Istanbul Travel Guide, Turkey

Blue Mosque at night, Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque, aka Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul

Why Istanbul travel?

In addition to being both historically and architecturally spectacular with a skyline of mosques and minarets encircled by water, Istanbul – once known as Constantinople – is the only city in the world that lies on two continents, Europe and Asia. Istanbul gets plenty of sunshine in summer months, offers terrific views, reasonable food, good beer, terrible wine, low prices and lots of good hotels.
The Turks are very friendly and not too pushy even when selling a carpet, though don’t believe every word they say.
However, the country is in a politically and religiously unstable phase at the moment so the risk factor is up.

And BTW,  lively and interesting Istanbul is not Turkey’s capital, dull and distant Ankara is.

Istanbul best season & Ramadan

Best: May – September, when the city is warm and dry. The endless proximity to sea water keeps temperatures from extremes but encourages humidity and wind. Average summer highs are 29C (84F) and lows 16C (61F).
Springtime can be warm and pleasant but conditions are erratic and impossible to predict.
Avoid: winter (wet, grey and with snow on occasion).

During Ramadan many if not most Muslims will neither eat nor drink during the daytime and consequently many cafes, restaurants and even shops will open only after sunset. 

Public eating, drinking and smoking by tourists may upset the locals. In one Muslim country the only alcohol served to us during our visit was from a teapot  into tea cups in a first class hotel.

Furthermore service personnel may be missing, careless or irritable during the daytime.
The last day of Ramadan, known as Idd al Fitr, can be a wild time with much celebrating, depending on location.

Dates depend on the full moon rising in your location so they may differ by one day depending on where you plan to be.

In 2019 Ramadan will start on the 6 May and will continue for 30 days until the 4 of June.

Seker Bayrami: a 3-day festival at the end of Ramadan
Kurban Bayrami: a 5 days festival, March-April.
* we strongly advise you to avoid/ make plans for Kurban Bayrami, because banks and offices close for a week, accommodation will be expensive and difficult to get, and transport will be a nightmare.

Things to do in Istanbul

The Old City, Sultanahmet. Basically this tranquil area used to be the core of Roman Constantinople (it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453) and most historical sights are located here, such as Topkapi Palace, a huge maze-like structure. To see the popular and elaborate harem go early in the morning to get a ticket.

Check out the lovely Ottoman street adjacent to Topkapi entrance.

Hagia Sophia (an ancient mosque/cathedral).

The gorgeous Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet).

Museum of Islamic Art.

The Hippodrome monolith; Sultan Suleyman Mosque.

The Basilica Cistern. Kariye Museum also known as the Chora Church, the interior of which is covered in incredible frescoes and mosaics and adjacent to a dramatic section of ancient Theodosian walls.

Souvenir Shopping in the Grand Bazaar.

See pictures of all these Istanbul sights

Hamam: while you’re in Sultanahmet don’t miss a real marble Turkish bath (hamam) with traditional massage; there are various options. e. g. Sifa is cheap, cheerful and still marble; Cagalogu is a tourist haven; Sultanahmet Hamami is less touristy; Suleymaniye is uniquely mixed, so families or couples can bathe together;

Galata, north across a little bridge (not the Bosphorus Bridge! ): Galata Tower (panoramic views from the top); Galata Whirling Dervish Hall of Sufi Mevlevi, just north of the tower; Istiklal street, the city’s most popular pedestrian street running from the tower to the centre of the city at Taksim Square; Dolmabahce Palace.

New City, north of Taksim Square/Galata: much of this business centre is tediously modern but the area houses some extensive modern shopping malls for bad-weather days, a scattering of attractive Art Nouveau structures and lovely old Ottoman waterfront buildings not far away.

Bosphorus: check the views, parks, fine old mansions and palaces along the banks of the Bosphorus and Marmaris seas. *Dress appropriately when you visit mosques.

Souvenirs: Istanbul’s massive Grand Bazaar (4, 400 shops over 30, 000sqm) and Egyptian Bazaar.
Also for traditional Turkish tourist stuff such as carpets, leather and jewellery go to Cagaloglu area or Sultanahmet in the Old City. Made to measure leather goods can be amazingly good value.
Shopping Centres: Many fine a fashionable malls around, particularly in the New City north of Taksim Square.

Short Trips out of Istanbul

Short Trips
Take the Bosphorus ferry; visit: Uskudar, Istanbul’s Asian side for some interesting, attractive old neighbourhoods, especially along the coasts; The Princes’ Islands (Kizil Adalar) for car free walks among woods and wooden mansions; Iznik (historic lakeside town famous for tiles); Bursa (hot springs and ski area).

Istanbul accommodation, Sultanahmet

Sultanahmet is a World Heritage Site and contains most of Istanbul’s tourist attractions, so this is the place to find a convenient Istanbul hotel – cheap of not so cheap – if you don’t don’t mind quiet nights. Hotel/Pension pictures.

Istanbul nightlife, however, is focused on Galata which also offers a good selection of hotels, is next to Sultanahmet and connected by excellent transport systems (see below), so it’s no great hardship to be based in Galata. However, beware club scams and safety, especially around Taksim.

Istanbul city transport

Driving is Istanbul should be avoided as there are far too many cars there – upwards of 1. 5 million – and not enough roads, parking spaces or street signs.

Traffic jams can be horrendous. If you’ve driven there from a neighbouring country ensure that you have SatNav/GPS and book a hotel with parking, then leave the vehicle there.

Istanbul’s public transport consists of buses, trams, a limited metro system and ferries, though most tourists will use only the last three since buses don’t run in the main tourism destinations of Sultanahmet or Taksim.

Taxis are yellow, good value and use one-rate meters, but check that the driver switches the meter on. Avoid taxis loitering near hotels or tourist sights (though those that are part of a hotel’s official stand should be OK) as they may try to cheat the passenger. Also be aware of traffic jams, it may be quicker by tram or metro. Maybe ask the price to go somewhere (in simple English) beforehand AND watch the taximeter.
A Dolmus is a shared taxi, also yellow, that only starts when 8 seats are full.
Taxi scams: the most popular is the driver pretends/uses a switch to show you just gave him a 5 Lira bill, not a 50L, so make it VERY clear what the value is when you hand it over. e. g. “This is a 50L note. You give me 30L back. OK? ”
If in doubt note/photo the driver’s ID and license plate and call the police at #155.

Istanbul Arts/Culture

Museums: The Archaeological Museum, Mozaik Museum, Museum of Turkish Carpets.
Galleries: Museums of Turkish and Islamic Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Istanbul Museum of Paintings and Sculpture.
Night Clubs/Belly Dance/Live Music: expensive and touristy, but try Orient House in the old town, Galata Tower Night Club, or Saki Restaurant in the new town. Check ‘The Guide’ magazine for event info/listings.

Turkish Food

Turkish meals are a mix of Mediterranean and central Asian cooking with olive oil and spices, and lean towards meze (mixed appetisers, like Tapas), starting with cold meze, then hot meze, fish or meat if you can afford it for main dish, and finally some sort of sticky sweet thing.

Old City: for fresh sea food and value for money, go to the lively Kumkapi area. Otherwise the Sultanahmet area has a good selection of mid price restaurants.

New City: Çiçek Pasaji (food court) and the adjacent street is a pleasant, good value dining area with lots of great fishy things on offer.

Try Musa Ustam Adana or Konak for kebabs. Go to Tügra (Ottoman cuisine) or Safran for a posh Turkish meal.

Turkey Visas

An entry visa is not required for 90 day tourism for some European nationals, such as UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Italy, but Spanish, Portuguese, Poles, Irish, Austrians DO need a visa. Please check visa situation before departing!

Citizens of USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, China NEED a visa and can apply online or at a Turkish Consulate in their home countries, but New Zealand and Japan tourists don’t need a visa. Confusing! Up-to-date visa info.


For Police dial #155

As usual beware pickpockets in crowded places. Leave valuables is a hotel safe and carry the minimum in zippered pockets, or even stuffed in your sock.

Taksim area club scams are varied and unpleasant. Basic survival rules are:

Do not accept ANY hospitality from strange men/women on the street or in a bar/club, even if they ‘accidentally’ spilt your drink.

Do not allow an unknown women to sit with you in a bar unless you’re ready to pay for her inflated drinks in exchange for admiring her inflated chest.

Check and double check prices.

Bars in Taksim are also known to pass forged currency which is very difficult to spot in the dark. Call police if necessary.

In cheap hotels in Istanbul beware reception quoting a price in Turkish Lira and later claiming they said the price in euros. Avoid this by paying in advance.