Majestic Istanbul – the greatest European city, cradle of civilization and the magical place where East and West meet each other. Millenniums of history, tradition, culture and art are collected in this overwhelming city. One has to experience this magnificent melting pot at least once in a lifetime, and we are presenting you a guide with the most important places to go and things to know.
Table of Contents
1) Getting to Istanbul
By Plane: This is the easiest and fastest way to get to Istanbul from most of the bigger European cities, and you can choose from two airports that serve the city. Atatürk Airport is the busiest one where most planes arrive, located on the European side of the city. You can reach the city center by regular shuttle bus in less than an hour, but you can also use the public transport such as combination of metro and train, local bus 96T, or a seabus. The other airport Sabiha Gökçen is located on the Asian side and serves as a hub for a low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines. From there, you can reach the city by shuttle bus, or by combining several means of public transport (e.g. bus and ferry) in around one hour.
By Train: In general, there are two train stations, Sirkeci station on the European side and Haydarpaşa station on the Asian side. Depending where you’re coming from (West or East) the train arrives on one of those two stations. Although Istanbul is well connected to many European cities via Sofia or Bucharest, have in mind that a lot of routes are currently disrupted due to Marmaray project and other works in Bulgaria which are about to finish soon.
By Bus: Istanbul’s Main Bus Terminal is located 10 kilometers west of Sultanahmet, it is also known as Büyük Otogar or Esenler Otogar. It serves all Turkey and numerous European countries and cities (mostly the Balkans and central Europe), but also Middle East. Get more information here.
2) Public transportation
Because of the size and the importance of the city, all parts of Istanbul are very well connected via public transport. But, since the city is huge and set on two continents, the public transport is also very complex. Generally, public transport in Istanbul is operated by IETT company. You can choose from buses, trams, funiculars to metro, seabuses and ferries, depending on your desired route. There are 400 bus lines which go all over the city, the exception is Sultanahmet and central parts in general which are easier to reach by tram. You can also use almost 20 kilometers long metro with 18 stations between Aksaray and Atatürk Airport. The other line is on the Asian side and it is still in process. It will be long 26.5 kilometers with 19 stations, all the way to Sabiha Gökçen Airport. The Marmaray project had a goal of underground connection of European and Asian side. The project is in its second phase. Still, passengers use ferries and seaboats in order to cross from Europe to Asia. Detailed information about public transportation in Istanbul can be found on official IETT website.
- NOTE: While staying in Istanbul, you can use the public transportation boarding pass and save some money – Istanbul Kart. The easiest way to get the card is at the airport, but in case you forget, you can also make it at Sultanahmet and Eminönu. You need to pay a non-refundable 10 TL fee (for the actual card and the service) and an amount of your choice to load onto the card. To reload the card, you can go to newsstands and small shops which offer this service.
How to even point out the top sights in Istanbul when this overwhelming city has hundreds of them. We will try to list you down the ones which are simply a ‘must’, admitting that the list could be continued with many more.
Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) – These two essential architectural wonders stare at each other on the same square which is why tourists often visit them one after another. Once an Orthodox church, then a mosque, today a museum, Hagia Sophia will impress you with its huge space. Climb upstairs and discover a gallery with a clutch of shimmering gold, figurative mosaics and faintly scratched viking grafitti. The Blue Mosque is a masterpiece done by famous Mimar Sinan which still functions as a mosque. Have in mind that you can visit the mosque respecting the rules of islamic religion. Both buildings will tell you a lot about Ottoman history.
Topkapi Palace – This sight is a ‘must’ among all the visitors. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 15th century. It was once a political center of Ottoman Empire, today a large museum built on a huge scale with 4 courts and a Harem. In the garden you can find interesting shops and cafes. The lines for various exhibitions can be long, so you will need to dedicate a bit more time for this incredible sight.
Basilica Cistern – Basilica Cistern is also known as Yerebatan Sarnici meaning ‘’Cistern sinking in the ground’’. As the name reveals it, it is the biggest cistern that lies beneath the ground. It was built in 6th century, very close to Hagia Sophia. In history, it provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, today is a famous sight known for its pillars with Medusa pillar bases where even some of the Hollywood scenes were shot.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar – One of the essential Istanbul experiences is shopping at the old bazaars. Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest covered markets housing more than 300 shops offering clothes, accessories, jewelry, souvenirs and much more. Right next to it is located Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) which consists of 85 shops selling spices, sweets, Turkish delights, nuts, dried fruits etc. These places might seem like a labyrinth, but try to focus since here is all about good old bargaining.
