This Solo Traveler’s Istanbul Travel Guide is the culmination of all my experiences on visits to Istanbul over the past 18 years, mostly as a solo traveler or occasionally with friends and family. This comprehensive Istanbul travel guide will help you to experience the joy and wonder of exploring this ancient city that has become one of the most visited global metropolises in modern times.
Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus Strait with it’s one foot planted firmly in Europe and the other in Asia minor. It is an ancient city that has been settled for the past three thousand years and has seen many nations pass through it. Istanbul had been conquered and ruled by Greeks (Byzantium) and Romans (Constantinople) and finally became Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire in the Middle Ages.
The Republic of Turkey has had it’s share of economic turbulence and has been plagued by various waves of political and social unrest in recent years. When I watched news footage of the terror attack in Sultanahmet in Istanbul in 2016, I felt a wave of shock and revulsion come over me. I had walked on that very same street many times!
I came to a blinding realization that the purpose of any act of terror is to instill fear in the local population and to cripple it’s economy and sow the seeds of political discord. The effect for Turkey was that it has impacted the choices of millions of tourists who may have visited it’s cities and has had a very big impact on tourism revenues. This was confirmed by one of the tour guides on my last trip who said that the tourism revenues had fallen by at least 40%.
If this is your first solo trip then my Top Travel Tips for any traveler is a helpful guide. If you think that Istanbul is an option, but are not sure whether there are other places more suitable, then please read 5 Top destinations for Solo female travelers.
When is the best time to visit Istanbul
Istanbul is lovely during late Spring, Summer and early Autumn. Winters are icy cold and wet and not really conducive to a very pleasant travelling experience. The city starts heaving with tourists from June until late August, but they have an excellent tourism infrastructure to cope with this influx.
For me March was still very cold although the temperature had thawed by May. Even in the height of summer the cool ocean breeze made the city very tolerable and I found September to be my favorite time to visit. By then the summer heat has abated but the weather is still pleasantly warm.
How to apply for a visa for Turkey
Many nationalities may apply for a sticker visa at the immigration counters at the international ports of entry. Ensure that your travel document is valid for at least 60 days beyond your duration of stay in the country or the visa application may be rejected.
If you are a citizen of any one of the 108 countries on the approved list, you may apply for an e-visa online for tourism and commercial trips. The single entry visa is issued electronically online and a link to download the visa is also emailed separately. Citizens of 39 countries may apply for a multiple entry e-visa. The visa fees and validity period of the visa vary depending on the country issuing the travel document and/or travel document used.
How to travel to Istanbul
Many international airlines fly into Istanbul through Atatürk Airport located in Yeşilköy on the European side of the city. I had a 4.5 hour flight from Dubai on Emirates into Atatürk Airport. Sabiha Goken is the second airport and is located on the Asian side of the city where approximately one third of the inhabitants reside. A third international airport, Istanbul Airport, is located in the Arnavutköy district on the European side of the city and opened on 29 October 2018.
Most hotels offer airport transfers either free or at a discounted rate, if booking directly with the hotel. It usually costs between 30-50 euros per person one way if you add the airport transfer to an external booking via booking.com or a similar website.
How to get around Istanbul
There are also taxi and metro links from the international terminals. I had never used the Istanbul metro system until my recent trip and found that it is quite easy to navigate. The Istanbulkart may be used on the busses, metrobusses, metro, Tram, Nostalgic tram, Tunnel and Funicular.
The Istanbulkart may be purchased from private vendor kiosks, from vending machines at the entrance or from IETT counters around Istanbul. On a trip with family the kiosk assistant recommended we buy only one card and use it for all three of us, so we pre-loaded enough credit to cover our journey into the city. You can find more information about the Istanbulkart ⇐.
At the entrance to the metro station platforms there are security checkpoints similar to those found at airports, for scanning all luggage and handbags. Given the security situation this actually made me feel much safer using public transport.
Uber operates in the city and we used the service to get from Sultanahmet to Beyoğlu for less than twenty euros for a single trip.
Where to stay in Istanbul
In Istanbul one is spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels of any level of luxury. My requirements were as follows:
- Close proximity to the train station.
- Within walking distance to some of the major attractions.
- Ground floor accommodation or a building with an elevator that worked.
