You won’t find the best restaurants, activities, or sightseeing here (actually, you will, look at the end of the article). Rather, I’ll tell you:
- how to get from the airport to the city center
- what are the supermarket companies
- which hostels I stayed into
- where to find food
In summary, all the “practical” information a classic city guide won’t tell you.
From the Airport to the City Center
There are two airports in Istanbul indicated by the red dots on the map.
The one at the top on the European side is the fancy airport called İstanbul Havalimanı (IST).
The one at the bottom on the Asian side is the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW).
Luckily, both of them are connected by a metro line.
Most websites won’t tell you that because they make money when you book a transfer with them. Don’t do that. Take the subway unless you arrive at night and the subway isn’t running. Then look for “Havabus” and ask the one going to your destination. You will most likely have two choices: Kadikoy, and Taksim.
Kadikoy is on the middle of the Asian side, by the Bosphorus. Taksim is the city center of Istanbul.
It’s easy to go to the historic city from Taksim by metro.
You can buy two types of cards to pay any public transportation service (train, tram, metro, ferry). One card enables you to take three trips by subway, bus, and tram.
The other card called Istanbulkart is rechargeable and enables you to take any type of public transport.
If you stay more than three days in Istanbul, buy an Istanbulkart.
You can withdraw cash (I suggest you withdraw 500 lira) at the airport. ING didn’t charge any commissions for my Revolut card. I didn’t try the other banks.
Only choose “go ahead without ATM conversion” when withdrawing money, as the commission is huge otherwise.
Let your home bank (particularly if you use Revolut or Wise) do the conversion.
Accommodation and Moving Around
I stayed at the Wabi Sabi and the Cheers Lighthouse. In both cases, you can do better. The former had no common areas besides a rooftop bar that closed at midnight and the second wasn’t well located.
Which accommodation to choose depends a lot on what you want to do/see. Indeed, moving around Istanbul isn’t easy, so make sure you stay around what interests you.
There are three areas of interest.
The middle one is where Taksim Square is, which is considered the center of Istanbul.
You have a cultural center nearby, many restaurants, a mosque, and a long shopping street called İstiklal. This is also where a lot of doctors and hospitals are located.
Then you have the one on the left. This is the “old Istanbul” with Sultanahmet where the Sophia Hagia, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and everything else are located.
It’s the most expensive area of the city.
Then you have the Asian side where many cultural activities are happening, and from where you can watch the sunset on the European side.
I advise you to book accommodation in the south of the middle part as it offers the best connection to the two other parts (tram + bridge to the left part and ferries to the Asian side). Taking the ferry is by far the best and most scenic way to go from the European to the Asian side.
The alternative is to take the subway from the middle part down to the left part, then change and take a train called “Marmaray” to the Asian part.
It takes a long time and there’s a lot of walking so I don’t necessarily recommend it.
Take the ferry. The ferry is cool.
The food was ironically my biggest disappointment.
I found it bland, tasteless, expensive, and always the same.
There is no food diversity in this city, which is amazing when you consider it joins two continents and has 20 million inhabitants.
While the food is of reasonable quality, it doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t taste bad either – it just doesn’t taste like much. Turkish food from Berlin is 10000X better.
If I had to launch a business in Istanbul, I would make an all-you-can-eat European vegan restaurant with obvious prices, no one trying to get you in, a well-designed menu, a minimalistic style, and well-photographed food.
Anyway, food is also expensive. Unless you eat a small sandwich kebap for 55 lira (less than €2), you’ll have to pay anywhere from €7 to €10.
There were hardly any supermarkets. I found a few small ones (Carrefour) around Taksim but none in Sultanahmet (I didn’t look for them either since none of the hostels I stayed at had a kitchen).
Most hostels have free breakfast but it’s frugal, to say the least, and they don’t make the effort to change it, so it’s the same thing every day (usually a combination of beef sausage, eggs, cheese, olives, tomatoes, and bread organized in a buffet).
If you had high food expectations, sorry to disappoint.
So, where should you eat?
