Istanbul, Turkey Layover guide – experience the city like the locals
Istanbul is a mesmerizing city that ranks as one of my favorite cities on the planet. The mix of old and modern is mesmerizing. If you likr meat and salads - the food will be a heaven. Below are my favorite places in Istanbul that will help you form great memories for your next trip to town.
In general Istanbul has way too many tourists in Sultanahmet. It is generally a good idea to come very early (8 AM) or later in the day to enjoy the old town better. Outside of this neighborhood Istanbul is still crowded but with locals not tourists. It's amazing how such a big city survives with minimal transportation options.
How to get to the city
Havatas is the bus company running regular service from both IST and SAW airports. It's usually 10 EUR to Taksim Square per person. From there get a cab or use public transportation which works well in Istanbul but is a bit spotty. There are also shared minibuses all over town. Ask around if one goes your way - they are cheap and fast usually.
Where to eat in Istanbul (and have great coffee too)
The 3 restaurant 'chain' serves fresh and affordable kebabs and also an eclectic menu of other Turkish dishes. It's the place to eat in Kadiköy.
This place in Moda (just next door to Kadiköy) is an institution for its delicious waffles.
This stylish mini-chain of coffee shops serves refreshingly good food and coffee. I personally like the location at Teşvikiye Caddesi (Nişantaşı) the most but the Ortaköy diretly at the Bosporus is awesome too.
This coffee shop is pretty hidden but the patio is directly at the Bosporus - you can basically touch the water. The food and coffee is good and the experience is certainly worth the trip!
The Kebap here ranks in the TOP 3 I ever had. It's a bit more pricey and the food is served with an attitude. However you won't believe how exquisite grilled lamb can taste.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Park Hyatt Istanbul, Maçka Palas
The Park Hyatt Istanbul is a small, boutique property with fantastic staff and large, very well equipped rooms.
Istanbul has an amazing array of cheap hotel options even in the main season. Check our partner hoteltravel.com (our affiliate link) for current offers.
What to do in Istanbul
Cross the Bosporus with the city ferries
The ride over the Bosporus is magical especially for sunset. It's cheap and very scenic - plan a couple of hours just for crisscrossing between the European and Asian side of Istanbul.
Confusingly enough this building has no blue items at all from the outside (but inside!). It's a huge mosque and very scenic. Try to time your visit in the late afternoon as the crowds can be unrelenting.
Chora Church and city walls
This 11th century church is outside the old town and get less visitors. While small the mosaics are stunning. the surrounding area and city walls allow for an exploration of old Istanbul.
This shopping and entertainment street is on Istanbul's Asian side. It's a bit out of the way if you are on the European side but it's close to the Sabiha Gökçen Airport. It has all the brand names you know and it's right parallel to a pretty beach walk.
This neighborhood is the antithesis to Sultanahmet - it's modern, trendy, fashionable and expensive. It's great for people watching and to get an impression of modern Istanbul.
Kadıköy and Moda neighborhood
These two neighborhoods may remind you of San Francisco or an North African souq. It's great fund to wander around and experience it yourself.
I'm not a huge fan of the area in general. It's VERY crowded and hot in summer (and summers are loong in Istanbul). The Hagia Sophia looks amazing from the outside but is underwhelming from the inside (well it's empty). There are great reports about the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul. I left that for my next visit.