I got addicted to this city when I first visited back in 2007 and it’s been a yearly destination for me since then. Sipping Turkish tea while viewing the Bosphorus and sniffing the mixed aromas of spices, teas and soaps while shopping around the Spice Bazaar are few of the things that take me back to that beautiful intriguing city.
With every visit I find new venues to discover, new places to shop at and new restaurants to try. You can never run out of things to do and your schedule will always be tight and full in Istanbul. A stroll around Sultanahmet area between the mosques and historical sites will fulfill your thirst for history. Spending an afternoon shopping at the Grand Bazaar will make you fall in love with their rich culture over and over again. And a modern Ottomani cuisine in a restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus is a taste and an experience that you’ll remember as long as you live.
The usual plan for a first timer in Istanbul revolves around a tour around the historical sites in Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Ortakoy, Taksim, and some malls. However, the crazy traffic must be taken into consideration while planning the daily schedule as a lot of time will be wasted while moving from a place to another. Having a private driver is always better than taxis especially for big groups. A driver won’t be able to save you from the traffic chaos, but at least you won’t have to worry about a taxi driver that won’t understand what you’re saying and who might trick you with the price and route.
Taksim is very attractive for first timers with it’s endless allies, little cafes and shops of all kinds. It gets extremely busy at night that you can barely find space to walk between the crowd. My interest in Taksim kept fading with every visit, and by now i try to avoid it as much I can. It’s too loud for my taste. Nonetheless, it is still the place to be for those who like touristy spots and crowded areas.
The best place to hangout, in my opinion, is Ortakoy. Whether you just sip a cup of Turkish tea while viewing the sailing boats around the Bosphorus or shop for authentic accessories inside the allies. Fluffy cats are all around the place so if you’re one of those people who have fear of cats/dogs get prepared for some action. I prefer having my tea/coffee/meal in the restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus and not the ones inside the allies. The restaurants change from time to time, but the best was always House Cafe (especially the outdoor area). The jacket potato stands can be interesting but it’s about time that you realize that they all have the same bland taste.
Every time i visit Istanbul i happen to be with a group who’s visiting for the first time. That’s the reason why i had to tour Sultanahmet several times and visit the same places/restaurants over and over again. The first time I toured Sultanahmet we took a nine hours tour that covered most of the important historical sites with a tour guide. It was perfect as it gave me the chance to hear all about the history of those attractions and cover them all in one day.
Visiting the Asian side is a total different experience that is worth trying if you have the time. It’s not as busy as Europe and you’ll barely see any tourists there. Popular destinations: Beylerbeyi (a smaller version of Ortakoy and located opposite to it), few cafes, shops and benches overlooking the Bosphorus. Bağdat Caddesi (Baghdad Avenue), a long street with endless shops. Most shops can be found in other malls but it’s a nice experience to walk around. Bahariye Street: A smaller version of Istiklal Avenue.
Here are some recommendations that are based on my personal experience:
1) Park Hyatt: Great location in Nişantaşı, spacious rooms and friendly staff. We faced some issues with housekeeping which was a disappointment but we had a pleasant stay overall.
2) Pera Palace Jumeira Hotel: Since 1892! Staying there is an experience of its own as it’s more of a museum/hotel. It’s a perfect choice for those who like to explore. The hotel is now managed by Jumeirah and the room rates are quite high. We were disappointed with the service and some of the room facilities but other than that we enjoyed going back in time. The classic furniture was breathtaking (especially in the corner room that we stayed in). Don’t miss the pink tearoom in the ground floor.
3) Conrad Istanbul, Bosphorus: If you prefer a hotel with a Bosphorus view and a good rate then Conrad is a great option. The rate is not as high as the other 5 stars hotels that offer a Bosphorus view and the rooms are clean and comfortable.
4) Park Dedeman, Levent: A new hotel right next to Kanyon Shopping Center. Suitable for a casual stay if you’re using public transportation. Note that it’s a 4 stars hotel and amenities are limited.
5) The Sofa Hotel: A nice and cozy boutique hotel in Nisantasi. Highly recommended. Staying in Nisantasi is a pleasant experience as it’s a luxurious neighborhood with famous brand stores and popular cafes. It’s suitable for those who like to chill by walking around, having coffee and shopping.
6) Radisson Blu Bosphorus Hotel: It’s a small hotel with a direct view of the Bosphorus, right next to Ortakoy. It’s not family friendly and more practical for small groups as the rooms are tight and getting to them is not very easy (stairs + lift). The advantage of staying there is having Ortakoy two steps away from you. While the disadvantage is that you’ll be stuck in traffic for a longer time.
7) Swissotel: One of the best hotels that overlooks the Bosphorus. The room view is breathtaking (make sure you book a Bosphorus view room). The rooms are spacious and the service is very good. I stayed in it twice and i was pleased both times. If you book an excutive room you get to use the Executive Lounge which offers breakfast, all day snacks, and free WIFI. The view from the Executive Lounge is one of my favourite views in Istanbul.
8) Hilton Istanbul Bomonti: Twenty minutes walk from Nişantaşı. Spacious rooms, fancy lobby and great service.
9) The Marmara Taksim Hotel: Perfect location for first timers and for those who love Taksim. It was pretty old when we stayed in it back in 2007 but it seems like it’s been renovated. Their breakfast was excellent.
History & Culture:
1) Dolmabahce Palace: Separated from all the other historical attractions and so the visit needs to be planned on its own. Only guided tours are allowed and the queue/wait is usually long so it’s better to avoid weekends and peak hours. Don’t miss the beautiful garden.
2) Suleymaniye Mosque: The most beautiful mosque interior i’ve ever witnessed. Just look up at the beautiful ceiling and lights and you’d understand. The red carpet is adding a lot to the beauty of this mosque too.
3) Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque): You don’t have to go inside if you want to save time as i believe that the beauty of this mosque is witnessed by viewing it from a distance. The security is strict and rude. If you have the time, have a peak inside. it’s nice to see the hints of blue.
4) Topkapi Palace: Your visit to Istanbul won’t be complete if you don’t visit Topkapi. It is huge, extraordinary and you can feel the history in every brick around you. The garden is the most beautiful part with its amazing sea view. Don’t miss the room where Quran is being read 24 hours and where you’ll see some of Prophet Mohammed’s belongings.
5) Grand Bazaar: Over 3000 shops and you won’t get bored or tired of shopping. They sell the most beautiful teaware and accessories. Don’t spend a lot of time in each shop in order to be able to cover as much shops as you can. Make sure you bargain because you will probably find the same product in other shops. Have a break in one of the cafes and try the Apple Tea or have a doner if you’re hungry. This could be the best part of your trip.
6) Spice Bazaar: An L shaped bazaar that is a bit similar to Grand Bazaar but much smaller in size. They sell spices, sweets, teas, loofas, teaware etc. You will need a maximum of two hours to cover the whole bazaar.
7) Hagia Sophia: A must visit museum (which was a church and then a mosque). There is a great historical background behind it that you don’t want to miss so make sure you take an audio tour.
8) Basilica Cistern: An underground place where water used to be stored. It’s dark, humid, and slippery!
9) Galata Tower: This is the place to be if you want to take panoramic pictures of the city. If not, then seeing the tower from the outside is enough. It is very tight and crowded on top.
10) The Museum of Innocence: For literature lovers. This museum is based on Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerizing novel. It is highly recommended to visit even if you have not read the novel. You will fall in love with the detail and lose track of time while tracing the items.
11) Istanbul Modern: Museum of Modern Art. A must for art lovers.
12) Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi: Formerly the home of Sakıp Sabancı and currently a museum. Family portraits and furniture are displayed and temporary international exhibitions are hosted there.
1) Istinye Park: The perfect place to shop & dine. International brands are located outside in a beautiful square with restaurants in the center. Inside the mall you’ll find a lot of stores (local/international). My favourite spot is the bazaar (-1) where you’ll find gourmet shops, cafes & restaurants too!
2) Kanyan Mall: A one of a kind outdoor shopping mall. Beautiful architecture and atmosphere. The number of shops is limited but it’s worth a visit for a meal or a cup of coffee in Starbucks. It gets really really cold in winter.
3) Zorlu Center: The newest mall in town. The open area in the center of the mall is perfect for a casual meal or a cup of coffee in one of the international cafes/restaurants that are located between the designer shops.
4) City’s Nişantaşı Located right in front of Sofa Hotel. It’s small & useful for last minute shopping if you’re staying in Nişantaşı.
5) Akmerkez: One of the oldest malls but it has everything you need. This is a great option if you have limited time to shop.
7) Akasya Mall: The place to shop when you’re in the Asian side.
8) Cevahir Mall: A typical mall with local and international stores.
9) Astoria: Nice and quiet. Not touristy.
10) Metro City: Small and convenient. Located in Levent.
