While I update this regularly with new restaurants and hotels, etc., it’s mostly written for the pre-Coup era (ie, before 2016). Things have obviously changed in Turkey, but it is now mostly an authoritarian regime, so keep that in mind. Though there have been attacks over the last year or so in some touristy areas in Istanbul, most have been away from tourists. Thus, I think it is still relatively safe in my opinion, especially if you stay away from the borders of Syria and Iraq (which I’ve heard is beautiful! It is also where you get some of the best kebobs!).
There is plenty to do in Istanbul to keep you busy for at least a week, or probably two. Saying that, people usually ask what else to do, and there is no simple answer. The easy solution is a day trip to the Prince’s Islands. Any other trip you’ll probably want to fly or take an overnight bus (they are very nice buses, but it takes 10+ hours). If you want to go to amazing beaches, then go to Bodrum, Kas, or Bozburun (the latter two are more secluded, but harder to get to). If you want a private blue cruise/voyage, try Göcek, Bozburun, or the bigger Fethiye and Marmaris. If you want history, check out the amazing ancient ruins of Efesus. If you want nature and to see where they filmed Star Wars, go to the caves of Kapadokya (and Pamukkale). If you want recent history and to see Ataturk himself, go to Ankara. If I could only pick one, I would go to Efesus for one day, and stay at one of the beautiful nearby beach villages. But let’s first start with the big one, Istanbul.
General Tips on Arrival (check out the FAQs at the end too).
Cash: The best place to get it is at an ATM or in the Old City IF you check exchange rates. TEB ATMs are usually the best. The airport now only has their own ATMs which try to charge you big fees and bad rates, so beware. You’ll need cash to pay the taksi driver and it’s good to have some on hand. Not every place takes credit cards (and your credit card might charge a foreign transaction fee of 3%, depending on the card).
Cell phone: Your US phone will work just fine in Turkey—it will just cost a lot more. T-mobile and Sprint have free 2G data, last time I checked. But check with your carrier. This used to be an issue, but not so much anymore. If you want a Turkish cell phone or SIM card to put in your phone, the airport was a good place. The new airport is another story. Cell phones are complicated here because the gov’t doesn’t want people importing untaxed iPhones and selling them on the black market. So, if you have an unlocked cell phone, it may not be so simple to just put a Turkish SIM card in it. It may work for a week or so, but then it could get shut down if not done correctly. See last part of FAQ at very end for more info.
Leaving the Airport: The easiest way to your hotel a Taxi (Taksi). Uber has been shut down as of 2019 :(. Taksi’s are still very cheap, especially since the Lira took a dive in 2018, but it’s a long haul from the new airport. But you can also take a bus to the center, and then taksi. If you’re savvy, you can figure it out. Obviously, don’t go with a stranger or anyone who approaches you with a car service.
Protests: There is no right to assembly in Turkey (well there is, but the gov’t calls them terrorists and physically blocks people from doing it). So if you see a protest, just calmly walk away and keep a safe distance. If the protest gets too big or the police don’t like it, they might shoot tear gas, pepper spray, or water cannons (or all of the above, which is a really bad mix). Most of the protests have been going on around the Taksim Square and Gezi Park next door (and along the pedestrian street of Istiklal which ends at Taksim), so you don’t have to worry about it in the Old City. And when protests start, they usually block the streets and stop the metro so it would be pretty difficult for you to even get there. It’s unlikely to happen, and it’s obvious when it does (it’s not like everything is fine one minute and then the next a protest breaks out), but just keep an eye out when in Taksim.
We’ve created a custom map of Istanbul with these landmarks here (https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zxkUt2ALRvMc.kPb_yjiC5kfU)
One of the best things you can do to enjoy Istanbul is to know her history. Istanbul has served as the capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). The story of Istanbul brings it to life. If you have time to read a few pages in Wikipedia, you’re off to a great start. If you have even more time, read My Name is Red or Istanbul by the Nobel Prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk. Note: Times given are minimums to see the sites.
Bosporus Tour: One of the best ways to see the city is from the Bosporus. You can take one of the many tours, but I think the best (and cheapest) is to just hop on a ferry and go to the Asian side, and catch another ferry to come back. The views are spectacular. You buy a token (“jeton”), put it into the turnstile, and then wait for the boat. If you’re on the European side look for boats going to Kadikoy (Asian side). You can also go to the Bostanci port (Asian side), the Princess Islands (in the Marmara), and several other ports. You can catch boats on the European side at the Kabatas port (at the bottom of the F1 funicular/tram that goes from Taksim square down to the Bosporus), at Eminonu (in the Old City), or at Karakoy (at the bottom of the historic Tunel at the end of Istiklal).
You can also take a boat to the Maiden Tower (Turkish: Kız Kulesi), which is a tiny island in the Bosporus with a little lighthouse (with a restaurant inside). You can catch the short 15 minute boat there from Kabatas (Euro side) or Salacak (Asian side).
Note: “feribot” is for people and cars, “vapor” is just for people. There are websites with timetables, but they don’t include everything. It’s best just to read the timetables at the port.
Asian Side: If you’re interested in a tour of the Asian Side, then take a boat to Kadikoy (port on Asian side), you can walk to the historic tram (T3, it goes in a circle, or stop in the Moda area) or go to Hyderpasa Gari (train station) and catch a train (they only go one direction) and get off at Suadiye station or Bostanci station. Walk a few blocks to Bagdat Caddesi, which is a big long avenue filled with restaurants, coffee shops, and high-end shops (if you can’t find the street, just ask anyone “Bagdat Jaddesi nardeh?” and they’ll point you in the right direction). It’s very residential and local. Walk to end of the street (against traffic) and you’ll be at Bostanci port, where you can catch another ferry back to the European side!
Moda area. This is cute old neighborhood on the Asian side. Take the T3 tram from Kadikoy port. It runs every 10 minutes. Once in Kadikoy/Moda area, you can simply walk around and soak it in. But, if you want to have some to-do’s this link has some nice ideas http://atdaa.com/posts/what-is-there-to-do-in-kadikoy-istanbul. Going by the “iskele” (pier) is probably a nice idea. Finally, if you have any interest in some sweets while in Moda, try Ab’bas Waffle (http://www.abbaswaffle.com.tr/).
The “Old City”: Aya Sofia (1 hour min) and Sultenamet (1 hour min), Basilica cistern (1 hour), Topkapi palace (the old Ottoman palace, 3 hours), which are all right next to each other. The Grand Bazaar (Kapali carsi, pronounced “Kapali charshi”) and spice bazaar (3 hours to at least to see both and bargain hard) is a 15 min walk from Aya Sofia/Sultenamet (good to walk, traffic is really bad in the old city). These are the traditional tourist spots that give you the history, but less of the current city or culture (though Turks do shop at the Grand Bazaar too, they just get better prices ;)). Grand Bazaar is closed Sunday. Aya Sofia is closed Monday.
Taksim Square and Istiklal (1 hour – several days): this is also a touristy area but it is a local favorite too. Istiklal is an outdoor pedestrian street with lots of shops, great restaurants, some clubs/bars, a historic Trolley down the middle, the oldest subway in the world (at the bottom connecting to the Golden Horn, called the Tunel), and hamams (Turkish baths, I like Galatasary Hamami). Nevizade is a small side street with great Mehane’s (small bar/restaurants with Raki, pick the busiest one). Explore this area, but be street smart. Watch your wallets and don’t let strangers take you to strange places. Remember you’re in a BIG city. This is a great place to go at night to walk around. See more under Where to Stay.
Galata Tower: This is the famous tower of Istanbul found in many photos. It was an old Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul. This is also the music neighborhood—it’s full of music shops selling every instrument possible. At the bottom of Istiklal Street, keep walking down the hill (10 min) and you’ll see the tower. It’s an easy walk down the hill to the Golden Horn. Once you’re down there, you can take the historic Tunel back up, or you can cross the bridge over the Golden Horn to the Spice Bazaar (which then leads to the Grand Bazaar). If you’re really tired, hop on the light rail (Tramvay). It will you take you to Sultenamet and then to the Grand Bazaar.
Synagogues/Jewish Museum: Neve Shalom is the synagogue near the Galata Tower and Istiklal. It is still active and worth visiting. Here’s the info for visiting, or just show up with your passport and tafilin for Sunday minion: http://www.nevesalom.org/index.php?module=modul_tek&modul=60. Further down the hill near Galata Tower (and near where the Tunel ends) is the Jewish museum of Turkey (aka, “The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews”). It’s small and only takes an hour or two, but it’s cool to see the history of Turkey and Jews (how they came from Spain, how Turkey helped Einstein and others escape Germany, etc.). Here’s the website for it: http://www.muze500.com/content/view/285/253/lang,en/
Dolmabahce and the Ortakoy neighborhood: Dolmabahce palace (1 hour, a good tourist attraction built by the Sultan in the 1800s) and by our favorite neighborhood, Ortakoy. There are cute restaurants (House Café is great) and street food in Ortakoy right near the beautiful bridge (by the Radisson), lots of little shops, crepes, and I believe you can catch a boat to the Maiden tower from there (a small island in the Bosphorus with a light tower and restaurant). It’s about 10 minutes to Taksim/Istiklal. Best to spend an evening here and walk around. The street food is awesome and cheap! Angelique is a good restaurant that turns into hip club (expensive). Reina is cool club 5 minutes away on the Bosphorus (expensive). Reservations for dinner recommended at one of the 6 restaurants in the club.
Nisantasi neighborhood. If Istanbul had an Upper East Side with the shops and café’s of SOHO, this is the place. Great place to walk around, high end shops, and very local. The W Hotel and Swisshotel are on the edge of this neighborhood. The “center” is roughly the intersection of “Rumeli Caddesi” and “Vali Konagi” Caddesi. Here is a nice stop-by stop description (http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g293974-i368-k4875711-Nisantasi_walks-Istanbul.html). Walk down Abdi Ipekci street, the Rodeo Drive of Istanbul, with Luis Vuitton, Prada, Tom Ford, etc. For the real deals and high fashion, though, go to the side streets with the small local boutiques. Afterwards, grab lunch or dinner on Atiye Sokak (try House Café or Hardal or Limonata nearby)—a small pedestrian street where you can sit outside and soak up the neighborhood. When you’re done, you can catch the Macka cable car that goes above the Macka park back to the Taksim area.
