Travel Secrets – Where to Stay & What to do in Istanbul

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We Love Istanbul! That is the best way to start this post! And because we like this huge and contrasting city so much, that we can share with you all our travel secrets. Details about where to stay, what to do in Istanbul and how to enjoy this fascinating place. Be prepared for great Istanbul travel tips.

In our previous post we talked about how to organize your trip to Istanbul, especially if it is your first time in Turkey. Now comes the fun party: Discover Istanbul! Most of the tourists just come and visit the city, what I’m proposing to you is to experience Istanbul, feel, smell and taste it.

Probably you already heard that Istanbul is the connection between east and west. Where ancient and modern life walk side by side. Centuries of history, empires, cultures and faiths. I know this speech sometimes sound a bit cliché,  but it´s totally true! Istanbul is made of beautiful contrasts, two worlds in just one place.

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To start out travel plan let me ask you one thing: What is your style of travelling? I’m not talking about hotel budget or restaurant preferences. My question is: What do you expect from your trip to Istanbul? Long days and quiet nights? Some sightseeing during the day and roof parties for the sunset? The answer for these questions will help you to organize your travel and to fall in love with Istanbul.

To plan your trip let´s split this post in three parts:

» Where to stay in Istanbul

» What to do in Istanbul (+ Food & Party)

» Local Tips

Let’s get started??

Where to stay in Istanbul? Don’t worry  we know all the hotspots!

One thing you must keep in mind is: your accommodation in Istanbul needs to be a smart choice. I know price, comfort, and ratings are important but believe me you don’t want to stay in an amazing hotel completely far away from the action, from what to do in Istanbul. That´s why I asked you what are your expectation about the trip, the answer will guide us to find the best spot for you.

Quick Note: If you book any hotel in Istanbul through the links on our website (Booking.com, Agoda.com and Airbnb.com) you`ll get all the best prices and will help our Blog to keep running. You don´t pay anything more by doing this, and we´ll receive a small commission. Thanks 😉

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» Best hotels in Sultanahmet

Where to stay in Istanbul if I want to be surrounded by history?

Sultanahmet is the answer. Known as the old town, this neighbourhood is where all the ancient sites are. Yes, it´s packed with tourists, street sellers, and not so cheap restaurants, but you will be able to visit many of the important places in 5 – 10 minutes walking from your hotel. In our first trip to Istanbul we booked a hostel in Sultanahmet and no regrets.

Our recommendation for hotels in Istanbul – Sultanahmet are:

» Life Garden Hotel Apart

A nice and cozy room in the old town. You will not have a sea view but will get a small kitchenette inside the apartment. A money saver option.

» Hotel Seraglio

Middle range price with a superb service. Breakfast is included and 5 – 10 minutes walking to Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

» Ada Hotel Istanbul

Beautiful hotel a stone away from the Blue Mosque. A great place if you want to treat yourself and enjoy a beautiful view to the  Marmara Sea. what to do in istanbul 4a

» Best hotels in Beyoğlu

Another hotspot for travellers is the Beyoglu area. I love it! This is where we stayed in Istanbul on our second and third trip. If you fancy a lively place you should book your hotel there. Close enough to all the tourist attractions (you can use tram, metro and boat to reach most of the sites), surrounded by street food, local shops and with a buzzy nightlife. It´s the type of all in one package!

There are two areas in Beyoglu that are my favorites. One is Karaköy, the streets between Tophane tram station and the cruise quay are super interesting. The old buildings are being refurbished, new cafes open every year and local designers sells clothes and jewelry in cool ateliers.

Karaköy is definitely not the prettiest area (the buildings are old or in construction) but worth the visit.  I know we are not talking about what to do in Istanbul yet, but one of the places you must visit is the Julius Meinl Coffee Shop in Karaköy. Enjoy a gourmet cappuccino while watching the fashion Turks pass by.

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The other place we adore is Cihangir. The old three-story buildings with long corridors and tiny stair are full of charm. Cihangir is where artists, musicians, young Turks and expats live. You can find some boutique hotels and apartments to rent through Airbnb there.

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One stone way from Taksim Square, this place is full of bars, clubs and restaurants. It´s not the cheapest part of the neighbourhood, however budget travellers would definitely save some money on food and leisure there, if you can find places for all tastes and pockets.

