Istanbul Steps Into the Spotlight

Istanbul Travel Guide Hagia Sophia

Istanbul has long been a city in balance, perched at the end of the European continent with exotic Asia just across the Bosphorus Strait, its centuries old history competing with an ever more modern outlook. Today the city is one of the most dynamic in Europe, with new skyscrapers, recently renovated tourist sights, new restaurants and winebars, all at prices more reasonable than other European destinations.

Istanbul Travel Guide Istanbul at Night

Iconic Istanbul is closely tied to the past, its skyline peppered with the minarets of the Sultanahmet District, also known as the Old City, home to ancient sights such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar.

The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), which dates back to the 6th Century, is an astounding feat of engineering, having withstood earthquakes, war and conversion from church to mosque to museum today. For years, the interior was subject to renovations marring the view of its intricate mosaics, but thankfully, the work was completed in 2011, revealing newly restored interiors and masterpieces such as four Seraphim mosaics that were buried beneath seven layers of plaster for one hundred and forty years. Across an expansive park is the Blue Mosque, an exquisite edifice with a lovely courtyard. This functioning mosque is a true marvel with its blue tiles, massive dome and soaring interior.

Istanbul Travel Guide Hagia Sophia Interior

Close by is Topkapi Palace, once home to the all powerful Sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. The highlight of this sprawling complex is the Harem, which contrary to popular belief not only housed women but the Sultan’s entire family, including potential rivals for the crown.  The Harem’s intricate tiled rooms and airy courtyards were once only accessible during scheduled guided tours that often sold out early in the day, but are now open for self-guided visits (separate admission inside the palace courtyard). Other highlights include a room where the Sultan used to spy on his council’s meetings and a collection of Islamic treasures, including pieces reputedly belonging to Mohammed himself.

The rambling Grand Bazaar and its neighboring Spice Market are bustling markets, the former full of jewelry, rugs and other household items, the latter focused on foods and spices. The Grand Bazaar is somewhat infamous for aggressive salesmanship but a firm, polite “no” is enough to send them on to the next customer. The vendors often offer you tea, which comes without the obligation to buy anything.Istanbul Travel Guide The Spice Market

Nearby stands the Süleymaniye Mosque, which dates back to the 16th Century and has recently reopened after the most comprehensive renovations in its history. This three-year project closed the mosque to the public while the minarets and courtyard were cleaned and inauthentic pieces conflicting with the mosque’s history were removed. The work also uncovered ancient Iznik tiles that have now been carefully restored and preserved.

Outside the Old City, Istanbul unfolds as a city of neighborhoods. Beyoğlu includes a number of significant areas, including bustling Karaköy along the Golden Horn and Galata, home to funky boutiques and the Galata Tower. The small neighborhood of Galata, up the hill from Karaköy, is worth a stroll even if you don’t visit its famous tower. The narrow streets hugging the hilltop, such as Camekan Sokak, have numerous boutiques, often sporting fashion forward clothing. Formerly home to Jewish life in Istanbul, the area still serves as the home to several synagogues. Climb the hill to reach Tünel Square, the foot of the famed pedestrian shopping avenue Istiklal Caddesi, where the shops stay open late into the night and cafes overflow in the winding alleyways behind.

Istanbul Travel Guide Kadikoy Fish MarketThe Asian side of the city is reached by ferry or over the traffic-choked Bosphorus Bridge. Beneath the bridge is the Beylerbeyi Palace, the former summer palace of the sultans. A quick taxi ride south of the bridge is the Kadiköy district, with its fish market and famous Çiya restaurant (see our Istanbul Dining Guide). The ferry from the European side affords a spectacular view of the castle-like Haydarpaşa Terminal, completed in 1909, which serves as the railway terminus for trains from Asia and the rest of Turkey.

Istanbul Travel Guide Harem Sultan Chamber Courtyard view


Many of Istanbul’s most popular attractions are in Sultanahmet, or the Old City. Our listings are divided in two – below are sights that charge admission followed by free attractions such as the mosques, Grand Bazaar and Spice Market.

Topkapi Palace,
home to the Sultans and their families, is the largest and most impressive of the palaces in Istanbul. Allow at least three hours to see the entire complex.

Hours: 9am – 5pm, closed Tuesdays

Entrance fee: Palace and Museums 20 TRY; Harem 15 TRY

The famous Hagia Sophia (Website) was a church before being converted to a mosque. Today, this ancient structure, which dates to the 6th Century, is a museum. Recent renovations have revealed spectacularly detailed mosaics on the lower and upper levels.

Hours: 9:30am – 4:30pm, closed Mondays

Entrance fee: 20 TRY

Istanbul Travel Guide Dolmabahce Palace gate Dolmabahce Palace (Website) is a sprawling palace on the Bosphorus where Ataturk lived his final days. This popular attraction only accepts 3,000 people a day so visit early in the day. Tickets routinely sell out on busy days in advance of the closing time.

Hours: 8:30am – 4pm (or until last ticket sold – a limit of 3,000 per day is in place); Closed Monday and Thursday

Entrance fee: Selamlik 30 TRY, Harem 20 TRY; combined ticket 40 TRY

Galata Tower

The Galata district used to have 40 towers and this one, reputedly built in 1348, is the last one remaining. The viewing platform is open 9am – 8pm daily – be prepared for long lines.

