Istanbul Travel Guide
There is nowhere in the world quite like Istanbul. Spread across two continents, Istanbul is a city of layers and contrasts. With historical sights like the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace brushing up against buzzing bars and lively cafes, with Ottoman-era mosques a short walk from contemporary art museums and galleries, with traditional carpet shops around the corner from trendy boutiques, Istanbul is a city of old and new coexisting. The city never stops moving.
Istanbul is the cultural capital of the country, with a plethora of independent galleries and inventive restaurants, as well as its transit hub, with flights going all over Turkey and all over the world. Each neighborhood has its own distinct identity and vibe, and it's easy to spend weeks in Istanbul without ever seeing everything. But that is what makes it so fascinating—there will always be something calling you back for more. So order a cup of Turkish coffee and a piece of pistachio baklava, and get ready to delve into this fascinating metropolis.
Turkey's time zone is GMT+3 year-round, and is also called TRT (Turkey Time). Turkey does not do daylight savings.
Best Time to Go
Spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October) are the perfect times to visit Istanbul, when the weather is bright and mild. During the month of April is the city-wide Tulip Festival, when the parks and green spaces in the city are bedazzled with the colorful bulbs. In the summer, the city becomes sticky and very hot, and most residents flee to the beaches in the south as soon as they can, but the streets are alive all night when the air cools off a little. Winter is gray and rainy, showing Istanbul at its most moody and evocative.
Things to Know
The main language in Istanbul is Turkish, though with a large international presence in the city, don't be surprised to hear chatter in English or Arabic or Farsi as you explore. Turkish people are generally quite helpful, even if you don't speak any Turkish, and shop owners (especially in Sultanahmet, the historic center) will often invite you to sit down and share a çay, a tiny tulip-shaped cup of strong black tea. Personal space is often a luxury in this crowded city, so don't be surprised if you feel someone is standing too close to you as you wait for a bus or in a line—it's normal here.
Don't mistake the water that bisects the city for a river. The Bosphorus Strait connects the Sea of Marmara (and, by extension, the Mediterranean) with the Black Sea, and is therefore a major global shipping route. It's not unusual to see massive container ships floating by your commuter ferry.
While Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, the capital city is actually Ankara, in central Anatolia. But the palaces that dot the Bosphorus, left over from Istanbul's status as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, might make you think otherwise. The politicians might do their business in Ankara, but Istanbul feels like the center of the world.
Currency: Turkish Lira (TL)
(Check the current exchange rate)
I don't speak Turkish: Türkçe bilmiyorum.
I'm lost: Kayboldum
Can I have…?: …alabilirmiyim?
Where is…?: ... nerede?
Calling Code: +90
Capital City: Ankara
How to Get Around
Intricate interlocking transportations—both official and informal—make it easy to navigate around Istanbul. There are multiple metro lines with clear signage and modern cars that connect to an above-ground tram line and two funiculars. The Marmaray, a cross-continent metro line that passes under the Bosphorus Strait, connects the metro system on the European and Asian sides of the city, and has recently expanded to run all the way into the suburbs on both sides of the city. Otherwise, the best way to cross from Europe to Asia and back is by ferry, with multiple ferry lines running between stations on a regular schedule all throughout the day.
The gaps are filled by city buses, which are paid for by the same IstanbulKart that gets you onto the metro, Marmaray, and ferries. And if there is no bus that runs to your destination, there might be a dolmuş, a yellow van that runs on a fixed route but stops whenever a passenger requests it and leaves whenever the van is full. There are also light blue minibuses that run on various routes throughout the city. Dolmuş and minibuses are paid in cash, with the price depending on the distance you go.
Taxis are plentiful, especially around touristed areas. Apps like BiTaksi can be useful to call taxis directly, and hotels are also usually happy to order a taxi if you can't flag one down.
