Drifting between two worlds, Istanbul is a city of magical confluence where the West meets the East. This bustling metropolis ranks among the largest cities on Earth, brimming with charm and countless ways to fill your days and nights.
Istanbul, with its endless intrigue, may leave you wondering, “Where’s the best place to rest my head?” Worry not, for I’m here to guide you through your lodgings decision in Turkey’s vibrant hub.
A city as expansive and layered as Istanbul, adorned with architectural marvels and steeped in a cocktail of cultures, can make choosing a home base a daunting task. With its 39 distinct districts sprawling on both sides of the Bosphorus, the decision won’t be easy, but oh, the possibilities!
Each neighborhood in Istanbul flaunts a character of its own, offering unique experiences. From the historical treasures of Sultanahmet to the European essence of Beyoglu, the hip cafés of Karakoy to the intellectual hideouts in Kadikoy, it’s like a kaleidoscope of experiences waiting to be explored. Understanding the character of Istanbul’s interesting neighborhoods is key to determining your ideal place to stay.
The Best Neighborhoods to Stay in Istanbul for tourists
Istanbul, a majestic city straddling both the European and Asian continents, isn’t just a city, it’s a world unto itself.
Constantinople of a thousand legends, with its splendid past and promising future, is a cultural tapestry that begs to be unraveled at least once in your life.
Yet, the ‘Queen of Cities’ has morphed considerably over the years. Today, with over 15 million souls calling it home, Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis that can be a bit overwhelming. The best way to explore it? I’d say, try to dip your toes in at least three or four different areas on your maiden voyage.
The European and Asian quarters are split by the Bosphorus Strait, linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Furthermore, the Golden Horn carves the European side of the city into two: to the south, you find ancient Byzantium-Constantinople, and to the north, the Genoese colony of Pera-Galata.
With such an array of diverse districts and areas, the challenge isn’t finding a place to stay in Istanbul. The real quest is pinning down the best area to suit your tastes, interests, and budget. So, let’s spend a moment weighing the pros and cons of Istanbul’s top neighborhoods for your stay.
1. Sultanahmet, best area to stay in Instabul for sightseeing
First-time visitors to Istanbul can’t miss the city’s sacred landmarks, like the iconic Sultanahmet Mosque with its stunning minarets and blue ceramic mosaics, and the extraordinary Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, with its grand domes and unparalleled mosaics and frescoes.
No doubt, Sultanahmet, the beating heart of old Constantinople, is the ideal place to stay if you want to immerse yourself in the city’s historic core and iconic monuments.
Of Istanbul’s many intriguing neighborhoods, Sultanahmet remains the city’s most beloved tourist attraction. Hemmed in by seas to its south, east, and north, and the ancient walls of the old city to its west, it’s a historic haven that beckons.
Its winding streets and time-weathered alleys lead you through an array of cultural, historic, and religious sites, all conveniently within walking distance. Just a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia, you’ll find the underground marvel of the Basilica Cistern, an architectural triumph that is mesmerizingly evocative.
In the area, you can also explore the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the renowned Topkapi Palace, which served as home to Ottoman emperors for four centuries, and the Hippodrome, a testament to Roman and Byzantine Constantinople’s grandeur.
But Sultanahmet isn’t all history. The district is also home to some of Istanbul’s famous eateries like Balikci Sabahattin and Sultanahmet Koftecisi that you mustn’t miss. The district is studded with cafés, both traditional and trendy, and nightlife spots.
In terms of accommodations, budget options may be scarce in Sultanahmet, but there’s a broad range of mid-range options.
Best Places to Stay in Sultanahmet
- ($$$) Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul, Curio Collection by Hilton
- ($$) Fer Hotel
- ($) Peyk Hotel
For years the throbbing heart of modern Istanbul, Beyoglu is your go-to district for a shop-till-you-drop spree and vivacious nightlife.
This buzzing neighborhood, sometimes overwhelming yet always exhilarating, reels in more tourists than locals year after year, be it under the bright sun or the starry night. The place is chock-full of eateries, cafés, and nightlife spots, and a multitude of shops, especially along the historic Istiklal Street (the Street of Independence) that stretches from Taksim Square to the Tunnel area.
For a charming jaunt down memory lane, hop onto the iconic red tram that traverses the district, or lose yourself among the myriad antique shops, primarily clustered around the Cukurcuma area. Çukurcuma, a quarter of Beyoglu, is famed for housing the Museum of Innocence, an intriguing creation of Nobel laureate and author, Orhan Pamuk.
As for other attractions, Beyoglu is home to the iconic Galata Tower that offers sweeping panoramas of Istanbul, historical Turkish baths (hamams), various churches and mosques, and numerous museums. But, honestly, just wandering around the narrow lanes of this area will unveil the alluring charm of Istanbul.
