Where to stay in Istanbul for tourist: best places in 2020
Istanbul is a huge metropolis, stretching across both sides of the world — Europe and Asia with some districts completely unlike the others and sometimes the attractions are very far apart. Therefore when choosing where to stay at, you should always think about how to waste less money and spare time.
Choosing a non-touristic location or one far away from Sutahnamet’s historical center can potentially cost you a lot of time, but also money because of transportation. People who are not visiting Istanbul for the first time could consider a more distant location, in case they prefer to have a more relaxed trip.
Before you go and book a hotel, let’s think about what district you may choose for your stay.
- 1 Where to stay in Istanbul for the first time?
- 2 European side of Istanbul
- 3 Asian side of Istanbul
- 4 Tips when picking a good area to live in in Istanbul
Where to stay in Istanbul for the first time?
Which side to choose, European or Asian?
Istanbul is located on both continents Asia and Europe, and the two halves are very distinct from each other. They are not only linked by a ferry line, but also with three bridges and the Marmaray Tunnel (Marmaray Tüneli).
By the way, we will mention straight away that official district names and how far they stretch may differ from other popular pieces of information out there. Today we’ll only be using the district names that locals and tourists would use, so that you know why some names on a map could be slightly different from what we have described here.
When visiting Istanbul for the first time, you should probably choose the European side (Fatih), and either Sultahment, Galata or Beyoğlu. Here is why.
European side of Istanbul
Ideally, you should either stay in Sultanahmet or somewhere close. Why choose to stay in Sultanahmet specifically? First of all is its close proximity to the most popular attractions and places in Istanbul — Hagia Sophia museum (Ayasofya Müzesi), Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), Hippodrome square and Obelisk, Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) and Theodosius Cistern (Şerefiye Sarnıcı), Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), The Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) and Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı or Egyptian bazaar), Sirkeci railway station (Sirkeci garı), Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii), New Mosque (Yeni Camii) and Gülhane Park (Gülhane Parkı). These are some of the places that you could simply walk to! This is not only easy, but also saves money and time. You can reach most other attractions vis the T1 tram line, metro and by bus.
The historical centre is always full of tourists, you will probably feel more comfortable here as there are plenty of signs and directions to the attractions, lots of people are present even in the evenings and near the Sultanahmet square you can find police patrols, ensuring full control of the situation.
This district is the perfect option for you if your time in Istanbul is limited, or in case you are travelling alone. Everything is at hand, nearby and you can save time and visit plenty of attractions in a short span of time. Those who are travelling alone are also not at risk of being lost.
During the summer season, it’s best to pick a hotel a little further away from the attractions, as there are a lot of tourists and it gets very loud at times.
In the historical district itself, you will find plenty of hotels (cheaper ones too), but there are lots of options for flats and rooms on Airbnb — it is a reliable website that lets you find places across the world. On Airbnb you can find cost-effective and well-located small flats and rooms.
In the historical part of Istanbul, Sultanahmet, you can find the T1 tram line. You can also find the Marmaray Sirkeci Metro Station, located near the Sirkeci railway station. You can easily walk there from Gülhane Park (Gülhane Parkı).
You can reach the Aksaray metro station (M1 line) by taking the tram to Yusufpaşa station, or reach Zeytinburnu metro station (also M1 line) near Zeytinburnu tram station.
You will also find the Eminönü pier close to the historical center, where you can take a ferry going across to the Asian side of Istanbul, Princes’ Islands (Adalar) or go on a Bosphorus tour.
The biggest disadvantage of living in Sultanahmet is actually the hotel cost, as well as more expensive cafes and restaurants (though you can easily walk down to Eminönü, Beyoğlu or Karaköy).
We have put together a list of cost-effective hotels and hostels located specifically in Sultanahmet, which means they are very close to the popular locations and are within a walking distance from the T1 tram line. We have picked these according to their cost, reviews, and proximity to the popular attractions in Sultanahmet. Also we updated the list so it’s relatively up-to-date.
