The ultimate guide to Istanbul (2023)

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Where Europe meets Asia, Istanbul is a dizzying array of Byzantine treasures and soaring minarets, bisected by the Bosphorus strait. Though it’s long captivated visitors with its ancient charms, a slew of recent openings is proving there’s more to this magical Turkish metropolis than the past. From the redesigned Atatürk Cultural Centre to the £1.3bn Galataport retail and arts hub, which is soon to feature a new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art by Pritzker prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the striking new additions to the city are all must-sees.

Add in a lively events calendar – think Turkish Cuisine Week and modern art festival Contemporary Istanbul – and this is the best place to soak up Turkish cuisine, culture and mingling. The top sights are the stuff of legend (and many an iconic travel poster), but the cool neighbourhoods that lie beyond are equally worth your time and tourist buck.

Famous landmarks are mainly found on the city’s European side, where the Golden Horn estuary splits the newer region from the “old city” of Sultanahmet. Most are clustered in the latter, an enchanting peninsula on which simit (Turkish bagel) sellers ply their wares under candy-striped awnings and cats meander amid evocative vestiges of the Roman, Byzantine and early Ottoman past.

What to do


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Tour the top sights

Still headlining itineraries is the Hagia Sophia, which – despite its controversial reconversion from a museum into a mosque, with many of its beautiful Christian mosaics covered – remains a world wonder almost 1,500 years on (free). Topkapı Palace (TL320/£15; harem entry extra) is another icon. This sprawling complex was the residence of the Ottoman sultans for around 400 years before the extravagant European-inspired Dolmabahçe Palace (300TL, £14.50) took over in the 19th century. Dolmabahçe entry is by guided tour only, and no photos are allowed.

Other top culture fixes include the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (75TL, £3.60) and Archaeological Museum (ditto), while a Bosphorus boat cruise should round things off nicely. If you plan to see several sights, the city’s museum pass is recommended at 550TL (£26.50) – it gets you into 12 in total with a validity period of five days.

Explore Istanbul’s diverse neighbourhoods

Istanbul’s eclectic jigsaw of neighbourhoods, each with their own distinctive character, are among its greatest assets. Well worth a detour are Istanbul’s former Greek Orthodox and Jewish districts, Fener and Balat. Honeypots for TV location scouts, with their tall multicoloured facades and cobbled streets, they teem with photogenic coffee shops and designer florists, plus enough antique dens to rival Cihangir. They’re fast becoming a hipster haven, complete with kombucha on menus.

Across the Bosphorus, on the city’s Asian side, bohemian Kuzguncuk is another colourful highlight whose traditional wooden buildings contain galleries, bookshops and bakeries (don’t miss the famed “mushroom cookie” at Tarihi Kuzguncuk Fırını). Over in Kadıköy, you’ll find everything from chic patisseries and a busy fish market to new cultural destination Müze Gazhane, featuring a climate and comic museum, galleries, theatre stages and more in a revamped gasworks.

Have a hammam

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without getting hot and sweaty in a Turkish bath or hammam: a legacy of the Roman Empire, these have been a bastion of Turkey’s culture for centuries. Shy westerners can be put off – ladies especially might balk at going topless – but once you realise no one else cares, having a stranger scrub you with a coarse loofah before soaping you up and washing you down feels quite invigorating. And afterwards your skin will feel like something from a Gillette advert. Many baths also offer optional extra treatments such as a massage.

Perhaps the most popular hammam for tourists is Cağaloğlu, a vision of elegant arches and white marble in Sultanahmet, where visits start at 800TL (£42). For something cheaper, and maybe more authentic, try a local hammam such as Aziziye in Kadıköy, where a basic bath experience will set you back just 110TL (£6).

Where to stay

There are three “The Stay” hotels in Istanbul, each good quality and exuding a distinct character. Its Ortaköy hotel overlooks Istanbul’s most iconic vista – ornate Ortaköy Mosque with the Bosphorus Bridge soaring behind – which is particularly magical come nightfall when both landmarks are illuminated. The Stay brand was also recently awarded carbon-neutral status by sustainability specialist Bureau Veritas. Doubles from £265, B&B.

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For those with tighter budgets, the Green Parrot Hotel is a small but stylish option – think jungle wallpaper, patterned cushions and ceramic cacti. Centrally located in Sultanahmet and with all the necessary mod cons, it’s very reasonably priced. Doubles from £54, B&B.

As for something even cheaper, you can’t beat Hostel Le Banc. Again well situated, in the Taksim neighbourhood, close to Galata Tower, this popular “home from home” attracts rave reviews for its friendly staff and comfy rooms. With in-house social events, plus a sociable café, it’s a steal. Private doubles from £35, B&B, dorm beds from £10.

