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Istanbul (Türkiye) Travel Tips

Explore practical Istanbul (Turkiye) travel tips for a hassle-free journey. Discover insights on transportation, local customs and other aspects to enhance your travel experience in this vibrant city. Here, we describe several Istanbul travel tips which we hope will be useful in your travel. 

1. Airport to Istanbul City Centre

Taxi: Taxis are readily available at Istanbul Airport. The journey to Sultanahmet or Taksim by taxi takes approximately 45 minutes to 1.5 hour, depending on traffic conditions and will cost anywhere from 600 to 1000 TRY. Beware: Taxi drivers have a notorious reputation for overcharging tourists. Many refuse to use the meter and insist on inflated flat fees – always insist on using the meter. Tourists could always book an airport transfer online (via Klook) to save the hassle of dealing with taxi drivers.  

Airport Shuttle (Havaist or Havabus): There are shuttle services from Istanbul Airport (IST) (Havaist) or Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) (Havabus) to several key locations in the city including Taksim and Sultanahmet. For Havaist bus to Sultanahmet, we paid about 136 TRY per person while for Havabus to Taksim, we paid about 102 TRY per person (Dec 2023). Duration is about 1 to 1.5 hours depending on traffic. 

Metro: The M11 metro line connects Istanbul Airport to the city center. You can take the metro from the airport to Kağıthane metro station before transferring to bus service 46T to Taksim.

Tips: Be sure to purchase the IstanbulKart at the airport. IstanbulKart is a smart card used for electronic payment on various modes of public transportation in Istanbul. This includes buses, trams, metros and ferries. The card is rechargeable and users can load credit onto it to pay for their journeys. An IstanbulKart costs 70 TRY – tourists must top-up the card with more TRY before using. One IstanbulKart can be used for an entire family – just tap the card on the turnstile reader each time a person goes through it and repeat for the others. A single trip on a public transport costs 15 TRY.

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Ticket dispensing machines for Istanbul Kart @ Istanbul International Airport (located right before the path to Metro station at the Airport)
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Metro train
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Kagithane
Inside Havaist bus (Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet)
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Havabus from Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) to Taksim
Inside Havabus

2. Use public transportation to get around (especially trams), wherever possible

Istanbul is notorious for bad traffic congestion. The city’s unique geographical layout, with its many hills, bridges and narrow streets, coupled with a high population density (> 15 million) and a growing number of vehicles, contributes to traffic challenges. Tips: Do not use taxis to get around as they are known to overcharge and scam tourists. We were nearly scammed by one taxi driver who quietly switched off his meter during the trip and then trying to extort 300 TRY for a trip under 1 km! Here are the public transportation options:

Trams: Istanbul’s historic tram system runs through the heart of the city, connecting popular tourist areas like Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Karaköy. Trams are a convenient option for reaching major landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Trams are the most convenient public transportation system for tourists due to their availability in popular hotspots, frequency and ease of travel in the case of vehicular traffic jams. Tips: Use the historic red tram ride (20-min frequency) as part of a broader exploration of Istiklal Street. Hop off at different stops to explore shops, cafes and historical sites along the way.

Metro: The metro system in Istanbul is efficient and connects various parts of the city. While it may not cover the historic areas extensively, it’s a quick way to travel between different districts. If you’re staying in or around Taksim Square, you can use the metro to reach other parts of the city easily.

Buses: Buses cover a wide area of the city and some routes can be useful for reaching destinations not directly served by trams or the metro. However, buses might be more challenging for tourists due to potential language barriers, complex routes and traffic jams. Tips: GoogleMap works well in Istanbul and we used it extensively to get around Istanbul via bus.

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Tram @ Sultanahmet
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Inside tram to Eminonu (Balat)
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Tram @ Istiklal street
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Tram timetable - frequency of 20 minutes
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Marmaray entrance @ Sirkeci

3. Sultanahmet and Taksim are the most popular hotspots

Two of the most popular places in Istanbul for tourists are Sultanahmet (old town) and Taksim. These areas are rich in history, culture and attractions, making them top choices for visitors. Both Sultanahmet and Taksim offer distinct experiences, with Sultanahmet showcasing the historical and cultural heritage of Istanbul while Taksim represents the modern and dynamic side of the city. Visitors often find themselves exploring both areas to get a well-rounded experience of Istanbul’s rich and diverse offerings.

Most tourists stay in hotels in Sultanahment and/or Taksim. Tips: If you decide to stay in an apartment along Istiklal Street (popular shopping avenue in Taksim) make sure that you are not a light sleeper because it can get noisy due to higher concentration of bars and tourists. We stayed in the following hotels for our Istanbul trip:

  1. Fer Hotel – Decent 4-star hotel in the Sultanahment area which cost about USD 140 for base room with breakfast. 
  2. Sofitel Taksim – Luxury hotel which cost about USD 250 per night for base room with breakfast. 
  3. Magnova Studios Hotel – An apartment hotel (USD 90 per night with breakfast) located right on Istiklal Street which can noisy due to the location. 
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Grand Bazaar @ Sultanahmet
Sultanahmet
Typical market scene @ Sultanahmet
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Istiklal Street near Taksim Square
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Cafes surrounding Galata Tower (walking distance from Istiklal Street)
Fer Hotel @ Sultanahmet
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Sofitel Taksim
Magnova Studios Hotel @ Istiklal Street

4. Visit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque early in the morning

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are iconic landmarks in Istanbul, showcasing the city’s rich history and architectural brilliance.

