Explore Istanbul with our travel guide to find out best places to visit, eat, drink, and stay in Istanbul where East meets West.
“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” said French writer and historian Alphonse de Lamartine. He is not alone in his feelings, Istanbul charmed the hearts of visitors and locals alike throughout history.
What makes Istanbul so unique and unforgettable? It is hard to give a single answer, but we can start with this. Istanbul is mysterious and mystical and full of history. It is literally where east meets west, connecting Asia with Europe through Bosphorus.
Istanbul is not only unique and beautiful, it is also affordable. People with all kinds of budgets can visit Istanbul and enjoy everything it offers.
Short History of Istanbul
The findings show that the earliest settlement in Istanbul was around 1000 BC and was called Semistra. After Semistra, there was a fishing village called Lygos and around 700 BC, Istanbul was first colonized by Greek fishers.
First real city Byzantium was founded by Byzas and was named after him. During some turbulent centuries, Istanbul changed hands between Persians, Athens, Byzantines and Spartans. When the Hellenistic period ended, Byzantium formed an alliance with the Roman Empire. They paid their taxes and in return, they were a free state. Until they sided with Pescennius Niger against Septimius Severus in a war for the Roman crown. This was the wrong move. Septimus Severus defeated his opponent and sieged the city. After three years under siege, Byzantium was burned to the ground.
The new emperor knew Byzantium was important strategically, so it was rebuilt again. After the weakening of Roman Empire, Constantine won a civil war that made him the ruler of the empire. He decided to move the capital to Byzantium in 330 AD, naming it Constantinople after a while. The city and the empire prospered for the next centuries while rest of the Europe was struggling with barbarian attacks. Though in the middle of the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was barely anything other than the Constantinople itself.
In year 1453, Ottoman Emperor Sultan Mehmet went with a smart move that caught the Byzantines by surprise. This was the end of Byzantine Empire, and the start of a new rule in Constantinople, now usually called Istanbul.
Ottoman Empire had a good run for several centuries with Istanbul as its capital, but by the time it was the end of 19th century, there were too many mistakes, crisis, turmoil and the Empire was likened to a sick man by the Europe. At the start of the 20th century, Ottoman made a crucial mistake by siding with the Germans. Having lost the war, Ottoman Empire crumbled. In its place, Republic of Turkey was found after an independent war. During the struggle for the independence, Ankara was chosen as the capital as it’s location was more secure. Though no longer a capital, Istanbul was and still is the heart of Turkey and today it is the home for 15 million citizens.
Climate of Istanbul
Like the rest of the Marmara region, Istanbul has hot and humid summers during which temperature can go up to 30 degrees Celcius and there is very little rain. In the winter, weather gets relatively cold and snow is not uncommon, though it doesn’t stay on the ground for long. Spring and autumn are the times when weather is mild and very comfortable.
How to Get to Istanbul?
Reaching Istanbul is very easy. Istanbul has two international airport, one on the European side (New Istanbul Airport) and the other on the Asian side (Sabiha Gökçen Airport). Turkish Airlines and a lot of other major airlines has daily flights to Istanbul. If you are in Turkey, many major cities also have flights to Istanbul through local airlines.
Another way to reach Istanbul inside Turkey is to take a bus. Most of the cities have buses to Turkey. Even though bus rides take longer time, they make up for it with complementary snacks and personal TV units.
There is also a high-speed train that travels between Ankara, Eskişehir and Istanbul. It takes about 4 hours to travel from Istanbul to Ankara with these trains. Since they are in high demand, it is best to book them ahead.
Where to Visit in Istanbul?
Istanbul has countless attractions and historical artifacts. You can stay in them, walk past them each day. There are also some main attractions that every tourist should visit. Here we compiled a list of the most important places to visit in İstanbul.
Istanbul Topkapi Palace Museum
The headquarters for Ottoman Empire from 15th to 19th century, this museum carries all the mystery and surprising history of one of the most enigmatic empires in the history. With the sultans, concubines and eunuchs’ memory in each room, this museum might be the most exciting one you have ever been. You can also visit the Topkapı Palace Harem, women’s section, with an extra ticket. This part is also an enormous section with 300 rooms and other facilities. It was occupied by Sultan’s wives, concubines and servants.
Hagia Sophia Museum
An architectural gift from Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia witnessed a big part of Istanbul’s history. It is a must see in Istanbul with its fascinating dome and its mosaics. After being burned down twice, the Hagia Sophia we know today was built in 537 by Byzantine Emperor Constantine as a Greek Orthodox Basilica. After Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. Today it is a very popular museum in Turkey, having millions of tourists each year.
The Blue Mosque
Also known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque, The Blue Mosque is one of the most amazing architectural masterpieces you can see. Outside, The Blue Mosque has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. Inside, each lower level pier is crowned with 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles. Upper levels have more colorful tiles with flowers and fruits on them. The upper levels are also mostly blue with paint and stained glass, making for a beautiful sight. This is where the name The Blue Mosque comes from.
Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and biggest market places in the world. In this historical shopping mall, you can get souvenirs for yourself and your loved ones. Grand Bazaar mainly sells jewelry, spices, pottery, but it is a huge complex that you can find many more hidden gems.
Located 150 metres away from Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern is the largest among the surviving Byzantine cisterns. It was built in 532 and was used to filter and store water during the rule of Byzantine Empire. It can store up to 80,000 cu metres of water, but its capacity is not used so that visitors can enjoy walking around enjoying its atmosphere and architecture.
What to Eat in Istanbul?
