I believe you would need at least a week to explore Istanbul but if you don’t have that much time, you can cover the most important things in three to four days. Keeping that in mind, you can make Istanbul one of your long weekend destinations.
This article will be dedicated to Istanbul’s hotels. Additionally, some information about apartments in Istanbul will be provided. Besides, you can find relevant information about characteristics of accommodation in Istanbul in this article.
So, let’s take a closer look at Istanbul’s districts.
What Area is the Best to Stay in Istanbul?
As you know, Istanbul is located both in Europe and Asia. As travelers, we prefer the European part where most of tourist attractions and hotels are located. Plus, this part is more accessible from the airport. You can easily recognize the European part on the map: that’s the triangle between the Marmara sea and the Golden Horn. Right at the top you will find the Topkapı Palace, the church of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern. This is the tourist center of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet District. To the west from here you will find the Grand Bazaar district and the hill with the Süleymaniye Mosque. If you continue moving to the west you will get into a less touristic but not less interesting district in the area of the Fatih Mosque. To the north-west from the Sultanahmet district there is the Eminönü district that is a hive of activity with lots of fish shops, the railway station and a lively shopping area. The bridge to the north connects this district with the Galata district located around the noticeable in this city landscape Galata Tower. Just above from there you will find Istiklal street and Taksim square – the Beyoglu district. Farther away there are skyscrapers of modern business quarters.
I focused on the European part of Istanbul for a reason. Of course, if needed you can find good hotels in the Asian part as well but they are farther away from the downtown (read: shopping, street life, everything that you come here for), and you will have to spend a lot of time and money for the transport. So, if you don’t have a very important reason to stay in the Asian part of the city, I recommend to choose accommodation in the European part.
The largest number of Istanbul attractions per square mile can be found in the Sultanahmet district. No matter if you come to the city for the first time or are a regular tourist who wants to refresh his/her first memories of this place, you should definitely pay attention to this district. All sights are within an easy reach. Plus, the airport can be easily reached as well: 20 minutes by a high-speed tram that makes a number of stops in the city center to the metro stop (there are no metro stations in the historical downtown) and then around 30 minutes by metro right until the terminal. In addition to the sights and easy accessibility the district can boast a great infrastructure: you can find here lots of cafes and restaurants for any budget and a bazillion of souvenir shops where you can have a good bargain for a magnet, a bag or even a rug.
Sultanahmet is a large district and there are some subdistricts with their own benefits and drawbacks. I think that the best area for accommodation here is the quarter that is located a bit downside from Hagia Sophia, somewhere halfway between the Basilica and the Topkapı park. The underground Cistern is located across the road, so all three main tourist attractions of the city will not just be within an easy reach, they will be right there in front of you. The district can boast a great architecture: three-floor buildings built at the end of the 19th century look as if they were planked with wood. Some of the hotels in this area have copied this style. The narrow street along the Topkapı’s wall used to be home to old boarding houses. One of them even welcomed Spanish Queen Sophia as its guest. The ground floors of the buildings facing the streets accommodate souvenir shops and amazing (though quite expensive) restaurants where Turkish cuisine is served and where women wearing white clothes sit right in the shop window and cook various dishes. Hotels here are mostly affordable. During the low season (for example, in February) you can book a nice room with a complimentary breakfast for just 50 dollars.
The advantages of staying here are obvious: tourist attractions can be easily reached, original Turkish quarters (in the area of the Süleymaniye Mosque and around the Fatih Mosque) are 10-15 minutes on foot away, the pier from where lots of tourist and regular boats sail is also just 15 minutes away. Some hotels have a terrace for breakfasts on the roof from where you can observe the street and the yards of the nearby houses when the weather is good. If you are lucky, you can see the dome of the Hagia Sophia every day and feed local gulls and cats. The disadvantage of this district is a very lively street nearby – that’s the one where the high-speed tram goes through. You can’t expect decent soundproofing here – either they don’t install such systems in old houses or it just does not make sense to do that when the climate is so warm most of the time. However, just ten years ago it was much louder here: numerous taxis went through this district honking every single tourist on their way. The tram make much less noise but if you are a light sleeper, then ask for a room that is facing the courtyard or bring your earplugs with you. In this area I recommend to take a closer look at such hotels as The Empress Theodora Hotel, Boutique Saint Sophia, The Print House Hotel, Hagia Sophia Hotel Istanbul Old City.
