If you are looking for a city filled with culture, full of history, and a unique mix of two continents, Turkey’s largest city Istanbul is the perfect city for you. Located on the Bosphorus peninsula, and with a waterway running straight through it that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has a unique history and its location makes it culturally diverse from numerous influences.
Istanbul has a unique and wonderful culinary scene, palaces, beautiful mosques, museums, and a great waterfront ideal for cruising and exploring. The city is Turkey’s cultural and economic hub, mixing tradition with a thriving metropolis that’s modernising with the rest of the world.
In this complete Istanbul City Guide we share the city’s history, the best places of interest to visit, where to eat, where to stay and other activities to do in the city!
Throughout history, Istanbul has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. Reminders of these rulings can be witnessed all throughout the city in its architecture. Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia, which is what made it so appealing for these rulers along with the fact it was the final location on the Silk Road, one of the main trading routes.
The city’s prime location on the Bosphorus peninsula has made it act as a bridge and a barrier, and it was once one of the most coveted cities in the world, which has made it the culturally diverse place it is today.
Istanbul is a thriving city filled with an ever-growing community of people who have a distinct love of life and locals who work hard as well as party hard. Long-lasting traditions blend perfectly with modernity, making it one of Turkey’s most important city in terms of culture and the economy.
Best Time Of Year To Visit Istanbul
Turkey and Istanbul have very hot summers and cold winters. During the summer months, the temperature can reach high into the 30c’s (high 90f’s) and during the winter months, the temperature can get to as low as 6c (43f).
The best months to visit Istanbul are between March and May and September to mid-November, when the temperatures are pleasant and the crowds have disappeared.
Where To Stay In Istanbul
Istanbul has several neighbourhoods on both sides of the river, the European side and the Asian side, which offer top-name hotel chains, hostels, and boutique hotels to suit everyone’s budget.
Beyoğlu is located on the European side of the river and is considered a trendy neighbourhood with cobbled streets, cafes, shopping boutiques, restaurants, and small boutique hotels. This area has a large number of tourist attractions such as Taksim Square, Serdar-ı Ekrem – a large shopping road, and Soho House.
Some of the best rated accommodation in the area includes:
Şişli District and Beşiktaş
Both the Şişli and Beşiktaş neighbourhoods are known for being upscale and have large hotels, stylish buildings, large apartments, and attractions such as the Zorlu Center mall, designer outlets, and pastel-coloured buildings.
Some of the best rated accommodation in the area includes:
Sultanahmet is the most touristy neighbourhood in the city. Located on the European side, this neighbourhood is home to some of the best places to visit in Istanbul, including Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and Basilica Cistern.
Sultanahmet is slightly more expensive to stay in than other areas of the city with food and drinks costing nearly double that of in other neighbourhoods.
Some of the best rated accommodation in the area includes:
Where To Eat In Istanbul
Istanbul’s history has given it a diverse cuisine, with delicious mixes of Asia dishes and Italian classics, along with the Turkish favorites of kebabs, freshly caught fish, and some of the city’s signature dishes.
Some Turkish dishes to look out for are Iskender kabab (a lamb meat kabab), Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels), Menemen (Scrambled eggs cooked in sautéed tomatoes & peppers), Pide (Turkish pizza), Manti (Turkish ravioli), and Dürüm (Turkish burrito).
- Mangerie (Bebek neighbourhood): Mangerie has a beautiful terrace. I suggest you order a freshly squeezed juice, Turkish tea (çay), yogurt & granola with fresh fruits, avocado toast (you can order it with poached eggs or smoked salmon), menemen (delicious Turkish breakfast dish), eggs benedict, or go for the full Turkish breakfast… I think you will enjoy anything you order at Mangerie!
- Çeşme Bazlama Kahvaltı (Nişantaşı neighbourhood): This popular Turkish breakfast restaurant has no menu but they serve breakfast all day. It is a cheap set price per person & all you can eat and gives you a great sense of how important breakfast is to Turkish people! Take a walk around Nişantaş after you have had breakfast as this neighbourhood is full of hip cafes, boutiques, & high-end designer shops.
