The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Turkey: Karen Fedorko Sefer of Sea Song Tours.
Karen has lived and worked in Istanbul for the past 17 years and has offices across Turkey. Her local connections—from museum directors to star restaurateurs to powerful hoteliers to the country’s culture ministry—enable her to gain all manner of special access. She can introduce you to shop owners who can show you their special wares not displayed to the public, and create one-of-a-kind experiences (private meal at Topkapi Palace, anyone?). When you’ve got limited time—and who doesn’t?—her intimate knowledge of the country helps you make the smartest use of it, and she is on the ground and on-call to answer questions and fulfill special requests. If you need a cruise shore excursion—say, to Ephesus—she’s the ticket; with her guides, you’ll steer clear of the cruise-ship crowds and see the hidden gems they don’t. If you would like to charter a gulet on the Turkish coast, she’s the expert.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The penthouse suite at the Vault Karakoy, The House Hotel has great views and a great price: At 800 euros, it’s about 80 percent less expensive than comparable suites at other hotels. Your stay includes breakfast, VAT, and a complimentary tour of the art galleries in the Beyoglu neighborhood accompanied by a local art expert.
Restaurants the locals love
Meze by Lemon Tree is a real winner in the Beyoglu neighborhood, which is filled with restaurants, boutiques, and charming small hotels. I recommend the hummus and the pastrami.
In the trendy Karakoy neighborhood, Karakoy Lokanta is a small local eatery in a historic building decorated with beautiful turquoise tiles. The menu changes every day, but be sure to try the manti (ravioli stuffed with meat) if it’s on the menu.
For fresh fish dishes, locals love Eftalya Restaurant, an airy spot right on the banks of the Bosphorus. The sea bass or the fish of the day are always sublime, but be sure to order the kalkan if it’s in season.
Restaurant worth the splurge
Tugra Restaurant, at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel, serves a wide array of traditional Ottoman dishes in a romantic setting fit for a sultan (jackets required, of course). For unforgettable views of the Bosphorus and an intimate setting, be sure to reserve one of the three tables on the balcony.
You can’t leave Turkey without trying kebabs, and the place that does them best is Kosebasi Restaurant, which has a few locations around the city. Whether you try saslik kebab (lamb with grilled vegetables), patlican kebab (beef with eggplant), or adana kebab (very spicy minced meat), you can’t go wrong.
What to See and Do
The Rustem Pasa Mosque, on a small side street near the Spice Bazaar, features the most beautiful Iznik tiles in the city. It’s very much off the radar and should be near the top of your list.
The Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam is a sixteenth-century Turkish bath designed by Mimar Sinan, the master architect of the Ottoman Empire. It recently reopened after a major renovation and is the perfect place to partake of this ancient tradition in a stunning historic setting. Check the schedule before going to the hamam, as men and women are allowed to enter at different times; reservations are suggested.
Going to shopping malls in Istanbul, as they are are generally outside the city center, very crowded, and have only average merchandise.
Hagia Irene, the first church to be built in Constantinople. Located on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Irene has just recently been opened to the public. It’s a beautiful church with perfect acoustics and is never crowded.
Go for a mojito at the open-air bar of Mikla Restaurant, on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel. At nearly 20 stories high, the bar has the best views of the city, stretching all the way to the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. It’s especially magical after dark, when the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and other monuments are all illuminated in high relief against the night sky.
Have the entire Hagia Sophia—one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions and one of the world’s most important structures—all to yourself! There’s no need to get on tiptoe to see the spectacular works of art over the heads of other visitors: On this 45-minute visit, you (and whoever you choose to bring along) will be the only ones in this sprawling sixth-century building. The Hagia Sophia has been both a church and a mosque and is now a museum showcasing some of the finest examples of Christian mosaics and Islamic art in the world.
Have dinner in a private four-floor Ottoman mansion once owned by a pasha. After meeting with the current owner (an Ottoman art expert) to admire and learn about his impressive collection of calligraphy, paintings, porcelain, tiles, and carpets, you’ll enjoy a four-course feast in the ornate dining room and see what it felt like to be a ruler during the Ottoman era.
For some great people-watching, stroll through the Bebek neighborhood on the Bosphorus. Stop for lunch at the trendy Lucca Restaurant, enjoy some ice cream at a local shop, and sit in a cafe along the water with a cup of tea (chai).
Prime picnic spot
On a private yacht motoring on the Bosphorus. We can arrange for you to rent one (with a captain, of course) to cruise from Europe to Asia, taking in the historic mansions and mosques along the way.
Like any European capital, Istanbul is a year-round destination with plenty to do in every season. In general, though, the weather is most agreeable from April to October. My favorite time is September, when summer vacations are over, kids are back in school, and the sites are not so crowded.
January and February can be cold and rainy, which means that outdoor activities, such as a cruise on the Bosphorus, might not be quite as enjoyable as in other months.
For traffic and route-planning info, download IBB CEP Trafik.
Hareket Saati provides timetables for all of the public transportation in the city.
Get an early start for the best light and to beat the crowds at Galata Tower, set on a hill high above the city. The climb to the top of this ancient 200-foot landmark is rewarded with postcard views of Istanbul’s best side.
Taxi drivers in the tourist areas of Sultanahmet and Taksim Square may take you on a very long and indirect route to your destination to jack up the fare. Always negotiate the rate at the outset or make sure the meter is running.
The evil-eye charms are said to bring good luck and can be found literally everywhere in the city. The Grand Bazaar has the best selection, and hunting for just the right one is half the fun.
Don’t leave Istanbul without a carpet. Orient Handmade Carpets has the best selection located right outside the Grand Bazaar.
Tip 10 to 15 percent in restaurants (bring cash, as they do not like to add the tip to the check). Taxi drivers do not expect a tip but appreciate the gesture.
It can take up to two hours to move through the passport-control lines at Ataturk Airport. Consider our VIP airport service: For $125 per person we’ll pick you up at the gate and escort you through an expedited passport line and onto your transfer vehicle in less than half the time.
Havatas Shuttle buses from the airport to Taksim Square run every half-hour and cost less than $5.
A scarf to cover your head when visiting mosques.