Your Istanbul travel experience could be far more than visiting mosques and hopping between continents. Although the cliche image of a city spanning between Europe and Asia works well, Istanbul is best known for being a cultural melting pot.
Traces of a long history remains of a once-great empire, waterfront views of fisherman and a culture that has been influenced by so many others have made Istanbul a unique and remarkable destination.
This was my second visit to Istanbul, after a rather unsuccessful trip from years back. But I knew that Istanbul was worth giving another chance, and I wasn’t wrong. Istanbul has truly cast a spell on us and I am officially hooked.
Now let’s get to the point:
Here’s the ultimate Istanbul Travel Guide
When’s the best time to travel to Istanbul?
Spring: I’ve been told by the locals that Istanbul is best visited in spring when the city is embellished with thousands of tulips, the weather’s lovely and the city is sprawling after months of cold.
Summer: My first visit to Istanbul was during the summer. It’s amazing if you want to head out to the islands and beaches, but it could get hot and humid wondering around the city. On the bright side, you have the long hours of sunshine which give you enough time to explore the city in a few days.
Autumn: This time we headed to Istanbul in autumn. The weather was chilly but absolutely delightful if you had enough layers. Nothing too cold put you off or stop you from wandering around the city in the evening.
Winter: If you’re not up for the humid cold and harsh winds, your Istanbul travel experience might not go that well during winter. Ferry rides may also become unpleasant.
Do I need a visa for visiting Istanbul?
Obtaining a visa for Turkey is a hassle-free procedure for most nationalities. There’s a big list of countries that don’t even need a visa but if you’re unsure about your passport, you can check your status here.
If you need to get a visa before your trip, here’s where you can apply for the e-visa.
Is it safe to travel to Istanbul?
Absolutely! There’s no reason anyone should think that Istanbul is not safe to travel. There’s always the chance of getting robbed when travelling to a popular tourist destination, but I never felt threatened or heard of any incidents from fellow travellers. I would feel completely safe travelling as a solo woman. There might be a few whispers and unwanted attention, but it’s nothing to stop you or ruin your Istanbul travel experience.
Where to stay in Istanbul?
The public transportation in Istanbul works like a charm, so getting a hotel anywhere close to one of the stations of the T1 train line will make your life a lot easier as it stops at all the main attractions.
But here’s a breakdown of some of the best neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul:
Sultanahmet: This is where all the main attractions are located. You’ve got the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern and Topkapi all at a walking distance and it’s a great option if you’re travelling to Istanbul for 2-3 days. There are lots of souvenir shops and restaurants in the neighbourhood but also expect ripoffs and high prices.
- Budget recommendation: Agora hostel, Antique hotel
- Mid-range recommendation: Panorama suites, Green Life Apart Hotel, Hotel Empress Zoe
- Luxury recommendation: Four Seasons, Ajwa hotel
The Galata side (Taksim, Beyoglu, Karakoy): These three neighbourhoods are pretty close to each other surrounding the Galata tower. They’re great for shopping, have tons of rooftop bars, cafes and restaurants and are easily accessible by metro. The streets around here are however very steep. It might be something to consider if you’re not up for walking up and down all the time.
- Budget recommendation: Hostel Bahane, Bunk Hostel
- Mid-range recommendation: Vila Pera suites, Green House hostel
- Luxury recommendation: Cirgan Palace
The Asian side (Moda and Kadikoy): Fewer tourists decide to stay on the Asian side. I also hadn’t made it here on my first trip but this time thanks to Culinary Backstreets, I got to walk around Kadikoy neighbourhood while making stops for food. I absolutely loved the vibe here. It’s less of a touristy area which means better prices and even better food. It’s also easily accessible by ferry, so accessibility shouldn’t be a problem.
- Budget recommendation: Hostel Bahane
- Mid-range recommendation: Loka Suites hotel
- Luxury recommendation: Wyndham Grand Istanbul
How to get a sim card in Istanbul?
Turkcell, Vodafone and Turk Telekom all offer prepaid sim cards for travellers. There are stalls at the airport but you can find them all around the touristy parts of the city. All the sim cards I asked for cost more than 100 Liras for at least 1G of data. I personally didn’t think it was worth it, but if you 100% need internet on your phone, then these are your options.
Where to exchange money in Istanbul?
The airport is probably the worst place to exchange money but you’ll be needing at least enough Lira to get you from the airport to the city. We found the best place to exchange money to be somewhere inside the Grand Bazaar. Our hotel manager also suggested the same. So just exchange as much as you need at the airport and leave the rest for the exchange shops in less touristy districts.
How to get from Istanbul new airport to the city?
Taxi: The new Istanbul airport is about 40km from Sultanahmed. It takes somewhere around 40 min to get to the city center depending on traffic and should cost 105-150 Lira.
Buses: 150 shuttle buses by the two companies Havaist and IETT are currently running between the new Istanbul Airport and the city. The first company has 20 different lines and the second one has 3. The journey should take around 50-90 minutes. You can check the timetable underneath for prices and timing but feel free to check out the company websites for more info.
