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How to Make the Most of A First-Time Visit to Istanbul

by Last updated Jun 28, 2024 | Published on Jun 28, 2024Europe, Feature Story, Travel, Turkey

Reminiscing about our first-time visit to Istanbul brings to mind the best kind of chaos; a thriving of vibrancy and variation. From the moment you arrive, Istanbul takes your senses to the next level and inundates you with what diversity is all about – contrast. The truth is, it is exciting and inspiring for many, yet uncomfortable and overwhelming for some.

Istanbul has so much to take in, whether it be from the dazzling architecture and riveting landscape, the intoxicating aromas and flavors of ancient dishes, or the welcoming hospitality and warm smiles of the locals. The ancient city spans two continents and is a uniquely rich meeting point of history and cultures. This city is teeming with people, mosques, noises, tastes and smells that you will likely never forget.

Our first time to Istanbul was a short visit on our way to the Turkish coast for a sailing trip. Even with just two nights and one full day, we experienced a wonderful introduction to this renowned place in the world. A full week after our first visit, we returned to Istanbul for three nights, getting to enjoy it even more.

The sheer size and chaotic nature of Istanbul can feel overwhelming if you’ve never been, so in this article I highlight some helpful tips we learned from our own visit so that you can make the most of your first-time visit to Istanbul.

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Visiting Istanbul Means Access to Two Continents

Above ImageA beautiful view from the inside the top of the Galata Tower.

Istanbul spans two continents, with Europe on the west side of the Bosphorus River, which includes the urban waterway and peninsula of the Golden Horn, and Asia on its east side. This creates a dynamic blending of cultures that result in a diverse co-existence of people.

The European side is less conservative culturally than the Asian side. Yet overall, the primary religion in Istanbul is Islam with over 90% of the city’s population on both continents being Sunni Muslim. Thanks to this, you’ll hear the reverent call to prayer (the Ezan) chanted six times a day from fairy-tale-like minarets, no matter where you are in the city. After all, Istanbul has over 3,000 mosques!

The European side in the Karakoy neighborhood is where we stayed during both our visits. The Golden Horn is the smaller river going east to west from the Bosphorus River and it divides up the European side. These two areas tend to be where most iconic historical sites are located. For the purpose of this article, we focus on visiting the European side of Istanbul. 

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

The Asian side has limitations on serving alcohol and it is not as common in restaurants, while on the European side, alcohol is more commonly served.

Getting to and from the Airports in Istanbul

First things first – how does one get to and from the airports in Istanbul to their accommodations? The key thing to know is that Istanbul has two airports. In addition to driving or private transfers, both airports are accessible by metro and bus.

Flying Into Istanbul Airport (IST)

There is Istanbul Airport (IST), which is one of the largest airports in the world and in 2022 was Europe’s busiest airport. It is located on the European side of Istanbul and receives international flights coming from the west and east.

From Istanbul Airport, it takes about one hour to drive into the city. This can fluctuate quite a bit depending on traffic and where your final destination is located.

The metro from Istanbul Airport to the city center takes just under one hour and costs about $3, while the bus takes about 1 hour 10 minutes and costs between $4 – $7. 

Flying Into Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW)

Istanbul’s other airport is Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), located on the Asian side. Flights from the east land here, but for the most part the airport provides many of the domestic flights throughout Turkey.

To arrive in Istanbul from Sabiha Gökçen International Airport takes about one and a half hours driving.

Riding the metro from Sabiha Gökçen International Airport to the city center of Istanbul (M1) is about 1 hour and 45 minutes and costs about $2 – $5. The bus takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes and costs $1 – $3. 

The best way to get to and from either airport in Istanbul is to use the metro, a hotel airport shuttle, or private transfer. We’ll get more into why, further below.

Where to Stay on a First-Time Visit to Istanbul

Above ImageA sunset view from the rooftop of the 10 Karakoy Hotel Istanbul.

As in any big city, there are so many neighborhoods and options for where to stay in Istanbul. Whether you prefer an apartment or hotel, you’ll have plenty to choose from. On our first stay, we stayed right on the border of the Karakoy and Galata neighborhoods.

