Speechless. Overwhelming. Exciting. These impressions of Istanbul are forever lasting and it is probably the most memorable city we have ever explored. Despite harbouring a tinge of skepticism before our trip, it wasn’t long before we fell in love with the city of Istanbul.
If you happen to be planning a city trip to Istanbul, then you’ve landed on the right page. In this article, you’ll find out what you can expect from the largest city in Turkey. We will share with you the most beautiful sights and of course our personal tips for your trip to this fascinating city situated on the Bosphorus.
1. Istanbul: Our Experiences & What to Expect
This much we can tell you right away: Istanbul is a city you absolutely must see for yourself. The pulsating vibes of the Metropolis is hard to put into words – this city exudes life like no other.
At the same time, Istanbul is so unique and unlike any other city. It is literally a collision of two worlds – the European continent meets the Asian continent and creates a fusion, that is Istanbul. What’s so fascinating is that Istanbul is the only Metropolis in the world that encompasses two continents. This Turkish city is divided into two parts. There are two sides, two continents, two cultures. It is this contradiction that makes Istanbul one of the most intriguing cities we have ever been to.
Is Istanbul safe?
Unfortunately, Istanbul isn’t all beautiful. By that, we think back to the terrorist attacks in 2016 and 2017, which led to a massive slump in tourism. On top of all that, they also have a tense political situation.
Nevertheless, reducing Istanbul to terror and the coup attempt would never do justice to the city. In the end, Istanbul is a great city that really impressed us and is one we will surely return to again.
Currently, there are no travel warnings for Istanbul as far as the British Foreign Ministry is concerned. Up-to date information can be found under the following link: Travel information Turkey.
How much time should I plan for Istanbul?
If you want to explore Istanbul as stress-free as possible, we recommend you to stay about 5 nights. That way, you will have enough time to visit all the main sights and also to make a trip to the Asian side of Istanbul. Of course, more time is always better. No doubt, you will still be discovering new corners of Istanbul even if you stay longer.
Do not worry if your time is tight: even on a weekend you can visit the highlights of Istanbul, as most of the sights are very close together.
Our Tip: Travel Guide for Istanbul
We can recommend the Istanbul Travel Guide by Lonely Planet, which was published in 2017, therefore making it still very relevant and up-to date. We really like the concise design of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide and they have done a great job with the information about Istanbul. You definitely can’t go wrong with this guide.
You can view and buy the travel guide here: Lonely Planet Istanbul Travel Guide (Edition May 2017)
2. Sights and Activities in Istanbul
Many sights in Istanbul can be reached quite easily by foot. You are best to start off directly in the historic quarter of Sultanahmet in the Fatih district. Here you will find all the main tourist attractions in the Old Centre of Istanbul, including the world famous Hagia Sophia.
Once you cross the Galata Bridge, you will reach the other side of the Golden Horn in the Beyoglu district – the modern side of Istanbul. Here, the focus is no longer on the sightseeing, but more on the Turkish lifestyle. Nevertheless, there are some places worth seeing here as well.
Once the largest church in the world, it then became a mosque, and now museum: The Hagia Sophia is probably the most important landmark and one of the absolute highlights in Istanbul. Visiting the world-famous building is certainly a must on a trip to Istanbul.
Important Note – just so that you are not disappointed: some of the interior parts of the Hagia Sophia have been under scaffold for years now (or even decades). It seems like the Hagia Sophia may be under permanent, ongoing restoration.
Our tip: Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most visited attractions, so it may be that there is a waiting line at the entrance (especially in high season). Depending on the time of day and the season you visit, we would therefore recommend that you buy your ticket in advance.
You can buy your ticket online here: Guided Tour of Hagia Sophia
Information about visiting the Hagia Sophia:
Admission: 60 Turkish Lira
Location: Sultanahmet in the Fatih district
Getting there: you can take the Tram line 1 to the Sultanahmet Station
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia is the largest and undoubtedly most impressive mosque in all of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque. It is most noticeably unique for its six minarets.
As visitors of a different faith, you are allowed enter the mosque for free – but only outside the prayer times. Shoes must be taken off at the entrance, and women are also required to cover their hair with a cloth and to cover their clothing if it is considered too tight.
