Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, straddles Europe and Asia and for centuries has been at the crossroads of conquests, cultures, and religions. Today, this cosmopolitan city celebrates its rich and dynamic history while embracing a modern day outlook. You can shop what would be considered one of the world's first (and largest) shopping malls, dine at a simple kebob stand or top-notch restaurant, and tour some of the most amazingly beautiful testaments to religion—both Christian and Islam—ever built. Istanbul is a large city, but most of our well-recognized major chain hotels are located in or near Old Istanbul, near the main tourist sites.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Who should go?
Culture and History Enthusiasts
Istanbul—historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople—is a crossroads of ethnicities, cultures, architectural styles, and religions, and has an incredible history that stretches back to the Roman Empire. From the grandeur of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, to the opulence of historic Turkish hamams (baths), this ancient city's heritage will fascinate most anyone.
The Grand Bazaar alone will keep shoppers occupied for days—then there are the boutiques, outdoor markets, and shopping malls, offering everything from beautifully crafted and unique carpets, leather items, jewelry, and linens, to white copper utensils and ornamental tea services.
What's the climate like?
How do I get around town?
Transfers from Istanbul's Atatürk Airport to your hotel are not included with your hotel package.
Taxi fares from the airport to the city are very affordable. The metro also connects the airport to town, and is convenient if your destination is near a metro stop. You can buy jetons (tokens) at the ticket window outside the turnstile or, if you’re using the Akbil (a refillable electronic transit device), just plug it into the turnstile receptacle.
What kinds of dining and nightlife are available?
In the summer, dining on one of Istanbul’s many rooftop terraces with breathtaking views is an unforgettable experience. Istanbul is home to fantastic celebrity chefs and destination dining in the area north of the Golden Horn, but you can savor cuisine just as delicious in the neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Besiktas, and along the Bosphorus. The Beyoglu area will give you the best choice of mayhanes (traditional eating houses) and contemporary cuisine. And you’ll find tasty and affordable home-cooking at one of Istanbul’s widespread lokantasi eateries, and some great on-the-go options by street vendors.
In addition to Turkish specialties like doner kebab (lamb meat cooked on a vertical spit and served with peppers, rice pilaf, or pita bread), simits (a savory, sesame-covered bagel-like pastry), börek (a cheese- or meat-filled pastry), and baklava (rich, sweet dessert made of layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey), you’ll be able to dine on a myriad of fresh seafood from the surrounding Sea of Marmara.
For the tastiest and most interesting food, avoid restaurants catering to tourists and check out some of the eateries below.
- Asitane Restaurant
Located high in the foothills overlooking the Golden Horn, Asitane inhabits an airy, restored mansion and features sumptuous dishes brilliantly recreated from the kitchens of the 15th-century sultans. Specialties include stuffed melon, almond soup, leg of lamb braised with apricots, Rezaki raisins, and almonds, and aubergines stuffed with grilled quails.
Make reservations before you come to this popular restaurant that serves the best of Anatolian cuisine. Strongly recommended dishes are the Hünkar begendi (eggplant pureé), keskek (vegetables with olive oil), and pilaki (dried beans with olive oil). Located in the Convention Center.
- Doga Balik
A highly popular restaurant atop the Zurich Hotel, Doga Balik specializes in cooking up delectable fish dishes and a wide selection of mezes (appetizers), which incorporate everything from unusual herbs and forest greens to lentils, beans, eggplant, zucchini, beets, and artichokes.
An expansive, crowd-pleasing institution, located along the Marmara seafront, Gelik gives diners a choice of 2 restaurants on opposite sides of the street: one for fish and one for meat. The whole family will find something to enjoy at Gelik, from the playground to fresh grilled fish, fish balls, kebabs, and casseroles and roasted lamb and chicken dishes.
- Lokanta NuTeras/NuPera
This elegant, upscale spot gives diners their choice of cuisines: French, Italian, Turkish Fusion, Californian, or tapas. In summer, the rooftop Lokanta Nu Teras Restaurant offers twinkling views and in winter diners move inside to NuPera, on the ground floor.
Located in the Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, this innovative restaurant culls dishes from the entire Ottoman Empire and reinterprets them for a modern audience. Enjoy a beautiful view of the Bosphorus as you enjoy delicacies such as stuffed bluefish wrapped in vine leaves with cinnamon pea pilaf and walnut brown butter, and marinated lamb loin grilled with yogurt, tomato, and spicy butter sauce.
You’re never far away from an arts, film, or music festival in this cultural mecca. If you prefer a different sort of night on the town, Istanbul’s energetic nightlife runs the gamut of bars, restaurants, live music venues, dance clubs, tea gardens, waterpipe cafes, and pub-like locales. Head to the Beyoglu neighborhood for fashionable rooftop lounges. New venues open by the week around the city, spanning everything from classic-rock-and-beer joints, nightclubs with bellydancers, and super-stylish discos lining the Bosphorous, to late-opening cafes with live music that serve alcohol alongside cappuccinos.
Where should I go shopping?
Istanbul offers treasures for every shopper, including excellent rugs, carpets, and leather goods, meerschaum pipes, spices, inlaid backgammon sets, white copper kitchen and bath accessories, fine jewelry, embroidered linens, tea services, and brass coffee grinders. Many of these items are on offer at Istanbul’s sprawling, must-shop-destination: the 500-year-old Grand Bazaar. Another colorful market is the bustling Spice Bazaar, which tempts browsers with a wide variety of spices, Turkish Delight and other sweets, nuts, and row upon row of dried fruits.
But the finds in Istanbul aren’t limited to traditional items—you’ll encounter plenty of sleek shops and local fashion chains along the pedestrianized Istiklal Caddesi of the Beyoglu neighborhood, or in the 4-story shopping mall of Akmerkez.
As far as antiques are concerned, collectors should keep in mind that it is prohibited by Turkish law to export anything dated prior to the 20th century.
When are the local events?
International Istanbul Film Festival
April. This 2-week festival gives movie buffs the rare opportunity to view Turkish movies with English subtitles.
International Istanbul Music Festival
June-July. This month-long, world-class festival features big names in classical, opera, and ballet.
International Jazz Festival
July. Performances are held at various locations around the city.
Zafer Bayrami (Victory Day)
August 30. This national holiday commemorates Turkey’s War of Independence in 1922 with parades through the main streets.
Cumhuriyet Bayrami (Republic Day)
October 29. Parades, public speeches, and fireworks displays are just a few of the organized events that celebrate the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Tried and True Travel Tidbits
An entry visa for Turkey is required for citizens of the U.S.A., but obtaining a visa at the Istanbul airport will actually be easier and usually cheaper than applying for a visa beforehand. Upon arrival, go to the visa window next to and before clearing Customs to purchase your 3-month entry visa.
Photographing state buildings or military and police installations is usually forbidden. Taking video or photographs in a museum is often prohibited. In museums where photography is permitted, you will usually need to pay an additional fee when purchasing your admission ticket in order to take photos. Also, it is recommended to get a person’s permission before photographing them, especially women in chadors (the head-to-toe black robe).
Dress conservatively if you plan to enter a mosque. To gain admission, women’s shoulders, legs, and heads must be covered, and men should wear long pants and sleeved shirts. If you don’t carry a scarf along with you during your sightseeing, know that all mosques provide some type of head covering at the entrance. Also, remember that shoes must be removed before entering the mosque.
Good to Know:
|April – May and mid-September - October
|November - March
|New Turkish Lira (YTL/Ykr) and the Euro (€)
|Turkish; widespread English, French, or German
|Istanbul is 8 hours ahead of U.S. Central Standard Time (CST) and observes Daylight Saving Time.
|Government legislation requires all people traveling via air to and from the United States and Canada to have a valid passport. For details on passports, visas, and health requirements, see Entry Requirements.
|Gratuities are expected for all services in Istanbul. Keep coins or small notes handy to tip your bellhop, tour guide, maid, ushers, etc., and tip waiters 10% of the bill.
|Dress follows European standards in the more modern neighborhoods, but to feel comfortable when visiting the more traditional neighborhoods in and around the Old City, women may want to dress more conservatively, e.g., cover their shoulders. Heads and shoulders must be covered inside of mosques. To stay cool in summer, skirts (or lightweight pants for men) may be a more versatile and less touristy choice than shorts. Bring good walking shoes, since sidewalks and roads are usually cobbled.