Beyoglu boasts the highest concentration of accommodation options in the city. You’ll find everything here, from budget-friendly hostels to uber-stylish boutique hotels. So, whatever your budget may be, Beyoglu is sure not to disappoint.
3. Galata, best area for views
Although technically part of the Beyoglu district, Galata possesses an enchanting charm all its own. Nestled near the Galata Bridge, north of the Golden Horn, and sandwiched between Beyoglu and Karakoy, Galata is one of Istanbul’s oldest neighborhoods.
Galata was originally established as a Latin, Catholic western colony adjacent to Constantinople, the capital of the Orthodox and eastern Byzantine Empire. It thrived as a cosmopolitan hub composed of various communities speaking a host of European languages.
Today, Galata still exudes a distinct European vibe. The neighborhood surrounding the historic Galata Tower, with its cobbled streets and unique architecture, is captivating and ranks among the city’s coolest quarters.
The Galata area offers a vibrant nightlife catering to all tastes and preferences, making it an ideal spot for nocturnal adventures. If hilly terrains don’t faze you, this district is a treasure trove of experiences, from soulful jazz to hip hop, Turkish wines to international labels, and underground bars to some of the best rooftop spots in Istanbul.
Galata may not offer a plethora of accommodations, but the ones you find will wow you with their spectacular views. The best places to stay in Istanbul’s Galata area include:
4. Taksim Square, best area to stay in Istanbul for first time visitors
At the end of the buzzing Istiklal Street, in Beyoglu district on the European side of the city, lies the legendary Taksim Square with its monumental Republic Monument, celebrating the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
More than a meeting point, this square is the throbbing heart of modern Istanbul. A pivotal public transportation hub, it’s the nexus of bus routes and subway lines. Taksim Square is also the stage for major public events and, quite often, social demonstrations.
In the vicinity of the square, you’ll find Gezi Park, globally recognized for the protests that erupted in May 2013 when Istanbul’s city council decided to demolish the park to make way for a new shopping mall.
Brimming with hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, and shops, this area is one of the most popular spots to stay in Istanbul. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels, but I won’t sugarcoat it – finding a budget-friendly option can be a challenge.
Just a five-minute walk from Taksim, cozily nestled between the hectic square and the areas of Karakoy and Kabatas, lays one of the city’s most enchanting neighborhoods – Cihangir. Known for its philosophical and literary coffee shop conversations, Cihangir is a tranquil and utterly intriguing quarter.
Still a small corner of the Beyoglu district, it’s a favorite haunt of painters, actors, writers, and journalists. Cihangir has a somewhat “bohemian” vibe where you can find some of the city’s best “kahvalti” (traditional Turkish breakfast).
The area is named after the wooden mosque built by Mimar Sinan in honor of his son Cighangir. Aside from this, the neighborhood boasts a lovely park with a view of the Bosphorus and picturesque lanes lined with traditional houses preserving the wooden architecture from the Ottoman era.
Cihangir is a hospitable neighborhood abundant with small grocery shops, fruit vendors, bookstores, bistros, and… cats! Easily compared to neighborhoods like Le Marais in Paris or Williamsburg in New York, it exudes a unique culture that seems a world apart from the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul.
In Cihangir, you can find exquisite boutique hotels and apartments with Bosphorus views, as well as more reasonably priced accommodation options. The best hotels in Cihangir include:
Rich with history, the Eminonu area, formerly known as Perama, sits on the waterfront of Istanbul’s Fatih district. A stone’s throw from Karakoy, the historic Galata district, it’s conveniently connected via the Galata Bridge.
Positioned close to Sultanahmet’s historic center and its famous attractions like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Eminonu’s pier is the gateway to Bosphorus explorations. From the sea, the city’s charm takes on a whole new allure.
This lively and bustling neighborhood houses the historic Sirkeci Train Station, a maze of shops and street vendors, and religious sites like the New Mosque (Yeni Cami). And here’s a travel hack: Eminonu proves to be one of the best options for budget stays in Istanbul.
Naturally, the crown jewel is the Grand Bazaar with its 4,000-plus shops, the country’s largest covered market. Another must-visit is the Spice Bazaar, an explosion of flavor and colors, where you can buy not only spices but all sorts of Turkish delights.
Eminonu Square is a budget-friendly food hub, pulsating with Istanbul’s frenetic daily life. Another local gem is the Valens Aqueduct, a stunning Roman feat, soaring 29 meters high and stretching over 971 meters.