My suggestion of nice hotels in Istanbul – Beyoglu is:

» Galata Melling

Close to everything and you have a little kitchen in your room.  You can cook your meals and save some bucks, or you can order the breakfast from the hotel

» Next House Pera Hotel

Nice and comfortable rooms, because of the location it can be a little noisy during night-time, but you are in the heart of the city. Breakfast included!

» Georges Hotel Galata

Here your neighbour will be the Galata Tower, nice isn´t it?! Breakfast included, bar service and restaurant. All the facilities and pamper you need in one of the busiest areas of Istanbul. 

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» Best hotels in Taksim

Taksim neighbourhood is famous for luxurious hotels likes Intercontinental, Hilton and Hyatt. There you can find a nice room and a fully equipped apartment, most of them come with an expensive price tag though.

This is one of the lively squares in the city, full of restaurants (locals and internationals), and few steps away from Istiklal Avenue, the busiest street in Istanbul. From there you can take the metro and tram to all the tourist attractions in the city. We never stayed in Taksim, but we did a research to find the best options of hotels there. Those are our pick:

» Dreamers B&B

Cheap accommodation is not something easy around Taksim, but this nice Bed & Breakfast is what you need to enjoy the city in a comfortable way without spending too much.

» Taxim Art Rooms

Well located, friendly and English-speaking staff, near to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street.

»  Nuru Ziya Suites

Spacious room, great location and your own coffee machine in the room. If you can splurge a bit, here is your place.

Doesn’t matter if you are booking an expensive or a cheap hotel in Istanbul, make sure it´s included the traditional Turkish breakfast. Believe me, it´s best meals to start a busy day and the Turks take it very seriously. what to do in istanbul 10d

What to do in Istanbul? Here are all the Top Attractions!

You’ll have to wake up early and go to bed late to enjoy everything Istanbul has to offer. No excuses, Istanbul is a city that never sleeps so are the travellers who visit it.  As I already told you, this is one of my favourite destinations and every time we visit it our list of what to do in Istanbul gets bigger.

There are so many things to see there, that we decided to help you with a detailed travel guide. It’s not just a list of unmissable places and top things to do in Istanbul, we made a four days itinerary for you. Follow it to explore the city!

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After the Turkish breakfast find your way to the Grand Bazaar at the Sultanahmet area. Be prepared to fall in love with the jewellery, drink some special çay (tea), taste delicious Turkish delights and bargain for souvenirs, pashminas and carpets. OMG! There so many beautiful stuff there.

One thing I´ve learnt in all those trips to Istanbul is: the fair price is always half of the price shown in the tag. Don’t be shy, to haggle is cultural in Turkey and that´s how you show respect and value to their goods.

Time flies when we have fun. While exploring the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market we always lose the sense of time, and there you can try so many fruits, nuts and sweets that you probably won’t feel the need for lunch. When you are done with your shopping, I suggest you to grab a nice chicken Kebab Durum and walk to the Basilica Cistern, that is few blocks away from the Bazaar.

During lunch time the Basilica Cistern is not so crowded and you will have time and space to enjoy this underground beauty. This cistern is the most stunning water channel under the city, search for the Medusa heads, they are quite impressive laying on the water.

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If you still have energy and some spare time  go to the Blue Mosque. Build from 1609 to 1616 the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (known as Blue Mosque) is an icon of Turkish culture and an architectural masterpiece. If you visit it after 4pm there is almost no queue and you will not have to fight for space inside the mosque. Before visiting it, check the prayer time written on the boards outside the mosque. Tourists are not allowed during the prayer times.

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Also you have to dress respectfully. You can´t get in wearing shorts, sleeveless t-shirts and skirts above your ankles. Women need also to cover the head and hair, a normal scarf is enough. They give some caps and covers in the entrance, but I always prefer to be correctly dressed, people tend to treat you better when you show respect to their religion and beliefs.

For your first evening in Istanbul nothing better than some local food. Stop by the shore of the Golden Horn and grab one of the fresh fish sandwichs made inside the boats… Yummy!

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What to do in Istanbul on your second day?

Lots of nice stuff! I suggest you go again to Sultanahmet neighbourhood to visit all the other historical attraction there.