Dolmabahçe palace – In the district of Besiktas, you will find one of the most beautiful palaces in Istanbul, on the shore of the Bosphorus Strait. Dolmabahçe palace served as an administrative center of Ottoman Empire. Later, it was a presidential palace where Ataturk stayed and also died. Today is a museum where you can get an audio guided tour.
Süleymaniye Mosque – This architectural beauty and the second largest mosque in Istanbul is another work of Mimar Sinan. It is one of the most famous sights in Istanbul that still functions as a mosque. As in Sultanahmet, you will be able to enter the parts intended for tourists, respecting the rules of islamic religion. Right next to the mosque is a cemetery with a mausoleum of Sultan Suleyman and his wife Hurrem.
Galata Tower – At the end of the most famous street in Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi, rises one of the most recognizable sights in the city, Galata Tower. It is an almost 67 meters tall, medieval, stone tower. Two elevators can carry visitors up to 7th floor, the remaining 2 floors need to be climbed. It is definitely worth getting on top where the most spectacular, neverending panoramic view stretches. In the tower you will also find a restaurant and a cafe where you can take a break.
4) Outdoor activities
Istanbul is really huge, and it is no wonder that there you can find plenty of different outdoor activities.
If you want a regular activity which is not that adventurous but at the same time allows you to explore the area, choose cycling. One of the reasons is also the traffic which can be insane during the day. Since most of the bicycle routes are located on the Asian side, that can be a perfect solution to explore the Asian part of the city. There are even organized bicycle tours that you can join and pedal through most of the sights.
Hiking and mountaineering is also very attractive in this area because of the wild Turkish mountain ranges. This can be an ideal day trip, just make sure you bring all the necessary equipment.
Since Istanbul is situated by the sea, there are numerous water sports on offer. One of the most important things in this city is to see it from the Bosphorus Strait. There are several ways to do that. The least active way would be to jump on a cruise boat that takes you around the Bosphorus Strait, introducing you with the sights from the European and Asian side. The cruise lasts for 2 hours and costs 12 tl. If you’re looking for a bit more adventurous activity, try rowing. You still get to see all the sights on the coast and maintain active, and don’t worry, you’re not alone, your instructor will be there looking after you. Another interesting water activity is sailing, an incredible experience. The tour takes you all the way to the Princess Islands.
For those who are really looking for something original can try paragliding and enjoy the Turkish countryside, or balloon rides to see the area from entirely different perspective
For the mind-blowing views there is also an option of helicopter tour which is definitely going to be an unforgettable experience.
There is no place like Istanbul when it comes to food. Here you can find thousands of places to eat, whether you want to try Turkish delicacies or something international, this city has it all, and the choice is really hard! But here are a few places, both on European and Asian side, where you can get the best out of Turkish food offers.
Although there is a great number of bakeries with amazing Turkish meals such as börek with a glass of ayran, one cannot visit Istanbul without having a traditional Turkish breakfast. Turkish people really know how to start a day – having a generous breakfast. Many places offer it, but you can try Menemen at Lades 2, a place which offers an array of cheeses, various eggs and famous menemen; cooked eggs, tomatoes and peppers.
In istanbul you will find a lot of cafeteria-style restaurants where mostly working class eats in breaks. The best ones you can find are Tarihi Karaköy Balık Lokantası, a place with affordable traditional meals, Kantin where menu changes all the time, serving high-quality seasonal melas, and Gram Kanyon, freshly prepared vegetables and daily specials.
Best traditional Turkish meals can be also found in Mikla, one of the places regarded as the best with incredible view, regular meals include grilled prawns with firik, chickpea flour and zucchini blossoms. If you’re looking for something unusual go to Nupera where you can find a mix of old and new; international and local food. Çiya Sofrası will also surprise you with its combinations based on garlic, parsley, hot pepper, unripened fruit and pomegranate pulp.
Asitane is one the favorite restaurants among travellers. Their goal is to revive the old, forgotten Ottoman recipes which is why you will find hundreds of dishes dating centuries back, done with the oldest cooking methods, and a menu with with the date of the invention of the dish.
For a fine dining and spectacular views, head to 360 Istanbul, a place that has to be seen. There you can try modern versions of Turkish mezes, international food in combination with local. When the night falls, it turns into a nice place for a night out with cocktails and live music. Another spectacular place is Kız Kulesi, a little islet floating in the middle of Europe and Asia with a remarkable tower. Try their Ottoman-inspired specialties with the most amazing view.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, Istanbul is known for its amazing traditional desserts. Baylan Pastanesi is the old school pastry shop that resists all new trends, so dare to try their Kup Griye, a signature dessert. Mado is another place where you can try one of the best dondurma and baklava in town.
