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The First-Timer’s Istanbul Travel Guide (2021)

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Istanbul is incredible. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring cities we’ve been to thus far. Home to breathtaking architecture, delicious food, and some of the warmest, most genuinely hospitable people we’ve ever met on our travels, it’s a city we would love to visit again and again.

If you’re looking to visit Istanbul for the first time, then I hope this comprehensive travel guide can help you plan your trip. It will tell you everything you need to know from where to stay, which sights to see, and of course, what food to eat.

We enjoyed Istanbul so much that we could honestly see ourselves living there. Spend just one day in this captivating city and I won’t be surprised if you feel the same way too.

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Mosaics inside Chora Church

GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS

ISTANBUL TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Because of the current global situation, Istanbul travel guidelines have been changing often. Our friends at SafetyWing created a website that lists detailed information on travel restrictions around the globe.

Before doing any serious trip planning, be sure to check the Flatten the Curve website for information on travel restrictions to Turkey. If you do decide to visit Istanbul, then you may want to seriously consider getting travel medical insurance.

HOW TO APPLY FOR AN E-VISA TO TURKEY

Applying for an e-visa to Turkey is easy. Everything is done online and you can have your visa in minutes. Check out my post on how to apply for an e-Visa to Turkey for a step-by-step process. You can also apply for a Turkey e-visa through iVisa.com.

ISTANBUL AT A GLANCE

Istanbul is the economic, financial, and cultural center of Turkey. It’s also the country’s biggest city with a population of just over 15 million people, making it one of the largest cities in Europe and the world. For those reasons, it’s natural to assume that Istanbul is Turkey’s capital but it isn’t. That distinction goes to Ankara.

Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, what makes Istanbul geographically interesting is that it’s one of a handful of cities that straddles two continents. The western half of the city is situated in Europe while the eastern half is located in Asia.

The Asian side is largely residential so you’ll find most of the city’s major attractions clustered within two districts on the European side – Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu. First-time visitors to the city will be spending much of their time in those two districts.

Istanbul is a city steeped in history and culture so there is much to see and do there. From its Byzantine churches adorned with mosaics and frescoes to its magnificent mosques decorated by sky-high minarets, Istanbul is a city that will mesmerize you at every turn.

BEST TIME TO VISIT ISTANBUL

Spring (March-May) is the best time to visit Istanbul, followed by Autumn (September-November). Crowds are thinner and the weather is moderate during both seasons, though Autumn sees more rain than Spring.

We went in early November and the weather was near perfect. I was comfortable walking around in a light jacket with just a t-shirt inside. It was overcast on a couple of days but it never rained.

Fans of tulips — which are originally from Turkey, not Holland — will be pleased to know that the International Tulip Festival is held in April with millions of tulips in bloom throughout the city.

MAR-MAY: This is the best time to visit Istanbul. The weather is relatively mild and dry and the city will be awash with color. The next time we visit Istanbul, it will definitely be in April to take part in the tulip festival.

JUNE-AUG: Apart from being the busiest time of the year, June till August can get pretty hot and humid — up to 28°C/82°F. Lines are at their longest and prices at their peak during this time.

SEPT-NOV: Like Spring, Autumn is a great time to visit Istanbul. The weather is similar although it does get rainier in the Fall as described. While Spring has the Tulip Festival, Autumn has its share of festivals as well like the Akbank Jazz Festival and the Istanbul Theater Festival, both of which are in November.

DEC-FEB: December till February is low season in Istanbul. It’s the wettest and coldest time of the year so be sure to dress appropriately. It can get rainy and snowy with temperatures dropping down to a frigid 3°C/37°F.

Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Istanbul

Check out holiday-weather.com for more on the weather in Istanbul. To make it easier for you, I’ve created average temperature and annual rainfall graphs below. Suggested months to visit are colored in orange.

Average Temperature

Annual Rainfall in Istanbul, Taiwan

Annual Rainfall

Annual Rainfall in Istanbul, Taiwan

TRAVELING TO ISTANBUL

International flights will be arriving at either Istanbul (IST) or Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW). Assuming you’ll be staying in either Sultanahmet or Taksim (Beyoğlu), here’s how you get to both areas from either airport.

From Istanbul Airport

To Sultanahmet

BY HAVAIST SHUTTLE: One of the cheapest ways to get to Sultanahmet from Istanbul Airport is by Havaist Shuttle (25TL), but it isn’t the easiest. At this time, there’s no direct route so you’ll need to catch the HVIST-15 line to Aksaray. From there, you can switch to the T1 – Kabataş-Bağcılar tram going towards Eminonu or Kabatas and then get off at Sultanahmet.

If taking the tram is too difficult with luggage, then another option would be to take the HVIST-15 line to Yenikapı Sahil. From there, you can catch a taxi to your hotel in Sultanahmet.

BY TAXI: A taxi to Sultanahmet from Istanbul Airport will run you anywhere between 160-200TL.

BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet will cost at least 50 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.

BY BUS: You can take the H2 Bus from Istanbul Airport to Mecidiyeköy. From there, you can catch a taxi or take the metro to your hotel in Sultanahmet. Because the H2 is a public bus, it may not be the easiest option with large pieces of luggage.

BY METRO: This is still under construction but once completed, the M11 line will take you from Istanbul Airport to Gayrettepe. From there, you can continue by metro/tram or take a taxi to your hotel in Sultanahmet.

