What to Do in Istanbul? 10 of the Best Tips!

Istanbul is often regarded by many travelers as the most exciting city in Turkey. It’s the only city in the world built on two continents, with 5% of Istanbul located in Europe and the remaining 95% in Asia. Despite its partial European location, you’ll definitely feel like you’re on a different continent during your city trip. With a population of 15 million, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city, offering plenty to see and do. Curious about what Istanbul has to offer? In this article, you’ll find our recommendations for the top attractions, great restaurants, and charming neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul.

How to Get to Istanbul?

Chances are you’ll arrive in Istanbul by plane. It’s good to know that Istanbul has two international airports: Istanbul Airport in the northwest and Sabiha Gökçen Airport in the east. Both airports are about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the city center, so you’ll have a short journey ahead after your flight.

From Istanbul Airport to the City Center

Since January 2023, there’s a direct metro line (M11) from Istanbul Airport to the city center. This metro line travels at a speedy 120 km per hour. Unfortunately, the last section of this line hasn’t opened yet, and it’s scheduled for April 2023. For the final leg to your hotel, it’s easiest to order an Uber. Another option is to take a taxi directly at the airport. Before getting in, make sure the driver agrees to use the meter. If not, it’s better to find another taxi. A ride to the city center will cost around $22, with the yellow taxis being the cheapest option.

From Sabiha Gökçen Airport to the City Center

The most affordable way to travel from Sabiha Gökçen Airport to the city center is by using HAVABUS, which costs about $3 per person. It takes approximately 45 minutes, with buses running every 30 minutes between 6:30 AM and 12:30 AM. If you prefer a taxi, expect to pay around $22.

Tips for Getting Around Istanbul

Trams, subways, ferries, buses, and taxis are all ways to get around Istanbul. You can easily use Google Maps to find the best way from point A to B. Enter your destination and your current location, then click on the public transport icon. You’ll see all the options for your journey. Opt for a taxi when there’s no suitable public transport connection. There are three types of taxis in Istanbul: black, blue, and yellow. Choose the yellow taxi for a more budget-friendly option. If you prefer to order a taxi, in Istanbul, they use BiTaksi instead of Uber, and the app works the same way.

Tip: For public transportation, it’s best to get an IstanbulKart, which is the Turkish version of an Oyster card. You can top up the card at a machine, saving you money compared to buying individual tickets for each ride. It also saves you time, as ticket machines often have long lines. With the IstanbulKart, you can use the ferry, subway, tram, and buses. Moreover, one IstanbulKart can be used by multiple people. You can purchase the IstanbulKart at Istanbul Airport and at stations throughout the city.

What to Do in Istanbul?

Most people allocate two to three full days to explore Istanbul. The following attractions are must-visit places in our opinion.

Visit Hagia Sophia

We can’t start this list without mentioning Hagia Sophia, the symbol of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia is a remarkable structure where the histories of Islam and Christianity converge. It was originally built as a church between 532 and 536. When the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. In 1934, Hagia Sophia became a museum, and since 2020, it has been a mosque once again. There’s often a long line outside, but don’t be discouraged, as it usually moves quite quickly, and you’ll typically wait no longer than 15 to 20 minutes.

The Blue Mosque / Sultan Ahmet Mosque

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque. This impressive structure was built between 1609 and 1617 and is the only mosque in the world with six minarets. The interior is adorned with 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles. You can find this mosque directly across from Hagia Sophia.

Tip: Keep in mind that mosques are closed to visitors during prayer services and on Fridays. It’s also important to know that you must dress modestly when visiting a mosque. This means that women should be covered down to their knees and shoulders, and they should cover their hair with a scarf. Men should wear long pants and a t-shirt or sweater. Shoes must always be removed when entering a mosque.

Explore the Charming Karaköy District

Karaköy is our favorite neighborhood in Istanbul. Its mostly narrow streets are filled with cozy cafes, trendy bars, and vintage shops. Karaköy is a bit more alternative than other parts of Istanbul. You’ll see many young, modern people on the streets who feel free to be themselves here. The street Hoca Tahsin Sk. is a lively street with plenty of nice cafes and bars for a drink.

Tip: The following two attractions are located in the neighborhood next to Karaköy, so it might be convenient to visit them consecutively.

Climb the Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is one of the oldest towers in the world and one of Istanbul’s most important landmarks. The tower was originally built as a lighthouse in the 6th century and was entirely made of wood at the time. It was reconstructed in the 14th century, this time using stone. Over the centuries, it served various purposes, including as a prison, an observatory, and a lookout tower for the fire department. Today, it’s a beautiful spot to get a panoramic view of Istanbul.

Watch the Sunset from the Galata Bridge

The Galata Bridge, initially constructed entirely of wood in 1845, has been rebuilt three times since then, with the current bridge dating back to 1994. The bridge consists of two levels, and there is always a lot to see. Upstairs, you’ll find rows of fishermen, while downstairs, there are seafood restaurants. The view from the bridge is stunning, especially during sunset.

Explore Istanbul’s Most Colorful District

The vibrant Balat district is an attraction in itself. Many houses in this neighborhood are painted in cheerful colors. Along the street “Vodina Cd,” you’ll find plenty of charming cafes and shops. Velvet Cafe is a cozy vintage cafe where you can enjoy a delightful lunch. You’ll also find the rainbow staircase, often seen on Instagram, in Balat. Be prepared for crowds here as everyone wants to take a photo. To avoid the crowds, head out early. Then, take the stairs to the famous photo spot of the colorful old houses in Balat.

