İstanbul Highlights

2022 11 16 EROL 0703


The live map provides a geographic representation of favorites and interesting spots. It is more exhaustive than the list below and the clustering or pins can help show "gravity centers," where there is a high density of activities.

İstanbul Google Map

Sample Itineraries

Sample itineraries give a set of activities that can be done in one day.

  1. A culture day touring Topkapı palace, Hagia Sophia Church, Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque). Bonus points if you have the energy for Rüstem Paşa Mosque (my absolute favorite tiny mosque with iconic İznik tiled walls) and the Süleymaniye Mosque (I think better than the Blue Mosque, but it is less ornate). Süleymaniye has good views of the city.
  2. A shopping day at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. These are sprawling compounds, and can easily take an entire day. If you are a fast walker with lots of energy, you can do both the cultural attractions above with the Grand Bazaar.
  3. You could also do the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, then take a ferry boat tour along the Bosphorus. They call this the “Bosphorus Tour” and technically it’s on the city’s public ferries, so it’s basic, but so cheap, and you get an amazing “tour” of the entire Bosphorus where you can see the famous mosques, palaces, and “yalıs” (mansions) along the water. More details here and timetables. You typically board at the Eminönü ferry station (by the spice bazaar) and get off anywhere along the route. Remember, this is just a ferry route, not a formal tour, so bring snacks and drinks (they also sell those on board). It can be anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on if you do a round trip.
  4. A day in the Karaköy/Çukurcuma/Beyoğly neighborhoods. These are the cool parts of the city on the European side.
    • Galata Tower has the best views of İstanbul and the old city.
    • İstiklâl Cadessi is the main thoroughfare but they are repairing the famous red trolley car (in so many photos) so you probably won’t see that in operation.
  5. Another day in Kadıköy and Moda neighborhoods. These are the even cooler parts on the Asian side of the city. There are some beautiful coffee shops, antique stores, but also famous turkish brands like Divan, Vakko, and Paşabahçe located there. A lot of the hip scene has moved to the Asian side in these areas, but I’m an old soul and enjoy the European side more.
  6. Bonus places: Dolmabahçe palace, Ortaköy Mosque (this is the famous shot of the water, mosque, and bridge you see everyone take, but it’s a very nice neighborhood, too), Bebek and Nişantaşı (very tony and a bit boring but has some famous Turkish boutique clothing brands).
  7. Prince’s islands. I love those, but if you have a short trip it will be hard to make it work.
  8. Beşiktaş is also a cool part of town, but again, I recommend mostly on a longer or second trip.


İstanbul is huge and crowded, and moving around can be exhausting. Think small and stay in a specific area each day as much as possible because it’s not easy moving around the city even though it has big, saturated metro/bus system. Take the boat ferries as much as possible: they are both beautiful and never stuck in traffic. Metros are always so busy and packed, you get tired using it. Taxi drivers and Uber drivers lately have also been refusing fares. I got stuck a bunch of times in my last trip and I couldn’t even convince them to drive me with money. What a world! So be sure to pick a good location for your airbnb/hotel, and even think about staying on the European side and doing activities there, then moving to the Asian side and finding a new place to stay there.

  • İstanbulkart — Must have. It’s basically a pre-loaded public transport pass. Public transport can be chaotic, so fumbling with change, transfer tickets, and the like is basically a nightmare on a crowded bus as the driver yells at you.
  • Metro SystemReading.
  • Vapur — the ferry boats. Take one from Karaköy on the European side to Kadiköy on the Asian side. Then walk over to the historic Haydarpaşa train station (a gift from the Germans before World Ware I) then take a cab to Bağdat Caddessi and see one of the city’s chicest and most fashionable streets. But you can’t go wrong really. The only city I know of where you can take a boat as a cheap bus ride and see some of the most beautiful scenery.
  • Museumkart — I’ve never used it. But it’s useful and valuable if it’s your first visit and you need to knock out a bunch … If you’re adventurous, always ask for a “student discount” (“öğrenci:” oerengee, which means student). Then flash some old student ID you have.
  • Esenler “Büyük” Otogar — Sometimes just “Otogar,” it is the main bus hub and basically where all buses traveling through Turkey start and end. It’s like the “airport” for buses. Filthy place. But nostalgic in an Eastern European Soviet sense of the word. However, buses in Turkey are not shitty Greyhounds. They’re luxe air-conditioned affairs. The contrast is marvelous. City-to-city Bus travel is fast, convenient, consistent, comfortable, popular, and very saturated through the whole country. It’s safe too — evidenced by all the unattended conservative Muslim women who ride it. You can almost be certain a bus line can take you to somewhere outside İstanbul.

