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Istanbul travel guide

Byzantine monuments, art galleries, Turkish breakfasts and antique stores

The sprawling city of Istanbul, home to an impressive 15 million inhabitants, spreads out in an intricate patchwork of history and diverse cultures. Rather than being a unified whole, it is a magnificent jigsaw of identities, accumulated layer upon layer over the centuries. The Istanbul of today is a kaleidoscope, reflecting the grandeur and turmoil of its past.

Initially, the city began as a humble collection of communities clustered around the epicenter of power, each leaving an indelible mark on its character. Envision ancient Greek shrines honoring Apollo, Zeus, and other deities from mythology, casting an enchanting spell over the landscape. Now, imagine the grandeur of a Roman imperial capital with its majestic edifices dotting the horizon.

These settlements evolved, accommodating a Genoese colony, Venetian outposts, and then the majestic reign of the Ottomans. The city became a haven for persecuted Jews from Spain, a magnet for European writers, artists, and diplomats, and a representative hub for the diverse nations that composed the Ottoman Empire.

A tumultuous period followed, where Istanbul was besieged by British, French, and Italian troops. It became a bustling gateway for Russian emigrants and endured multiple pogroms. The city’s vibrant pulse skipped beats during decades of political coups, and witnessed the displacement of nearly half its population.

Despite the adversities, Istanbul has consistently offered refuge to those who could no longer find a home in their own lands. It continues to evolve, with every sunrise illuminating a subtly different face of the city.

Today, Istanbul is a captivating blend of age-old Byzantine monuments, lively art galleries, and quaint antique shops. Unmissable are the indulgent Turkish breakfasts, a gastronomic adventure that holds a mirror to the city’s past and present.

Every nook of Istanbul has a story to share, a story of resilience, transformation, and endless vibrancy. A visit here is an immersive journey through a timeless metropolis that refuses to stand still, constantly shaping and reshaping itself. It is, indeed, a city that continues to change, to surprise, and to mesmerize every single day.

Istanbul’s inherent diversity often leaves explorers pondering where the true heart of the city beats. Every so often, tourists and locals alike embark on a quest to unearth a quintessentially authentic Istanbul, one that remains untouched by the typical tourist lens. However, the boundaries between the familiar and the foreign blur in this city, where every corner exudes authenticity and magnetism, captivating both the curious visitor and the seasoned Istanbulite.

Whether it’s the modern allure of third-wave coffee shops or the old-world charm of traditional tea houses, frequented by elderly men and seemingly frozen in time, Istanbul seamlessly marries the novel and the nostalgic. The city thrives on this delicate balance, making every inch worthy of exploration and admiration.

The Istanbulites see themselves as integral threads in the city’s vibrant tapestry. They have harmoniously entwined their daily life with the city’s historical artifacts, allowing their chickens to peck amidst Byzantine ruins, cultivating vegetable gardens under the shadow of fortress walls, and repurposing ancient churches into mosques or old palace chambers into car repair garages.

In Istanbul, 13th-century orthodox mosaics coexist with contemporary mural paintings on derelict structures. These aesthetic contrasts may draw the interest of art historians, but for locals, they are part of the city’s everyday landscape, cherished yet largely overlooked. This is not due to disregard but to the acceptance of Istanbul as a dynamic entity, not a static museum. It’s an organism in perpetual motion, growing and evolving, its resilience and adaptability its most distinctive traits.

The sheer size and diversity of Istanbul might seem overwhelming, prompting the urge to encapsulate its essence in one exhaustive expedition. However, such a quest might prove not only ambitious but also counterproductive. Instead, it’s more rewarding to approach Istanbul in a relaxed, unhurried manner, selecting a handful of priorities and truly savoring each experience. There’s no need to rush, for Istanbul, like a well-crafted novel, is best appreciated over time. This city is not merely a destination to check off a bucket list but a vibrant canvas that beckons for repeat visits. Rest assured, Istanbul will call you back for another rendezvous.

Table of Contents

A Comprehensive Google Map Guide

Before we dive in, here’s the highlight of this guide – a comprehensive Google Map pinpointing all the attractions, eateries, and points of interest.

Navigating Istanbul: A Tapestry of Continents, Seas, and Neighborhoods

Uniquely nestled in both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a city that has inspired countless musings from writers, and has served as the backdrop for countless city tours of varying quality. Beyond the romantic tales of intermingling cultures, it’s essential to understand the geographical factors that shape the city.

Istanbul is carved in two by the Bosphorus Strait, a bustling waterway connecting the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south. This strait not only provides Istanbul with its stunning waterfront but also serves as the dividing line between its European and Asian segments. Further carving the city’s landscape, the European section is bisected by the Golden Horn Bay into northern and southern portions. The Sea of Marmara is home to the charming Princes’ Islands archipelago; while nine islands comprise this group, only four are connected to the mainland by transport and are administratively part of Istanbul.

Historically, the southern half of the European section has witnessed the transformation from Byzantium to Constantinople, and eventually becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Just across the Golden Horn, the area that once served as a Genoese colony later emerged as the residence for European expatriates and the Jewish community. As a result, most of the city’s historic sites are concentrated in the European section.

Istanbul’s administrative divisions, or “semt,” are subdivided into smaller neighborhoods, known as “mahalla.” Often, the mahallas bear the same names as their corresponding historical districts, though occasionally, older names that are no longer used for administrative purposes (like Samatya or Pera) are still integrated into the city’s geographical nomenclature. This naming maze can occasionally challenge your sense of direction.

To navigate Istanbul effectively, it’s advisable to plan your exploration around its smaller, historical districts. By focusing on these more manageable areas, you’ll uncover Istanbul’s layered history while taking in its contemporary pulse, all without getting lost in this sprawling city.

Architectural Journey: Tracing Istanbul from Byzantium to the XX century

Istanbul’s architectural landscape is a fascinating testament to its diverse historical influences. The oldest cultural layer harks back to Byzantium, although much of its legacy survives only in legends. What remains is a smattering of architectural fragments, predominantly churches that were repurposed into mosques. Interspersed throughout this ancient city sector are the fortress walls, a handful of palace edifices, and cisterns. As you navigate through what was once the heart of the Byzantine Empire, you encounter nondescript ruins, walls, and arches, hinting at a bygone era.

The 12th and 13th centuries marked the advent of Genoese and Venetian settlements in Istanbul, setting the architectural rhythm for the entire Beyoglu area. Their remnants today consist of fortress ruins, the iconic Galata Tower, a few surviving houses, and the hidden mosaics of a Catholic church, now concealed under the plaster of the Arap Camii mosque. Further afield, fortifications from the Genoese and Venetian periods punctuate the outskirts of the city.

The Ottomans capitalized on the leftover architectural gems from Byzantium, adapting and preserving them while also embarking on their own ambitious construction projects. Celebrated architect Mimar Sinan made notable strides in this era, most impressively constructing two mosques that surpassed the renowned Aya Sofia in scale. The Süleymaniye Mosque boasts a taller dome, while the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne impresses with its expansive dome.

Beyond mosques, Istanbul is dotted with numerous palaces (saray) and country mansions or pavilions (köşk and kasır). While architectural enthusiasts may find joy in exploring each unique structure, those with a casual interest in architecture might find one visit sufficient to grasp the general style. The summer pavilion at Ihlamur Kasrı, for instance, exhibits exquisite architecture. The entrance ticket for adult visitors is priced at 90 liras (2.85 $). While the grand Dolmabahçe Palace can consume much time with little intrigue, the Malta Köşk Pavilion in Yıldız park provides a compelling alternative, offering free entry to all visitors.

Ihlamur Kasrı summer pavilion. Photo: Irina Kaplan

The progression of Istanbul’s architecture charts a course of increasing Westernization, beginning notably with the influence of the Balian dynasty. This prominent Armenian architectural family sculpted some of the finest examples of Ottoman Baroque, with their influence extending from palaces to mosques. The infusion of Western aesthetics grew stronger with the introduction of European court architects, who adopted a more liberal approach to classical forms and thus shaped a novel cityscape.

Local Europeans actively participated in this cultural transformation, introducing theaters and constructing apartment buildings and churches in the Beyoglu district. This wave of Western influence reached a pinnacle during the city’s occupation by the Entente forces between 1918 and 1923. The transient presence of the Russian White émigrés, or ‘haraşolar’ as the Turks called them, left indelible imprints on the city, pioneering the city’s first beaches, nightclubs, ballet schools, and prompting the wholesale sale of family jewelry.

This tumultuous period was followed by the republican era, which embarked on a fierce secularization campaign. The emblematic Aya Sofia, for instance, transitioned from a religious icon to a beacon of science for nearly a century. This period also witnessed the mass adoption of European fashion by Turks, the departure of Greeks to Greece, the emigration of Jews to Palestine, and an influx of migrants from Anatolia into the now-vacant apartments.

If your itinerary includes an exhaustive tour of the city’s standout sites, it would be prudent to invest in an Istanbul Museum Pass. Priced at 2250 liras (approximately 71.20$), this pass grants access to 13 museums over a five-day period post-activation. For those seeking a comprehensive exploration of Istanbul and its environs, the Istanbul E-pass is an attractive option. Apart from access to a broader range of attractions, it includes guided tours, Bosphorus cruises, an aquarium visit, airport transfers, and a day trip to Bursa. Available for durations between 2 to 7 days, it is priced between €115 (124.79$) and €175 (189.90$) and can provide up to 70% savings if fully utilized. Both passes can be conveniently purchased online or at the Archaeological Museum’s box office.

Sultanahmet: The Historic Heartbeat and Touristic Pulse of Istanbul

Nestled within the expansive semt of Fatih, which parallels the boundaries of ancient Constantinople as traced by the ruins of Theodosius’s walls, lies Sultanahmet — Istanbul’s historic core. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sultanahmet is an integral piece in the city’s historic quilt, although other parts of Fatih have given way to modern commercial hubs and affordable housing for Syrian migrants. In equally historic areas, vibrant, centuries-old mansions serve as the backdrop for the local bohemia. These diverse elements collectively form this intriguing neighborhood.

View from the Galata Bridge of the Fatih district and the Süleymaniye Mosque

Sultanahmet has often been seen as a contradiction in the heart of Istanbul. This district houses an unrivaled wealth of Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks, drawing millions of tourists annually. Yet, its dense tourist population gives it an almost residential void, its streets lined with hotels, stores, eateries, and museums. After 5 pm, the bustle recedes, leaving eerily deserted streets in its wake. Despite its higher-than-average prices and lack of local residential charm, Sultanahmet, with its mesmerizing mosques, charming alleyways, and notable squares, is a must-visit. It serves as the ground zero for Istanbul, becoming an inevitable point of comparison for all other districts.

Sultanahmet once hosted the Great Palace, the residence of Byzantine emperors from 330 to 1081. More a residential district than a singular edifice, it boasted a network of corridors, halls, gardens, churches, fountains, and offices. By the 10th and 11th centuries, the palace had deteriorated and was deserted in favor of a new palace elsewhere in the city. However, the Ottoman conquest breathed life back into the Great Palace, symbolically adopting elements of Byzantine culture.

