With its huge size and centuries of history, it would be impossible to see all of Istanbul in one trip – or perhaps even in one lifetime.
Still, its central neighborhoods are relatively compact, and each has its own distinct character and offerings. First-time visitors and those on a tight schedule will likely want to book a hotel in Sultanahmet, smack in the middle of Istanbul’s star attractions, while time spent in other districts gives insights into different aspects of local life in a city that contains multitudes.
Here are the best neighborhoods to explore on your trip to Istanbul.
Best neighborhood for unmissable sights
The (seriously) historic center of Istanbul and the former seat of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Sultanahmet contains the majority of the city’s most-visited sights within walking distance of each other, making it a convenient base. For historic atmosphere, it’s certainly hard to beat: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque face off across Sultanahmet Square, with the storied Hippodrome alongside and the grandeur of Topkapı Palace just a stone’s throw away. Even seemingly nondescript parks, plazas and parking lots are built atop or alongside ancient ruins.
With a dense concentration of hotels, accommodation options cater to every budget, including rooms in restored Ottoman mansions and simple pansiyons (hostels) with million-dollar rooftop views over the neighborhood’s domes and minarets. The flip side is that little local life remains in Sultanahmet, and the generally tourist-focused restaurants hardly show off Turkish cuisine at its best.
Best neighborhood for contemporary art and culture
Across the Golden Horn (and a short tram ride away) from Sultanahmet, winding streets climb past the Galata Tower to İstiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the bustling Beyoğlu district. Known in the past as Pera and Galata, this area has historically been home to many of Istanbul’s Christian and foreign communities. Today, it retains numerous – and sometimes beautifully restored – European-style apartments from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Important cultural institutions such as the Pera Museum, Istanbul Modern (in its temporary space), SALT Beyoğlu, SALT Galata (in the former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank), the Istanbul Research Institute and numerous small galleries have established themselves in some of these buildings, making the neighborhood ideal for an afternoon of art-going.
Though no longer the nexus of the city’s dining and nightlife scene it once was, Beyoğlu still has fine contemporary restaurants as well as lively meyhanes (taverns) where the raki and conviviality flow freely. In addition to the large hotels around Taksim Square, you can find smaller hotels and rental apartments in the Cihangir, Çukurcuma, Galata and Karaköy quarters within Beyoğlu, each of which has an attractive atmosphere of its own.
Best neighborhood for cafes and nightlife
The popularity of the Kadıköy district on the Asian side of Istanbul has exploded in recent years, creating a neighborhood that’s vibrant day and night, with third-wave coffee shops, hip boutiques, small independent art galleries, restaurants, cocktail bars, pubs and live-music venues.
While the neighborhood has a few notable sights – a museum dedicated to a beloved Turkish rock star, a 1927 opera house, a new mixed-use cultural center in a restored gasworks, a colorful street market – the main attraction is simply soaking in the scene and admiring the spectacular sunsets from the long waterfront park’s promenade. This area has a handful of hotel options, mostly near the water, but it’s easy to hop over for the day or evening from Eminönü or Karaköy on a ferry ride – a quintessential Istanbul experience in itself.
Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye
Best neighborhood for luxury shopping
Just north of Taksim Square, chic Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye draw a fashionable set with their leafy streets lined with designer boutiques and high-end department stores, stylish sidewalk cafes and grand apartment buildings. This area has good restaurants and some luxurious hotels, too. The neighborhoods abut Maçka Park, one of the largest green spaces in the city center and a popular spot with picnickers, dog walkers and joggers.
Though the area is in the central city, limited transportation links are a downside. Walking to the Osmanbey metro station or downhill to the buses and ferries of Beşiktaş are the best ways to connect to the rest of the city.
Fener and Balat
Best neighborhood for antiques and Instagram shoots
Traces of history blend with a stylish present in the adjacent neighborhoods of Fener and Balat, along the banks of the Golden Horn. The landmark “iron church” and Patriarchal Church of St George attest to the area’s more cosmopolitan past, while colorful old homes and cobbled streets have become a favorite backdrop for film crews and Instagram influencers alike.
Antique collectors, bargain hunters and nostalgia buffs descend on the neighborhood’s many antique stores, especially when they hold lively auctions, while the cafe culture here thrives. This area doesn’t have many hotel or nightlife options, but a new tram along the water – as well as a slower but more scenic ferry on the Golden Horn – make it relatively easy to get back to Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu after a day’s leisurely wandering.
Kurtuluş and Bomonti
Best neighborhood for market shopping and local life
Down-to-earth Kurtuluş and up-and-coming Bomonti are just on the opposite side of the Osmanbey metro station from Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye – but a world away in atmosphere. Kurtuluş offers the best of traditional neighborhood life, with bustling streets and a wealth of small homestyle restaurants, bakeries, delis and other food stores.
Anchored around the Bomontiada entertainment complex in a historic brewery building, Bomonti has a growing dining and nightlife scene, as well as some higher-end hotels. In between is Feriköy, where an open-air market is set up in a parking garage multiple times a week, with vendors selling organic produce on Saturday, antiques on Sunday and a mixed array of foodstuffs and homewares on Mondays and Thursdays.
Beşiktaş and Ortaköy
Best neighborhood for deluxe hotels with Bosphorus views
The neighborhoods of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy along the Bosphorus are home to some of Istanbul’s most luxurious international hotels, boasting broad views across the famous strait. Beşiktaş itself is a busy transit hub with a youthful vibe and lots of casual bars and restaurants around its lively market area. A group of restored late-19th-century Ottoman row houses in the Akaretler part of the neighborhood, near the Naval Museum, is now home to cafes and contemporary art exhibitions.
Sitting under the first Bosphorus Bridge, Ortaköy has a beautiful baroque mosque and a popular waterfront area. Both areas have ferry docks, though Beşiktaş has more connections. In between sits hilly, green Yıldız Park, former hunting ground to the sultan, now a popular place to have a big Turkish breakfast buffet in a century-old pavilion.
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