Restaurants & Cafes:
1) Karaköy Lokantası: Delicious Turkish dishes, marble turquoise walls and a great closure to a stroll around Karaköy’s allies. A family owned non-touristy restaurant that is worth visiting. Booking required.
2) Martinez: I fell in love with this new comer. Excellent service and an enjoyable atmosphere. Some dishes were really good and some were average but I’d love to go again for lunch. Once you book, request an outdoor table as the atmosphere is more vibrant in the terrace.
3) Bazlama: This is the place to be for breakfast nowadays. Colorful and yummy set menu with a sweet lady baking bread by the entrance. Open from Thursday to Sunday only. Make sure to go early to avoid the long queue. Location: Nisantasi.
4) Lokma: A place that never gets old and one of the most popular breakfast spots. Breathtaking Bosphorus view and very tasty food.
5) Delicatessen: Beautiful space and a local crowd. It’s more of a gourmet/cafe during lunch time. The food was fresh and delicious (especially their seasonal menu). Location: Nisantasi.
6) Mangerie: A chic cafe hidden in a terrace in Bebek. It serves Turkish and international food and famous for its breakfast. Get a table in the balcony as the view is not to be missed.
7) Grandma: Everything is phenomenal about this place. The food, the interior, the friendly staff. Recommended dish: Fried eggs in scone. Location: Akmerkez Shopping Center.
8) Nev Lokanta: Located in Kanyon Shopping Center. Good food, beautiful interior and classic Turkish songs playing in the background.
9) Mim Kahve: This cafe is situated in a very narrow and long building in Eminönü that was hard to spot. The sign of the letter Mim written in Arabic was like a secret code or a clue to let you know that there is a magical place hidden inside.
10) Tahin: Suitable for vegetarians. Delicious food and several locations around Istanbul.
11) Passage: Food that is cooked to perfection. The ambience will make you forget that you’re inside a shopping mall. (Location: Kanyon Shopping Center)
12) Norm: For coffee lovers or coffee on the go. Cihangir.
13) Eataly: Wonderland for Italian food lovers with different stations and dining areas for each item. Zorlu Center.
14) VI Coffee & Healthy Living: A great spot to hangout and have a good cup of coffee.
15) Nişantaşı Başköşe: If you are around the area and in the mood for Turkish food then it’s worth a visit.
16) Sade Kahve: A tiny and bright cafe with delicious Turkish Breakfast overlooking the Bosphorus in Rumeli Hisari.
17) Forno: For breakfast or a load of carbs when you’re starving in Balat!
18) Fida Cafe: A cozy cafe in Balat with good music. Suitable for a coffee break.
19) Hümaliva Çikolata: A cozy cafe with great music and interesting interior in Nisantasi.
20) Velvet Cafe: Few meters away from Galata Tower. Beautifully accessorized and pretty teaware/plates. Breakfast is served all day.
21) Fasuli: A traditional restaurant in Karakoy that serves Fasulye out of huge pots. Worth trying.
22) Da Mario: A vibrant fine dining Italian restaurant located in Etiler. Book a table in the garden if the weather is allowing. Delicious dishes!
23) Bebek Mini Dondurma: Ice cream on the go. The pistachio is excellent.
24) Starbucks Bebek: Three floors with a magnificent view! One of the most beautiful Stabucks branches in the world.
25) Grandpa: When you need a break from Turkish food, head there for some baked goods and coffee. Beautiful interior. Don’t miss the mini garden in the back!
26) Must: It is impossible not to notice this restaurant while strolling around Nisantasi and impossible to resist walking in. The decoration is too attractive to ignore.
27) Not Just Coffee: Excellent coffee served in a very cute space in Cihangir. Highly recommended for coffee addicts.
28) Dem: A very pretty cafe in Moda (Asian side). A great place to have some tea and cake in the afternoon. Another branch is available in Karakoy.
29) LOL Coffee Roasters: It’s tough to settle on a place when you’re in Karakoy, but if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee then you won’t go wrong with LOL.
30) Naif: Beautiful interior and good food with a Turkish twist. Located in Karakoy.
31) Taze Lokanta: Famous for its Manti. Located in Kanyon Shopping Center.
32) Aşiyan Kitap Kahve: Colorful and calm with books and a quiet crowd. Located in Üsküdar (Asian side).
33) Pim Karaköy: Located in the center and buzzing side of Karaköy. Good Food.
34) Ulus 29: My number one restaurant in Istanbul. The atmosphere is classy yet fun and the view from the balcony is breathtaking. It’s very hard to make a decision once you go through the menu and sharing is the best option. Their dishes are unique.