Don’t miss the neighboring area of Balat (Fatih), Istanbul’s historic Greek, Armenian-Orthodox, and Jewish quarter, with its gorgeous old churches and houses.
One of Istanbul’s oldest districts, Karakoy, once a run-down port cluttered with workshops and warehouses, has undergone a metamorphosis. Today, it’s one of the city’s hippest spots, brimming with trendy cafes, gourmet restaurants, chic boutiques, and art galleries.
Nestled by the sea, facing Eminonu, and just a short stroll from the Galata Bridge where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus, Karakoy has been transformed since the establishment of Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s first museum of modern and contemporary art, in 2004.
This compact neighborhood, drawing in both tourists and locals, has a host of activities and sights to offer. Among them, the SALT, a former Ottoman bank constructed from marble, now an art gallery, library, museum, cafe, and shop.
You can also indulge in a luxurious hamam experience at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, a strikingly aesthetic 16th-century Turkish bath. The unique Underground Mosque (Yeralti Camii), unlike any other mosque, nestled in a subterranean crypt, is not to be missed.
Sprawling on Istanbul’s Asian side, at the southern end of the Bosphorus Strait, where it empties into the Marmara Sea, lies Kadikoy – a bustling hub for intellectuals and expats.
Known for its commercial and residential spaces, Kadikoy is brimming with bars, cinemas, and bookstores, making it the liberal cultural heart of Anatolian Istanbul. It’s a neighborhood with a fascinating history too – once its own city named Chalcedon before the founding of Byzantium. It even played host to several crucial Ecumenical Councils of the Church during the 4th century.
Now, Kadikoy boasts relaxing tree-lined streets, shops, restaurants, cafes, and captivating murals thanks to the artists of Mural Istanbul. It’s a slice of Istanbul that’s become a magnet for my camera!
There’s a museum dedicated to the Anatolian rock musician, Baris Manco, one of the genre’s key figures during the 60s and 70s. His former home, now a treasure trove of photo collections, recordings, paintings, and foreign fan gifts, makes for an intriguing visit.
Walking along Kadikoy’s shoreline, you’ll find a beautiful marina and yacht clubs. Though, keep in mind, this most intriguing district of Istanbul’s Asian side doesn’t come cheap.
9. Besiktas and Ortakoy, best Areas for Couples & Honeymoon in Istanbul
Home to one of Istanbul’s oldest football clubs playing in the Turkish Premier League, Besiktas is one of the city’s oldest districts on the European side.
Besiktas, an urban hub, is brimming with residential and commercial spaces, small businesses, and one of the key ferry points for various districts along the Asian shorelines.
The district encompasses some of Istanbul’s best-known neighborhoods like Ortakoy, Arnavutkoy, and Bebek, along with several museums, palaces such as the Dolmabahce Palace, Yildiz Palace, and Ciragan Palace. The district also plays host to several university faculties.
The Sinan Pasa Mosque, crafted by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan, stands as another prominent historic building in the area. Besides its rich history, Besiktas is a food lover’s paradise with a myriad of restaurants. Here, you can also shop for affordable clothing, fresh vegetables, and fish.
As for accommodation, Besiktas caters to everyone – from budget travelers to luxury seekers with a range of hotels from economical stays to renowned 5-star hotels. From personal experience, this district holds its charm, day and night.
10. Sisli and Nisantasi, safest areas to stay in Istanbul
After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the neighborhood of Sisli has grown into one of Istanbul’s most prestigious districts, making it a hotspot for the upper class, non-Muslim residents, and foreigners. It’s a relatively new district that developed after the mid-19th century, north of Taksim Square, on the European side of the city.
Unlike other districts, Sisli doesn’t lay claim to waterfront views but can be easily reached by exiting the Bosphorus Bridge that connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. I particularly enjoy the quiet vibe of this district, with its cobblestone streets that open up to architectural surprises.
Sisli is the proud home to the Istanbul Mayor’s residence, Valikonagi, and a number of ancient Christian churches, mosques, and Jewish synagogues. Additionally, it houses one of Europe’s largest modern-era shopping centers – the Cevahir Mall. As a self-confessed shopaholic, wandering through the Cevahir Mall’s myriad shops is a thrill I’d recommend to anyone!
Furthermore, Sisli is adorned with places of interest such as the Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall, the Lutfi Kirdar Concert Hall, the military museum, various theaters, and university faculties. Sports lovers will appreciate the Galatasaray football stadium in this district.
For the fashion-forward traveler, Sisli offers upscale shops. For food lovers, there are fairly pricey restaurants. And for those in need of a drink, there’s a plethora of bars. This district is home to a diverse range of hotels to accommodate your stay. For me, Sisli strikes the perfect balance between cultural exploration and modern comforts.