We’ve also compiled a list of some of the restaurants that we know about it. Of course, there’s plenty more in the neighborhood…
- Taksim/Istiklal Area
- Any of the meyhane’s on Nevizade Sokok. This is a narrow street lined with indoor/outdoor café’s. Cumhuriyet (“joom-hurry-ette” which means “Republic”) is our favorite restaurant. Moderately priced. Try to get a table on the street.
- Any of the meyhane’s around Asmali Mescit. This is another narrow street lined with restaurants at the bottom of Istiklal near the Richmond Hotel and Tunel. Our favorite restaurant is Yakup 2. Legendary place. Try to get a table outside on the street, otherwise nice garden in back. Competitively priced.
- Demeti Meyhane. Technically in Cihangir. Near Cihangir taxi stand. Small plance, not pretentious, upstairs with great views and awesome mezes. Very local.
- Nu-teras. This is a restaurant that turns into a club late at night. It has fantastic outdoor views from the top of the building. Near Asmali Mescit area. Very expensive.
- Leb-i-derya. This restaurant is on top of the Richmond hotel on Istiklal Cad. Great views and indoors. Short taksi ride. I love this place, great hotel, and great location.
- Galata Tower: great views.
- Liman: This is a short taksi ride away (bottom of hill from Galata area), but has great views and is on the Bosphorus.
- 360: near Taksim Square. Has good views (thus the name 360). 0212 251 1042
- Old City Area
- Havuzlu: Lunch only. Restaurant in Grand Bazaar. Best place for lunch if at the bazaar. Ask anyone and they’ll point you in the right direction. Have the iskender (slices of doner beef). Clean bathrooms too! Moderately priced, but worth every penny.
- Giritli: Near Kalyon hotel in old city, great seafood. 0 212 458 2270 . Somewhat expensive.
- Balıkçı Sabahattın. Fish place near Giritli. An institution and favorite. Huge outdoor seating area.
- Neşantışı Area
- Kurtuluş. Hole in the Wall kebab place. May smell like bbq when you leave. Another institution.
- Hardal. On tiny pedestrian street, Atiye Sokak. Modern euro/Turkish fare. Sit outside and take your time.
- House Café. There are two in this area. The one on Atiye Sokak has the best atmosphere.
- Limonata. Another great restarunt in Nisantisi. Fun, kitchy, hip place with very modern take on Turkish classics. (http://www.istanbulview.com/limonata/) it is next to the Louis Vitton, so that can be your land mark. PS: ignore the address mentioned in the article. It is talking about the old location.
- Hünkar. Traditional Turkish food. Good for newbies too. Near most of the hotels (eg, Swissotel, Hilton Park SA).
- Try the awesome street food here.
- House Café and Banyon Café are good safe options with English menus, but street food is really the best in this neighborhood.
- Anjelique is a beautiful high end place with amazing views and a cool scene (http://www.anjelique.com.tr/english/). It is a high-end restaurant/club. These kind of places that start out as a restaurant, then turn into bar and then into a club is rather common in Turkey. They are hip and where people also go to be seen. This one is right on the sea. AMAZING views. Also great food – which is Turkish-world fusion. You can see the menu on their website. I would also recommend an 8-ish reservation. Though, if you want to hang out for the bar/club that won’t start until 11:30ish. You want to be somewhat dressed trendy (think jeans, a very cute top and heals + accessories for instance or a cute/trendy dress with heels…).
- Bebek Breakfast on the Bosporus
- Sade Kahve is a great place for breakfast in Bebek (a taxi ride on the water almost to second bridge), a favorite place for breakfast (a posh neighborhood by the second bridge). It has great views of the Bosphorus and Rumeli Castle (the remains of the Wall of Constantinopole). Here is the website http://www.sadekahve.com.tr/ and a screen shot of the location.
- Near First Bridge on Bosporus
- Kosebasi: A nice kebob restaurant with lots of locations (including inside the club Reina) around Istanbul. Their website has good descriptions of classic Turkish food. Somewhat expensive, most kebab/meat places are.
- Reina: a beautiful club on the bosphorus with 6 or so restaurants, one of which is Kosebasi (above). It turns into a club after 11pm that is difficult to get into to, so stay around and check out the scene. The best way to check out the famous club is to go there for dinner. Expensive to very expensive.
- Near Second Bridge (Rumelihisarı) on Bosporus
- Iskele Restaurant (http://www.rumelihisariiskele.com/). This place is in Rumeli Hisari (near Bebek by second bridge). Amazing views and practically on the water, great traditional meze’s and fish. Definitely need reservations for a sea-side table. I would recommend being there around 8:00-ish to catch the sunset – which is really as good as it gets.
- Anadolu Kavağı. A small little village at the far end of Bosphorus, almost to the Black Sea on Asian side. If you go on a Bosporus tour, you might end up here.
- Yosun Balık. If you have time for a full meal, there are many places, but Yosun has the best fish selection. Their mezes are great, and it’s a perfect setting right on the Bosphorus with forests in the distance (at the time of writing, 2014, there were forests, after the third bridge and airport are built most of the forests will probably be gone).
