The Ultimate Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul, I left a piece of my heart with you. A city straddling between Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus strait, it is a centre of Turkish economy, culture and history. The number one spot of many dream travel destination lists.

The city is opulent and twinkling with lights, it brushes your face with noor and feeds the soul and heart. Istanbul is, and always will be, one of my favourite cities I have had the pleasure of visiting. It is the perfect expedition to learn about culture, faith, history and to broaden your perception of the world. I yearn to return.

I always jump in glee when someone reveals they are travelling to Istanbul and inundate them with all my top recommendations. Words cannot explain how much I implore this blissful cosmopolitan city should be on everyone’s travel destination lists!

Table of Contents:

  1. Planning Guidelines
  2. How to get to Istanbul
  3. What to Wear in Istanbul
  4. SIM Cards and Connectivity
  5. Transport
  6. Accommodation
  7. Food
  8. Our One Week Itinerary

Planning Guidelines:

We spent around seven days in Istanbul which was plenty of time to properly savour the sightseeing, impromptu excursions and exploration. Not having an entirely strict itinerary meant we could be flexible in what we wanted to do each day and swapping activities depending on whereabouts in the city we were heading to. As the old age saying goes: the best adventures come from the unplanned adventures.

Some visitors often divide their stay in Turkey with X amount of days in Istanbul and the remainder of their trip to the southern region of the country. For instance, it may still be possible to visit popular sites within three days. However larger activities, like Hammam Spas or Bosphorus Boat Tours, may need to be accounted for in advance of your planning as both can consume a substantial amount of time in itineraries.

British Citizens holding an Ordinary Passport may need to be in compliance with visa guidelines if they are travelling to Turkey for tourist purposes. Visitors are able to travel with a visa for visits of up to 90 days in any 180-day period. If your stay exceeds the 90 days, you will need to apply for a longer stay visa before you travel or get a residence permit from the local authorities before your 90 day stay has elapsed.

The Turkish government advise that your passport should be valid for a minimum of 6 months from the date you enter Turkey and that there is a full blank page for the entry and exit stamps.

As always, be sure to check your local and Turkish government guidelines for the most up-to-date information on visas and entry requirements.

How to get to Istanbul:

Direct flights from London to Istanbul are available with Turkish Airlines and British Airways. Flights operated by Turkish Airlines can depart from London Gatwick and directly travel to Istanbul Airport. Direct flights take approximately four hours to and from Istanbul.

What to Wear in Istanbul:

It is good to keep in mind that the city is predominantly Muslim and therefore, out of courtesy, it is best to dress modestly. Ensure you pack plenty of long dresses / skirts, sleeved tops, blouses and comfortable trousers.

Have a scarf with you on hand so you can slip it on when visiting mosques. Many, if not all, establishments have spare scarves for lending to visitors. There are plenty of market stalls selling scarves for as little as ₺30 (approx £3) if you need to purchase one in haste.

Spring in Istanbul is mild. The temperatures start from 8°C and highs reach up to 16°C during the day, so it is best to layer up with a light jacket or thick cardigan. The start of Spring in the city is similar to the UK, what with it being rather chilly, but still able to forego boots and opt for more springtime appropriate footwear.

Lastly, wear comfortable shoes that you can easily slip on and off as you galavant around the mosques and historic sites. I made the mistake of wearing my pretty slingback sandals and before lunchtime had event hit the horizon on Day Two, I had to call it a day. I couldn’t go beyond a single cobblestone without almost stumbling over an unsuspecting shopper or merchant. Grand Bazaar came to my rescue with some fabulously comfortable and stylish loafers and I suddenly felt like I was walking on a cloud. I was certain I could take on Mo Farrah at a 100m sprint.

SIM Cards and Connectivity:

To minimise any surprise charges kicking in when the wheels touch down on home ground, it’s ideal to pick up a cheap SIM if your phone provider does not offer free roaming. Vodafone is your best bet and often have great deals on Pay as you go SIMs. You can simply order a free SIM from their website, choose the Pay as you go bundle you want, then top-up the corresponding amount. From previous offers, users could get £10 worth of credit, 15GB of data and unlimited texts!

If you are unable to secure a compatible SIM in Istanbul, your network provider will automatically switch over to local telecoms provider TurkTelecom for any phone calls or text messages. You will be charged your standard roaming rate.

Transport:

Istanbul can be walkable depending on where you’re staying! Echoing the statement above about comfortable shoes, you can either find yourself at steep slopes in Beyoğlu or gliding across in Fatih with the odd encounter of street stairs to shimmy your best Joaquin Phoenix Joker dance.

For more efficient ways of getting around the city, purchase an Istanbulkart card from the airport or at the terminus stops such as Sultanahmet. It is a multipurpose travel card that can be used on trams (including the iconic red Istiklal Caddesi tramway), metros, buses and passenger ferries. The more enticing factor is that up to five people can use the same card! Istanbulkart provides a level of ease to navigate around the city with plenty of top-up machines dotted around each tram stop.

Lastly, be mindful when booking taxis because streets are narrow in Old City. Taxis can struggle to get through to your pickup or destination so you may need to walk out a short distance. Leave your number with the booking company for your driver to contact you if this may be the case.

Accommodation:

There’s nothing better than coming back to a cosy apartment after a day of exploring a new city. Many holiday-goers around the world opt for choosing a place for the sake of housing their suitcase because, quite arguably, they will be out for the most of the day. I believe it is best to find the middle ground between the two purposes, wherever you are travelling. Choose an accommodation in which you feel safe, comfortable and can call home for however long you will be staying. At the same time, if you know you won’t be staying indoors for a significant amount of time during your visit, don’t pour the majority of your budget into the rental. Seek the absolute necessary amenities when you are booking your living quarters: security alarm, lockable safe, laundry, WiFi, spare blankets, HVAC, the list goes on.

AirBnb is the metropolis of affordable accommodation in Istanbul. With penthouses and sea view apartments dotted around the city, you are bound to find something that is within your budget, desired area and interior taste. Fatih is close to the main centre and apartments often a pebbles throw from historic sites, such as Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. Whereas Karaköy is lively with plenty of energy bustling into the early-hours. It is the New York City of the Mediterranean, and is closer to the tourist hotspots, like Taksim Square and Galata Tower.

Food:

Istanbul is a sanctuary for delicious street food. There are plenty of eateries where you can prop yourself on a table and choose from a selection of street food staples guaranteed to satiate your tastebuds.

The vast majority of Turkish cuisine is meat and dairy based. This may prove to be difficult for vegans to find suitable dishes. However, many baked dishes are prepared in olive oil rather than dairy products. Additionally, plenty of mezze is suitable for vegetarians, including the traditional simit.

Halal food is available everywhere. Thus, a fantastic culinary expedition for folks hailing from the ‘Shires where halal Burger Kings and Subways are few and far inbetween. Take the opportunity and visit the fast food chains. I know some try not to toy with their own feelings because the only way we can taste a Big Mac once again is on our next long-haul flight to the MENAT regions, but… Burger King’s Barbecue Brioche Whopper. That’s all I’m saying. My personal favourite area is Peykhane Caddesi. This is a street of restaurants near the Blue Mosque offering tenfold of traditional Turkish food. The friendly neighbourhood rapidly became our dining hotspot for dinner every night!

Listed below is a selection of food I believe you must try when in Istanbul:

Bread:

  • Simit

Simit is a type of Turkish bread freshly baked in the shape of a circle. It is quite reminiscent of a beloved sesame seed bagel. It is eaten plain as a snack on-the-go. Simit vendors are dotted all around the city selling the delicious bread from bright red stalls for around ₺1.50 (15p) a pop!

If you have more of a sweet tooth, I also recommend sampling the cinnamon roll. Soft bread entwined with cocoa powder, sugar and cinnamon. It is warming and scrumptious.

Meat / Fish:

  • Mixed Grill

Mixed grills are a great option if you are spoilt for choice and want to sample each dish. You can find mixed platters to consist of: grilled chicken drumsticks, chicken shish, lamb shish, lamb chops, adana kebab (ground beef / mixture of ground beef & lamb, kneaded together with onion, garlic and spices, then packed by hand around a large, flat metal skewer), lahmacun (flatbread that has a density akin to roti, topped with minced meat and herbs). The platter is served with bulgur wheat and salad.

  • Kofte

A staple in any Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or South Asian cuisine! I have never encountered a disappointing kofte. Usually made with lamb, kofte is a small patty punched with flavoursome spices and herbs. Juicy and tantalising. (P.S: I highly recommend checking out the eateries near Grand Bazaar for kofte. Some of the best I have ever had.)

  • Kebab

How can one visit Turkey and not sample some good, authentic kebab? Amongst the many headlining on menus (adana kebab, iskender kebab, shish kebab…), give the humble doner kebab a go. Dearly loved by people across Europe, you have not tasted a real doner kebab until you are in Turkey. Freshly made every day, and selling out long before dinner time without fail, the doner kebab is a stack of meat rotating on a spit. It is then shaved as soon as it is crisped on the edges. Doner kebab is then served in a wrap with some salad.

Prices for doner can vary from stall to stall, but is widely available during the daytime in the city.

  • Balik Ekmek

The famous fish sandwiches are the ultimate go-to when touching down on Asia Side. It is so comforting and filling. Freshly caught mackerel grilled and served in between chunky white bread, with lettuce and onion. There is a reason why it is so popular!

Sweets:

  • Baklava

We’ve all eaten baklava but wait until you try baklava from Istanbul. A sweet filo pastry of intricate layers, laced between nuts and dried fruits and a generous dashing of syrup to bind it all together.

Enjoy this sweet treat with a cup of Turkish coffee or Çay and watch the world go by. Utter bliss. There are plenty of varieties to choose from. I recommend the chocolate pistachio.

Baklava is widely available all across the city and can be bought by the kilo to-go! A perfect souvenir to bring back home and share with your nearest and dearest.

  • Kunefe

Kunefe is a luscious dessert served in restaurants and guaranteed to make anyone with a sweet tooth swoon. It combines finely shredded filo dough with cheese. Finished off with syrup and a dusting of pistachio on top before baked in the oven. Dig into the crispy outer to reveal a cheese-stretch that a mozzarella stick would envy. Relish the delightful sweet taste.

  • Dondurma

One of the most iconic desserts, dondurma (Turkish ice cream) is notorious for its entertaining factor. The ice cream has an elastic-like texture and has a slow melting point like gelato. Come for the ice cream, stay for the hokey pokey dance.

Drinks:

  • Freshly Squeezed Juice

Much like the simit stalls, you are bound to find many juice vendors dotted around the towns. Choose from a selection of orange or pomegranate, the freshly squeezed juice is refreshing and definitely quenches your thirst.

  • Turkish Coffee

Coffee is an integral part of Turkish culture and has been for hundreds of years. The coffee beans are finely ground prior to bringing it to a boil in water. It is then served strong and black in a small cup, accompanied by a small glass of water. Truly an item that cannot be missed for any coffee lovers.

  • Çay

Otherwise known as Turkish tea, this is a strong black tea with a sweet and subtle apple flavour. It is served in a special curved, transparent tea glass and small plate underneath for ease of carrying. The tea is a cornerstone in Turkish hospitality and can often be enjoyed with tea vendors or shopkeepers during your shopping spree.

Our One Week Itinerary:

Listed below are some of the highlights from our week in Istanbul. I hope it inspires you!

Day 1:

Our first day in Istanbul kicked off with some exploration. We first made a very important pre-requisite stopover at the tourist office for an Istanbul Museum Pass. For just under ₺200 (£19.50), the pass gives you five days of all-access to the city’s top museums! One of the most important pieces of plastic in your purse if you’re as much of a museum fanatic as myself. Ready to go, we went off to Topkapi Palace where the sun put on its hat to join us galavanting around the courtyard.

Topkapi Palace, also known as Cannon Gate Palace, served as the main residence and headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries. Construction began in 1459 following the conquest of Constantinople and was given the name Topkapi in the 19th century. The complex expanded over time, with the most major restorations occurring after the 1509 earthquake and 1665 fire.

The site has four main courtyards and a number of smaller buildings. The Grand Kiosk dazzles tourists with panoramic views of the Bosphorus and Asian Side. There are also plentiful of exhibits in the Third Courtyard, including artefacts belonging to the Prophet (PBUH). Savour the moment as it is truly beautiful and can bring a tear to your eye. Please be mindful this specific area strictly prohibits photos. Any individuals found taking photographs of the artefacts will be asked by security to leave.

Shorter than a stone’s throw was the Blue Mosque. Also known as Sultanahmet Camii, this is an Ottoman-era Jummah mosque which remains functioning and attracts thousands of visitors around the world. The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. Earning the name of Blue Mosque, it is adorned with hand-painted blue tiles and bathed in blue light at night. It has six minarets towering over the domes and sits opposite the Aya Sofya, previously a museum and now also a functioning mosque.

Day 2:

The second day saw us getting lost in Grand Bazaar. This is one of the world’s largest and oldest markets in the world. It consists of 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. You’re likely to find yourself entering from one side and bobbing and weaving out the other. The bazaar offers an assortment of goods, including: textiles, precious metals, furniture.

