After living in Istanbul for over three years, it’s about time I share with you all its secrets! In this guide, I will tell you the best places to visit in Istanbul, both on the tourist side and off the beaten path. I will also share with you the best places to stay in Istanbul and some practical tips for your trip to Turkey!
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If the world were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital,” and I couldn’t agree with him more. I lived in Istanbul for over three years, and although it wasn’t exactly easy, I felt lucky everyday I woke up in this amazing city. Not only is Istanbul incredibly beautiful, it also has an amazing history, culture, and eclectic lifestyle. It’s even the point where the East meets the West! If you haven’t visited Istanbul yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for!
In this guide, I’ll share with you the best places to visit in Istanbul: both the most popular tourist destinations and my favorite places in Istanbul off the beaten path. I’ll also share with you some practical tips to help you make the most of your trip to Istanbul and discover Istanbul’s hidden gems!
The Most Popular Places to Visit in Istanbul
Although I prefer to find the hidden gems on the road less traveled, there’s no doubt that Istanbul has many popular tourist attractions you can’t miss. The city’s most famous neighborhood is Sultanahmet, where you’ll find most of Istanbul’s main attractions.
The best thing about visiting Sultanahmet is that everything is right at your fingertips. Even the two most famous attractions in Istanbul—the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia—are literally facing each other!
Ready to discover Istanbul’s popular places? Here are some of the best places to visit in Istanbul!
Built as a church around 537 AD and converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish) is one of the most incredible religious buildings in the world. In addition to its impressive dome and golden mosaics, its second-floor windows offer one of the best possible views of the Blue Mosque!
Facing the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, is the most famous mosque in Istanbul. Its name derives from the famous blue Iznik tiles that line its interior. Don’t worry about budgeting for a visit: admission is free!
The Topkapi Palace served as the residence of the Sultan, his family, and his harem from its inauguration in 1465 until the mid 19th century, when the incumbent sultan moved his residence to the Dolmabahçe Palace. The Topkapi Palace is now a museum and is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is one of several hundred ancient cisterns that were built to supply Istanbul with water in case of an attack. It’s definitely one of the most unusual places to visit in Istanbul!
The Grand Bazaar
With 61 streets and more than 4000 shops, the colorful and chaotic Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Although it’s certainly one of Istanbul’s must-see attractions, I don’t recommend shopping much there unless you’re a bargaining pro. If haggling is not your strength, visit the shops in the streets around the Grand Bazaar, where you’ll find many of the same products at lower prices.
The Spice Bazaar in Eminönü
The Spice Bazaar in Eminönü is smaller than the Grand Bazaar but still one of the largest bazaars in the city. It’s the perfect place to buy things like spices, Turkish sweets, nuts, soaps, and scarves.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is the masterpiece of the Ottoman Empire’s finest architect, Mimar Sinan. It is the second largest mosque in Istanbul, and aside from its impressive architecture, it boasts one of the best views of Istanbul.
The Galata Tower is an icon of the city and one of the most fascinating places to visit in Istanbul. Although it offers some wonderful views of Istanbul, I recommend skipping the queue and entrance fee. Instead, admire the tower from the outside and enjoy the same views of the city for free from one of the rooftop cafes in the area.
My favorite cafe for viewing Istanbul is Galata Konak Cafe, located only a few minutes’ walk from the Galata Tower. You should definitely check it out if you can!
The Dolmabahçe Palace is one of the most glamorous places to visit in Istanbul. It holds a lot of cultural significance for Turks because Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, died here. Fun fact: The room where Atatürk died is perfectly preserved in the state it was when he passed, and the clocks are even stopped at the time he died (9:05).
Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue
Taksim Square is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. To be honest, it’s not my favorite part of Istanbul as it’s changed a lot in recent years, but you should still visit it if you can. Be sure to take a walk on Istiklal Avenue: it’s one of the busiest streets in the world and it’s full of historical buildings.
Near Taksim Square sits Cihangir, one of the neighborhoods in the Beyoğlu district. This neighborhood is especially interesting for its cafes, art galleries, and antique shops, so definitely check it out if you get a chance!
Best Places to Visit in Istanbul Off the Beaten Path
Now that we’ve covered the most popular places to visit in Istanbul, it’s time to dive into some of Istanbul’s hidden gems. These are local places in Istanbul off the beaten path that you won’t find in an average guide, but I’m sure they won’t disappoint you.
After living in Turkey for over three years, these are some of the destinations I’ve come to consider among the best places to visit in Istanbul!
Located in the Asian part of the city, Kadiköy is the most modern district of Istanbul. It’s known for its cafes, street art, nightlife, sunsets, and views of the Marmara Sea. Next to Sultanahmet, Kadiköy feels like a completely different city!
Kadiköy has a very different energy compared to other areas of Istanbul. It feels more local than the more popular tourist areas, though it’s close enough to Sultanahmet for you to reach by ferry. In fact, I’m sure you’ll love these little journeys between Asia and Europe: crossing the Bosphorus by boat is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Istanbul!
