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top five guide: istanbul, turkey

Updated: Aug 17, 2023


Galata Tower Istanbul Turkey at Night Turkish Flags

After the relaxing in the quiet tranquility of the Greek islands, we pulled a 180 and took a short flight to the chaotic and sprawling metropolis of Istanbul. Once known as Constantinople, Istanbul has been and remains one of the world's most magnificent and important cities.


Visiting here represented a major turning point in my travels: it was my first experience in a Muslim-majority culture as well as my first visit to the Middle East (though technically speaking we were mostly in Europe, since the city actually straddles both continents!). It was also the largest city I had visited at that point, with a population nearly two times that of New York City or London.


Without having much of an idea of what to expect, I immediately fell in love with the infectious energy, culture, and modern life in this historic city. Istanbul is truly a feast for all the senses that seems to carry treasures around every corner and could easily be explored over weeks instead of mere days.


here are my top five tips for a trip to ISTANBUL:


Beyoglu Neighborhood Street Istanbul Turkey

1: where to stay


With a population of over 15 million, Istanbul is a massive city with many vibrant neighborhoods to stay in. After much research, we chose to stay in an AirBnB near Galata tower in the Beyoglu neighborhood (pictured). This hilly, hipster area sits just north of the "Golden Horn" across from the old city. It reminded me of Lisbon's stylish Bairro Alto neighborhood and is packed with cafes, vintage shops, beautiful streets, and stylish people. I recommend basing yourself in this area, not only because it is a great place to explore on its own, but also because it is centrally located.


Tatlisi Safa Taksim Baklava Case Istanbul Turkey

2: turkish delights


Istanbul’s distinct culture is best experienced through its incredible (and often extremely cheap!) food. Here are some classic must-tries: Turkish tea (cay), Turkish coffee, simit (sesame bagels), fresh pomegranate juice, baklava, pide (like Turkish pizza), ice cream from a stand on Istiklal, and a full Turkish breakfast. And a few places we loved in particular: coffee in a chic space from Kemankes Cafe, an Insta-worthy breakfast at Privato Cafe, vibey dinner in the shadow of Galata Tower at Guney, and rows and rows of beautiful sweets from Tatlisi Safa Taksim.


Hagia Sofia at Golden Hour Sultanahmet Istanbul Turkey

3: sultanahmet sights


Istanbul's most famous tourist sights are conveniently clustered in and around the Sultanahmet neighborhood. Must-visits are the storied Hagia Sofia (pictured), which was originally a church in 360AD, then mosque after Ottoman conquest, now museum, as well as the Blue Mosque, a 400+ year old structure with an intricate (and blue) interior. Nearby is the thriving Spice Market (the colors! the smells! the crowds!) and the massive Grand Bazaar, which sells everything from jewelry to food to lamps to rugs to fake designer wares of every kind imaginable (beware that this last area gets packed on weekends, and we were generally underwhelmed by it).


Marble Bathroom Dolmabahce Palace Istanbul Turkey

4: dolmabahce palace


Dolmabahce Palace, located on the coast of the Bosphorus strait, was a former home to six sultans as well as an Ottoman administrative center during the 19th and 20th centuries. To say this palace is grand would be an understatement: in fact, I would say the elaborately decorated rooms and parlors rival France’s famous Versailles in terms of their scale, beauty, and ornamentation. A visit here is absolutely worth the trip, the admission fee, and at least a few hours of exploring. When you're done, there is also a lovely waterfront cafe here simple food and river views.


Beer Bratwurst Sauerkraut Austria Salzburg Meal

5: ortaköy


Another popular neighborhood worth visiting is Ortaköy, which is situated on the European side of the Bosphorus. With sweeping views of the river and the Bosphorus Bridge, this is a particularly lively place to visit around sunset. You can even take a cheap ferry tour from here (something we wish we had done!). Be sure to check out the beautiful Grand Mecidiye Mosque and don’t miss trying kumpir, AKA a Turkish baked potato bar (pictured), which is sold from many eager purveyors that will be vying for your business.



you can't always do it all, so one thing I WISH I had done:

Visit the Asia side of Istanbul. It is hard to believe, but somehow we didn't find time to visit the Asia side of the city that lies just across the Bosphorus. It goes to show that it is impossible to explore the depth of this vibrant city in just a handful of days - it would take weeks for me to truly see everything I hope to and for that reason I plan to go back!

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