Istanbul Neighborhoods: How to Choose Where to Stay?

June 19, 2022   55 Comments »

Istanbul Neighborhoods: How to Choose Where to Stay?

June 16, 2022 55 Comments »

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. There are so many great Istanbul Neighborhoods to choose from, where do you start?

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 Neighborhoods Are Diverse

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.

Hopefully, this Istanbul Neighborhood Guide will help you figure out where to stay during your time in this beautiful city!

Istanbul Neighborhoods Map

map-of-istanbul-neighborhoods

Neighborhood Guide

 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 Istanbul neighborhood map – but it’s the best one I can find that includes all of them at once so you can get the big picture.  Some of the Istanbul neighborhoods I’m talking about aren’t really marked on this map – but I’ll try to do my best to describe their location

The Best Time to Walk Through Istanbul Neighborhoods

One of the best times to really see a city is in the wee morning hours as the sun wakes up the homes, hills, and waterways with its golden glow. Commuters in Istanbul slowly move through their familiar paces and make their way to offices, mosques, stores, and stalls.

I woke up early and wandered aimlessly around the ferry docks watching commuters pour off of boats and through the back streets of the Spice Market. In the early morning hours, it looks quite different – it’s softer. Men drink tea and have their morning breakfast reading the paper and socializing with their friends and workmates. People smile at me, but don’t say a word. Trucks clamor through the narrow streets delivering inventory before the groups of tourists show up to deplete the inventory once again.

Sultanahmet and Eminönü For the Main Tourists’ Sights

This is tourist central – Sultanahmet is 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 during 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

Things to do in the Sultanahmet Neighborhood

As I said – this is where the majority of the popular tourist sights are in Istanbul, so there are a ton of tours and places of interest in Sultanahmet. 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

I vaguely remember coming to Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom)  on my first visit to Istanbul 12 years ago. It was my first exposure to the Islamic religion and the first time I had been in a mosque (even though at that time it was no longer a functioning mosque). I remember being fascinated by the layout of the building – so different than the typical churches I had been in my whole life.

It made me think about and consider times and lives around the world I had never thought about before. It was the beginning of my travel curiosity that has led me on this path I’m on today – to see what else this world had to offer that I didn’t know about – to get out of the known and live in the unknown.

But most of all I remember how the Hagia Sophia had such a long history of change – nothing in the United States was this old – nothing had such a long history. That change continues today, it’s now back to being a ‘working’ mosque in 2022.

Book a Hagia Sophia guided tour

But this time I was here to do what I didn’t the first time – photograph it. I knew the challenge ahead of me – how do you photograph this popular site with thousands of visitors milling around every corner of the massive building? I knew one thing for certain – it would take a lot of creativity in composition and a great deal of patience.

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.

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

Spend a Morning in the Spice Market

You’ll also find one of my favorite Istanbul marketing in the Sultanahmet neighborhood – the Spice Market. As I walked through the Spice Market before it was opened most merchants ignored me, something that would never happen a mere hour later in the day. Yet as I neared the end of one of the corridors, it started, “Lady, you want some spice? Come look, come look.” I felt like Cinderella listening to the 9th bell toll at midnight, my magic morning Istanbul was disappearing in 3 more rings. But until then, I would enjoy every last moment of this insider morning experience.

View the all photography of waking up in Istanbul

Hotels in the Sultanahmet – The Rast Hotel Sultanahmet

The Rast Hotel Sultanahmet is Located in the heart of Istanbul and close to the Grand Bazaar. It has a terrace restaurant and offers rooms with balconies and views of the Bosphorus.

istanbul neighborhoods where to stay

Read reviews for the Rast Hotel Sultanahmet on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Rast Hotel Sultanahmet | Search for other Sultanahmet area hotels

Karakoy / Galata in Beyoglu District

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.

