Planning your first trip to Istanbul? How exciting! After two months living in the Turkish cultural capital, I have knowledge enough to give all the tips you need to organize your holiday to Istanbul, Turkey. This is one of my favorite destinations, we already have been there four times, and every year that I put my feet there, feels like it´s my first time in Istanbul.
Istanbul is a dream destination, it’s located on the edge of Europe where east meets west. Connecting the two continents, the city hides layers of history, culture, colors, and scents. The architecture, the food, everything in Istanbul tells a story. The city is busy, fast, never stops, but when you need a break from all this fervid life there is always a nice garden, a small tea house or a mosque where you can seat, breathe and relax.
First trip to Istanbul? Here is all you need to know!
Many people have the idea that Turkey is not a friendly country due to the Muslim religion and culture. But the truth is: when you leave the prejudice behind you will be enchanted by the beauty of Turkey and its people. The more you discover the city the more you will fall in love with Istanbul.
For your first trip to Istanbul, I would recommend at least five days, so you can have a taste of the ancient city and also enjoy the modern side of Istanbul. Although if you want to explore the big cities and the countryside, I´d say you should book 10 days or a 2-week Turkey itinerary. On our last trip to Turkey, we spent 60 days around the country and we didn’t have time to enjoy everything.
Istanbul is huge, in 2019 there were 15 million people living there. The city is as big as any other European capital, however, Turkey is a cheap destination if you compare it with other countries. With good travel planning, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your first trip to Istanbul without emptying your pocket. Sounds good, isn’t it?
» Arriving and departing from Istanbul, Turkey
You can travel to Istanbul by bus, train, boat or flight, the best option will depend on where you are coming from. All the major budget airlines fly to Istanbul Airport and Sabiha Airport, Turkish Airlines has good connections from all around the world. Also, check the flight fares on Skyscanner or Kiwi.com.
If you are searching for some unique experience you can travel to Istanbul by train. The famous Orient Express Route doesn’t operate anymore, however, you can use EURAIL PASS to get there from Europe and travel around Turkey by train.
» Visa and immigration formalities for your first trip to Istanbul
As you are traveling to a different country you always have to do good research about visas and the documents you will need to cross the border. Last year the Turkish government changed their visa policies, now many tourists that in the past had to apply for the visa at the Turkish Embassy can do it online in a really simple way. On the Turkish Visa Information website, you can check all the rules, the fees, and how to get your visa on arrival. If you are having trouble with your visa application, you can seek personal assistance with your Turkish visa here.
To organize all your documents follow our list of 7 Essential Tips Before Travelling, I’m sure you don’t want to ruin your first trip to Istanbul just because of some visa or document misunderstanding.
» Where to stay in Istanbul on your first visit
Istanbul has over 4 thousand hotels, hostels, guest houses, and flats. From cheap accommodation to really pricey tags. Definitely, you will be overwhelmed by the number of places to stay in Istanbul the variety of prices and services offered.
There are many helpful sites like First Choice that can make your life easy while booking a luxurious room or a budget hotel in Istanbul. Sometimes you can find affordable holiday packages to Istanbul, including flights and accommodation.
Some of the areas that are nice to stay in Istanbul are: Sultanahmet, Beyoglu, and Taksim. All of them are surrounded by restaurants, street food and are a safe place to stay.
Hotels in Sultanahmet that we recommend:
Hotels in Beyoglu that we recommend:
Best hotels in Taksim that we recommend:
» What to do in Istanbul
Istanbul is plenty of tourist attractions, from ancient ruins, palaces, worldwide famous mosques, narghile bars, and endless shops inside the Grand Bazaar. So many things to do and see that you will need time and energy to visit it all. To help you to organize your first trip to Istanbul here goes a list of some places you should not miss.
- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia – have a look at this tour
- Topkapı Palace – you can save time and skip the line with this tour
- Basilica Cistern
- Grand Bazaar
- Spice Bazaar
- Suleymaniye Mosque
- Galata Tower
- Dolmabahçe Palace
- Taksim Square and İstiklal Ave
- Bosphorus Boat Tour (book online and skip the line)
- Ortaköy neighborhood
- Sunset at Uskudar
All the details about the attractions and what to do in Istanbul you can find on the blog posts below:
- Travel Secrets: what to do and where to stay in Istanbul
- The most Instagrammable places in Istanbul
- Things to do in Istanbul on the European and Asian sides
» How to get around Istanbul
As soon as you arrive in the city buy an Istanbul Card in one of the automatic machines. This card is accepted in all public transports even on boats. Cheaper than the single journey ticket (jeton), you can top up the card with any amount of money you want.
If are staying more than 3 days and planning to visit many attractions, then buying the Istanbul Welcome Card might be a good option as it includes public transportation and entrance to 12 attractions (skip the line benefit) for 7 days.
Most of the places and tourist attractions in Istanbul can be reached by public transport, especially by tram, metro, boats, and funicular (buses can be a bit complicated to use there). But I would suggest you walk as much as possible. Istanbul is an amazing city, with great architecture and hidden places. Exploring the city on foot is a unique opportunity to meet locals and enjoy the real Turkish feeling.
If you need to use a Taxi, make sure the meter is on and don’t accept flat rates to go to the tourists’ attractions. For sure they will charge you far more than it’s worth. From Istanbul Airport, you can reach the city using public transportation. Bus shuttle to/from both airports to the city center are offered by Havaist.
For booking private transfers to/from Sabiha Airport and Istanbul Airport to/from your hotel I recommend using the services offered by GetYourGuide. Click here for Sabiha Airport and here for Istanbul Airport.
» Eating & drinking in Istanbul
Welcome to the paradise of food, sweets, and teas. The streets of Istanbul are packed with kebab stalls, cozy restaurants, teas, and coffee shops. There are so many flavors, spices, ingredients that Turkish food would deserve one entire and delicious blog post.
One thing you have to keep in mind is: Try Everything!! Food is not expensive in Turkey, even in a nice restaurant in Istanbul you would not pay a fortune for a good meal. Local dinners can be found around Taksim Square and at Istiklal Street. Go to the Turkish buffet restaurants to see and try different dishes. As for dessert, the traditional baklava with ice cream or some Turkish delights are a must.
Consider joining a food tour where you can taste and learn about the delicious Turkish food.
» Best time to visit Istanbul
Istanbul is beautiful and worth the visit any time of the year, but as the season changes the number of tourists in the city also varies. Spring and the beginning of summer are my favorite times to be in there. I would definitely recommend you to do your first trip to Istanbul during May and June.
In summertime be prepared for hot (really hot) temperatures, long days and amazing boat tours. When winter arrives it´s pretty cold and windy, but maybe you can be lucky enough to see some snow around there. And when it´s snowing Istanbul looks like a magical place. This year was the first time we got cold weather in Turkey (we were there in September and October), but we didn’t stay longer to wait for the snow season.
» What to avoid in Istanbul
For a big city, Istanbul is quite safe. Maybe you can be surprised by the number of people begging on the streets, but most of the time they will not cause any harm to you. Because of the conflicts in the Middle East, many refugees are living on Istanbul’s street.
There is an area around Tarlabasi Street, close to Taksim Square, that is known for being a place of drug dealers, prostitutes, and danger. So please avoid that to go there especially during the nighttime.
As we are a foreigner in a Muslim country, we should respect their traditions and habits. When you are enjoying the city there is no need to cover yourself or be worried about your clothes. However when you visit the mosques and religious sites please wear long skirts or trousers, also remember to cover your shoulders and chest.
A nice scarf is always a good option to cover your head inside the mosques and to protect you from the sun and the heat. And girls, we know that a nice scarf or pashmina will turn any simple look into a stylish outfit.
Now that you know everything about traveling to Istanbul for the first time, start planning your holiday and enjoy this incredible city.