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Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul Photo info
Nikada/iStockphoto.com

Bridging East and West -- Europe and Asia -- Istanbul possesses a richly complicated heritage. Once the capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, this city's prestigious history has left us with many monuments to cherish. Plus it integrates its past and the present to create a unique mix of architecture; a glass skyscraper next to a Byzantine church or a colorful bazaar in the shadow of a shopping mall. The natural landscape is also impressive ... continue»

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When to Visit Istanbul

The best time to visit Istanbul is September to November. That's when the crowds diminish, the rates drop, and weather is spectacular. Peak season -- summer -- sees spikes in temperatures and room rates. To save money and sweat less, visit Istanbul in the spring or fall. Spring is still a little chilly, so bring a coat. The winter months tend to be rainy, snowy and cold with average highs in the 40s. The dip in temperatures (and thus tourism) means that you'll find bargains on hotel rates; the budget conscious could brave the weather and visit in December or January.

Best Times to Visit Istanbul»

Istanbul Temperature (F) Istanbul Precipitation (in)

Temperature [+ enlarge]Precipitation [+ enlarge]

Getting Around Istanbul

Istanbul Neighborhoods

Istanbul is the only city in the world that's spread over two continents, with the Bosphorus strait forming the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The Golden Horn, an inlet stemming from the Bosphorus, further cuts the European side of Istanbul into northern and southern halves.

Minus the distinction between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, the city does not have any official districts. However, you can split up the city into seven areas. The European side of Istanbul is where most attractions, hotels and restaurants are located, while the Asian side is mostly residential.

The European Side

You will most likely spend the majority of your time on Istanbul's European side, which is filled with attractions, hotels and restaurants.

Sultanahmet

Also referred to as the Old City or the Historical City, Sultanahmet is a peninsula sandwiched between the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, and is where you'll find most of Istanbul's highlights. This area holds a significant place in history as it was once the city of Constantinople, the center of the Roman Empire. Walking Sultanahmet's winding streets will take you past many mosques and palaces that date back to those times.

Start your day at the peninsula's eastern edge, where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn meet. There, sitting at the top of a hill and overlooking the waters below is Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi). Having served as the home of sultans for centuries and the central ruling place of the Ottoman Empire, the palace is stands as symbol of Istanbul's luxurious royal past. Next door is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which houses artifacts showing off Istanbul's significant history, from the Mesopotamians to the Ottomans to Alexander the Great.

From the Topkapi Palace you can see the minarets and domes rising from the Blue Mosque. Constructed in the early 1600s by the order of Sultan Ahmet I, the mosque's interior is covered in brilliant stained-glass windows, calligraphy and blue tiles. Shawls are provided to cover legs and shoulders before entering the mosque, and you'll be required to remove your shoes prior to your visit. Nearby is the must-see Hagia Sophia, a place with outstanding architecture and a long history. Also close by is the Hippodrome that once seated 100,000 spectators to watch chariot races in the Byzantine era.

Bazaar Area

Northwest of the Sultanahmet is the Bazaar Area, where writers suggest you start haggling in the steepest part, the Grand Bazaar. The oldest indoor shopping center in the world, you will face an overwhelming number of shops, cafés and mosques, and encounter zealous vendors pitching products that range from carpets to clothing to furniture -- so be prepared to bargain. Downhill, the smaller-in-scale Egyptian Bazaar sells local spices and nuts.

Beyoglu

There is a reason that Beyoglu, located directly north of Sultanahmet across the Golden Horn and ascending Galata Hill, is sometimes called "New Town." It's one of the trendier and more modern districts of Istanbul -- a place you can visit to avoid a Byzantine architecture overload. Eclectic cafés, restaurants and performance venues dot the winding streets, as do nightclubs and bars.

Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu's main road, is lined with beautiful architecture from the 1800s. The old buildings mingle with new stores and boutiques, perfectly representing Istanbul as a city of contradiction. One of those older buildings is the Pera Palace Hotel, which was built in 1892 and became a haven for royalty and celebrities, including Agatha Christie, who penned Murder on the Orient Express at the hotel.

At the top of Galata Hill is Galata Tower, which was originally built in 1349 as a defense fortress. Today, visitors can go to the top of the tower for splendid views of the city.