Your busy day can start at the Topkapi Palace, a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. Explore the rooms, the expositions, and the famous Harem. The architecture is beautiful and the view from there is to die for.

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From the Topkapi Palace you can walk to the Hagia Sophia Museum, one of my favourites tourist attraction in Istanbul. This powerful building is part of the human history, constructed in 537 the former church and mosque tells our past through paintings, colours and designs.

When we visit Hagia Sophia for the first time in 2009 we could see clearly the magnificence of the building, now there are some internal restoration going on, so you can´t see all the place, but still worthy to visit.

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To finish your tour around the old town you must visit Süleymaniye Mosque, near the Grand Bazaar, and Chora Church, this one is a bit far from Sultanahmet, but you must go see it.

To get to Kariye Museum (the Byzantine Chora Church) you can take a taxi or try the public transportation. The Ferry to Ayvansaray and the buses 31E, 32, 36 and 38E from Eminön – Sultanahmet goes straight to there. Before visiting Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Chora Church check the official website for timetables and entrance fees.

For your second night in Istanbul what about a Narghilé Bar?

Be prepared to immerse yourself in scented smoke, delicious Turkish coffee, fruits, nuts, hours of laughs, board games and talk.

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We enjoyed a “Hookah, the Turkish narghilé,  in Karaköy, near Tophane tram station, just beside Istanbul Modern Museum. Locals and tourists fill up the bars to watch football matches and have fun. Of course, we were there too and we tried the apple flavour narghilé! Tip: keep an eye on your bill, we heard some complaints about rip offs on that area.

Our list of what to do in Istanbul is far from the end, now that you already visit the ancient places is time to cross the Golden Horn (the river that divides Sultanahmet and Beyoglu) and enjoy the new part of Istanbul.

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I would recommend you to start your third day visiting the Dolmabahçe Palace. The garden, the Bosphorus view, and the architecture are quite impressive. The guided tour inside the place is in Turkish and English, and they allowed just 3K visitors per day. Be aware that on Mondays and Thursday Dolmabahçe is close to the public.

All the info about the hours and tickets on their website Turkish National Palaces.

After the visit go to the Kabataş Port, facing the Bosphorus on the right side of the Dolmabahçe Palace. There you will find a small food stall just beside the ticket/departure building. Those two guys sell the best köfte sandwich in Istanbul.

For only  7TL ($ 3usd) you will have the real taste of Turkish food. Fresh meat, warm bread, some spices and a cup of tea! Be careful with the cats, they are super fast when it comes to stealing your food. We love this place so much that many days we crossed the whole city center just to go there and eat the köfte.  😀

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Now it´s time to enjoy the Bosphorus Cruise.  The boat departure is just beside of the köfte stall, super handy! You should buy the hop on hop off boat trip, it will take you to the most important ports on the Bosphorus, till the end of the channel where it reaches the Black Sea.

The first boat departures at 12:45pm, and this is the best option so you can have the whole afternoon to enjoy the trip. And trust me it´s  an amazing ride, we already did the Bosphorus tour three times. 😉

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What to do in Istanbul in your third night? I would say it´s time to explore the Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. There so many people on the streets, a huge option of bars and restaurants. Don’t be afraid to explore the small alleys, there you will find local places for a genuine Turkish experience.

One restaurant that we really liked in Taksim is called Selvi.  It´s a Turkish buffet restaurant with delicious food, fair price, and some locals. Its best asset is the big window where you can see all the dishes and choose the most beautiful one. The soups were amazing, and my favourite dish was the pilav (rice with spices and pomegranate seeds).

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This area is the best spots for a good night out too. If you are looking for some action I suggest the bars around Sofyali Sokağı, they have nice cocktails and interesting people. For dancing, you can go to Propaganda, Garage, Topless Terrace, Babylon, Indigo, and Kasette.

All these clubs are in Beyoglu, around Taksim and Tunel stations, the crowd is a mix of Turks and expats. We tried all of them and liked a lot :-). Avoid going to the noisy clubs located at Istiklal Street, the promoters will approach you on the street offering fun and cheap drinks. DON`T GO!! Many people have being scammed in those places. They are tourists traps.

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Good Morning!! Are you  hangover???

