Istanbul, the gateway between the East and the West, is a city that has attracted tourists in hordes and has become one of the most visited cities in the world. I had been planning a trip to Turkey for quite some time now and Istanbul was the first stop.
Some may ask, is 48 hours or even 72 hours enough to see the city? Well, when traveling, there ALWAYS could be more time. Like Rome, there is an incredible amount of history to this city and A LOT to see but I managed to see a good amount of the sights in this time. However, one travesty no traveler should commit when visiting Turkey is not to visit this majestic city.
This guide is part of my perfect two week Turkey Travel Itinerary.
Update 2022: Turkey is experiencing rapid currency depreciation in recent years. It’s not quite on the same level as Lebanon but it is the most extreme in generations. The Lira is trading at around 13.5 TL to $1 USD currently, up from 2.1 TL to $1 USD when I first visited in 2014. This means prices for goods have generally become much cheaper for tourists but prohibitively expensive for most locals. You will experience incredible value for money if you visit now.
Upon arrival and getting around
Istanbul is generally a safe city. It is an Islamic city but from my time in Turkey, this Islamic country is likely the most liberal of all the ones in the world. Women in Turkey do not wear any sort of coverings from what I saw and both genders are so westernized. Sometimes I’d forget i was in an Islamic country until I walked by a mosque. In certain instanced, I left my girlfriend to talk to someone and she was quickly approached by guys although I reckon for a blonde American on her own, this would happen in many other countries as well.
English is widely spoken among the younger generation but is mediocre at best for the rest of the population. Don’t expect to start a conversation with anyone off the street. Istanbul has seen a huge surge in its tourism in recent years so the government has made it a priority to make everything as English friendly as possible. As I write this, the Lira is trading around 2.1L per USD which is at all time highs making it amazing vacation value for anyone traveling from first world countries.
Istanbul Airport Transportation
There are the standard options for transportation from Istanbul’s airports, Ataturk (main airport) and Sabiha Gokcen (discount airline airport), to the city center. Istanbul’s public transportation is solid, and with the advent of the trams, it is on par with most of its European counterparts.
By far the cheapest option, 3 Liras will get you from the airport to the city but will involve transfers if staying in Taksim or Sultanmahnet. Take the M1 (red line) to Zeytinburnu, get off and transfer to the T1. The T1 line might as well be renamed the Tourist1 line because as far as all the main tourist spots go, this line will take you everywhere like Taksim Square, Galata Tower, Sultamanhet, and the Grand Bazaar. From Sabiha airport, there are no metro options.
Havas Bus from SAW (Sabiha Airport) to Taksim Square
This bus takes you straight from the airport to Taksim Square for 30 Liras and takes about 60 minutes. However, traffic in this city is a little crazy so times can vary heavily. You can find these buses outside of the main terminal at the Sabiha airport departing every half hour.
The bus takes you to Taksim Square where you can then either walk, take a taxi, or a local metro to your final destination. There are many taxis waiting in front of the Havabus stations ready to take you to where you need to go.
HavaIst bus from IST airport to city
Similar to the Havabus from SAW airport, there is a bus that takes you from IST to the city as well. This bus is about 45 minutes and also runs every half hour. It drops you off in Taksim Square right next to where the Havas Bus station is. Taxis, metros and the like are all waiting for you upon getting off.
Taxi from the airport
This is the best option in my opinion. All taxis are metered in Istanbul so there’s no need to worry about getting ripped off. As of writing this article in 2021, the fare from the new IST airport to Taksim is around 160 TL and takes roughly 40 minutes without traffic.
From SAW Airport, it is about 220 TL from the airport to the city center as this also includes bridge fares. The ride from SAW is about 1 hour without traffic.
Istanbul Traffic is notorious for being terrible. You can spend 20 minutes going 1km in the downtown areas so be prepared for a much longer journey if you’re traveling during the day time.
Getting Around the city
Once we arrived in Istanbul city, it was immediately hectic. With a population of 15 million, this city can be quite overwhelming. There are people and cars everywhere. The streets are small and have absolutely no logic to them as if whomever designed the city ages ago had no idea it would be come the sprawling metropolis it is now. For that reason, I’d actually recommend getting a Turkish SIM card (only in Istanbul) just to use Google Maps. The streets are incredibly complicated to navigate with a paper map.
Walking is the best mode of transportation in this city. Most streets are small and filled with street vendors so cars can’t even enter. The areas of the city that are of interest to tourists short on time can all be reached on foot. From where we stayed in Taksim Square to see the big mosques in Sultamanhet took 45 minutes.
The T1, or Tourist1 line as I like to call it, took us to the Sultamanet area in 10 minutes for only 3 Liras a person. Cabs are quite cheap as the distances traveled are usually short. I never spent more than 15 Liras on cab rides and 15L was at least a 20 minute ride.
Where to eat in Istanbul
Ah, my favorite subject, food. Istanbul is like the NYC of Turkey. With over 10,000 restaurants on TripAdvisor, this place rivals the restaurant count of NYC! I can believe that number as there are literally restaurants EVERYWHERE you walk. Cuisines from all around the world are offered in Instabul.
From the cheap doner kebab hole in the walls (which likely makes up half of the tripadvisor list), to 5* dining on a rooftop overlooking the Bosphorus, this place has it all. With no Turkish cuisine of any sort in South Africa, I made sure to load up on all the good stuff while I was here.
I did find eating out to be more expensive than I thought but this is a major international city. Nevertheless, if you’re visiting in 2018 and beyond, it will be cheaper no matter what as the currency has really taken a beating (unless you’re eating at restaurants specifically catered to tourists and they will just peg everything to the euro). We ate at a variety of restaurants and for the most part, the Turkish food here is just as, if not more expensive than the Turkish food I ate in NYC. All I really knew about Turkish cuisine was meat spinning on a stick, aka kebabs. It is much more than this. Middle Eastern, Asian, and European influences have all shaped Turkish cuisine into what it is today.
Make sure to try everything here even if it looks strange. From stuffed eggplants, to Yogurt and red pepper dips, to Gozleme pancakes, to adana kebabs, there is something anyone and everyone will like. I haven’t even begun to talk about the seemingly endless amounts of Turkish delights and Baklava. Some of the locals told us that food in Turkey is much different when cooked at home than when eating out at a restaurant. What difference this is I will never know, but I did enjoyed the hell out of eating out.
Seven Hills Rooftop Restaurant
Sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia is the famous Seven Hills rooftop restaurant. This place is the ultimate rooftop bar in the Sultamanhet district to take photos. It’s literally right in the middle of the two most famous structures in Istanbul with unobstructed views. It is truly stunning. However, this is the only reason you should come here.
The restaurant has really gone down hill in recent years and I don’t recommend doing anything except maybe grabbing a glass of wine and taking photos of the Ayasofia or Blue Mosque. People are really obsessed with feeding the seagulls for whatever reason. Whomever started this Instagram trend (I’m assuming it’s Insta) should be publicy shamed. Literally there are seagulls everywhere squacking and flying around your head. It is not relaxing at all anymore unfortunately. Nevertheless, you can expect some amazing photos here.
Doner Bank for Doner Kebab
One of the best inventions that Turkey gave the rest of the world is the doner kebab. Rotating meat on a spit is synonymous with the region and this method of cooking has made it all around the world. You can find schawarma in Lebanon and tacos Al Pastor in Mexico City which all retains its roots from the Ottoman empire.
In Instanbul, you’ll find huge rotating meat spits in every single corner of the city. These rotating spits are normally made with beef/lamb as well as chicken. I’m here to say straight up that they are not created equally. Because of the huge amount of doner shops, you get A LOT of really terrible kebabs and a few very good ones. Don’t waste your time with sub par doner and go to Doner Bank on the Sultahmannet side. This kebab is absolutely delicious. The tender juicy meat is wrapped in traditional flatbread and served with tomatoes, parsley, spices, onions, and peppers.
Kebabs should not be overly complicated and there should never be sauce. The saying in Turkey goes that if you sauce your meat, you’re disrespecting it. I couldn’t agree more. Let the flavors of the meat shine!
Located near Taksim square, this was by far the best kebabs in a wrap we had in Istanbul. They were on Anthony Bourdain’s no reservation, and their adana kebab (make sure to get double) for 10L is the best deal in the city.
We found this grill house (of the kebab variety) on some online articles and it did not disappoint. Located near Taksim Square where we stayed, this place did kebabs right. There’s a old school grill in the middle of the restaurant with the grillmaster cooking up your meats on the spot. If there’s space, be sure to sit right next to the grill to see the man perform his craft and inhale all that deliciousness. This place had a solid mix of foreigners and locals.
From what I observed, it seems Turkish people enjoy a good helping of the Mezes (think Turkish Tapas) with their bread before the main course. Personally, I’m all about the meat so we got one red pepper and yogurt dip for our bread, and proceeded to gorge ourselves on adana and lamb shish.
Kebabs don’t just mean doner kebabs on the rotating spit. A kebab is just any type of meat done on a skewer. I found an amazing place in the Taksim area that serves traditional Turkish lamb kebabs. Yes this restaurant focuses almost entirely on lamb which is heaven.
I ordered Adana kebab, chicken wings, and lamb skewers for my feast. They come out with traditional Turkish Mezes served on a giant circular pan. The mezes are arranged along the outside of the pan with the meat and flatbread in the middle. It doesn’t get more authentic than this place and I loved every bite of it.
Sokak Lezzeti for Fish Durum
Once you’re done with eating meat kebabs, know that Turkish food is also famous for its seafood! I didn’t really get to try much of the seafood but one of the things that I can’t stop thinking about is the fish doner in the Karakoy district of Istanbul.
This area along the water is filled with seafood restaurants and stands. The best place is by far Sokak Lezzeti which is famous for their grilled fish durums. This little stand is incredibly popular with tourist and locals alike. They grill over charcoal local river fish while meticulously taking out the bones. The fish is then placed in traditional flat breads with various spices, and then grilled again. The end result is absolutely insane. One of the most delicious things I’ve had.
The price for one of these wraps was 25 TL (About $2.5).
Karaköy Güllüoğlu for Baklava
No trip to Turkey is complete without eating Baklava. These sweet delicacies are found all over the region but make no mistake that their origins come from Turkey!
No place is more famous than Karakoy Gulluoglu which is one of the first Baklava restaurants in the city. This place is packed from sunrise to sunset and for good reason. You can try all the different Baklavas of your dreams here.
İbrahİm Hakki Uğrak Börek
Another Turkish delicacy you must try when visiting the country is Borek. Also known as Burek throughout the Balkans, it was one of the main things I ate for breakfast when traveling through those former Yugoslavian countries.
There are hundreds of Burek shops in Istanbul and there’s nowhere better to have traditional burek than at Ibrahim Hakki. I came here around 6am before one of my flights and the burek here is on another level. Perfectly crispy, warm, and soft. If you want to try burek, make sure to eat them at burek only shops. Many bakeries sell burek in additional to baklava and other pastries. However, I find that the best bureks come from the shops solely dedicated to it.
Cocktail bars in Istanbul
Istanbul has a very lively nightlife scene. People stay out late and party hard. I didn’t do as much partying as I hoped but I did visit a few cocktail bars.
My favorites are Moretenders and Flekk. These cocktail bars have highly skilled bartenders making delicious drinks. Prices aren’t as cheap as other prats of the Balkans for example but still quite affordable (around $7-10 per drink).
What to do and see in Istanbul
Istanbul is an incredibly fascinating city. Before arrival, I had pictured Istanbul to be a somewhat modernized version of Marrakech, but oh how I was wrong. Istanbul is a city that’s a mix of everything. It is a city that was first Christian during the Byzantines, and later Muslim under the Ottoman Turks. The architecture is a plethora of both.
On one street corner, there are mosques and hamams, and down the street will be Italian style apartments. The juxtaposition of these two styles really makes the city stand out and likely the only city in the world featuring such strong influences from so many different cultures. Nevertheless, there is endless amounts of things to see and do in this city. For the time strapped traveler, this is how we did things.
Sultanmahet is the main historical area of Istanbul; the old part of the city. All the famous mosques and churches are congregated in this area and all walking distance from one another. The main points of interest here are the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern. The Ayasofia is closed on Sundays, and Topkapi Palace is closed Tuesdays. When visiting the inside of any mosque in Istanbul, it is required to take off your shoes and women must cover their heads (any scarf will suffice).
Built in 1616, the Blue Mosque’s name comes from the blue tiles in its interior and is one of the most visited and photographed sights of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is an active mosque and closes 30 minutes before and after the five daily prayer sessions. Safe to say the Blue Mosque was my favorite attraction in Istanbul as the view from outside its gates are just spectacular and allows for some quality selfies to be taken. It does draw massive crowds of tourists however so it’s best to get there early in the morning.
Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)
Once a Basilica during the Byzantine era, it was converted into an imperial Mosque during Ottoman Rule and has been a museum since 1935. This is the most visited tourist site in Istanbul and is right across the way from the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Blue mosque, this museum has an entrance fee of 25L but is a no brainer, must pay, fee to see this place. The inside is nothing short of incredible.
This spacious Byzantine era masterpiece turned Mosque turned museum is something words can’t describe. While the outside looks similar to its Blue Mosque neighbor, the inside is completely different. The architecture still feels somewhat Basilica-like but there are Arabic inscriptions everywhere making it likely the only building in the world with so much Christian and Islamic influences.
Built in the Byzantine times, this underground basilica, yes underground, is one of several of its kind in Istanbul. I wasn’t sure that this was at first but was instructed that we had to go. The entrance is unassuming as it is just a small house but as you descend the steps to the basilica, wow what an amazing sight.
The columns and overall structure of the basilica are still very intact. The basilica was used as a water filtration system in the old days and provided water to the Topkapi palace and even into modern times. The entire sight is covered in water with fish swimming in it but there are plenty of walking paths. Lights have been added in modern times to beautifully illuminate this place allowing for some amazing pictures and views. Entrance is 15L.
Located right next to the Ayasofia, this was once the living quarters of the Ottoman sultans. It’s still very much intact and is a must see when visiting Istanbul. I’d recommend getting here as early as possible and finding a guide (there are plenty outside the entrance) to show you around because there’s so much to see. Entrance is 40L (with the Harem viewing) and is closed on Tuesdays.
Located just a 20 minute walk from the Sultanmanhet area, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world with over 3000 shops and hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. As soon as you walk into this place, you are immediately overwhelmed as the endless amounts of shop and people engulf you. Anything souvenir and Turkish related can be bought here. Make sure to always bargain the original price (at least 30%) as the shop owners specifically cater their prices to expect this.
This experience was similar to the Souks in Morroco. Personally, I preferred the experience of the Souk. It had a more old school feeling and I really felt like I was in another world, getting lost at every turn. The Grand Bazaar is grand no doubt, but it just feels so modern and commercialized.
Other Mosques to Visit:
The Suleymaniye Mosque, The New Mosque, and Rustem Pasha mosques are all worth a visit and are all located close to the Grand Bazaar.
Bosphorus Day Cruise
Often overlooked, a cruise around the Bosphorus strait is something everyone should do if time allows. Inevitably, everyone will encounter the individuals throughout the city selling ferry boat tours along the Bosphorus Strait but it’s better to stay away from these as the boats used for these tours are questionable at best. Sehir Hatlari, the official ferry company of Istanbul, operates daily Bosphorus tours starting at the Eminonu dock to Anadolu Kavagi. Round trip tickets cost 25L and the ferry leaves the dock at 10:35am and picks up from Anadolu Kavagi at 3pm. The ferry ride is 1.5 hours both ways, leaving us 3 hours to spend in Anadolu Kavagi.
The main draws for this six hour trip are panoramic views of Istanbul from the sea, and Yoros Castle in Anadolu Kavagi, a sleepy town which sits at the edge of the Black sea offering stunning views of the whole region. It’s a nice reprieve from the chaos of Istanbul.
The ferry ride will make multiple stops before arriving at Anadolu Kavagi, where restaurants with its hecklers await the droves of tourists that come for lunch everyday. There are dozens of seafood restaurants selling overpriced fare. I ended up just grabbing some delicious grilled fish sandwiches for 6L before making the 20 minute hike up to Yoros Castle (taxis are also available). If you must sit down for lunch, eat at one of the restaurants near the Castle as they offer some incredible views of the sea. Three hours was plenty of time to walk up to the top, soak in the views, eat lunch, and return to the ferry with time to spare.
Come to the Galata Tower if panoramic views high above all other buildings is of interest. Located just south of Taksim Square, this place is a must. The views are beautiful and all the Mosques in the old town are clearly visible allowing for some great pictures. However, similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the actual viewing area is incredibly cramped so if it’s crowded, it may be less enjoyable. Nevertheless, try getting here early in the morning or for sunset to avoid the large crowds. Entrance is 15L.
72 Hour / 3 day Instanbul Day by Day Itinerary
Day 1: Sultanahmet District and all its attractions, Grand Bazaar, Egyptian Market
Day 2: Bosphorus full day Tour, Sundowner at Seven Hills
Day 3: Taksim Square, Istikbal Street, Galata Tower, Turkish Baths
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