Well, there are plenty of restaurants around. You can also check Google Maps or just walk around and go to the ones that look good.
Everyone speaks Turkish and most people speak enough English so you can understand one another.
This problem won’t be a problem for now anyway since live AI translation is coming.
Mobile Network, SIM card, and Payment
The three main mobile phone networks are Vodafone, Turk Telekom, and Turkcell.
You can purchase a SIM card at the airport (SAW, at least) but it’s super expensive, averaging $50. Companies know that people need the Internet and don’t hesitate to charge a leg for it.
I’m being told that Turkcell is the cheapest but I couldn’t independently verify that.
I recommend you don’t buy a card there and download HereMAPS instead on your phone so you can go to your hotel/hostel without problems, and buy a sim card in the city center where it is cheaper.
You can pay by card (Visa/Mastercard) almost anywhere but make sure to take a physical card with you as the NFC from the phone doesn’t always work.
Turkey is officially a secular republic but 99% of the population is Muslim. They practice a rather chill version of Islam. Many drink, smoke, have s**, etc, but you won’t easily find pork.
Tourists can visit mosques (any mosque) as long as there’s no ongoing prayer. Most mosques have security that will prevent you from getting in if you’re not supposed to get in anyway, so don’t worry.
Don’t forget to take off your shoes, wear appropriate clothes, and women must cover their hair.
I had no problem walking anywhere in the city which I found safe and clean. People were always friendly and many offered help when they saw I was lost without asking anything in return (those who wanted something in return made it way too obvious before even helping me out).
It’s important to highlight that Istanbul is a strange city because it wasn’t built – it was conquered.
Istanbul was the capital of the Roman Empire from 330 until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1453.
It has remained under Turkish leadership since then. They have the pretty disagreeable habit of converting churches into mosques which means that there are hardly any traces of its Christian past.
The few churches that weren’t converted were left abandoned and in ruins – except for one (Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church), which you cannot visit anyway.
Here’s a bunch of things you should know:
- The ancestor of Turkey is the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim empire originating from Eastern Anatolia. It was one of the main caliphates in the Middle East for 600 years approximately. At its biggest, it went from Hungary down to Yemen and Egypt in the south, and Morocco in North Africa.
- Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a Greek Muslim of Turkish and Albanian descent born in Thessaloniki when it was still under Ottoman rule. He was born “Mustafa” as last names weren’t common at the time. Kemal was given to him by his math teacher (it means “perfection”) and the Turkish parliament gave him the name “Atatürk”, meaning “father of Turkey”.
- Atatürk proclaimed the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and designed it according to Western liberal democracies. He renamed Constantinople into Istanbul (which was the Greek name of Constantinople), moved the capital to Ankara, and built a secular state that has been re-islamized by Erdogan over the last 10 years.
- The country is highly nationalistic with flags and pictures of Ataturk everywhere.
Things to Do
I don’t normally offer any advice on things to do but the lists you’ll find pretty much…suck.
I had to use ChatGPT to make sure I wasn’t skipping anything from Roman time.
In general, there’s very little information about the monuments to visit, so I had to abuse ChatGPT and Perplexity to obtain intel.
Here are a few things I recommend, organized by location.
- Hagia Sophia: this was one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the world until Mehmet II converted it into a mosque in 1453. It used to be free but the entrance is now charged €25. The building isn’t well maintained and many of the icons have been covered by sheets because they’re forbidden in Islam.
- The Blue Mosque: the Blue Mosque is located right next to the Hagia Sophia. It’s a mosque so while it’s pretty to see, there’s no need to linger as there are no icons and nothing particularly interesting inside.
- The Sophia Hagia Museum: one of the best experiences I’ve had. The Sophia Hagia Museum is a dynamic experience with short films in different rooms about the history of the Sophia Hagia and of Constantinople. It’s pricey but I highly recommend it. There’s also a small museum with artifacts after the experience.
- Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum: it’s great for history buffs but the collection presented there and the information isn’t necessarily interesting for lambda people. Islamic art is in general very restricted because early Muslims were nomadic tribes and because Islam is rather restrictive in this regard.
