Galata bridge

An Introduction to Istanbul for the First Time Visitor

Updated August 2017

Istanbul can be quite confusing at first glance.
It’s a city of three parts divided by two bodies of water…the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The Golden Horn divides the European side in two..the historical Sultanahmet and the more modern Beyoglu side whilst the Bosphorus divides Europe and Asian.


As  a travel agent in a previous life, one of the first things I used to do was to take out a map and explain the different areas of Istanbul to clients and where you will want to go. Decide what is important for you. Some people will only want to see the historical monuments, others will want to concentrate on exploring different food areas and others will want to head off the usual tourist track. Knowing what you want to see will help you decide where to stay but in the end you’re only as far away as a tram ride!


How long should you stay…
I’m a big believer in staying as long as you can. The ideal first trip should be a stay of five nights at least! But not everyone has this time. Of course longer is fabulous and any less means that you will have to prioritise where you go and what you see.


Your Guide to Istanbul: What to do


What to do…
If you’ve read my Guide to Istanbul: What to do, you probably have a lot of questions…the first being how do you fit all this in! The answer is that you don’t…you choose what you would like to see

Allow 2 days to see the classic iconic monuments of Istanbul.
Start the days early…be at the gates of the Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofia just before opening time! A visit to the Topkapi Palace will take you at least 3 hours so don’t waste precious time in the queue.

When planning your days, choose sites that are located close to each other. The Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, Basilica Cistern and the Blue Mosque, are all near Sultanahmet Square

The Grand Bazaar is a short walk up the hill. After your visit here, head to the Sulimaniye Mosque (either walk or catch the tram to Universite stop) . From here you can then continue down to the Spice Bazaar and the fabulous Rüstem Pasa Mosque

Galata Bridge


On your third day, walk cross the Galata Bridge then head up the hill to the Galata Tower.
Istiklal Cadessi is not far from here… a walk along this pedestrian street will take you all the way to Taksim. You may even have time to take the funicular down to Beşiktaş and walk along the Bosporus to the Dolmabhace Palace and the Istanbul Modern!

What have you missed? Is there somewhere you really wanted to see and haven’t? If the answer is yes, then the fourth day is the day to do this! You could also visit Kadiköy on the Asian side. If you don’t have time for a food tour, wander around the market area yourself and have lunch at Ciya Sofrasi. After lunch head, take the ferry back to Eminönü and either head out to the Chora Museum or take a Bosphorus cruise.


The Museum Pass Istanbul
The pass costs 85TL and lasts for 5 days. With price rises at the start of 2017, the museum pass is now worthwhile. If you don’t have the pass, the entrance fees would be:  Aya Sofia (25TL), Topkapi Palace Museum (25TL) and the Harem Apartments (15TL), the Archaelogical Museum (10TL) and the Chora Museums (15TL) are all on the list as well as a few other lesser museums.


Getting around…
Traffic in Istanbul is chaotic!
Because of the many one way streets, a short ride in a taxi can often take a long time. If you do take a taxi, make sure the meter is turned on, the flag fall is on the meter (in new cars you can see it on the mirror) and you have change so you can avoid any money problems. Have an idea of where you’re going but with the maze of one ways streets it’s hard for the first time visitor to know where you are!

The answer is to walk everywhere or learn to use the public transport system… its easy and fun!
Especially in the Sultanahmet area, you can easily walk between sights..infact you can walk from here to the European side as well but there is a tram if you prefer!

Trams in Istanbul


If you are going to be moving around a lot , buy an Istanbulkart cardThis card, which is like London’s Oyster card,  will take you everywhere…tram, bus, metro,funicular and ferry. Buy the card at vending machines at most transport stops or at the small kiosks selling papers and cigarettes. They can also be bought at the airport. The card will cost you 10TL  (refundable when you leave..keep the receipt) which you then top up with as much or as little as you like, remembering that each trip costs 1.95 TL each. You can use the one card for up to five people.

An Introduction to Istanbul for the First Time Visitor

You can also buy single ride jetons (tokens) at Jetonmatik machines at the transport stops. These are more expensive …costing 3TL per trip, but can be handy if the need arises.

The main tram route that you will use takes you from the European side to tourist sights of Sultanahmet. If the tram doesn’t go somewhere, the bus certainly will.  Make sure you take at least one ferry really is a side of Istanbul that shouldn’t be missed. Many of the ferries you use will leave from Eminönü or Karaköy.

If you’re not sure where to go, ask a friendly local…they are only to happy to help.


There are three main players in the phone system game. Turkcell is one of the biggest cell net providers closely followed by Vodaphone and Avea. If you have an unlocked phone you can use a  prepaid Turkish sim card. If you are staying only a week or two in Turkey, there won’t be a problem but it becomes trickier if you are staying longer! Phones and ipads have to be registered with the government at a cost of 115TL per device!
We weren’t told this when we bought our sim cards and found that one of our phones was cut off after 15 days. The other was ok for about 4 weeks but I think we were incredibly lucky with this one! As we were planning to be in Turkey for nearly 2 months, we found the best ways to get around this was to buy a cheap second hand Nokia phone from one of the many phone shops for about 40TL. The ipad was a different story and as we used it for keeping in contact and for navigation, we paid the registration fee which was arranged by the friendly Turkcell man in Sinop!

An Introduction to Istanbul for the First Time Visitor


The lira is the unit of currency. Confusingly, hotels charge in Euros.
Vat refund is available for items bought over 100TL but not all shops participate in the scheme.
ATM’s are widely available in Istanbul

Turkish Lira


Visa rules for tourists have recently changed. Please check these for your nationality before you leave home.
Visas are obtained online by going to
All you have to do is give the information required and, after your visa is approved, make the payment. You can then download your visa. 
Visa information can be found here   

Turksish Visa

The days of having a visa in your passport are over in Turkey!


Bay or bayan…it can be confusing but if you’re a man head towards bay and if you’re a woman, bayan is for you! Most mosques have fairly clean public toilet facilities for which there is a small charge.
To ask for the Bathroom/toilet: Nerede Tuvet  (neh-reh-deh  oo-vah-leht)


Where to Stay….
This is a hard one! As a first time visitor, you’ll be spending a lot of time in Sultanahmet but as most of the good restaurants and bars are on the Beyoglu side, you’ll also spend a lot of evenings here. It really depends on the time you have in Istanbul.
Me…I love staying on the European side!

Hotels in Sultanahamet
Ibrahim Pasha: A very cute boutique hotel situated between the Blue mosque and the Grand Bazaar.
Pros: Lovely roof top terrace, delicious breakfast included
Cons: The lead in rooms are very tiny…there is not much room around the bed!
Book the Hotel Ibrahim Pasha here

Neorion: A popular hotel in a great position not far from Eminonu
Pros: Fabulous friendly staff, buffet breakfast included, tea and afternoon snacks included, great central position
Cons: Can’t think of any
Book Hotel Neorion here

Four Seasons, Istanbul

The Four Seasons  Sultanahmet: A fabulous five star hotel that was once a prison, not far from the attractions of Sultanahmet.
Pros: Great rooms, fabulous roof top bar,
Cons: breakfast is not included
Book the Four Seasons Sultanahmet here


Hotel in Cihanger
The Witt Suites: Whilst I haven’t stayed here, friends highly recommend them. Fabulous position in Cihanger with large rooms, breakfast included. Book here

cihanger street

After a couple of years staying at the above hotels in Istanbul, we finally took the plunge and booked an apartment in Istanbul. We stayed in both Galata (perfect for 3 days) and Cihanger (perfect for the longer stay of 11 days) and loved these areas. We’d definitely book an apartment again.

There are many companies offering apartments but we liked these
Manzara Istanbul
Istanbul Sweet Home
Cross Pollinate

Remember to check what floor your apartment is on! Even though an apartment may be renovated, the buildings are old and you may have to walk up five flights of stairs! Air conditioning is not necessarily available in all apartments


Turkish words…
Learning a few Turkish words goes a long way with the friendly Turks.  These will help you win friends!

Hello: Merhabā  (mehr-hah-bah)
Good Morning: Günaydın (gew-nahy-duhn)
Please: Lütfen   (lewt-fehn)
Thank you: Teşekkürler  (te-shek-kewr-lehr)
Yes: Evet (eh-vet)
No: H
ayir  (hah-yuhr)
Excuse me: Pardon  (puhr-dohn)
I don’t understand:  Anlamadım   (an-la-ma-duhm)
Where is: Nerede  (neh-reh-deh)
Whats your name:  Adınız ne (ah-duh-nuhz neh)


Further reading…
Your Guide to Istanbul: What to do
Tips for Driving in Turkey
Highlights of our Turkey Road Trip


Related Articles….
A Taste of the Bosphorus
Istanbul’s Hidden Street
A Foodie’s Tour in Istanbul
Istanbul’s Shoe Shine Scam



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46 Responses to An Introduction to Istanbul for the First Time Visitor

  1. Jenny February 20, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Another brilliant post Jenny, will be referred to frequently when we go in July. Many thanks for providing so much practical information.

