Check out our guide to Istanbul, the only city in the world that spreads across two continents. If you are wondering what to do and where to go, this is the best place to start so you don’t miss out on any of the good stuff.
Learn more about what characterizes the world’s 5th most popular tourist destination, including UNESCO Heritage sites, an incredible culture and much more while staying at Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel Istanbul.
Two countries, one city
First, let’s get to know the two areas. The European side called Avrupa Yakasi, or Thrace, is part of Southeastern Europe. The area represents only 3% of the whole country but together with the Asian side, it’s the most populous city in Turkey, comprised by several districts:
- Golden Horn: The New City, known for its beautiful mix of architectural styles
- Western Suburbs: A great place to go for some authentic culture
- Sultanahmet: The historical Old City
- Bosphorus: The most popular area of the city
- Galata: Known for its vibrant nightlife
The Asian side, also called Anatolia or Asian Minor is a peninsula surrounded by the four seas; the Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea and the Aegean. Renowned for its natural beauty, the Asian side is often popular in the summer. The area holds about one third of the city’s total population and is actually the oldest side.
Getting back and forth
The busy Bosphorus Strait is all that separates the two sides of the vibrant and lively city. Fishing boats, shipping boats and commuter ferries float up and down the stream every single day to bring people and goods from A to B, or Europe to Asia. The quickest way to pass from one side to the other is by boat, as there is often heavy traffic on the crossing bridge. You’ll also be able to see the city from a new point of view, which is truly magical. The western side of the river showcases the fabled history of Istanbul, whereas the eastern side represents its future. We recommend you to visit both sides to get to know the real Istanbul.
Which side is the best for sightseeing?
Most of the famous attractions of Istanbul are on the European side. These include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace to name a few. Some 15 million people populate this part of the city so it can seem overwhelming at times and the crowds are often more touristic than on the Asian side. However, if you have a few days extra try exploring the streets and neighborhoods where you’ll see more authentic culture. Take in the immense diversity of the population, ranging from traditional to hipster to fashionista.
The most popular area of the Asian side is Kadiköy, a cultural center with an emerging scene of start-ups quirky ideas and cool cafés. The people here are very friendly and you’ll spend your days just looking and soaking in the vibrant and cool atmosphere of the “new” Istanbul.
What about shopping?
The European side has more shopping malls than the Asian side, so make sure you have some extra room in your suitcase. Shop the popular Kanyon with its 160 stores, nine movie theatres, gourmet restaurants and cafés or try Istinye Park, boasting high-end brands under its exclusive glass dome. You simply can’t miss out on a shopping spree in the 180,000 square meter Forum Istanbul, which is also the largest shopping center in Europe. No need to explain why hours will pass by super-fast while you browse your favorite brands or check out the indoor ice rink.
Another must-do, of a perhaps more cultural nature, is a visit to the Grand Bazaar. Walk the 64 pathways of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets holding some 4,000 shops. This is the perfect place to collect some local spices and authentic souvenirs.
A visit to colorful Kadiköy is highly recommended when on the Asian side. Shop the streets of Bagdad Avenue and Bahariye Avenue or stroll around the Palladium, the most popular shopping center on this side of the Bosphorus. If you’re looking for a local bargain rather than known European brands, you should stray from the popular shopping roads or head to the Kadiköy flea markets held every Thursday. If fashion is not your passion try to visit the largest bookstore in Turkey, at least you’ll be entertained while your better half spends their shopping budget. The best way to get from treasure to treasure in this area is to take the historic tram, which goes in a circle around the city.
We saved the best for last: Turkish cuisine
You’re completely right, a holiday is just not the same without mouthwatering, exotic food. The Turkish cuisine is extremely delicious no matter which side you’re on so get ready for a never ending culinary adventure.
Apart from the traditional cuisine, there is a widespread street food culture in the city. Many of these delicious snacks are perfect to munch on in between all the sightseeing and shopping, so get down with the lingo and find your favorites. We’ll start with the famous Döner, the beloved kebab with heavenly sauce. You can find this right about anywhere. Kumpir is the Turkish version of a jacked potato, stuffed with everything nice and tasty. This requires two hands so try this on one of your longer breaks. For a taste of the sea, try Midye dolma, or stuffed mussels, a quick bite with lots of flavor. If you’re still waiting for the fried goods, wait no more. Try a tasty Börek, a pastry filled with anything from cheese to spinach. When it’s time to slow down the pace and have a proper dinner you should definitely try to combine historic venues and local food. Check out this list from How To Istanbul to see some of the best historical restaurants of the city.
There are several spots highlighted by those who know the city, but some stand out among the rest. Take a break from the busy, warm streets and try the local favorite snack coup grillet. This deliciousness is simply vanilla and caramel ice cream topped with whipped cream, almond, honey and caramel. This is a traditional Turkish treat that is always served super-fresh. To add some more history to this sweet treat, try it at the historical Baylan patisserie (website in Turkish, but look at the images!), one of the oldest patisseries in Istanbul. We also expect that Turkish Delights may already be part of your must-eat list, but to give it some extra flair, eat it at Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir. The confectioner dates back to the 18th century, has over 45 different types of lokum and akide and the best part is they can all be covered in chocolate. When it’s time for the main course you should head to Borsam Taşfırın which serves the best Turkish Pizza or lahmacun, made in authentic wood ovens. Traditional Anatolian dishes are best served at Ciya Restaurant in the fish market district of Kadiköy.
For more great tips on what to do in Istanbul, check out these posts: