Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world. There is a mix of old and new, the traditional and the modern. Istanbul is beyond incredible. It is one of the most inspiring cities I’ve been so far. It is easy to fall in love with the city because of its breathtaking architecture, delicious food and some of the most amazing and hospitable people I’ve ever met. It’s a city I would love to visit over and over again. The city is crowded and busy, it never stops, but when you need a break, there is always a small café, tea house, mosque or park where you can relax and just enjoy.
First trip to Istanbul? You don’t have to hesitate, Turkey is a very friendly country. I understand that you may have concerns about your safety, but there is nothing major to worry about. Istanbul is pretty safe, but you still have to be careful just like everywhere else. I felt really safe all the time.
No time to read now? Save it for later!
Table of Contents
GETTING TO TURKEY
As a Slovenian resident I’m lucky enough and I don’t have to apply for an e-visa to visit Turkey. Even if you have to apply for e-visa, the procedure is not complicated. You can obtain visa 24/7, you only need internet connection. The applicants can obtain their visa after they fill in the necessary information concerning their identity, passport and travel dates and pay the visa fee online.
Please note that e-visa is only valid when the purpose of travel is tourism or commerce. For other purposes, such as work and study, visas are given by Turkish Embassies or Consulates.
TRAVELING TO ISTANBUL
International flights will be arriving at Istanbul New Airport or Sabiha Gökçen Airport (on Asian side of Istanbul). Istanbul Airport is 50km away from the Old city and 65km from Kadikoy. If you are staying in Sultanahmet or Beyoglu/Taksim, where the main attractions are, you can get to the hotel by bus, taxi or by private transfer.
If you want to use the public transport to get yourself from the airport, you can take the Havaist bus or metro.
The bus ride will take about 80-100 minutes, but it depends on the traffic. The ride will cost you between 74 and 96 TL (the price from May 2023).
The cheapest and also the fastest option to get from the airport is the metro. The metro line M11 has been opened in January and in this moment the metro will get you to the station Kağıthane. In the next few months they will open the Gayrettepe station, so you will be able to transfer to metro line M2.
Update February 2024: the Gayrettepe station is already opened, so you can take the M11 to the Gayrettepe station and then change to metro line M2.
I’ve shared a detailed post on public transport in Istanbul, so you can get all the information here.
YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN:
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL
First of all, you may be asking yourself how many days you should stay in Istanbul? I really loved the city and that’s why I would say at least one week. Yes, you can see all main attractions in 3 or 4 days, but I don’t know if you’re going to experience the true Istanbul. I’m sure that this wouldn’t be enough for me. Altogether I’ve had four weeks in Istanbul and it still wasn’t enough for me.
The are so many neighborhoods in the city and there is a lot of option to choose from. If you are interested in exploring the Old Town, the Sultanahmet area will be perfect option for you. Sultanahmet is the no.1 for tourism in Istanbul as it has the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and Hippodrome. Sultanahmet is very close to the Grand Bazaar – 10-15 minutes of walking distance or two tram stations.
If you are looking for nightlife and the bars, then look for a hotel in Beyoglu or Taksim area. Beyoglu is known for being a trendy area, full of great cafes, pubs and shopping places. Popular areas are Taksim, Galata and Karaköy. You are still close to main attractions in Sultanahmet and you are also close to Galata tower and Istiklal Street.
Further from the attractions, you’ll find Şişli, Beşiktaş or Bebek district. You can also consider about staying in Asian side of Istanbul.
I would totally recommend the Doruk Palas Hotel. During your stay you become part of the family. They will welcome you with warmness and they will make your stay perfect. The hotel is located at Beyoglu district, within a walking distance to Galata Tower and Istiklal street. Also, two or three minutes away, there is a metro station Şişhane and you can easily reach other parts of the city.
HOW TO GET AROUND ISTANBUL
You should prepare yourself for traffic jams. Luckily, you can avoid them by using efficient public transport. Taking a ferry is the best option to cross the Bosphorus. It also offers you a great landscape views. You don’t have to take the Bosphorus cruise for this, you can use your Istanbulkart for any ferry. You will have to buy extra tickets only if you decide to go on any of Princess Island – Adalar.
The main ferry stations are Eminönü (get off there if you want to visit the Spice Bazaar + there is also T1 tram station), Karaköy, Kabataş and Beşiktaş.
You will need Istanbulkart to catch any bus, tram, metro or funicular. You can get one at the airport or at any station. One card can be used by more than one person and you can refill it anywhere – by yourself on yellow machine or at the tobacco shop.