On our return stay, we stayed in the Karakoy neighborhood where one of Istanbul’s most popular sites, the Galata Tower, is located. This area is on the north side of the Golden Horn river and right on the waterfront where the Galata Bridge crosses over to other popular areas.

We loved staying in this area because of its charming narrow streets, some of which are pedestrian. But be warned that it is hilly and from the river you’ll be walking uphill. It’s also easily accessible to the other main sites of Istanbul.

Above ImageA view of the Blue Mosque in the heart of the Sultanahmet.

The other beautiful area to stay in Istanbul is Sultanahmet, which is south of the Golden Horn on the large peninsula also referred to as the Historical Peninsula. This area is the heart of Istanbul’s history and culture, and home to its most famous and important sites.

Sultanahmet is where you will find the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, to name just a few. The area is also full of gardens and parks, hamams (Turkish Baths), markets, and more.

Another popular area to stay and visit is the Balat neighborhood, located on the south side of the Golden Horn. It was previously the Jewish Quarter and today is considered to be more down-to-earth with charming streets and colorful architecture. We personally found it to be very beautiful and enchanting, but overwhelmed with tourists.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

For a wonderful hotel stay in Istanbul, we enjoyed the DeCamondo Galata, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel by Marriott, and the 10 Karakoy Hotel Istanbul. Both of the experiences were wonderful, each with rooftop restaurants, lovely rooms, and nice staff.

As a travel advisor, when I book either of these hotels for clients, I can get them perks such as the following:

  • At DeCamondo Galata, perks can include welcome amenity, complimentary breakfast daily for two guests per room, early check-in and late check-out (when available), and complimentary upgrade (if available at check-in).
  • At 10 Karakoy Hotel Istanbul, perks can include upgrade to next room category, based upon availability at check-in, guaranteed 2pm late check-out, welcome treat in room on arrival, and complimentary daily breakfast for two.

If you’d like to benefit from these great perks and more, click here to get started.

The Best Way to Get Around Istanbul

Above ImageCrossing the Galata Bridge. Be prepared to walk to really see and experience Istanbul.

To get around Istanbul, walking and taking the metro are the best options. The metro system is above ground and safe, with inexpensive prices and ease of usability. It’s recommended to get an Istanbul Kart pass with multiple trips on it so you can use it various times to get around. You can then re-charge that same ticket if you need more trips. Points of sale are at ticket machines at the various metro stops. Most of the machines take credit cards and cash.

Taxis and Uber can be found in Istanbul. For taxis, make sure that it’s a legitimate taxi. Be prepared for some possibly intense driving as well. Some taxis only take cash. Keep in mind that traffic jams are common in the city so while the taxi or Uber rate may not seem expensive, it can add up when you’re stuck sitting in traffic and the meter is running. We’ve also read that Uber in Istanbul is not very reliable, so we never used it when visiting. 

Driving in Istanbul can be stressful and chaotic, and is not recommended if you’re not from Turkey or a similar country and familiar with driving in a major city in this part of the world.

What to Do and See on Your First-Time Visit to Istanbul

Above ImageA view of the Galata Tower from the Galata Bridge, which has a lower level of shops and restaurants to enjoy being right over the river.

There are so many amazing things to see and do in Istanbul, that it’s impossible to do it all in one trip. But it is possible to enjoy a great introduction to Istanbul’s main sites in one day.

While we knew we were returning to the city only a week later, we had family with us who would not be able to spend more time in Istanbul so they only had one full day to discover its sites. Further below, we tell you more about how you can enjoyably see the main sites in Istanbul in one day.

In the meantime, here is our list of the top things to see and do on your first-time visit to Istanbul.

Above ImageScroll through some images of the Galata Tower.

See Istanbul from the Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is one of the must-see sites in Istanbul. Its origins date back to the 11th century although it has been destroyed and rebuilt over time. Today, it is a museum and exhibition space.

You can visit the Galata Tower to learn about the city’s history and enjoy the stunning 360-degree views from the top. We visited first thing in the morning, lining up about 15-minutes before it opened, so we were some of the first people inside and able to enjoy it without the crowds of people.

