Spanning the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a multi-cultural mecca.
With a population nearly double that of London, it’s a bustling, vibrant city of traditions, mouth watering food, delicious coffee, incredible architecture, and warm, hospitable people.
Always hovering high on my list of places to visit while I lived in London, but never quite high enough for me to make it there, when I saw a cheap flight from Delhi to Istanbul, and realized I could stop there for a few days en route back to the US from Asia, I didn’t hesitate to book it.
My only regret from our whirlwind visit to Istanbul?
We didn’t have enough time to truly get to know the city- it’s a place I’m eager to return to, and see more of.
WHAT TO DO
We were in the city for a week, but ended up working about half of our stay. On the three days we went out to explore, we grouped activities by neighborhood- Galeta, Balat, and the Historic district.
Whether you’ve got time to see the city leisurely, or are somewhat short on time to explore like we were, there’s plenty to do and see in Istanbul.
Our biggest challenge turned out to be prioritizing sights since we didn’t have time to fit everything we’d have like to do in to our stay.
Head to the top of the Galata Tower: A medieval stone tower, built on a hill, admiring the tower from the surrounding streets is beautiful in its own right. Taking the lift to the top though, for about ~$6 USD a person, provides panoramic views of the entire city. Come early before the tower terrace gets crowded, and grab breakfast at a nearby cafe afterwards- we enjoyed Sirin’s breakfast platter and apple tea
Wander the historic streets: We loved walking the cobblestone streets without direction or purpose, just observing the different types of shops and restaurants. We were surprised by the amount of street art, especially the political graffiti in this area of Istanbul. The bright, bold statements are an interesting juxtaposition to the historic, pastel facades
Browse the antique shops along Cukur Cuma Caddesi: In the unofficial antiques district of Istanbul, you’ll find a lovely display of vintage goods on display
Stroll the Egyptian Spice Market: Less busy than the Grand Bazaar, we enjoyed perusing the spices, tea blends and sweet treats inside the covered market
Admire the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii): One of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque is the perfect place to start your morning to beat the crowds and admire the mosque’s intricate architecture. Constructed in the 17th century, the mosque features an impressive thirteen domes and six minarets. Covers are available for women for free, and can be acquired at the entrance before you head in
Allow yourself to be awestruck at the Hagia Sophia: At over 1,500 years old, the Hagia Sophia oozes grandeur and mystery. Built by the Emperor Justinian in 537 AD when Istanbul was known as Constantinople and Turkey was the Eastern Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was a Christian Church in its original incarnation.
You’ll find gilded mosaics of Jesus Christ and Mary throughout. When the Ottomans took over, it was converted into a mosque. Just strolling the ground is an incredibly beautiful experience- gaze up, and you’ll see dozens of chandeliers, which look like tiny, burning candles. It won’t take long for you to understand why the Hagia Sophia is touted as an architectural wonder.
Queues to enter Hagia Sophia can be quite long, but skip-the-line tickets are available online. We visited 1.5 hours before closing, when there were fewer people heading in, and found that to be an ideal time to visit. As closing drew near and the mosque started to empty, it was even more of a magical experience. At times, we felt like the only people around
Gawk at the view from the roof of Seven Hills Hotel: The terrace at Seven Hills boasts an impressive 360 view of the city, particularly the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. We didn’t eat here, but did enjoy Turkish tea, which, heads up, will cost 2-3x whatever you pay in other parts of the city
Learn about Turkish history at Topkapi Palace: Topkapi, a huge former palace for sultans and their families is now a multi-part museum. It’s beautifully decorated, and more expansive than you’d think. We only allowed 1.5-2 hours here, and it was nowhere near enough time to really see everything the palace had to offer, so I’d plan on a half day visit, because there’s truly so much to absorb
Shop the Grand Bazaar: Even though the Grand Bazaar has become more touristy over the years, it’s a must see and do for any first time visitor to the city. It’s easy to find the bazaar, and as equally easy to get lost inside the winding alleys featuring lanterns, rugs, jewelry, and so much more. Note, if you stop to browse, you will be approached by sellers- they’re quite aggressive. We just waved them away, and most obliged, but a few were particularly keen on trying to sell us things
Watch the sunset from a rooftop: We went to the Instagram-famous Kubbe (search ‘Kubbe Istanbul’ on Google Maps to find it). They describe themselves as an open air photo studio, but really, it’s just a rooftop, where an employee throws raw meat to a seagull to ensure birds are always circling within photo view.
