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Is Istanbul Worth Visiting? What to Know Before You Visit

As the only city in the entire world to straddle two different continents, Istanbul in Turkey is a place like no other. With half the city in Europe and the other side in Asia, you can find an awesome blend of East and West. 

Now, visiting Turkey hasn’t always been easy or safe, a lot of the time Turkey gets a bad reputation that personally, I haven’t experienced when I’ve visited Istanbul. I’ve been a few times and every time I go, I fall more in love with the culture and the people. 

So is Istanbul worth visiting? In my humble opinion, Istanbul is absolutely worth visiting, and I’ll let you know why you need to visit this amazing city below. I’ll also add a few things that you might want to be aware of the first time you visit for safety reasons and your own peace of mind.

Think of this as your ultimate guide to visiting Istanbul, Turkey! So, if you’re ready, let’s dice in and find out more!

Reasons to Visit Istanbul

Okay, let’s start off with all the good stuff. There are so many reasons why you should visit Istanbul that I’d be here for weeks if I wrote about them all, so here are the main ones.

Honestly, these alone are reasons to book that plane ticket and head to this wonderful city. So, let’s get into it!

Historic Sites

From the Hagia Sophia to the Grand Bazaar to the Blue Mosque, there is no shortage of iconic historic sites across Istanbul. In fact, of the 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across Turkey, 9 of them are located in Istanbul. 

a concrete castle

Honestly, the amount of history in this city is kind of insane. Over the centuries Istanbul has been a part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and many, many more, and it’s evident in the streets all around the city. 

Each civilization and era has left a church, a market, a mosque, or a tower behind, culminating in a beautiful, vibrant, and diverse city that’s just bursting with history. As a pro tip, you can also easily find free walking tours around the Old Town that are delivered by passionate locals – make sure to tip afterwards!

Some of the best historic sites that you can check out while you’re in Istanbul are:

  • Suleymaniye Mosque 
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)
  • Galata Tower
  • Rulmeli Fortress

Cultural Blend

Anywhere that is split between two continents is going to have an awesome mix of cultures. Istanbul definitely has that in spades.

Traveling from the European side to the Asian side feels like you’ve entered another world and it’s amazing. You can feel like you’ve visited a dozen countries all without leaving the city!

As there have been so many cultures and empires that have called Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was known, home over the centuries, the city is a huge melting pot. Stemming mostly from Byzantine, Greek, and Ottoman backgrounds, you can find so many different nationalities, languages, and cuisines all in one place. 

With this being the case, you can also find some amazing museums and galleries to explore all around the city. Some of the best cultural sites include the Chora Museum, the Istanbul Modern, and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.

Amazing Markets

I absolutely love exploring markets when I’m on vacation and Istanbul has some of the best markets in the entire world – I am not kidding. The most famous one is probably the Grand Bazaar and it’s a tourist attraction all of its own!

It’s huge, covering over 60 streets with over 4,000 individual stores. You can easily spend a full day here and get lost in the rows of spices, souvenirs, carpets, clothing, and more!

If you’re looking for a market that is more food-based, rather than selling absolutely everything you can think of, head over to the massive Spice Bazaar. Otherwise known as the Egyptian Bazaar, this amazing market is filled with dried fruits, nuts, sweets – including the iconic Turkish Delight, and of course rows and rows of fragrant spices.

The vendors also vacuum seal all the spices for you so that they’re easier to pack into your suitcase and take home with you – perfect!

Delicious Food

Okay, we absolutely cannot talk about a trip to Istanbul without discussing the amazing food all across the city. You can find pretty much anything you fancy in Istanbul and a ton of things that you’ve never even heard of before!

delicious food with fork on plate

Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that there isn’t one kind of “Turkish food”. There are a ton of different ethnic groups all around Turkey, and in Istanbul itself, so you can find a lot of variation and different kinds of food. Think about it, not all Mexican food is the same and not all Chinese food is the same – it depends on where you are in the country and the heritage behind the region. Turkey is no different!

If you’re looking to eat like a local, I’d recommend heading over to the Asian side of Istanbul to the neighborhood of Kadıköy. It’s so laid back and relaxed and definitely is less touristy than a lot of areas in the city.

You can easily get way more for your money here and try more Central Asian-inspired dishes like Khachapuri from Georgia, which is like an ooey and gooey pizza boat. It’s insanely good!

Honestly, with so many awesome eateries and markets, Istanbul’s food scene can be kind of overwhelming. So, that’s why I opted to link up with local food tour experts, Yummy Istanbul.

These awesome locals took us on a full-day tour around some of Istanbul’s best-loved markets, local hotspots, historic eateries, and dessert bars. 