Ride the Karaköy Inclined Railway

The Karakoy Inclined Railway is a public rail line for a charming funicular car that takes you from near the Galata Bridge up the steep hillside to the beginning of the Beyoglu district and Istiklal Caddesi street. It’s a great way to save your energy if you don’t want to walk uphill. It runs underground through a tunnel and is one of the city’s oldest metro stations.

Above ImageThe old-school vintage tram on the Istiklal Caddesi.

Shop & Eat on the Serdar-ı Ekrem

The cobblestoned street of Serdar-ı Ekrem extends north-east from the Galata Tower and is lined with local, boutique shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s especially bustling at night and is a nice place to get souvenirs and gifts. Tucked away on some of the side streets are galleries of local art and handmade ceramics.

Wander & Shop on Istiklal Caddesi

This wide pedestrian street of Istiklal Caddesi is located to the north of the Galata area, in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. It is one of the city’s most popular streets, lined with well-known Turkish and foreign brands.

Above ImageScroll through our gallery of the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Bazaar.

Go Back in Time in the Grand Bazaar

If you thought Istanbul was colorful, wait until you enter the Grand Bazaar. This historic market is a maze of indoor stalls and shops selling their goods. Built in the 15th-century, it is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. In total, it houses 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. You can find everything from leather and silk scarves to jewelry, spices, and more.

Indulge Your Senses at the Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Bazaar)

The other famous, historical market in Istanbul is the bustling, fragrant Egyptian Bazaar, also referred to as the Spice Bazaar. As you probably guessed, this 17-century building houses numerous stalls selling spices, teas, and foods such as the beloved Turkish Delight. You can also find beautiful textiles and natural perfumes. The choice of vendors can be overwhelming, especially when they all look so much alike and seem to sell the same things. There are even more than one of the same company.

Above ImageSampling the delicious Turkish Delight at HazerBaba in the Egyptian Bazaar.

In the Egyptian Bazaar, we really enjoyed our experience at HazerBaba, which has at least two stalls in this market. Our visit was part of our full-day tour and one of their staff taught us all about Turkish Delight and their other products. Along the way, they indulged us with as many tastings of Turkish Delight and pomegranate juice as we desired. By the time we left, we were wonderfully stuffed! On our return visit to Istanbul we went back and also purchased perfume and spices. Turkish Delight is one of the best gifts and souvenirs from Istanbul that you should take home with you. 

What to See in the Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s Most Important Attractions

Above ImageThe breathtaking interior of the stunning Blue Mosque.

Sultanahmet Square

Sultanahmet Square is home to the ancient remains of an impressive hippodrome also referred to as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It is also where other impressive historic landmarks and buildings are located, such as the Hagia Sophia mosque and Blue Mosque, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, German Fountain, and the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius, just to name a few. The latter was especially impressive for us, particularly with the amazing historical detail our guide gave us on our full-day tour of Istanbul.

Above ImagesThe impressive German Fountain (Alman Çeşmesi) and Egyptian Obelisk.

The Blue Mosque

One of the most famed mosques and iconic examples of Ottoman architecture, the Blue Mosque, is also a must-see on a first-time visit to Istanbul. Admission is free so the line for entry gets quite long and the hours open to the public depend on the hours of call to prayer. Keep in mind that even tour guides do not get special access. Visitors must dress modestly, with women and men covering their shoulders and knees. Women must also cover their heads with a scarf. While prayers are being held and before the line starts to form, you can wait in the front courtyard and admire its beauty. 

Above ImageEnjoy our gallery of the enchanting Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia Mosque

The other mosque to visit in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia. It’s located near the Blue Mosque. The large and impressive structure was formerly a Byzantine church that has beautiful stained glass windows. The dress code for entering the Hagia Sophia is the same as the Blue Mosque and the hours also depend on the call to prayer which is when visitors are not allowed to enter.

Above ImageScroll through our gallery of the impressive Hagia Sophia.