Another attractive quarter is located along the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Now it is a long oval-shaped square to the side from the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultanahmet Camii). The quarter enjoys a great location. If your room faces the square or if it is located on the third floor or above you will have the view of the obelisk of Theodosius I or the Serpent Column, as well as numerous minarets of the Blue Mosque. And if the hotel has a veranda for breakfasts on the roof, then you will also see the Hagia Sophia. An additional bonus is that there is less transport here and this district is quieter than the one near the Hagia Sophia that is described above. Plus, it has a good connection to the metro – the tram stop is located near the hippodrome, a bit closer to the Hagia Sophia. Here you can also find a lot of taxis. Some might see as a possible disadvantage of the quarter the muezzin’s calls for prayers that start from five o’clock in the morning and are heard in half of the Sultanhamet district. The ground floors of the buildings are occupied with cafes and bars that can be sometimes loud. Nice accommodation options in this area are, in my opinion, such hotels as World Heritage Hotel Istanbul, Lady Diana Hotel, Hotel Djem and Hotel Spectra Sultanahmet.
Farther away from the hippodrome and closer to the Bosphorus there are two interesting quarters in Sultanahmet.
The center of one of them is the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque (Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii). Here you will find a large number of very authentic Turkish buildings, most of which I believe are abandoned. I think that probably soon enough most of them will be destroyed when the district will be cleaned out but for now you can find a very nice place for yourself here with views at the sea. You can even imagine what it was like just 30 years ago when the fishmen returned home every evening with their catch. The district is very peculiar: when you turn around a corner here you can find a quiet mosque and an old graveyard, and a bit farther you will see clothes hanging on the line and drying and women in calico dresses who gossip talking to each other from their balconies (if you pass through they will gossip about you too). At the same time, main tourist attractions are just within a few minutes from here but you forget about it exploring these narrow streets here. The drawback of this district is a certain level of sloppiness: you can find piles construction materials near the houses, some of the houses don’t smell nice because of the dampness and mildew, there is not enough light in the evenings and I wouldn’t risk walking down these streets late in the evening or in the night. Plus, there are hardly any places to eat here – shops for locals are closing very early, and all the eateries are rather for locals than for tourists. You should also keep in mind that this area is located downhill and to explore the main sights you will have to walk uphill every day. Besides, as the district is residential, your room might face the school yard and you will have to “enjoy” the colorful and loud atmosphere of kids running late to their class or playing soccer outside. However, hotel rates here are cheaper than in the nearby more comfortable quarters, and if the hotel is located closer to the Bosphorus, there is a high chance of having a nice terrace in the hotel with a view at the blue sea and ships. Interesting accommodation options here are local hotels Arena Hotel, Rumours Inn, Harmony Hotel Istanbul, Hotel Coliseum and Rose Garden Suites.
Nearby, to the east from the Blue Mosque, there is a glamorous (in my opinion) district with the famous Four Seasons hotel situated in the building of the old prison where the interior reminds you of old Ottoman palaces. Instead of the chaotic bazaar that was here years ago, a new indoor market was built here, and the district changed for the best – now you can find here a lot of hotels and restaurants. Local hotels boast a great location, they are just five to seven minutes away from the Blue Mosque, ten minutes away from the Hagia Sophia, and you can reach the sea shore in just a few minutes. The market adds color to the district but it is rather a tourist attraction than a place where you should buy something. Here you will find many shops with rugs and carpets – their owners wouldn’t let you just pass through calling you in the shop. If you are fine with that, then I believe the only drawback of this district is a huge number of tourist buses that definitely want to turn around just in front of you – many U.S. and English tourist groups stay here. Eateries here are rather expensive, so choose a place for dinner closer to the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı). Nice hotels in this area include Hotel Uyan – Special Category, Seven Hills Hotel, Azade Premier, Ferman Hotel, Hotel Novano, Acra Hotel – Special Category and Amiral Palace Hotel.
