What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Istanbul? Unfortunately, for many of us (myself included before this trip), what springs to mind isn’t always the rich culture, beautiful architecture, welcoming Turkish hospitality and colourful sights.
A quick preface for what to expect from this guide to Istanbul: on Yoga, Wine & Travel, I focus on promoting the best of a destination, providing practical travel advice so that readers can plan their trips with ease, and encouraging people to experience the incredible things that places have to offer. With the exception of a small handful of places (curse you, Naples), I’ve been fortunate that the vast majority of my travel experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. So, it’s no surprise that I do tend to talk about how wonderful a place is and how you really need to buy a plane ticket ASAP. I’ll be the first to admit this.
However, in this article, I’m not going to gloss over and ignore the fact that there has been a string of high-profile and devastating attacks in Istanbul. Instead, my goal is to present you with my personal unabbreviated impression of the city and our experience over the few days that we spent there; I ask that you do your due diligence on traveling to Istanbul, weigh up whether you personally feel that the positives outweigh the risk, and make a decision that you’re comfortable with. If you’re on the fence about traveling to Istanbul, all I hope that this guide does is re-balance the perspective and encourage you to consider that there’s more to Istanbul beyond the news headlines.
So, is it safe to visit Istanbul?
Multiple governments have travel advisories telling its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Istanbul or to reconsider travel to the country. Should you cancel your travel plans? It depends. Like I said before, I’m not here to tell you that it’s all unicorns and rainbows.
From my personal experience, Istanbul is a curious blend of European and Asian culture, the city is buzzing and the streets are busy, and almost everyone we met (barring the taxi driver who overcharged us by almost 5 times the normal rate) was friendly and helpful. If you didn’t know its recent history you would think that it was just any other major city around the world.
We did not experience any petty crime, but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t be aware and cautious, just as you would at home or abroad in any other country. According to this US government crime and safety report, “Istanbul’s crime rates impacting foreigners are surprisingly low. However, travelers should be aware of petty crimes such as pickpocketing in crowded areas. Credit card and ATM usage is considered relatively safe with nearly no reports of fraud, especially when patronizing locations catering to an international clientele.”
One piece of advice we did receive from an Istanbul local was to avoid Taksim Square. Though it is a popular nightlife and shopping district, it wasn’t on our to-do list to begin with so did not go out of our way to check it out during our 3 days in Istanbul.
Quick tips for your first trip to Istanbul
- There are 2 airports in Istanbul – Ataturk (airport code IST) on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen (SAW) on the Asian side. Ataturk will be shutting in late October 2018 as a new, larger airport will be opening, and the new airport will take over the IST airport code. It currently takes slightly less time to travel to the heart of the city from IST, and 50 minutes to an hour from SAW. The airports are extremely busy with multiple security checkpoints, so I would recommend that you arrive early when you are flying out of the country.
- You need an e-Visa to enter Turkey – Rates vary depending on nationality and you can apply for your visa ahead of time on the official Turkish government e-visa website here. When we applied, the approval was almost immediate and you will need to download and print out a copy of the visa.
- Turkish currency – The Turkish Lira (TL) is used in the country and the exchange rate is very favorable right now – approximately 5.8 TL: 1 USD or 6.8 TL: 1 Euro. Euros and USD are occasionally also accepted (and sometimes preferred) by shops and tour companies.
- Weather – When we visited in September, it was already significantly cooler in Istanbul than other coastal areas like Izmir, Alacati, Fethiye and Oludeniz. In fact, I had to buy a winter coat in Istanbul because I hadn’t packed enough warm clothes!
- Best time to visit Istanbul – In general, tourism numbers are far lower than they have historically been, so in my opinion there is no “bad” time to visit Istanbul if you want to avoid tourist crowds. However, the weather is more pleasant from April to about October/November, after which it can get bitterly cold.
- Language – Turkish is the most spoken language in Istanbul, and most people, especially those in hospitality or food & beverage, speak English very well so you shouldn’t have a problem with communication.
- Dress code in Istanbul – Most people in Turkey are Muslim, yet Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole) is not extremely conservative. You can walk around with sleeveless tops and female tourists are not required to wear headscarves. The only exception is when you enter a mosque, in which case you will need to abide by the dress code (in general, men must wear long trousers and women must cover their hair, arms and knees).
How to get around Istanbul
There’s plenty of public transportation options in Istanbul, though you will find that you can get around on foot relatively easily. There is a rechargeable transport card that you can purchase (Istanbulkart) but we didn’t bother as we didn’t find ourselves using the metro, bus or tram system and walked most places instead.
