excellent public transportation system. If you plan on using public transport multiple times, purchase a reloadable Istanbulkart, which allows you to save money on the city’s network of metros, buses, trams, ferries, and funiculars. Instead of paying 5 TL per ride, you pay 3 TL per ride. 

One Istanbulkart can be used for up to 5 passengers, so there is no need to buy multiple cards if you’re traveling in a small group. Just tap the card on the reader, wait for it to process, then tap again for the next person.

You can buy Istanbulkarts at metro stations, outside ferry terminals, and at convenience stores around the city. The card vending machines are yellow and operate in multiple languages, including English. They accept 5, 10, and 20 TL notes. The cost of a card is 10 TL plus however much you want to load onto the card.

  • METRO: We used the metro only once but it was clean and punctual. No complaints here!
  • BUS: Our most frequent mode of transport besides walking. Note: There are so many buses running all the time that they can’t stop at every stop so you need to flag the one you want to take the way you flag a taxi (make sure you’re at the right stop!)
  • FERRY: The fastest/easiest way to travel between the Asian and European sides. They’re generally spacious and comfy with cushioned seats. However, the one going to Asia is nicer and less crowded than the one going to Europe.

We did not take a tram or funicular so I can’t comment on those modes of transport.

*Please note that many buses, trams, etc. no longer accept cash, so you will have to have some sort of ticket or token to board.

Taxis:

Look for the official yellow cabs. They are everywhere but some drivers can be…snippy. They can also drive like they’re auditioning for the latest Fast and Furious, so buckle up. Make sure the meter is activated when you get into the taxi. The current flat rate is 4 TL plus ~2.5 TL per kilometer. The minimum fare is 10 TL. There is no longer a night rate – don’t let them tell you otherwise! Always pay in liras (you’ll lose money on the exchange rate if you pay in US dollars or euros).

Uber:

Technically still operating in Turkey even though the government has been cracking down on it. Every Uber is an Uber XL – huge vans with two rows of leather seats facing each other in the back like in limos. You probably won’t use Ubers often. We took them only twice in the early morning when it was harder to find a taxi and we didn’t feel like walking to the nearest tram stop. Even though they are fancy they are still cheap. It cost only $2 for a 10-minute ride and $4 for a 20-minute ride, but that was with no traffic.

CURRENCY & MONEY

Local currency is the Turkish lira (TL). The exchange rate is approximately $1 USD for every 5 TL. For the most recent exchange rate, check XE online or download its companion app.

Most places accept credit cards. However, some card readers are finicky. We had our cards declined for no reason at several places, including a nice hotel restaurant. Keep cash on you for backup.

Also, make sure you have plenty of small notes (5, 10, 20 TLs) for taxis, tipping, reloading your Istanbulkart, etc.

CELL PHONE & INTERNET

Buy a SIM card at the airport as it can be difficult to get one in the city. There are only three mobile service providers: Turkcell, Turk Telekom, and Vodafone. SIM cards are not as cheap as you’d expect but there are plenty of options so choose the one that works for you.

Wi-Fi is available in most hotels, cafes, and restaurants (except for smaller local ones). However, the Internet is regulated, so you won’t be able to access websites such as Wikipedia. Don’t count on VPNs, as most are also blocked. 

Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram are still accessible. In fact, Turks are very active on Instagram and all the locals we met asked for our Instagram handles as opposed to WhatsApp or Facebook!

HEALTH

You don’t need special vaccinations to enter Turkey.

Food hygiene was not an issue but do not drink the water. I repeat: DO NOT DRINK THE WATER. Drink bottled water only or your body will not be happy.

Fortunately, if you do encounter…issues…public toilets are plentiful. They usually charge a fee of 1 TL.

SAFETY

Tourism to Turkey suffered due to several terrorist attacks and a failed coup attempt in 2016. Countries have lifted most of their Turkish travel warnings since then and the country is considered mostly safe. The US Department of State does warn citizens to “reconsider travel” to Turkey due to “terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” We didn’t have any issues when we were there, but use your judgment and weigh the risks of visiting based on your own level of risk tolerance.

We were also warned by several people not to venture into the less populated parts of the city. Of course, that is true of any big city. If you stick to the city center and main tourist areas you should be fine. I traveled there with a friend, both of us are females in our twenties, and we didn’t feel unsafe except for one instance when we were walking back to our Airbnb at night on a quiet street and thought there were two guys following us. They weren’t (I think) but use your common sense and take the usual safety precautions.

