Not many trips can take you to both Europe and Asia in one city. In fact, Istanbul is the only city that straddles the two continents. Steeped in history, Istanbul is a treat for all your senses. Wander the busy spice markets, listen to the seagulls on the Bosphorus Strait, and be in awe of the historic Blue Mosque. Before you book your trip to Istanbul, make sure you take a look through his guide to make the most of your experience.
Top 3 Districts
The old city of Istanbul conveniently has some of the city’s biggest tourist attractions all within walking distance of each other. On opposite sides of Sultanahmet Square are the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The Grand Bazaar is just around the corner, as is Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern.
Modern Istanbul is where the action happens. Head down the main boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi, on foot or vintage tram and browse the endless shops and restaurants. The area comes alive at night with clubs and street performers. Many of the best rooftop bars are also in the area, giving views over the Bosphorus and the city are lit up at night.
This waterside neighborhood will keep you fed. Some of the most wonderful bistros line the water serving seafood and Turkish food. Kabataş is also a main stop for anyone taking a ferry, dinner cruise, or wants to check out the numerous museums like the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
Top 3 Attractions
1. Grand Bazaar
Get lost in the maze that is the Grand Bazaar. The market is filled with everything you could ever want and everything you didn’t know you needed. Don’t be afraid to haggle a better price, most of the stands price the items for tourists. If you are still not okay with the price they give you, walk away. If they don’t chase after you, you will likely find the same item at another stand.
Grand Bazaar. Photo: Michael Paraulava/Unsplash
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a fascinating mix of both Muslim and Christian history. Originally a state church for the Roman Empire between 532 and 537, the building (which had to be reconstructed) is now a mosque after nearly 1000 years following the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. It was also a Latin Catholic cathedral at one point. The architecture now includes both Islamic additions to Christian elements.
Hagia Sophia. Photo: Raimond Klavins/Unsplash
3. The Blue Mosque
One of Istanbul’s most recognizable places is The Blue Mosque. The Ottoman-era mosque is adorned with handpainted blue tiles. On top of the blue color, you can recognize the UNESCO World Heritage Sit by the five main domes, eight secondary domes, and six minarets.
Top 3 Restaurants
Located right on the Bosphorus in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotel, the restaurant serves authentic Ottoman cuisine. Dine like a sultan on lamb or Monk fish cooked in a traditional clay pot. Just note, that guests under 12-years-old are not able to dine at this establishment.
2. Istanbul Kebab Cafe & Restaurant
Despite being in the heart of a touristy area, the Istanbul Kebab Cafe & Restaurant is the perfect stop for a casual meal and the prices can’t be beaten! We recommend the Iskender kebab and the mixed appetizer plate.
3. City Lights Restaurant & Bar
The name says it all. City Lights Restaurant & Bar is the place in Istanbul to watch the city turn from day to night while sipping delicious cocktails. There menu is a mix of West and East Asian including steak, sushi, and duck.
Best Ways To Get Around
Unless you hire a private car, it isn’t recommended to drive around Istanbul. On top of driving down the narrow roads, parking can be tricky. Luckily, the city has an extensive metro system that will take you to most places you want to go. There is also the bus but heads up that most buses don’t have maps inside and they don’t announce the next stop so pay attention to your surroundings.
If the Metro or bus won’t do, there is no shortage of taxis which are cheap and easy to find.
Best Time Of Year To Visit & Weather
While June to August sees soaring temperatures (83°F/29°C) and busy crowds, the shoulder seasons (March to May and September to November) are the perfect mix of sun and fewer crowds. But don’t let the hot summers fool you, Istanbul quickly dips down in the winter, and from December to February, the city can be covered in snow and rain.
Turkish is the main language in Turkey and while many locals learn basic English, it helps to know a few key phrases in Turkish. You might also run into some people who speak Arabic or Kurdish.
Currency & Tipping Customs
Istanbul, as does the rest of Turkey, uses the Turkish Lira. You’ll want to change over your local currency. Many places do take credit cards, but small stalls and restaurants might not.
Tipping is expected, but not as high as in North America. On a food bill, around 5-10 percent will do unless it is a high-end restaurant, then add a bit more. However, you can’t add a tip when paying with a credit card so make sure you have some money on you. You can tip hotel staff a few dollars for bag help or around $10 for housekeeping at the end of your stay.
The Turkish Bath (Hamam) is a popular experience when visiting the city. Before you leave, your attendant will come to say goodbye and you are expected to tip them between 10-20 percent.
Emergency Info & Local Pharmacies
Istanbul has a few different emergency numbers which are as follows:
Tourism Police: +90 212 527 4503
The Tourism Police is a special force that deals with crimes against tourists.
Should you need a COVID-19 test while in Istanbul, the Istanbul Airport has them on the Arrivals floor near gate 14. In the city, public hospitals and private clinics offer tests but you will have to pay as they are only free to Turkish citizens.
For any items you may need, most pharmacies carry a small selection of personal care products. They aren’t chains, but independent locations. The supermarkets such as Migros also sell essentials.
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