- Any kebab or doner (turkish gyro) stand on street or window: These are some of the best stands. Order anything, it will be awesome.
- Any simit stand on the street: You can find these everywhere, especially outside of Hagia Sophia. They look like thin sesame seed bagels. Delicious.
- Eat lots of mezes (appetizers). Most turks will order 2 or 3 per person (a few hot, a few cold), then an entree. Sometimes the mezes are the best part!
- Drink the Raki. You can order by the glass, the half bottle (375ml), or full bottle (750ml). they pour it in a small glass, add water, and then 2-3 ice cubs. When the water is added it turns into a milky color. It goes great with fish and kebabs and they will respect you if you drink it (or at least try it).
- “Doner” (pronounced “do-nair”) is that stuff spinning slowly in the windows sliced thinly like a gyro or shawarma. common lunch food and very good. Harder to find at dinner.
- “Iskender” is a dish that has doner in it. Very good, great lunch dish.
- “Durum” means wrapped, or anything wrapped up. You’ll see lots of restaurants on the street with these names. they can have all sorts of things in them. Give ’em a try. Be brave.
- Turks are known for their beef, lamb, and fish (don’t waste your time with chicken). A restaurant will either specialize in kebabs (beef and lamb), or fish. For some reason, they stick to their core competencies.
Other Istanbul Info
Where to stay. The Richmond hotel (or a hotel nearby) is one of the best locations to stay in Istanbul. You can easily take the historic Tunel to the Tramvay and get to the Old City, walk to Galata Tower and the historic synagogues (appointments suggested for a tour), and to Galatasaray Hamam (Turkish Bath). Go to the top of the Richmond Hotel and check out Leb-I Derya Restaruant: Great food and even better views. Make sure to walk around the street next door called Asmali Mescit (“asmaleh mescheht”) at night. Go to a tiny bar called “Parantez” and order their special mojito, or get cheap draft beer (Efes is the local beer) next door.
Public transportation: See updated metro map HERE: The public transport system improves drastically every year and it now services IST airport. There is the Tramvey (T1) that connects the old city with the Tunel at Karakoy (Tunel goes up the hill to Istiklal, where there is a historic trolley to Taksim Square, and to the M2 subway which goes to Taksim and beyond). You need a token (“jeton” from the machine, was 3TRY), and then you put in the turnstile.
For ferries, see part above on “Bosporus Tour.”
Taxi (Taksi): If possible, have the bellman tell the taxi driver where to go. They will turn the meter on and be honest when leaving the hotel. The difficult part can be getting back because the drivers (especially from the Old city) prey on tourists and want to charge you a flat rate instead of the meter. Never take a flat rate. You just have to keep asking for the meter and trying until you find one that agrees to turns on the meter. It’s best to write down where you are going and show it to the driver, since most do not speak English. Rates do NOT go up at night. They used to, so some taksi’s try to charge a “gece” rate (if the meter says “gece” on it, he’s charging you extra).
Tour guide: You can find one from the hotel or outside all the major attractions. A BIG tip on tour guides: they make almost no money on the tour. They make their money taking you shopping afterwards and making commissions (20-50%) off of what you buy (especially rugs and ceramics). We’ve seen tour guides negotiate in Turkish with the store owner about his commission while the owner negotiates a price with the tourist. The good news is if you don’t buy anything, you can get a tour guide for cheap!
In the Black Sea & Marmara Region:
1) Prince’s Islands
The Princess Islands (or “The Islands”) are composed of nine islands off the Asian coast of Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. There are regular passenger ferries to four of the islands from different piers in Istanbul: Sirkeci, Kabataş, and Bostancı districts. Most people go to the Islands for a day trip. The four islands are known as Adalar (Islands) and their names are Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinalıada. The names of the islands come from the Byzantine period, when princes and empresses were exiled there. But during the Ottoman period, especially around 19th century with the use of steamboats, these islands became a popular resorts for Istanbul‘s wealthy, building their wooden houses. Jewish, Greek, and Armenian communities were a large part of the inhabitants of the islands. Here is more info about specific islands taken from a few websites:
BUYUKADA is the largest and the most famous of the Islands, but is also not quite as quaint as it allows cars. Some of the historical buildings are Aya Yorgi Church and Monastery from the 6th century, Ayios Dimitrios Church, Hristos Church and Monastery, and Hamidiye Mosque built by sultan Abdulhamit II. A long route or a short route can be chosen to visit the island when you rent a carriage. Unlike the calm and forested southern part, the northern part of Buyukada is a heavy residential area being close to the pier, therefore most of the private yachts anchor on the southern tip.
HEYBELIADA (or just Heybeli) is a quaint little island with no cars and horse drawn carraiges. When you get off the boat, rent one for a 20-minute ride to check out the island. We got one for 40 lira ($18 as of 6/2014), but as of December 2016, the lira is now 3.4 to 1! The island used to have its copper mines, which are shut down today. There are some interesting buildings on Heybeliada; one is the Naval Academy and other one is the Greek Orthodox High School. A small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary stands in the courtyard of the Naval Academy. Degirmen is a nice picnic area on the side facing to Kasik island. There are also nice public beaches set in a nice cove and a water sports club on this side of Heybeli. There are several restaurants around the pier to try local dishes and fresh fish.
