There are many historical cities all over the world but not many are as special as Istanbul in Turkey. If you are living in Europe or Asia, and are planning a city break and aren’t sure where to go, then let me suggest Istanbul.

The city of Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, Ankara is. But Istanbul is the most populous city in Turkey and is the starting point for every single Turkey travel itinerary (was for me too).

Istanbul is a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia; and is known for its rich history, diverse culture, and stunning architecture.

So, is Istanbul worth visiting? Let me give you my honest feedback after visiting this city twice.

East and West

The Stunning Istanbul Landscape
The Stunning Istanbul Landscape

“East meets West” is such a cliche, but the only destination that fits this description both culturally and geographically is Istanbul.

Why? Because of its unique position, Istanbul is at the point where the two continents of Asia and Europe meet, separated by the narrow Bosporus Strait.

The European side is on the west and the Asian side is on the east. This physical division symbolizes the meeting of two continents.

Sunset cruise over Bosphorous, Istanbul itinerary
Sunset cruise over Bosphorus, Istanbul itinerary

The city has a rich history that has been shaped by various civilizations, and it serves as a meeting point for different cultures, traditions, and religions.

Istanbul’s East-meets-West character is deeply embedded in its geography, history, architecture, and cultural fabric. The city’s ability to seamlessly blend elements from different traditions makes it a truly unique and captivating destination.

Mosques, Palaces & Historical Sites

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

If Istanbul was a necklace, then the historical mosques, towers, and palaces would be the jewels!

Istanbul boasts a unique blend of architectural styles, ranging from the Hagia Sophia dating back to the 6th century, and the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) with their Ottoman and Byzantine influences to the modern structures on the European side.

These historical sites collectively tell the story of Istanbul’s evolution from Byzantium to Constantinople and finally to Istanbul. Mosques, Palaces, historical towers, let’s talk about some of the iconic old sites of the city. Each is prettier than the other and many are on my list of Instagram spots of Istanbul.

Some of the most noteworthy historical sites of Istanbul are in the Sultanahmet Area and are together a UNESCO World Heritage site. This spot is the perfect place to start any kind of walking tour. I started my 3 day Istanbul itinerary right here!

First is Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), which was originally built as a cathedral in 537 AD during the Byzantine era, and then became an imperial mosque under the Ottomans. It functioned as a museum for a few years but as of 2023, it is again a mosque. This building showcases a stunning blend of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture.

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Mosque

Another one in Sultanahmet Square is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque). It was constructed between 1609 and 1616 and is an iconic Ottoman structure known for its six minarets and blue tiles adorning the interior. You can book a guided tour of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia which is going to be a rewarding experience.

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) also mentioned in Dan Brown’s Inferno, is a one-of-a-kind historical site that you’d see nowhere else. This ancient underground water reservoir was built during the 6th century and features atmospheric columns and dimly lit chambers.

Inside basilica Cistern in Istanbul
Inside Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

There’s always a massive line outside Basilica Cistern but we had skip-the-line entrance tickets and I recommend you get them too.

The Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is right at Sultanahmet Square too. It was the primary residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. The palace complex includes beautiful courtyards, and chambers, and exhibits artifacts such as the Topkapi Dagger and the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak.

Another amazing palace is the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s residence. Dolmabahçe Palace is a grand and opulent palace located on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait.

My favorite one is the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) which dates back to the medieval period. It provides panoramic views of the city and has served various purposes over the centuries, including as an observation tower and a prison.

Galata Tower in Istanbul
Galata Tower in Istanbul

If you are near the Grand Bazaar, then don’t miss the nearby Süleymaniye Mosque dating back to the 16th century with panoramic views of the Golden Horn. The Süleymaniye Mosque and its surroundings are together classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

A few more historical places of interest are Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi), Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Theodosian Walls, and the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

If you decide to visit one of the religious buildings, then follow the dress code and cover-up.

Bazaars

Inside Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Inside Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

If you are into sensory experiences then Istanbul is an amazing place because of its bazaars. The city’s bustling historic bazaars have played a significant role in the city’s cultural and economic life for centuries. These bazaars are not just marketplaces but are also integral to the social fabric of Istanbul.

The most famous bazaar of Istanbul that everyone knows about already is the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı). It dates back to the 15th century, and is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, offering a wide array of goods

The Grand Bazaar spans over 60 streets and houses thousands of shops selling a wide variety of goods, including jewelry, textiles, ceramics, spices, carpets, and more.

Walking here was an experience I’d remember for life as I navigated the labyrinthine alleys and immersed myself in the vibrant atmosphere of this historical market.

