How to Get the Most Out of Istanbul: A Highly Opinionated List

You might have done a double-take when you read that title. Service-y lists are definitely not our thing. Lists are the sort of thing I (Robyn) write for monetary compensation, though rarely willingly. When editors broach the “L” word I tend to cringe.

But, but. There is a time and a place for lists. Here, for instance, and now — when the number of emails that I receive, in which the sender is heading to Istanbul and asking for a few general tips, reaches a critical mass. Istanbul, it seems, is hot.

It’s pretty plain to see that we love Istanbul; we’ve made 14 visits in the last three years. But we “do” the city in a particular way, the sort of way that probably won’t earn coverage in your average travel magazine. Maybe it’s your sort of way too. Or maybe not.

At any rate, we have opinions about how best to experience the city. To whit:

After Sultanahmet’s sites close, Beyoglu is where it’s at


As soon as you arrive buy an Istanbulkart — one of those wallet-stashable plastic cards that you buy loaded and reload at a kiosk, useable on just about any form of public transport you are likely to board. We still use our akbil from ages ago — same difference — and not having to buy a jeton every time you want to get on a ferry is a real aggravation reducer. You do have to pay a deposit on the thing — and thus remember to A) keep the receipt and B) return the card to claim back your deposit before you leave town —  so it’s worth noting that just one card will work just fine for a couple or even a family of up to four people traveling together.

Update June 4 2012: Please note that cash is no longer an option on buses — it’s Istanbulcart only. Thanks to commenter sarahlizp for the heads up.


Following on the Istanbulkart advice — learn the basic transport lines. Why? So that you can sail through your time in Istanbul without ever having to set foot in a cab.

In our experience nine out of ten taxi drivers in Istanbul are jerks. One even threw change at me (Turkish coins are not flimsy) and then put a hex on Dave, which we are fairly certain resulted, a few minutes later, in a serious, trip-ruining (and persisting) back injury.

Why risk the giddy happy-state that Istanbul induces in 99% of its visitors on a teeth-grinding encounter with a taxi driver?

Here, let me make it simple for you.

  • The ferry lines you’re most likely to use — Karakoy to Kadikoy, Eminonu to Kadikoy and Uskudar, Kadikoy to Besiktas and Uskudar to Besiktas, Kabatas to Kadikoy, Besiktas and Princes’ Islands.  Note that in most cases ferry terminals are named for their DESTINATION. So, for instance, at Eminonu there are Uskudar and Kadikoy ferry terminals.
  • The tram runs from beyond Sultanahmet (Universiti is a good stop if you’re headed to Suleymaniye Mosque) across the Galata bridge to Karakoy (where the ferries are), Tophane (galleries and walking up to Cihangir and Galata and even Taksim), Findikli (“secret” tea spot — see below and Prince’s Islands/Kadikoy ferry terminals) and Kabatas (connect here to underground line up to Taksim, catch a bus or taxi to Besiktas and beyond to Ortakoy, Arnavutkoy, Rumeli Castle, Sariyer, etc., or access same ferries as at the Findikli stop).
  • The funicular (two stops, the top and bottom) runs from Karakoy uphill to Tunel (just above the Galata Tower), which sits at the base of that famous (and famously annoying, if you are in a hurry) pedestrian shopping mall known as Istiklal Caddesi.
  • And there’s a quick little underground line that will get you from Kabatas up to Taksim Square in the blink of an eye.
  • Buses are easy: just know where you want to go and look for the your destination on the window. Taksim Square is a node, and a good place to catch buses across the Ataturk Bridge to say, Fatih and Balat. Or step up and ask the driver: Besiktas? Fatih? If you’ve got your Istanbulkart ready then you won’t have to fiddle with change.

With this bit of public transport info lodged in your brain you can just about anywhere.



Related to II — ride the heck out of Istanbul’s ferry boats! They’re one of the best things the city has going for it. If you don’t believe me, take just four minutes to watch and listen to Dave’s multimedia ode to Istanbul’s ferries (wear headphones, view large screen). See, wasn’t I right? In Istanbul riding the ferry is like taking a mini vacation within your vacation.

They’re cool in the sticky heat of the summer if you can snag a seat outside. They’re warm and cozy in the winter. They offer the best views, anywhere. Ride all the ferries and you’ll see all of Istanbul’s skylines from every possible angle. They offer fantastic photo opportunities. They’re a way to “sightsee” without walking, an excuse to take a load off. A ferry ride during off hours, without the crowds, is incredibly romantic (at sunset especially).

When I’m in Istanbul I feel as if I have failed if I don’t ride at least two ferries a day. And unless you’re deathly afraid of water or prone to seasickness you should feel that way too.

This is what we did just the other day: Karakoy to Kadikoy. Then Kadikoy to Uskudar. Then Uskudar to Besiktas (this is a quick ride). Besiktas to Kadikoy. Kadikoy back to Karakoy. Lots of photos were made. Lots of sighing over Istanbul’s incomparable skylines was done. Hands were held. Tea was drunk.

Which leads me to my next tip:

Secret tea spot_istanbul
A “secret” tea spot with a view near the Kabatas ferry terminal


Get into tea drinking. It’s a great excuse to rest up and rejuvenate after sightseeing/walking/shopping etc., and also a great way to soak up the local vibe. It’s a fantastic means to staying upright if you’re fighting jetlag.

Turks drink tea all day — they’ll stop anywhere, anytime for a bardak (glass). Get into this mode. If someone offers you tea feel free to accept — it doesn’t obligate you to anything other than friendly chit-chat. (Even if it’s offered by a carpet seller.) You are also free to decline, as Turks do. Do so politely and no one is going to hold anything against you.

If you can’t tolerate caffeine, know that tea spots also offer bottled water, ayran (salted water-thinned yogurt, incredibly refreshing on a hot day) and sometimes herbal teas — zahter [zah-tair] = thyme tea and ada cayi [a-dah chai-yuh] = sage tea. Sorry, but apple tea is for tourists.

We have a few beloved secret tea spots. They’re not literally “secret” — but they’re not the Pierre Loti Cafe and they’re unlikely to be listed in any guidebook:

  • Tucked in a corner of the park by the Kabatas Prince’s Islands ferry pier, almost exactly across from the Findikli tram stop, is a sweet little outdoor tea spot. Comfortable plastic chairs steps from the water, a lovely view across to Uskudar. This is a nice sunset spot and absolutely beautiful first thing in the morning, around 7:30, when most patrons bring along something breakfasty to nibble as they take their wake-up tea, have their wake-up smoke and gaze at the water.
  • At the far edge of the parking lot across from the Istanbul Culinary Institute in Beyogulu’s Pera neighborhood, there’s an indoor tea space with al fresco tables and chairs out front. A bit noisy from the road below, but a nice view over a part of Istanbul we really haven’t explored. Great for a cool-season afternoon tea, as it gets good sun around 2pm.
  • The bufe just to the right as you exit the Eminonu/Karakoy ferry terminal in Kadikoy has tables and chairs right on the water. Another great sunset spot; turn your chair facing out to Besiktas and away from the godawful red-and-white giant beachball view-spoiler at the opposite end of the promenade.
  • At the urging of Istanbul Eats‘ Ansel, we checked out Osman’s independent tea truck in Karakoy, on the other side of the bridge from the Kadikoy ferry terminal (walk through the fish market, past the tables where people are eating grilled fish, and just keep walking). We like the vibe, very much so. This would be the place to head for tea around sunset.

Update, May 2013:

  • The teahouse in the manicured park aroundn Dolmabahce Palace boasts many, many tables right on the water; it’s a great sunset spot. You needn’t pay to enter the palace grounds (though your bag will be X-rayed). You’ll be offered a menu as you sit but it’s perfectly fine not to order food. Tea is on the expensive side (2 TL per glass) but we think the view and nice setting justifies the price.
  • As you exit Karakoy ferry terminal (having arrived by ferry, obviously) turn right. There, just on the water next to a row of fishermen you’ll find two guys with the ubiquitous coal-fired portable tea maker. Grab a plastic chair or stool and order. You’ll be expected to move along fairly soon after you finish your tea but feel free to bring along a simit or other tea snack. (In late afternoon/evening there are two fish sandwich grillers right behind.) This is an outlaw tea operation Irregular hours, and no guarantee these guys haven’t been chased off by now. But tea was still being offered here as of April 20, 2013.


Familiarize yourself with Turkish vowels and consonants. At some point or another you may need to ask directions, or order a grilled fish or a “Turkish bagel” or whatnot. Pronouncing the “c” as a “j” instead of as a “ch” when it should be pronounced as a “j” is going to increase the chances of your getting whatr you want andwill just generally make your life all around easier.

It’s not that complicated. C and s are pronounced “j” and s, add a thingy underneath c and it’s “ch”, one underneath s makes it “sh”.

A dipper over g makes it soft and almost nonexistent (so dogal, g with thingy over it, is pronounced “doh-all”). A g without the dipper is just a hard g.

O and u are “oh” and “oo”, two dots over each just make them tighter vowels — not anything to worry too much about, actually, as Turks have always been very pleasant — to my face at least — when I mangle their language

E is “eh”, a is “ah”, and i is “ee”. An i without the dot over it is pronounced “uh”. So ızgara balık 
(grilled fish) is uhz-gah-rah bahl-uhk. Or close enough to that  for you to be understood when you say it.


You will not see this next to the Blue Mosque.


Get out of Sultanahmet, aka the Old City. I know, I know — the Blue Mosque is there! The ancient cistern is there! You know what else is there? Carpet sellers, a lot of them. Touts, postcard and trinket sellers. Irish pubs. Overpriced, mediocre food (chicken breast pudding — it’s wild, it’s crazy but you know what? It’s not the best dish to ever come out of the Ottoman kitchen).

A Turkish friend once said to me, “No self-respecting Istanbullu would eat in Sultanahmet.” And neither should you.

Yes — you will want to spend one, two or even three full days sightseeing in Sultanahmet. But there is really no reason to spend your nights there too. After all if you visit New York you may put the Empire State Building on your bucket list, but must you stay in the same neighborhood to ride the elevator to the top?

You have absorbed Tip 1, right? So you know that getting to and from Sultanahmet is as easy as brandishing your Istanbulkart and hopping on and off the tram. Or the ferry. Or as simple as walking across the bridge on a beautiful morning and back across as the sky turns orange.

Our favorite stay is Cihangir (Galata is second, for its convenience), a lovely under-the-radar neighborhood that is a 10-minute walk downhill from Istiklal Caddesi and a 10-minute walk to the Tophane tram stop. Add 10 minutes to wait for a train and 5 more to get to Sultanahmet and you’re talking 25-30 minutes tops.

Most real Istanbullu live, eat and play across the bridge (or elsewhere in the city outside of Sultanahmet). When Sultanahmet’s sites close for the day get out and stay/live, eat and play among them.

A street scene in Cihangir.


Rent an apartment. Hotels are ridiculously overpriced in Istanbul — I have no idea what justifies the 150 Euros per night charged by the most mediocre of 3-star hotels in the city. If you’re bound and determined to spend 150 euros a night you can score a nice apartment with a Bosphorus view and probably a private balcony too. Not to mention: a washing machine, a full-sized fridge to chill your duty-free champagne in (if you enjoy a tipple or two and are staying in an apartment you willwant to stop at duty-free; Turkey’s liquor duties are a major strike against it), a stereo, room to move and unpack your bags and pile up your dirty laundry and the privilege of not having to shower and dress before your morning coffee.

If you are an avid cook, as I am, and go gah-gah for beautiful ingredients then it’s no contest. You’ll welcome the opportunity to cultivate a friendly relationship with your neighborhood fruit or vegetable guy. When you’re browsing at the corner produce shop and see 6 huge, beautifully pared artichoke hearts in a bag of lemon water for 15 lira you are going to want a stovetop to pan roast them on. You won’t get it in a hotel room. You know those astonishingly fragrant, sweet green-fleshed melons dripping juice that every fruit seller in town is displaying come May/June? They’re absolutely gorgeous for breakfast, served dead-ripe with a good quality sharp, lightly salted white cheese. As are summer’s strawberries with a blog of fresh kaymak (clotted cream). Neither of these combos is likely to show up on your Sultanahmet hotel breakfast buffet table.

(Please note: no vacation apartment rental service sponsored this post.)

At the Tarlabasi Sunday market.


Go to a once-a-week market. Even if you’re not taking the advice in Tip VII, you can still take advantage of things like amazing fruit and a jawdropping selection of cheeses and edible souvenirs like nuts and dried fruit and spices and such. We love the Besiktas market on Saturdays — the cheese stalls are particularly alluring. It doesn’t really get rolling till around 10am. The Tarlabasi market on Sundays is mammoth, and good fun too.


Get juiced. Does juice deserve its own point? I think so. Like tea houses, juice sellers are everywhere in Istanbul, squeezing oranges and grapefruits and, in season, pomegranates to order. Following on point VI, don’t pay 5 Turkish lira for an orange juice in Sultahahment. Stop at the entrance to the Tunel funicular in Karakoy where a guy proffers a small glass for 1 TL. In winter, head behind the Kadikoy ferry terminal in Karakoy, in front of the tea house facing out onto the bit of promenade where all the guys are tossing fishing lines, and have a glass of ruby-red pomengranate juice pressed to order for 2 TL.


Know that you’re never far from a toilet. This bit of advice will not apply to readers who don’tguzzle water as if they’d just finished a desert marathon, or who have chosen to ignore my bit of advice about tea drinking and are abstaining — if you’re one of them you can skip right on to the next point of advice. But I know that there are some of you out there who, like myself, consume more liquids than the average Joe and are constantly on the lookout for a public toilet. It’s hard to enjoy a beautiful sunset from the Galata Bridge or a cruise through the lanes of the Kadikoy fish market when you’re preoccupied by the urge to pee. The good news: in Istanbul it is almost always the case that where there’s a mosque there is a public toilet, accessible for a fee ranging from half a lira to one and a half or two. “Bay” means Guys and “Bayan” means Gals. After making use of my share of mosque toilets I’ve concluded that the older the caretaker/change accepter, the cleaner you can excpect the toilet to be. It’s also worth noting that the toilets at either end of the Galata Bridge (beneath the bridge itself) are surprisingly — given their situtation and frequency of use) inoffensive.

One of my mother’s favorite bits of advice: Go now because you never know when you’ll have another chance. Mother’s wisdom does not apply in Istanbul.

Every Istanbul stay should include a proper breakfast out — one that includes menemen


See the sights and then put away the guidebook and just do some neighborhoods. Go to Fatih, visit the Kadinlari Pazari, sit for some tea underneath the aquaduct (how cool is that? a glass of tea beneath a centuries-old aquaduct!), stroll through the mosque by the park, and just wander. Head out the Rumeli Castle early-ish (no later than 9:30am) on a Saturday or a Sunday, have a proper breakfast, then walk the water to Arnavutkoy and stroll up and down its hills, admiring the cute wooden houses. Take the tram to the Findikli stop, start walking to Tophane, climb the first set of stairs you see to its top, and then thread your way through the ‘hoods towards Cihangir and beyond to Galata. You won’t get lost (and so what if you do?), just keep the water in your sights. Take the ferry from Eminonu or Karakoy to Kadikoy but get off at Haydarpasa station, have some tea by the water, then walk to Kadikoy and duck up into its streets opposite the bus terminal.


Water views from a randomly located grassy spot above Tophane

You get the point. Put the map away and wander. Never knowing quite what to expect is one of the best things about one of the greatest cities in the world.



Probably most important — when planning your trip give Istanbul the time it deserves. I know, it’s your first trip to Turkey (and maybe your last) and you want to fit in as much as possible. But Istanbul is like an onion, with many layers that reveal themselves only as the previous is peeled away. And in some ways Istanbul is a place unto itself — different to every other part of Turkey you may ever visit. Think of Turkey as two countries: Istanbul and the rest. (Actually that is an oversimplification — but you get my point.)

On our first trip to Turkey we spent 9 nights in Istanbul and left fretting that we hadn’t even scratched its surface. Over subsequent trips we’ve probably spent a total of 3-4 months in the city. And we still feel that there is so much we haven’t seen and experienced.

So don’t rush Istanbul. Because no matter how much time you spend there I can almost guarantee you’ll leaving wishing you’d spent more.

Addendum – June 04 2012: Commenter seoulgirl asked for recommendations for reputable apartment rental companies in Istanbul.

I can’t make any guarantees, but we’ve had good look with a couple of rental sites:

  • We’ve been renting places in Cihangir and Galata, Beyoglu, through Istanbul Sweet Home since 2010. The Galata apartments are in lovely old buildings; one of our favoritesoozes character and overlooks a lovely Crimean church. That said, we’re partial to Cihangir, for its convenience: there are a number of good places to eat, several wonderful fresh fruit and veg shops and a lively cafe scene. Our favorite ISH Cihangir pad is usually booked, probably because of its roomy terrace with a view and a barbecue. It must be said that if you’re a first-timer to Istanbul or otherwise a bit nervous about staying outside of a hotel this probably isn’t the apartment rental service for you — management isn’t as hands-on as others. But we’ve never had a bad experience. ISH arranges airport transfers, at a reasonable 25 euros from Ataturk Airport. If you’re flexible about travel dates the site lists “discounts” for unrented aparments at the beginning of every month.
  • In February we rented this Cihangir apartment through The kitchen was tiny but we made it work. Otherwise the apartment was great and the management very responsive. We’ll no doubt revisit this apartment in the future.
  • In June 2012 we rented an apartment in Cihangir through Cross-Pollinate. It was our first time renting through this relatively new agency and we had a fantastic experience. When we changed our date CP replied promptly with a confirmation email. The apartment owner was on top of everything, the place was spic and span and exactly as advertised on the site, and it was probably our best-equipped pad to date. We will use Cross-Pollinate again.