Travel Guide to Istanbul

View of Blue Mosque from Aya Sofia

This travel guide to Istanbul comes just in time for spring when many are planning their spring and summer holidays. I’ve been getting many inquiries about Istanbul so I decided to write this travel guide to collect all of my recommendations — currently spread over several posts — into one article. To see all of our hotel and restaurant posts, which supplement this travel guide to Istanbul, go to the Mapplr Istanbul page.

Istanbul is one of the most beguiling cities in the world. Our human history has been shaped by events that took place in that city and by the rule of the Ottoman empire over vast areas of Europe, Asia and North Africa for 600 years. Nothing has been left untouched by the Ottoman Turks. Wherever they ruled, they altered arts and sciences, literature, cuisine, religion, language and law forever. But in becoming an empire, they too were forever changed and influenced in turn by the cultures that they dominated. Hence, a visit to Istanbul – known in days gone by as Constantinople – is mandatory for anyone who loves history, architecture and food. Straddling two continents, the city feels very European and Asian at the same time, and nowhere is this more evident than in their cuisine, which is absolutely exquisite.

Where to stay

I recommend that you stay either in the Cihangir or Beyoglu neighborhoods. They lie across the Golden Horn from the Sultanahmet district, which you can easily reach by tram. While the Sultanahmet is a delightful area to explore during the day (this is where Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque are located), it is simply too touristy: there are too many hotels, cheap fast food joints and souvenir shops. In addition, when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, which occurs five times a day, he will rouse you very early in the morning and wake you late at night. If you like getting a good night’s rest, avoid Sultanahmet.

The two hotels I recommend are the Witt Istanbul Suites (read review) in Cihangir and the TomTom Suites (read review) in Beyoglu.

Witt Istanbul Suites
Defterdar Yokusu No. 26
34433 Cihangir
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 393 7900

Tomtom Suites
Boğazkesen Caddesi
Tomtom Kaptan Sokak No.18
Beyoğlu, 34413 Istanbul
+90 212 292 4949

Cihangir’s lively cafes, quirky boutiques and markets give you a taste of how young Istanbul residents live and socialize. Indeed, just up the street from the Witt are two cafes that are packed regardless of the hour of day. Here’s where I like to take my tea in the late afternoon with Turkish sweets. A note about tea in Istanbul: it is uniformly delicious, whether taken on one of the ferries or at a chic cafe in Cihangir. For reasons unknown to me, it tastes exactly the same no matter where you have it.

The TomTom Suites are closer to the vibrant outdoor dining area of Beyoglu whose narrow streets lined with restaurants and cafes are the centerpoint of the neighborhood (especially streets such as Sofyali Sokak, where Refik Meyhane, listed below, is located).

If you can’t get a room at the Witt or the TomTom Suites, I have a list of alternative accommodations below.

Sofa Hotel
Tesvikiye Caddesi No:41-41A
Istanbul, Turkey

4 floor Istanbul
Tercuman cikmazi, 20
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 532 497 7921

Ansen Suites 130
Mesrutiyet Cad. 130
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 245 8808

Sirkeci Konak Hotel
Taya Hatun Sokak No:5
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 528 4344

A’jia Hotel
Ahmet Rasim Pasa Yalisi, Cubuklu Caddesi 27
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 216 413 9300

Hotel Les Ottomans
Muallim Naci Cad. N° 68 – 34345 Kurucesme
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 359 1500

Sumahan on the Water
51 Kuleli Caddesi
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 216 422 8000

Where to eat, what to eat

My favorite restaurant is Çiya Sofrasi (read review), a very popular restaurant in Kadiköy. You can reach Kadiköy by ferry from the docks at Eminönü. Strictly speaking, Çiya serves Anatolian food: red lentil soup, purslane with barley and lentils, lamb stewed with eggplants, stuffed roasted eggplants and more. You start out with mezes, small plates of appetizers, then proceed to the main dishes and finally the desserts. Also check out the Insider’s Guide to the Top Restaurants Serving Traditional Turkish Cuisine in Istanbul.

Çiya Sofrasi
Guneslibahce Sokak 43
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 216 330 3190

Refik Meyhane
Sofyali Sokak 10/12
Asmalı Mescit
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 243 2834
One of Istanbul’s most popular meyhanes (taver), packed at lunch and dinner; delicious mezes and grilled meats

Kumbaracı yokuşu 57/6
Tünel, Beyoğlu
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 293 49 89
Great views from top of an apartment building, excellent Mediterranean food, lively young crowd

Salhane Sokak 7
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 236 2296

Kanyon Büyükdere Caddesi
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 319 8888
Chinese Fusion

Topaz Restaurant
İnönü Caddesi 50
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 249 1001
Expensive restaurant serving modern Turkish cuisine, fabulous views over the Bosphorus bridge, good for business dinners or for celebrating a special occasion

Sunset Grill & Bar
2 Adnan Saygun Caddesi
Ulus Park
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 287 0357

House Café Tünel (other locations too)
Asmalı Mescit No:9/1-2
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 245 9515

Orman Sokak No:8
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 663 2990

Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No:21/1
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 225 4662