If you book just one excursion during your time in Istanbul, let it be this one. Not only do you get a ton of amazing food, but you learn so much about the history and culture of Istanbul along the way. It’s 100% worth it!

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Cruise the Bosphorus Strait

Snaking its way through the heart of Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait. It’s actually the border between the European and Asian sides of the city, so chances are pretty good that you’re going to cross it at some point during your visit. 

It’s super quick and easy to get across the Bosphorus Strait with over 20 ferry companies operating in the area and the journey only takes around 15 minutes each way. However, if you want to take your time, enjoy the view, and get a ton of sightseeing done at the same time, you might want to hop on a Bosphorus Cruise. 

These full-day excursions tend to take around 6-8 hours and stop off at a lot of the major sights and locations on both the European and Asian sides of the strait. You can visit a ton of tourist attractions like the Küçüksu Palace, Rumeli Fortress, Topkapi Palace, and many more.

If you’re short on time and want to hit up all the main sights in one day, this is an awesome way to make it happen. 

Inspiring Religious Sights

With the sheer amount of different dynasties, empires, and religions that have called Istanbul or Constantinople home over the centuries, there really is no shortage of super-inspiring religious sights all around the city. 

mosque buildings

From the impressive Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque to the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua to the Patriarchal Hagios Georgios Church, you can easily visit a handful of religious sights in one day, admiring the history, culture, and spirituality that emanate from all of these places.

Of course, when you’re visiting religious places of any kind respect for the culture and practices is of the utmost importance. Even though the Hagia Sophia is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, it’s still an operational place of worship.

Adhere to any guidelines you see, including taking off your shoes, having your head, shoulders, and knees covered, and not interrupting anyone’s worship or experience. 

Awesome Architecture

As there is so much history and culture in every corner of Istanbul, there is also a huge array of awesome architecture to discover. From huge domed buildings to towers glistening with gold to amazing mosaics, you’ll find so much to look at before you even step inside one of Istanbul’s iconic buildings. 

The architectural styles in Istanbul range from Ottoman to Byzantine to Genoese, and all the way to modern Turkish. If you consider yourself a bit of an architecture nerd, you’re absolutely going to be in your element in this historic city.

Why not jump on an architecture-specific walking tour of the city? You’ll get exclusive insights from local experts and uncover a ton of hidden gems that you probably wouldn’t find if you went out exploring on your own. 

Super Convenient Public Transport

One of the best ways to travel around Istanbul is by public transport. Honestly, the roads are crazy busy, so you’re likely to be stuck in traffic in a cab, slowly watching your fare creep up without moving an inch. No one wants that.

In fact, Istanbul’s public transport network is actually really extensive. There are over 400 bus lines in the city alone and that’s not factoring in companies like Flixbus or external tourist coach companies that can help you get from city to city. 

However, one of the most common ways to get around Istanbul is by using the tram system. It’s an awesome way to get to the Old Town and circumvents all the traffic build-up on the roads. Of course, if you’re heading from the European side to the Asian side of Istanbul, you can also take advantage of the dozens of ferry companies that operate on the Bosphorus Strait.

If you’re thinking about using public transport around Istanbul, you need to get an IstanbulKart which is the local transport pass. You can buy them for just 10 liras from the yellow machines found all over the city. They work like an Oyster card in London or like a Metrocard in New York, but even better.

IstanbulKarts are prepaid transport passes that you can use on any form of public transport – not just trains and trams. The first three times you use it, you’ll get some juicy discounts on your travel, and after that, it’s just a really convenient and easy-to-use way of getting around the city. 

Friendly Locals

Turkish locals have a huge reputation for being super welcoming and friendly, especially to foreign travelers. Offering hospitality is a huge part of many of the city’s religions so that’s extended out to tourists as well as friends and other locals.

Honestly, the friendliness of the locals can be a bit overwhelming at first. The cynic in me was always waiting for the other shoe to drop and to be asked to buy something or go to a restaurant, but people are just curious and want to know more about you.

It definitely can feel weird for a while, but just embrace it and you’ll learn more about their lives and culture too!

A lot of the time there’ll be the standard questions like “where are you from?”, “what brings you to Istanbul?”, but others feel a little more invasive like “how much money do you make?”, “how old are you?” or “do you have children?”.

They’re not trying to be rude – these questions are commonplace and not considered controversial in Turkey. That being said, if you don’t want to answer, you can politely decline. The key word there is politely. Manners are a huge deal in Turkey, so don’t go being rude or offending the locals!

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Tons of Travel Connections

As a bridge between the East and West, Istanbul is actually a huge hub for onward international travel. In addition to being the airport hub for the super highly rated Turkish Airlines, the main airport on the European side, Istanbul Airport (IST), welcomed 64.5 million passengers in 2022 alone, making it the busiest airport in the whole of Europe. That’s huge. 

With travel connections all around Europe, to the Far East, Africa, and North America, it’s really easy to get to Istanbul and it’s super simple to combine a couple of days here with a longer trip. In fact, you can have your stopover in the city to break up a longer flight.

If you want to keep those pesky carbon emissions down, you can also travel internationally to and from Istanbul by train. Sleeper trains from Sofia in Bulgaria run regularly and the direct sleeper train from Bucharest in Romania runs in the Summer and has a lot more onward connections to the rest of Europe. 

Going East from Istanbul requires a little more thought, but you can get to both Tbilisi in Georgia and Tehran in Iran via train and bus. You’ll take a scenic train across to Ankara in Turkey and transfer across the borders from there. It’s a little bit more complex, but with some forethought, it’s simple enough to follow if you don’t want to fly. 

Turkish Baths

Okay, it’s definitely no secret that I love going to a spa, especially a Turkish Hamman, and my god, Istanbul is full of them. This tradition stretches back centuries and is definitely a worthwhile excursion while you’re in the city. Nothing gets out those muscle kinks from a long flight or train journey like a relaxing soak or an amazing massage.

A lot of the Turkish baths are located in stunning buildings with high ceilings and a lot of beautiful architectural features. So, even if you just want to sit back and soak in the healing waters, you can enjoy some beautiful surroundings and artistry.

Alternatively, you can hit up the treatments such as scrubbing, foaming, and massage. It’s all designed to purify and leave you feeling relaxed and renewed both in body and mind. 

Treat yourself! After all, entry to a Hamman with foaming only costs on average around 40 euros. That’s an absolute steal compared to spa days in Western Europe and the US. I’d live in one of these places if I could!

Step Back in Time on Princes’ Islands

If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul’s city center, you might want to check out a small cluster of islands in the Sea of Marmara called the Princes’ Islands. With a few different departure locations on both the European and Asian sides of the city, the boat ride over to the islands from Istanbul can take anywhere from 40 minutes to 1 hour and 40 minutes. 

Once you’re on the islands, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. There are basically no cars on the Princes’ Islands and one of the fastest ways to travel is by horse and carriage. I am not joking. It’s definitely a much slower pace of life compared to the vibrancy of Istanbul.

It also feels like you’re a million miles away from Turkey itself. The architecture isn’t even the same. Instead, you’ll find wooden buildings and Victorian-style mansions that look insane.

The Princes’ Islands are also super well known for amazing food, great shopping experiences, and stunning views back over the Sea of Marmara towards Istanbul. It’s definitely worth the journey out of the city for this unique neighborhood!

It’s Super Cheap

There’s no getting around it, considering the sheer size of the city, Istanbul is insanely cheap. The rate of the Turkish lira versus the Euro or the Dollar is normally really good so you can treat yourself for less. It’s actually become a pretty famous spot for affordable luxury. 

For example, we booked a $200 a night hotel that was basically a giant suite and nicer than a lot of five-star places I’ve stayed in. You can also get huge feasts and fancy cocktails for a fraction of the price. It’s definitely something to consider if you have champagne taste on a beer budget. We’ve all been there!

In the markets, haggling is a part of the interaction. Never accept the first price. Vendors aren’t trying to trick you, it’s genuinely part of the culture. You can end up paying less than half the original price, which honestly, I thought was reasonable to start with. That being said, I love a bargain as much as the next person.

Also, a lot of the excursions and transport can be really reasons. The IstanbulKart means that you can get a single journey for 15 Lira which equates to around 70 cents.

You can even have a sunset cruise across the Bosphorus with a three-course dinner for only 25 Euros. It’s actually kind of insane when you work out all the exchange rates!

It also means that you can get luxury content without spending a fortune, so if you’re looking to build up your brand or give your Instagram or TikTok a bit of a boost, you can get some awesome social media-worthy experience for a fraction of the price. 

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Things to be Aware of when Visiting Istanbul

Okay, so I’ve gone over a handful of amazing reasons why you should visit Istanbul, and honestly, there are at least a dozen more that spring to mind. Now, let’s delve into some things that you should probably be aware of when you’re visiting Istanbul.

These aren’t exactly downsides, just some tips and things to note before you travel so that you’re not caught off guard. Cool, let’s dive in and find out more. 

Calls to Prayer

First things first, the vast majority of Istanbul locals are Muslim. That means that five times per day you’re going to hear Arabic through speakers, calling worshippers to prayer.

If you don’t know about this in advance or don’t live in a Muslim area normally, it can be a weird experience initially. You soon get used to it.

You also soon work out the timings, so you can schedule travel and excursions around the calls to prayer. Many guides and workers will down tools to pray at these intervals, so don’t be alarmed if your taxi driver pulls over to pray or your tour stops for a couple of minutes. It’s part of the religion and culture, embrace it and respect it!

