FIRST TIME IN ISTANBUL: 51+ BEST TIPS FOR 2024 TRIP

Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul

When you are for the first time in Istanbul, you most likely will find the city to be chaotic, noisy, and overcrowded. And it is not a surprise. Istanbul is a huge city. Over 15 million people live in the city and more than a million tourists visit it every month. Nevertheless, you will need no more than a couple of hours to appreciate its overwhelming beauty and Turkish people’s friendliness and hospitality. Istanbul is a photographer’s dream being diverse, colorful, and scenic.

The Top Things to See and Do for Your First Time in Istanbul

1. HAGIA SOPHIA

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I constructed the cathedral in the historic city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 537 AD. At the time of construction it was the world’s largest building. “Hagia Sophia” is in Greek and means “Holy Wisdom”. The dome of Hagia Sophia is 31 meters (102 feet) high. It rests on a square base pierced by windows, which was a revolutionary design at the time of its construction. The windows create the illusion of the dome floating over light.

In 1453, after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II, the cathedral was converted into a mosque. In 1935, Turkish President Atatürk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. It served as a museum until 2020 when it was converted back into a mosque. Hagia Sophia is a cultural and architectural landmark and a symbol of both the Christian and Islamic faiths. Since it has been converted back into a functioning mosque, the Christian religious symbols, such as the stunning wall frescoes, have been covered and the once beautiful marble floor is covered in green carpet.

Address: Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1

Opening hours: Its open 24/7 every day of the week. Avoid prayer times, especially on Friday morning.

Entry fee: free

2. BLUE MOSQUE

The Blue Mosque at night
Blue Mosque

Side by side with Hagia Sophia stands the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. It was built by the famous Commissioned by Mehmet Ağa, a disciple of the famous architect Sinan. Sultan Ahmet I was the one who ordered the construction. The Blue Mosque opened for worship in 1616. In 1985 UNESCO added it to its World Heritage Site list.

Since the Blue Mosque is a functioning mosque, you can only visit it outside of prayer times. You may not be allowed to enter half an hour before prayer times. Make sure to avoid especially the Friday prayer, when you will not be allowed a visit until early in the afternoon. Prayer times at all mosques are 5 times a day. You can check the times here

TIP: If you are for the first time in Istanbul, please pay attention to the Visiting Mosques Guidelines.

Address: Binbirdirek, At Meydanı Cd No:10

Opening hours: every day 8:30 AM – 5:45 PM, except prayer times

Entry fee: free

3. THE HIPPODROME

The Hippodrome was built by Emperor Septimius Severus at the beginning of 3rd century AD. Emperor Constantine I expanded the complex after the Circus Maximus in Rome. After the expansions, the track was 429 meters long and 119 meters wide. Its grandstands had a capacity of approximately 100,000 spectators. The Hippodrome was one of the largest in the world. It is located at Sultanahmet Square, between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Address: Sultan Ahmet Parkı 2

4. THE SERPENT

The Serpent Column with the Egyptian Obelisk at the back
The Serpent Column with the Egyptian Obelisk at the back

The Three-headed Serpent is one of the three columns standing at Sultanahmet Square, on the former site of the Hippodrome. The Serpent stood in front of the temple of Apollo in Delphi. Constantine I brought it to its new capital Constantinople in 331. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, one of the heads was damaged. Only part of the base of the Serpent Column remains until nowadays.

5. ISTANBUL OBELISK

The Walled Obelisk in Istanbul
The Walled Obelisk

The Walled obelisk is another landmark at Sultanahmet Square. It is a 32-meter high obelisk from the reign of Emperor Constantine VII, or the 10th century AD. It was covered with copper and brass plaques. That is why it is called the Walled Obelisk. Later the plaques of the column were stolen. At the end of 19th century, the Walled Obelisk was damaged by an earthquake. Though only the core of the column is visible, it is still an impressive monument.

6. THE EGYPTIAN OBELISK

An Egyptian Obelisk in Istanbul
The Egyptian Obelisk

In fact there are two obelisks at Sultanahmet Square. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was brought from Karnak in Luxor, Egypt to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius I in 390. Since then it has been called The Obelisk of Theodosius.

