Istanbul: a city that sits astride two continents and combines the charms of east and west with aplomb. If you’d like to experience Asia at its most European and Europe at its most Asian, visiting Istanbul is a must! There’s a reason this city was once named the “city of the world’s desire!”.
We know that visiting a city for the first time can be a little overwhelming. That’s why we want to make it easier for you and have created this bite-sized travel guide to the city.
Whether you want to know where to visit in this magical city, when to go, or where to go next, you’ll find all this and more in our guide! Ready to find out more about the city? Keep reading!
In 667 BC, when Greek colonists founded a city called Byzantion, which you might know as Byzantium. The settlers came from Megara in West Attica, which still stands today. Byzantium was a significant city even then, with an Acropolis built where you can now find Topkapi Palace.
The Romans laid siege to the city in 196 AD, causing a lot of damage. After this, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus rebuilt the city. After restoring, the capital became as prosperous as ever.
The Ottomans rebuilt the city, and it became, once again, one of the centers of the world. The Ottomans built mosques, madrasas, markets, and magnificent monuments in this city.
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and the capital moved to Ankara. In 1930, the city was officially named Istanbul, with the authorities no longer accepting Constantinople as a name for the center.
Located right at the intersection between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is in a unique position. To the North, you’ll find the Black Sea, and to the south, the Mediterranean, separated by the Bosphorus. This makes the city the perfect spot to begin your Turkish vacation!
Like several other great cities in the world like New York, Naples, and Madrid, Istanbul is on the 41st parallel. This position, between Europe and Asia and between two seas, means that this has always been an incredibly important city for trade. If trade goods needed to go from Europe to Asia or the Mediterranean to Russia, they had to pass through Istanbul.
The city’s unique geography also means that it’s fair to call it a conglomeration of cities, rather than one single entity. The old city walls surround the most important part, but head south to the Golden Horn, where on the north bank, you’ll find Galata, a settlement which was absorbed into Istanbul. The Asian side of the city completes these three rough regions.
You should also be prepared to experience hilly terrain when visiting Istanbul! Like Rome, Istanbul is built on seven hills and there are attractions on each one, including the Hagia Sophia, the Column of Constantine, and the Fatih Mosque.
Until recently, three main airports were serving Istanbul. The city’s old main airport, Istanbul Ataturk Airport, now only serves cargo, military, state, and other such flights.
Instead, you will be landing at Istanbul Airport. This large airport only has one terminal, like Amsterdam Schipol, but it is much more significant. Moreover, it is the largest airport under one roof in the world!
It’s also a bustling airport: in its first year, the airport served 40 million passengers, but don’t worry. It’s well laid out, and you will be able to find your way around without any problems.
You could also land at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, which is located in the Asian part, 20 miles from the city center. This is a much smaller airport and easier to navigate. If you have a choice of airports to fly to, this airport will probably prove less stressful and less time wasted compared to longer taxiing and walking time at Istanbul Airport.
You can fly to Istanbul from all over the world, including a pretty good range of major cities. As a star alliance member, we do book most of the flight tickets for our guests at Turkish Airlines that has available domestic and international flights in more than 120 countries. Read more about why you should choose Turkish Airlines for business or leisure.
If you are already in Turkey, you can get high-speed trains to Istanbul from around the country, including from Ankara and Eskisehir.
What’s the best way to get around when visiting Istanbul? We think the best approach is to let us handle your itinerary and supply you with an experienced tour guide. If you do this, all you have to do is meet your guide at the hotel and relax: you’re in capable hands.
Your guide will know the best places to take you, including locals’ spots that aren’t on the itinerary of most tourists. We can also handle travel services for you, ferrying you around the city so that you don’t have to think about transport for even a moment.
You can learn more about our experience and what makes us your best bet by clicking here!
If you prefer, there is also has a fantastic public transport network, but you may find it difficult to negotiate as a tourist.
When you’re planning on visiting Istanbul, you should consider the best times to visit. The city has a hot Mediterranean climate, so you need to choose the time to visit carefully. If you want to experience mild heat without getting sunburnt, we’d recommend visiting during spring or autumn.
Winter is never too cold, however, and you can sometimes benefit from discounted flights. If you visit during summer, expect high heat and a lot of tourists: if you’re going to spend a lot of time indoors, the temperature shouldn’t bother you too much, though.
If this is your first time visiting Istanbul, you should consider a more extended stay. A week will give you enough time to tick off all the major sights and experiences.
If you’re only interested in a short visit, three full days will give you a real taste of the city. The only issue with Istanbul is that there is so much to see. If you want to get to know the city in a more sophisticated way and see some of its surroundings, two weeks will be even better.
What are the best things to see in Istanbul? Where do we even start?
A trip to Istanbul is not complete without seeing the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Completed in 537 and 1616, respectively, these two architectural wonders need to be seen both inside and out. History is tangible in both, whether you want to see the incredible Quranic calligraphy in the mosque or the frescoes in the Hagia Sophia.
You will also need to see the two incredible palaces: the Topkapi Palace and the Dolmabahce Palace. Both of these house incredible collections of Ottoman valuables, religious relics, and artworks.
You should also visit the Grand Bazaar. Built-in 1455, this is regarded as one of the first shopping malls in the world. Here, you’ll find merchants selling unusual, unique souvenirs, including ceramics, plates, carpets, and more.
If you love sports, you’ll be in your element in Istanbul, too. The three most successful Turkish football clubs: Besiktas, Galatasary, and Fenerbahce are all based here.
We would also recommend experiencing the Turkish national sport of oil wrestling! If you visit during July, you can travel to Edirne to experience the Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Tournament. If you can’t make it that far, you may be able to find local matches in Istanbul: we recommend searching for this sport by its Turkish name of yagli gures.
This is a dream city for food lovers. When you’re visiting Istanbul, you will have the opportunity to sample an incredible, diverse range of food. Head down to the Bosphorous, and you’ll be met with many fantastic seafood restaurants, boasting the freshest fish you’ll ever eat.
A Turkish breakfast is the best way to start the day. You’ll be given a cup of tea and presented with bread, cheese, olives, butter, honey, and eggs. Sucuk (Sujuk: a type of spicy beef sausage), an incredible spiced beef sausage, and Borek, a pastry filled with dough, meat, and vegetables, are also fantastic ways to start the day.
You also need to try out meze, small dishes that are similar to Spanish tapas. Some typical meze includes grilled eggplants, pinto beans, and chili tomato paste. You also need to try the two primary varieties of kebap: Adana (spicy one) and Iskender (pide bread slices with yoghurt and doner kebap meat on top).
For those with a sweet tooth, you need to try Baklava! This incredible dessert is made of layers of thin pastry, nuts, and syrup.
In summary, Istanbul has enough varieties to feed millions from a little backstreet secret restaurant to Michelin Star fine dining restaurants oh and, the Salt Bae.
When visiting Istanbul, it’s important to remember that Turkish culture is very different from Western culture. As such, etiquette and customs are different, and you should be prepared so as not to offend your hosts.
If you are invited to drink tea and don’t have the time, you should reject it politely. Hold a hand to your heart and point to your wrist. You can also mime the direction that you’re traveling in, to drive the point home.
In most areas of Istanbul, you won’t have to worry about what to wear. Turkey is somewhat more conservative than western European countries, but it is one of the most modern and democratic Muslim countries, so you won’t have to worry too much.
The only hard and fast rule is that neither men nor women should wear revealing clothing when visiting mosques.
As a rule, Istanbul is more friendly towards the LGBT community than rural Turkey. Still, in some more conservative areas, you may want to avoid public displays of affection.
Visiting Istanbul during Ramadan will not affect your trip if you are not Muslim. While in other cities like Konya, Trabzon, Malatya, and Erzurum, it would be considered rude to eat, drink, or smoke in the street, this is not the case in Istanbul.
Alcohol is legal in Turkey, but public drunkenness by either gender is considered rude and disrespectful. The legal drinking age is 18: the government tried to make it 24 in 2011, but this was overturned.
There are some quirks to Turkish alcohol law, though. You will not see any adverts for alcohol as the government banned these in 2013. Bottles and cans also carry health warning labels, as you’d see on cigarette packets.
Safety has been a significant concern for most countries, and this all-time capital of the world had its share from the recent events near the Syrian border that is 900 miles away.
Starting from November 2015 to mid-January 2016, there had been bombings, terrorist attacks, demonstrations, and similar events that made the majority avoid Turkey. There is still a considerable population of Syrian refugees, yet Istanbul has been perfectly safe for travelers since late January 2016 to the present day.
When you’ve finished visiting Istanbul, there are a ton of places still to explore. The city is well connected to the rest of Turkey, and an ideal starting point for your Turkish traveling adventures!
If you want to see more of historical Turkey, we’d recommend visiting Troy, site of the legendary battle. You could also visit Ephesus, site of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation.
If you want more sun, sea, and sand, a visit to beautiful Bodrum should be top of your list. Bodrum was also home to one of the seven ancient wonders of the world! Finally, for the health-conscious among you, why not visit Pamukkale and bathe in the hot springs?
We hope that we’ve piqued your interest in this beautiful and cosmopolitan city. It is like nowhere else on Earth and well worth a trip.
If you’re thinking of visiting Istanbul, let us help you make your trip even more enchanting. To find out more about what we can do or if you would like to ask about our rates, please contact us now, and we will be more than happy to assist!