Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, holds a special place in my heart, because it was the first destination I ever visited solo. I didn’t travel solo until my mid 30s – maybe it was fear or maybe I just couldn’t quite get out of my comfort zone of travelling with friends or family. But at 35 years old, I had to have quite a big operation – it gave me a new perspective on life. ‘I need to see the blue mosque before I die!’ I thought to myself! And I booked the flight without hesitation. So here’s the big question: Is Istanbul worth visiting?!?!
Is Istanbul worth visiting?
Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world! If you were to ask me ‘Is Istanbul worth visiting?’ I would say yes without hesitation! Istanbul has fantastic sight seeing including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Shopping is fantastic there and great value – Istanbul has a Grand Souk and a Spice Souk. Nightlife is buzzing around Taksim Square. The food is out of this world! Oh, and you can jump on a boat if you want to explore the islands of the Bosphorus.
Istanbul is absolutely a world class travel destination and should not be missed! In short, not only is Istanbul worth visiting, but it’s one of my all time favourite cities.
How long to spend in Istanbul
Spend at least 3-5 days in Istanbul. I spent a full week there and completely filled it! There is a lot to see in Istanbul including all of the main sites of Sultanahmet (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace) and the Bazaars (Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar). You also have the beautiful islands of the Bosphorus and plenty of day trips to take, so definitely don’t rush this fantastic city. There’s also a great food scene in Istanbul, and it’s not expensive to eat out, so a few days enjoying the restaurants and cafes certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
However, if you are really pushed for time, here are my recommendations on how to spend a day in Istanbul.
Pros of Istanbul
There are so many pros of Istanbul. It’s a well connected city with excellent transport links, beautiful architecture and a fantastic food scene. It’s also a very cultural and religious place with interesting mosques (some are open to non-Muslim visitors). You can even see the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ (a practice by Sufi Muslims although this has become more of a tourist show than spiritual nowadays in Istanbul).
Well Connected Airport
Istanbul has a great airport that is not too far away from the main city. Most hostels and hotels will arrange a transfer for you. You can also take the M11 line which connects the Istanbul Airport metro station to Kağıthane. Tourism is very advanced in Istanbul and there are plenty of tours available if you prefer to explore the surrounding areas with a guide.
Mosques and Churches
One thing I loved about Istanbul was the culture and its many religious buildings. Don’t miss the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (informally known as the Blue Mosque), which is an Ottoman era imperial mosque (constructed 1609 – 1617). The other most important religious site in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia, which was originally built as a Christian Church in the 6th Century, but has been rebranded a Mosque once again by the Turkish government. When I saw it back in 2015, it was still a Church and I was lucky enough to see the Byzantine Christian mosaics. I presume that these have been covered up since 2020, when it converted back into a Mosque again, but I haven’t visited since.
If you have more time to explore, there are plenty of other religious buildings dotted around the city. Other Mosques of interest include Ismail Aga Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque and Fatih Mosque. There are still many Churches and Cathedrals in Istanbul. I would recommend also visiting the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, which is the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul.
Food is Amazing
The food in Istanbul was not only excellent quality, but also really good value. It is possible to get a really good take away kebab for around 20-30 Turkish Lira (about £1!). Bear in mind it’s been a few years since I visited so prices may have gone up since Covid. Baclava is one of my favourite Turkish foods – I just can’t get enough of those sweet and crunchy honey pastries. I also recommend trying the Dolma (stuffed vine leaves), Meze (various tasty appetisers including hummus) and the Börek (feta cheese filo pastries).
Oh and one more thing to mention…the fabulous Turkish ice-cream. You don’t have to walk far down the main shopping streets before you start to see Ice-cream vendors putting on quite a show. It’s really something…they love to tease you with it by putting unexpectedly massive portions, then taking it away from you before you can grab it. They spin it upside down and everything! I even saw one boy get it bopped on his nose haha!
Topkapi Palace is really an amazing place to visit. I’d recommend that you spend a full day here as there is so much to see and lots of photo opportunities. But, if you are pushed for time, it is possible to see Topkapi Palace in around 3 hours. From the 1460’s to the completion of the Palace in 1856 (then called the Dolmabahçe Palace), it served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire, and was the main residence of the sultans. Expect queues and expect it to be really busy to get in to visit the Imperial Harem. But don’t miss it!
Shopping is amazing in Istanbul and it’s so cheap there that it will be difficult not to come home with an abundance of gifts and treats for yourself and your family. There are two fantastic souks – the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Go to the Grand Bazaar for the handicrafts and traditional souvenirs such as jewelled mirrors, lamps and rugs. Head to the Spice Bazaar for your edible treats – saffron, other spices and Turkish delight. Remember to negotiate for the ‘best price’ as the first price isn’t always what you should pay…it’s all part of the fun!
Amazing nightlife of Taksim Square
If you are looking for a good night on the town, then Istanbul will not disappoint. Head to Taksim Square which is the centre of the Istanbul’s nightlife. Some good recommendations for bars and nightclubs include Ritim, Bova Jazz Club and Back Street Taksim. Be aware that drinking alcohol can be pricier in Istanbul – you can pay as much as 400 Lira for a cocktail (around £11-12).
Taking a Boat trip on the Bosphorus
It is a good idea to take a boat trip down the Bosphorus river and if you have time, visit the Princes islands as well. Here you will find a very different pace of life, with some of the islands not even allowing traffic, just bikes and horse and carts.
The Cons of Istanbul
Although there are not many downsides to Istanbul, there are some travel challenges in such a big city on the cusp of Southeastern Europe and Asia.