Cultural Activities

  • Pera Museum — Fine art
  • Sakip Sabancı Museum — Impressive collection, private art museum
  • İstanbul Modern
  • Dolmabahçe Palace — The Versailles of the Ottoman Empire
  • Topkapı Palace — The seat of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years.
  • Museum of Innocence — Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk’s curious and small museum
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya)
  • Sülemaniye Mosque Complex
  • Pierre Loti — Not a must, but great views.
  • Galata Tower — The lines can be long, but I’d say it’s worth the wait.
  • Grand Bazaar — It’s huge. Here are some lists about it. I’ve found some of my favorite things at certain retailers, but they’re nearly impossible to find without going with someone who knows where they are. But even so, you’ll be enchanted by the place.
  • Egyptian Spice Market — If you don’t need special spices like Salep and Saffron, just skip it or walk quickly through it.
  • Bağdat Caddessi — On the Asian side. You can skip this, since it’s like any other fancy shopping street, but it’s the main “hub” for the Asian side, so if you do go to the Asian side, you must stop here for the most variety.
  • İstiklâl Caddessi — The lifeline of İstanbul. The main street. Where everyone is.
  • Çicek Pasaji — Off of İstiklâl, this is full of quaint restaurants. Tourists eat here a lot. It’s nice.
  • Ihlamur Palace — a small little gem.
  • Kariye Musum — beautiful Byzantine frescoes.
  • Sadberk Hanim Museum — decorate arts predominantly from the Ottoman period housed in the home of the original collector.
  • Cirağan Palace — this is now a luxury hotel
  • Yalıs — a yalı is a type of home unique to İstanbul. It is defined roughly as a waterfront mansion or villa. They dot the entire length of the Bosphorus river. These are the famous waterside homes that dangle over the bosphorus. Many of them are now museums or hotels you can visit.


  • Nişantaşı — The well-to-do part of the city. But also central to Taksim, nightlife, and Bebek. This the chicest part of Istanbul. A scene-be-seen crowd.
  • Karaköy: this area, once home to hardware stores and brothels, has gentrified into one of the most frequented parts of the city. With the opening of Galata Port, it draws crowds from all persuasions. The area is saturated in historic buildings, waterfront views, chic restaurants, crowded cafes, and boutique hotels.
  • Bebek— Costal neighborhood that is very pleasant. Well-heeled with a resort-town vibe. The best option to escape the city without actually leaving it.
  • Beyoğlu/Karaköy — The heart of İstanbul, where you will find İstiklâl Caddessi (Street), and Taksim square. This is where the youth congregate, where people protest, where artists indulge, and every İstanbulite passes through during her day.
  • Ortaköy and Beşiktaş — Places of the famous sea-side Ortaköy Mosque, Yıldız Park, and Dolmabahçe palace. Lots of photo ops here.
  • Çukurcuma — Just outside the tourist areas of Beyoğlu, Çukucuma is quant and folksy, and a good place to wander around. Guardian Times top 10 list. NY Times review. It’s the Brooklyn or Oakland of the city.
  • Sirkeci/Eminönü — Topkapı Palace is here, as well as the old train station. You’ll find old İstanbul streets here, and I recommend walking through them for a while. If you feel like you are going uphill you are probably on the right way to eventually run into the Grand Bazaar. It’s about a 20 minute walk through these old streets. This is a great place to get lost and feel “old” Istanbul. It is a bit touristy, so watch your stuff.
  • Fatih — Now a conservative neighborhood, this area of the city contains old Ottoman buildings and cemeteries. Eminönü is close to it and partly part of it too. This is a slightly less interesting place to be, so I would skip it on your trip.
  • Fatih and Eminönü are by each other. Then Karaköy and Beyoğlu are across Haliç, the smaller river that splits the European side. Çukurcuma is next, then Ortaköy and Beşiktaş. Finally Nişantaşı and Bebek are the farthest. Of course, the city is huge, and it sprawls on and on, but those are the main places.
  • Kadıköy: the gravity center of the Asian side is also where younger crowds congregate. Kadıköy is dynamic and mixed with practical concerns like grocery stores and banks, as well as businesses you might find in Brooklyn like vintage record shops and second hand clothing stores. Kadıköy has more accessible antique shopping. It is also known for a famous district of outdoor restaurants and spice markets that are an excellent place to meet and dine into the late hours or source high quality spices without the European-side markup. It's where the citizens of İstanbul live and play.


  • Lacivert — Fine seafood, incredible view.
  • Zencifil — highly rated vegetarian.
  • Changa — Famous modern Turkish cuisine.
  • Pasa Liman ( — Society brunch right on the waterfront
  • Bebek Badem Ezmesi — The famous almond marizpan shop.
  • Mikla restaurant (fancy!). Try booking a fancy dinner there.
  • Mükellef in Karaköy, rooftop for great views and good food
  • SoHo house (the former American Embassy). That has a gorgeous rooftop too, but I’ve never been. Beautiful interiors obviously because Europeans considered their Istanbul embassies to be the jewels for their ambassadors.