If you are a solo female traveler I do not recommend walking alone at night. 

Also beware pickpockets, especially in popular tourist areas such as the Grand Bazaar.

CULTURE & ETIQUETTE


Dress Code

Even though it has a large Muslim population, Turkey is a secular country so you do not have to dress conservatively outside religious buildings. You can pretty much wear what you want, though Turks favor the “smart casual” look (ex: dresses and tops with sleeves paired with skirts or pants). Bring a jacket because it gets chilly by the river.

Also make sure to pack a scarf, pants and/or long skirts and dresses for visiting mosques, which require you to cover your head, shoulders, and legs. No transparent/see-through clothing!

Food

Food in Istanbul is amazing. Below are some popular Turkish food items you should try at least once (or twice, but you know, that’s personal preference):

  • AYRAN: a popular yogurt drink, especially in the summer. I tried it and was not impressed (it literally tastes like salty yogurt) but a lot of people like it so it’s a worth a try. Everyone has different tastes! 
  • BALIK EKMEK: sandwich with grilled fish, onions, and salad. The best are found at the boats under Galata Bridge. 
  • BAKLAVA: Sweet layered pastries stuffed with nuts, the most common being pistachio. There are many flavors of baklava so I recommend trying a few beyond the classic pistachio. Pair it with Turkish tea to temper the sweetness.
  • DURUM: Burrito-like wraps with meat or veggies.
  • KAHVALTI: A traditional Turkish breakfast spread consisting of eggs, cheese, veggies, fruit, bread, jams, and more. 
  • KEBAB: Shish kebabs, doner kebabs, iskender kebabs…kebabs all day in every way. Do itttt.
  • SIMIT: Bread rings covered with sesame seeds that look bagels. You’ll find vendors selling them all over the city.
  • TURKISH TEA/COFFEE: Meant more for digestion than alertness, so don’t expect them to perk you up at 7am in the morning. That being said, they are a must-try.

Tipping

Not necessary but appreciated. If you enjoyed the service, you can leave a few lira or round up. Note that you must tip in cash as there is no line on credit card receipts to add a tip.

Language

Most people speak at least a little English, especially in the tourist areas. Below are a few key words and phrases you should know. If all else fails, use the universal language: hand gestures!

  • Hello = merhaba
  • Goodbye = hoşça kalın or bye bye
  • Good morning = günaydın
  • Good night = iyi geceler
  • Thank you = teşekkür ederim
  • How much? (price) = Kaç para?
  • Excuse me/sorry = affedersiniz/pardo

WHERE TO STAY


BUDGET

Nostalgic Apartment Near Cihangir-Taksim #1 Airbnb: This is where we stayed. It is in a great location (walkable to bustling Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, and an easy 10-minute ride to the Old City) and the host, Hasan, was super helpful. He was easily accessible via WhatsApp and arranged our private airport transfers to and from the airport (190 TL from Sabiha Gökçen, 140 TL to the no-longer-functional Istanbul Ataturk airport). We could’ve found something cheaper on our own, but given our late arrival and schedule, it was easier to have him arrange the transport. He also provided a comprehensive list of where to eat and what to see in Istanbul and gave us an Istanbulkart to use during our stay.

The apartment is a walk-up (fortunately, we were on the second floor!) and small but cute. The only con is that the hot water does run out if you linger in the shower. The central heater was also broken when we stayed there. He brought a portable heater for us but it was still chilly. However, this shouldn’t be a huge issue if you’re visiting in the warmer months.

Price: $61/night

MODERATE

The Stay Bosphorus: A mansion-turned-boutique hotel built by the same family that built Dolmabahçe Palace. It’s located by the Ortakoy Mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus. We came here for breakfast and every staff member we encountered was sweet and helpful.

For example: It was a national holiday that day due to elections, which we weren’t aware of until that morning, and we were concerned some of the places we wanted to visit were closed. The concierge was kind enough to call and check for us even though we weren’t guests. He also gave us his WhatsApp number in case we need help with anything during the rest of our stay. 

I wish I knew about this place before we arrived in Istanbul but I’m definitely checking it out the next time I’m in the city!

