Where to Stay in Istanbul for a First Time Visit? An Insider's GuideWelcome to our extended guide on where to stay in Istanbul, Turkey. It is the only guide you need; from budget places to luxury hotels. And from the best places to stay in Istanbul for families with kids, and couples.

Istanbul is a Goliath of a city with a textured history, a dynamic present, and a questionable future. It seems like every corner you turn, you’re confronted with yet another ancient building or cozy boutique café or mobs of people.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between the crowds and the culture, so I’ve set up this guide to help you figure out where to stay during your visit to Istanbul so that you can maximize your time in this historic city.

I’ve included suggestions for first-time visitors, families, couples, and other travelers with specific budgets or interests.

After that, there’s a list of top 10 things to do, a neighborhood guide that’ll help you choose the coolest areas to visit, and some tips for staying safe and not
getting ripped off.

(This guide is always up to date, the last updated April 2020.)

But, first things first:

Question: So first, where should you stay in Istanbul for a first-time visit?

Answer: The Old Town! Stay where it’s oldest.

Istanbul is part of a hell of a long history book. The stunningly beautiful confluence of the Bosphorus Strait and the  Marmara Sea, with its seven hills rolling down into the water, has witnessed the agrarian revolution and the rise and fall of at least four empires (Greek, Persian, Roman, and Ottoman).

However, there are a ton of cool areas over in Asia, so we’ll mention some of them as well. So, here are a few of the best areas to stay. They allow for easy access to the sights of the old town, as well as easy access to public transportation and airports.

  • Cihangir
  • Galata (Şişhane)
  • Karaköy
  • Taksim
  • Balat
  • Sultanahmet (old town)
  • Hocapaşa (old town)

Check the map below to get a better idea.

Why do I recommend these areas?

You’ll have a lot of content to sift through, but staying in the three oldest areas will provide more than enough reading material.

So I’ll mainly focus on the old town (previously known as Lygos, Constantinople, and Byzantium), Galata/Beyoğlu (a Constantinian-era Genoese citadel and its surrounding district), and Beşiktaş (a Bosphorus Strait-side, late-Ottoman-influenced area), which are one, two and three when it comes to historical longevity.

Also, I get that you may not be so familiar with the neighborhoods I’ll be talking about, so we’ve created some maps to help you out with Istanbul’s geography.

Basically, the city is split along the Bosporus Strait, which divides the Asian continent and the European continent (it still doesn’t get old looking across the Bosporus and saying “hey, there’s Asia”, or “Shall we go over to Europe tonight?”)

Most of the sights are located on the European side, so I’ll mainly hover around there, specifically three of the oldest areas mentioned previously—which are split by a narrow inlet called the Golden Horn—the old town, Galata/Beyoğlu, and Beşiktaş.

Here’s a full map for you to understand the different areas.

We highlight the districts, main tourists sightseeing in Istanbul and our handpicked accommodations.

Please note: those are not the exact names of the districts, neither its absolute borders. I just tried to simplify this information.

1. Best areas and handpicked hotels for Istanbul

Let’s look at some hotels and neighborhoods that are perfect for different types of people
traveling for different reasons.

I’ve broken down specific categories to help you choose the
hotel and neighborhood that’ll be perfect for you.

Continue scrolling or pick your group and travel type on the menu:

1.1 Families
1.2 Couples
1.3 Luxury Travelers
1.4 Design Travelers
1.5 Groups
1.6 Solo Travelers
1.7 Nightlife-seeking Travelers
1.8 Budget Travelers
1.9 Adventure-seekers

1.1 Families

Those of you traveling with families know the value of finding a hotel with amenities like a pool, a kitchen, and other things that can entertain the kids during your stay. You’ll want to strike a balance between cultural sightseeing and having fun with the kids.

So I would recommend staying at a couple of places around the old town in order to reduce travel times and ensure that the kids have enough to do. However, the old town can get a bit cramped, so I’ve offered another good option for families a bit farther away but still very accessible.

Recommended districts for families:

  • Sultanahmet (old town)
  • Hocapaşa (old town)
  • Karakoy

This map shows you the areas recommended for families:

Sultanahmet Suites

Close to all the must-see attractions of the old town, Sultanahmet Suites offer spacious rooms with fully equipped kitchens, in-room child care, sofas and extra beds available on request.

While not as glamorous as some other options, these suites are big, practical and perfect for families.

Book Sultanahmet Suites here

Sultanahmet Suites Istanbul Terrace Sultanahmet Suites Istanbul Room

Ajwa Hotel

For families with a higher budget, the Ajwa Hotel is a five-star hotel located right around the corner from Sultanahmet Suites. It boasts a wonderful indoor pool and a children’s pool, a traditional Turkish spa, and a fitness center.

