I must be one of the only people who didn’t love Istanbul the first time I visited. Maybe it was the language barrier, maybe it was my frame of mind, maybe because it was winter. Or maybe it’s because I was mostly on my own. I don’t know. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I’ve now been back several times in the past couple of years, and it’s safe to say, it’s now won me over.
What’s not to love really? It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and it served as the capital of Roman, Byzantine, Latin & Ottoman empires. The skyline is punctuated with minarets and church steeples, and the city is filled with mosques that used to be churches and churches that were once mosques. So naturally, there’s no shortage of historical and cultural sights to visit and that makes it a fascinating city. Fortunately there’s also no shortage of luxury activities that will keep you going back once you’ve seen all the big attractions.
At The Airport
Catching a taxi is pretty easy, but English may be a problem, so I advise you write down the address and show it to the driver when you hop in. The drive into Istanbul from Ataturk International Airport can be a nightmare if you arrive around rush hour. Do your best to avoid it or you’ll be sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for more than an hour. Like airport taxis in many cities, the drivers also have a few tricks up their sleeve to take you the wrong way. So as a rough guide, a taxi from Ataturk (the main airport) should cost you about:
40 TL (Turkish Lira) – To Sultanahmet.
50 TL – To Taksim.
If you’re flying into Sahiba Gokcen Airport it is much more expensive and should cost about:
90 TL – To Sultanahmet
78 TL – To Taksim
I have heard plenty of bad stories about the taxi drivers, but can honestly say that, English aside, I have usually had good experiences around the city.
Where You Should Stay
I like to base myself somewhere near the Bosphorous, either on it, or on the hills just above, because there’s a magnificent view and the skyline of steeples and minarets really makes you feel you’ve gone back in time and reminds you just how exotic Istanbul really is. Personally, I like the areas around Nisantasi, Besiktas and Ortakoy best.
There are literally thousands of hotels in Istanbul, so it’s a personal choice about which area you’d like to stay in and what style of hotel you like, but these are all great choices.
Kempinski Ciragan Palace – Çırağan Palace Kempinski is on the European shores of the Bosphorus. Note, the hotel has regular luxury hotel rooms and the ultra-luxurious palace suites.
Swisshotel Besiktas – It’s a huge hotel, with fantastic views over the city and Bosphorous. A member of the Leading Hotels of the World and listed on the 2011 Conde Nast Traveler Gold List.
W hotel – The W Istanbul Hotel is the center of the historic Akaretler Row Houses, an upscale neighborhood filled with restaurants, cafes, and design & art galleries. (The neon purple décor does make it feel a bit like Vegas though).
Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorous – A smaller, stunning hotel in a converted Ottoman palace, next door to Kempinski on the Bosphorous. I love sitting on the terrace.
Sofa Hotel Nisantasi – A hip hotel in the hippest area of Istanbul, the trendy Nisantasi neighbourhood, near all the boutique stores and restaurants.
The House Hotel – A deluxe hotel in Ortakoy, with magnificent views of the Bosphorus. My favourite waterside restaurant is The House Café downstairs.
TomTom Suites – Designer hotel and member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Witt Istanbul – A small luxury hotel in less touristy Beyouglu.
If hotels aren’t really your thing, you’ll be very comfortable in these designer apartments.
The Best Places To Eat
Aside from the famous well-known international import, Zuma, there are many, many fine eateries in this city. Too many to cover, but these will all keep you happy.
Restaurants & Cafes
Mikla –Fine dining perched high above the city on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera Hotel.
Mangerie – On the top of a building in trendy Bebek. Beautiful panoramic views of the Bosphorous and filled with cool crowd.
Ciya Sofrasi –Tucked away on a vibrant pedestrian street in Kadikoy. A very popular authentic and affordable Turkish restaurant.
Lucca ’s – By day, Lucca’s in Bebek is a chilled out casual restaurant. night, one of the hottest bars in town, with loud cranking music, filled with the fashionable and famous.
White Mill Cafe – A double-story cafe with beautiful outdoor terrace and dining area. It is one of the most popular cafes in Cihangir, with a very lively, popular bar at night.
Münferit – Equal parts restaurant, bar and lounge, located around the corner from The House Hotel in Galatasaray. A restaurant by day, it becomes one of Istanbul’s chicest bars at night.
Lacivert –Housed in a beautiful Ottoman mansion, used in several Turkish films. Catch a ferry over and dine overlooking the Bosphorous.