Price: $200+/night

LUXURY

Ciragan Palace Kempinski: Feeling bougie? This is for you. We had a chance to explore the grounds before dinner at their signature Tugra restaurant and the hotel is stunning. It is, after all, a genuine Ottoman palace located on the Bosphorus. You can’t beat that.

Fun fact: It’s the only hotel in Istanbul accessible by car, yacht, and helicopter. Yes, that means they have a helipad. NBD.

Price: $300+/night

WHERE TO EAT


BAB-I ALI KAHVESI:

A cute, colorful restaurant near Suleymaniye with a nice rooftop view of the mosque on one side and the city and river on the other. The menu is in Turkish and the staff doesn’t speak English – the manager and my friend Jessie both had to use Google Translate to communicate! We got the menmen and the breakfast plate, which comes with fries, cheesy bread, fruit, vegetables, and a few cold cuts. They also give you a huge bread basket. The food was decent but honestly their biggest selling point is the view.

To get here from Suleymaniye, go through the courtyard to the back of the mosque. You will see a set of small green gates on the left. Go through those gates and down the stairs, make a left then a right onto the next street. Walk down that street until you see Bab-i Ali Kahvesi on your left.

*BALIKCI LOKANTASI:

An unassuming, inexpensive restaurant located in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul. It serves only seafood but the seafood is so good it doesn’t need to serve anything else. It is for sure fresh because you can see the display of raw seafood at the counter. There is no menu – you walk up to the counter, pick what you want, and they’ll bring it over cooked. Baliksi is known for its blackened salmon, which was excellent. The scorpion fish comes in a simmering sauce and was also very tasty.

Tip: Dip the bread in the scorpion fish sauce. You’re welcome.

For dessert, we received a complimentary plate of candied sweet potatoes and banana slices. You can eat them separately but they taste better together. 

Blackened salmon

Scorpion fish

*CUMA:

Recommended by a staff member at the Cukurcuma Hammam. Cuma is located steps from the hammam and around the corner from our Airbnb, so the location was excellent. It’s a cute, cozy, wine and dine place frequented by locals (we were the only tourists there). It’s on the pricier side for Istanbul, but it isn’t stuffy and the food is delicious.

The bread basket comes with a fantastic spicy olive tapenade. I recommend the puff pastry with duck and onion appetizer and the mushroom linguini and free range chicken leg with snap peas and baby potatoes for the main course. The chicken was juicy and the linguini was flavorful but not heavy – rare for pasta. If you feel like drinking they have a good selection of wine! 

Free range chicken

Mushroom linguini

*DURUMZADE:

Featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” Istanbul episode. It’s small and nothing fancy, but its durum is moist, flavorful, and cheap to boot. Its most popular flavor (and my personal favorite) is Adana, which is a beef and lamb mix. Its chicken durum is also quite good.

Adana durum (left) and chicken durum (right)

Durumzade exterior. Really playing up the Bourdain claim to fame…

KARAKOY GULLUOGLU:

Recommended to me as the best baklava in Istanbul. I desperately wanted to visit this dessert shop but didn’t have time. There are Güllüoğlu branches in other parts of the city but Karakoy is supposed to the be best one. 

OLD ISTANBUL CUISINE:

We passed by this restaurant on our way from the Basilica Cistern to the Grand Bazaar and dropped in because it had high ratings on TripAdvisor. Turns out this is because the owner asks diners, including us, to write a review on the spot before they leave (can we trust TripAdvisor ratings anymore??).

The food wasn’t as amazing as 5 stars and 1,600+ reviews would suggest, but it wasn’t bad, and the restaurant had WiFi and cute decor. The servers were warm and friendly. The “review before you leave” trick rubs me the wrong way, but if you’re looking for a quick bite in the Sultanahmet area that’s not overrun with tour groups this is an option.

RESTAURANT @ THE STAY BOSPHORUS:

We were originally looking for the hotel’s cafe but it wasn’t open yet. The staff suggested we try their restaurant’s breakfast buffet instead and I’m so glad we did! The buffet is 100 TL per person and consists of assorted breakfast items including pastries, fruit, and cold cuts.

However, the restaurant’s crowning glory is its terrace, which has a fantastic view of the Ortakoy Mosque and the Bosphorus. It was so beautiful we did an impromptu photo shoot there (shoutout to the server who helped take the photo of the two of us below)! Fortunately, we went early on a Sunday and an election holiday, so the place was empty except for us. 

