I have never hidden that I have a passion for Istanbul. Together with Lisbon it is my favorite city in Europe and, like the capital of Portugal, it is a city where I feel at home as soon as I set foot there. In Istanbul Europe ends and Asia begins, here East and West meet and collide, giving life to a wonderful dance that never ceases to amaze me. Ancient Byzantium of the Greeks and Constantinople of the Romans is today an immense city that has more than 15 million inhabitants divided between the European and Asian parts. Given its large size, when planning a trip to Istanbul there are some considerations to choose in which area to sleep, how to move, and so on, and that's exactly what I'm going to talk about in this article.
How to get to Istanbul from the airports
From the new "Istanbul Airport" (IST)
It officially opened on April 5, 2019 and replaced Ataturk Airport which will soon be decommissioned. It is the largest airport in the world and is located on the European side about 50 km from the center. In the future it will be connected to the city with two metro lines but the lines will not go into operation before the end of 2020 so at the moment the only options are taxi or shuttle bus. The shuttle buses are many and reach different areas of the city; I'm operated by the Havaist company and at this link you will find all the timetables and all the precise routes. The lines that most interest tourists are the IS-1S diretta a Sultanahmet (departures every 30 minutes and fare of 18 Turkish lira, about 3 euros, travel time ... just under 2h) and the IST-19 direct to Taksim Square (departures every 15 minutes and the same rate, approximate travel time 95 minutes). I don't know the price of taxis, but, considering the distance, I think it is around 150-200 lire (22-30 euros).
From Sabina Gokcen Airport (SAW)
This airport is located on the Asian side, 50 km from the center, and is the preferred airport of the Pegasus company, but several other companies also fly there (including Turkish). By taxi the ride costs between 150 and 200 Turkish lira (22-30 euros) and takes about 45'-60 'depending on the traffic. Alternatively there are the shuttle buses that take you to Taskim Square or the Kadikoy pier. They leave about every half hour, cost 15 lire (5 euros) and take between 1h 30 'and 2h depending on traffic.
In Turkey the Turkish Lira and the exchange rate with the Euro has been quite a dancer in recent years (April 2019 1 euro = 6,5 lire). You can withdraw almost anywhere with all credit cards and ATMs (VISA, Mastercard, Maestro, etc.) so you won't have any problems. Even for payments, credit cards are accepted by virtually everyone.
Connectivity and the Internet: Turkey is out of roaming
If you have / plan to use your mobile phone during your stay in Istanbul, unless you have a contract that includes phone calls / data outside of Europe, you will necessarily have to buy a Turkish sim, otherwise you risk spending a fortune! Immediately outside the arrivals, at the airport, there are kiosks of the major telephony operators and the prices are all more or less similar. I bought one sim of TurkCell (the biggest company in Turkey, which takes everywhere) and I spent 30 euros to get 6G of data (no phone calls); this is the minimum contract! If you also want to make local phone calls or have more G the prices go up a little (10G + tel 33 euros, 12G + tel 35 euros, and so on).
Health insurance is required
In Turkey our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip, even for Covid-19. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online (!!!). All travel insurances also cover medical assistance in the event of a coronavirus infection, including testing if necessary. There is also coverage for the extension of the stay in the hotel due to the quarantine. Likewise, the trip cancellation guarantee includes coverage for illness or death of the traveler or a family member due to COVID-19.
Where to sleep in Istanbul: Sultanahmet or Taskim Square?
Istanbul is a huge city and the choice of where to sleep is very important. The areas where the largest number of tourist hotels are located are mainly 2: Sultanahmet, that is, in ancient Istanbul, and in the modern area nearby Piazza Taskim e Beyoğlu. I have slept in both and I recommend you sleep in the modern area. Sultanahmet is undoubtedly convenient for visiting the main monuments such as Aya Sofia, Topkapi, etc., but in the evening it is a dead zone. The Taskim and Beyoğlu area is alive at all hours and it is less invaded by mass tourism, those of the big buses full of Chinese and Americans. More specifically, I recommend the area called Cihangir (within the Beyoğlu district), a decidedly hipster area, full of antique dealers, art galleries, vintage clothing shops, bars and cute little restaurants. In general, however, the whole area located north and south of the pedestrian street Istical Caddesi is fine.
- The Loft Istanbul : this small hotel is located in a very nice location in Beyoğlu (more specifically in Cihangir), in a small pedestrian street of Cezayir Sk, a staircase full of very nice bars. It has few rooms but they are huge and well equipped and a nice roof terrace.
- Pera Palace : it is a historic hotel (which can also be visited as a museum) located in the Beyoğlu district. It was built in 1892 to accommodate passengers on the legendary Orient Express and is considered "the oldest European hotel in Turkey". I slept there the first time I went to Istanbul as a child and I still remember it, a hotel with a charm of yesteryear, which hosted the likes of Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, King Edward VIII, Alfred Hitchcock and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Room 101, where Atatürk used to stay has been used as a museum, while in room 411, Agatha Christie wrote a large part of the book Assassination on the Orient Express. If you are looking for a fairytale atmosphere this is the right place to sleep (and the prices for us are more than affordable!).
- Bunk Hostel: for those looking for a cheaper solution, the Bunk Hostel is a design hostel not far from Taskim square and Istical Caddesi. Nice new hostel in the perfect area.
Where to eat in Istanbul: my favorite restaurants
- Faik Pasha Cafe (Beyoglu): let's start with breakfast / brunch! This place is simply gorgeous and yummy (it's the one pictured in the photo below). It is a peaceful corner, both inside and in the tables outside that overlook an open space in Beyoglu. The brunch is really rich and everything is very good and the price is really honest, super recommended! It is located inside the Faik Pacha Hotel but is also open to outsiders.
