Exploring the neighbourhoods of Istanbul is the best way to get to know this great city. When I first came to Turkey, despite knowing Istanbul was the country’s largest city and top-visited tourist destination, nothing quite prepared me for realising just how intense Istanbul is. As well as being the centre ruling capitals for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Istanbul has a modern-day story. Indeed, touring local suburbs is now a popular travel genre, and Istanbul is no exception because local excursion agents now sell guided walking tours.
I’ve read many books about Istanbul and returned three times, yet I’ve only visited a fraction of what there is to see. Indeed, to fully know and appreciate the city, I would need to move there for at least a year. Moreover, each area is much like anywhere else because they each have a particular genre or stereotype. So, for example, while one may be the commercial business district, another is an upmarket destination and is a hangout for artists or nightlife centre. With that in mind, here is what I do know of ideal neighbourhoods to explore.
9 of the Best Neighbourhoods of Istanbul
1: Historical Old City Part of Sultanahmet
Naturally, from a visitor’s point of view, Sultanahmet in the European Fatih district should be first on the list because this UNESCO world heritage site brims over with historical landmarks from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires like the grand Hagia Sophia. Surrounded by the Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus, the choice of hotels from hostels to five stars is mind-blowing. As with any other touristic destination, restaurants cater to the masses by serving various domestic and international cuisine. However, if your main reason for heading to Istanbul is to see highlights like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace, then stay in Sultanahmet – Fatih.
2: Taksim and Beyoglu: Modern and Trendy
Typically characterised by Istiklal Caddesi, Turkey’s central pedestrian thoroughfare and busiest street, European Beyoglu and Taksim is Istanbul’s alternative face and heart of the new city part. As a favourite hangout in history for foreign dignitaries, Istiklal avenue in Beyoglu is now a hub for shopping, nightlife, and prestigious hotels, and Taksim is a transport hub. However, the new and modern hasn’t overtaken all of Taksim district.
Some ideal gems reflect the art and culture scene like the large Saint Anthony Padua Church, antique shops of the Cukurcuma district and Orhan Pamuk’s (Turkey’s famous Turkish author) Museum of Innocence. The Pera Museum holds the Tortoise Trainer painting, the most expensive ever sold in Turkey. Interesting fact – the Cihangir neighbourhood is a popular place for expats buying property and living in Istanbul.
3: Explore Fener and Balat Neighbourhoods
Growing in popularity for guided walking tours, these two districts reflect Jewish and Greek heritage, a lesser-known historical fact of Istanbul. As proved by Saint Georges Church, Fener was previously home to many wealthy Greeks, otherwise known as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Balat neighbourhood, a historical settlement area for Jews, is also home to Anrida, the oldest synagogue in Istanbul. After many years of neglect, both districts faced ruin until 2003, when a substantial amount of money was pumped into restoring the old Ottoman houses. As well as highlighting the best of their history, famous guided city walking tours display authentic local life as seen in the homes, and businesses, and are great for any foreigner to see.
4: Feel the Vibes of Besiktas and Ortakoy
Most people probably associate Besiktas neighbourhood on the Bosphorus shores of Istanbul with the famous football team, but look deeper. Quickly reach Besiktas on foot or via bus ride from the Taksim area. The famous Dolmabahce Palace, sitting next to the clock tower and mosque of the same name, was the Ottoman’s sultans last palace and place of residence. As the previous Istanbul home to the Ottoman sultans, wealth and decadence within those walls boggle the mind.
Heading further up Ciragan Caddesi, past the naval museum (Deniz Muzesi) and one of Turkey’s expensive and best hotels, the Ciragan Palace, we arrive at the Ortakoy district. The main mosque fronted by the famous Bosphorus Bridge is Istanbul’s favourite postcard and travel guidebook scene. Besiktas is also renowned for fish restaurants and best nightclubs and is home to Yildiz Palace Complex and Museum, a famous Istanbul city green area and park.
5: Eminönü and Beyazit in Istanbul
Sitting close to the entrance of the famous Galata Bridge, the Eminönü neighbourhood in Istanbul is the place to pick up a cheap Bosphorus ferry tour. Eat Balik Ekmek (fish sandwiches) as favoured cheap street food; otherwise, restaurants under Galata Bridge serve delicious albeit pricey fish meals. In the Bahcekapi district of Eminönü, a small shop and living museum highlights the rise to fame of the humble Turkish delight. Owned by descendants of the inventor, Haci Bekir, locals and tourists love this Istanbul city shop. The famous building in this district is the Suliyeman mosque compound dating from 1557 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
For an Istanbul city shopping experience, the location of the busy spice bazaar fairs well but go the extra distance into the Beyazit area, home of Turkey’s oldest and most significant marketplaces. The chaotic Grand Bazaar and labyrinth of shops and passageways may seem intimidating to newbie shoppers in Turkey. Still, you will eventually get into the swing of exotic bargaining and banter of the 4000 unique shops.
From here, if a day of sightseeing and touring prominent Istanbul landmarks leaves you weary and worn out, Cagaloglu Hamam is a traditional and, most importantly, authentic Turkish bath experience. Dating from 1741 and well known for beautiful architecture, famous visitors from history include Florence Nightingale.
6: Princess Islands
Technically, the family-friendly Princess Islands in Turkey are not a neighbourhood but are worth knowing about because Büyükada (the most significant island) and pedestrian streets are a recommended tourist attraction. Initially, places of exile for Byzantine and Ottoman dignitaries, old Turkish mansions lining streets display typical Ottoman architecture trends. Because vehicles can’t be used, horse-driven carriages are the best method to tour. The only way to reach the location is across the sea of Marmara via sea ferry from European or Asian Istanbul.
7: Sophisticated Nisantasi in Sisli
Often overlooked in travel guides, popular Nisantasi in the Sisli district of Istanbul is an elite and upmarket neighbourhood where money is the main word on the tongue! Osmanbey, the heart of the area, is home to Abdi Ipekci Street, the most expensive and best street in the whole of Turkey. Nisantasi’s premier status stems from luxury shopping brands, including Louis Vuitton, Armani, and Dolce Gabanna, which have rented shops in this prominent district of Istanbul. Combined with the international bars and high brand Turkish eateries, an apartment in residential Nisantasi could be right up your street to live in Istanbul if the price is no object!
8: Kadikoy in Asian Istanbul
Sitting on the Asian side of Istanbul, Kadikoy is often overlooked yet worth visiting. Thanks to the university, it has a substantial student population living there, but in recent years, also become the popular place for investment in Istanbul. Sitting next to Uskudar, these two areas command admiration as the main ferry ports across the Bosphorus to the European side. Kadikoy is a great place to wander the streets but always finish off in the local fish market, where you buy your fish and take it to surrounding restaurants to cook it for you.
9: The Atmosphere of Galata
For a good experience in Istanbul, head to the Galata district, also known as Karakoy, which is easily reached from Taksim square by using the tram line and a part walk. Alternatively, approach from the other district by walking across the Galata bridge. The most famous building is the Galata tower with a cafe and viewpoint at the top with marvellous Istanbul city views. Streetside cafes and wine boutiques are also great places to relax. Otherwise, leave this location to head further up the hill, to reach the Whirling dervish museum, you can watch an excellent SEMA performance.
Also of Interest: If you want to get to know more about Istanbul, it is worth visiting the best attractions within the neighbourhoods you go to, and that is where the Istanbul e-ticket delivers. With discounted access and guided tours, and opportunities to skip the queues, it is every traveller’s friend when they visit Istanbul. The pass also features and offers travel advice via Whats App from a local Turk and includes a free guidebook. Find out more.
To know more about this great city, check out the Istanbul Travel guide full of articles about places to go, real Istanbul, family-friendly attractions, food, culture and local landmark buildings in more neighbourhoods of Istanbul.