Looking for quick tips to plan your next trip in Istanbul, Turkey? Check out the highlights you cannot miss and some practical travel info and let you be inspire!
Istanbul is a crossroads of cultures: the only city in the world located on two continents, Europe and Asia.
Throughout history it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire; it was called Byzantium, Constantinople and only since 1930 Istanbul.
Here is a list of things that you cannot miss in Istanbul if you have at least 3 days :
1. Mosques: Aya Sophia, Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, New Mosque/Yeni Camii, Ortakoy Mosque
2. Basilica Cistern, the oldest and largest Byzantine underground cistern still visible
3. Topkapi Palace and the Dolmabahce Palace, the opulent awesome residences of the Ottoman sultan and his court
4. A ferry trip on the Bosphorus
5. Lose yourself among the colors and smells in the Spice Bazaar and among the local handicraft stands in the Grand Bazaar
6. Climb the Galata Tower, for a great view of the city from above
7. The sunset view from the Galata Bridge, which separates the two European (modern-ancient) parts of Istanbul
8. For history lovers, a visit to the Istanbul Archeology Museum
9. Taste the specialties of the Turkish cuisine: in particular do not miss the Gozleme (the handmade Turkish bread filled of vegetables and/or cheese); the Pottery (or Testi) Kebab (a stew of meat and/or vegetables prepared in a clay pot served flambéed and with natural boiled rice); the Baklava served with the Turkish tea (the typical dessert made with layers of phyllo dough stuffed with dried fruit and dipped in a honey syrup)
10.Have a drink or a tea in one of the many cafes with a panoramic terrace: for example the Seven Hills Restaurant&Cafè near the Blue Mosque, the MimarSinan Teras Café near the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Konak Restaurant&Cafè near Galata Tower
In April (when we went), the Istanbul Tulip Festival is held and the city is an explosion of tulips everywhere: do not forget your camera!
PLACE BY PLACE: Istanbul travel highlights
Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532, it is the largest underground cistern surviving in Istanbul: inside there are 336 perfectly preserved columns and it could store over 80,000 cu meters of water (delivered via 20km from the Roman aqueduct which transported the water from a reserve near the Black Sea).
Its name in Turkish is Yerebatan Cistern, but it is known as Basilica Cistern because inside there is an underground Basilica (Stoa Basilica). During the Byzantine Empire, the cistern was used to supply of water the palaces and gardens of the area, then fell into disuse during the Ottoman Empire.
In the period we were in Istanbul, between the columns there are statues and contemporary art installations which, thanks also to the lighting, create a very scenographic effect: beautiful!
-opening hour normally 9-19 (every day) but in this period it is open till midnight
- Tickets: 300 TL (approx 15 euro)
Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia)
Commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, over the years it has been a Christian church (first Orthodox and then Catholic), an Islamic Mosque, a museum…. Since 2020 it has been converted back into a Mosque.
Undoubtedly beautiful from an architectural point of view… It houses the tombs of 5 Ottoman sultans and their families. The interior decorated with Byzantine mosaics and Ottoman medallions and its majestic dome, will leave you breathless.
Practical info (valid for all the mosques)
· Open every day (closed during the prayer time). Best time for the visit (to avoid the closure for the prayer/less crowded ) is after 9am/mid -morning (avoid the Friday afternoon)
· to enter in the Mosque: Just make the queue. However, don’t worry, even if the line looks very long, it tends to move quite fast
· Entrance is free
· Dress code: Both men and women must have legs covered and should take off shoes. Women need to have also head and shoulders covered
This Mosque in Turkish is called Sultanahmet Camii, but it is known as the Blue Mosque because of the blueIznik tiles adorn the interiors.
For a great view from the above and take a good photo, go to the terrace of Seven Hills
Restaurant: on one side you can see the Blue Mosque and on the other side Hagia Sophia
Located on a hill, it is one of the largest and most beautiful Ottoman mosques in Istanbul!
Commissioned by Sultan Suleyman, it was designed by Mimar Sinan the most famous and talented architect of the Ottoman Empire.
For a break with a wonderful view on the Mosque and the Golden Horn, go to the nearby MimarSinan Teras Café
A splendid residence that housed the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and his court ... over 4000 people including courtiers, concubines, servants lived here.
A huge complex of pavilions, courtyards, gardens…all sumptuously decorated!
Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, it is one of the unmissable attractions if you are in Istanbul.
-opening hour 9-18 (closed on Tuesday)
- Tickets (Topkapı Palace + Hagia Irene + Harem): 650LT (approx 32 euro)
Here our top 3 list :
- Spice Market
- Arasta Bazaar
Istanbul is famous for the many bazaars where it is possible to find everything: from local handicrafts (lamps, cushions, carpets, jewels, ceramics...) to the food (spices, but also fresh products of all kinds) ... they are often an explosion of colors and smells… the best place to get lost in the local culture!
But pay attention to the counterfeit products of fashion brands of which the Grand Bazaar is unfortunately full!