The only hiccup was when we tried to pay by credit card. Their portable card reader kept declining our cards for no reason and after 15 minutes or so they had to use another reader in the back before it worked. This is a reminder that you should always bring cash as a backup when you go out in Istanbul! 

Photo credit: Kind server at The Stay’s restaurant

*SAKARYA TATLICISI:

Hands down the best baklava we had in Istanbul! I can’t recommend this place enough. A lot of baklava I had was too sweet, but theirs has the perfect balance between the pistachio flavor and the sweetness. I recommend the classic pistachio and the chocolate pistachio baklava.

Buy extra so you can send me some.

Just kidding. Sort of.

Chocolate baklava and classic pistachio baklava

SEVEN HILLS RESTAURANT:

Located minutes from the Blue Mosque in the Seven Hills hotel. They offer a decent, traditional Turkish breakfast spread for an affordable price and the servers are extremely friendly. Its claim to fame is the rooftop, which has views of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Bosphorus. Sadly, it was too cold for us to eat on the roof when we went, though we did brave it for photos (then quickly ran back downstairs to the warmth). Nevertheless, we enjoyed our indoor breakfast, which still had a gorgeous view of the Hagia Sophia. (See below if you don’t believe me).

*TUGRA:

The signature restaurant at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. It is on the higher end but the prices aren’t out of this world given how fancy it is (the average price of an entree is between $20-$30 USD). Tables by the window have a view of the Bosphorus, and we were lucky enough to witness a magnificent sunset during our dinner.

Their bread basket was so good we got seconds, even though we worried we wouldn’t have enough room for the rest of the meal. We kind of didn’t, but that didn’t stop us from eating! I recommend the hot appetizer sampler (the calamari and hummus were my favorites), the duck tandir, and their signature dish, the Testi lamb casserole. For dessert, we got helatiye, which consists of mastic “muhallebi” with rose sherbet, pistachio and clotted Maras ice cream. They also provided a complimentary assortment of Turkish delights and truffles.

The service was excellent and they even brought over little stools for us to put our belongings on. Bonus: The dessert menu gives you a quick history of each dish, so it was delicious and educational. 

The only “con” was the restaurant was so nice we felt compelled to whisper the entire time. This isn’t a place where you can kick back and relax per se but it is a nice treat if you want to pamper yourself.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary dinner at Tugra in exchange for an Instagram post and Stories. However, a blog post was not required and I am recommending Tugra here because I genuinely enjoyed the experience.

Hot appetizer sampler

UNDER THE ROOF:

We stumbled on this cute cafe by accident while searching for the infamous “secret” rooftop with views of Istanbul. Unfortunately, the rooftop was closed for renovation, but we did enjoy some Turkish coffee and treats at this cozy spot.

It feels like someone’s living room and the owner (?) doesn’t come into the space except to take/deliver orders, making it perfect for a quick break.

Note: You have to go through some sketchy-looking, crumbling hallways to get here. It’s not dangerous; it just looks creepy.

THINGS TO DO


BALAT NEIGHBORHOOD:

Once known as the city’s Jewish quarter and famous for its colorful buildings, Balat was my favorite neighborhood to get lost in. It is chockfull of adorable cafes and shops – everywhere we turned we saw a cafe we wanted to go into!

Set aside half a day to explore, shop, and cafe hop. 

If you’re in the Old City, the easiest way to get here is via bus. They look far apart on Google Maps but the Balat bus stop is only a few stops away from Sultanahmet.

Street in Balat

Colorful corner in Balat

BASILICA CISTERN:

Near the Hagia Sophia. It is the largest of the hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul that served as a water filtration system for nearby buildings. It’s dark, damp, and kind of creepy – I would not want to walk through this place alone, though I can totally see Indiana Jones doing it – but the sheer scale and symmetry of the architecture is awe-inspiring.

There are hundreds of columns salvaged from ruined temples, including the “Crying Column,” which is dedicated to the slaves that died during the construction of the cistern. (I assume the slaves would’ve preferred not to die early over having a memorial column but I guess it’s better than nothing).