- The Hippodrome: Still located in the same place, the Hippodrome has been transformed into a square with the three following monuments.
- The Archeological Museum: my favorite museum in Istanbul, it contains sculptures from the Greek period of the city. It’s amazing and I highly recommend it. A bit further, you will find the…
- Topkapi Palace Museum: the palace was now transformed into a museum with several other museums accessible for the price of…€50. I thought it was too expensive so I didn’t visit it.
- Basilica Cistern: this isn’t a church but a cistern built by Justinian in 532 to provide water to the city. It’s amazing, I recommend it. Try to book online or go there in the late afternoon when there are fewer people.
- Cistern of Theodosius: not far, there’s the cistern of Theodosius. That one is less busy and smaller but features a great sound-and-light show that I watched twice because I liked it so much.
- The Column of Constantine: yet another column.
- The Grand Bazaar: not very interesting, just a big indoor market where everyone sells the same overpriced things (when prices are written, however).
- Beyazit Square: square from which to access the university.
- Kalenderhane Mosque: Church converted into a mosque. Once again, it’s not very interesting, especially since the building isn’t well-maintained.
- Bodrum Mosque: Same as above.
- Remains Of The Church Of St.Polyeuctus: one of the churches that wasn’t converted into a mosque and became ruins as a result.
- Fatih Camii: mosque.
- Venerable Patriarchal Church of Saint George: this is the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church. I went there because it interests me but lambda people won’t necessarily find it interesting. You will be able to observe interesting relics such as fragments of columns on which Christ would have been whipped, and other relics from different Saints.
- Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church: the only church still active that wasn’t converted into a mosque in 1453. It’s not accessible and we can’t see it well.
- Saint Stephen’s Orthodox Church: cute Orthodox church along the water.
- Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Palace): this is the best-kept palace from the Byzantine era. I recommend it, I liked it a lot.
- Kariye Mosque: this looks to be a mosque where they kept the icons but it was closed when I was there so I didn’t visit it unfortunately.
- Vlaherna Meryem Ana Church: small church with a spring. You can skip.
- Panorama 1453 History Museum: this is a museum built like a planetarium where you assist in the conquest of Constantinople. It was a bit pricey for what it was and since you spend the entire time looking at the movie projected on the ceiling, the neck hurts at the end of it.
- Yedikule Dungeons Museum: I didn’t have time to go there but I will next time. This is all for Sultanahmet. Let’s move on to Taksim.
- Taksim Square: the main square. Not overly interesting.
- The Ataturk Cultural Center: recently built, this cultural center features several cafés and a splendid library. Recommended!
- Dolmabahçe Palace: one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The visit will take you two-three hours so plan accordingly. Go there in the morning as it is full in the afternoon. It’s pricey (€30) but highly recommended!
- Ihlamur Palace: too small, not worth it.
- Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox Church: beautiful Orthodox church.
- Istiklal: long shopping street, very nice to walk. Don’t buy food there though as it is too expensive.
- St. Anthony of Padua Church: Catholic church along Istiklal. Not very interesting but try to pass by if you go to Istiklal.
- Galata Tower: it was €20 to enter so I didn’t go in.
- Istanbul Museum of Modern Art: I don’t care about modern art so I didn’t go there but hey, we’re all different.
Let’s move on to the Asian side.
- Beylerbeyi Sarayı Deniz Köşkü Selamlık: a palace I didn’t have time to visit.
- Maiden’s Tower: cute tower in the middle of the Bosphorus. Great place to watch the sunset from.
- Walk along the Bosphorus: I recommend you walk along the Bosphorus at this place, it’s amazing.
- Kadıköy Sineması: independent cinema showing Turkish movies, highly recommended!
That’s it. There’s a bunch of stuff I didn’t add like colored houses, food, or neighborhoods with umbrellas, but that’s because it doesn’t interest me.
So make sure to check other guides too.
For more technical city guides, head to auresnotes.com.
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