Very close to the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), which is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. Personally, I liked it so much more than the Grand Bazaar. It is located in the Eminönü quarter, which is one of my favorite parts of Istanbul.

This market has been a hub for spices, herbs, and other exotic goods since the 17th century, so be prepared for all the amazing aromas and sensory overload.

In addition to spices, you can find a variety of sweets, dried fruits, nuts, and Turkish delights. The atmosphere is infused with the aroma of various spices, making it a sensory delight.

Another amazing bazaar is the Arasta Bazaar, which is situated near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It is a smaller market that offers a more relaxed shopping experience compared to the Grand Bazaar. It is known for its collection of high-quality carpets, textiles, ceramics, and souvenirs. The bazaar has a traditional feel, and many of the shops are housed in restored Ottoman-era buildings.

I have a thing for Fish Markets and Istanbul has one too. Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) is situated in the Eminönü district, is a haven for seafood enthusiasts.

Here, you can find a wide variety of fresh seafood, including fish, shellfish, and other marine delights. Many restaurants around the market offer the option to select your seafood and have it cooked to order.

Lastly, located in the Fatih district, the Çarşamba Bazaar is a bustling market that primarily takes place on Wednesdays. It is known for its fresh produce, textiles, and everyday items. The market provides a glimpse into the local life of Istanbul, and you can find a variety of goods at more affordable prices compared to some of the more touristy bazaars.

Public Transportation

Istanbul City Card
Istanbul City Card

A very important factor for me to enjoy a destination is the ease of using the public transport. So let’s talk about Istanbul.

Yes, Istanbul is massive and complex so navigating can initially seem overwhelming. But the public transportation network is easy to understand and can get you everywhere. The city has a comprehensive and relatively easy-to-use public transportation system that includes buses, trams, metro lines, ferries, and funiculars.

Vintage red tram of Istanbul
Vintage red tram of Istanbul

Get an Istanbul card (like I did) to easily hop from one means of public transport to another. The Istanbulkart is a smart card that you can use for buses, trams, metros, ferries, and funiculars.

Istanbul is a large and densely populated city, and traffic congestion can be an issue during peak hours. So, the best way to move around in Istanbul isn’t by driving or taxis, it is by using public transport, especially in the city center. You can visit all of the city’s main attractions just by public transport.

Landscape

Sunset view from Bosphorus Bridge
Sunset view from Bosphorus Bridge

Istanbul’s landscape is a unique blend of natural beauty, historical landmarks, and modern urban developments. The city, strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is characterized by its diverse topography, iconic skyline, and the presence of water bodies.

Just like Lisbon, Istanbul is often referred to as the “City of Seven Hills” due to its hilly terrain. The hills provide vantage points for panoramic views of the city and contribute to the unique character of various neighborhoods.

What’s even more special is that there’s usually a mosque with high minarets built on top of these hills and the resulting landscape is stunning.

Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus Strait, which offers picturesque views and many opportunities to click amazing photos. You can also take a boat tour between the two continents (I did that too).

Istanbul - galata tower - Turkey itinerary 10 days
Istanbul – Galata Tower – Turkey itinerary 10 days

Bosphorus Strait is the most defining geographical feature of Istanbul. It is a narrow, natural waterway that separates the European and Asian sides of the city. There’s also the Golden Horn estuary that separates the historic peninsula from the newer neighborhoods on the European side.

Istanbul is not just a concrete jungle; it also boasts several green spaces and forests. Moreover, the Princes’ Islands, a group of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, are part of Istanbul’s landscape.

The combination of historic structures, natural features, and modern developments makes Istanbul’s landscape diverse and captivating.

Food

My lunch at Pudding Shop
My lunch at Pudding Shop

Turkish cuisine is diverse and delicious. Don’t miss trying traditional dishes such as kebabs, mezes, baklava, and Turkish delights.

I wasn’t impressed with Turkish food until I met locals and they suggested what to eat. I also did a food tour in Istanbul and spent the most amazing day in Istanbul.

Let’s start with the traditional Turkish breakfast, known as “kahvaltı”. It includes a spread with:

  • different cottage cheeses (Peynir),
  • spicy Turkish sausages (Sucuk),
  • olives, tomatoes, cucumbers & fresh herbs
  • bread,
  • eggs,
  • börek,
  • yoghurt,
  • raw honey and jams.
  • Turkish Tea (Çay) or Turkish Coffee (Türk Kahvesi).

I ate a lavish Turkish breakfast like this every single time at my hotel – CVK Bosphorous Park. I fell in love with Turkish food a little more when I did a guided tour with food experts.