To get to the city from Ataturk airport or Sabiha Gokcen airport, you can take either a taxi or Uber. Ubers are much cheaper – we paid approximately 180 TL ($30) for a 1-hour Uber ride, and it would have cost double for a taxi. To get around town, we found that the waiting times for an Uber were longer and we were cancelled on by drivers a few times.
Taxis are another way to get around Istanbul, and there are plenty of them zooming around town. However, most taxis won’t use the meter and will charge you a much higher fare. Make sure you agree on the price before you hop in.
If you are staying in the Beyoglu/Galata area, there is a convenient funicular system that runs between Istiklal Street and the Karakoy waterfront area. This is handy because it is a fairly steep 15-20 minute uphill walk if you’re trying to get back to Beyoglu/Galata from Karakoy.
The tram system is fairly extensive around the city, and you can buy tickets from machines at each stop. There are also frequent ferries that connect the city.
The best areas to stay in Istanbul
We stayed in the Beyoglu district, just steps away from the Galata Tower and Istiklal Street. Pera Neuf is a stylish and classy yet comfortable boutique apartment in the thick of it all. The owner is extremely responsive and accommodating, and the check-in/key collection process was very easy.
We loved how clean the apartment was – the beds are extremely comfortable and the shower pressure is fantastic. Though this isn’t a hotel, the rooms are also cleaned every day (except Sundays) and all the amenities are provided including shower gel, shampoo and conditioner.
There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops nearby but once the windows are shut you don’t get any street noise. Just so you know, there is no elevator in the building – we stayed on the 2nd floor. Click here to check current rates and availability at Pera Neuf or click here to see other centrally-located and highly-rated accommodation options in Istanbul!
Important information about hotel booking in Turkey: You can not book hotels in Turkey using Booking.com when you are already in Turkey, as it has been blocked by the Turkish government (so has Wikipedia, for that matter). Instead, make sure you book hotels for your stay in Turkey before your trip, or use Hotels.com for any last-minute hotel bookings that you need to make when you are already in the country.
13 of the best things to do if you only have 72 hours in Istanbul, Turkey
There are plenty of things to see and places to visit in Istanbul, and to cover all of the sights you should aim to spend no less than 2 to 3 days in the city. Most of the popular tourist attractions are close to one another, meaning you can cover a lot of ground easily and make the most of your time in Istanbul.
Before we start, you may have heard of the Museum Pass Istanbul, a card that will allow you to enter a dozen different historical and cultural attractions in the city. It costs 185 TL and is valid for 5 days. The biggest benefit is that you get to skip the ticket lines (but not the bag checks) and scan the bar code on the card to enter the sights. It can be purchased at several different locations including the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace.
However, is the Museum Pass Istanbul worth it? Not really. Of the 12-or so sights that accept the Museum Pass Istanbul, we only ended up using the card at the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace & Harem and the Archaeological Museums. It’s important to note that the Basilica Cistern and Dolmabahçe Palace do not accept the Museum Pass, and the Blue and Suleymaniye Mosques do not have an entrance fee.
The combined entrance fee for those 3 attractions would have been 125 TL – the card currently costs 185 TL as of September 2018 (it was priced at 85 TL and 125 TL previously). If you are visiting other parts of Turkey, I would recommend that you get the Museum Pass Turkey instead as it only costs 315 TL and grants entry into more than 300 museums and ruins across Turkey. It is valid for 15 days. This is what we ended up doing as we also visited Ephesus, Cappadocia, Fethiye and Oludeniz, and saved a few hundred Turkish Liras on entrance fees.
1. Go on the Taste of Two Continents Food Tour
I love food tours, but when have I ever listed a food tour as the first thing you should do in a city? Never. But that all changes with this tour hosted by Istanbul on Food. If you thought food tours were only about eating, you were wrong! This tour lasts 6-7 hours and takes you on a cultural and culinary journey across Istanbul.
The reason why it’s one of the first things you should do when you arrive in Istanbul is because it will help you get acquainted with the city, and shows you Istanbul off-the-beaten-path. You get to learn about the city’s history, culture, traditions and insider secrets, taste Turkish dishes you’ve never even heard of before, and your guide will have tons of fantastic dining recommendations for you.
It starts at 9:30 AM when you meet your guide and fellow group members (groups are capped at 7 people). Ibrahim, our guide, has been doing this for 15 years – so you know you’re in great hands! Next, you’re taken through the local market to gather an assortment of Turkish breakfast items including clotted cream and honey (bal & kaymak), scrambled eggs with tomatoes and green pepper (menemen), cured meat and hazelnut paste that is a million times better than Nutella. The dishes are mouthwatering, but pace yourself because this tour includes more than 10 different food stops throughout the day!
