Istanbul is more than just another big city. A mecca of Byzantine churches, colorful bazaars, Ottoman mosques and historic spice markets, Istanbul is a sensory overload of culture and history. I’ve traveled to Turkey’s capital three times now, and its vibrance is more infectious with every visit. While it serves as the gateway to Cappadocia and the Turquoise Coast for most international travelers, Istanbul truly holds its own as a stand alone destination. Below is a first-timer’s guide to the sprawling city including the best sights, bazaars, neighborhoods, rooftops, viewpoints, hotels, restaurants and more. This post contains affiliate links.
My favorite view of the Blue Mosque is from the rooftop terrace of Seven Hills Restaurant.
FOUR DAYS. While the sheer size of Istanbul requires an extended stay to truly see everything, four days is enough time to at least get a taste of the city. Base yourself in The Sultanahmet to be central to most of the main tourist attractions, and then spend a morning or afternoon exploring other neighborhoods like Balat and Karaköy.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. More than 4,000 stalls!
MAY, JUNE AND SEPTEMBER. Istanbul is a seasonal destination, and the spring and fall climates are generally the most comfortable months to visit. Summer brings the heat, along with more tourists. And if you visit in the winter, there’s a good chance of seeing Istanbul covered in snow.
Balat is Istanbul’s most colorful neighborhood.
Certainly the most colorful neighborhood in Istanbul. Balat is home to cobbled streets, hip cafes and funky boutiques. The district’s set of famous colorful houses are located on Kiremit Street.
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.
Possibly the most iconic sight in Istanbul. This Ottoman-era mosque dates back to the 17th century. The structure is completely exquisite with an interior adorned in more than 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles, 200 stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers. Tourists are only allowed inside at specific hours, as it is still a working mosque. It’s a fixture of The Sultanahmet with five main domes, eight smaller domes and six minarets that can be seen from several locations around the district.
An ornate 19th century palace located on the European shoreline of the Bosphorus. The Dolmabahce Palace interiors are draped in golds and crystals, while the exterior is a mesmerizing setting of decadent gates, fountains and columns.
This medieval stone tower sits at the end of a bustling street in the heart of the Karaköy district, lined with cafes, markets and restaurants. It’s best to visit before things get busy at 9 AM.
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. It’s impossible to have any sense of direction once inside – let the labyrinth of shops lead the way. Be prepared to haggle and bargain at all stalls inside the bazaar.
The Hagia Sophia has been a cathedral, mosque and museum since it was first built 1,500 years ago during the Byzantine Empire. The spectacular 6th century landmark sits directly across from The Blue Mosque in The Sultanahmet, the largest church in the world when it was first built. Inside the Hagia Sophia, marvel at the inner dome that rises more than 180 feet up, as well as the ornate mosaics and soaring monolithic columns.
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.
Stunning mosque that sits on the Bosphorus with views of the Bosphorus Bridge.
Similar to the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is an indoor covered market lined with stalls, most selling a selection of teas and exotic spices.
This beautiful Ottoman mosque sits on the Third Hill of Istanbul overlooking The Golden Horn. It was built in the 16th century, and for years it was the largest mosque in Istanbul. While not as famous as The Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye is equally beautiful, and much more accessible to tourists.
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, a step back in time for visitors as they explore the dazzling pavilions, harems, churches, sleeping quarters, gardens, libraries and even pleasure pavilions.
A narrow street in the Karaköy neighborhood lined with little cafes, completely covered by an installation of colorful umbrellas.
Formerly a prison, this iconic Four Seasons is the best place 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.
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.
It might not be the most central location for tourists, but you can certainly see the skyline of historic Istanbul from Raffles Istanbul. The property is a part of Zorlu Centre, located in the business district of the city. The lavish hotel is ultra modern. Interiors are filled with glass, copper, mirrors and chandeliers. Rooms are clean and spacious with floor-to-ceiling windows.
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.
An absolutely refined urban resort that sits inside of two historic mansions that overlook the Bosphorus. It’s an experience to stay here, but its proximity to the Saiyer district (and not the Sultanahmet district) might be a bit far for tourists. Kocatas Mansions guests are treated to one of the 40+ rooms that offer a range of design elements and amenities including timber floors, fireplaces, floor to ceiling windows, Bosphorus views, marble bathrooms, Oriental finishes and high ceilings.
Affordable local favorite renowned for its grilled meats. Menu includes lavash bread, kebabs, grilled tomatoes, onion salad and more. Service is frantic, and there is always a wait.
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.
Popular ice cream parlor that serves all the classic flavors including chocolate, caramel, strawberry and lemon.
INCIR AGACI KAHVESI
While this isn’t the best food 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.
PETRA ROASTING CO.
Very popular morning spot in Istanbul that serves coffee, pastries, tartines, egg dishes, salads and more.
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.
SULTANAHMET OTTOMAN FISH TERRACE
Another rooftop terrace restaurant with a menu of fresh seafood offerings.
Tatbak has been serving the restaurant’s famous lahmacun since 1960, as well as kebab and meat skewers. This is a popular local spot, and Michelin recommended.
Within The Sultanahmet, most of the main attractions are within walking distance. For longer distance, hop on the metro or grab a taxi. BiTaksi is the local ride share app. Note that Istanbul taxi drivers infamous for ripping off tourists. 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 if they kick you out of the taxi.
Lovely views of the Bosphorus.
GET TO ISTANBUL
Istanbul is home to two airports – the Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW), located in completely different areas of the city. Triple check the airport codes when booking separate connecting flights. Most major international flight arrive at IST, while several domestic designations like Cappadocia connect via SAW. Metered taxis are available from the airport, and most hotels will arrange private transport for a slightly higher price.