Istanbul has many different kind of incredibly delicious food it offers to its visitors. Food in Istanbul is both affordable and variable. You can be sure you’ll find something that you’ll miss until your next visit. Here are some of the best options for different Turkish foods.
Where to Eat Döner in Istanbul?
For meat lovers, Istanbul offers some of the finest döner options. One of them is called Dönerci Şahin Usta and located in Grand Bazaar, a small shop where you can get your döner sandwich and eat on food. A staple in any Grand Bazaar trip, it’s best not skip this place.
Where to Eat Baklava in Istanbul?
The famous Turkish dessert is one of the things you can’t skip trying before you leave. Thin pastries filled with nuts and crowned with delicious honey, this dessert will give you enough energy to explore the city. A famous and historical place to try baklava is Karaköy Güllüoğlu located in Beyoğlu, using the finest ingredients for the best baklava experience.
Where to Eat Ottoman Cuisine in Istanbul?
Ottoman Empire had its own cuisine that you can still try in some authentic restaurants in Istanbul. If you’d like to experience the recipes that are hundreds of years old and enjoyed by the the Sultans of Ottoman Empire, you can try this restaurant, Deraliye Ottoman Cuisine Restaurant.
Where to Eat Anatolian Food in Istanbul?
Where to Eat Pide in Istanbul?
Pide can be described as Turkish pizza and the filling can vary from plain cheese to full-blown kebab meat. It is one of the best and cheapest options in Turkish cuisine and the veggie option is great for vegetarians. If you choose to eat pide, you can try Hocapaşa Pidecisi in Fatih.
Where to Eat Pizza in Istanbul?
If you are looking for some pizza in Istanbul, a cozy pizzeria with a back garden called Cortiletto Pizzeria & Bar offers one of the best pizzas in Istanbul.
Where to Eat Homemade Style Food in Istanbul?
One of the nicest options for Turkish people working is to go to places called esnaf lokantası, which is a type of restaurant that serves hot meals in homemade style. One of the best restaurants you can try in this style is called Bizim Mutfak Lokantası and is located in Fatih.
Where to Eat Hamburger and Cheesecake in İstanbul?
A very popular place to have burgers and cheesecake in Istanbul is a restaurant called Zula, It is much loved by tourists and locals alike.
Where to Eat Meze in Istanbul?
Mezes are small dishes that are shared by everyone at the table. Ordering many of these small dishes and eating them with bread is a very delicious experience for any night out. If you’d like dip your bread into some mezes, Aret’in Yeri in Beyoğlu is the perfect place to do so.
Where to Eat Menemen in Istanbul?
Menemen is a mainly a Turkish breakfast delicacy made with eggs and tomatoes. When added more ingredients, it can be enjoyed on any part of the day. Lades Menemen does exactly that, they serve delicious menemens filled with all kinds of ingredients that will fill you right up.
What to Buy in Istanbul?
It is hard to find a place better than to buy souvenirs for friends and family, or a unique piece for your own home. Here are some of the best things to bring home.
Turkish tea is what every Turkish person’s addiction and the first offer to any visitor. Turkish tea is drank with some sugar and without any milk. You can get Turkish everywhere that sells food.
Though sounds intimidating, evil eyes purpose in Turkish culture is protection from bad energy from nasty looks of other people. People usually pin evil eye inside their bags or put it in their houses to get rid of the energy of people’s envious looks. Evil eye can be found in any souvenir shop.
Turkish delight can be found outside of Turkey, so maybe you have tried before visiting Turkey and you probably did not like it. You can give Turkish delight, lokum as locals call it, another go in Turkey. When it is fresh and well-made, Turkish Delight’s silky, nutty texture is something to be experienced. Grand Bazaar is a great place to get some good quality Turkish delight.
Peshtemals are Turkish style towels. They are less fluffy and thick compared to your regular towel, but what they are lacking in fluff they are making up in quality. They are perfect for a visit to a Turkish bath as well. You can find peshtemals in Grand Bazaar and other shops around Sultanahmet.
Mesmerizing with their colours and shapes, Turkish glass lamp shops are a sight to behold themselves. If you’d like to take a piece of that magic home, you can visit shops in Granz Bazaar or shops in Taksim.
Turkish Coffee Pot
Called cezve in Turkish, these coffee pots traditionally made from copper and they help achieve the perfect taste. The better your pot is, the more frothy your coffee is, which is a very good sign for the perfect Turkish coffee. These pots have different sizes and they can usually make one or two cup at a time. Grand Bazaar and Arasta Bazaar are the places to look for these traditional coffee pots.
Frequently Asked Questions About Istanbul
What Does Istanbul Mean?
Istanbul name comes from the word “stambóli” which means “to the city” in Greek.
How To Pronounce Istanbul?
Where Is Istanbul Located?
Istanbul is in Turkey and its coordinates are 41.0082° N, 28.9784° E.
When Was Istanbul Founded?
Istanbul was first founded by Thracian tribes 3000 years ago.
When Did Constantinople Became Istanbul?
Even though Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, its name changed to Istanbul in 1930.
Who Renamed The Byzantine Capital Istanbul?
Atatürk and his comrades renamed Constantinople to Istanbul.
What Language Is Spoken In Istanbul Turkey?
Turkish is the main language spoken in Istanbul, Turkey. Since it’s a multicultural metropolis, there’s a good chance you will hear people talk Kurdish and Arabic as well.
How Many People Live In Istanbul?
More than 15 millions of people call Istanbul their home.
How Safe Is Istanbul?
Istanbul is a relatively safe city, but one must be cautious in risky situations as much as they would be in any big city.