*I’ve been to Istanbul twice and spent a total of 10 days in the city. I think it’s one of the most diverse and spectacular places on earth.
In this blog post, I am going to give you an overview of the city, and provide travel tips and recommendations for things like culture, attractions, food, nightlife and more. Everything you read is based off my own experiences.
Also, please see my other related blog posts on Istanbul:
10 Things to do in Istanbul
Cappadocia – The Hidden Treasure of the World
6 Turkish Foods to Try
Ultimate Guide to the Nightlife in Istanbul
Top 10 Turkish Words
Istanbul has one of the most unique cultures of any city that I’ve been to in the world.
For starters, this city has a whopping population of over 14 million people. From a historical standpoint, Istanbul has served as the capital of the Byzantine, Ottoman, Latin and Roman Empires. You can only imagine how many battles were fought, how much land was conquered, and how much history took place in this city over the centuries.
Another cool fact about Istanbul is that it’s the only city in the world that is split between two continents. Half of the city is in Europe, and the other half is in Asia. You can take a $2 ferry across the Bosphorus River to visit both sides!
One of the most attractive things about traveling in Istanbul is the cheap prices. After backpacking around Europe for a month or so, Istanbul was by far the cheapest destination of my trip.
Just to give you an idea of how cheap it is — a full course dinner and a beer was under $6USD. Turkish tea and coffee (and sometimes shisha) are normally served free of charge when you sit down at a bar or restaurant.
Alright, let’s dive into some quick facts!
– Currency: Turkish Lira (TRY)
– Language: Turkish
– Population: 14.3 million people
– Istanbul was founded in 660BC and served as the capital of 4 huge empires
– The Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world for almost 1,000 years
– Istanbul is the third largest urban metropolis city in the world
– 1/3 of Istanbul’s population lives in Europe, and 1/3 lives in Asia
– Over 12 million people visit Istanbul every year
– The city accounts for over ¼ of Turkey’s entire GDP
– The Grand Bazaar is the biggest bazaar in the world, with over 3,000 shops
– Built in 1875, Istanbul’s subway system is the 3rd oldest in the world
Culture & People
Turkish culture is very interesting and cool. Islam is the largest religion in Turkey, with some 95% of the population registered by the state as Muslim.
So, just like other Islamic countries, there are certain rules and regulations that might be different than you are used to.
You will see many women dressing extra conservative — covering their entire body from head to toe in all black, so all you can only are their eyes (shown in pic). It’s also common to see women wearing hijabs.
But not everyone in Turkey is religious — you will also see a more liberal side of Istanbul where women dress in modern clothing like any other western country. It just depends on where you go in the city.
Another thing to note about Istanbul is the crazy driving on the streets. If you ride in a taxi, don’t freak out when the driver is squirming through traffic, repeatedly honking his horn and coming INCHES away from running into another car. It’s scary, but just go with the flow!
I guess this is typical for any city of 15 million people, but you will see lots of scattered poverty all around the city. Poor people trying to sell you water and bagels on the side of the road, and young adults begging you for any pocket change. Just avoid making eye contact with them and they will leave you alone. It’s nothing too intense, but just be aware that it exists.
Turkish people are very outgoing and noisy.
You will notice first hand when your taxi driver sticks his head out the window and screams at the car ahead of him to speed up. It’s not a bad thing — I am just telling you what to expect. I did meet several local Turkish people and they were mostly friendly.
I recommend learning the Top 10 Turkish Words, so you can approach strangers and make local friends!
What to Do?
There are so many awesome Things to do in Istanbul!
I recommend shopping at the Grand Baazar (the biggest baazar in world), hiking the Rumelihisari Castle, and hitting the town in the Beyoğlu district. A visit to Taksim Square is also a must to take in the bustling culture.
The most popular landmarks are the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and Galata tower.
I also recommend to get yourself a Turkish Bath (if you are feeling adventurous.) You can read all about my hilarious experience here. It’s quite the cultural experience.
Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) is arguably Istanbul’s most famous street, located in the Beyoğlu district. Millions of people come here to enjoy the multitude of shops, bars, art galleries, restaurants, mosques, synagogues and more!
By night, Istiklal Street becomes alive with bars and nightclubs for the young people! Located very close to Istiklal in the Beyoğlu district is Nevizade Street– another street with a great atmosphere and a place to party at night! The youthful energy here is as good as anywhere I’ve seen, and I recommend going here for nightlife no matter which day of the week it is.
People watching has never been more fun and exciting than it was in Istanbul. Given its location on the intersection of Europe and Asia, you will see a huge mix of cultures from many nearby countries. If you’ve never been to a Muslim country before, then you can carefully observe the magnificent culture. Park yourself on a bench near the Hagia Sophia and you can see how the people dress, how they speak and how they act. It’s fascinating.
For a complete list, check out my post on 10 Things to do in Istanbul.
However, the most spectacular thing that I did in Turkey was go on a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia – you can read all about my experiences on this link!
I can talk for days about all of the amazing Turkish dishes that I ate in Istanbul.
The most famous and authentic Turkish food is a kebab. I think I ate one for almost every meal- especially because they are less than $2USD!
The pita bread all over Istanbul is outstanding. Pack it deep with fresh chicken or beef and locally grown vegetables and you have one of the best tasting street foods known to man. Sometimes as an appetizer, they will serve you Turkish flat bread — it’s crunchy and phenomenal.
Along the Bosphorus River, you will find local fisherman on small boats that sell fresh fish sandwiches on the spot. Their restaurant is literally from inside their boat. You get to choose which fish you want and then you’ll watch him grill the fish right in front of your eyes. It’s finger licking good!
Also, if you like coffee or tea, Turkish style is the way to go.
Both are served in tiny glasses, but the taste is so strong that you don’t need any more. Many restaurants give them out for free. The food is so fantastic in Istanbul that I didn’t have a bad meal in the 10 days that I spent in the city!
For more of the best dishes, please read my post on 6 Turkish Foods to Try.
The nightlife in Istanbul a pretty damn fun time.
The best area to party at is called Beyoğlu. In a nutshell, Beyoğlu is a very long street with places to eat, shisha stands, and a bunch of bars. Bar hopping has never been more fun and there is always a lively atmosphere on every day of the week.
Most food places will give you a shisha either free of charge, or for really cheap when you sit down.
The magic formula on Beyoğlu is to: grab a drink, smoke some hookah, eat some delicious food, and meet some amazing people!
On most nights, many young adults hang out by the Galata tower and drink beer outside. It’s pretty much all locals, so this is a great place to go if you want to make some Turkish friends before heading out to the bars! The local beer that everyone drinks is called Efes, and it is pretty tasty.
Apparently there are some cool clubs around town, but I got denied from all of them because I didn’t have hot girls with me and I am American… If you are a girl, you will have no problem getting in to the clubs. If you are a guy, you need to get lucky or you need to walk inside with some locals. They are just very strict for some reason.
If you want to know some of the hotspots to party at, then read up on my Ultimate Guide to the Nightlife in Istanbul.
*Thanks for reading! Have you been to Istanbul before? Please comment and share your experiences with me!