Istanbul Travel Guide

Turkey  #8 in Best Cheap European Vacations
Credit

Courtesy of Leonardo Patrizi/Getty Images

Istanbul Area Map

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. Both sides are also divided into 30-plus districts, where more than 900 neighborhoods reside. You'll likely spend the majority of your time exploring the European side of the city, since the Asian side is mostly residential.

The European side is where many of Istanbul's hotels and restaurants are located. A plethora of top attractions and trendy nightlife venues also reside within this part of the city.

Fatih

Accessible via Metro Istanbul's Bagcilar-Kabatas (T1) and Topkapi-Mescid-i Selam (T4) tram lines and Yenikapi-Atatürk Havalimani (M1A), Yenikapi-Kirazli (M1B) and Yenikapi-Haciosman (M2) subway lines at Yenikapi, Aksaray, Emniyet-Fatih and Topkapi-Ulubatli stations.

The historic district of Fatih is bordered by the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, and it 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. Multiple neighborhoods can be found within Fatih, including Sultanahmet, Eminönü, Fener and Edirnekapi.

Also referred to as the Old City, Sultanahmet – Fatih's easternmost neighborhood – features various boutique hotels, multiple museums (including the Topkapi Palace Museum and the Istanbul Archaeological Museums) and the Basilica Cistern, an underground water reservoir that was built in 532. But this area is best known for its towering religious sights – the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. Both sit by Sultanahmet Arkeolojik Park and Sultanahmet Square, where the city's ancient Hippodrome sports arena once stood.

Just west of Sultanahmet is Eminönü, where two of Istanbul's largest markets – the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar – can be found. The neighborhood is also home to Istanbul University's main campus, plus 16th- and 17th-century religious sights like the Süleymaniye Mosque and the New Mosque. Visitors who travel northwest of Eminönü will find Fatih's Fener neighborhood. Once the city's Greek community, the area now offers an array of colorful houses, some of which house chic cafes and boutiques. And northwest of Fener lies Edirnekapi, a part of Fatih that houses the Chora Museum, a Byzantine Greek orthodox church filled with mosaics and frescoes.

Beyoglu

Accessible via Metro Istanbul's Bagcilar-Kabatas (T1) tram line and Yenikapi-Haciosman (M2) subway line at Sisphane and Taksim subway stations.

There is a reason that Beyoglu, located directly north of Fatih across the Golden Horn, 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 cafes, 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 Jumeirah, 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 the district's Galata Hill is Galata Tower, which was originally built in 1348 as a defense fortress. Near the commercial neighborhood of Karaköy lies Istanbul Modern, a museum filled with contemporary works by artists like Yoko Ono, Roger Ballen and Sarkis Zabunyan. And by the area's Taksim Gezi Park, travelers will find Taksim Square. This central plaza is surrounded by eateries and hotels and has hosted multiple political protests.

Besiktas

Accessible via Metro Istanbul's Bagcilar-Kabatas (T1) tram line and Yenikapi-Haciosman (M2) subway line at Taksim station.

Along the European shores of the Bosphorus lies Besiktas, a quieter and more idyllic area of Istanbul. Summer homes built by the Ottomans in eras past, a few castles and palaces like the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, plus quaint mini-neighborhoods, such as simple Ortaköy and high-end Bebek, dot the shore. A handful of luxury hotels can also be found here, but expect high room rates.

Accessible via Sehir Hatlari's Adalar (Princes' Islands) ferry lines.

For a relaxing day trip out of the chaos of the city, head to the Princes' Islands (known locally as Adalar), 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 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 reach.

There isn't terribly much to do or see on the islands, but they are an ideal place to escape from Istanbul's urban chaos. A few beaches and dive sites (especially in Büyükada) are available, and on all of the inhabited islands – Sivriada and Yassiada 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 hotels and some decent seafood restaurants are scattered throughout, but remember, the islands are eco-conscious. Bikes and horse-drawn carriages are the only available modes of transportation.

Primarily residential, the eastern half of Istanbul is a much calmer and quieter area when compared to its bustling, urban counterpart. Though accommodations options are limited on this side of the city, visitors will find Haydarpasa train station and the football-focused Sükrü Saracoglu Stadium here.

Kadiköy and Üsküdar

Accessible via Metro Istanbul's Kadiköy-Tavsantepe (M4) subway line at Ayrilik Çesmesi, Acibadem, Ünalan, Goztepe, Yenisahra, Kozyatagi and Bostanci stations.

The cobblestoned streets of the 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 and one of Istanbul's highest hills, Çamlica Hill. The Üsküdar area also features the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi), where you can enjoy views of the water below from a cafe at the top.

Suicide bombings, shootings and other acts of terror have been carried out throughout Turkey in 2016 and 2017. An anti-American sentiment is on the rise in the country, and terrorist organizations regularly target foreigners (including American tourists) for kidnappings and assassinations. As a result, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Turkey, which advises against traveling to the region at this time.

If you do decide to visit Istanbul, be aware of your surroundings at all times. Tourist sites, major events, transportation hubs and popular locales (like restaurants and nightclubs) are most prone to terrorist attacks. Also, avoid protests, gatherings and demonstrations, and keep tabs on local news. Signing up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which notifies the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of your travels, is strongly advised. To learn more about security concerns and safety tips for Turkey, visit the U.S. State Department's website.

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