Istanbul is Turkey´s biggest and most vibrant city. Despite not being Turkey´s capital, Istanbul still is most certainly the country´s main economic, cultural and historic center. The city has through centuries developed into a home to breathtaking architecture, delicious cuisine and last but definitely not least a home to some of the warmest, most genuinly hospitable people you can eccounter around the world. There are so many exciting things to see and do in Istanbul so in order to make your plannig easier, we at PackitUp made the ultimate Istanbul city guide. Enoy!
Hagia Sophia: First on the list is the legendary Hagia Sophia or the Church of Holy Wisdom as it´s often called. The church was built over 1500 years ago when the city was called Constantinople and is looked at by some as the 8th Wonder of the World. Originally built as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia has through its 1500 years also served as a mosque and since 1934, as a museum. If you´re not really a museum person, dont worry, Hagia Sophia is also stunning from the oustide. We reccomend taking a seat at any of the surrounding cafés or bars and enjoy the spectacular view that Hagia Sophia offers.
The Blue Mosue: If you enjoyed the Hagia Sophia, your next stop should definitely be the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Camii like it´s called in Turkish. The famous mosque is called the Blue Mosque due its beautiful interior which is covered in blue tiles. The mosque is not only a tourist attraction but also an active mosque, so be aware that it´s closed to nonworshippers for about a half an hour everyday. To best see the mosque´s architecture, we recommend accessing it from the west-side, the Hippodrome
Grand Bazaar: Istanbul´s Grand Bazaar is one of the worlds largest and oldest covered markets in the world. The market has over 4000 shops in total and is often regarded as one of the first shopping malls in the world. Take your time strolling through the market and have fun bargaining when purchasing jewellry, carpets and other products that the Grand Bazaar is famous for. The market is also full of great resturants, some people even say that you´ll find the best restaurants in Istanbul at the Grand Bazaar. Many of the restaurants have been a part of the market for decades and serve quality turkish homecooking.
Taksim Square: Often looked at as the heart of modern Istanbul, Taksim Square is a popular tourist and leisure district, filled with restaurants, shops and hotels. At Taksim Square you´ll find the central station of the Istanbul Metro network, so getting there is very convienent. The square has a certain pulse to it throughout the day and the streets are filled with young people enjoying life 24/7. Parades, public concert and other shows are commonly held at the square and during New Years Eve, people flock to Taksim Square to celebrate.
Topkapi Palace Museum: Once the imperial residence of Ottoman Sultans, the Topkapi Palace now serves as a museum and is the subject of more colorful stories than most of the worlds museums put together. The Topkapi palace is not your average museum, it is ofcourse a palace which gives it a certain charm that´s hard to find at other big museums. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and multiple smaller buildings. Many sections of the palace can be visited today, these are exhibition halls and don´t contain any furniture. Some sections are closed for now, due to restorations, but despite that it could take you up to half a day to visit the museum. Keep in mind that in some exhibition halls you´re not allowed to take any photos, so lets not get ourselves in trouble.
Visit the Asian Side of Istanbul: Istanbul straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and is the only city in the world to do so. The city is in a way split into two sides, the European side where most of the tourist attractions are, and the less touristy Asian side. The two sides are separated by the Bosphorus Strait and it´s easy to take the bus over the famous Bosphorus Bridge or you can ride over on a ferry. If you´ve never been to Asia, it´s fun to cross over so you can first of all say you´ve been, and of course to explore and enjoy a slightly different culture then on the European side
Visit a Real Hamman: Hammans have been a crucial part of Turkish tradition for thousands of years, serving as a both a place to cleanse and to socialize. Many of the swanky Istanbul hotels have hammans, but they´re rarely authentic and mostly made for Westerners. You will find all the good, real hammans in the Old Town. Çemberlitai Hamami is a good option for visitors looking to give the experience a try, another popular one is Cagaloglu. Most hammans are separated by gender, and women generally are topless. Hammans have several different rooms of different temperatures, some similar too saunas. You can actually pay an attendant to give you a thorough, traditional scrub down. It´s quite rough but invigorating nonetheless.
Prince Islands: Istanbul can be quite crowded, so if you feel like you need a getaway, we have the perfect idea. Prince Islands are a chain of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul. The islands are just a quick ferry ride away and are a perfect day trip, especially during the warm months. Four of the nine islands are by far the most popular, those are Burgazada, Heybeliada, Kinaliada and Büyükada which is the biggest and most popular. What is especially appealing about the islands is that there are no cars allowed, making the islands quite peaceful and a nice break from the noise of busy Istanbul.
