Istanbul Travel Guide and Itinerary | Through Kelsey's Lens

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Considering planning a trip to Istanbul, Turkey? Short answer: do it! Centuries of history, incredible architecture, diverse cuisines, and welcoming people all make Istanbul a fantastic destination to experience. Turkey had been on my bucket list for a while, and proved to be as fascinating an experience as I had expected.

In this travel guide, I will be sharing:

  • When you should visit Istanbul (and when not to)
  • How to get around Istanbul efficiently and inexpensively
  • What to pack and how to dress in Istanbul
  • Accommodations and hotels in Istanbul for all budgets
  • Safety tips and advice
  • My five day Istanbul itinerary

Keep reading for all these Istanbul tips and more!

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Istanbul Travel Guide and Itinerary | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

When to Visit Istanbul:

Istanbul is a destination you can visit year-round. The city experiences all four seasons, so be sure to check the weather for when you’re visiting to pack appropriately. When we visited in August, it was fairly hot during the day (in the 30s Celsius), but comfortable in the evenings. Compared to New York’s humid summers, the weather didn’t seem too bad.

Be sure to also check if there are any holidays occurring during your visit, as some sites may be closed. Our 4-day visit to Istanbul happened to coincide exactly with the Sacrifice Feast, a 4-day religious festival. While most sites were still open, the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market were closed until our last day, and many of Istanbul’s residents were away on vacation, making the city feel oddly empty in parts. Had I realized this in advance, I may have chosen to visit Istanbul later in our Turkey trip. On a positive note, Istanbul offers free public transit on holidays, which we were able to enjoy for the duration of our stay.

Kubbe Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

How to Get to Istanbul & Transportation Around Istanbul:

There are two major airports in Istanbul: Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European side, and Sabiha Gokcen (SAW) on the Asian side, which is where we flew in. Both airports are about a similar distance from the city center, so there didn’t seem to be an advantage to flying into one over the other.

We paid 200 Turkish lira (~$34 USD) for a taxi from Sabiha Gokcen to our hotel in Sultanahmet, although the driver seemed to be taking a circuitous route. On our way back to Sabiha Gokcen at the end of our visit, we only paid 130 TL for a taxi using Bitaksi, a taxi-hailing app similar to Uber or Lyft. However, it’s not possible to call a taxi at the airport using Bitaksi. An airport transfer through our hotel would have been 300 TL, so we didn’t feel too bad about the 200 TL cab fare. It is also possible to take a shuttle bus from the airport to Taksim Square, however because our flight got in rather late, we didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

Istanbul Travel Guide | Through Kelsey's Lens

My #1 piece of advice for getting around Istanbul cheaply and efficiently is downloading the app Bitaksi (thank you to the Turkish girl I sat next to on the plane for recommending this to me!). Since the app gives the driver’s full name and license plate, it helps to keep them accountable and honest. You can connect your credit card for payment or pay in cash. After getting nearly scammed by a few taxis, we stuck to using Bitaksi and didn’t have any further problems with taxis in Istanbul. Taxi fare is relatively inexpensive – we paid under $5-6 USD for most of our rides.

I would also recommend getting an Istanbulkart (which can be used on buses, trams, metro, etc., and not to be confused with the Istanbul Museum Pass) for 10 TL. Once you load money onto the card, you can share one card between multiple people. Since it was a public holiday when we visited, my boyfriend and I swiped onto all transit for free using one shared Istanbulkart – talk about a budget-friendly way to get around!

 

What to Pack for Istanbul:

Although your packing list for Istanbul will definitely depend on the time of year you visit, there are certain things that will be helpful to pack all year round. Istanbul is quite hilly (it is the city of seven hills after all!) so I recommend packing good walking shoes – I went for my trusty Converse sneakers. Remember to also apply for your Turkish E-Visa in advance of your trip if your country makes you eligible for one – the process is all online and incredibly easy.

Herschel Suitcase | Through Kelsey's Lens

When visiting mosques, both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders. For females, I recommend packing a light scarf to cover your head while in mosques. Some mosques have scarves that you can borrow, but it’s always good to come prepared. Although we saw people dressed in all different clothing styles, on average the style skewed more conservative than in North America or Western Europe. I preferred to dress more modestly than I normally would, wearing flowy maxi dresses and skirts. As it’s quite hot in Istanbul during August, it was important to pack outfits that allowed maximum airflow, but that were modest enough to be respectful at religious sites. I packed everything in my new Herschel carry-on suitcase to avoid having to check my bag.

