Top 10 Istanbul Old Town Tips – Istanbul Travel Advice

The most visited part of Istanbul is its old town, or as we call it, the “historical peninsula.” This was Constantinople, the center of the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empire. The vast majority of historic sites and tourist attractions are in this area. So you will most likely visit, maybe even stay in a hotel in this area. So the big question is, how do you make the most out of it? Here’s our Istanbul travel advice:

Tip #1: Visit Topkapi Palace & Basilica Cistern early in the morning.

Topkapi Palace is Turkey’s most visited museum, according to 2022 statistics, with over 2.35 million tourists. And the Basilica Cistern is also definitely in the top 10 with 1.34 million tourists. However, it has a lot smaller capacity than the Topkapi Palace, so it gets equally crowded, if not more.

Most museums tend to get more crowded at noon and afternoon. Thus to have a better visiting experience, we recommend you visit such popular museums earlier. This way, you can leave other activities to noon and afternoon. Moreover, by doing so, you’ll save precious time. This doesn’t apply as much if you visit during the low season, though, that is January-February-March. Any other month it gets crowded, and during spring and fall, super packed.

Tip #2 Visit Hagia Sophia in the evening

istanbul travel advice

Not many people know that Hagia Sophia is open till late at night until 22:00, and you don’t have to queue for hours. The same applies when visiting the Galata Tower, as it is open until 23:00. This is a simple trick that most people don’t know. Naturally, most visitors assume historic sites will close early, which is the case for most places. However, Hagia Sophia is an active mosque, and it is open all day for prayers and until 22:00 for visitors. This little Istanbul travel advice can save you up to 2 hours of queueing.

Tip #3 Don’t miss out on less popular museums and attractions

Everybody knows the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, etc. But not so many people know about the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, for example. Not enough people know about Turkey’s oldest and most impressive archeological museum, Istanbul Archeological Museum. Most people haven’t even heard of the Great Palace Mosaics Museum. Everybody knows Hagia Sophia, but not so many people have heard of the Little Hagia Sophia. Everybody asks where is the Blue Mosque, but not many people know that there is a larger and older mosque built by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificient, which also is the resting place of Sultan Süleyman and his beloved wife Hürrem Sultan, the amazing Süleymaniye Mosque

Everybody knows the Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern, but not many people know there is a 3D light show in Şerefiye Cistern.. Which is only 10 mins’ walking distance from Basilica Cistern.. the list goes on.

Top 10 Lesser Known Museums and Attractions in Istanbul

Tip #4 Book a guided tour – Istanbul Travel Advice

Booking a guided tour will guarantee you to skip long waiting lines in museums like the Topkapi Palace or Basilica Cistern. Furthermore, a good, experienced guide can really make a difference in how you experience a historical site with their knowledge and skill. Tour guiding is a very serious profession in Turkey that requires years of studying, passing exams, and field training. Unlike some countries, it isn’t a student’s side gig. 

Of course, you don’t need a guide to enter anywhere; however, booking a guided tour can definitely elevate your traveling experience. Plus, you can get many insider tips from your local tour guide to maximize your visit. A decent tour guide will enhance your traveling experience and also make you a knowledgeable local friend.

Top 10 Guided Tours in Istanbul

Tip #5 Discover the Rooftops

istanbul travel advice

Sultanahmet (the old city) is one of Turkey’s most charming neighborhoods, not just Istanbul. And no square inch is wasted; every stone, every corner, every line has a purpose and use in this place, and so do the rooftops. The old town of Istanbul is full of rooftop restaurants and cafes with spectacular views of the city. Some also have an aerial view of the Bosphorus, some even the Golden Horn. Look up when you walk around, and you will spot plenty of rooftop restaurants and cafes.

Tip #6 Explore the Backstreets for Alternative Options

The old town of Istanbul is a vast area and is almost non-residential, meaning there are very few apartments. It’s street after street of businesses. So there are dozens, if not hundreds, of options for restaurants, cafes, stores, etc. Some are right in your face when you reach the old town, but most are hiding in the backstreets. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. On the contrary, some of the best restaurants or cafes locals visit are in the old town’s backstreets. Restaurants and cafes on the main streets primarily cater to foreign tourists.

Tip #7 Be aware that taxis won’t enter the old city area

Regular cars and taxis can’t enter the historic old town area. So getting a cab to avoid walking to the entrance of Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace is not the best move. You might walk MORE if you go by taxi rather than public transportation. The T1 tram line passes right in front of Hagia Sophia and stops very close to Blue Mosque. However, taxis or private cars can only drive around the restricted area. So you might end up walking longer distances while hoping that you’re avoiding walking.

Tip #8 Dress Accordingly and Mind What You Carry With You

Istanbul can be hot during summer. You could wear short skirts, dresses, or shorts. However, if you intend to visit mosques or other places with a dress code, you must follow the dress code. Most places like Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque have headscarves and cover-alls. Sometimes you need to purchase it, and sometimes it is free, but you need to return it later. However, this means waiting in additional lines to receive the covers. This way, you save time and pick the right scarf for your outfit. 

Another essential detail is the limitation of things you can carry with you when entering museums or mosques. In most places, alcohol, drones, sharp objects, filming or recording equipment, tripods etc are not allowed.

Tip #9 Carry Some Cash

Although you can pay with card in almost every restaurant, museum, store and café, there are still some places that do not accept card payment, like the famous Selim Usta Sultanahmet Köftecisi for example, which is a historical meatball restaurant in the old town area, there are some kiosks, restaurants, cafes, stores that won’t take card.

Another reason to carry cash is to leave tips. Tipping is in Turkish culture; leaving 10% tips in restaurants, cafes, and bars is customary. It is typical to tip the hotel lobby, bellhop, food delivery guy, barber, driver, tour guide…

If you don’t have cash with you, you can easily withdraw from ATMs lying all over the place. ATMs in Turkey accept almost all the cards in the world. 

Tip #10 Compare Prices & Bargain in Stores

istanbul travel advice

Don’t forget that you’re visiting the most touristic place in one of the most touristic cities in the world. Compare food prices, transportation prices, ticket prices, tour prices, and activity prices. There is no golden standard for the service and tourism industry; make no mistake, Istanbul is no exception. There will be cheap and good options as well as overpriced and not ideal options. This applies to everything.

You can also bargain in shops if the product has no brand, like a hand-made carpet store, for example, or a ceramic souvenir shop.

Bargaining Like a Pro – When to Bargain in Istanbul

For more related Istanbul travel advice:

Top 10 Places to Visit in Istanbul

Top 10 Guided Tours in Istanbul

How Do I Go to the Old Town Area?