Galata Bridge and Galata Tower
The Galata Bridge, separates the two European parts of Istanbul: the old one from the modern one! The view from here is spectacular, but the best moment is undoubtedly at sunset when the rosy light offers the most evocative colours.
For a 360 view on Instabul from the above climb the Galata Tower (open every day 8.30 -23 – ticket 175LT/approx 9euro) or go to one of the nearby panoramic terrace cafe: for instance we suggest you Konak Restaurant&Cafe !
Ferry tour on Bosphorus
If you are in Istanbul, don't miss a ferry ride along the Bosphorus Strait to admire Istanbul from the water… on one side you will have the European shore and on the other the Asian one!
The ferries are managed by various companies that offer shorter or longer tours. The departure is from Eminou (near Galata Bridge) and ferries are quite frequent: we have chosen a 1h30 tour (cost 100LT/5euro), which allows you to see the highlights of the two banks
A religious ceremony and a traditional dance together.. listening to music and praying, the dervishes rotate their bodies repetitively abandoning their earthly desires in a sort of meditation
The best place to see the Dervishes Whirling is Konya, but you can find their show in all the Turkey!
We have seen them in Istanbul (it is possible to book the show (cost 25/30euro per person) through the tour agencies or the hotels (at least 1-2days in advance to be sure to find availability), but avoid the ones on the ferries that are too touristic)
For sleeping in Istanbul, there are solutions for all budgets! Our choices: Anthemis Hotel and Great Fortune Hotel & Spa: both nice, clean and in a very good position in Sultanahmet (walking distances for the majority of the main attractions). The breakfast is included and served on a panoramic glass terrace with view on the Blue Mosque.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
-“Massa Bistrot” and “Anatolian House” in the alleys just behind the Sultanahmet tram station: try here the famous Pottery Kebab and the humus
-“Sultanahmet Koftecisi” near the Hagia Sophia to taste the traditional meatballs and the lentils soup ! There is often queue outside, but it tends to move quite fast !
-“Sultan Mehmet Kebab Restaurant”and “The Must” near the Basilica Cistern and Topkaki Palace: ideal for lunch and to try the handmade Gözleme
-Sadrazam Café near the Basilica Cistern and Topkaki Palace: to taste the baklava (they have also a quite good espresso)!
How to get to the center of Istanbul from the airport
Istanbul has two airports and both are about fifty km from the city center (SULTANAHMET, the district where most of the attractions and many hotels are located).
But let’s see how both airports are connected to the city center!
SABIHA GOKCEN AIRPORT (SAW)
- Taxi or private transfer (almost all hotels organize them or on booking.com): certainly, the most comfortable and fastest option (consider an hour), but also the most expensive. In fact, on average it takes about 40/50 euros one way (up to 4 people)
- METRO M4: from 6 to 24, directly from Sabiha Gökçen Airport to reach the SULTANAHMET district, it is possible to take the METRO M4 up to the AYRILIK CESMESI station (direction kadikoy). From there then, you can take the MARMARAY COMMUTER RAIL to SIRKECI station. Depending on your stop, it will then be possible to take another metro and/or tram.
Another economic option, which in about 1h30/2h allows you to reach the center
- HAVABUS Shuttles https://www.havabus.com/ from Sabiha Gökçen Airport to Kadıköy or Taksim.
Then to reach the district of SULTANAHMET:
- From Kadıköy you need to take Metro + Commuter Rail Marmaray until Sirkeci + Tram
- From Taksim you have to take metro + tram.
An economic option, but if there is traffic count at least a couple of hours to reach the center
-METRO M11 which in about 30 minutes from 6 to 24 takes you downtown to Kağıthane station. Depending on your stop, it will then be possible to take another metro and/or tram.
Definitely the fastest and cheapest option to reach the city center
- HAVAİST buses https://www.hava.ist/en that connect the airport with the center (various stops). Depending on the stop, it will then be possible to take the metro and/or the tram
An economic option, but count an hour/an hour and a half to reach the center
-Taxi or private transfer (almost all the hotels organize them or on booking.com): certainly the most comfortable option (consider an hour), but also the most expensive. In fact, on average it takes about 40 euros each way (up to 4 people).
How to get around in Istanbul
The main attractions and many hotels are in the district of SULTANAHMET: so you can visit this area on foot or taking the metro and/or the tram.
To reach the others districts (for instance Beyoğlu or Kadıköy), you have several options: taxi or the metro and/or the tram or the ferries.
Istanbul's public transport system is very good!
To save money for the public-transport, we suggest you the “Istanbulkart”, a rechargeable card (similar to London’s Oyster card) to be swipe when you enter a bus or pass trough the turnstile at a ferry dock, tram or metro station: the fare (substantially discounted with the card) will be automatically deducted from your balance.
The card can be purchased from machines and/or kiosks at the airport or at metro/ferry/tram/bus stations; The card can be used to pay for fares for more travellers (one swipe per person per ride). For more info, see https://www.istanbulkart.istanbul/
To discover more about Istanbul and Turkey read also our article " Easter in Turkey: 10 days itinerary " and have a look to our posts and stories dedicated to Turkey dated April-May 2023 on our Instagram page @2intour
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