The view is incredible, but at $16 (which covered two people), and considering their unethical animal treatment- it’s not worth it. There are other rooftops in the area, which we would have sought out if we knew how aggressively they feed the birds to keep them around
Balat, a traditionally Jewish, now trendy neighborhood in the heart of Fatih isn’t quite near the city’s main tourist attractions, but it’s only a short bus ride from Galata or the Historic District.
Trust me, the journey there is worth it.
We absolutely loved colourful Balat- it’s one of the city’s oldest districts.
Here, we just enjoyed wandering around, popping in and out of cafes that looked interesting, like Velvet, Nest and Fida.
Don’t miss the colourful, Insta famous homes at Balat Mahallesi, Kiremit Cd. No:28.
And, the rainbow stairs near cafe, Incir Agaci Kahvesi are expansive and just as bright as you’d imagine them to be.
On our visit, we didn’t have time to visit the Ortakoy Mosque, which is said to be stunning inside and out, or the Suleymaniye Mosque, the former, largest mosque in Istanbul, built on top of one of the city’s seven hills. Both are on my list of places to see the next time I find myself in Istanbul.
If you’re making a proper vacation out of your trip to Turkey, and have time to see other parts of the country, consider hopping on a plane to Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is one of the most photogenic places on the planet.
World famous for its balloon rides at sunrise, the region’s moon-like landscapes are what make it such a special place to visit.
Once you arrive in Cappadocia, you quickly realize why the region is such a hot air balloon epicenter.
The landscape is unreal, it’s as if you’re on another planet.
Cappadocia is easy to reach from Istanbul, and definitely worth visiting if you can swing a few more days in Turkey.
WHERE TO EAT
To say we ate well in Istanbul would be an understatement.
Already a huge fan of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, I was excited to try the Turkish variants of some of my favourite dishes from the region.
If you’re vegetarian, you’ll have no problem finding places to eat in the city.
Most of the street food we saw was either meat or bread heavy, so we preferred to eat at least one meal a day in restaurants to get our fill of vegetables.
Also, should note- just about every cafe we visited either had great breakfast pastries on offer, or a full service menu, like Federal Cafe and Sirin, making them great picks for meals as well.
- Babel Cafe & Restaurant: Our favourite dinner spot in Istanbul, we loved everything we tried here. So many delicious vegetarian options, and with many things being sharing size, it’s a great way to try a bunch of different Turkish flavours
- Journey: Their brunch menu is epic, but the dinner options looked incredible as well. Also, a perfect spot for late night Turkish tea or coffee sidewalk-side
- Pizzeria Pera: Looks like a small Italian restaurant from the outside. Inside, you’ll find some truly great wood-fired pizzas, and hearty salads. Takeaway from here was an A+ choice on a rainy night in the city – pizza + Netflix marathon, but make it Turkish
- Simit Sarayi: This bakery has locations around the city, it’s a chain but their simit is good, and the egg noodle casserole is a great breakfast pick as well
- Fida Cafe: Truly excellent falafel
- Federal Coffee: Great pick for brunch, their cheese toasties are ace
WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE
Istanbul is a city of sacred tradition, and coffee is without a doubt one of them.
You could say cafes are the lifeblood of Istanbul.
We loved the social aspect to drinking coffee in Istanbul.
There’s an endless array of cafes with sidewalk seating- where people perch on low chairs, sipping tiny cups of coffee and chatting with each other.
Our favourite spots after a week of wandering and sipping coffee from place to place:
- Mandabatmaz: Famed for Turkish coffee, a method of preparing coffee that dates back to the 5th century, Mandabatmaz didn’t disappoint. We tried Turkish coffee at a few places, but Mandabatmaz was our favourite- it was less grainy than other cups we tried
- Swedish Point: High speed internet, Scandi chic design, artisanal coffee drinks, and dogs napping everywhere? Talk about a dream cafe
- Velvet Cafe: Boasting delicious freshly baked simit, a Turkish bread, we dubbed Velvet a good place to start the day if you’re wandering Gala
- Federal Coffee: Aussie style coffee, right in the heart of Galata. We loved Federal so much, we came near daily to try their extensive third-wave coffee menu (so many flavours of lattes and mochas!)
