The capital of three of the world’s greatest empires, this city was first known as Byzantium, then Constantinople, and is now Istanbul. Built on seven hills and straddling the Bosphorus River, Istanbul is one of the only cities in the world that can claim two continents. Add the largest covered bazaar in the world and over 3,113 mosques, this place is one of the most interesting places we’ve seen. Let’s visit Istanbul!
Visiting Istanbul? There’s So Much To See & Do!
As one of the world’s largest cities, Istanbul has many things to offer a new visitor. Allow plenty of time to take in this culturally rich and magnificent city.
Visit a Mosque!
With over 3,000 mosques to visit it’s tough to decide where to start, but we can help! Remember, you are entering a place of sacred worship, so respect the dress code, take off your shoes, and be considerate when taking photos. Here are a few of our favorite mosques in Istanbul.
Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this jaw-dropping piece of historic architecture was built in 1616 under Ottoman rule. Complete with six minarets (religious towers) this mosque is as stunning outside as it is inside, with beautifully hand-painted blue tiles covering the walls.**Photo Opp: Visit during sunset and be wowed!**
Located in the Eminonu neighborhood in the historic district, this mosque is also known as Yeni Cami. Completed in 1665, this is another fine example of the remarkable architecture of the Ottoman Empire.
Once a cathedral and a mosque, Hagia Sophia is now museum. Dating back to an astonishing 537AD, this Byzantine masterpiece is said to have “changed the history of architecture”. When you’re finished exploring the great halls and cooridors of this magnificent structure, don’t miss the nearby Basilica Cistern, an underground chamber that used to house water for the people of Constantinople. Today nearly empty, this dark and wet cavern will leave you with a feeling of tranquil serenity.
Check Out That View!
We know what you’re thinking.. Shouldn’t this be in the Mosque section? You’re right, but.. That View! Seriously one of our favorite photos from all of our travels was taken from this nearly 460-year-old building. Constructed on Istanbul’s third hill, this is the city’s second largest Mosque, just behind the Blue Mosque.
Visit Istanbul: Galata Bridge
Spanning the Golden Horn and connecting the old city with the new, this is where you’ll find that picture perfect postcard view of Istanbul. It’s also a great spot for a seafood lunch. Head down to the lower deck of the bridge and you’ll find a number of restaurants known for their fresh seafood.
Located on the “new” side, in the Beyoglu district, this landmark offers up panoramic views from 219 feet in the air. Once used as an observation deck for spotting fires, Galata Tower has ironically caught on fire itself. You can now take an elevator up to the viewing area and even grab a bite at the restaurant.
Book A Tour!
Take A Ride!
There are many options for taking a proper boat cruise up the Bosphorus Strait, ranging from half day to full day to dinner cruise. We recommend jumping on the local commuter ferry operated by TurYol. For under $10 each we took the “hop-on, hop-off” ferry about 45 minutes up the Bosphorus and back, even stopping in Asia for a fabulous lunch. Along the way we just sat back and took in the amazing sights of Istanbul that can only be seen from the water.
Fatih Sultan Mehment Bridge
While you’re likely to get a glimpse of one of the world’s longest suspension bridges from land, the view from below reveals it’s full grandiosity.
This mosque, built in 1856 in a Neo-baroque style, isn’t near the size of most in Istanbul, but it’s uniqueness stands out. With two stories of windows, the light dances upon Bosphorus waters, creating a dramatic effect.
This gigantic palace was constructed in 1843 and has been home to many Sultans. Said to cost the equivalent of $1.5 billion in today’s money, the palace’s interior is decked out with gold and crystal, and is even home to the world’s largest chandelier with 750 bulbs.
Located on the Asian side of the strait, this beautiful summer residence of Sultans was built in 1860. Design by Armenian architects in a French neo-baroque style, this palace is best seen from the Bosphorus.
What to do in Istanbul? Bonus!
Super Bonus! We’ve teamed up with GPSmyCity and converted our Istanbul travel guide into a downloadable application that comes complete with a GPS map of our recommendations and operates offline without any need of data plan or Internet connection. You can check it out here.
Getting to Istanbul
Trains throughout Turkey are a great option; you’ll avoid lines at the airport, enjoy beautiful scenery, and they can be very comfortable. If planning on extended travels in Turkey, you may consider Turkey Pass, available for 3,4,6, or 8 travel days within a month.
You will land at one of two airports: Istanbul Ataturk Airport, located 12 miles west of city center, or Sabiha Gokcen International Airport located about 26 miles east of the city center. Find flights to Ataturk from London for $43 or Berlin for $64 or Flights into Sabiha from Amsterdam can be found for $63 or from Athens for $65 with our favorite flight search site, Skyscanner.