The cistern’s most notable features are its two large Medusa column bases – one upside down, one on its side. There’s no explanation as to why they positioned these bases that way. My theory is the builders were so tired after lugging those big blocks of stone all the way to the cistern that they were just like, “Screw it. Leave her the way she is.” That’s what I would do. And that’s why no one’s ever hired me to build a cistern.

The space is large but there isn’t much to see beyond the overall architecture, so it shouldn’t take you long to get through it.

Hours: 9am-6:30pm

Entrance Fee: 20 TL

BLUE MOSQUE/SULTANAHMET CAMII:

Technically it’s called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but it’s widely known as the “Blue Mosque” for its bluish interior. It’s the most important mosque in Istanbul and, along with its neighbor Hagia Sophia, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

I’ll be honest: we did not go inside the mosque, partly due to schedule constraints and partly because the mosque was under renovation when we went so most of the interior would’ve been covered by scaffolding anyway. Instead, we settled for admiring its spacious courtyard and the mosque’s architecture from afar.

Make sure you are dressed appropriately if you are visiting the mosque. You have to wear a headscarf even in the courtyard.

Hours: Open 24/7 except during prayers. There are five prayers a day with the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. The mosque, including the courtyard, closes for 90 minutes each prayer time. You will hear the call to prayer over the loudspeakers but if you want to plan ahead, check the exact daily prayer times here

Entrance Fee: Free

Blue Mosque courtyard

CUKURCUMA HAMMAM:

Come on, how can you go to Istanbul without visiting a hammam? This one was recommended by our Airbnb host and was right around the corner from our Airbnb. It was my first Turkish bath experience and I loved it! It was the perfect way to relax and unwind after a long day of sightseeing.

The hammam’s white-and-gold interior is gorgeous and the service is excellent. We did have to wait a bit past our reservation time, I assume due to how busy they were, but they let us store our belongings and provided us with complimentary tea while we waited. 

We booked the traditional Turkish hammam, which costs 270 TL. However, they also offer treatments with add-ons such as body scrubs and massages.

What to expect from a traditional hammam experience, which lasts around 45 minutes:

  • Change into a swimsuit. They will provide you with disposable bikinis to wear during your treatment but feel free to bring your own.
  • 10 minutes sweating next to the kurna, or marble water basin, to prep your skin for the scrub.
  • Traditional body scrubbing by an attendant followed by a bubble wash and mini massage on a marble slab. This is done in a common area so there will be multiple people getting bathed/scrubbed at the same time. They generally pair you with an attendant of your own gender, but I guess they ran out of females because they asked if I was comfortable with a male attendant. I was and had no issues with him.
  • Dry off and “relaxation time” with herbal tea in the lounge. You can stay as long as you would like from here on out.

Tip: Reserve your spot a few days in advance since hammams do get booked up, especially in the evening. To make a reservation at Cukurcuma, email them at [email protected] with your name, party size, and desired date/time slot. 

They have lockers to store your personal items and a makeup room with makeup remover, a hair dryer, and lotion. Side note: They have a Dyson hair dryer. It was my first time using a Dyson hair dryer. One of my life goals is now to own a Dyson hair dryer.

I’m only half-joking.

DOLMABAHCE PALACE:

An opulent palace located on the Bosphorus, Dolmabahce served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The grounds are stunning, dotted with lush gardens and intricate white gates that overlook the water.

You have to pay extra to go inside the Harem, which we didn’t do, but I wish I did because the interior looks insane. (Note: You have to wear little plastic bags over your shoes to go inside. They provide you with the bags at the entrance).

I’m warning you now: this place is tourist central. Expect to see many, many tour groups here. There is a long line to go through security but a short line for tickets since most tour groups book in advance.

There is also a ferry station near Dolmabahce that will take you to Kadikoy and the Asian side of the city. The fare is 5 TL and, unlike most ferries, they do not accept Istanbulkarts at this location.

Hours: 9am-4pm. Closed Mondays.

Entrance fee: 60 TL plus an extra 40 TL if you want to visit the harem. There was only one line that accepted credit cards when we went so make sure you’re in the right line. Once again, there was no clear signage indicating this and we didn’t find out till we tried to pay at a cash-only line. 

Dolmabahce Palace gate

GALATA BRIDGE:

Walk across the bridge at sunset to see Istanbul lit up in all its golden glory. You can also grab food at the row of restaurants and cafes beneath the bridge, including balık ekmek fish sandwiches. 

