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5 days in Istanbul: where the east and the west meet

Istanbul is one of the only cities in the world that spans two continents, Europe and Asia. We spent 5 days in Istanbul and we think everyone should visit it.

Separated by the Marmara Sea, but linked with many cultural and gastronomic bridges, Istanbul is a place where the East and West meet in a fusion of colors, flavors, and traditions that makes it a very interesting destination to visit.

João has worked in Istanbul in the past, but we had never had a chance to visit the city together, so we have now decided to include it in our travel history. We spent 5 days in Istanbul and found that this city has a lot to offer.

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Istanbul has an architectural diversity and the colors of its buildings and markets are so vibrant that they make any photography lover want to visit this city. The aromas and flavors of its cuisine also make us want to explore the most representative traditions of Turkish culture.

Istanbul is divided into 7 main areas: Sultanahmet, the area if the Bazaars, Fatih, Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, Kadıköy, and the Princes’ Islands. Each of these zones is special and different, so if you want to know as much as possible we recommend that you set aside time for each of these areas. Istanbul is a very large and diverse city. When you stroll the streets, something unexpected will always come up, like a monument, a cafe or a restaurant with delicious food, and you won’t want to miss it.

LGBT Travelers

We spent 5 days in Istanbul during June – Pride Month. Even though homosexuality is not a crime, Turkey remains a very conservative country and in the recent past authorities have even banned the LGBT pride parade.

In Istanbul, you are beginning to notice openness and tolerance and you will be able to visit the city safely and without major incidents. There is also an increase in the LGBT scene with the opening of new venues such as bars, saunas, and events.

However, we recommend that you avoid public displays of affection because if there are people who are tolerant, you may be in the presence of others who may be offended.

Being a month dedicated to LGBT pride, there are also initiatives in Istanbul to break with the traditionalism of the past. In an organized manner, there is usually the LGBT pride parade, LGBT theme events, and exhibitions.

How to get to Istanbul

Turkey’s entry regime for foreigners is usually strict. Depending on your nationality, an eVisa may be required which is requested online here. Your passport must be valid for 60 days after the date of entry. Portuguese citizens do not need a passport and can make the entry with their citizen identity card, provided that the eVisa has been requested with this ID. The price of this visa varies according to your nationality and allows you multiple entries during the period of validity. You should consult how many days you can stay in Turkey according to your nationality.

In 2018, a new Istanbul International Airport (ISL) was opened. This new Istanbul airport has expanded the city’s capacity to accommodate more people and serve as a hub for those traveling between the west and the east.

Istanbul Airport, Turkey
Istanbul Airport

Turkish Airlines (Turkish flight company) has ceased to use Atatürk Airport (IST) and has moved all its operations to the new airport. Both airports are located in the European area of Istanbul. There is still a third airport in Asia, where most low-cost airlines fly, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW).

Entering the country by air, the city is easily accessible using public transport. Atatürk airport had a direct metro connection to the city center, while the new airport has only bus connections (lines H2 and H3), which can take you to a nearby metro station.

Alternatively, you can use the taxi (taksi) or Uber on arrival or on the return to the airport as the prices are very affordable.

We only recommend that you use taxis that are part of companies and not independent and always ask the driver to turn on the meter to avoid charging improper values. You should avoid negotiating a value with the taxi driver as it is usually less advantageous. You can use a mobile app to call a taxi, BiTaksi. It is very simple and practical, especially when you want to grab a taxi anywhere in the city.

We recommend that you use a Revolut card on your trip. We always use Revolut on our travels (and even in our daily lives) which helps us keep our budget under control and save money on international processing fees and currency exchange bank fees. You can read more about Revolut in our travel resources.

Where to stay in Istanbul

Our choice of area to stay the 5 days in Istanbul was Beyoğlu. It is a very touristy and busy area with lots of places for those who like gastronomy, having a drink or enjoy the views from a rooftop.

We chose Inqlusif Hotel because it opened recently in the city and it is very well located next to Galata Tower, near Istiklal Avenue and next to the metro. In addition, its location allows you to walk down to the Bosphorus shores, to the Karaköy area.

