Istanbul modern art museum sign

In a city of 13 million people covering 2000 square miles, how do you know where to begin? Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and it is easily the largest city in Turkey. It’s been growing since the 1950s when migrants from Anatolia flocked to the city in search of economic prosperity and the city has been expanding to accommodate them.

What does this mean for you – one of 7 million visitors to Istanbul every year? It means you have some tough decisions to make when you are trying to decide where in this vast metropolis you want to stay and what you want to do!

Istanbul’s diverse neighborhoods

During my four-week stay in Istanbul, I stayed in 3 completely different neighborhoods and visited about 4 more in-depth via some great walking tours. Like most cities, each neighborhood has its own feel so I’ve tried to provide you with my opinion on what each neighborhood can offer you – the visitor – as well as give you a peek into what the neighborhood culture there was like.


 1- Sultanahmet

2 & 3 – Eminoju and Grand Bazaar

4, 5, 6, 7 – Beyoglu District  (4 represents Galata)

8 – Fener and Balat

Northwest of 9 – Eyup

North of 5 – Tarlabasi

North of 6 – Sisli

This isn’t the best map – but it’s the best one I can find.  Some of the neighborhoods I’m talking about aren’t really marked on this map – but I’ll try to do my best to describe their location

Sultanahmet & Eminönü

Tourist central – it’s the easiest place to stay to tick off all of the main sites. Not many ‘real’ Istanbul locals living in this area though. However, at certain times, such as Ramadan (while I was there), the historic sites draw a local crowd that is impressive to see and experience.

Local commuters arriving in Eminonu and Sultanahmet for work
Local commuters arriving in Eminonu and Sultanahmet for work in the tourist district

Hagia Sophia

Here you’ll find a ton of hotels, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Topaki Palace, Basilica Cistern, and a ton of tourist restaurants and souvenir shops. Good public transport…but not what I would call the ‘real Istanbul’.

Hagia Sophia
Inside Hagia Sophia

Read more about the Hagia Sophia | Book a Hagia Sophia guided tour

The view from the balcony
The view from the balcony gives you the full picture of greatness
View of the Blue mosque from Hagia sophia
A view of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia upper level

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is a cool underground oasis that also goes by the Turkish name Yerebatan Sarnici.  It is a sunken water cistern dating back to 532 and built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Its entrance is very near the Hagia Sophia and can normally be noticed only by the line that wraps around outside the small building on the street. It opens at 9 AM in the summer and this is probably the only time when there isn’t a line.

columns of the basilica cistern
Columns are lit to show just how vast the space is underground

Skip the lines with a Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace combo ticket

tourists line up to see the mysterious Medusa
Tourists line up to see the mysterious Medusa

Read more about the Sultanahmet area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Sultanahmet area hotels

chicken kebab prepared in the morning
Chicken kebab prepared in the morning for eager tourists at lunchtime


Galata’s modern name is Karakoy, but I found the two interchangeable. The area is actually a part of a much larger district called Beyoglu which also includes Taksim Square.  This neighborhood is touristy but intertwined with cruise passengers, and souvenir shops are locals who have lived in the area their whole life. I stayed for 2 weeks in Galata and felt like it was just the right mix of tourism and local culture.

Galata tower
Galata tower provides a nice view of Beyoglu and beyond

It’s great for shopping as little hipster boutiques are dotted among the old run-down abandoned buildings giving you a preview of what is to come for this popular neighborhood. Plus – you’ll find the Istanbul Modern Museum in this area too – a great stop to make if you are in the area.

Istaklal Street
Istaklal Street – the retail heart of Beyoglu

I really did love the mix of visitors/locals/ex-pats here. It was a neighborhood of diversity but most days I really felt like I was a part of the neighborhood as opposed to simply a visitor in a neighborhood. This is my pick for the best location so you can get a bit of everything out of your stay.

Explore more of Galata with this guided walking tour and tower entry

beyoglu restaurant istanbul
Trendy restaurants and cafes line the streets of Galata
galata neighborhood
The Galata neighborhood is built upon hills!

Read more about the Beyoglu area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Beyoglu area hotels

men playing backgammon in galata
Men playing backgammon in Galata


This is where you’ll find the everyday life of the business population – the streets are filled with banks, businesses, and shopping malls. In fact, Europe’s largest and the world’s second-largest (urban-area) shopping mall, Cevahir İstanbul, is situated here.

Read more about the Sisli area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Sisli area hotels

It’s more modern and tidy than other parts of the city. It’s well-served by transportation routes and subway and quite frankly – it’s where real middle-class life takes place. I stayed for a week in a (very strange) apartment right behind the Cevahir Mall and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a completely different feel and vibe to Istanbul – one that felt very European/western and if you have been traveling for a while and are searching for something familiar – Sisli is the place to be!


Tarlabasi is part of the larger district of Beyoglu – which includes many of the hot smaller neighborhoods of the city. However Tarlabasi is more like the unwanted stepsister of Beyoglu – and because of that – I loved it. Originally a Greek and Armenian neighborhood, diverse ethnic groups live here today: Kurds, Turks, and Roma. It also houses different social groups that are often marginalized in the city: transsexuals, sex workers, or illegal immigrants on their way to Europe.

