A guide to visiting Europe’s largest city

Istanbul is one of the worlds’ largest cities with over 15 million inhabitants. It can be overwhelming planning your visit when there is so much to see. This guide will help you prepare your perfect trip.

How Long to Stay in Istanbul

The first thing to figure out is how much time you can give this incredible city. This can be tricky, as it’s one of those places where you could spend a month and still feel like you have barely scratched the surface. Time permitting, 4 days would be the minimum to get a good feel for what Istanbul has to offer, and a week would be ideal.

Pick the perfect neighbourhood

Most visitors stay in Sultanahmet, where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and many of the cities best museums are located. It’s a good area for a short visit, or those mainly interested in the major sites. Galata and Karakoy in the Beyoglu district have some of Istanbul’s best shopping, dining and nightlife, only a short taxi or tram ride from Sultanahmet. To draw a parallel to NYC, Galata is for fans of the Lower East Side or Soho, whereas Sultanahmet is for those who prefer to stay in midtown. If you love good food and nightlife, Galata is an excellent option.

Kadikoy, Besiktas or Arnavutkoy are all great options that are a little farther-flung. Kadikoy is a trendy neighbourhood on the Asian side with a coolness that rivals Brooklyn. Besiktas is the starting point for most Bosphorus cruises, and it’s littered with waterfront dining, palaces, and 5-star hotels. Arnavutkoy is next to Besiktas and is famous for seafood restaurants and waterfront mansions.

My recommendation for first-time visitors: Galata!

Federal Coffee Company, Galata

Knowing your top 5 sites

Before you book it’s helpful to have a vague idea of your hit list when visiting Istanbul. Knowing what you want to do will help you decide how long to spend there and what neighbourhood to stay in. You might be interested in cruising the Bosphorus, shopping for rugs or jewelry, eating your way across the city, visiting specific museums or historical sites, clubbing until the early hours, or all of the above.

Food & Drink Recommendations

Istanbul is an incredible city for eating and drinking, the recommendations could be an entire article. Here are some favourite finds:

Fine Dining: Mikla in Beyoglu is one of the World’s Best 50 Best Restaurants. The Prix-Fixe 3 course menu is a steal at 365 TL and reservations are essential. The view is great too!

Rooftop Dining: Leb-i Derya in Beyoglu serves Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine in an exquisite rooftop setting. Cachi Locanta bar also has beautiful views and nice food. Make a reservation to guarantee a good view, for both of these popular restaurants.

Guney Restaurant was established in 1964 next to the Galata Tower and serves Turkish cuisine on a lovely patio with views of the tower.

Federal Coffee Company Galata serves Australian Coffee and fresh food in a cool setting.

Cafe Privato serves traditional Turkish breakfast amidst bohemian decor.

Wine bars: Ambiyans in Karakoy and Sensus Wine Bar Galata are excellent.

Cachi Locanta bar

Accommodation recommendations

Airbnb is well priced in Istanbul with hundreds of houses and apartments for rent in every area, many with rooftop patios and views. 

Ajwa Hotel is a luxurious 5-star property, a short walk to the major sites in Sultanahmet. Rooms start at $200 USD.

Georges Hotel in Galata is an award-winning hotel with breathtaking views and only 20 rooms. Rooms start at $250 USD.

Ciragon Palace provides a unique option to stay in a palace on the Bosphorus in Besiktas. Rooms start at $400 USD per night.

Ajwa Hotel in Sultanahmet

Quintessential to Istanbul

The major sites can be covered in one or two days, as they’re close together in Sultanahmet. The Blue Mosque is free and takes 15 minutes to see, once inside. The Hagia Sophia is arguably more beautiful and directly opposite the Blue Mosque. Visits take around 30 minutes here and the lines usually aren’t quite as long, as there is an entrance fee of 72 TL. The Topkapi Palace is an incredible building and an extensive museum. It’s 5 minutes from the Blue Mosque and takes 2 hours for a quick visit, and up to 6 hours to see the full collection. The Grand Bazaar is also in the area and could be a 30-minute visit for a glimpse, or a few hours for serious shoppers. 

A Bosphorus Cruise is one of the most memorable experiences to be had in Istanbul, there are many ways to go about this. The typical experience is on board a large boat with many other tourists. The deluxe option is a luxury private yacht, which costs 240 Euros for 2 hours, not bad if you have a group of 4 to 6 people. They also allow guests to bring their own alcohol onboard. Cruise Istanbul is a good company: www.cruiseistanbul.com

Bosphorus Cruise

Dolmabahce Palace is a sight to behold. Built in the 1800s as a Sultan’s residence on the Bosphorus near Kabatas Pier, it is the epitome of opulence, each room alight with chandeliers. Combine your visit with a Bosphorus boat trip and explore the neighbourhoods of Besiktas and Arnavutkoy, where the wealthy reside.

There are many free walking tours that operate on a tipping basis. This is a great way to acquaint yourself with Istanbul and some of the stories it has to tell. For something different, try a visit to the Asian side to wander the arty area of Kadikoy or a visit to the Maiden’s Tower for lunch or dinner. 

If you are at all interested in visiting a few sites, the Museum pass is a great purchase. It saves you money, and most importantly time. The queues for tickets are long and with the pass you skip these lines.

Other important considerations

Weather: The summers are very hot, the winters are cold and snow is common. Spring and Autumn are the ideal times to visit for mild temperatures.

Peak travel season: June to September, which means long lines at the sites and higher hotel prices. 

Electrical Plugs: European style outlets with 220V, 50 Hz

Money: Turkish Lira is the currency and is easily obtained from ATM machines or currency exchanges. Euros and GBP are sometimes accepted at major businesses. Credit Cards are widely accepted.

Airports: Istanbul (IST) Airport is the major airport and is modern and clean. It’s around 15 minutes closer than Ataturk (ISL), the old airport. Taxi is the easiest method of commuting from the airport and should cost around 140 TL from IST and 160TL from ISL.

Religion: 95% Islam, Turkey is a secular Islamic country meaning there is a separation between church and state. Turkey is not under Sharia law. Alcohol is widely available and the dress codes for visitors are liberal.

Getting around: Use the Uber platform to order taxis, which are cost-effective. Wherever possible, walk or take the tram, as traffic can be heavy.

Rooftop views from Leb-i Derya

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