I finally returned to this wonderful city after my first visit 12 years ago when I was traveling full time for about three years. I came to Turkey after many friends had told me it was their favorite country. And they were right. I ended up staying for three months!
Once you get past the tourist areas and meet the real locals, it’s pretty special. That is why I recommend “slow travel” because you need to see the sights of course, but then you need to take time to visit the many different Istanbul neighborhoods and meet local people.
The people of Turkey are very welcoming and hospitable. When I was here in 2007, I met so many new friends in Istanbul just with a warm smile and being friendly myself. I ended up meeting one new friend who introduced me to another new friend who invited me to live in her apartment and cat sit for her while she was away for two months! I then worked by giving private English lessons and also dabbled a little in the media here and found other odd jobs and friends.
It is always amazing to me, how I can build a whole new community in a foreign place. And yes, even as an introvert.
So, I had finally returned, mostly to visit some of the friends with whom I’d kept in touch…my friends Tahir, Neville, and the most wonderful couple who feel like family, Cigdem and Ahmet.
I even found Murat, one of the first people I met in Sultanahmet (the old quarter and touristy part) who had been so helpful and kind to me. Not only did he chat with me everyday, he also lent me his backup mobile phone since at the time I was traveling without one. And to do anything here, you needed one. He had recently returned from doing his mandatory service in the Turkish Army and the phone was somewhat important to him. It was his only connection to home when he was away living a new and unknown life in the military.
A Bit of Turkish History
Istanbul has a layered and illustrious past. The city was initially founded by the Greeks as Byzantium in 638 BC, later becoming Constantinople under Roman rule in 324 then officially becoming Istanbul many, many years later in 1930. Throughout its illustrious past, it has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and finally Turks. Today, it’s the economic and historical center of Turkey and the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination.
Best Neighborhoods of Istanbul to Visit
Istanbul is a huge city. The geographic size is massive at 2,063 square miles and thus the population. Currently it has a population of 15 million people in the metropolitan area. So you can imagine there are so many Istanbul neighborhoods and districts and much to see and do in Istanbul.
It’s impossible to see them all of course. But what I do recommend is going beyond the center and touristy areas and taking the metro or ferry to some ‘regular’ neighborhoods where life is going on and locals are living, working, and playing.
When I lived here back in 2007, I used to take the metro north of Taksim to some more modern (read: wealthier) districts known as the central business district like Beşiktaş Şişli, Levent, and Maslak. When I needed to get away, I would even hit the Kanyon Mall (which was brand new at the time) and catch a movie. It was such a contrast from the extremely busy center with its hawkers and tourists. It was civilized and perhaps even ‘suburban’ boring, but it was real and showed that life in Istanbul in some ways could be like anywhere.
If it’s your first time visiting Istanbul, of course you have to see the historic areas and central districts. Here I also list a few others that I think are some of the best neighborhoods in Istanbul to check out to give you a well-rounded feel of the city.
Sultanahmet is located on the European side and the south side of the Golden Horn. While, it’s not really ‘local’ in any way, it is the top area for tourism in Istanbul. And for good reason — it holds the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and Basilica Cistern. Sultanahmet is also very close to the Grand Bazaar.
If it’s your first time in Istanbul, this area is a must. Just be mindful of the touts always trying to sell you tours or a meal at their restaurant. It can be a bit much, but it’s their job. Just use a firm “no, thank you” (or Hayir, tessekur ederim if you want to try speaking in Turkish).
While there, be sure to go down the hill behind the Hagia Sofia where there are smaller lanes of shops and restaurants. It is touristy, but cute. Be sure stop by the Mesopotamiam Terrace Restaurant (down and around the corner from the Four Seasons) for a coffee or lunch on their rooftop terrace. It is one of the highest in the area and has truly amazing views of the Bosporus and all of Sultanahmet. If you go, please tell Murat, the owner, that Lisa from Chicago sent you. 🙂 Either way, he will treat you right.
Beyoğlu is located on the Eastern and European side of the Bosporus and the northern side of the Golden Horn. It’s a pretty trendy (and hilly!) area full of cobbled roads, great cafes, pubs, and shopping, as well as boutique hotels. You can take the tram or metro over. If you start at the bottom of the popular Istiklal Street, you can always ride the tram up. You will be near popular areas of Taksim Square, Galata, Karakoy, and Istiklal Street. It has become just as touristy as Sultanahmet and possibly even more crowded. Try getting off the main street and exploring the narrower back lanes.
Located in Beyoglu and just down the hill from Taksim, Cihangir was trendy then and is still very trendy now. This is where I lived and cat sat back in 2007. It’s a neighborhood of local artists, filmmakers and expats. Trendy cafes line the streets like Kahvedan and Café Smyrna, plus a couple of modern boutique hotels.
TIP: While here, you may want to stop into a pharmacist (Ezcane) to re-stock some of your medicines. You do not need a prescription here (although I always bring in the pill bottle label to be sure of dosage and look up the ‘real’ name, not the marketing name). As you can imagine, drugs are multiple times cheaper than they are in the United States. For example, my simple Thyroid pills (which are still relatively cheap in the U.S.) only cost about $1 for a box of 50 pills. Or the Albuterol asthma inhaler I have to buy for my cat is just around $20. Back home, without insurance they can be close to $100. I actually STILL get them through an online British pharmacy, which in turn actually got them from Turkey and I still paid about $50 each.