BURGAZADA has some great restaurants offering great views of the sunset. There is a nice sailing and water sports club and several rocky beaches, but the island doesn’t offer many places to overnight unfortunately.
KINALIADA has beautiful summer homes which people rent for the season. A large Armenian community prefers this island for their summer vacations. Its nice beaches (one called Ayazma) attract people from the city. Hristos Monastery is located up on a hill and was built by the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV (Diogenes) while he was exiled there and where he was buried. The monastery is open to the public only on Fridays. There are several restaurants and cafeterias along the pier, where there is a very modern mosque to the left.
2) Ağva – This is a small town located between two rivers, Yesil Cay (Green Creek) and Goksu, on the Black Sea (Karadeniz) and it has a beach on Kara Deniz (Black Sea). The nature really surrounds this little town, with all shades of green and blue. It is only a couple of hours outside of Istanbul via bus (which leave about once every hour). If you want to have a peaceful couple of days buried in nature, it is the ultimate place! For more information please check http://www.agvarehberi.com/index_en.php
In the Central (Anatolian) Region:
4) Kapadokya (Cappadocia) – Cappadocia is an area with exceptional natural wonders (some Turks will argue that it is the 8th wonder of the world), characterized by fairly chimneys. The Cappadocia region is largely underlain by sedimentary rocks formed in lakes and streams, and deposits erupted from ancient volcanoes approximately 9 to 3 million years ago. The rocks of Cappadocia eroded into hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms, and it contains several underground cities. More about Cappadocia history is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappadocia. For information about travel and accommodations, see http://www.cappadociaturkey.net/.
In the Aegean Region:
5) Pamukkale (Cotton Castle) – Pamukkale is a natural site and attraction in southwestern Turkey. As a result of multiple natural phenomenon, the hot springs in the area are covered with thick layers of white limestone and travertine cascading down the mountain slope, resembling a frozen waterfall (except that the water – even in winter – is about 98 fahrenheit). Just minutes away from the travertine, is the ancient city Hierapolis, which was founded in 190 BC. For more information, visit http://www.pamukkale.gov.tr/EN/default.asp
6) Ephesus (Efes) – Efes is an ancient city, which was located in Ionia (it is also the name of a favorite beer in Turkey). The city was founded in 10th Century BC. It has hosted many civilizations over its long history. Today, it contains the largest collection of Roman ruins east of the Mediteranean (although only about 15% is said to be excavated). You can read more on Ephesus at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephesus and http://www.turizm.net/cities/ephesus/. As Ephesus is in the Aegan region, it is close to many great beaches (Kusadasi is very close and a beautiful village on Aegean, see below). It is probably best to take a tour to see it. More information on tours can be found at http://www.ephesustour.net/.
7) Troy (Truva) – Famous for the horse, especially after the Brad Pitt movie, Troy is located in northwestern Turkey. The history of Troy dates back to 14th century BC. The archaeological site is officially called Troia by the Turkish government and appears as such on many maps (more on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy). It is possible to organize a day trip from Istanbul to Troy (more info on http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/itin/1to5Days/troy_daytrip.html)
8) Bodrum / Ceşme – Bodrum is the ever-popular vacation spot both for Turks and foreign tourists. Bodrum is actually a peninsula on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Although downtown Bodrum has its own cove, this area is characterized by multiple coves that are very close to each other. All of these coves are beautiful in their own right! And most of the local tourists will travel to a different cove everyday to visit beach clubs. All of these coves have multiple private beach clubs that requires a cover charge to get in (generally covering some expenses once you are in). These beach clubs turn into restaurants by sunset and dance clubs by night. Other than the beach clubs, there are multiple resorts on the beach and many other great restaurants to enjoy around the peninsula. In addition, an antique amphitheater and castle awaits those coming to Bodrum. You can find more information at http://www.bodrumlife.com/index.htm.
I think the best places to stay in Bodrum are not in Bodrum proper, but it depends what you’re looking to do. It’s fun to visit downtown Bodrum one night, eat dinner on the promenade, and party (you can go all night), but it’s pretty hectic to stay and traffic can rival Istanbul on a weekend night (an hour to go a mile). The sleepy towns in coves around the area are what attract the big yachts and lavish vacation homes, places like Yalikavak (they have the posh Palmarina with high end shops and restaurants from Istanbul), Gümüşlük (more laid back and remote), Gündoğan, Türkbükü (big place for yachts), and Torba. In Torba there’s a cool hotel right on the beach, called Casa Dell’Arte. It’s really an art gallery that you get to live in. There’s a great restaurant next door where you literally sit on the beach.
