Stretched across two continents, Istanbul is a city unlike any other. The cultural capital of the Turkish Republic draws you in with its ornate mosques, markets and nightlife. Istanbul's blend of ancient and modern, European and Middle Eastern, secular and Muslim adds up to something special: a city that never stops surprising.
Istanbul: city layout
Istanbul is surrounded by water, with the Sea of Marmara to the south and the Black Sea to the north connected by the Bosphorus Strait. The Golden Horn, a natural harbour off the strait, hems in Sultanahmet, Istanbul's Old City. Spanning the Golden Horn is the Galata Bridge, connecting Sultanahmet with vibrant Beyoğlu. The latter neighbourhood is home to the medieval Galata Tower, which you can climb for panoramic city views. It’s a great place to find Istanbul hotels.
Cutting through Beyoğlu, Istiklal Caddesi is the city's main pedestrian boulevard and the centre of shopping, dining and nightlife; you can follow it to bustling Taksim Square. Northeast from here is the seaside neighbourhood of Ortaköy, beneath the continent-spanning Bosphorus Bridge.
Top attractions in Istanbul
Standing pink and majestic at the tip of Sultanahmet, Hagia Sophia is Istanbul's most iconic landmark. Originally a church and later a mosque, it's now a popular museum. Cross Sultan Ahmet Park to visit the Blue Mosque, an active place of worship built to match Hagia Sophia's grandeur.
Want to buy a carpet? The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, and an excellent place to perfect your haggling skills over steaming cups of Turkish tea. If you would rather shop for spices and Turkish delight, indulge yourself at the nearby Spice Bazaar. Hotels in Istanbul can be found close to all of these fabulous delights.
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Istanbul is a diverse, sprawling city and each neighbourhood has its own personality. The hotels in Istanbul also seem to reflect these personalities, so it’s worth knowing more about them before choosing where to stay. Sultanahmet is close to cultural and historical treasures, while Beyoğlu buzzes with nightlife. The Topkapı neighbourhood is on a tram line that takes you directly into Old City and beyond: close enough to Istanbul's main attractions, but far enough out to avoid the crush. Some of the quaintest hotels Istanbul offers can be found in this neighbourhood.
Taksim is the fast-beating heart of the city, offering dynamic nightlife and culture. Across the Bosphorus, the neighbourhoods on the Asian side provide a calmer slice of Turkish life. Kadıköy is liberal and laid back, with a quiet seaside park and many cafés and restaurants.
Smoky grilled fish, garlicky yoghurts, sticky-sweet baklava and crisp cucumber salads: Turkish cuisine has something for everyone. It can be as simple as döner dürüm (slow-cooked shaved meat sandwich) and freshly squeezed orange juice from a street stand, and as elaborate as buttery octopus, vegetarian meze dishes and a glass of the anise-liquor rakı at a high-end Turkish tavern or meyhane.
Packed with restaurants, the streets and alleyways around Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square are difficult to navigate without getting hungry. Check out Nevizade Street for lively taverns with roaming musicians and tempting meze spreads. At the other end of Istiklal is Asmalımescit, a buzzing area where you can sample everything from spicy Southeast Anatolian cuisine to homestyle Turkish meatballs.
You can stroll along the Golden Horn in Eminönü for street food, including döner and grilled fish sandwiches. Tradition dictates you wash them down with a salty yoghurt drink called ayran. Across the strait, Kadıköy Market is a great place to buy fruits and vegetables, as well as fish directly from the fishmonger's daily catch, and Istanbul hotels are especially popular here.
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Ancient bartering customs and contemporary shopping habits coexist happily in Istanbul. You can buy intricate carpets in a bazaar, hunt for one-of-a-kind handicrafts by Turkish artisans or spend hours in a shiny multipurpose mall. Just remember when haggling: be patient and be persistent!
There's no better way to feel like a local than exploring Istanbul's covered markets. Haggling for traditional Turkish goods is expected in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, whether you're after a carpet, a glass-encrusted lamp or tulip-shaped tea cups.
Craving a more modern retail experience? Head to Nişantaşi to find Istanbul's upmarket shopping district, where international designer stores and high-end artisan fashion boutiques proliferate. Istanbul hotels in this area are perfect for shopaholics! Shops of all stripes line Istiklal Caddesi, the city's most important shopping boulevard.
Istanbul's giant malls double as social centres, with cinemas, sports clubs and high-end restaurants tucked among hundreds of stores. To shop, dine and unwind under one roof, try Kanyon, Istiniye Park and Akmerkez.
Best souvenirs from Istanbul
Late to breakfast and late to bed, Istanbul throbs with nightlife. Dinners last long into the night, drinks stretch into the early hours and dancing can go on till dawn. Music lovers can plan ahead to enjoy an international act at a major venue, or simply follow the sound of live music to a raucous late-night bar.
The centre of nightlife in Istanbul is Taksim, where the streets are packed with live music venues, dance clubs, rollicking bars and high-end art galleries, including SALT Beyoğlu. The Istanbul hotels located here are very popular with those who like to party the night away. A short metro ride away, Zorlu Center offers international dance, theatre and music.
To enjoy the best of modern and contemporary Turkish art, check out Istanbul Modern in Tophane. The permanent collection showcases an eclectic range of styles and media, and there's a small cinema for arthouse movies. Down the road is Karaköy, where a young and vibrant Turkish contemporary art scene has taken root, with many small venues displaying diverse works.
Live music venues in Istanbul
Istanbul has something for all ages, and there are plenty of hotels in Istanbul that are suitable for family groups. Ancient history comes alive in its museums, theme parks enthrall and educate and playgrounds offer space for fun. Even venues aimed at children engage adults, making Istanbul a terrific destination for a family trip.
Cultural learning and play combine at Miniatürk, a theme park of miniature Turkey complete with a small Hagia Sophia and a shrunken Cappadocia. The re-creations are surreal but educational, and the theme park also contains a playground.
The light-hearted history lessons can continue in Başakşehir, where Ottomanya lets kids learn about the Ottoman Empire through art, puppets, costumes and games. Children can take home the art they create in Ottomanya's workshops. Maritime buffs interested in a hands-on exploration of the city's nautical history can visit the Naval Museum in Beşiktaş, which offers giant ships and interactive exhibits.
Family-friendly parks and playgrounds in Istanbul