Tahmis Caddesi Kalçın Sokak No:17
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 528 0390


Sıraselviler Caddesi 47
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 249 1348

Köybaşı Caddesi Vapur İskelesi Sokak No:15
Istanbul, Turkey
(Best fish restaurant in İstanbul)

Balikci Sabahattin
Cankurtaran, Sultanahmet (behind Armada Hotel)
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 458 18 24
(another good fish restaurant)

Food in Istanbul is amazing. The seafood is fresh and often served grilled with herbs and spices. Although most people associate Turkish cuisine with copious amounts of grilled meats, Turkish vegetable dishes are, in my opinion, the highlight of many meals I’ve had in Istanbul. And if you think you have no space for dessert, you’ll change your mind when you see them: candied fruits, pistachio delights with honey, and of course, ice cream, which is so creamy and luscious you’ll forget that you could not read the menu at the ice cream shop and ordered pistachio instead of almond.


Top seafood restaurants in Istanbul

Top Asian restaurants in Istanbul

Istanbul restaurants and clubs where the fashionable crowd hangs out

What to do

beautiful mosque in Istanbul

You have to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (popularly known as the Blue Mosque, whose archways are pictured above), Aya Sofia (sometimes called Hagia Sofia, the former Christian basilica that was converted into a mosque), and the atmospheric Basilica Cistern which is a large subterranean chamber only 150 meters from Aya Sofia. The Basilica Cistern was used as a reservoir for the Great Palace. The ceiling is supported by marble columns and the water comes from the Belgrade Forest via the aqueduct constructed during the reign of Justinian. An eerie silence permeates the cisterns. As you walk on the wooden planks suspended above the water, you see strange shadows and movements, then you come upon a column whose base is carved with the face of the Medusa (in Greek mythology, a female creature whose head is adorned with snakes), a mysterious feeling slowly overcomes you.

You get exactly the opposite feeling at the Topkapi Palace is a massive, stunning monument to the Ottoman Empire. It functioned as the private residence of the Sultan (and also the seat of the executive and judiciary councils). In the 1800s, Sultan Abdul Mecid I commissioned a new palace called Dolmabahce on the Bosphorus, which you can also visit. Topkapi was turned into a museum in 1924.

If you’ve had enough of mosques and palaces, head over to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world. It’s a bewildering experience to walk around the endless corridors and labyrinths filled with jewelry and carpets, textiles, and just about anything you can think of.

The villages of Ortaköy and Arnavutköy: Ortaköy is much easier to reach than Arnavutköy but you should still try to visit both because their location, right on the water, makes them perfect places to have lunch, coffee or dinner. They used to be fishing villages and they have retained a certain intimate serenity that is impossible to find in Istanbul. Both are popular among locals especially on weekends when families and couples descend on the waterside restaurants and cafes.

Princes’ Islands: do not miss the Princes’ Islands, a group of tiny islands on the Sea of Marmara just a ferry ride away from Istanbul. The largest island is Buyukada, a popular resort among the wealthy families of Istanbul, many of whom still own the historic villas sprinkled across the island. Buyukada allows no cars but you can rent a bicycle or hire a horse-drawn carriage. A trip to Buyukada takes the better part of the day so don’t plan to see all the Princes’ Islands all at once. For lunch, there are wonderful seafood restaurants on the water, but they are quite expensive.

Hammam (Turkish bath): there are hammams all over the city and after a day of sightseeing (or a tiring flight), there’s nothing better than a visit to a hammam where you sit in heated splendour, sweating away the cares of the day, as an attendant scrubs and pummels you till your skin is pink and your circulation has revived. You don’t need to go to the pricey hammams mentioned in the guide books. Ask the hotel for a reasonably priced alternative in your neighborhood. There’s one in Beyoglu recommended by the Witt Suites, and you’d never suspect that behind the simple street-facing wooden facade lie series of colossal marble rooms with water spouts and cisterns.

Other observations

(1) People who have never been to Istanbul imagine that because its population is largely Muslim, all women are covered up or wearing headscarves. This is not the case at all. In some areas like the markets around the Grand Bazaar, most women are wearing headscarves, but in Istanbul in general, most women are dressed like women you’d find in Paris, London, and New York.

(2) Public transportation: the trams are efficient and take you around the city in no time for very little money. The ferries are delightful because the views across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus are breathtaking.

Suggested reading

When I visit a city as evocative as Istanbul, I like to read memoirs or fictional novels set in the city. Here are three I recommend.

(1) Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Memoirs of Nobel Prize winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk of his life in Istanbul. He still lives there, in the same house where he grew up.

(2) My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Murder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul, also by Orhan Pamuk.

(3) The Calligraphers’ Night by Yasmine Ghata

Novel about a female calligrapher in the 1920s in Istanbul, inspired by the grandmother of the author, Lebanese writer, Yasmine Ghata (who is the daughter of famed Lebanese poet Venus Khoury-Ghata). Read The Guardian UK review.

About Esme Vos

Esme Vos is the founder of Mapplr, a travel site featuring boutique hotels, luxury resorts, travel guides and restaurant reviews. You can find her on and Twitter.