7. THE GERMAN FOUNTAIN

 in Istanbul
The German Fountain

This gazebo-like fountain is located in Sultanahmet Square, at the northern end of the Hippodrome. It was a gift from Germany to commemorate the visit of German Emperor Wilhelm II to Istanbul. The fountain was made in Germany and transported piece by piece to Istanbul where it was assembled and inaugurated in 1901. Its dome is supported by eight marble columns and the interior is decorated with golden mosaics.

8. BASILICA CISTERN

Beautifully illuminated columns of the Cistern Basilica in Istanbul
The beautifully illuminated columns of the Cistern Basilica

One of Istanbul’s most remarkable attractions you should definitely visit is the Basilica Cistern. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century to serve as a water reservoir for the Great Palace. The Basilica Cistern’s ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns, beautifully lit. It is a great photo opportunity, but be prepared to take photos in low-lighting conditions.

TIP: On certain days of the week there are Night Shift events at the Basilica Cistern from 7:30 PM till 10 PM when concerts take place. So you may come across a surprise concert in the unique atmosphere of the Basilica Cistern,

TIP: There is usually a long queue waiting to enter. You may be lucky to enter without waiting if you go there just before closing time.

Address: Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3

Opening hours: every day from 9 AM till y 10 PM, closed from 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM

Entry fee for foreign visitors: for entry from 9 AM to 6:30 PM – 450 TRY; entry from 7:30 PM – 10 PM – 1000 TRY. Credit cards are accepted. For the Night Shift visits, you can only purchase your tickets after 7:30 PM. The Museum Pass is not valid.

9. TOPKAPI PALACE

Topkapi Palace was the administrative and educational center of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years. Today it is a museum.

This oriental palace is huge with an area of about 700,000 square meters. It resembles an open-air museum and the highlight is the harem section.

Address: Cankurtaran Mah. Babı Hümayun Cad. No:1

Opening hours: from 9 AM to 6 PM, closed on Tuesdays

Entry fee: Topkapı Palace + Harem + Hagia Irene – 950 TRY; Topkapı Palace + Hagia Irene – 750 TRY. Topkapi Palace is included in Museum Pass.

10. THE GRAND BAZAAR

Since the middle of the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) has been the most famous bazaar in Istanbul. This 15th-century bazaar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a city within the city with covered streets full of shops. It deserves a visit for its unique atmosphere and colorful display of gold jewelry, antiques, leather clothing, accessories, handicrafts, souvenirs. Although I wouldn’t advise you to shop there, as it’s too touristy and overpriced, it does make for a good photo opportunity.

Address: The Grand Bazaar is located amidst Beyazit district. It has 22 gates through which you can enter from all directions. The main entrance is the Beyazit gate, just across Beyazit tram station. From Sultanahmet Square take tram line T1 and take off at Beyazit stop.

Opening hours: 8:30 AM – 7 PM, closed on Sundays.

Entry fee: free

11. THE SPICE BAZAAR

The Spice Bazaar in Istanbul and its colorful stalls
The Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), is my favorite. It is located in Eminönü Square, just across the Galata Bridge.
The construction of the bazaar began in the middle of the 17th century under Sultan Mehmed III and was completed on behalf of the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV. Since the construction of the bazaar, the rents from the shops have been used to maintain the New Mosque, which is just to the left of the Spice Bazaar.

The name Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) is based on the goods, especially spices, that came from Egypt and were sold here. The bazaar was once the last stop for camel caravans traveling the Silk Roads of China, India, and Persia. In the Byzantine era, the entire area was the place where merchants from Venice and Genoa sold their goods.
Many of the 100 or so shops are traditional spice merchants. You can also find cheese and sausage shops, as well as dried fruits, nuts, and teas. The variety of colors also makes for a great photo opportunity.