The House Café A popular cafe chain. The Ortakoy one is my favourite with its outdoor terrace on the Bosphorous. Have breakfast on a Sunday then stroll around the Ortakoy markets.
Street Food You Have To Try
All the fancy restaurants and cafes aside, you should definitely tuck into the street food in Turkey. Try some of these favourites:
Simit – (Circular bread, like a giant pretzel, often sold from street vendor carts).
Wet Hamburgers – (Special mini meatball burgers, with tomato sauce which is why it’s called a wet burger).
Doner – Bambi Café is your best bet. (Yes I know, what a name).
Lahmacun – (Like a thin elongated pizza, with meat or veggie toppings).
Where To Have Sundowners (And Party Afterwards)
You will notice that most of the glamorous spots have views of the city and the Bosphorous as a big draw. And with good reason, I love those views. Of course, it’s impossible to have a complete list of all places in a city like Istanbul, but you won’t go wrong with these stylish venues.
Nevizade Sokak – This tiny street and surrounding area is one of your safest bets for a great night out in Istanbul. It’s packed full of restaurants and bars.
Asmalımescit – An alternative to Nevizade Sokak, Also filled with bars and restaurants, it is a favourite for weekend revelers.
Bars & Clubs
Reina – No trip is complete without a trip to Reina. If you’re staying at nearby Kempinski Ciragan Palace, you can take a speedboat there in summer. This ultra-popular venue has several bars, restaurants (five actually) and dance floor. And it often plays host to international celebrities.
Angelique – One of the trendiest dining and nightlife spots in Istanbul. You’ll find the cool crowd here sipping cocktails or partying in the swanky club. It’s in a multi-story waterfront mansion, so in summer, you’ll often see celebrities pulling up to the club on their yachts and mooring outside. (It’s also right near one of my favourite cafes – The House Café on the Bosphorous).
Mikla– The outdoor rooftop cocktail bar is one of the top cocktail spots in the city, with 360° views overlooking Istanbul. It is relatively pricey, but the great cocktails and incredible views are worth it.
Nu Teras – One of the coolest rooftop nightclubs in town. It fills up with the fashionable crowd who party on the cool Plexiglas dance floor, bathed in blue light to simulate a swimming pool. Oh and obviously the panoramic views aren’t too shabby either.
Ulus 29 – One of Istanbul’s premier restaurant-bar-clubs,that attracts A-list celebrities and politicians. Since 1993 it has drawn the well-heeled, and just plain rich, to its fine dining restaurant on the hilltop, with magnificent views over the Bosphorous. The elegant and vibey terrace bar and the club are next to the restaurant.
Nublu – A stone’s throw from the Galata Tower in Karaköy, Nublu Istanbul (counterpart to the New York club) is one of the best spots to while away the early hours of the morning while sipping on rakı and enjoying live bands and international DJs.
Vogue Istanbul – Situated on the top of the Beşiktaş Plaza, the restaurant has stunning views of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of town from three terraces. Two levels arepart of the restaurant, and one is devoted to an excellent bar that offers over 200 wines and an extensive cigar list.
Chilai – Bebek’s new hot spot Chilai offers a different entertainment option on every floor, from bistro and lounge to restaurant, art gallery and even a Godiva chocolate shop. Obviously, it too has a beautiful view of the Bosphorus.
Sortie – A large, 3500sqm elegant venue on the Bosphorus, with yet another great view of Istanbul. It has a range of good restaurants, bars and a club to party in all night. Open until 4am.
Leb-i-deraya – It was one of the first rooftop bars and restaurants (5.Kat was the pioneer and is still very popular). It’s a chic venue with a small terrace and fantastic views, for those who want to see and be seen.
360 Istanbul – A multi award winning 360istanbul is set in a penthouse perched on a 19th century apartment building overlooking the old embassy row in Beyoglu. Open for lunch and dinner with a twist on Turkish mezze, it turns into a club on weekends.
And yes, it has a 360 degree view.
Most of Istanbul’s main historical attractions including Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are on the European side of the Bosphorous. A trip to the Asian or Anatolian side makes a nice change, but if you have limited time, there’s more than enough to keep you busy on the European side. And although I usually prefer to walk one end of a city to another, I think an open top bus tour is a very wise and cost-effective choice in Istanbul.
It’s a huge city, spread across rolling hills, so the bus helps you get your bearings, cover a lot of ground and hop on and off to see the main sites. After that, you can always pick the places you want to see again.