Here are some suggestions for items to pack for Istanbul:

 

Where to Stay in Istanbul:

As it was our first visit to Istanbul and we wanted to see all the main sites, we opted to stay at Tan Hotel in Sultanahmet, just a 5-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Although the area definitely felt touristy, we felt very comfortable in this area, as the streets were quite lively but not overwhelmingly crowded. We had also considered staying in the hipper Galata/Karakoy area, but were ultimately happy we went for Sultanahmet. You can use this link to get $25 off your hotel stay on Booking.com!

Here are a few hotel options in Istanbul to consider:

  • Tan Hotel – this is the hotel we stayed at in Sultanahmet
  • Seven Hills Hotel – also located in Sultanahmet, Seven Hills has a stunning view of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, yet surprisingly won’t break the bank!
  • Sura Hotel – located around the corner from Tan Hotel, we stopped at Sura’s outdoor patio for a drink on our first night in Istanbul
  • Walton Hotels Galata / Hotel MOLA Galata – these are two hotels we considered staying at in Galata
  • The Stay Bosphorus – a bit more removed from the central touristy area, The Stay Bosphorus has a stunning view overlooking Ortakoy Mosque
  • Ciragan Palace Kempinski – if you want to feel like a king, this hotel looks like a palace and is located right on the Bosphorus
  • Ajwa Hotel – also located in Sultanahmet, Ajwa is known for its Instafamous front entry

Another option is to stay in an AirBnB. Although we were happy we chose a hotel as it was helpful to have the front desk as a resource, an AirBnB would probably offer a less touristy experience. You can use this link to get up to $40 off your first AirBnB booking!

 

Istanbul Safety Tips:

One question I often get asked is whether it is safe to visit Istanbul, particularly for female travelers. I visited with my boyfriend so can’t speak to the experience of visiting as a solo female, but in general I felt quite safe in Istanbul. The primary issues we had were with pushy shopkeepers/restaurant hosts (who were mostly harmless, just annoying) and tourist scams, particularly with taxis. That being said, be sure to monitor current events before you visit and practice the same vigilance you would in any big city.

Istanbul, Turkey | Through Kelsey's Lens

As mentioned above, to avoid being grossly overcharged by taxi drivers looking to take advantage of foreigners, I recommend downloading Bitaksi, which acts as an Uber/Lyft for Istanbul taxis. Once we started using Bitaksi, we had no problem finding honest taxi drivers charging proper rates.

Another scam we experienced (which we later discovered was a common tourist scam) involved a shoe cleaner pretending to drop his brush on the street. When my boyfriend picked up the brush to give it back to him, the shoe cleaner insisted on cleaning his shoes to return the favor. Afterward, he demanded payment. We gave him a few lira and managed to get away, although we heard that the situation can become more aggressive. If you notice this kind of scam, avoid the situation entirely.

 

5 Day Istanbul Itinerary:

Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Day 1: Arriving in Istanbul

After catching a cab from Sabiha Gokcen Airport to our hotel in Sultanahmet, we spent the rest of the evening exploring the lively area around our hotel. We grabbed doner kebaps (20 TL each) from a street stand, bought some Turkish delight, watched an ice cream “show” (check out my Instagram stories to see what I’m talking about), and sat down for some Efes beer (26 TL each for these Turkish beers) at the Sura Hotel patio. A touristy evening, but a fun first few hours in Istanbul nonetheless.

Lamp Shop in Istanbul Turkey | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

 

Day 2: Suleymaniye Mosque & Hagia Sophia

We started off our first full day in Istanbul by taking a walk around Sultanahmet Square. Having already had breakfast at our hotel, we stopped for a coffee at Seven Hills Hotel, as it is typical in Turkey to have coffee after breakfast – apparently the Turkish word for breakfast roughly means “before coffee.” The rooftop restaurant at Seven Hills boasts an impressive 360 degree view of the city, including stunning views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Although we didn’t have time to try the breakfast spread here, it looked amazing – perfect “breakfast with a view” material!

Hagia Sophia | Through Kelsey's Lens

After our coffees, we took a walk through Sultanahmet and along the Golden Horn inlet toward Suleymaniye Mosque. Although Suleymaniye looks very similar in style to the Blue Mosque, it is far less crowded. As the Blue Mosque was under construction during our visit, blocking off the dome and main entrance, I found Suleymaniye to be far more striking and a much better photo opportunity. If you’d like to take a photo that includes the beautiful entrance and minarets, I recommend bringing a wide-angle lens or GoPro (which is what I used) to fit everything into one shot.

Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

After leaving Suleymaniye and grabbing some Simit (circular bread covered in sesame seeds) from a street vendor, we made our way to the Instagram-famous Kubbe rooftop. Unfortunately, it was too windy that day for Kubbe to set up carpets on the roof, so we made plans to come back later in our visit after the winds had hopefully died down. Keep reading for all the info on how to get here and what our experience was like!

Simit in Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Getting a bit tired out from all the walking, we stopped for a cold drink at the nearby Sefa-i Hurrem Cafe. The rooftop views were fantastic, but the mojitos left much to be desired. We weren’t hungry for lunch as we had had a big breakfast and snack earlier, but this would have also been a good time to stop for a lunch break.

Istanbul, Turkey | Through Kelsey's Lens

We then walked back through Sultanahmet over to the Hagia Sophia, which dates all the way back to 537 AD and served as both a Greek Orthodox cathedral and Ottoman era mosque before it became a museum. The Hagia Sophia closes around 6:30/7pm and last entry is 6pm, so we arrived around 5pm as it was much less busy before closing. Tickets were 72 TL each and there was almost no line to enter at this time. We stayed until closing and were able to get some great photos inside a nearly empty Hagia Sophia. We considered buying the Istanbul Museum Pass to visit the Hagia Sophia, but ultimately decided against it as it would not have been worth the price for the sites we planned to visit.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

For dinner, we had planned to check out Sehzade Cag Kebap, however it was closed due to the holiday. But we still managed to get cag kebap at Kebapci Ozcan Usta next door. Although I’m not sure how it compared to our original street food destination, I thought it was still pretty good. After dinner we checked out the famous Hafiz Mustafa pastry shop (which was packed!) to try some samples and admire the decadent Turkish sweets. We also did a bit of souvenir shopping, however we later discovered that the prices in the shops around Sultanahmet seemed higher than at the stalls in the Grand Bazaar.

Cag Kebab | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

Day 3: Galata, Karakoy & Taksim

On our third day we decided to explore the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. After grabbing an Istanbulkart for 10 TL, we took the tram from Sultanahmet over the Galata Bridge to Tophane. After walking up a giant hill, we eventually made it to Van Kahvalti Evi for brunch/second breakfast. The Turkish breakfast spread here is phenomenal – it costs only 30 TL (~$5 USD) per person and comes with unlimited tea! In hindsight I wish I hadn’t eaten anything beforehand!

Van Kahvalte | Through Kelsey's Lens

After brunch, we explored the antique shops along Cukur Cuma Caddesi. We then made our way to Limonlu Bahce, a delightful leafy oasis of a cafe. It was a bit on the pricier side for Istanbul, but we felt it was worth it for the lovely ambiance.

Limonlu Bahce | Through Kelsey's Lens

Limonlu Bahce | Through Kelsey's Lens

Our plan for the afternoon was to check out Ortakoy Mosque, which we had planned to get to by bus from Taksim Square. To get to Taksim, we we walked along Iskiklal Street, one of the main shopping streets in Istanbul. I honestly found the experience to be a bit unpleasant – it was incredibly crowded and very hot in the midday sun. Taksim Square was similarly crowded, and I personally felt we could have skipped it. Unfortunately, the bus we had planned to take to Ortakoy never showed up, so we instead tried to take a taxi. After a taxi we hailed on the street tried to charge us 4x the normal fare and wouldn’t use the meter, we got out of the taxi and gave up on visiting Ortakoy that day. This was probably the height of my frustration while visiting Istanbul.

Galata Tower | Through Kelsey's Lens

Karakoy Umbrellas | Through Kelsey's Lens

Instead, we hopped on the metro and went to check out the Galata Tower. The line to go up the tower was pretty long, so we opted to explore the neighborhood instead. Karakoy, which was a short walk down the hill, was a breath of fresh air. Filled with quirky coffee shops, restaurants, and street art, Karakoy is definitely worth a visit. We stopped for tea at Karabatak, located under the cutest canopy of vines and fairy lights. Just down the road at the corner of Karatavuk Sk. and Hoca Tahsin Sk. is a street filled with colorful umbrellas overhead – another great photo spot.

Karakoy, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Karakoy, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

For dinner, we checked out Karakoy Lokantasi, which was recommended to us by a Turkish friend. We ordered kofte (Turkish meatballs), grilled octopus, eggplant salad, and manti (Turkish dumplings). With wine, the bill came out to 230 TL (~$40 USD) for the two of us. I recommend making a reservation as it is quite busy! After dinner, we hopped on the tram back to Sultanahmet.

Karakoy Lokantasi | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

Day 4: Kubbe, Ortakoy, Bosphorus Cruise & Balat

After getting skunked on our first attempt to visit Instagram-famous Kubbe, we made it our first stop on our last full day on Istanbul. Finding Kubbe was a bit of a challenge, but if you search “Kubbe Istanbul” on Google Maps, it’ll give you the exact location. After winding down some back alleys, we went up a crumbling cement staircase surrounded by cats, where we finally found Kubbe.

Kubbe Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Kubbe describes themselves as an “open air photo studio” – they serve tea, set up carpets and pillows on the roof, and throw raw meat out to the seagulls to get them to fly in for the shot. At 100 TL per person, it’s a bit pricey, but I still decided to do it for the [strange but fascinating] experience. I had expected to pay 200 TL total for my boyfriend and myself, but was pleasantly surprised when they only charged for 1 person – I think they could tell I had dragged him there. If you’re into photography, you’ll love the rooftop view and the visual interest the birds add, but if you’re not, the swarm of birds might be your worst nightmare.

Kubbe Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

After we finished up at Kubbe, our next stop was Ortakoy Mosque, another spot we had tried (and failed) to visit earlier in the trip. Having learned from our past mistakes, this time we called a cab through the Bitaksi app. Ortakoy Mosque is located right on the Bosphorus and is absolutely stunning both inside and out. As it is located a bit further from the central tourist areas of Istanbul, we almost had the place to ourselves. I recommend visiting in the afternoon or evening when the sun lights up the front of the Mosque, or for sunset.

Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

While waiting to catch the Sehir Hatlari Bosphorus ferry, which was scheduled to arrive at 3pm, we stopped for a coffee and snack at The House Cafe, a relaxing and stylish spot right on the water. We then checked out Banyan for drinks, a restaurant and bar with a beautiful view of Ortakoy Mosque and the Bosphorus (and the ferry terminal so we wouldn’t miss the boat!). If you’re interested in staying in this area, The Stay Bosphorus is located right nearby.

The House Cafe Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

We lined up at around 2:30pm to catch the Sehir Hatlari ferry for the “short circle line” Bosphorus cruise. Taking a Bosphorus cruise is an absolute must when visiting Istanbul! Although the boat was a bit crowded, the 2-hour cruise was easy on the budget at only 12 TL (~$2 USD). The ferry stops at Eminonu, Uksudar, and Ortakoy on the way there and back. If you have more time to spare, there is also a full day Bosphorus cruise run by Sehir Hatlari that goes all the way to the Black Sea and back. Although we enjoyed the cruise, I think we would have been willing to pay a bit more for a less crowded boat.

Bosphorus Cruise | Through Kelsey's Lens

After the ferry unloaded at Eminonu (which was incredibly crowded), we took a walk along the Golden Horn then grabbed a Bitaksi the rest of the way to Balat, one of Istanbul’s oldest neighborhoods. Formerly a Jewish and Greek quarter of the city, the neighborhood fell onto hard times in the past few decades. Today, Balat is undergoing a revival, with art galleries and hipster cafes moving in. Balat is also home to the Instagram-famous colorful houses, located at the intersection of Kiremit Cd. and Usturumca Sk. After snapping a few photos, we stopped for some tea and a halloumi avocado sandwich at Artlocalist Cafe. Although we found Balat to be a somewhat strange mix of dilapidated buildings and millennial coffee shops, it was an interesting area to explore and worth a visit. However, if you are short on time, I would prioritize other sites first.

Balat, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Balat, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

 

Day 5: Blue Mosque & Grand Bazaar

We started off our last morning in Istanbul with a visit to the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii). Like all mosques we visited in Istanbul, it is free to visit – just ensure you dress respectfully by covering your shoulders and legs, and head as well if you are female. This was definitely the most crowded mosque we visited during our time in Istanbul. Unfortunately, due to construction, much of the famous blue-tiled dome was obscured by scaffolding. Although the Blue Mosque is a definite must-visit in Istanbul, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed having seen some incredible and less crowded mosques earlier in our trip.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Next, we finally got our chance to visit the Grand Bazaar, which had been closed every other day of our time in Istanbul due to the holiday. It was actually less crowded and overwhelming than I had expected, and the prices more reasonable than expected. Just outside the Grand Bazaar is Donerci Sahin Usta, the best doner kebap shop we tried in Istanbul. A kebap and a glass of ayran (a salty yogurt drink) came to 32 TL (~$5.50 USD) – not a bad last meal in Istanbul! We then grabbed a Bitaksi back to the airport to catch our flight to Cappadocia and bid Istanbul farewell.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul | Through Kelsey's Lens

Donerci Sahin Usta | Through Kelsey's Lens

A melding of civilizations and cultures, Istanbul is truly a fascinating place to experience. I hope this travel guide and itinerary will help you plan your trip to this incredible historic city!

Thanks for reading!

– Kelsey


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Istanbul Travel Guide and Itinerary | Through Kelsey's Lens

Istanbul Travel Guide and Itinerary | Through Kelsey's Lens

Istanbul Travel Guide and Itinerary | Through Kelsey's Lens

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