Comprehensive travel guide for Istanbul holidays

Istanbul Grand Bazaar shops

This comprehensive travel guide for Istanbul holidays 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.

If you are planning an Istanbul city break then you will find all the relevant information that I have accumulated on my trips to Istanbul over nearly two decades, mostly as a solo traveler or occasionally with friends and family.

If this is your first solo trip then Istanbul is a good option and I have found it to be one of the safest countries to travel alone with reasonable prices for most of the year.

Read more: Top Travel Tips for any traveler

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 city still retains it’s cosmopolitan character that has been enriched by the influx of refugees over the past few years. They have added another dimension to the already diverse city. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of travelling alone or taking a solo road trip then there are other options to consider.

Read more: 5 Top destinations for Solo female travelers

Bosphorus ferry ride on Istanbul holidays

Bosphorus ferry ride

When is the best time for your Istanbul holidays

Istanbul is lovely during late Spring, Summer and early Autumn and the weather is ideal for an Istanbul holiday. 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.

  • 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.

Is it safe to travel to Istanbul for holidays

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 on my Istanbul holidays many times in the past!

  • There was always a police presence in the Old City historical areas and this is even more pronounced since the terror attacks. I have travelled to Istanbul on numerous occasions over the past two decades and have never felt unsafe, whether I was travelling solo or with others. 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 of terror attacks for Turkey’s tourism industry 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 the tour guides on our Hidden Beyoğlu food tour who said that the tourism revenues had fallen by at least 40%.
  • 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.
  • All popular tourist destinations have their share of conmen and scam artists and travellers should always be aware and alert. Don’t act or behave in a manner that exposes yourself to danger or exploitation. Whether it’s accepting invitations from strangers or open drinks in a bar or the harassment from mother and child beggars on the streets, always keep your wits about you.
  • If you are considering booking a guided group tour of Istanbul or getting a private Istanbul tour guide, I would highly recommend the guided food tours offered by Culinary Backstreets. All of the guides I have met thus far have been knowledgeable and passionate about the country, the city and it’s food. I learned as much about the history of Turkish cuisine, the culture and the historical context as I did about the food that we ate on the street food tours.

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. Before embarking on your Istanbul holidays please 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. It is not an Istanbul visa, but a single entry issued electronically online to visit the country. 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 for your Istanbul holidays

  • Nowadays travellers have access to internet resources that allows us to make all our our travel arrangements for an Istanbul vacation without resorting to travel agencies. However, many find going solo travel tours very daunting and may prefer a group travel tour. In this case it is advisable to check with a local travel agent about Istanbul tour packages and cheap holidays to Istanbul.
  • I had a 4.5 hour flight from Dubai on Emirates into Atatürk Airport located in Yeşilköy on the European side of the city. Most airlines, including Emirates, now fly to the new Istanbul airport located in the Arnavutköy district on the European side of the city.
  • Sabiha Goken is the second airport and is located on the Asian side of the city where approximately one third of the inhabitants reside.
  • On my solo Istanbul holidays I always preferred to utilise the airport transfer offered by my hotels. 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 during Istanbul holidays

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 Istanbul travel card or 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 ⇐.
  • 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.

Residential street in Istanbul Asian side

Where to stay in Istanbul

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 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.

Read more: Where to stay in Istanbul for savvy travelers

Top places to visit and things to do in Istanbul

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.

Read more: Unmissable things to do in Istanbul

Where to find the best food on your Istanbul holidays

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.Lunch on Istanbul holidays

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 Istanbul Food tours that I have been on in Istanbul 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 food 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 the Culinary Secrets of the Old City food tour we visited the backstreets around the Spice Bazaar and all the way to the Valens Aqueduct. Our tour guide took us to the hans and streets behind the Istanbul tourist areas where locals came to shop for their must have items, and where family business have operated for generations. We also visited a Kurdish restaurant where the speciality is overnight pit roasted lamb.
  • On the Hidden Beyoğlu food tour we ventured away from the Old City into the backstreets of Cihangir and Istiklal Avenue. We were fortunate to be invited to enjoy a traditional homemade breakfast prepared by Hanni Karadas, experiencing the best summer produce from Antakya in the South of the country. It was fit for a queen and had everything from homemade breads, jams and preserves to local artisanal cheeses.

Deraliye Ottoman Palace Restaurant – Alemdar Mh., Ticarethane Sokak & Divanyolu Cad No:10, 34122 Fatih

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.

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Gülhane Kandil Cafe – Cankurtaran Mh., Alemdağ Caddesi, Gülhane Park İçı, 34122 Fatih

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.

