Straddling the Bosphorus River between Europe and Asia sits the lively, beautiful, chaotic city of Istanbul – arguably one of the most interesting cities in the world. When I decided to visit Istanbul, I had no idea what to expect… (aside from the beautiful mosques I’ve seen plastered on Instagram). This Turkish city was an enigma to me. Was a city that sat on two continents more Asian or more European? Did it feel like two different cities or an extension of each other, mixing both Asian and European influence?
Having heard incredible things about Istanbul, I was excited to see for myself just what the city was all about.
Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Istanbul
Read more: How to Spend 4 Days in Istanbul
Where to Stay in Istanbul
As mentioned earlier, not only does Istanbul straddle Asia and Europe – but part of the city (on the European continent) is divided into new town and old town. For starters, I would recommend staying on the European side of the continent, as that is where most of the tourist attractions are.
But which side of the European continent – new town or old town – should you choose?
Istanbul’s old town is where you’ll find most of the tourist attractions including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the famous bazaar’s. It might feel tempting to stay near these sites, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Comparatively, Istanbul’s new town is where you’ll find more of a night life, incredible restaurants, and more of a “local” feel.
I stayed in the new part of town (Beyoğlu) and highly recommend it as I could easily cross the Galata Bridge into old town to “be a tourist” and then return to new town at night to go to dinner and out. I chose an Airbnb near the Karaköy neighborhood and would highly recommend it. (This is where I stayed).
Getting Around Istanbul
Istanbul is big and spread out, but still a walkable city. As long as you have the time, stamina, and good shoes you can get almost anywhere on foot. Plus, traffic is very congested in Istanbul so at times, walking is better than taking a car.
While you can wave down a taxi anywhere in the city, I found taxi’s to be an especially frustrating way to get around. For starters, many taxi drivers will ask you where you’re going and refuse to drive you if you are headed to an area that may have a lot of traffic. This happened to me several times making taxi’s an unreliable source of transportation.
Aside from being unreliable, taxi drivers are also known for the scams they play on tourists. All taxi’s have meters, and all meters are supposed to be turned on and working when someone gets in the cab. However, in my experience, the driver would either quote an exorbitant price that he wanted for the drive; or once I was dropped off I was asked to give double the price for “tolls”. In one instance, my driver claimed that I owed him 400 lira ($20) for tolls roads alone – doubling my already $20 ride.
If you don’t mind spending the money, taxi’s are fine. But still an unreliable way to get around.
Uber is more reliable than taking a taxi, but again, taking an Uber in Istanbul can be frustrating. Many times my driver would message me asking where I was going and once I told him, he would quote me a different amount of money than what the app would charge. If I refused or didn’t respond, the driver would cancel.
Overall, however, I recommend using Uber over getting a taxi.
If you’re planning to travel between continents, the easiest and cheapest way to do so is by boat. There are many ports with boats near the Galata bridge that will take you over to Asia. (The most popular boat to do this is Turyol). You can purchase a pack of three tickets at the port for 40 lira or about $2.
Lastly, there are options for public transportation in Istanbul. There are many buses throughout the city, I recommend downloading Google Maps and using it as a tool to see which bus will take you where.
Things to See and Do in Istanbul
There are so many fun and interesting things to see and do in Istanbul from history enriching experiences, to taking in the sites, smells, and sounds of the city on foot. Below you’ll find the best things to do in this fascinating city!
Located northeast of Istanbul’s new town, Arnavutköy is a nice escape in a bustling city. The neighborhood is famous for its wooden Ottoman mansions and seafood restaurants that line the streets. If you visit here, you’ll get a more local taste of Istanbul.
Located northwest of Istanbul’s old town, Balat is a colorful and vibrant neighborhood in Istanbul. Balat is Istanbul’s old Jewish neighborhood having 18 synagogues at one time (although only two are in use today). If you visit, I suggest eating lunch or dinner at Barba Vasilis.
BOSPHORUS RIVER CRUISE TO ASIA
While you’re in Istanbul, I highly recommend crossing the Bosphorus from Europe over to Asia – a completely unique experience! There are many ports near the Galata bridge where you can hop on a Turyol boat – just make sure to get off in Kadıköy – an area near tons of bars and restaurants.
FREE WALKING TOUR
My favorite way to get the lay of the land and learn about a city is by participating in a free walking tour. I recommend the Free Istanbul Tours company where you can choose between an old town tour or an alternative, less touristy, walking tour.