The Shoe Polisher Scam: Throughout Istanbul, you’ll encounter shoe polishers, and some of them try to scam tourists all day long. They “accidentally” drop their shoe brush right in front of you. Once you pick it up and return it, they will proceed to polish your shoe as a thank-you gesture. However, they will then demand an extremely high fee for their service. If you refuse to pay, they may become aggressive, and multiple shoe polishers might suddenly surround you to make sure you pay the amount. So, never pick up a brush in Istanbul!

Süleymaniye Mosque

This mosque is incredibly large and towers above the city. It was constructed between 1550 and 1557 and is one of the largest mosques in Istanbul. You can take a look inside, which is definitely worth it due to the rich decorations and beautiful architectural style.

Ortakoy Mosque

A beautiful mosque to admire from the outside is the Ortakoy Mosque. This is a lovely small mosque in a unique location, right by the water next to the famous Bosphorus Bridge. Perfect for taking beautiful photos!

Awaken Your Senses at Istanbul’s Bazaars

If there’s anywhere in Istanbul where you’ll feel like you’re (almost) on another continent, it’s the bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world, and it’s truly gigantic. It comprises 58 streets, 4,000 shops, and sees a daily footfall of between 250,000 and 400,000 shoppers. You can find everything here, from jewelry and lamps to carpets, leather jackets, and small souvenirs. Haggling is definitely a part of the experience here.

A bit further away lies the Egyptian Bazaar. This bazaar is smaller and specializes in spices, dried fruits, nuts, and other delicacies. It’s a great place to sample new flavors and pick up something for your home kitchen.

Admire the Ancient Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace was the center of the Ottoman Empire for many years. It served various ruling sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and during a visit, you can see that they enjoyed a lavish lifestyle here. The palace is incredibly large and extravagantly decorated from top to bottom. It included a library, a hospital, stables, a harem with over 400 rooms, 8 hammams, 2 mosques, and numerous beautiful gardens, among other things. The construction of the Topkapi Palace began in 1459 under the leadership of Sultan Mehmet II, and many other sultans lived here in the years that followed.

Explore the Underground Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an underground water reservoir dating back to the 6th century, built by the Byzantines. The cistern has a capacity of approximately 80.000 cubic meters (2825173 cubic feet). What’s remarkable about this place is that it is still in excellent condition. That’s because it went unused for centuries after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul and established their own water supply systems. In the 16th century, the reservoir was rediscovered by a Dutch traveler who came to Istanbul to study Byzantine ruins.

Despite the interesting history of the Basilica Cistern, our visit was a bit disappointing. It was incredibly crowded inside, with limited space to move around, and there was hardly any information available to read. The experience could be much better if you arrive right at opening time or just before closing time. It’s recommended to purchase tickets in advance with a guided tour. This allows you to join a shorter line, avoiding the long wait in the sun, and you’ll get the background information that makes it more interesting.

Tip: After your visit, take a stroll along Yerebatan Street, as it’s a charming street with colorful houses. Head to Maya’s Corner for a delicious cup of coffee or fresh juice.

Best Restaurants in Istanbul

You won’t have to search far for good restaurants in Istanbul. We’ve dined at many restaurants in Istanbul, and these are our favorites.

Journey – This is a cozy restaurant with an extensive menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The halloumi sandwich is highly recommended!

Sirinfirin Bakery – At this authentic bakery, you can enjoy delicious breakfast, lunch, or sweet treats. Sirinfirin Bakery is located on a charming street near the Galata Tower.

Galata Kitchen – Dining at Galata Kitchen is a bit different from other restaurants. Here, there’s no menu, but rather a buffet with a variety of dishes. You can choose several tasty dishes and decide whether you want a large or small portion of each. They offer both meat and vegetarian dishes, all prepared with plenty of vegetables. It’s a fun way to share and taste different flavors.

Falafel Koy – In this tiny and very basic establishment, you can enjoy the tastiest falafel for less than $3. Perfect for a quick bite, and it’s located in a charming shopping street.

Tip: In the street of Journey, you’ll find many nice bars to enjoy an evening drink on the terrace. During the day, be sure to stop by this cat shelter just around the corner from Journey. This is run by a kind man who cares for stray cats. It’s a wonderful initiative to support.

Where to Stay in Istanbul?

Istanbul is an incredibly large city, so it’s nice to stay in a lively neighborhood with plenty of restaurants and bars nearby. We stayed in Karaköy, which was perfect for us. The atmosphere is great, and this neighborhood is centrally located with easy access to many Istanbul attractions. On weekends, the area really comes to life, and you can enjoy a night out. Right next to Karaköy is the Galata district, which is also a great location to stay. Below, we recommend some lovely places to stay in these neighborhoods. If you want to learn more about these neighborhoods, read our article on the best neighborhoods in Istanbul + hotel tips.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Istanbul

In the coziest street of Karaköy, you’ll find Casa Rosa Suites. When you step out of the hotel, you’re right in the middle of charming terraces. Casa Rosa Suites is a small-scale hotel with very friendly owners. The rooms are beautifully decorated, equipped with air conditioning, and feature super comfortable beds. Also, Ferman Port Hotel is a delightful choice in the Karaköy district. The high ceilings, beautiful interior, and rooftop terrace with a view of Istanbul make this hotel a joy to stay in. Each morning, you can enjoy a tasty breakfast and a fantastic view on the rooftop terrace. In the Galata district, Doruk Palas Hotel is an excellent choice. Book a room with a sea view, and you’ll be treated to a fantastic view every morning when you open the curtains. The hotel has a very friendly atmosphere, thanks to the lovely staff and the cutest staff member, Osman the cat!