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Thanks again Jenny. There’s still one more post in my guide series to come and it’s all about food!!

  2. Muza-chan February 20, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    Interesting info, thank you 🙂

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Thanks Lili. It’s a fascinating city.

  3. Leigh February 20, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    More fantastic information on Istanbul – only wish a visit there was in the near future.

    You have provided two great resources (thinking of last week’s as well) that I will definitely direct people to.

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Thanks Leigh. There’s still a third post to come on where to eat to complete the series!

  4. Jackie Smith February 21, 2014 at 5:48 am #

    A very useful post since we will have a few days there this spring at the end of our Greek travels. I will keep this one handy. Loved your reference to being a travel agent in a previous life, for about a year, I could also claim that title. . .that was long enough for me!

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      The third part of the guide is still to come Jackie so keep and eye out for it! I knew we had a lot in common Jackie…though I lasted 10 years working in travel!

  5. noelmorata February 21, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    Great and extensive introduction, I enjoyed reading this and it is well laid out and easy to follow – great job!

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks Noel.I would have loved something like this the first time I went so I hope it is useful for everyone!

  6. Johanna February 21, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    What a fabulous guide. First of all it makes me want to go, and that’s a distinct possibility this year (need to chat to you some more), your photos are lovely and the hints and tips so useful. Thanks Jenny!

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

      THanks Jo..I hope you get there. It’s a fantastic city. Hopefully part three on where to eat will be done before you go!

  7. Seana - Sydney, Kids, Food + Travel February 21, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    Terrific roundup… I’d love to stay in a nice hotel in Instanbul, it was all dodgy pensiones when I went there as a young thing. I do agree that longer is better everywhere… and living somewhere for a year is best of all. I have to sit out a few here more here in Sydney whilst my older boys finish school, but hope to gad off with hubby and the twins after that… hmmm….

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      It’s fun planning for that day when you can go for an extend period of time. Yes, the days of dodgy pensiones are well and truly over. Istanbul has some fabulous alternatives at reasonable prices and the cost of living there is very reasonable!

  8. Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it February 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    You make Istanbul the perfect place to visit. What a very helpful and detailed story. Who else would tell you how to pronounce the most needed words to use but you, the ultimate guide.

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks so much Neva.I hope you make the most of it one day and visit Istanbul!

  9. Mary {The World Is A Book} February 21, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Istanbul has been lingering at the top of my travel bucket list for years. What a great and handy guide, Jenny. I really hope to use this SOON. In the meantime, I know where to refer people to 🙂 It’s great to know that it’s easy to get around and there are savings in lodging and sightseeing.

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      Thanks Mary. I hope it answers some of the questions people have in regards to visiting Istanbul. It’s a fabulous city and people’s time is often short so you have fit in as much as you can!

  10. Turkey's For Life February 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    Wow, that IS a guide to Istanbul – you can tell you used to be a travel agent. We stayed 5 nights the first time we went and we go every year now – still not seen the whole city! 🙂 Love the Istanbul Kart for getting around. So handy.

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

      Thanks Julia.I’m very envious of you going every year…I’m not sure that even if you lived there for awhile you’d still get to see everything but it would be fun trying! Yes, everyone needs an Istanbulkart! There’s still an eating guide to come to finish the 3 part series!

  11. Gayla February 21, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    Terrific post! The information comes to us at just the right time, as we’ve been discussing possibly making a first time trip to Istanbul sometime in the coming months. You’ve answered a few of our questions with this one. Now, even though I’ve already made a short list of things to do while there, I’m heading over to your ‘What to do’ page for further reading 🙂
    Thank you!!

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

      I hope you do go…you’ll love it. I’m pleased I could answer a few questions for you. Stay as long as you can is probably the best advice I can give!

  12. budget jan February 21, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    Great post. Getting your head around the map is difficult – all that water and different continents. I wished I had known about the different apartment rental companies. I only looked at airbnb and wimdu. This post will be wonderful for first time visitors. I know some people planning a visit to Turkey and I will direct them to your site 🙂

    • Jenny Freedman February 21, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

      Europe or Asia, it can be confusing so I hope this helps people with their planning. There’s many apartment companies in Istanbul bit these were just a few we tried. Thanks for spreading the word to your friends!