The Main Attractions
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)
Across a small park from Ayasofya is the early 17th-century Blue Mosque. What’s so blue about the Blue Mosque? Not much on the outside. Istanbul’s imperial Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (Sultan Ahmet Camii) is called the Blue Mosque because of thousands of blue interior tiles.
It is one of Istanbul’s top attractions but it’s also a working mosque. So it’s closed to non-worshippers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers and may be closed for a longer time from midday on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Once you’ve visited the main mosque, head for the building the size of a small mosque on the corner of the complex. This houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man who gave his name to both the mosque and the neighbourhood.
Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557, the mosque is actually in the Süleymaniye district and one of renowned Ottoman architect Sinan’s masterpieces. It’s been restored to its original splendour, and is generally regarded as the finest of the 42 surviving mosques he designed for Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world (around since 1461). With 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops, it’s a big and busy place.
It is well known for its jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices and antique shops. Many of the stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods, with special areas for leather or gold jewellery.
The whole complex also houses two mosques, four fountains, two hamams, and several cafés and restaurants. Sit in one of the cafés and do some people watching. Or haggle with the store owners.
At the heart of the vast Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi Palace, was home to the sultans for nearly 400 years. The sultan lived in Topkapi together with hundreds of concubines that made up his (in)famous harem. Built on the acropolis, the site of the first settlement in Istanbul, it has an amazing view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Unsurprisingly, the harem is still the mot popular area to visit.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
This building is to me, everything that’s fascinating about Istanbul. From 360 until 1453, it was an eastern orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but between 1204 and 1261, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral and then a mosque from 1453 until 1931. It opened as a museum in 1935.
It is considered one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture and it remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years thereafter, until Seville Cathedral was finished in 1520.
Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower, has dominated Beyoğlu’s skyline since 1348 and still offers some of the best panoramic views of the city.
Originally named the Tower of Christ, it was the highpoint in the city walls of the Genoese colony called Galata. Most of the walls are long gone, but the impressive tower has survived.
Camlica Hill (Büyük Çamlica)
If you feel the need to escape the bustling city, or you just want some fresh air, head for Camlica Hill. A hilltop park, locals flock there to relax in the tea gardens and restaurants. The view is spectacular and you’ll be able to take in the minaret-filled skyline of Old İstanbul, as well as the Bosphorus winding its way to the Black Sea.
Camlica is split into two hills: Küçük Çamlica (Little Pine Hill) and Büyük Çamlica (Big Pine Hill). Büyük Çamlica is the highest point in Istanbul at 267m above sea level. Büyük Çamlica offers the best views, though Küçük Çamlica, with fewer visitors and lovely gardens, forests and walking trails, is the more peaceful of the two.
Cisterns of Sunken Palace
Finally, the eerie underground cisterns of the Sunken Palace (Yerebatan Sarayi) is an impressive 9,700 sqm underground cavern with over 360 illuminated marble columns.
It’s the largest of hundreds of cisterns that lie beneath the city, and offers a glimpse into the complicated water system, built in the sixth century and then forgotten for centuries, that once brought drinking water into Istanbul.
There are nine small islands about 20km southeast of Istanbul called the Prince’s Islands. A 90 minute ferry ride from the city’s European side, they were once the place of exile for misbehaving royals (and disgraced Soviet leader Leon Trotsky). These days they’re popular holiday spots for Turkey’s wealthy elite.
Buyukada Island is the largest of the nine Princes’ Islands and it has the ambience of a bygone era with all its Ottoman era mansions. No private motor vehicles are allowed, so everyone walks, rides bicycles, or takes horse-drawn carriages.
It is a full day trip, but the ferry ride alone gives you a great view of Istanbul’s famous landmarks and skyline. On the island, you can visit the beaches, a 6th century monastery, a 19th century mosque, and have lunch at one of the restaurants in the small harbour.
Note: The island is packed on weekends in July and August, so rather plan a visit during the week. If you want a couple of days peace and quiet, you can stay on the island. A good choice is Naya Istanbul.
Shop ‘Till You Drop
One of the most famous avenues in Istanbul, sees three million visitors a day in peak season. Located in the historic Beyoglu (Pera) district, it begins at Taksim Square, the hub of modern Istanbul. So start at the top and take a stroll past shops, cafes, consulates, restaurants, galleries, and cinemas, but be sure to look out for the trams. Then have a long, lazy lunch at a restaurant in the famous fish market Balik Pazari, a side alley off the main avenue.
This isn’t a shopping center, it’s actually a district with 4 main avenues: Teşvikiye Avenue, Valikonağı Avenue, Abdi İpekçi Avenue and Rumeli Avenue. These avenues are a fashion hub, with high end boutiques & galleries frequented by those in search of sophisticated goodies.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops.
