Join me as I unveil my personal Istanbul travel tips to help you make the most of your visit to this mesmerizing Turkish city. Whether it’s your first time or a return trip, discover the hidden gems and cultural wonders that make Istanbul truly unforgettable.
Istanbul, the “mother of all cities,” is beautiful and full of life, and it deserves a visit from every curious traveler. I have been there several times now, and I want to share my general advice about things worth doing and where to stay, as well as some general tips about the city.
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How to Get to Istanbul
The main international airports serving the city are Istanbul Airport (IST) or Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) to get to Istanbul. You can get cheap flights from various cities in Europe with discount airlines.
For up to date information on ways to get into the city from the airports, refer to Istanbul Tourist Information.
Istanbul is a popular layover point, especially for anyone traveling with Turkish Airlines from anywhere in the world. I highly recommend extending a layover in Istanbul and exploring this bustling city with as much time as you can possibly give it.
Or you can look into getting there with Busabout (the tour company I was with on my last visit to Istanbul). This is a particularly good option if you don’t want to travel alone (they have tours ending and starting there = instant friends).
Use Rome2Rio to discover other ways to get to Istanbul from wherever you may be in the world. And my final tip, keep an eye out for any Istanbul travel restrictions at the Department of State website.
Essential Istanbul Travel Tips
1. How to Get a Tourist Visa for Turkey
It’s easy to get an e-visa for Turkey at least 48 hours ahead of your trip, but no sooner than three months before you plan to arrive.
It will cost $50 and allows you multiple entries into the country over the course of 180 days. In that time period, you cannot stay in the country for longer than 90 consecutive days.
If you can’t print out your copy, they will accept it on your phone.
According to the site, your passport must have an “expiration date at least 60 days beyond the ‘duration of stay’ of your visa.” So, make sure you’re passport is up to date.
As of July 2023, US citizens can still get a visa on arrival as long as all requirements are met. But getting an e-visa takes 5 minutes – just do it online and go to Turkey prepared.
2. Plan to Walk, a LOT
Istanbul can be very overwhelming, because it is HUGE. You can drive for hours in every direction and still be in the city, that is, if you even make it anywhere in the traffic.
Traffic is horrendous, which actually makes getting around by foot the faster option sometimes, depending on where you are going. You’ll want to pack some great travel shoes for this trip!
3. Taxis in Istanbul
Taxis are cheap, so if you’re heading to the airport or somewhere further than walking distance, take a cab. As always, make sure you ask for the meter or agree on a fixed fare before you go anywhere.
To get a taxi, you can easily hail one on the street, find them at taxi stands, or use ride-hailing apps like Uber and BiTaksi.
Tips for taxi rides in Istanbul:
- Avoid unmarked or private vehicles offering rides to ensure your safety and the integrity of the fare.
- Carry cash to pay for rides because drivers may not accept credit cards.
4. Bazaar Etiquette
In Istanbul, a bazaar is a traditional marketplace where a wide variety of goods, such as spices, textiles, jewelry, pottery, and souvenirs, are sold.
The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are two famous bazaars in Istanbul, attracting tourists and locals alike with their rich heritage and diverse array of products.
Etiquette Tip #1: Try things that people give you in the Spice Bazaar (i.e. Turkish Delight). They expect to give out samples to everyone walking by, so don’t be afraid to say yes. You won’t have to pay for it or be expected to buy anything.
Etiquette Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to bargain with the vendors. My bargaining rule of thumb is to try to start at half the asking price and work my way up from there. It’s not disrespectful here, they expect it.
5. Watch Your Pockets
Don’t make it easy for pickpockets to steal from you. This is true for any city, Istanbul is no different. Here are some basic tips for pickpocket safety:
Keep Valuables Secure: Use a crossbody bag or a backpack with secure, locking zippers and keep it in front of you in crowded places. Secure your bags to your body or table legs on public transportation or at restaurants. Avoid keeping valuable items in easily accessible pockets or displaying them.
Stay Aware of Your Surroundings: And trust your instincts. If something feels off, remove yourself from the situation.
Stay Vigilant in Crowded Areas: Be especially cautious in crowded places like markets, public transportation, and tourist attractions where pickpockets may take advantage of the chaos.
Be Wary of Distractions: Pickpockets often work in pairs or groups, with one creating a distraction while another steals your belongings. Be cautious if someone suddenly bumps into you or asks for directions.