Here’s what I ate and fell in love with:

  • Midye dolma: mussels stuffed with rice,
  • Çiğ köfte or Chee köfte: veggie kofte with spicy bulger – this was my favorite.
  • Kofte: spicy meatballs with chili sauce and onions,
  • Meat on skewers with Lavaş and lahmacun,
  • Pide: Like a pizza but different,
  • Turkish Delight: sweets made with different things, sometimes without sugar and just with almonds,
  • Ayran: salted yogurt drink,
  • Sherbet: sweet drinks with flavors like tamarind, rose, mint, and raspberry,
  • and of course, the world-famous Kebab which is known all over the world as döner.

My food tour in Istanbul was one of the most memorable things I did and I felt I was a part of a food show as I went from one spot to another.

At first, it does appear that Turkish food isn’t vegan friendly but it is. Normally Çiğ köfte are vegan but please ask because they were mixed with raw meat in the olden times but that has been banned so now they are made with bulgur. Also, there are many vegetables and beans that one can eat.

Culture

Galata Bridge with locals fishing
Galata Bridge with locals fishing

Istanbul’s culture is so strongly present that it feels almost tangible. I felt it in my core at literally every step and so will you.

As the only city in the world straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, Istanbul boasts a unique blend of East and West. Its unique culture showcases its rich history, diverse influences, and vibrant contemporary life.

Istanbul city’s cultural identity has been shaped by successive civilizations, including Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman, each leaving an indelible mark on its architecture, art, and traditions.

In contemporary Istanbul, a thriving arts scene, bustling neighborhoods, and a diverse culinary landscape showcase the city’s cosmopolitan spirit. From traditional Turkish coffeehouses to modern art galleries, Istanbul embraces both tradition and innovation.

A tabby cat in Istanbul at night
A tabby cat in Istanbul at night

I remember the intense feeling of stepping into the city’s rich culture as I walked on the Galata bridge over the Golden Horn estuary to move between the historic peninsula and the newer neighborhoods on the European side. This bridge is lined with rows of locals on each side who sit here to catch fish.

Moreover, Turkish people are simply the best. The city’s residents are known for their warmth and hospitality, and contribute to the dynamic cultural scene, creating an atmosphere where ancient traditions seamlessly coexist with the pulse of contemporary life.

Along with the people, cats play a very important role in Istanbul’s culture because they are everywhere. These cats are well cared for by the locals and rule the city.

Hamams

Cağaloğlu Hamam in Istanbul
Cağaloğlu Hamam in Istanbul

Ever heard of Hamams? They are Turkish baths that have been an integral part of Istanbul’s cultural and social life for centuries.

These traditional bathhouses have a history deeply rooted in the Ottoman Empire and continue to be popular today as both a cleansing ritual and a social activity.

Even before the Ottoman times, Hammams in Istanbul had a history dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods. They became particularly prominent during the Ottoman era because the Ottomans incorporated elements of Roman and Byzantine bathhouse traditions into their own hammam culture.

Inside Cağaloğlu Hamam
Inside Cağaloğlu Hamam

More than just a wellness spot or a Turkish bath, a typical historical hammam of Istanbul features stunning Ottoman architecture. The design often includes domed ceilings, intricate tile work (known as “çini” tiles), and marble interiors.

Some famous historic hammams in Istanbul include the Çemberlitaş Hammam (built in 1584), the Süleymaniye Hammam, and the Çemberlitaş Hamam.

If you’d like to know before you go, I’d like to inform you that the hammam experience typically begins with relaxation in a warm room to help the body adjust to the higher temperatures. Visitors then proceed to a hotter room to receive a vigorous body scrub, often performed by an attendant known as a “tellak” for men and a “natır” for women.

After the scrub, guests are usually treated to a soap massage and sometimes a foam massage.
The process concludes with a rinse and often a period of relaxation in a cool room.

Lively Streets

Taksim Square and Istiklal Street
Taksim Square and Istiklal Street

Istanbul has a lively atmosphere with vibrant street life, filled with the hustle and bustle of daily life, the aroma of street food, and the echoes of centuries-old history.

My favorite streets in Istanbul are around Taksim Square because you can see a red vintage tram, mosque minarets, food carts, sparkling lights from the shops, and loads of people. The liveliness of this area surprised me because it was on even on a Tuesday night.

Just around there is Istiklal Street which is a vibrant pedestrian street in the heart of Beyoğlu. It is one of Istanbul’s most famous and lively avenues. Stretching for about 1.4 kilometers, Istiklal Avenue is lined with shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and theaters. It’s a popular destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment. The historic red tram runs along the avenue, adding to its charm.

