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 (the practical stuff), 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.
To start out travel plan let me ask you one thing: What is your style of travel? 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 to these questions will help you to organize your travel and to fall in love with Istanbul.
Also, don’t forget to read our guide to the top things to do in Cappadocia, and discover the beauty of Turkey’s countryside.
To help you plan your Istanbul trip let’s split this post into 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 expectations about the trip, the answer will guide us to find the best spot for you. We usually book our stays on Booking.com or Agoda.
» 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 neighborhood 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. On our first trip to Istanbul we booked a hostel in Sultanahmet and no regrets.
Our recommendation for hotels in Istanbul – Sultanahmet are:
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.
Middle range price with superb service. Breakfast is included and 5 – 10 minutes walking to Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
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.
» Best hotels in Beyoğlu
Another hotspot for travelers is the Beyoglu area. I love it! This is where we stayed in Istanbul on our second and third trips. 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 sell 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 Karabatak Cafe in Karaköy. Enjoy a gourmet cappuccino while watching the fashion Turks pass by.
The other place we adore is Cihangir. The old three-story buildings with long corridors and tiny stairs 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.
One stone way from Taksim Square, this place is full of bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s not the cheapest part of the neighborhood, however, budget travelers would definitely save some money on food and leisure there, if you can find places for all tastes and pockets.
My suggestion for nice hotels in Istanbul – Beyoglu is:
Set in a historic building with high ceilings and elegant decoration. You can have views of the Galata Bridge or Galata Tower, some rooms have even a Haman. The location is great, close to the Karakoy Tram station, Karakoy pier and also to Tunnel Station.
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!
Here your neighbor will be the Galata Tower, nice isn’t it?! Breakfast included, bar service and restaurant. All the facilities and pampering you need in one of the busiest areas of Istanbul.
» Best hotels in Taksim
Taksim neighborhood is famous for luxurious hotels like 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.
Here are our pick for the best places to stay in Taksim:
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.
Well located, friendly and English-speaking staff, near to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street.
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 the best meal to start a busy day and the Turks take it very seriously.
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 travelers who visit it. As I already told you, this is one of my favorite 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!
After the Turkish breakfast find your way to the Grand Bazaar (a guided tour can be a good option) at the Sultanahmet area. Be prepared to fall in love with the jewelry, drink some special çay (tea), taste delicious Turkish delights and bargain for souvenirs, pashminas and carpets. OMG! There are so many beautiful things there.
One thing I’ve learned 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 a 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.
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.
If you want to learn about the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia (more about it later on) and Grand Bazaar, have a look at this guided tour that visits the three attactions in half day. It’s good value for money option, and you also save time.
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!
What to do in Istanbul on your second day?
Lots of nice stuff! I suggest you go again to Sultanahmet neighborhood to visit all the other historical attractions 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.
This is a great option for travelers who want to save time. The Istanbul Topkapi Palace Guided Tour and Skip The Line, let you get in the palace without waiting in the queue, plus you’ll have a guide to explain about all the details and history.
From the Topkapi Palace you can walk to the Hagia Sophia Museum, one of my favorites 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, colors and designs. To understand a bit more of its rich history buy your Hagia Sophia entrance ticket with a guided tour.
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.
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. Another option is to join a group tour through the Byzantine Monasteries that will take you to Chora Church and other attractions.
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.
We enjoyed the “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 flavor 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.
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 allow just 3K visitors per day. Be aware that on Mondays and Thursday Dolmabahçe is close to the public.
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. 😀
Now it’s time to enjoy the Bosphorus Cruise. The boat departure is just beside of the köfte stall, super handy! You can buy your Hop-On-Hop-Off Bosphorus Boat ticket here (save time buying it in advance). 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. 😉
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 favorite dish was the pilav (rice with spices and pomegranate seeds).
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 been scammed in those places. They are tourists traps.
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 secret: indirim was the second word I learned in Turkish, and help me a lot during the bargain talks.
Reserve some time to go on a walking tour and 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.
Talking about sunset, the best place to enjoy it is Üsküdar Pier on 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!
As I said: Istanbul will overwhelm you!!
The sunset is just the beginning of the night, our next destination is Ortaköy, a neighborhood 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 travelers and locals.
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 flavors.
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 travelers 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 neighborhood.
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!
Around Kadiköy you can get a tram to Moda, another famous neighborhood. 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!
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 pair of leggings for $5 TL ($ 2 usd). 🙂
To go back to the European side take the Marmaray. Only in Istanbul you can go from Asia to Europe by an 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. It 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.
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?
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