The Area of Gülhane Park and Sirkeci Railway Station
A bit closer to the Bosphorus there is a district squeezed into Gülhane Park (Gülhane Parki) and Ankara Caddesi and Ebusuud Caddesi streets, that is bordering on the Istanbul railway station Sirkeci (Sirkeci Garı). From the point of the transport connection and location convenience this district is not bad: there are a couple of tram stops here, you can walk to the Eminönü pier from where you can take a tourist boat or a ferry. Not far from here there is a bus stop. The railway station is a functional one, and from here you can easily take a train to explore the rest of the country. The Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace can be reached in five to fifteen minutes (the district is rather large), but you will need less time to reach the Galata district with its tower from here. There are lots of cafes and restaurants here, a couple of small supermarkets and many shops selling lots of stuff from fruits to bags to rugs. In its lower part (closer to Sultanahmet) the district is especially convenient: there are many hotels, some of which have an added bonus in the form of the views at the Bosphorus. Here you should keep in mind that if you want to have a good view and not the room facing the nearby courtyard, you should ask the room on the third floor and above, rooms located below the third floor will not have the amazing views of the Bosphorus. I have already mentioned that you won’t have a problem with food in this district but I would like to give a tip based on my experience: at least once go to the Eminönü pier and eat a fresh mackerel kebab purchased right from the boat. And, since we are talking about street food now, note that you can eat local food from any stand in Istanbul – the food is fresh, nicely cooked and amazingly delicious. The drawbacks of the district include the proximity of the railway station (some quarters here are not very clean, and some parts of the area consists of rows of abandoned buildings) and the noise. If you choose a hotel on one of the central streets of the district you risk to spend a night listening to the shouts of local fans in the bars, and transport honks. If there is a mosque located nearby, then you will be called for a prayer at the dawn along with locals. You can probably count on the soundproofing but I recommend to choose a hotel farther away in the quarter on a quiet street or go through tourists’ feedback on booking websites to get information from people who really stayed in a hotel you picked. I found some good accommodation options here, such as Levni Hotel & SPA - Special Category, Tayahatun Hotel, Hotel Sapphire, Raymond Blue Hotel, Yasmak Comfort Hotel, Hypnos Design Hotel and Old Istanbul Hotel.
The Area of Süleymaniye Mosque
There are some hotels between the Eminönü pier and the Süleymaniye mosque (Süleymaniye Camii). This is a great place for accommodation for those travelers who plan, for example, to take a ferry to go to the Prince Islands in the early morning hours. Or those who come to Istanbul on their merchant business (there is a huge market at the foot of the mosque). The district is peculiar: you can find cozy streets with cute coffee shops, and loud areas where people load and unload the goods all day long. Around seven o’clock in the evening shopping streets become deserted, and while they are safe to walk through, they are not very interesting destinations. Location-wise the district is very good: there is a pier here, bus and tram stops, and from here you can also reach both the historical downtown and the Galata tower on foot. If the hotel building has more than three four floors, ask a room with a view at the Bosphorus, but if you want to have a peaceful night, I would recommend a room facing a courtyard or a side street. Decent options in this area are Régie Ottoman Istanbul – Special Category, Empire Suite Hotel and Manesol Old City Bosphorus.
To the north from the large complex of the Süleymaniye mosque there are many hotels between the mosque and the sea shore. Prices here are better in Sultanahmet – you can easily find a room for $30 40 with a complimentary breakfast even in high summer season, and that is a definite advantage of this district. From here you can reach the pier and the Galata bridge on foot in just 10-15 minutes. The Hagia Sophia is 20-25 minutes away. But at first, you should make sure you remember your hotel’s address (you can take the hotel’s visit card with the address) because you can easily get lost in the numerous serpentine-like streets leading to your hotel. The drawbacks of this district include the general raggedness of the buildings, but there is hope that in the near future this district will experience renovation. Here you can experience the panoramic views from your room. Süleymaniye boasts one of the best views at the city, so if your hotel is located near the mosque, you have a great chance to enjoy the sunrise at the Bosphorus (accompanied with the calls of muezzin of the Süleymaniye who wake up the entire quarter). You should also keep in mind that there is a steep climb from some of the sights and this district is not exactly comfortable to walk around in the late evening – even though Istanbul is considered to be a relatively safe city, empty streets cause discomfort. Stay away from groups of little gypsies who would beg for something while trying to hold on to your body. To avoid that you can walk closer to the mosques – their custodians drive these children gangs away. Interesting accommodation options in this district are HHK Hotel, Ottoman Class, Tuana Istanbul Hotel, Görür Hotel, Golden Horn VIP Hotel.