- The Allis at Soho House Istanbul: This restaurant has chilled vibes and is quiet on weekdays. Sit outside in the garden or inside if it’s a chilly day. The avocado toast is consistently great and there is a buffet on the weekends. An insider tip is to ask the waiter to make you nice latte art, he will impress you!
Lunch + Dinner
- MSA’nın Restoranı (at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan neighbourhood): This is the restaurant of Turkey’s leading professional culinary institution, with a lovely view and ambiance. Expect super creative, beautifully presented dishes. Try their beetroot ravioli and skip the tuna poke bowl because it’s hard to find fresh, high-quality tuna in Istanbul. Be aware this restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Desserts, Coffee & Tea
- Seven Hills Restaurant: Come here for a cup of tea with an amazing view of Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Four Seasons Sultanahmet, etc.
- Karaköy Güllüoğlu: A must visit! My favourite place for baklava and they also have Turkish ice cream which is super thick & unique!
- Kahve Dünyasi: This is a chain but stop here to buy “Gofrik”… dark chocolate wafers with pistachios… I come here before every trip back to the United States and buy many boxes for my family & friends.
- Vi Coffee & Healthy Living: Delicious coffee & raw cheesecake.
- Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus: I especially love coming here during the afternoon or during sunset. Sit outside & watch the boats go by and don’t leave without seeing the outdoor pool & intimate indoor pool/spa area.
- Ciragan Palace Hotel: Worth seeing on a trip to Istanbul especially if you are already next door at the Four Seasons. Snag the center table overlooking the swimming pool & order a Turkish coffee (way too strong for me but true coffee lovers may enjoy it!) or Turkish tea (çay). OR skip having a drink & just walk around admiring the impressive hotel exterior! Inside the palace is lovely too and very popular for weddings.
Bars And Hangouts
- Mikla Restaurant: This is considered to be the best fine dining restaurant in Istanbul and is run by the famous Chef Mehmet Gürs. Personally, we didn’t have the best dinner here, but we LOVE the gorgeous views & excellent drink selection so it’s worth popping in for a drink if not for dinner! They are open every night at 6pm (closed on Sundays), so arrive when it opens to see the sunset colours in the sky. You can go enjoy outside to enjoy drinks on the terrace and just take amazing photos.
Where To Shop In Istanbul
Istanbul has a great selection of Bazaars including the Grand Bazaar, but the city also has shopping streets and shopping malls that are often less crowded than the Bazaars.
- Lily and Rose in Bebeksuper have cute swimwear and beach accessories. Their showroom is open Monday – Saturday from 10:00 until 18:30.
- Istinye Park is a shopping street with a large number of high-end shops.
- The Zorlu Center is a shopping center with several stores and I highly recommend checking out the Raffles Hotel Spa and browsing Eataly if you’ve never been to one before.
Pampering and visiting spas have been a big deal in Istanbul and Turkey for over 2000 years. It has turned into an art form, derived from the Romans and Byzantines, and has become an important part of Turkey’s heritage.
Istanbul has lots of spas and massage therapists. The traditional spas are called hammam, where women and men bathe separately. A Turkish hammam experience is a must-visit on any trip to Turkey or Istanbul. A few recommended spas are the following:
Things To Do In Istanbul
Istanbul is divided into two by a waterway called the Bosphorus, this waterway separates the city and Asia and Europe. This divide gives the city unique and wonderful things to discover and explore.
Istanbul is a mixture of cultures with the modernity of the modern world, traditions of the Byzantium period, and the Ottoman Empire. To explore Istanbul in full visitors would need weeks or even months to explore everything the city has to offer. However, it is possible to see a large number of sites and get a feel of the city on a weekend or over a few days.
Visit The Hagia Sofia
Hagia Sofia is one of the most beautiful and incredible buildings in the city. It has been used as a church for 916 years, a mosque for 482 years, and in 1935 was turned into a museum.
The building showcases features of both the Byzantium and Ottoman Empires with its dome-shaped roof and 40 arched windows. The museum showcases mosaics, calligraphy, tiles, Sultan’s lodge, and artifacts.