To Taksim

BY HAVAIST SHUTTLE: This is the easiest way to get to Taksim from Istanbul Airport. For 25TL, you can take the HVIST-14 line all the way to its last stop which is close to Taksim Square.

BY TAXI: A taxi from Istanbul Airport to Taksim will cost you about 120-150TL.

BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Istanbul Airport to Taksim will cost at least 50 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.

BY BUS: As advised, you can take the public H2 Bus from Istanbul Airport to Mecidiyeköy but it may not be easy with big luggage. From there, you can catch a taxi or take the metro to your hotel in Taksim.

BY METRO: This is still under construction but once completed, the M11 line will take you from Istanbul Airport to Gayrettepe. From there, you can continue by metro/tram or take a taxi to your hotel in Taksim.

From Sabiha Gökçen Airport

To Sultanahmet

BY HAVABUS: Take the Havabus bound for Taksim (18TL). From Taksim, you can either take a taxi to Sultanahmet (around 17TL) or walk to the Taksim metro station and take the F1 funicular to Kabataş. Transfer to the T1 tram bound for Bağcılar and get off at Sultanahmet station.

Alternatively, you can take the Havabus from the airport to Kadıköy (14TL). Once in Kadıköy, walk to the Şehir Hatları dock and take a 15-minute ferry ride to Eminönü. From there, you can either take a taxi to your hotel in Sultanahmet (5 minutes or so) or walk to the Eminönü station and take the T1 tram bound for Bağcılar and get off at Sultanahmet station.

BY TAXI: A taxi from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet will cost you about 150-180TL.

BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet will cost around 45 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.

To Taksim

BY HAVABUS: Take the Havabus bound for Taksim (18TL). From there, you can walk or take a taxi to your hotel.

BY TAXI: A taxi from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Taksim will cost you about 130-160TL.

BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Taksim will cost around 45 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.

Things to Remember

  1. You’ll need Turkish Liras (TL) in smaller denominations (5, 10, 20) to pay for the transportation services mentioned above. You can withdraw TL from an ATM or exchange a small amount of foreign currency at either airport. Jump to the WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY section of this guide for more information.
  2. If you’ll be taking the metro and/or ferry, then you can save on the fare by purchasing an Istanbulkart. Jump to the TRAVEL TIPS section of this guide for more information.
  3. There are countless hotels in Istanbul. If you’ll be taking a taxi, then it’s best that you have a printout or screenshot of your hotel’s complete address and telephone number to show the driver.

*Approximate taxi fares indicated above were derived from The Istanbul Insider.

WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY

Turkey’s unit of currency is the Turkish Lira (TL).

You can exchange currency at popular tourist areas like Sultanahmet, the Grand Bazaar, around Taksim Square and Istiklal Cadessi, etc. Rates are said to be best at the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet but the differences may be insignificant.

You won’t get the best rates at the airports so if you need to exchange currency to get into the city, then you should only change a small amount.

Another option is to withdraw TL from an ATM. It’s quicker than exchanging paper currency and the rates are comparable, some say even better.

Just be sure to contact your bank before your trip as they may have to activate it for overseas use. In my experience, my card works in some machines but not in others. I didn’t have any problems anywhere in Turkey.

NOTE: Some ATM machines may ask if you want to proceed “with or without conversion”. Always proceed WITHOUT conversion so your local bank does the conversion for you. Proceeding “with conversion” authorizes the foreign bank operating the ATM to do the conversion, usually at very poor rates. According to this article, the difference between rates can be as high as 10% or more.

BEST AREAS TO STAY IN ISTANBUL

Based on what we learned from our trip, there are two ideal places to stay in Istanbul for first-time visitors — Sultanahmet and Taksim (Beyoğlu).

I’ve created the color-coded map below to help you understand where these recommended neighborhoods are. Click on the link for an interactive version of the map. (Please note that marked areas are approximations only)

BLUE – Sultanahmet
RED – Taksim (Beyoglu)

Istanbul area map

SULTANAHMET

The Sultanahmet area is where most of the major tourist sites are located. If you’re visiting Istanbul to appreciate its historic sites, then there’s no better place to stay than Sultanahmet.

When we visited Istanbul, we stayed at a great boutique hotel not too far from the Blue Mosque called Antique House. Unfortunately, it seems to have changed hands since our last trip and is now known as Dos Hermanos Hotel.

The location is ideal – about a 10-15 minute walk from all the historical attractions like Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern – but I can’t vouch for it other than that. You can check these sites to search for hotels in the Sultanahmet area: Booking.com | Agoda.

TAKSIM (BEYOGLU)

If you want a more contemporary side to Istanbul whilst still having easy access to the Sultanahmet area, then Beyoğlu around Taksim Square may be the better choice.

It’s home to the popular shopping street of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) as well as a number of trendy bars and clubs. It’s just a funicular and tram ride away to Sultanahmet making it ideal for first-time visitors as well. We’ll probably stay here on our next trip to Istanbul.

You can check these sites to search for hotels around Taksim Square: Booking.com | Agoda.

You can also book hotels and AirBnBs in Istanbul using the handy map below.

TOP TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN ISTANBUL

Listed below are ten of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. Most are located within the same general area so if you plan well, then you can visit them all in two or three days.

