Cheap flights to Istanbul are a snip since low-cost giant easyJet has injected some competition into the London-Istanbul route. The city's location is dramatic. Perched on the Bosphorus Strait, half is in Europe, half in Asia. Istanbul's glorious imperial history includes stints as the capital city of four empires - Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman.
Istanbul's rich cultural heritage is apparent in the cobbled stones of the vast Grand Bazaar that hubbubs with the sounds of traders and tourists, in the Aya Sofya (Church of the Holy Wisdom, also known by Haghia Sophia, its Greek name), and in the Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for more than 400 years.
Turkish food is magnificent, faves are testi kebab, mercimek corbasi (red lentil soup), kofte (meatballs), imam bayildi (an eggplant and tomato dish, the name of which translates as "the priest wept" to represent its sheer deliciousness), borek (a pastry of which there are hundreds of varieties) and baklava.
Of course, no trip to Istanbul could be complete without a visit to a traditional hamam (bathhouse) or a ferry trip from Eminönü (Europe) to Anadolu Kavagi (Asia).
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Hot in summer, Istanbul’s daytime temperatures are often in the high-20s (Celsius). July and August are the hottest months with the least amount of humidity and rainfall. December and January temperatures are typically in the very low single digits, but seem colder because this is also the most humid time of year. Heavy snowfalls are not unusual during the winter. Spring and autumn are the nicest times to visit with temperatures in the teens and 20s.The yearly rainfall is about 66cm (26in), and most of it falls between November and February.
When to fly to Istanbul
Istanbul’s tourist season runs from April to the end of October. July and August are the busiest months. If you plan on visiting during these months, it's recommended to search for Turkey flights far in advance.
The chill and wetness of winter fends off most visitors, but you will find fewer crowds and lower hotel rates.
The shoulder seasons of April through June and September through October have mild weather, fewer tourists, and slightly lower hotel prices.
Getting around Istanbul
There are a lot of ways of getting around Istanbul, but the best way to explore is on foot. If walking isn’t your thing, you can always get a rechargeable Akbil transit pass, which you can buy at special kiosks and offers discounted fares on the local buses, trams, metro lines and ferries.
Ferries and catamarans will provide great views as you float along the Golden Horn or cruise up the Bosphorus.
Buses go all over the city, but are usually slow and crowded. Take note that you need to buy bus tickets from ticket stands before boarding.
The metro is a good way to avoid traffic jams, and trams provide some great views of the city.
Like many cities, public transport is crowded during rush hours. Ride in comfort by hailing a dolmus (shared minibus taxi) along its route, or picking it up at a dolmus stand. These shared minibuses cost less than regular taxis. When you board you should always give the driver your destination and ask what the cost will be.
If you have your hotel call for a private yellow taxi, make sure the meter is running before you leave.
Istanbul insider information
- Istanbul is a bustling, busy city. If you feel like a break – and want to experience the “two continents” aspect of the city – take a ferry ride along the Bosphorus River. The boat stops at points on both the European and Asian side as it makes its way to the Black Sea. It is a relaxing way of seeing many of the best architectural sites in the city.
- Despite most tourist’s beliefs, shopping doesn’t begin and end with the Grand Bazaar. Head for Bagdat Caddesi, one of the most upmarket streets in the city, for some expensive (window) shopping. The street is on the Asian side of the city. To get there from the European side, take a ferry to Kadikoy and continue on a dolmus.
- If you want a view of the city from on high, head to the Galata Tower. A huge stone circular landmark, it was the lookout in the city walls of the Genoese town of Galata. The panorama lookout at the top is open from 9am to 5pm daily, or to 7pm during the summer. It costs a few dollars. There is also a restaurant and nightclub at the top of the tower.
- Arrive thirsty – everywhere you go you will be offered tea or coffee. Though Turkish coffee, the distinctive, slightly bitter, dark blend, is better known throughout the world, in fact tea is the drink that prevails through most of the day. If you’re shopping in a bazaar or just looking, you’ll almost certainly be offered a cup of tea. Though not rude to refuse the offer, accepting (with a caveat of “I’m not going to buy anything” if necessary) is much more friendly. All tea is served in a glass cup. Especially popular with tourists is apple tea, called elma cai.
- Even if you didn’t plan to buy one, you may well leave Istanbul with a carpet packed into your suitcase. If you want to buy the traditional kilim, however, it is better to leave the city – especially the Grand Bazaar – to the rest of the tourists and head for the small nearby towns in the countryside where the carpets are made.