The Sirkeci district is located between the historical Sultanahmet and Eminönü. The main attraction and landmark in this area is the Sirkeci railway station (Sirkeci garı). You can also find the Marmaray metro station nearby, as well as the Sirkeci tram station along the T1 line. From here, you can walk to Sultanahmet or go down to the Eminönü pier, opposite of which you will find the Egyptian Bazaar and the The New Mosque (Yeni Camii). It is a very decent area to live in, with transport and attractions nearby.
The Sirkeci railway station is also located in the Sirkeci district, it used to be the end station for the train called “Orient Express”, going all the way from Paris. It’s entirely possible you’ll find yourself staying next to this well-known location.
The Beyoğlu historical area includes the Taksim square, as well as the Istiklal street, popular for walking.
Taksim is a transport node, from there it is easy to move around the city, and then there is the always-living Istiklal street. The entire street is made of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, meihana, sweet shops and lots and lots more. However what’s interesting is that once you turn a corner (for example right after Galatasaray) — you will find a quiet, historical area with narrow streets, small hotels, old original cafes and miniature stalls. This way you can book a hotel in a quiet street, right next to Istiklal — it’s calm and quiet at night meanwhile the lively Istiklal street is right there the next day.
We do not recommend booking a hotel right next to the Taksim square, as it is usually very busy so it’s best to book a number further away from the square, a small walk away.
On our first time trip we have stayed near Istiklal street, a short walk away opposite of Galatasaray High School (Galatasaray Lisesi). We have booked our flat on Airbnb 4-5 minutes away from Istiklal by foot, and the side on which
it was located had lots of crowded streets, certainly not for taking walks along. That is why it’s best to look at hotels after Galatasaray High School, along the following streets: Çukurcuma , Faikpaşa, Bostanbaşı, Hüseyin Ağa Bahçe sokak and the small streets in the Cihangir Mahallesi district. It is easy to walk to Taksim square and to the Şişhane metro station from there.
At the end of Istiklal street you will find the Galata Tower, you can also take the funicular down to Kabataş (in Beyoğlu) from Taksim square, which is 12 minutes away from the Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı).
There is an M2 metro line station on the Taksim square, and the funicular station Taksim – Kabataş.
In the middle of Istiklal street you will find the station along the M2 line called Şişhane, and the funicular station called Tünel is at the end of Istiklal. Tünel is an old tunnel from Beyoğlu to Karaköy, which you can, obviously, take to Karaköy. Located near the funicular station is the T1 tram station called Karaköy.
You can get to Taksim from the Istanbul Airport and the Sabiha gökçen airport (Sabiha gökçen havalimanı) via the transit buses, take a Havataş (Havabus) bus travelling from Sabiha gökçen and the IST-19 route Havaist buses when travelling from Istanbul airport (pay by card or with Istanbulkart).
What to look out for when finding a hotel in Beyoğlu:
Don’t pick a hotel along the Istiklal street, instead pick one close to it — in an avenue or a parallel street (on the side after Galatasaray High School). This will ensure a quiet, calm place to stay in.
As is with most of Istanbul, there are lots of drops and elevations here (not too steep, but keep this in mind) so comfortable footwear is important, as well as thinking realistically how far you can walk.
Sometimes there are strikes and rallies on Istiklal street or Taksim square.
In order to avoid situations, always keep documents and IDs on you with your identity, e.g. an international passport. There is always police both in Sultanahmet and Istiklal street, so you could be asked to confirm your identity at any time.
The Karaköy district begins at the Galata bridge and goes all the way to Nusretiye mosque (Nusretiye camii) located slightly downhill from the Galata Tower.
It is a modern, youth, maybe even a hippie area with fancy cafe-clubs, streets full of graffiti and anti-cafés, as well as that it is a very calm and ‘chill’ area in general. It is a good option for those looking to go to Istanbul for the first time, and it also suits youth and people who prefer a modern environment well.