- Maximum price range to a 5 star UAE hotel (US$100 – 225 per night)
I have stayed at the following hotels on various visits and found some more comfortable than others. For a first trip I would recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area as it is close to all the big attractions of the Old City like the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya museum, Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The more modern areas of Taksim and Beşiktaş are a short tram ride away.
My favorite hotel in Istanbul is without a doubt the historic boutique Hotel Miniature. The rooms are thoughtfully decorated and has everything one would require for personal use. They even provide a little dish of Turkish delight and a teddy bear as a welcome gift. The hotel is located within walking distance to the historical sights of Sultanahmet and the tram station, and a 7 minute walk from Sirkeci tram and metro line. There are small grocer shops down the road in the event that you need any personal essentials or snacks. The reception staff will gladly arrange bookings for dinner or entertainment. Check rates and availability.
I stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Istanbul – Sirkeci (on a family trip) and received a room upgrade as a Hilton Honors rewards club member. The hotel is up the road from the Sirkeci tram station and directly opposite one of the metro line exits. It is within walking distance to the Sirkeci shopping node and very close to many cafes and restaurants. The entrance to Gülhane Park was down the road and the restaurant there serves a very delicious Turkish breakfast. Gülhane is also the closest tram station. Check rates and availability.
I stayed in the Nuru Ziya Suites in the Beyoğlu district on my most recent trip because it was centrally located near Istiklal Street, and within walking distance to Taksim square. The only other time I stayed in that side of the city was on my second visit to Istanbul eighteen years ago. The self-catering executive suite at Nuru Ziya Suites had a bed as well as a sleeper couch that they provided bed linens for. The kitchen had a microwave and hob as well as crockery, cutlery and cooking utensils. All the rooms include an iPad, 32″ Smart TV/Sattelite Receiver, Wireless Phone/Internet, Mini-Bar, Espresso Machine. There were shops, cafes and public transport links a short walk away. The only downside was the location on a very steep hill but it was good exercise walking up to Istiklal street or down to the Cihangir neighbourhood. Check rates and availability.
My brother mentioned that he and his family stayed in the Hotel Hoby in the Fatih district on their family trip in 2014. It was within walking distance to the Aksaray tram station and cost about US $20 (€17 per person per night). I tried to find a link for the hotel but they may not have an online presence. My brother indicated that they were walk in customers who had been ripped off by the original booked accommodation that did not exist when they reached Istanbul. Fortunately, he had the foresight not to pay any deposit at the time of booking.
Best places to eat in Istanbul
Turkey does not have a halaal certification process as we know it in South Africa, but many of the cafes and restaurants are Muslim owned and have halaal signs in their establishments. There are also countless seafood options and more recently vegetarian and vegan establishments.
One of the tastiest and most memorable meals in Istanbul was off the fishing boats on the Sirkeci side of the Bosphorus during my very first trip in the Spring of 2000. Fresh bread rolls stuffed with fish grilled with onion and tomato on the fishing boat bobbing against the pier. I recently read that many of the grilled fish sandwich sellers now use frozen imported fish due to the lower fish stocks in the seas around Istanbul.
I have tasted so many authentic and delicious Turkish specialities on the numerous Food tours that I have been on in Istanbul since then, and would recommend any of those establishments. Although there are some staples that are present on every tour, there are always new experiences and a different range of local specialities to enjoy. Over the course of four food tours and one cooking class I have tasted everything from buffalo milk clotted cream with honey to sheep brains and sweetbreads. The Turkish regional cuisines are so different yet every one of them is delicious in their own right.
On the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter tour I tasted the best tirleche (tres leche) cake from a small cafeteria in the grounds of a mosque and interesting street food called kokoreç (sweetbreads and offal wrapped in lamb intestines and spit roasted over an open fire). On the Born on the Bosphorus tour I visited markets on either side of the strait, one in Europe and the other in Asia and tasted sheep head for the first time. Haha it was amazing! In the Cookistan Cooking class we cooked and ate traditional Turkish dishes including borek and pumpkin dessert.
On another trip I took another food tour around the Spice Bazaar and learned about what not buy and where to shop like locals. We also ventured further away, outside of the old city and took a Hidden Beyoğlu tour where we were fortunate enough to be invited into the home of a local family for a traditional breakfast from Antakya. The breakfast prepared by Hani Karadas was fit for a queen and had everything from homemade breads, jams and preserves to local artisanal cheeses.