I really did love the mix of visitors/locals/ex-pats in Galata. It was an Istanbul neighborhood full 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 Istanbul Neighborhood to stay in because you can get a bit of everything around the streets of Galata, but you don’t necessarily feel like a tourist.

Baskets in Beyoğlu
Beyoğlu neighborhood where kids play out on the streets at all hours

Things to do in the Beyoglu Neighborhoods

The area is 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. You’ll also find Hamams (a traditional Turkish Bath) tucked away along with a myriad of old, traditional coffee shops among the new ones.

Plus – you’ll find the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in this area too – a great stop to make if you are in the area. I love modern and contemporary art so I could be lost for hours inside this museum that is right on the waterfront with beautiful views. Plus, it’s a great place to go and escape the heat for a few hours!

Istaklal Street Istanbul
Istaklal Street – the retail heart of Beyoglu

Make sure you stop at Karaköy Güllüoğlu for a traditional sweet treat! the famous baklava sweet shop in Karaköy. There you’ll find cases and cases of freshly made trays of baklava in different sizes and flavors to tempt your sweet tooth.

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

beyoglu restaurant istanbul
Trendy restaurants and cafes line the streets of Galata

Hotels in the Beyoglu – Pera Palace Hotel

The Pera Palace is a special category museum hotel designed in neoclassical, art nouveau, and oriental styles. The hotel offers spectacular views of the Golden Horn, an indoor pool, and luxurious rooms with city views. 

Read reviews for the Pera Palace Hotel on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Pera Palace Hotel | Search for other Beyoglu area hotels

Şişli Neighborhood the ‘Modern’ Part of the City

The Sisli Neighborhood is where you’ll find the everyday life of the business population; the streets of Sisli 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.

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 in Istanbul.

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!

Hotels in the Sisli Neighborhood – the Melas Hotel

The Melas Hotel provides 5-star accommodations with a hammam and terrace restaurant, fitness center, indoor pool, and shared lounge and garden. Each room offers city views, and guests can play darts and minigolf at the hotel.

Istanbul Neighborhoods where to stay

Read reviews for the Melas Hotel on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Melas Hotel | Search for other Sisli area hotels

Tarlabasi -the Gritty Neighborhood

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.

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

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 Tarlabasi, 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.

Taralbasi Istanbul neighborhood
Taralbasi Sunday market

This is an Istanbul neighborhood that has not quite succumbed to gentrification yet – but I’m pretty sure in a few years it will look very different. However, if you are looking for an authentic experience in Istanbul – this is it.

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 neighborhood ‘hot spots’. 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 Tarlabasi for the Sunday market to get a feel for this ethnic and well-worn neighborhood.

Things to do in Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi Sunday Market

Everyone talks about wanting to find local experiences when you travel – strangely one of my best local finds in Istanbul was a place where the locals tried to convince me to stay away from.  Were they trying to hide its greatness?!  I honestly don’t think so – instead, they were simply trying to ensure I was safe and saw the nicer sides of the city.  Just down the hill from the glitz of Istiklal Street is what many locals might refer to as the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ I’ve heard Tarlabasi referred to as the ‘bad part of town’ and the “Istanbul Slums”.  I was also told that “gypsies live there, it’s not safe”.  Of course that made it all the more interesting to me in some ways.

Sometimes you need to trust your gut and go to the places that they tell tourists not to go…and that’s what I did this Sunday.  I grabbed a few shopping bags, my camera, and sunscreen, and walked to the place people told me to stay away from so that I could see what real life was like in the city of Istanbul.   And the best part about it – since this wasn’t really a market where tourists shopped, they were overjoyed to see me – a camera-toting tourist – walking through the stalls!

I spent a few hours at the Tarlabasi Sunday market shopping for produce and taking photos. Every single vendor and person there was a joy to interact with. I’m pretty sure I was even proposed to at one point!  I was constantly stopped and asked if I would take a photo or simply try the food.  As a foreign traveler, I was definitely in the minority. Plus the best part is that I walked away with bags of produce that I would use to cook in my apartment over the next week – saving me loads of money.

