4-Day Istanbul Guide – With Tons of Tips!
My Istanbul Guide covers everything you need to see, do, and eat while you’re in Istanbul, Turkey! We’ve got the Galata Tower, Sultanahmet Square, a cruise on the Bosphorus, the Spice Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and so much more! Plus all the roasted corn, simit, and chocolate-covered cheesecake that your heart desires!
It took me way longer to get this Istanbul travel guide up than I’d hoped.
But I’ve got a full list of everything you need to do, see, and eat while you’re there. Whether you’re traveling through Turkey with a stopover in Istanbul, Cappadocia, Antalya, and beyond or just making a quick trip to Istanbul on the way to or back from Santorini, Mykonos, Rome, or the Amalfi Coast. Let this be your guide to Istanbul! Istanbul is a destination everyone needs to add to their bucket list. It’s beautiful, relatively affordable, and rich in history.
And I’ll be the first one to tell you that I had horrible anxiety thinking about planning transportation for this trip. It ended up being almost effortless, and I want to share everything you need to know in this Istanbul guide.
Turkish words to know:
It wouldn’t be an Istanbul guide without a few words to help you communicate. While most Turks did speak enough English for basic communication, it was helpful to have Google Translate on our phones. Ordering food at a restaurant isn’t a problem because you can always point to the item and get the point across. However, asking for directions is a whole other story!
Merhaba (Mar-habbah) – Hello
Teşekkürler (teh-shuk-relar) – Thank you
Güle güle (Guley Guley) – Bye bye
What is the best time of the year to visit Istanbul?
- Peak Season: June through August is peak season for visitors. Hotel rates are much higher at this time, and the crowds are thicker too. Expect long lines outside the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, and trams packed to the brim!
- Low Season (aka best time to go): Going between March-May and September-November proves to be the best time to go. I find somewhere in April or May to be the sweet spot. Where the weather is beautiful, and the crowds are thinner. That means less waiting and more doing!
Istanbul Guide | Important things to know:
- As an American, you need a visa! I was baffled when I read this! No one ever mentioned needing a visa for Istanbul. I assumed, for Americans, that a visa was granted on arrival like it is for a lot of countries, but that’s not the case. Luckily, you can obtain one in as little as 30 minutes online. And luckily, I saw this two weeks before our trip and didn’t even need to pay the rush fee on that. IVisa gives you a visa in 30 minutes to 24 hours.
- Airport Taxi prices are regulated. There’s a set price for how much a driver can charge you for a trip from Istanbul airport to, say, Sultanahmet (it was around 350TL when we went.) Now, there are grades of taxis represented by color – orange, turquoise, and black. The black taxi will cost you more than 1.5x the price of an orange taxi.
- Uber’s are illegal in Istanbul! But there is a loophole to getting a prescheduled transfer. Anees found a great company called Welcome Pickups. You can schedule your transfer to/from the airport or any other place. The price is slightly higher than an airport taxi. However, you can request a driver that speaks English fluently. Which ended up making things much, much more comfortable. The taxi ride is about an hour to get from the new airport to Sultanahmet, so you’ll want to be comfortable after a long day of travel!
- Get yourself an Istanbulkart! This is an all-around public transportation boarding pass used for the metro, trams, ferries, and buses. You can purchase one at the airport or at the tram station. And you don’t need individual cards for each person. A family can easily share an Istanbulkart. And it is refillable, so add 50-100 TL to start. And recharge the card right at the tram station machines when you’ve run out. While you’re at it, familiarize yourself with the T1 line (Kabataş.) It’s the one you’ll take to Sultanahmet (Where the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are located), the Spice Market, and so many other places.
- If you think you’re going to travel by taxi and see the whole city peak season, you’re wrong. The traffic in Istanbul is the actual definition of insane. So though the taxi might not be expensive to get around, it’s actually not the smartest way to travel. The Istanbulkart allows you to take the trams, which get you from one side of the city to the other in no time!
Where to stay in Istanbul
I highly recommend staying in Sultanahmet. In all my research before the trip, this place made the most sense to me for our itinerary. Sultanahmet is where the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Square, Basilica Cistern, and so many other attractions are located. Not to mention, it’s a stop on the T1 line, so it makes getting to and from places almost effortless.
- Soho House Istanbul: is located further from the Sultanahmet District but is a beautiful hotel.
- AJWA: Located 8 minutes from the Blue Mosque, 17 minutes from Hagia Sophia
- Seven Hills: Great view of Hagia Sophia; this place also has a killer traditional turkish breakfast served on the rooftop (more on that below.) The rooms are done up in traditional Turkish design.
- Bosphorus Four Seasons: Extremely pricy, as expected, but stunning! This hotel has an iconic door to the Bosphorus Strait, and it is worth checking out even if you wouldn’t stay here.
- Sura Design Hotel & Studio: Up-to-date rooms. There are actually two Sura hotels located directly across from each other in the same lane. The good thing about staying here is that you can enjoy the included breakfast buffet from either hotel, use the gym, and the hammam at either location as well. So it’s like getting a full set of amenities from two hotels instead of one! We stayed in the new Sura Design studio and wished we had opted for the old one. Though not as updated, it is definitely better in other aspects.
- Divan Yolu Cad. Ticarethane Sok. No 43 Sultanahmet, Fatih, Istanbul, 34110, Turkey
Istanbul Guide | What to do:
- Galata Tower: One of my favorite tourist attractions! I could’ve stayed and stared at the tower for hours and looked at it from every angle! It’s stunning and feels like something out of a Disney movie. 11/10 recommend it.
- Karaköy: A great area to check out with colorful umbrella-lined streets near the Galata Tower.