I’ll describe them briefly below but you can jump to the THINGS TO DO section for suggestions on how you can group them together to maximize your time. If you plan on visiting many of these attractions, then we strongly recommend getting an Istanbul tourist discount pass.

1. Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is the most iconic structure in Istanbul. It was once regarded as the greatest church in Christendom and was at one point the largest church ever constructed until St Peter’s Basilica was built a thousand years later in Rome.

If you were to visit just one tourist attraction in Istanbul, then it should be Hagia Sophia. Check out my article on Sultanahmet Square for more pictures and information.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: 72TL

2. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)

Hagia Sophia was breathtaking but for me, the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet may have been even more striking. It’s an imposing sight with its many domes and six towering minarets.

Sultanahmet is grey from the outside but it gets its name from the tens of thousands of blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: FREE

3. Basilica Cistern

Featured in Dan Brown’s Inferno and the James Bond film From Russia with Love, the Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. It can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cu ft) of water and contains 336 marble columns each measuring 9 meters (30 ft) high.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: 20TL

4. Topkapi Palace & Harem

Topkapi Palace was the court of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 19th centuries. It’s the second most visited attraction in the city, after Hagia Sophia.

Spread out over an area covering 700,000 sq m (7.5 million sq ft), there’s much to see at Topkapi Palace. Don’t miss its lavish Harem and its Treasury featuring precious gems and artifacts, none more impressive perhaps than the 86 carat Kasıkçı (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond.

Check out my article on Topkapi Palace for more pictures and information.

Inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: Palace (72TL), Harem (42TL)

5. Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace is the largest palace in Turkey. It served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and from 1909 till 1922. Spread out over an area covering 11.1 acres, it contains 285 rooms, 46 halls, and 6 baths (hamam).

Gate of the Sultan at Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: Selamlık (60TL), Harem (40TL), Combined Ticket (90TL)

6. Galata Tower

Galata Tower is an iconic landmark and the focal point of many photographs featuring the Bosphorus Strait and Beyoglu. Built in 1348, it served as a watchtower, a prison, and a naval depot, and stood for centuries as the tallest structure in Istanbul.

Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: 25TL

7. Grand Bazaar

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. It consists of 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops selling everything from lamps, carpets, jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, and souvenirs.

Both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are within walking distance from Sultanahmet Square. Click on the link for a DIY walking tour of Istanbul’s Bazaars and Rüstem Pasha Mosque, a small but beautiful mosque near the Spice Bazaar.

You can easily visit the Grand and Spice Bazaars on your own but if you’d like to go on a guided tour, then you can book one through Get Your Guide. Having a guide will be helpful, especially at the Grand bazaar because it’s so big. Follow the link to check out Get Your Guide’s Grand and Spice Bazaar tours.

Wares for sale at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: FREE

8. Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar

The Egyptian or Spice Bazaar is considerably smaller than the Grand Bazaar but if you love to cook, then you’ll probably spend even more time here.

The bazaar is home to about a hundred shops selling a colorful and aromatic assortment of spices, teas, nuts, dried fruit, and one of my favorite souvenir food items from Istanbul – lokum or Turkish delight.

Spices for sale at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: FREE

9. Istanbul Archaeology Museums

The Istanbul Archaeology Museums is comprised of three museums – the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Archaeological Museum. With so much to see here, you could easily spend an entire day going through all three museums.

Check out my article on the Istanbul Archaeology Museums for more pictures and information.

Sarcophagi at the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: 36TL

10. Chora Church (Kariye Museum)

Compared to the other attractions on this list, Chora Church is out of the way but it’s well worth the effort. It’s home to what many believe to be the most stunning mosaics in Istanbul.

Check out my post on Chora Church (Kariye Museum) in Istanbul for more pictures and information. We visited on our own but if you’d like to go with a guide, then you can choose from one of several Get Your Guide tours that make stops at Chora Church.

Mosaics inside Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey

Admission: 54TL

THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL

1. Visit Sultanahmet’s Top Tourist Attractions

As described, Sultanahmet is home to the city’s most important attractions like Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. No first-time visit to Istanbul can be complete without visiting all of these places.

Travelers pressed for time can click on the link below to learn how you can visit these attractions in one day. But if you have more time, then it would be best to spread them out over two days.

You can check my post on the top attractions at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul for more pictures and information, but here’s a quick rundown of what you a can find there:

Ayasofya: The most iconic site in Istanbul and once considered the greatest church in Christendom.
Sultanahmet: One of the most striking mosques in Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern: The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.
At Meydani: The former location of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Ibrahim Pasa Palace: Museum featuring an impressive collection of calligraphy and rugs.
Topkapi Palace: The court of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums: Museum of the Ancient Orient, Tiled Pavilion, Archaeological Museum.

We visited all these sites on our own but if you want a more in-depth experience, then you may want to go on a guided tour. Get Your Guide offers many different types of Istanbul tours, two of their most popular being the Highlights of Istanbul Tour and the Half-Day Highlights Guided Tour.

If you just want easy access to Istanbul’s top attractions without a guide, then another option would be to go on a Big Bus Tour. For me, there’s no better way to become acquainted with a new city than these Hop On Hop Off Tours.

Double decker buses ply set routes that take you to many of the top attractions in Istanbul, and you can hop on and off as many times as you want for the duration of your pass. Very convenient indeed.