Among the district’s many treasures is the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia), a former Orthodox cathedral and pinnacle of Byzantine architecture. It once served as the focal point for Orthodox liturgy, the birthplace of significant political decisions, and a venue for public events within the Byzantine Empire. The cathedral now functions as a mosque, although access to its principal mosaics is somewhat limited.

Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia) is a former Orthodox cathedral and the most important Byzantine monument where the Orthodox liturgy was formed. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Standing as a testament to the ingenuity of medieval architecture, Aya Sophia captivates with its colossal, self-sustaining dome and outstanding acoustics. Many mosques in Turkey draw architectural inspiration from Aya Sophia, and it has been a structure that all Ottoman architects have strived to outdo.

The huge, heavy dome of the Hagia Sophia is held up without additional support. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Cisterns. Amid the city’s ancient foundations lie cisterns, vast stone chambers that stored water brought to the capital via aqueducts. Often built beneath palaces, churches, monasteries, and private villas, over 150 known cisterns are scattered across Istanbul. While some have been forgotten under Sultanahmet’s hotels or are filled with construction debris, a select few have been repurposed into museums, exhibition halls, restaurants, and even a stadium. These secular structures of the period, often featuring ‘spolia’ – architectural second-hand materials from previous structures – provide a refreshing alternative to the numerous sacred structures that can overwhelm non-pilgrimage visitors.

Among these cisterns, the Basilica Cistern is one of the largest in Istanbul. Gaining popularity after its appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” the Basilica Cistern has recently reopened after a thorough renovation. Prices for entry vary depending on the time of visit. During the daytime from 09:00 to 19:00, the ticket will cost 350 liras (11.08 $). For the evening session from 19:00 to 22:00, the ticket price will be 550 liras (17.40 $). Smaller cisterns like the one under the Nakkash carpet shop offer a free alternative.

The Archaeological Museum and the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum are two must-visit locations. These museums hold valuable collections, despite the relocation of significant artifacts to Britain and Germany. The Archaeological Museum houses a notable Middle Eastern section, which includes an impressive collection of cuneiform tablets, fragments of Ishtar Gate reliefs, and various artifacts ranging from Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus to statues of Cybele. The top floor showcases relics specific to Istanbul’s history: sculptures, reliefs, and column fragments that once embellished the city. An adult ticket will be priced at 340 liras (10.76 $).

The Mosaic Museum, housing panels that once decorated the palace of Byzantine emperors, showcases hunting scenes, depictions of wild and domestic animals, and floral ornaments. Even for those with minimal interest in mosaics, this museum promises a captivating experience.

Before the city became the imperial capital in the early 3rd century, a hippodrome was erected with a capacity of about 100,000 people. This venue regularly hosted horse racing and other sporting events, serving as a crucible for ideological debates and contests. The Grand Palace Mosaic Museum can be accessed for 220 liras (6.96 $).

The Hippodrome: A Vestige of the Byzantine Era. In the early 3rd century, before Istanbul was declared the imperial capital, the city was home to a significant architectural and social site: the Hippodrome. Designed to accommodate approximately 100,000 spectators, the Hippodrome was the centre of public life. Regular horse racing, other sporting events, and even executions of ideological and political adversaries of the emperor took place here, underscoring its societal importance.

Today, only remnants of the once-magnificent Hippodrome are visible, scattered between carpet shops and hotels. Most of the grandstands and other structures have been dismantled for building materials, with some even disappearing beneath the city’s ever-changing landscape. The central portion of the Hippodrome now lies beneath Sultanahmet Square. Here, surviving monuments like the Serpent Column, the Egyptian Obelisk, and the Obelisk of Constantine provide a glimpse into the past.

Situated in the centre of the racing tracks, these monuments were trophies or gifts brought from distant lands. The Egyptian Obelisk, for instance, boasts a rich history dating back to 1457-1448 BC. It was originally erected in the Temple of Amun at Thebes by Pharaoh Tutankhamun III. These monuments, although silent, still whisper tales of the city’s illustrious past and its transformation through the ages.

The pedestal of the Egyptian obelisk.

The Serpent Column, another remarkable monument from the Hippodrome, was brought to Istanbul from Delphi and dates back to the middle of the 5th century BC. Originally, the column was crowned with three serpent heads, each facing a different direction. Over the centuries, two of the heads were lost, and the remaining one can now be seen in the Archaeological Museum.

Meanwhile, the less aesthetically pleasing Obelisk of Constantine was originally covered in bronze sheets depicting military battles. However, in the 13th century, Crusaders stole and melted down this bronze cladding, leaving behind the stark structure we see today.

A short distance away from the heart of Sultanahmet lies the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, more commonly known as “Little Hagia Sophia.” This architectural treasure is often considered a prototype for the grand Hagia Sophia, although the designs of their domes differ significantly.

The Little Hagia Sophia, now functioning as a mosque, has remnants of Byzantine decoration. An adjoining tranquil courtyard offers visitors a chance to enjoy tea, browse through shops selling high-quality ceramics and other crafts created in traditional Ottoman style, and simply appreciate the atmosphere without the bustle of large tourist crowds. This quiet corner of the city offers a different perspective of Istanbul’s history, all while providing an authentic and relaxing experience.

Topkapi Palace, a prominent symbol of Ottoman architecture, is adorned with intricately designed pavilions, spacious courtyards, and vibrant gardens. Although beautiful, by the early 19th century, even the Ottomans themselves had grown weary of the traditional style. In pursuit of modernization, they began constructing palaces in European fashion, resulting in Topkapi being largely abandoned.

Today, the Topkapi Palace operates as a museum divided into two sections: the primary area where each pavilion houses exhibits of Ottoman culture, and the harem which has been closed for restoration for several years.

Adjacent to Topkapi Palace is the Church of Saint Irene. Constructed even before the magnificent Hagia Sophia, this church once played a significant role in Constantinople’s political and spiritual life. Its interior is a reflection of the iconoclastic era, characterized by modest, even ascetic, decorations. In a few spots, you can still see the original vegetal designs, and the inside of the dome is embellished with a mosaic cross against a golden background.

Despite the church’s impressive size and its location at the heart of the city’s tourist district, you won’t find it swarming with visitors. Instead, it offers a quiet retreat where you can witness pigeons and parrots flitting around the ancient structure, further enhancing the sense of tranquillity and connection to Istanbul’s rich past.

You can visit Topkapi Palace and St Irene’s Church with a general ticket for 750 liras (23.73 $). The Church of St Irene can be visited separately for 350 liras (11.08 $).

Despite the impressive size of St Irene’s Church and its location in the epicentre of the tourist part of town, it is impossible to catch a crowd of tourists here. Photo: Irina Kaplan

The Grand Bazaar. Venture slightly north of Sultanahmet, past the ambient Erenler Nargile hookah bar (well worth an evening visit), and you’ll encounter the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). As Istanbul’s largest and oldest active market, the Grand Bazaar offers an immersive journey into the city’s vibrant mercantile history.

Many tourists tend to stay within the bazaar’s most accessible areas, where prices are high and vendors can be rather assertive. However, if you meander into the less touristy parts, you’ll find yourself amidst local Istanbulis where vendors are considerably less intrusive. Here, the bazaar maintains the aura of centuries past, with tightly packed shops, bustling galleries, and shouting bidders. It’s the perfect place for those who seek a genuine market atmosphere. In fact, one could easily lose track of time, spending half a day simply exploring the Grand Bazaar’s labyrinthine alleys.

On July 1, 2021, a new perspective was added to the market’s allure when the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar were opened to the public. Back in 2012, these roofs served as a filming location for a thrilling motorcycle chase in the James Bond movie “Skyfall”. Unfortunately, the filming resulted in damage to the ancient tiles, prompting a period of restoration during which the rooftops were closed off.

Now, with the restoration complete, visitors are free to ascend and take in the sweeping views of Istanbul from atop the Grand Bazaar. So impressive is this vista that even the most ardent Bond fans may find themselves more captivated by the scenery than the bazaar’s cinematic history.

Laleli, located in the Fatih district, offers a nostalgic glimpse into the post-Soviet 1990s. To get there, one can stroll down Yeniçeriler Cd, passing the grand, somewhat neglected Theodosian Forum, to reach the Laleli tram stop. In the past, Laleli was a common destination for shuttle traders from the former Soviet countries, who flocked here to stock up on clothes and shoes. The shuttles may have faded away with time, but the neighborhood retains much of its old-world charm. Russian-speaking salespeople can still be found in every major department store, and the fashion styles and materials, along with Russian signage, hark back to the 1990s.

However, in recent years, locals have noted significant changes in Laleli and the nearby Aksaray district. The influx of Syrian migrants has brought new life and culture to the area. A multitude of Arabic-only pubs have opened up, mosques have seen an increase in worshippers, and Syrian shops have sprung up in the vicinity. Although this transformation may seem dramatic from a resident’s perspective, it represents a natural progression for the city as a whole. Istanbul has always been a melting pot of different cultures and communities, constantly renewing itself as people from various backgrounds make the city their home.

This blend of cultures brings with it an explosion of flavors, and Laleli is a must-visit for Middle Eastern cuisine enthusiasts. For some of the best hummus in town, a visit to Buuzecedi Lokantası is highly recommended. This modest establishment serves up a range of delicious options, including falafel, bakla beans, and aubergine, all at extremely affordable prices. For those preferring a restaurant setting, Vezir Han Şark Sofrası is another excellent choice. As you stroll through these vibrant streets, you’ll find that Laleli offers a unique, charming mix of nostalgia and Middle Eastern charm.

The Valens Aqueduct, also known as the Aqueduct of Valenta, is a must-visit for anyone exploring Istanbul’s Fatih district. Constructed in the 4th century, the aqueduct is an impressive feat of engineering that has stood the test of time. The Kalenderhane Camii, one of Istanbul’s most fascinating late Byzantine structures, is conveniently nestled in this aqueduct. If you request, the mosque’s guard or imam will guide you to the basement where Byzantine mosaics are preserved. Despite recent restorations, the aqueduct retains an air of ruggedness, neither truly reflecting its historical significance nor its grand scale. However, it does present a picturesque sight at certain points, especially where it traverses Ataturk Boulevard, allowing buses and cars to pass under its ancient arches.

From there, the Zeyrek Mosque (Zeyrek camii) is hard to miss. Its pink façade stands out amidst the cityscape. Formerly known as the Monastery of the Pantocrator, it used to be a vast monastic complex inclusive of a hospital. Although several buildings from the complex survive, the primary attraction is the church itself, completed in 1136. The church consists of three interconnected sections, which give it a unique internal architecture, particularly for a mosque. The series of arches and transitions make for an intriguing exploration. The interior, unfortunately, retains little of its original state, but this just adds to the allure of walking around the large mosque. Look out for remnants of ornamental borders and patches of unplastered walls that offer glimpses of its historical grandeur.

Vefa Bozacisi: A Historic Taste of Istanbul. Just a five-minute stroll from the Zeyrek Mosque brings you to the legendary Vefa Bozacisi, an establishment renowned for selling boza, a customary Turkish drink. Boza, a fermented beverage made from bulgur wheat, enjoys widespread popularity in Turkey and across the Balkans. The drink is known for its thick consistency, often compared to yogurt, making it easier to consume with a spoon rather than sipped.