There are plenty of interesting cafes, including ones with roof access, where you can enjoy a beautiful view of the city.
In Karaköy, you can go to a fish market, enjoy coffee with graffiti all around or try out Balık ekmek (street food, grilled sea fish between pieces of bread). This area is not crowded and very calm, unlike the other historical parts of the city.
You can walk to the Galata Tower and Istiklal street by foot from here, or take the T1 tram (from Karaköy station) to Sultanahmet. Here you will also find the funicular station (F2) going between Karaköy and Beyoğlu.
It’s a very well-known area exactly because of the endless market streets, where you can spend ages exploring and finding a way out. That’s why when going to Istanbul for the first time, Laleli is not a great option — mainly because of how crowded the narrow streets can be, and how hard it is to navigate between the endless stalls.
Even if you’re not going to be staying here overnight, we still recommend visiting the Laleli historical monuments — this includes not only the Laleli Mosque, but also Valens Aqueduct (Valens Su Kemeri or Bozdoğan Kemeri) and Laleli Taşhan. Laleli is rich with both Ottoman and Byzantine architecture.
Who would find it best to stay here? Those looking to purchase a lot of goods. In Laleli, there are few retail stores, keep this in mind of you are mainly looking to shop in Istanbul.
This district includes the Beşiktaş pier, and stretches all the way to the Rumelian Castle (Rumelihisarı), near which you will find Bebek Bay. Going for a walk in Beşiktaş is certainly an experience, with its museums, Dolmabahçe Palace, premium hotels (Çırağan Palace, for example), exceptional villas along hillsides, cafes and shops.
The Deniz müzesi (Sea Museum) is located near the Beşiktaş pier, as well as a monument of the captain pirate, Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa.
This area certainly suits those who are not here for the first time and can usually find their way around the city. As for transportation, this area is not great as you will have to take the bus to reach the historical parts of Istanbul.
If you are a lover of premium shopping, attractive stalls and expensive cafes, this is the place for you. The local beau monde and TV celebrities can sometimes spend time in the restaurants and cafes, and the streets of Nişantaşı are perfect for taking walks along. However, they are by far not empty.
It’s not as easy to get from Nişantaşı to other more historical parts of the city, and you will find yourself spending lots of time planning and taking any routes.
The closest metro line is M2 — station Osmanbey. Also, one of the biggest shopping malls in Istanbul, Cevahir, is located right next to the M2 station Şişli.
This area is great for those returning to Istanbul again, looking to mainly shop.
Asian side of Istanbul
Who should look to go to the Asian part of Istanbul?
- Those who are not visiting Istanbul for the first time
- If you are going to Istanbul via a transit from Sabiha Gökçen
- In case you want to spend most of your trip in non-touristy parts of Istanbul, but you are willing to spend time getting to other attractions further away.
On the Asian side, there are two main districts you should be looking for a hotel in: Kadıköy and Üsküdar.
This place is always brimming full of life all day long, this is actually more similar to the European side of Istanbul. This place has an atmosphere of its own, streets full of stalls (including antique items), fish markets and seafood restaurants, tea gardens in the Moda area, and tons of other interesting places to go. Across the road next to this area you’ll find Kadıköy pier and the coastline, where you can give Balık ekmek a try, or just have some tea with simit.
Morning is a great time to go for a walk along Kadıköy streets, as there are very few people and Bahariye Caddesi as well as the nearby streets are empty. You can go visit the Hagia Triada Church (Holy Trinity Church) along Bahariye street, or just enjoy the quiet morning. However in the afternoon, it can get very noisy and crowded, and if you go down you will find it hard to push through along Bahariye street in the evenings, especially near Kadıköy pier.
It is also very easy to get to Kadıköy from the Sabiha gökçen airport, you can take a Havabus transit bus there.
You will need to take a ferry to the historical part of Istanbul, which is approximately 30 minutes or via the Marmaray metro line — located opposite the pier is a metro station, take the train to Ayrılık Çeşmesi and then transfer to the Marmaray metro line and take it to Sirkeci station.
You can also get a Bosphorus tour from Kadıköy, or visit Princes’ Islands (Adalar).
This area, unlike Kadıköy, has lots of mosques and coffee shops with a view on Bosphorus, Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayı) and of course, Salacak Coast, from which you can get to Üsküdar’s symbolic place — The Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi). During the summer, you will usually find soft pillows placed along the coast just opposite The Maiden’s Tower, there is tea being served so you can enjoy the view of the sea resting on a comfortable beach.
The Kuzguncuk area is also located in Üsküdar, it’s perfect for taking walks with its miniature houses, beautiful alleys and endless hills.
This district also has places to walk to, with its markets, various shops and stalls (including antique item shops). You can get to Sultanahmet by ferry straight to Eminönü pier, or via the Marmaray metro line straight to Sirkeci.
You can take the buses 15,15KÇ, 15P or 15ŞN from Üsküdar pier to the Anatolian Castle (Anadolu Hisarı), Göksu river or the Küçüksu Palace near the river.
Tips when picking a good area to live in in Istanbul
My experience of staying in Istanbul for the first time
I first visited Istanbul about eight years ago and it was the beginning of spring season – March. I stayed with my friend in a rented flat (thanks to Airbnb) for a week and we had an amazing trip! Our flat was near Istiklal street, approximately here.
It’s an approximately 4 minute walk to Galatasaray school which is on Istiklal street. So there was no problem to walk from our flat – in twelve minutes you can reach the funicular station Beyoglu Karakoy and a ten minute walk gets you to Taksim square with its bus stations, metro lines and a funicular to Kabatas.
The weather in March was extremely warm, there was no rain, the days were sunny and we walked a lot. The streets of Beyoğlu are great, plenty of places to eat and drink coffee.
So if you like to walk and explore the city by yourself – Istiklal neighborhood is a great option to find a flat for rent. By the way the spring season, starting in march, will surely welcome you with good weather and sunny days.
If you want to rent a flat, always pay attention to its location – metro or bus stations should be close, as Istanbul sidewalks can sometimes be tricky. By that I mean there are always slopes and hills, the roads are never straight and your 10 minute walk will turn into a challenge for your legs.
Finally, do not forget to read reviews about flats and apartments to avoid any surprises!
We will note that you should always pick a place depending on what you’re looking to be doing in Istanbul: if this is your first time, pay attention to hotels in Sultanahmet or somewhere close. If this is not your first time, we recommend to go with the Asian side, Nişantaşı if you’re planning to shop and Laleli for wholesale lovers.
What to look out for before booking a hotel?
- Try to get a few options in terms of hotels/hostels and always look at the reviews. Even though you may be a little bit biased, at least you should get a feel for how good the transport is, as well as how loud/quiet the area is. Know that during early mornings (typically at 5 to 6) is when Namaz takes place, meaning that hotels close to mosques will not be great for light sleepers (you’ll be hearing the Namaz).
- Keep in mind that in Istanbul, small hotels may only offer a breakfast option (and hostels typically don’t even offer that much), as this is not a resort. Also, the breakfast is not always perfect as those who like having a walk in the early morning might want to miss the breakfast. Istanbul has plenty of places to eat, ranging from simit and pasties stalls to street food like toast, Gözleme, Meat Borek, chestnuts, corn, etc. You will not be left to starve here.
- If you cannot find a cost-effective hotel (and you are on a strict budget) — book into a hostel or look on Airbnb. However you might need to rent an entire flat (we don’t recommend booking a single room) and look at where it is located, especially if it is a safe area at night.
- Those who are travelling alone (female travellers in particular), as well as those whose stay there is limited to only 1-2 days, should definitely choose a hotel in Sultanahmet / Taksim. This means that it should be located near a transport node, Taksim or Sultanahmet, with lots of places very close together.
Choose an area to live in, find a nice hotel and start planning out your journey! We wish you a very pleasant trip!