Inside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

2. Walk Across Galata Bridge and Explore Beyoğlu and Dolmabahce Palace

Home to the iconic Galata Tower and Dolmabahce Palace as well as the city’s most fashionable boulevard in Istiklal Caddesi, the neighborhoods across Galata Bridge provide an interesting mix of old and new that’s different in feel to the time-honored charm of Sultanahmet.

If you enjoy shopping, good food, and perhaps a taste of Istanbul’s nightlife, then this is where you need to be. You can check my post on Galata Bridge, Beyoğlu, and Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul for more pictures and information, but here’s a quick rundown of what you a can find there:

Galata Bridge: Bridge connecting the north and south of European Istanbul.
Galata Tower: Former watchtower offering great views of the city.
Istiklal Caddesi: The heart of Beyoğlu and Istanbul’s most famous street.
Dolmabahce Palace: The biggest palace in Turkey.

As described, you can visit all these sites on your own, but you may want to consider a guided tour as well, especially if you want to learn more about each place.

Get Your Guide’s 2-Day Highlights of Istanbul Tour covers Dolmabahce Palace, Istiklal Street, and Taksim. The Big Bus Tour will take you to these places as well.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

3. Take a Cruise on the Bosphorus with Şehir Hatları

Going on a scenic all-day cruise of the Bosphorus is one of Istanbul’s greatest pleasures according to many. They’re right.

Şehir Hatları is Istanbul’s official ferry company and offers three Bosphorus Cruises — Full, Short, and Moonlight (Evening). The Short Cruise takes you on a two-hour loop while the Full and Moonlight Cruises last for six hours and take you all the way to Anadolu Kavağı, which is the last dock before the Black Sea.

It’s a charming seaside town where you can have a delicious seafood lunch or dinner by the water. Check out my post on the Bosphorus Cruise with Şehir Hatları for more pictures and information.

You can easily book a Bosphorus cruise yourself at the ferry dock, but you can arrange for one in advance as well through Get Your Guide. They offer many variations of the Bosphorus cruise, some even bundled with onboard dinner and a show. Follow the link to check out Bosphorus cruise options on Get Your Guide.

Bosphorus Cruise, Istanbul, Turkey

Activity Duration: 2 or 6 hrs / Cost: 25TL (Full), 12TL (Short), 20TL (Moonlight)

4. Go on a Culinary Walk

Turkish cuisine is interesting. It’s colorful and nuanced and seems as diverse as the country’s landscape. Enjoy one meal at Ciya Sofrasi and you’ll see what I mean.

We did all our own food research but in hindsight, I would have loved to go on a food tour. I think Turkish cuisine is best appreciated (and understood) with the guidance of a knowledgeable local. Culinary Backstreets or Get Your Guide can help you with that.

We went on a culinary walk (aka food tour) with Culinary Backstreets in Barcelona and absolutely loved it. They’re one of the world’s leading food tour providers and it all started here in Istanbul.

If you’d like to do a deep dive into Turkish cuisine, then you can follow the link to check out their culinary walks in Istanbul. Key in our FLY4FOOD promo code to get a 5% discount when booking any of their walks.

Egyptian Spice Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Activity Duration: 5-6.5 hrs / Cost: Around USD 125 per person

5. Explore the Trendy Asian Side (Kadikoy)

With the majority of tourist attractions located on the European side, most first-time travelers to Istanbul don’t venture into the Asian side of the city. Had it not been for Çiya Sofrası and Walter’s Coffee Roastery, then we wouldn’t have gone there either.

Home to a maze of cafes, bars, restaurants, and some trendy neighborhoods, Kadikoy and the Asian side has much to offer and is well worth a day if you can spare it.

Cable car in Kadikoy, Istanbul, Turkey

Estimated Time to Spend: At least half a day

6. Take a Cooking Class

We haven’t done this in Turkey but we often take cooking classes whenever we travel. It’s a fun, hands-on way of learning about the local cuisine.

If you’re spending enough time in Istanbul and want to take a cooking class, then I suggest searching through Cookly. As far as I know, there isn’t a more comprehensive site for one-day cooking classes around the world than Cookly. Follow the link for a list of available cooking classes in Istanbul.

Making durum in Istanbul

DAY TRIPS FROM ISTANBUL

We traveled around Turkey for two weeks so we went to most of these places on our own, but if you don’t have as much time, then you can visit them on day trips from Istanbul as well. Domestic flights are inexpensive and efficient in Turkey, making these day trips to other regions highly possible.

1. Princes’ Islands

The Princes’ Islands refers to a cluster of nine small islands off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara.

Aside from their pristine pine forests and wooden Victorian cottages, what’s interesting about them is that all forms of motorized transport are banned on the islands. Bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the default means of transportation, making them an interesting and relaxing place to visit on a day trip from Istanbul.

You can visit the Princes’ Islands by ferry from Kabatas or you can go on a guided tour.

Princes' Islands, Turkey

2. Gallipoli & Troy

If you have an interest in military history, then you may want to spend the day exploring either Gallipoli or Troy.

The city of Troy was the legendary setting of the Trojan War while Gallipoli refers to a slender peninsula that was the main objective of several historical military campaigns that aimed to capture Istanbul.

Get Your Guide offers a few full-day tours to either Gallipoli or Troy. They offer joint tours as well but you’ll need two days to visit both.

Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Turkey

3. Cappadocia

This was one of the best things we did in our two weeks in Turkey. Cappadocia in Central Anatolia is best known for its unique moon-like landscape dotted with strange rock formations known as fairy chimneys. It’s a spectacular sight from the ground, but even more stunning when viewed from a hot air balloon.

Cappadocia was our favorite destination in Turkey so it’s well worth spending a few days there. But if you’re pressed for time, then you can book a day tour with flights through Get Your Guide.

They offer this 1-day tour that takes you to Cappadocia’s top attractions. But if you want to do the hot air balloon ride as well, then you’ll need to book this 2-day tour. Follow the links for more information and to book the tours.

Cappadocia, Turkey

4. Pamukkale

One of the things we loved most about Turkey was the diversity of its landscape. The moonscape of Cappadocia was the most stunning for us, but not far behind were the calcium travertines of Pamukkale. This ancient spa city is famous for its white terraces made of travertine, a sedimentary rock deposited by water from the seventeen naturally occurring hot springs in the area.

What makes this area even more interesting is that the travertines aren’t its only attraction. Walk to the top of the plateau to explore the ruins of Hierapolis then swim in the mineral-rich waters of Cleopatra’s Pool. At the bottom of this picturesque tree-lined pool are Roman marble columns dating back to the 2nd century BC.

Pamukkale is often visited on a day trip between cities, so going on a day trip from Istanbul is perfect. Get Your Guide offers a 1-day tour of Pamukkale and Hierapolis with flights. You can also do this 2-day tour which includes Aphrodisias as well.

We visited many ruins in Turkey and Aphordisias was by far the most beautiful and well-preserved.

Calcium travertines in Pamukkale

5. Ephesus

Ephesus in Selçuk-Izmir is one of the most visited attractions in Turkey. Built in the 10th Century BC, this ancient city was a key seaport that was once the center of trade and commerce in the ancient world as well as being a hub for early Christianity. We visited several ruins throughout the country and Ephesus was the biggest and most impressive.

We spent a few days in Selçuk to fully explore the area, but you can visit on a 1-day tour from Istanbul as well. This Ephesus day tour with flights from Get Your Guide will take you to Ephesus and Meryem Ana Evi, the final home of the Virgin Mary.

Ephesus, Turkey

TURKISH FOOD GUIDE

Turkish cuisine is considered one of the world’s greatest because of its diversity, long history, and the legacy left behind by an imperial kitchen. It seemed that every region we visited had something interesting and delicious to offer.

Check out our Turkish food guide for a list of 27 delicious things to eat and drink in Turkey.

Turkish Food Guide: 27 Delicious Things to Eat in Turkey

WHERE TO EAT IN ISTANBUL

1. Çiya Sofrası

Located in bustling Kadıköy Market on the Asian side of Istanbul, Çiya Sofrası has been hailed by more than one source as possibly the best restaurant in all of Istanbul.

What makes it unique is that the owner Musa Dağdeviren isn’t just a chef, he’s also a culinary anthropologist. Collecting recipes from all over Turkey, he frequently offers unusual regional dishes that you won’t find anywhere else. Highly recommended and one of the best meals we had in Istanbul.

Check out my post on Çiya Sofrası in Istanbul for more pictures and information.

Çiya Sofrası, Istanbul, Turkey

Çiya Sofrası is located in Kadıköy Market. Away from the touristy European side, this vibrant area on the Asian side features a fish market as well as a maze of cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Çiya Sofrası, Istanbul, Turkey

2. Dürümzade

Dürümzade was one of the restaurants featured on the Istanbul episode of No Reservations with my hero, the late great Anthony Bourdain. They specialize in dürüm, a type of sandwich made by rolling flatbread around döner kebab fillings.

We tried dürüm four times at different restaurants in two weeks. All were good but the offerings at Dürümzade were a cut above the rest. It was probably the single best thing I ate in Turkey. Check out my post on Dürümzade in Istanbul for more pictures and information.

Dürümzade, Istanbul, Turkey

Dürümzade is just a few minutes’ walk from İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Avanue) in Beyoğlu.

If you look closely, you can see Anthony’s picture on the side of the restaurant. Dürümzade is just one of many restaurants worldwide that owes its success, in part, to that man.

Dürümzade, Istanbul, Turkey

3. Kizilkayalar

Another restaurant featured on No Reservations, Kizilkayalar is home to these strange but appealing “wet” (islak) burgers. They get their radioactive orange coloring from being dunked in a garlicky tomato sauce then being left to steam in a hamam-style glass box.

A staple among late night boozers in Taksim Square, they’re moist, chewy, garlicky, and dangerously addictive.

Kizilkayalar, Istanbul, Turkey

Kizilkayalar is right on Taksim Square so just look out for their sign. It’s as orange as their burgers.

Kizilkayalar, Istanbul, Turkey

4. Ismail Usta Kebap ve Pide Salonu

This restaurant just off Taksim Square in Beyoğlu was home to some seriously delicious lahmacun. Resembling a thin cheese-less pizza, lahmacun is actually a type of wrap topped with minced meat (commonly beef or lamb), vegetables, herbs, onions, tomatoes, and parsley.

Wafer-thin, crisp around the edges but chewy towards the center, you roll it up like a burrito to eat. So good.