HAGIA SOPHIA GRAND MOSQUE
The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks in Istanbul. What started as as a Greek Orthodox church in 360 AD, it was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the area. The mosque was turned into a museum in 1935, but converted back into a mosque in 2020.
Visiting Hagia Sophia is free. It is required that you cover your head, knees, and shoulders which you can do by purchasing a scarf and a jumpsuit for cheap at the entrance.
SECOND HAND BOOK BAZAAR (SAHAFLAR CARSISI)
This was one of the more interesting bazaars I’ve been to, and much less touristy than the other famous bazaars in Istanbul. Only a three-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, this book bazaar is made up of 23 different book stores selling textbooks, novels, dictionaries, ancient maps, and more.
Istanbul’s spice market, or Mısır Çarşısı, is located in old town near the Galata bridge. It’s one of the largest bazaars in the city with 85 different shops selling spices, dried nuts, fruits, souvenirs, and more.
I highly suggest to everyone who visits Istanbul to experience an authentic, Turkish hamam experience. If you’re a couple, I recommend the Süleymaniye Hamam, a historic Turkish bath in old town. Süleymaniye the Magnificent commissioned this building in 1557. A complete experience starting in a hot room and ending with refreshments after a scrub down and massage will take about 60-90 minutes and cost 1,250 lira or about $67.
The Süleymaniye Mosque was my favorite mosque that I visited in Istanbul. It was just as beautiful as the Hagia Sophia, but much less crowded. Like the hamam, this mosque was also commissioned by Süleymaniye the Magnificent in 1557. Entrance is free but like every other mosque you need to cover your head, shoulders, and knees. There are free scarves near the entrance of the mosque. The highlight of this mosque is the views out back, so don’t miss it while you’re there!
The Best Bars/Restaurants in Istanbul
Istanbul is a foodie city, so there is no surprise that there are some incredible places to eat and drink. Below you’ll find my favorite restaurants that come highly recommended!
Aheste is a modern Turkish/Middle Eastern restaurant specializing in meze. They’ve earned themselves one Michelin star… and it’s easy to see why! The best part about Aheste is that they have an affordable tasting menu where you’ll get a bit of everything on the menu. I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re looking for something a bit fancier with a twist on traditional Turkish food.
Antiochia is a lively restaurant in the heart of new town. The restaurant focuses heavily on food from the Antakya region of Turkey. (They even source all of their ingredients from Antakya).
Located near the Balat neighborhood, Barbara Vasilis is a Greek Taverna where you can heavily feel both Greek and Turkish influence. With many Turkish dishes included on the menu, this restaurant has also been able to include a Greek twist into each dish.
Tucked away from one of Istanbul’s busiest streets, Eleos is an incredible indoor/outdoor seafood restaurant in the heart of Beyoğlu. If you plan to come for dinner, I highly recommend making reservations ahead of time.
LA TIENDA DE LAS HERMANAS
If you’re looking for tasty Turkish delight, this is where I’d go. Tucked away from the craziness of old town, Las Hermanas came to fruition thanks to a sister duo who managed to create Turkish delight HEAVEN. The store also sells things such as tea, nuts, and fruits, but I was drawn there for their gel-like desserts.
MORETENDERS’ COCKTAIL CRIB & SUSHI
Having gone to Mortenders’ four times in my one-week Istanbul stay, I can confirm – it’s a favorite. The cocktails are perfection with a wide variety of vodka, rum, gin, and tequila drinks. Plus they also serve classics like margaritas and espresso martinis.
Aside from the drinks, the sushi is good too! If you’re sick of Turkish food and looking for something else, I definitely recommend Moretenders’.
Set in a cozy building from the 1800s, Sofyali 9 serves traditional Turkish small plates and delicacies. The staff are friendly, the food is tasty, and the restaurant has a warm feel to it. It’s certainly not to be missed!
VAN KAHVALTI EVI
If you’re looking to try Turkish breakfast, this is the place. Van Kahvalti Evi blew me out of the water with their Turkish dishes; and the best part was that everything was incredibly affordable.
Istanbul is an incredible city, full of character, friendly locals, and incredible food and history. There’s so much to see and do in Istanbul; if you’re visiting this Eurasian city, I can only hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!
For more suggestions and a visual look at Istanbul, make sure to check out my Instagram page by searching “#ppinturkey” or looking for the highlight “Turkey”