As a tourist, you will probably use the M2 metro line from Yenikapi – Haciosman and T1 tram line, which will take you into the old city, where you will find most of the attractions. You can also catch the historic tram along Istiklal Caddesi, which is more about the experience.
🚍 Read all you need to know about public transport in Istanbul here.
One of the best way to explore the city is by foot. By walking around the city, you will see and experience the most of it. You shouldn’t be afraid of getting lost in Istanbul. You’ll be completely safe but you’ll experience something amazing on every step you make.
WHEN TO VISIT
Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate with dry and hot summers and mild and rainy winters. The best time to visit is during Autumn and Spring, since it can get really hot in July and August and you may find it disturbing. But you can’t preddict the weather. I was there in different periods of the year and the weather was the best in September – there were less rainy days and the degrees were still high, around 25°C – 30°C.
You should consider about visiting during the Ramadan. I would advise you to organise your trip before or after Ramadan.
THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL
1. Visit top attractions
Sultanahmet is home to the city’s most important attractions like Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern. You should visit all of them, because the visit is not the same without seing them. One day will be enough, but it is better if you spread them over two days or even more.
There are two options – guided tour or visiting them by yourself. I’ve decided to buy »skip-the-line tickets« with short guide included, but you can leave the group immediately after coming in if you are not interested in listening the guide. There are huge lines in front of the tickets office, so I recommend you to come as soon as possible. The crowds around noon are huge, so be prepared for queing.
Here is a quick rundown of what you can visit:
#1 Hagia Sophia
The former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum. Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building and engineering marvel of its time. It’s considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture.
Update: Hagia Sophia is now a mosque. But you still have to pay for the entrance – in 2024 the entrance fee is 25 EUR.
#2 Topkapi Palace
In the 15th century it served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. You shouldn’t miss the harem when you visit the palace. You’ll have to pay extra for visiting the harem but it is totally worth it. In my opinion, the harem is the most interesting part of Topkapi Palace. A visit to the palace gives a glimpse into lives of sultans.
During your Topkapi Palace visit, you should also visit Hagia Irene. It is located in the outer courtyard of Topkapı Palace. Hagia Irene is the oldest church of Istanbul as it is believed to have been built on the site of a temple to Aphrodite prior to Emperor Constantine’s decision in 330 to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium.
#3 Blue Mosque
Also called Sultan Ahmet Camii. It is a historic mosque which was constructed between 1609 and 1616. It is one of the most important mosques known by its blueish interior. For me it wasn’t the most amazing mosque in Istanbul. It’s worth visiting it but don’t forget about the Suleymaniye Mosque.
#4 Suleymaniye Mosque
It was built on the order of Sultan Suleiman (Süleyman the Magnificent) and there is also burried Hurrem Sultan. Have you read the book Suleiman the Magnificent? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about. It is one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul, so don’t miss it! Definitely my favourite one.
#5 Galata Tower
One of Istanbul’s most iconic visuals and one of the symbols of Istanbul. Originally named the Tower of Christ, the 66.9 meter high tower was the highpoint in the city walls of the Genoese colony called Galata. Galata Tower was used as watching tower to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor. It was built in 1348. You can go up and you’ll get a nice 360° view of Istanbul.
#6 Dolmabahçe Palace
In 1856, administrative center of the Ottoman Empire was moved from Topkapi Palace to Dolmabahçe Palace and it also became the private residence of Abdulmecid I and his family. Abdulmecit I had lived here 5 years. This palace served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and 1909 to 1922 and it was used as final residence of the Ottoman Sultan.
Photos inside the Dolmbahçe Palace are NOT allowed. However, I believe that the palace is 100% worth to be visited.
2. Go shopping at the Grand Bazaar & Egyptian Spice Bazaar
The Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars are Istanbul’s most popular bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is the largest and one of the oldest covered market in the world, with 61 streets and over 4,000 shops. You should dedicate an enitre day to shopping at the Grand Bazaar. You should go there in the morning, take a break for a lunch, rest a little bit and come back late afternoon. If you will visit the Grand Bazaar on Friday, you should know that many shops will be closed during the pray at 1 o’clock.
During your stay, you should also visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, which is full of colors and fragrances. They offer any spice you can think of and I suggest you to look out for typical Turkish spices. Even if you are not a spice lover, you will find dried fruits, teas, Turkish delight in many different flavors, Turkish coffee, soaps, etc.
You shouldn’t miss the shopping experience at Bazaar, but if you are looking for a better price, you should only take a look and experience an atmosphere, because you will find much cheaper products outside the Bazaar.
