For centuries Istanbul has captivated visitors and witnessed the rise and fall of empires that fought to seize its beauty. A sprawling metropolis, Istanbul is a mosaic of sights, where European panache greets oriental mystique, where ancient treasures sit alongside modern designs, and where traditions thrive in a contemporary world. The magnificent 6th-century Hagia Sophia and the mesmeric Grand Bazaar will draw you in, but it’s the city’s cosmopolitan vibe that brings comfort to modern-day sojourners.
When’s the best time to go to Istanbul?
Tourism in Istanbul booms during the summer months of August and September, as do the room rates, humidity, and lines to enter major tourist attractions. For a more comfortable vacation, visit in spring or autumn when temperatures peak around 70°F and humidity is mild. Mid-April is by far the prettiest time of year, when over 14 million tulips bring color and life to the city as part of the Istanbul Tulip Festival.
How to get around Istanbul
Istanbul’s main international airport, Istanbul Airport (IST), located on the European shores. Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), on the Asian side, also caters to a range of commercial airlines. International buses from Greece and Bulgaria, the Bosporus Express train between Bucharest and Istanbul, and the daily flotilla of luxury cruise liners also bring travelers to the shores of Istanbul.
Pack a pair of comfy walking shoes. Your two feet paired with Istanbul’s public transportation network is the easiest and cheapest way to get around. Most Istanbulites don’t own a vehicle because, at 3TL (US$1.50) per person per trip, the Metro (trains), trams, ferries, and buses are a faster, more affordable way to get through Istanbul traffic. Purchase an Istanbulkart for discounts on public transit, or revel in the pace of life in old Istanbul where most attractions are within easy walking distance. Taxis are available, as are dolmuşes (literally meaning “stuffed”), which are shared taxis traveling popular city routes.
Can’t miss things to do in Istanbul
No other city in the world spans two continents, so enjoy a progressive dinner over Europe and Asia. Start with fresh mezes (starters) in old Istanbul, then board the ferry in Karaköy for a 20-minute Bophorus cruise to Kadiköy in Asia. Enjoy your main meal near the street markets, and return to Europe to savor desserts in Beyoğlu.
Food and drink to try in Istanbul
Turkey’s mild climate, fertile lands, and proximity to fish from the Aegean, Black, and Mediterranean seas are peppered with the influences of 81 provinces and the speciality dishes of over 20 ethnic groups. A dash of flavor from eight neighboring countries is the legacy of the old Silk Road. Turkey once nourished the capital cities of the Latin, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. What you get today is an enchanting range of delicious cuisine. Turkey is one of the few countries in the world to produce enough food for its people and still have enough left over to export. So by all means go for seconds or thirds, and as we say in Turkey: Afiyet olsun (bon appetit)!
Culture in Istanbul
When in Turkey, every traveler should do what the locals do and practice keyif, the art of idle relaxation. You’ll see this everywhere—men and women relaxing and drinking endless supplies of Turkish çay (tea) served in tulip-shaped glasses. Turks know that good friends are made with keyif, so if you’re offered a çay, stay a while and delight in one of Turkey’s great cultural traditions.
Istanbul has a smorgasbord of festivals celebrating arts, culture, and cultivation. The International Istanbul Film Festival and Istanbul Tulip Festival are held in April, followed by the biennial Theater Festival from May to June. Music takes center stage from June to July with the International Istanbul Music Festival, Jazz Festival and Rock ‘n Coke. The Istanbul Biennial rounds things off every second year (rotating with the theater festival) to create exhibitions for international visual arts enthusiasts. The Hidrellez Festival, held May 5 every year, welcomes spring to the northern hemisphere with a spontaneous party of Romany music and dancing in the backstreets of Sultanahmet.
Local travel tips for Istanbul
While weather is often the most-discussed topic in many countries, in Istanbul it’s all about the traffic. “Çok trafik ya!” is heard often, meaning “Too much traffic!” Istanbulites accept that people run late to events, and they joke about the waylaid time phenomenon known as “Turkish time.” If you’re using the roads to get around, do plan ahead to avoid peak traffic (7am–9am and 4pm–7pm).
Camping in the wilderness with kangaroos and snorkeling through the coral of Ningaloo Reef of Australia introduced Leeann to travel at an early age, but a visit to a Balinese village at age 10 really ignited Leeann’s passion to venture off the beaten path and explore the delights of world cultures. Years later, her interest in travel and dance led her to Turkey, and she’s been feasting on the smorgasbord of attractions the country has to offer ever since. From hot air ballooning in Cappadocia to baking bread and milking goats in a Kurdish village, Leeann’s Turkish experiences have led her to become a local expert and roving writer for Afar.com and Moon Travel Guides.