Information about visiting the Blue Mosque
Location: Sultanahmet in the Fatih district
Getting there: you can take the Tram line 1 to the Sultanahmet Station.
The third highlight in Sultanahmet is the aristocratic Topkapi Palace. It is located north of Hagia Sophia. The Topkapi Palace was once the residential and governing seat of the Sultans – today it is one of the most important sights of Istanbul and a museum exhibition showcasing the historic rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The palace consists of several buildings with countless rooms from high nobility and a large spacious garden park. Make sure you don’t miss the highlight of the Topkapi Palace: the Harem. You have to pay extra for this, but the 35 Lira is well worth it.
Information about visiting the Topkapi Palace
Admission: 60 Turkish Lira (+ 35 Turkish Lira for the Harem)
Location: Sultanahmet in the Fatih District
Getting there: you can take the Tram line 1 to the Sultanahmet or Gülhane Station.
Not far from Sultanahmet, you will reach a fascinating indoor labyrinth with all kinds of goods down every lane. The Grand Bazaar reportedly attracts up to half a million people every day.
Whether the statistic is accurate or not, it is obvious that the Grand Bazaar lives up to its name. You can buy everything here, from leather and textile goods to jewellery, souvenirs and sweets. As is the case with most markets, bartering is essential. It’s not uncommon to push the offered prices down by as much as 50 percent.
Information about the visit of the Grand Bazaar
Location: In the Fatih district, west of Sultanahmet
Getting there: you can take the Tram line 1 to the Station Beyazit; or you can walk from Hagia Sophia and it should only take you about 15mins.
The Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn and connects the historic city centre (Sultanahmet or Fatih) with modern Istanbul (Beyoglu) – the bridge is two-storeys high: the upper section is where traffic flows, while the bottom section is home to numerous restaurants.
The Galata Bridge is an integral part of Istanbul. There is always so much going on here, no matter the time of day. We could have spent forever watching the fishermen on the bridge. Another thing that really impressed us was the view of the city centre. From the Galata Bridge you have a spectacular view towards Sultanahmet, including the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque on one side, and the New Mosque on the other.
Location: North of Sulanahmet; connects the two districts Fatih and Beyoglu
Getting there: you can take the Tram line 1 to the Eminönü Station
Beyoglu: Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square
In the modern district of Beyoglu, you will find the city’s most famous shopping street lane: the Istiklal Caddesi. It stretches from the south -near the Galata Tower (more on that later) – all the way to the famous Taksim Square in the north.
Right in the middle of the pedestrian zone, you’ll see the red, historic tram make its way through the crowds. Unlike other shopping streets, the Istiklal Caddesi is buzzing all day and all evening long. When night falls, the crowds retreat into the nearby bars and restaurants.
Location: In the Beyoglu district
Getting there: you can take the Metro to Taksim, from there you can walk along the Istiklal Caddesi towards the south.
Crossing the Bosphorus by Boat
The Bosphorus separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side. We can highly recommend a boat trip across the strait, as Istanbul is so stunning from the water. No wonder every guide tells you that a boat trip across the Bosphorus is one of the biggest highlights.
There are countless providers offering both short and long boat trips. However, we chose to go with what we think is the cheapest option. You also get a stunning view of Istanbul from the ferry as you commute between the European and Asian continents.
Ferries to Kadiköy (on the Asian side) depart from both the Eminönü Ferry Terminal (on the south end of the Galata Bridge) and the Kadiköy (at the north end of the Galata Bridge).
Asian side of Istanbul
Even if it’s just for an hour or two, a trip to the Asian continent is a must on an Istanbul city break, especially when it’s so close! Only 20 minutes by ferry to be exact.
A good starting point to explore the Asian city of Istanbul is Kadiköy. Suddenly all those international brands that you just saw at Istiklal Caddesi are but foreign words. The city is the same, but the atmosphere on the Asian side is definitely something else – that much we can promise you.
Getting to Kadiköy:
Our recommendation: You can take the ferry from either the ferry terminal Eminönü (at the south end of the Galata bridge) or Karaköy (at the north end of the Galata bridge).
3. The Most Beautiful Lookout Points in Istanbul
Probably the best panoramic view of Istanbul is up by the small viewing platform on the Galata Tower. Unfortunately, the tower is far from a secret. Therefore, expect to wait up to 30 minutes or even more.
Nevertheless, it is still worth the visit! The 360 degree view is simply spectacular and the viewing terrace itself is fairly easy to reach. There is a lift that takes you almost to the top, so you only have to walk the last two floors.
However, the viewing platform is very narrow, so it can be a bit tight up there. Our thoughts: although the rush is usually the worse just before sunset, the light is just simply so beautiful.
Information about visiting the Galata Tower
Admission: 35 Turkish Lira
Location: In the Galata area of the Beyoglu district.
Getting there: you can take the Metro to the Sishane Station
The name already says it all: From the terrace of the 360 Istanbul restaurant, you have a spectacular view over the city. Since the prices are quite high, we would recommend just coming by for a cocktail.
Location: At the Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu
Getting there: you can take the Metro to the Sishane Station
4. Food an Drinks in Istanbul: Our Tips
In Istanbul and Turkey in general, there is great emphasis placed on food – something we love to hear! The most important meal here is dinner and people usually meet with their family and friends no earlier than 8pm.
What we didn’t fancy so much is that the food culture is incredibly meat heavy and it can be quite difficult for vegetarians to find creative dishes. Nevertheless, Turkish cuisine is delicious.
Bakery Hafiz Mustafa: Baklava & Other Turkish Sweets
If you want to taste Turkish sweets, then there’s no way you can pass by the bakery Hafiz Mustafa. Supposedly they make the best baklava in all of Istanbul. Even though we are personally not the biggest fans of this sticky sweet dessert – we will admit that the baklava was good.
Due to the large selection, making a decision is really hard. However, you can try and sample all sorts of Turkish sweets, including the baklava in all its many variations. They now have several branches in Istanbul (including one near the Galata Bridge in the south and one in Sultanahmet).
The bars and restaurants of this vibrant area in Beyoglu is where half the population of Istanbul meet up in the evenings for beers. Nevizade Sokak is actually the name of a particular street, but it is used mostly to refer to this particular quarter.
If you can, you should try find a seat right on the street, order an “Efes” (the most famous Turkish beer) and enjoy the vibrant nightlife of Istanbul.
Location: Northwest of the Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu (parallel to it)
More tips for dining in Istanbul
Privato Café: Cozy café near the Galata Tower. Great breakfast and a good selection of vegetarian options.
Mandabatmaz: “The place to be” if you want to try Turkish coffee.
You have to try: a Simit (sesame ring) at Galata Bridge and then take the ferry to Kadiköy. You cannot get a more authentic feeling in Istanbul!
5. Our Hotel Recommendations for Istanbul
The choice between staying close to the historic centre (Sultanahmet) or staying in Beyoglu on the other side of the Galata Bridge – is a matter of personal preference.
In the historic centre (Sultanahmet), you have the advantage of being able to reach the main attractions by foot. While Sulanahmet is pretty touristic, Beyoglu offers a much more authentic atmosphere.
Option 1: Staying in the Historic Centre (Sultanahmet)
We can highly recommend the Hotel Miniature. The location could hardly be more central with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque just a short 5 minutes walk away.
The entire hotel is very nicely decorated, especially the cozy wooden panels and decor. One of the highlights is definitely the small roof terrace. All in all highly recommended!
You can view and book the hotel here: Hotel Miniature
Option 2: Stay overnight in Beyoglu
On the Beyoglu side, we can recommend the very chic and modern Hotel DeCamondo Galata. It is located in the south of Beyoglu near the Galata Bridge. From the rooftop terrace, you get a great view of the Bosphorus.
The rooms are very immaculately decorated. The surrounding neighbourhood is also very nice with several restaurants within walking distance. Plus, you can get to the historic centre very quickly with the tram – just so you know!
You can view and book the rooms here: Hotel DeCamondo Galata
This blog article contains our personal recommendations in the form of so-called affiliate links. If you book or buy something through these links, we will receive a small commission. For you, this does not change the price at all. A million thanks from the both of us!
Have you been to Istanbul before? How did you like it? Do you have any further tips for sights or restaurants? We look forward to reading your experiences!