Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, is the only city in the world belonging to two continents. This vibrant metropolis spans both Europe and Asia, making it an incredibly unique place to visit. Formerly known as Constantinople, it was the capital of both Byzantine and Ottoman empires and holds an important place in history. The ancient city has so much history and culture to uncover and fall in love with.
With so much to explore in such a large city, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what to do in Istanbul. Luckily for you, we’re here to take away some of the stress! This Istanbul guide will teach you all you need to know for your next trip.
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How to get to Istanbul
The city now has three international airports. Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST) is on the European side in Yeşilköy and is one of the busiest airports in the world. Shuttle buses run every half hour to Taksim Square, or you can catch the M1A train.
Also on the European side is the recently built Istanbul Airport (ISL) in the Arnavutköy district. Built with the intention of becoming the world’s biggest airport, it will eventually be the main airport for the city. From January 1, 2019, it will be the hub for all Turkish Airlines flights.
The third airport is Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), located on the Asian side in Pendik. Although much smaller, it is still a very busy airport that’s popular with low-cost airlines. The E10 shuttle bus runs to Kadıköy, and the E11 can take you to Taksim on the European side.
What to expect in Istanbul
The local language in Istanbul is Turkish. It uses the Latin alphabet and is always phonetic, so it’s not too difficult to learn a few phrases or translate words on the go. You won’t see or hear much English, though many young people will be able to communicate with you. Of course, those working in hotels and major tourist areas will also be able to speak some English.
Turkey uses a currency called lira. You’ll likely get a better exchange rate if you wait until you’re in the country to convert from your own money. It is important to tip at restaurants, cafes and hammam spas. However, you are only expected to leave a humble amount. When tipping your waiter, leave an extra five per cent of the bill in either notes or coins. Never leave foreign coins as they cannot be exchanged into lira. You aren’t required to tip taxi drivers unless they have helped you with luggage.
How to get around Istanbul
Traffic jams are an everyday occurrence in Istanbul. Fortunately, you can take the ferry instead! It can be the most convenient way to cross the Bosphorus, and it’s definitely the most scenic. The main ferry stations are Karaköy, Beşiktaş, Kabataş, and Eminönü.
For the times you need to travel on land, you have multiple public transport options. To catch any bus, train or tram, you’ll need an Istanbulkart. This electronic smart card allows you to pay for fares, and you can pick one up at the airport or at any station.
If you want to get from one side of the city to the other, catch the metro. The M2 line is the one you’ll likely use the most as a tourist, with stops in Şişhane, Taksim and Osmanbey. The T1 tram line is also ideal for quickly making your way into the old city, where you’ll find the majority of attractions.
A shared taxi is a common way to get around and is available 24/7. Known in Turkey as a dolmuş, these minibuses run along specific routes but allow you to hop off whenever you want. Most are bright yellow and easy to identify. Once you get in, tell the driver your destination and pay the necessary amount, then the dolmuş will leave once it’s full.
Although it’s less about commuting and more about the experience, you can also catch a historic tram along İstiklal Caddesi, one of the most famous streets in the city.
Ride-sharing services like Uber are illegal in Turkey, though you may still be able to order metered taxis using the app.
The best time to visit Istanbul
Although the climate in Istanbul is a mix of Mediterranean and oceanic, the winters can become a bit chilly and dull. For the best weather, visit during autumn or spring. July and August are the hottest months, with many 30°C days. Depending on where you’re from, the summertime may be too humid to spend exploring.
Many Turks observe Ramadan between May and June. Istanbul is a very different experience during this holy month, so you may prefer to organise your trip before or after it.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Empress Zoe: The first thing you’ll notice about this hotel is its beautiful and charming façade. Vibrant flowers and vines hang down the ancient walls, and the interiors are just as welcoming. There are 25 rooms and suites decorated in the Ottoman style, with traditional Turkish textiles and Islamic folk art. The rooftop terrace has a stunning view of the sea and surrounding mosques, and the central garden is a welcome, luscious oasis. Best of all, the hotel located in the old city of Sultanahmet, less than 400 metres from the Hagia Sophia.
Villa Pera Suite Hotel: If you’d prefer to stay in the hip district of Beyoğlu, this quaint hotel will make you feel right at home. The rooms are located in two historical buildings and filled with stunning antiques. It’s a five-minute walk to Taksim Square, where you’ll find a ton of shopping and dining options. The owners and staff are happy to greet you no matter what hour you arrive, and the friendly hospitality will continue for the duration of your stay.
Things to do in Istanbul
Your go-to shopping destination in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar. This iconic market is one of the greatest and largest in the world. Although it’s always incredibly busy with 250,000 to 400,000 daily visitors, the bustle adds to the experience. It’s common for salespeople to offer you a cup of tea, which allows for a slow bargaining process. You can generally get item prices down by 30 to 50 per cent. Your first visit to the bazaar may be a sensory overload, so take your time wandering and remember to enjoy the experience as much as you can.
To see a stunning panoramic view of Istanbul, head to Karaköy and climb up the Galata Tower. The 14th-century medieval landmark overlooks the Bosphorus that separates Europe and Asia. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sunset and marvel at the beauty of the city.
If you’re after an unusual experience, you’ll definitely want to check out the Basilica Cistern. This ancient underground cistern is the largest of hundreds that lay beneath Istanbul. 336 marble columns support the nine-metre-tall ceiling, two of which are carved with the head of Medusa. If you can handle the spooky atmosphere, this place is definitely worth exploring.