With population rapidly growing each day, Istanbul has a very exciting and diverse nightlife on offer. When you arrive as a tourist, it is really hard to choose between so many rooftop bars, cafes, nightclubs etc.
The most attractive districts on the European side are Şişli, Beşiktaş and Beyoğlu with its most popular partying venues. Nişantaşı neighborhood in Şişli won’t be disappointing. If you want to try experimental cocktails in a vintage-designed interior while listening to funky music, head to Efendi. If you want to know what it feels like to wait in lines to get in one of the most wanted places with dimmed lights and loud music, go to Klein.
Beşiktaş and its popular neighborhood Ortaköy offers a good party by the water. For a vintage charm with a romantic setting and some excellent craft cocktails, visit Luzia bar. Sortie offers one of the best views on the city with a combination of 6 restaurants and 3 bars, very fancy. Amazing views can be seen from Ruby also, a mansion on 3 floors, with garden and a balcony.
But undoubtedly, Beyoğlu still holds the title of the best nightlife in Istanbul. Half of the population seem to descend on this district, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Visiting its lively street Nevizade is a ‘must’. It is located parallelly with Istiklal Caddesi and it’s so popular that its name became a synonym for a nightlife in Istanbul. When all the other spots close, Minimüzikhol is a place which works till sunlight playing some of the best techno music. For a fancy night out with the most spectacular view visit the aforementioned 360 Istanbul. For those who would like to hear some good live music and performances, visit Jolly Joker Balans.
The Asian side isn’t dull either. Most of the nightlife is centered in the district of Kadıköy where you can find numerous places to go out. For a laid-back atmosphere and good music played by DJ’s, visit Arkaoda. Right next to it is Karga, another relaxing place where you can sip a drink while having a conversation with your friends. If you want to hit the dancefloor, go to Monks nightclub.
Is there a better place to do shopping than Istanbul? You can find so many places where you can get the best out of your budget and return home with authentic souvenirs, clothes and accessories from original brands and more. The options are numerous, from the famous bazaars over hundreds of streets and venues with various shops, to so many shopping centers with the most attractive brands.
One cannot visit Istanbul without buying in Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. These two bazaars have nearly 400 shops together and there you can find basically anything. It is not easy to stay focused in such a labyrinth, but be careful because here is all about good old bargaining.
- NOTE: To bargain like a pro remember these few things: A seller will always give you the biggest price at first, do not look too interested in the item, don’t name your best price immediately and never rush the bargaining process!
For some typical western shopping and well-known brands, you can find stores and boutiques on every corner, but the most famous street is Istiklal Caddesi. The prices might not be any cheaper in most shops, but if you enter the passages from the main street, you may find some really original and inexpensive items. Also, remember that most of the stores have outlets (even the most famous brands) which are located on the Asian side and are much cheaper.
In the end, you have plenty of options when it comes to shopping centers. The are literally all over the city. Some of those which are easily reachable by taxi, bus or metro are Akmerkez (250 stores), Kanyon (160 stores, cafes and restaurants and movie halls) and Forum Istanbul (technology and clothing stores, cafes and restaurants, movie halls).
8) Exchange money
The official currency in Istanbul is the Turkish Lira which is equal to 0,15 euro. When arriving in Istanbul try to avoid exchanging money at the airport due to big commissions and bad exchange rates. While in the city, look for the word ‘doviz’ which means foreign exchange. The best exchange rates can be found in the most crowded places, but make sure you alway ask for an exchange rate.
Always have some cash with you, and make sure they are Liras. A lot of places accept credit cards but there are numerous situations where you will need cash only.
ATMs are on every corner and are commonly used. Withdrawing money is safe, but before choosing an ATM, check if your bank has a partnership with any Turkish bank for lower fees.
9) Parking lots
If you’re arriving with a car or decide to rent a car by any chance, have in mind that the traffic in Istanbul is very unpredictable and can have a lot of unexpected moments. Therefore, we do not recommend such thing, but if that is your option here are a few information about parking.
‘Otopark’ is the word which means ‘parking’ in Turkish, but have in mind that it cannot be found anywhere. When you see a sign ‘Park Yapilmaz’, it is not allowed to park your car there. Parking lots are operated by ‘’IsPark’’, and while there is at least one per district, it is really difficult to find a spot in rush hours. You might see other cars parked everywhere (mostly by locals), but avoid doing that since there is no guarantee that it is legal. We recommend using public transport and leaving your car at the hotel parking while in Istanbul.
10) Useful contacts
Country code: +90
Area Code: 0212
Medical Emergency: 112
Tourism Police: 5274503
Tourism Info: 170
Ataturk Airport: (0212) 6636400
Sabiha Gokcen Airport: (0216) 5855000