Istanbul is one of the most fascinating places on Earth. The reasons for that are many: it is a bridge between the West and the East and has been home to several great empires, such as the Byzantine and the Ottoman. Istanbul is a city of around 17,000,000 registered citizens and several million tourists and workers each day. Still, it is a city that breathes with a steady tempo, despite the density.
We visited Istanbul this January. It was the third time for me and Maja (aka Mommy) but the first time for our daughters. We’ve talked so much about this magnificent city, that they got really excited when we mentioned that we are going there. The fact that we decided to go to Istanbul the very morning of departure (we initially packed to go to Bulgaria) just added to the excitement. We booked a hotel near the Galata Tower, hopped into the car, and went straight to our destination. It took us 10 hours and an additional hour and a half trying to find our hotel. Still, it was all worth it and the next five days we spent in Istanbul will remain a wonderful memory for the entire family.
The first thing you probably ask yourselves is if Istanbul is a safe city. The answer would be – yes, it’s probably the safest megalopolis in the world or at least among the safe ones. The people living there are highly hospitable to tourists and especially kind to children. The city is well organized in terms of transportation and security, so there is not much to worry about. We walked the streets both by day and at night, feeling safe and comfortable. Of course, don’t forget the fact that approximately 20 million people are circulating each day, so keep your attention focused at all times. Maybe the most important thing concerning security if you’re traveling with family is to keep eye on your kids so they don’t get lost. After all, it is an alpha-city and no one can guarantee absolute safety.
Another important thing is to find a good hotel in the center. First of all, “center” in Istanbul terms is a wide area, encompassing several districts. Most of the guides you’ll find online will tell you to stay in Sultanahmet, the cultural and historical heart of the city. Our experience tells us something else – the best spot to stay in Istanbul and be at a walking distance from all important attractions is around the Galata Tower in Beyoglu. That way, you’ll be at a walking distance from Sultanahmet, Taksim Square, and the Besiktas district, as well as from the ferry port in Karakoy which provides fast and cheap transportation across the Bosporus to the Asian part of Istanbul. The area around Galata is also a tourist must-see attraction.
The second thing to look after when choosing accommodation is the price. There are many cheap and decent hotels in that area, but there are also some excessively expensive ones. For example, we found a hotel for around $40 for a room, while we saw some venues that offered rooms for more than $1,500 per night. The choice you make depends on your budget and needs but if you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, you probably won’t be spending much time in the room.
Public transport in Istanbul is well-organized. There are buses, trains, subway, and ferries you can use to get from spot A to spot B. Taxies are relatively expensive so if you’re on a budget, stick to public transport for longer distances. You can buy tickets at the terminals and ports but if If you are on a prolonged stay, I would recommend buying an Istanbul Kart (Istanbul Card). It is an all-round public transportation boarding pass. It’s much cheaper than single tickets and you can add credits to it at any time. It’s valid for all transportation and for multiple users which is convenient if you’re not traveling alone. The easiest way to get the Istanbul Kart is at major transit stops such as the airport, Sultanahmet, and Eminönü. To buy an Istanbul Kart, you need to pay a non-refundable 10 TL fee (for the actual card), and an amount of your choice to load onto the card.
Where to go and what to do
Once you get settled, it’s time to explore this magnificent and unique city. There are too many things to see, so plan your trip as much as you can. Otherwise, you might spend a lot of time wandering the streets with no idea where to go. After all, it is a huge city. Here are our tips and suggestions for first-time visitors:
Spend a day in Sultanahmet
As we mentioned, Sultanahmet is the historical heart of Istanbul. There are many historic sites and interesting places to see and visit. Here are some:
Built in AD 537 as a Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia was an engineering marvel of its time. It was the largest building in the world which changed the history of architecture. During the Ottoman era it became an imperial mosque and today it is a museum. It is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka the Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is right across Hagia Sophia, resembling its older neighbor in style. It was built in the early 17th century. Hand-painted blue tiles on the mosque’s interior walls gave its popular nickname ‘Blue Mosque’. Today it is both a tourist site and an active mosque, closed to non-worshipers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers.
If you’re short of time and traveling with your kids, you can skip Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque but be sure you don’t miss Topkapı Palace. Today it is a large museum but it used to serve as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. The complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings.
There are lots of interesting things to see in Topkapi. Make sure to spend at least two hours at this historic site. The museum collection includes Ottoman clothing, armor, weapons, treasury items, religious relics, and manuscripts, among other things. The very walk itself is a pleasure, making you feel like royalty. Also, at the end of the palace, there is a spectacular view of Istanbul on the spot where the Bosporus enters the Marmara Sea.
The Basilica Cistern (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarnıcı), is the largest of several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. It’s very near (across the street) from Hagia Sophia and we highly recommend visiting it, especially if you travel with children. It creates a certain mystic feeling when you’re inside.