Pastries, Sweets & Tea

  • Bebek Badem Ezmesi (the famous almond marzipan shop in Bebek — a must!). It’s a bit out of the way but I think worth the schlep.
  • All the great confectioners: Haci Bekir, Divan, Pelit, Cafer Erol, Cemilzade. These are the only places to buy your Turkish delight from. Don’t get it anywhere else.


  • Robinson Crusoe 389 Books, now inside SALT modern art museum. This building itself is beautiful: pure white neoclassical atrium, former Ottoman bank.
  • Yastik By Rifat Ozbek (the most beautiful pillow store)


  • Lucca — Does brunch and night club
  • Sortie — Right by Reina. Another super hip Euro-club. Don’t go!
  • Cahide — It’s a drag show on steroids. A chic club where you sit and eat dinner while a drag show plays in front of your eyes. It’s a bit crazy and it might be closed these days, but check it out.
  • Travel the side streets off of İstiklâl Caddessi to find local pubs. I use local loosely since older locals don’t drink, but young İstanbulites do. These are the low-key dive bars that appeal more to me, and the beer is cheap.
  • There is a new trend in Istanbul for hidden “speakeasy” popup bars. I have no idea how to find them, but they exist. Though, they’re definitely below the radar of authorities, so tread carefully.

Education Food

  • Istanbul Food Map (Google Map) — prepared by university students. I haven’t tried it myself, but it looks pretty good.
  • Meze — Basically like Greek maze or Spanish tapas. These are typically cold foods served at the beginning of a meal. But they become a meal in themselves. Lots of places specialize in this like Meze by Lemon Tree.
  • Çig köfte — Essentially raw beaf with heavy spices. It’s amazingly delicious, but recent laws forbid serving it. So it’s vegetarian usually, but the taste is pretty similar. It is hard to find it as meat these days, unless you know a Turkish aunt ;^)
  • İskender kebap — The city of Bursa is really known for this food, so I don’t have recommendations in İstanbul. It is döner meat eaten over bread with yoghurt on a plate, as opposed to in a wrap. This list might be helpful for places to have it. But they serve this dish in a lot of places. I’ve been here.
  • Mantı — Beef dumplings. Eat here: Casita. They don’t prepare it orthodox, but still amazing.
  • Kazan dibi — Burnt pudding. Amazing taste. Traditionally thickened with chicken. Eat that here: Saray Muhallebicisi, which sells most Turkish desserts.
  • Tavuk gözüğüsü — Literally chicken breast in milk pudding. It’s delicious and you cannot even tell there is chicken. A little hard to find.
  • Maraş dondurma — Famous ice cream made from salep orchid root. You’ll see street vendors selling it everywhere. They like fooling around with tourists when they serve it to you.
  • Ayran — Literally watered-down yoghurt with salt you drink. But essentially the most common beverage at a Turkish dinner table. I think it’s amazing.
  • İmam bayıldi — Vegetarian eggplant dish served cold. You eat it as a meze.
  • Hünkâr beğendi — Warm lamb dish served over pureed eggplant. Great smoky taste and considered fine traditional Ottoman cuisine.
  • Adana kebap — Kebap from the Adana region of Turkey. Very spicy. I’m not crazy about it.
  • Badem Ezmesi — Marzipan. You eat this in Bebek.
  • Acıbadem — Like a big almond macaron. Buy in Nişantaşı.
  • Rakı — anise-tasting liquor. Tastes like uzo. The Turks call it “Lion’s milk” and it’s the star drink for a crazy night out.
  • Efes — The classic beer
  • Salep — Warm milk drink thickened with Orchid root and sprinkled with cinnamon.
  • Turkish coffee — Obviously! But you’ll never be able to get it any better in America, unless of course I make you some.
  • Boza — A mildly alcoholic warm beverage. Try is here: Vefa.
  • Avoid: kokoreç. It’s sold on the streets over a horizontal rod. It’s lamb intestine. Lord knows how they clean it. I think it’s disgusting, but some people swear by it.

Outside İstanbul

  • Edirne — Old Ottoman city near Bulgaria
  • Bursa — Major city with the snow mountains and Turkish baths (check out the Turkish baths in İstanbul if you don’t go hear). The city is okay, too urbanized to be really enjoyable, and landlocked.
  • İzmir — Coastal. Very nice, but much better in the summer.
  • Cappadocia — Cave homes. About 11 hours by bus. Fantastic geological formations.
  • Lycia — Rock Tombs
  • Ephesus — The best preserved Ancient Greek city in the world.
  • Çeşme
  • Fethiye
  • Bodrum
  • Ankara
  • Trabzon
  • Antalya


Turkish is totally phonetic, so you can just sound out most words.

  • ç = “check”
  • ş = “shape”
  • ğ = elongates previous vowel, silent. A word like “soğuk” (cold) would be pronounced as “sooouk.” You could almost consider it as forming a slight "l" sound in between the two vowels it connects like "soluk" but without finishing the "l" sound.
  • ı = dotless “i” as in the “e” in “England”