Split over two continents is the sprawling city of Istanbul. Full of charm and steeped in history this capital city makes for an interesting city break. From colourful hipster areas to 1000-year-old mosques Istanbul offers something for everyone.
We spent four days in Turkeys charming capital and we explored as much as we could possibly fit in. We stayed in the Walton Hotel Galata, it was pretty inexpensive and was conveniently located. They also offer internet hotspot to take around the city with you, which was super handy.
The Blue Mosque
One of the most famous Mosques in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, non-muslims can visit in between prayer times. I had never been inside a mosque before so this was a pretty cool thing to get to experience. Unfortunately, when we were there, the mosque had a lot of scaffolding both inside and outside so you couldn’t see the buildings full beauty.
Across the green from the Blue Mosque is the famous Hagia Sophia. This Mosque was first built as a Christan Church and then later transformed into a mosque and now it is a museum. The building itself is over 1000 years old and super cool to walk around and explore.
Before going I read that there always seems to be a long an entrance line, this is understandable as it is one of the main tourist attractions in the city. Those blogs recommended just waiting in the line as it moves pretty quickly and not to go fast track or with others selling skip the queue tickets, as they are normally way more expensive. We waited less than 20 minutes around noon so I would advise the same unless of course, you want a guide or really can’t stand queuing.
Right across the road from the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. It was built back in the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire. This is an inexpensive thing to see and it is definitely worth checking out.
What once served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans is now a museum open to the public. The Palace was built during the 15th century and remained the resistance of the Sultans until the 17th century. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it was transformed into a museum.
The grounds of the palace is quite big and it took us about 2 hours to get around it all. We opted to pay extra to get into the Harem, which is the quarters where the imperial family lived. In my opinion, it was the most interesting part of the museum but totally comes down to budget.
I would say if you don’t have a lot of time in the city then skip the Palace altogether. While it is interesting and cool to see, there are definitely more interesting places to discover.
I mean can you come to Istanbul and not go to the Grand Bazaar? The Grand Bazaar is all indoors and is rows and rows of stalls selling everything from Turkish delights and spices to souvenirs and fake designer handbags.
The building that houses the Spice Market is reason enough alone to visit. It is a beautiful piece of Architecture. As the name suggests this market sells all things Spices and candy. The smell of the jellies walking through makes your mouth water. Trust me you’ll end up leaving with a bag.
This was right by our hotel, so we ended up walking by it quite a lot. The tower is located at the bottom (or top depending on how you look at it) of the busy shopping street, Istiklal Street. For great views of the city go to the top, I would recommend waiting until sunset if you can.
A traditional Turkish bath is a must-do experience when visiting Istanbul. We tried out Hammams in Morroco and loved the experience and knew we wanted to try out the experience while visiting Istanbul.
We opted to go with the more traditional feel and went to Aga Hamami. This bathhouse was pretty cheap, highly rated and close to our hotel. There are so many options for this experience from high-end spas to budget-friendly public baths, so depending on your budget there is something for everyone.
Where to Get a good coffee
Super cute cafe located in Balat. They had different blends on offer and the coffee was awesome. Grab a spot by the window if you can, it’s a great place to people watch from. Plus if you are looking for a spot for brunch they also had a good looking menu. I tried their Acai bowl and it was delish!
Located in the hip area of Karaköy is Kava cafe. They had different blends on offer when we visited and I tried one of their special filtered options, it was awesome.
Another hip coffee shop located in Karaköy. They do there own micro roasting so and it is founded by two coffee finatics (one who grew up in Australia) so you know the coffee is going to be good!
Located on the Asia side in Kuzgunck neighbourhood you’ll find this cute cafe. The coffee here is superb and they also offer some great cakes.
Speciality coffee shop with a side of Instagramble interiors yes, please!
Wandering the streets of Tophane we came across so many cute cafes and decided to try one out. I chose this spot as it was half cafe half concept store and the space just looked perfect for a chill coffee. The coffee was great, so if you’re in the neighbourhood definitely stop by.
Places to discover
Istanbul has so many cool neighbourhoods to discover.
If you’re visiting Istanbul, you need to come and explore Balat. This charming neighbourhoods cobbled streets are lined with super hip coffee shops, vintage stores, boutiques and art galleries. Balat is full of colour and character from the colourful houses to the street art, there are plenty of perfect backdrops for some insta worthy snaps.
Situated on the harbour, Karaköy is a vibrant neighbourhood with streets lined with hip cafes, boutiques and lively cocktail bars. There is definitely a young vibe to this area.
Neighbouring the super hip area of Karaköy, We stayed in this area and I really liked it. It is a lively area, with tones of restaurants and cool bars. It is also home to the landmark Galata tower.
Along with its neighbouring areas, Galata and Karaköy, Taksim is part of the Beyoğlu district. This area is well known for Istiklal Street, which is Istanbul’s main shopping street that spans over a kilometre. The street is just a short 5-minute walk from Galta towers and will lead you up to Taksim Square. There’s plenty of good restaurants as well as street food stalls around this area too.
Chances are if you visiting Istanbul then you will be visiting Sultanahmet. This is considered the old town and it is where you will find all of the major tourist attractions such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Cisterns to name a few.
just a hop, jump and skip over to Asia will find you in the neighbourhood of Kadıköy. The Asian side is a lot less touristy and more residential. So the neighbourhoods on this side give you more of a local feel. This area is also known as a foodie district with some great markets and restaurants offering up some mouth-watering Turkish cuisine.
Where to Shop
I dont normally include this type of section in my travel guides but I did happen to stumble across some cool boutiques and vintage stores on my explorations through Istanbul and they are just too cool not to include.
A Hidden Bee
A Hidden Bee was my favourite gem to stumble upon. It was created back in 2017 and describes itself as a mindful clothing brand. All of their garments are produced by responsible manufacturing partners located in Istanbul. When creating the garments they use locally produced fabrics, natural yarn and recycled materials.
Not only does the brand have a cool ethos the clothes are also beautiful. Their store is located in Galata and I would highly recommend checking them out.
Rag ‘n Roll Vintage & Backstage Vintage
Located in Balat these cool vintage store offers some unique pieces. If you are exploring Balat, and I highly recommend you do then pop into both of these locations.
Where to eat
I will admit I wasn’t blown away by the food choices here in Istanbul, I found the mid-level restaurant scene to be somewhat lacking. While the restaurants we visited served up some good food, the restaurants lacked a nice exterior, which just made the spaces (in my opinion) look kind of dirty. Saying that we didn’t try any of the super fancy restaurants because we were on a budget, but from what I could tell from images online they looked a lot nicer.
Reyhun Iranian Resturant
I’ve never had Iranian cuisine before and while this may not be good as eating at a traditional restaurant in Iran, the food here was delicious.
Traditional Turkish cuisine with a modern twist. I liked this spot because it was slightly more aesthetically pleasing than other traditional Turkish restaurants we visited. Plus the food was great!
Another modern Turkish restaurant, with a pretty interior. Great food too! This spot is great if you are a vegetarian.
For a more traditional fair try out this spot for a giant tray full of food! We got the chicken and lamb kebabs and it was delish! The restaurant exterior leaves much to be admired but the good food definitely compensates.
Istanbul Kebab cafe and restaurant
Another traditional Turkish restaurant we tried was this one over in the old city. We came here on the first night and it was my first time trying Turkish food. I order the meatballs and it was a great entry dish into Turkish cuisine. Definitely recommend if you are after a cheap but good meal while over exploring the old city.