Topkapi Palace

There is so much to see at the Topkapi Palace and it is well worth having a good guide (as well as for the other sites). The 15th-century palace stands testament to the opulent splendor of the Ottoman Empire and was the home of sultans for over 400 years. Within the impressive complex, enjoy the manicured gardens and Ottoman architecture of several buildings, the breathtaking jewels and treasures, as well as stunning views of the river and city. It is well worth a visit of a couple of hours or more. This was one of our favorite sites during our visit.

Above ImageOur gallery of the gorgeous details of Topkapi Palace.

Above ImageScroll through the treasures and architectural details of the Topkapi Palace.

Gülhane Park

Located alongside the Topkapi Palace grounds, the Gülhane Park is a beautiful, verdant green space that features shady trees, walking paths, and a creek with fountains, along with some historical landmarks. It’s a tranquil place to stroll and rest. It’s also home to the Gülhane Park Cistern museum and the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam.

Also located in the park is a little hidden gem we enjoyed discovering, a museum called Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Edebiyat Müze Kütüphanesi, which seems to also be a library. It’s free to enter but no pictures are allowed inside. We highly recommend it for a nice, quiet spot with fascinating old books, many of which have gorgeous, elaborate detail.

The Basilica Cistern

Another popular site, which tends to have very long lines, is the Basilica Cistern. The large, historic underground Roman water system dates back to the 6th-century and is built with over three hundred marble columns. And yes, the Basilica Cistern has been featured in several films over the years, including Inferno which is the third book-made-into-movie of Dan Brown’s novel series, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. However, in the case of that film, it was recreated in Budapest and not shot on location in order to protect the historical structure.

Above ImageThe charming fountains and bridges of Gülhane Park.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

At these historical sites, be prepared to encounter people who will approach you offering tours and tickets. Some of these can be legitimate, but they tend to not be of the best quality or price versus arranging a professional guided tour in advance.

Other Top Things to do in Istanbul

Above ImageThis has got to be one of the cutest spots in the Balat neighborhood at the Balatte Gelato cafe.

Hang Out in Istanbul’s Balat Neighborhood

On the southern shores of the Golden Horn river is one of the most conservative neighborhoods in Istanbul, the Balat neighorhood. Yet its quaint row homes lining old cobblestoned streets are colorful and eclectic, strewn with lush ivy adorning and bridging the buildings.

It’s become quite the popular tourist destination for enjoying the many small restaurants and cafes, boutique shops, thrift stores and galleries that radiate a hip, creative vibe. And yes, this is where the overwhelmingly Instagrammed site of the Balat Colored Stairs is located, as well as the rainbow of umbrellas. It has become a tourist attraction that tends to be overwhelmed with visitors, which we comment more on further below.

Above ImageScroll through our gallery of the Balat neighborhood. It is picturesque around every corner.

There are also small grocers, and local ceramic and glass stores that provide the perfect gift for remembering your trip to Istanbul. Along with the charming stores, restaurants and galleries today, you can also visit and admire the architecture of the synagogues, Greek Basilicas, and Byzantine churches that are found here.

Living in Spain, I was intrigued to learn that this area developed into a Jewish Quarter from 1492 due to the Spanish Inquisition that expelled the Jews from Spain. The Sultan at that time even sent his own fleet of ships to Spain to rescue them.

Above ImageTraditional, handmade Turkish rugs at Vezirhan Carpet & Kilim.

Learn How an Authentic Turkish Rug is Made

One of the wonderful visits we enjoyed during our private full-day tour of Istanbul was the Turkish rug maker, Vezirhan Carpet & Kilim. We loved this visit because it was not just visiting a store, but one of their warehouses where they make and store the rugs. Located in one of the original, local markets of the Silk Road, the centuries-old building is packed with colorful rugs, stone archways, painted ceilings, and wooden beams.

Best of all, we got to learn about, and see, how their Turkish rugs are made by hand and what makes a traditional Turkish rug authentic. And of course, you can also buy rugs from here and they will take care of the shipping and customs. If you want to take home something especially memorable from Istanbul, a Turkish rug from this maker is the way to go. 

Above ImageLearning about traditional Turkish rug making at Vezirhan Carpet & Kilim is an amazing experience that feels going back in time. Scroll our gallery to admire more.

