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Istanbul is a magical, vibrant city with so much to do. I have visited twice, most recently on a short trip before continuing to on to visit Georgia for a week. This guide will cover all of the best places to visit in Istanbul, Turkey.
Best time to visit Istanbul
Istanbul can be visited all year round, but the best time to visit Istanbul is from mid-April to June and September and October. During these seasons you’ll have warm weather but not as many crowds. They are also not nearly as hot at the summer months. The rainy season is typically from November to April, sometimes extending into May.
How to get to Istanbul
There are two airports (IST) and (SAW). I recommend booking all of your flights in and out of IST if possible, especially if you’re traveling during heavy traffic. There is a bus from the IST airport but a taxi should only cost you around $20 to the city center.
Alternatively you can book a private transfer from the airport to ensure your pickup (without waiting for a taxi) for just a few dollars more here.
We booked our flight out of SAW thinking that we were saving money on a cheaper flight. However, there were no public transportation options and no Uber would pick up our trip during heavy traffic. Our hotel was finally able to find us a driver (and a steep price) and we almost missed our flight. So if you’re flying out of SAW, plan accordingly.
Getting around Istanbul
The main areas of Istanbul are super walkable, but if you want to get outside of the main city center then I would recommend using public transportation (as you saw above, traffic can be terrible) because Istanbul is a huge city. And if you are planning to travel by public transportation, make sure pick up an IstanbulKart from the airport and activate it there! You can purchase it at any of the yellow or blue machine. You will then need to connect your HES code to the cart, a newer rule due to the pandemic. We struggled to find a place within the city that would activate our card, so we had to buy a bunch of single ride tickets instead, which can add up.
In Istanbul you will find buses, metros, trams, and ferries. We found the metros and trams the easiest (and fastest) for navigating. The ferries are also fun, and give you the opportunity to see the city from the water. Plus, they usually aren’t as crowded as the other forms of transportation.
Things to know before visiting Istanbul
Make sure you dress appropriately
When entering a mosque, it is important that women cover both their head and knees. A long dress and a scarf/shawl works well for this. Men must cover their knees as well, but no need to cover their heads. If you don’t have proper attire, you can often rent some before entering a mosque.
The currency in Istanbul is the Turkish Lisa, which is typically around 8 Turkish Lira to the dollar. A lot of places are cash only so make sure to carry cash, in addition to your credit cards.
You will need a visa to enter the country. Make sure to apply for this at least a few days in advance. You will also need to apply for a HES code.
Best places to visit in Istanbul
Completed in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest cathedral for more than a millenium. The Hagia Sophia was designated as as UNESCO Heritage Site in 1985. It is easily one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, and of course, one of the best places to visit in Istanbul, Turkey.
Hours: Daily except Monday from 9am to 7pm in the spring and summer and 9am to 5pm in the fall and winter.
Cost: There is no entrance fee to enter the Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is another one of the best places to visit in Istanbul, and most popular at that. The Blue Mosque is located in the Sultanahmet district, closeby to many other famous religious sites.
The mosque interior shows off over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles, hence the name.
It is best to visit in the morning, when the crowds tend to be less.
Hours: Daily from 9am to 5pm, closed during prayer times.
Cost: There is no entrance fee to enter the Blue Mosque
The Grand Bazaar
If you’re looking to shop, then the Grand Bazaar is for you. The market spans across dozens of streets, stretching in every direction. From souvenirs to antique maps and jewelry, there is something for everyone here. In fact, the Grand Bazaar has over 3000 shops! To date the Grand Bazaar remains one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
The Grand Bazaar is open daily (except Sunday) from 9am to 7pm, although some shops start to close a bit earlier.
Tip: Make sure to bargain at the Grand Bazaar for the best deals!
While not as famous as some of the other mosques in Istanbul, Suleymaniye Mosque is just as beautiful. Entrance is free, and I recommend going early to avoid the crowds. If you’re walking it is a bit of a trek up to the mosque so make sure to make water to stay hydrated.
Hours: Daily from 9am to 5pm, and closed during prayer hours.
The Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is a 67 meter tall watch tower in the center of Istanbul. It is one of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul. If you want to skip the line at Galata Tower (and many other attractions) you can purchase the E-Pass. It gets very busy during the middle of the day, so you if you don’t purchase to skip the line, then I recommend visiting in the morning.