View of Istanbul from the Galata Bridge

GALATA TOWER:

One of the city’s oldest and highest towers. You can climb to the top, where there is a restaurant and an observation deck with panoramic views of Istanbul. There are elevators, but even then you have to climb several floors to reach the observation deck.

It is also one of the most Instagrammable places in Istanbul.

Once you finish with the tower, take some time to explore the cute, store-filled streets surrounding it. Other than the street where everyone takes photos of the tower (see below), they are quite quiet and tourist-free, at least when we went in the late afternoon/early evening.

Hours: 9am-8:30pm

Entrance Fee: 25 TL

Galata Tower in the background

GRAND BAZAAR:

This is an iconic Istanbul experience, but to be honest I was not a fan. When I pictured the bazaar, I pictured touristy but at least somewhat authentic-looking stalls selling local wares.

There are some stalls like that, but most are air-conditioned storefronts that make the place look like a Western mall – one where 90% of the vendors are shouting at you to buy stuff or trying to lure you inside their shop with free tea and sweets. It was also so crowded we could barely walk. We left after an hour.

However, many people do like it and it’s an experience everyone should have if they’re visiting Istanbul for the first time. If you want a one-stop shop for souvenirs, this is the place, as the vendors sell everything from lanterns to scarves to rugs. Just make sure to brush up on your haggling skills beforehand.

If you want to buy lanterns, I recommend visiting the Handicraft Lights stall. Not only do they have beautiful lanterns but the shop owner Ahmet is incredibly sweet and does not harass you to look at his wares. I wish I had room in my luggage or I definitely would’ve bought something!

The bazaar is approximately a 20-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia area.

Hours: 9am-7pm. Closed Sundays.

Entrance Fee: Free.

A lantern shop in the Grand Bazaar (there is a no camera sign, but I received permission from the owner to take this photo).

HAGIA SOPHIA:

Touristy? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely. This Greek Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-modern-museum is an architectural marvel and one of the most revered structures in the world. It symbolizes Byzantium the way the Colosseum symbolizes Rome.

When we went, it was partly under renovation, but even the scaffolding couldn’t dim its beauty. Ok, it dimmed it somewhat, but Hagia was still beautiful. 

You can marvel at its soaring domed ceiling, incredible chandeliers, and intricate details from the main floor or the upper gallery (just be careful – the winding stone path leading up to the gallery is slippery)!

Hours: 9am-7pm during summer (April 1-Oct 31), 9am-5pm during winter (Nov 1-March 31). Last entrance time is an hour before closing time. 

Entrance Fee: 60 TL

Inside the Hagia Sophia

ISTIKLAL STREET:

One of the most famous streets in Istanbul. Here, you’ll find Istanbul’s nostalgic red tram, as well as an assortment of stores, restaurants, galleries, cinemas, and clubs, among other things. Visited by nearly 3 million people per day on the weekends, it is the bustling heart of the city.

KADIKOY NEIGHBORHOOD:

Located on the Asian side of Istanbul. It’s less touristy than the European side (no tour groups!), cheaper (there are a lot of students) and boasts cute cafes galore. There are also quite a few vintage stores but sadly they were closed because we went on an election holiday.

There is a also colorful umbrella street here that is lined with cafes. To find it, put Cafe Kadikoy into Google Maps.

Overall, Kadikoy is nice area to wander around, shop, and take coffee breaks. 

The easiest way to get to Kadikoy is via ferry. There is a ferry station near Dolmabahce that will take you straight here. The fare is 5 TL. Unlike most ferries, the Dolmabahce station does not accept Istanbulkarts.

However, the ferry back to the European side does accept Istanbulkarts and is only 2.95 TL, but it is smaller and more crowded than the ferry to the Asian side.

Kadikoy’s umbrella street

ORTAKOY MOSQUE:

Located on the water, this is one of the most picturesque mosques in Istanbul. We didn’t go inside because we couldn’t figure out if/when it was open, as we went on a national holiday and were leaving the next day. When we asked the vendors around the mosque we got different answers from everyone – some said it opened at ten that day, some said at eleven, some weren’t sure it was open at all. We eventually gave up and went to Dolmabahce because we couldn’t wait any longer. However, this shouldn’t be a problem if you go during a non-holiday. Even if you don’t go inside, the exterior is still quite beautiful!