Address: Rüstem Paşa, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92

Opening hours: 8 AM – 7 PM

Entry fee: free

12. SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE

Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul
Suleymaniye Mosque

The Suleymaniye Mosque is one of the most magnificent mosques in Istanbul. It is a masterpiece of the architect Sinan. He started the construction in 1550 and finished it 7 years later. Suleymaniye Mosque was built on the order of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. At the opening ceremony, Sinan told him that the mosque would stand upright as long as the world existed.

Tip: If the northeast gallery stairs are open, be sure to climb to the balcony to enjoy the spectacular view.

Address: Süleymaniye Mahallesi Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar Caddesi No: 1

Opening hours: 8:30 AM – 4:45 PM, Friday till 1:30 PM.

Entry fee: free

13. GALATA BRIDGE

Galata Bridge in Istanbul at night
The Galata Bridge

The Galata Bridge is an iconic landmark over the Golden Horn. It symbolically connects the Orient and the Occident. No visit to Istanbul is complete without a walk across Galata Bridge. It is less than a kilometer long but offers precious sights and endless photo opportunities. It is a bridge with two levels. The upper level is a multi-lane road with a tram line. It is the same tram line T1 that goes to Sultanahmet Square and the main attractions of Istanbul. The lower part of the bridge is filled with restaurants and cafes. They are, of course, a bit of a tourist trap, but you might consider taking a seat for lunch or dinner, or just a cup of tea, to admire the ferries crossing the Golden Horn and the screeching seagulls.
Take a stroll across Galata Bridge and watch hundreds of fishermen haul their catch out of the water. Take your time at the railings to take some fabulous photos.

14. GALATA TOWER

Galata Tower in Istanbul at night
Galata Tower

Address: Bereketzade, Galata kulesi

Opening hours: every day from 8:30 AM till 11 PM in summer and till 10 PM in winter.

Entry fee: 650 TRY. Included in Museum Pass Istanbul.

15. DOLMABAHCE PALACE

Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul
Dolmabahce Palace

The Dolmabahce Palace is located on the southern bank of the Bosphorus. It is one of the largest Ottoman palaces in Turkey. It was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans during the last era of the Ottoman Empire.

Address: Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş. Take tram line T1 to Kabataş station. From there it is a short walk to Dolmabahce Palace.

Opening hours: from 9 AM to 6 PM, closed on Mondays. A limited number of visitors is allowed every day.

Entry fee: 300 TRY. Not included in Museum Pass Istanbul.

Travel Tips to Ease Your First Time in Istanbul

16. VISA REQUIREMENTS

Turkey visa requirements depend on the nationality of the traveler. As a rule of thumb, most European and South American citizens don’t need a visa to enter the country as tourists. Some of them can even enter with a national ID, instead of with a passport. Many Asian passport holders don’t need a visa either. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Australia, among others, can apply for an e-visa or receive a visa on arrival. Applying for an e-visa will save you time and money, as the visa on arrival fees are higher. You can check Turkey visa policy here.

17. BEST TIME TO VISIT ISTANBUL

People enjoying the snow-fall around the historical tram at Istiklal street in Istanbul
People enjoying the snow around the historical tram at Istiklal street in Istanbul

Istanbul is a year-round destination. The best time to visit Istanbul is spring and fall. The weather is pleasant for walking. And be prepared to walk a lot while exploring Istanbul, regardless of the season.

Summer rarely gets extremely hot, but since it is the high season, you will find more crowds and long lines to visit the attractions.

Winter is also a good time to visit. Istanbul rarely experiences freezing temperatures, although it can be windy. It rarely snows in Istanbul, but if you are lucky enough to witness a snowfall, as I was during one of my visits a few years ago, it will be a memorable experience.

18. HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN ISTANBUL

The short answer is: as many as you can. The city is huge and has enough sights to last a lifetime, in my opinion. I can’t count how many times I’ve been there and every time I find something new and different.

19. ISTANBUL AIRPORTS

Istanbul’s main international airport is Istanbul Airport (İstanbul Havalimanı) with the airport code IST. It is located on the European side, about 60 km away from the city center. Istanbul Airport is a major hub for flights connecting Europe with Asia and Africa. The airport itself is huge and has all the facilities you would expect from a modern airport.