Our favorite is Türkbükü (where we stay). Türkbükü has a beautiful promenade along the beach and beautiful boutique hotels (Kuum, Divan, Maki) and a Hilton, Mandarin Oriental, and Il Riccio hotels that are 5 minutes outside of the village in a secluded bay. A cheaper hotel is Turkbuku Inn. It has some breathtaking views (depending on the room), but it’s a 10 minute walk up a steep hill (they also have a car that will take you down the hill to the beach clubs/restaurants/promenade). Each town has several of its own restaurants, shops, better beaches, etc (and minibuses to Bodrum city). Though, the best English will probably be in Bodrum city proper, you can get by with some patients in Turkbuku. Our favorite beach club is Flamm (technically in Golkoy, next to Turkbuku), which has lots of space and an actual beach, and is a great hotel as well. In Turkbuku cove, Miam is one of our favorite beach clubs and restaurants (it becomes a hopping club after 11pm). Unfortunately, most of the beach in Turkbuku is now covered with decks and chairs—which is great for laying out and jumping in the sea, but not great for sandcastles. It’s not the big white sand beaches of the Caribbean. It’s the Turkish Riviera: giant yachts, gullet sailboats, beautiful coves surrounded by mountains and white cottages. If you want more space, go over to Flamm beach in Golkoy, just a few minutes away.
The airport (BJV, Milas-Bodrum) is 45 minutes outside of Bodrum, but there are lots of shuttles to take you to your hotel (or check with the hotel), or take a shuttle/bus to the center of Bodrum (or Torba), and then a taxi from there to your hotel. Uber (only XL available) was $28 USD (100TL) in 2017 and a taxi a little more from airport to Turkbuku.
Boats and Blue Voyages (Gullet boats) can be chartered from Bodrum too, but one of the best places are Göcek Prices vary by the size of the boat, and include everything except alcohol: captain, sailor, food. Prices are usually a great deal, starting at $600 a day in July for a boat that sleeps 6.
Çeşme (Cheshmeh) is very similar to Bodrum (the nearest airport is an hour away, in Izmir), as it is also composed of multiple coves, which have multiple private beach clubs. Çeşme is as beautiful as Bodrum, and it is much less crowded. However, since it is more to the north, there is a risk of having cooler days (and evenings) in June. Cesme will have more locals and be harder to navigate with only English and no car. Like Bodrum, Çeşme too has an old castle worth seeing. More information can be found at http://www.cesme.gen.tr/Default.aspx
Çeşme, Bodrum, and Marmaris have boats and ferries leaving for the nearby Greek islands (“feribot” is for cars and people, “vapor” is just people). It is also possible to organize a “Blue Voyage”, one of the best ways to enjoy Aegean and Mediterranean. Blue Cruise/Voyage is the term used to describe taking a yacht on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast of Turkey in a traditionally built, handmade wooden boat, called a “goulette” or “gullet”. The route is totally up to the guests. Blue Voyage can be taken with as little as 6 as many as 15 or so people. For more information see http://www.bluecruise.org/ or just google it. There are lots of websites now.
Kuşadası (kushadaseh) is another beautiful village on the Aegean with beaches. I have never been there, but is popular with tourists and it is close to Efesus (20 minutes) and Izmir (1 hour).
9) Marmaris/Bozburun – Marmaris is another gorgeous port city and a tourist destination on the Mediterranean coast (about 1:45 to BJV airport and 1:15 to DLM airport). Despite a construction boom in the 1980s, Marmaris still retains its charm due to the exceptional natural beauty of its location. It is touristy like Bodrum, especially with Europeans. It is a major center for sailing, possessing two major and several smaller marinas. There are regular ferry services to the Greek island of Rhodes. More information is available at http://marmaris.org/marmaris_blog/Default.aspx. If you want nightlife, shopping, and/or a big resort, go to Marmaris, but if you want a peaceful and secluded getaway, go to Bozburun (another hour past Marmaris) and stay at the Karia Bel Hotel. There are about 20 rooms with beautiful sea views with no roads to the hotel (you call and they come pick you up from Bozburun with a boat!).
10) Kaş/Kalkan – These are small fishing, diving, yachting and tourist towns, near Antalya (one of the largest cities on the Mediterranean coast). Actually, this area of the Turkish Riviera is where Mediterranean and Aegean seas intersect, thus joining the best of two worlds. These towns are quite unlike the more touristy (and crowded) beach towns of Cesme or Bodrum, as they are smaller and quieter – yet as beautiful!
Kaş and Kalkan are 30 minutes apart from each other and surrounded by many other amazing beaches (Kaputaş Beach, Patara Beach, Oludeniz (Dead Sea) and ruins of the antique cities (Olypmos, Komba (in the village of Gömbe), Nisa, Kandyba, Phellos, Istlada, Apollonia, Isinda and Kyaenai). The town of Kaş has a Roman ampitheatre and many other places of historical interest; and it has spots of natural beauty, including excellent beaches, and a number of interesting caves, some of them underwater. The mountains behind the coast offer countless places for trekking, climbing and river rafting. Here are a few links with more information on Kaş (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ka%C5%9F) and on Kalkan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalkan). The best way to travel to these locations is to take a bus from Istanbul. The buses (which are nothing like Greyhound: much higher in quality!!) leave late at night from Istanbul and arrive to these towns early in the morning. Travel information for Kaş can be found at http://wikitravel.org/en/Kas and a list of even more hotels at http://www.silkroadhotels.com/antalya_ing/kas_kalkan/kas_kalkan.htm.
Kas is tough to get to, but beautiful once you are there. Because it is hard to get to, it has stayed small. You can get around OK here with English. Kalkan is full of British summer houses, and you’ll find the best English in Turkey here (and the highest prices).
11) Kemer – Kemer, is yet another seaside town on the Mediterranean. Like others, it has great beaches and nearby historic cites and antique cities. It is possible to find more upper scale hotels and resorts in Kemer (compared to Kaş and Kalkan). More information is available at http://www.kemerholiday.com/eng/index.htm.
FAQ about visiting Istanbul
- Do I need a visa for entering Turkey?
Everyone entering to Turkey will need some form a visa stamp. If you are American or European national, you should purchase this stamp upon arrival at the Istanbul airport. You need to purchase your visa ($20 for US citizens, $15 for EU nationals) before you go thru immigration (at the window next to it). They accept US dollars, Euros or major credit cards. There are varying requirements for other countries. Please check http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/details/BorderFormalities/index.html website for more details that might apply to you.
- Do I need to apply for a visa far in advance?
If you are American or European national, the best thing to do is to buy your visa stamp upon arrival (cheaper and faster that pre-purchase options). If your county of origin has additional requirements, please check with the Turkish consulate in the city that is nearest to you.
- What currency is used in Turkey?
The currency in Turkey is Turkish Lira (TRY). The exchange rate fluctuates. Unless a major crisis takes place In either of the countries, you can reasonable expect a range of
1USD = 2.90 TRY 1USD=3.5TRY. Check rates regularly, they have a little bit of an inflation problem, to say the least (but not as bad as Argentina!!).
Although the currency is TRY (formerly known as YTL for “New Turkish Lira” when they removed six zeros from the currency to inflation in 2005), you are likely to see prices quoted in Euros and Dollars too. Retailers and merchants use this strategy as Euro is more stable and requires less updating in prices. Even if the prices are quoted in Euros, you can always pay with YTL (and sometimes USD), especially if you are in touristic areas or buying an expensive rug. If the prices are quoted in TRY, your best bet is to pay in TRY or to use a transaction fee free credit card (like some Amex cards and all Capital One cards).
- Can I use my credit cards in Turkey?
Personally, i pay for 90% of my purchases in Turkey with my credit cards (Cap One Visa and Delta Amex have zero fees, so it’s the same as cash). Visa and MasterCard are commonly accepted in Turkey. American Express is more limited. When you use your credit card, you might be asked to enter a pin code. Be aware that this does not apply to non-Turkish credit cards (for security reasons, all Turkish issued credit cards have an idiosyncratic pin code that needs to be entered at every usage). If the cashier or waiter insists, tell them that your card is different and if they try, it will work without needing a pin code. If all fails, pay cash 😉
- Should I exchange my currency in the US or in Turkey?
We recommend exchange in Turkey. Do NOT exchange at the hotel or at the airport kiosk, or outside Turkey – they will charge you the highest rates (you can use the ATMs at the airport though). There are currency exchange bureaus on every block while you are in the touristic part of the city, but the best rates will be found in the Grand Bazaar. They have little kiosks everywhere, so shop around. I once found myself with a few thousand Czech Kronor (long story…) and a little kiosk in the Bazaar saved me almost $100 with their exchange rate.
You can also use the ATM to withdraw money. Your bank will charge an exchange rate for you, based on the going rate at the end of your billing cycle. Some banks might also charge an ATM usage fee or foreign transaction fee, so check with the bank first. I use Schwab Bank because they have no fees.
- How do I get from the airport to the hotel? How long does it take?
Uber! They now have it, and it’s great! They are cleaner and nicer than the taksi’s, you don’t need TRY lira, and you don’t have to communicate with the driver (just put the address into your phone!). You can also take a taxi/taksi. It will cost about 60-70 TRY to get to the old city. If you take cabs, you will need TRY. So, make sure that you withdraw cash at an ATM! Public transportation is possible to many parts, and it’s getting better. Though, it’s complicated.
The length of the trip from the airport to the hotel will totally depend on the time of the day and the traffic. Traffic is a BIG problem in Istanbul. If you are arriving late at night (after 9pm) or very early in the morning (before 6am), the trip can take as short as 15 minutes to the old city (20 to Taksim). But if you catch bad traffic, it can take over an hour (or two). Of course, more likely than not, the actual time will fall somewhere between these extremes.
- Can/Should I rent a car while in Istanbul?
You certainly CAN rent a car, which is a very different question than whether you SHOULD. We recommend against doing so. The rental prices will be high, the gas prices are astronomic (about 4 times as much as the prices in US), the traffic is a mess (making NYC look like Des Moines), the maps will be inaccurate and there will be very few road signs that are actually useful. Assuming you passed all these hurdles and got to your destination and still have not hit anything (or hit by something), you will not be able to find any parking!
If you are travelling outside of Istanbul, you might need to rent a car.
- How do I get around in Istanbul?
The best way is to use uber (or maybe a taxi/taksi). They are very common and you can hail one pretty much everywhere. Make sure that the taxi turns the meter on – you do not want them to charge you a random rate.