Purchase the E-Pass to skip the line at Galata Tower on Viator here
Hours: The tower is open from 8:30 am to 11 pm daily
The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for more than four centuries. From an expansive collection of weaponry, religious artifacts and jewels and beautifully adorned rooms, Topkapi Palace is one the best places to visit in Istanbul.
Make sure to give yourself some time as you can easily spend hours wandering the complex of Topkapi Palace.
Hours: Daily from 9am to 4:45pm in the winter season and 9am to 6:45pm during the summer season.
Costs: 200 Turkish Lira for museum entrance, plus and additional 100 Turkish Lira to enter the Topkapi Palace Harem. You can pre-purchase your ticket to skip the lines.
Balat is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul. The traditional Jewish quarter, located in the Faith district, is one of the most colorful in the city! From rainbow stairs to colorful building fronts, it’s so fun to stroll and explore.
Balat can be easily reached by public bus or with an Uber. Visit in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Shop for spices at the Spice Bazaar
If you enjoyed any Turkish food then you’ll learn quickly that they are filled with the most delicious spices. Whether you’re looking to recreate these dishes at home, or simply stock up on herbal teas and remedies, the Spice Bazaar is the best place to shop. Even if you’re not shopping, the high stacked pyramids of colorful spices are a great sight to see (and photograph).
Grab a cocktail in Geyik
We always love enjoying the nightlife in any city, and Geyik is a great place to do that in Istanbul. Geyik is a small cocktail bar in the neighborhood of Beyoglu. Their cocktails are fantastic and the vibes are great. In fact, on a weekend night you’ll find people along the entire street enjoying their drinks.
Have a full Turkish Breakfast
A trip to Turkey is not complete until you’ll enjoyed a full Turkish breakfast. We opted to have ours at Arada, but there are endless options. A traditional Turkish breakfast typically consists of the following:
- black and green olives
- hummus and other dips and sauces
- pita and other freshly baked breads
- honey and fruit jams
Make sure to come hungry because it is a LOT of food, but it is all absolutely delicious.
Views from 7TepeSahne
If you’re looking for a classic Istanbul shot, then the views from 7TepeSahne rooftop cafe are a great option! Come around sunset and enjoy a cup of tea and some hookah. There may be a bit of a wait to snag a photo, but the views anywhere on the deck are great!
Where to eat
There are so many incredible places to eat in Istanbul. On our recent visit we ate often and a lot. Here are just a few of my favorite spots that we enjoyed:
- Adem Baba
- Arada Cafe
- Namli Gurme
- Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi
Best bars in Istanbul
Just like restaurants, there is no shortage of great bars. One thing to note however is that most hookah bars do not serve alcohol. Heavy drinking is not a big part of Turkish culture. But you can still find reasonably priced alcohol throughout Istanbul. Make sure to try their local Raki. Here are a few of my favorite bars that we drank at (or heard good things about):
- Alexandra Cocktail Bar
- Geyik Bar
- Monkey Istanbul
What to pack
What you pack when visiting Istanbul will differ greatly depending on which season you visit! That said, there are a few staples for any season:
- Good walking shoes – I recently got walking sneakers from Saucony and love them (check them out here!)
- A scarf or sarong – this will work to cover your shoulders and head when entering any mosques
- Maxi dresses or skirts – when the weather permits, maxi dresses and skirts are perfect for sightseeing and keeping your knees covered. I also love flowy pants that are lightweight.
- Jacket – in the summer/fall a light jacket like a jean jacket is more than enough! However, during the winter months it gets cold so you will need a proper winter jacket.
- Earplugs – you can often hear the early morning prayers from your hotel, so you’ll want to block this out if you’re not an early riser.
Overall, you will only need to dress conservatively when entering religious sites. That said, for ladies I would still avoid outfits that show your stomach or excessive cleavage when traveling to Istanbul.
Where to stay in Istanbul
We stayed at SuB Karakoy, located in the Karakoy neighborhood. Although a bit touristy, we enjoyed staying here as many of the city’s best attractions were walking distance. It was also neighby to many great restaurants and cafes. The hotel itself was nothing special but it was affordable, clean, and came with a delicious breakfast.
Here are some other options to check out: