Insider Tips: Planning a trip to Istanbul
Soumya is a history and culture-enthusiast with a passion for traveling the world. She has lived on 4 continents and traveled to 30+ countries, while immersing herself in local culture in each one of them. She loves writing about her experiences on her travel blog, Stories by Soumya, and also contributes to leading publications such as BBC Travel and Architectural Digest.
What should I do on my first trip to Istanbul?
When in Istanbul, do not miss Hagia Sophia, one of the world's most impressive and contested religious monuments. Once an Eastern Roman Church, later a museum, and now a mosque, Hagia Sophia has a storied history. Hagia Sophia's collection of Byzantine mosaics is breathtaking. Another unmissable Istanbul landmark is the Galata Tower, an iconic watchtower whose origins date to the early 6th century. Today, Galata Tower is a symbol of Istanbul and the best place to get panoramic views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
What are some hidden gems to see in Istanbul?
The colorful and historical neighborhoods of Fener and Balat are hidden gems in Istanbul waiting to be discovered. Filled with cobbled streets, pastel-colored buildings, and gorgeous religious buildings, both Fener and Balat are a sight for sore eyes. Another secret place in Istanbul that will appeal to both history and art lovers is the Great Palace Mosaics Museum (closed for restoration at the moment). Located right around the corner from the Sultanahmet Park, the Mosaics Museum is the only remaining part of the Great Palace of Constantinople and is home to stunning floor mosaics from the Roman era.
How much time should I spend in Istanbul?
3 days are ideal to see the highlights of Istanbul.
On Day 1, explore the historic center, also called Sultanahmet. Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern, and the Archeological Museums are all located in this area. The Grand Bazaar is not very far away either.
On Day 2, take a stroll around Beyoglu and wander into its many museums, enjoy the vibes of Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, and head to the Galata Tower for a beautiful sunset.
Day 3 can be all about exploring the majestic Topkapi Palace, taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, and visiting some hidden gems such as the Ortakoy Mosque and Beylerbei Palace. If you'd like to escape the humdrum of city life, take a ferry to the Princes Islands and enjoy a day in nature.
What food is Istanbul known for?
If there's just one dish you have to taste in Istanbul, then that has to be doner kebap. Made with shaved meat skewered and grilled on a vertical spit, the doner is one of Turkey's most iconic dishes. Doner kebap can be served in different ways - with rice and potatoes, as a sandwich, or wrapped in lavas. Doner kebap originated in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century but has spread all over the world ever since and is known by several names now, some of the wellknown ones being Arab Shawarmas, Greek Gyros, and Mexican Tacos Al Pastor. Other delicious dishes that you should definitely try in Istanbul are simit, dolma, balik ekmek, kokorec, dondurma, baklava, and Turkish tea and coffee.
What is the best way to get around Istanbul?
The Historic Center of Istanbul or the Sultanahmet area is extremely walkable and can be easily covered on feet. If you wish to rest your legs a bit, take a ride on Tram T1 which connects all tourist attractions in the historic district. For all attractions outside the historic center, take a taxi or ride in a dolmus, shared vans that offer cheap rides throughout the city.
What are the best months to visit Istanbul?
The best months to visit Istanbul are April - May (spring) and September - October (fall). Temperatures hover in the late 60s - early 70s, there's plenty of sunshine, and the weather is just perfect to be out and about. Istanbul also plays host to a number of festivals during these months. The most beautiful festivals include the International Tulip Festival (April), Istanbul International Film Festival (April), Istanbul Coffee Festival (October), and Akbank Jazz Festival (September - October).
What are the best neighborhoods to visit in Istanbul?
Beyoglu is one of the best neighborhoods to visit in Istanbul. It is home to the famous Galata Tower, Taksim Square, and boasts of numerous art galleries and cultural centers. PERA Museum, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, SALT Art Gallery are a couple of famous ones. The happening Istiklal Street, that runs through the center of Beyoglu, is chock full of classic Art Nouveau buildings, shops, restaurants, & bars. In short, Beyoglu is Istanbul's throbbing cultural heart that attracts art connoisseurs, history lovers, foodies, and partygoers alike.
What are the best neighborhoods for food?
Kadikoy, on the Asian side, is one of Istanbul's trendiest neighborhoods and the best place for good food. Full of high-quality restaurants and trendy cafes, Kadikoy offers a wide variety of Turkish food including doner kebaps, Iskender kebaps, stuffed mussels, kokorec, refreshing juices, tea, and coffee. The best way to explore Kadikoy is on this food tour (https://www.getyourguide.com/istanbul-l56/istanbul-taste-of-two-continents-food-tour-t187992/) that let's you taste the best that Kadikoy has to offer.
