There may not be a city in the world quite like Istanbul.
It is an overwhelming, colourful, rambunctious mouse maze with enticing traps placed along the way. It is a place where what seems like little pieces of golden cheese are hidden in dark corners sending tourists on scavenger hunts across the city, scuffling and sniffing in packs to find the ‘must-see’, ‘must-do’ icons of Istanbul.
Are you here for one day? Two? Three, four…?
Below is an ‘Istanbul for Dummies’ guide. It bares the breast of the city. The city’s most obvious jewels are picked from the jewellery box and laid out for you in an easy step-by-step guide.
Top two mistakes when staying in Istanbul
#1 Travel agents quickly and easily book clients into the old town of Istanbul – ‘Sultanahmet’. Perhaps if it is a quick trip in-and-out of the city this may serve your purpose perfectly because this is after all the most magical side to Istanbul housing all the obvious must-see tourist icons. However, if you are energetic and staying for a longer period, then why not visit the old town during the day and then at night continue the excitement in Istanbul’s entertainment district, Taksim. Istiklal Caddesi (Street) is a pedestrian only street in Taksim, and the heart of Istanbul’s thriving entertainment scene. Below are some suggestions for staying in the Taksim area. BIG TIP – Do not stay in Tarlabaşı, this is a rough area that is currently going through a transformation phase and cleaning up its act… but it is not quite there yet…
#2 Two days is not long enough!!! This is a city where you cannot squeeze everything into a quick trip. So, plan for a longer stay.
Welcome to Istanbul! From outside the airport go to the middle lane and catch a white bus with the company name ‘Havataş’ (pronounced havatash). You can go from the airport to ‘Taksim Meydanı’ or ‘Taksim Square’ for about 15 Lira cash (you pay onboard after it departs. A man will walk around to each seat).
Walk to your hotel from your drop off point in Taksim Square. You will see Burger King on the corner of the square… This is where Istiklal begins, just head to the right of Burger King and join the mass of people strolling down the street.
Mama Shelter – http://www.mamashelter.com/en/
A boutique hotel housed in a newly renovated old building (which is also a shopping centre called ‘Demirören’) and only a short walk down from the square. It is on the right, next to a small mosque. Mama Shelter is on ‘Istiklal Caddesi’ (Istiklal Street) but the entrance is from the side street. It has a cool bar, restaurant and DJ. Check it out!
Corinne Hotel – http://www.corinnehotel.com/
Boutique hotel. It is a freshly renovated old Istanbul building in the back streets of Istiklal in the funky ‘Çukurcuma’ neighbourhood which is lined with antique shops. Walk a very short way down Istiklal Caddesi and turn left into the side streets. Corinne Hotel has an excellent restaurant on the street level and it is among a hidden local neighbourhood ready for you to explore.
Adahan Hotel - http://www.adahanistanbul.com/
Boutique hotel renovated to the highest standards in the Pera area. Catch a taxi to this hotel from Taksim Square, or walk to the very bottom of Istiklal Caddesi and turn right into the side streets which will take you to the Pera neighbourhood. Adahan Hotel has a perfect gourmet roof top restaurant with a view of the Goldern Horn.
This walking itinerary is in one continuous flow from Taksim to the old town to give you an idea of perspective and where things are located. Break up the itinerary into days as you see fit.
Welcome to ‘Taksim’. Taksim is the main entertainment hub for Istanbul. Taksim Square is at the highest point of the hill. Istiklal is a pedestrian only street that winds down the hill for kilometres and has retail, restaurants and bars lining its sides.
Walk the length of Istiklal and explore its laneways. ZARA, MANGO and major brands etc are here with great Turkish Lira prices when compared to USA or AUS dollars and if it’s on sale it is crazy cheap!
From Taksim Square, halfway down Istiklal on the right there is ‘Balık Pasajı’ (fish passage). Check out this lil laneway. It leads to another laneway on the right called ‘Nevizade’. Nevizade is the narrowest Istanbul lane with tiny bar stools in the street filled with bars/pubs and fish restaurants. It is pumping and fun.
Back on Istiklal, continue down the pedestrian street. On the left there will be a street called ‘Kumbaracı Yokusu’. Go down this dark street. Keep an eye out on the right, there is an old building with a sign saying ‘Leb-i Derya’. Go into the building. Take the lift up six floors then walk up another floor. It is a roof top bar/restaurant with the most amazing view over the old town and the Bosphorous. It is open after 4pm. Go for a cocktail at sunset, you will see all of Istanbul’s iconic images plus hear the call to prayer echo from mosque to mosque as it bounces across the valley of shackled roofs. www.lebiderya.com
Just before the Richmond Hotel, back on Istiklal, there is a big apartment building called ‘Mısır Apartmanı’. Go to the 8th floor. It is another roof top restaurant and bar called ‘360’. http://www.360istanbul.com/eng/index1.html
Continue down to the bottom of Istiklal. This area is known as ‘Tünel’ (Tunnel). Here is one of the world’s oldest subway systems. It is a funicular that has only one stop; the top of the hill and underground through the tunnel to the bottom. On the right of the Tünel area there are hidden laneways. This leads to the ‘Asmalı Mescit’ and ‘Pera’ areas, which are full of bars, clubs and restaurants.
Back on Istiklal. To the left of the Tünel funicular there is a cobblestone street that goes down a hill. Go down it. The street is filled with musical instrument stores and recording studios in the side lanes. At the bottom of this street you will come across ‘Galata Tower’. It’s HUGE! There is always a big line, but be patient and go up to breathe in the 360 degree view of Istanbul.
From Galata Tower you can continue down the cobbled street which will take you to the ‘Golden Horn’ waterway and ‘Galata Bridge’. (Or you can take the funicular from Tünel down to the water level.)
Under the Galata Bridge on the water there are fish, ‘meze’ (Turkish tapas) and ‘rakı’ (Turkish ouzo) restaurants. Choose one of the many restaurants on the side of the bridge that faces the palace and the old town and enjoy the view. This view is a good sunset point for dinner.
Go across the bridge to get to ‘Eminönü’. Then catch the tram from the Galata Bridge stop or the Eminönü stop, which will take you up to ‘Sultanahmet’ (Istanbul’s old town where the Ottoman Empire was ruled from). You can also walk. It is a nice easy walk up the hill through the streets. Just follow the tram tracks the whole way. Get off the tram when you see ‘Sultanahmet Camisi’ or ‘Blue mosque’ on one side and ‘Aya Sofya’ or ‘Saint Sophia’ on the other.
The Blue Mosque is free to get in. You will enter through the main courtyard, then around the back to where the foreigner entrance is. You will be given a shawl to cover yourselves with. Take off your shoes and carry them in the plastic bag provided. The mosque is closed for prayer times. So check this on the main notice board when you first get to the area.
In summer the Sultanahmet area generally provides a tourism service with university students wearing ‘ask me’ shirts. Do what the shirt says… Ask them for any help with directions if needed.
Saint Sophia is directly opposite the Blue Mosque and has a 30 Lira entry fee. It is closed on Monday’s and open 9am – 4.30pm on other days. This is the only building in the world that served three religions – Pagan, Christian Orthodox and Islam. Now it operates as a church and mosque museum. Make sure you find the stairs in the corner and go up to the second level to get closer to the mosaics.
Across the road from Saint Sophia is an underground cistern (water source for the old palace and town etc) This is a favourite! It is called ‘Yerebatan Sarayı’ or simply ‘Basilica Cistern’. It is closed Tuesdays. Open 9am – 6.30pm other days. It is 10 Lira (cash only). Grab a pamphlet on entry to read about it. At the back in a corner there are statue heads of ‘Medusa’.
Also around the corner from Saint Sophia is ‘Topkapı Sarayı’ or the ‘Topkapı Palace’. Entry is 30 Lira. Open 9am – 4pm. Closed Tuesdays. If there is a big line… go to the two or three self service ticket machines next to the counters and buy your ticket from the machine. The palace is where the Sultans lived and where they had their harem. There will be lines inside to go into each room (clothing museum room, jewellery museum room etc). Only the ‘harem’ has an extra price. It is about 15 Lira extra and can be purchased from the harem entrance once inside the palace.
In this old town area you can also source a ‘Whirling Dervish’ prayer at a dervish lodge. Do not clap, it is not a show. It is a style of prayer in a hypnotic twirling dance motion and is quite mystical. Ask at a tourist counter for times or locations.
Follow signs or ask an ‘Ask me’ shirt for the direction of the ‘Grand Bazaar’. Closed on Sundays. This is the world’s oldest indoor shopping centre. If you buy here always haggle the price down. It can be overwhelming in there, but relax and have fun, the shop keepers are clever and will surely say some cheeky comments to you to try and get your attention or rope you into buying a carpet.
Find any exit and walk down the hill. If you are going down hill you are doing the right thing. (This will lead back to Eminönü and Galata Bridge.) These crazy lanes are better than the bazaar. At the bottom you will be behind the ‘Mısır Carşısı’ or ‘Spice Market’.
If you can find ‘Lezzet-i Şark Antep Sofrası’ restaurant, you have struck gold. It is a cheap and incredible Eastern Turkey style restaurant. Order an Adana meat kebab plate, an ayran (yoghurt, water and salt drink) and a künefe (hot cheese dessert). Address – Hasırcılar Caddesi No:52 Eminönü
At the front of the Spice Market you will be at the Golden Horn again and the Galata Bridge.
On either side of the Galata Bridge you may see BBQ’s cooking fish. It is a fish sandwich/breadroll. It is amazing. Have one with everything on it!! 5-7 Lira.
Adjacent to the Galata Bridge, opposite Eminönü, is an area called Karaköy. Here you will find Karaköy ferry pier. Catch a ferry to ‘Kadıköy’.
Commuting by waterway helps Istanbul locals avoid the problematic gridlock on Istanbul’s roads. Plus, for a few Lira you can have a 20 minute cruise past all seven of Istanbul’s major tourist sites. It is a breathtaking journey across continents.
Kadıköy is a town on the Asian side and is directly across the water from the old town of Istanbul. It is the ‘Taksim entertainment hub’ equivalent of the Asian side. Get off the ferry and walk straight into the town on the right of the main road. Get among the laneways that are pedestrian only. There are streets full of pubs with beer and backgammon, fish and meze (tapas) restaurants and fish/fresh produce markets.
From Taksim Square, or from Galata Bridge, catch a taxi to a town called ‘Ortaköy’ on the ‘Bosphorous’ (Bosphorous – the waterway separating the European side and the Asian side of Istanbul.) Ortaköy town is under the first bridge. Show the cab driver this – ‘Ortaköy’ ‘Kumpircilerin orada’…’Ortaköy – where the baked potatoes are’. This area is famous for its baked potatoes, hence the ten baked potato stands you will see. Eat one! Have everything on it!! Walk to the left of the mosque to eat it on the water with a great view of the first bridge. This is where you will see a sign for a Bosphorous cruise. Check out the departure times and book one. The cruise from here takes you all the way up the Bosphorous to the second bridge and back. It takes about two hours. You can see the palaces lining the water, plus massive mansions of the Istanbul elite. Back in Ortaköy there are silver jewellery markets in the laneways and also restaurants. The mosque is now open after a four year renovation. It is one of the most spectacular in Istanbul. Shawls are provided at the entrance and of course remove your shoes.
Just below the Taksim Square hill, along the Bosphorous and adjacent to Ortaköy, is ‘Dolmabahçe Sarayı’ or the ‘Dolmabahçe Palace’. It is in a town called ‘Beşiktaş’. The palace entry fee is about 20 Lira. Catch a cab from Taksim Square (about 10 Lira) or it is an easy walk down if you can find the way. Closed Monday. Open 9am – 4pm. This palace is more modern than the Topkapı Palace and it still has its original furniture. Enter the palace from the front door where there are guides waiting. Do NOT take photos!! They will kick you out…. I took a photo…. whoops…. Also after the guided tour walk around the back to the Harem tour. It has an extra ticket price so buy all your tickets together from the main entrance.
Adjacent to Beşiktaş and Dolmabahçe Palace is an area called ‘Kabataş’. (To keep the geography in perspective, the next town down from Kabataş is Karaköy, which you are already familiar with – Galata Bridge.) Here you will find ‘Kabataş Iskelesi’ or ‘Kabataş ferry pier’. If you are coming from Taksim Square, there is a convenient funicular from the square’s underground metro station to the Kabataş ferry pier; again one stop from the top and underground to the bottom.
Find the ferry for the ‘Prince’s Islands’. The Prince’s Islands are four islands on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is where the wealthy locals would escape during the summer months. The islands are named ‘Büyükada’ (‘Big Island’), ‘Heybeliada, ‘Burgazada’ and ‘Kınalıada’. Burgazada appears to be the smallest and the most quaint. There are no cars on the islands – only horse and cart. There are beach clubs if you walk around the corners of each island, although they are not very clean. Seafood restaurants can also be found in the port. Enjoy walking the streets and looking at the old Istanbul mansions, some of them crumbling and some with fresh faced renovations. The ferry from Kabataş to Burgaz will take about one hour and ten minutes. It will stop at Kadıköy first before heading to the islands. It makes a quick stop at each island. So you can choose which one you would like to explore.
Sort your tourist visa out before arriving – https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/
Have common sense with your valuables in Taksim, Sultanahmet and Kadıköy. Watch your bags.
This is a lot to take in so spread it out over your five days. E.g. I normally do the Sultanahmet old town over 2 days etc. Then every other thing has a day devoted to it.
SKIP THE QUEUES!! Grab a ‘Museum Pass’ for 85 TL for three days, includes the main sights.
Check out a blazing Istanbul blog www.istanbulforfree.blogspot.com.tr for useful and current snippets of the city.
MUST TRY FOOD
- Börek -Turkish pastry with cheese, potatoes, spinach or meat.
- Midye dolma – Muscles stuffed with spice and rice. They are sold on the street or at restaurants. For the best street muscles, find Mehmet in Balık Pasajı after 9pm. He stands with a small barrel of muscles on the right of the laneway just before the Nevizade lane. The muscles are in their original black shells. Open them, the rice is already in it, squeeze lemon inside and enjoy.
- Karides güveç – Prawn hot pot with melted cheese and sauce.
- Kalamar – Deep fried calamari.
- Lahmacun – Turkish style pizza on very thin pastry. Squeeze lemon on top, put parsley and onion on it and roll it.
- Desserts – There are several dessert shops on Istiklal Caddesi Street (Mado, Sutiş and Saray Muhallebisi). Try ‘tavuk göğsü’ with vanilla ice-cream on top. It has very fine chicken breast pieces in it. You can also try ‘kazandibi’ with ice-cream (similar in appearance to the chicken dessert but with no chicken). ‘Ekmek kadayıfi’ is also a great option. It is a sweet, syrupy dessert made from bread. It is served with ‘kaymak’ (whipped cream) on top. ‘Künefe‘ is a hot cheese dessert and also a crowd pleaser.
- Meze – The Turkish version of tapas. Enjoyed before a meal or even as a meal. Try a variety of meze. At the fish and meze restaurants they normally come around with a tray and show you every meze and you just point to the ones you would like.
- Rakı – Turkish liqour similar to the Greek ouzo but with a stronger taste. It is drunk with water and ice. The waiter will pour it. It is strong and is usually drunk while enjoying fish and meze.
- Iskender kebab – you can find this at any kebab store. It is crouton like pieces of bread with kebab meat on top with a red tomato sauce, green peppers, yoghurt and hot butter poured all over it. The most famous store and the best iskender is from ‘Iskender Iskenderoğlu’.
- Sultanahmet köfte – Traditional meatballs. Have this for lunch when you are visiting the historical Sultanahmet area. This area is famous for its köfte meatballs. The most famous restaurant serving this in Sultanahmet is ‘Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi’.
- Mantı – Most of the restaurants should have this. It is Turkish style ravioli with garlic yoghurt and hot butter and chilli poured on top.
- Gözleme – Have this for lunch. It is a thin Turkish pastry (looks like a thin pancake ) with cheese and spinach, potatoes or minced meat.
- Kokoreç - Fried sheep intestines in spice, between a bread roll.
- Ayran – A drink with yoghurt, salt and water.
- Turkish beer brands – Efes, Bomonti, Tuborg
- Nargile – a shisha pipe in any flavour you want.
- Türk kahvesi – Turkish coffee. They will ask ‘sade’ (no sugar), ‘orta’ (medium sugar) or ‘şekerli’ (with sugar). Maybe have it şekerli if it is your first.
- ‘Çay‘ (pro-nounced ‘chay ‘) – Turkish tea. It is like an English Breakfast served black, no milk, in lil glasses.
And many, many more yummy things. You will see food everywhere… So why not try everything! Taste as many different things as possible as half the experience is the cuisine and I guarantee you will love it all.
Written by Sheldon Heyes
Staying in Istanbul for a few extra days? Why not explore beyond the guide books. Walking adventures, plus more, are below.
‘Memoirs of a City‘. A journey on an Istanbul city ferry. Soak in the view and share a tea with the greatest icons of any city.
‘Bridge to Bridge‘ – A walking tour from the second bridge to the first. Indulge in the sea breeze on the European side Bosphorous esplanade. A fortress, luxury dining and old Istanbul architecture awaits.
‘Kadıköy‘ – Walking tour. Get lost in the maze of pedestrian friendly lanes in Istanbul’s Asian side entertainment district.
‘Fener‘ – Visit the old and authentic Fener neighbourhood and walk the streets of Istanbul’s glorious but crumbling past.
‘Kuzguncuk‘ – Walk through one of Istanbul’s most quaint villages on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. Then continue along the esplanade to Üsküdar. Enjoy a Turkish coffee with a direct view across to Sultanahmet beyond the Maiden’s Tower.
‘Karaköy‘ – Walk among the dark shadows and laneways of the Karaköy neighbourhood where an alluring coffee haze has locals in a caffeine fix. Order a coffee. For two hours why not stop being a tourist and blend in for once.
‘Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam‘ – Let 500 years of Istanbul history and architectural design wash over you at Istanbul’s elite Turkish bath experience. Enjoy a traditional pampering at the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam.