The vast and beautiful city has never been more accessible. Istanbul is easy to enjoy and enriching for the soul. Stay, dine and explore in one of the world’s greatest hubs of culture and history.
Istanbul’s new airport, about 30km west of the city, receives more than 100 direct flights from the UK each week. Turkish Airlines flies in six times a day from London Heathrow and also from Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. British Airways also flies from Heathrow. Wizz Air arrives from Luton and Gatwick.
Istanbul airport was the busiest in Europe in 2022, yet because it has only a single terminal you certainly don’t feel overwhelmed. From the airport, the new Metro link on line M11 runs frequently to Kâğıthane in northwest Istanbul, from which onward connections by Metro, bus and taxi are available. The journey takes only 24 minutes and costs 10 lire (under £1). The Metro is being extended to Gayrettepe, closer to the city centre.
A wide range of express buses are also available, serving all the key areas of the city.
On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, Sabiha Gokcen airport has links from Stansted on Pegasus and AnadoluJet, and will soon be served from London Heathrow by BA.
Buses cover the 35km from Sabiha Gokcen to city center locations.
Get your bearings
The tourism hub is Sultanahmet occupies the peninsula where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosphorus. It is location for the original site of Istanbul and full of monuments: the bulky, beautiful Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the expansive complex containing Topkapı Palace. Galata Bridge leads north across the Golden Horn – a broad inlet – to what was once the ancient coastal town of Galata but is now known as Beyoğlu. The waterside area facing the Bosphorus is Tophane, and a string of attractive locations pop up along the western shore of the waterway. On the Asian side, Üsküdar is the main center and destination for intercontinental ferries.
Istanbul’s integrated transport network allows effortless exploration. Either buy a carnet of 10 tickets which will get you on any form of transport – or invest a couple of pounds in an Istanbulkart (Istanbul card) and top it up as you go.
Pera, on the western side of Beyoğlu, is a good choice of location, with easy road and public transport access to most places of interest – and well placed for excellent nearby restaurants.. It also has Istanbul’s signature hotel: the Pera Palace – the epitome of 19th-century style with a celebrity guest list that has included Greta Garbo and Ernest Hemingway. This exquisitely designed hotel owes its existence to one of the most celebrated trains in the world: it was created in 1892 to host Orient Express guests. The crime writer Agatha Christie was inspired by the journey to create one of her most celebrated novels. She is celebrated in the Agatha Christie room, number 411, where she wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express. Many features remain, including an antique lift. Even if you are staying somewhere else, the handsome public areas are well worth visiting for a glimpse back to a more glamorous age.
Almost opposite, the more modern Marmara Pera also has a fascinating lobby – don’t miss the antique motorcycle and sidecar. The higher rooms have excellent views across the city and into Asia – as does the rooftop swimming pool.
I stayed in the Radisson Blu Pera, which offers a good balance between location, comfort and pricing. The rooftop bar is a particular attraction.
Take a view
Opening time, 8.30am, is an excellent moment to experience the 62-metre high Galata Tower. It began life as a lighthouse 1,500 years ago and replaced by the Genoese in 1348 with a mighty stone landmark. Inside, a series of exhibits tells you more about the tower; outside, the intercontinental views are outstanding, placing Istanbul in perspective.
Take a Hike
Begin at Saray Burnu Park, the tip of the peninsula where Europe ends. On the waterside a statue of the father of the modern nation, Kemal Ataturk, looks out across his world. Cross to Gülhane Park: a garden fit for a Sultan. The grounds of Topkapi Palace were opened as a public park early in the 20th century house. The palace was built by Mehmet the Conqueror as the Ottoman Empire expanded across Europe. Today, the back garden provides tranquility and natural beauty close to the heart of the city.
At the southwestern entrance (for you, the exit), cobbled Sogukcesme Street is lined with cafes and wooden houses. Sultanahmet Square is the heart of old Istanbul and full of monuments, large and small.
Constantine the Great created the city and brought decorations including the obelisk of Theodosius, 3,500 years old, and the Serpent Column – originally created to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians two and a half millennia ago. The obelisk of Constantine himself marks the end of the walk.
Lunch on the Run
In Istanbul, you’re rarely more than about 10 meters from the next eating opportunity. A quick, fast lunch is burek: flaky pastry filled with all sorts of good things. For something more substantial, Haci Abdullah Lokantası restaurant in Beyoğlu dates from 1888. Service is surprisingly swift – and you are in an excellent position to explore Istanbul’s cultural life.
Istanbul’s main commercial street is Istiklal. At number 163, step into the Misir apartment building – artistic heaven. It’s the home of Galleri Nev – a cutting-edge space featuring the work of young artists. One floor down takes you to the Zilberman Gallery, which hosts ten or more exhibitions a year, with works that are challenging and intriguing.
On the more modern side of the city, the Cukurcuma area is full of antique shops. But for the greatest retailing emporium on the planet, head for the Grand Bazaar. It began life in 1481 on the orders of the Ottoman sultan known as Mehmet the Conqueror. Over the centuries, the bazaar has evolved into a labyrinthine sprawl selling everything from gold and silverware to musical instruments and ceramics. Textiles are a strong suit, too, with an abundance of choice. If you can’t find it at the Bazaar’s 4,000 stores, you’re probably better off without it.
A five-minute walk north towards the Golden Horn takes you to the Spice Bazaar. It was created in the 1660s, paid for by taxes on goods imported from Egypt, and therefore also known as the Egyptian Bazaar.
The OrientBank Hotel was the headquarters of the Deutsche Orient Bank – the German financial institution that created the railway on which the Orient Express ran. it’s now a boutique hotel, with a basement bar – Badou – that takes financial services to another level. There are 30 different Scotch whiskies, plus Irish, Canadian, American and Japanese whiskies.
From a secret retreat to high altitude heaven: in Pera, Monkey Istanbul is a rooftop bar with sunset views over the Golden Horn and all kinds of interesting cocktails – such as English breakfast which is based on gin, not tea.
Dining with the locals
Mahkeme Lokantası is tucked away but worth discovering – it feels like a relaxed taverna, and provides a remarkably wide range of Turkish cuisine from calamari and octopus to tahini profiterole. You could just construct your own feast of mezze. A long list of wine and raki adds to the occasion.
Or venture to Köşebaşı in the Levent district, a restaurant that specializes in cuisine from Adana in south-central Turkey – home of that perennial favorite the kebab, served in style in an early 20th-century villa.
Creative energy is most in evidence at Galata Port: reviving the waterfront for the benefit of visitors and locals alike. Admire the impressive Tophane Clock Tower – which, until the engineers stepped in, had a 12-degree tilt towards the sea, due to shifting foundations. Then explore Warehouse Number 5: new home for the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum. The collection was established in 1937 with the aim of protecting and presenting major works of modern art in Turkey. The new venue feels as though it has been dismantled and then reassembled using as few of the original parts as possible – bestowing a sense of lightness that enhances the art on display.
The new location for Istanbul Modern is adjacent. Ahead of its completion, a 6-metre-tall sculpture by Tony Cragg, called The Runner, is already on show outside the entrance.
Out to Brunch
Galata Port has plenty of options, including The Populist – with a zany, 1960s road-trip interior. Or Head northeast from the city center for the ritzy suburb of Bebek – which you can reach by road or boat. At an innovative hotel, The Stay, you can order an extravagant Turkish breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. or two doors along settle for a coffee at Starbucks – also with a world-class view.
Further south along the Bosphorus in the Beziktas area, the Shangri-La has a grand terrace for breakfast, and is also right next to a ferry port for shuttles across to Asia.
take a ride
Ferries depart for Üsküdar on the Asian side every few minutes, providing a fresh perspective on the city. Also, on the European side ferry travel helps you escape from the traffic that can sometimes clog the streets. Make the most of Istanbul’s integrated transport network for a cut-price cruise along the Golden Horn. From the main ferry base of Eminonu, board a Halic Hatti line vessel for its final stop, Eyup – close to Istanbul’s holiest mosque.
place of worship
Pilgrims congregate at Eyup Sultan Mosque in their thousands. The mosque is regarded by many Muslims as the fourth-holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The mosque was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1458 on the site of the tomb of Eyup, friend and standard bearer of the prophet Mohammed. In Ottoman times, the courtyard of the mosque was used for the coronation of the sultans. The Courtyard is dominated by a huge plane tree, and the walls are covered with beautiful Iznik tiles.
Christianity is also represented in Istanbul – including by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of Sveti Stefan (St Stephen’s). This imposing church was manufactured many hundreds of miles away, in Vienna. Five hundred tons of prefabricated iron were floated down the Danube, into the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus.
Istanbul has a very deep history – as you find out at the Basilica Cistern Museum. Fifteen centuries ago, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian created a vast water tank with a ceiling supported by more than 300 marble columns, all fed by aqueducts with fresh water from springs far from the city. Imagine the biggest cathedral you have ever visited created underground. The work of ancient engineers has now been augmented by modern artists, with sculptures placed artistically to enhance the experience.
Icing on the cake
The Rami Library, occupying an Ottoman-era structure built in the 1770s, is the latest addition to Istanbul’s astonishing cultural repertoire. It began life as an army barracks, and more recently as served as car park, football pitch and food store. But early in 2023, after eight years of restoration, the complex reopened to immediate acclaim as a library – one of the biggest in the world, containing rare manuscripts alongside seven million books. From military beginnings, the Rummy has been transformed into a place of learning and enlightenment.