- Dem Karakoy: We’d heard tale the tea menu here was extensive, and decided to drop in on our way back to Galata from Salt. Extensive would be an understatement- it’s page after page of tea, including every variety imaginable
- Sirin Firin Cafe & Bakery: Loved by locals and visitors alike for their baked goods, and traditional Turkish breakfast plate
- Salt Galata: Part art gallery, part trendy restaurant, Salt’s coffee and tea selection makes it worth a visit
- Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi: Calling all coffee connoisseurs, founded in 1871, this stall outside the Egyptian Spice Market is the go to for freshly ground coffee
- Incir Agaci Kahvesi: Follow the vivid rainbow steps to the door of this tiny cafe in Balat. Once inside, order a cup of Turkish coffee, sit back and watch local life unfold around you
- 9Gram Coffee Roasters: Small, but mighty. The lattes here are great. The perfect kind of spot to pop in if you’re on your way to catch a tram into the city
- Kronotop: Regarded as the city’s first speciality coffee spot and located next to Swedish Point, this cool cafe turns out good artisan coffee drinks as well
WHERE TO DRINK
We didn’t drink while we were in Istanbul, but most of the cafes and restaurants we visited had a wide array of local beers and wines on offer.
EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS
Language: Turkish is the country’s official language. Many people, especially in upmarket shops, speak some English, but I’d also advise having Google Translate downloaded, as English isn’t as widely spoken as it is in some other European cities. It’s likely you’ll run into exchanges with people where their understanding is limited at some point during your stay
Currency: Turkish Lira
I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- some purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards. Expect upmarket places to accept cards, and market stalls or more traditional shops to be cash only
Budget: We were pleasantly surprised with how affordable Istanbul was. All price estimates noted below are in USD:
- Accomodation: ~$20-30 a night for a budget, but nice Airbnb studio apartment
- Coffee & Tea: Generally, we paid $2-3 for a nice latte, and $1 for Turkish tea
- Street Food: When we grabbed pastries or quick eats off the street, we usually paid $2-4 per item. Sometimes, less, pending what we were ordering
- Restaurant Meals: We ate out a few times, sharing small plates- usually, we paid $10 a person for tons of quality food
- Getting to the City: The bus from the airport to the city runs about $3 a person
- City Transit: Each ride costs under 0.50 cents, making public transit an attractive way to get around
- Attractions: We visited four attractions, where you’d expect to find entry fees on our stay-
- Blue Mosque: Free
- Hagia Sophia: ~$12
- Topkapi Palace: ~$12
- Galata Tower: ~$6
Getting There: Istanbul has two major airports- Istanbul Airport (IST) & Sabiha Gokcen (SAW). If you’re arriving internationally, you’ll likely fly into Istanbul Airport. Both are about the same distance to the city, and from both, you can easily hail a taxi. We opted for the public bus, which was comfortable and took about an hour from each airport to the central drop spot in Taksim. Once in Taksim, we either walked to our Airbnb or took the metro/walked
Getting Around: We walked around the Galata neighborhood, and used the city’s buses and trams to get around to other parts. Because we visited in winter, we didn’t take any of the ferries, but I’ve heard they’re a great option for getting from side to side in the warmer months. If you plan on doing the same, purchase an Istanbulkart at the airport, which you can top up throughout your stay.
You won’t find rideshare apps like Uber in Istanbul, but you can use BiTaksi to help call taxis. Taxi drivers can be a bit aggressive in the city, so apps like BiTaksi make it easy to call a taxi, share your destination, and get a fair cost estimate easily
Where to Stay: We stayed in awesome budget Airbnbs in Galata. Both places were stayed averaged $20 USD per night, had good WiFi, and were located in the midst of a beautiful, historic neighborhood with tons of restaurants, cafes, shops, and nearby public transit.
When to Visit: We visited in early December, and were surprised by how many people were milling about some of the city’s top attractions. We enjoyed our time in Istanbul, but if you visit in early December, expect cold weather and periods of rain.
As with most locations, the best time to visit Istanbul is during the fringe seasons, from March to May, and between September and November. During the late spring and summer, the crowds at the city’s top attractions are insane, and daytime temps often exceed 80 degrees.
Tipping: We found small tips were expected in restaurants and cafes, usually we left between 5-10% for good service
WiFi Access: Every modern cafe I visited had WiFi- key word here is modern
SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Istanbul’s airport, paying ~$30 USD for 10GB of data. SIM options were more expensive than I was anticipating, but because I work online, and having reliable backup Internet is critical, it was a worthwhile purchase
Have you ever visited Istanbul? Is it on your list of places to visit someday?
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