After filling up on the most sensational kofte and freshly squeezed juice, we made our way to our next stop: Aya Sofya. This landmark spans a vast history having gone through many transitions during its time: beginning as a cathedral circa 1200s, later turning into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in the 1400s and remaining as such until 1931. It later reopened in 1935 and declared as a museum until 2020, reverting as a mosque and opened for worship.

Aya Sofya is also an architectural masterpiece as it demonstrates itself being one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture (i.e. Byzantine Empire / Eastern Roman Empire). The vast interior consists of 6th Century stone flooring, horse-shoe shaped upper gallery and a dome embellished with intricate calligraphy. You also had the opportunity to visit one of Ayasofya’s most famous figures: Gli the Ayasofya cat!

Intrigued by the energy on the other side of Haliç, we made a quick saunter to Taksim Square. Slotted in Beyoğlu, the square is a famed tourist and leisure district known for its restaurants, shops and hospitality. It is regarded as the central hub and heart of modern Istanbul.

Istikal Caddesi is a single pedestrian shopping street, spanning just under a mile and is one of the most famous avenues in the city. It attracts over 3 million visitors daily and runs the nostalgic red tramway of its namesake along the street.

Day 3:

Day 3. Midweek. A shopping day is on the cards.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we choose to have a museum morning and visit the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. We had first stumbled across this attraction on the very first night arriving into Istanbul and had vowed to return when it was open.

Constructed in 1524, the museum used to be a palace of a former grand vizier during the Ottoman Empire. The displays now recreate rooms or dwellings from different periods and regions related to Islamic history and art. As of modern day, the museum houses some of the finest carpets from the Islamic world, including over 17K manuscrips, 3K Qurans and over 250K Quranic fragments.

Our next port of call was somewhere we had not ventured into within the last three days: Istinye Park. Legend has it you can only access it by city buses. Luckily we were in the company of a sweet elderly lady who was also on her way to the same destination and kindly guided us to the shopping complex.

Istinye Park is located in the Istinye quarter of Istanbul and consists of over 290 stores. The center has three levels ranging from European high street shops, luxury retailers and unique Turkish vendors. The shopping centre has an extraordinary design led by Tom Kelley of Development Design Group Inc. As such, it consists of three distinct sections across the levels:

  • The Grand Rotunda; a central entertainment space.
  • The Lifestyle Center; an open-air town square incorporating a green central park the Fashion District – a glass-roofed indoor retail area.
  • The Bazaar Area; historic Turkish styling and inspired by Turkish architecture and history.

After a successful shopping trip and the happy ending of my international hunt for Sephora’s Cream Lip Stain in Shade 95, we raced back to Old City for dinner. Burrowing into a friendly establishment along the streets of Fatih, we rapidly became patrons and declared it our prime dining hotspot.

Day 4:

Whilst attempting to find the Islamic Arts Museum the day before, we had encountered the Museum of Islamic Science and History of Technology. It certainly is in no doubt that my perfect week would consist of a trip to a new museum each day!

The Museum of Islamic Science and History of Technology is spectacular attraction displaying examples of copies of some of the inventions of the Islamic Civilisation during the creative period between the 9th and 16th centuries.

Opened in 2008 and located in the former Imperial Stables within Gülhane Gardens, it showcases a total of 570 samples of tools and devices, including model collections. A botanical garden surrounding the exterior, the museum consists of two floors. The ground level displays maps and map drawings related to: mines, urbanism, maths, physics and chemistry. The upper floor is a Cinevision Hall exhibiting visuals about astronomy, maritime, clock technology and medicine.

Appreciating the surrounding nature, we had a wander around Gülhane Gardens. The site was once part of the outer garden of Topkapi Palace. It is the oldest and one of the most expansive public parks in the city of Istanbul.

Day 5:

Tour… Tour… Tour!

We awoke bright and early to make our way to Sultanahmet Square, where we were to meet our tour group and guide. First stop on the itinerary was Pierre Loti Hill.

Frequently visited by Istanbulites since the 18th Century, Pierre Loti Hill provides panoramic views of the Golden Horn. Its namesake, whose name was actually Julien Viaud, was a French naval officer and novelist living between 1850 – 1923. He was also a long-term resident of Istanbul and adored the city, having first visited aged 26. Pierre was enchanted by the culture and natural beauty and would often visit the hill’s cafe to write his novel against the scenic backdrop.