The Bosphorus

Along the European shores of the Bosphorus is a quieter and more idyllic Istanbul. Summer homes built by the Ottomans in eras past, a few castles and palaces like the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, as well as quaint mini-neighborhoods, such as simple Ortaköy and high-end Bebek, dot the shore. To see the shoreline, jump on a Bosphorus cruise starting in Eminönü on the coast of the Golden Horn, north of the bazaars. Although pricey, it's a good way to see the city from a different view. A handful of luxury hotels share fantastic coastal views in exchange for high price tags.

Western Districts/Suburbs

The Western Districts/Suburbs are mainly residential and rarely get visitors. However, tucked away between the houses and apartment complexes are a few architectural sights and good museums, if you look hard enough.

Although you can't enter the Byzantine-era Church of Theotokos Panaghiotissa, the red exterior is worth a trip to see.  The Church of St. Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi) is home to a fantastic collection of mosaics from the old Church of the Holy Savior, which was turned into a Muslim mosque in the 1500s. In the mid-1900s, the plaster was stripped and the Christian mosaics were revealed. Both attractions are in the most western edges of the city south of the Golden Horn and are around five miles west of Sultanahmet.

Princes' Islands

For a relaxing day trip out of the chaos of the city, head to the Princes' Islands, Adalar in Turkish, a collection of nine calm and peaceful islands that once served as exile islands for the Ottoman Empire. Situated in the Sea of Marmara parallel to the Asian coast, the Princes' Islands are accessible by ferry from both the European and the Asian sides. In Europe, you can take a ferry from the small area of Kabatas near Beyoglu; from Asia, take off from either the Kadiköy or Bostanci port, along the Bosphorus coast.

The largest and most visited islands of the group are Heybeliada and Büyükada. Writers say they are the most scenic, with green hills and breezes, and are the easiest to get to.

There isn't terribly much to do or see on the islands, according to experts. It's simply the escape from the urban chaos that most find appealing. However, there are a few beaches and dive sites (especially in Büyükada). On all the inhabited islands -- Sivri and Yassi are uninhabited and very small -- there are promenades with good picture-taking opportunities of the Sea of Marmara. You can spend the night here; a few decent seafood restaurants are scattered throughout as are some hotels, but you should note the islands are eco-conscious. Bikes and horse-drawn carriages are the only available modes of transportation.

The Asian/Anatolian Side

Primarily residential, the eastern half of Istanbul is a much calmer and quieter area when compared to its bustling, urban counterpart.

Kadiköy and Üsküdar

The cobblestoned streets of the quiet Kadiköy and Üsküdar districts are lined with restaurants and stores. Of the two, Üsküdar has more to see, including the interesting architecture of the Semsi Pasa Mosque or one of Istanbul's highest hills, Çamlica Hill.

The Üsküdar area also features the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi), where you can enjoy the views of the water below from a café at the top. Ask a café waiter to tell you the legend of the princess once locked away in the tower on the Bosphorus coast.

Safety

Unfortunately, any city with a population as massive as Istanbul's is going to have some legitimate safety concerns. Take extra care around heavily touristed sites, and always be wary of overly friendly people approaching you. Fodor's says: "The busy and crowded areas around Aya Sofya and Taksim Square seem to especially attract these types. Many of the touts who will approach you, particularly in Sultanahmet, want no more than to steer you toward a harmless carpet shop where they will earn a commission, but the odd few might be less well intentioned."

Also, make sure to be extra careful when exploring Istanbul nightlife. For some helpful tips, look at the Nightlife section on our Things to Do page.

The best ways to get around Istanbul are the buses and trams, which conveniently cover the touristy areas. The metro is also a reliable and cheap means of getting around; however, stops are farther apart and not as well-positioned for seeing the sights. Note: The buses don't have maps inside, nor will the driver announce the stops. So, you need to remain vigilant and watch where you are going. In fact, most visitors arrive through Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST), then take either the metro or bus into downtown. Walking around the distinct neighborhoods is certainly a must; just know that you'll need public transit to travel longer distances. We strongly discourage driving -- particularly if you can't read Turkish road signs at high speeds. Additionally, traffic can be a royal pain. If you can, avoid the roads during rush hour altogether. Buses traverse the Bosphorus, but we would recommend a scenic ferry ride between Istanbul's European and Asian sides.

Getting Around Istanbul»

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