My favorites places to eat in Istanbul included:
The Deraliye Ottoman Palace Restaurant was recommended by the staff at Hotel Miniature and is only a 5 minute walk away from the hotel. I have returned to this restaurant on more than one occasion since then and it is by far my favorite.
Gülhane Kandil Cafe
Gülhane Kandil Cafe is located in Gülhane Park, adjacent to the Museum for the history of Science and Technology in Islam and Topkapi Palace. They do a very affordable and authentic Turkish breakfast on their veranda with an expansive view of the park.
Marpuççular Mevlana Pide
I found this little gem after a last shopping expedition in the back streets of the Spice Bazaar. The staff were welcoming and we were happy to make the acquaintance of one of their employees who had been refugee from Syria.
The portions were generous and very tasty.
Şehzade Cağ Kebap Restaurant
This was one of the restaurants recommended in the Istanbul Eats book that I received on the Culinary Backstreets tour and was very close to the Sirkeci tram station.
The restaurant is small but the food is tasty and fully halal.
Top attractions in Istanbul
If you are wondering what to do in Istanbul besides eating lokum and drinking tea, I assure you that you will never be bored.
A walk around the city reveals the remains of Old City walls as well as the Valens Aqueduct used to supply water to the city, from its completion in the 4th century AD until the Ottoman Empire.
To learn more about the history of the city I highly recommend the Istanbul Museum pass that costs 185 Turkish Lira. You can click on this link for more information.
The museum pass is valid for 5 days and gives free entrance to twelve of the city’s most notable museums including Aya Sofya museum, Topkapi Palace Museum and Harem apartments, and the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam. The pass validity begins from the date of the first visit and each card can only be used once at each museum.
Aya Sofya Museum (Hagia Sofia)
Aya Sofya was turned into a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. To avoid the long queues I would recommend buying tickets in advance if you do not have a museum pass.
The first church was built over the site of a pagan temple and constructed on the orders of Emperor Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD. It was all but destroyed by fire during riots and then subsequently rebuilt. The second church was completely destroyed during a revolt in the 6th century AD and all that remains are a few marble blocks scattered around in the grounds.
The third church was constructed on the same site by Justinian the Great, and was the largest Christian cathedral for over a thousand years. Numerous earthquakes during the time since its construction have resulted in additions and buttresses to strengthen the walls and domes.
The church was converted to a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II soon after he entered the city that had been crippled by a long siege. Structural supports and minarets were added by Ottoman architect Sinan and additional restoration was done over the years.
There are beautiful mosaics and murals wherever you cast your eye and it is even possible to access the upper levels if you can climb the stairs. The toilet facilities are in a separate building in the gardens at the museum and there is also a museum shop and café for expensive refreshments.
Topkapi Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı)
The Topkapi Palace complex was the residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman rulers from the 15th to the middle of the 19th century. It sits on a headland overlooking the Golden Horn and has sweeping views of the Bosphorus Strait and Sea of Marmara. The Sultans moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in the 1850’s when the Topkapi Palace became outdated and unsuitable for royal entertaining and official ceremonies. It was turned into a museum in 1924.
Entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum and the Harem apartments are also included in the Istanbul Museum Pass. Tickets for entrance to the museum areas are on sale on the right side of complex and cost 60TL for Topkapi Palace Museum, 35TL for the Harem apartments and 30TL for the Aya Irene Monument. Although many areas are open to the public, visitors are forbidden from photographing certain areas.
The kitchens of the Ottoman palace were extensive and many household cooking, serving and dining artifacts are on display. The extent of the operations to feed the royal family as well as all the people who worked in the complex is mind boggling. I thought I knew what beautiful crockery looked like, but the royal dinnerware of the 18th and 19th centuries takes it to another level. Unfortunately no photos are allowed of the displays.
The sleeping and living areas of the Sultan and the Crown Prince were huge for the time, although probably much in line with the size of a luxury hotel room in the modern era. The intricate mosaics are impressive and were also undergoing various stages of restoration.
The Harem was the living quarters of the female members of the ruling family and at the time of our visit it was undergoing restoration to its former glory. Part of the palace gardens was converted into Gülhane Park and is still accessible via one of the palace complex entrances.
There are vendors selling refreshments inside the complex and it is useful after spending a few hours inside to quench the thirst with a frosty drink. I sat outside in the shade people watching and sipping on a cold water after my excursion. I was reminded of how destructive tourists can be in their quest for an Instagram worthy photo or selfie while observing two non-Turkish ladies getting inside an ancient tree to pose for a shot! Really!
Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam
The one thing I was convinced of after seeing every exhibit in this museum was that Muslims have not achieved much in the fields of Science and Technology over the past three hundred years, if not more. Our greatest inventions and innovations came when we were united in brotherhood for advancement of the common good, instead of splintered across nationalistic, political, ethnic and social lines.
Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı)
One of my favorite places to visit was the Dolmabahce Palace in the Beşiktaş district. The nearest tram stop is at Kabataş, a ten minute walk away from the palace.
It is open to visitors daily between 9am-4pm, except on Mondays and Thursdays when it is closed. Regrettably it is not included in the Museum Pass and visitors are not allowed to tour the palace unaccompanied. You are obliged to take a guided tour and photography inside the palace is not allowed.
The construction of the palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecit I and in it’s day it cost the equivalent of thirty five tons of gold. The interior of the palace is decorated in a European style, from the chandeliers to the furnishings. The enormous crystal chandelier hanging down from the ceiling remains spectacular more than a century after it was installed. What I loved most about this museum was the obvious care and attention to detail in every piece of furniture and decoration. From the delicate white marble basins in the hammam to the beautifully crafted chairs in the reception rooms.
Sultanahmet Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) – Blue Mosque
Istanbul is the city of a thousand mosques and you can hear the call to prayer from most places during the day. The Blue Mosque, as it is known, is exceptional in its design and interior decoration using handmade Iznik tiles, and is one of the favorite places for visitors.
The visitor entrance to the mosque is on the side, and they provide covers for anyone who is not appropriately dressed for an Islamic place of worship. One also has to wear plastic covers over footware to ensure that the red carpets are not damaged.
Worshippers are allowed to use the mosque for prayer and may enter through a different entrance than the one used by visitors. The mosque is open for worship but closed to visitors during Friday prayer times.
At the back of the mosque is the Arasta Bazaar retail area as well as the Mosaic Museum. The shops here are very tourist oriented with relatively high prices.
Sultanahmet Square (Hippodrome)
The square is actually a rectangular area known formerly known as the Hippodrome, that dates back to early Byzantine times where it was used for chariot races in front of the Great Palace (where the Sultanahmet Mosque is now located). Various Roman Emperors adorned the area with monuments looted from their colonies in Egypt including the pink granite Obelisk from the Temple of Karnak and the Serpentine Column (Tripod of Plataea) from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
This park is located adjacent to Topkapi Palace and is large and expansive with the furthest entrance overlooking the ocean. Over the years the park has gone from a near derelict zoo and scary space with many beggars, to a beautiful family friendly urban escape.
It was previously part of the palace grounds and has the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam located in the old palace stables. There is also a café serving delicious breakfast and other meals with a beautiful view of the park.
The entrance to the café at Gülhane Park is located very close to the Doubletree by Hilton at Sirkeci and the Gülhane tram stop. I went there for breakfast one morning and it was one of the best I have had in Istanbul. Plus it has a beautiful park view.
The Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
The Grand Bazaar is one of oldest shopping malls in the world, and comprised of over 61 covered streets and more than 4000 shops. The Beyazit tram stop is nearby but the bazaar is also within walking distance to the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. The market is open every day except Sundays and Public Holidays. You may enter the covered market via eleven different gates, all of which now have security access controls and bag scanning to ensure the safety of locals and tourists.
I would recommend that female solo travelers ignore the cat calls and attempts at conversation from stall holders or shop owners, unless they actually want to buy something. The prices quoted are often ridiculous and most of the items will be cheaper outside the covered market, or in the alley ways around the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. It always seems like the younger male shop assistants in the bazaars feel obliged to flirt with any woman who acknowledges them. This is not true however, outside of the bazaars where the Turkish men are generally very well-mannered and courteous.
They do have beautifully colored ceramics and tea sets, also ridiculously expensive and aimed squarely at tourists. The Turkish people don’t drink out of fancy tea sets and believe that simpler is better, so that they can see the quality and clarity of the tea. At most they will have a thin gold or silver rim on the tea glass or a patterned saucer.
There is an Antique market set further back into the main area of the bazaar where they have shops selling old paintings, drawings, jewelry, books and other items. If you suffer from any allergies please be careful as the dust in the air may cause hay fever or worse.