Use Hotel Safes: Store important documents, passports, and extra cash in your hotel safe when you don’t need them.
Use ATMs Wisely and Divide Your Money: Use ATMs located inside banks or reputable establishments, and shield your PIN while entering it. Avoid keeping all your cash in one place. Distribute your money in different pockets or bags for added security.
Be Cautious of Street Vendors: Be careful when interacting with street vendors, as some may use distraction tactics to pickpocket.
Basically, practice good situational awareness.
Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!
10 Things to Do in Istanbul
Explore the rich cultural heritage and history of Istanbul by visiting iconic landmarks, savor the city’s vibrant food scene, and enjoy scenic Bosphorus cruises.
Here are ten things I think everyone should do when visiting Istanbul.
1. Turkish Bath
Do it. There are several to choose from, and while some are more touristy and more expensive than others, they are all just about the same experience.
I’ve been to two, and I actually liked the one that I found tucked into a corner up the street from the Blue Mosque better than the more expensive one at the Hagia Sophia.
Tips for the Turkish Bath:
- Men and women are separated for the entirety of the experience.
- Ladies, they will most likely ask you to remove your bikini, if you wear one, but the choice is yours.
- Plan to get soaked from head to toe, and try to be comfortable as you let someone else scrub your naked body! Yes, you will be naked with others.
- It only takes about 30-45 minutes from start to finish and is definitely worth it.
- The oil massage on the other hand… you might want to think twice.
2. Rooftop Bars in Beyoğlu Area
Istiklal is a popular street in Istanbul in Beyoğlu that starts at Taksim Square, so it is easy to find.
It’s a fun place to go out for the evening. Just don’t forget to look up, the rooftop bars are almost elusive, until you realize they exist, and then you realize they are everywhere.
Get up to the roof, cheers with the people across the street from you, and enjoy a sunset with an Efes Dark overlooking the city.
Oh, take me back…
3. Ferry Across the Bosphorus to Asia
The city of Istanbul crosses both Europe and Asia, and is separated by the Bosphorus Strait, a natural waterway between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. It is an iconic feature of the city, renowned for its beauty and historical importance, and crossing it is a must on any Istanbul trip.
Fun Fact: The only two intercontinental bridges in the world cross the Bosphorus.
A popular way to get to the Asian side of Istanbul is by ferry across the strait. It’s a cheap way to see Istanbul from the water. You can get these ferries at the main bridge in Eminönü.
Tip: You may be asked if you want tea on the boat on the way to Asia, just keep in mind it’s not complimentary, as it may seem.
4. Take a Dinnertime Bosphorus Cruise
Worth it to see the sunset over the city and the views of the bridges and mosques lit up at night. This is a unique experience, and we all like a good excuse to be “on a boat.”
If you’re looking for a trusted tour operator, try Viator. There are many tours to choose from.
5. Blue Mosque
This is an absolute must when traveling to Istanbul, and there is no cost for entry.
It is the most famous landmark in Istanbul, with its six minarets dominating the skyline from the Bosphorus. It’s called the “Blue” mosque because of the blue tiles all over the ceiling on the inside.
Keep in mind, there is a dress code to enter the Blue Mosque. No bare shoulders are allowed. Also, no shoes (they give you a bag to put them in), and it smells like stinky feet inside.
Ladies, your head, shoulders, and legs need to be covered. My advice is to bring a scarf that you can wrap over yourself. If you don’t have one, you can borrow one when you get there, as well as a wrap for your legs.
Men, if you wear shorts, you’ll also need to borrow a wrap for your legs, but you don’t need to cover your head.
6. Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque
I think this is also a must. The inside is beautiful, and a trip to Istanbul simply wouldn’t be complete without going inside.
Plus, if you’ve read Inferno by Dan Brown, it could be of extra interest.
This building has gone back and forth between being a mosque, a church, and a museum over the 1500 years since it was built, so it holds a lot of history. The last time I visited Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was a museum and charged a small fee for entry. However, it is now a mosque with no entry fee!
Since this is a mosque, the same dress codes from above apply here.
7. The Basilica Cistern
Straight out of a movie (actually several movies, and ahem, the Dan Brown book mentioned above), this place has to be seen to be understood.
It is like a small version of the Mines of Moria from the Lord of the Rings, but with water. See pictures below. So. Freaking. Cool.
The Basilica Cistern was built in 532 AD right in the middle of Sultanahmet (the old town), and water was transported here from the Belgrade Forest about 19 km away. It is the largest surviving underground cistern in Istanbul.
The entry fee is 350 lira (about $13) or you can purchase a guided tour of the cistern. These tours cost more but come with skip-the-line benefits in the busy high season. The Istanbul Museum Pass does not include the Basilica Cistern.
8. Bus from Istanbul to the Black Sea
To see the Black Sea, take a budget-friendly bus from the Taksim bus station in Istanbul to a number of beautiful cities on the Black Sea coast.
Again, I recommend Rome2Rio to find buses, routes, and connections from Istanbul to the city of your choice.
While you’re there, enjoy a meal at any beachfront restaurants open during the high season. Otherwise, you can bring a picnic and explore.
9. Visit the Bazaars
Istanbul is renowned for its vibrant bazaars, offering a delightful shopping experience with a wide variety of goods. Some of the famous bazaars in Istanbul include:
- Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar): This historic market is a sensory delight, filled with colorful stalls selling an array of aromatic spices, Turkish delight, dried fruits, teas, and other culinary delights. This one is my favorite.
- Grand Bazaar: One of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, the Grand Bazaar is a treasure trove of shops selling everything from carpets and ceramics to jewelry and spices.
- Arasta Bazaar: Located just behind the Blue Mosque, the Arasta Bazaar is a charming marketplace with shops offering textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and souvenirs.
- Beyazıt Bazaar: Situated near the Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt Bazaar is a bustling market known for its bookstores and stationery shops.
- Sahaflar Bazaar (Used Book Bazaar): This unique bazaar is a haven for book lovers, featuring second-hand bookshops and antique manuscripts.
- Kadıköy Market: Located on the Asian side of Istanbul, Kadıköy Market is a lively street market offering a wide selection of fresh produce, food products, clothing, and more.
- Ortaköy Market: Situated in the picturesque neighborhood of Ortaköy, this market offers handmade crafts, jewelry, and artwork, making it a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike.
10. Eat Testy Kebab
Bad name, amazing meal.
Meat, veggies, and heavenly spices are cooked together over an open flame in a clay pot. When ready to serve, the pot is carefully broken open and the contents are poured out onto your plate.
At about the 1:30 mark in the video below (made when Snapchat was still something I used), see the Testy Kebab in action.
This is hands down the best meal I’ve had in Turkey, and it was at a hostel I stayed at. See hostel description below for more details.
Bonus Tip: Talk With Locals and Explore
Sultan Ahmet, Taksim, Kadikoy (on the Asian side), Ortaköy, Karaköy, the list goes on. There are so many faces of Istanbul, it would be a shame to spend all your time just in one area.
Walk. Walk everywhere, because you will find all sorts of treasures down the many narrow streets and back alleys. Stop for tea and interact with locals whenever possible. They are very friendly to tourists and want to share with you everything they possibly can about their country.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Budget: Sultan Hostel in Sultanahmet
This hostel really impressed me, and this is coming from the girl who doesn’t normally sleep in dorms.
I slept here on the last night of my Ottoman Trek with Busabout, and I happened to get a room on the top floor (do this if you can!). We were literally on the roof, there was a restaurant on the roof next door, and the view of the city from up there was beautiful.
The room had A/C and an ensuite bathroom with clean beds. You can’t ask for much more in a hostel dorm.
As a huge bonus, this is where I had the Testy Kebab meal that I loved. The restaurant downstairs is comfortable and delicious, complete with hookah, and staff who will teach you how to blow smoke bubbles with it – as you saw me do in the Snapchat video above!
Mid Range: Cheers Porthouse Istanbul in Karaköy/Beyoğlu
This cozy place in Beyoğlu is right in the heart of Istanbul. It’s a great spot for privacy, comfort, and easy access by foot to the main areas of Istanbul.
It has A/C, ensuite bathrooms, and breakfast included. It’s on a fairly quiet street near restaurants, grocery stores, and cafes. The guys at the desk are very helpful.
Upper Range: Renaissance Polat Istanbul Hotel in Besiktas
I loved my stay here, and if you are looking for amazing views of the city, the best comfort, and a kickass rooftop bar, pick this one.
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