Sabiha Gokcen Airport (airport code SAW) is located on the Asian side. It mainly serves domestic and low-cost flights.

The former international airport, Atatürk Airport, has been closed.

Street food stall near Galata Bridge in Istanbul
Street food stall near Galata Bridge

20. HOW TO TRAVEL BETWEEN ISTANBUL AIRPORT AND THE CITY CENTER

Both Istanbul Airport and Sabiha Gokcen Airport are well connected to the city with public transportation.

HAVAIST shuttle buses connect Istanbul Airport with multiple destinations throughout the city via 11 routes. They are reasonably priced and reliable. Since the beginning of 2023 metro line M11 connects Istanbul Airport with the city. Its last stop is currently Kagithane. There you can transfer to metro line M7 for two stops to Sisli. At Sisli you can take metro line M2 which connects the historical part of the city with the high-end districts of Sisli and Levent. However, the Istanbul metro is constantly expanding and the metro line M11 is aimed to reach Gayrettepe station, which will make the transfer to the M2 line much more easier.

10 public bus lines connect Sabiha Gokcen Airport with different parts of the city. HAVABUS shuttle buses serve several routes to Sabiha Gokcen Airport. Metro line M4 connects Sabiha Gokcen airport with Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city.

Of course, you can get a taxi from/to both airports.

The retro tram at Istiklal Street in Istanbul
The retro tram at Istiklal Street

21. GETTING AROUND IN ISTANBUL

Istanbul has a fabulous public transportation system. It is cheap, reliable and easy to navigate.

To use the public transportation you need to buy an Istanbul kart (Istanbul Card in English). It is a rechargeable card that is valid for all types of public transportation: metro, buses, trams, funiculars, ferries. You can even use it to pay for public toilets around the city. The best card for tourists is the Anonym card. You can reload it as many times as you need. You can buy your Istanbulkart at many kiosks, small shops, or at vending machines in the metro stations. There are blue and yellow machines. Only the yellow ones sell Istanbulkart. The Istanbulkart can be used by up to seven people, so you may not need to buy more than one. Children under the age of 6 ride for free.

Istanbulkart price is 70 TRY without any rides included in it. A single trip by bus, tram, or ferry costs 15 TRY. Ferry fares vary between 15.50 TRY and 85.50 TRY depending on the route. The routes between the most popular tourist destinations cost less than 22.50 TRY, except for the ferry to the Princess Islands, which costs 45.23 TRY. The trip with Marmaray, the train that connects the European and Asian sides and runs under the water, costs between 15 TL and 33 TL. You will be charged the maximum amount at the beginning of your journey and the difference, if any, will be returned to your Istanbulkart at the end of the journey, so don’t forget to check your card at the card reader when you leave the station.

Topping up your Istanbulkart is very easy. Go to a yellow vending machine. These machines pretend to have a navigation menu in several languages, including English. From my own experience, I have never seen a machine with a working English menu. It does one step in English and then switches back to Turkish. However, these machines are quite easy to use. Place your card over the reader (a white window on the right). Wait a second for the machine to read the card and display the balance. Insert your bills. You will see the new balance on the screen. Get your Istanbulkart. The machines only accept banknotes and don’t give change. The whole amount you put into the machine will be added to your Istanbulkart. Often these machines refuse 100 and 50 TRY banknotes.

Alternatively, you can pay for public transportation using your credit or debit card or a mobile app. However, this contactless payment system is not one hundred percent reliable yet.

The public transportation network in Istanbul is constantly expanding. As a tourist, you most likely will use the metro, tram, and funicular. You can find their current network map here.

Dolmabahce Palace gardens with a lion sculpture upfront
Dolmabahce Palace gardens

22. ISTANBUL TAXIS AND UBER

Taxis in Istanbul are metered, so you can expect the fares to be fair. However, Istanbul is a city with heavy traffic and the cost of the ride can vary greatly depending on the time of day and traffic. Sometimes the taxi drivers make the trip unnecessarily long. In the rare cases when I couldn’t get to my destination by public transportation, I preferred Uber. Yes, there is Uber in Istanbul. The service is reliable and affordable, and I’ve never waited more than a few minutes for a car to arrive. Wherever I go, if there is Uber, I prefer it to a taxi, my guilt.