What makes Vefa Bozacisi truly remarkable is its history. Opened in 1876, it is the oldest existing establishment in Istanbul that continues to produce and sell boza. This rich history is evident not just from the sign boasting its founding date, but also from the worn floor tiles, gradually erased over centuries of foot traffic. The shop even holds a cherished connection with the nation’s father, Ataturk, who was known to visit for a refreshing boza drink. A glass commemorating his patronage has been carefully preserved and can be seen displayed under glass in the shop, a testament to the store’s significance in Turkey’s cultural fabric.

The iconic Vefa Bozacisi, which sells boza, a traditional Turkish drink made from fermented bulgur. Photo: Irina Kaplan

When the autumn-winter period arrives, coinciding not just with the academic term but also the boza season, students from Istanbul University, located nearby, frequent Vefa Bozacisi. While the boza shop operates all year round, it is during the colder months that boza, considered a winter drink, is typically found for sale in non-specialised places such as supermarkets, stalls, and markets.

Just adjacent to Istanbul University lies the small neighbourhood of Hoca Gıyasettin. This district is a charming array of wooden houses, each bearing its own story. Some of these houses stand deserted, others are in a state of disrepair, while several have been refurbished. The result is an intriguing amalgamation of styles and conditions that is sure to captivate those who appreciate places that defy the ordinary.

A short stroll away along Vefa Street leads to the recently opened Kilise Camii, or ‘Mosque Church’. As the name suggests, this mosque was converted from a church that had fallen into disuse. For a time, it provided shelter for refugees, but has since been restored and reopened in March 2021. The mosque is noteworthy for housing Byzantine mosaics, a nod to its storied past.

The Majestic Süleymaniye Mosque. The Süleymaniye Mosque is a standout attraction in Istanbul, and rightfully so. This awe-inspiring mosque, considered a jewel of Ottoman architecture, owes its design to the renowned architect Mimar Sinan and holds a prominent place in the city’s skyline.

One of the major draws of visiting the Süleymaniye Mosque is its vantage point. From its courtyard, visitors are treated to one of Istanbul’s best panoramic views. This overlooks the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus Strait, the Galata Tower, and a stunning array of rooftops, all combining to create a picturesque, postcard-worthy scene.

Additionally, the Süleymaniye Mosque is not just a place of worship but also a historical site of significant importance. It serves as the final resting place of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, regarded as one of the greatest sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and his beloved wife, Hürrem Sultan, often known as Roxolana. For fans of the popular TV series, The Magnificent Century, a visit here becomes a live encounter with the characters they have come to know and admire.

In the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Suleiman the Magnificent (one of the greatest sultans of the Ottoman Empire) and his wife Roksolana, who many know from The Magnificent Century series, are buried. Photo: Irina Kaplan

The Eminönü district, a bustling area located in Istanbul, is a vibrant hub of activity that draws locals and tourists alike. From the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque, you can easily walk down to this vibrant quayside district, offering a myriad of experiences that reflect the authentic spirit of Istanbul.

One of the primary attractions of Eminönü is the Egyptian Bazaar, also known as the Spice Bazaar. It ranks as Istanbul’s second-largest market following the Grand Bazaar. Despite its heavy influx of tourists, especially in the covered L-shaped gallery, the Egyptian Bazaar retains its charm with a range of stalls and shops, offering a rich array of spices, sweets, and other items.

Not far from the bazaar, you’ll find the 16th-century Rüstem Pasha Mosque. After an extensive restoration period, this historical mosque reopened in 2020 to once again reveal its striking Iznik tiles. This mosque stands out among other Islamic structures as it showcases an extensive coverage of Iznik tiles, which are highly esteemed ceramic pieces from the Turkish town of Iznik. These unique tiles adorn the mosque’s walls from top to bottom, offering an immersive and visually stunning experience. Indeed, no other mosque in Istanbul displays such a grand array of these exquisite decorations.

The Historic Enclaves of Fener and Balat

The inseparable neighborhoods of Fener and Balat, snuggled along the Golden Horn in the Fatih district of Istanbul, form a distinctive area rich in cultural and historical treasures. They were once the heart of Byzantine Constantinople, boasting more ancient monuments than even the iconic Sultanahmet. Following the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, these neighborhoods became a close-knit settlement for Greeks and Jews, creating a multicultural tapestry that still influences the area today.

Visitors can reach these neighborhoods by foot, but due to the tricky terrain, it’s often more convenient to take a tram from Eminonu or board a ferry that departs once every hour. The transformation of this area over the past decade has been remarkable. What was once a somewhat offbeat, even slightly precarious area populated by local residents and roaming chickens, has morphed into a vibrant hub teeming with life and artistry.

Around six to seven years ago, the transformation began in earnest. Vintage stores, coffee shops, and galleries began opening their doors, drawing photographers with sizable cameras eager to capture the elegance of the aging mansions and the ever-changing street scenes. Today, Fener and Balat represent a dynamic fusion of old and new Istanbul – a lively blend of traditional culture and modern creativity.

Greek Lyceum building. Photo: Irina Kaplan

The neighborhoods of Fener and Balat are home to several notable attractions that showcase the rich history of the area. Among them are the office and church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the striking Greek Lyceum that resembles a castle.

Visitors can also explore the Dimitri Cantemir Café-Museum, although its service is a bit wanting. The café is set atop the ruins of a 17th-century house built by Dimitri Cantemir himself, a statesman of Russian-Romanian origin who once resided in Istanbul.

Close to the water, the Bulgarian church of St. Stephen stands out due to its entirely cast-iron structure. If your stamina permits, you can walk from the patriarchal church towards the initial section of the fortress walls of Constantinople. The 13th-century Small Blachernae Palace, which has been carefully restored, is along the way. Several other Byzantine monuments are present here too, although they are currently closed for restoration.

One of the most renowned of these is the late Byzantine Church of Chora, celebrated for its stunning mosaics. From 1511 to 1945, it functioned as a mosque, later opening as a museum just like the Hagia Sophia. However, in 2019 a decree was signed converting the Chora back into a mosque. The building functioned as before for another year but is now exclusively open to worshippers, not to tourists. The city authorities have assured that the mosaics will be accessible for viewing, but currently, the only features to admire are the exterior architecture and the formidable buttress.

While wandering in Balat, one shouldn’t miss the iconic Agora Meyhanesi, the oldest running establishment offering traditional Turkish meze snacks and alcohol. Opened in 1890 by the Greek Doulidis family, it became popular in the 1960s after the Izmirian poet Onur Şenli published a poem named ‘Agora Meyhanesi’. Celebrities frequented the establishment, with some 280 films shot there, giving it a unique charm.

Another historic meyhane is the Balat Sahil Meyhanesi, a short stroll away, where one can find a good selection of snacks and local seasonal fish.

  • For tea enthusiasts, Balat houses the incredibly Instagrammable retro café, Naftalin K, which resembles an antique shop more than a café. There are several cats lounging around the café, and it wouldn’t be unusual to find one sharing your table.
  • For an early morning visit to Balat, the Velvet Café serves breakfast, and boasts a delightful assortment of antique coffee cups, even letting you choose your preferred cup for your coffee.

Moving away from Balat, Eyüp Hill is a couple of tram stops away. For Muslims, it’s a pilgrimage site hosting the burial place of a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. For non-Muslims, it serves as an overlook made famous by the French writer Pierre Loti, who spent some time living in Istanbul. The platform and café here are named after him, serving as a romantic spot for visitors to enjoy.

Taking a walk along the Theodosius Walls can be an interesting activity for anyone visiting Istanbul. These were the fortress walls of Constantinople, built by Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century. They stretch out for about five kilometers and feature the remnants of the original 57 towers and ten gates.

This isn’t just a treat for fans of historic fortifications, as the sites along the walls offer picturesque views and a sense of tranquillity. On the inside of the walls, you can explore non-touristy areas that have a local charm, while on the outside, you’ll see vegetable gardens that have been cultivated right next to the walls. You will also find old Muslim cemeteries just beyond the walls, adding to the historical ambiance of the area.

Although the original steps to access the walls are now closed, there are still paths that allow you to climb them. As you stroll along these ancient fortifications, you are walking in the footsteps of history, experiencing a slice of Istanbul that has stood the test of time.

Theodosia walls were built in the 5th century and originally had 57 towers and ten gates.

On the inside of the walls are poor non-tourist areas, on the outside there are vegetable gardens adjoining the walls, and just beyond are old Muslim cemeteries

As you conclude your stroll from the Golden Horn along the Theodosius Walls, you’ll reach the Yedikule Tower. This historic structure was built by the Ottomans following their conquest of Constantinople, and it served as a prison for the nobility of the time.

Staring up at the Edicule Tower, you’re witnessing an important part of Istanbul’s history. This structure bears the marks of the city’s past and carries the stories of the individuals who were once confined within its walls.

However, the passage of time hasn’t been kind to these ancient structures. Each year, some of the old towers of the Theodosius Walls collapse, at times even encroaching upon the roadways. To preserve this historical heritage, the city administration has plans in place to restore the walls over the next two years. So, future visitors to this fascinating city will continue to witness the historical grandeur of these walls and keep the story of the Theodosius Walls and the Yedikule Tower alive.

Beyoğlu: Istanbul’s Nexus of Art, Culture and History

The alluring, vibrant quarters of Pera and Galata, now amalgamated into the Beyoğlu district, command an unmistakable European aura in Istanbul’s diverse tapestry. The Genoese city of Galata, distinguished by its tower and castle walls meandering down to the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, unites with Pera, a region perched atop a hill behind the tower. As early as the 15th century, a medley of Europeans, predominantly Italians and French, along with Jews from Spain, and native Greeks and Armenians, took residence here, infusing their distinctive cultural flairs into the local lifestyle.

With the relocation of all but the Iranian embassies to Pera by the mid-18th century, the district sprung to life, brimming with the unique influences of the Levantines, as the Ottoman residents referred to their European counterparts. Their sophisticated tastes in architecture, cuisine, and general lifestyle bestowed upon Galata and Pera an insular European character within Istanbul. By the 19th century, a demographic shift resulted in an equal population of Muslims, largely the outcome of European conversions.

The 19th century also witnessed a building boom, with Europeans erecting schools, hospitals, and churches that communicated their presence and influence through striking architectural designs. Notably, the Gothic spire of the Ophthalmology Hospital, initially a British military hospital, stands tall near the Galata Tower. This era also saw the establishment of the Ottoman Empire’s first banks on Bankalar Caddesi (Banking street), courtesy of a Jewish financial mogul who pioneered a system aligned with Sharia law.

Beyoğlu, an intriguing district blending both the charm of yesteryears and the vibrancy of modern life, underwent significant changes in the 20th century. The creation of the Republic of Turkey led to consulates migrating to Ankara, and the formation of Israel resulted in the exodus of almost the entire Jewish community. Moreover, the Greek pogroms of 1955 compelled the remaining Greeks, who had previously escaped the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, to abandon their homes.

Nonetheless, Beyoğlu still holds significant landmarks that stand as testimony to its rich history. Galata Tower, the district’s most distinguished landmark, towers above the city, though its current entry fee of 650 lira (20.57$) may deter some visitors, especially given Istanbul’s multitude of equally impressive, and more budget-friendly, viewing platforms.