- Karakoy Lokantasi (Beyoglu): typical restaurant with wrought iron stairs and colored tiles in the Beyoglu district (everything is delicious, but the lamb is something extraordinary!).
- Tavanarasi (Beyoglu): this little restaurant is a real treat! It is located on the 6th floor of a building in a side street of Istical Caddesi and you will hardly find the sign. As soon as you enter the building you have to take the elevator (or rather the freight elevator) which will take you to the 6th floor. When you open the lift door you will find yourself in this typical tavern that looks a bit like a mountain hut. The cuisine is typical, the dishes are super abundant, well made and cheap .. absolutely recommended!
- Murver Restaurant (Beyoglu): a little cool but good and beautiful restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. Recommended for both lunch and dinner.
- Asmali Cavit (Beyoglu): typical Turkish tavern in a small side street of Istical Caddesi. Here you can eat the typical Turkish appetizer made up of many appetizers and then choose a main dish of meat or fish. Great!
- Hamdi Restaurant (Eminou): historic restaurant in Eminou with a panaromic terrace and typical cuisine (many dishes based on pistachio). Reservation recommended
- 360° Panorama Restaurant (Sultanahmet): near Aya Sofia. Perfect for a lunch break when visiting the Sultanahmet area. It has a nice terrace overlooking Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
The most beautiful rooftops in Istanbul
- Much : this is probably my favorite rooftop in the city and is located on the top floor of the Nu Pera Hotel. It is close to the Galata Tower and from here you can see breathtaking sunsets over the Bosphorus and Sultanahmet (the cover photo of this article was taken there).
- 5.Kat rooftop : this place / restaurant is located in the Cihangir area and has a nice terrace on 2 floors overlooking the Bosphorus and the Asian side.
- 360 Istanbul: it is one of the most beautiful restaurants / bars / clubs in the city. It is accessed from a side street of Istical Caddesi and, as the name implies, offers a 360 degree view of the city.
- Alexandra Cocktail Bar : This rooftop bar is located in the Besiktas area and has a beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the 2 bridges.
If you want to change your view, there are some very nice and typical rooftops in Sultanahmet too, especially near the great Suleiman Mosque.
Where to drink in Istanbul
- Pera Palace (Beyoglu): Historic and super classic hotel built in 1892 that has had illustrious guests from Hemingway to Hitchcock, to many others. Go for a cup of tea or an aperitif. A location of other times!
- Lucca (Babek): bistro with Italian cuisine and lounge bar right along the Bosphorus, in one of the trendiest areas of Istanbul.
- Babylon Lounge (Beyoglu): historic venue for concerts. Nearby there are many clubs with music / DJs and great movement.
- Building (Fashion): this place is located in the Asian area, in Kadikoy, a very hipster area full of young people. The place is very nice and even has a garden perfect for having a brunch in the sun if you happen to be there during the day. In the evening there is live music and DJ sets. The streets around are also full of bars and clubs.
- Cafe Naftalin K. (Balat): a colorful cat-café in the wonderful neighborhood of Balat (see photo below), a crossroads of different ethnic groups, people, religions and cultures, with a high concentration of Orthodox Greeks. Also in this case, on the same path there are others just as nice.
Where to take a Turkish bath (Hamam)
Il Turkish bath (Hamam in Turkish) is an experience to do at least once, especially in Istanbul, where you can find the ancient Hamams (which are the most beautiful!). But how does it work? Normally there is a section reserved for women and one reserved for men, or there are different opening hours for the 2 sexes. When you enter and pay, they give you slippers (to use ABSOLUTELY, the floor inside is super-slippery) and a towel to tie at the waist (there are always lockers to close your belongings too). Then there is a first room that acts as a changing room where you can lie down and sip a tea before moving on to the great room which has a perforated dome and fountains from which water is drawn for the basins. Here are also the women (in the case of the female section) who will give you the massage (very vigorous) and wash you. Then there is a third room, the warmer one, with no ventilation. The admission price varies a lot depending on the place and the service (from 6/7 euros up to 30/50 euros). Here are some addresses:
- Oruculer Hamami : Authentic Hamam in Sulthanamet, near the Grand Bazaar. From the outside it doesn't inspire too much confidence, but once inside you will surely be satisfied. There is also a sauna, not included in the price.
- Cagaloglu Hamami : probably the most beautiful hamam in Istanbul (pictured below). It was founded in 1741 and at the entrance you will find all the portraits of illustrious guests (including some Hollywood stars). The environment is really suggestive; it is much more expensive than the other hamams (base price 30 euros), but if you want to spend a Thousand and One Nights afternoon… surely it is the right place!
- But Hammam: if you are looking for a hammam in Cihangir, I recommend this one, which you can book in advance from this site. If you choose the traditional route, the one that has been handed down from the early years of the Ottoman Empire, you will have the right to enter thehammam, the use of towels and peshtemal (a sort of pareo), the cleansing and exfoliation of the skin with a Kessa glove and a relaxing foam bath. This option has a duration of one hour. If you want, you can complete the experience adding a 20-minute relaxing massage: it is a massage of Asian origins made with essential oils. Finally, you can request the application of a facial mask, perfect for closing the pores and obtaining a smooth and soft skin.
You might also be interested in these other articles I wrote about Turkey
- Turchia: what to see in 10 days (or 2 weeks)
- Cappadocia (Turkey): what to see in 3 days
- What to see in Istanbul in 3 days