Experience a Hammam in Istanbul 

The hammam (also spelled hamam), is the traditional Turkish bath experience. If you enjoy a good spa, you gotta try it. It’s a very important part of the culture that goes back centuries. You go from room to room for various different cleansing rituals that include a sauna, steam room, scrub room, wash room, salt room and pool. Most hamams in Istanbul keep the men and women separate.

It’s recommended to book your hammam experience in advance, which most hotels can do for you, but make sure to also do your own research to pick one that you’ll enjoy. Some hotels, especially of four and five stars, also have their own hammam.

Enjoy Sunset from a Rooftop in Istanbul

One of the most iconic things to do in Istanbul is to enjoy a drink or meal on one of the many rooftops throughout the city. There are many restaurants and cafes that have rooftop terraces from which you can enjoy views of the stunning citscape, showing off the various mosques and the Bosphorus River. Rooftop photoshoots in Istanbul are also popular, especially for Influencers and Instagrammers.

You can easily find a variety of great rooftop experiences in Istanbul, including in many hotels. Some of the best rooftops in Istanbul are in Sultanahmet with views of the Hagia Sohphia and Blue Mosque. It’s a great way to enjoy a sunset dinner. Keep in mind that they can tend to be higher tourist prices and international cuisine that may be hit and miss. But there are also some Michelin Guide and Michelin Star restaurants in Istanbul that have rooftops with wonderful views, such as Michelin Guide recommended Mürver Restaurant and Michelin-starred restaurant Nicole.

Above ImageThe ferries against a sunset backdrop, enjoyed while having a drink at one of the restaurants in the lower level of the Galata Bridge.

Admire Istanbul from a Bosphorus River Cruise

It’s a different perspective seeing Istanbul from the water. There are countless river cruises in Istanbul, including short ferries to get to different points along the river, half-day tours, and dinner cruises complete with cultural shows. 

There are also beaches near Istanbul, although the city is not typically known as a beach destination. The nicer beaches are further out from the city, south on the Sea of Marmara, or even further north on the Black Sea. These beaches tend to get crowded on the weekends so try to go on a weekday and be prepared to travel at least 45 minutes to an hour or more to get there. 

Indulge in Turkish Cuisine with the Gastronomy in Istanbul

It wouldn’t be right to not speak to the incredible food in Istanbul. Yet where do we even start? The Turkish Cuisine you can enjoy in Istanbul is an entirely separate article of its own. There is just so much to it, its history and evolution, and there are so many places to enjoy it well in Istanbul.

Just as Istanbul is an abundant blending of cultures, so is its gastronomy. Eating in Turkey is a very social, familial experience, which is evident in its tradition of Meze, small appetizers that are shared. Its key influences over the centuries have been the Mediterranean, Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Meats are quite favored, yet there is an amazing variety of vegetables and fish that are foundational. And of course, spices are key but in the style of Ottoman cuisine, they tend to be used moderately.

Above ImagesStarting top-center, the delicious flatbread dish of Gozleme, an assortment of Mezes, and the famed Turkish Tea and Baklava.

Everywhere we ate was really good. But one of our favorite places was Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen in the Balat neighborhood. We enjoyed a great lunch there of Turkish Gözleme, flatbread stuffed with savory fillings (featured in the image above), that is handmade on-site. We also enjoyed a traditional Testi Kebap, a dish of meat and vegetables that is slowed cooked in a clay pot and then broken open with fire. It is broken at your table and is quite the show! The staff are fantastic and the food is delicious and authentic. It was a fantastic lunch in Istanbul and we highly recommend it.

Other key elements to enjoy in the gastronomy of Istanbul is the use of yogurt and other dairy-based foods. And let’s not forget the grains. Many people think of bulgurs such as tabouli and couscous, which are popular in Turkish cuisine, but rice is also used and in many cases preferred.

Whether it be Istanbul street food from local vendors or fine dinning in some of the acclaimed Michelin-starred restauarants, Istanbul has it all. The only hard part will be choosing from the endless list of possibilities. This is why an Istanbul food tour is a great way to truly experience Turkish cuisine when visiting.