The rooms are spacious and perfect for families, and you can get infant cribs and extra rollaway beds upon request. The décor is traditional Turkish, and you’ll definitely feel a bit like an Ottoman sultan in this place.

Book Ajwa Hotel here

Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet Room Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet Indoor Pool

Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus

The Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus is another great choice for families. Located just over the Galata Bridge in Karakoy, the location is perfect to escape the crowds of the Old Town, but still have easy access to it via the tram, which is only a few minutes walk away.

Karakoy is a great up and coming neighborhood with lots of cool cafes and boutique shops, as well as a ferry terminal which can take you up the Bosphorus, over to the Asian side, or to the Prince Islands.

Novotel Istanbul offers a full-service spa, an incredible rooftop terrace with views of the Bosphorus and old town, free cribs/infant beds, and even a playground on site.

Book Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus here

Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel Room Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel Restaurant Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel Indoor Pool

1.2 Couples

Istanbul can be a great city for a romantic getaway. The intimate restaurants, amazing views, live music, delicious food, and incredible art scene all offer limitless opportunities for a special trip with your significant other.

Here are a couple of places to stay that have all the amenities required for an intimate and pampered experience, and are also located in areas that are great for date nights.

Recommended districts for couples:

  • Galata
  • Cihangir
  • Sultanahmet

This map shows you the areas recommended for couples:

Georges Hotel Galata

Just steps from the iconic Galata Tower, Georges Hotel is a perfect option for a couple looking to bask in simple luxury. It has a wonderful terrace restaurant with a view of the Golden Horn and comfortable rooms with options for a balcony and sea views.

The Galata area has a lot to offer, with great cafes, boutique shops, and restaurants/bars. You’ll even be greeted with a complimentary adult beverage—not a bad way to start off your romantic getaway in one of the oldest cities in the world.

Book Georges Hotel Galata here

Georges Hotel Galata Room Georges Hotel Galata Restaurant

Hotel Sultania

Hotel Sultania is a beautifully decorated traditional Turkish-style hotel with a spa/indoor pool
and two restaurants/bars.

It is steps away from all that the old town has to offer, and if you’re a couple that loves culture and history, this is an excellent option.

Book Hotel Sultania here

Hotel Sultania Boutique Class Room Hotel Sultania Boutique Class Restaurant Hotel Sultania Boutique Class Breakfast Buffet

The Galata Istanbul Hotel

Another great Galata-situated hotel with views of the tower and the Bosphorus, the Galata Istanbul Hotel features stylishly decorated rooms and a kick-ass terrace with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn.

It offers a spa for you and your significant other to relax in, and it’s just stepping away from one of the most unique and romantic areas in the city.

Book The Galata Istanbul Hotel here

The Galata Istanbul Hotel Mgallery Room The Galata Istanbul Hotel Mgallery Restaurant

1.3 Luxury Travelers

For those of you with a deeper wallet, there are a few luxury hotels situated along the Bosphorus and in the old town that offers the most pampering and a slew of services and amenities that will make you never want to leave.

Here are a few hotels I would recommend if you want to spoil yourself rotten (in a good way).

Recommended districts for luxury travelers:

  • Beşiktaş
  • Sultanahmet

This map shows you the areas recommended for the luxury traveler:

Swissotel The Bosphorus

While not as central as a lot of the other hotels on this list, Swisshotel The Bosphorus makes up for this with its stunning views of the Bosphorus, beautiful pools and sauna, and spacious, fully equipped rooms that all feature whirlpool baths and king-sized beds and premium linens.

The hotel is surrounded by beautiful gardens and steps from Maçka Park, one of the few parks in downtown Istanbul—great for a morning run or taking the kids to the playground.

Book Swissotel The Bosphorus here

Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul View Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul Rooftop Bar Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul Room

Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus

Also in Beşiktaş and directly on the Bosphorus, you’ll find the Four Seasons Bosphorus, maybe the most luxurious option in Istanbul.

It boasts waterfront views that can’t be beaten, incredible rooms, an indoor and outdoor pool (the outdoor pool is almost like you’re swimming in the Bosphorus it’s so close to the bank), and a full-service spa and sauna.

It’s basically what you get when you close your eyes and picture a luxury hotel.

Book Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Bosphorus here

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Room Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Pool Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Restaurant

Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet

Staying with the Four Seasons, their hotel in Sultanahmet also can’t be beaten when it comes to luxury.

And while it doesn’t offer the sea views that its sister does, it does have spectacular views of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in the old town and is the top luxury spot for those who also want to be near the cultural center of the city.

