This city has been inspiring the world for centuries, under multiple names over its wealthy history, Istanbul used to be the center of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
Its position, literally and figuratively, between the West and the East, on the edge of Europe and Asia has become its main peculiarity: home to various cultures, Istanbul is a mix of oriental hospitality and western urbanism, not to mention its own, unique Turkish culture with a rich cuisine, precious ancient monuments and friendly locals. You’ll always find something to do in this city, and will be fascinated with Bosphorus running, magnificent bridges, vivid markets, and the overall vibe of the city.
Named third favorite European travel destination, Istanbul attracted 11,9 million foreign visitors in 2014, and the number hasn’t seen decline in recent years. Not surprisingly, you may often find yourself in big crowds in the city - though we’ll do our best to help you avoid those, keep in mind that this is a part of the culture. A vibrant and dynamic city, Istanbul has something interesting to offer everyone, and is a melting pot for international visitors from all over the world.
Which seasons to choose and which to avoid?
The best seasons to visit Istanbul are spring and fall. It may be too crowded and hot in the summer, and winter is the wettest time of the year.
Give preference to coming in late April: that’s the flower season, with tulips blooming, beautiful views and warm weather.
September is also a good option, as the crowds tend to thin out. In late October it rains more frequently, so best to go for early fall.
May brings many visitors, especially the first half of the month and the weekends, try to arrange your visit for another period: June, for example, is less crowded.
August is the busiest month of all: it may be great to lay in the sun at the beach on a seashore but trying to find your way under the midday heat at the bazaar or standing in the queue to the mosque will be fairly difficult and exhausting.
Winter season sees the lowest number of visitors, especially January (slightly followed by February).
One of the top attractions in the city, the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is an active mosque in Istanbul and attracts crowds of believers and visitors from all corners of the globe.
Photo credits to Gian Cornachini via Flickr CC BY 2.0)
During prayer time the mosque is closed to tourists (for about 90 minutes each session), so check praying hours beforehand (for example, here). The start of prayer sessions depends on the sun and therefore varies throughout the year. The mosque opens to visitors roughly 30 minutes after the first prayer session and closes one hour before sunset.
The worst day to visit the mosque is Friday: there are more worshipers coming to pray, the most important prayer takes place at noon, and it lasts longer. The mosque is closed on Friday mornings, so after lunch, when the doors open to tourists, the queue is usually very long.
Tip: The Blue Mosque is generally more crowded in the afternoon, try to plan your visit for the morning. The best time to visit is between sunrise and the noon prayer hours.
Tip 2: The average waiting time to enter the Mosque is 30 minutes.
Don’t forget the dress code: women should enter the Mosque with their heads covered. Naked ankles or shoulders are prohibited for both men and women. You’ll need to take off your shoes at the entrance.
Taking photos with flash is forbidden inside the Mosque. The entrance itself is free, but you can leave a donation.
The eighth wonder of the world, Hagia Sophia served as a Christian church for almost a millenium, then it was converted into a mosque and remained a place of worship for another 482 years until Ataturk converted it into a museum. A great example of Byzantine architecture with exquisite interiors and decorations (marble pillars, mosaics, etc.), Hagia Sophia is another must-see place in Istanbul, attracting millions of visitors annually.
Tip: We suggest you buy your tickets online in order to skip the queue.
Tip 2: The best time to go to Hagia Sophia is in the evening, before closing time. During high season (autumn, spring, with a considerable peak in May) we suggest you come about 1,5 hours before closing time. During low season (November-March, June-July) there is hardly any queue 2-3 hours before closing time. If you think you may need more time for the visit - come to the museum at the opening time (or 15 minutes before during high season).
Tip 3: Best days of the week for Hagia Sophia’s visit are Wednesdays and Thursdays. Try to avoid Friday mornings: as the Blue Mosque is closed until 2:30 p.m. on this day, Hagia Sophia will receive much bigger crowds than the other days of the week.
If you see a waiting line inside Hagia Sophia - it’s the queue for the Wishing column. People make their wishes by rotating their thumb in a complete clockwise circle inside the hole, in the column, at the northwest of the building.
This place was the Ottoman Empire’s court from the 15th to 19th century. Founded by Sultan Mehmed II, the Palace complex also contains some important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword.
Photo credits to Marco Zanferrari via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tip: If you don’t want to wait in queues, we advise you to buy your ticket online.
Tip 2: Without a pre-purchased ticket the best solution to avoid queues is to come as early as possible and start the visit with the Harem and Treasury sections. The biggest crowds are in the late morning and start disappearing after 3 pm. So if you don’t want to get up early - try coming in the afternoon after this time.
Tip 3: The best day of the week to visit Topkapi Palace is Monday morning. Wednesdays and Fridays are rather busy: especially Friday morning when the Blue Mosque is closed until 2:30p.m, bringing an extra flow of tourists to Topkapi.
Tip 4: On weekends and holidays the average waiting time to get inside is 40 minutes.
In winter months you won’t need to worry about queues, as they are rare to inexistant.
If you come to Istanbul - you can’t let yourself miss this place! One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, it has 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops inside, not to mention mosques, hammams and restaurants. It will take you a couple of hours to wander around it. FLip side: this place attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily and there’s no way to fully avoid crowds here.
Tip: Give preference to arriving at opening time. A big part of Instanbul tourists during high season arrive with cruises, and you can try your luck visiting the place before they arrive. Check the cruise timetable for the dates of your visit: you may have 5 cruise boats arriving today and only one tomorrow. Best to go tomorrow then!
Photo credits to Moyan Brenn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Tip 2: Give preference to visiting mid-week. Saturdays have the biggest crowds, Mondays tends to be busier than most weekdays due to the Bazaar being closed on Sundays. Fridays usually have more cruise boats. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays tend to be the best days to visit this place.
Tip 3: Don’t let yourself get irritated by persistent sellers: it’s a sort of cultural game you’re invited to participate in. Even if you got tired of “Buy this carpet” proposals you can have fun by inventing a new answer every time you hear this question. Keep on smiling, you’ll get better deals!
Tip 4: Keep calm and bargain. It’s a normal thing to bargain in the bazaar, it is expected and already reflected in the prices. Consider that the fair price for the item you’d like to buy is around 40% of what the vendor is asking for it, and start negociating. The stories about a huge family with 6 starving children shouldn’t fool you. If the process gets too long - just state your last price and stay firm: the vendor will either sell you the good for that price or leave you in peace, without arguing round and round.
The main rule for the Grand Bazaar visit is that you should come in a good mood to be able to enjoy it.
You can always enjoy the city without queues by just wandering around. Cisterns and parks are great to hide from the midday sun, while outdoor sites are a pleasant way to spend late afternoons.
There is an Istanbul Museum Pass for 5 days (85 TL), issued by the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. You can book it here. The Pass gives free access to:
You can also buy the museum pass in the ticket offices of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Chora Museum and İstanbul Archaeological Museums.
Up to you to decide whether the card pays off: it depends completely on your plans!
The good news is that the card gives you priority access, which may already be a good deal during high season.
If you doubt that the Pass is worth it, prefer booking separate online tickets for the sites you’re interested in, on the same website: you can easily book your tickets for Hagia Sophia (40 TL) or Topkapi Palace (40 TL + 25 TL for Harem visit).
Another city pass existing for Istanbul - Istanbul Tourist Pass - is not worth the money in our opinion, as it costs more (150 € for 3 days) and gives access to just two top sites (Hagia Sophia + Topkapi without Harem). There is the Hop-on Hop-off Bus and some extra options included (like WiFi, WhatsApp guiding) but it turns out to be more expensive overall.
We’re waiting for your postcards and iyi yolculuklar! (Have a good trip!)