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Istanbul is a huge city and home to 14 million people. It’s chock-full of sights and has grown more famous in the last 10 years, especially with European ‘city trippers’. A big part of the Old Town and the European side of Istanbul is now fully in the hands of tourism, with little ‘original Istanbul’ left.
But do not despair – this guide will help you find unique, trendy and affordable places in this Turkish city.
Table of Contents
Things to do in Istanbul – Annoyances
Everyone in Istanbul seems to be stressed out and in a constant state of panic. Turkish people are usually a nice bunch and hospitable, but in Istanbul such pleasant people will be hard to find. It’s also surprisingly hard to find good speakers of English.
Traffic is a nightmare and drivers are easily Europe’s most aggressive. I used Uber for my rides around town ($20 for your first trip), but the company has just started out in Istanbul and the cheaper uberGO only has a few drivers on the European side so far.
Things to do in Istanbul – Sightseeing, Food & Drink
SULTANAHMET (if you must)
Sultanahmet is Istanbul’s Old Town and houses the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and a number of more world-renowned sights. The trouble is that it’s extremely crowded with tourists and locals alike. I also found the sights themselves a bit of a letdown when I was there a couple of years ago.
Sultanahmet is also probably my least favorite neighborhood in Istanbul. I suggest you go and see the Old Town sights by getting up really early (which may be easy enough if you are jet-lagged) so you can get there before everyone else (just after sunrise!) Google the opening hours, take some sunrise pictures and then just get out!
Eminönü is a rather messy affair. It is crowded, dirty and dangerous (nothing terrible, but pick-pocketing is big business there).
If you ask me, you should skip Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar as well as most of Eminönü.
When you leave the Old Town across the Galata Bridge, you will approach the Taksim area. This is another spot that isn’t exactly my favorite, but it is on the way.
For a cheap and delicious meal, you should stop by Ciğer-i-stanbul, which serves delicious kebaps without attitude.
Karaköy is more of a highlight of Istanbul and feels so far away from the hustle and bustle of Taksim.
Start in this area with Coffee Sapiens, which sits in a cool little alley alongside a number of other delicious places.
After your coffee, head for the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. It’s not very big – and not too cheap at TRY 19 – but gives a good glimpse into contemporary Turkish art.
In between Taksim Square and Karaköy (which you may walk through) sits one of my favorite Istanbul neighborhoods. The steep, small streets give way to some great options for food and drink.
To continue your neighborhood discovery, head through Maçka Parkı to Beşiktaş. Beşiktaş is seriously upscale and The House Cafe here will surprise you with its style and great food as well as a high price tag.
Ortaköy is a very scenic conglomeration, next to the Bosporus, in view of the bridge. On a sunny weekend day, prepare for some serious crowds there. If you have time, a good option is to stay there for a night or two. I stayed at the Radisson Blu Bosporus, Istanbul during my visit.
Moda is a cute little neighborhood, on the Asian side of the city, just immediately after the ferry terminal in Kadıköy. (Ferries go from almost anywhere including Eminönü and Kabataş). If you can schedule the ferry ride for around sunset or sunrise, then the view will be fantastic!
From Moda, walk along the waterfront (or use a taxi) to go to Bağdat Caddesi towards Kadıköy. This is a serious 5-mile hike, but it is very rewarding if you can make it. I especially liked the area around the No7 Coffee House in this district.
The old Istanbul city walls and the Chora Church still seem to be somewhat hidden secrets (though more and more buses stop there now).
Do some exploring all the way up along the city walls first and then return via the Chora Church. It is a very small church, but the mosaic is impressive and worth seeing!
Things to do in Istanbul – Day Trips
Istanbul’s location allows you to make day trips as far down as Troy, but the most popular options are the Princes’ Islands Istanbul Cruise and the Bosporus Cruise. On a sunny day, I would very much recommend going to the Princes’ Islands, as it is cheap with the local ferries, offers great views during the ferry ride and gets you to a more pleasant place.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
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