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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 – Hoca Paşa Mahallesi, Hoca Paşa Sk. No:6 D:4, 34110 Fatih

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.

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49 Comments

  • Reply
    Rukku Sumayya
    October 20, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    This is such a detailed article, I feel like going right now

  • Reply
    Charlotte Lint
    August 11, 2019 at 10:05 am

    One of my favourite cities!! Can’t wait to go back here one day!

  • Reply
    Nicola
    August 10, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    I wish I had read this before going. I did not know that you needed a visa for Turkey until I landed there!!! Great post

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      August 10, 2019 at 1:06 pm

      A few countries citizens can get a visa on arrival but most can get a free e-visa before travel. I always check before hand because most countries have visa requirements for South African passport holders.

  • Reply
    Alissa
    November 23, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    Great guide, thank you for sharing! I would love to go to Istanbul – it’s seems like an amazing place to visit and the nexus of so many cultures and worlds. And your photos are so beautiful!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 23, 2018 at 11:09 pm

      Thank you Alissa. Walking through any place in the old city is like taking a walk through thousands of years of history. It is an amazing city and well worth a visit.

  • Reply
    Catherine Shane
    November 18, 2018 at 7:58 am

    My dream is to travel a lot around the world. Istanbul is not familiar to me, but I will keep it in mind so I will save it in the future. Now I know the next beautiful spot to visit!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 18, 2018 at 8:38 am

      Travelling is such a wonderful way to broaden our outlook on life and for me it was a way to learn the limits of my endurance and adapatability. Turkey is a wonderful country to ease into it 👍

  • Reply
    Shareen
    November 17, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    What a great informative post. I love all the pictures but especially the food + sunset ones 🙂 I have Istanbul high on my list.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 18, 2018 at 12:03 am

      I thought sunsets in Cape Town are spectacular when it is slightly cloudy, but Istanbul has awesome ones with clear skies 🙂

  • Reply
    Sally
    November 17, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    Such a detailed post thank you. I just got the Turkey Lonely Planet for my birthday last month. I have always wanted to visit Istanbul, there’s something so exotic about it and I love turkish food. I saw Cappadocia on a travel show when I was much younger and I have wanted to go there since then. We are considering doing Turkey and Greece with the kids next year for 3 weeks. I will definitely be saving this post for then when I am planning.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 18, 2018 at 12:02 am

      I hope you have a fabulous time 🙂

      I had always wanted to visit Greece, until my third visit to Turkey in the summer of 2000. We met a British family on a boat cruise off the Turquoise coast near Fethiye and they had spent about three weeks in Greece the previous summer. The wife said she could not believe how much better value for money Turkey was compared to Greece, for everything… food, activities and sightseeing, accommodation with proper beds and not concrete slabs with a mattress thrown on it. I don’t know how much things have changed since then but I have never been inclined to visit Greece since then.

  • Reply
    Christa
    November 15, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    I’ve been to Istanbul, but only briefly as a stopover. I can’t wait to go back and spend time visiting all of these wonderful sights!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 10:06 pm

      Perhaps you could take a 2-3 day stopover next time you travel that will enable you to see some of the sights.

  • Reply
    Megan
    November 15, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    This is great! I’d love to go here someday, and I’m totally saving this for when I do 🙂

  • Reply
    Bindu Thomas
    November 15, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    I would like to visit Istanbul one day. This is such a gorgeous place. I am saving your guide for future use.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 10:05 pm

      I hope you read the food tour articles as well and that it tempts you to go on one, as I highly recommend it as a way of getting a quick guide on the culture and history of the city and people.

  • Reply
    Geraline Batarra
    November 14, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    I have never tried to go in a solo travel but it sounds like a nice idea to do. I will definitely save this guides form my future visit to Istanbul.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 10:03 pm

      I realized the other day while I was writing this, that I started traveling solo out of necessity, but have come to really love it. I still take short breaks with my family but longer trips are my time to reconnect with myself and test my endurance, adaptability and improve my character.

  • Reply
    Jennifer Pompaski
    November 14, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    I got this info just in time! You know what? I plan visiting in Dubai and was gonna ask someone who had been there a couple of times but this blog post is a great resource and covers virtually everything i need to know! I am printing this to take on my trip! Thanks so much for putting this together Raxena!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 14, 2018 at 2:55 pm

      I’m currently working on a post about Dubai as well. Hopefully it will be done before you travel.

  • Reply
    Surekha Busa
    November 14, 2018 at 7:21 am

    I have never been to Istanbul and it looks like a nice place to visit with your love ones. I will definitely add this place on my bucket list, thanks for sharing your beautiful trip with us.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 10:01 pm

      You are most welcome Surekha. I hope you get to visit there some day soon, and eat baklava and drink copious amounts of Turkish tea.

  • Reply
    Claire
    November 14, 2018 at 3:27 am

    Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of beautiful destinations and realizing it’s all located in Turkey! I am still planning on where to go but this guide was definitely helpful. Saving it for the future

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 10:00 pm

      I have been to Istanbul a few times and still want to go back, I love it that much. Another area I really enjoyed is Fethiye on the Turqoise coast. It’s a short taxi ride away from Olu Deniz, but much cheaper.

  • Reply
    Ellie Plummer
    November 14, 2018 at 2:19 am

    I’ve never been to Istanbul before so I really love this guide. Perhaps I shall have to book a solo trip fo myself.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:58 pm

      And a food tour! They are an amazing way to learn about the history, traditions and cultural heritage of the people.

  • Reply
    Katy
    November 13, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    I love Istanbul! I stayed on the Asian side for two months.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      I did the Born on the Bosphorus food tour there with Culinary backstreets and would love to stay in Üsküdar near the market or in Kuzguncuk with its pretty houses.

  • Reply
    Scott Gombar
    November 13, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    I am not sure I would visit Istanbul by myself but this is a useful guide.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:54 pm

      If you have a spouse, it’s a great place for a romantic getaway and foodie tour 🙂

  • Reply
    Kate
    November 13, 2018 at 9:35 am

    Would love to go to Istanbul, does me changing planes there count 😅

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:53 pm

      Haha I doubt it! Unless you had to get off the plane and carry your bags off the tarmac to the next connection it doesn’t count 🙂 We actually had to do that at Nairobi airport on the way back home about 27 yrs ago.

  • Reply
    Marcie
    November 13, 2018 at 7:15 am

    This is fascinating! My neighbor went to Istanbul earlier this year and she told me that she felt completely safe the whole time and that she couldn’t believe how much hype there was about it being dangerous. Glad to know you felt the same.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:51 pm

      I think any place can be hazardous but as long as you have your wits about you all the time and take precautions it becomes less scary. I have a few simple safety rules when I travel solo and tend to get back to my accommodation within a reasonable hour when there are still people on the roads. If I do go out at night it tends to be on organized dinners or within walking distance of my accommodations.

  • Reply
    Gladys Parker
    November 13, 2018 at 1:32 am

    Istanbul sounds intriguing and your photos really make me wish I could go there. Although I have traveled here in the US solo many times and enjoyed it–I think I would rather go with friends or a tour group the first time to Turkey.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:47 pm

      In my experience visiting a new destination with family or friends is much less stressful because you don’t have to worry about getting lost or not finding places when you can rely on others. For a subsequent trip solo travel is the way to go so you can see and do everything at your own leisure 🙂

  • Reply
    Joanna
    November 12, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    I have almost visited Istanbul, years ago, but unfortunately the friend I was going to cancelled and it was a 2 people’s package, so I had to cancel as well. I would love to go one day though, as it looks like a fabulous city. And for me, a foodie, it’s a perfect destination to try the local cuisine.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      I have only done a package holiday to Istanbul once and although I had a fun time exploring with my friend I find that I love making my own travel arrangements for my solo trips. That way I can go when I want without worrying about someone cancelling on me at the last minute.

  • Reply
    Monidipa Dutta
    November 12, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Your review is no doubt great what I feel is it is a good place to travel but not to stay. Obviously, I had my own share of experiences there but one thing I will say that if you are a soft-spoken person their people from there seem to take u for granted.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 16, 2018 at 9:43 pm

      I find that the younger vendors in the touristy markets can be very pushy, especially with foreign women so I pay them no heed as they can be very inappropriate.

  • Reply
    Hazel
    November 12, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Hello! Thank you for sharing your travel with us. It’s like you’ve taken me there too! 😊

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 12, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      Hi Hazel 😃 You made my day! I’m happy you could imagine yourself there too.

  • Reply
    Non stop family - Tips for family travels
    November 12, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    HI.
    Great guide.
    Istanbul was allways a dream trip for us and, it will be one of our next destinations. I will use a lot of idias from this post, tanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 12, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      You are most welcome 🙂 I hope you and your family have a fabulous trip when you go.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    November 12, 2018 at 6:59 am

    I love this guide, Razena! I have been wanting to visit Istanbul since ages and this guide makes me just want to book it right away!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      November 12, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      It’s only taken me 18 yrs to finally write about one of my favorite cities, if not my favorite, to travel to. I had all but given up on the city a few years ago but going on my first ever food tour changed all that. Now I’m wondering when I can fit in another trip and maybe this time venture outside to see some of the historical and cultural attractions in other provinces.

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