After breakfast, you’ll hop on a ferry to cross over to Kadikoy and Moda on the Asian side – something very very few tourists do. The Asian side is what “everyday life” looks like for most locals, and is a lot more laid back than the touristy parts of Istanbul. Here, you eat. A lot.
One of the restaurants we visited, Çiya Sofrası, was even featured in an episode of Chef’s Table! We tried pickled vegetables, mussels, Turkish pizza (pide), tantuni (chopped meat, onion, tomatoes and spices, served wrapped in flatbread), lamb intestines (tastier than it sounds) and finally, Turkish ice cream! We even visited the restaurant where the kebab was invented.
We received a media rate for the tour, but I would not hesitate to recommend The Taste of Two Continents tour for anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time – this is the best food tour in Istanbul, and is well worth every penny. The 7 hour guided tour costs US$100 per person and includes food, drinks (alcohol is extra), your ferry ticket to and from the Asian side and an experienced local guide. Tours take place every day, rain or shine, and can be booked online here. The tours do sell out early so book ahead to guarantee your spot.
2. Walk across the Galata Bridge
This bridge isn’t exactly the most beautiful bridge around, but it is a hub of activity and connects the neighborhoods of Karakoy and Eminonu/Sultanahmet. The reason why I’ve added it to this list is because it’s a fantastic place to people-watch, and is lined with people fishing all day long on either side of the bridge.
3. Visit the Spice Bazaar
Once you’ve crossed the Galata Bridge, the Spice Bazaar is just a 2-3 minute walk away. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar or Mısır Çarşısı, the Spice Bazaar was built in the 17th century and features nearly 100 shops selling spices, tea, sweets, jewellery and other souvenir items. This is a great place to buy gifts for friends and family back home, and is far less chaotic or sprawling than the Grand Bazaar.
4. Tour the Topkapi Palace Museum
This palace is also on the Eminonu/Sultanahmet side of Istanbul, and is a huge 15th-century palace that was once occupied by sultans and their families for 4 centuries; it also served as the administrative and educational centre of the state until the sultans relocated to the Dolmabahçe Palace in the early 1850s.
The Topkapi Palace houses various gardens, courtyards, exhibits as well as the harem – the residence of the sultan and his family. Entrance to the harem costs extra if you do not have the Istanbul or Turkey Museum Pass. As of October 1st, ticket prices are being raised for the Palace and Harem – from 40 to 60 TL and 25 to 35 TL respectively. Even more reason why you should get the Museum Pass Turkey! You should plan on spending an hour or two at the Topkapi Palace, and the palace is closed every Tuesday.
5. Check out the Istanbul Archaeology Museums
On your way out of the Topkapi Palace, make sure you stop by the Archaeology Museums. They contain artifacts from Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman civilizations which include the busts of Alexander the Great and the God Zeus, a large sarcophagus believed to be prepared for Alexander the Great, objects from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia as well as tile and pottery specimens dating back to the Seljuk and Ottoman empires. Entry costs 20 TL or you can use your Museum Pass (Istanbul or Turkey).
6. See the Hagia Sophia Museum
Also known as the Ayasofya Müzesi, the Hagia Sophia is the one of the most prominent monuments in Turkey and dates back to the early 6th century. The current structure is actually the third in its place, as the previous two were destroyed. For nearly one thousand years, it stood as the largest Christian church in the world and features a stunning dome and wonderfully preserved Christian mosaics that can be viewed from the upper gallery.
After the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the Hagia Sophia was converted and used as a mosque for nearly 500 years, before finally being converted into a museum in 1935. The museum will be closed on Mondays beginning November 1st 2018, and tickets cost 40 TL but you can use the Museum Pass (Istanbul or Turkey).
Swing around to the southeast corner of the Hagia Sophia (turn left when you exit) to visit the five tombs of the Sultans. Entry is free.
7. Head down to the Basilica Cistern
If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Inferno or watched the movie, this is where the story reaches its peak, with the protagonist searching for a plague that threatens to devastate humankind. This underground water cistern was the major water reservoir of Constantinople and dates all the way back to the 4th century.
There are two stone Medusa heads in the far corner of the cistern, though we actually didn’t see it in person as there was an overpowering stench of sewage when we were underground. The cistern is not covered by the Museum Pass and they only accept cash – 20 Turkish Liras only. They do not accept any other currencies.
