The Backpacker’s Complete Guide to Istanbul, Turkey | 2021

Where does one even begin with Istanbul? This sprawling metropolis of over 16 million people is unlike any other city I’ve ever been to before. If the world had a capital city, I truly think Istanbul would be a strong candidate. It is the crossroads where Europe meets Asia, and it shows in its culture, history, cuisine, and more. No matter what name it went by at the time, Istanbul has maintained a significant presence in global history for thousands of years. It is seriously one of the most fascinating places one could ever visit.

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I had fallen in love with Istanbul over the years without ever setting foot in the city. Through books, video games, movies, and more, Istanbul has effortlessly captivated my imagination ever since I was a kid. Whether I was trying to invade Constantinople as Attila the Hun or playing as the Byzantines on Age of Empires II, Istanbul was entrenched into my life long before I even wanted to travel. Those years of buildup and expectation building still could not prepare me for how much I fell in love with Istanbul.

So much so that I’m typing this out from my new apartment on Istiklal Street, the chaotic heart of Istanbul. Istanbul can truly be an overwhelming city for first-timers, and each day here has been a learning experience. Don’t worry, though. I got y’all covered.

How To Get To Istanbul

Istanbul might be one of the most well-connected cities in the world. It is literally the crossroads where Asia meets Europe, and getting to and from Istanbul shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve found Istanbul to be one of the most affordable cities to fly to. Turkish Airlines is one of my favorite airlines, and you’ll often find good deals to and from Istanbul. Flying is the best way to get to Istanbul, even if you’re already in Turkey. Even if you only book a few days in advance, it shouldn’t be too hard to find an affordable flight. Pegasus Airlines is a budget airline in Turkey that I’ve used several times without any major headaches.

Istanbul has two airports. Sabiha Gokcen (SAW) and the new Istanbul Airport (IST). Both are connected to the center of Istanbul by buses and taxis, although I personally prefer Sabiha Gokcen. Once you arrive in Sabiha Gokcen, you can use the Havabus to get to Taksim Square for 27 Turkish Lira, or about $3 USD as of November 2021. Havaist is the bus that services the new Istanbul Airport. Regardless of which airport you fly into, it shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive to get to the touristic centers of Istanbul.

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Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels.

Where To Stay in Istanbul

Istanbul is a massive city. There are a ton of different neighborhoods to fit your taste. It can be overwhelming trying to narrow it down. Here’s a quick rundown of which neighborhoods I’d recommend, although you can read my more comprehensive guide to Istanbul’s neighborhoods.

Sultanahmet

For first-timers to Istanbul, this is probably where you should stay. It’s where most of Istanbul’s major attractions are. Being more touristy, the cost of living here is a bit higher but thankfully, hostels are still quite cheap. There are dozens of hostels in Sultanahmet. A dorm bed should cost around $10-15, and you can likely find private rooms for about $20-30 USD. I’d recommend Cheers Hostel.

Galata

My personal favorite neighborhood in Istanbul is the area by Galata Tower. It is trendy, walkable, and home to many cute restaurants, cafes, and vintage stores. If you plan on staying longer-term in Istanbul and have more money to spend, finding a place in Galata is a good idea. Hostel Le Banc is a fantastic hostel right next to all the action. Beytul Galata is an affordable and chic hotel that had no business only being $35 a night for its location and comfort.

Beyoglu

One of Istanbul’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, Beyoglu is where I chose to settle down for a month. I got an apartment just steps away from Istiklal Street, the busiest in all of Turkey. It was one of the most balanced neighborhoods for a traveler looking to stay long-term. Beyoglu is still pretty affordable and well-connected to the rest of Istanbul by public transport. Istiklal Street has endless options for dining and shopping. The alleyways close to Istiklal are lined with plenty of bars and clubs.

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Kadikoy

On the Asian side, you’ll find one of Istanbul’s liveliest and trendiest neighborhoods. Speak to any local and they’ll gush on about how Kadikoy is the spot for dining, nightlife, and shopping. The scene here is young and international. If you plan on staying in Istanbul long-term, Kadikoy is an excellent neighborhood.

Cihangir

Cihangir is one of my favorite neighborhoods for coffee and breakfast. It is a lot quieter, especially before the afternoon when life in Istanbul really starts picking up. Roaming aimlessly will take you to a plethora of cute cafes, street art, and good views of the Bosphorus River and Istanbul. Cuppa and Valerie Coffee Company are two of my favorite cafes in Istanbul. Jumba Hostel is a great spot right next to the action of Cihangir.

