Istanbul Travel Guide - Top Authentic Experiences

Istanbul

Istanbul Travel Guide

Home to 15 million souls, Istanbul is indeed large, dense and multi-layered. The best way to begin unraveling those layers is by getting to know the city’s many faces, it’s many neighborhoods. As you explore, you’ll discover that Istanbul defies easy definition. It’s religious and secular. It’s traditional and modern. It’s shabby and glamorous.

After 2 months of living in Istanbul, we can confidently say: this is one of the greatest cities on Earth. It’s not just historically and culturally rich. It’s a city with heart – so much heart that you’ll feel more welcome here than anywhere else (we did). Istanbul taught us the meaning of the word hospitality. Use this city guide to discover the soul of living, breathing, heart-pounding Istanbul.

 
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Istanbul Travel Guide, Turkey

Istanbul Travel Guide Overview

  • When to Visit Istanbul
  • Getting Around Istanbul
  • Istanbul City Map
  • Where to Stay in Istanbul
  • What to Experience in Istanbul
  • What to Eat in Istanbul
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Istanbul Travel Guide - Beyoğlu

When to Visit Istanbul

The best time to visit Istanbul is in Spring (April – May) and Fall (September – Mid-November).

We traveled to Istanbul in early October and stayed until late November. The weather was great, not too hot, not too cold. It was often overcast and moody – similar to San Francisco weather. It rarely rained.

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Beşiktaş

Getting Around Istanbul

Public Transit

Public Transit is the best way to navigate Istanbul. It’s user-friendly and easy. It’s also cheap. All routes (metro, bus, ferries) are integrated with Google Maps, so it’s easy to figure out how to get to your desired destination. Buy an Istanbulkart transit card (7 TL as of 2018). You can buy these cards directly from ticket machines. And, you can load them up with cash at the same machine, or at kiosks throughout the city. This will save you money on every ride. Instead of paying 5 TL per ride, you’ll pay 3 TL with this card. You can use the card on subways, streetcars, buses, and ferries.

 

Taxis

Sometimes, there’s no metro connection, so you’ll need a taxi to get from point A to point B. We recommend showing your taxi driver the address of your destination (the words, not the map).

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Ortaköy Mosque

Istanbul City Map

Click the dots to explore specific destinations.
Asian-side Neighborhoods
European-side Neighborhoods

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Stay in Beyoğlu

During our time in Istanbul, we stayed in five different neighborhoods and explored many more. Based on our experience, we recommend staying in Beyoğlu. That’s the European-side district that’s separated from the old city by the Golden Horn. By staying in Beyoğlu, you’ll have access to superb food options and interesting neighborhoods. You can easily get to Taksim Square, Beşiktaş, Nişantaşı (Şişli), as well as the important sites in Sultanahmet. You’re still central, but not in the tourist congested areas of the old city. Look for accommodation in the following neighborhoods: Pera, Galata, Cihangir, Karaköy.

Budget | Dreamer’s B&B (Cihangir) is a cozy bread and breakfast with clean and comfortable bedrooms. Located near transit, but also walking distance to Taksim Square, Dreamer’s B&B is well-situated for exploring. Cihangir is a very cool neighborhood with a thriving café scene and young urban culture.

Mid-Range | Hotel Art Nouveau is located in Pera. Here, you’ll be treated to unbeatable views of Galata Tower and the Golden Horn. Guests also have access to a hot tub, Turkish bath, and a sauna. Rooms are beautiful!

Luxury | Tomtom Suites (Galata) offers guests beautifully designed and spacious suites inside a historic building. Fine-dining restaurant Nicole is housed in Tomtom.

 
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If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

 

 

 

Napoleon Bonaparte

What to Experience in Istanbul

Our favorite things to see and do
Istanbul Travel Guide - Cesme Bazlama in Nişantaşı, Şişli
Cesme Bazlama in Nişantaşı, Şişli

Indulging in a Traditional Turkish Breakfast

Turkish breakfast (kahvaltı) is more like a feast. Typically, you won’t order breakfast from an à la carte menu. Upon ordering “Turkish Breakfast,” you’ll be given a huge assortment of cheese, olives, vegetables, spreads, and bread. These foods are laid out in small plates, covering every inch of your table. Breakfast is accompanied by tea.