Istanbul Flight Deals
Buses are not our favorite mode of travel.. The seats are generally cramped, the ride is bumpy, and departure/arrival times can be unpredictable. Generally bus travel is less expensive, but takes much longer than a train. For example, the ride from Ankara costs under $20 but takes over 6 hours.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport to City Center
For roughly $3 you can take a 45-60 minute bus ride (depending on traffic) to Taksim square. Look for the Havatas (white with blue lettering).
Follow the signs inside the airport for “Metro Subway” downstairs. For $2, the red M1 line will take you to the city center in about 33 minutes.
You’ll find the taxi stand just outside the airport, on the first floor. For $12 – $15, the ride to the city center can range from 35-65 minutes, depending on traffic. We recommend a taxi to/from the airport for the door to door convenience.
Sabiha Gokcen International Airport to City Center
Take the Havatas bus outside the airport to Taksim square for about $4 in approximately 90 minutes.
For roughly $50, the ride to the city center takes about an hour, depending on traffic.
Take the bus to Taksim square, then take a taxi or the Metro depending on where you’ll be staying.
Getting around in Istanbul
Uber is available in Istanbul and we mostly recommend it. Two caveats: 1. The metro is very well connected throughout the city, and 2. A regular taxi from Ataturk Airport costs half as much as an Uber. Otherwise, Uber away!
Walkscore.com gives Istanbul a score of 97, calling it a “Walker’s Paradise.” We also found this to be true. Walking around Istanbul is highly recommended.
Public transport in Istanbul is very user-friendly. Five color-coded Metro lines with 73 stations, a funicular line, a tram, and a cable car line, you’ll be very well-connected in the city. Find a ‘JETONMATIK’ machine with both Turkish and English instructions to get a public transportation token for about $1.25. If you plan on being in town for a few days, look into purchasing an Istanbul Kart at one of the many Tram or Metro station kiosks.
Where To Stay in Istanbul
Istanbul offers a wide range of hotels. High-end hotels like Ayasofya Hotel Old City or Charm Hotel run about $440 a night, while reasonably priced hotels like Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel or Lazzoni Hotel Istanbul go for about $60 a night. We recommend shopping Agoda.com, the most competitive resource when searching for hotels in Istanbul.
Istanbul Hotel Deals
With just over 170 hostels in Istanbul, you will likely find one that suits your needs, although it’s always best to plan in advance. Prices generally range from $8-$14 a night for a dorm room, while private rooms cost about $20-$40 per night. Hostelworld is our recommended resource when searching for hostels in Istanbul.
Istanbul Hostel Deals
We love Airbnb! From private rooms to entire homes, there are plenty of choices when visiting Istanbul. If you’re a first-timer with Airbnb, use this coupon and enjoy $35 off of your stay.
Choosing a neighborhood is an important part of trip planning that should not be overlooked! Istanbul is a large city with 38 districts, each subdivided into their own unique neighborhoods. While our general recommendation is to stay closer to the city center, here are some of the best areas worth considering when deciding where to stay in Istanbul.
Located on the southern side of the Golden Horn and known as the historic district, Fatih is surrounded by ancient city walls. This is where you’ll find many of the main tourist sites of Istanbul. Look for the neighborhoods of Sultanahmet or Eminonu to be close to the main mosques, Hagia Sophia, and the Grand Bazaar.
Once covered with fig orchards, this thriving district is home to our recommended neighborhoods of Galata, Cihangir, and Karakoy. Located to the north of the Golden Horn, on the European side, this eclectic part of Istanbul is where you’ll find hip restaurants, local boutiques, artisan shops, and antique stores.
This mostly residential side of the Bosphorus Strait is where you’ll find the district of Kadikoy. While significantly less crowed than the European side of Istanbul, this well-connected neighborhood is worth considering. The “other side of town” is home to many parks, tea gardens, and amazing sea view.
Istanbul Travel Tips
Istanbul travel tips: Tipping
A general rule for tipping in Turkey is to tip in USD, Euro, or Liras, as tipping on credit cards is not possible. Tip your bartender or restaurant server 5% to 10% if no service charge has already been added. Tip your taxi driver by rounding up.
Istanbul travel tips: Money
Turkey’s national currency is the Lira, and is currently exchanging at 3.51TRY to $1USD. Credit cards are accepted at most places and ATM machines are readily available.
Istanbul travel tips: Insurance
Traveling through Istanbul is exciting and safe, but you never know when some good travel insurance could come in handy. World Nomads offers the best coverage in the business, is affordable, and is quick to act should something go wrong. For more info, check out our recent World Nomads blog post.