Istanbul: Our Quick Guide For First Time Travellers

Istanbul has long been on my bucket list and, when we finally got a chance to visit it recently, it absolutely exceeded my expectations. Istanbul is an incredible city that is set on two continents with the Bosphorous Strait dividing the city in two. The East bank of the Bosphorous is part of Asia, while the West bank is part of Europe. So, in Istanbul, you can breakfast in Europe and then hop on a ferry to lunch in Asia!

Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city that is packed with culture, history and great food. Plus, with 15 million inhabitants, it is also a little hectic as you might expect!

We loved our time in Istanbul. We only had three full days, but we packed them to the max and would have happily extended our stay for another couple of days or even longer. Istanbul is a city that everyone should visit at least once. So, if you are planning a trip to Istanbul, keep reading to learn the best places to see in this dazzling city.

What to do in Istanbul?

The Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia (also known as the Ayasofya) is the most iconic building in Istanbul. Built between 532 and 537 as the principal church of the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia was then converted to a mosque in 1453, after the conquest of Constantinople by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. In 1934, the Turkish government converted the Hagia Sophia to a museum but in 2020 they converted it back to a working mosque.

Because of its unique history, the Hagia Sophia is one of those rare structures in the world that blends the architectural styles of both a church and a mosque. Its 31m diameter domeis the structure’s most striking element.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul
The Dome inside the Hagia Sophia

Visiting the Hagia Sophia can take some time. There is often a long queue to enter. However, as bad as it looks, the queue normally moves quite quickly, so it is worth the wait. The Hagia Sophia is open every day but being a working mosque, it does close during prayer times and on Friday mornings. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds.

Entry fee: Free

Spectacular tiling inside the Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Right across from the Hagia Sophia, you will find an equally imposing mosque, the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia is breathtaking, but the Blue Mosque (locally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is even more striking. With its many domes and its six towering minarets, it’s an incredible sight. The outside of the Blue Mosque isn’t blue; instead, its name comes from the thousands of blue Iznik tiles that line its interior.

As with the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is closed for prayers at various times of the day and on Friday mornings.

NOTE: When visiting a Mosque, please be respectful and dress appropriately. Your shoulders and legs must be covered. Remember to also remove your shoes at the entrance.

Entry fee: Free

The Harem Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace is beautiful and a must-see attraction in Istanbul. But be warned, it gets super busy. My advice is to visit during the week and first thing in the morning. It opens at 9am.

Inside the Topkapi Palace

Another tip, pay the extra fee to visit the Harem. In my opinion, the Harem is the best part of the palace and is mind-blowingly beautiful. The Harem’s tiled rooms are so incredible and absolutely Instagram worthy! Every room is stunning. We spent most of our time in the Harem taking photos and then emerged to find hordes of tourists in the main palace courtyard. We were so glad we arrived early, and we didn’t stay much longer!

Entry fee: The palace entry is 750 Lira per adult + an extra 350 Lira for the Harem (seriously don’t skimp on this extra ticket!)

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern

Another incredibly busy attraction in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving ancient Roman cistern. Lying beneath the city, it can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water and contains 336 marble columns, each 9 meters tall. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Today, there is very little water kept in the cistern because it is only used as a tourist attraction.

Entry fee: 450 Liras

Cruise on the Bosphorous Istanbul
Cruise on the Bosphorous

Take a cruise on the Bosphorous

The Bosphorous Strait cuts through the city of Istanbul and there is no better way to enjoy Istanbul’s gorgeous architecture than from the water. Numerous tour boats cruise the Bosphorous daily and their prices range from 4 Euros for a one-hour cruise to 35 Euros or more for those that include lunch or dinner onboard. They depart regularly throughout the day. There are also sunset and evening cruises to enjoy the city at night.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Visit the Grand Bazaar

No visit to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, the city’s oldest and largest market. In the Grand Bazaar you can find just about anything you need. It’s the best place in town for tourists to look for souvenirs, carpets, pottery, and Turkish lamps. You could spend hours there but be sure to haggle, since prices are inflated for tourists.

Entry fee: Free – Closed on Sunday

The Spice Bazaar

And the Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, but we found it even more enjoyable. It’s so colourful, it smells incredible and there are lots of yummy treats to buy!

The Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar is home to shop after shop selling colourful and aromatic assortments of spices, teas, nuts, dried fruit, Baklavas and Turkish delights. There’s also a scattering of shops selling souvenirs.

Entry fee: Free

The Rustem Pasha Mosque

Tip: Right next to the Spice Bazaar is the Rustem Pasha Mosque. This mosque is a hidden gem that some describe as a miniature Blue Mosque, without the crowds. I found the tile work just as incredible as the Blue Mosque’s, just on a much smaller scale. There was barely anyone there when we visited, and it is also free to enter.

Sunrise from the Galata Tower

Go up the Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is another iconic landmark of Istanbul. Built in 1348, it served as a watchtower, a prison, and a naval depot. It stood for centuries as the tallest structure in Istanbul. There is an elevator to go up the tower and the views from the observation deck are spectacular. Visit early in the morning for the best lights and to avoid the crowds.

Entry fee: 650 Turkish Lira

Baklava heaven

Buy Turkish delights and Baklavas

I don’t know about you, but I am a huge fan of Turkish Delights and Baklava. The great news is that you can find these delicious Turkish sweets everywhere in Istanbul. Both the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar sell them by the thousands. There are also shops all over town that sell them. We loved the Hafiz Mustafa 1864 bakery. You can buy the sweets by the kilo if you’re hungry or if you’re planning on bringing some home with you. Alternatively, you can buy a few grams to eat right away (don’t think about the calories, you’re not in Turkey every day!).