If yes, I would say to take it easy and go for some shopping around Istiklal Street. Most of the shops open around 10am and you can find nice stuff there. Look for the sign INDIRIM, that means on sale. My little secrets: indirim was the second word I learnt in Turkish, and help me a lot during the bargain talks.

Reserve some time to visit the Galata Tower. The round shaped tower is an imponent landmark in Istanbul and from the top you have a 360º city view. To get to the top probably you will have to queue for some minutes, but no worries, buy a pomegranate and orange juice (they are delicious) and enjoy the beautiful square. Don’t bother to go up to the tower for the sunset, it will be too crowded and definitely is not the best spot for it.

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Talking about sunset, the best place to enjoy it is Üsküdar Pier in the Asian side of Istanbul. You can take a ferry from Karaköy, Kabataş ou Eminönü straight to Üsküdar, drop from the boat and walk towards the Maiden´s Tower. When you reach the smalls bars and some stairs in front of the sea it´s time to stop and take a seat. Order a tea and wait for the stunning show the sun will perform for you!

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As I said: Istanbul will overwhelm you!!

The sunset is just the beginning of the night, our next destination is Ortaköy, a neighbourhood near the Bosphorus Bridge on the European side. This area is famous for its picturesque commercial center, stunning mosque, and baked potatoes. To get there you can take a ferry, a bus or a taxi.

With the lights on the Ortaköy Mosque seems to be floating on the Bosphorus. A picture with the mosque and the bridge on the background  is a must for all the travellers and locals.

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You should not leave Ortaköy without tasting the Kumpir (baked potato) and the Gozleme (thin dough with different fillings). Many stalls are lined up on the square waiting for you to discover the different ingredients, like in a gastronomic adventure. When we talk about what to do in Istanbul, food and drinks are part of the experience, you can’t enjoy the city if you don’t taste its flavours.

Never the last, we still have some local tips for you 😉

 

What to do in Istanbul part II – Love and Road Istanbul Travel Secrets

If you have spare time in Istanbul go to the Asian side. Most of the tourists and travellers don’t have time to explore this area and they are missing a bunch of cool and interesting things. From the european side you can get a boat to Kadiköy and explore the neighbourhood.

What to do in Istanbul Asian side?

Visit nice shops, food market and local restaurants. We didn’t know about this area until our lovely Turkish friends took us there. Thank you Mert and Gökçe for the amazing day trip!

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Around Kadiköy you can get a tram to Moda, another famous neighbourhood. Full of upper-class buildings, this is where some celebrities live. What is so nice about there? The pier and the stunning Marmara Sea view. Sit, order a coffee or a tea, the seagulls and the nature will reward you!

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Still on the Asian side you can also go to the Fernerbahçe Park for some sports, sunset, and fancy dinners.

To buy  cheap and local stuff  Kadiköy Sali Pazari is the best option. This is a massive Tuesday market (more than 1800 stalls) where you can find food, clothes, shoes, houseware… Everything you can imagine and can buy. I bought a legging for $5 TL ($ 2 usd). 🙂

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To go back to the European side take the Marmaray. Only in Istanbul you can go from Asia to Europe by a  underwater train. To cross the Bosphorus by train takes only a few minutes, you don’t feel that you are submerged, but even though is a nice experience.

Once you are back on the shore take some time to sit around the Golden Horn and drink a traditional tea (çay). That is the best way to finish your day and your trip to Istanbul. Doesn’t matter if have time enough to follow all our what to do in Istanbul travel guide, the most important thing is to experiment simple and unique moments. Sip a tea and enjoy this beautiful view is an unforgettable experience.

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Our travel guide with all the secrets about where to stay and what to do in Istanbul comes to the end. It was supposed to be a small post but turned into a huge article. Do you need any more info about what to do in Istanbul?
After visiting Istanbul why not enjoy the Turkish coast? Sunmaster offers all inclusive deals to the best resorts in Turkey.
Please, leave your thoughts!

72 Comments

  1. “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople…” I’m totally going to have that song stuck in my head all day now! I’ve never been to Istanbul, but it looks amazing. I’m pinning this for my future travels!

  2. I really appreciate the amount of HQ pics you have attached to the article, they give me great examples of what you write about. I should get one of those fancy cameras, as well for my next trips 😉 As I mentioned in one of previous comments, I haven’t been to Istanbul unfortunately, but I have just added this article to my bookmarks for my trip there. And as you have been talking about those scammers in night clubs, sadly, they are everywhere making money from visitors 🙁
    Milan Bardun recently posted…Vianočné trhy v Bratislave už 21 rokov!My Profile

    1. Hi Milan,
      Tks, we have more than 1500 pictures from Istanbul!
      Pls go there, you will not regret!
      That`s true, every place we visited there was some sort of scam with some nightclubs.
      Merry Xtmas!

  3. A great follow up to the first post!

    Those markets look divine, although I’d loved to see some more budget conscious tips for the accommodation options (we’re very thrifty travellers, especially when on the road for so long) 😉
    Chris recently posted…Tikal me pinkMy Profile

  4. Hey Trisha!

    We´ll be in Istanbul next year from 25th of march till 2nd of April… Just a short trip this time. But maybe we can meet there. What are your plans?
    About work exchange, there is one site that I like a lot and they always have something going on in Istanbul, is called http://www.worldpackers.com. Also, if you go to the Starbucks Coffee Shop along Istiklal Street you can find lots of opportunities on the Message Boards. This year I found there a Theater Company hiring english speakers people, they needed amateur actors for children´s play during Xmas Holiday… Craigslists is also good to find some jobs…
    If you need any more info just let me know!

    Happy Holidays,
    Nat

    1. Hey Agness!

      You should go to Istanbul, and not only there. Go at least for a month to explore the countryside of Turkey too, it´s incredible.
      Hope you can make it this year! Fingers crossed for you! We already have our tickets booked, on March we are landing in Istanbul again 🙂

      Safe and happy travels!
      Nat

  5. I guess I am one of the travellers that really was not that impressed with Istanbul. I expected more: and I’ve been to places you describe, including crossing Bosforus on my own, sheesha, local food, bazars, the Asian side… Beyond the beauty, there is a lot of ugliness in that city, and the contrast was kind of unpleasant to me (really poor streets around the Grand Bazar etc). – and feeling like I constantly have to be on guard regarding prices of everything everywhere. I did enjoy some bartering but it was a bit much. What I liked is walking alongside the Roman Aqueduct remains and finding the old Constantinople city walls, totally forgotten, giving an amazing view of what that city once was. Try to find it next time you are there, it is definitely off the beaten track. Or exploring the totally unmarked ruins right opposite (the other side of the street) to Basilica Cistern main entrance, and trying to guess what they once were. But no… Istambul ain’t my cup of tea, scuse the pun 🙂

  6. Hey!!
    I´m sad to hear that Istanbul didn’t impress you, but we all have different tastes (and that´s a good thing). I also have visited some places that most of travelers love and I didn’t like at all. I think it all depends on the way you look the place, people you meet and your expectations…
    Definitely Istanbul is a city of contrasts, and as big city there are some ugliness and poverty. However there is beauty in the caos.
    We did passed by the Roman Aqueducts, but I didn’t have information enough to talk about them here in blog post, that´s why it is not on the list of attraction… But it is on our “to visit list” for our next trip to Turkey. On April will be landing in Istanbul for more discoveries.
    All the best, and thank you for stopping by and share your thoughts
    🙂
    Nat
    Natalie Deduck recently posted…Summer in Sydney – What to do?My Profile

  7. Nice round up. I lived in Istanbul for four years and when I visit, I always stay in Sultanahmed. One more attraction, if I may: Magic Ice the only ice museum in a warm European country, truly magic.As you love Istanbul so much and maybe visit my blog, you’ll find a link to my book: City of the Green Eyed Beauty which is a literary guide to Istanbul with many more secret corners.
    inka recently posted…A winter wonderland in the south of GermanyMy Profile

  8. Hey InKa!!

    Thanks for the comment… It´s so nice when someone that lived on the city tells us we are doing a good job! 🙂
    We really love Istanbul, in fact we considered live there for a while, but then our feet started itching and we had to keep travelling.
    I will definitely check the Magic Ice Museum and with some nice pictures and info update our post. Also will check our big!
    Thanks again!
    Happy Travels!

    Nat
    Natalie Deduck recently posted…Summer in Sydney – What to do?My Profile

    1. Yes Norman, Istanbul is really crowded, but it´s an amazing city, full of hidden spots and beautiful places…
      You definitely should to go there!!
      Thanks for stopping by!
      Cheers,
      Nat 😀

  9. Hey thanks for sharing such amazing info. Could you please share your experience of kilyos and which beach to actually go to? i have just 2 days stop at istanbul and i m a beach lover, also if you could suggest staying at kilyos is doable? thanks a bunch

    1. Hello Gul,
      We didn`t visit Kilyos yet but some friends did and mentioned that it`s an amazing place. In summer time is better since the beach clubs are open.
      There are plenty of hotels available. ( pls book via our booking.com links/banners 😉 )
      If you are short in time suggest to go there by taxi, should cost around Eur 40 each way.
      cheers,

  10. Wow it looks like you had such an amazing time in Istanbul. I totally agree with you about dressing in respect to people’s cultures. It’s only fair that you pay attention to the culture of the country you are in.

    1. That´s true Sophie, dressing respectfully makes all the different. The locals treat you better, you feel part of the culture and also you can have great pictures! 😉
      Thanks for stopping by!
      Nat

    1. I´m glad you liked the post!
      We had such a great time in Istanbul and it was hard no to write a long and comprehensive article. We really want to inspire more people to go there and enjoy the stunning city!
      Happy Travels,

      Nat

  11. I absolutely adored Istanbul! I stayed at Cheers Hostel in Sultanahmet which was incredible value for an awesome location. A really good budget option!

    1. Thanks for the tip Bethany!
      Find a place to stay that is comfy and good value for money can be a bit challenging in Istanbul. So many offer and a huge city. Always good to have some recommendation!
      Cheers,
      Nat

  12. Love that post! Thank you for sharing it.
    I can recommend Elmadag/Harbiye area for accommodation since it is a neighbourhood that locals are living and also just few meters away from Taksim square. It is both quiet and has a central location.
    Last week I stayed at Deniz’s apartment and i really enjoyed it i can recommend it to all travellers. You can have a look;
    https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6943257

  13. Bookmarked your post and will probably use for my upcoming trip to istanbul (19th nov to 28th nov).
    Is it winter or still autumn.
    Also about the trip to the Asian side, how can i get there

    1. Hi Hana!
      Hope you will enjoy Istanbul!
      It will be still Autumn but probably with lower temperatures.
      To go to the Asian side you can get ferries from Emınönü, Karaköy, Kabataş or Beşıktaş. There is also a metro connection look for the line Marmaray.
      Cheers!
      PS. Pls book your hotels vis the links in our blog 😉

  14. Thanks for a great article, my wife and I live in Fethiye and have wanted to visit Istanbul for some time and at last we are going next week for 4 nights, we are planing to do all you have mentioned as it sounds amazing… So excited… Thanks again.. Mark..

    1. Hi Mark & Jackie!!
      So nice to read your comment!! Enjoy Istanbul for us, drink a lot of tea and enjoy the Bosphorus view. The weather will the chilly now, hope you get sunny days. We are missing a lot that city! Now I want to ask you something: how is Fethiye? We have heard amazing things about the beaches, but how is life there? We are planning to go back to Turkey, but next time we want to explore the coast and Fethiye is on our list!
      Have a great trip!!!
      Nat 🙂
      Natalie Deduck recently posted…What to do in Phuket » Attractions Beyond Patong BeachMy Profile

  15. I am going to Istanbul for the first time in the beginning of February. I will be there in winter so I probably won’t be outside as much, but I’m still very excited. Thanks for all of your tips!

    1. Enjoy Istanbul!!
      Even on winter time, the city is stunning, and I bet you will be outside more than you expect, the city is so inviting and you don’t want to miss a thing!
      Cheers,
      Nat

  16. Just a question, is it advisable to book just a hotel during a whole trip or move around? I am planning for 10 days trip there.

    p/s: Super love your detailed sharing!

    1. Hi El,
      Happy that you found the post useful! If you are staying 10 days in Istanbul, maybe you can split the dates and stay half of it close to Sultanahmet and the other half by Taksim/Beşiktaş area.

      Happy Travels,
      Nat

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