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.
VISIT ISTANBUL QUICK LINKS
This travel guide to Istanbul is long. For your convenience, I’ve compiled links to hotels, tours, and other services here.
Top-rated hotels in Sultanahmet, the most convenient area to stay for first-time visitors to Istanbul.
- Luxury: Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul, Curio Collection by Hilton
- Midrange: Romance Istanbul Hotel Boutique Class
- Budget: Erenler HoTeL & HosTeL
- Sightseeing Tour: Half-Day Highlights Guided Tour
- Food Tour: Istanbul Food and Culture Tour: Taste of 2 Continents
- Museum Pass: Istanbul 5-Day Guided Museum Pass
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GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
ISTANBUL TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
Because of the current global situation, Istanbul travel guidelines have been changing often. Our friends at Booking.com created a website that lists detailed information on travel restrictions around the globe.
Before doing any serious trip planning, be sure to check Booking.com for information on travel restrictions to Turkey. If you do decide to visit Istanbul, then it’s strongly recommended that you get travel insurance with COVID coverage.
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.
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.
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
BY HAVAIST SHUTTLE: One of the cheapest ways to get to Sultanahmet from Istanbul Airport is by Havaist Shuttle (67TL), but it isn’t the easiest. At this time, there’s no direct route so you’ll need to catch the HVIST-12 line to Beyazit Square. From there, you can take a tram to Sultanahmet (5 mins). Please note that you cannot pay for the shuttle with cash, only credit or debit card. Please refer to this website for more information.
BY TAXI: A taxi to Sultanahmet from Istanbul Airport will run you at least 320TL.
BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet will cost at least 45 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.
BY HAVAIST SHUTTLE: This is the easiest way to get to Taksim from Istanbul Airport. For 90TL, you can take the HVIST-16 line all the way to its last stop which is close to Taksim Square. Please note that you cannot pay for the shuttle with cash, only credit or debit card. You can refer to this website for more information.
BY TAXI: A taxi from Istanbul Airport to Taksim will cost you at least 260TL.
BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Istanbul Airport to Taksim will cost at least 19 Euros per person. You can book it in advance through Bookaway.
From Sabiha Gökçen Airport
BY HAVABUS: Take the Havabus bound for Taksim (37.50TL). From Taksim, you can either take a taxi to Sultanahmet or walk to the Taksim metro station and take the Taksim-Kabatas funicular to Kabatas (5 mins). From Kabatas, you can take the tram to Sultanahmet station (25 mins). You can refer to this website for more information.
Alternatively, you can take the Havabus from the airport to Kadıköy (28TL). Once in Kadıköy, walk to the Şehir Hatları dock and take the ferry to Eminönü (30 mins). From there, you can either take a taxi to your hotel in Sultanahmet or walk to the Eminönü station and take the tram to Sultanahmet (15 mins). You can check this website for more information.
BY TAXI: A taxi from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet will cost you around 210TL.
BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet will cost at least 45 Euros. You can book it in advance through Get Your Guide.
BY HAVABUS: Take the Havabus bound for Taksim (37.50TL). From there, you can walk or take a taxi to your hotel. You can refer to this website for more information.
BY TAXI: A taxi from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Taksim will cost you around 210TL.
BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: A private transfer from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Taksim will cost at least 22 Euros per person. You can book it in advance through Bookaway.
Things to Remember
- If you’ll be taking public transportation in Istanbul, then you can save on the fare by purchasing an Istanbulkart. Jump to the TRAVEL TIPS section of this guide for more information.
- 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 and travel times indicated above were derived from the Istanbeautiful website.
This Istanbul travel guide assumed you’ll be arriving by plane, but there may be others ways of getting there depending on where you are. You can check Bookaway or use the widget below to find route options available to you.
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)
The Sultanahmet area is where most of the major tourist sites are located. If you’re traveling to Istanbul for the first time and looking to visit its top tourist attractions, then there’s no better place to stay than Sultanahmet. Here are a few top-rated hotels in Sultanahmet:
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. Check out these top-rated hotels in Taksim:
You can also book hotels and homestays 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.
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.
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.
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.
Admission: 500TL (Palace, Hagia Irene) / 650TL (Palace, Hagia Irene, Harem)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
10. Chora Church (Kariye Museum) – Temporarily Closed (May 2022)
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.
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 Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour. 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. Barring traffic, it’s a convenient way to explore the city.
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.
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.
Activity Duration: 2 or 6 hrs
Cost: 65TL (Full), 32TL (Short)
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. Get Your Guide can help you with that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We visited many ruins in Turkey and Aphordisias was by far the most beautiful and well-preserved.
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.
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 the most delicious things to eat and drink in Turkey.
WHERE TO EAT IN ISTANBUL
Being such a popular tourist destination, Istanbul is home to a dizzying number of restaurants. From traditional Turkish restaurants to fish restaurants to healthy restaurants that serve vegan and vegetarian food, there’s no shortage of good food to be had in Istanbul.