Where to eat

Alongside its celebrated milky puddings and hearty main meals, Emirgan Sütiş serves breakfast options such as sujuk (spicy sausage) and menemen, Turkish-style scrambled eggs with tomatoes, peppers and spices. If you fancy a change from the conventional savoury start to the day, Brekkie Croissant & Cookie in Kadıköy offers a more westernised menu.

Istanbul’s most legendary lunch spot – it’s closed for dinner – is Pandeli, which has tempted the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Turkish Republic founder Atatürk over the years with its turquoise-tiled interior and traditional cuisine. Try its kazandibi, a caramelised dessert featuring fine threads of chicken that fortunately tastes better than it sounds. You’ll find Pandeli in the Egyptian Bazaar, worth a visit in general to see its painted arches and aromatic heaps of spices.

Alternatively, grab some börek, flaky filled pastry, or pide, pizza-like flatbreads, for midday snacking on the go. Outlets are as ubiquitous as Istanbul’s dessert stores, among which Karaköy Güllüoğlu and Hacı Bekir lead the way in baklava and Turkish delight respectively.

Roof Mezze 360, meanwhile, does classic dishes with postcard views across the Golden Horn estuary. Specials include testi kebab, a dish from Cappadocia in which meat and vegetables are cooked in clay pot that is cracked open in front of you (perfect for some tableside theatre).

Where to drink

Ask a local which outlet serves the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul and they’ll invariably tell you Mandabatmaz, a hole-in-the-wall off İstiklal Avenue whose name – meaning “a buffalo wouldn’t sink” in Turkish – refers to the foam that tops each meticulously crafted brew. For a cuppa in equally famed, albeit grander, surroundings, try afternoon tea at Pera Palace. This opulent hotel is where Agatha Christie penned Murder on the Orient Express – it recently starred in its own Netflix series, Midnight at the Pera Palace.

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Fans of innovative cocktails will love Fahrī Konsolos, a mixology wonderland in Kadıköy’s trendy Moda area, where master barman Burak Ayaz rustles up concoctions like no other. They’re all inspired by Turkish flavours, including ayran, the country’s beloved yoghurt drink. For those who prefer more modest tipples in a buzzy atmosphere, head to the meyhanes (taverns) along Nevizade Street in Beyoğlu, a favourite area among locals for a night out.

Where to shop

Istanbul’s £1.3bn Galataport – sporting a cruise terminal alongside a multitude of restaurants, stores and attractions along the Bosphorus – is the new place to go for some waterfront retail therapy. Far from a bland shopping mall, it hosts everything from western brands such as Adidas to resident talents like visionary jeweller Avedis Kendir (whose clients include the Queen) and mixes in a generous dose of culture to boot. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is soon to launch here – until then you can visit the Museum of Painting And Sculpture on the roof of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Don’t miss the student recreation of painter Osman Hamdi Bey’s Woman with Mimosas on the steps opposite.

If you prefer to browse away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, among the world’s largest with its 4,000-plus shops, head to Arasta instead. This refreshingly quiet bazaar sells many similar products, from Turkish carpets to filigreed lamps, just on a smaller scale. Remember to haggle, and check out the tiny but fascinating Mosaics Museum while you’re there.

Architectural highlight

Along with the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s most visited mosques are the gargantuan Süleymaniye and the Sultan Ahmed, nicknamed the “Blue Mosque” for its tiled interior. But arguably just as stunning as the latter (if not more) is Rüstem Pasha: this “miniature Blue Mosque” boasts the same profusion of Iznik tiles in patterns of cobalt and aquamarine, yet with a fraction of the crowds.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Turkish lira.

What language do they speak?

Turkish, though many younger Turks speak English.

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Should I tip?

10 per cent is the norm in restaurants and hotels, but not expected with taxi fares.

What’s the time difference?

Turkey is two hours ahead of the UK.

How should I get around?

The Metro here is extensive and easy to navigate – for multiple trips, it’s worth buying a top-up Istanbulkart for 20TL (£1). For crossing between the European and Asian sides, jump on a ferry; Şehir Hatları is the official city operator.

What’s the best view?

Galata Tower, which reopened as museum in 2020, offers 360-degree city views. For a panorama that’s even more sweeping, try the new Çamlıca Tower, Istanbul’s tallest structure, with 45 floors above ground.

Insider tip

Hire a local guide and you’ll get multiple insider tips, as well as getting to know Istanbul’s less-explored bits. Through Azize Celiktas, we explored areas like arty Kungunzcuk, discovered the joys of stuffed meatballs on İstiklal Avenue and gained a perspective you won’t find in the guidebooks.