Things to Do
Neighborhoods to Know
Sultanahmet: Seemingly every block in this neighborhood has something historical poking out. The central square is dominated by the twinned Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and the streets hold other imperial Ottoman-era mosques, Byzantine cisterns, and the remains of a hippodrome. This is the main place visitors to Istanbul come, and with good reason—the layered empires that dominated Istanbul have all left their mark right here.
Kadıkӧy: Located on Istanbul's Asian shore, Kadıkӧy is the neighborhood of artists and creatives. Bright colorful murals decorate the walls of buildings, while the streets brim with vibrant bars, sleek third-wave coffee shops, trendy boutiques, and al fresco dining. Kadıkӧy has a long stretch of seaside that is filled on summer nights with locals enjoying a beer at sunset. Only a picturesque ferry ride away from the city center, Kadıkӧy is the neighborhood to visit to see how Istanbul's cool kids live.
Cihangir: This trendy neighborhood, just a few blocks from Taksim Square, is the place to see and be seen. With cutting-edge boutiques, moody bistros, colorful bars slinging cocktails, and stylish cafes, Cihangir has long been the scene where hip Turks and foreigners mingle.
Beşiktaş: Located on the European Bosphorus shore just a short walk from Dolmabahçe Palace, Beşiktaş is a rowdy neighborhood famed for its passionate support of the local football team and its plethora of pubs. Explore the rollicking side streets spilling over with people enjoying the night time energy.
Karakoy: Formerly a forlorn strip of shipping warehouses and camping shops, the Karakoy neighborhood has blossomed in the last decade into a colorful strip of restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. One building houses five of Istanbul's premier private galleries, while mere steps away is the splendid Kılıc Ali Paşa Mosque and its luxurious hammam.
Nişantaşı: For luxury and high-end experiences, Istanbul's elite come to upscale Nişantaşı. Here's where you can find haute couture boutiques, luxury brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton, and elegant restaurants. Just nearby is Maçka Park, one of the few parks in central Istanbul and an ideal place to stroll.
The Princes Islands: The Princes Islands, called Adalar in Turkish, are nine islands in the sea of Marmara, with four open to the public. Cars are not allowed on the islands, so it's best to get around by bicycle, by foot, or by horse-drawn carriage. With its charming white wooden houses and lush bougainvillea, the islands are an escape from the city within the city. The four islands (Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada) can be reached by regular ferries from the mainland.
Balat: The twinned neighborhoods of Fener and Balat, historically home to large Greek and Jewish populations, are some of the most picturesque in Istanbul, with colorful wooden houses lining hilly cobblestone streets. Balat has erupted in recent years, easily claiming its place as one of Istanbul's most interesting up-and-coming neighborhoods. Explore the antique shops that dot the area or stop at one of the many cafes and new restaurants that line the streets.
Winter: Istanbul winters are gray and constantly rainy, with weather hovering around 45°-50°F. While it's not ideal weather, the city is evocative and somehow cozy, with vendors selling roasted chestnuts on the street corners and steaming tulip-shaped cups of tea on offer at every restaurant.
Spring: In the springtime, the sun comes out and the weather warms up to a comfortable 65°-70°F. Flowers bloom all over the city, from fragrant jasmine to hot pink petals bursting from Judas trees. The early end of spring can still be a little chilly, but everyone still sits outside to soak in the sun.
Summer: The long, sticky, crowded days of Istanbul's summer usually have temperatures around 85°F with 70% humidity. The saving grace is the water that surrounds the city—the breeze off the Bosphorus on a transcontinental ferry ride or a swim in the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul's islands takes the edge off the muggy heat. And the endless summer nights, often spent sitting around a long meyhane table sipping a cold glass of anise-flavored raki, make it all worth it.
Fall: Autumn in Istanbul is warm and comfortable. The humidity comes down, as does the temperature, lingering around a comfortable 65°F in the early autumn and slipping around to 60°F in the later part. This is the best time to come to Istanbul.