The Area of the Fatih Mosque
To the west from the Süleymaniye mosque you will find a huge Fatih mosque (Fatih Camii) named after Mehmed II who conquered Constantinople. The district nearby is very traditional: during your walk to the Fatih district from Sultanahmet you suddenly notice a lot of people dressed conservatively. Next to the mosque there is a great food market with the prices much cheaper than in the historical downtown. For the same price as in Grand bazaar you will get more fresh juice or larger kebab portions. However, this district is far from the historical center and you will have to cover large distances every day or spend more money on taxis or public transport – that will eat up whatever you save on the hotel. When choosing a hotel in this district, I recommend to pay closer attention to reviewing other guests’ feedback because many local hotels fall into disrepair, lots of buildings are old and don’t have an elevator, and that will cause extra problems for senior travelers and families with small kids. In some hotels you might experience problems with heating and air conditioning. At the same time, in this district many apartments are available and you can feel as a local citizen buying food at the local market and cooking it on your own. Nice accommodation options here are Zeyrek House Istanbul and The Suite Istanbul. As for Istanbul apartments, I will tell more about them – a bit later.
To the south from Fatih and to the west from Istanbul university you will find Laleli district (you can use the Şehzade Mosque and Aksaray metro station as reference points on the map). Historically, the district doesn’t have a very nice reputation: that was the place to stay for Russian shuttle traders in the 1990s, and many places still have signs with Russian text on them. In the last 10 years, though, the district has been refined, and you will not find boxes and garbage everywhere anymore. The sidewalks are paved and wider now, mosques are renovated, and the place is nice for walks now. Plus, there are more chain hotels near the metro station (they probably sense that there is potential here.) There are still lots wholesale shops here though. But you will also find more cafes, and good transport connection makes this district an attractive accommodation option – that is the end of the line connecting the city with the airport, and here you can change to the high-speed tram that will bring you to the Hagia Sophia in just 15 minutes. Grand bazaar is also nearby, and you can even walk to Istanbul’s defensive walls and the gates that Mehmed the Conqueror came through in Constantinople. To reach Hagia Sophia on foot you will need 20-30 minutes but there are lots of sights along the way. Interesting accommodation in this district are DoubleTree By Hilton Istanbul – Old Town, Hotel Polatdemir, Best Western Premier Senator Hotel Istanbul - Old City, Ramada Istanbul Grand Bazaar and Laleli Gonen Hotel.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the other side of the Golden Horn. Like I’ve mentioned above, I recommend districts around Galata tower and Beyoğlu as good options for accommodation. I think even Beşiktaş is not very convenient for a traveler interested in tourist attractions of Istanbul’s historical downtown.
Galata Tower Neighbourhood
The district around Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) is interesting because of the views at the Bosphorus and the Old Town of Istanbul, the proximity of metro and its authenticity – most of tourists explore the area near the tower without going any farther away, and that’s where mysterious narrow streets, cute grocery stores, funny and loud kids playing soccer are – a good chance to observe the daily life of locals. However, I am not really sure that these streets are safe after dark – they are not lit very well and all the nice buildings turn into a row of shut down windows in the evening. Besides, streets here have significant elevation differences and it is not for everyone – you either have to climb up or suddenly “enjoy” a steep slope. Here you can also easily get lost – streets in this part of the city are very deceitful, so if you decide to stay in this district, you should either ask to meet you at the metro station and help to get to the hotel, or get detailed instructions of how to reach your place of accommodation. Keep a phone number handy as well. Authenticity of the side streets is set off by the modern design of the main street that will lead you to the Taksim square (Taksim Meydanı) – it looks very European-like: coffee shops, stores, fashionably dressed women. However, you won’t find here views that could be at par with those near Galata tower – there are no architectural dominants here, and even if your room is on one of the top floors, the only things you will be able to see from its windows will be neighboring buildings – this district is much more developed than the city center. There are some exceptions here though – a number of hotels located on the shore treat its guests to great views but there is a high price to pay. Attractive options that seem to be affordable are Hotel Morione, Nar Bagdatliyan Hotel and The Peak Hotel.