Places to visit in Istanbul
If you’re going to be visiting a lot of attractions during your trip, you might like to get an Istanbul Museum Pass. A one-time payment of 165 lira grants you a card to access many museums and points of interest within five days. If you only have limited time in Istanbul, it’ll save you having to wait in line to buy individual tickets.
The best spots you can use this card at include:
Hagia Sophia: Known as Ayasofya in Turkish, this architectural masterpiece is the heart of Istanbul’s history. The former Greek Orthodox cathedral and later Ottoman mosque was first constructed in 537 AD and has been a museum since 1935. The remarkable Byzantine building is abstractly designed with marble and mosaic elements, and has a dome height of 56 metres.
Topkapı Palace: This large 15th-century museum was once the main residence for Ottoman sultans. There are many interesting stories to learn about as you explore the various courts and pavilions. The harem is a highlight for many who visit here.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts: This art museum showcases incredible Islamic calligraphy, hand-woven Anatolian carpets and intricate wall tiles. You can also learn about Turkey’s ethnic and nomadic groups, with examples of Yörük folk art.
Rumeli Fortress: The Rumelihisarı was an important fortress that secured the Ottoman siege of Constantinople. Today, it serves as a museum and an open-air venue for concerts and festivals. As a bonus, you’ll find a lot of friendly cats around the area.
Another place you must visit is the iconic Blue Mosque. Although the official name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, its more common name comes from the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn the interior walls. No words can describe how breathtaking and impressive this historic landmark is. Just from the outside, you can easily understand why it’s considered one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. It’s opposite the Hagia Sophia and continues to function as a mosque. During the five daily prayer times, you’ll be unable to enter the mosque.
There’s also the Süleymaniye Mosque, a stunning example of Ottoman architecture. Like other imperial mosques, there’s a beautiful marble courtyard at the front with a central fountain. The mausoleums of Sultan Süleyman and his wife Roxelana are behind the wall of the mosque.
What to eat in Istanbul
Turkey is famous for its delicious cuisine, and you’ll have many opportunities to taste as much of it as you can in Istanbul. Here are some of the most common street foods to look out for:
Simit: A crunchy, circular bread with sesame seeds. It’s a classic breakfast-to-go option in Turkey, but can be eaten as a snack too.
Kumpir: A baked potato filled with a range of toppings. You can choose to add cheese, corn, pickles, carrots, olives and more.
Dürüm: A wrap filled with döner kebab meat and salad. You’ve likely had a variation of this meal before without realising it originated in Turkey.
Balik ekmek: Fish sandwiches sold along the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge. You know they’re fresh when they’re being sold and prepared right from tiny boats!
Kestane: Roasted chestnuts served hot in a paper bag. They’re the perfect snack on a cold winter’s day.
Lahmacun: A type of Turkish pizza made with flatbread and topped with spicy minced meat.
You can’t visit Istanbul without eating some Turkish delight, or lokum as the locals call it. It’s almost always served with Turkish coffee as a sweet treat. It’s a facet of the great hospitality you’ll find here, but it also perfectly balances the strong taste of the coffee. If you want to sample more than the traditional rosewater flavour, you’ll find dozens of varieties at speciality shops or the Grand Bazaar. You should also stop by a bakery and try some baklava and börek, both of which are made with filo pastry.
Tours to do in Istanbul
The ultimate Istanbul tour to go on is a Bosphorus cruise. There is truly no better way to take in the city than from the sea. Tours can last one to 10 hours and range from 25 to 80 euros on Viator. Some of the most popular cruises will take you to visit Rumeli Fortress, Küçüksu Palace or Dolmabahçe Palace. If you’ve already seen all the sights, you can opt for a dinner cruise with some Anatolian wine or raki (Turkey’s signature alcoholic drink).
If you want to learn about Istanbul from a local’s perspective, there are many private guided tours of the main museums and mosques.
Day trips from Istanbul
Get out of the city for a day and take a 13-hour tour to the Black Sea. Explore the gorgeous scenic towns of Şile and Ağva to learn about small-town life in Turkey. You can also take a boat ride down the gorgeous Göksu River.
Another option is to head to the charming island of Büyükada. This eight-hour tour includes a boat trip through the Sea of Marmara, horse-drawn carriage rides, and a guided history lesson.
Refer back to this guide when planning your trip to Turkey to ensure you don’t miss out on the best Istanbul attractions. Hopefully, you’ve learned a few insights and know more about what to expect when visiting Istanbul.
Want to learn how to travel on a Budget? Check out our dedicated “Budget Conscious Travel Guide”
Recommend budget tours in Istanbul
- Gallipoli and Troy Tour from Istanbul
- Best of Istanbul: 1, 2, or 3-Day Private Guided Tour
- All Inclusive Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Turkish Night Show from Istanbul
- Highlights of Istanbul: 1 or 2-Day Private Guided Tour
- Cappadocia 2-Day Tour with Hot Air Balloon Ride
- Istanbul City Tour with Bosphorus Strait Sightseeing Cruise
- Small Group Tour: Essential Istanbul
- Istanbul by Night: Turkish Food Tour
- Istanbul Two Continents Tour Including Dolmabahçe Palace and Bosphorus Sightseeing Cruise
- Byzantine & Ottoman Relics Tour : Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque
- Cappadocia Hot-Air Balloon Tour from Istanbul with 1-Night Cave Hotel
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