Watch the Fishermen on Galata Bridge: A surprisingly fun activity is heading down to the Galata Bridge to watch the fishermen. Every day, up to hundreds of local men flock to the bridge and form a row along the top level, fishing over the edge. The men spent hours there in the hope of catching fresh seafood or just chatting about daily life. If you´re interested, you can sometimes buy some fresh catch directly from them or at the fishmarket at the base of the bridge.
Take a Photo with Tombili: Tombili is a real hidden gem. Although chances are you already know who he is, you might just not realize it. Tombili was a Turkish street cat who became a internet phenomenon when a photo of him lounging on stairs in Istanbul like a real person became viral. When Tomboli died in 2016, the mayor made him a statue at the exact stairs where he so famously lounged. If you´re looking for a cool Instagram photo, here´s your chance.
There are plenty of options for where to stay in Istanbul. It kind of just depends on what kind of traveler you are or what kind of activities you wanna engage in.
If this is your first time in Istanbul, we recommend staying in Sultanahmet. It´s the oldest part of the city and the cultural and historic center of Istanbul. A lot of the most popular tourist attractions are in the area so location wise it´s perfect.
If you´re the stereotypical backpacker, you might be on a tight budget when it comes to accommodations. If thats your case, Beyoglu might be the perfect area for you to stay. Located north of the Sultanahmet district, Beyoglu is one of Istanbul´s liveliest neigborhoods, attracting both locals and tourists throughout the day. A part og Beyoglu that´s definitely worth checking out if you´re looking for some good nightlife is Galata. Although it´s a part of Beyoglu, it has a distinct feel and charm to it.
Istanbul is also a very family friendly destination. If you´re looking at where to stay with your family, we recommend checking out the Grand Bazaar area. The focus points of the district are of course the famous Grand and Spice Bazaars, but in addition to that the area is full of vendors, shops and restaurants. It´s also in walking distance from many of the major tourist attractions, for example Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Turkish cuisine is delicious to say the very least. There are so many things worth trying that it´s actually hard to know where to begin. Being the cultural center of Turkey, Istanbul is absolutely packed with amazing restaurants and food vendors. To give you an idea of what Turkish food culture has to offer, we´ve made a short list of some must-have delicacies.
Simit: Baked freshly in bakeries all over Istanbul and sold on every city corner through the day, Simit is the perfect between-meals snack. Simit is a ring of slightly chewy bread, covered in sesame seeds. It can almost be described as a Turkish bagel. Its commonly accompanied with cay, a traditonal Turkish amber tea. Simit is also often a popular part of Turkish breakfast tradition where its often paired with some cheese, tomatoes and cucumber.
Türk kahvesi (Turkish Coffee): Turkish coffee is far from what you´re used to, in the best way possible. Generally served in espresso-sized cups, the coffee is slowly made on a stove, resulting in a silky smooth but very strong taste. The coffee is quite thick and leaves a sediment at the bottom of the cup so make sure to stop drinking before you reach the bottom. Turkish Coffee is a good energy-booster through your daily activities or the perfect drink to enjoy when socializing and relaxing. It surely is a must-try.
Traditional Durum: A known dish throughout the world, the Turkish Durum is the ultimate Istanbul fast food. There´s basically nothing to dislike about a Durum. Perfectly spiced, minced lamb is grilled on a skewer and wrapped in freshly-made flatbread with red onions, parsley, tomatoes and Sumac sauce. There´s nothing else to say, it´s simply delicious.
Lahmacun: First of all, a Lahmacun is gorgeous to look at. Second of all, its delicious. Diced peppers and spicy minced lamb is added on top of thin dough and baked quickly in a pizza-type oven before being drizzled with lemon and parsley. The vendors generally make the Lahmacun order by order. It´s so quickly made that once you’ve found your seat, your dish will most likely be ready.
Traditional Turkish Breakfast: Breakfast traditions in Turkey are quite different from your typical one bowl of cereal type breakfasts. The traditional Turkish breakfast looks more like a luxurious buffet and will most likely keep you full until dinner time. Turkish tea, fresh tomatoes, cucumber, olives, freshly baked bread and some good cheeses are common finds at breakfast and are accompanied by Sucuk ( dried beef sausage full of spices) and Börek (Thin sheets of dough, filled with meat and/or vegetables and spices and cooked).