It’s hard to describe Istanbul in one word. This vibrant Turkish city is awash in heritage and history. Often called the “Cradle of Civilization,” Istanbul has been ruled by many empires. All have contributed to its complex history and fascinating mix of cultures. It’s a bustling city with friendly and hospitable people. There is so much to do and see in Istanbul. To help you plan your trip, here’s an overview of exotic Istanbul. Find out how to get here, what sights to see, and where to stay.

What to See in Istanbul

Istanbul is a transcontinental city. It is one of only a few cities in the world that sits on two continents: Europe and Asia. This combination of east and west makes Istanbul a unique and intriguing city. The European and Asian areas of Istanbul are noticeably different. To make the most of your visit to Istanbul, explore both parts. Soak up the atmosphere, immerse yourself in the culture, and feast on the glorious food.

Day One: Tradition Meets Modern on the European Side

Many tourists prefer to visit the European side of Istanbul. It’s more westernized with high-end shops, bars, restaurants, and pavement cafes. It’s also where you’ll find most of the city’s historical landmarks. If it’s your first visit to Istanbul and time is short, then this is where you should explore. If you’re on a business visit, this is also Istanbul’s commercial center, where major banks and corporations are located.

The Morning Breakfast

Forget bacon and eggs; start your day the way the locals do. Breakfast, called kahvalti, is an important part of Turkish life. It’s not to be rushed, rather  savored over copious amounts of tea. It’s a tapas-style breakfast with plates of white cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, chorizo, boiled eggs, and jams accompanied by delicious Turkish bread. Menemen — a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onion, and peppers — is also frequently served.

Make your way to Van Kahvaltı Evi restaurant in the Cihangir neighborhood. This is one of the best spots for breakfast, specializing in cuisine from the Van province near the Iranian border and local cuisine with a Kurdish twist. Try the kavut, roasted wheat flour with honey and walnuts; jaji, a dip made of yogurt and cottage cheese; and kahmak, a heavenly clotted cream served with honey that glistens with bits of honeycomb. End your breakfast with a cup of Turkish coffee.

gulhane park
The Gulhane Park in Instanbul.

Sightseeing During the Morning

With a filling breakfast in your belly, it’s time to explore Istanbul. The signature tourist attractions are on the European side. Head to Sultanahmet Square in the heart of the Old City. All the main attractions are in and around this square, so be prepared for hordes of tourists.

Start with the famous Sultanahmet Camii, commonly called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles decorating the interior. It is a must-see when visiting Istanbul. The architecture and detail of this mosque are exquisite and awe-inspiring. Make sure you dress conservatively and be aware that you must remove your shoes during your visit. The mosque is closed to the public during each of the five daily prayer services.

When you leave the Blue Mosque, walk across the Hippodrome, once the center of public life. During the days when Istanbul was called Constantinople, this area was the setting for fierce chariot races. Today, monuments stand in the once grand arena. Spend a few minutes and take snaps of the Egyptian Obelisk, Serpentine Column, Column of Constantine, Walled Obelisk, and the Kaiser Wilhelm II Fountain.

Across from the Blue Mosque is the domed Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built as a church, then became a mosque, and is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site housing Christian and Islamic artwork and architecture.

If you have time to squeeze it in, visit the nearby Basilica Cistern, an extensive underground water system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul from ancient Thrace. Don’t miss the giant upside-down head of Medusa statue, now used as one of the 336 supporting columns.

Lunchtime Grub

When looking for eats and refreshments, there’s no shortage of restaurants, street food, and fast food joints like good ole MacDonalds. Better yet, mingle with the locals at their favorite spots. Tea gardens, coffeehouses, Turkish taverns, and kebap restaurants will give you a taste of authentic Istanbul. While in the Sultanahmet area, duck into Cafe Rumist for the best hot-pot clay kebap. Round it off with delicious kunefe, a Turkish dessert made with cheese and shredded phyllo dough soaked in sweet syrup.

topkapi palace
The Topkapi Palace.

Museums in the Afternoon

Kick the afternoon off at Topkapi Palace, another popular attraction. This was the elaborate home to several Ottoman sultans and their harems. Explore lush courtyards, exhibitions, artifacts, jewelry, and a wide range of Islamic art. As a bonus, the views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus Strait, and Golden Horn from here are breathtaking. Topkapi Palace is massive, and a visit can easily take most of the afternoon.

Other interesting museums to visit are:

  • Istanbul Archaeology Museum near Topkapi Palace.
  • Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts next to the Hippodrome.
  • Vakiflar Carpet Museum, part of the Blue Mosque.
  • Mosaics Museum, south of the Blue Mosque.

Late Afternoon Shopping

Practice your haggling skills at the Grand Bazaar. This is an enormous covered market spanning 60 streets with more than 4,000 shops. It’s colorful and chaotic, an experience not to be missed. Shopaholics beware: the range of products on sale will have you heading home with way more in your luggage than when you arrived.

Day Two: The Authentic Asian Side

The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side from the Asian side. Take a ferry across to avoid the heavy traffic often found on the Bosphorus bridges. The vibe here is different, more relaxed and less touristy. If you want a more authentic Turkish experience, spend a day on the Asian side.

Morning Meander

Take a ferry or water taxi over to Kanlica. This serene waterside village is a nice relaxed way to start your day and famous for its yogurt. Find a yogurt shop for a taste of the thick creamy Turkish yogurt topped the traditional way with powdered sugar. Alternatively, you can choose honey or jam as a topping.