Shop At The Spice Market and Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is an exciting shopping experience, with over 5,000 shops covering more than 60 streets. The Bazaar dates back to the 15th century when it was an important trading centre in the city with traders arriving to sell products from Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Now the market is home to traders who sell everything and there are mosaics, hammams, cafes, jewelry stalls, souvenir stalls, and everything else you can imagine.
Have A Drink At A Rooftop Bar
Istanbul has several rooftop bars with beautiful views over the city and beyond. Many rooftop bars and restaurants have panoramic views and are a great place to relax after exploring the city.
Some of the best rooftop bars in Istanbul include the previously mentioned Mikla, 16ROOF, and 5. Kat.
Visit The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque is one of the most iconic sites in the city and was built between 1609 and 1616. The mosque is open to the public but as it is also still a functioning mosque, visitors can enter but they have to adhere to the rules.
Long pants should be worn by men and women should also cover their shoulders and head (head coverings are available at the entrance), shoes can be placed in a bag provided in the entrance. The mosque is closed for non-worshippers five times a day for prayers, these usually last 90 minutes or so. The Blue Mosque is currently open but unfortunately under construction.
Take A Tour Of The Fener & Balat Neighborhoods
The Fener and Balat neighbourhoods of Istanbul were previously the Greek Orthodox and Jewish neighbourhoods of the city. Today the areas are known for their beautiful old colourful houses, hidden churches, and other beautiful buildings.
You can book a walking tour around the area which will take you to the best spots.
Catch A Ferry Ride Along The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus divides the city into Europe and Asia and visitors can enjoy a ferry along the river. Take the ferry from Beşiktaş or Ortaköy, you can hop on and off at any stop. Alternatively, visitors can do a boat tour of the city or charter a private cruise.
Visit Kadıköy On The Asian Side
Kadıköy is a neighbourhood located on the Asian side of Istanbul and it can be reached by ferry. The neighbourhood is home to trendy cafes, bars, shops, galleries, and the seaside is beautiful.
Don’t miss the Moda Sahil Parkı ve Yürüyüş Yolu district with sea views, designer shops, coastal cafes, and teahouses (you’ll feel like you’re in a different city).
Go To The Top Of The Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is nine stories high with beautiful panoramic views, a restaurant, and even a nightclub. During the weekdays it’s quite peaceful in the morning or midday, but if you go around sunset time expect the lines to be very long.
An alternative location with a great view is the Georges Hotel Galata rooftop bar, a nice alternative & super close.
Visit The Topkapı Palace
Topkapı Palace or the Seraglio is a large museum dating back to the 14th century when it was the home or workplace of sultans, courtiers, concubines, and eunuchs until the 19th century.
The museum showcases the palace’s pavilions, jewelry filled Treasury, hundreds of rooms, and gives an insight into what life was like there. Visitors should aim to go early in the morning as it gets super crowded throughout the day.
Stroll Along The Bosphorus
Visitors can walk from the Bebek neighbourhood to Ortaköy Mosque. This walk is 4km (2.4 miles) each way and is very safe. Take your time walking and you will be stopping many times to take photos along the way, especially of the colourful homes in Arnavutköy neighbourhood.
Day Trip To Princes’ Islands
Princes’ Islands are a collection of nine small islands that can be accessed by ferry from the city, with journies varying between 50 minutes and 100 minutes. Taking the first ferry over to the islands will allow ample time for exploring.
Four of the nine islands are open to the public and a small number of hotels are located on them. Büyükada is the largest of the islands, with Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Kınalıada being smaller.
Motorized vehicles are banned on all the islands and many locals visit the Princes’ Islands for peace and quiet away from the thriving city. Bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and walking are great ways to explore the islands’ pine forests, Victorian cottages, and narrow streets.
To make planning easier, you can book a full day tour to Princes’ Island from Istanbul which includes transportation and lunch.
Instanbul Wrap Up
All in all, Istanbul is an exciting city that offers an abundance of sites and attractions to its visitors. If you enjoy history and learning all about a city and its past along with the thriving modernity of its future you will love Istanbul. A city on the border of two continents and filled with enchanting places to explore.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit Istanbul. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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