We stopped for refreshments at one of the cafes that has been there since my very first visit to Istanbul in 2000. They still had Turkish favorites but have added some Italian flair with a range of desserts and mocktails.
The Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
I could spend hours in the Spice Bazaar aka the Egyptian Bazaar and the surrounding streets and alleys. There is a distinct section for every class of items as they are organized according to trade or business. The best time to visit is early in the morning as it gets crowded by 11 am.
The legacy of the ancient hans and caravanserais is apparent and many of the old buildings are in use by specific business groupings, making it easier for locals to find what they need.
The area around the Spice Bazaar was also the starting point for the Culinary Secrets of the Old City tour (post coming soon). The bazaar is where my favorite baklava shop, my favorite Turkish delicatessen and my favorite tea shop are located.
Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarters
The area around the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are a bargain hunter’s paradise.
If you want to do serious shopping then the Eminönü area, from the subway tunnel stalls where we found good quality clothing items, to the back streets where I got a bargain set of suitcases, is the place to go.
If you start in the early morning I would recommend buying a few Simit and Açma from the cart at the Eminönü subway entrance and then getting some kaymak from the cart in the alley in front of the coffee building and have it with tea inside as we did on our food tour.
The low buildings facing the sea to the right side of the Spice Bazaar are Ottoman era Hans that have been converted to retail space. Each area is designated for a specific trade, making it easier for shoppers to find exactly what they need.
Istiklal Avenue and Taksim
Istiklal Avenue or Independence Avenue, is completely pedestrianised and is the busiest street in Istanbul, if not the country. It is serviced by the Sishane and Taksim metro stations, the Nostalgic tram line and metered taxis on the side streets. This area was mostly inhabited by non-Muslims during the Ottoman era and was also the location of many churches and foreign embassies.
Nowadays people from all over the city come to enjoy the many designer stores, art galleries, churches, restaurants and nightclubs. The cafes lining the main thoroughfare are notoriously expensive while one can find better food in the side streets.
Taksim square is at the end of Istiklal Avenue and is home to the Independence monument. The area is undergoing improvement to the pedestrian walkways as well as the Nostalgic tram line.
Sunset at Karaköy
Visitors staying on the Northern shore of the Golden Horn may be familiar with the port area of Karaköy on their way to the Galata Tower or Tünel underground funicular station. At sunset this place transforms from a commercial zone to a play ground with numerous eateries and red-light district. The sunset is quite spectacular and you have a view of both sides of the bridge.
Üsküdar & Çamlıca Hill (Büyük Çamlıca Tepesi)
The Çamlıca Hill is located in Üsküdar a more traditional neighborhood on the Asian side of the city and is the highest point in Istanbul. Üsküdar may be reached by ferry from Eminönü, by metro via the Marmaray tunnel, by car, taxi or bus. The views from the top of the hill are spectacular and you can see both the European and Asian sides clearly.
My first visit to Çamlıca Hill in the Spring of 2000 seemed to take forever. A long walk to catch a bus (129T) in Taksim then what seemed like a bus ride that lasted forever and finally dropped us at the foot of the hill. After the walk up to the rest areas at the top of the hill, a cup of hot Turkish tea and the best simit I have ever eaten were a welcome respite. Later we had a lunch of lamb grilled in an underground pit at a restaurant at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps I was very hungry that day but the lamb was tender and the smell alone was mouth watering.
On a subsequent solo visit a few years ago I tried to find out where this magical place was located and one of the staff at the hotel I was staying at suggested a tour that included Beylerbeyi Palace and made a stop on the hill near the end of the tour. It was an overcast day and everywhere below the tree line was covered in thick heavy fog… more reminiscent of the Day of the Triffids than anything else.
Behind the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Üsküdar is a warren of streets with covered markets selling honey, cheese, fruits, vegetables, traditional Turkish preserved fruits, meat and fish. You can read more about it in the Born on the Bosphorus food tour.
Despite having travelled to Istanbul numerous times over the past two decades, there is still so much left to explore. If you love history, culture and food with a proud heritage and traceable provenance, then Istanbul is the destination for you. As a solo traveler I have never felt uneasy or at risk although I do keep my wits about me at all times. Solo travelers are often the target of various scams intended to separate them from their cash, whether it is pickpockets working in groups or ‘helpful’ locals trying to buy you a drink. Trust your gut instincts and remove yourself from any dubious situations as quickly as possible.
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