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

You can travel from the UK to Istanbul entirely by train – travelling to Paris on the Eurostar and choosing between heading onwards via Bucharest and Budapest, or via Belgrade and Sofia, to Istanbul. Both routes take around four nights.

(Video) Ultimate Guide to Istanbul, Turkey: Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia


  • Is it safe to travel to Turkey’s tourist resorts?
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  • Are Turkey flights and holidays cancelled after 7.8 earthquake?

Fine with flying?

British Airways, Turkish Airlines and Pegasus all have direct flights from the UK.


How many days are enough to explore Istanbul? ›

Istanbul demands a minimum of two days, but we'd suggest at least four days to do it justice. Even with a week, you'd find yourself running out of time trying to tackle everything the city has to offer.

What is the best way to explore Istanbul? ›

The best ways to get around Istanbul are the buses and trams, which conveniently cover the touristy areas. But remember, buses don't have maps inside and drivers do not announce stops, so you'll need to remain vigilant and watch where you are going.

Is 3 full days in Istanbul enough? ›

Is 3 days enough time to visit Istanbul? The short answer is yes, 3 days is sufficient time to get to see the main attractions of Istanbul, though the longer answer is that 72 hours isn't really enough time if you truly want to get to know the Turkish city on a more local level.

Is it safe to travel to Istanbul right now? ›

Terrorism. There's an ongoing high threat of terrorist attacks in Türkiye. Most terrorist attacks have taken place in the southeast of the country, Ankara or Istanbul. On 13 November 2022, an explosion in Istiklal caddesi, central Istanbul, killed 6 people and injured many more.

Can you wear shorts in Hagia Sophia? ›

Visiting Etiquette

Headscarves are available at the Hagia Sophia Mosque entrance without a fee. Finally, It is required from men to visit the mosque wearing pants, not shorts.

How long is the train ride from Istanbul to Cappadocia? ›

Travel time: The trip from Istanbul to the Cappadocia area is approximately 735 kilometers long; without completing stops it will take you about 9 hours to travel between the two destinations. Recommended if...

Are Americans welcome in Istanbul? ›

Yes, Istanbul is safe for American tourists. But more recently, the US Travel Advisory has recommended American visitors to be extra cautious due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.

What is the most beautiful city in Istanbul? ›

The most beautiful part of Istanbul has to be the Sultanahmet neighborhood. This is where the historical landmarks of the city are located, including the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. For quaint charm, colorful buildings, and cobblestone streets, check out the Balat area!

Do Americans need a visa for Turkey? ›

U.S. citizens do typically need an e-visa to enter Turkiye, but cruise ship passengers are permitted to come ashore without a visa for day visits by special arrangements. In short, you may visit Turkiye on the day trip from your cruise ship without being in possession of your passport.

Is Istanbul closed on Sunday? ›

Yes, in Istanbul and in Turkey in general, stores are open on Sundays. You can visit the malls and stores as usual. Only exception: the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

Is Istanbul cheap or expensive? ›

A generous budget of 276 USD per person per day (or 1932 USD/week) is more than enough for Istanbul.

Is it worth going to Cappadocia? ›

Cappadocia is so worth it! It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Goreme National Park, where visitors will find epic rock formations (known as fairy chimneys), historical rock-cut churches and more. The hot air balloon rides are even more worth it!

Is Istanbul Turkey safe for Americans? ›

While Turkey may have a not-so-good reputation (especially because of its proximity to dangerous areas near the Syrian border), it is predominantly safe in Istanbul for the majority of tourists, whether it's solo travelers or family travelers.

Is Uber in Istanbul safe? ›

Both taxis and Uber in Turkey are generally safe. However, it is important to take the right precautions, whether it's an Uber or a local taxi. One such precaution is to be sure you are getting into an authorized vehicle.

Is it safe for US citizens to travel to Istanbul? ›

Turkey - Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. Last Update: Reissued with updates to health information. Exercise increased caution when traveling to Turkey due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.

Do I need to cover my hair in Istanbul? ›

I recommend dressing more formally when traveling there, with shoulders and knees covered, a high neckline (no cleavage please), and no transparent or form-hugging clothing. You'll show respect and get more respect in return. Female travellers do not need to cover their hair unless visiting a mosque.

Can a woman wear pants to a mosque? ›

It is most appropriate to wear modest, loose-fitting clothes. For men, it is better to wear long pants, and for women to wear pants or full-length skirts or dresses, with long sleeves. Muslim women typically wear a headscarf as well. Non-Muslim women are encouraged to wear a headscarf in the prayer hall.

