No other city in the world straddles two continents – in Istanbul’s case, Europe and Asia – and nowhere else has been the capital of two empires, the Ottoman and Byzantine. As a result, this gigantic city of almost 16m people is packed with history, culture and people. It is best navigated in the spring and autumn; summer can be scorching and winter extremely cold and often snowy.
With the Turkish lira plunging to record lows this week, Turkey is one of few places in which sterling is strong and consequently Istanbul offers remarkable value for British visitors, with the consumer prices more than 40 per cent lower than in Manchester.
How to get around
There are daily flights to the city’s two international airports – Istanbul Airport, on the European side and Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport, in the Asian part. Airlines include Pegasus, British Airways, Turkish Airlines and Wizz Air.
Sabiha Gökçen Airport is served by the M4 Metro Line to Kadıköy and several buses that run to Kadıköy and other neighbourhoods on the Asian side, as well as Levent on the European side. For more, see sabihagokcen.aero.
Istanbul airport is served by Havaist shuttle buses to Taksim Square, İETT buses, and the M11 metro line from Kağıthane. For more, see istairport.com.
Taxis cost around Turkish lira 150 to 200 (£20 to £27); it takes about an hour to get to Taksim Square, depending on traffic.
Ataturk Olympic Stadium is north-west of the city, accessed from Olimpiyat Metro station on line M3.
The vast city is only walkable within neighbourhoods – you’ll need to use public transport to explore further afield (traffic can be very congested at busy times of the day).
On the European side, Sultanahmet is where you’ll find the main sights (the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace), lively Taksim Square, Galata with its Mevlevi Whirling Dervish Museum, trendy Beyoglu, arty Karakoy and colourful Balat with its Greek Orthodox churches and historic Ahrida Synagogue.
On the Asian shores, Kadikoy and Uskudar – previously settled by Jews, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians – are the main points of interest for visitors.
To use all public transport in Istanbul (metro, buses, trams and boats) you will need a contactless Istanbul Kart which can be purchased in kiosks and ticket machines at metro stations, piers, and also bus stations. It costs TL6 (20p), and can be topped up with money to pay-as-you-go. Most journeys cost TL15 (50p).
Where to stay
In the old city of Sultanahmet, the five-star Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet is a joy. The 61 hotel showcases Seljuk and Ottoman architecture, has a view over the sea of Marmara and is a 15 to 20 minute walk from major mosques, museums and bazaars. It also has a traditional Hammam, or Turkish Bath, and a fabulous fine-dining restaurant. Doubles from €388 (£335).
At the other end of the scale, the Sub Karaköy is in Istanbul’s hippest neighbourhood, Karaköy, close to the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. Situated among cool coffee joints, traditional cafés and smattering of sophisticated clubs mixing it up with backstreet auto-repair shops and run-down office blocks, the hotel gives a different perspective on Istanbul. Doubles from £58 a night.
Start the day
… by exploring Sultanahmet. The Ottoman-era, Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque (which isn’t actually blue but does have 21,647 double-glazed blue Iznik tiles inside) is awe inspiring but the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia, standing opposite, with its glittering gold mosaics, is even more impressive. It took 10,000 people six years to build at a cost of 13,000 kilograms of gold – putting the cost at nearly £500m in today’s money and making it one of the most expensive buildings in world history. It was built as an Orthodox church, became a mosque in the Ottoman conquest in 1453, a museum in 1935 and a mosque again since 2020.
Both mosques are closed to the public during prayer hours and on Fridays. Bare legs and shoulders should be covered and women should cover their head with a scarf and shoes should be removed before entry. Entry is free but donations welcome.
Hit the shops
The Grand Bazaar is busy with tourists, but the impressively enormous market is the ultimate department store, selling everything from socks to spices and kitchen sinks. In the words of one local, this 30,000 square metre, 4,000 shop market is the ideal place to come if you’ve just got married or have a bought a house. It’s said to be the first and largest shopping centre in the world – with 25,000 staff and half a million customers a day.