Where to Eat Turkish Breakfast in Istanbul

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Karakoy
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Karakoy

Getting lathered in bubbles at a Hamam

One of the best ways to experience Turkish culture is by going to a Hamam (or Turkish Bath). In a Hamam, which caters to tourists, you are guided through the process step-by-step. An attendant will conduct a full-body scrub and soapy wash, and after you’ll feel revived and born anew. The whole pampering procedure takes about 50 minutes. Massages are typically add-ons, and not included in the entrance fee.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Karakoy

We chose to experience a Hamam at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. The bathhouse is segregated based on the time of day: women only between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and men only between 4:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Everything is provided, you only need to bring a bathing suit bottom. The bathhouse itself is stunning. Originally it was built in the 16th century by Sinan the Architect as part of the mosque and school complex. It took 7-years to restore the building. Upon entering, you’ll be warmly greeted and treated to a refreshing drink. After you finish the Hamam ritual, you can relax in a the comfortable resting area and order a juice, tea, or coffee. Reservations are necessary. 

 
Istanbul travel Guide - Moda - Naan Bakeshop
Naan Bakeshop, Moda

Café hopping in Moda

Moda is a neighborhood in Kadıköy district on the Asian-side of Istanbul. Here, you’ll find antique, thrift and vintage shops along with trendy cafés and eateries. Moda is young and hip and it’s a great place to spend the day, or a few, wandering about in search of your next coffee, or meal.

Read Next: Best Cafés in Moda

 
Istanbul Travel Guide -Nişantaşı High-end Boutiques
Nişantaşı High-end Boutiques

Boutique Shopping & Dining in Nişantaşı

Nişantaşı is an upscale neighborhood in Şişli district. This European-side neighborhood is a dream destination for shopping. Streets are lined with boutiques and Turkish-designer shops. You can easily spend hours getting lost here. If you’re in the mood for trendy eateries and third wave coffee shops, this glamorous corner of Istanbul will offer you that as well. To find out how to get to Nisantasi and where to eat, read: Best Restaurants in Nisantasi.

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Nevmekan Sahil, Üsküdar
Nevmekan Sahil, Üsküdar

Traveling off the beaten path in Üsküdar

Üsküdar is a district on the Anatolian-side of Istanbul along the Bosphorus Sea. More conservative than other neighborhoods, though no less welcoming, Üsküdar offers an exciting glimpse into everyday life. Walking the promenade to the Maiden’s Tower vantage point is a must. Also, don’t miss out on Üsküdar’s modern and visionary mosques, like Şakirin Mosque and Marmara University Faculty of Theology Mosque.  

Read Next: Top Things to See and Do in Uskudar

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Beşiktaş Saturday Market
Beşiktaş Saturday Market

Shopping at the Beşiktaş Saturday Market

Istanbul is famous for its markets and bazaars. However, many of these are unabashedly set up for tourists. If you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, you’ll definitely want to walk through the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. But, if you want to see where locals shop for food and clothing, head to the Beşiktaş Saturday Market (Beşiktaş pazarı). The multi-level building on Nüzhetiye Cadessi houses fresh produce, dairy, spice, and clothing vendors. You can find anything here. It’s vibrant, loud and colorful. Don’t hesitate to make a purchase. Prices are clear and merchants are honest. From our experience, no one will try to take advantage of you, just because you’re foreign. The olives and cheeses we bought at the market were the best we ate during our whole time in Istanbul.

Address: Türkali Mahallesi, Nüzhetiye Cd. No:66, 34357 Beşiktaş/Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey (Near Ihlamur Palace)

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Kanaat Lokantası in Üsküdar
Kanaat Lokantası in Üsküdar

Eating Lunch at a Lokanta

Lokantas, or “tradesmen’s restaurants,” are Turkish-style cafeterias. These casual eateries offer delicious, home-style cooking for workers throughout the city. It’s healthy fast food. You’ll find that lokantas are very budget-friendly, so if you’re hungry around noon, ask a local where their favorite one is. When you enter, you’ll simply voice (or point) at what you want (all the food is displayed). After selecting your plates, you’ll usually pay, before finding a seat. However, sometimes you’ll order at the counter, and a waiter will bring you your desired dishes.

When you walk into a bustling lokanta for the first time, you might be a bit overwhelmed. The line moves swiftly and you might not know what you want. In our experience, the servers were always patient and helpful, despite our deficient Turkish. They were just happy that you were there, and even happier, that you enjoyed their food.

Our Favorite Lokantas in Istanbul

 
Istanbul Travel Guide - Moda

What to Eat & Drink in Istanbul

Turkish Cuisine

Manti – Turkish-style ravioli. Usually filled with ground meat, and topped with yogurt. Eat manti at Sayla Manti in Moda.

 

Lahmancun – oven-baked thin crust pizza with mixed, chopped lamb and beef meat and herbs. Try it at Çiya Sofrası in Moda.

 

Ezme – diced tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, mint, and sumac. This salad – dip can be spicy. It’s similar to salsa.

 

Ezogelin çorbası – Red lentil soup.

 

Adana kebabı – spicy and flavorful minced-meat Kebab. Adana is usually lamb. You can eat Adana in a dürüm (Turkish wrap), or on a platter. Eat Adana kebab at Adana Ocakbasi in Şişli (Osmanbey Metro Stop).

 

Dürüm – Turkish wrap filled with either döner kebab, or shish kebab. Eat dürüm at Durumzade.

 
Şakirin Mosque, Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul Travel Resources

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@moonhoneytravelers
  • Alta Via 1.  We just finished hiking the Alta Via 1 - a multi-day trek in the Italian Dolomites. And, it was an adventure we’ll never forget.  The first two days of the trek, we hiked in pouring rain. With no mountain views and poor weather conditions, we tried our best to keep our spirits up.  On Day 3, we set off once again in rain. After a few hours on the trail, it started to snow. The smart thing would have been to turn back and secure a taxi to the next rifugio. But, we kept going. As we progressed, it became increasingly more difficult to find the trail. The snow was covering up the trail markers and the wind swept away the footprints of other hikers. We lost the trail several times.  The snow that was floating down ever so gently as first turned into a no-bullshit blizzard. We were soaking wet, increasingly numb, and at a complete loss of where to go. I started crying. With no one in site and no idea where the hut was, we started to freak out.  At this point, we were physically shaking. We took a few me minutes to regroup in a WWI cave. Sheltered from the blowing snow, we could locate where we were on Maps.me.  We found the trail and willed our frozen bodies into motion. When we saw Lagazuoi hut, we felt a tidal wave of relief.  After ringing out everything from our shirts to our underwear and changing into warm clothes, we drank 2 liters of hot tea and then met the most amazing group of women! Thank you Chris, Sigi, Jo and Susie for the wonderful company, conversations, and shared meals.  @susielambie @jored7  Photo: 2 days after the storm.
  • 2 years ago Kati and I visited the Dolomites for the first time.  It was a whirlwind of a trip, as we were relocating from Cologne to Vienna. We drove through Germany’s Black Forest, Switzerland’s Appenzell region, across the Dolomites and finally into Austria.  During our time in the Dolomites, we experienced our very first hut to hut hike. Until that point, multi-day hiking was a vague, intimidating concept. After our short 3-day trek around Sexten, we were hooked. And, looking back, it’s easy to say that that trip really changed our lives.  We’re finally back in the Dolomites. This time we’re here to hike the Alta Via 1.
  • The pearl of the Rätikon.  Our recent hike around the Rätikon Alps started and ended here. During our trek, we saw almost every vantage point of this lake.  We just published our 5-day hiking itinerary (link in bio). We also included suggested 3 and 4-day routes, if you have less time.  https://moonhoneytravel.com/europe/austria/raetikon-high-trail/
  • Rätikon.  This beautiful limestone mountain range straddles the border between Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.  We just wrapped up a 5 day hike around the range, overnighting in Austrian and Swiss mountain huts along the way.  We’ll be sharing our itinerary on the blog very soon. Until then, happy hiking dear friends.
  • Berliner Höhenweg (Berlin High Trail)  We just finished trekking the Berlin High Trail in Tyrol, Austria.  This gorgeous alpine route showcases the finest mountain and glacier vistas of the Zillertal Alps. It’s an extraordinary adventure replete with challenging ascents and descents, rustic and grand mountain huts, and bell-wearing cows and sheep.  Our trekking experience was filled with indescribable beauty, hearty Austrian food, agonizing and dangerous descents in rain, physical pain (follow our stories for details), and a stolen iPad. 
Some days were extraordinary. Other days were quite good. And one day was utterly miserable. That’s life in a nutshell, right? Cheers to living the good days, the okay days and the bad ones too.
  • I want to share with you one of my favorite German words.  Genießer/Genießerin is a person who delights and takes pleasure in living. It’s someone who enjoys and relishes the present moment completely. It can be applied broadly, whether someone enjoys reading, drinking a cappuccino, hiking, or cycling. The connotation of this type of pleasure is wholly positive.  There is no direct translation in the English language. In English, too much pleasure is perceived as a negative. We use words like glutton, hedonist, libertine to describe people who take (too much) pleasure in certain things. In English, pleasure must be restrained. Without such restraint, pleasure isn’t “good,” but marred with sin.  Would you define yourself as a Genießer/Genießerin?

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