What are the best neighborhoods for shopping?
Istanbul is home to several medieval markets dating to the Ottoman era, the most popular one being the Grand Bazaar. Dating to the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar is home to over 4000 shops and the best place to buy Turkish souvenirs. Be sure to check out the Iznik tiles, evil eye charms, glittering mosaic lamps, and handmade carpets at Grand Bazaar. If you're planning to luxury shop, check out the chic neighborhood of Nişantaşı that's full of high-end department stores, boutiques, cafes, and fine dining restaurants.
What neighborhood should I stay in when I visit x?
Sultanahmet is the best neighborhood to stay in Istanbul because it is one of the safest areas in Istanbul and is home to all major attractions including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace. If you're visiting Istanbul for the first time, Sultanahmet is your best bet. However, if you'd like to venture out of the historic district, then I highly recommend staying in Besiktas, an upscale neighborhood that is home to luxurious hotels and quaint BnBs, all of which provide stunning views of the Bosphorus.
What's are 4 best tips for a person traveling to Istanbul?
1) Buy an Istanbul Museum Pass which covers many museums and palaces in the city including the pricey Topkapi Palace and Harem. The pass is valid for 5 days and will save you some precious dollars. Check the list of museums covered on the official website here: Museums
2) Stay in the Sultanahmet area if it is your first time in Istanbul. You'll be right in the middle of the historic center and within walking distance from all unmissable Istanbul attractions.
3) Istanbul traffic is crazy especially during rush hours. Avoid taking a car. Use the metro and tram instead.
4) Booking.com is blocked in Turkey. Be sure to complete your bookings before you enter Turkey or use a VPN.
What should people avoid doing in Istanbul?
Avoid taking a taxi during peak office hours because the roads can get crazy busy and you'll be stuck for hours. Take the metro or tram instead. Avoid getting drinks or going to the bar with strangers. You may fall prey to the "Let's Have a Drink" scam where you end up paying thousands of dollars for other people's drinks.
What are your top 4 favourite GetYourGuide experiences in Istanbul?
1) Istanbul: Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia Small-Group Tour
2) Istanbul: Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour
3) Istanbul: Bosphorus Dinner Cruise & Show with Private Table
4) Istanbul: Mevlevi Sema and the Whirling Dervishes Show
What is one thing that surprised you about Istanbul?
While, I am not a vegetarian, I always love to indulge in veg and vegan food when traveling. I always thought that it would be difficult to find vegetarian food in Istanbul. But I was so wrong. Istanbul not only has a wide variety of vegetarian delicacies but also a number of good veg/vegan restaurants.
What is the best family-friendly thing to do in Istanbul?
One of the best family-friendly places to visit in Istanbul is the Miniaturk Museum in Beyoglu district. Miniaturk is an open air museum that houses more than 100 miniature models of Turkish historical monuments and landmarks. Spread over more than 600,000 sq ft, Miniaturk is one of the world's largest miniature parks that attracts both kids and adults and provides a wonderful learning opportunity for all. There are several food stalls and cafes to fill you up during the tour.
What is the best thing to do in Istanbul for couples?
Istanbul is one of the most beautiful places in the world and that makes it an exceedingly romantic destination. It goes without saying that there are a ton of romantic things to do in Istanbul with the most popular ones being taking a private cruise on the Bosphorus and trying a couple's bath in one of Istanbul's historic hammams. Couple hammams are intimate experiences and best enjoyed with your significant other.
What are the best annual events in Istanbul?
One of the best festivals to attend in Istanbul is the International Tulip Festival that is held every year in spring (usually the month of April) when tulips are in full bloom across all Istanbul parks and public spaces. Millions of tulips bloom across the city making Istanbul even more prettier. There's usually a huge flower carpet in the Sultanahmet area in front of the Blue Mosque. Tulips have long been an integral part of Ottoman life and culture with tulips forming an important embellishment in Turkish tiles and ceramics. It is the National Flower of Turkey and is a symbol of spring, growth and prosperity. Experiencing the Tulip Festival in Istanbul is almost like immersing yourself in a bit of Turkish history and culture.
What are the best things to do around Istanbul?
If you'd like to escape the hustle and bustle of city life in Istanbul and head to somewhere serene and peaceful, then hop on a ferry and head to one of Istanbul's four Princes Islands. These islands are full of lush green forests, charming wooden mansions, and pretty beaches and alcoves. The best part about these islands is that they are car-free. You can walk, hike, or rent a bicycle for the day. The hike up to the Aya Yorgi Monastery in Buyukada, the largest Princes Island, is well-marked, pretty and dotted with stunning views of the Sea of Marmara.