Halil Usta, Istanbul, Turkey

Ismail Usta Kebap ve Pide Salonu is located in an alley not too far from Taksim Square.

Halil Usta, Istanbul, Turkey

5. Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta

Being a tourist hub, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from in Sultanahmet. Unfortunately, most are touristy offering subpar, overpriced food.

This mouthful of a restaurant — said to serve some of the best kofte (meatballs) in Istanbul — is an exception. Moist, smokey, and fork tender, they serve their delicious grilled meatballs with a side of green peppers and a basket of crusty bread.

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta, Istanbul, Turkey

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta is located just minutes from the stop so keep an eye out for it the moment you get off the tram in Sultanahmet.

Be aware that a few copycats seem to have sprouted around it bearing similar names. The one you want, pictured below, has the words “Selim Usta” in the name. It’s not on the red awning, but if you look above, at the brown wooden sign, you’ll see it there.

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta, Istanbul, Turkey

6. Ahırkapı Balıkçısı

Istanbul is a fish lover’s paradise. It’s surrounded (and divided) by water so fresh seafood is abundant year round. I’ve read that over twenty types of fish are available at different times of the year, from anchovy and bonito in the colder waters of December to turbot, sea bass, and swordfish in April.

With all that fresh seafood to be had, it’s no surprise that there are many good seafood restaurants in Istanbul. One that was highly recommended was Ahırkapı Balıkçısı. It’s located in Sultanahmet making it a great choice for dinner after visiting the area’s historical sites.

Ahırkapı Balıkçısı, Istanbul, Turkey

Ahırkapı Balıkçısı is located close to the water in what appears to be a more residential neighborhood. When we got there, we were confused because there were two restaurants opposite each other with similar names.

According to TripAdvisor reviewers, one is an alleged copycat. The original is the one pictured to the left below with the word “orijinal” in the awning. Look closely at the name as well.

The correct one only has one “h” in the first word — Ahırkapı Balıkçısı. The other one is named “Ahhir Kapi”, spelled with two “h”s. It also has the words “fish home” in its name. That’s not the one you want.

Ahırkapı Balıkçısı, Istanbul, Turkey

7. Lezizhan

We found this place by accident when visiting Chora Church. Lezizhan specializes in çiğ köfte, which is traditionally a raw meat dish made with either beef or lamb and commonly served cold as a meze or in a dürüm.

Cold and spicy with a distinct peppery flavor, it was without a doubt one of the most interesting dishes we had in Turkey. Ironically, most commercially sold çiğ köfte nowadays (including Lezizhan) is required by law to be vegetarian for health precautions.

Lezizhan, Istanbul, Turkey

Lezizhan is a chain of restaurants with many branches throughout Istanbul. The one we went to is on the corner of Neşter Sokak and Şeyh Eyüp Sokak in Edirnekapi. It’s en route to Chora Church from the Edirnekapi Tram stop.

Lezizhan, Istanbul, Turkey

8. Walter’s Coffee Roastery

Yo, Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorite TV shows so I became super excited when I learned about this cafe in Istanbul. Located on the Asian side, it’s a fun coffee shop inspired by the series.

Dubbed as a “coffee super lab”, it takes familiar elements from the show to create a unique meth lab setting complete with yellow hazmat suits, periodic table menus, and cappuccinos served in flasks and beakers. If you’re a fan of the show, then you need to check it out bitch.

Walter's Coffee Roastery, Istanbul, Turkey

Walter’s Coffee Roastery is located in a more residential neighborhood in the Asian side of Istanbul. It may be near a university as there were many students there at the time.

Walter's Coffee Roastery, Istanbul, Turkey

POINTS OF INTEREST IN ISTANBUL

For your convenience, I’ve created this map so you get a better sense of where everything is. Click on the link for an interactive version of the map. Most of the places recommended in this guide are pinned on this map.

Istanbul attractions map

HOW TO GET AROUND IN ISTANBUL

The Istanbul public transportation system is like the former Jolie-Pitt family — it’s diverse. It’s comprised of metro lines, trams, funiculars, cable cars, ferries, and buses.

Unlike city rail systems where you pay the total fare at the start regardless of how many transfers you need to make to get to your destination, each ride and transfer on the Istanbul system costs 5TL. So if it takes three rides to get to your destination, then the total fare will be 15TL (5TL x 3).

At first, I thought 5TL a ride was cheap, but it can get pretty expensive if you’re paying 10-15TL per one-way trip. If you plan on taking the public transportation system often, then the Istanbulkart as described in the TRAVEL TIPS section would be a good investment.

As advised in the THINGS TO DO section of this post, a great way to get around Istanbul to see its top attractions is by Big Bus Tour. It’ll take you to many of its popular attractions and you can get on and off as often as you like for the duration of your pass.

If you like visiting places on your own without a guide, then I think it’s definitely worth it.

HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / ISTANBUL ITINERARY

Istanbul is a fascinating city with lots to see and do. We stayed five nights and it still didn’t feel long enough. At the very least, you should allow yourself four full days. It’ll be a bit rushed but four days will give you enough time to see the major sights.

For a more comfortable pace with room for spontaneity, I’d say six full days would be perfect, even longer if you can. Here’s a 4-day Istanbul itinerary to help you plan your trip.

