As far as cities go, Istanbul is one of the greats. It’s stood (under an array of names) for centuries, straddling two contintents and welcoming millions of visitors every year.
First time visitors are overwhelmed with choice of things to experience, and it’s very easy to get lost in the wealth of tips online before you go.
This is a summary of what I experienced there (which was very much a dip the ocean of stuff to do), but hopefully it helps give you a steer on some great spots to visit.
To/From the Airport
Depending on which airport you arrive to, getting into Instanbul city centre should take 45 minutes to just under 2 hours (if you’re going for the bus option from Sabiha Gokcen).
It’s well worth looking into this before you book your flights – we got Havabus on the way from Sabiha Gokcen to the city (15TL each) and a taxi on the way back, which cost about 5x that. If you’ve got the time, go for the bus.
Without doubt, the best way to get around the city is by public transport. The Taxis are expensive (but not extortionate) compared to the dirt cheap transport around by tram, boat, bus and metro, but nothing will really break your bank balance transport-wise.
Grab yourself an Instanbul card (on sale from pretty much every transport hub) and load it up with some cash. You’ll pay per journey but each journey’s not going to set you back much more than 50p (regardless of the transport method). This also includes the public ferry to the Princes Islands (which I’ll talk about later).
Where To Stay
We stayed at Eternity Hotel Istanbul, which is a lovely base of operations for seeing the blockbuster sights in Sultanhamet, and a hotel I’d totally recommend. It’s comfy, run by super-friendly people and is in a fantastic location.
However, you can pretty much stay wherever you want because it’s so easy to get around, so if you’re on a tight budget, don’t worry too much if you have to get a tram in to the centre from your hotel / hostel.
Istanbul’s most famous sites (that you’ll be sorely disappointed if you don’t see) are based in the Sultanhamet area. The main names you’ll see come up again and again and again (and rightly so), are Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul Archaeology Museums and The Basillica Cistern. These are all in the Sultanhamet area (roughly), and The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia literally face eachother.
You definitely can’t do all of the above in a day, but you should comfortably be able to do all of it across two days without feeling rushed; especially if you’re a browser rather than a reader at the museums).
There’s a great combined ticket for Hagia Sophia, Istanbul Archaeology Museum and Topkapi Palace available from the entrance of any of the three, and this can be used over three days. This ticket is great if you don’t want to go museum crazy, costing about £18 for all three (which is a bargain). The Blue Mosque does not charge to enter and the Basillica Cistern is about £7. You can also go all out on a museum pass if you’re definitely going to make the most of it.
The Blue Mosque
Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque is one of its largest draws, and it’s a really important place to visit while you’re there for the first time. It’s a truly amazing building, and one that’s steeped in history.
The dress code often comes up as a source of confusion, but essentially it’s arms and legs covered for men, plus the same for ladies as well as covering their hair. If you’re not dressed appropriately, then you’re able to borrow something for your visit.
Sitting directly opposite The Blue Mosque is Hagia Sophia, a building that’s changed religion and purpose many times since it was built. Right now, it’s a beautiful museum, full of amazing mosiacs and artictecture that make it a complete must-see in the city. It can get a little crowded at peak teams (as you’d expect), but you’ll be able to have a look at everything in your own time.
It’s an overwheleming place, and one that you’ll want to take some time to soak in properly, The beautiful hanging lights and architecture are just stunning, and the history of the place is just incredible.
Topkapi Palace Museum
Topkapi Palace Museum (which is just behind Hagia Sophia) is a fantastic view of 15th Century Sultan life. It covers a huge amount of ground overlooking the Bosphorous, and you’ll be able to see exhibits of everything from the banquet halls to the summer rooms in the grounds.
There’s a couple of sections of the palace that you will also need to cover up for, so if you’d like to see everything it’s politce to adhere to the rules here as well (not that everyone there was paying that much attention.
I absolutely loved the architecture and building in the grounds, and would definitely recommend it in combination with the nearby İstanbul Archaeology Museums.
When we visited The Basillica Cistern, there was some restoration work happening, which meant the water had been drained out – so you if you’re looking for that perfect Instagram shot you may want to check ahead.
Regardless, it’s a pretty incredible place. The engineering required to make the cistern happen is incredible considering when it was built, and the eerieness of it is pretty disarming.
If you’re imagining a little serenity down there, though, you’ll probably be disappointed. It’s usually pretty busy and there’s plenty of flash photography going on, so it’s probably worth getting up very early if you want a quiet visit.
The Grand Bazaar
I am an absolute sucker for looking around a market and finding something fun to take home when I’m on holiday, and Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar really is the absolute mother of them all. It’s a vast, mini-city in itself.
If you’re in the market for a lamp, spices, ornaments, souvenirs, tea, Turkish Delights and pretty much anything you’d associate with a Turkish Bazaar. Sure, you’re tourist prices everything, and there’s plenty of knock offs, but it’s such an amazing place to have a look around that you won’t care.
In and around the Sultanhamet area, you’re pretty spoiled for choice in terms of food and drink. Our hotel was on Akbıyık Caddesi, which is probably the busiest street of bars in the area, but it’s not really a party zone by any means (which may suit you fine!).
North of Sultanhamet and across the river (towards Taksim Square where you’ll likely get off the bus from the airport) is Karaköy. It’s probably about as close to a hipster district as you’ll get right in the middle of Instanbul, and it’s brilliant.
From the riverside and up the long hill winding past Galata Tower full of awesome independent shops to the bars, to the bars and restaurants hidden on side streets, there’s no shortage of things to keep your occupied, even as you get out onto the main commercial streets.
The best spot we managed to find on our exploration was easily Varuna Gezgin, which has a wall of books, and a brilliant outside/inside style seating area that you can lose plenty of time in.
Back across the river at Eminönü, you’ll be able to board a ferry to a range of places out along the Bosphorous river. We’d looked up the Princes’ Islands online and decided to visit Büyükada as an afternoon.
The ferry costs barely £1 for a one way trip, and it’s pretty much the cheapest way to do a cruise on the Bosphorus I can think of. It’s usually pretty crowded with locals and tourists, but it’s far more than worth the money.
Büyükada itself is presented as a serene place, where horses and carts replace motor vehicles, but the reality is that it’s a pretty well set up tourist trap with not a huge amount to do.
It’s a nice spot for some drinks and food for the afternoon, and if you time the boat on the way back just right, you’ll get an amazing sunset view of Istanbul (which is worth the trip alone!). You might even get to spot a few dolphins along the way.
A visit to the Asian side of the city was something that we were debating before we went, and Kadikoy was very convieniently on the way back from Princes’ Islands for us.
Kadikoy doesn’t tend to get recommended too much as an Istanbul essential, but it really should be. Great food and drink options await around every corner, and it’s totally worth checking out for an evening or afternoon.
You can get a metro train across to Kadikoy from the other side of the river, but even if you had so much fun in a bar that you neglected the last train times (guilty), it’s not too much of a pain or expense to get yourself home.
Istanbul is brilliant. It’s a truly unique city, and you can’t really do it “wrong”. There’s so much to see and do no matter what sort of experience you’re looking for, and it really is up there with the very best places to do a city break.
It’s relatively inexpensive, full of lovely people and you’ll never be sort of food options or great bars. A real must-see place.