Located along the banks of the Bosphorus strait, the city of Istanbul is rich in culture and history, and is an amazing place to visit. You can learn a lot about Islamic culture and see dazzling displays of artwork and architecture that were created during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is the sixth most visited country in the world and Istanbul is the eighth most visited city. It’s a place everyone should experience at least once, and this guide will help you navigate your vacation through this city where Europe and Asia meet. Here are the top things to do in Istanbul!
What to Expect in Istanbul
Language: Turkish is the main language spoken in Istanbul, but it’s not uncommon to meet people who speak some English, especially in touristy areas. Arabic and Farsi are also spoken throughout the city.
Currency: Turkish Lira (₺)
Credit Cards and Banks: Several U.S.-based banks have offices in Turkey like J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. However, these branches are usually private client-type operations and don’t have the standard cash deposit and withdrawal opportunities that you may be used to. You can use other ATMs throughout the country although you’ll probably have to pay fees. Be sure to inform your bank that you’ll be traveling abroad so that they don’t flag your account for suspicious activity and freeze your funds.
Climate: The weather in Istanbul is definitely on the warmer side on average, but it has its wintery moments as well – usually the coldest month in February and you may experience some snow.
Helpful Tip: If you’re a solo female traveler, you can definitely safely explore Istanbul on your own like you would be able to explore any major city throughout the world. That said, there are always things you should be doing to keep yourself safe. Check out this guide to traveling as a solo female in Istanbul for more information.
Neighborhoods in Istanbul
Istanbul is a big city that’s made up of many neighborhoods and districts, each with its own culture and history. Here are a few of the most popular areas in Istanbul you should explore during your visit.
- Sultanahmet: A historic district, with landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace
- Taksim Square and Istiklal Street: Lively and exciting atmosphere with bars and cafes throughout. The SALT Beyoğlu art museum is also located here, with exhibits and free movie screenings offered regularly
- Galata: Most famous for the Galata Tower, Galata is a great place to immerse yourself in Turkish culture as it’s where you can see a lot of the most iconic things in Istanbul such as the Whirling Dervishes
- Karaköy: a hip neighborhood built into the ancient ruins of Istanbul. A place to go for modern Turkish culture
- Arnavutköy: this is where the nightlife is — it’s made up of high-end businesses and fun nightclubs and bars. In addition to the fun party, Arnavutköy is also known for its upscale seafood restaurants
- Balat: A beautiful neighborhood known for its colorful buildings! Historically it was the Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighborhood of Istanbul and today you can see many historic homes and churches.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Like most major cities, Istanbul has a variety of places to stay. If you’re hoping to save some money on accommodations, there are some fantastic hostels and budget hotels to check out. The city also has many luxurious hotels that are well worth the price.
I’ve compiled some of the most popular places to stay below, as well as ranked The Best Hotels to Stay at in Istanbul here!
For a comfortable and safe option that doesn’t break the bank, book a room at Hanedan Hotel! They offer single, double, triple, and family rooms, so if you’re traveling with a group you have plenty of options to accommodate you.
The rooms at Erten Konak are gorgeous — you won’t believe that they’re available for a budget price! You get private bathrooms with each room as well as amenities like complimentary tea and coffee stations to help you get a jump start on your day.
Located across the street from the Blue Mosque, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha is a gorgeous boutique hotel that offers both standard rooms as well as larger deluxe rooms that have seating areas.
The interior of the Hotel Sultania is positively regal, with gold accents and luxurious linens in each of the guest rooms and suites. The hotel also has a spa where you can get massages, relax in a sauna, or experience the hotel’s own Turkish bath.
Swissotel The Bosphorus, Istanbul is a five-star luxury hotel right in the center of the city, right on the banks of the Bosphorus strait. The hotel also has an amazing spa where you can relax and treat yourself to a facial, massage, and more!
Rixos Pera Istanbul is located in the vibrant Beyoglu district, close to important historical sites like Taksim Square, the Galata Tower, and the iconic Istiklal Avenue. Enjoy a meal at the rooftop restaurant while enjoying views of historic Istanbul.
If you’re looking for more of a resort experience, check out the Çırağan Palace Kempinski. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to explore, a beautiful infinity pool, and a serene spa and wellness center open to guests.
Not only is the Four Seasons Bosphorus actually located along the Bosphorus strait, it’s also located in a carefully restored 19th-century palace! You’ll get the luxury you’d expect from the Four Seasons hotels while also enjoying a stay in a unique piece of Istanbul’s history.
Another luxurious Four Seasons hotel in Istanbul, the Four Seasons Sultanahmet has many of the same perks and the high standard of hospitality of the Four Seasons Bosphorus – the main difference is the location! The neighborhood of Sultanahmet is filled with a lot of Istanbul’s ancient history.
Sofitel Istanbul Taksim is an Accor hotel in the heart of Istanbul – if you haven’t experienced an Accor hotel yet, just know that you can expect French-inspired hospitality and culture with luxurious touches like Hermes toiletries when you stay here!
True to its name, this hotel is a series of historic mansions near the Hagia Sofia. It makes for the perfect backdrop to a luxurious vacation in Istanbul.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
Turkish food today is directly influenced by the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire, which is a fusion of many different cuisines such as Mediterranean, Central Asian, Eastern European, and more. There is so much variety you can find throughout the restaurants in Istanbul, so while you shouldn’t limit yourself to the list below, it’ll give you a pretty good place to start.
Hungry for more? Check out this guide on how to find the best food in Istanbul!
Last Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant has been serving high-quality local food to the people of Istanbul for over 53 years. It’s a historic restaurant where you can get some delicious Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine. Like with many restaurants in the area, you can find vegan and vegetarian meals as well as halal options.