The area around Taksim square – Beyoğlu district – is one of the modern Istanbul’s districts located not far away from the historical downtown. It is a good enough option for accommodation if you are not scared of a long walk to the tourist attractions. At the same time, this district is closer to the Dolmabahçe palace than Sultanahmet. Plus, here you will find lots of clubs and restaurants and relatively “modern” shopping. The drawbacks include the large distance from the Old Town, and the general restlessness – that’s the district where demonstrations of protest usually take place. The gem of local hotels is Rixos Pera Istanbul built a long time ago specifically for passengers of Orient Express – this is one of Istanbul’s legends just like Four Seasons mentioned above. Other hotels in this district are more budget-friendly and you can choose a decent play to stay out of Radisson Blu Hotel Istanbul Pera, Gezi Hotel Bosphorus Istanbul, Divan Istanbul and Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport
I should definitely mention the district located in the western part of Istanbul, two metro stops away from Istanbul airport (Atatürk Uluslararası Havalimanı). It is not very comfortable for travelers who come to explore the city because it will cost you a lot in time and money to spend one hour getting to the city center. However, if you have an early morning flight, or have a long stop-over in Istanbul (Turkish Airlines sometimes have budget-friendly flights to the South-Eastern Asia with a stop in Istanbul), this district can be a great option for you – hotels here are quite comfortable and not very expensive, the airport is just two stops (five minutes) away, so you won’t have to wake up in the middle in the night to make your flight. You can arrange some accommodation combos during your trip to Istanbul. For example, you can stay most of the time in a hotel in Sultanahmet, and move into a hotel closer to the airport for your last night. Besides, the area enjoys a great number of good eateries that are more local than tourist-like. Hotels in this district are very different, and I would recommend choosing one based on the feedback left by other guests. Pay closer attention to the room descriptions. For example, there are hotels with shared bathroom (but room rates are very budget-friendly here $15 20) but if you take a closer look you will see that the same hotel might have comfortable rooms with the bathroom en-suite. Rooms with windows facing a courtyard might actually face the mosque where a muezzin starts calling for prayers at five in the morning, and the rooms facing the street can actually be very quiet. By the way, there are hotels that are very hard to find because they decided not to spend any money on the sign, so if you pay more attention, you will find the hotel’s or apartments’ name on the door somewhere between the lingerie store and the bank entrance. Here I recommend such hotels as Tempo Fair Suites – Airport, Tempo Suites Airport, Rox Hotel Airport and Kocasinan Airport Hotel.
Apartments in Istanbul
Lately, apartment renting has received an extra boost in Istanbul. There a great choice of nice apartments on booking websites. The advantages of apartments are obvious: you can feel like a local opening the door with your own key and not leaving it at the reception. Staying in an apartment you can save on food, especially if you are on a special diet. A private apartment is often more spacious and budget-friendly than the hotel in the same location. There are, however, things that you need to keep in mind when booking an apartment. As a rule, there is no 24/7 reception there, and you will have to discuss with the owner such details as getting a key, transfer from the airport, and other service matters that not everyone is comfortable doing. Many apartment owners will only accept cash payments. There is no daily cleaning service for the apartment, and when you leave you will be asked to pay an extra fee for the cleaning. When choosing a place to stay, I recommend first to decide in which Istanbul district you would like to stay, and only then search for suitable apartments there. I think the following apartments in different city parts are good options: Gulhane Suites, Galata Tower Apart, Zeyrek House Istanbul, Kismet Apartments Istanbul, Zara Apart Hotel and The Suite Istanbul.