Crossing the Bosphorus
Crossing the Bosphorus is definitely something you should do if you visit Istanbul. Although it’s only a 20- to 25-minute journey, it’s still technically a trip between Asia and Europe, which is pretty cool. The views of the city from the boat are impressive, especially if you travel from Beşiktaş to Kadiköy at sunset.
Apart from its football team, the Beşiktaş district is known for its modern lifestyle, fish restaurants, and breakfasts. I lived in Beşiktaş for two years and it’s still one of my favorite places in Istanbul.
Also on the Asian side of Istanbul, Üsküdar nonetheless feels very different from Kadiköy, as religion and tradition carry much more weight in this district. Here you can visit the Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower), from which you can see one of the best sunsets in Istanbul.
You can also walk to Kuzguncuk, a bohemian neighborhood that used to be home to non-Muslim minorities: Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. Kuzguncuk features colorful streets with old wooden houses, historic mansions, synagogues, mosques, bookstores, and a community garden.
Büyük Valide Han
Among the steep streets of Eminönü is my favorite place in Istanbul: the Büyük Valide Han. It’s an old caravanserai with rooftop access and the absolute best views of Istanbul. At the time of writing, the Büyük Valide Han is closed to the public, but if you’re lucky, the doorman might open the door for you.
Also located in the district of Üsküdar, Çamlica Hill is one of the seven hills of Istanbul and the highest point in the whole city. At 268 meters above sea level, Çamlica Hill offers panoramic views of both sides of the Bosphorus, including the two bridges that connect Asia and Europe.
Balat is one of the most colorful and bohemian neighborhoods in Istanbul. Once known as the Jewish quarter of the city, this neighborhood used to be one of the biggest hidden gems in Istanbul. However, it has started to become trendy in recent years, and there are now many new cafes and places to hang out here.
Karaköy is another formerly forgotten neighborhood of Istanbul that has recently become trendy. It is now full of hipster cafes and restaurants and is currently one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city among young people. Karaköy also boasts one of the best Turkish hammans and the best baklavas in Istanbul, so make sure to try them while you’re there!
A couple of hours from Istanbul by boat are the Princes’ Islands, officially known as Adalar. If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, I highly recommend you visit these islands: cars are forbidden here, so you’ll be able to enjoy a quiet getaway.
To get to the islands, take the ferry from Beşiktaş to Adalar. The boat stops at four islands, the last one (Büyükada) being the most popular.
Arriving in Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul has two airports: Istanbul new airport (on the European side) and Sabiha Gökçen (on the Asian side). Once you arrive, the most practical way to get downtown is to take a bus called Havataş.
Keep in mind that you need a tourist visa to enter Turkey. Luckily, you can easily get your e-visa online. A visa is valid for 90 days and the price depends on your nationality.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Although most of Istanbul’s attractions are in Sultanahmet, I personally find this area too touristy and don’t consider it the best neighborhood to stay in. I would also avoid Taksim, which tends to be too crowded. If you want an insider’s opinion, here are my recommendations for the best neighborhoods to stay in during your visit to Istanbul.
As I mentioned before, Kadiköy, located in the center of the Asian side, is the most modern part of the city and the best neighborhood to stay in while you tour Istanbul. Although it may seem far from the tourist areas, Eminönü is just a 15-minute boat ride away. Here are some of the best places to stay in Kadiköy:
Juliet’s Rooms & Kitchen – Cozy, clean and very well kept, this hotel is the best option to sleep in Moda.
Khalkedon Hotel – With terrace and right in the center, this is a very good option to sleep in Kadiköy.
Hostel Bahane – If you like going out, this hostel is right in the “barlar sokak” (bar street), the center of the action of the nightlife in Kadiköy.
Loka Suites – Loka Suites is a more elegant option to stay in Kadiköy.
If you prefer to stay on the European side, Beşiktaş is your best bet. Here are the best places to stay in Beşiktaş:
Chakra Suites Besiktas – An elegant and comfortable place to stay in Beşiktaş.
Puffin Hostel – If you are looking for something good, nice and cheap, this hostel is a perfect choice for you.
Although it’s a tourist area that’s usually crowded, Galata is one of the most charming districts of Istanbul. If you want to stay in Galata, here are some of your best options:
Galata 12 – A new and exceptional hotel to sleep in Galata.
Art Nouveau Pera – An excellent hotel with one of the best views of Istanbul.
Vault Karakoy The House Hotel – Excellent hotel and great location.
Also located near Taksim, Cihangir has a bohemian atmosphere and is one of the most historic districts in Istanbul. If you plan to stay in Cihangir, I recommend one of these places:
Dreamers B&B – An affordable place to stay in Cihangir.
Frida Suites – Comfortable and close to everything in Cihangir.