Another notable feature of Beyoğlu is Istiklal Street, formerly known as Grand Rue de Pera. Prior to the establishment of the Republic, this street was the epicenter of European culture in Istanbul, encapsulated in an architectural melting pot of Art Nouveau, Neoclassic, and Neo-Gothic designs, along with eclectic houses showcasing a mix of these styles. The street was once a hub for European theaters, saloons, and alcohol-serving taverns.

While the demographic changes of the 20th century have undeniably transformed the district, the spirit of life’s festivities that once pervaded Istiklal Street continues to permeate the air. Today’s Beyoğlu is a district where history and modernity coexist, a fascinating cultural mosaic that is testament to Istanbul’s enduring appeal.

Art. Beyoğlu, the art and cultural hub of Istanbul, offers a wide range of free art galleries that are sure to impress art aficionados and casual observers alike. As exhibitions rotate every few months, there’s always something new to discover. Meşer, Yapi Kredi, Depo, Mixer, Anna Laudel, Galeri Zilberman, Galeri Nev İstanbul and Galerist are all particularly worth a visit, offering a myriad of intriguing and thought-provoking displays. A bit removed from the heart of Beyoğlu, but equally noteworthy, is Arter, the museum of contemporary art, which extends free admission every Thursday.

In the heart of Beyoğlu, the Pera Museum is a captivating spot for history and art enthusiasts. It houses an impressive collection of works by orientalist artists, captivated by the allure of Istanbul and inspired by its breathtaking views and the exoticism of harems. The collection includes works by the renowned Turkish orientalist painter Osman Hamdi Bey. The museum’s top two floors feature ever-changing exhibitions of contemporary art. A full ticket will cost 80 liras (2.53$), however, it offers free entrance every Friday evening.

A noteworthy recent addition to Beyoğlu’s dynamic art scene is the Postane Art Centre. Opened at the end of 2021 in a former post office building near the Galata Tower, Postane balances history and modernity, preserving century-old architectural features like the metal shutters while housing a co-working space, library, podcast recording studio, café, merchandise shop, and event venue. Whether you’re an art lover or an artist yourself, Beyoğlu is a district that nurtures creativity in every form.

Crimean Memorial Church. Just a short 200-metre stroll from the Şişhane metro station, you will discover one of the most intriguing sites in Istanbul: the Crimean Memorial Church. Constructed as a tribute to the British soldiers who lost their lives in the Crimean War of 1858-1868, this darkly beautiful edifice and its somewhat eerie garden give off a mysterious air.

Yet, its interior is home to a captivating collection of murals by the Scottish artist Mungo McCosh. McCosh’s unique approach involved using friends and prominent figures within the Anglican community and Istanbul as models for his saints and angels. He also liberally intermingled local cultural elements into his religious iconography, resulting in delightful details such as the baby Jesus cradling a simit, a popular Turkish sesame bagel, and the Apostle Thomas holding a rabbit once a resident of the church.

As you continue your exploration of Beyoğlu, you’ll encounter an array of Catholic churches that each has its unique charm. The Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, constructed in 1906, is a neo-Gothic masterpiece and the largest Catholic church in Istanbul. As a minor basilica, it enjoys certain privileges, such as the granting of indulgences.

Nearby, the St Mary’s Draperis Church caters to one of the oldest Catholic congregations in the city. Despite its austere neoclassical exterior, its interior will surprise you with its vibrant eclecticism, featuring German stained glass windows, Venetian school paintings, and ceiling vaults adorned with gold ornaments set against a striking blue backdrop. These churches, with their rich histories and architectural splendor, contribute to the cultural tapestry that makes Beyoğlu a must-visit district for any art and history enthusiast.

The interior of St Mary Draperis Church is very eclectic: German stained glass windows, paintings from the Venetian school and ceiling vaults painted in gold ornamentation on a blue background. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Recently reopened after an extensive renovation, the Atlas Cinema Museum is a gem nestled in the vibrant district of Beyoğlu. The museum’s interior, featuring preserved neo-Renaissance murals, promises an aesthetic journey back in time. Catering to both aficionados of old Turkish cinema and children, this highly interactive space provides an engaging exploration of Turkey’s rich cinematic history. A visit to the museum without benefits will cost 120 liras (3.80 $).

As you follow the bustling pedestrian-tram street, Istiklal, you’ll eventually reach the infamous Taksim Square. Known more for its vibrant political protests than its aesthetic appeal, Taksim Square may seem unremarkable at first glance, aside from a rather understated monument to the Republic. However, this space carries a weighty historical significance. It was once a European cemetery, but the graves were relocated in the latter half of the 19th century.

Despite the controversy surrounding its construction, a mosque now stands on the square, mirroring the largest functioning Greek Church of the Holy Trinity in Istanbul located directly opposite. Taksim Square, with its complex past and its constant presence in contemporary discourse, offers a stark contrast to the city’s more ornate and tranquil sites, reflecting Istanbul’s layered history and ongoing dynamism.

Cihangir and Karaköy: Wander Aimlessly Through Colorful Streets: A Bohemian Haven in Istanbul

Cihangir, an enchanting neighborhood nestled in Istanbul, promises a delightful exploration. Until a fire in 1916, Cihangir was dominated by sparse wooden structures. Post the disaster, new buildings, in line with European and Greek tastes, began to replace the charred remnants.

When the area saw a dwindling of its original inhabitants, immigrants from Central and Eastern Turkey filled in the gaps, lending their unique flavor to the neighborhood. Its location – in close proximity to the entertainment hubs of Istiklal and Taksim Square – combined with the affordability of its residences, made Cihangir a preferred destination for many.

The renowned Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, even relocated to Cihangir from the upscale district of Şişli following a personal financial setback. The neighborhood is also home to Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, opened in 2012. Although related to his novel of the same name, the museum stands on its own as an intriguing portal to everyday culture. Admission to the museum for visitors without benefits costs 100 liras (3.16 $).

Over time, Cihangir’s affordability and central location drew a vibrant community of artists, writers, intellectuals, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. This eclectic mix of residents, often regarded as bohemians, shaped Cihangir into an epicenter of diversity and inclusivity. As the neighborhood’s reputation grew, so did the cost of living, leading to an influx of expatriates seeking a taste of bohemian life, even as local Turkish workers migrated to other neighborhoods.

Today, Cihangir maintains its status as the city’s most English-speaking, vegan-friendly, and LGBTQ+ welcoming neighborhood, making it one of the most livable parts of Istanbul. The neighborhood’s pulsating heart can be found at the five-street intersection near the Firuz Agha mosque, where third-wave coffee shops breathe life into the ground floors of houses. Head west, and you’ll enter Çukurcuma, a haven of antique shops. A short stroll to the southeast will land you in quieter, but equally captivating parts of Cihangir, closer to the Bosphorus. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of colorful streets, but in Cihangir, that’s all part of the charm.

Entrance to the Karadeniz Antik antique shop in Çukurcuma.

Choosing where to dine or grab a coffee in Cihangir is hardly a daunting task. Thanks to its population of discerning visitors, many of whom tote their laptops in search of a work-friendly cafe, the neighborhood is packed with spots offering excellent food, coffee, Wi-Fi, and power outlets.

  • For coffee connoisseurs, Kronotop or its neighbor, Swedish Coffee Point, are must-visits.
  • Yasar Ustanin Dondurmasi is a small ice cream stand that frequently makes the ‘Best Ice Cream in Istanbul’ lists.
  • If you’re hankering for a fresh simit – a Turkish bagel – swing by Cihangir Tarihi Simit Fırini and you might be lucky enough to get one straight out of the oven.
  • For a sophisticated evening, head to 21 or Geyik for cocktails.
  • Susam Cafe is a versatile choice for either a meal or a calming cup of tea in a laid-back setting.

The adjacent neighborhood, Karaköy, offers a different vibe. While it’s densely packed with cafes, bars, pubs, and galleries, it can sometimes feel slightly contrived. Yet, it retains its unique charm. One of the city’s most fascinating Masonic buildings, Ziraat Bank, resides here, even though it’s currently closed for renovation. Its intriguing facade featuring Hiram Abiff, the mythical founder of Freemasonry, can still be appreciated.

Read our article on Karakoy’s revitalization

The streets of Karaköy.

In close proximity, you’ll find the Yeraltı Camii, an underground mosque characterized by low, arched vaults. Another hidden gem is the Russian Orthodox Church’s only functioning parish, founded in 1873 for Russian pilgrims and nestled on the fifth floor of an apartment building. Interestingly, the lower floors once served as a pilgrim hotel.

Tucked among the coffee houses is the church of the Autocephalous Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate, a testament to turbulent history. Established in the early 1920s as an alternative to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it is not recognized by any other Orthodox community. Yet, it remains a fascinating feature of the neighborhood, serving as both the Primate’s seat and the main temple. All these points of interest are just a leisurely stroll from one café to another, making the exploration an experience to cherish.

Delve into Şişli and Beşiktaş: Unveiling Non-Touristy Charms in Istanbul’s European Side

Departing from Taksim Square and venturing into the district of Şişli is like a breath of fresh air amid the city’s non-stop energy. Primarily a residence for the European Turks, including the celebrated author Orhan Pamuk’s family, Şişli carries a distinctive vibe where locals are more likely to frequent the neighborhood bar than the mosque.

The area brims with Art Nouveau-style houses, particularly along Kurtuluş Street, and is renowned for its fine bakeries where almond biscuits and tahinli çörek, a sweet puff pastry, are a must-try. The Bomontiada cultural centre, housed in the Ottoman Empire’s first brewery established by the Swiss Beaumonti brothers, is a fascinating site. Today, it accommodates a collection of cafés and pubs (a hotspot for craft beer enthusiasts), the museum of Ara Güler – Istanbul’s most famous photographer – and a couple of galleries.

A brief stroll will lead you to Nisantasi Park, known for its unusually high concentration of street cats, and Maçka Park, a popular picnic destination. From there, a leisurely walk can take you to the neighboring district of Beşiktaş.

Beşiktaş, a vibrant hub mainly frequented by Istanbulites, is a perfect place to immerse in the city’s daily life away from the tourist crowd. In the heart of this neighborhood, the Tarihi Simit Cafe offers delectable simits, a type of Turkish bagel, that you can enjoy while wandering towards the neo-baroque Ortaköy Mosque. Situated by the Bosphorus and next to the bridge, the mosque presents a picturesque sight with its intricate details.

Close by, a bustling street teems with shops serving kumpir – baked potatoes loaded with a variety of toppings. It’s quite a challenge to determine what truly draws people to Ortaköy: the irresistible allure of clicking photos against the backdrop of the magnificent mosque or the simple pleasure of devouring a hot kumpir while lounging by the Bosphorus.

A neo-baroque mosque in Ortaköy. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Arnavutköy, Bebek, and Tarabya are charming districts, perfect for leisurely, unplanned wanders. The neighborhoods are home to enchanting wooden mansions dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, a broad promenade perfect for quiet contemplation, hard-working fishermen, Greek churches, and quaint harbors.

The yalıs, as the wooden mansions are locally known, provide an architectural feast. Primarily from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a few rare finds from as early as the 18th century, these structures showcase a blend of baroque, neo-baroque, and Ottoman styles. Regardless of their age or preservation status, they add charm to a stroll along the waterside. Yet, their waterside location is a double-edged sword; occasionally, an errant ship will fail to navigate correctly and crash into the picturesque structures.

