A FIRST TIMER'S GUIDE TO ISTANBUL, TURKEY


I'm typically not one for big cities, but Istanbul is so much more than an urban center. A mecca of Byzantine churches, colorful bazaars, Ottoman mosques and historic spice markets, Istanbul is something else entirely. I've traveled to Turkey's largest city three times now, and its vibrance becomes more infectious with every visit. While it serves as a gateway into Turkey for most international travelers, make sure to stay awhile and soak in all that Istanbul has to offer.


My favorite view of the Blue Mosque is from the rooftop terrace of Seven Hills Restaurant.


The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. More than 4,000 stalls!


HOW MANY NIGHTS IN ISTANBUL?

Istanbul is an absolutely massive city that would require an extended stay to truly see everything. For tourists only intending to see the major sights in The Sultanahmet, all can be covered with a three-night stay. If time permits, I suggest five nights in the city. That'll give you four full days to cover the main tourist attractions, as well as venture into the Balat and Karaköy neighborhoods for a good taste of the city.


Suleymaniye Mosque is stunning and far less touristed than the Blue Mosque.


THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL

BALAT NEIGHBORHOOD

Certainly the most colorful neighborhood in Istanbul. Balat is home to cobbled streets, hip cafes and funky boutiques. And if you're in search of the district's famous set of colorful houses, they are located on Kiremit Street.

BASILICA CISTERN

If you've read Dan Brown's novel Inferno, Basilica Cistern is a must-visit. And if you haven't read it, it's still a must-visit. This cistern is located under The Sultanahmet, next to the Hagia Sophia. It's the largest of several ancient cisterns located under the city - housing soaring columns flooded with water and an eerie orange glow. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet HOURS: 9 AM-5:30 PM)

BLUE MOSQUE

Possibly the most iconic sight in Istanbul. My favorite views of the Blue Mosque are from afar, but tourists are allowed inside the mosque at specific hours each day. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)

DOLMABAHCE PALACE

An ornate 19th century palace located on the European shoreline of the Bosphorus. Dolmabahce's interiors are draped in golds and crystals, while the exterior is a mesmerizing setting of decadent gates, fountains and columns. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Beşiktaş HOURS: 9 AM-4:30 PM, Closed Mondays)

GALATA TOWER

This medieval stone tower sits at the end of a bustling street in the heart of the Karaköy district. The street is lined with cafes, markets and restaurants - best to visit before things get busy at 9 AM. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Karaköy)


GRAND BAZAAR

It's the oldest and largest covered market in the world. The Grand Bazaar is home to more than 4,000 stalls and 22 entrances - most tourists get completely lost inside. It's impossible to have any sense of direction once inside - let the labyrinth of shops lead the way. Shoppers should be prepared to haggle and bargain at all stalls inside the bazaar. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet; HOURS: 10 AM-8 PM)


HAGIA SOPHIA

The former church is now the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, and sits across from The Blue Mosque in the middle of the Sultanahmet. Built 1,500 years ago, the Ottoman structure was originally a cathedral built for Constantinople. Make sure to make the time to see inside the Hagia Sophia while in Istanbul - the soaring ceilings are particularly stunning. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet HOURS 9 AM-5 PM winter, 9 AM-7 PM summer)


KARAKOY NEIGHBORHOOD

Hip neighborhood filled with fun cafes, cool boutiques and popular restaurants.


KILIC ALI PASA HAMAM

For tourists looking to experience a traditional Turkish Bath, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam is a good option. It's housed inside an airy dome that is bright, clean and looks particularly luxurious. Menu of spa services include a Turkish bath, exfoliation and massage. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Karaköy HOURS: 8AM–4PM, 4:30–11:30PM)


ORTAKOY MOSQUE

Stunning mosque that sits on the Bosphorus with views of the Bosphorus Bridge. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Ortaköy; HOURS: Exterior views are open 24 hours)


SPICE BAZAAR

Similar to the Grand Bazaar, it's an indoor covered market lined with stalls, most selling a selection of teas and exotic spices. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Eminonu HOURS: 8 AM-7 PM)


SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE

A stunning mosque with a courtyard open 24/7 that is far less busy than the Blue Mosque. (HOURS: Main courtyard is open 24 hours; avoid visiting close to prayer time)


TOPKAPI PALACE

Not the most interesting tourist attraction in Istanbul, but it's considered one of the main sights. Topkapi Palace is essentially a large historic museum that occupies a massive slice of real estate in The Sultanahmet. It served as the home of sultans when it was built in the 15th and 16th centuries. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet HOURS: 24 hours)


UMBRELLA STREET

A narrow street in the Karaköy neighborhood lined with little cafes, completely covered by an installation of colorful umbrellas. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Karaköy; HOURS: 24 hours)


Galata Tower.


Istanbul has some of the best rooftop restaurants views in the world.


Balat is Istanbul's most colorful neighborhood.


Bursts of color in Balat.


PLACES TO STAY IN ISTANBUL

FOUR SEASONS SULTANAHMET

Formerly a prison, this iconic Four Seasons is one of the best places to stay in Istanbul. The location in the heart of The Sultanahmet is ideal - walking distance to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Tokpaki Palace and Basilica Cistern. The bright yellow property surrounds an open courtyard filled with greenery - very lovely. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)


HOTEL EMPRESS ZOE

For travelers on more of a budget, Hotel Empress Zoe is located around the corner from the Four Seasons, boasting a similar location for a fraction of the cost. The boutique property offers a variety of room sizes and prices - everything is very clean and tidy. Dozens of restaurant options are located around the hotel. Ideal location - I've stayed here twice. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)


SHANGRI-LA BOSPHORUS

For visitors looking to stay on the other side of the Bosphorus, Shangri-La has a property in the Besiktas neighborhood. The hotel is a solid business option with clean, modern, spacious rooms. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Besiktas)


Morocco vibes in The Sultanahmet.


The Blue Mosque.


Topkapi Palace.


WHERE TO EAT IN ISTANBUL

BY KINYAS RESTAURANT

Restaurant boasts a rooftop terrace with views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, it's a particularly lovely sight at dinner. Menu offerings include Turkish cuisine and a fresh selection of fish. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)

DIVELLA BISTRO

Absolutely delicious family-owned restaurant located across from Hotel Empress Zoe, and around the corner from the Four Seasons. Menu includes a selection of meats, as well as fresh seafood dishes. Food was so good that I ate here a couple of times. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)


F'ROSES

A cafe fit for Instagram! F'Roses looks straight out of London with a facade draped in roses and dainty white tables. Very picturesque! (NEIGHBORHOOD: Arnavutköy HOURS: 9 AM-8 PM)

INCIR AGACI KAHVESI

While the food isn't the best in Istanbul, it's worth visiting the city's most colorful restaurant. Incir Agaci Kahvesi sits appropriately in the Balat neighborhood - when you see the rainbow staircase, you'll know you've arrived. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Balat)

SEVEL HILLS RESTAURANT

For the best terrace views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Seven Hills Restaurant is a must. Enjoy breakfast with a view, and make sure to stop at the terrace one level up from the restaurant for uncovered 360 views over Istanbul. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)


SULTANAHMET OTTOMAN FISH TERRACE

Another rooftop terrace restaurant with a menu of fresh seafood offerings. (NEIGHBORHOOD: Sultanahmet)


Afternoon on the rooftops.


Snack time in The Sultanahmet.


GETTING TO AND AROUND ISTANBUL

Istanbul is home to two airports located in completely different areas of the city, so triple check airport codes when booking separate connecting flights. Metered taxis are available from the airport, and most hotels will arrange private transport for a slightly higher price. Within The Sultanahmet, most of the main attractions are walking distance. But if you're looking to cross the Bosphorus or visit Balat, a taxi is the best option. I used the app BiTaksi while I was there - it's the Turkish version of Uber. Note that Istanbul taxi drivers infamous for ripping off tourists. It's happened to everyone I know that has visited. Monitor your destination on Google Maps to ensure your drive isn't just driving in circles around the city to run up the meter. Also, if drivers don't want to sit on a particular route because of traffic, don't be surprised to get kicked out of the taxi.


Just after sunrise is the best time for these views without crowds of tourists.


Inside the Blue Mosque


Farewell, Istanbul!