Do you need a headscarf for Hagia Sophia? ›

Women should wear a head covering when entering to the Hagia Sophia. Headscarves are available at the Hagia Sophia Mosque entrance without a fee. Photography is allowed, however do not take pictures of people who are in the mosque to pray.

Is there a luxury train from Istanbul to Cappadocia? ›

In September, it became known that the launch of Turkey's largest private rail tourism project, the Cappadocia Express tourist train, announced in April 2021, is now slated for February 2022. Previously, it was assumed that the luxury train to Run to Cappadocia will go at the end of 2021.

What's better Cappadocia or Istanbul? ›

You live for history. While Cappadocia has no shortage of historical sights, nothing beats Istanbul. It's been the capital of three distinct empires – Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – and has a wealth of historical sights from all three periods.

Is Cappadocia a day trip from Istanbul? ›

Yes, there are plenty of options for luxury Cappadocia day trips from Istanbul. These tours include roundtrip flights and transportation in a private air-conditioned vehicle. Multi-day luxury Cappadocia trips include accommodation in a 4-star hotel and meals.

Why not buy apple tea in Istanbul? ›

Don't Buy Apple Tea

If you are thinking of trying it out, well don't. The apple tea may be very famous in Istanbul but it is certainly not the best beverage to have. To top it all, the powder tea also looks very much artificial. Therefore, it is better that you go for authentic Turkish tea instead of the apple tea.

Do I need PCR test to enter Turkey? ›

Are COVID-19 tests required to travel to Turkey? COVID test is not required when arriving in Turkey.

Is Uber in Istanbul? ›

Reserve a ride with Uber in advance in Istanbul

Complete your plans today by reserving a ride with Uber in Istanbul. Request a ride up to 30 days in advance, at any time and on any day of the year.

What is the most famous thing in Istanbul? ›

The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul's most popular and iconic historic sites – and for good reason.

Is Istanbul more beautiful than Paris? ›

Paris in France has topped the list of Europe's Most Beautiful Cities For 2019 , with a massive 94% of its residents saying there's always something to see or do. Paris was followed by Amsterdam, Budapest, Munich and Istanbul, respectively.

What is the most luxurious city in Istanbul? ›

Besiktas – The Most Luxurious Residential District in Istanbul.

How much is a Turkish visa for US citizens? ›

What Is The Turkey E Visa Cost? The Turkey E Visa cost depends on your country of origin. However, US citizens must pay 50 USD for their Turkey E Visa. Although some countries may pay more, the Turkey E Visa fee ranges between 50 - 100 USD.

What do I need to enter Turkey from USA? ›

Ordinary passport holders are required to have visa to enter Türkiye. Ordinary passport holders may obtain their 30-day single-entry e-Visas via, provided that they have a valid Schengen or USA, UK, Ireland visa or residence permit and that they travel to Türkiye with Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air.

How much is a Turkish visa in USA? ›

Turkey Single Entry Visa Cost or Turkey Tourist Visa: The visa fee for the Turkey Single Entry Visa is 50 USD. Turkey Transit Entry Visa: The visa fee for the Turkey Transit Visa is 50 USD. Turkey Visa on Arrival: The visa fee for the Turkey Visa on Arrival is 20 USD.

Why not to go to Istanbul? ›

The highest form of crime against tourists in Istanbul (and Turkey) is pickpocketing crimes, particularly in tourist attractions like Taksim Square, Sultanahmet, The Grand Bazaar, and Spice Bazaar. Taking precautions beforehand can mitigate your risk of being pickpocketed in busy areas or tourist destinations.

Do you have to wear a mask in Istanbul? ›

Public spaces and services

Face masks are no longer required outdoors or indoors if air circulation and social distancing are adequate.

What are the best things to buy in Turkey? ›

  • Ceramics. Ceramic bowls. ...
  • Jewelry. Jewelry. ...
  • Turkish Coffee. Turkish coffee. ...
  • Spices. Spices. ...
  • Traditional Instruments. Baglama. ...
  • Leather Goods. Leather goods. ...
  • Pistachios. Pistachios.
Mar 3, 2023

How much do you tip in Turkey? ›

Plan to tip around 10-15% in Turkish restaurants. However, the exact tip amount when eating out in Turkey depends on the place, occasion, and order size.

What is the average price of dinner in Istanbul? ›

Average cost for a meal ranges from 20 to 50 Turkish Liras. As a city with many different nationalities, the range of cuisine types and restaurants in the largest city of Turkey is wide. Find all kinds of world food in Istanbul - from Japanese sushi to Italian pizza.