Istanbul has pretty streets
Istanbul has pretty streets

Another amazing street in Istanbul is the Bosphorus Promenade (Boğazkesen Caddesi). This scenic street runs along the Bosphorus and offers stunning views of the waterway, the Asian side of Istanbul, and historical landmarks such as the Maiden’s Tower. Locals and tourists alike stroll along the promenade, enjoying the sea breeze, street vendors, and occasional street performances.

I also like the streets near the Galata Tower and Galata Bridge because you can see the top of the tower peeping out from many areas. Moreover, the liveliness of locals fishing is something else! Go to Karaköy Fish Market and you will love the experience.

A few other streets worth mentioning are Kadıköy Bull Statue (Bahariye Caddesi), Karaköy Streets, streets of Sultanahmet Square, Balat and Fener Streets.

What isn’t so good about Istanbul?

Istanbul's traffic situation
Istanbul’s traffic situation

Let me be honest, not everything is perfect in Istanbul. The parking, traffic, driving, and the over-road situation are not good here.

Don’t get me wrong, the roads are nice but there are just too many cars and vehicles on them. If you like to rent a car and explore destinations at your own pace, then Istanbul might not be for you. Instead, you can just rent a car from the airport and get out as soon as you can to the nearby amazing destinations like Cappadocia, and Pamukkale.

If you like exploring using public transportation, then you won’t have a problem in Istanbul.

Istanbul does have its share of scams, but honestly, that doesn’t put me off because I have visited a lot of cities like Delhi, Bangkok, and Rome with tourist scams and that is how the world works.

Where to Stay in Istanbul?

Sunset view from my bed in CVK Park Bosphorous, Istanbul
Sunset view from my bed in CVK Park Bosphorus, Istanbul

Imagine sleeping in a room where you can just wake up, press a button to draw the curtains away, and experience a magical sunset. I’m talking about CVK Park Bosphorus, and this is where I stayed.

Moreover, my room also had a bathtub with a glass wall that turned from frosted to clear with just a button and I could sit and see the view. I also had Roberto Cavalli toiletries and I loved them.

If you are looking for a one-of-a-kind room with a view, then do yourself a favor and look no further than CVK Park Bosphorus, it is worth the price considering the view, the comfort, the luxury, and the breakfast.

Moreover, while staying at CVK Park Bosphorus, I was in a very good location because I could just walk to Taksim and the lively İstiklal Street at night for the lively atmosphere.

From my hotel, I also walked to the Galata Tower and Bridge, even though it is 1.8 – 2 KM away but it was s super fun walk filled with all kinds of sights. After you cross the Galata Bridge, you will arrive in Eminönü, which is the neighborhood with the Bazaars.

When you are close to the Bazaars, you can easily walk a little more to the Sultanahmet square, which is where most of the tourist attractions are. I mean, you can do all this very easily by getting onto the tram from Taksim but I enjoyed the walk too.


Is it worth visiting Turkey with ONLY Istanbul on the list?

Yes, it is. Honestly, Turkey is massive and has a lot to see, but I understand if you don’t have enough time and you’d like to visit just Istanbul. The city has enough that would keep you occupied for at least 3-4 days.
If you do have more time then get out and visit Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, and Bodrum.

Is it safe to go to Istanbul?

Usually yes, but always check the most recent travel advisory before you fly.

What is the best time to visit Istanbul?

Avoid peak summer and visit Istanbul in spring, early summer, autumn or even winter.

Istanbul is a year-long destination. I have visited the city in both winter and summer and had an amazing time.

For me the month of July felt very hot in mid-day for sightseeing but not everyone else minds that. Winter was very comfortable for me because I live in Germany and I’m used to more cold.

Can you drink alcohol in Istanbul?

Yes you can, I did that as a solo female traveler and also when I traveled with a group. You can order a beer or wine with your meal pretty much everywhere.

So Is Istanbul Worth Visiting?

If you are into cultures, food, history, and a one-of-a-kind city break then in my opinion Istanbul is a must-visit destination. Put it on your travel bucket list and you won’t regret visiting it.

However, it also depends on your personal preferences and Istanbul might not work for you if you’re looking to relax in a quiet area in the middle of nature. If so, then you are better off in a national park.


Disclosure: My trip to Istanbul was sponsored as a part of the Istanbul Travel Influencer Summit 2023. However, all the opinions expressed in this article are my own.


PS: Drifter Planet contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, we will earn a little commission at no extra cost to you.  We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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