How to Get Around Istanbul
Istanbul is a huge city—in fact, it’s the only one in the world that sits on two continents! Still, I’ve found that its public transit system is excellent, with basically every form of transportation you can imagine. You can take the metro, the tramway, or the metrobus (a bus line that crosses the entire city in a single lane). There’s even a train called the Marmaray that crosses from Europe to Asia under the Bosphorus! But of all of Istanbul’s transportation options, my favorite is traveling by vapur (steam ferry).
To easily get around Istanbul, I recommend buying an Istanbul Card (Istanbulkart) as soon as possible. This card will allow you to use all public transportation (except minibusses). You can easily recharge it at subway stations, kiosks, or ports (Iskele).
I also recommend Trafi, a useful app that tells you which lines of public transportation you can use to reach your destination.
Be extremely cautious if you plan to get around by taxi. Taxi drivers in Istanbul are infamously untrustworthy: many of them will take a longer route to your destination, tamper with the taximeter, or swap out notes to get you to pay more. I recommend downloading the BiTaksi app: you can leave reviews and report unscrupulous behavior, so the taxi drivers who use this app are usually fair.
What to Eat in Istanbul
Are you under the impression that all Turkish food is kebabs? If so, you’re in for a treat! Turkish food is very rich and diverse, and it’s one of the best reasons to travel to Turkey!
There are many foods you should try, but one experience I highly recommend is eating a balik ekmek (fish sandwich) under the Eminönü bridge. Turkish desserts are also delicious; my favorite is the künefe, a dessert filled with hot cheese.
But my absolute favorite foods to eat in Istanbul are Turkish breakfasts. I recommend leaving the hotel and looking for a restaurant that serves a traditional Turkish breakfast. They’re usually huge, so it will give you enough energy to travel throughout the city for the entire day!
If you’re still hungry, one restaurant I love that serves traditional Turkish food is Çiya in Kadiköy.
If you’re looking for homemade Turkish food at a low price, try eating at a lokanta. These restaurants serve buffet-style food that’s very cheap and usually delicious. My favorite local lokantas are Maya Lokantasi and Balkan Lokantasi.
When to Visit Istanbul
It’s always a great time to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world! Each season has its charm, but one of my favorite times to visit Istanbul is spring (around April and May), when the city is covered in flowers. If you visit in spring, don’t miss the Istanbul Tulip Festival!
Another good time to visit Istanbul is September, when the weather is still pleasant without being too hot or too cold. Winter is also a good time to visit if you like snow. It doesn’t snow much in Istanbul, but if you’re lucky enough to be here on a snowy day, you’ll see that the city is even more beautiful when covered in white!
What to Avoid in Istanbul
Istanbul has a bit of a bad reputation thanks to global news stories about Turkey, but I assure you that this city is safe. Generally speaking, I feel much safer in Istanbul than I do in Madrid or Barcelona. Crime can happen anywhere, but as long as you exercise common sense, you should be fine.
You may be surprised by the number of beggars you see in the streets. It’s a sad truth that the war in Syria has driven many people to beg on the streets of Istanbul. Don’t worry though, they mean you no harm.
One area you should definitely avoid, especially at night, is the neighborhood of Tarlabaşi. Although it’s close to Taksim in the heart of Istanbul, Tarlabaşi is a slum area known for prostitution and drug trafficking. The rest of the downtown area is quite safe, especially the neighborhoods where I recommend you stay, like Kadiköy, Beşiktaş, and Cihangir.
Despite Turkey being a Muslim-majority country, Istanbul is a surprisingly modern city. You won’t see many covered women here, and the ones you do see are usually tourists from Saudi Arabia and other more conservative countries. In general, you don’t need to worry about the clothes you wear in Istanbul. However, if you plan to visit the magnificent mosques of Istanbul or other religious places, I recommend wearing clothes that cover your arms, legs, and chest.
Useful Turkish Phrases
The Turkish language is difficult to learn in my opinion, but you can always get by with English and a few Turkish words. Here are some useful Turkish phrases that will help you get around Istanbul:
Nasilsin: How are you?
Iyiyim: I’m fine
Kolay gelsin: Take it easy
Afiyet olsun: Bon appetit!
Bu ne kadar?: How much is this?
Etsiz ne var?: What do you have without meat?
Iyi akşamlar: Good evening
Günaydin: Good morning
Istanbul is a magical city, and in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the world. If you haven’t yet, now is a great time to visit Istanbul: the devaluation of the lira has made traveling throughout Turkey very cheap and the country’s political state is currently stable. If you need more inspiration, I recommend reading these 6 Turkey books that will spark your wanderlust.
I have traveled all over the world, but Istanbul is the only place that really feels like home. I love everything about this city: its neighborhoods, its stray cats and dogs, its sunsets, its historical buildings, and gorgeous landscapes.
Although living here isn’t always easy, a trip to Istanbul is a unique experience that should definitely be on your bucket list. Don’t miss your chance to discover the wonders of Istanbul! Hope to see you here soon!