Visit Istanbul Like a Local: Istanbul Travel Guide

To visit Istanbul like a local, you need insider knowledge on exploring the largest city in Turkey. With Istanbul’s long history and various civilizations that ruled the city, it’s easy to see how this major Turkey city became a melting pot of cultures. Each neighborhood and town provides insight into the rich history of the city. In some towns, you’ll find relics from the ancient Egyptians. In other villages, you’ll find Byzantine churches.

Istanbul is a stunning country waiting for you to visit. This Istanbul travel guide will provide you with information on what makes this city special, how to get here, Istanbul travel planning tips, and activities to add to your itinerary.

Some links on this page are affiliate links—that means that at no extra cost to you, we earn a small commission if you book through these links, and that helps keep this blog running.

Istanbul Fast Facts

BEST TIME TO GO
April–October
POPULATION
15.46 Million
CURRENCY
Turkish Lira (TL)
PLUGS
Standard C | 220 V | 50 Hz
CLIMATE
Hot sunny summers
Mild spring
Mild rainy fall
Cold winter | Snow & Rain
BEST TRIP TYPES
Historical
Food
Slow

Brief History of Istanbul

Istanbul has a long history that dates back to 2000 BC. This city spans two continents – Europe and Asia, creating a unique atmosphere in the city. Istanbul is split into its European and Asian sides by the Bosphorus Strait.

The original king who discovered Istanbul is said to have been led by an oracle. He named the land Byzantium, a Greek name for a city right on the Bosphorous Strait. Persians, Romans, Byzantine emperors, and other rulers took over the city through the years.

Eventually, the city was renamed Istanbul and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The Republic of Turkey came into existence in 1923. The city continues to be considered on European and Asian soil.

Istanbul Essentials

Museum Pass Istanbul | 

Get access to 13 museums to visit over 5 days in Istanbul. You can purchase the card through the website, at the first museum you visit or on the Museums of Turkey app. If you’re traveling to other reagions, get the Museum Pass the covers access to museums in ALL of Turkey for 15 days.

Download the Museums of Turkey App

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Blue Mosque Istanbul Turkey

Traveling to Istanbul

Not sure how you’re going to get to Istanbul? Here are a few transport ideas to get you to your final destination.

By Airline

If you only plan to visit Istanbul for a few days or are arriving from outside of the country, flying is likely your best option. The Istanbul Airport and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport are the two closest options. We like to fly Turkish Airlines for our long international flights. If you’re flying in-country, you can opt for a smaller airline for cheaper fares. Both Istanbul airports, will leave you about a 30-minute drive from the city.

By Camper/RV

If you’re already in Turkey, renting a camper/RV is a great option. This allows you to see the popular tourist attractions on your itinerary and then moving on to road trip to other regions of Turkey.

Also, you can drive to Istanbul from European countries. For example, you can start in Germany and end in Kapikule. Depending on the route you take, and where you leave from, the journey can be anywhere from a few hours to 1.5 days.

Double-check that you have the correct paperwork on hand when entering Turkey, so you don’t get stuck at the border. You’ll need a driver’s license (international), green card, insurance, and registration information.

Transfers

Once you arrive at one of the mentioned airports, there are a few options to transport you to the city and your accommodations. Taxis are available for about $30 one-way. Also, you can schedule a private transfer from the airport to your hotel. Some hotels will schedule this for you so be sure to ask. Otherwise, you can book your own transfer. 

Book your private airport transfer from the Istanbul or Sabiha Gokcen airport with Get Your Guide. 

Istanbul Travel Hub

Istanbul is a travel hub and many flights in country will fly to Istanbul first to connect you to other locations in Turkey. Some popular locations to fly to from Istanbul are:

besiktas district istanbul

Where to Stay

Whether you’re searching for a budget-friendly option or a luxury stay, you’ll be able to find accommodation that works for you below.

Besiktas

Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus

The Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel is the epitome of luxury and provides travelers with a relaxing, elegant stay in Besiktas.

This hotel has modern décor and incredible views of the Bosphorus Strait from the windows. The Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus has won multiple awards and is an excellent stay for those who want to be near shopping, attractions, and restaurant options.

Most rooms are around $350 per night. Though, if you feel like splurging, you can rent the Presidential Suite for about $7,500 per night.

Swissotel The Bosphorus

This five-star hotel features the perfect combination of Swiss décor with touches of Turkish culture. It offers guests the ability to swim on the rooftop pool or lounge by the fireplace while enjoying a drink. Other amenities include tennis courts, a gym, and a holistic spa.

