Istanbul is a fascinating city – it’s one of the very few cities in the world to span two continents, with an interesting mix of eastern and western influences. It’s also huge, home to over 15 million. Most of its best attractions are concentrated in two districts though: Taksim and Sultanahmet.
On this page, I’ve written a comprehensive guide on what to do, where to stay, and where to eat in Taksim and Sultanahmet. This should give you a good idea of what you can expect from these two popular areas in Istanbul.
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About Taksim & Sultanahmet
Taksim and Sultanahmet both sit on the European side of Istanbul. The two areas sit next to each other, yet they’re separated by the Golden Horn – a natural harbor named as such because the water appears golden from the sun’s reflection at sunset. The Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn, linking the two areas.
Taksim means ‘distribution’. This square used to be where the city’s water lines converged before the water was diverted to other parts of the city. Today, Taksim Square is the heart of modern Istanbul.
There are hotels and restaurants all around Taksim Square, and you’ll find many bars and clubs around the nearby Istiklal Street. The whole area is very lively at all times of the day. The Square is also a very popular place for locals to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and watch parades or concerts.
The most unmissable feature of Taksim Square is the Independence Monument, sculpted by Pietro Canonica to celebrate the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. It is also the turnaround point for the famous nostalgic tram traveling the Istiklal Caddesi pedestrian shopping street.
A wonderful contrast to the modern Taksim Square, Sultanahmet is the historical center of old Istanbul. This part of the city used to be called Constantinople, while the rest of Istanbul’s current areas were still other independent cities, villages, or undeveloped land.
Sultanahmet has been a major tourist district since the 1960s, as it’s where most of Istanbul’s attractions are concentrated. Here, you’ll find a cluster of iconic structures like the Haga Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cistern, all within walking distance of each other.
There’s plenty more to do in Sultanahmet, beyond sightseeing. You can shop for souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar, immerse yourself in some history at the Mosaic Museum, admire tulips in Gulhane Park, or have a hammam experience in Cagaloglu Hamami, a public bath that has been running since 1741.
Taksim Square vs Sultanahmet
Taksim and Sultanahmet are two districts that have distinctly different vibes. If you enjoy learning about Istanbul’s history and sightseeing, head to Sultanahmet. For shopping and buzzing nightlife, Taksim is the place to go.
Things to Do in Taksim & Sultanahmet
Between the two tourist districts of Istanbul, there’s plenty to do. You can visit Istanbul’s most historic attractions in Sultanahmet, and then head to Taksim for some shopping, and experience the city’s vibrant nightlife.
Here, I list my top 7 things to do so that you’ll have a good idea about what’s there in order to build a fun itinerary.
Marvel at the Details in the Blue Mosque
Located in Sultanahmet, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of its interior. Inside, you’ll find over 20,000 ceramic Iznik tiles hand-painted in blue, covering the interior in many designs, featuring tulips, roses, carnations and lilies.
The mosque is also known for its 6 minaret towers. It’s only outnumbered by the Great Mosque of Mecca. Do note that it’s best to dress respectfully for a visit, though you can loan a shawl at the door if you need.
Count Tulips at Gulhane Park
Gülhane Park means “House of Roses Park” in Turkish. It used to be a private garden that was part of Topkapi Palace’s grounds, but it was opened to the public in 1912. It’s located in Sultanahmet and it’s one of the city’s largest parks.
The park is a beautiful green space which gives you views over the Golden Horn and Istanbul Strait, so it’s worth a visit at any time of the year. However, the best time to visit is during the months of March and April, when the park is filled with millions of tulips during the Istanbul Tulip Festival.
Haggle Your Way through the Grand Bazaar
Another attraction in Sultanahmet is the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets. It dates back to the 15th century, and has grown to house over 4,000 shops, with 61 covered streets and a whopping 18 gates.
Inside, you’ll find Turkey’s famous carpets and kilims, Turkish silver art, ceramics, lamps, leather goods, and antique jewelry. It’s a great place to shop for souvenirs to bring home, but even if you don’t plan on buying anything, it’s worth taking a walk to experience the lively atmosphere.