If you’re looking for a restaurant in Istanbul that serves some healthy options that cater to specific dietary restrictions like gluten-free or vegan, Mivan Restaurant Cafe is the place for you. In the morning, it’s a great place to go and sip on some Turkish coffee to wake yourself up and throughout the day you can sample a variety of healthy Turkish cuisine.
Gulhane Sark Sofrası serves delicious large portioned meals at affordable prices. The vibe is very laid back and while the wait staff will give you your space, they are attentive and can help answer questions about the Turkish food on the menu.
Although you can’t find a ton about this restaurant online (at least not in English and easily translatable), it’s definitely one of the best places you can eat in Istanbul. You’ll get a taste of authentic Turkish cuisine no matter what you try from the menu. If you’re not sure, go for the pide – it’s a type of flatbread with a variety of toppings.
Erhan Restaurant is a great place to dive into the local cuisine, no matter what your dietary restrictions might be. They have plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians, and the atmosphere is positively vibrant. It’s also a hookah lounge, so you can get a lot out of a single visit.
Durumzade was good enough for the late great Anthony Bourdain to enjoy, and that should tell you all you need to know about this local favorite. The food here is super cheap and affordable but they don’t cut corners when it comes to quality – the dürüm (fresh flatbread wraps filled with kebab) is popular with locals as well as tourists.
What to Do in Istanbul
A city with as rich of a history and culture as Istanbul has plenty that’s worth exploring! When you explore the city, you can experience some truly unbelievable architecture and art work and enjoy delicious food. This list of the best things to do when you visit Istanbul will help you plan your perfect itinerary.
One of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul is definitely the Hagia Sophia, which is a grand mosque that was first built in 537. It’s considered to be one of the most influential works in architectural history and has a lot of impressive features, including artwork throughout its many spaces. You can visit on most days, just be aware that it is still a functioning mosque so you’ll have to remove your shoes to enter many spaces and you should wear clothes that cover your legs, chest, shoulders, upper arms, etc.
The term hammam refers to Turkish baths, which are well-known throughout the world for a variety of reasons, including religion, culture, and general hygiene. There are many to choose from, but one of the most popular is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. It is not only historic, but it also has a beautiful interior that dates back to the 16th century. You can choose from a variety of packages that include services such as body scrubs and massages.
Istanbul is filled with amazing things to eat – no matter what your personal tastes are, there are plenty of meals, desserts, pastries, and street food that will impress you! It’s hard to decide where to go, especially in a city as big as Istanbul, so why not take a food tour to make sure you see as much as you can? The Taste of Two Continents Food Tour will guide you through traditional Turkish cuisine as well as items inspired by the country’s Asian and European influences.
The impressive Galata Tower was originally built as a watchtower as part of the Walls of Galata, which are located in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. It is nine stories high, and for a small fee, you can take an elevator to the top and enjoy some breathtaking panoramic views of Istanbul. Make sure to double-check the opening hours because the tower is occasionally closed for restoration — it is, after all, nearly 700 years old!
One of the most popular things to do in Istanbul is to visit the Grand Bazaar, one of the most historic sites in the city! The term bazaar refers to a market, specifically a large market space with numerous stalls and vendors. The Grand Bazaar is the world’s oldest and largest, boasting 61 streets and over 4,000 individual stalls selling spices, sweets, dried fruit, jewelry, and more.
The Topkapı Palace was once a grand residence and administrative center for Ottoman sultans. It was converted into a museum in the 1920s, and today you can visit and tour some of the palace’s rooms and courtyards. Highlights include jewel-toned tiled rooms that must be seen to be believed, as well as exhibits with examples of clothing worn by the Sultan and his entourage.
The Bosphorus Strait is the body of water that cuts through Istanbul – it’s seen not only as the midpoint of the city but also as the place where Europe and Asia meet. It connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and while you can see it from the shore, there’s nothing like cruising the Bosphorus and enjoying the views of Istanbul’s grand architecture.
Cisterns are large underground reservoirs used to collect rainwater, of which there are hundreds beneath Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is the largest, and you can actually descend into the chambers because it holds very little water today to see some amazing rock carvings and columns. Two of the columns are made of reclaimed blocks that have been carved to resemble Medusa, the snake-haired woman from Greek mythology who could turn anyone who made eye contact with her to stone.
If you want to see one of Istanbul’s most famous historical sites, make time for a visit to the Blue Mosque. There is some incredible art and architecture throughout the space, but keep in mind that it is an active mosque with daily prayer services. When visiting the Blue Mosque, it’s important to dress appropriately with your shoulders and legs covered as it is a religious site.
If you enjoy strong coffee, make sure to try Turkish coffee! This drink is not only richly flavored and high in caffeine due to the unfiltered method of preparation, but it is also an important part of many Turkish customs, such as the art of tasseography, which involves drinking the coffee and flipping the cup over so the grounds settle in the saucer, and then interpreting the shapes that they may form.
Turkish coffee is typically served with a glass of water to clear your palate so you can fully enjoy the rich flavor of the coffee. Turkish coffee can also be paired with pastries and candies.
If you’re interested in learning more about Turkey’s rich cultural heritage, check out the Whirling Dervishes when you visit. Historically, the term dervish referred to a specific group within Sufism, an Islamic order. Sufi whirling is a type of active meditation performed as part of a religious ceremony, with participants dressed in flowing robes or gowns, sometimes in bright colors and patterns. This unique custom can be seen at the Galata Mevlevi Lodge, which is one of the oldest of its kind.
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