Where Europe and Asia meet stands a glorious city of Istanbul, or Constantinople if you like it better that way. The largest city in Turkey, which has more than 15 million people and god knows how many cats call it home, is a bucket-list must. You may ask, is Istanbul Europe or Asia? Well, both, and it uses its transcontinental privilege in the best possible way. We won't have to do much convincing once you realize how spectacular Istanbul and Turkey are, but we'll go above and beyond either way. Our top 9 picks go into some detail but still are just the tip of the iceberg; the real fun starts once you find yourself in front of Hagia Sophia while drinking hot and sweet chai. Want a little teaser? Here are some of Istanbul's features will go through together:
- Is Istanbul cheap?
- Food in Istanbul is to die for
- Attractions in Istanbul are a historical rollercoaster
- Istanbul cats will make you a cat person
Is Istanbul cheap?
Starting off strong, with information that will put a smile on your face. Istanbul is heaven for traveling on a budget! Compared to other European destinations, Istanbul won’t leave you penniless even after a whole week filled with sightseeing, activities, food tasting adventures, and excursions. We understand that traveling is a privilege and cheap doesn’t mean the same things to everybody, so we took into consideration several important categories:
- Depending on your preferences, you could find accommodation for as little as 20 euros ($23) a night if hostels seem appealing. Hotels range from affordable ones to 5-star luxurious hotels like The Four Seasons and Ciragan Palace Kempinski. It is possible to get a nice room, maybe even breakfast included, for less than 200 euros ($227) for a 7-night stay. Websites like Trivago or Expedia will collect the best deals, which usually include flights as well, so be sure to check them out.
- When it comes to food, once you learn to stay away from tourist traps you’ll save a lot of money. On average, you won’t be spending more than 2.5 euros ($3) on street food, and a decent meal for two in a local restaurant will set you back for around $40. Overall, it is possible to enjoy diverse meals in Istanbul with 250 euros a week budget.
- Transportation in Istanbul won’t give you headaches, as it is easy to navigate, quick and safe, as well as inexpensive. We recommend getting yourself an Istanbulkart, a unified public transport ticket. It is eligible for all means of transportation, from metro to ferry rides, and it costs less than half a euro for 1 ride.
Food in Istanbul is to die for
It is no secret that many tourists come to Istanbul specifically for food, and we can’t blame them. Turkish cuisine caries the Ottoman heritage and leans on many influences from the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern traditions, and Balkan. This means an explosion of complimenting flavors on every bite, whether you like sweet or savory meals and snacks, hefty breakfasts, and divine-smelling streets from all the vendors. Vegetarian dishes will be easy to find, as filo dough stuffed with cheese or vegetables is one of the staples. If your New Years' resolution was to cut down on eating, maybe postpone it to the first Monday after your visit to Istanbul? You should definitely treat yourself to a nice meal in an upscale restaurant, maybe even visit the famous Salt bae's Nusr-Et Steakhouse. From sweets and desserts to unique street food, let’s go through some of the specialties you must try.
Getting hooked on Istanbul street food happens fast, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Once you’ve tried simit, you’ll never want to go back to eating bagels. This round pastry covered with sesame seeds is a piece of heaven in your mouth. Before you hit the streets, have a bite of every dish you get served as part of the breakfast. You’ll start with tea instead of coffee, and gradually move to homemade bread, several types of cheese, olives, jam, eggs, sausages, you name it. Turkish specialties you need in your life are:
- Balık ekmek: A fish sandwich like no other. Galata Bridge has lived many lives, and since 1994 it became fisherman's favorite spot, where they dangle their rods in hopes of catching as many fish as possible. That same fish is sold in the market under the bridge, fried, and put in between two pieces of bread plastered with mayonnaise and lettuce. Wash it down with a glass of pickle juice and call it a day.
- Baklava: Thin filo dough carefully layered with nuts and sugar syrup, served in bite-sized cubes is as delicious as it sounds. You'll find this piece of heaven all over Istanbul, as there are many places that specialize in all things baklava.
