Istanbul is a vast metropolitan city, with a population of 15 million people and 39 different districts making up the city. Because of this, it may come as no surprise that Istanbul is larger than many countries and straddles two continents. However, this has allowed Istanbul to have a rich history, blending with contemporary culture.
When visiting, with so much to see and do, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start. Below, we’ve broken down some of the major neighbourhoods you should visit, what you can do while there.
Sultanahmet is named one of the best neighbourhoods for sightseeing and the most popular amongst tourists. A laid-back, historic neighbourhood that offers all the best must-see historical sites of the city, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia (now a museum), and the extraordinary Grand Bazaar.
Everything within this neighbourhood is close, and there are numerous places to eat and drink as you walk between hotels.
However, because of its popularity, Sultanahmet is often very busy and full of tourists during the day. If you aren’t tired from exploring at night, you may need to travel if you’re after some nightlife, as Sultanahmet offers very little in terms of bars and nightclubs.
Named the chic nightlife area and often referred to as the heart of Istanbul, Arnavutköy has both waterfront homes and cocktail and gastro bars. At night, the bars and pubs become so full, people take their drinks out onto the street as they soak in the music and memories. While it is less quiet during the day, it doesn’t make it any less beautiful as you walk along the waterfront and admire the beautiful houses.
It is often busy with young tourists and those in large groups and not the place to be if you’re after a quiet night out.
Beşiktaş is very popular with students and those after a romantic break away from the hustle and bustle. It is the perfect place to sit down for a coffee or to explore Istanbul markets. There are also dinner-cruise or boat trips available from Beşiktaş.
It’s away from many tour groups, allowing you more freedom to explore on your own, whether that’s the open-air bazaar closeby to the Naval Museum, where you can fill yourself up on fresh food while shopping for clothes. You should also visit the Dolmabahçe Palace as one of Turkey’s largest palaces.
Beşiktaş's biggest love is football, and if you’re a sports fan, being in this neighbourhood on matchday will be electrifying. With boisterous football fans filling the streets and bars, both with singing, marching bangs and their football colours.
If you’re a fan of religious architecture, then this neighbourhood will be perfect for you. Balat is one of the oldest areas, meaning there are many churches and synagogues for you to admire. Consider visiting the oldest synagogue in the city, the Ahrida Synagogue.
If you don’t mind a climb, consider visiting the coloured houses on the sloping streets; not only are these wooden homes up to 200 years old, but they have become an iconic part of Balat. Be aware, though, Balat isn’t popular with many tourists as the streets are windy and also is very hilly, making it not suitable for those who aren’t confident walkers.
While part of the larger Beyoğlu district, Galata is a historic area with cobblestone streets, and both the Mevlevi Museum or the Museum of Turkish Jews is here. If you’re an art lover, be sure to visit the Istanbul Modern, which is home to both modern and contemporary art from many Turkish artists. Galata perfectly blends its history with modernism, making it a place suitable for all travellers.
While there, you should take the chance to visit the Galata Tower. Not only does it look over parts of Istanbul, but it provides fabulous panoramic views. However, be aware of the many stone medieval steps you have to climb to get these views, and it is often busy with tourists.
Having undergone a complete makeover in recent years, this neighbourhood is now a thriving hotspot with cafes, bars, and restaurants with an ever-growing nightlife scene. It formerly was a part of the Galata neighbourhood; now, it perfectly blends the past with the newer parts of Karaköy almost seamlessly, finding churches and synagogues closeby to galleries and eateries.
With famous street artwork, including local artist Leo Lunatic, and rooftop bars where you can admire the city’s or sea view, Karaköy is perfect for those who want to soak up a mix of the present and past.
As this area is growing in popularity, many restaurants require pre-booking, making it challenging to visit on a whim.
With Bebek sitting on a gorgeous waterfront, the first thing you should do in Bebek is walk along the Bosphorus and feel the sea breeze on your face. If you’re a fan of beer, be sure to check out the brewery Taps Bebek, where you can enjoy one of their freshly brewed beers in this 10-year-old brewpub.
If fine-dining is your passion, there are plenty of restaurants along the seafront, and there are even cafes if you prefer something simpler. While beautiful, there is less to do in Bebek than walk and eat during the day. It is a more laid-back, down-to-earth day out than one where you’ll see and do a lot.
However, Bebek becomes busy with those seeking some of the most popular nightclubs along this beachfront when the sun sets.
Moda has become a perfect place for families and named the most laid-back of all of the neighbourhoods in Istanbul, with its lovely beach and seafront.
After taking a short ferry ride over, you can take a lovely walk along this peaceful seafront. Consider visiting one of the many tea gardens, and sample a Turkish Tea, be aware these are stronger than English tea. When night comes, the bars are filled with live music and cheer, a more laid-back evening than some other districts in Istanbul.
It is far more relaxing and quieter than many other places and is less frequented by young couples due to this.
Last, but by no means least, Taksim and Cihangir both blend history with art, and both of these lively areas offering places to eat, inside cafes or bars, and plenty of places to shop and soak in the art.
Taksim is also the home to a modern art museum, SALT Beyoglu, where you can sink into culture and art. On the top floor, they have a beautiful winter garden, something that shouldn’t be missed. In Cihangir, be sure to find the rainbow stairs, which were initially created ‘to make people smile’ and stop by the Cihangir Mosque, built-in 1559.
Taksim and Cihangir are small but lively for their size. They are both busy and popular, cramming in both culture and heart within its sloping streets and laid-back, more modern neighbourhoods.
With each district and neighbourhood having such distinctive feels, and there is so much to explore, there is something for all who visits Istanbul offering something different for a vacationer. Recommending the best place comes down to what you want your holiday to be. However, with much of Istanbul’s districts close by, all you need to do is pick a starting point and then follow your holiday’s desire.