Istanbul Travel Guide for First Timers

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The only city on the Earth belonging to two continents, Istanbul is a world class destination and an obligatory stop if you are traveling to Turkey. It connects Europe and Asia geographically and culturally, yet maintains a distinctly unique character. Its spectacular location matches its vast architectural heritage that speaks of a glorious history. During centuries it was the capital of two important empires: Byzantine and Ottoman. With the transfer of the capital to Ankara in 1923 it lost its political importance, nevertheless maintaining its role as cultural and spiritual center of Turkey. Even today it is much larger than any other city in the country and its most important economical center. If you are visiting Istanbul for the first time this guide is for you!

View from Süleymaniye Mosque

What is Istanbul Like

Istanbul lies on both sides of the Bosphorus strait expanding over a territory of more than 5000 km2. The European part is additionally divided by the Golden Horn, which separates the two most important historical districts: Sultanahmet on the south and Galata on the north. The form of the city and its urban grid are additionally determined by the mountainous topography of the terrain. Two motorway belts intersected by major avenues heading towards the Bosphorus on both continents bypass the city center. The city adapts to the terrain, therefore most of the streets in the urban area are of irregular shape.

Interior of the New Mosque

What to See in Istanbul

The giant Hagia Sophia is the most important landmark in Sultanhmet, and perhaps the city. Built in the 6th century it was a church until the 15th century when it was converted into a mosque. Today it is a museum that showcases some of the most beautiful byzantine mosaics you’ll ever see. Some 200 meters southwest Sultanahmet Mosque or the Blue Mosque is the only mosque with 6 minarets. Built in the 16th century, it is considered the last great classical mosque. In the same area magnificent underground Basilica Cistern dates from the 6th century. North of Hagia Sophia the impressive Topkapi Palace was the royal residence of the sultans for four centuries. About a half kilometer west of the Palace the Kapalı Çarşı or Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Dating back to the 15th century it was one of the first buildings built during the Otthoman rule. Another 500 meters to the north the other important imperial mosque Süleymaniye is Istanbul’s largest with a beautiful monumental courtyard. On the other side of the Golden horn, Galata tower built by the Genovese in the 14th century offers some spectacular views of the city. A little bit further north, next to the Bosphorus the colorful Dolmabahce Palace provides a different insight into the lives of the sultans. You should visit these sites even if you are only on a layover in Istanbul. Most of the main sights are includeded in this free tour of Istanbul.

Istanbul - Dolmabahce Palace


Istanbul is a huge city with an incredibly diverse accommodation offer. Because of its size, and the lack of adequate public transport it is crucial to be well located. While most of the tourist attractions are in Sultanahmet, the main entertainment area is the one north of the Golden horn in Beyoglu. The former is the best option if your main goal is to visit as much as possible, and the later if you prefer getting to know hip new places popular among newer generations of young istanbulites. The Cankurtaran neighborhood between the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus is packed with hotels of all ranges. Another centrally located neighborhood with budget options is next to the Sirkeci train station. In Beyoglu there are many good hotels and guesthouses near the lively pedestrian Istiklal Avenue.

Check out this post for the best Hotels in Istanbul.

Traditional architecture in Sultanahmet

Moving Around

As mentioned above Istanbul is a very large city, and even its historical core is pretty large. Nevertheless it is possible to walk downtown especially if you take one day for each neighborhood. There is not much traffic in the historical center, yet the hilly topography might be a little problem for those who are not in a perfect shape. Biking is rather difficult, there are no bike lanes, and most of the streets are narrow and packed with people. The public transport network is rapidly growing but still can’t be considered great. While the metro tends to be the fastest, it doesn’t reach the main Sultanahmet heritage area. Tram no. 1 does but is fairly slow. An interesting way of moving around could be taking one of the funiculars in Galata or a boat to the Asian part. A taxi could be an option too, since it’s cheap, and relatively fast.

View of Galata from the sea


Istanbul is a chaotic city, where traffic is a complete mess, streets are irregular and it’s easy to get lost. It is an annoying city with the traditional Turkish hospitality being replaced by people who just want to earn money. It is a tourist city where new hotels pop up like mushrooms and prices rising dramatically. And finally it’s a magical city, with antique churches and medieval mosques and bazaars elegantly fitting into the dynamic landscape. Only here Europe and Asia blend in such a perfect harmony, something that is visible in its architecture, food and people. Istanbul is an outstanding festival of colors, smells and sounds that conquer you the moment you step into it.

Check out this posts for things to do in Istanbul in winter.

Hagia Sophia

Istanbul Travel Guide



  • Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye;
  • Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace;
  • Church of Saint Savior in Chora;
  • Underground Basilica Cistern.


  • In Beyoglu there are plenty of good restaurants. Avoid Sultanahmet district;
  • Have coffee and try Turkish delight in Hafiz Mustafa.
  • Check this post for best food in Istanbul


  • On foot, by metro, tram and boat.


  • Go on an excursion to Princess islands.


  • Wander around the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar;
  • Take a public boat to Kadıköy in Asia;
  • Wonder around the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Fener – Balat neighborhood;
  • Have a walk down the Istiklal street;
  • Visit the Ortaköy Neighborhood.

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