Public transportation (light rail, subway, etc.) is growing quickly in Istanbul. It is a fun and easy way to get around, and often faster than a car. It connects the Aya Sofia/Sultanahmet area to the Grand Bazaar, and now to Taksim/Istiklal. It’s also fun to take the historic Tunel and the historic trolley through Istiklal.
If you want to visit the Asian (aka Anatolian) side, it is best to take a passenger ferry (or take the train under the Bosporus). There are several ports (again, the hotel will have the locations and the updated schedules) on both sides. The ride itself is a great way to see the Bosporus for cheap!
- What is the dress code for sightseeing?
Pretty much anything! In the sightseeing areas, the locals are very used to seeing tourists and are accustomed to witnessing all sorts of clothing. The only exception is mosques. When you enter mosques: no shoes (you will be provided to place to store them), no shorts (you will be provided with a wrap), no cleavage for women (again, there will be a wrap) and mandatory head scarf for women (this will also be provided at the door).
When you get out of the touristic old city, people are dressed as if they will be in New York City. I would recommend against shorts in these areas (though capri’s are OK).
- Do people speak English?
In the Old City, everyone will speak some English (some better than others!). You should have no problem communicating. The rest of the city will have a high variance. You can run into people who speak flawless English. As such, you can also run into people with zero understanding of the language (well – other than “yes,” “no” and “OK”).
When taking a taxi, it is a good idea to write down the address or the location you are going.
If you will explore other parts of the city, it would not hurt to have a print out of common phrases used in Turkish daily life (for an example see http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/language/turkish-phrases.html, though there are many more available…)
- What else is there to do if I have extra days in Istanbul?
There is a list of things to do under the “…” tab. If you want to know more about even different (and possibly less touristy) things to do, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- What is the shopping norm in Turkey?
Bargain, bargain, bargain… especially in the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi). In these areas, a good norm is to start by cutting the price you are quoted by 60%! Where you end might depend on the seller and the product. Do not be afraid to make the seller believe that you will walk away. You can always come back and offer a different price if you want to 😉
- What else should I do if I want to travel outside of Istanbul?
There is a list of things to do under the “…” tab. If you want to know more about even different (and possibly less touristy) things to do, just email us at email@example.com.
- Can I drink the water? What about ice?
Well… I would not recommend drinking the tap water. In restaurants, they will only serve you bottled water. In terms of ice, try to avoid it! Turkish people do not use ice as much as Americans do. So, it will be limited to start with. In good restaurant, they will use bottled water to make ice. But, if you cannot verify it, it might be safest to stay away from it. Turkish people are perfectly fine and immune to whatever might be in the water. So, are majority of the tourists. But, there are some isolated incidents of stomach flus due to the water or ice (talk to Joe if you want hear about the specifics of his experience!). but… what does not kill you, makes you stronger…
- Do I tip? How much?
Yes, you tip! But, much less… If you are unhappy with the service, you should not feel obliged to tip. Turkish people perceive tip as an appreciation of service – not as a cost of the service. Normal tips are about 5%. 10% is reserved for exceptional service.
- What is the nightlife like in Istanbul? What are some places to go?
Fantastic! There are all types of places. If you want to experience the fancy nightlife in Istanbul, there are several high-end clubs by the Bosporus. These places also have multiple very good restaurants located in them. These places charge a high cover, there are long lines and admittance is not guaranteed. If you are interested, the best way to do experience this is to make a reservation to one of the restaurants and then move to the bar/dance area. There will be two shifts for dinner: first around 8pm and the other around 10pm. These places have exceptional views – especially around sunset. So, it is a good idea to do the 8pm dinner. After dinner, you can hang around at the bar area (and avoid cover charge and lines) until the place turns into a club, which will be around midnight. The music and alcohol service will continue till 3am. Some of such places are: Reina (on the Bosporus), Sorti (on the Bosporus), Nu Teras (around Istiklal) and Angelique (in Ortakoy). As they are very popular, you might want to make a reservation (or ask the hotel to make one) couple days in advance.
- Will my cell phone work in Turkey?
If you are using AT&T or T-Mobile, your phone will definitely work in Turkey – as they both use GSM technology. For other providers, you might want to check with them. In any case, be aware of the roaming charges that will apply (T-Mobile currently has the best deals, and will give you a SIM for travelling if you’re not currently a customer). If you will use your phones to communicate, the cheapest way to do so is to use text messages (usually 25 cents a message) to either US or Turkish numbers.
- Should I get a cell phone while I am in Turkey?
It is up to you. If you want to, there are temporary GSM cards you can buy. These cards do not require for you to sign a long term contract. You simply purchase units (where one unit is a little less than a minute). In Turkey, you do NOT pay for the calls you receive. So, your units would be deducted only if you make calls or send messages. The biggest provider is TURKCELL and their temporary cards are called “Hazir Card.” Vodafone tends to be cheaper and good too. To be able to use these cards though, you will need an unlocked phone. The cellphones purchased from US providers are sometimes locked. You will need to have it unlocked prior to coming to Turkey (you need to call them and patiently explain your situation, sometimes multiple times!). Alternatively, you can purchase a phone in Turkey (and then be able to use it in the US).