Istanbul is a very large city with 15 million residents. Arriving there its local transport system is a little daunting and while I would normally head to my hotel by public transport, with Istanbul I decided the best course of action was to get a hotel drop off from the airport. You could jump in a taxi but who knows what that could cost. With a drop off you’ve at least paid in advance and someone is waiting for you at the airport. Returning to the airport at the end of your trip, you might feel more adventurous once you have some experience of the city and risk public transport.
The next question is where to stay in Istanbul. There are 3 main options. Sultanahmet to the south of the Golden Horn (the tributary off the Bosphorus to the west), on the north side of the Gold Horn between Galetta and Taksim Square, or on the Asian side.
Many people who’ve spent some time in Istanbul, maybe a few weeks, will tell you to stay on the Asian side. This is less touristy, has few scammers, and is more relaxed. The European side of the city is only a short ferry ride away, and you escape the worst tourist aspects of the city but still have easy access to the rest of the city.
However, if you are only in Istanbul for a few days, having to commute across the Bosphorus to see any of the main sights could become a little wearing. In that case its a choice between north or the south of the Golden Horn on the European side.
If you are in the city to experience the nightlife, shopping and a bustling modern city, I would go to the north. If you are there to see the main sights I would go to the south and the Sultanahmet area, even though some people advise against it due to the number of tourists and scammers. From there you can get the tram towards Galetta and Taksim or ferry across to Kadikoy on the Asian side and the main sights to the south are all walkable.
I had four full days in the city, and this gave me enough time to explore Sultanahmet quite well, visit the main mosques, the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Bazaar with its spice markets. I was able to go into four of the larger mosques without queues, skipping Hagia Sophia because of its immense queue. The Blue Mosque was closed at the time for renovation. Of course, you could see both from the outside. The Suleymaniye Mosque was the most impressive mosque I went into and it is one of the largest being visible from many parts of the city.
I also went to Galetta, Eminonu and Karikoy, then Kadikoy across the Bosphorus a couple of times because I love being out on boats.
If you went for this length of time and did this kind of itinerary I think you would be pretty happy with what you saw. If you have more time or you like a longer day sightseeing, then consider visiting Taksim, Istiklal Avenue for shopping, go further north up the Bosphorus from Karikoy to the riverside palaces or see more of the Asian side.
Hotels and tourist shops will try to sell you Bosphorus tours, some at sunset with a meal. If this is your thing then this could be a highlight for you. For me I was happy to get the very low-cost ferry from Eminonu to Kadikoy and saw a pod of dolphins on the way across which was pretty special.
If you have even more time then consider getting a boat to the Princes Islands south of the city in the Sea of Marmara.
I didn’t visit but heard recommendations of these for a day trip or several day trips if you have time.
For getting around, the IstanbulKart is pretty essential. You buy the card at a machine and load it up with credit, then use it for trams, busses and ferries. If you put the card on the machine, it will tell you how much you’ve got left. Keep some small notes handy to top it up. There are machines at the airport or on the streets near tram stops.
Istanbul is a huge city with so much to do and no doubt you will find many things there that fascinate you as I did. My favourites were seeing the huge mosques for the first time along the skyline, getting out on the Bosphorus, exploring the spice markets, and just wandering in the city, sometimes in quiet places and sometimes in crowds. It’s hard to get lost with the sea visible from most of the hills and once I got away from the scammers in the touristy areas, I felt pretty safe. It goes without saying, be careful on your own at night as in any big city.
Have a wonderful trip!