35) Kale Cafe: A perfect choice for a local breakfast with a Bosphorus view. You will be seated on the pavement and the strangers next to you will seem as if they are sharing your table, but this could be one of the most relaxing breakfast experiences you’ll ever have. You will be served some basic dishes (and tea of course) as soon as you are seated and then add whatever you wish to try from the menu. Sipping Turkish tea while watching the seagulls spread their wings and fly around the Bosphorus bridge is always the most delightful experience in Istanbul.
36) Aşşk Kahve: Beautiful interior and view but the food is overrated. It is a popular place especially for Khaleejis so if you want to avoid the crowd choose another place on the same road or try the other hidden branch in Nisantasi.
37) Nusret: Nusret Steakhouse is one of the most popular and busiest restaurants in Istanbul. Nusret Burger is more casual and several branches are available. The steakhouse is now open in Istinye Park Shopping Center.
38) Tom’s Kitchen: Located in Zorlu Mall. A great option for brunch.
39) Sütiş: There are several branches of Sütiş but we were told that the one by the Bosphorus (Emirgan) was the nicest. We went for dinner and it was full and vibrant but the food options were limited. For breakfast, it is one of the top of most delicious places in Istanbul.
40) Develi Restaurant: A good option for a Turkish meal when you’re in Nişantaşı. Delicious Meze in a modernized Turkish atmosphere.
41) Van Kahvaltı Evi: You will never get enough of this yummy Turkish breakfast. It’s a tiny place in Cihangir and totally worth visiting.
42) House Cafe: Perfect for a casual meal, good food and chilled atmosphere. The breakfast is very good too. You will find a nearby branch wherever you go. My favourite branch is the one in Ortakoy (especially the outdoor area overlooking the Bosphorus in summer).
43) Kitchenette: A similar concept to House Cafe. Casual and relaxing.
44) Masa: One of the most popular restaurants in Istinye Park. Always busy and vibrant.
45) Nezih: Another awesome traditional restaurant that serves breakfast by the Bosphorus.
46) Doğaya Dönüş Bistro: A heavenly cafe for vegetarians. You can pick and choose what you desire from the available pots and cold dishes and have a colorful plate filled with delicious and colorful veggies. Location:Nişantaşı.
47) Dandin: A very cute bakery/cafe tucked in one of Karakoy’s busiest allies. Beautiful interior and tasteful quick bites.
48) Saray Muhallebicisi: One of the most famous casual Turkish chains. Breakfast is not to be missed.
49) Meze by Lemon Tree: A very small restaurant that serves modern Turkish cuisine. It was rated number one on Tripadvisor in 2009. Delicious food.
50) Topaz: Turkish fine dining at its best. It’s overlooking the Bosphorus and serves modern Ottomani cuisine. If you’re not a fan of formal dining then this is not the place for you.
51) Zoma: Japanese restaurant located in Ortakoy (Radison Blu Hotel). Extremely delicious. We celebrated New Years Eve there and it was a perfect location to view the fireworks by the Bosphorus. Another branch is now open in Istinye Shopping Center.
52) Chillai: Delicious food and chilled atmosphere especially during sunset. Located in Bebek.
53) Kosebasi: Even if it’s franchised in your country, the taste in Istanbul is completely different.
54) Hamdi: Delicious local Turkish food located next to Spice Bazaar. Worth a visit. Make sure you try the pistachio kebab.
55) Cafe Firuz: For a quick meal when you’re in Cihangir.
56) Mado: A good option for a quick stop for tea/coffee and dessert. The Kunafa is to die for and the Sahlab is popular.
57) Zamane Kahvesi: A small local restaurant in Nisantasi. It serves the most delicious Turkish breakfast I’ve ever tried. Very fresh.
58) Laledan Restaurant at Ciragan Palace Kempinski: Grand breakfast buffet with a view. Endless variety of food and it all tastes excellent. You won’t be able to stop eating. Highly recommended.
59) Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta: One of the traditional restaurants in Sultanahmed that serves a set menu of salad and kebab. It’s nice to be experienced once in a lifetime. It’s a three floor crowded restaurant that is perfect for tourists. The kebab was delicious but i didn’t like the aftertaste of it. There is a place right next to it, owned by the same person, that serves delicious local desserts. Worth a visit.
60) Hunkar: A Turkish restaurant in Nisantasi located beautifully below the ground floor of a building. We tried their Iftar menu and it was an amazing experience to have Iftar the Turkish way. Their dishes were unique and not the typical Turkish dishes we try everywhere.
61) Mikla: This restaurant was recommended in several websites and i was expecting a very special ambience. The location was practical (rooftop of Marmara Pera Hotel which was opposite to our hotel Pera Palace Jumeira). I booked a table in the balcony which is famous for its spectacular view of the city, but i arrived to find that the balcony was closed. Another surprise was that we had to select one of their three set menus (which didn’t include any chicken!). The service was slow and i got the feeling that this place was once the place to be, but not anymore!
62) Mahallenin Kahvesi: Located in Beylerbeyi in the Asian side. This is the cafe were Omer & Elif used to meet in Kara Para Aşk. Excellent breakfast and your eyes will never get tired of scanning all the collections around the walls.
63) 360: Not one of my favourites but nicely located on the top floor of a building in Taksim. The atmosphere is electric with shows every now and then. It feels like a circus to me but people like it. The food is good.
64)Küçük Ev: A delicious quick bite. Can be found in food courts and different streets. Good doner.
65) Haskral: A traditional Turkish restaurant that serves the famous chicken which is stuffed with rice, cooked and served in rock salt. It’s a popular place for Khaleejis.
66) Osmani: Casual Turkish. Average food. Located in the basement of Istinye Park.
67) Istinye Kahvecisi: When you need a break from shopping have a cup of Turkish Coffee here. It is located in the Bazaar section in Istinye Park (-1).
68) Big Chefs: International and Turkish dishes with several branches around Istanbul.
69) Karakoy Gulluoglu: The best Baqlava in Istanbul that comes in different flavors and shapes. You choose the size of the box and, you select the baqlava that you want to add and you pay according to weight. They also wrap it and pack it for you so its more practical to go on your way to the airport. Passing by to have a quick fresh baqlava with a cup of Turkish tea is a must do.
There are many cities and areas outside Istanbul that i wish to visit which includes Antalya, Antakya Bodrum, Cappadocia and Izmir. The furthest i’ve been is Bursa, passing by Iznik on our way.
1) Iznik: It was famous for pottery making during the Ottoman period and Ibn Battuta stayed in it in 1331. If you’re a fan of history make sure to pass by Iznik to see some monuments and leftovers of a great era.
2) Bursa: Getting to Bursa was a very interesting experience because we used two forms of transportation (car and ferry). We drove to the port, parked the car inside the ferry and enjoyed the one hour journey across the sea of Marmara while sipping tea on the top deck. We continued our way to Bursa by car and made a stop at Iznik.
Our first stop in Bursa was at the Grand Mosque where we prayed Juma Prayer. The mosque was mesmerizing and some verses from the Quran were written on the columns. It was packed with locals who rushed from the nearby shops to perform Juma Prayer.
Next stop was at the Green Mosque. It was small in size but rich with history.
I will never forget the flavorful meaty taste of the lunch i had in Bursa. It was in a local restaurant that served one dish only: Meatball with Pita (Iskender Kebab).
Shopping in Bursa was crazy. We literally went crazy because the prices were much cheaper than the prices of the same products in Istanbul. Everything we were looking for was available in one multi-story shop.
We wrapped up our day trip with a relaxing walk around Tophane Park where the Bursa Clock Tower was located.
3) Princes’ Isles: I visited the island out of curiosity after hearing a lot of good feedback about it. We toured around the old houses in a carriage and had seafood by the sea for lunch. That was it. There was nothing else to do over there. I actually found the ferry ride to the island much more interesting than the island itself, as the ferry stops in other islands to drop and pick passengers on its way to the main island (they are a total of nine islands). Cars are not allowed in Princes’ Islands. People move around on horses and carriages or bikes. It’s more of a residential area for residents who move there during summer to have a break of the city life.
Planning a trip?
In my opinion, the best time to visit Istanbul is in October. The weather is cool and breezy around that time of the year and the roads and venues are not as busy as the summer season. It starts getting busy again around Christmas/New Year time. But if you decide to celebrate New Years in Istanbul, make sure to book a restaurant by the Bosphorus to have a close view of the fireworks. I was excited to experience Ramadan in Istanbul, but to my surprise there was nothing special other than the Iftar set menu that restaurants offered. The opening hours of the shops did not change and restaurants didn’t close during the day.
Gulf Air and Turkish Air fly direct to Istanbul and tickets cost around BD200 or less during low seasons.
Enjoy your trip!