The rooms at the Swissotel start at about $375 per night. It is located near the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, and both airports.

sultanahmet neighborhood

SultanAhmet Neighborhood - Boutique Hotels

Fatma Sultan Hotel

This brightly colored hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood offers great amenities at a more reasonable price. Expect to pay around $115 per night per room when staying here.

Besides being within walking distance of the Blue Mosque, the Fatma Sultan Hotel also has a spa and optional room service. 

Romance Istanbul Hotel Boutique Class

The Romance Istanbul Hotel is ideal for traveling couples. The interiors of each room are ornately decorated with rich colors and gold accents, making the stay feel even more luxurious.

This hotel is nearby the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and many other attractions. An onsite sauna, swimming pool, and spa are also available. Rooms start at about $170 per night.

RW Boutique Hotel

The RW Boutique Hotel is a more affordable option for those who want to stay in the Sultanahmet neighborhood on a tighter budget. Rooms start at about $75 per night. However, if you’re booking during peak season, you can expect prices to be around $115 per night.

This boutique hotel is within walking distance from some of the top attractions, including the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Hagia Sophia. Continental breakfast is included with a stay at the RW Boutique Hotel.

Camp / RV Parking

For those who choose to travel around Istanbul via camper/RV, there are multiple campsites to stay overnight. Here are a few to check out.

Star Karavan Park Çatalca

The Star Karavan Park Catalca is a lovely spot with lush greenery and a pool in the middle, ready for use. This camp is strictly for caravans, so you won’t be able to camp in a tent at this location.

Staying at this park offers a peaceful break from the chaos and busyness of Istanbul.

Kirpi Camping Karavan Parkı Çekmeköy/İstanbul

This caravan park has some great amenities, including a playground for kids, washing machines, and plenty of paths to explore. It’s located near the city, making for an easy trip back to the attractions after a restful night in the park.

Nearby, you can find local bakeries, butchers, and more if you prefer to cook a meal in your camper or RV.

What to See

One of the best parts about traveling is viewing the local attractions, and Istanbul has quite a few. Whether you’re staying for a few days or on an extended trip, you’ll want to make it to as many of the following bucket list locations as possible.

Iznik tiles in Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is as impressive outside as it is inside. This mosque was built in the early 1600s and continues to be a working mosque today.

As soon as you enter the mosque, you’ll understand why it’s called the Blue Mosque. Beautiful mosaics using blue tiles travel up the walls and onto the ceilings at the mosque.

There is no fee to enter the mosque, making it an excellent addition for those with a tight budget. Something to keep in mind is the rules associated with the mosque, including conservative clothing and a head covering for women.

Update 2022: The Blue Mosque is under renovation. You can still go inside but you cannot see the blue Iznik tiles.  

Bucket List Experiences Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is a cathedral in Istanbul built in 537 AD. For nearly 1000 years, it was used as the seat for Constantinople’s Orthodox Patriarch. In the mid-1400s, it became a mosque. Since then, it has shifted into a museum and then a mosque again.

This is a family-friendly location to visit, and the architecture is stunning. Expect to spend about 2-3 hours exploring the outside and inside of this mosque. You will need to purchase tickets beforehand on the Hagia Sophia website. 

basilica cistern travel istanbul

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern offers a look into the lives of the ancient civilizations that once resided in Istanbul. As you tour the underground reservoir, there are multiple statues to keep an eye out for, including the head of medusa.

You’ll be walking through stunning marble columns built in the 500s. This underground cistern is in Hagia Sophia, so it’s a great extra to do after you tour the mosque above.

As a note, you can only purchase entry to this exciting activity with the Turkish Lira. Cards are not accepted.

Fener Balat colorful houses

Colorful Houses of Fener-Balat

One of the best ways to learn about a destination is by exploring the streets and observing the architecture. The Fener and Balat neighborhoods are a fun place to explore, with brightly colored houses stretching up and down the streets.

Golden Horn View on Pierre Loti Hill

The Golden Horn is an inlet at the base of the Bosphorous Strait. It is the biggest natural harbor globally, and many people head to Pierre Loti Hill for a panoramic view of the inlet.

The Pierre Loti Hill features a café where locals and tourists sip Turkish coffee and enjoy the views. You can access it by cable car, bus, or walking.

grand bazaar visit istanbul

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a large covered market in Istanbul (one of the largest and oldest worldwide). This market is fun for people of all ages (including children). Local goods, brightly colored spices, and clothing are only a few items found here.

It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs or find interesting goods from local merchants.