It is well known for its jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices and antique shops. Many of the stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods, with special areas for leather or gold jewellery. So get your friendly haggling skills out, start at 50% off and work your way up to a deal. Monday to Saturday 9:00 – 19:00. Closed Sundays and public holidays.
On the Asian side of the city and roughly parallel to the shore of the Marmara Sea, Bağdat Avenue is a famous and very popular 14 km long high street, filled with stores, bars and restaurants in an upmarket area. It’s a good half-day trip on its own.
Malls are a relatively new concept in Istanbul. But there are a few big, glamorous ones. So if you really want to head to a mall, these are the more upmarket ones where you’ll find everything you’re after. Note: Malls are usually open 10am-10pm.
It has a variety of outdoor and glass roofed indoor sections, like a a green central park, fashion district, a kids’ entertainment center and 12 movie theatres.
A four-storey shopping center in the financial district of Levent. It has around 160 stores, including top Turkish brands, along with gourmet restaurants, cafes and movie theatres.
City’s is a shopping centre that at least blends in with its historical surroundings. In the heart of the fashion district, it is described as a Lifestyle Centre and is filled with stores, cafes and restaurants.
Unlike shopping malls, markets are an old tradition stemming from the Ottoman era, and every week in Istanbul more than 200 of them set up shop. Istanbul is one of those cities where shopping at markets just feels right, so here’s a list of the better or more popular ones.
Fatih Market —Fatih district is located in the historical part of Istanbul, and the market is the oldest and biggest market in the city. Locals refer to it as Çarşamba Pazarı, because Çarşamba (Wednesday) is the market day. Open 5am and 9pm.
Yeşilköy Market — Another popular Wednesday market. It is in Yeşilköy (literally translates as ‘green village’), an area known for its relatively green, upmarket surroundings.
Beşiktaş Market — A smaller scale Saturday market with ‘only’ 400 stalls. Beşiktaş pazarı offers most products you’ll find elsewhere like shoes, bags, unusual jewellery and home textiles. But the focus is definitely on clothing.
Ulus Market — Ulus pazarı was known as sosyete pazarı, or society market. Simply because of the variety on display of both fake and real brand products.
Kadıköy — Another very large traditional market that operates on Tuesdays and Fridays in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul.
What to buy: Leather goods, Turkish delight and unusual handmade jewellery are always popular choices. But also make sure to buy yourself a Nazar Boncuk, the ubiquitous Turkish ‘evil eye’ charm. It is believed to ward off harm or the ‘evil eye’, reflecting it back to the other person.
Pamper Yourself (Sort Of)
Strangely, I still haven’t worked up the courage to visit one. I’ve never quite got used to the idea of being flogged like a dead horse by a big sweaty man while I lie on a concrete slab surrounded by others.
If you are braver than me, there are several magnificent steamy Ottoman bathhouses to choose from in the city. These include the Çemberlitaş, Cağaloğlu, Galatasaray and Sülemaniye baths, and the spectacular 16th-century Ayasofa Hurrem Sultan Hamam right in Sultanahmet Square.
Kempinski Ciragan Palace
And if you prefer your bathing and flogging in private (I think that might be me), then head for the spa and hamam at the Kempinski Ciragan Palace. You will be pampered in a far more luxurious, private, low-lit marble room. And you can do it on your own or with your partner if you’re keen.
Note: This is a great article on what you can expect when you visit a Turkish bath or hamam.
You’ll need to leave Istanbul central to find beaches, but head for Galatasary Adasi for their pool. An island n the middle of the Bosphorous, Suada Istanbul offers a unique experience. It is essentially a floating club in the Boshporus with an Olympic sized swimming pool, where the beautiful people sun themselves, sip world-class cocktails and nibble on the finest sushi.
The Final Word
Istanbul will be as amazing or average as you make it. History and culture buffs will never want to leave, and those who love a good summer party will want to return again and again.
One word of caution: Although it is improving, I still find it hard to communicate, because English is not widely spoken outside of the main tourist hotels and bars. It reminds me of Russia in that respect, (which is another story entirely) so either brush up on your Turkish or if you can, I recommend going with a friend who speaks Turkish. This will open up a whole new world to you. If you can’t, don’t worry, just visit the places I have mentioned and you’ll have an incredible time.
Be sure to also read my comprehensive Istanbul City Guide to make planning your trip much easier.