Safety

Istanbul is like a lot of big cities – there is a crime and you need to keep your head screwed on. Pickpocketing is pretty common, especially around the main tourist traps and the major markets. Keeping your valuables close by and not carrying anything too flashy is always a good idea, no matter where you’re traveling.

If you’re going out after dark, make sure to stay in a group and stick to well-lit areas. After a night out, it’s best to get a taxi back to your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb – buses only run until midnight, so a lot of time this is your only option. You can always share your location with someone you trust for extra peace of mind.

Essentially, just keep an eye out and be sensible. It’s the same as if you were in Berlin, Auckland, New York, Paris, or any other major city. Really, it’s not rocket science.

A lot of people are concerned about civil unrest in Turkey and this has definitely been an issue in recent years. Before you book a trip, check the travel status on your government’s website to see if it’s still advisable to go. Riots and protests in Turkey are no joke and you definitely do not want to get caught up in the crossfire.

Traffic

Okay, so I’ve briefly gone into this when I spoke about just how good Istanbul’s public transport network is, but the traffic is seriously ridiculous. Do not even think about driving or getting in a taxi around rush hour, you’re actually going to be able to walk quicker than the traffic is moving. 

It’s a huge problem in the city, as is parking, so it’s definitely not advised to drive in the city. Realistically, there’s no need to drive here – the buses and trams are so good and run relatively late into the evening that it’s never really crossed my mind to hire a car here.

It might be useful for heading out the Ephesus or Ankara, but again there are plenty of affordable cross-country buses and trains that you can hop on. 

Crowds

So Istanbul has a population of 15.5 million people – that’s more than London, England. It’s a big and busy city that’s filled with a lot of people. Add millions of tourists into the mix and the crowds can get pretty intense, especially around peak travel seasons and around the major sights. 

If you’re not good in crowds, then avoid the peak season and try and visit some of the lesser-known neighborhoods, markets, and mosques. Also as there are so many crowds, you’ll definitely want to invest in some anti-theft baggage or clothing to keep your money, phone, and keys safe while you’re enjoying the city itself. 

Drinking Water

One of the big concerns when you’re in any hot country, like Turkey, is getting enough water and generally staying hydrated. Although the drinking water in Istanbul is safe to use to brush your teeth, shower, or wash any fresh veggies, it’s not always the best option to drink it. 

For people who aren’t used to Turkish water, it can give your stomach some trouble, so it might be best to stick to filtered or bottled water while you’re traveling around Istanbul. No one wants to be ill while they’re on vacation, do they? 

Basic Turkish Phrases

As I’ve mentioned, politeness and hospitality go a long way in Turkish culture, so it’s definitely worth learning a few basic Turkish pleasantries before you go. While a lot of locals who work in the tourist industry can speak some English, it’s not always a given and a little bit of effort can offer big rewards!

Here are some of the most common phrases that you’re likely to need while you’re exploring Istanbul. Obviously, this isn’t an extensive list, but it’s a great place to start.

  • Merhaba – Hello
  • Nasılsın? – How are you?
  • İyiyim, Sen nasılsın? – I’m good. How are you?
  • Teşekkür ederim – Thank you
  • Birşey değil – You’re welcome
  • Lütfen – Please
  • Hoşçakal! –  Goodbye
  • İngilizce konuşur musunuz? – Do you speak English?
  • Türkçe bilmiyorum! – I don’t speak Turkish
  • Sizi anlamıyorum – I don’t understand
  • Ne kadar? – How much does it cost?
  • Yardım edebilir misiniz? – Can you help me?
  • Evet – Yes
  • Hayır –  No

It’s always worth learning a few words and phrases in the native language when you’re traveling. Not only is it the polite thing to do, but it shows a lot of respect for the culture, and you might even charm a local trader into giving you a lower price on their wares! What’s not to love about that?

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Is Istanbul Worth Visiting?

So, the big question. Is Istanbul worth visiting? For me, it’s a resounding yes. Istanbul is a super popular vacation spot for Germans especially because flights only cost around 250 Euros roundtrip and there are a ton of Turkish expats who live in Germany, so there isn’t as much of a culture shock.

Istanbul is an awesome place to visit for a couple of days if you’re into history and culture, or if you’re a massive foodie. It’s also well worth visiting if you want to check out two completely different continents in one short trip. For a city break, you can find a lot of variety on a trip to Istanbul. 

With so many great transport links going into Istanbul and in the city itself, it’s never been easier to get to this amazing city. I’d 100% recommend visiting Istanbul, especially if you’re curious about visiting Western Asia but don’t want to dive right into a full trip. Istanbul really is the best of both worlds.

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