A mystifying and historic city full of attractions for the most curious of visitors, Istanbul stands with pride stranded between 2 continents. Being one of the most visited countries in the world, visitors usually have a lot of questions about what to see, do and eat here. If you’re looking for a quick and snappy travel guide for your next trip to Istanbul, read on to find out everything you need to know.
Getting to Istanbul is quite simple from the UK. There are direct and indirect flights from major UK airports which fly into both airport in Istanbul. Yes, that’s right. Istanbul does have two airports; one in the Asian side and one in the European side. The one in the Asian side is called Sabiha Airport and the one in Europe is simply called Istanbul Airport. When booking flights, look out for the Airport codes so you don’t end up booking your flight to the wrong airport. IST is the airport code for the airport in the European side and SAW is the airport code for the airport in the Asian side. You can fly into anyone of the two, but I will mention that with Sabiha airport, I have always observed cheaper flights.
The flight time from most UK airports flying directly to both Istanbul airports take approximately 4-5 hours and costs as low as £80 return. The European airport is around 50KM from the main historical centre (SultanAhmet) whilst the Asian airport is around 47KM. Both have great transport links which includes taxis, metro and buses.
Istanbul Airport to SultanAhmet:
- Taxi: although this may be the quickest and most easiest way to get to your accomodation, it will end up costing you around 135TL. If you are taking a taxi, make sure you take it from the official taxi ranks located outside the airport.
- Havabus: To reach Sultanahmet, take the line that has this as its last destination. There are other destination buses such as Yenikapi. There is also one that takes you to Taksim Square; the bus number for that is IST 19. These trips will cost you 18TL one way, luggage included, and have great facilities on board such as on baord entertainment, charging ports, and Wifi. Check the timetable for these buses here.
- Public Transport – due to the Istanbul Airport moving to a further location, it is not as easy to take public transport into the main tourist areas. The best option is to take the H2: New Istanbul Airport – Mecidiyeköy, but from there you will need to get a taxi or some other form of transport to your hotel.
- Hotel Airport: you can also get your hotel to pick you up, however, this can be a very expensive option.
Sabiha Gökçen Airport to SultanAhmet:
- Taxi: a taxi from Sabiha Gökçen Airport to Sultanahmet can end up costing arund 125TL. Therefore, I would advise to avoid the taxis on this route. Not only is it expensive, but the traffic is usually quite horrendous via taxi and the trip can take over an hour.
- Havabus: I found this to be a very reliable, safe and comfortable way to arrive into Istanbul and therefore I class it as the best option. You have two destinations from this airport; Taksim Square and Sultanahmet. Getting to Taksim Square is simple and straightforward. Simply find the bus with Taksim Square written across the front, get your luggage to be stored away, hop on board, pay 18TL per person one way and you’re off. The journey will take 90 minutes. In order to get to Sultanahmet, you have two options. Option number one is to take the Havabus to Taksim Square which I’ve already explained. Then from there, take a taxi to your accomodation which will cost you around 17-20TL. The second way to get to Sultanahmet from Sabiha Gökçen Airport, is to get a Havabus to Kadikoy, – costing 14TL and taking 60 minutes – then walk to the Şehir Hatları dock and take a ferry to Eminonu. This will take around 15 minutes and cost you 3TL. From Eminonu, you can either walk or take a taxi to your accommodation. This last option is very scenic but can be difficult if you’ve just had a long flight.
- Hotel Airport Pick up: you can also get your hotel to pick you up, however, this can be a very expensive option.
Turkish Liras: Have some Turkish liras ready; you can either have them exchanged before your trip or get it exchanged once in Turkey. Alternatively, withdraw money whilst you’re there.
IstanbulKart: I would highly recommend getting an IstanbulKart – this is Istanbul’s version of a metro card which can be used on most forms of transportation. It not only reduces costs for your trips, but you’ll find you will need it on some forms of transportation.
British nationals previously required a visa to enter Turkey, however this is no longer the case.
The most ideal way of getting around is by using Istanbul’s easy to use public transport system. Avoid taxis if you can as it can take longer than public transport and even walking sometimes. Remember to get a IstanbulKart, as this will allow you to use ferries, metro, trains and even buses. The price of the actual card is 10TL, which can then be loaded with 5, 10 and 20 denominations. You can try loading 50TL also as some have said this has worked for them. Whatever you choose, it’s worth noting that getting around in Istanbul is very cheap.
All forms of public transport is safe, reliable, cheap and efficient. You will even find many locals taking this option as it is one of the most effective ways of getting to where you need to go.
What to see, do and eat
What To See
SultanAhmet Mosque: Built between the years 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I, it is also known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that adorn the walls of the interior of the Mosque. Take your time and experience the peacefulness and tranquillity whilst watching worshippers pray and chant verses from the Qur’an and Islamic poetry.
Hagia Sophia Mosque: Facing the SultanAhmet Mosque, you’ll find the Hagia Sophia Mosque standing with all it’s might and glory. The building can be traced back almost 1500 years. Functioning as a Church (and Cathedral) from its inception, it was transformed into a Mosque in 1453. However, in 1934 it was converted into a museum, until July 2020 when it transformed back into a mosque.
Topkapi Palace: Built in the 15th century atop a small peninsula hill, sits a former palace which was known to be the political centre of the Ottoman Empire. In 1924, the Palace was converted into a Museum. Visitors will see beautiful courtyards, exhibition halls, ruins and columns and many other relics. Be sure to visit the Sacred Trust section to see historical religious relics belonging to some of the major Prophets.
Galata Tower: One of the oldest and highest towers in Istanbul, the tower provides visitors with great panoramic views of the city. Whilst it was used as part of a fortress and inaccessible to the public, it 1967 it opened to the public. With a cafeteria at the top, visitors can get a drink and enjoy amazing views of Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern: Lying beneath the city of Istanbul you’ll find one of the largest cisterns of Istanbul. Located southwest from Hagia Sophia, the cistern has the capacity for 100,000 tonnes of water. There are many other cisterns in the city, however, this one is the most visited, accessible and impressive. Definitely worth a visit!
Eyup: recognised as one of the most sacred places in the world to Muslims, Eyup is home to the resting place of one of the greatest companions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Known as Abu Ayyub al-Ansari RA, he was known to be the neighbour of the Prophet PBUH. The area of the Mosque is thronged with visitors. From families to couples to solo travellers taking in the atmosphere, one can easily end up spending the day here.
Camlica Mosque – Turkey’s Largest Mosque: The newly built Camlica Masjid in Uskudar, Istanbul holds the title as the largest Mosque in Turkey. This Mosque not only consists of a prayer room, washing facilities, toilets and a courtyard, but also has a separate garden, kids play area, an open-air rooftop with amazing views, a museum (still being built at time of writing this), a library, a separate study area, an art gallery and many lounging areas.
What To Do
Take a Cruise Across The Bosphorus: A visit to Istanbul is not complete until you’ve taken a cruise across the Bosphorus. You can either take a long cruise or a short cruise from one part of Istanbul to another. Whatever the case, make your way to one of the ferry terminals and enjoy the views of the city whilst sipping on some turkish tea. The views you get from the ferries are just something else!
Shop At The Grand Bazaar: For some retail therapy, head over to the Grand Bazaar – a place which will tempt every bargain hunter. The Grand Bazaar was opened in 1461. An intersect for histories and cultures, it almost acts as a global crossroad. Being one of the largest covered markets in the worlds, it has over 3000 shops and 64 covered market streets. The Grand Bazaar also contains a mosque, restaurants, banks, post offices and hammams.
What To Eat
Grilled mackerel sandwich garnished with onions and topped with some salt and lemon juice and served directly from a boat. Perfect to eat whilst seated along the bosphurus.
A salty yoghurt drink that goes well with all meals. It’s very refreshing and cooling to the stomach.
Simply delicious minced meatballs infused with herbs and spices served with bread and salad.
A flatbread filled with tasty fillings such as spicy potato, feta cheese, spinach or a mix of all three. Can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
An aromatic tea served with sugar cubes that is enjoyed all over turkey and is the perfect end to all meals.
Kaymak & Bal
Clotted cream swimming in a puddle of honey. This duo is like heaven on a plate and the perfect breakfast item to be enjoyed with some fresh bread.
A hearty lentil soup that is nutritious as well as delicious.
You can’t come to Istanbul and not try fresh baklava from the many bakeries. Sweet pastry treats doused in syrup and filled with nuts. They’re simply irresistible.
This had to be my favourite dessert. A vermicelli dish filled with cheese and topped with syrup and pistachios and served warm straight from the oven. Oh what a delight!
One simply will be inundated with shops and stalls selling Turkish delight when in Istanbul. It simply is confectionary of a sticky and jelly consistency however there are also varieties made of nuts and dried fruit. The trick is to just try whatever appeals to you and select a personalised array of treats to take home with you or to eat on the go.
Beef, lamb or chicken is cooked on a convex pan and is served in the pan whilst sizzling. Served with vegetables and brown sauce. It comes with lavas bread.
A creamy and delicious oven baked rice pudding served in a clay pot.
A flat bread with delicious toppings such as minced meat, cheese and vegetables. This oven baked dish is shaped like a boat and enjoyed with sauces.
A tasty round and thin piece of dough topped with delicious spicy minced meat, onions, peppers and spices and baked in a stone oven.
A wholesome eggplant curry that can also be served with meat and enjoyed with fresh bread.
A tomato and cheese based egg dish that is a great breakfast item served with fresh bread.
The currency used in Istanbul and Turkey is the Turkish Lira. Money can easily be exchanged in the UK or upon arrival. Cash machines are also widely available. I would advise that you exchange a small amount in the UK, and get the rest exchanged in Istanbul, as you’ll find great rates.
The best times to visit Istanbul are between March and May and September and November when the weather is sunny and the temperature is warm. If you prefer a mild or cold getaway, be sure to visit between December and February. The months of June, July and August can be very hot.