Hotels in the Beyoglu area – Taxim Suites

The Taxim Suites is conveniently located in the heart of Istanbul, just steps away from the famous Taksim Square and Gezi Park. The rooms feature a chic and stylish décor perfect for the guests seeking a cozy ambiance. It features a fully-equipped fitness center and freshly-prepared continental breakfast.

Istanbul neighborhoods Beyoglu

Read reviews for the Taxim Suites on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Taxim Suites | Search for other Beyoglu area hotels

Fener, Balat, and Eyüp Istanbul Neighborhoods

These neighborhoods are best known as the Jewish and Greek Quarters of Istanbul. Located just outside of the city walls on the south bank of the Golden Horn, Eyup 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.

This trio of Istanbul neighborhoods is as local as you get in Istanbul proper. There were really no tourists to speak of, but instead, the streets were filled with locals and were generally pretty quiet. If you want to stay in a peaceful, low-key neighborhood in Istanbul, then you’ll enjoy Fener, Balat, and Eyup.

Things to Do in Eyup, Fener, and Balat

Neighborhood Walking Tour

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. A walk through the cobblestone winding streets of these neighborhoods will take you to mosques, churches, and synagogues.

Church of St. George

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.

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

Eyüp Sultan Mosque

Eyup is home to one of the most sacred and religiously significant mosques in all of Turkey – Eyüp Sultan Mosque. 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. Hopefully, you’ll be able to go inside!

Hotels in the Eyup – the Turquhouse Hotel

The Turquhouse Hotel has a view of the 7 hills of Istanbul and the Golden Horn. A cable car runs from right outside Turquhouse and taxis are also easily available, allowing you to explore Istanbul with ease. Turquhouse Hotel also offers a TV lounge, a bar with traditional water pipes, and a café where guests can play backgammon.

Istanbul neighborhood hotels

Read reviews for the Turquhouse Hotel on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Turquhouse Hotel | Search for other Eyup area hotels

Kadikoy Neighborhood (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. Kadikoy has 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 Istanbul 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 of Istanbul. 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.

Istanbul Neighborhoods Kadikoy
Old cafe in Kadikoy

Hotels in the Kadikoy area – the Byotell Hotel

Located in the business district on the Asian side of Istanbul, the 5-star Byotell Hotel offers spacious guest rooms in their glass-walled tower that feature panoramic views over the city. Exclusive pastries and freshly brewed coffees are available at the on-site bakery.

Read reviews for the Byotell Hotel on Trip Advisor | Check prices and availability for the Byotell Hotel | Search for other Kadikoy area hotels

Princes’ Islands Istanbul for Quiet

Ok – so this isn’t necessarily a neighborhood – it’s 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

Things to do on Princes’ Islands

First of all, the ferry ride to the islands is a fabulous travel experience alone! But once you get off the ferry I suggest you go rent a bike and hit the quaint streets and explore! There are so many incredible houses to gawk at, you’ll love biking around looking at them!

After biking, why not stop at a beach and take a dip. This is one place in Istanbul where you have some lovely beaches so take advantage of them.

Hotels on Princes’ Islands – the Ada Palas Buyukada

The Ada Palas is situated in the heart of Buyukada Island and close to beaches and the ferry port. The rooms in this restored 19th-century mansion are decorated in classical style with handmade furniture. The hotel serves a traditional Turkish breakfast each morning, and tea and coffee service is provided at the hotel’s Secret Garden throughout the day. Barbecue facilities are also available on the grounds.

Istanbul Neighborhoods where to stay

Read reviews for the Ada Palas Buyukada | Check prices and availability for the Ada Palas Buyukada | Search for other Princes’ Islands hotels

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Decisions, Decisions!

The good news is you have a lot of choices – which is always better than not having a choice! Do you want to stay 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 Istanbul 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 Istanbul neighborhoods to stay in while in and why?

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