  13. Sopie February 22, 2014 at 12:14 am #

    Very useful post, Jenny. I’ve only been for very brief visits, a day here, a day there – so nowhere near enough. Would like to stay at Pera Palace next time, in Agatha Christie’s room. Surely that must be inspiring…

    • Jenny Freedman February 25, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

      Thanks Sophie. Staying at the Pera Palace would be fun! I walked by it a lot but didn’t think to ask to see her room!

  14. Jess @UsedYorkCity February 22, 2014 at 12:37 am #

    Love the tip on getting the public transportation card! I always love traveling as the locals do when I’m visiting new places, I think a subway or bus ride can give more insight to daily life than just about anything:-)

    Can’t wait to visit here someday!

    • Jenny Freedman February 25, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      The public transport is so easy to use Jess and the Turkish people so friendly. On many occasions they would ask where we were going and then tell us when it was our stop. Hope you do get to visit Istanbul one day.

  15. Michele {Malaysian Meanders} February 22, 2014 at 1:12 am #

    This is a truly fantastic introduction to Istanbul. I’ve been enjoying your other Turkey posts but didn’t quite know how everything tied together into a trip itinerary. Your suggestions are very useful. I would have never expected to need to register my iPad. I think in that situtation, my son’s would simply have to be put aside for the trip. It’s also a big funny that the Four Seasons used to be a prison.

    • Jenny Freedman February 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

      Thanks Michele.I thought that if I mentioned all the things to do first and then gave an idea of an itinerary and how to get round, it would be easier to understand! YOu only need to register our ipad and phones if you’re there for longer than 2 weeks.

  16. Nancie February 22, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    Excellent resource. I will definitely use this should I get to Turkey sometime soon (fingers crossed). That’s interesting about the electronic devices. Governments never stop dipping their hands in our pockets, eh?

    • Jenny Freedman February 25, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

      Governments always seem to find a way to make money don’t they! I would have thought they would encourage tourists to stay longer. Hope you see Istanbul soon!

  17. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot February 24, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    Istanbul looks so fun. I’d love to go back and that visa is gorgeous – well worth the price 🙂

    • Jenny Freedman February 25, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

      It’s a great city Annabel. No more pretty visas in the passport though…it’s all electronic from now on!

  18. Heather February 28, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    This is fabulous information! I’ll surely reference this post when planning my first trip to Istanbul.

    • Jenny Freedman February 28, 2014 at 10:30 am #

      Thanks Heather. Great that you will be able to use it. You are going to love Istanbul!

  19. C Skog March 3, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    Istanbul seems like a great place to vist; thanks for the introduction

    • Jenny Freedman March 4, 2014 at 10:56 am #

      Istanbul is a fabulous city with so much to see and do! It’s certainly one for you bucket list! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  20. Karen (Back Road Journal) March 4, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

    Your posts on Istanbul have been amazing. Not only all your beautiful photos but your complete recording of what to expect if you travel there. Well done!

    • Jenny Freedman March 5, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

      Thank you Karen. It can be a daunting city so I hope this guide helps people when they visit. Is Istanbul on your wish list?

  21. Deepa September 2, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Brilliant post! It came just in time for me.I am planning a trip to Istanbul around Dec..(i know its gona be cold and wet) but seeing my schedule I dont see any better time on hand.I grasped all that I could from your post.However there are certain queries which I need to get cleared.It would be very kind of you if you could answer those– 1. Any budget hotel u know of,appropriate for ladies.(since we are just a gang of 3 girls) 2.Which area is preferable to stay in? 3. What should be the maximum expenditure(budget) for a trip of 6 days(20th Dec-26Th dec).I am not into luxurious hotels or grand meals..just an average traveler.So my budget is accordingly.Will 2TL suffice my stay,food and local sight seeing?

    Kindly advise.Thank you

    • Jenny Freedman September 6, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

      AS it is your first visit and it’s in December, I’d stay on the Sultanahmet side Deepa. Ive not stayed at it but Empress Zoe has quite a good reputation for a budget hotel. You can eat and stay cheaply in Istanbul so you’ll be able to do this according to your budget. Have a great trip!

  22. Sima December 31, 2015 at 12:38 am #

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto
    a friend who was doing a little research on this.
    And he in fact ordered me dinner because I found it for him…
    lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But
    yeah, thanks for spending thhe time too talk about this subject here
    on your blog.

  23. Nick Tsagaris June 9, 2017 at 6:27 pm #

    Istanbul is fascinating city and grilled eggplants with yogurt is one of my favorite dish i eat there.
    First time visitor definitely fall in love with this city.

    • Jenny Freedman July 10, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

      We’ve been five times to Istanbul and still find places we haven’t seen before and fall in love with them. Such a fabulous city!

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