3. Cross the Bosphorus by boat
I can highly recommend you to take a Bosphorus tour. I promise you that you will get a stunning view over the Istanbul. The city already looks amazing, but if you take a look over the city from the sea, you are going to be amazed. There are many providers offering short and long tours, you can choose the night tour also. But there is no need to choose the expensive Bosphorus tour, you can go with the cheapest option and you will experience the same.
You can take a Bosphorus tour for a fraction of price with Şehir Hatları. The price for long Bosphorus tour is 120 Turkish Lira and the tour will take you about 6 hours. The ferry will take you all the way to Anadolu Kavağı, where you will have some free time before the ferry goes back to Eminönü. Anadolu Kavağı is the closest point on the Asian side to the Black Sea. It’s a cozy place away from the Istanbul crowds. If you don’t have enough time to do the long tour, you can still go on a short tour for 65 Turkish Lira. This one lasts between 2.5 and 3 hours and it doesn’t go as far.
4. Go to the Asian side of Istanbul
A trip to the Asian side is a must when you are in Istanbul. To be honest, how many times you are in the city, which is located on two continents? The city is the same, but the atmosphere on the Asian side is completely different from what you will see and experience on the European side.
A good starting point is Kadiköy, where you can also take the historic Kadiköy – Moda tram. Later you can visit the Kadiköy Bazaar and eat a delicious fish sandwich, called balik ekmek. You must give it a try.
I still remember my first to Istanbul and my first visit of the Asian side. I went to Üsküdar and I was strolling by the sea. Later I’ve had a cup of tea near the Maiden’s Tower. People were sitting on the stairs, drinking a cup of tea and having a great time. During my last visit I found out that this place is closed now. I still love to go to Üsküdar, especially in the evening so I can adore the big city lights. It’s something unique in this feeling.
One of the places worth visiting in Üsküdar is Kuzguncuk, a colorful district where time seems to pass by more slowly. For centuries, Kuzguncuk was home to a mix of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Turks. Evidence of the coexistence can still be seen today with synagogues, churches, and mosques, all built side by side. Kuzguncuk is a traditional, old-fashioned neighborhood.
If you are tempted to try the famous San Sebastian cake when you visit Istanbul, there is no need to try it near the Galata Tower. The view is a bit better there, but with all the tourists, you can’t enjoy it as much as you would otherwise. There is a pastry shop called San Sebastian Mutfaği in Kuzguncuk where you can try this famous cake for almost half the price. The cake is topped with Belgian chocolate and is really delicious.
📌 San Sebastian Mutfaği, Kuzguncuk, Tufan Sk. no:4
5. Find your own favorite place
Whole Istanbul is full of amazing places and there is so much to see, no matter where you are. I would advise you to stop chasing those “instagrammable places” that you see on social media and find your own favorite part of this amazing city. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go where most of the people go, but there is sooo much to see, I promise you.
6. Go off the beaten path – Balat & Fener
Although Istanbul has many tourist places to visit, you may want to explore places off the beaten path. You can’t do much better than spend a day exploring the streets of Fener and Balat. They are the richest in history of city and they have a personality. They have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. But not many of tourist visit these places. Go there and lose yourself wandering around.
Fener has been the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and one of the most important Greek neighborhoods in Istanbul.
Neighboring Balat was home of Jews. Balat is one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Istanbul. There are clothes hanging above your head, kids are playing on the street and the atmosphere is really unique. Take a few hours to wander the colourful streets of Balat, sip pomegranate juice and enjoy a coffee or tea in a small café while watching the pulse of Istanbul.
Do not miss the Greek High School, the Orthodox Church of St. Mary of the Mongols and the Bulgarian Church.
7. A day trip to Princes Island
If you want to escape from chaotic city full of people, a day trip to Princes’ Island, officialy known as Adalar, is a perfect choice. Cars are forbidden here, so you will be able to enjoy in peace. They are like a small piece of heaven and they are a perfect place to relax. There are four islands – Büyukada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kinaliada. The biggest one is Büyükada, but I prefer a smaller and less crowded one – Kinaliada. If you are lucky with the weather, you can also swim there.
To get there, take ferry to Adalar and get off on any island.
8. Have a Turkish breakfast – kahvalti
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and Turks certainly know how to enjoy it. A well prepared tea is a must. Although Turkey is well known by its Turkish coffee, Turks serve turkish tea when it comes to breakfast. Turkish breakfast is made of bread, simit, cheese, jams, spreads, eggs, green and black olives and vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers).
Another great breakfast classic with eggs is called menemen. Menemen is a juicy, spicy version of scrambled eggs with onions, red and green peppers, and tomatoes.
READ MORE – TOP 3 BREAKFAST PLACES IN ISTANBUL
9. Visit the Ortaköy Mosque
Officially known as the Büyük Mecidiye Camii in Beşiktaş, is situated at the waterside of the Ortaköy pier square, one of the most popular locations on the Bosphorus. It is very pure and beautiful when viewed from the sea. It’s one of my favorite mosques in Istanbul, but certainly one with the best location right next to the Bosphorus.
When you are in Ortaköy, don’t forget to try the kumpir and waffles. Kumpir is one of the must-try foods in Istanbul. This popular street food is made of creamy baked potatoes topped with many delicious toppings of your choice.
10. Visit the Galataport Istanbul
Galata is Istanbul’s new mega cruise port, located in the heart of Istanbul at the waterfront neighborhood of Karaköy. This modern complex has been an instant magnet for locals and tourists alike. I can understand why – you can enjoy in unbeatable panoramic views of Istanbul’s historic skyline. Besides that, Galataport is a shopper’s haven with many shopping options, dining venues and also world-class art museum. I have to admit that Galataport is not one of my favourite places in Istanbul, mainly because of the contrast between traditional Istanbul and modernity. But it is definitely worth at least one visit and a walk among the shops, cafes and restaurants.
11. Pierre Loti
Pierre Loti is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. It is located in Eyüp and it’s very easy to get there since there is a tram T5 running from Eminönü. The hill is named after a French writer, Julien Viaud. The writer used to come to a coffee house and write there. Later, he changed his name and this hill is now named after him. This place will fascinate you with its romantic and unique atmosphere. You can enjoy the view of Istanbul and the Golden Horn in the café with coffee, tea or a delicious meal.
You can reach the top with the cable car, which is near Eyüp Sultan Mosque. For this you will only need your Istanbulkart.
12. Explore the Arnavutköy neighborhood
Located on the European side of Istanbul on the shores of the Bosphorus, lies one of Istanbul’s most beautiful neighbourhoods, Arnavutköy. This is a small area with only a few dozen curling and climbing streets. Arnavutköy is famous for its wooden yalis, Ottoman-era mansions. If you want to escape the chaotic city life and crowds of tourists in front of the tourist attractions, Arnavutköy is the place to be.
The name actually means “Albanian village” – Albanians settled on this patch of Bosphorus coastline between Ortaköy and Bebek and so it came known as the Albanian quarter.
One of the most photogenic parts of Arnavutköy are the houses on the waterfront, separated from the promenade and the road by a canal. They look impressive. As Arnavutköy is small, you can see it entirely in a few hours by walking through the streets and admiring the Ottoman villas. Another thing that is impressive is the views that the streets of this neighborhood offer.
WHAT TO EAT IN ISTANBUL
Forget about the international fast food chains and experience the real Turkish food. Turkish cuisine is very diverse, because of all the influences of different cultures. So, where to start?
With Turkish breakfast ofcourse. No doubt.
You can enjoy a Turkish breakfast almost everywhere in Istanbul. Most of the cafes and restaurant serve breakfast. The Turkish word kahvalti can be translated as kahve-alti, meaning under-coffee, so this is the food you eat before drinking coffee.
Here you can find my suggestions for breakfast places in Istanbul.
Now after you’ve had a breakfast and a cup of Turkish coffee or tea let’s move on to must-try foods in Istanbul.
The most common vendors you will see on the streets of Istanbul are simit vendors. Simit is one of Istanbul’s most popular street foods. It is also one of my personal favourites.
But simit is not the only street food classic in Istanbul. Here comes one of my favorite foods in Istanbul – the famous balik ekmek / balik durum. The only difference between the two is that balik ekmek is served in bread, while balik durum is grilled fish wrapped in a tortilla with vegetables. The whole thing is coated with pomegranate syrup. Balik ekmek can be enjoyed in one of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge. You can also grab a balik durum on the streets of Karaköy or Eminönü. Grab one in front of the Karaköy ferry terminal near the Galata bridge (google for Karaköy Balik Evi to find the location), the one from Murat The Fisherman or at Sokak Lezzeti Tarihi Balık Dürümcü Mehmet Usta. They are all located in Karaköy.