- Börek: Pastry is a recurring theme here, but it keeps getting better and better. Thin sheets of dough are filled with nicely seasoned minced meat, cheese, or spinach and then baked to perfection. Have a tall glass of kefir with it and you’ll be coming back for more.
- Kesten: Roasted chestnut is a smell that easily takes over the streets and will become your favorite snack. For less than $2 you can get a bag of kestens, peel them and eat while you stroll down the İstiklal Avenue.
Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is every shopaholic's dream
We are convinced you can spend a whole day exploring the grandest of Grand Markets and you still wouldn’t see it all. Grand Bazaar in Istanbul has a long history, stretching all the way to the era of the conquest of Constantinopole. There are some debates about its size, but it is the largest covered market in the world in our books. It is also the most visited one, not that you doubted. If shopping is your passion, and we don’t just mean souvenirs and clothes, dedicate one afternoon of your Istanbul trip to exploring this marvelous place with over 4.000 shops. This is a great place to try out as many local foods as possible, and we recommend you start with the sweets.
Do you know a thing or two about barging? Sharpen your skills and don't show your lack of experience, the merchants can smell it. Looking for traditional Ottoman garments that come with a fun story from a talkative vendor? Head out to Grand Bazaar. Can't get enough of those rose-flavored Turkish delights? Grand Bazaar. Want to get yourself a nice Anatolian carafe to display raki once you get home? You know where this is going. Some of the things you should get your hands on are:
- Lamps: Or lanterns, whatever suits you best. The central part of the Bazaar, also its oldest hotspot, is the place for antique pieces. Beautiful glass mosaics can only be described as works of art, and for not that much money honestly, they can be your prized possession.
- Jewelry: If your heart desires gold, you've come to the right place; the main street of the Bazaar is adorned with shops that sell the most charming golden pieces. Most of the jewelry you'll get to buy at the bazaar follow the traditional design, as it is mostly made with weddings in mind.
- Textiles: Towels, cushions, carpets, you name it. Turkey is famous for its long history of carpet making and intricate fabric designs which you'll love for sure. If you don't plan on bringing an additional suitcase of a huge carpet, try to contain yourself. Did we mention there are numerous shops that sell hand-made silk and cashmere shawls?
Attractions in Istanbul are a historical rollercoaster
If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul - the feeling that this city gives you beautifully put into words by Alphonse de Lamartine. Nothing can beat centuries of history that left a trace in every corner of this city, keeping you entertained and invested every step of the way. Playground for history buffs and a mecca for photographers, Istanbul ranks high on our list of cities with the most exciting attractions. From places of worship with centuries-long history and breathtaking art to a bridge with an interesting tradition, even a month-long trip will be filled to the brim with places to see and things to do.
With your welcome card or E-pass you’ll have no problem, or excuse, visiting all of these wonders:
- Hagia Sophia: We can’t decide what is more impressive about this one - the sheer size, the turbulent history or the intricate details of mosaics and other ornaments. Holy Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque has been around for over 1.400 years, welcoming admirers, people of faith and lovers of art. Historical and political climate has caused it to be a church, then a mosque, then a museum and finally a mosque again in 2020. If you wish to visit it today you have to follow the rules that come with mosque visitations, such as a dress code that includes a headscarf and no shoes policy. It’s best to plan your tourist visit with praying times in mind, so note that it closes one hour before the prayer and stays closed for 30 minutes after. If crowds are not your thing, 9 am is a safe choice. Once you enter this marvelous structure, you’ll be greeted with masterful Byzantine architecture, colorful Christian mosaics and Kuran texts represented across the walls. One of the things you cannot miss are the tombs of Turkish sultans that found their final resting place here. It’s pretty obvious why this attraction is considered a World heritage site by UNESCO.