Cruise Down the Bosphorus on a Boat Tour
The Bosphorus is a busy waterway separating the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. A popular way to experience Istanbul life is to take a boat tour down the Bosphorus, taking in the landmarks by the waterfront.
There are various boat tours to suit your budget and travel style. You can do a simple cruise on a ferryboat, upgrade to a sunset cruise in a luxury yacht, combine a cruise with dinner on a ship, or with a city tour, and more.
Walk Across the Galata Bridge
If you’re visiting Istanbul, you’ll end up crossing the Galata Bridge at some point, as it links the “modern” side of European Istanbul where Taksim is, with the old city of Sultanahmet. It’s a historical crossing, first built in 1845 and updated many times throughout the centuries.
Galata Bridge is a bustling place, great for observing local life. The current bridge has two levels, the lower of which houses restaurants serving various Turkish cuisine including fresh fish caught daily. On the upper level, you’ll often see fishermen casting fishing lines into the water.
Take in the Vibes at Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street is the best place to experience the buzzing spirit of Istanbul. The long street starts at Taksim Square and ends close to the Galata Tower, near Galata Bridge. 3 million people pas through this street every day!
There’s plenty to do there, with many shops and restaurants lining the street, as well as many bars mostly found within its side streets.
A fun way to travel down Istiklal Street is to take a ride on the iconic red nostalgic tram, which was first installed in the 19th century and restored in the 1990s.
Experience Istanbul’s Nightlife
Taksim Square and Istiklal Street aren’t just busy in the day, they are the best locations for nightlife in Istanbul as well. There are many bars and clubs there, popular with tourists and locals alike. Popular spots include Istanbul 360, a stylish rooftop bar. And Babylon, a live-music venue.
A good way to experience nightlife in Istanbul is with a pub crawl. In 7 hours, you’ll visit at least 3 popular nightlife spots. It includes free welcome shots and free entry to all the locations visited. But the best part is of course meeting new fellow pub crawlers 🙂
The Best Restaurants & Must-Eat Foods
There are endless choices for food in Taksim and Sultanahmet, where you can find everything from street food, to casual restaurants, and small cafes serving sweet treats.
Here, I describe 3 of the best places, where you can taste some of the most popular and unique foods in Istanbul – doner kebab, lahmacun, and baklava.
Doner Kebab at Durumzade
Döner is one of Turkey’s most famous dishes. It’s a way of preparing meat on a vertical spit, which is then cut into thin shavings. It’s most commonly served as a kebab, but you’ll also find döner at restaurants served on a plate with sides of fries, pilaf, grilled peppers and tomatoes.
A good place to try döner kebabs is Durumzade, a small, unassuming shop located a short walk away from Taksim Square. The shop was recommended on a show by the late Anthony Bourdain, so you can be sure your taste buds are in for a treat 🙂
Lahmacun at Bitlisli
Lahmacun is a thin piece of dough topped with flavorful minced meat, vegetables, herbs and spices, and then baked. Think of it as a crispy Turkish pizza!
To try lahmacun, head to Bitlisli, a casual restaurant located in Sultanahmet, just a short walk away from the Blue Mosque and Haga Sophia. They serve a variety of Turkish cuisine, but the lahmacun is one of the star dishes, and the garlic lahmacun in particular is popular.
Baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu
Baklava is a very popular Turkish dessert, a rich pastry filled with nuts, and syrup or honey. In the 19th century, baklava was a luxury food only the wealthy could afford, but fortunately for us it’s now a common dessert dish you can find at many restaurants and shops.
You can try some of Istanbul’s best baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu, which is located near the Galata Bridge. The shop is well-known for selling not only the typical sweet baklava, but savory variants including cheese and minced meat. You can even bring some back for friends and family 🙂
Where to Stay, from Budget to Luxury
Choosing between Taksim and Sultanahmet for accommodation in Istanbul depends on your personal preferences and travel style. Here’s a quick summary of both neighborhoods to help you decide.
Sultanahmet: If sightseeing and experiencing the charm of the old city is your top priority, staying here is a good bet as all the top tourist attractions will be located within walking distance. However, there is no nightlife in the area, though it’s safe to walk around at night.