History tells us that over 7,000 slaves participated in the construction of the cistern. There is a column called the Hen’s Eye, decorated with carved eyes and tears as a tribute to the slaves that died in the process of building. It is believed that if you put your thumb in one of the eyes and make a circle with your index finger you’ll be lucky for a year.
Our kids also enjoyed the story of Medusa. There are two Gorgon heads in the Basilica Cistern, standing as pillar stones. In ancient mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters and was once a beautiful girl. After a spell that transformed her hair into snakes, her gaze would turn into stone anyone that looked at her. The belief was that putting her head upside down as a pillar stone would secure the cistern’s structure.
At the entrance of the Basilica Cistern, there is a photo boot that offers photo sessions in traditional Ottoman clothes and costumes. Of course, we didn’t miss the opportunity to dress up and feel like Ottoman aristocrats, at least for a while.
The Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi)
Are you in a mood for shopping? On a 12-minute walking distance from the Blue Mosque is the location of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul (Kapali Carsi in Turkish.) Its 4,000 shops and 61 covered streets attract around 4000,000 visitors a day. In 2014 Kapalicarsi was world’s most-visited tourist attractions – over 31 million people visited the Grand Bazaar that year. It offers a huge variety of products, ranging from food and spices, clothes, gold and silver, to ceramics, rugs, and nargile pipes. The Bazaar employs 26,000 people.
There are many more things to see and do in Sultanahmet. Just a few minutes away from the Blue Mosque you can see the 35-century old Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III re-erected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century AD. And that’s not all – just walk through the streets and neighborhoods of and around Sultanahmet – it’s a living museum in the open.
Visit Taksim Square and walk along Istiklal Avenue
Taksim Square is the heart of modern-day Istanbul. It’s the main transportation hub of the city with the central subway station located there. The square is famous for its restaurants, hotels, and bars. It is where the Republic Monument is placed, crafted by Pietro Canonica in 1928, as well as the huge building of the Ataturk Cultural Center. Taksim is the central gathering place for locals on New Year’s Eve.
From Taksim Square, you can take a long downhill walk on İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a long pedestrian shopping street that goes all the way down to the Bosporus in Karakoy. Istiklal Avenue is 1.4 km (0.87 mi) long and is one of the most crowded streets in the world. During the weekends, 3 million people a day visit its countless restaurants, sweet shops, bars, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, nightclubs, music stores, and much more. This elegant pedestrian street with all the side streets connected to it is something you have to revisit several times during your stay. Try it both by day and by night because it feels completely different.
Not very far from Taksim down Istiklal Avenue you will probably notice the St. Anthony of Padua Church on your left. It was originally built in 1725 by the local Italian community but later destroyed and replaced with the current building in 1912. It is a beautiful church worth a visit. The entrance is free.
At the lower end of the avenue is the Galata Tower, one of the most famous tourist sites in Istanbul. Built in 1348 by the Genoese colony in Constantinople it’s one of the oldest and tallest buildings in the city. Be sure to climb the tower and enjoy the spectacular view of Istanbul. If you don’t want to buy tickets twice than visit the tower at sunset and enjoy the night view as well.
The whole neighborhood around Galata Tower is a wonderful pedestrian area, always packed with tourists. Historically, it differed from the rest of Istanbul/Constantinople both economically and culturally. It is home to the oldest education centers in Turkey and several important historic sites.
If you want to go up to Taksim Square again, you can take the historical underground funicular line called Tünel, Built in 1875, it is the second-oldest subterranean rail line in the world, after the London Underground (1863). Also, you can ride the nostalgic vintage red tram which transports shoppers and tourists up and down the Istiklal avenue for decades.
Taksim, Istiklal Street, Galata/Karakoy offer everything for everyone. Whether you want to shop, to eat good food, to take a peek at the city’s rich history, or simply take a relaxed walk, this is the area you want to spend several hours, even days. My personal favorite is the many music shops near Galata, offering everything from traditional Turkish instruments to modern instruments and electronics.
Visit Kadikoy-Moda in the Asian part of Istanbul
If you want to experience a more European feel of the city than you should visit the Asian part of Istanbul, however strange that might sound. One neighborhood, in particular, is a magnet to tourists, especially young people – Kadikoy-Moda. This neighborhood is modern-oriented with emphasis on nightlife. A residential area in the past, Kadikoy-Moda become a hotspot for cutting-edge bars, music venues, art galleries, culture hubs, cinemas, theaters, and cafes. It is the place where liberal, free-minded people hang out.
The best way to get to the Asian part of Istanbul is by ferry. The water transport in the city is well organized and there are frequent and regular boat lines that connect the two sides. The ferry ride is an attraction by itself, especially on a sunny day.
Although Kadikoy-Moda is Western-oriented, modern urban area, you will not escape the traditional picturesque little streets filled with boutiques, candy stores, fish markets, souvenir shops, etc. Although the streets are packed with people, Kadikoy-Moda features a more relaxed vibe than the European side of Istanbul.
