Istanbul is a dream destination, it’s located on the edge of Europe where East meets West. Connecting the two continents, the city hides layers of history, culture, colors, and scents. The architecture, the food, everything in Istanbul tells a story. The city is busy, fast, never stops, but when you need a break from all this fervid life there is always a nice garden, a small tea house or a mosque where you can sit, breath and relax.
Many people have a preconceived notion that Turkey is not a friendly country due to the Muslim religion and culture. But the truth is: when you leave the prejudice behind, you will be enchanted by the beauty of Turkey and its people. As much as you discover the city, more you fell in love with Istanbul.
For your first trip to Istanbul I would recommend at least five days, so you can have the taste of the ancient city and also enjoy the modern side of Istanbul. Although if you want to explore the big cities and the countryside, I’d say, you should book a 10 days holiday minimum. In our last trip to Turkey, we spent 9 days only in Istanbul and we still didn’t have time to enjoy everything.
Istanbul is huge, in 2014 there were 14 million people living there. The city is as big as any other European capital, however, Turkey is a cheap destination if you compare with other countries. With a good travel planning, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your first trip to Istanbul without emptying your pocket. Sounds good, isn’t it?
Planning to Travel to Istanbul? Here’s all that you need to know
Arriving and Departing from Istanbul
You can travel to Istanbul by bus, train, boat or flights, the best option will depend on where you are coming from. All the major budget airlines fly to Ataturk and Sabiha Airport, also Turkish Airlines has a good connection from all around the world. Also, check the flight fares on Skyscanner or Kiwi.com.
If you are searching for some unique experience you can travel to Istanbul by train. The famous Orient Express Route doesn’t operate anymore, however, you can use EURAIL PASS to get there from Europe and travel around Turkey by train.
Visa and Immigration Issues
As you are traveling to a different country you always have to do a good research about visa and the documents you will need to cross the border. Last year Turkish government changed their visa policies, now many tourists that in the past had to apply for the visa at the Turkish Embassy can do it online in a really simple way. On the Turkish Visa Information website, you can check all the rules, the fees and how to get your visa on arrival.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is full of hotels, hostels, guest houses, and flats. From cheap accommodation to really pricey tags. Definitely, you will need a professional help to find the best place for your taste and pocket.
There are many helpful sites like First Choice that can make your life easy while booking a luxurious room or a budget hotel in Istanbul. Sometimes you can find affordable holidays packages to Istanbul, including flights and accommodation. The areas that are nice to stay are Sultanahmet, Beyoglu, and Taksim. All of them are surrounded by restaurants, street food and are a safe place to stay.
Hotels that I would recommend around Sultanahmet:
What to Do in Istanbul
Istanbul is plenty of tourist attractions, from ancient ruins, palaces, worldwide famous mosques, narghile bars and endless shops inside the Grand Bazaar. So many things to do and see that you will need time and energy to visit it all. To help you to organize your first trip to Istanbul here goes a list of some places you should not miss.
- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapı Palace
- Basilica Cistern
- Grand Bazaar
- Spice Bazaar
- Suleymaniye Mosque
- Galata Tower
- Dolmabahçe Palace
- Taksim Square and İstiklal Ave
- Bosphorus Boat Tour
- Ortaköy neighborhood
- Sunset at Uskudar
How to get around Istanbul
As soon as you arrive in the city buy an Istanbul Card in one of the automatic machines. This card is accepted in all public transports even on the boats. Cheaper than the single journey ticket (jeton), you can top up the card with any amount of money you want.
Most of the places and tourist attraction in Istanbul can be reached by public transport, especially by tram, metro, boats, and funicular (buses can be a bit complicated to use there). But I would suggest you walk as much as possible. Istanbul is an amazing city, with great architecture and hidden places. Exploring the city by foot is a unique opportunity to meet locals and enjoy the real Turkish feeling.
If you need to use Taxi, make sure the meter is on and don’t accept flat rates to go to the tourists’ attractions. For sure they will charge you far more than it’s worth. Also from Ataturk airport, you can reach the city using public transportation. Bus shuttle to/from both airports to the city center is offered by Havatas.
Eat & Drink in Istanbul
Welcome to the paradise of food, sweets, and teas. The streets of Istanbul are packed with kebab stalls, cozy restaurants, teas and coffee shops. There are so many flavors, spices, ingredients that Turkish food would deserve one entire and delicious blog post.
One thing you have to keep in mind is: Try Everything!! Food is not expensive in Turkey, even in a nice restaurant in Istanbul you would not pay a fortune for a good meal. Local dinners can be found around Taksim Square and at Istiklal Street. Go to the Turkish buffet restaurants to see and try different dishes. As for dessert, the traditional baklava with ice cream or some Turkish delights are a must.
Best season to visit Istanbul
Istanbul is beautiful and worth the visit any time of the year, but as the season changes the number of tourists in the city also varies. Ideally, it would be best to go there in winters but if you want to save some money and travel during off season, then September is also quite pleasant.
In summertime be prepared for hot (really hot) temperatures, long days and amazing boat tours.When winter arrives, it’s pretty cold and windy, but maybe you can be lucky enough to see some snow around there. And when its snowing, Istanbul looks like a magical place. On my first trip, the temperature was 19 degree Celsius (we were there in September), but we didn’t stay longer to wait for the snow season.
What to Avoid in Istanbul
For a big city, Istanbul is quite safe. Maybe you will be surprised to see the number of people begging on the streets, but most of the time they will not cause any harm to you. Because of the conflicts in the Middle East, many refugees are living on Istanbul’s streets.
There is an area around Tarlabasi Street, close to the Taksim Square, that is known for being a place of drug dealers, prostitutes, and danger. So please avoid that to go there especially during night time.
As foreigners in a Muslim country, you should respect their traditions and habits. When you are enjoying the city there is no need to cover yourself or be worried about your clothes. However when you visit the mosques and religious sites please wear long skirts or trousers, also remember to cover your shoulders and chest.
A nice scarf is always a good option to cover your head inside the mosques and to protect you from the sun and the heat. And girls, we know that a nice scarf or pashmina will turn any simple look in a stylish outfit. 😉
Now that you already got this precious advice it´s time to enjoy your first trip to Istanbul. If you didn’t buy your tickets yet, do it fast.