Book Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet here

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Sultanahmet Room Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Sultanahmet Living Area Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul Sultanahmet Terrace

Bonus:  W Hotel Istanbul (Beşiktaş)

You will find W Hotel Istanbul right in the city center where you will find plenty of cafes, restaurants, and shops. And going around would not bore you since the hotel is just walking distance from the famous shopping district of Nisantasi.

The hotel is designed with contemporary decor and ancient decors. Luxurious rooms have private baths with rain showers. And some rooms have their own terrace with an overlooking view.

Book W Hotel Istanbul (Besiktas) here

W Istanbul Room W Istanbul Bar W Istanbul Terrace

1.4 Design Lovers

Anyone who’s into the design will love Istanbul. It has a unique mash-up of old architecture and
new, and often you’ll find places that have fused both together in very cool ways.

Lots of businesses in the city—cafes, bars, even art supply shops, and clothing stores—have very cultivated aesthetics that tiptoe the line between modern and falling apart in the most charming ways.

So it’s no surprise that there are a lot of great refurbished hotels that are impeccably designed down to the last detail, and staying in one of these will really give your trip to Istanbul some great energy.

Recommended districts for design lovers:

  • Cihangir
  • Galata
  • Sultanahmet

This map shows you the areas recommended for the design lovers:

Tomtom Suites

Located right on the border of the Cihangir and Galata districts, Tomtom Suites offers simple yet stylishly decorated rooms with super comfortable beds and immaculate bathrooms with bathtubs for soaking in after a long day out on the town.

The location allows for easy access to the old town via the tram line from Tophane or Karakoy, and the antique shops and boutique stores around Cihangir and Galata are just steps away.

Book Tomtom Suites here

Tomtom Suites Istanbul Room Tomtom Suites Istanbul Living Area Tomtom Suites Istanbul Restaurant

Regie Ottoman Istanbul Hotel

For those of you who want to stay in the old town and still want a stylishly designed hotel with all the bells and whistles, the Regie Ottoman Istanbul Hotel is certainly a great choice.

I love the exposed brick interior of this hotel. It really gives you a sense of the antiquity of the city and there are a ton of cozy details that will make staying here one of the highlights of your trip to Istanbul.

Its location means you’re out the door and into the old town, about a 10-minute walk to Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque. Easy access to the tram line also gives you the freedom to wander farther and poke around more of the city.

Book Regie Ottoman Istanbul Hotel here

Regie Ottoman Istanbul Room Regie Ottoman Istanbul Terrace Regie Ottoman Istanbul Restaurant

Inqlusif Hotel

Inqlusif Hotel is a more affordable design option in a great location just around the corner from Galata Tower.

A bit of exposed brick, wood floors, and pipework decoration give the rooms a unique style and you really get a sense that you’re staying in an old apartment that’s been refurbished with an eye for design, style, and spatial awareness.

The fact that it’s just stepping away from Galata Tower and all the cool art and shops around it sweeten the pot, even more, making Inqlusif a really nice, affordable option.

Book Inqlusif Hotel here

Inqlusif Hotel Galata Room Inqlusif Hotel Galata Bathroom

Bonus: Witt Hotel Istanbul (Cihangir)

Relax in the beautiful and peaceful garden of Witt Hotel Istanbul. You will also find it amusing to relax on their terrace with an overlooking view of the Cihangir district.

Each room is also equipped with its own kitchenette and Nespresso machine. Rooms also have retro-modern interior decors that match up to its modern look.

And you should definitely look forward to their home-cooked breakfast every day.

Book Witt Hotel Istanbul (Cihangir) here

Witt Istanbul Suites Room Witt Istanbul Suites Night View Witt Istanbul Suites Terrace

Bonus: Angel’s Home Hotel (Sultanahmet)

Angel’s Home Hotel offers individually decorated rooms with an amazing rooftop terrace. Enjoy the lovely view of the neighborhood while you enjoy a sip of your coffee.

Staff is available 24/7 which makes it convenient when you might need something at any time of the day. They also offer car and bike rentals if you wish. Or maybe you might want to join their tours.

Book Angel’s Home Hotel (Sultanahmet) here

Angel's Home Hotel Room Angel's Home Hotel Terrace Angel's Home Hotel Restaurant

1.5 Groups

Traveling with a group? Where you stay will probably depend on how many of you are traveling together and what your budget is. Places with kitchens and big shared spaces are
usually ideal, but it really can vary quite a bit.

Airbnb is always a great option to find bigger, more affordable and stylish apartments with multiple bedrooms and a kitchen, so it can definitely be valuable to check out your options there.

But for now, let’s look at a couple of hotels/apartments that will work for groups. I’ve added a couple of choices with kitchens, as well as a bigger hotel where you could get multiple rooms.

Hostels can also be a great option for groups on a budget, and although I’m not going to mention them here, some of the hostels further down on the list will certainly be ok for groups.

Recommended districts for groups

  • Sultanahmet
  • Taskim/Istiklal

This map shows you the areas recommended for groups:

Neorion Hotel

This is a beautiful hotel with a pool and a spa located in Sultanahmet (old town). Neorion Hotel offers huge rooms that can fit up to 5 people each or more if you get a family room, and you can get connecting rooms if your group is bigger.

You can’t beat the location of the Neorion if you want to stay in the heart of the old town. Sultanahmet and the Blue Mosque are a 5-10 minute walk away.

Book Neorion Hotel here

Neorion Hotel Istanbul Room Neorion Hotel Istanbul Indoor Pool Neorion Hotel Istanbul Terrace

Ardilas Residence

Ardilas Residence place would be great for a group of young people looking to experience the nightlife Istanbul has to offer. It’s located just off Istiklal Street, a busy walking street that connects Taskism Square to Galata Tower.

You’ll be right in the thick of the action here, and these apartments are stylishly decorated and equipped with kitchens and sofas. Perfect for a group that wants to save a bit of money on food by cooking (even though food in Istanbul can be quite cheap if you look in the right places).

Book Ardilas Residence here

Ardilas Residence Room Ardilas Residence Restaurant Ardilas Residence Kitchen

Sultanahmet Suites

I listed Sultanahmet Suites in the family section, but it’s worth listing again because these suites are perfect for groups as well.

Although not as stylish, they are perfect for groups, with kitchens and lots of space. The location also can’t be beaten.

Book Sultanahmet Suites here

Sultanahmet Suites Istanbul Common Area Sultanahmet Suites Istanbul Group Room

Bonus: Fer Hotel (Sultanahmet)

Fer Hotel is conveniently located near the famous tourist destinations you need to see in Istanbul. These sites include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

They also serve a breakfast buffet at the hotel’s Roofer Restaurant. You may also grab a few drinks and enjoy a Turkish menu on your way there.

Book Fer Hotel here

Fer Hotel Istanbul Room Fer Hotel Istanbul Dining Area Fer Hotel Istanbul Breakfast

1.6 Solo Travelers

If you’re traveling solo, then you’re probably looking for a combination of value and a good location. Airbnb and hostels are definitely the best options in Istanbul if you’re on your own.

The Airbnbs in Istanbul is great for solo travelers. There are lots of single rooms in shared apartments that will be pretty cheap yet stylish, and you’ll get a chance to meet your hosts and get some good tips and recommendations about the city.

There are also tons of hostels in Istanbul where you’ll be able to meet people and have a good time in this super fun city.

Recommended districts for solo travelers:

  • Sultanahmet
  • Taksim/Istiklal
  • Cihangir

This map shows you the areas recommended for solo travelers:

Handpicked accommodations for solo travelers

What would be better than an Airbnb where you can meet a local in one of the hippest and centrally located areas of Istanbul.

But you can find many others. We even wrote a guide on 43 alternative websites to Airbnb.

Just make sure you read the comments of the person so you have an idea about their taste, and send them a personalized message for better connection during your trip.

You can use this Airbnb discount code to get 35€ off.

More the hostel type of person? Check out these 3 best hostels in Istanbul or all of the hostels in Istanbul.

Bahaus Guesthouse Hostel

Bahaus Guesthouse Hostel is an award-winning hostel located in the old town that is perfect for the young, solo traveler.

They have a great rooftop terrace with views of the city, and there are events like barbeques, hookah nights, and belly-dancing nights that’ll give you an opportunity to socialize and meet people.

If you’re not so into meeting people, they have nice private rooms, and the old town and its history are right outside the door.

Book Bahaus Guesthouse Hostel here

Bahaus Guesthouse Hostel Room Bahaus Guesthouse Hostel Restaurant

The Local (Sultanahmet)

This is another cool hostel located in the old town. The Local Sultanahmet has a stylish, modern design in a renovated classic Istanbul townhouse. It’s a bit pricier than other hostels, but its location is perfect and the terrace’s view of the harbor is kick-ass.

They organize events where you can meet people, and they’ll let you know all about the nightlife options if you want to get a little crazy.

Book The Local Sultanahmet here

The Local Istanbul Room The Local Istanbul Rooftop Terrace

1.7 Nightlife-Seekers

The nightlife in Istanbul can be described as somewhere between crazy and delirious. This city truly doesn’t sleep, and there are nightlife options that will extend your party well into the morning if that’s something you’re into.

Of course, there are milder, more civilized nightlife options too, so I’ll include some places to stay that takes this into account. There are a ton of hostels located in cool areas that will help connect you to parties and events.

A lot of these hostels are located in the old town, which doesn’t have as much going on in terms of nightlife. Most of the good bars and clubs are in Galata and along side-streets off Istiklal, the main walking street.

But since the old town hostels do a great job of showing you where to go, I’ll include a couple of them.

Recommended districts for nightlife-seekers:

  • Istiklal/Taksim
  • Galata
  • Cihangir

This map shows you the areas recommended for nightlife:

World House Hostel (Galata)

Right near Galata Tower in a 150-year-old Genoese-style building is the World House Hostel. You’ll have easy access to all the nightlife in Galata and Istiklal, and it’s just a short trip over
to the old town too.

Its location is really, really great because you’re not too close to the nightly thumping of music on Istiklal, but close enough, and you’re also in a historic area with tons of art and boutique shops and cafes. It’s a win-win-win.

Book World House Hostel here

World House Hostel Terrace World House Hostel Room World House Hostel Coffee Shop

Chillout Lya Hostel

Chillout Lya Hostel is located just off Istiklal street near Taksim Square and puts you steps away from the bars and clubs in the area. It’s in a 100-year-old building, so you’ll definitely feel the history of the place, and the decoration is colorful and eclectic.

They have a bar that’s open until 4 am, but with all the options in the surrounding area, you may not be using it much.

Book Chillout Lya Hostel here

Chillout Lya Hostel Room Chillout Lya Hostel Terrace

Hush Hostel Lounge, Kadıköy

Even though it’s located on the Asian side, which makes it a bit more difficult to get to the sights of the old city and Galata, I’m including Hush Hostel Lounge because it’s in one of my favorite areas for nightlife.

Moda is a great place to see live music, and there are lots of cool bars with more beer options than you’ll see around the Taksim/Istiklal area (check out Bira Fabrikası, for one). You’ll get a more local vibe, and it’s a bit less crazy than Istiklal (although not much less).

Hush hostel has a nice rooftop terrace, and live music from time to time. It’s a great alternative to the European side.

Book Hush Hostel Lounge here

Hush Hostel Lounge Terrace Hush Hostel Lounge Garden Hush Hostel Lounge Room

Hotel Villa Zurich

This hotel is a classier option for those who still want to experience great nightlife in Istanbul. Hotel Villa Zurich is on one of the hipper streets in Istanbul, Akarsu Sokak, which has lots of nice, mellow cafes, bars, and coffee shops.

It’s also only about a 10-15 minute walk from Istiklal, where you can go a bit harder.

Book Hotel Villa Zurich here

Hotel Zurich Istanbul Room Hotel Zurich Istanbul Indoor Pool Hotel Zurich Istanbul Dining Area

1.8 Budget

A lot of the hostels I’ve already mentioned are also great for those of you coming to Istanbul on a budget.

This city is can be incredibly cheap if you’re smart with your money, and there are plenty of affordable hostels in great locations that’ll put you right in the middle of the action and allow you easy access to all the landmarks and unique neighborhoods.

Recommended districts for budget travelers:

  • The old town (Sultanahmet, Sirkeci)
  • Galata
  • Istiklal/Taksim

This map shows you the areas recommended for budget travelers:

Here are a few more good budget hostels you’ll love.

Second Home Hostel

Second Home Hostel is perfectly situated in the Sirkeci neighborhood of the old town and at 5-10 bucks a night for a dorm bed, even those with budgets squeezed blue from lack of oxygen can afford it.

The hostel is walking distance from Sultanahmet and the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and Spice Market. They offer tons of social events like walking tours and pub crawls.

I probably could’ve added this one to the nightlife-seeking category, but they’re just too many hostels and too little time.

Book Second Home Hostel here

Second Home Hostel Room Second Home Hostel Reception Second Home Hostel Common Area

Cheers Hostel

Cheers Hostel has consistently been awarded one of the best hostels to stay in Istanbul, and the reviews don’t lie. It has an amazing terrace bar with views of the iconic Hagia Sophia, and it’s in the perfect location.

It has a beautiful little street-side patio, and the interior is colorful and full of style. Cheers have a few other hostels around Istanbul, in the old town and just outside, so also check out Cheers Printhouse, Cheers Midtown, and Cheers Lighthouse. They’re all excellent and super affordable.