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The Best Things To Do in Istanbul

Istanbul is one of the most culturally and historically significant cities in the world. I remember being a kid playing history games on my computer and falling in love with Istanbul, or Constantinople, Byzantium, or whatever the city was called at the time. I had an emotional moment when I first laid eyes on the Hagia Sophia for the first time. Don’t judge me.

Istanbul is a city with seemingly endless things to do. Whether you want to knock out the sights, explore cute neighborhoods, cafe-hop, or party hard, Istanbul is truly a treasure trove of things to do.

Topkapi Palace

Of all the touristy things to do in Istanbul, this one was my favorite. Topkapi Palace is vast, with many parts to it that could keep you busy for an entire day. The architecture here stunning, but the real beauty lies within. One could spend hours just gazing at the patterns on the ceilings and walls. The palace doubles as a museum, with entire buildings dedicated to religious artifacts, weapons, jewelry, and other things. The library was my favorite section of the palace grounds. If you have the museum card, make sure to visit the Harem Apartments and the 1700 year old Hagia Irene. Topkapi Palace alone honestly makes the museum card worth it.

National Archaeological Museum

Right next to Topkapi Palace, you’ll find the National Archaeological Museum. With how modern Istanbul feels, it’s easy to forget that this is a city with history dating back thousands of years. The archaeological museum has a great collection of artifacts from Istanbul’s storied past. Set aside a few hours for a visit to truly immerse yourself in the history of Istanbul.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Right in the heart of Sultanahmet’s historic center, you’ll find the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. It’s part of Istanbul’s Museum Pass, so we decided to pay it a visit while we were in the area. It turned out to be one of the best surprises of our time in Istanbul.

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Hagia Sophia

How can you not visit Istanbul without visiting its most iconic attraction? Ever since I was a kid playing video games set in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia has captivated my imagination. Seeing it in person for the first time was a beautiful moment, and I was as giddy as my seven year old self playing Age of Empires. It’s free to enter, and as marvelous on the inside as it is on the outside.

Blue Mosque

Right across from the Hagia Sophia, you’ll find the Blue Mosque. A staple to Istanbul’s unique skyline, this mosque is one of the most beautiful and grandiose in the city. It’s free to enter, and open to anyone outside of prayer hours.

Grand Bazaar

While specializing mostly in tourist fare these days, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is still a can’t-miss destination. It’s one of those destinations that can transport you back in time to the days when this was hub for artisans and merchants for hundreds of years.

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Dolmabahce Palace

Talk about opulence. This palace in Besiktas is a can’t-miss while you are in Istanbul. It’s further away from the other tourist attractions of Sultanahmet, but it’s worth making the trek over. It is one of the most extravagant displays of wealth that you’ll find anywhere. The ceremonial hall might be the most beautiful room that I’ve seen anywhere. It costs 150 lira to enter as of November 2021, but I think it is worth it.

Galata Tower

Most of my time in Istanbul was spent living in the Galata area. The Galata Tower became very close to my heart, mostly because it was the main landmark guiding me on my drunk walks home. Once I got close to the tower, I knew I was home. It’s beautiful on the outside, but going inside and climbing to the top will give you some unforgettable views of Istanbul.

Galata Bridge

Sure, it’s just a bridge, but I never tired of walking up and down this bridge. The fishermen lining the bridge, the seagulls going wild, and don’t even get me started on the views at golden hour. I fell in love with Istanbul all over again every time I crossed this bridge. There are plenty of restaurants lining this bridge, so stop by for a meal or a glass of wine, or just take a stroll and take in all of the epic views.

Sulemaniye Mosque

While Istanbul is home to many mosques, this one is arguably the most beautiful. You’ll inevitably visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, but don’t miss out on Sulemaniye Mosque. The view from up here is absolutely incredible, to go along with its beautiful exterior and interior.

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Bosphorus River Cruise

No trip to Istanbul is complete without exploring the city by sea. A Bosphorus River Cruise can be as cheap as 30 Lira ($3), although if you want a full experience with dinner at sunset, it can run you a little bit more. I’d recommend the company Turyol that sells tickets right from Eminonu Pier. The ride lasts about an hour and a half, and for $3, you really can’t go wrong.

Ataturk Kultur Merkezi (Ataturk Cultural Center)

One of my favorite hang out spots in Istanbul was the Ataturk Kultur Merkezi, right off of Taksim Square. It’s home to a lot of cultural displays, as well as a huge library that became my favorite work spot in Istanbul. It’s home to an opera house, a number of coffee shops, and plenty of cultural and historical displays. It’s also a beautiful building to just walk through.

Of course, this list barely scratches the surface. Istanbul has dozens of museums, palaces, and vast parks to explore. A day trip over to Prince’s Islands is a must. Roam through Yildiz Park and stick around for sunset. Peep into one of the many modern art museums. Catch a film at one of the indie cinemas. Go shopping, from fancy mega-malls like the Zorlu center, to one of many quirky thrift shops throughout the city. Heck, just hop on the metro to anywhere and wander through any of Istanbul’s many neighborhoods. The options in Istanbul are limitless. If you find yourself bored in Istanbul, you are the problem.

Nightlife in Istanbul

Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. While I adore the history and culture of Istanbul, I love a good party, if you couldn’t tell by the blog name. My first week in Istanbul was an absolutely wild ride. It took me to underground raves to electronic festivals in the forests. I don’t think I went to bed before 4 AM that entire first week.

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Beyoglu

This is where I spent most of my time in Istanbul. If you’re just looking to get drunk and dance, Beyoglu has an excellent concentration of bars within walking distance with each other. It’s perfect for independent bar hopping or organized bar crawls. My personal favorite spot in Beyoglu was Gizli Bahce, a cozy and often crowded bar playing funky electronic beats across their two dance floors. For pre-gaming, I’d recommend Ispanak bar. If you want to get down to Turkish music, check out Eskici. More tourist-friendly music and fare would be found at Ritim, Backstreet, or Yuri Gagarin. Kastel is a popular spot for electronic shows, although it’ll usually cost some money to get in. Roxy is another personal favorite of mine just off of Taksim Square, and a few minutes walk away in Cihangir is the boujee rooftop bar, Rika.

Besiktas

Unfortunately, I can’t speak too much about the nightlife scene in other neighborhoods. Besiktas is one hell of a place to party, but I’m not familiar enough to really recommend the best spots. Vogue and Joker No. 19 are two spots that are popular among my local friends. You could just walk through the trendy Akaretler neighborhood of Besiktas and finding a number of poppin’ bars, restaurants, and clubs. As one of the main centers of Istanbul, you can’t go wrong with choosing Besiktas for a party.

Kadikoy

Kadikoy is another lively neighborhood with a very youthful party scene. Just go bar-hopping, and you’re certain to find some great spots. It’s on the Asian side, though, so if you’re staying on the European side, it might be a trek finding your way home late at night.

Of course, the best parties can be found even further outside the tourist hubs. Internationally-renowned DJs often come to Istanbul for shows, so if you’re ready to rave, keep an eye out for who might be passing through. Klein Phonix and Vibe Bomonti are two of my favorite spots to frequent for a good electronic rave. You’ll find big shows and concerts at stadiums and arenas as well.

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Miscellaneous Tips for Istanbul

Is Istanbul safe to visit?

Like most big cities, just keep your wits about you and you should be totally fine. I found Istanbul to be one of the safest big cities I’ve ever been to. Of course, there are some dodgy neighborhoods, but if you avoid them at night or altogether, you should be totally fine. As always, keep an eye out for pickpockets and always keep track of your valuables on public transportation. Turkish people are generally very welcoming and hospitable to travelers, at least in my experience. Respect the cultural norms and keep an open mind and open heart, and Istanbul will respond with love and hospitality.

Public Transport in Istanbul – Istanbul Kart

Istanbul is a big city. While I was fine walking mostly everywhere, it did help having the public transportation card. The Istanbulkart allows you on the ferries, trams, buses, and metros all in one card. Rides are pretty affordable, too. I think you can get anywhere for pretty around 5 lira, or 50 cents. The card itself will cost you about 13 lira, and then you can load it up with cash and use it to your heart’s desire. I definitely recommend getting one of these so you can ferry over to the Asian side or take the tram to and from Sultanahmet.

Museum Pass

If you’re only in Istanbul for a short while, I recommend capitalizing on the Museum Pass. This allows you into 13 museums throughout Istanbul at a hugely discounted price. Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts alone makes the pass beyond worth it. If you want to save a lot of money and add a lot of culture to your Istanbul experience, get the museum pass.

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