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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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