23. MONEY IN ISTANBUL

The Turkish currency is the Turkish Lira (TRY). Credit cards are widely accepted, but not everywhere. You can only buy your Istanbulkart with cash, remember? So make sure you have some cash with you. You can change your bills at the exchange offices. Turkey is experiencing huge inflation and exchange rates change often, so be sure to check the current exchange rate before exchanging your money. You will find plenty of ATMs throughout the city.

24. BUYING A SIM CARD IN ISTANBUL

It is always a good idea to buy a local SIM card when traveling abroad, especially if you are staying for more than a few days and the country you are visiting is not included in your mobile package.

The GSM operators in Turkey are Turkcell, Vodafone and Turk Telekom. You can buy their prepaid SIM cards practically everywhere: kiosks, small shops, shops selling phones or electronics, as well as the official shops of the mobile operators. However, prices are not fixed and vary from shop to shop, with the highest prices at airports.

TIP: Before traveling abroad, call your local operator to make sure your phone is not locked to another operator’s SIM card and ask for help unlocking it.

25. MUSEUM PASS – IS IT WORTH IT?

Istanbul Museum Pass guarantees 5 days of free entry to selected museums. It costs 2500 TRY and is valid for one year after purchase. The 5-day period starts after the first validation of Museum Pass Istanbul. If you only have a few days in Istanbul or museums aren’t your thing, the purchase is not worth it. Take a look at the list of attractions included in the Istanbul Museum Pass and decide for yourself. If you decide to purchase one, you can do so at any of the listed museum entrances or online.

Helpful Tips for Your First Time in Istanbul

A cat sleeping on pillows at a shop window in Istanbul
A cat sleeping on pillows at a shop window in Istanbul

26. TIPPING

It is customary to tip 10-15% in restaurants, bars, etc. if you are satisfied with the service. In taxis, just round up the bill. In services such as hammams (Turkish baths), hairdressers, manicurists, a slightly higher tip is expected, ranging from 15-20%.

27. SETTLING THE BILL

You will often find local restaurants where you are not expected to ask for a check to pay your bill. You have to go to the cash register and pay the bill there. How they know which table you came from is a mystery to me. There is a tip box at the counter. Put the tip in it.

28. MEZE

If it’s your first-time visit to Istanbul, you may be surprised to find that when you sit down in a restaurant, small plates are immediately brought to your table. They usually contain tomatoes, onions, peppers, and some chili sauce. They are not free, they are included in your bill. However, I would advise you not to refuse them. They are not expensive at all and always come in handy while waiting for the food to be prepared. This may not be your case, but I am always starving after hours of walking and sightseeing.

29. GROCERIES SHOPPING

It’s quite unlikely that you’ll need to go grocery shopping, especially if you are on your first time visit to Istanbul. There are so many restaurants and street food all over the city that it’s impossible for anyone to go hungry in Istanbul. And in Turkey as well. Anyway, if you need some groceries or a quick bite to take back to your hotel room, the Migros stores are my favorite. They sell a lot of local products and are reasonably priced. If you want to buy a promotional item, marked with a yellow price tag, ask the cashier for a card before paying for your purchase. You will have to pay a few cents for the Migros card, but it is the only way to get the promotional price.

Hagia Sophia interior when it was a museum
Hagia Sophia interior when it was a museum

30. DRUGSTORES AND PHARMACIES

If you need to buy some cosmetics, Watsons and Gratis shops are all over the place. If you need to buy medicine, you will need to go to a pharmacy. Pharmacies are marked with the word “Eczane”.

31. TAP WATER

Avoid drinking tap water. Buy bottled water instead.

32. PUBLIC RESTROOMS

There are many public toilets in Istanbul. Men’s rooms are marked with “bay” and women’s rooms with “bayan”. There is usually a small fee to enter. If you don’t have any coins, you can use your Istanbulkart to pay. If you don’t see a public restroom around you, ask a nearby restaurant to use theirs or look for a mosque. They always have toilets. The restrooms in the shopping malls are free.

