Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world that spans 2 continents: Europe and Asia. This gives it an interesting mix of eastern and western influences. Aside from diverse the city is also huge, with a population of over 15 million. Most of its attractions are concentrated in two districts though: Taksim and Sultanahmet …
That’s why on this page I focus on showing you those 2 neighborhoods, covering great things to do, eat, and also how to get to both Taksim and Sultanahmet from the airport. Once read you should have a very good idea of what to expect in these 2 popular areas.
About Taksim & Sultanahmet
While Taksim and Sultanahmet both sit on the European side of Istanbul, they’re still separated by the Golden Horn – a natural waterway 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.
The districts that have distinctly different vibes. If you feel like learning about Istanbul’s history and doing some sightseeing, Sultanahmet is the place to visit. For shopping and a buzzing nightlife, Taksim is the place to go.
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 many hotels and restaurants around Taksim Square, and you’ll find the bars and clubs around the nearby Istiklal Street. The whole area is lively at all times of the day. The Square is also a 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 great 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.
Things to Do in Taksim & Sultanahmet
Here I list my top 7 things to do in the 2 districts. It should give you a good idea about what’s out there and what your itinerary could look like.
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.
Must-Eat Foods & Where To Eat Them
Here I list some great Turkish foods combined with some good restaurants to try them at. It should give you a good idea about what’s out there and what your tastebuds will be in for 🙂
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!
A good place to try lahmacun is 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 🙂
How to Get There from the Airport
There are 3 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 fast option is a private transfer.
By Shuttle Bus
Havaist buses transport visitors between the new Airport and Istanbul. 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 there. However, be sure 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 fast 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 starts at 230 TRY, and the journey will take around 50 minutes depending on traffic conditions.