- Galata Tower: 52 meters tall building can proudly call itself one of Istanbul’s most recognizable attractions. Galata tower has had a twin, but the time wasn’t so kind to it and it was destroyed. Climbing this stone beast will be a feat, as you’ll have to maneuver over 140 steps while hunching over under the low ceiling. As you’re sweating and thinking of giving up, just remember that stunning 360 views of Istanbul awaits you at the top. There is an elevator, but it takes you only to the 6th floor, and you still have 2 more to go on foot. Can you imagine the sunsets from this observation deck, as you gaze upon the water and other iconic Istanbul’s hotspots? Galata tower is a trendy and instagramable location, so it would be best to organize your visit early in the morning tho. Every floor has its own theme, from a museum store on the 1st to a historical exhibition on the 5th and an interactive model of Istanbul located on the 7th floor.
- Basilica Cistern: If you thought that water supply systems are boring, think again. This one got its name from the basilica it was constructed under. It was a wonder then, when it was finished in the 6th century, and it still is. A walk through Basilica Cistern takes you on an exciting ride between 12 rows of 336 columns, all made of marble and all with different decorations. The pride and joy of this former Byzantine water supply center is the so-called Medusa column bases, adorned with carwings of her head. You won’t turn to stone once you set your eyes on it, but you will be speechless. Basilica Cistern is in the same neighborhood as Hagia Sophia.
- Topkapi palace: Want to feel like royalty? Head out to a palace which sultans of the Ottoman empire called home. Dating to the 15th century, Topkapi Palace today offers a rich experience as the most visited Turkish museum.
Hammam in Istanbul is a one of a kind experience
Next on our list is an experience and a half, trust us. Taking some inspiration from Roman baths, the traditional hammams of Turkey can give spas in Bali and Hungary a run for their money. From the original 237 hammams established throughout the time, there are 60 that are still up and running. Going to Turkish baths is a rejuvenating treatment, believed to cleanse your soul, as well as your body. It can be intense, especially if you’re going for the first time, but it is so worth it. The baths are organized so that men and women are separate, and they will even be treated by the same sex.
You'll be going from room temperature to about 40 C (104F) of heat, and finishing with a marbled room heated to about 50 degrees C (122 F). Copper bowls are used for bathing practices at the start of your treatment, but the real fun starts when you reach the scrubbing part. The staff will vigorously, and we mean it, scrub the dead skin off of you using a glove and scrubbers. This is the only aggression you need in your life. Bath with huge bibbles called kopuk follows, and a cherry on top is a hot chai that you sip on while recovering. Turkish baths aren’t that expensive, you can expect to pay around 50-65 euros for a full treatment. If you to add a longer massage or aromatherapy session, that can cost up to 180 euros.
Asian or European side of Istanbul?
Both, both are good. With that being said, there is a distinctive difference between the neighborhoods in the European vs the Asian side that makes them all worth checking. Visiting them in one day is like going on a walk through time, wondering if you're in modern-day Istanbul or if you've just stepped into the streets of Constantinopole. Colorful architecture, clothes drying and dangling from the windows, elders passing their time on the streets in front of their houses, trendy quarters with the best nightlife that overlook the water, Istanbul has it all. Don't miss out on the fun of these boroughs:
- Balat neighborhood: Be ready to conquer a serious amount of stairs in this lively neighborhood. Former Jewish quarter today houses minorities of Istanbul and attracts tourists that crave some culture in their life. Besides many places of worship from the 16th century, you ought to try the freshest cherry juice.
- Moda: Some would say this is the hippest, coolest neighborhood of Istanbul, and honestly, we have to agree. Moda brings you closer to Bosphorus with its long boardwalks ideal for jogging and enjoying a good shade, or drinking your first coffee alongside locals in an authentic Turkish environment. Moda is also home to the Süreyya Opera House and iconic food and dancing spots that are Zor and Koço.