Read more about the Beyoglu area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Beyoglu area hotels

I happened to be staying my first week in Istanbul in Tarlabasi and it honestly seemed no different than many other countries I had been in. However, when you say you are staying in Talabasi, locals do crinkle their noses and think you are a bit nuts for staying there – it is considered the ‘bad part of town’. I loved the fact that I was staying in this area where everyone immediately gets tense – I love it because in some weird way I wasn’t supposed to be there….at least not as a tourist. Yet I was.

A view of Taralbasi
A view of densely packed Taralbasi from my rented apartment. Photo credit – Charlie Grosso

I stayed in a redesigned old 6-story house – and yes – it’s much cheaper to stay in that neighborhood, but you are easily within walking distance to all of the Galata hotspots. The neighborhood was a bit dirty and rundown – but I loved it as a cultural immersion stay. However, if you are after a more tourist and upscale environment – then I would recommend staying in Galata and simply stopping by Talabasi for the Sunday market to get a feel for this ethnic and well-worn neighborhood.

Taralbasi Sunday market
Taralbasi Sunday market

Fener, Balat, & Eyüpf

I did a brilliant walking tour through these lesser-visited neighborhoods of Fener, Balat, and Eyup – and found that being able to take these neighborhoods in at a slow pace was best. There were really no tourists to speak of, but instead, the streets were filled with locals and were generally pretty quiet. The neighborhood is best known as the Jewish and Greek Quarters of Istanbul. A walk through the cobblestone winding streets of this neighborhood will take you to mosques, churches, and synagogues.

clothes hang on the line in Balat
Clothes hang on the line in Balat

Explore Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox region on this guided walking tour of Fener and Balat

One of the most important religious buildings is the Church of St. George, located on Sadrazam Ali Paşa Avenue. It is the most sacred place for Orthodox Greeks – our guide described it to us as the Vatican of the Greek Orthodox religion. Inside, the church was bejeweled in gold – a sight to see. The iconostasis (wall of icons) was in the front of the church and practically hurt your eyes to look at it! Plus – it is believed to have the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on inside the church.

Inside the Church of St. George
Inside the Church of St. George.  Iconostasis in the background.
Church of St. George
The ‘Vatican’ of the Greek Orthodox religion – Church of St. George in Istanbul

Eyup is located just outside of the city walls on the south bank of the Golden Horn and is named after Eyyub al Ensari, a companion of the prophet Mohammed, who is believed to have died here when Arabs sieged the city in the 7th century. It’s home to one of the most sacred and religiously significant mosques in all of Turkey. However since our walking tour was during Ramadam, the mosque was so crowded that we weren’t even able to get inside! Instead, we sat in the main square, had coffee, and talked about the history of the neighborhood further.

Read more about the Eyup area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Eyup area hotels

Balat street vendor
Balat street vendor

Kadikoy (Asian Side)

Kadikoy is one of the fastest-growing districts in Istanbul for the last 25 years, it has areas of a great deal of shopping, fine dining, and entertainment making it popular especially for wealthy local people. They have nice promenades along the Bosporus – and great views of the European side, of course. You’ll also be greeted by lovely food markets where you can do all of your shopping for dinner.

Haydarpaşa Garı train station in Kadikoy
Haydarpaşa Garı train station a main stie in Kadikoy

This neighborhood definitely has a more local feel to it. Sure – it has a few sites, but mostly it’s just a functioning middle-class neighborhood – a super place to really immerse yourself and less expensive than the European side. And since it’s a transportation hub, it’s quite easy and cheap to get to the European side of Istanbul to see all of the tourist sites in Sultanahmet.

old cafe in Kadikoy
Old cafe in Kadikoy

Read more about the Kadikoy area on Trip Advisor | Search and book Kadikoy area hotels

Princes’ Islands

These four islands once served as exile islands (for naughty Princes!) for the Ottoman Empire. Situated in the Sea of Marmara parallel to the Asian coast, the Princes’ Islands are accessible by ferry from both the European and the Asian sides of Istanbul. If you are looking for a little peace, quiet, and relaxation on your Istanbul travels then be sure to escape to these beautiful islands for a day – or two! It’s a one-hour ferry ride and when you arrive at the islands you will be treated to quiet environments, good seafood, and relaxation.

Princes island
Horse and buggy is the only transportation on the islands and the architecture is different than anything you’ll see in Istanbul

Read more about the Princes’ Islands area on Trip Advisor | Book round trip ferry tickets to the Princes’ Islands

There are no cars allowed on these islands so all wheeled transportation is conducted by horse and buggy. If you do during the week, you’ll only find a handful of people, but on the weekends in the summer many of the local Istanbul residents escape the city and come to the islands. I dream of going to Princes’ Islands and staying for a few weeks to simply wind down and write. It would be a perfect place to write a novel and hide away for a bit while watching the twinkle of Istanbul in the distance.

Sunset over Princes' islands
Sunset over Princes’ islands

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Decisions, Decisions!

You have a lot of choices – do you want to be near the sites, near locals, near religion, on a different continent, on an island, or in the ‘bad part of town’?  Maybe like me, you’ll want to move around a bit and get the feel for multiple neighborhoods. But you can’t really go wrong anywhere in Istanbul – it’s a diverse, energetic city – and so are its neighborhoods.

What are your favorite neighborhoods to stay in while in Istanbul and why?

Other exotic locations to read about

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Where to stay in Istanbul's diverse neighborhoods

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