33. HOW TO DRESS IN ISTANBUL AS A WOMAN

If this is your first time in Istanbul, you’re probably wondering what to pack. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city, and you’ll find women dressed in many different ways. From the strictly conservative to the edgier. Dress as you would feel comfortable. After all, Turkey is a Muslim country. If possible, avoid overly provocative clothing to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Forget the high heels. There is a lot of walking in Istanbul.

34.VISITING MOSQUES GUIDELINES

Visiting times: Avoid visiting mosques during prayer times. Some of them may not allow visitors even half an hour before prayer time.
Shoes: All visitors must remove their shoes before entering a mosque. You may leave your shoes outside the mosque or carry them with you but they should be placed in a plastic bag. Consider bringing socks with you if you don’t feel comfortable walking barefoot, especially in the summer.
Dress code: Knees, shoulders, and upper arms must be covered. Women must cover their hair. Although you can borrow a cover at the entrance of most mosques, it is not a bad idea to bring your own scarf to cover yourself.
Photos: Taking photos is generally allowed, though make sure not to take pictures of people praying.
General: Avoid making noise, be respectful, and remember that mosques are not just tourist attractions, they are places of worship.

A woman selling colorful glass lamps in her shop in Beyoglu district in Istanbul
A woman selling colorful glass lamps in her shop in Beyoglu district in Istanbul

35. STAYING SAFE IN ISTANBUL

Istanbul is a safe city. As a tourist, you will hardly have any safety concerns. Just behave as you would in any big city. Beware of pickpockets, although I never saw or heard of any.

36. alcohol

Not all restaurants in Istanbul serve alcohol, although there are some. The most popular alcoholic drink is raki. It is very similar to the Greek ouzo. Alcohol is expensive compared to food prices. If you are more of a wine drinker, Turkey has excellent wines from the Anatolian region. If you find wines from Midyat or Mardin in Istanbul, don’t doubt them. If you prefer to drink beer, then go for Efes.

37. ENGLISH SPEAKERS

You will not find many English speakers in Istanbul, although there are many more than in other parts of Turkey. As a rule of thumb, those who work in tourism-related businesses have some knowledge of English. Young people are more likely to speak English than older people. That said, Turkish people are very friendly and helpful. They will go out of their way to help you, even if they don’t understand a word you’re saying. Google Translate often comes in handy (one of the reasons to consider buying a local SIM) and a few words in Turkish can really make a difference.

38. CAY VS COFFEE

Tea at the Golden Horn
Tea at the Golden Horn

Being a coffee girl myself, I always drink tea in Turkey. And there is a good reason for that. First of all, I don’t like Turkish coffee. I find it strange and not to my taste at all. Nevertheless, I advise you to try it. It’s a new experience and I know a lot of people who like it. It is customary to finish a meal with a cup of tea. Actually, it is a glass of cay, which is the Turkish word for tea. In many restaurants, they will bring you cay and some desserts for free after you finish your meal.

39. HOW TO AVOID CROWDS

Over a million tourists visit Istanbul every month. And most of them will want to visit the major attractions. Don’t be discouraged by long lines. In most cases they will move quickly. However, many of the tourists in Istanbul are Turkish people visiting the city for the weekend. So if you are flexible with your travel time, avoid the weekends. Summer is the peak season. Many foreign tourists stop in Istanbul on their way to Cappadocia, Antalya and other seaside resorts, so avoid it if you want to visit the tourist attractions with fewer crowds. To visit mosques, avoid Fridays. Many of them do not open to tourists until the afternoon. Some do not allow tourists at all.

40. TIPS FOR SHOPPING

It’s up to you whether you want to shop in the Grand Bazaar or not, but bargaining in the bazaars is mandatory. If you don’t see a price tag, take it as an invitation to haggle. I feel very uncomfortable bargaining, that’s why I avoid bazaars, the only exception being the Spice Bazaar. My favorite shopping area in Istanbul is Beyoğlu. The side streets around Galata Tower and up to Taxim Square are full of small shops selling everything from unique shoes to musical instruments.