Taksim: If you prefer a lively place with nightlife, consider staying at Taksim as Istiklal Street is buzzing at all times of the day with restaurants, bars and pubs. The area can get quite crowded during the weekend though, and sightseeing requires a bit of traveling.
With that said, my personal recommendation for accommodation is Taksim because of its lively atmosphere, and it’s still quite near the top sightseeing spots. Here, I’ve listed a few of the best hotels in the Taksim area based on budget, to help you decide where to stay.
Budget: Taksim House Hotel
Located near Taksim Square, Taksim House is a small budget hotel in a historic building with rooms that are basic, comfortable and clean. Besides double and twin rooms, there are also single rooms available, so it’s a good choice for solo travelers.
The main advantage of Taksim House Hotel is its location, which is just about 50 meters away from the bustling Istiklal Street. It’s also very close to the metro station, so exploring Istanbul is easy peasy.
A good mid-range option is Bankerhan, a boutique hotel in an 18th-century building located in the Galata area, near Galata bridge. It’s a short walk away from Istiklal Street, and a leisurely stroll or short tram ride to Sultanahmet, as there’s a tram stop very close by.
Many of the rooms in the hotel have good views overlooking the Golden Horn across to Sultanahmet.
If your budget allows, go for a room with a private terrace, where you can start the day with Turkish tea, looking out to the sea 🙂
Soho House Istanbul
For a luxury stay in the Taksim area, consider Soho House Istanbul. There are a variety of rooms to choose from including some duplex units and one apartment, all of which are tastefully decorated in a classic style.
The hotel also has a well-equipped gym which even has a boxing ring, a popular in-house Italian restaurant, Cecconi’s, as well as a rooftop bar with lap pool where you can take in great views over the city.
P.S. If you’d rather stay in Sultanahmet instead, 3 good alternative hotels to have a look at with similar price-points are Arven Boutique Hotel, Neorion Hotel, and the Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet.
How to Get There from the Airport
There are three options for getting from Istanbul Airport to Taksim or Sultanahmet – shuttle bus, taxi, or private transfer. The most budget-friendly option is the shuttle bus, and the most comfortable and convenient option is a private transfer, though it costs significantly higher.
By Shuttle Bus
Havaist buses transport visitors between the new Istanbul Airport (IST) and Taksim or Sultanahmet. A one-way journey costs 18 TRY which you must pay via the Istanbulkart transportation pass. The journey takes about 100 minutes in normal traffic.
To Taksim: Board from bay 14. Get off at the last stop in front of Point Hotel. From there you can walk or take a taxi to your hotel.
To Sultanahmet: Board from bay 16. The bus stops at Sultanahmet Square, near the Haga Sophia.
Taking the taxi is another way of getting to Taksim or Sultanahmet. However, do remember to always get a taxi from the official taxi ranks outside the airport terminal to avoid getting scammed.
To Taksim: A one-way journey takes around 1 hour depending on the traffic and route, and will cost at least 105 TRY.
To Sultanahmet: A one-way journey takes around 75 minutes depending on the traffic and route, and will cost a minimum of 135 TRY.
By Private Transfer
The most comfortable and convenient option is to book a private transfer. Some hotels offer airport pickups for a fee, or you can also book a trip yourself through a transport company. You’ll be picked up at arrivals, you’ll know your fare in advance, and you can also prepay.
The fare depends on your travel group size and vehicle class. A basic four-seater sedan from Istanbul Airport to Taksim or Sultanahmet starts at 230 TRY, and the journey will take around 50 minutes depending on traffic conditions.
Taksim & Sultanahmet Map
Conclusion & Summary
Between the two tourist districts of Taksim and Sultanahmet, you can plan a very well-rounded city vacation in Istanbul – a city where old meets new.
Spend your days in Sultanahmet, visiting world-famous attractions with centuries of history behind them. Once the sun sets, you can then head to modern Taksim to experience some of the most vibrant nightlife spots in Europe.
Between these two districts, you’ll also never be lacking chances to try delicious Turkish cuisine as there are restaurants, cafes or stalls to be found at every corner.
Hope this helps you make the most out of your visit to Istanbul! 🙂