Istanbul is Turkey's most populous city, as well as Europe's most populous city. It has a rich history and has amazingly beautiful mosques, basilicas, and cathedrals to feast your eyes on. It is an intercontinental city, spreading over two continents, Europe and Asia, with the tourist attractions on the Europe side and some residential areas on the Asia side. Some do a quick visit during a layover, but you need at least 10 days to really explore and get a feel for this city.
HOW TO GET THERE
Get to Istanbul
Fly to Istanbul's newly opened airport, Istanbul Airport (airport code IST), or Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (airport code SAW). For use of the public transport system from the airport and within Istanbul, buy an Istanbulkart card at the airport and load with sufficient credit.
From the airport into the city
For transport from Istanbul airport, take a taxi from the official taxi ranks just outside the terminal. This option can be costly since the airport is 40km from the city center. Always ask to switch on the taxi meter. Take an airport bus, a Havaist Airport Shuttle. Line IST 19 will take you to Taksim. You can find timetables with departure times to and from Istanbul Airport and further information on the Havaist Airport Shuttle website. Use an Istanbulkart card for payment.
For transport directly to your hotel door from either airport, and still a budget-friendlier option than the taxis from the airport taxi rank, book a private shuttle with a fixed rate, with Kiwitaxi. Find out the rate and book on the Kiwitaxi website.
For transport from Sabiha Gokcen International Airport into Istanbul, take an Istanbul Airport Taxi. Or for a more budget friendly option, take a Havabus shuttle departing every half hour from the airport arrivals terminal into the tourist center of the new city in Taksim.
Transport in and around Istanbul
The metrobus is the public bus system for Istanbul, and you'll use Istanbulkart card for payment to ride the bus. See the metrobus website for their fares and schedules, and route maps. The buses can get quite packed to the limits during busier morning and evening transit times.
WHAT TO DO
Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)
This is visible from many points of the city. You don't need to buy a ticket to visit, you can join prayers if you'd like to, and you do not need to follow the Muslim faith. See their site here for further information about visiting and prayer times, directions and rules.
Hagia Sophia Museum
The museum is housed in a building which was once a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, it was then turned into a mosque and is now a museum. See visiting information or buy tickets online on their website here.
This is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern lying beneath the city of Istanbul. It features in the James Bond Movie, From Russia with Love. The entrance is in Sultanahmet Square, close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. See their website here for directions, visiting hours and ticket prices.
Go to the restaurant, cafe or night club on the upper levels of the Galata tower for a view of the city. This website is one of the few sites I could find giving information about how to get there, opening hours and ticket cost. You don't need to book online, you can just visit and pay the small entrance fee upon arrival.
Walk across the bridge and stop by the Miniaturk Park to see its tiny artifacts.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Visit this museum to see many historical artifacts. See further information about visiting here, they are not open on Mondays.
The Dolmabahçe Palace
The Dolmabahçe Palace served as the main administration center for the Ottoman empire. See visiting information here.
The Topkapi Palace
This was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. The link to buy online tickets and admission fee to the museum is here.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
For dining and shopping. It is one of the largest and oldest covered market in the world, with more than 4000 stalls.
Turkish Hammām (bath house)
If you'd like to try it out, go to a for a sauna, scrub and massage. Find out what the Hammām requires before you go. See Time Out's best Hammāms to help choose one to visit. I really enjoyed the blogger Adventurous Kate's hilarious account of her Hammām experience, Adventurous Kate Gets Naked In Public.
Where to stay
To stay close to all of the tourism sites, choose to stay in Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu, on the European side of Istanbul.
A list of places to stay, ranging from budget friendly to high-end accommodation, each chosen for their high ratings.
Airbnb, Boutique Flat Central&History Istanbul/Taksim in Beyoğlu
Airbnb, Beautiful location 4 mins to Square.
Airbnb, Sultanahmet best location studio.
Airbnb, Hotel Sultanahmet.
Seraglio Hotel & Suites in Sultanahmet
Georges Hotel Galata in Beyoğlu
Idylle Hotel in Sultanahmet.
Ada Hotel Istanbul in Sultanahmet.
Grand Hyatt Istanbul, near Taksim Square.
Hagia Sophia Mansion in Sultanahmet.
Where to eat
Traditional foods to try:
Baklava - a sweet and crispy dessert, honey sweetened layers of philo pastry and chopped nuts.
Simit - a circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds.
Turkish delight - traditional Turkish cubed confectionery with a base of starch and sugar.
Sulu köfte - Turkish meatball stew.
Yaprak dolması - Vine leaf roll.
Menemen - Turkish style omelette.
Mantı - Turkish style dumpling filled with spiced lamb or beef.
Künefe - an Arab cheese pastry dessert with ground pistachio nuts.
Here are some highly rated restaurants:
Three Partners Cafe & Restaurant, highly rated traditional barbeque house near the Blue Mosque.
Van Kahvaltı Evi for a traditional Turkish breakfast.
Asmalı Cavit, a local traditional Meyhane, which serves traditional Turkish mezes (appetizers).
Mikla, a fine dining Turkish restaurant.
Sunset Grill & Bar, an award-winning restaurant, for Turkish classics, kebab or lamb shank. It also has a sushi bar and a great view of the Bosphorus Strait and Bridge.
General travel tips
Upon arrival at the airport, make sure that you have some 5, 10 or 20 Turkish Lira notes on hand. There are ATMs at the airport. The taxis and shuttle buses from the airport will likely not have card machines and will need payment with smaller Turkish Lira notes.
Istanbul is a large city with many hotels, make sure you have the name and full address of your hotel on paper.
If you plan to use public transportation within Istanbul, get an Istanbulkart card at the airport or at magazine and confectionary kiosks near tram and Metro stations displaying the words 'Istanbulkart' or 'Akbil Dolum Noktası' (Refill Point) and load funds onto it. It is mandatory for use of the public transport system.