Experience the romance of a Bosphorus tour in Istanbul
Bosphorus is the jewel of Istanbul and it deserves all the hype, mark our words. The Strait of Istanbul that causes Europe and Asia to break up is best experienced up-close, on a luxurious cruise that comes with a diner and a show, or on ferries overcrowded with excited tourists. The optimal time for Bosphorus sailings is from May to September, you just have to decide which season is the right for you. This voyage gives you a chance to witness the seamless blend of architectural styles, lavish waterfront mansions and Ottoman bequeathed locations. With the wind in your hair and hot tea to warm your hands, you’ll wonder what took you so long to go on a Bosphorus tour.
Şehir Hatları is the official ferry company of Istanbul, taking care of various tours, but you can also find a few trustworthy private companies. A boat date in Istanbul sounds lovely, doesn’t it? This is just one of the reasons why this city deserves the spot in our best honeymoon destinations blog you should definitely check out. Some of the options for this adventure include:
- Private tours: You'll get to enjoy private moments on a yacht that takes you as close as possible to many famous waterfront monuments. Zoe Yacht is the most reputable company, and they take care of everything. You just book your slot and get ready to enjoy the views, a nice meal, top-notch service, a cool boat, and lots of Istanbul.
- Night cruise: Several hours of fun start at Eminönü docks, where you'll get picked up, go all the way to the Black sea, and come back with the best memories. Leaving just before dusk means you'll get to experience a sunset on a ferry in Istanbul, in July or August, and we couldn't envy you more. There's gonna be a stop at Anadolu Kavağı, where you can have a nice European late dinner, and start coming back to the city at around 10:30 pm. Moonlight ferry ride? Yes please!
Nightlife in Istanbul keeps you entertained all night
Have you ever been blessed by a party with Turkish folk music? If not, Istanbul is just a place for that. Nightlife in Istanbul is as diverse as the city itself, from loud taverns filled with tourists to intimate jazz bars that transport you to another time. A strong traditional influence mixed with a splash of modernity guarantees you a different experience every night. A few distinctive parts of the city are famous for their vibrant nights, like the young and affordable hotspots Moda and Kadikoy on the Asia side, or European Taksim with all-nighter clubs.
One of the things that you can only experience while visiting Turkey, or if you extend your trip to the Balkans or surrounding eastern countries, is the overwhelming party for all your senses that happens at the local meyhanes. Meyhanes are taverns that serve exquisite food that follows traditional recipes of the region, a place where you can try (or responsibly get intoxicated on) Turkish raki or wine, all the while live music entertains you. Even though meyhane owners left some of the traditions in the past in the last couple of decades, and food and entertainment changed, you'll still witness the sunrise after a night of dancing and eating meze. If good nightlife is what you seek, check out our blog about cities with the best nightlife before your next vacation.
Istanbul cats will make you a cat person
Or should we say Catstanbul? We definitely should, as some data suggest that there may be over a million cats roaming around this megacity. Istanbul should consider trademarking the sight of feeding bowls outside important cultural institutions. It is pretty common to see lots of cats in predominantly Islamic countries, but people of Turkey say that they keep these little devils close to their hearts for different reasons. Since the Ottoman empire, feral cats of Istanbul have been enjoying newfound comfort in wooden houses, where they were desperately needed for mice hunting affairs.
Even though there are some concerns about public feeding, you'll see locals and tourists giving food scraps and store-bought cat food to strays all over the town. It took some time, but the government finally granted the cats their "living being" status, guarding their lives by law. You'll find cats casually strolling into stores, restaurants, hanging around with fishermen on Galata bridge, sunbathing outside holy places, trying to go up the escalators, all that jazz. They even got their own documentary called Kedi, which earned high international praise. If you're not a cat person, once you visit Istanbul you'll become one.
We could honestly keep going, but 9 is what we’ve promised and that is what you get. Not that you need any more convincing either way. Can you already smell kesten and hear the water crashing on Moda’s shores? If you’re thinking of going to Istanbul, we hope you get the chance to visit it. If not, what are you waiting for? All those gorgeous Bosphorus sunsets await you! Make your travel planning process easier by visiting our Istanbul page as well, where you'll find useful tourist information. Bon voyage and happy reading!