Book Cheers Hostel here

Cheers Hostel Bunk Beds Cheers Hostel Restaurant Cheers Hostel Bar

1.9 Out-of-the-way Adventure-Seekers

If you’re in Istanbul, then you’re probably already an adventure seeker, but let’s look at a
a couple of areas that’ll really push your limit and expose you to the lesser-tread paths of Istanbul.

I won’t get into too many specifics about the hotels/hostels in each area, but I will leave you with a few suggestions.

Balat

Balat is a quickly gentrifying neighborhood just north of the old town along the Golden Horn. This old Jewish/Greek neighborhood was destroyed during riots in the 50s and has been undergoing a marvelous transformation in the past few years.

Check out the Akin House Hotel and the Troya Hotel Balat. Airbnb also offers some truly unique restored townhouse options as well.

Akin House Istanbul

Akin House Istanbul

Book Akin House Hotel here
Hotel Troya Balat

Hotel Troya Balat

Book Hotel Troya Balat here

Princes Islands

If it’s summertime in Istanbul, it can be a great idea to look at places over there. You’ll get away from the bustle of the city, rent a bike and check out the beaches. Heybeliada and Buyukada are my favorites.

You can check out L’Isoleta Guesthouse and Perili Kosk Caz and Bar in Heybeliada, and the Nizam Boutique Hotel and Aşıklar Butik Otel on Buyukada.

 

Sariyer

Sariyer is a cool little neighborhood on the northern end of the Bosphorus near the mouth of the Black Sea. Here, you’ll find excellent seafood and a quieter vibe than in the heart of the city. It’s also near Belgrade Forest and the beaches a bit farther north on the Black Sea.

Definitely a spot worth checking out. You can find very nice places on Airbnb that feature
old ottoman style townhouses that look out onto beautiful views of the Bosphorus.

2. Top 10 Sights (and their locations)

Istanbul is a history nerd’s wet dream. It’s an ancient city with sooo much history that you’ll need the rise and fall of an empire’s worth of time to see everything and understand how it
all fits together.

That said, here’s a list of the 10 sites you definitely should see if you don’t have that much time, and what to expect when you get to them.

But first some tips:

1. If you’re visiting the old town, it’s definitely best to go early in the day. The crowds
swell to maximum capacity between noon and five, especially in the summer.

2. You can buy a 5-day museum pass for 220 liras if you plan on visiting a lot of museums and a bunch of the sites I’ve listed below. Here’s where you can buy the passes:

  • Topkapi Palace
  • Hagia Sofia
  • Chora Museum
  • Istanbul Mosaic Museum
  • Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
  • Istanbul Archeological Museum

3. Buy an IstanbulKart. It’s a metro card that can be used for any form of public transportation around Istanbul. You can buy one for six liras in the Taksim metro or Marmaray Station in the old town, as well as in many of the small grocery stores called bakkals.

It’ll make getting around a whole lot easier. You can ask someone working at your hostel or hotel where the closest place to get one is. Another option would be to buy this pre-loaded Istanbul Kart here. It’s a bit pricier, but it includes free transportation from the airport, which will save a bit of time and hassle.

4. The private Bosphorus tours that leave from the Eminönü ferry port are nice, but they can be a bit too touristy (note the loud-speakers bellowing of the tour guides urging you to come on board). You can save some money and get a more local vibe if you take the public ferry (Şehir Hatları). Catch the one from Eminönü to Rumeli Kavağı.

It’ll bring you all the way up the Bosphorus, making a few zigzagging stops along the
way on either shore.

We’ve created this useful map with our top 10 sights of Istanbul.

It shows you the locations of the 10 top sights in Istanbul so you can save and use it during your Istanbul trip.

The top 10 sights in Istanbul are:

Now, let’s look at what you should go see.

  1. Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque
  2. Basilica Cistern
  3. Archeology Museums
  4. Walk-in Bosphorus
  5. Topkapi Palace
  6. Grand Bazaar
  7. Galata Tower / Tünel
  8. Rumeli Hisari
  9. Dolmabahçe Palace
  10. Princes Islands

Tickets you should buy before (Must Read)

Since there are many tourists that come to visit Istanbul, it will always be best that you book the most visited places ahead of time.

This is not just to give you more time but also to save you from the inconvenience that may occur like sold-out tickets.

1. Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque

The Hagia Sofia is a behemoth of a structure. Its full form was realized in 537 AD during Roman rule when the city was known as Constantinople.

Originally an orthodox church, it was later converted to a mosque once the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. Its dome is an architectural marvel, and looking up at its ornate precision is a near-psychedelic experience.

Tickets are 72 lire, but you can book a skip-the-line private tour here.

The Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmed mosque) is equally impressive, with another ornately beautiful dome. Directly across from Hagia Sofia, the mosque was built in 1609.

Tip: The entrance is free!

Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque

2. Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern lies under what’s called the “First Hill of Constantinople”, i.e. the oldest hill in the city with the deepest layers of architecture slowly built on top of each other over the years.

It’s an ancient underground tank for storing water built in the late 500s AD, and its huge 30-ft tall columns reflecting off the still water are hauntingly beautiful. Be sure to check out Medusa’s head carved into the base of a column in the northwest corner.

Tickets for the Basilica Cistern are 20 lire, and unfortunately, the museum pass doesn’t cover this site.

You can book a skip-the-line guided tour here.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

3. Archeology Museums

Check out artifacts from Istanbul’s pre-Byzantine, Byzantine, and Ottoman history at the archeological museums.

It’s a complex of three museums, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Archaeology Museum, and the Tiled Pavilion.

They’re located right next to Gülhane Park in the old town. Tickets for the museums are 36 lire, and they’re also included in the museum pass.

4. Walk Down the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus Strait is geographically unique and goddamn beautiful. Take a walk down its banks and explore the cafes and little parks and sea walls where locals cast their fishing lines into the water hoping for levrek (bass) or Lüfer (bluefish).

You may even see a dolphin or two if you’re lucky, and the massive container ships churning by as they pass between the Black and Marmara seas are daunting and impressive.

Try taking a bus up to Rumeli Hisari and walking down to Beşiktaş, it’s probably my favorite section of the straight on either side.

Bosphorus Istanbul

5. Topkapi Palace

Built on the First Hill of Constantinople by Mehmet II after he sacked the city in 1453, Topkapi Palace is a beautiful complex that served as home to the Ottoman sultans until the mid-1800s. A ticket for the museum will run you 72 lira.

Also included in the museum pass. Get a skip-the-line guided tour here.

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

6. Grand Bazaar

One of the oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is really quite grand. It’s easy to get lost in the patchwork of hallways that run under the little stone domes that make up the ceiling.

Get anything from wool and silk scarves to pearl-set backgammon boards, to spices, to gold rings…

Tip: The entrance is free but the stuff inside is not.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

7. Galata Tower / Tünel

Built by the Genoese colony that was established across the Golden Horn when Istanbul was Constantinople, Galata Tower is beautiful and impressive. It’ll cost you 25 lira to get to the top (8 lire if you’re Turkish), and it’s best to check it out early in the day to avoid the lines.

Make the most of the Galata area by taking the Tünel funicular up the hill from Karakoy, and then looping back down the hill. You’ll see a ton of cool music shops and boutiques, cafes and art shops along the way.

Galata Tower Istanbul

8. Rumeli Hisari

Rumeli Hisari is an old fort built by Mehmet II between 1451-52 right before the Ottomans took Constantinople.

It’s located about halfway up the Bosphorus near the second bridge, which is a bit of a hike from the center, but the fort offers great views, and you can do a bit of the previously mentioned walk down the Bosphorus afterward; there are some great things to see along the straight around Rumeli.

9. Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace is a crazy-ornate structure built-in 1856 toward the end of the Ottoman Empire. It lies right on the Bosphorus near the Vodaphone arena in Beşiktaş, and it’s worth checking out simply for the beauty of the architecture.

Tickets are 60 lire for the official section, but you can walk around the exterior for a less. You can also get student tickets at a discounted rate of 30 lire.

Dolmabahce Palace Istanbul

10. Princes Islands

The Princes Islands are a chain of four islands just off the coast of Istanbul. You can get to them via a ferry from the old town, which will take about 45 minutes to an hour.

These islands have no cars, just horse-and-buggies, and electric scooters, making them perfect places to escape the hustle and bustle of the city center. My two favorite are Heybeliyada and Burgazada, two of the smaller islands in the middle of the chain.

They have nice secluded beaches, fragrant pine trees and cool little cafes around the piers. Rent a bike and loop around the coastal roads, you won’t regret it.

Princes Island Istanbul

3. Neighborhood guide (to understand the different areas)

Here is a breakdown of the best neighborhoods in Istanbul.

3.1 Old Town (Sultanahmet, Sirkeci, Eminönü, Hocapaşa)

This is the area with all the most popular tourist attractions. It’s busy and crowded, but for good reason.

Sultanahmet is the eponymous home to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) mosque and Hagia Sofia, as well as the Basilica Cistern and a ton of cool boutique shops, cafes, and restaurants where you can try all the local cuisines.

Definitely go to an Ev Yemekleri, where old ladies will make mantı (Turkish-style ravioli) and gözleme (a kind of pancake/omelet filled with meat or spinach or cheese or all three). Hocapaşa is home to Topkapi Palace and Gülhane Park, located on Istanbul’s First Hill.

In Eminönü, check out the Spice Market and the narrow, windy streets behind it where you’ll find all kinds of little shops. Just be sure to hit these streets early in the day—they’re very narrow streets that get clogged up as the day wears on.

3.2 Galata

Galata was originally a Genoese colony built across the Golden Horn from Constantinople in between 1273 and 1453. Nowadays, it’s home to a ton of cool shops, including a little stretch of street packed with music stores and repair shops.

You’ll find little art galleries, terrace restaurants and bars with killer views, and Galata Tower of course. Just be aware that the hills are quite steep around here.

3.3 Cihangir

Cihangir is the default hipster capital of the city, but in a good way. It’s home to a lot of the most creative people, with lots of famous directors and movie stars sitting in cafes who you won’t recognize until your Turkish friend points them out.

There are a ton of cool cafes around Cihangir, as well as a ton of cool antique shops and music stores. And cats. Istanbul has lots of cats, but Cihangir may be the epicenter. Maybe more cats than people.

3.4 Karaköy

Just down the hill from Galata, Karaköy is a straight-side neighborhood undergoing a lot of change at the moment. There is currently a project underway to expand the coast and construct a walkable seaside area. So you’ll see quite a bit of construction around here.

However, a lot of great little cafes and restaurants have popped up in the narrower, more central side streets that are definitely worth checking out.

3.5 Kadıköy

Kadıköy is the only area I’ll mention on the Asian side. If you’re only in Istanbul for a week, it could definitely be worth taking a ferry over from the European side. Moda is a great neighborhood in Kadıköy with lots of great music and cafes.

The coastal park, Yürüyüş Parkuru, is a great spot to go to catch the sunset and gives you a beautiful perspective on the areas you’ve been exploring on the European side.

3.6 Taksim

Taksim is a huge, Soviet-esque square, and the transportation hub for the European side. While it’s a bit too bland and crowded for my liking, it does offer a cool year-round festival- type thing, which changes monthly among themes like books, antiques, and handicrafts.

3.7 Istiklal Street

Beginning at Taksim Square, Istiklal Street is a giant walking street that spans a couple of
neighborhoods.

You’ll see the old 50s era nostalgic trams honking inattentive pedestrians out of the way, dondurma (ice cream) magicians making children laugh and cry as they taunt them with an elusive ice cream cone attached to a long metal stick, and street musicians banging jovially on drums and strumming Turkish ballads.

Unfortunately, Istiklal has changed in the last 10-15 years, becoming more commercial and shopping-centric.

3.8 Nevizade

Nevizade is a little area off Istiklal street that has the best and craziest nightlife in the city. You can grab a beer or Raki/mezze in one of the many street-side bars/restaurants, or stay up all night in one of the many small clubs stacked on top of one another in a phenomenon I affectionately call “apartment bars”.

3.9 Tarlıbaşa

Tarlıbaşa is a ghetto basically, located just across the main boulevard from Nevizade and Istiklal Street. I would not suggest going there at night, but during the day it offers a sobering look at the part of Istanbul you definitely won’t see in the brochures or guides.

The neighborhood buzzes with activity, and has an excellent weekend market where you can find anything from olives to fish to pants and hats.

3.10 Balat

Balat is a cool little neighborhood just north of the old town along the Golden Horn. It was an old Jewish/Greek/Armenian neighborhood that was destroyed during the 50s pogrom riots, but it’s making a comeback for sure.

You’ll find some great, colorful cafes, antique shops stuffed full of old Turkish trinkets and memorabilia, and streets full of life. Definitely go up the hill to Molla Aşki Terrace to drink in the view and one of their many types of tea.

4. Safest area to stay in Istanbul

Finally, here are a few safety tips to keep in mind during your stay in Istanbul. Like any other big city, it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings and not leave any of your
bags unattended, but specifically:

1. Be a bit wary of the taxi drivers. They have a tendency to rip-off foreigners. Uber is a
good alternative, and the map in the app helps alleviate the communication gap.
2. Be careful about going out late at night around Istiklal/Nevizade. It gets a bit rambunctious/aggressive around there.
3. Keep an eye out for what I call “joke stones”—loose stones on sidewalks that can
lead to a twisted ankle or a splash of gross city water on your shoes and pants.
4. Cats. They’re cute and fluffy and all, but some of them can get nasty and scratch you,
and you never know what kinds of bugs they’re carrying.