The area is also dotted with various foreign embassies and consulates, a legacy of the 19th century when the Caliphate administration gifted these prime locations to nations with which they sought friendly relations.

One can also visit Rumeli Hisar, a fortress erected by the Ottomans to blockade the Bosphorus. The fortress, remarkably well-preserved, provides breathtaking views of the Asian coast and the Bosphorus. All these districts, with their distinctive charm and unique history, present a peaceful retreat within Istanbul’s bustling cityscape. The entrance to the fortress will be priced at 130 liras (4.11 $).

Rumeli Hisar fortress offers an amazing view of the Asian coastline and the Bosphorus. Photo: Irina Kaplan

  • While the cafes in Arnavutköy, Bebek, and Tarabya do tend to run on the pricier side, the city hall’s Arnavutköy Sosyal Tesisleri provides an affordable alternative for those minding their budget.
  • Among these stylish locales, the Any Cafe & Bar makes its home in a converted mansion, catering to those yearning for familiar European fare amid a sea of kebabs and borek. Evening patrons are treated to the strains of live music that enrich the dining experience.
  • Nestled within an antique house, Antica Locanda offers an Italian spin on local cuisine. The restaurant’s courtyard hosts a garden with a few dining tables, creating a peaceful, secluded ambiance.
  • In one of the area’s renowned yalıs is Gazebo, presenting an opportunity to dine by the gentle lapping waters of the Bosphorus. Inside, the decor pays homage to the building’s grand past.
  • The Yeniköy Kahvesi, with its tranquil courtyard providing sweeping views of the Bosphorus, offers a rustic cafe atmosphere with modest prices.
  • For dessert, don’t miss Mini Dondurma, an unassuming storefront boasting an impressive array of traditional Turkish ice creams. An esteemed establishment, this ice cream parlour is a well-known destination for Istanbulites seeking a gastronomic pilgrimage across the city.

Asian Side. The Enchanting Moda: Hub for the Bohemian, Bibliophile, and the Gourmand

Nestled in Kadıköy, Moda echoes the spirited vibe of Istiklal on the European side, but this Asian district offers a distinctly Turkish flavor, devoid of the usual tourist hustle. Moda’s cornucopia of dining options, clubs, bars, and a promenade renowned for its spectacular sunset vistas, position it as a must-visit locale for any Istanbul itinerary.

Moda has hosted street art festivals for several years in a row. Photo: Irina Kaplan

The district has been the canvas for a mural festival, which attracts international artists and decorates Moda with world-class street art. Among the array of eateries is Meşhur Dondurmacı Ali Usta, an ice cream parlor that draws sweet-toothed visitors from across the city.

Wine enthusiasts will appreciate Viktor Levi Şarap Evi, a well-known wine bar with a reputation for both its selection and its price tag. Seafood aficionados shouldn’t miss Koço, a fish restaurant offering a breathtaking view and an unexpected surprise—a Byzantine chapel nestled in the basement. Even if you choose not to dine, the chapel is open for curious visitors, though the restaurant’s fish dishes come highly recommended.

Antique hunters and shoppers will find a trove of treasures in Moda. Meanwhile, art aficionados will appreciate Müze Gazhane, a recent addition to the district, which has transformed an old Ottoman gas warehouse into a vibrant cultural hub. This multifunctional space, under the city government’s jurisdiction, features museums, a library, a co-working space, a café, and a bookshop—all at accessible prices. The co-working room and library are even free of charge.

Journeying to Üsküdar, you’ll find the famed Maiden Tower, a mere 100 meters from the shore, perched on its own island in the Bosphorus. A structure steeped in history, it has served various roles from a lighthouse to a quarantine station and prison. Now, it houses a restaurant within its mid-20th century structure. However, its exterior beauty alone is enough to satisfy most visitors. Visiting the tower comes with a cost of 400 liras (12.66 $). In addition, there is a transportation fee of 50 liras (1.58 $) for access to the tower. The total entrance ticket will cost you 450 lira (14.24 $).

Just a 15-minute walk from Üsküdar pier lies Kuzguncuk, a charming former Greek-Jewish village. Its quaint architecture and café culture make it a beloved location for TV production. Amidst the preserved churches, synagogues, and old Greek and Jewish cemeteries, you can almost hear the echoes of the village’s past inhabitants.

Kuzguncuk is a small neighbourhood a 15-minute walk from Uskudar Marina, a former Greek-Jewish village with beautiful old architecture and cute cafés. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Embark on a journey up the Bosphorus from Kuzguncuk, treading a path once favored by Istanbul’s wealthy class for their opulent summer residences. A resplendent pastiche of architectural grandeur awaits, paying testament to the empire’s wealthy and powerful.

First on your path, the Beylerbeyi Sarayı Palace will seize your attention. This imperial Ottoman summer residence, with its lush gardens and stunning Bosphorus view, was once the exclusive retreat of sultans. Its six towers and lavish interiors whisper tales of royal holidays and illustrious foreign guests, from French empress Eugénie to Russian tsar Nicholas II.

Just a bit further along, nestled in the verdant embrace of a grove, the baroque Küçüksu Villa or Küçüksu Kasrı adds an Italianate touch to the Bosphorus shores. An epitome of 19th-century elegance, the villa was another Sultan’s summer retreat, and today it serves as a museum, drawing in visitors with its striking design and the majesty of its past.

The tourist ticket for Beylerbeyi Palace is priced at 200 liras (6.33 $), while the Küçüksu Villa can be visited for 90 liras (2.85 $).

As you continue your Bosphorus journey, the Anadoluhisarı comes into view. This Asian counterpart to the Rumeli Hisar was constructed in 1393 and stands proud as Istanbul’s oldest Ottoman building. Rising with its crenelated towers and sturdy walls at the mouth of the Küçüksu River, it’s a silent sentinel of the city’s past.

The river itself offers its own delightful tableau – boats bobbing gently in the current, and tranquil riverside cafés inviting you to rest and soak in the picturesque view. Take a ride on the river, allowing yourself to be gently carried along the water, or simply sit back in a café, savoring the ambiance of this centuries-old route of sultans and summering elites. Every step along the Bosphorus in Asia is a step back into an enchanting past, waiting to be explored.

For a concise 1-3 day guide to Istanbul’s must-see attractions, take a look at this article with city’s top-rated sights. Ideal for first-time visitors.

Istanbul Off the Beaten Path: Exploring Verdant Havens and Idyllic Isles

When the pulsating energy of Istanbul seems overwhelming, there exist serene sanctuaries offering a respite from the city’s incessant dynamism. From an expansive forest teeming with history to a tranquil archipelago etched with tales of exile and summer leisure, these locales promise a change of pace and scenery.

Belgrade Forest: A Verdant Respite Within Reach

30 kilometers from the Sultanahmet Mosque

Amid the urban expanse of Istanbul, green spaces are a cherished rarity, and the Belgrade Forest provides a tranquil haven just a short journey from the city. The forest received its name from the Serb captives who were relocated here following Suleiman the Magnificent’s siege of Belgrade in 1521. Situated 20 kilometers from the heart of Istanbul, the forest is a popular choice for picnics among locals. On weekdays, however, it transforms into a peaceful sanctuary, where you might chance upon the remnants of ancient aqueducts that once supplied water to the bustling city. The Maglova Aqueduct, designed by the celebrated Mimar Sinan, is a standout.

Prince’s Islands: An Archipelago Steeped in History

40 kilometers from Istanbul

For those seeking a respite from the city’s hustle and bustle, the Prince’s Islands offer an idyllic refuge. The archipelago, made up of nine islands with four regularly serviced by ferries, has been witness to both tales of Byzantine nobility banished in disgrace and stories of the opulent summer dwellings of prosperous Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Here, history intertwines with natural beauty, from old churches and stately mansions to lush forests and inviting beaches. The absence of motor vehicles adds to the islands’ appeal, ensuring the air remains refreshingly clean and the tranquility unspoiled. Escape the city and embrace the peaceful pace of life on the Prince’s Islands.

Heibeliada Island is one of the nine Princes’ Islands. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Rumelifeneri and Garipçe: Coastal Gems Touched by Time

40 km from Istanbul

Perched on the Black Sea’s European coastline lie the fishing hamlets of Rumelifeneri and Garipçe, both home to abandoned Genoese fortresses that harken back to an era bygone. Rich in mythology, these villages were reputed resting places for the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Today, visitors are drawn to the seafood restaurants, a testament to the villages’ fishing heritage.

Rumelifeneri also hosts a lighthouse, a vestige from the Crimean War erected by the French. Notably, the revered Muslim saint Sara Saltuk rests here. A short walk away, Garipçe offers stunning vistas of the third Bosphorus bridge and the river itself. Catch bus 150 from Haciosman Metro Station and sit on the driver’s right to take in the enchanting Bosphorus views.

Polonezköy: A Polish Enclave Amidst Turkish Woods

40 km from Istanbul

Nestled on the Asian coast amid verdant woods lies Polonezköy, a village founded in 1842 as an independent Polish settlement. Originally dubbed Adampol after its founder Adam Czartocki, the villagers were tax-exempt after siding with Turkey during the Crimean War. Subsequently, the village leaned into tourism, with pork-based dishes becoming a culinary attraction.

Although few Poles remain, Polonezköy symbolises enduring Turkish-Polish amity, often hosting treaty and memorandum signings between the two nations. Catholic dignitaries visiting Istanbul frequently visit the local church of Our Lady of Czestochowa, making Polonezköy a significant Catholic destination.

Şile: An Enchanting Coastal Escape

90 km from Istanbul

A far cry from Istanbul’s urban hustle, Şile stands as a serene suburb along the Black Sea known for its picturesque beaches. It offers a choice retreat for those seeking a beach holiday near Istanbul. Despite a somewhat unimpressive restored Genoese fortress and an old lighthouse, the town’s seaside appeal makes it worth the journey. Catch bus 139 from Uskudar for a two-hour journey to Şile’s heart. If the roads are clear, a car ride might just get you there in an hour.

Iznik: A Byzantine Jewel Within Reach

140 km from Istanbul

Iznik, once the Byzantine city of Nicaea, offers a glimpse into the Turkish countryside for those tight on time. An erstwhile capital of the Byzantine Empire during the Crusader conquest of Constantinople, it retains remnants of its glorious past, including the Ayia Sophia church (now a mosque), and remarkably preserved fortress walls. While an underwater museum unveiling the ancient structures and necropolis submerged in a 4th-5th century earthquake is yet to materialise, there’s still plenty to explore.

The town resides on the shores of the eponymous lake, renowned for some of Turkey’s most breathtaking sunsets. Encircled by olive groves, Iznik is known for its olive-related products available in the local shops – from olive oil to olive chocolates.

Once a major supplier of ceramic tiles for Ottoman mosques and palaces, Iznik now boasts a small market where artisans create charming souvenirs during their tea breaks. Low-cost and lightweight, these pendants and earrings make ideal gifts.

Reach Iznik from Istanbul by taking the IDO ferry from Yenikapı dock to Yalova, followed by a dolmush ride to Iznik. The trip includes a two-hour scenic ride along the Sea of Marmara.

Edirne: A Cultural Melting Pot at the Crossroads

240 km from Istanbul

Edirne, formerly Adrianople, lies near the Bulgarian and Greek borders, sharing closer cultural ties with them than Turkey. Once the Ottoman Empire’s capital, Edirne’s importance persisted even after Constantinople took over this status.

Edirne stands out for its diverse nationalities and religious communities, rivaling only Istanbul in this aspect. It holds significance for Bahá’í practitioners as their founder, Bahá’u’lláh, spent two years of exile here. Although his former residence, now a pilgrimage site, remains closed to the public, “friends of the Bahai faith” can arrange an invitation.

Edirne’s crown jewel is the Selimiye Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an architectural masterpiece by Mimar Sinan. This city, with its unique cuisine and history, beckons visitors for an enriching experience that defies borders.

Savoring the Richness of Turkish Cuisine: From Breakfast Rituals to Sweet Delights

Turkish cuisine reflects the Mediterranean diet’s staples but with unique twists: vegetables cooked until tender, soups whipped into creamy purées, meats and fish cooked to tenderness, all imbued with generous lashings of oil and rich tomato and pepper paste. However, the real essence of Turkish cuisine unfolds in its iconic breakfast spreads, delectable mezes, sumptuously cooked meats, and a delightful array of olives, fruits, and vegetables.

A Cult-Like Ritual: The Turkish Breakfast

In the grand theater of Turkish cuisine, breakfast plays the starring role. Celebrated in poetry and nurtured as an almost cult-like ritual, a typical Turkish breakfast unfurls an array of fresh vegetables, cheeses, olives, jams, bread, eggs, and the all-important tea. However, hotel breakfasts merely hint at the splendor of the traditional Turkish breakfast.

For a truly immersive culinary experience, one must dedicate at least a morning to savor an authentic Turkish breakfast. Imagine a table groaning under the weight of myriad plates heaped with a variety of cheeses, the finest olives, a steaming menemen (an omelette variant with vegetables) or kuymak (the Black Sea’s take on fondue), the freshest pastries, and endless cups of tea. The inviting ambiance makes you want to linger and indulge until lunchtime.

Turkey teems with breakfast joints, often run by migrants from different regions of the country. Each region imbues its breakfast with local specialties, making every breakfast platter a distinct culinary journey through the various landscapes of Turkey.

In the world of Turkish breakfasts, regional specialties take center stage, transporting you on a culinary journey across the country’s diverse landscapes.

  • Van Kahvaltı Evi, a popular breakfast chain, showcases the hearty breakfasts typical of Turkey’s Anatolian region. With branches spread across almost every neighborhood, Van Kahvaltı Evi is renowned for its organic produce sourced from trusted local farmers.
  • Doğacıyız Gourmet takes you further south to Antakya, a town whose cuisine is so unique it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antakya cuisine is more akin to Syrian flavors than traditional Turkish fare.
  • Arada represents the Levant’s culinary tradition, where the emphasis is on food rather than the ‘Instagrammability’ of the place. For delectable hummus and falafel, it’s best to explore Syrian and Lebanese eateries; traditional Turkish hummus might not live up to your expectations.
  • For a taste of the distinctive Black Sea fare like koymak and scrambled eggs with sujuk, Trabzon Serpmeköy Kahvaltısı is the place to be.
  • Küff Kolektif in Kadıköy serves delicious, traditional Turkish breakfasts without a regional spin, while Cihangir Sosyal Tesisleri, a state-run café, offers budget-friendly options coupled with stunning views of the Bosphorus.
  • In Besiktas, a couple of blocks along Çelebi Oğlu Sk. and Şair Veysi Sk., popularly referred to as the ‘breakfast street’, attract patrons with their student-friendly prices and vibrant ambiance.

Istanbul also has a rich tradition of breakfast pastries, with varieties like su boreki (puff pastries), pogaca (a baked bun with filling), açma (cooked puff pastry with cheese), and simit. Borek and bread shops open early, making them a popular breakfast destination. The district of Sariyer, situated along the Bosphorus near the Black Sea, is famous for its borek. However, if you’re craving for a pastry smothered in butter, you can head to Meşhur Karaköy Börekçisi.

The Soup Tradition: From Quick Morning Meals to Hangover Cures

While traditional Turkish breakfasts with multiple plates and lively conversation are indeed delightful, a more common quick morning meal in Turkey is soup (Çorba). To explore the variety of Turkish soups, consider visiting Çorba Evi. This tiny, soup-only establishment, located in a repurposed church, offers about 20 different kinds of soup.

Çorba Evi is a tiny place that serves only soups, about 20 kinds. It is located in one of the working rooms of an out-of-work church. Photo: Irina Kaplan

Two traditional favorites are İşkembe and Kelle Paça, both made from offal, hooves, and tails. İşkembe is widely considered a hangover soup – its unusual appearance alone can be enough to jolt you back to sobriety. Kelle Paça, on the other hand, doesn’t have such an intimidating reputation. It’s essentially a hot Turkish take on jellied meat.

If you’re interested in sampling Kelle Paça, look for it in older, specialty establishments:

  • Fatih İşkembecisi: An old soup house in the workers’ district, it has been serving since 1958. Located near the aqueduct and the Zeyrek Mosque, it’s a glimpse into the past.
  • Kanaat Lokantası: Situated in Üsküdar, this place opens at six in the morning, catering to workers rushing to the morning shift. The soup is often finished before lunch, so it’s advisable to visit early. However, the establishment is worth a visit in the afternoon as well.
  • Tarihi Haliç İşkembecisi: Operating since 1938, this venue offers not only traditional soup recipes but also boasts a cool antique shop atmosphere and a view of the Golden Horn.

Lokantas: Affordable, Quick and Delicious Food Options

Lokantas are inexpensive, unpretentious eateries that offer a wide variety of ready-made meals at a very reasonable price. One of the favorite lokantas is Balkan Lokantası, which has branches in several popular touristic destinations. Galata Kitchen, while similar to other lokantas, stands out with its use of organic ingredients, balanced taste, and innovative combinations. It also offers plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans.

Affordable and tasty meals are also available at migrant-focused eateries, such as the Syrian Buuzecedi Lokantası and Vezir Han Şark Sofrası in Fatih.

For a quick bite on the go, you might consider a roll with çig köfte, a dish originally from southern Turkey. Traditionally, it was a cutlet made of raw meat and lots of spices. However, due to a ban on raw meat dishes in Turkey, bulgur has replaced the meat in çig köfte, making it a completely vegan and very affordable snack. There are numerous çig köfte outlets with their distinct brown-colored, oddly shaped cutlets usually painted on the windows.

  • Çiya, a restaurant in Kadıköy, is a must-visit destination for its unique and rare specialties. The chef and owner of the restaurant collects forgotten Turkish recipes from different provinces and revives them in his kitchen.
  • Herise İstanbul is a small family-run restaurant in Kadıköy known for its excellent meze and keşkek, a traditional dish from southern Turkey made from boiled meat and wheat.
  • Gazebo is a restaurant in the Yeniköy district of the Bosphorus. It offers good food and features the interior of an old mansion, complete with a grand piano in one of the rooms. But its main draw is the stunning view of the Bosphorus.
  • No 19 Dining in Cihangir operates on a unique concept. There’s no menu and the food is prepared by the hostess of the place using seasonal produce.
  • Finally, the Pudding Shop is a café mentioned in the first Lonely Planet guide. It was a favorite stop for hippies traveling overland to India and remains a notable spot for its historic significance and charm.

Fish: A Staple of Istanbul’s Cuisine

Istanbul’s geographical location provides access to a wide variety of local and imported fish. The fish season typically starts in autumn and lasts until March, presenting a culinary treat for seafood lovers. Dorado (sarıgöz or çipura), sea bass (levrek), shrimp (karides), and anchovy (hamsi) are all local fish frequently featured in Istanbul’s dishes.

Imported frozen mackerel is often used to create balik ekmek, a popular sandwich made with a bun or pita bread. One of the best places to try this iconic street food is at Super Mario Emin Usta, located near the Galata Bridge. While the stall usually attracts long queues, the wait is worth it for the properly cleaned and prepared fish.

For those seeking a more formal dining experience, Istanbul boasts numerous fish restaurants. Balat Sahil Meyhanesi and Koço are two such establishments renowned for their quality seafood offerings. Whether you’re a seafood connoisseur or just a foodie looking to explore the local cuisine, Istanbul’s fish dishes are sure to offer a delightful culinary adventure.

Fishermen on Galata Bridge.

Sweets: A Delightful Part of Turkish Cuisine

While baklava and Turkish delight (lokum) are iconic staples of Turkish desserts, the sweet journey in Istanbul extends far beyond them. Café Asuman is renowned for its delectable Kraft chocolate and stylish desserts, which while still sweet, offer a fine dining twist on traditional treats. The French patisserie, Baylan Istanbul 1923, located in the chic Bebek neighborhood, is also a haven for dessert enthusiasts, pioneering Istanbul’s appreciation for fine pastries and desserts.

Turkish ice cream (dondurma) is another unique sweet treat that merits a mention. Dondurma has a distinctive chewy texture and resistance to melting, achieved by the addition of salep, a flour made from the tubers of the wild orchid, and mastic, a resin that adds elasticity. Its unique texture might not be for everyone, but those who develop a taste for it often become avid fans.

For those interested in trying this special ice cream, there are several notable places in Istanbul offering their artisanal versions:

  • Yasar Ustanin Dondurmasi: This ice cream shop in Cihangir offers an impressive selection of sorbets, along with very affordable prices.
  • Mini Dondurma: Despite its small size, this Bebek-based ice cream shop offers a huge selection of flavors, attracting dessert lovers from all around the city.
  • Damla Dondurma: This beloved Kurtulus-based establishment not only serves dondurma, but also bouza, a kind of Middle Eastern ice cream.
  • Meşhur Dondurmacı Ali Usta: Known far and wide, people from all over the city flock to this place to enjoy their ice cream.

Exploring the sweet side of Istanbul is an experience you will cherish, especially if you have a sweet tooth. The city’s wide range of confectioneries, from traditional treats to innovative desserts, offers something for everyone.

Coffee: A Deep-Rooted Tradition in Istanbul

Istanbul’s coffee culture has a rich history that dates back to the Ottoman era and is deeply entrenched in the city’s way of life. The traditional way to enjoy coffee in Istanbul is to have a Turkish coffee, prepared using finely ground coffee beans boiled in a pot (cezve), often sweetened and served in a small cup where the grounds are allowed to settle. This brewing method results in a strong, rich, and full-bodied coffee.

However, over the years, a new wave of specialty coffee shops has emerged in Istanbul, catering to a younger generation of coffee enthusiasts seeking new flavors and brewing methods. These establishments maintain a balance between tradition and innovation, often serving a mix of traditional Turkish coffee alongside espresso-based beverages and other modern brewing methods.

  • Ağaibedener: This upscale coffee house also serves as a radio station, providing a unique and vibrant atmosphere. Besides enjoying a good cup of coffee, you can listen to a Turkish DJ adding to the charm of the place.
  • Kronotop and EspressoLab: These coffee chains try to uphold the image of good coffee with a focus on quality beans and brewing techniques.
  • Swedish Coffee Point: With a focus on Scandinavian coffee culture, they offer a different twist on the coffee experience in Istanbul.
  • Petra Topağacı: Known as one of the pioneers of in-house coffee roasting in Istanbul, Petra Topağacı has been a significant influence on the local specialty coffee scene.
  • Urban Roastery and Walter’s Coffee Roastery: Both coffee houses are located in Moda, a neighborhood known for its trendy cafés. They offer excellent coffee and spacious tables, making them a great spot for working or studying.