41. CAR HIRE

Istanbul is a very big city with somewhat chaotic traffic. Finding a parking space can also be a problem. At the same time, the city has an effective, reliable, affordable, and easy-to-navigate public transportation system. In conclusion, it is not necessary to rent a car in Istanbul.

42. ISTANBUL CATS

A cat sleeping in a shoes shop in Istanbul
A cat sleeping in a shoes shop in Istanbul

Cats are everywhere in Istanbul. They are the princesses of the city. The people of Istanbul take care of them, feed them, leave water for them. There are installations in the parks where anyone can drop a coin and pay for a cat’s food. You’ll see cats riding in the subway and a ferry, resting in а train station, lying on cushions in a store or decorating the window between pairs of shoes. Everyone loves cats in Istanbul. And everywhere else in Turkey, in fact. Legend says that a cat saved the Prophet Muhammad from a snake. Hence the Turkish people’s reverence for cats.

43. THE CITY ON 7 HILLS

Istanbul is known as the “City on 7 Hills”, so be prepared to climb a lot while exploring the city. Pack your most comfortable walking shoes.

Best Areas to Stay for the First Time in Istanbul

Sunrise over Istanbul
Sunrise over Istanbul

If you want to be as close as possible to the main attractions, choose a hotel in the Fatih district. You will be staying at a walking distance from Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern. And with tram line T1 you can easily reach the Spice Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahce Palace. With the T1 tram line you can cross the Golden Horn and from there you can easily reach the Galata Tower. Tram line T1 also stops at Eminönü Port, from where the ferries to the Princes’ Islands and the Bosphorus cruises depart. Fatih district may seem the perfect location to stay but it is also overcrowded and noisy.

If you don’t mind using public transportation, choose an accommodation in Beyoğlu. You will be close to the Galata Tower, Taksim Square, and Istiklal street with its retro tram. This is the perfect place to feel the artictic vibe of the city. The area is full of nice restaurants, pretty small shops, and art galleries.

Further away from the historical center, the districts of Beşiktaş, Şişli and Levent are the more sophisticated, lively and upscale parts of the city.

Istanbul off the Beaten Path

44. Ortaköy Mosque

Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul
Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul

If you take a Bosphorus cruise, you will have the chance to catch a glimpse of the Ortaköy Mosque with the Bosphorus Bridge. It is a sight that is often featured in Istanbul city guides. It is a great photo opportunity.

Address: Mecidiye, Mecidiye Köprüsü Sk. No:1 D:1, 34347 Beşiktaş

45. The Tulip Festival

The Tulip Festival is celebrated every year in April. Go to Emirgan Perk to see thousands of tulips in different colors and shapes.

Address: Reşitpaşa, Emirgan Sk., 34467 Sarıyer

46. St. Stephen Church

St. Stephen Church in Istanbul interior with golden details
St. Stephen Church in Istanbul

St. Stephen’s Church is also called the Bulgarian Iron Church. It is a very beautiful church with its golden interior details. St. Stephen’s Church is a must for architecture lovers for its all-iron construction, the elements of which were brought by ships from Vienna in 1871.

Address: Balat, Mürselpaşa Cd. 10, 34087 Fatih

47. Balat Neighborhood

A street with colorful houses in Balat neighborhood in Istanbul
A street with colorful houses in Balat neighborhood

Balat was a district where rich Greek merchants lived. It was also home to many Jews. Therefore, you can find Orthodox churches and synagogues there, although Balat is most famous for its colorful houses. The neighborhood is a great place to take pictures but be prepared to climb steep streets.

48. Dervish Dance

Visit a Dervish dance. This dance is not just an artistic preformance, it is more an act of worship. The dancers wear long, flowing robes and tall hats and their dance consists of a continuos spinnig. The captivating Dervish Dance is recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

49. Princes Islands (Adalar)

A house and a horse carriage at Buyukada Island Istanbul
Buyukada Island

The Princes Islands are worth a day trip and are easy to get to. Just take the ferry from Eminönü Pier. Look for the “Adalar” ticket office. The Princes Islands are nine islands southeast of Istanbul. The most visited island is Buyukada. After the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, Buyukada seems like a fairy tale. No cars, no traffic, just peace and relaxation.

50. Bosphorus cruise

Rumeli Fortress in Istanbul
Rumeli Fortress

Many travel agencies offer all kinds of Bosphorus cruises: day cruises, dinner cruises, sunset cruises, long cruises or short cruises. Alternatively, you can just buy your tickets at Sehirhatlari Ferries. Their short Bosphorus tour takes about two hours to complete and for the long one is a full day. The long Bosphorus cruise ticket is 120 TRY and the short one is 65 TRY.

51. The Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi)

Maiden's Tower Istanbul
Maiden’s Tower

The Maiden’s Tower is another of Istanbul’s iconic landmarks. Located on a small island in the heart of the Bosphorus, off the Asian coast of Üsküdar, it has been closed for a lengthy restoration. It recently reopened as a museum.

Opening hours: from 9 AM till 8 PM.

Entry fee: 400 TRY + 50 TRY transportation fee. Museum Pass holders pay only the transportation fee.

52. The Sunset at the Bosphorus

Sunset over Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul
Sunset over Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul

This is one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul. Just hop on any ferry that connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Take a seat on the top deck and watch the sunset over the Bosphorus Strait.

Conclusion: Whether you are for the first time in Istanbul or not, this amazing city is one of the best places in the world for an unforgettable vacation full of historic landmarks, stunning sunsets, delicious food, and friendly people.

FAQs

Where is Istanbul?

Istanbul is in Türkiye, which is the recent spelling change for Turkey.

Is Istanbul the capital of Turkey?

No, it is not. The capital of Turkey is Ankara.

How many airports are there in Istanbul?

Istanbul has two main airports. They are Istanbul Airport on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side.

Is Istanbul Safe?

Yes, Istanbul is safe for tourists. It is one of the safest cities to visit.

Is Istanbul safe for women?

Yes, Istanbul is safe for women. However, take the usual precautions, use common sense, avoid certain neighborhoods, and dress modestly to avoid unwanted attention.

Is Istanbul expensive?

No, Istanbul is not expensive. It is more expensive than any other part of Turkey, but compared to European capitals, Istanbul is more than affordable.

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15 thoughts on “FIRST TIME IN ISTANBUL: 51+ BEST TIPS FOR 2024 TRIP”

  1. I have yet to visit Istanbul, but now I have this post pinned, I will know exactly where to go and what to do when I eventually get there. I liked that you included a section on neighbourhoods to stay in.

  2. My favorite part about Istanbul is how tenderly the locals take care of the street cats. They have big hearts! I also loved the hookahs at little hidden bars, the Grand Bazaar, and rug emporiums. Great post! So thorough.

  3. O have yet to travel to Istanbul but it’s on my list. My younger sister has been twice and loved it every time. I love all your tips and I know that they will be handy. I will park this post for when I do visit.

  4. Fantastic guide! Brought back memories of my first time there, especially the charming Turkish hospitality. Reading this, I realised it’s been too long since my visit. It’s definitely time for another Istanbul adventure!

  5. I LOVED visiting Istanbul, but only went for about 36 hours. There’s so much to do there and I definitely think you’ve laid out so many amazing options for a first timer/anyone going on a trip there.

  6. Thank you, Maghan. There is so much to see and do in Istanbul. Every time I go there, I discover something new. And the time in this georgeous city is never enough.

  7. What a great guide explaining all you need to know to visit Istanbul. I’ve always wanted to go, and these are all unique ways to explore the city. The cats everywhere are interesting, but I’m glad to hear they’re well taken care of. Hopefully, the doggies receive the same treatment!

  8. Thank you, Chelsea. I’ve never seen a stray dog in Istanbul. Anywhere in Turkey either. I am sure Turkish people take good care of all animals.

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