Last updated 3 February 2021
With a history spanning almost 1,700 years, Istanbul is a city from stories and legends. Huge and sprawling, its history is visible everywhere, its architecture spanning centuries. It’s also a modern city, home to over 15 million people and growing, with many different personalities and experiences crammed into its streets.
Like any large city, it can be difficult to your head around all the different areas and how they fit together. In short, there’s the Old Town (Sultanahmet and surrounds), the newer areas on the European side of the Bosporus (Taksim and surrounds), and the less touristy areas on the Asian side (Kadikoy).
Where to stay in Istanbul can depend on your interests, circumstances and how much time you have to spend in this remarkable city. Below are some suggestions to get you started. These areas are all convenient, have food and shopping options close by, have some places of historical or cultural interest and are generally safe (just be aware of protests in Taksim Square and avoid the immediate vicinity).
The Grand Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace on your doorstep
Down the road from the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar
Quiet and peaceful neighbourhood at night
The Old Town on Istanbul’s southern peninsula is undeniably the home of the city’s best historical and architectural attractions. Here, you’ll find the beautiful Blue Mosque and the famous Hagia Sophia (first a mosque, then an Orthodox church, then a museum and now a mosque again). The 15th Century Topkapi Palace is also in this area, along with the fascinating National Archaeological Museum and the Grand Bazaar is just a short walk away. All are an easy walk from most hotels in the area, making Sultanahmet a perfect place to stay if you’re only in Istanbul for a couple of days.
Sultanahmet is also a charming area, with narrow streets lined with museums, mosques and shops. You can have a Turkish bath or shave and try a range of street food, all on your doorstep. On the other hand, it can be a busy part of the city, with tour buses and groups, hawkers and higher prices than other areas. The wider Fatih area is religious and relatively conservative, which makes it an interesting contrast with the touristy old town. There is little nightlife in the area – things wind down around midnight – so head over the bridge if you want to go out. If you’re staying in Sultanahmet, make an effort to see more of the city, as there’s a lot more to see in Istanbul.
The heart of the city
Great restaurants, cafes and bars (and nightlife)
Good base for exploring further
Stay in Taksim if you want to feel like you’re in the city centre where things happen. The wide streets, squares and laneways are pedestrian-friendly, which makes it a great place for walking and exploring the city. Taksim offers a lot more space than the old city, and the size of the hotels reflects that. In addition, while Taksim is still touristy, there’s better shopping than in Sultanahmet, and good restaurants and interesting cafes with more competitive prices. At night, you’ll find many places to drink, dance and enjoy yourself around.
There’s a large range of accommodation around here, from more affordable to luxury. Some hotels have lawns and tropical pools, which can be good for relaxing in the warmer summer months. Taksim is very central for exploring the city with easy metro connections to Sultanahmet, and many of the other areas in this list are within easy walking distance. For a glimpse of a more upmarket side of Istanbul, you can also take a cable car that sweeps across a valley to the leafy, residential area of Maçka.
While Taksim is generally safe, keep an eye out for any protests or demonstrations in the square and avoid them, as these have become violent in the past. Otherwise, Taksim makes a great base to explore the city and, if you stay here, you’ll almost certainly enjoy your time in Istanbul.
Safe, quiet neighbourhood close to main attractions
Local parks nearby
Excellent public transport connections
Sirkeci is just outside of Sultanhamet, so it’s an easy walk to the major tourist attractions, especially for little legs. Being slightly out of the centre means the area is bit quieter and not as overwhelming as Sultanhamet. It's also very convenient.
Sitting on a major metro line, Sirkeci has easy connections with both the historic old town and Taksim. Ferries also leave from Sirkeci across the strait, making the Asian side of Istanbul very accessible. As its in the northern part of the old city, you can also walk across the bridge to Karakoy and Galata.
Sirkeci is also home to the Spice Bazaar, a labyrinth of delicious treats which any child would find enticing. Shopping is easy in the streets around the Spice Bazaar and food is everywhere, from fast food kebabs and pides to the long trail of street food from the train station to the bridge. Try the grilled corn, chestnuts and stuffed mussels on your way to Galata Bridge, where you’ll find a large range of restaurants and cafes.