Above ImageGozleme being made by hand at Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

Must-Try Foods in Istanbul: Döner Kebab, anything with eggplant, hummus, Balık Ekmek (grilled fish sandwhich), Lahmacun, and for dessert Turkish Delight and Baklava. And this is just getting started. 

When to Visit Istanbul

Our first-time visit to Istanbul was in later September, and then we returned a week later in early October. The weather was beautiful and sunny, but not too hot. In the evenings it cooled down enough to wear a light layer.

There seems to really be no ‘off season’ in Istanbul, but we would recommend the shoulder seasons for the best time to visit Istanbul. These months in the spring and fall can provide milder temperatures and slightly less crowds, rather than the heat and crowds of tourists visiting Istanbul in the summer. Since many international and European flights connect through Istanbul, we recommend taking time to visit if you’re passing through, no matter what time of year it is.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

Istanbul is the city of cats (and stray dogs). You will see stray cats and dogs all over Istanbul, and the city cares for them. They tag them to track them and even set out bowls of food in front of government buildings and other sites, to provide care for these animals. When visiting Istanbul, make sure you respect their animals as well.

Instagrammers & Photoshoots in Istanbul

Above ImageVisiting the Galata Tower when it first opened was great for more easily taking pictures with few people around. A fellow visitor even offered to take our photo for us.

It’s good to be aware that the tourism is constant and massive in Istanbul, meaning there are crowds of it practically everywhere. Along with that though is the new influx of ‘Instagrammers’, or just selfie-picture-obsessed visitors, who clog pedestrian traffic in major sites by having their picture taken.

Don’t get us wrong – we’re not saying to not take pictures or selfies. We took our fair share. We simply experienced that a lot of people were doing it in a way that was oblivious to the fact that other people are around and with little consideration as to how it can affect others.

Hiring Photographers in Istanbul

In Istanbul, it’s popular to hire a small photography team to follow one around for the day doing photoshoots of you in charming and stunning locations. Of course, these tend to be the important sites, which are full of people.

We’re not referring to models or famous people having these photoshoots done in Istanbul. In that case, special permission is usually obtained and shooting is done at the least busiest of times. We’re talking about Instagrammers, bloggers (yep, like us), and just people wanting to experience a photoshoot. We’ve even seen them stop and do wardrobe changes on sidewalks and in doorways.

Above ImageExploring the Balat neighborhood and finding a nearly empty area.

Photographing the Balat Neighborhood

The Balat neighborhood is also where we encountered some of the worst congestion and crowds caused by selfie-takers and Instagrammers, particularly at the Balat Colored Stairs and the Renkli Merdivenler located right next door. It was ridiculous, to the point that we couldn’t, and didn’t even want to take many photos. Keep in mind that to enter the area with the colored umbrellas, you have to pay or purchase some food, drink, or item inside, particularly if you’re taking pictures there.

So we circled back around at another time and we were able to snap a couple of shots with fewer people, which you can see in our Balat image gallery further above (and Photoshop and Canva’s Magic Eraser feature does wonders to remove people from images). There are also parts of Balat that seem very poor and run down. From the looks from some of the older residents, we felt that they do not enjoy their privacy being so infringed upon.

To go from the bustling charm of the cafe and shop-lined streets to the much-photographed uphill street of multi-colored row homes, is quite the shift in ambiance. It was interspersed with dilapidated buildings revealing what Instagram does not. While many portions are brightly painted and strewn with ivy, the overall vibe was rundown and sad. It was definitely different than what we expected.

Above ImageThe reality of the residential streets of Balat neighborhood.

Over-Tourism in Istanbul

As one of the many side effects of overtourism, the extent of these selfies and wanna be photoshoots in Istanbul is getting to the point where it’s obnoxious. It holds up the flow of visitors entering popular sites, can interfere with other kinds of traffic, and in areas like the Balat neighborhood imposes on the local residents.

The other area where we experienced this was by the Galata Tower. Overall, we encountered this everyday during our time in Istanbul and while it may not change any time soon, we encourage visitors to be prepared that it exists. And if you’re one such visitor, please be considerate of the fact that these are public sites that are for everyone to enjoy. Be aware of your surroundings and how you are affecting those around you. 

Above ImageThe Galata Tower at night, with crowds and without crowds.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

For taking great photography in Istanbul without the tourist crowds, go early in the morning when there is more chance of less people around. We visited Istanbul during the week which can help avoid larger crowds on the weekends. For great night photography in Istanbul, go much later at night. We even found the Galata Tower area to be pretty empty near midnight since businesses don’t stay open super late. 

The Best Tour for a First-Time Visit to Istanbul

Above ImageFront and center is part of our private group on our tour with our guide, Tarik.

If there was only one tip I could share about making the most of a first-time visit to Istanbul, it would be to book a full-day tour of Istanbul. We are so glad that we did a one-day Istanbul tour, especially at the start of our trip. The tour we enjoyed as four adults was the Best of Istanbul: 1, 2 or 3-Day Private Guided Istanbul Tour by Guided Istanbul Tours. With this tour, we got to experience the must-see sites in Istanbul, enjoy a great lunch, and more.

Our local guide for touring Istanbul was Tarık Özkalkan and he was amazing! His extensive knowledge and education in history was invaluable. With his background in hospitality, he was a wonderful balance of both professional and personable interaction, arriving early to meet us at our hotel and going above and beyond by being with us even an hour beyond the typical end time.

Above ImageGetting a parting picture with our amazing tour guide, Tarik.

Since the tour was private, he also encouraged us to let him know how we wanted the tour customized for our desires and needs in regards to what sites we saw. He welcomed our questions and related Istanbul and Turkey’s rich history to current events and the present state of the culture, which was very enriching.

While it was a long day on our feet and a lot of walking, Tarik looked out for us and our wellbeing and we enjoyed everything immensely. At the local businesses he took us to, such as the Egyptian Bazaar and at the Turkish rug maker we mention above, he knew the people well and they treated us with such warm hospitality and imparted fascinating knowledge. He also taught us how to use the Metro to get around Istanbul, which was especially helpful for our return trip.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

For walking around Istanbul, we recommend wearing good, close-toed walking shoes, preferably sneakers, and watch where you’re walking so you avoid trash and nasty puddles. Be prepared as well that a lot of people smoke in Istanbul, even in crowded areas and while walking.

The Best Istanbul Tour

Our full-day private guided tour of Istanbul was one of the best tours we have ever had. It set us up with the a great introduction to Istanbul so that on our return visit, we knew more of the history. It gave us even deeper appreciation for Istanbul and helped us make the most of our time there.

How did I find this Istanbul tour? From my experience as a travel advisor, I love and recommend using Viator for finding and booking such tours because they’re such a great one-stop shop for various kinds of tours worldwide. They also have great cancellation policies on most tours and best-price guarantee. And it’s not just for travel advisors. You can also search and book tours on Viator. Or, if you want custom planning for your trip, you can have me book tours for you. With me as your travel advisor, you benefit from expert knowledge, support, hotel perks, and time saved so you can enjoy yourself before and during your trip.

Is Istanbul Worth Visiting?

Above ImageThe city skyline of the Sultanahmet area at night from a private rooftop below the Galata Tower.

Absolutely! If you like to travel and appreciate history and experiencing new places and things, then Istanbul is a must-visit destination to add to your list. Yes, it is noisy and chaotic, dirty and crowded in a lot of areas, yet that is not what remains with us the most from our experience.

Our memories of Istanbul are of its colors, smells, tastes, and feel. Its ancient beauty, the warm and benevolent locals, and its enthralling history have left a lasting impression upon us. It is the kind of city that a traveler can never tire of visiting and always discover more with every return. We have a feeling that we will return to Istanbul to experience more of its magic.

Visit Istanbul the Best Way Possible

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Created by Amalia & Eric

Created by Amalia & Eric

Founders & Producers of Move to Traveling

We're Amalia and Eric - a traveling couple who moved from the US to Denia, Spain. With our combined skills of travel advisor/writer and artist/film producer, we share resourceful stories to inspire and support your travel dreams. Let us know how we can be of help.

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