Hours: 9am-6pm

Entrance Fee: Donation-based

Ortakoy Mosque at sunrise

RUSTEM PASHA MOSQUE (**CLOSED FOR RENOVATION**):

Described as a mini Blue Mosque minus the crowds. It was closed for renovation when we went in early April 2019. I’m not sure how long renovations will take but based on what we saw it’ll probably take a few years.

This is often listed as something you should do in Istanbul but a lot of those guides aren’t updated so I’m including this to warn you that the mosque will likely be closed if/when you go.

If you want to see for yourself whether it’s open, put the mosque into Google Maps. Once you’re in the vicinity, ask a street vendor where to find the entrance. It took us forever to find it because it was tucked in the corner of an outdoor market in Sultanahmet. The only signage was a paper sign with the mosque name written in marker next to the entryway. 

SPICE BAZAAR:

Similar to the Grand Bazaar but smaller and dedicated to spices, teas, and treats. If you like edible souvenirs, this is a good place to get your bargaining on.

Hours: 9am-7pm

Entrance Fee: Free

SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE:

Similar to the Blue Mosque with an equally beautiful but far more peaceful courtyard. I actually liked this better than the Blue Mosque. The interior is gorgeous but most of it is roped off so you can’t really walk around.

Unlike its more famous cousin, you don’t have to wear a headscarf to enter the courtyard, though you do need one to enter the mosque itself. When I went my dress wasn’t opaque enough and they gave me a “skirt” (more like a bag with the bottom cut out) to wear over my bottom half. 

If you go through the courtyard to the back of the mosque you’ll get a nice view of the city and Bosphorus.

Suleymaniye Mosque courtyard

Suleymaniye mosque interior

TOPKAPI PALACE MUSEUM:

Close to the Hagia Sophia. Topkapi was built in the mid-15th century and served as the home of the Ottoman sultans until the mid-19th century.

The Harem is the most impressive section, but it costs an extra 35 lira. On the bright side, the extra cost means there’s less people.

It also costs extra to visit the Hagia Irene, an Orthodox church in the palace’s outer courtyard.

We focused mainly on the Harem, but if you want to explore the entire palace in-depth I would set aside half a day for it since it’s a big complex.

Hours: 9am-4:45pm during winter; 9am-6:45pm during summer. Closed Tuesdays.

Entrance fee: 60 TL general admission. 35 TL extra to access the Harem and 30 TL extra to access Hagia Irene.

A room in the Harem at Topkapi Palace

TRAVEL TIPS & THINGS TO KNOW


  • Check the entrance fees for the museums you want to visit and consider getting a Museum Pass if it makes sense. It will save you time and money. Note that not every museum accepts the pass so examine the eligible attractions closely.
  • Wear shoes that are comfortable and easy to take on/off since you have to remove your shoes to enter mosques.
  • There are metal detectors at most tourist sites. To make things easier bring only what you need when you go sightseeing.
  • In general, Turkish people are extremely friendly and helpful. However, beware vendors in the bazaars that try to lure you in with free tea and snacks. You can partake in the tea if you’d like but you are NOT obligated to buy anything even if you do.
  • There is a lot of construction and restoration going on throughout the city. Do not be surprised if you visit a famous site (i.e. the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia) to find half of it covered by scaffolding.
  • Keep a sharp eye out for entrances, especially to smaller sites. Istanbul’s signage, even in touristy areas, leaves something to be desired.
  • There is a steep alcohol tax in Turkey so if you want to drink be prepared for the price. Local beer is cheaper; wine is more expensive; imported brands are very expensive.
  • There are cats and dogs everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Dogs will curl up to sleep in the middle of the sidewalk and you just have to walk around them. However, they are not aggressive and don’t bother humans, at least not the ones I’ve seen. They are also tagged and regularly immunized.
  • Plan to visit one or two neighborhoods at a time. Going back and forth will eat into your itinerary more than you think.

 

Well, there you have it! The ultimate first-timer’s guide to Istanbul. I hope you found it useful. Also make sure to download your free travel planning checklist so you don’t forget anything!

Comment below if you have any feedback/questions or stories from your trip to the city. I’d love to hear them.

 

Looking for more Istanbul tips? Check out my guide to the most photo-worthy spots in Istanbul.

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