What to Do

If you’ve already visited the above attractions, you may be wondering what other activities you can enjoy. Here is a list of top family-friendly things to do when you visit Istanbul.

bosphorus cruise travel istanbul

Bosphorus Cruise

There are multiple Bosphorous Cruise options that you can enjoy while visiting Istanbul. Some cruises offer dinner and a show geared more toward couples.

Day cruises provide the opportunity to view some of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul over a few hours. If you’re short on time, consider taking a cruise to see as much as possible in Istanbul.

eminonu street food istanbul travel guide

Eat Eminonu Street Food

Eminonu Street lies along the Golden Horn and provides access to mosques, restaurants, and ferries. On your way to your next attraction, take a few minutes to enjoy the many offerings of street food.

You’ll find everything from cheap sweets like Turkish delight that cost a few Turkish Lira to balik ekmek, an Istanbul fish sandwich. According to many, you’ll find the best fish sandwiches while walking down this street.

istiklal trolley istanbul

Ride the Istiklal Trolley

Istiklal Street, near Taksim Square, is a unique street in Istanbul that is pedestrian-only. There is one exception, which is the Istiklal Trolley.

This historic trolley travels up and down the street, picking up passengers who get tired after exploring the long list of shops along the street. You can ride it one way and walk back to explore the shops or ride it both ways for a short tour of the area.

This trolley is a slower form of travel, so only take it if you have the extra time. Since it moves on a pedestrian street, the drivers often have to wait for people to cross before continuing on the track.

Picnic in Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park is a beautiful place to stroll through or enjoy a picnic. It features perfectly manicured flowers of all varieties. You can find this park nearby the Topkapi Palace Museum and Hagia Sophia.

Take a break from exploring the landmarks and attractions to enjoy a peaceful lunch in Gülhane Park. It’s only about a 15-minute walk from Eminonu Street, so you can easily take your street food purchases and enjoy them in the park.

This park also holds a science museum, a fun stop for the whole family.

For more tips for your visit to Istanbul, you can see our top 10 bucketlist items in Istanbul

istanbul street food

Where to Eat - Foodie's Guide to Visit Istanbul

Eating local food is one of the best ways to learn about the culture. Istanbul has some of the best food in the country, so you can’t go awry when trying one of the available spots. If you’re unsure where to start, try the below options.

Adana Ocakbasi

The Adana Ocakbasi is a spot beloved by locals featuring Turkish BBQ dishes. The restaurant is located in the Sisli neighborhood and offers a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner.

This family-friendly restaurant is tucked away, so it might be tricky to find. Once you find it, you’ll be rewarded with delicious sauces, grilled meats, and fresh salads.

Balat Sahil

Balat Sahil is another local favorite that you can enjoy on a trip to Istanbul. This restaurant is cozy and offers delicious seafood options. Fresh fish is grilled or steamed based on your preference.

This authentic restaurant is a great spot to enjoy a meal with your family. It’s in the Fener-Balat neighborhood, so it’s a great place to stop after enjoying the brightly colored houses.

Elde Börek

Elde Börek is a great location for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and small appetizers (aka mezzes). It has a friendly staff and a cute interior with a little garden view.

Enjoy the fresh cherry juice or the pastry options after sharing a plate of mezzes. The dishes are local and well-thought-out, providing a delicious experience.

SultanAhmet Koftecisi

This is another restaurant loved by locals. It has been around for about 100 years, and they’re well-known for the kofte.

The meals at SultanAhment Koftecisi are also budget-friendly. Try the lamb – it’s juicy and delicious!

Istanbul is a stunning city rooted in its history, though it’s not afraid to modernize, as evidenced by the Istanbul Modern Museum of Art. Attractions dating back thousands of years, the upkeep of the Spice Bazaar, and restaurants that have been in business for 100+ years are a testament to the strength of tradition in this city. Using the above tips and information will help you plan a successful trip to Istanbul as you learn about the people and culture.

If you’re interested in investing more time in learning about the local culture when you visit Istanbul, read our Guide to Slow Travel in Turkey for additional details.  Learn more about family travel to Turkey.  

Some links on this page are affiliate links—that means that at no extra cost to you, we earn a small commission if you book through these links, and that helps keep this blog running.

Visit Istanbul Like a Local
Visit Istanbul Like a Local - Istanbul Travel Guide

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Family Travel to Turkey: Enes and Dania

Hi, we're Dania & Enes

We’re an American Turkish couple who’ve worked in the tourism industry and traveled extensively in Turkey. We understand that it can be overwhelming to plan a trip to Turkey when you don’t know where to go, where to stay and the best way to get there. We’re dedicated to helping you confidently plan a trip to Turkey and have a more authentic experience when you get there.

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