Metro: It’s the cheapest and fastest way to get to the city, especially if you’ve arrived during rush hour. Just take the metro from the station located under the airport and change your line at Zeytinburno station for the T1 (blue line) in the direction of Kabatas. Your accommodation is probably close to a station on this line. The whole cost will end up to be less than 6 Lira.
Getting around Istanbul
Istanbul has an extensive transportation system of metro, trams, ferries and great buses connecting the city. Taxis are also super easy to find everywhere and you can use the Btaksi app or Uber for better fairs.
To use the metro, ferry or buses you are required to purchase an Istanbul Kart and top it up as much as you need. The Istanbul Kart yellow machines (called Biletmatik in Turkish) are everywhere around the city. You’ll find them in metro stations, bus stops and ferry stations. They work in several languages and everything is pretty straightforward. The Istanbul Kart costs 6 Lira and the rest of your cash will be used to charge the card. Keep in mind that the machines won’t be returning any change, so just insert the amount you want.
Dress code in Istanbul
Turkey is a secular country with people of many religions. Although most of its population is Muslim, you’ll see the majority of women not wearing the scarf. There’s really no limitation on what you could wear in Turkey apart from inside the mosques.
When entering a mosque, women are required to cover their hair, legs and arms. There’s always a stall at the entrance of every mosque where they would give you a fabric to cover up but I’d suggest always having a light scarf with you so that you don’t have to use the ones they give you. You never know how many people have used them before you!
Top attractions to visit in Istanbul
Istanbul is much more than its touristy sights. To understand the city in depth, you need to wander around its backstreets and get lost in the narrow alleyways. Nevertheless, Istanbul has some great historical buildings, mosques, museums and bazaar that are absolutely worth the visit.
Here is a list of the main attractions you must visit:
- Hagia Sofia
- Grand Bazaar
- Topkapi Palace
- Blue Mosque
- Suleymanie Mosque
- Spice Bazaar
- Galata Tower
- Dolmabahçe Palace
- Basilica Cistern
- Istiklal Avenue
- Ortakoy Mosque
- Chora Church / Kariye Museum
Read more: 5 Most Beautiful Mosques of Istanbul
Is Istanbul Museum Pass worth buying?
Not really! At least not if you’re not into museums. The Museum pass is not cheap and it doesn’t cover the Dulmabahce palace or Basilica Cistern which are some of the top sights to visit in Istanbul. Here’s where you can read more info about it.
Top Experiences in Istanbul
Culinary Backstreets Food tours
This food tour was one of my best travel experience hands down. As a food tour operator in Iran, I know a good food tour when I experience one.
We had the most amazing guide, Gonca, who was so enthusiastic and passionate about her city. She was honest in presenting everything and gave us the chance to see Istanbul just as it is, the good and the bad. I did the Two Markets, Two Continents tour and absolutely loved it. It was a good 6 hours of strolling around Istanbul and eating the most delicious food. We sipped on way too many cups of tea and Turkish coffee and indulged our sweet tooth on numerous baklavas.
They might be a bit pricier compared to other food tours in Istanbul, but you definitely get what you pay with them. They also do food tours all around the world. Check them out here.
A cruise on the Bosphorus is one of the best Istanbul travel experiences, especially if you’re in town for only a short time. You’ll witness some of the most scenic panoramas the city has to offer. The cruises come with a variety of services. Some offer live music or even dinner but the basic rides start from 25 Lira. I’d highly recommend doing the tour around sunset as it’s when you’ll get the best scenery.
Tuesday Market at Kadikoy
The Grand Bazaar is a delight to get lost in but it’s mainly a tourist hub with lots of overpriced souvenirs, spices and sweets. But if you want to get a local experience of a flea market, the Tuesday pazaar (market) of Kadikoy is definitely worth checking out.
Fish Market of Kadikoy
Whether you want to dine or buy spices and ingredients, the market of Kadikoy is the best place to go. There are amazing restaurants, cafes, deli shops and literally all kinds of food. There are also a few souvenir shops with much more reasonable prices compared to the grand bazaar. It’s open every day and gets quite crowded around the evening.
Day trip to Buyukada and Princes’ Islands
I love a metropolis that has many different faces and Istanbul definitely has it all. Find your way to Kabatas, get on a ferry to the Princes’ island and you’ll see what I mean. The quaint appeal of the island is an escape from the faster-paced city and a getaway for many travellers.
Food to try in Istanbul
- Kumpir: A baked potato that comes with different kinds of fillings and lots of mayonnaise.
- Borek: Sheets of buttery phyllo dough with various fillings. I personally love the cheese and spinach one.
- Simit: sesame seed pretzels that are sold everywhere on the streets of Istanbul. You might even find them with Nutella filling.
- Lahmacun: Turkish pizza with minced meat topping
- Doner: The famous Turkish kebab cooked and seasoned on rotating rotisserie