This block connects Cihangir back up to Istiklal Caddessi and is full of antique shops one after the other with some funky finds. Even if you aren’t into shopping for dusty knick-knacks, it’s a cute street to walk down and explore.
If you continue down the hill from Cihangir (much better than walking uphill which is extremely steep), you will eventually hit Tophane. Go towards the water to Kadiköy and you will find a few pedestrian lanes full of cafes, bars, and restaurants (and even Starbucks). This area did not even exist when I was here in 2007. It’s very cute, but pretty touristy and in turn more expensive. My iced coffee here cost more than a dinner I had in a local neighborhood.
Hop on the ferry at Eminönü and head to Asia! Kadiköy is located on the eastern side of the Golden Horn. This was probably my favorite area in Istanbul and one that I barely visited last time I was here. Walking around the lanes of Kadikoy and neighboring Moda was a delight. Moda is full of cafes and restaurants and had a young, energetic vibe. It definitely feels more local and as a place where many young, modern Istabulites live and hang out.
A walk along the waterfront (south of the ferry terminal) at dusk is lovely. Families, friends and couples are out picnicking on blankets and just enjoying the atmosphere.
If you take a food tour like the one I went on and recommend from my “where to eat in Istanbul” post, it ends up in Kadiköy and is a great way to get a feel for the area.
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Fener and Balat
Just about a mile and half north of Eminönü (a short 10 minute bus ride on bus #99 or #399), is the old residential district of Fener-Balat.
This is the area I stayed in (thanks to my friend Tahir!).
The Fener-Balat neighborhoods have a rich history that stems all the way back to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. When the city was captured by the Ottoman Empire, the Fener district became home to the many Greeks. And just north of Fener, the old quarter of Balat, was inhabited by Jews, many of whom came from Spain.
Today, it’s a changing area. Grandmas hang out their laundry while hipsters set up photo shoots below on the street against a backdrop of murals. Old, crumbling buildings lean against colorful, rehabbed homes.
For more food recommendations, head over to my upcoming post on where to eat in Istanbul.
Just north of Taksim, Beşiktaş is located the heart of the luxury hotel district in Istanbul. If you are looking to see a contrast to Eminonu and a bit of the way the wealthier Istanbulites live, head up to Nişantaşı known for its fashionable boutiques and trendy restaurants (or even further beyond in Şişli , Masklak, and Levent). Known for its epic Bosporus views and proximity to Dolmabahçe Palace and Ortaköy Mosque, there are tons of rooftop bars in this area offering beautiful views and cocktails.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is chock full of any kind of accommodation you would like. From five-star hotels to airbnbs, there are plenty of options. During my stay in Fener-Balat, I stayed in an old Greek home called Akin House. There are several different rooms to choose from and I loved being in a more relaxed area, yet interesting residential neighborhood.
If it’s your first time in the city, you may want to stay in the old town in Sultanahmet. My first time here I stayed in the small and charming Alp Guest House. The best part is the amazing rooftop with a great breakfast and views of the Bosporus. It’s on a little cobblestoned side street, so a bit quieter and a nice place if it’s your first time.
Check out Airbnb for cute little apartments in some of the istanbul neighborhoods I mentioned above. They are quite affordable and give you that local feel I love.
General Logistics for Istanbul
Getting around has become very easy in Istanbul. The public transport system is very good except for the traffic you have to sit in on the bus.
To/From the airport
Most international flights come into the new Istanbul airport. From here, your best bet is the Havaist shuttle. At the time of writing it was 18 Lira one-way (about $3). It goes about every half hour and is a nice, air-conditioned coach.
All you need to ride on any of the metro trains, trams, buses and ferries is the IstanbulKart. You can buy it at a station or at most newspaper shops and kiosks. The card itself costs 6 Lira ($1) and can be topped up with cash for rides, which are all about 50 cents.
There is no Uber in Istanbul, but you can download BitTaksi, which is essentially the same thing.
ATMs are all over the city.
Many places take credit card, but keep in mind that many also still just accept cash.
Go into any Vodaphone or Turkcell shop to get a local SIM card. Be aware that these shops are all franchises and can charge different prices. I went to one in Moda and it was surprisingly more expensive than one in Eminonu in the touristy center.
I ended up buying one from a tiny shop for about $20 for 100GB (bring cash!).
Although at first, it may seem daunting, learning some basic Turkish is not as hard as it seems. Here are some basics for you:
Thank you: Tessekur ederim
Good evening: iyi achamlar
Beautiful/very good: Cok guzel:
Welcome: Hos geldinez
As a solo woman walking around Istanbul, I always feel quite safe. If anything men can be “flirty” and lean toward aggressive sales tactics in the tourist districts. I felt fine walking around at nice and taking the bus, which was still full of locals, men and women around 11pm at night.
Keep an eye on the political situation, and avoid any protests. Like any big city, stay aware and keep your belongings close.
Istanbul is quite secular in mentality, and people there are dressed in every way imaginable from shorts and tank tops to full burqas. Most are somewhere in between. Some local women wear headscarves but at least half do not. There has been an influx of Arabs in the last decade so you will also see the full covering. As always for mosques you must cover your head, shoulders, and knees. Many mosques will have clothes you can borrow if you are not wearing appropriate clothing and would like to enter.
The rest of Turkey is more conservative to varying degrees.