Inqlusif is a boutique hotel where everyone who visits it feels good. The staff is very friendly and it also benefits from having a coffee shop in the lobby, Another Coffee Shop, which has a selection of fresh products daily.

Check here why Hotel Inqlusif is a place where everyone feels good.

How to get around Istanbul

Istanbul is a very large city, but with an excellent public transport network. The two main ways to get around the city are by metro or tram. Istanbul has a transport system that uses a single card that allows you to travel more cheaply. The Istanbul Card is purchased from machines at the entrance of the metro or at tram stops and gives you access to subway, tram, bus, ferry, funicular and even some public restrooms.

The card costs 6TL and top-ups can be made from 5TL. The machines don’t give change, so you should make sure you have the right amount to top-up your card. Each trip costs between 2 and 3TL, depending on the type of transport and trip. On consecutive trips, subsequent trips receive a discount.

Another option for getting around the city is on foot. If you like walking and exploring the cities in detail, Istanbul has a lot to see and do. We chose to mix public transport with some segments on foot for our 5 days in Istanbul.

Traffic in Istanbul is chaotic, so we advise against renting a car to visit the city.

Using taxis may also be an option. The price is low and it is safe. Just make sure you ask the hotel to call you a taxi or use an app like BiTaksi. By grabbing a taxi on the street you will always be more subject to fraud attempts.

Our itinerary for 5 days in Istanbul

Check here the 10 experiences you can’t miss in Istanbul.

Day 1

We started our visit to Istanbul in Sultanahmet. Our goal was to visit the mosques, the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapı Palace. However, it was June and the temperatures were very high, so we left Topkapi Palace for another day and ended up visiting the Basilica Cistern, Sultan III Mehmed Türbesi, Constantinople Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sofia. We had lunch at the House of Medusa in Sultanahmet which has a very nice garden and the dishes we chose were very tasty.

In the middle of the afternoon, we went to try the traditional baklavas at Efezade Baklava. It is a pleasant place at the entrance of Topkapı Palace with a wide variety of Baklavas, where you can find everything from the most traditional to some combinations that already include chocolate.

We had dinner at Midpoint on Istiklal Avenue which is on top of a building and has fantastic views of the city.

Blue Mosque: Free Entrance

Hagia Sofia: 72TL

Basilica Cistern: 20TL

Day 2

We started the day by visiting the Grand Bazaar, Europe’s largest covered market. In these markets, you will find typical Turkish lanterns, rugs, jewelry and a lot of traditional clothes, but also replicas of the best known international brands. This is where you will have to put your haggling techniques into practice. After exploring the surrounding area, where there is a lot of commerce, we chose a traditional place to eat a Pide (Turkish pizza).

After lunch we went to visit Topkapı Palace.

Then we arrived at Eminönü, the Spice Bazaar area. There are plenty of terraces nearby, so be sure to stop for a moment, try a Turkish coffee and enjoy the atmosphere of the city. In the spice bazaar, you can find food products such as dried fruits, spices, and Turkish sweets. The oriental colors and aromas you feel there are truly fantastic. To end our day, we crossed the Galata Bridge to Karaköy and climbed the funicular (Tünel) to Şişhane.

We opted to have dinner at Galata Kitchen where we shared a Meze and tasted local wine. It is a simple restaurant, the employees are very friendly and the food is very homemade and delicious.

Topkapı Palace: 72TL

Day 3

We started the day with a typical Turkish breakfast. Turks believe this meal to be the most important of the day, so it will be typical to have a multi-course meal, including eggs, cheese, bread, and fruit, among other traditional products. We chose the Privato Café to try this kind of brunch, recommended as one of the best places to have this meal which consists of over 15 absolutely delicious dishes.

This was followed by a visit to the Dolmabahçe Palace. This is a very special place for the Turkish people, as it was there that Atatürk drew his last breath. It’s a beautiful place, the palace is fantastic and the location near the Bosphorus makes the gardens a pleasant place to spend some time.

Dolmabahçe Palace: 60TL

In the area near the palace, there is a funicular that connects Kabataş to Taksim Square. We decided to go up, visit the square and try a traditional Borek (cheese puff).

We also explored the shopping area of İstiklal Avenue and enjoyed one of the local bars for a typical Turkish beer. We recommend that you try a Bomonti or a locally made Tuborg.

This day we had dinner at Guney Restaurant next to the Galata Tower. It seems to be a typical restaurant to call tourists, but it is a restaurant with delicious food, excellent service and a privileged view of the tower.

To end our day, we went to try a dessert at Viyana Kahvesi, which will please anyone who likes chocolate. It’s more or less what we can describe as a chocolate soup with fruit and crunchy toppings. It’s really delicious!

Day 4

On this day, we opted to slow down the journey and went out to lunch in Karaköy. This is one of the best areas in town to find fish restaurants. We chose Akin Balik. Here you can choose the fish from the showcase which is then charcoal grilled. You will find both sea and aquaculture fish. The place is very nice and the tables are set in a covered terrace that almost looks like a garden. We recommend that you order a typical salad to accompany the fish.

After enjoying our lunch spot, we explored the Karaköy area. This is a very nice and trendy place. There you can find many restaurants and cafés with terraces. In addition, you will also find stores with very eclectic article selections.

At the end of the day, we had dinner at Aheste Pera restaurant. It is a place where Turkish cuisine has been reinvented in fresh, comforting and delicious dishes. The restaurant is very cozy and has both a la carte service and a tasting menu. The dishes are the same, but the tasting menu allows you to try a range of dishes in one meal. The place is very small, so booking is almost mandatory.

Day 5

On our last day in Istanbul, we visited the Asian part of the city. The most convenient way to get there is by ferry from Karaköy or Eminönü.

The ferry crossing provides fantastic views of the city, takes about 20 minutes and costs 3 TL.

On the Asian side of the city, in Kadıköy, we explored the shopping district next to the ferry station. This area has a lot of shops, restaurants and is also a nightlife zone. We chose the Viktor Levi Winebar restaurant for lunch. The specialty is grilled meat, but other dishes can be found on the menu. The location is nice and the price is affordable.

After lunch, we explored the seafront neighborhoods near the Marmara sea until we arrived at Park İçi Yolu. We took a walk and relaxed by the sea because it was very hot that day. It’s very natural to see the locals enjoying the gardens for picnicking or just relaxing.

We returned by ferry to the European side where we went to experience what we found to be the best Dürüm in the city at the Dürümzade.

Where to eat in Istanbul

The cuisine in Istanbul is very diverse, both because of its cultural history and also because the city has been the place of passage for many people over the years. It can even be said that the cuisine there is as diverse as its cultural heritage. During our 5 days in Istanbul, we had the opportunity to taste much of the cuisine and we were in love with the flavors we were discovering.

Ingredients and cooking methods include the influence of the Mediterranean, Greek cuisine, Middle Eastern cuisine, and Italian cuisine. Apart from these influences, in Istanbul, you eat a lot of meat and there are a large number of restaurants dedicated to this ingredient. Due to cultural and religious restrictions, pork is not often found, but beef, lamb and chicken are very common meats in this cuisine.

Turkish cuisine is also very rich in vegetables, and legumes. And these are the basis for a typical Meze type meal – several Turkish-style small plates that make people sit at the table and share. Usually, the first rounds are made of cold and vegetable-based dishes. Hot dishes are usually on request.

As it should be, there are also delicacies for the sweet tooth. The best-known sweets are turkish delights and baklavas, but there are excellent pistachio pies and rice-based desserts.

Check here the 10 dining experiences you can’t miss in Istanbul

Our 5 days in Istanbul were undoubtedly a unique experience. The influence of the West and the East in this city creates an atmosphere with colors, flavors, architecture and culture very different from those found elsewhere in the world.

It is a huge city with lots to see and do. We spent 5 days in Istanbul and it was enough for our plans but if you are thinking of visiting the surroundings or the Princes’ Islands you may need more days to be able to see everything.

Next time you think about visiting Istanbul be sure to do so. We are sure you will not regret it.

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