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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 17 November, 2022
Expert travel writer: Dana Facaros

This important, layered city has seen a series of dramatic reincarnations, beginning life as Byzantium (founded c. 660 BC), before being renamed Constantinople in AD 330 (eastern capital of the Roman Empire).

The city finally became known as ‘Stamboul’, or Istanbul, during the Ottoman era, which began in the 15th century when it was captured by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II (aka “Mehmed the Conqueror”), ushering in an era of lavish Sultan-led rule.

In the course of its deliciously rich 1,800-year history, Istanbul has been the capital of three empires. Here East meets West head-on, in a mesmerising, evocative city that its people have always considered the centre of the world.

Yet Istanbul is not just about sightseeing and museums; right now it has as much urban buzz and excitement as any place on earth. Besides making a bold name for itself in art, music, fashion and design, the city is modernising at a breathtaking pace.

The people are lovely, the food is a delight and the city is one of the top shopping destinations on the planet.

Orientation

The only city that spans two continents, Istanbul is an enormous and complex place of 13.8 million people.

Old Istanbul contains most of the landmarks and tourist sites.

Beyoglu, across the Golden Horn, was the 19th-century ‘European quarter’ and is the trendiest part of town today.

Modern Istanbul spreads northwards from here, up the Bosphorus and through districts of skyscrapers and shopping malls.

The sprawling Asian side is a part of Istanbul few tourists see.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Hagia Sophia

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, this world-renowned 6th-century marvel encapsulates the essence of the lost Ottoman Empire. Initially a cathedral, it’s now a museum as well as a functioning mosque – and a must-see in Istanbul.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

Topkapi Palace

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Built in 1459 to become the 15th and-16th century home of the Ottoman Sultans, this magnificently decadent palace is a perfectly preserved time capsule of life at the top in this most exotic of empires.

Best for ages: 8+ | £17

Istanbul’s palaces

Istanbul , Marmara Region, Turkey

Splendid Imperial palaces and gardens, built for the sultans, line the Bosphorus River in Istanbul, including the must-see Topkapi and Dolmabahce.

Best for ages: 8+ | £2

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Gold-tiled interior of Turkish church with religious frescos
Experience

Chora Museum

Istanbul , Marmara Region , Turkey

An unassuming 11th-century church that’s home to a remarkable collection of late-Byzantine paintings and mosaics in a far more intimate and accessible setting than the vast Hagia Sophia. Open daily.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Islamic man with traditional dress smoking shisha, drinking tea
Experience

Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Super authentic spot near the Grand Bazaar where you can smoke nargile (a water pipe or hookah) and drink tea in the courtyard of a mosque from 1709.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

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Aerial view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus with mosque in the foreground
Experience

Eyup

Istanbul , Marmara Region, Turkey

Escape the city mayhem by taking Istanbul’s recently added teleferik (cable car) up to the interesting suburban village of Eyup, older than Istanbul itself. Sip on a Turkish coffee and admire the panoramic city views.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Mosaic of man's face
Experience

Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Istanbul , Marmara Region , Turkey

Lovely, lively 5th and 6th-century AD mosaics depicting nature, animals and people from the palace of the first Byzantine Emperors.

Best for ages: 18+ | £2

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

 All in One Day Istanbul - Historical Tour of Istanbul with Bosphorus Cruise

All in One Day Istanbul - Historical Tour of Istanbul with Bosphorus Cruise

Istanbul

HISTORICAL TOUR OF ISTANBUL WITH BOSPHORUS SUNSET CRUISE Combine a trip to both Istanbul's greatest sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia S...

€150 | Rating 4.82 / 5 [180 ratings]

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Best of Istanbul :1 or 2 Days Private Istanbul Guided Tour

Best of Istanbul :1 or 2 Days Private Istanbul Guided Tour

Istanbul

Make your Istanbul adventure totally unique with a 1or 2 day private sightseeing tour. Opt for a single day and see the whole of the Old Cit...

$170 | Rating 4.86 / 5 [146 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Best of Istanbul in 1 Day

Best of Istanbul in 1 Day

Istanbul

This Special Full-Day tour takes you to the main tourist attractions that are a must for any visitor to Istanbul, especially for the first t...

$69 | Rating 4.73 / 5 [34 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Best of Istanbul: 1, 2 or 3-Day Private Guided Istanbul Tour

Best of Istanbul: 1, 2 or 3-Day Private Guided Istanbul Tour

Istanbul

Visit highlights of Istanbul with your private tour guide in 1, 2 or 3 days with flexible itinerary. Here you can see the daily tour itiner...

$200 | Rating 4.96 / 5 [2656 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Yasmak Sultan Hotel

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Close to Istanbul’s top sights, this friendly hotel with a spa and rooftop restaurant is a dream for first-time visitors. And good value too.

Official star rating:

Hotel Ibrahim Pasha

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

This stylish, friendly and affordable boutique hotel is in sights-packed Sultanahmet, perfect for first-time visitors.

Official star rating:

Hotel Bankerhan

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

A cool, art-filled boutique hotel near the heart of modern Istanbul’s most fashionable shopping and nightlife district. 

Official star rating:

Sirkeci Mansion Hotel

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

Convenient for the major sights and plugged into Turkish culture, this charming, historic hotel is ideal for families and first-timers.  

Official star rating:

When to go

April can be rainy but it’s also the prettiest month to visit Istanbul, when the Tulip Festival sees millions of blooms decorating the city. May and June are relatively mild and rain- and crowd-free. The tourist crush and summer heat are most intense in July and August, but the rooftop restaurant and club scene is in full swing. September is often lovely.

Despite being near the Mediterranean, the weather in Istanbul can be fairly unpleasant between November and March, with snow possible. Bring warm clothes, though, and you can enjoy low season prices and blissfully uncrowded museums.

Getting there and away

Istanbul’s International Airport (IST) is 40km from the centre – around a 40-minute drive. If you’re staying near Taksim Square, the 24-hour Havas Airport shuttle takes 45-60 minutes depending on traffic. The LRT metro light rail links the airport to Aksaray, from where you can pick up a tram to Sultanahmet. Taxis are reasonably priced, but it’s worth paying a bit more for a private transfer: ask when you book your hotel.

Some flights out of the UK are to Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW), which is 45km to the east of the city centre, and more like an hour’s drive. The HAVABUS Airport Shuttle runs frequent services between Sabiha Gokcen and Kadikoy, Yenisahra (metro station) and Taksim.

Getting around

Although attractions in the historic Sultanahmet and Beyoglu districts are within walking distance, Istanbul is a huge city with crazy traffic – too crazy to think of cycling or hiring a car. Use ferries, buses and the metro when you can (save money with an Istanbulkart). Taxis are cheap and plentiful; minibuses and old-fashioned dolmus cars on the main streets are even cheaper, and a great way to meet the Turks. Don’t miss a ride on the antique tram that runs up Istiklal Caddesi.

Where to stay

Beyoglu has become the ‘in’ place to stay, with all the trendy cafés, shopping and restaurants close at hand, along with the adjacent, picturesque antiques district of Cukurcuma. Anyone more interested in the city’s culture and history might prefer the ancient centre, Sultanahmet, which is still an attractive address despite the tourist masses. Eminonu, by the train station, is convenient but dull. The newer districts and the Bosphorus villages can be lovely, but may be too far out for a first-time visit.

Where to eat or drink

You can eat like a sultan anywhere in Istanbul, especially in Beyoglu: rooftop restaurants, bars and clubs overlooking the city are all the rage. Try the open-air seafood places in the Bosphorus villages – but avoid the rip-off Galata Bridge restaurants. Beyoglu is also the centre for bars and nightlife, especially around Nevizade Sokak and Asmalimescit Sokak (or simply ‘Asmali’). Or join the elite in the glamorous nightclubs along the Bosphorus in exclusive Kurucesme.

Where to shop

For upper-end Turkish and international boutiques, head to the Nisantasi quarter or the newest shopping malls, Kanyon and İstinye Park. The 5,000-shop, covered Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar and surrounding streets are good for gold, jewellery, spices and carpets. Istiklal is the place to go for art, while the nearby Cukurcuma neighbourhood is great for antiques.

Our writer’s recommended itineraries for this destination