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Our Istanbul travel guide for first-time visitors: Part 1

Exploring Istanbul: A Brief Overview

Istanbul, a vibrant metropolis straddling Europe and Asia, holds a special place in my heart. With over 15 million inhabitants, it’s not just Turkey’s largest city but also one of the world’s most populous. Its story is one of evolution, spanning thousands of years from Byzantium to Constantinople and finally Istanbul. Today, it stands as a melting pot of civilizations, where East meets West, offering visitors a unique blend of ancient traditions and modern influences.

Istanbul is more than just a city; it’s a culinary paradise. Every dish tells a story of the city’s multicultural heritage, from succulent kebabs to decadent baklava. Whether dining in cozy meyhanes, sampling street food delights, or indulging in upscale restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus, every meal is an adventure for the taste buds.

image: Hussein a Himmati

A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without a leisurely cruise along the Bosphorus. This tranquil journey offers breathtaking views of the city skyline, with iconic landmarks like the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace gracing the horizon. It’s a moment of serenity amidst the city’s bustling energy.

It truly is a city that captivated me with its rich history, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality. Whether you’re exploring its ancient landmarks, indulging in its delicious cuisine, or simply wandering through its bustling streets, Istanbul offers a truly unforgettable experience that will leave a lasting impression on all who visit. So, based on our first-hand experiences, here’s our little Istanbul travel guide, offering insights into the highlights of this incredible city for fellow travelers who visit Istanbul for the first time. 

images: Emporium-Magazine, Meric Dagil

Experiencing Ramadan as a Tourist in Istanbul

Our visit to Istanbul coincided with Ramadan, the holy month of fasting observed by Muslims worldwide. Despite being tourists during Ramadan, we found ourselves unaffected by the observance. Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, self-discipline, and increased devotion, during which Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. However, as visitors, we were still able to enjoy all the delights of Istanbul, including its delectable cuisine. As soon as the sun sets, the city came alive with bustling markets and crowded streets as Muslims broke their fast with the iftar meal, a festive and social event.

Experiencing Ramadan as a Tourist in Istanbul was a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in the local culture and traditions. We found that the people of Istanbul were incredibly hospitable and kind. Overall, our experience in Istanbul during Ramadan was unforgettable. We were able to witness firsthand the deep spirituality and cultural significance of this holy month, while still enjoying all the sights and sounds this vibrant city has to offer. It was a truly unique and enriching experience that we will always cherish.

Istanbul – the City of Cats

One of the first things that struck us about Istanbul was the ubiquitous presence of cats, earning it the title of “Istanbul: the city of cats” or “Catstanbul”. Everywhere we went, from subway stations to cafes to mosques, we encountered these friendly felines. They roamed the streets with a sense of belonging, adding to the city’s charm and allure. As a huge cat lover, I couldn’t help but notice that the cats seemed to be treated very well by the locals. Most people took good care of them, leaving out food and water or stopping to give them a friendly pat as they passed by. It was heartwarming to see such a harmonious relationship between humans and animals in the bustling city.

videos: Emporium-Magazine

Discovering Nişantaşı: Istanbul’s Stylish Neighborhood and Culinary Delights

Nişantaşı is a sophisticated residential district renowned for its fashion boutiques featuring both local and international brands. It’s a haven for fashion enthusiasts, boasting designer labels, authentic Turkish designers, and more. This upscale and stylish neighborhood exudes elegance, with its Jugendstil buildings housing trendy restaurants offering a blend of Turkish and international cuisine. Strolling along the broad sidewalks of Abdi-İpekçi Street, you’ll find charming cafes, while smaller bakeries and markets dot the side streets, adding to the neighborhood’s allure.

For our stay, we chose Nişantaşı as our home base, drawn in by its fashionable ambiance and vibrant energy. It was the perfect setting to kickstart our first day in Istanbul, immersing ourselves in the city’s stylish culture and delectable culinary scene. We began our day with a traditional Turkish breakfast at Cesme Bazlama, an esteemed eatery renowned for its authentic Izmir-style cuisine. The breakfast spread was a sensory delight, featuring a tantalizing array of small dishes, cheeses, jams, egg delicacies like Menemen, olives, warm Bazlama bread, and fresh Gözleme — a savory Turkish pastry filled with various ingredients like cheese, spinach, or potatoes, cooked on a griddle. And of course, no Turkish breakfast is complete without a steaming cup of Cay (black Turkish tea), which quickly became our new favorite pick-me-up.

images: Emporium-Magazine

Luxury and Boutique Hotels in Istanbul: Our Top Picks

During our time in Istanbul, we discovered a plethora of incredible hotels catering to every taste and budget. Some of our top recommendations for boutique hotels include Ecole St. Pierre, Georges Hotel Galata, and World House Boutique Hotel for those seeking a charming and intimate stay.

images: Ecole St. Pierre, World House Boutique Hotel

For a more exclusive experience, consider The Peninsula Istanbul, Soho House Istanbul, Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet, Ritz Carlton, or Mandarin Oriental Bosphorus, where luxury knows no bounds. No matter where you choose to stay in Istanbul, you’ll be met with warm Turkish hospitality and stunning views of the historic city. From traditional Ottoman mansions to modern luxury hotels, Istanbul has something to offer for every type of traveler. 

images: Four Seasons Hotel, Mandarin Oriental Bosphorus

Taksim and Galata Tower: A Journey Through Istanbul’s Historic Heart

From our hotel, we embarked on a leisurely stroll to Taksim, the bustling heart of Istanbul. The main square bustled with activity, offering a glimpse into the city’s vibrant energy. We then wandered down Istiklal Street, a bustling thoroughfare lined with huge shops, cafes, and historic buildings.

videos: Emporium-Magazine

Our next stop was the iconic Galata Tower, though under restoration during our visit, it remains a must-see landmark in Istanbul. Offering panoramic views of the city, the tower is steeped in history and legend, making it a favorite among visitors. Dating back to the medieval period, the tower has stood as a symbol of Istanbul for centuries. Originally built by the Genoese in the 14th century as part of the city’s fortifications, it later served as a watchtower, prison, and even an observatory. Today, visitors can ascend to the top for panoramic views of the city or dine in the tower’s restaurant, soaking in its storied past while enjoying breathtaking vistas of Istanbul’s skyline.

images: Damla Özkan, Musab Al Rawahi, Tarik Mulalic

Exploring Eminönü and Istanbul’s Vibrant Bazaar District

After grabbing a simit, a popular Turkish bread encrusted with sesame seeds, we made our way to Eminönü. This bustling district is home to a plethora of fish restaurants nestled beneath the iconic Galata Bridge. Here, visitors can savor freshly caught seafood or opt for a quick fish sandwich to enjoy on the go. 

image: Ibrahim Uzun

From now on, negotiation skills are required, because after the bridge, it’s time to explore the renowned bazaar streets.

images: Michael Parulava, Maxim Klimashin

From Eminönü, we ventured into the maze-like streets of the bazaar district, where the sights, sounds, and smells of Istanbul enveloped us. The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar beckoned with their vibrant stalls selling everything from spices and textiles to ceramics and souvenirs.

We stumbled upon Daroute Coffee, a hidden gem tucked away in a courtyard, where we indulged in Turkish Mocca, Baklava, and my first Salep—a Turkish drink reminiscent of liquid vanilla custard with cinnamon, made from the tubers of the orchid genus Orchis.

images: Emporium-Magazine

Must-Visit Attractions in Istanbul: The Blue Mosque, Ayasofia, and Topkapi Palace

No visit to Istanbul would be complete without marveling at its architectural wonders, including the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia. The Blue Mosque, officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is renowned for its stunning blue tiles and six towering minarets. Across from the Blue Mosque stands Ayasofia, a marvel of Byzantine architecture that was once a church before being converted into a mosque.

Today, it serves as a museum, offering visitors a glimpse into Istanbul’s rich religious and cultural heritage. If you have enough time, make sure to explore the Topkapi Palace, which served as the residence of Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, and immerse yourself in the grandeur of its imperial history.

Here is a small glimpse of what the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia look like inside and out:

The Blue Mosque (video: Own; image: Paul Bill)

Ayasofia (image: Akbar Nemati; video: Own)

As the day draws to a close, one of the best places to unwind is by selecting one of the rooftop restaurants in the area. Indulge in delectable cuisine while taking in the breathtaking views. The majestic silhouette of the Blue Mosque against the shimmering waters creates a truly enchanting ambiance.

Reflecting on our first day, Istanbul unveiled its enchantment as we immersed ourselves in its dynamic atmosphere. What stood out most to me was the remarkable efficiency of the city’s infrastructure, despite its vast size. Whether navigating through bustling streets, swiftly crossing the Bosphorus, or moving from one place to another via public transport or taxis, Istanbul seamlessly facilitates exploration. If you’re like me and love diving into local experiences, don’t forget to grab the Istanbul Card. This handy pass lets you hop on buses, metros, trams, and ferries, making getting around a breeze. Whether you’re exploring the vibrant streets or crossing the iconic Bosphorus, the Istanbul Card is your ticket to hassle-free travel. It’s this seamless blend of modernity and tradition that contributes to the city’s allure, making every moment an adventure waiting to unfold. So, embrace the energy of Istanbul, let it carry you along its currents, and be sure to relish every culinary delight along the way, as they are essential to capturing the essence of this extraordinary destination.

images: Fatih Yurur, Stefan Kostoski

Curious how we spent the rest of our trip? Explore our Istanbul travel guide for first-time visitors part 2!

Frequently Asked Questions for First-Time Visitors of Istanbul

When is the best time to visit Istanbul?

For first-time visitors to Istanbul, it’s recommended to check for the high seasons and weather conditions. Generally, summer is the peak season with pleasant weather and vibrant atmosphere.

Which airport should I land at in Istanbul?

Istanbul has two main airports – Atatürk Airport on the European side and Sabiha Gökçen Airport on the Asian side. While both are accessible, Atatürk Airport is closer to the city center, making it a more convenient choice for first-time visitors.

What are the must-visit attractions in Istanbul?

Istanbul is rich in historical and cultural tourist attractions. Some must-see sights include: Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar (Grand Covered Bazaar), Galata Tower, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Fortress, The Beylerbeyi Palace, Istanbul Bosphorus Boat Tour

What kinds of payment are accepted in Istanbul?

It’s advisable to carry cash as not all places accept credit cards. However, you can generally use Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Maestro cards in most establishments.

What should I wear while visiting Istanbul?

You can wear typical European dress styles when exploring Istanbul. However, when visiting mosques and tombs, it’s important to dress modestly. If needed, you can borrow appropriate clothing and headscarfs from attendants at the entrance.

Is it recommended to visit Istanbul during Ramadan?

Exploring during Ramadan presents an incredible opportunity to immerse yourself in a rich cultural experience full of unique events and customs. It is crucial to show respect and understand local traditions during this sacred time. While visiting as a tourist, you can still soak up all the city has to offer, just remember to be mindful and avoid eating or drinking in front of those who are fasting as a sign of respect.