Entrance fee: 10 TRY

Roman Cistern

Hours: 9am – 5:30pm daily

Entrance fee: 10 TRY

Istanbul Travel Guide Beylerbeyi Palace pool room

Beylerbeyi Palace (Website)

Hours: 9:30am – 5pm Tues, Weds, Friday – Sunday from April – October; 9:30am – 4pm Tues, Weds, Friday -Sunday from November – March; Closed Mondays and Thursdays

Entrance fee: 20 TRY

*No photography allowed

Free Sights

Both the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque are open daily with free admission.

Grand Bazaar

Hours: 9am – 8pm Monday – Saturday, closed Sundays

Entrance fee: Free

Spice Market

Hours: 8am – 7pm Monday – Saturday, closed Sundays

Entrance fee: Free

Istanbul Travel Guide Blue Mosque interior

 Where to Stay

Hotels in Istanbul include breakfast and many will give a 10% discount if the bill is paid in cash. Each will arrange transportation by private car from Ataturk airport (preferable to taxis) for around €25.

Hotel Niles

Ordu Caddesi Dibekli Cami Sokak 19 Beyazıt, Istanbul, +90 212 517 3239, Website

Double rooms 55 – 80 Euros/night

Levni Hotel

Ebusuud Caddesi 31 Sirkeci, Istanbul, +90 212 519 1019, Website

Double rooms from 110 Euros/night

Empress Zoe

Akbiyik Caddesi 4/1 Sultanahmet, Istanbul, +90 212 518 2504, Website

Double rooms 120 Euros/night

Pera Palace

Meşrutiyet Caddesi 52 Tepebaşı Beyoğlu Istanbul, +90 212 377 4000, Website

Rooms from 200 Euros/night


Getting There: Flights arrive at Ataturk Airport outside the city. Taxis are available though drivers may not know how to find more obscure streets or hotels. It’s preferable to have your hotel arrange transport for you to the city via private car – the going rate is €25 one way and often you can add it to the bill for your room.

Visas: Turkey requires visas for Americans – you can purchase one at any port of entry for $20 or €15 (cash only). The sticker is a mere formality – think of it as a fee rather than a visa – but it is required to enter the country. There are no forms to be filled out, just hand over your passport. At Ataturk Airport, the visa window is hard to miss just outside the immigration area. Do not use US-based services as the visa is easily purchased upon arrival in Turkey and the fees charged by these companies are an unnecessary expense, including an embassy service fee that pushes the cost over $100. Foreigners can stay in Turkey for a maximum 90 days in a 180-day period on a tourist visa.

Getting Around: Istanbul’s history and geography make an integrated transportation system difficult to achieve, while its notorious traffic jams mean taxi rides can be frustrating and expensive. All manner of inexpensive transport options exist for visitors, including the Bağcılar-Kabataş tram that connects runs through Sultanahmet over the Golden Horn to the newer section, ferries across the Bosphorus to the Asian side, a modern Metro that currently only connects the newer northern parts of the city to Taksim and two funiculars – one called Tünel that connects Karaköy with Tünel Square near Galata and one that connects Kabataş to Taksim Square, convenient for ferry and tram passengers. To use Istanbul’s tram, buses or metro, you need a jeton (token) for the 2 TRY fare, which can be bought at kiosks or a jetonmatik machine. The Tünel and the “nostalgic tram” running along Istiklal Caddesi both cost 1TRY. The Istanbulkart is being introduced as a replacement for jetons -a refillable card available at kiosks for a 10 TRY deposit.

Taxis are the most convenient evening transport – a word of caution as unscrupulous drivers may want to negotiate a flat fee late at night. Do not negotiate or ask how much a ride is. Instead, get in the taxi and insist they use the meter (they all understand taksi meter), which will undoubtedly be less than any flat rate they propose. This scheme is especially common near Istiklal Caddesi late at night.

Tips on Visiting Mosques in Turkey: The call to prayer is heard five times a day in Islamic Istanbul – hours change according to the seasons but are posted at the mosque. It’s best to avoid these prayer times, especially the week’s main prayer time at Noon on Fridays, as often mosques will close during this period. In terms of dress code, modesty rules the day – no shorts, women should have a shawl to cover their heads, no short skirts. Be prepared to remove your shoes as well – larger mosques will provide bags for you to leave or carry the shoes. The larger mosques are accustomed to visitors and are less strict, while smaller places will more diligently enforce the rules. Remain quiet inside mosques – the acoustics are designed so that voices travel – and also do not walk in front of someone who is praying.

Weather: The best time to visit Istanbul is in the warm weather – spring, summer and early fall. Summer brings very warm, though not unbearably hot temperatures and high humidity, while winter is cool with frequent rain.

Currency: The official currency is the New Turkish Lira (TRY or TL). Hotels and other tourist services are often priced in Euros.

Language: Turkish but basic English is widely spoken

Credit Cards: MasterCard and Visa widely accepted, American Express less so

Restaurants: Click here for the Istanbul Dining Guide

Tipping in Turkey: Tip 5 – 10% in cash, depending on the level of restaurant.

General Information on Istanbul: English.Istanbul.com

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