Hagia Sophia: Originally built as a cathedral in 537 AD, later converted into a mosque and now serving as a museum, Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its vast dome and intricate mosaics draw visitors from around the world.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque): Adjacent to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, with its striking blue tiles, is a splendid example of Ottoman architecture. Completed in 1616, it’s still an active mosque.

Tips: The best time to visit these landmarks is during the early morning (around 9:30 am). In the morning, you can avoid the crowds, especially during weekdays. The soft morning light also enhances the beauty of the structures. Be aware that ladies are required to put on a headscarf before entering the mosques. 

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Hagia Sophia
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Inside Hagia Sophia
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The queue line for Hagia Sophia in the afternoon! Avoid going to Hagia Sophia in the afternoon!
Blue Mosque
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Inside Blue Mosque

5. Affordable and no-frills Bosphorus cruises

There are many Bosphorus cruise tours which can be purchased online – here are a few cruises which are of interest to tourists: 

For tourists looking for a more affordable and no-frills cruise, they can just simply go to the Eminonu ferry terminal and purchase a cheap Bosphorus cruise for just 150 TRY per person. Snacks and drinks can be purchased on board.

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Bosphorus tour ticket booth @ Eminönü ferry terminal
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Eminönü ferry terminal
Restaurants and cafes on the Galata Bridge - next to Eminonu ferry terminal
Turkish coffee and tea at a cafe on the Galata Bridge
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Ferry - bottom deck
Ferry - top deck

6. Affordable souveniers

If you’re looking for affordable and budget-friendly souvenirs in Istanbul, you might consider the following places:

  1. Arasta Bazaar: Located near the Blue Mosque, Arasta Bazaar has a selection of shops selling traditional Turkish crafts, textiles and souvenirs. Prices may be more reasonable compared to some areas in the Grand Bazaar.

  2. Eminönü: The area around Eminönü, especially near the Galata Bridge, has numerous shops and street vendors selling affordable souvenirs. You can find items like keychains, magnets and small Turkish-themed gifts. We bought some Turkish Delights from the underpass in Eminonu.  

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Trinkets and affordable souveniers @ underpass next to Eminonu square
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Yeni Cami Mosque next to the underpass

7. Use Turkish Lira to pay, wherever possible

While some businesses in tourist areas may accept euros or other major currencies, the official currency of Turkey is the Turkish Lira (TRY). It is recommended that tourists pay in Turkish Lira as the conversion normally works in favour of tourists. Many vendors in Istanbul may ask you to pay in Euros or USD – always insist on paying using Turkish Lira. 

8. Turkish food

Turkey is popular for its rich and diverse culinary traditions that blend flavors from the Middle East, Central Asia and the Mediterranean. For tourists, some popular Turkish dishes include:

  • Kebabs: Turkey is famous for its various kebabs, such as shish kebab (grilled meat skewers), döner kebab (rotating vertically grilled meat), and iskender kebab (sliced döner served with yogurt and tomato sauce).

  • Pide: Turkish flatbread topped with various ingredients like cheese, meat, and vegetables. It’s somewhat similar to pizza but has its own unique flavors.

  • Baklava: A famous Turkish dessert made of layers of filo pastry, filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey or syrup. It’s rich, sweet, and often enjoyed with a cup of Turkish tea.

  • Turkish Delight (Lokum): A sweet confection made of starch and sugar, flavored with various ingredients like rosewater, citrus, or nuts. It comes in a variety of colors and shapes.

  • Turkish Tea and Coffee: Turkish tea is a black tea, usually served in small glasses, while Turkish coffee is a strong and finely ground coffee prepared using a special brewing method. Both are integral to Turkish culture.

  • Simit: Often referred to as a Turkish bagel or Turkish sesame bread, simit is a circular-shaped bread with a chewy interior and a golden-brown, sesame seed-covered crust. 
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Simit (Turkish bagel) cart
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Typical Turkish meal - bread, rice, meat and salad
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Lokum - Turkish delight
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Baklava @ Hafiz Mustafa - a popular chain cafe

9. Other places of interests in Istanbul

Ortaköy, situated along the Bosphorus on the European side of Istanbul, is a neighborhood that draws tourists with its mix of historical and contemporary elements. The Ortaköy Mosque, set against the waterfront, stands as a notable landmark and the surrounding streets house an assortment of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. The square is known for its street food vendors, offering local snacks. In the evenings, the area transforms with a modest selection of bars and nightclubs.

Balat, located on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul, is a historic neighborhood that attracts some tourists seeking a glimpse into the city’s past. Known for its narrow, winding streets and colorful houses, Balat retains a nostalgic charm. Visitors can explore its older architecture, including churches like the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae and the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars. The area is relatively less crowded compared to more popular tourist destinations, offering a quieter experience. Tips: To travel from Sultanahmet to Balat, use T1 tram before changing to T5 tram at Eminonu.

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Ortaköy
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Colorful houses @ Balat
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Quaint cafes and shops @ Balat

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