DAY ONE
• Topkapi Palace
• Istanbul Archaeology Museums
• Chora Church
 
DAY TWO
• Basilica Cistern
• Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)
• At Meydani (Sultanahmet Square)
• Ibrahim Pasa Palace (Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum)
• Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)
 
DAY THREE
• Grand Bazaar
• Rüstem Pasha Mosque
• Egyptian Spice Bazaar
• Bosphorus Cruise
 
DAY FOUR
• Galata Bridge
• Galata Tower
• Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)
• Dolmabahce Palace

BUDGET / SUMMARY OF EXPENSES

Turkish Lira is the national currency but Euros and US Dollars are widely accepted as well. However, you should only pay for things in Euro or USD when prices are quoted in Euro or USD. Otherwise, you could be losing money in the conversion.

Assuming you’ll be sharing a hotel room with one other person and doing everything in this guide, then a budget of around 250-275TL per day should be plenty. This takes into account your hotel room, the 5-day Istanbul Museum Pass, other entrance fees, transportation, meals, pocket wifi rental, and some light shopping.

Keep in mind that this estimated daily budget is for a 4-day stay in Istanbul and not necessarily applicable anywhere else in Turkey.

ACCOMMODATIONS
This varies from person to person. We booked a room at the former Antique Hotel for about TL 132 a night. Expect to pay much less if you’re staying in a dorm room.
 
MEALS
This is also subjective but based on our experience, I’d say around 75TL for the day per person with drinks. Budget more if you plan on dining at fancier restaurants.
 
POCKET WIFI RENTAL
It depends on the type of device, but renting a mobile router from an established provider like Tep Wireless will cost you around EUR 10 per day.
 
TRANSPORTATION
As advised, it’s a good idea to invest in an Istanbulkart if you plan on taking public transportation a lot. The base cost of an Istanbulkart is 10TL plus whatever amount you’ll be needing. A transportation budget of around 60TL for the entire four days should be enough for most people. You can always top up if you need more.
 
TOUR & ENTRANCE FEES
Factoring in the cost of the 5-day Istanbul Museum Pass, then the total cost for all museums and attractions mentioned in this guide is 345TL.
 
TOTAL
This comes out to about 245TL per day for each person. Ren and I are middle of the road travelers who enjoy good food and drink, so this is a budget that works for us. Feel free to adjust based on your own travel habits.

ISTANBUL TRAVEL TIPS

1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel

For me, the easy and fun part about trip planning is finding where to go and where to eat. The hard part is putting it all together in an itinerary that makes sense.

With this free trip planning app, I can easily plot points of interest on a map so I can see exactly where they are in relation to one another. That way I can group places by day and come up with an efficient itinerary. Check out my full post on the Sygic Travel app for more information.

DOWNLOAD: iOS / Android

You can follow the link to check out our Istanbul itinerary on Sygic Travel. You can also get a download link to our entire 2-week Turkey itinerary in editable Word format from our EAT-ineraries page.

2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device

Can you go a day in your normal life without access to the internet? Pretty hard right? Now imagine not having a wifi connection in a foreign country. Not being able to do research would make any trip more stressful and less enjoyable. It’s for this reason why we never go anywhere now without renting a pocket wifi device first.

In Turkey, you can rent a pocket wifi device through Tep Wireless. They’re one of the more established portable wifi providers in the market today. Click on the link to rent a device from Tep Wireless. You can have it shipped to your home before your trip, or to your hotel.

3. Get an Istanbul Tourist Discount Pass

The 5-day Istanbul Museum Pass was perfect for us but there are a few other discount cards you can get depending on what you want to do in Istanbul. Here’s a quick breakdown of each.

Istanbul Museum Pass

For 220TL, the Istanbul Museum Pass gives you access to most of the sites mentioned in this guide along with a few others within 120 hours after its first use.

To give you an idea how much money you’ll be saving, admission to the museums suggested here — Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace (with Harem), and the Archaeology Museums — amounts to 222TL, so you’ll already be recouping your investment just by visiting those three sites.

The Istanbul Museum Pass will save you a lot of time as well since you won’t have to line up to buy tickets at every site. Some of these museums are hugely popular, especially during peak seasons, so lines can get pretty long.

Istanbul Tourist Pass

If you want something more comprehensive than the Museum Pass, then you may want to look into getting an Istanbul Tourist Pass. It’s considerably more expensive but it’ll cover almost everything you’ll want to do in Istanbul.

Available in 3-, 5-, and 7-day passes, it’ll entitle you to Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace guided tours, a Bosphorus cruise, Big Bus tour tickets, a Whirling Dervish ceremony, and more. It’ll even provide you with unlimited internet access and one-way transfers from the airport.

Follow the link for more information and to purchase an Istanbul Tourist Pass from Get Your Guide.

Istanbul Welcome Card

Another option is to get an Istanbul Welcome Card. It comes in four variations and provides a similar range of services as the Istanbul Tourist Pass, but with a few differences.

Follow these links for more information and to purchase a Classic, Premium, Deluxe, or Family Istanbul Welcome Card. You’ll get a discount if you purchase them using these links.

Istanbul 5-Day Guided Museum Pass

If entry into these attractions isn’t enough for you, then you may be interested in a 5-Day Guided Museum Pass. It’ll give you access to Istanbul’s top tourist attractions on guided tours.