The neighborhood is located on the Marmara Sea coast. If you like some peace and quiet, Moda Seaside is the perfect spot. Take a stroll on the long pedestrian road by the shore, join the locals in jogging, or just stare at the sea and enjoy the beautiful view of Istanbul from a different angle.
Take a boat trip
If you want to see as much as possible of Istanbul than you have to take a boat tour. There are countless routes and operators that run day and night. Sightseeing cruises, lunch boat tours, luxury yachts, night sails, and several-day tours are at your disposal for prices ranging from descent to high-end expensive. For starters, we recommend you take a daily tour along the Bosphorus and see as much of the city as possible. Most of the cruises include a tour guide who will tell you a few things about the sites you see during the trip.
Spend an evening by the Bosporus
Bosporus is the continental boundary between Europe and Asia and one of the strategically most important waterways in the world. There are many promenades in the vast area of Istanbul. Both tourists and locals circulate in large numbers by the seaside, walking, jogging, booking, fishing, etc. Bosporus is beautiful in the day but be sure to spend a night by the seaside at least once.
The lights from the buildings, bridges, and boats offer a fascinating site when night falls. Particularly shiny and colorful is the area around Galata Bridge. The bridge itself is a tourist attraction with numerous restaurants and gift shops.
Check out the neighborhoods of Besiktas and Bebek
Aside from Kadikoy in the Asian part of Istanbul, Besiktas and Bebek are two areas on the European side that are considered artistic centers. Also, the amount of historic sites in these parts is not small at all. In Bebek, you can explore the Rumeli Fortress with its ancient walls, towers, and dungeons. In Besiktas, you can see the Ortakoy mosque, the museum of painting and sculpture, and most important – the Dolmabahce Palace. It is the largest palace in Turkey. The palace served as the main administrative center of the late Ottoman Empire and is widely known for the neoclassical exterior and striking interior, largely decorated with gold and crystal.
Visit the Princess Islands
If you have a chance for an extended stay in Istanbul, especialyy during the warm seasons, spare a day to visit the Princes’ Islands. They are a chain of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara, four of which are open to the public. We visited the biggest of the four, called Buyukada (“Big Island”). It hosts several historic sites such as the Hagia Yorgi Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery (6th century,) the Agios Dimitrios Church, and the Hamidiye Mosque built by Abdul Hamid II. Motorized vehicles are forbidden om Princes’ Islands so residents and visitors ride bicycles or more commonly take a horse and carriage. Buyukade is interesting for its architecture and has a large number of historic mansions.
Eat! Eat! Eat!
Mmm, the food in Istanbul… The city is a crossroad of cultures in a geographical but also in a historical context. The layers of tradition in Istanbul’s cultural melting pot are extrapolated on the local food scene. Local? In the means of territory perhaps but global in its richness and diversity. From exclusive high-end restaurants to the local fast-food corners – everything tastes like heaven. In Istanbul, you just have to try as many different foods as possible.
There are restaurants beyond counting. The choices are infinite. You can eat traditional Turkish cuisine, fancy Western recipes, as well as culinary traditions from all over the world. The prices range from cheap to extremely expensive, so we recommend you check the prices before you order. Generally, the prices are fairly decent in comparison to the high-quality food you get to eat. We tried traditional Turkish food in Çiya Sofrası in Kadikoy and it was great. In reality, you really need to be “lucky” to find a restaurant that isn’t worth the money.
The best thing about Istanbul is that street food is truly awesome. Everything from the wrapped Durum and the traditional pastry specialties, to the fish sandwiches on the docks is super-tasty. Also, many local self-serving buffets offer rich and yummy meals at low prices.
If you stay in an apartment and decide to cook for yourself then you’ll fall in love with the green markets in Istanbul. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, fish, meat, and so many other products that you probably never knew existed. It’s all there, every day.
And finally, the desserts! Istanbul might just be the unofficial world capital of sweet food. The diversity of sweets and the craftsmanship put in every bite will mesmerize you, even if you’re not that into candies. There are confectioneries on every step of the way, offering the famous Turkish delights. The passion put into sweets is more than evident. You’ll have a hard time resisting the urge to eat more, especially when everyone is offering a free trial. Just taste it, you don’t have to buy it… Sure you don’t but you’ll want!
Come back to Istanbul!
This might seem like a long article but, trust me, it presents a mere scratch of the multitude of things to do and places to visit in this magnificent city. As I mentioned in the beginning, this was our third time in Istanbul and we already think of going back soon. Every time we go there is something new and exciting happening. Many who traveled the world speak of Istanbul as the most unique megalopolis in the world. The blend of traditions, cultures, and history is astounding. Every time we visit it there is a new angle to see it from. Once you’ve come to Istanbul you’ll surely want to come back again. The city is simply irresistible!