Istiklal Street

Head to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street

If you’re keen to do some more shopping, head to Taksim Square and Istiklal street. There you’ll find an array of high street shops, restaurants, nightclubs, cafés, and more.

You’ll also find buskers, bands, street entertainers, food stalls, and much more to keep you entertained.

If you don’t fancy walking the length of the street, the iconic red Heritage tram runs down Istiklal Street from Taksim Square.

Across the Galata Bridge

Walk across the Galata Bridge

The Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn and connects the historic city centre with modern Istanbul. The bridge is two-storeys high, consisting of an upper level where the traffic flows and a bottom level that is home to numerous restaurants. These are perfect for a long lunch taking in the views.

The Galata Bridge is a great place to watch the many fishermen who gather along it hoping to hook something. The views of the city from the bridge are also spectacular. On one side you have Sultanahmet, the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. The other side has the New Mosque and Galata Tower.

Across to the Asian side

Take a ferry to Asia!

You can take a ferry across to the Asian bank of Istanbul from the European side. There are ferries to Kadiköy and Üsküdar. You can also take a train to Üsküdar. We only had time to visit Üsküdar but we heard that Kadiköy is very nice too.

In Üsküdar, we walked along the Bosphorous, enjoying the riverside scenery. We took the short boat trip to the newly reopened Maiden Tower for more amazing views of the city and the Bosphorous.

The Maiden Tower

The Maiden Tower is an Ottoman age tower on a small island in the Bosphorus. It has recently been completely restored. This landmark of modern Istanbul has spectacular panoramic views of the city. Due to its strategic location near the entrance of the Bosphorus, the tower has had a very varied history and is now open as a small museum. It also has a café onsite.

The Whirling Dervishes show

Watch a Whirling Dervishes show

Watch the mystical ritual of the Mevlevi Order, whose whirling dance has been declared a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity. The Sema ceremony is a journey through man’s spiritual ascent to “perfection” through mind and love—a truly unmissable and astonishing experience. You can find Whirling Dervishes shows in a few spots around town. We watched it at the Kizlaragasi Medrese in the old town and it was a great experience.

Entry fee: Around 18 euros depending on where you go.

Enjoy some Turkish food.

Turkish food has so much variety. Different regions have their own specialities and trying everything will be hard. However, the ones you really must try are:

  • Mezzes (especially the acili ezme – Spicy Turkish salsa) 
  • Shish Kebabs
  • Gozleme
  • Pide (Turkish Pizza)
  • Testi Kebab (Kebab in Pottery)
  • Menemen (Turkish Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes)
  • Balık Ekmek (Fish Sandwich)
  • And of course… Turkish Delights and Baklavas. 

How to get around Istanbul?

Walking is the best way to experience the city. You can easily walk around the main tourist areas of the city. A lot of the sights are very close to each other, especially in Sultanahmet.

If you are short on time, it’s worth getting in an Istanbulkart to use around the city. An Istanbulkart can be purchased from every station and is a type of debit card that can be topped up. It allows you to travel around the city by bus, boat, metro, tram, or train. You can also use it to pay for the public toilets which can be handy when you don’t have small change.

Karakoy Istanbul
Karakoy Istanbul

How long should you stay in Istanbul?

You need a minimum of three days to see the main attractions. If you can spare more time, you should; there is so much to do in Istanbul. I wish we had had at least another two days there.

 Where to stay in Istanbul?

There are many neighbourhoods in Istanbul. Most tourists stay in Sultanahmet (the old town), Taksim Square and Istiklal Street or near Galata or Karakoy. As a first-time visitor, we would recommend staying in Sultanahmet so that you have most of the main attractions on your doorstep.

However, if you are young or if you fancy more nightlife, staying across the Golden Horn near Istiklal/Taksim Square, or Karakoy would be a better option.

In Sultanahmet:

Hotel Sultania

We stayed at Hotel Sultania and really couldn’t fault it. The location was perfect, within a walking distance to Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, Gulhane Park and Basilica Cistern. The rooms in Hotel Sultania feature a combination of modern lifestyle with traditional Ottoman touch. Check their prices here.

Saruhan Hotel

Located in the heart of the Old City, just 600 metres from the Blue Mosque. The hotel is close to Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of Istanbul. The Saruhan Hotel offers views from its rooftop terrace and free Wi-Fi. Check their prices here.

Henna Hotel

Henna Hotel Istanbul has a garden, shared lounge, a terrace, and restaurant in Istanbul. Popular points of interest nearby include the Topkapi Palace, the Column of Constantine and the Spice Bazaar. The accommodation features a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, room service and free WiFi throughout the property. Check their prices here.

Sunset on the Bosphorus

In Taksim Square/Istiklal:

Plat Inn Hotel Taksim

Boasting a terrace, Plat Inn Hotel Taksim is in the centre of Istanbul, 400 metres from Taksim Square. Popular points of interest near it include Istiklal Street, Taksim Metro Station and Dolmabahce Clock Tower. Check their prices here.

Novus Pera Hotel

Featuring a garden, a shared lounge, and a bar, Novus Pera Hotel is in the centre of Istanbul, 700 metres from the Galata Tower. The property is 1.9 km from the Spice Bazaar, 2.8 km from the Istanbul Congress Center and 2.9 km from the Dolmabahce Clock Tower. The hotel includes a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, room service and free WiFi throughout the property. Check their prices here.

Magnova Studios

Magnova Studios is located on Istiklal Avenue, just a few steps from St. Anthony of Padua Church. Free WiFi is featured throughout the property. Check their prices here.

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