İstiklal Caddesi is one of the most famous avenues in the city, visited by nearly 3m people on weekend days as tourists and locals alike stroll down the mile-long boulevard. It’s the busiest street in Istanbul and is regarded as the city’s answer to Oxford Street, Champs-Élysées or Times Square, stretching from Taksim Square to the Galata neighbourhood.
It is lined with boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, ice cream parlours, pubs, nightclubs, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun – and some of the sophisticated locals look down on it – but it’s an Istanbul institution and has plenty of energy.
For hip boutiques, continue on to Serdar-ı Ekrem Caddesi in Galata, or to Çukurcuma Caddesi for antiques.
The 118-year old Pandeli Restaurant just inside the gate of the Spice Bazaar – which has been in operation since 1660 – near Galata Bridge is said to be Istanbul’s oldest restaurant, serving traditional dishes. The lamb shank is cooked on a bed of embers in an underground pit for six hours and served on a bed of charred aubergine puree. And if you’re feeling decadent, round it off with the oven-baked quince, which comes covered with thick syrup and clotted Buffalo cream.
For a lighter option, tuck into the plentiful street food that’s found around the city. There are kebab shops all over Sultanahmet, Eminönü, Beşiktaş and Üsküdar and Midye Dolması mussels with rice in the Taksim district, and plenty more – follow your nose, and the locals’ lead.
The historical peninsula. While the mosques are Istanbul’s icons, there’s plenty more to see in Sultanahment. The district’s dozen museums and historic buildings can be visited with a five-day pass, costing TL1,750 (£60). They include a museum of Islamic science and technology and an art gallery. But most impressive, perhaps, is the Topkapi Palace, home to an extraordinary and varied collection of coffee making equipment, china cups and some of the most ostentatious, jewel-encrusted ornamental swords, daggers and body armour you’ll ever see. And if the weather’s good, be sure to stop at the coffee shop for a top-notch Turkish coffee.
Time for a drink
The roof bar of the Arcadia Blue Hotel on Imran Okten Caddesi, in Sultanahmet, is a treat – especially in the evening when you can look out over the historic, lit-up buildings of the old city and the lights twinkling in the ships in the Sea of Marmara.
The Ringa Sea Food restaurant overlooking the Bhosphorus is hard to beat. The salt-baked bass, which is set alight at the table before the salty crust is removed by a hammer and chissel, is very succulent.
Start the day
Take a boat trip along Bosphorus. This is a great way to get a perspective on this huge city, which is split into two main parts by the river straddling Asia and Europe. There are more than 20 public ferry lines departing regularly from Karakoy, Kabatas, Besiktas and in Eminonu on the European side; and Uskudar and Kadikoy on the Asian side. Two-hour Short Circle Tours from Eminonu Pier to Ortakoy and Uskudar are best suited to tourists, costing TL32 (£1.20) return. There are also many private companies offering small boat tours.
Time to relax
Turkish baths are one of the most famous attractions in Istanbul and it’s easy to see why. A traditional hammam involving a rigorous exfoliating skin scrub and a foamy body and head massage, followed by a Turkish afternoon tea gives even the most flagging customer a new lease of life. There are numerous traditional practitioners dotted around the city, but the Cağaloğlu Hamamı, in operation since 1741, is hard to beat. Prices from €60pp (£52).
In September, the historic, 500-year-old Zeyrek Çinili Hamam will reopen to the public after a meticulous restoration in the Zeyrek district. Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman artefacts unearthed during excavations will be displayed in a new museum.
Go for a stroll
Wander Kadıköy on the Asian shore. The residential neighbourhood is also home to plenty of students and fewer tourists than the busy, older parts of Istanbul. The waterside Dalyan Park has scenic views and two small beaches.
For coffee shops and a sophisticated, bohemian vibe, aim for Karaköy. Zone in on the Bosphorus-side Galataport district, a new development, full of cafes, shops and museums.
Have a treat
The Spice Bazaar, known locally as the Egyptian Market, is one of the most impressive in the world. Vendors of the 85 shops are only too happen to provide samples of everything from sun-dried strawberries and figs to an array of Turkish Delights. And you can take some home for a further treat when you get back.