Istanbul

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.

shop with stacks and stacks of colorful Turkish treats and shopkeeper in the background

Michael Parulava/Unsplash

Overview

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 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.

Insider 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).

Local Resources

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
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Tempting dishes, inventive cocktails, and several art exhibits await travelers.
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The temperatures drop, raindrops pool in cobblestone streets, and Istanbulites hibernate indoors. Wintertime in Istanbul offers travelers a chance to see another side of Turkish culture.
The best markets and bazaars in Istanbul are scattered all over the city. Either open every day or held once a week, these markets are the places to haggle with vendors to buy a range of Istanbul’s best goods on the cheap, including farm-fresh produce, organic products, affordable souvenirs, leather handbags, clothes, and more. The neighborhood weekly bazaars are the places to go to shop, pay local prices, and nab the best bargains in Istanbul.
Istanbul has a rocking nightlife that spans both continents and all hours of the evening—and early morning. While options for wild nights are limited in the tourism precinct of Sultanahmet, the beats pick up across the Golden Horn in the Beyoğlu District with rock, alternative, and world music venues along the side streets off Istiklal Caddesi. For supper clubs and VIP style, head to Ortaköy or Kuruçeşme to party by the Bosporus.
The wondrous landscape and charming architecture of Istanbul has graced the backdrops of many legendary love stories. The mythological lovers Hero and Leander have a story here. So do the all-conquering 16th-century lovers Sultan Süleyman and Roxelana. There’s also Pierre Loti and Aziyade of the 19th century. Yes, gazing at the city from rooftops, giggling with friendly locals, and canoodling in the Bosporus breeze is indeed romantic.
Spend the day indulging your senses with experiences as diverse as this vast and wondrous city. Wake up early to wonder at the Christian and Islamic architecture then cross the Galata Bridge for modern art, a baklava break, and an indulgent soak at a hammam. Later, relax on a popular rooftop restaurant and hear the call to prayer echo throughout the city. Just one perfect day in Istanbul will leave you craving more.
Look for the word “lokantası"—these canteen-style restaurants offer some of the tastiest home-cooked meals in the city.
If you only have three days then there’s plenty of time to visit all the top sites in Istanbul, and to dabble in the local lifestyle. Fill days one and two with the must-see sites in old Istanbul; on day three go further afield to stroll the neighborhoods of Beyoğlu or venture west to visit Eyüp and the gilded mosaics of Chora Church. The close proximity of historical sites and the great public transport system mean conquering Istanbul with a three-day itinerary is easier than it looks.
A night out in Istanbul is rife with possibilities. For a traditional Turkish experience, linger at a teahouse or an atmospheric nargile bar; for a more contemporary take, follow the cool kids to lively cocktail spots in Nisantasi or Karakoy. There are wine bars for sampling local vintages, rooftops for savoring a view of the Bosphorus, and streets known for their outdoor cafes and roving musicians.
The Grand Bazaar looms large as Istanbul’s most renowned shopping destination, with 61 covered streets where you can haggle for handwoven carpets, fine jewelry, spices, and many more Turkish souvenirs. It’s not the only market worth browsing, and you’ll find everything from contemporary shopping malls to independent boutiques vying for your attention.
Istanbul is a metropolis with a deep, tumultuous history, where you can haggle at centuries-old bazaars, marvel at palace tilework, and brush up on the latest in contemporary art. As you explore, from mosques to museums, make time to wander down charming cobbled side streets, unwind at Turkish baths, and admire the glittering breadth of the Bosphorus. Here are some of the best things to do in Istanbul.
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