Traffic – Crossing Roads can be a challenge!
Although the transport systems are well organised and easy to use in Istanbul, it can get very busy. I found the traffic particularly busy and it was hard to cross the roads. I learnt that the tactic has to be walk out slowly and cross the road at a regular pace, and cars will slow down or avoid you, but it’s not a tactic that I enjoy needing to use!
Hassle in the markets and Souks
You should expect to have some hassle in the markets and shops in Turkey. It is part of the culture to barter, and so if there is something that you want, take the time to learn the fair price for it before you venture into the souks, otherwise you could find yourself paying over the odds! Bartering in Turkey is friendly and not aggressive. Do it with a smile on your face and ask for a ‘good discount’ and you might get a deal, especially if you are buying more than one item.
Some restaurants in Turkey have figured out that many tourists from the UK and the USA don’t like to be hassled. So, in a bid to attract you, some restaurants have a ‘hassle free zone’ sign at the door! I found this quite amusing!
Stray Cats and Dogs
Stray cats and dogs unfortunately can be an issue in Istanbul. When I was there I did see a waiter get bitten by a stray dog when he ran past quickly and startled it. I also experienced numerous stray cats trying to get my fish sandwich on the Princes islands. They were rather aggressive and swiping at me and my food! You can stamp your feet and wave your arms in the air if you want to scare them off without hurting them – they do back off if you stand your ground. If you have the option to have a rabies shot before heading to Turkey, I would recommend it, particularly if you are travelling out into the wild or in an area where you are working with dogs or likely to see a lot of strays.
Scams and Travel Challenges – Taxis and Shoe Shines
I didn’t experience any scams or difficult situations in Istanbul, but some have been reported by other fellow travellers. The taxi scams are the most common – taxi drivers go without the meter and charge tourists double, or often pretend to have no change, so that they don’t have to give it to you. Find out in advance how much your fare should be and have the exact change ready. Uber works in Istanbul, and so your best bet is probably to download the app and book online. That way, you know how much you will be paying and the reg number of your driver.
Also look out for the ‘shoe shine scam’ in Istanbul. Shoe shining is a popular service in Istanbul, but they prey on tourists for getting a ‘bonus’ (overpriced shoe shine!) Shoe shiners drop their ‘brush’ near to tourists and when they hand it back they offer a ‘free’ shoe shine. But when they give you the service, it is not free – they will be charging a highly inflated rate. Avoid shoe shiners and simply say ‘no thank you’.
Pickpocketing isn’t overly common in Istanbul, but you should keep your belongings secure and hidden away just in case. I found Sultanahmet very safe, but a few fellow travellers reported pickpockets in and around Taksim Square (where the central area of bars, restaurants and night clubs are). I recommend a secure travel money belt like this one….
Most important Istanbul Travel Tips
- Stay in or around Sultanahmet for the most convenient location.
- Check out the fair price for an item before heading to the souk to haggle.
- Use the ‘Metro system’ in Istanbul to get around – tickets from the machines can be bought in Turkish Lira with an English language option.
- Use Uber for taxis in Istanbul.
- Get a secure travel money belt to keep your money safe from pickpockets.
- Don’t miss Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
- Look out for fake brands and poor quality items on the markets.
- If you have time, take a day to explore some of the Bosphorus islands – it’s a completely different feel to the main city.
What to pack for Istanbul
- Comfortable daypack – mine is a Deuter 30L day pack.
- Credit and Debit Card – my Barclaycard worked in Turkish cash machines with a good exchange rate.
- A SIGG refillable water bottle – to keep hydrated.
- Comfortable walking boots (mine are Karrimor Bodmin weatherlite) and sandals such as Merrell (there is a lot of walking in Istanbul).
- A good and secure travel money belt.
- Knee length shorts and T-shirts or cotton/linen blouses (avoid vest tops and crop tops that show your midriff).
- Swim suit and cover up – in case you want to swim on some of the Bosphorus islands).
- Black leggings and tunics.
- A plain one colour scarf to cover your head for mosques (women) and to use as a shawl on chilly evenings.
- An extra bag for shopping! Bear in mind that you might want to take a foldable duffle bag with you that you fill with shopping and check in on the flight home (shopping is excellent value in Istanbul!)
- Sunglasses (or light reactive glasses)
- The Lonely Planet Turkey – It’s always nice to have a paperback guide to read when you are travelling or don’t have wifi access. The Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook.
Where to stay in Istanbul
During my time in Istanbul, I stayed at the fabulous Sultan Hostel and met fantastic people. It was great value (perfect for travellers on a budget) with good wifi and a decent breakfast. The location was perfect as it was easy to walk to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
If you are looking for more ideas on where to stay in Istanbul….
- Mid Range – Hotel Sultan Hill (3* with WIFI)
- Luxury – Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet (this century-old neoclassical 5* hotel is just a stones throw away from the main sites)
Overall Verdict – Is Istanbul worth Visiting?
Overall, I hope that you have gathered from this article that Istanbul is totally worth visiting! In fact, it’s a city that should not be missed. Make sure that you spend at least 3-5 days in Istanbul to fully enjoy the main sites, as well as the best food scene.
If you enjoyed this article on ‘Is Istanbul worth visiting?’ you might also like to read…
- How to spend one day in Istanbul
- Visiting the amazing Princes Islands on the Bosphorus
- Visiting the Blue M mosque in Istanbul
- A Bazaar day in Istanbul – Visiting the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar