Istanbul is a big, beguiling giant of a city, where millions of people live, work and play among its many varied neighborhoods. What was the center of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the ancient city was once known as Constantinople.
For first-timers, Istanbul can be a confusing place; it’s the only city in the world to straddle two continents. With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul is a whirling, metropolitan city with a lively mix of culture, people and traditions.
Map of the best places to stay in Istanbul
1. Sultanahmet · 2. Bazaar District · 3. Beyoglu · 4. Karakoy · 5. Besiktas · 6. Fener & Balat · 7. Prince Islands (outside map) · 8. Asian Side
Neighborhoods range from areas that are rich with folklore and customs to regenerated fashion hubs and the heavily touristic Old Town. The city is somewhat of a paradox, with late night drinking and live-music normal in some areas, whilst modest clothing is advised in others. Istanbul is a bewildering, modern place where old and new combine in a metropolis that represents global history and modern day Turkey.
We’ve selected the top districts for you to stay during your trip to Istanbul, so you can have the best time possible. If you want to get lost bargain hunting at the bazaar, take in the old mosques, or people watch in city squares, we have the perfect place for you to stay in Istanbul.
Istanbul’s OId City is jam-packed with many of the city’s incredible sights. The perfect place to stay for first timers, Sultanahmet is where you will find the heart of old Istanbul. Numerous historic sites such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace, as well as the Byzantine Hippodrome, can be found here alongside restaurants and a high concentration of hotels.
Sultanahmet makes up most of what was Constantinople. Bordered by the Old City walls on one side and surrounded by bodies of water on its other three sides, the district is essentially a peninsula. Cruise ships often pull up to the Sultanahmet harbor with many tourists keen to see the Old City. Although it is really simple to travel around on the public transport system, walking around among the dazzling decadence of the churches, mosques and palaces is easy, and the best way to soak up the area’s historic architecture.
Museums display artifacts from the city’s rich and varied past, which stretches back more than 1,000 years. As you discover for yourself the ancient wonders of Sultanahmet, and the call to prayer echoes out over the rooftops, you will find yourself being transported back to another, more ancient time.
If you are into shopping or hunting the markets for that something special, then this is the best area for you in Istanbul. A whirling, confusing and seducing area, this district is where you will find not only the Grand Bazaar – one of the oldest covered markets in the world – but also the pungent Spice Bazaar.
Consisting of 61 streets and with over 3,000 shops, walking around The Grand Bazaar is enough to confuse most tourists. But with the hawkers calling out to passers-by, eager to sell their wares, a simple trip to the market can quickly become an overwhelming experience. It may sometimes seem more like a tourist trap, but – if you know how much you should be paying for the item you want and are willing to barter – you can pick up a fantastic bargain.
The area has plenty in the way of accommodation choices, as well as interesting places to eat. Staying near the bazaar means you can get a real glimpse into life in this Old City. Nestled inside the city walls, the area is a window into Istanbul’s long tradition of trade. Entwined in the streets, among the bazaars, are ancient mosques, tea gardens, and Turkish baths, where you can discover locals meeting up with friends, gossiping and enjoying the city’s energetic spirit.
Packed full of good places to eat, drink and let your hair down, the old neighborhood of Beyoglu on the Left Bank is in the European section of Istanbul. What was once called Pera – meaning ‘the other side’ – Beyoglu is where to stay in Istanbul if you want to have a good time. Cosmopolitan and creative, Beyoglu is a thriving area which swarms with residents and visitors, most of which will find their way to the İstiklâl Caddesi. The pedestrianized main artery of the district, İstiklâl Caddesi connects both residential districts and entertainment areas for the perfect mix of fun and edgy.
With a thriving live music scene and a horde of fashionable hotels and trendy boutiques, Beyoglu has come a long way from its seedy, worn down past and is now the cool area to stay. The sights are packed tightly together, making exploring on foot simple. And – for when you want to see more of what Istanbul has to offer – simply hop on the metro or take the old Tünel funicular to the Galata Bridge.
The district of Karakoy, formerly known as Galata, sits north of the Old City. Cool kids and foreign visitors hang out in the area, spending cash on coffee and creativity. The areas are full of old warehouses and late 19th Century architecture that’s been converted into numerous shops, restaurants, and hotels. Hop on the tram or take a stroll to the Galata Tower – overlooking charming cobblestoned streets – which boasts the busy Taksim Square lined by neoclassical buildings.
Home to the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Karakoy was once a working-class area, where fishmongers and laborers lived. Karakoy has undergone much gentrification since 2000; both have been reborn as multicultural hubs of originality and talent. The areas hum with the energetic atmosphere of bohemian culture. Crumbling architecture and the leftover grit from the industrial past have left the perfect backdrop for a hipster stay in Istanbul.
The major transit hub of Besiktas plays an important role in transporting goods by sea. One of the best places to stay in Istanbul, Besiktas is awash with a host of historical and cultural sights, as well as great dining options and shopping. Choosing to base yourself in the bold and dynamic area of Besiktas mean relaxing in cafes, strolling around Besiktas Square and absorbing the atmosphere (and the smell) of the fish bazaar.
The area’s top attractions include Yildiz Parki, along with the showcase of Ottoman artifacts at the waterfront Naval Museum. If you are looking to stay in a slice of luxury on the Bosphorus side of the city, then you should stay here.
Some hotels are even found inside old Ottoman palaces, which is definitely a selling point. The area is the entrance to many of the Bosphorus neighborhoods, as well as being a departure point for boats to the Asian side of the city.
The two cultural districts of Fener and Balat both connect to The Golden Horn – the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. This part of Istanbul is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the city, having been settled for over 2,000 years. Both areas have a selection of variously priced accommodation and it’s a simple bus ride from here to other districts in Istanbul.
The hotchpotch puzzle of houses around the areas are painted in an array of eye-popping colors and hark back to the Armenian, Jewish and Orthodox communities that have all called the area home in the past. Children play football in the streets under laden washing lines between houses – these are the areas to stay in Istanbul if you want to experience the life of locals.
If you would rather stay away from the busy tourist crowds of the Old City, the diverse and culturally varied areas of Fener and Balat will reveal a side of the city that you won’t see if you stay close to the main sights. For travelers who want to get off of the beaten track, wandering around backstreets and stopping off for a bite to eat at a local cafe will be the magic you’re looking for.
Just off the coast of Istanbul, the archipelago of the Prince Islands consists of four large and five small islands. Whilst they were previously used for the exile of Byzantine princes and then Ottoman sultans’ families (giving the islands their name), they became popular resorts for the wealthy of Istanbul during the 19th Century. As a result, there are many examples of the Ottoman-era opulent cottages and houses that they used dotted around the largest island, Büyükada – ‘Big Island’ – making for an interesting wander around. The second-largest island, Heybeliada, is unique, in that motorized vehicles are prohibited (except for ambulances and police cars), making it a charming place to get around.
Other islands boast Roman ruins, a 19th Century seminary, and some – such as Yassiada – are great locations for scuba diving. As for accommodation, Büyükada is characterized by its many high-end hotels, and all the others (aside from Heybeliada, which has only a few) have no places to stay. When it comes to getting to the Prince Islands – and traveling between them – it’s easy, thanks to frequent ferries to and from the mainland.
More usually known in Turkish as Anadolu Yakası – ‘Anatolian Side’ – the Asian side of Istanbul was originally two separate cities – Kadıköy and Üsküda. These only became incorporated into Istanbul in the late 19th Century. Today, it’s a great place to base yourself, especially if you want to explore further into Turkey. You can do so from the beautiful Haydarpaşa train station. Elsewhere, Bağdat Caddesi (‘Baghdad Avenue’) is awash with cafes and terraces and still feels very European.
The neighborhood of Moda, just south of Kadıköy, is a place where many people love to stroll around on an evening, taking in the sights of the Old City across the water. Also in Kadıköy is the yellow Turk Balloon, a fantastic way to get to see both sides of the city from a bird’s eye view. This district is home to Turkey’s largest food market – which begins at Osman Ağa Mosque – and a number of pedestrianized streets, Bahariye Caddesi, for instance. There are many malls as well.
Accommodation here is concentrated mainly around Kadıköy, with a few offerings elsewhere and almost nothing in Üsküda. Prices are generally cheap to lower mid-range, even for 4 and 5-star hotels, making it a very affordable area of Istanbul.