For those who wish to explore more of Istanbul’s specialty coffee scene, europeancoffeetrip.com provides information on 34 specialty coffee shops in Istanbul. As you delve into this world of coffee in Istanbul, you will discover a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation that offers a unique experience.

Alcohol: The Rakı Culture and Turkish Wines

The great Istanbul photographer Ara Güler once said that fish are not caught with a fishing rod but with rakı. Turkey’s drinking culture is deeply rooted in its traditions, with rakı being a particularly iconic drink. Rakı is a strong, anise-flavored spirit, similar to those found in various Balkan countries and the Middle East. However, for Turks, rakı is more than just a drink – it’s a part of the national heritage.

Rakı is typically diluted with water and sipped slowly from tall, thin glasses while engaging in long conversations. It’s often enjoyed with meze, a selection of small dishes often involving fish, olive oil, and a range of mostly vegan ingredients. The traditional place to enjoy rakı and meze is at a meyhane, a sort of Turkish tavern. Some of the best meyhanes in Istanbul include Asmalı Cavit and Agora Meyhanesi, both of which preserve the spirit of old Istanbul establishments.

Turkey also has a burgeoning wine scene, with many indigenous grape varieties grown in regions across the country. In Istanbul, there are several places where you can sample Turkish wines:

  • Solera Winery: Located near Istiklal, this winery serves only Turkish wines at very reasonable prices. The service is friendly, and they offer a great selection of mezes. Next door is Olea Pizzeria, where you can order a pizza to enjoy with your wine.
  • Foxy Istanbul: Located in Besiktas, this bar also specializes in Turkish wines and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.

Shopping and Souvenirs: From Designer Wares to Antique Finds

Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, is a paradise for shoppers, with options to fit every budget. Thanks to a combination of economic factors, prices for many goods and services are relatively low, making it an affordable destination for tourists.

Brand-name shopping: You’ll find standalone shops for well-known brands along Istiklal Street and nearby areas. For a more concentrated shopping experience, consider visiting shopping malls like Cevahir in Şişli or the lavish Kanyon near the Levent metro station. It’s worth noting that several major brands including LC Waikiki, De Facto, Mavi, Cotton, Colin’s, and Philipp Plein are Turkish, and their prices locally are considerably cheaper. Also, global brands like H&M, Mango, Levi’s, and Zara have factories in Turkey, which means their prices can be significantly lower than in other countries.

Antiques dealer Nevzat Onmus, owner of AntikAci and a four-storey prop warehouse for Plato Platonik cinema. It’s quite possible to get into the warehouse (if there’s no filming there) and try to buy some of the props

Local designers: For a uniquely Turkish shopping experience, consider stores like Aponia Store and Crashgalata, which feature clothing with distinctive prints reflecting Turkish culture. The vegan footwear and accessories chain, Dogo, has several outlets in Istanbul where you can find shoes and accessories adorned with cats, the Galata Tower, and other iconic Istanbul motifs.

Antiques and vintage: The district of Cukurcuma, made famous by Orhan Pamuk, is renowned for its abundance of antique shops. Aslı Günşiray Interiors and the four-storey Alaturcahouse, which specializes in carpets, textiles, and crockery, are among the best. Antik Aci is another large antique shop worth a visit. For bibliophiles, Denizler Kitabevi on Istiklal is a great place for second-hand books. Vintage aficionados should also explore Kadıköy and check out places like Sah Galeri. Lastly, the Feriköy Antika Pazarı flea market in Şişli, open on Sundays, is a treasure trove of second-hand and vintage items.

Feriköy Antika Pazarı

Whether you’re looking to treat yourself or find unique gifts for loved ones, there are plenty of culinary delights and products in Turkey to choose from.

  • Olives: Turkey is known for its excellent olives. You’ll find a variety of inexpensive yet tasty options from brands like Marmarabirlik in almost every supermarket. However, if you want to explore a wider range, head to local markets in Kadıköy or Eminonyu where you can find olives from different regions, with varying degrees of saltiness, and even spiced or grilled options.
  • Cheeses: Supermarkets like Carrefour or Migros offer a decent selection of local cheeses, but for more artisanal products, go to the local markets. There, you can find aged goat cheese and other fresh cheeses from various regions. Alternatively, visit breakfast food stalls like Namlı Gurme.
  • Sweets: For the best baklava, visit Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Turkish delight (lokum) is available everywhere, but for a unique twist, try pomegranate in sausages or sprinkled with various toppings, such as rose petals or pistachios. For Turkish coffee, consider buying ground Mehmet Efendi coffee from Eminonu. The Uc Yildiz confectionery in Beyoglu offers handcrafted Turkish delights with unusual fillings such as cinnamon and mastic.
  • Kolonya: A local disinfectant that predates Covid, Kolonya comes in various fragrances, mostly herbal, and makes a perfect, uniquely Turkish souvenir. Lemon-scented Kolonya from the brand Eyüp Sabri Tuncer is especially popular.
  • Herbal cosmetics: Consider bringing back rose water, aromatic oils, black cumin oil, handmade soaps, herbal teas, and other organic products. You can find these items around the Egyptian market or in Aktar specialist shops throughout the city. These natural products not only represent the Turkish tradition of herbal healing but also make thoughtful, practical gifts.

A Room with a View: Where to Stay in Istanbul

Imposing mosques, bustling bazaars, and tantalizing gastronomy are among Istanbul’s myriad attractions. However, selecting the right accommodation can add a whole new layer to the city’s charm. Be it a lavish boutique hotel or a cozy corner within a historic district, the city has something for every visitor’s taste and preference.

Sultanahmet, the historical heart of Istanbul, hosts an abundance of hotels nestled among the famed Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. A nightfall, however, brings a marked quiet to the area as the day’s tourists retire, leaving behind a tranquil shell filled with souvenir shops and eateries. Ideal for those seeking a museum-filled itinerary, Sultanahmet’s accommodations come with the perk of convenience.

  • Eresin Hotel is a noteworthy hotel in this neighborhood. Its archaeological roots trace back to the early 1990s when mosaics and columns were unearthed during excavation. Instead of relegating these artifacts to a museum, they are now proudly integrated into the hotel’s architecture.
  • A few steps away lies the Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul (part of Hilton Hotels), famous for its ancient hamam complex, which breathes life into the past.
  • Alternatively, inject a dose of whimsy into your stay at the quirky Kybele, a hotel exuberantly decorated by its owners.

For travelers keen to immerse themselves in the vibrant life of Istanbul beyond the historic landmarks, the neighborhoods of Beyoglu and Kadıköy beckon. Beyoglu, though vast and unpredictable, has its charm. A word of caution for the unwary traveler: accommodations near the British Embassy can mislead you into the less desirable area of Tarlabasi. However, it’s only a short walk to some of the most intriguing spots around Galata Tower, Karaköy, and Cihangir.

Beyoglu’s character also seeps into its boutique hotels. The historic restored mansions of Meroddi ooze an old-world charm, while the grandeur of Pera Palace, initially built for European voyagers arriving via the Orient Express, transports you to a time of luxury and leisure.

When it comes to soaking in Istanbul’s vibrant life and rich culture, where you lay your head matters. Choose wisely, and let your accommodation enhance your Turkish escapade.

Istanbul boasts a multitude of chain hotels, many of which cater to business travelers and are located far from tourist attractions. However, chain hotels near tourist hotspots often offer competitive rates compared to independent options, all the while providing a consistently high service level.

  • Ramada by Wyndham Istanbul Old City is a solid choice, offering complimentary breakfasts and frequent room upgrades, starting at $79 per night.
  • The Radisson Istanbul Sultanahmet is another commendable choice, offering excellent value for money. Situated at an ideal location, room rates start from $156 per night.
  • Mercure Istanbul Sirkeci, situated near the Sirkeci train station in the Fatih district, offers impressive accommodations with prices starting at $147 per night.
  • In the Asian part of Istanbul, DoubleTree By Hilton Istanbul-Moda stands out. Located a stone’s throw away from the ferry station and airport bus stop, nightly rates begin at $194.
  • The Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus, one of the city’s first large chain hotels, offers stunning views of the Bosphorus and Beşiktaş from its hilltop location. Prices start from $236 per night.
  • For a touch of luxury, consider the Orientbank Hotel Istanbul, Autograph Collection. This beautiful yet brand new hotel starts at $253 per night.
  • The Bebek Hotel By The Stay Collection, a high-end boutique hotel in the Bebek district, offers a unique stay. Although it’s far from the city center, the quality of accommodations justify the $655 per night price tag.
  • For those who prefer the utmost luxury and the high standards of the Marriott chain, JW Marriott Istanbul Bosphorus could be the perfect fit. Prices start from $381 per night.

A Digital Nomad’s Guide to Living and Working

For the long-term digital nomad, selecting a comfortable, convenient neighbourhood for a flat rental is key. While the appeal of jetting off to a new locale daily might be enticing, the novelty quickly fades. Sure, a fresh flat on the Asian coast’s remote edge might cost a third of the price, but a residence in Moda or Şişli pays dividends with bar proximity, a robust expat community, and a matching lifestyle.

Don’t expect spacious studios in Istanbul. Most consist of small kitchens, bathrooms, and combined living and bedroom spaces. Property listings use a scheme to describe the rooms: 1+1 denotes a one-bedroom flat with a living room, and so forth. With a bit of patience, you can find a decent 1+1 or even 2+1 flat starting at $500. At the $700-1000 range, expect higher quality options — think balconies, views, and quality furniture. Unfurnished flats can be a bargain, and you can easily outfit your new abode via second-hand shops or Ikea. Sahibinden.com is a valuable resource for owner-listed properties. Be mindful that not all landlords cater to foreigners requiring residence permit documents, and certain parts of Istanbul have maxed out foreigner residence permits.

Looking at Airbnb, a month-long stay in a flat will start from $1000 in Beyoglu and Balat, $1200 in Moda, and $1500 in the Sultanahmet area.

For workspaces, Turkish freelancers lean toward well-equipped coffee shops boasting comfy tables, outlets, and swift Wi-Fi. Espresso Lab, a café chain, makes an easy choice with its work-conducive ambience. Those desiring a homier feel might enjoy the Türk Alman Kitabevi bookstore on Istiklal or the Minoa bookstore chain.

For an artistic flair, spaces blending café, co-working, art gallery, and museum functions nestle in historic buildings. These expansive complexes can be found in Karaköy and Beyoğlu, such as the Salt Cultural Centre, or the Arter Gallery in Dolapdere. On the Asian side, apart from the bookstores, you’ll find intriguing spots like the new Müze Gazhane in Kadıköy or Nevmekan Sahil in Usküdar. Ultimately, Turkish freelancers work anywhere that accommodates a charger.

SALT

Navigating Istanbul’s Airports: Arrival Options

Istanbul hosts two airports: the sprawling Istanbul New Airport (IST), inaugurated in 2019 in the city’s European part, and the cozier Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) in Asia, favored by budget airlines.

Those who wish to drive can rent a car straight from the airport. While in the bustling city of Istanbul a car may be more of a hindrance than a help, if your plans include venturing across the country, it’s a useful option. For road trip inspirations, check out our previously published article detailing Turkey’s most captivating routes.

Reaching the city from Istanbul New Airport (IST) is facilitated by round-the-clock Havaist buses. For a fare of 87 lira (approximately 2.75$), passengers can reach Taksim Square within approximately 90 minutes. Apart from Taksim, the buses offer numerous alternative destinations. A direct route to several Turkish cities bypassing Istanbul is also available from the airport. Beyond shuttles, regular IETT buses connect the new airport with various metro stations. Opting for these buses and the metro can be cheaper than a shuttle, potentially quicker too if you’re familiar with Istanbul’s public transportation system. Google Maps is a handy tool for figuring out routes. In terms of metro, Line M11 connects to Kağıthane station, from where you likely have to switch to another mode of transportation.

Airport taxis operate with established rates for different city areas, with prices unaffected by time of day or weather conditions. However, passengers bear the cost for bridge and toll roads if these routes are chosen. A ride to Taksim ranges around 350 lira (approximately 11.08$) (in yellow cab).

For those landing at Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW), the M4 metro line (Kadıköy – Sabiha Gokcen Airport) was extended to the airport in 2022. A trip on the Istanbulcard costs 7.67 lira (0.25$), whereas a single ticket is priced at 15 lira (0.47$).

From Sabiha, Havabus shuttles operate between 4:00 and 23:30, with routes to three destinations – Kadıköy, Yenisahra and Taksim metro. A ticket to Kadıköy costs 50 lira (approximately 1.58$) and the journey takes about an hour. Various city buses offer less predictable schedules but cheaper fares compared to shuttles.

Taxi fares to Taksim from Sabiha Gokcen start at 320 lira (approximately 10.13$). The cost to Kadıköy on the Asian side ranges from 255 (8.07$) to 435 lira (13.77$).

A Guide to Public Transit

The bustling metropolis of Istanbul teems with a whirlwind of traffic, a scenario both intimidating and potentially draining. However, rest assured that efficient alternatives await, immune to the perils of congestion. Trams, subways, and ferries are your allies in navigating this dynamic city with ease.

Upon arrival, your first investment should be an “Istanbulkart”, a multi-use transit card that will open the gates to the city’s public transportation system. Istanbulkart vending machines, known as Biletmatik, are located at convenient junctures throughout the city including metro entrances, bus stops, and marinas, as well as in kiosks and BIM supermarkets. The machines provide user-friendly interfaces in English, ensuring a smooth purchase process. A one-time deposit of 50 lira (1.58$) is required, in addition to your chosen amount for fare. Take note that these machines accept only banknotes and do not provide change – the entirety of the deposited sum will go toward your balance.

The imperative here is to keep your card topped up. It’s not always guaranteed to find a refill machine at every bus stop, and single-use cards have become virtually obsolete in Istanbul. The Istanbulkart is accepted across all modes of public transportation, save for the privately operated minibuses known as dolmuş.

For a picturesque commute, the city’s ferries are the discerning traveler’s best companion. Unencumbered by road traffic, they offer unrivaled panoramas of Istanbul from the water, all while sipping a cup of tea from the onboard buffet. The ferries link the city’s European and Asian sides, serve the idyllic Princes’ Islands, and cruise the iconic Bosphorus and Golden Horn. Fare information and schedules are available on the Sehir Hatlari Ferry Company website, with prices ranging from 12 to 29 lira (0.38–0.92$) depending on the distance. For expedited crossings, the IDO high-speed ferries operate from selected marinas.

Lastly, the city’s tram lines, which include two nostalgic routes traversing Istiklal in the city center and the downtown Kadiköy area, offer another quick and efficient transit option. If your chosen abode lies in Beyoglu, look for accommodations near the Karakoy, Kabatas, and Tophane tram stops for maximum convenience.

Taxis in Istanbul can be hailed via digital platforms such as biTaksi or Uber, or you can simply spot one at a taxi stand. Unlike in some other countries, app-based taxi services in Istanbul do not inflate their rates. The apps merely connect you with a driver who, upon completion of the trip, inputs the fare as dictated by the taxi meter into the app. This fare is then charged to your card.

It’s vital to ensure that your taxi driver has the meter running. Despite your choice of hailing a taxi through an app, it’s no guarantee against potential misdeeds. An unscrupulous driver might, for instance, not end the trip upon dropping you off, later inputting an inflated fare into the app.

As of June 2023, taxi fares are updated annually, and a ride in a standard yellow or Bordeaux taxi starts at 12.65 lira (0.40$), with each subsequent kilometer costing 8.51 lira 0.27$). For a more luxurious experience, turquoise and black taxis are available, but do note that they come with a heftier price tag.

Weather and Climate

Istanbul’s climate is greatly influenced by its unique geography. Bounded by the Black Sea to the north, bisected by the Bosphorus Strait, and with its shores caressed by the Sea of Marmara, the city experiences persistent high humidity. This coastal city, ensconced between two continents, also boasts a small bay known as the Golden Horn.

In winter, the cold is tempered by the surrounding water bodies, ensuring temperatures seldom dip below freezing. Even if they do, the chill is short-lived. Snowfall is not an annual event and is typically brief, only lasting two to three days when it does occur. However, the combination of gusty winds and high humidity can make the winter feel especially frigid.

A lesson in dressing for Istanbul’s weather can be gleaned from local grandmothers, who swear by the “three layers” rule.

The rule of ‘three layers’ is clearly from the Turkish grandmothers.

During summer, the mercury can soar to an average of 40 degrees Celsius. The city’s characteristic humidity can intensify the heat, making it feel oppressive. If you’re planning a summer visit, ensure your accommodations have air conditioning, and always keep sunscreen handy. For a more comfortable journey, consider scheduling your trip in the milder seasons of spring or autumn.

Autumn in Istanbul is a protracted affair, often extending into December, keeping the atmosphere pleasantly autumnal. Spring is a season of bloom, with magnolias adorning the city starting in early March, followed by the Tulip Festival in April. These seasons provide a comfortable backdrop for enjoying the city’s countless attractions.

Cheap tickets to Istanbul

Pre-Travel Study: Literary and Cinematic Exposures to Istanbul

Books

“Istanbul: Memories and the City” by Orhan Pamuk is a cornerstone work and, deservedly, one of the most popular books for imbibing the essence of Istanbul. Written by the Turkish Nobel laureate, it is a non-fiction collection of city sketches, personal reminiscences, and observations of life in the author’s younger years. It is worth noting, though, that the Istanbul that Pamuk describes is not the one that exists today. Hence, to locate the Istanbul of Pamuk’s prose, readers need to employ their imaginations. Despite this, the historical and cultural expeditions depicted in the book are subjectively captivating, witty, and often insightful.

“Stamboul Ghost: A Stroll Through Bohemian Istanbul” by John Freely is an alternative for those familiar with Pamuk’s work. Although in English, Freely’s writing is simple and engaging. His nostalgic reflections about Istanbul during the 1960s and 70s are seen from a different perspective, that of an American-Irish visiting lecturer living a bohemian lifestyle in Istanbul. As the author of a top Istanbul travel guide (and about 50 other works about Istanbul and Turkey), Freely shares numerous colorful anecdotes about Istanbul’s eccentric figures of that era. The book, enriched with illustrations by Ara Güler, provides humorous and affectionate tributes to Freely’s now-deceased friends and could serve as a delightful gift for aesthetically-inclined friends heading to Istanbul.

“Rest” by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar is a novel that Orhan Pamuk once declared as the greatest ever written about Istanbul. The narrative unfolds in 1939 on the eve of World War II, focusing on the relationship between two young men. The style and mood of the book have resonances with Russian literature. However, beyond the characteristic introspective torment found in Russian classics, there are abundant references to music, love, and the city of Istanbul. While nearly a century has passed since its composition and Istanbul has seen drastic transformations, the city that Tanpınar depicted still exists – the sleepy Usküdar, the leisurely Kandilli, the dusty Fatih, and the bustling Beyoğlu. The book provides a comprehensive and contemporary guide to Istanbul, likely due to Tanpınar’s focus on the city’s inhabitants rather than just its sights.

Movies

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul,” 2005. This documentary by Turkish-born German director Fatih Akin dives into the rhythm of Istanbul through its diverse music scenes. Though the film is a few years old and the musical trends may have evolved, the heart and soul captured through its narratives and melodies are timeless.

Losers’ Club,” 2011. This emblematic Turkish film is refreshingly devoid of typical touristic scenes and overblown drama. It narrates the story of two friends who run a radio show titled “Losers’ Club,” which unexpectedly gains popularity. The setting of the film is in Kadıköy, offering an authentic slice of Istanbul life.

Kedi” or “Kingdom of Cats,” 2016. This is a heartwarming documentary that weaves tales of Istanbul’s ubiquitous street cats and the people who share their lives with them. Showcasing diverse feline characters, varied human stories, and distinct neighborhoods, this film is remarkably gentle and kind, painting a picture of a community that knows the depth of love and care. While it does not spotlight the usual landmarks, it offers captivating bird’s-eye and cat’s-eye views of the city.

Insider Tips

On significant religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Uraza Bayram, as well as on major national holidays, the city administration offers free public transportation—a pleasant surprise for the unsuspecting visitor.

  • Come April 1st, the city blooms in a riot of colors for the annual Tulip Festival. The heart of Istanbul transforms into a canvas of floral ‘carpets,’ particularly in main tourist hotspots like Sultanahmet and Taksim. However, the true epicenter of the festival resides in Emirgan Park.

  • For those intending to purchase a Turkish SIM card, it might be worthwhile to solicit the help of a Turkish acquaintance. The cost is almost halved when bought with a Turkish passport. Another economical alternative is buying an eSIM from Airalo, where 5GB costs just $12.

  • When in need to exchange currency, ATMs can be your best friend if you cannot find an exchange office nearby. However, bear in mind that almost all banks levy a withdrawal fee.

  • Public restrooms are not uncommon in parks, and you can pay for them with your Istanbulkart. However, parks are not a common feature in Istanbul, but mosques, which are abundant, usually offer free restroom facilities. In the heart of the city, restrooms are easy to locate, typically in the nearest hotel.

  • For those partial to Netflix or Spotify, subscribing to these services while in Turkey could be a game-changer. With one of the world’s lowest subscription fees ($1-2), Turkey could potentially save you a lot. Notably, a Turkish bank card is not a prerequisite for this process. Simply disable your account prior to your journey, then upon arrival in Turkey, log in and attempt to renew your subscription. The system will detect your location and offer the prices in Lira, which will be deducted from the card linked to your account.

About the Author: Irina Kaplan, a respected religious scholar and passionate Istanbul inhabitant, has called the city her home for over three years. She harbors a profound fascination for the city’s tapestry of religious minorities and their histories, her academic interests intricately woven into her everyday explorations. A bibliophile at heart, she often finds herself immersed in the myriad cool bookstores that dot the city. Her interest also extends to the unique churches that punctuate Istanbul’s skyline, their architectural beauty and spiritual narratives offering endless fascination. However, it’s Istanbul’s cemeteries that truly captivate her, their silent stories echoing the city’s rich past and multi-faceted identities.

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