8. Visit the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and is located opposite the Hagia Sophia Museum. It is perhaps the most well-known monument in Istanbul and dates back to the 17th century when Sultan Ahmet I decided to build the mosque to reassert Ottoman power.
The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, and is therefore closed to tourists during prayer time. In general, the opening hours of the Blue Mosque Turkey are from 8:30/9 AM until one hour before dusk each day, excluding 90 minutes for prayer, and two hours during Friday noon prayers. Read more on the prayer times here. You will need to abide by a dress code before you enter, and entry is free.
9. See the Suleymaniye Mosque
Though the Blue Mosque is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque is just as stunning and receives far fewer visitors. It was completed in the mid 16th century and rebuilt after a fire ravaged the structure just over 100 years later. Like the Blue Mosque, it is open every day but closed for prayer.
10. Wander through the Grand Bazaar
Also on the Eminonu/Sultanahmet side of Istanbul is the famous Grand Bazaar (or Kapalı Çarşı). Though we had been semi-warned about pushy salespeople at the Grand Bazaar, it wasn’t as hectic as we had imagined, and the atmosphere was unlike any other I’ve experienced. This maze of shops is colourful, electric and fascinating. You don’t have to buy anything here, though we did end up purchasing some beautiful towels, blankets and scarves.
And that concludes the tourist attractions that I would recommend that you visit on the southern end of the Galata Bridge/Eminonu/Sultanahmet. If you start early, you’ll find that it is possible to visit sights 3 through 10 on the list within a day.
11. Visit the Galata Tower at night
Galata Tower was nearby our hotel and is an iconic structure along the Istanbul skyline. The 5th century tower was once used as a prison and stands 68 metres tall. You can access the viewing platform for a small fee, but the lines can be very long and you might find an equally stunning view with a drink in hand at a rooftop bar. Instead, visit the Galata Tower at night to see it all lit up in purple.
12. Tour the Dolmabahçe Palace
This palace is one of the most opulent in the world, and is the residence of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It was built in the 19th century and houses gilded treasures including the world’s largest crystal chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria of England. Though you can’t take photos inside the palace or the harem, you can check out the surrounding gardens and beautiful gates facing the Bosphorus Strait.
Though many articles state that you can enter the palace with a guide, we didn’t and neither did the other visitors while we were there. However, the palace closes on Mondays and Thursdays and closes early at 4 PM on the other days, so the lines to get in can be ridiculous. You can not use the Museum Pass here so you will need to pay 90 TL to enter both the administrative section and harem.
13. Drink up at a rooftop bar
I do love a good rooftop bar, and Istanbul has plenty to offer. Our favorite was Miklas within The Marmara Pera hotel. Cocktails are amazing and reasonably priced considering the location, and the view is unparalleled. Make sure you get here early to snag a good spot on the terrace.
Ready to book your trip to Istanbul? Stay at Pera Neuf, a gorgeous boutique apartment just steps away from Istiklal Street and the Galata Tower. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes nearby, and it is a hop and skip away from the major tourist attractions in the city. Click here to check current rates at Pera Neuf or click here to see more highly rated accommodation options in Istanbul!
Where to eat and drink in Istanbul, Turkey
Aheste – just steps away from the Pera Neuf apartment, Aheste is a small upscale restaurant serving delicious modern Turkish food. Try the broad bean mash, beetroot and pea patties and organic chicken confit.
Pizzeria Pera – I was craving pizza, so we headed to the best pizza joint in Istanbul. The Diavola pizza is to die for, and prices are very reasonable.
Poika – Poika is a small coffee shop near the Blue Mosque with simple breakfast and light lunch dishes and sandwiches, as well as fabulous coffee.
Muse Coffee & Botanical – A seriously stunning cafe surrounded by lush greenery and gorgeous pottery. Oh, and the coffee is on point!
Drip Coffee – Fantastic third wave coffee shop in Istanbul – it is downstairs from the Pera Neuf apartment, so naturally was our go-to coffee spot in the mornings.
Where to go after Istanbul
Istanbul is a fantastic place to start your Turkey adventure or end your trip. It was actually the last stop of our Turkey trip and I am working on a two week itinerary (stay tuned!). If you’re starting in Istanbul and moving on, you can opt to hop on a 1-hour plane ride to the Cappadocia region (Kayseri or Nevsehir airports) or Izmir where you can mosey on to Ephesus and Alacati. It is also an 6-hour drive from the ancient cities of Troy or Pergamon.
Have you visited Istanbul? Are there any other spots you would add to this list of things to see and do in Istanbul?
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