How much is a balloon ride in Cappadocia? ›

Cappadocia hot air balloon can be pricey but it all comes down to what you may want to be included in the price. The price to ride a hot air balloon is in the range between $140 and $250 (€125 – €220) per person. The cost depends on the duration of the flight, the moment of the day and whether is peak season or not.

Is it safe for Americans to travel to Cappadocia? ›

Yes, Cappadocia is a safe place to travel alone. However, you should always take some precautions, use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.

Are the balloon rides in Cappadocia safe? ›

A Cappadocia hot air balloon ride is in reality a very low-risk activity. They have had 5 crashes in which passengers died in the last 8 years (for the 10+ years before that they had no fatal accidents but there were far less balloons in the sky).

Is 5 days in Istanbul too long? ›

What is this? But if you're visiting only for Istanbul, then any more than 5 days will probably be too much time. Five days allows you to see all the highlights at an easy pace, but after this, you're starting to run out of big attractions.

Is 7 days too long in Istanbul? ›

An Istanbul itinerary with 6-7 days is more than enough — even for slow travelers! Take your time exploring local cuisine. Don't miss kebab and Turkish coffee! With more time in your hands, you can also go round the many museums of Istanbul.

Is 4 days enough to visit Istanbul? ›

Of course, as with any major city around the world, 4 days is never quite enough to explore everything you would want to see in Istanbul. Having said that however, 4 days is the perfect amount of time to get a good impression of the city and see the majority of the main tourist attractions in Turkey's biggest city.

Can you do Istanbul in 5 days? ›

It's said that the largest city in Turkey has so much to see that even its year-long residents still discover something new. However, five days are definitely a great starting point to get familiar with all of Istanbul's attractive qualities. Check out our guide to making the most out of your time in Istanbul.

How much money do you need for 7 days in Istanbul? ›

A generous budget of 276 USD per person per day (or 1932 USD/week) is more than enough for Istanbul.

Is there a dress code for the Basilica cistern in Istanbul? ›

There is no dress code to visit the Basilica Cistern, but we recommend wearing comfortable clothes and footwear since you will be walking a lot. You must also keep in mind that Turkey is a religious place, so try to wear garments that cover your arms and knees.

How long to spend in Cappadocia? ›

Working out how many days to spend in Cappadocia is tricky. You could see the highlights in two days and get a bit more under the skin of the place in three. But if you want to explore the area more comprehensively, and allow time for an excellent day trip, we suggest spending 4 days in Cappadocia.

How many days in Istanbul and Cappadocia? ›

With 10 days, you can tour Istanbul, explore the fairytale land of Cappadocia, and visit the ancient Roman ruins of Ephesus. Highlights of this Turkey itinerary include a visit to the Hagia Sophia, shopping in the Grand Bazaar, hiking in Cappadocia, and a magical hot air balloon ride, if you so desire.

Is it safe to arrive in Istanbul at night? ›

Is Istanbul safe at night? Yes, it is safe to walk around the streets in Istanbul at night. While it's still safer during the day, you'll be unlikely to wander into a sketchy area. We'd recommend sticking with a friend or a group, just to add some extra safety to your nightly stroll.

What are the best months to visit Istanbul? ›

The best time to visit Istanbul is mid-spring, in April and May, and also fall, from September to October. During these times the Turkish capital enjoys pleasantly mild weather, with temperatures running from the around 62℉ or 47℃ to 77℉ or 62℃.

How much does a one week trip to Istanbul cost? ›

The average price of a 7-day trip to Istanbul is $1,123 for a solo traveler, $2,017 for a couple, and $3,781 for a family of 4. Istanbul hotels range from $36 to $122 per night with an average of $65, while most vacation rentals will cost $130 to $380 per night for the entire home.

How many days is ideal in Turkey? ›

How much time should I spend in Turkey? Although there's plenty to do in Turkey to fill an entire month or more, we suggest Turkey itineraries that are between five to ten days, with a week-long holiday being the best for most travelers.

Do you need to quarantine in Istanbul? ›

Do I need to go into quarantine when arriving to Turkey? Quarantine is not required when arriving in Turkey.

What to do in Istanbul for a week? ›

Top 10 Things To Do In Istanbul:
  • Visit The Blue Mosque.
  • Explore Aya Sophia.
  • Get Lost In The Grand Bazaar.
  • Roam Topkapi Palace & The Harem.
  • Check Out Chora Church.
  • Enter The Underground Cistern.
  • Investigate Galata Bridge & The Spice Market.
  • Stroll New Town & The Dolmabahçe Palace.


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