In 1921, the parliament displayed their gratitude for his support for independence by naming an avenue and cafe on Eyüp hill after him.

Staying within the Eyüp quarter of the city, we drove to Eyüp Sultan Camii. Located outside the city walls near the Golden Horn, the present building dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Originally, a mosque complex was constructed on the site in 1458 by the Ottoman. By the end of the 18th century, the mosque was in a ruinous state, presumably due to earthquake damage and in 1798, Sultan Selim III ordered the whole structure, with the exception of the minarets, to be demolished and rebuilt. The site was completed in 1800 and an eastern minaret restructured in the style of the 30th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1822.

Eyüp Sultan is believed to have died during the siege of Constantinople in the 670s. His tomb is visited by Muslims around the world to offer their respects. The tomb can be found on the north side of the courtyard opposite the mosque’s prayer hall main entrance. Eyüp Sultan Camii is regarded as one of the most important sites for Muslims, coming second to Makkah in Saudi Arabia. The history behind the name can be traced back to the times of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), where his closest and trustworthy friend was named Eyüp. Additionally, the mosque is adjacent to the tombs of many other significant and historic individuals buried at the site.

Paying our respects, we all huddled back into the tourbus for our next stop: a visit to an atelier! Faith, fashion, culture and history; what fabulous quadrants. The workspace consisted of original handmade goods where the models also treated us to a private fashion show!

After a quick shopping break, we were ready for the pièce de résistance of the tour: the Bosphorus cruise.

Joining the many other tour groups, we assembled onto the boat. Departing from the European Side, we saw the skylines studded by historic figures such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Ayasofya. The European side is focussed around commerce, whereas the Asia side is more residential.

We later touched down on the Asia side and tasted the famous fish sandwiches. A galavant whilst munching into the flavourful delicacy, we were soon beckoned back to make our voyage to the home port. A sunny boat ride, refreshing lemonade and a playlist streaming Turkish hits, we sailed back to Istanbul harbour into the Spring evening.

Day 6:

Filled up on tasty cinnamon rolls and simit courtesy of the vendor from one of the many iconic and bold red stalls, we bolted to Beyoğlu for a day of fun 220ft above.

Galata Tower is located in the Karaköy quarter of the city. Built in 1348, it is a medieval tower, just north of the Golden Horn. Topped with a high, cone-capped cylinder, it dominates the city skyline and offers a panoramic view of the historic peninsula.

Climbing back down from the nine-storey tower, we bobbed and weaved through the back-streets and found ourselves at Spice Bazaar.

Established in 1664, the bazaar is fragrant and vibrant. Every spice you can imagine is stocked at the bazaar, from sumac to saffron, as well as an assortment of tea! Taking in the hustle and bustle of the bazaar, we tucked ourselves away in a quaint little restaurant for a bite to eat. As recommended by a friendly local patron, we opted for the lamb shish and chose kunefe for dessert. Exquisite!

Bellies full, we climbed the Third Hill to visit Süleymaniye Camii.

The mosque was built in 1557 on order of Sultan Süleyman and designed by architect Mimar Sinan. Four minarets tower the exterior where you are greeted by a forecourt and central fountain upon arrival. The courtyard is grand and consisting of columns made with marble and granite. The interior of the mosque is almost square-like and forming a single vast space for prayer. The domes are decorated with intricate calligraphy.

Süleymaniye Camii also offers a complex as per its original design. The adjacent structures were to fulfil additional religious and cultural needs, including: hospital, hamam, madrasah and a public kitchen to feed the poor. Many of these structures are still in existence. The mosque was one of my favourites on this trip, especially for salah. The space was peaceful and serene and the locals were so friendly. The courtyard offered stunning views of the city and you could see Galata Tower in the distance. It is certainly one of the sites I always recommend people to visit as it is so heartwarmingly stunning.

Day 7 was our final day to which we dedicated a quiet and relaxing day in the apartment. We packed, visited Sultanahmet Square and bumped into our buddies from the tour on Day 5! We later successfully sought some doner kebab and said güle güle to the city in which I left a piece of my heart.

Teşekkür ederim, Istanbul.


Disclaimer: please note the contents of this post, including all photos, are in reference to April 2019. In light of the global pandemic, please be diligent in following the guidelines and quarantining rules of your local government. Please maintain social distancing of at least 2 meters (6ft), personal hygiene and masks when you are in public places. Do not travel if you are unwell; instead, with immediate effect, quarantine for 14 days and seek medical help.

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