Follow the link for more information and to purchase an Istanbul 5-Day Guided Museum Pass from Get Your Guide.

4. Know When Museums are Closed

Many of Istanbul’s museums and attractions are closed one or two days of the week. Know when they close so you can plan your trip accordingly.

  • Ayasofya — Monday
  • Istanbul Archaeology Museums — Monday
  • Dolmabahce Palace — Monday and Thursday
  • Topkapi Palace — Tuesday
  • Chora Church — Wednesday
  • Grand Bazaar — Sunday

5. Save Money with an Istanbulkart

If you’ll be staying in Istanbul for more than a couple of days and taking public transportation often, then you may want to get an Istanbulkart. It’s a convenient transport card that’ll save you on the cost of public transportation.

With an Istanbulkart, you’ll pay just 3.50TL per ride instead of the usual 5TL. The card is transferrable so you can use the same card for several people.

The card itself costs 6TL and you can buy it at major metro stations like the airport, Sultanahmet, or Eminönü. You’ll need to top it up before you can use it since the 6TL is just for the cost of the card.

6. Check for Istanbul Travel Vouchers

I purchase travel vouchers from many different websites. For East and Southeast Asia, I like Klook and KKday. But for Turkey, my favorites are Get Your Guide and Viator because they offer the biggest selection.

If you’re looking for deals on tours, transfers, shows, etc., then you may want to search through the Get Your Guide and Viator websites for a list of attractions deals in Istanbul.

7. Get Travel Insurance

Though we do get it more often now, travel insurance isn’t something we buy before every trip. Our credit cards give us basic coverage anyway so we only get extra travel insurance if we plan on doing anything that could cause us bodily harm, things like skiing or bungee jumping.

On this Turkey trip, we went horseback riding in Cappadocia so we did purchase travel insurance. Basically, if you plan on doing anything physical, then you may want to pick up a policy.

We get insurance from World Nomads or SafetyWing. They’re both trusted travel medical insurance providers used by many long-term travelers.

Check out my article on why we buy travel insurance for more information. You can follow the links to get a free quote from World Nomads or SafetyWing.

8. Know When and How Much to Tip

Tipping is modest in Turkey, around 5% at inexpensive restaurants and 10-15% at fine dining establishments. For porters and bellhops, TL 2-3 lira per bag should suffice. Taxi drivers aren’t usually given tips but you can round up to a convenient amount (ie 17.20TL to 18TL).

If you were happy with a tour, then a group tip of around 20TL for the guide and 15TL for the driver will be appreciated. Keep in mind that this is the total tip from the entire group, not each individual.

9. Bring the Right Power Adapter

Electrical outlets in Turkey are round so plugs are typically Type C or Type F. Be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 230V.

Have Fun!

I’m by no means an expert on Istanbul or Turkey but I do hope that this travel guide helps you plan your trip. I’m only sharing some of the things I learned from the time we spent there.

If you have any suggestions, then please feel free to let us know in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.

Thanks for stopping by and have an awesome time exploring the mesmerizing city of Istanbul!

OUR GEAR

These are some of the things we brought with us to Istanbul. Check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post for a complete list of our travel gear. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)

Huawei P20 Pro
Huawei P20 Pro
Osmo Mobile 2
PowerCube
SCOTTeVEST Tropiformer
Pickpocket-proof Jacket

Disclosure

This article contains affiliate links. We’ll earn a small commission if you make a booking at no additional expense to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!

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Asley

Tuesday 11th of May 2021

Thanks for this useful post. I want to do a cruise on the Bosphorus, there are so many choices, not sure which one to take but I found one, Bosphorus Sunset Cruise top-rated on trip advisor. Do you have any suggestions on that? I want to give it a try on this one bosphorustour.com Thanks for your feedback.

JB Macatulad

Wednesday 12th of May 2021

You're welcome Asley! I don't have personal experience with that company so I can't speak on it, but I did check their TripAdvisor reviews and they have 5 stars. I wouldn't have any reservations about them. Another place you can look is Get Your Guide. Just do a search for Bosphorus cruise to see what's available. Those are all vetted and many have ratings and reviews so you can choose the best one for you. Hope that helps!

Chris

Tuesday 20th of April 2021

Great info. The costs section does not appear to be accurate/updated: "This is also subjective but based on our experience, I’d say around 50TL for the day per person with drinks. Budget more if you plan on dining at fancier restaurants." 50TL is $6 per day. Am I missing something? We're headed there in September. Thanks -- Chris

JB Macatulad

Tuesday 20th of April 2021

Thanks for pointing that out Chris. 50TL is indeed on the low side but not out of the question for people traveling on a budget. Current price for a durum is about 15TL and a lahmacun is around 10TL. We avoid overpriced touristy restaurants but 75TL would be a more comfortable number for the average traveler. I'll go ahead and update the guide. Enjoy Turkey!

TUTOROO

Monday 8th of February 2021

Learn Turkish with a Turkish person thanks to TUTOROO!

Aslı

Thursday 4th of February 2021

Hi It is so nice that you are visiting our country and introducing about it. Im thankfull for it:) Im reserching english native speaker lives in İstanbul. And I saw an advertisement on a website (tutoroo) about private lessons. If you are Fadzlienna please contact me by email.

Afroza

Wednesday 20th of January 2021

I want to visit Istanbul for 5 days. please send me details information and cost.