Next, make your way down to Üsküdar. The main attraction here is Beylerbeyi Palace. Though not quite as ostentatious as Topkapi Palace, it is still worth a visit. It was a summer palace for Ottoman sultans and is lavishly decorated in neo-Baroque style.

turkish islamic arts
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

A Light Lunch Along the Bosphorus

Nothing beats lunch along the Bosphorus. There is an endless number of seafood restaurants along the Bosphorus serving up excellent fish dishes. Alternatively, indulge in one of Turkey’s favorite pastimes, drinking tea. One of the best tea gardens near Üsküdar is Tarihi Çınaraltı Aile Çay Bahçesi in Çengelköy. Alongside the water’s edge and with a large, ancient plane tree providing shade, you’ll enjoy views of boats slowly passing by. Order the traditional tea from the Black Sea city of Rize, known for its distinct flavor.

You could move along to Kadıköy, the most popular neighborhood on the Asian side, and have lunch here instead. Seek out the much-acclaimed Ciya Sofrasi. The mezes are the star attraction at Ciya Sofrasi and a popular choice for vegetarians. The best tea garden is Moda Tea Garden. Perched on a hill, it’s quiet and laid-back with a beautiful view of the Marmara Sea. Walk off your lunch with a stroll along the mile-long seaside promenade from Fenerbahçe to Bostancı. It has great views of Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.

Spend the Afternoon Shopping

Not far from the ferry port in Kadıköy is the vibrant Kadıköy Market, brimming with the freshest fish, organic cheeses, teas, spices, fruits, and vegetables. It’s a feast for the eyes and stomach. You can easily wander the streets around this area for hours. There are dozens of interesting shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. If you are an antique collector, you cannot miss browsing Tellalzade Street, also called Antiques Shop Street.

Party the Night Away 

Kadıköy has attracted the young hipster crowd, and plenty of bars and clubs have popped up for millennials to hang out. Even if you’re a bit older, make the most of your time here by enjoying some of Istanbul’s thriving nightlife on the Asian side. Start your evening with drinks at one of the many bars along Kadife Sokak, known as Bar Street. For a good beer, Arkaoda is a long-standing favorite with locals, tourists, and expats. Looking for a plain and simple unpretentious hangout? Karga has a grungy feel, serves up cheaper drinks, and draws those in search of alternative music.

aya sofya
The Aya Sofya in Instanbul.

Getting Here: Flying to Istanbul

Istanbul has two airports: Istanbul Atatürk Airport and Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. Atatürk Airport is the main airport and where most international travelers arrive at. The airport handles more than 60 million passengers each year, making it the fifth busiest airport in Europe. The Sultanahmet area is about 11 miles from the airport, and it takes approximately 25 minutes to get there by car. To get there by public transport, take the metro’s  M1 Yenikapı line that connects with Zeytinburnu. From Zeytinburnu, board the T1 tram toward Kabatas. This tram will take you to Sultanahmet.

Flights to Istanbul can also take you to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on the Asian side. Often, you can find cheaper deals on flights when flying to Sabiha Gökçen instead of Ataturk. If you’re staying on the European side, getting to your hotel from Sabiha Gökçen will take a little longer. If your hotel is sending an airport transfer to pick you up, you have no worries. If you have to find your own transportation, the best way is with the Havatas bus. The most straightforward route over to the European side is with a Havatas bus to Taksim. If you need to get to Sultanahmet, take the Havatas bus to Kadikoy. From Kadikoy, hop a ferry to Eminonu, then catch a tram to Sultanahmet.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Best Hotels on the European Side

Most tourists want to be close to all the major Istanbul attractions. This means finding an Istanbul hotel in the Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu areas.

For a hotel in Istanbul with an interesting history, book in at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul At Sultanahmet. This neoclassical building once served as a prison. It’s within walking distance of Topkapi Palace and provides great views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. For a lower-priced option, you can’t go wrong with Hotel Ibrahim Pasha. It’s a lovely, affordable boutique hotel in the heart of Istanbul’s Old City.

In the Beyoğlu district, those seeking opulence can book  at the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah. The epitome of luxury, the Pera Palace overlooks the Golden Horn and is within walking distance to the Bosphorus and Galata Tower. If you’re on a student budget and looking for hostels in Istanbul, the best option is World House Hostel Istanbul. This comfortable hostel is located in an artsy neighborhood of Karakoy. It offers dorm rooms, private rooms, and deluxe rooms.

Best Hotels on the Asian Side

The best part about staying on the Asian side is that hotels are cheaper, and you’ll deal with fewer tourists and smaller crowds. Sumahan on the Water is an award-winning high-end hotel situated in Çengelköy. Formerly an old distillery, it sits peacefully on the Bosphorus, offering guests stunning waterfront views from contemporary-styled rooms. For a quiet or romantic getaway, opt for the small 16-room boutique Ajia Hotel in Kanlica. Young people wanting budget accommodation in popular Kadikoy need look no further than Hush Hostel Lounge. The hostel’s facilities include a garden and barbecue area, as well as a rooftop terrace with sun loungers and great views.

Istanbul is a tale of two cities, and its dual personality will captivate you. Now that you have an idea of what to expect in Istanbul, start planning your trip right here on GoDoTrip.