Your next trip to Istanbul
How to get from the Istanbul Airport to the city center
The easiest way to get into the center from either airport is using the Havabus shuttle. From Atatürk International Airport it will take about 40 minutes depending on traffic and will take you to either Beşiktaş or Taksim Square. From Sabiha Gökçen Airport there are shuttle buses to Kadiköy which take about 60 minutes or to Taksim which take about 1.5 hours.
For Atatürk Airport, there's also the option of taking Metro Line 1 to Aksaray and then transferring to the tram to get to Sultanahmet or Karaköy.
How to get around Istanblu
Public transport is limited in the old town because of the winding streets and carefully preserved buildings. Your best bet to get around Sultanahment or Karaköy is either the tram or your own two feet. The metrobus is useful for traveling further afield and they have their own lanes which means you don't get caught in the city's notoriously terrible traffic, but expect packed crowds at all hours. And you can't come to Istanbul without taking at least one ferry ride across the Bosphorus, which divides the European and Asian sides of the city.
Best things to see in Istanbul
Istanbul is full of gorgeous buildings, but Hagia Sofia is the jewel in the crown. Over the centuries it's been a cathedral, a mosque and a museum, and now houses some of the most precious artifacts of the Byzantine empire, including a 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ Child and the Emperor Door, rumored to be made of wood from Noah's Ark.
Gülhane Park is Istanbul's oldest park, set in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and is especially beautiful in spring when the masses of multicolored tulips are in bloom. Walk around the northeastern edge for breathtaking views across the Bosphoros and the remains of the 4th-century 'Column of the Goths', then copy the locals and settle down under a shady tree with a picnic.
Skip the Grand Bazaar and go for Istanbul's most authentic shopping experience at Feriköy Flea Market. Every weekend locals descend in droves to bag a bargain from more than 200 stalls which sell everything from antique coins and throw rugs to vintage books and classic Turkish sabers. Don't forget to grab a snack at one of the stalls near the entrance which serve tea and fresh gözleme.
If you need a break from all the history, Istanbul Modern is a breath of fresh air. The museum has an enormous collection of Turkish and international modern and contemporary art, and frequently hosts major exhibitions from well-known artists and photographers. There's also a cinema which screens independent films and hosts film festivals, as well as a library, a bookshop and a cafe.
Visiting a hamam is a must in Istanbul, and Kılıç Ali Paşa hamam in Karaköy is both centrally located and beautifully atmospheric. The charming building was built in the 16th century as part of the mosque complex and carefully restored, so you can admire the architecture while you soak before going for an invigorating scrub or a soothing massage.
Where to eat on your trip to Istanbul
Karaköy Lokantası does a carefully curated menu of classic Istanbul dishes along with an all-Turkish wine list, and is a popular spot with local workers grabbing lunch and the more sophisticated dinner crowd. The cozy atmosphere is enhanced by traditional Iznik tiles decorating the walls and a changing series of displays by local artists.
Kadiköy Produce Market in the trendy Asian side suburb is a mecca for foodies who come for the seasonal fruits and vegetables and aromatic spices. Guided tours are available where you can taste a little bit of everything, or wander around on your own and sample the Turkish delight, yogurt and honey, and strong Turkish coffee.
Naif is a bright and breezy waterside cafe which is perfect for a leisurely breakfast or weekend brunch. The food is light and full of flavor, made with fresh organic produce from nearby markets. Try the mezze plates and spiced lamb, then pop upstairs for a drink on the rooftop bar.
Turkey has its own home-grown ice-cream, called 'dondurma', and the best place to eat it is at Dondurmacı Ali Usta in Moda. There are always queues outside to try the ice-cream made to a secret family recipe, unchanged apart from variations for more than forty different flavors. The coconut and pistachio come highly recommended.
Tourist traps and time waster in Istanbul
While the views from Galata Tower are lovely, it's debatable whether they're worth the hours of queuing often necessary to get to the top; likewise, the historic tram is picturesque but shuttling up and down İstiklal Caddesi isn't much of a thrill. Taksim Square is unavoidable since lots of taxis and public transport stop there but there's little worth hanging around for.
Daytrips from Istanbul
Istanbul is surrounded by nature and getting out of the city for the day is easy. Take a cruise up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and spend a couple of hours exploring the picturesque fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı, or take a ferry out to the Prince's Islands and while away some time on the beach.
Belgrad Forest is only an hour away by car – around 90 minutes by bus plus a little walking – and has extensive hiking trails, bicycles and horses available for rent, and lots of great picnic spots.
Best time of year to visit Istanbul
Summers in Istanbul are sweltering and winters chilly and wet, so spring and autumn are the best times to visit for mild temperatures and sunshine; March and April are especially lovely with flowers in bloom in the parks. Ramadan is best avoided, although shops and cafes catering to tourists will still be open.
Must see places on your first trip to Istanbul
The whirling dervish ceremony held every Sunday at Galata Mevlevi Lodge is entrancing, if a little dizzying. Adherent of Sufism spin in repetitive circle, an active meditation practice accompanied by musicians on traditional Turkish instruments.
Süreyya Opera House is a decadent throwback to old Istanbul and offers interesting and varied performances in sumptuous surroundings. See the State Opera and Ballet here, or visit one of the many art exhibitions they host.
A stroll along Galata Bridge is always satisfying for the people-watching alone, and rain or shine there are local fishermen there hoping for a nibble. Bring a rod and join them fishing for sardines and mackerel in one of the most famous waterways in the world.