- Hagia Sophia: This used to be a church before it was a mosque. It’s located on the opposite side of the Hagia Sophia, with Sultanahmet Square in the middle.
- TIP: go right after sunrise so that you can see the magnificence of this place without the crowds. We went right after Fajr prayers at sunrise, which was so peaceful.
- Blue Mosque: This is the only mosque in all of Istanbul with 6 minarets. It was built, from what I’ve read, sometime between 1609-1616 AD. The mosque is open to visitors at 8:30 AM and closes about 30 minutes before each prayer time (that’s 5 times a day.) Entrance is free, but donations are encouraged.
- TIP: Women should cover their arms, legs, and hair when entering. They are very strict about this and will pull you out of the line and hand you garments. I even saw them pull a guy to the side and ask him to cover his legs because they considered his shorts too short.
- Basilica Cistern: We were looking forward to checking this out (my husband had just finished reading the Dan Brown book), but unfortunately, it was closed for renovations when we went.
- Bosphorus Cruise at Sunset: We loved taking a cruise and learned so much! The crew served delicious Turkish delicacies while we cruised on the Bosphorus. They pointed out notable places along both the Asian side of the city and the Europe side of Istanbul. Definitely an activity I recommend doing!
- Ortakoy Mosque: It will be bursting with crowds, but I highly recommend seeing it at sunset.
- Grand Bazaar: A place to browse, check out the lamp shops, handmade rugs and carpets, ceramics, leather goods, handmade jewelry, and so much more! Whatever you do, don’t forget to haggle – they expect it!
- Spice Bazaar: The Grand Bazaar is fun, but the Spice Bazaar is where the snacks are at! Although in all seriousness, don’t accept any snacks or teas unless you plan on making a purchase. I’ve seen store owners get a little upset with customers when the snacking is in session, but nothing has been bought!
- Umbrella Street: This is located close to the colorful houses on Kiremit Street, right next to the Rainbow Stairs at Incir Agaci Kahvesi in Hoca Tahsin. They had the doors closed to deter people from coming in, so keep your eyes peeled!
- Check out the colorful houses on Kiremit Street: That pretty much says it all! Once we ate lunch at Forno, we kept walking uphill towards Kiremit Street to check out the colorful houses along the street.
- Balat: This was originally a Jewish neighborhood that is now a hipster hangout with the best cafes and more! It’s the spot that‘s most popular with Instagrammers. While you’re there, check out Fener, it’s a college town and its cobblestone-lined old town perfection
Where and what to eat in Istanbul
- Grab breakfast on the rooftop of a restaurant near the Hagia Sophia The Seven Hills hotel has an amazing Turkish breakfast that will keep you full until dinner! You can munch on all sorts of delicious food, feed the gulls, and take all the pictures you can fit on your phone here.
- Donerci Sahin Usta Located in a little lane right outside the Grand Bazaar. This place had the most delicious Doner from our entire trip!
- Mollafenari, Kılıçcılar Sk. No:5, 34120 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
- Mivan Restaurant This was definitely my favorite dinner spot from the trip. Located right next door to the Ajwa hotel, it had some of the best Mezze, grilled kabob dishes, and much more!
- Forno This place had the best Turkish Pide! It’s a little hole-in-the-wall place run by a family, I suspect. We enjoyed the beef pide and the lahmacun, which is a Turkish flatbread topped with ground lamb or beef, onions, tomatoes, and spices.
- Vodina Caddesi, Fener Kireçhane Sk. No:13/A, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
- Hafiz Mustafa Saffron tres leches, baklava, Turkish delight, Turkish coffee, and Turkish tea! This is where you need to be if you need a quick pick-me-up.
- There are a ton of these in the city. We went to the one in Sultanahmet and the one at the College stop on the T1.
- Hanzade Terrace Restaurant I had the best butter mushrooms here! They were loaded with garlic and cheese, and I honestly think that alone makes this a must-try. Throw in the sunset view overlooking the Bosphorus, and you’re set!
- Emin Sinan, Piyer Loti Cd. No:35, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
- Sehzade Cag Kebap This place came up quite a few times while I was researching for our trip. I honestly didn’t think the kebap was amazing, but the lentil soup definitely was! Don’t be alarmed when you see 4 things on the menu – that’s honestly it!
- Hoca Paşa, Hoca Paşa Sk. No:6 D:4, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
- Have a Simit it’s a cross between a bagel and a pretzel. It‘s sold on almost every street corner! You can have it on its own, with cream cheese, or with Nutella. And it is the perfect grab-and-go breakfast item.
- Fresh pomegranate and orange juice from street vendors There are a few right outside the Grand Bazaar and almost everywhere, to be honest. These are pasteurized juices, so if you’re pregnant or nursing, you may want to skip them. I asked for it to be made without ice; it was so refreshing on a warm afternoon!
- Tandoori Chai Istanbul Shout out to my sister’s friend, Meeta, for recommending this place (and a few others you see here on this list!) If you’re looking for a real cup of chai – not the stuff you get from Sbux, please and thank you. This is where you need to go! It was great to enjoy a cup after the pide we had.
- Tandoori Chai, Balat, Vodina Cd. no: 94/A, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
- Viyana Kehvesi Galata Located right across from the Galata Tower (seriously, it has the most killer view), this place is a must for any Istanbul guide! You’ll see locals and tourists coming in to grab a coffee but also for that delicious chocolate-covered slice of burnt basque cheesecake. I honestly wish hadn’t waited to go here till the end because I wanted another slice immediately afterward!
And that’s a wrap on the Istanbul guide. I’m hoping we can do a stopover in Antalya or Cappadocia the next time we’re in Europe.
As always, if you’ve been or have recommendations on where to eat, stay, and play in Istanbul, please share in the comments below; I’d love to know!
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