To help you narrow it down and avoid the tourist traps, we’ve put together this list of 25 of the best restaurants in Istanbul.
25 may still be too many for some travelers so we’ve listed some of our favorites below.
1. Beşiktaş Çıtır Pide Lahmacun Salonu
Kebabs and durum are among my favorite dishes to eat in Istanbul. On our last trip, we probably tried over ten kebab shops but my favorite was Besiktas Citir. Not only does this restaurant serve great kebabs and wraps, but they also make terrific pide and lahmacun.
Located in Besiktas district, Beşiktaş Çıtır Pide Lahmacun Salonu is a great restaurant to visit before or after going to Dolmabahce Palace.
2. Ulaş Balıkçılık
Being a uniquely located city with shores long the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus Strait, fresh fish is abundant in Istanbul no matter what time of year you go.
Like kebab shops, seafood restaurants are a dime a dozen in Istanbul but our favorite in Beyoglu district is Ulas Balikcilik. It’s a small neighborhood seafood restaurant in Cihangir that serves fresh fish dishes – like these sea bass skewers – at a fraction of the price you’d pay at touristy restaurants.
3. Susam Cafe
Cihangir is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul. It’s a hilly residential area in Beyoglu district with many interesting restaurants and cafes.
Of all the restaurants we visited in the area, Susam Cafe was probably my favorite. It’s a neighborhood cafe that offers a wide range of breakfast dishes, comfort food, pasta, and vegetarian options.
4. Kumin Vegan Lezzetler
The vegetarian and vegan game is strong in Istanbul, especially on the Asian side. We visited many restaurants that offer healthy options but one of our favorites was Kumin Vegan Lezzetler, a cute vegan restaurant located in the Rasimpasa neighborhood of Kadikoy.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian or simply enjoying eating healthier meals, then you’ll definitely want to visit this restaurant.
I asked a friend from Turkish Munchies for restaurant recommendations and one of the places he suggested was Baylan, a patisserie that’s been open since 1925. They serve many delicious cakes and desserts but what they’re really known for is kup griye – a heavenly dessert made with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, creme chantilly, ground pistachios, and toffee.
Baylan invented kup gryie so if you’re fond of desserts, then you’ll definitely want to try this. It’s unbelievably delicious.
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.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN ISTANBUL
The Istanbul public transportation system is 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, transfers are charged separately in Istanbul. A single ride costs 20TL but you can get discounts if you purchase multi-ride tickets. You can check the IETT website for pricing information.
If you plan on taking the public transportation system often, then the Istanbulkart as described in the TRAVEL TIPS section would be an excellent investment. You’ll pay just 9.90TL for the first ride and save on transfer costs as well.
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.
• Topkapi Palace
• Istanbul Archaeology Museums
• Chora Church (temporarily closed)
• Basilica Cistern
• Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)
• At Meydani (Sultanahmet Square)
• Ibrahim Pasa Palace (Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum)
• Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)
• Grand Bazaar
• Rüstem Pasha Mosque
• Egyptian Spice Bazaar
• Bosphorus Cruise
• Galata Bridge
• Galata Tower
• Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)
• Dolmabahce Palace
ISTANBUL TRAVEL TIPS
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel
If you enjoy trip planning, then you’re going to find Sygic Travel useful. It allows you to plot points of interest on a map so you can see exactly where they are in relation to one another. That way you can group places by day and come up with an efficient itinerary.
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. Click on the link to rent a pocket wifi device through Get Your Guide.
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 700TL, 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. Admission to Topkapi Palace and its Harem alone will set you back 650TL.
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.
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
Some of Istanbul’s museums and attractions are closed one day of the week. Know when they close so you can plan your trip accordingly.
- Dolmabahce Palace — Monday
- Topkapi Palace — Tuesday
- 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 9.90TL per transfer instead of the usual 15TL. Plus, you’ll save on the cost of transfers. The card is transferrable as well so you can use the same card for up to five people.
The card itself costs 60TL 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 60TL is just for the cost of the card. You can refer to the IETT and Istanbul Clues websites for more information.
6. Check for Istanbul Travel Vouchers
I purchase travel vouchers from many different websites. For Istanbul and Turkey, I like Get Your Guide the best as they have the widest selection of tours, activities, and other travel-related services. You can check out Klook as well.
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 travel insurance from SafetyWing or Heymondo. They’re popular travel insurance companies used by many long-term travelers. You can follow the links to get a free quote from SafetyWing or Heymondo. Get 5% off on Heymondo by using our link.
8. Know When and How Much to Tip
Tipping is modest in Turkey, around 5-10% at inexpensive restaurants and 10-15% at fine dining establishments. For porters and bellhops, EUR 1 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 EUR 10-15 will be appreciated. Keep in mind that this is the total tip from the entire group, not each individual. You can refer to this website for more information.
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.
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!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Istanbul. See what’s in our backpack for a complete list of our travel gear. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon and other affiliate links.)
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