On the streets of Istanbul you can also get midye dolma (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs and spices), roasted corn or chestnuts. One of the most famous Istanbul street foods is islak hamburger / wet burger (made out of a special tomato sauce bun and the burger is prepared in a griddle). Get it in the Kızılkayalar Beşiktaş. There is also pilav (the traditional pilav is made with chickpeas) – Istanbul is the main place that eats rice as a street food.
Moving on from street food, there are lahmacun (think of it as a super thin, crispy pizza or flatbread topped with a flavor-packed mixture of minced meat with peppers, tomato, fresh herbs and earthy spice), pide (a flat bread baked with toppings in a stone oven – there are many varieties of pide). Lahmacun comes served with a slice of lemon and with lots of parsley, so you put both on it, roll it and eat it like that.
The best lahmacun and pide I’ve had were in the Elise Karadeniz Pide & Lahmacun, near the Ortaköy mosque.
Let’s continue with börek (börek is a pastry made of thin, flaky dough such as filo with a variety of fillings, such as meat, cheese, potato or spinach), gözleme (crispy, golden Turkish flatbreads stuffed with all sorts of tasty fillings) kokoreç (is made of lamb intestines), kofte (there are different varieties – they can be made from beef, lamb or combination and also in different shape – some are long and thin, some are meat balls) and kuru fasulye (a stewed bean dish, primarily made with white beans, olive oil, onion and tomato paste). If you want to try kuru fasulye, the best place to eat one is around the Süleymaniye Mosque.
Another popular Istanbul foods are kumpir (made of creamy baked potatoes topped with many delicious toppings of your choice), lentil soup, manti – Turkish ravioli (manti is a hot dish served with cold yoghurt and garlic – some kind of dumplings filled with grounded lamb or beef) and ofcourse kebab.
If you want to try kumpir, eat one in Ortaköy and for the best lentil soup in Istanbul go to Karaköy Çorba Evi.
When we are talking about the Turkish food, we shouldn’t forget about baklava. Baklava is a layered pastry dessert made of filo pastry sheets, filled with chopped nuts, and sweetened with syrup or honey. There’s so many places to try baklava in Istanbul. I’ve tried quite a few baklavas in my life, some of which were excellent and some of which were so-so. Some of the best baklava I’ve tasted in Istanbul is at Karaköy Güllüoğlu and Hafız Mustafa.
During the winter months, you can also enjoy two drinks – salep (an orchid tuber drink with fine and sweet taste) and boza (boza is a fermented wheat drink with a sweet and sour taste, most often served with cinnamon or roasted chickpeas).
So welcome to the paradise of drinks, food and desserts. I recommend you try as many different foods as possible. Some you will love, some you will love less, but it is worth trying as much as you can. Certain food in Istanbul really isn’t expensive, so even if you’re travelling on a budget, you can afford it.
CATS OF ISTANBUL
There is one thing you should know about Istanbul. You’ll meet a lot of cats. They are literally everywhere. And they love to cuddle. In Istanbul the cat is more than just a cat. They are not strays nor house cats. Istanbul is their city, where they roam free. If you want to find out more about cats in Istanbul, you should watch a documentary Kedi (kedi = cat in Turkish language).
WHAT TO AVOID IN ISTANBUL?
Istanbul is quite safe for a city with a population of 25 million people. Close to the Taksim Square, there is an area called Tarlabaşi, that is known for being a danger place because of drugs and prostitutes. Avoid going there, especially during night time.
As a solo female traveler, I can say that people are not gonna bother you or cause you any harm. Ofcourse, there is always a safety concern, but you don’t have to worry about your safety as a female, because Turks respect woman. As a woman, you don’t have to cover or be worried about your clothes. But as a foreigner in a Muslim country, you should respect their culture. When you visit the mosques remember to cover and please wear a long skirt or trousers.
You should be careful with your money. There is always an option that you can become a victim of a pickpocket, so be careful and take care of your stuff.
When you want to withdraw money on ATM, always choose an ATM connected directly to the bank in case of any troubles with your card.
Now it’s time to buy your tickets and fall in love with the city just like I did.
USEFUL TURKISH WORDS AND PHRASES:
- Good afternoon/good evening: Iyi akşamlar
- Hello: Merhaba
- See you: Görüşürüz!
- Enjoy your meal: Afiyet olsun! (they also use the same phrase when they serve drinks – tea or coffee)
- Welcome: Hoşgeldin/hoşgeldiniz
- Thank you: Teşekkürler/teşekkür ederim,
- Please: Lütfen
- How much?: Ne kadar?
- I’m sorry: Özür dilerim
- Excuse me: Afedersiniz
- OK: Tamam
- Yes: Evet
- No: Hayir