If you have young children, be sure to visit Gülhane Park for a relaxing break from sightseeing. Once the outer grounds of Topkapi Palace, it has beautiful views across the Bosphoros Strait and a playground, tea garden and coffee shops. Stroll along the tree-lined paths or stop for a picnic on a sunny day and take a breath from the business of the city.
While there is a range of hotels in Sirkeci, if you’re after a luxury option, you may prefer Beyazit, near the historical Grand Bazaar. Accommodation here is more spacious, which can be better suited for families, while the area is still very convenient and relaxed.
Charming, boutique hotels
Near romantic walks, beautiful food and water views
Walking distance to Taksim and Galata Tower
Situated between Taksim Square and the port, Cihangir gives you a modern experience of Istanbul. It’s centrally located with a number of modern cafes, restaurants and bars. There are some lovely boutique hotels in the area and, while it’s just a stroll from Taksim, it’s much quieter. Traditionally an artists neighbourhood, the Museum of Innocence is located here, a companion to novelist Orhan Pamuk’s book of the same name.
Cihangir is also very close to Kabataş, where you can find boutique shopping and good ferry connections to the rest of the city. Between the main road and Bosphorus Strait are many museums, waterside restaurants and bars where you can sit, sipping a drink and watching the world go by. It’s a magical and romantic setting, especially after dark, and there are many places where you can try food from different parts of the country.
Up-and-coming area with a charming mix of old and new
Easy transport connections to the Old City, Taksim and Kadikoy
Straddling the Old City and Modern City, Karaköy offers everything from beautiful views to charming, narrow streets. An up-and-coming area, there’s a youthful, edgy vibe to Karaköy with tiny shops, quirky cafes and boutique hotels. A historically multicultural neighbourhood, it’s one of the few places in the city where you’ll see synagogues, churches and mosques side by side as you walk down the street. Despite its charm, prices are surprisingly affordable in Karaköy, compared to other areas in the European side of Istanbul.
While it’s a lovely part of the city, one of the best things about staying in Karaköy is the convenience. Metro connections are very accessible, and there is so much within walking distance. Neighbouring Galeta is known for its tower, nightlife and panoramic views, while Kabataş and even Taksim are walking distance away. Ferries can take you across the strait to Kadikoy and a short walk across the bridge brings you into the old city.
Still, it’s the views and the overall energy which will bring you back, and this historic district also offers great accommodation options for people looking to stay in apartments (it’s quite popular on AirBnB). With art galleries, outdoor terraces and restaurants catering to all budgets, Karaköy is also a great choice if your budget’s a bit tight. If you can stretch a bit further, though, you’ll also find some fantastic places to stay.
A foodie’s dream with delicious restaurants, street food and the central fish market
Convenient for Istanbul Modern Art Museum
The largest shopping street on the Asian side of Istanbul is in this district
The most popular district in the Asian side of Istanbul, Kadiköy is the perfect destination for anyone who loves food. The Fish Market is a ubiquitous stop on food tours in Istanbul, so be sure to wander around yourself as you’ll find excellent restaurants, charcuteries and shops there. This is one of the most popular dining spots for locals in Istanbul so be sure to try at least one of these eateries. Like many of Istanbul’s markets and bazaars, it can get a bit crowded at peak times.
At its heart, Kadiköy is a local area, not a tourist one. While it’s very accessible (many people come here for day trips and there’s a range of accommodation options), you’ll have more everyday experiences if you’re based in this area. Instead of seeing the great attractions of Istanbul, you’ll spend your time walking through interesting streets, visiting local art galleries and cafes and sipping tea in open air tea gardens (try Moda Çay Bahçesi). If you enjoy shopping, head to Bagdat Street - the longest shopping street of the Asian side of Istanbul with 15km of shops, cafes and hotels.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Kadiköy for your first trip to Istanbul, unless you’re planning a longer stay. The main attractions are a ferry ride away and if you only have a few days, you’ll end up spending too much time commuting. If you’ve already seen the major sites and want a deeper experience of the city - or if you simply want to make local food the focus of your stay - this is an excellent place to start.