This trip report is a few months old at this point, but based on what I am reading about Turkey and their policies, not a lot has changed. I’ll cover visiting Istanbul during COVID, including the country entry requirements and my experience exploring this rich city back in September. 

Turkey was one of the first countries to fully reopen its borders to international tourists after the global COVID-19 shutdown this spring. Unlike many others, there were no testing quarantine requirements for entry, although there are now. Istanbul has been on my list of places to visit, and I entertained the idea of planning a trip for several weeks.

The impetus to travel was twofold: first, I really wanted to get out of the country after all those months, pulling the plug on multiple planned international trips. Turkey was one of the most open countries, which made it very appealing. The second was the avgeek appeal. When I found award space on a Lufthansa A340 (a plane that might not be around for long) for a quick trip to Istanbul, I decided to pull the trigger. This may be my one and only experience flying an A340, and I’m quite glad that I took the trip.

I stuffed as much as I could into my 36 hours in Istanbul. It was go time as soon as I stepped off the plan at the new Istanbul Havalmani Airport. Here’s what I experienced, what I ate, and where I stayed in this beautiful city at the crossroads of the world:

visiting Istanbul during COVID

Top Istanbul Sights

With history stretching back over two millennia, Istanbul is a cultural and historical gem. It lies along the Bosporus Strait, straddling the continents of Europe and Asia. It’s location is what gave it such strategic importance in centuries past. It has also gone by the other names of Byzantium and Constantinople through the ages, only officially changing to Istanbul in the 20th century.

The core historical sites are in the Sultanahmet neighborhood and include the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. But there is so much more to explore and see. Here is what I was able to pack into my three days in Istanbul, ranked roughly by what I enjoyed most to least:

  1. Hagia Sophia
  2. Topkapi Palace
  3. Bosporus Boat Tour
  4. Suleymaniye Mosque
  5. Cağaloğlu Hamam
  6. Galata Bridge and Golden Horn
  7. Blue Mosque and Sultan Ahmet Square/Park
  8. Panorama 1453 Museum and Old City Wall
  9. Fatih Mosque
  10. Alay Kosku and Gülhane Park
  11. Grand Bazaar
  12. Egyptian Spice Market
  13. Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi
  14. Ancient Cisterns

You cannot skip the core historical sites. There is enough in this area to keep you occupied for at least a full day. The 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia tops my list; it is awe-inspiring to be standing in such an incredible piece of history.

visiting Istanbul during COVID

Topkapi Palace a short distance away is another site you should not pass up. The palace complex built by the Ottomans is extensive and has some beautiful architecture. I’d also prioritize a boat tour. It’s location along the Bosporus is an essential part of Istanbul’s strategic importance, so don’t pass up seeing the city from the water.

One of the surprises for me was the Panorama 1453 Museum. It’s a bit rough on the non-Turkish-speaker since all the exhibits are in Turkish, but an audio guide will let you listen to the history of how the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. It’s super cool to see the 360-degree panorama and then walk outside to see the same city wall still standing.

Shopping is my least favorite activity, but I did still walk both Istiklal Caddesi (a pedestrianized street with lots of upscale shopping) and explored the Grand Bazaar.

Back in September, the Turks were pretty lax when it came to wearing face coverings. There were a few places where it was being enforced, but for the most part people wore their masks around their necks. Aside from this, there were very few COVID-19 measures, and everything was open (which is not the case now).

Food – From the $1 Sandwich to an Amazing Turkish Breakfast

Istanbul is a cheap city to enjoy. Lodging and food can both be very inexpensive, although you’ll have to avoid the tourist hotspots. My first lunch consisted of a sandwich that cost just ₺9. No joke.

a grilled sandwich on a paper wrapper

If only all my meals had been that cheap. I still spent $10 or less for every meal I ate out, dinner the first night at the hotel being a notable exception. You can easily survive as a solo traveler in Istanbul for $20 per day for food, even being able to enjoy café meals.

Dolmas are a favorite of mine, and I made sure to try them while in turkey. Make sure you don’t pass up the Turkish coffee, either. I’m not crazy about the unfiltered style, but it’s really the experience. Right before I left I realized I hadn’t had any baklava, so I stuffed that in as well.

a plate of food on a table

The Turkish breakfast at the Nish Palas was probably my favorite experience, which was provided free with my Hyatt elite status. It was quite the array of fruit, cheese, nuts, vegetables, and pastries. The waiter thought I needed some eggs as well, so he brought me a plate of eggs benedict.

a table with plates of food and drinks

Getting Around

I did not ever have a chance to pass through the old Ataturk Airport, but I will say that the new Istanbul Havalmani is impressive. The halls are enormous. I did not have any difficulty navigating it, as the signage is good. The main downside is that it is very far from the city center, and there is no rail or metro transit that serves the airport.

But Turkey is an inexpensive country to visit. A taxi from Havalmani to Istanbul city center will cost ~$30 USD for the 45-60 minute ride, which isn’t bad at all. I think I paid ₺180 to my hotel in Maçka. It would certainly be nice to hop on a bus or light rail for a few dollars, but given the length of the trek, I can’t complain. My driver did offer my a cigarette (I declined) and smoked in the taxi.

a street with cars and buildings

Once you are within Istanbul, the light rail is an excellent way to get around. There are also buses, although I did not familiarize myself with the system. The metro and tram can get you many of the places you’ll want to go (Sultanahmet station is the heart of the old city). I recommend purchasing an Istanbulkart and reloading as necessary. To card itself costs ₺7 (less than $1 USD) and you then pay just ₺3.50 per trip. It’s extremely affordable. I’m not going to belabor the Istanbul mass transit system, but check out this guide if you want to know more.

a bus stop with a sign on the side

If you do find yourself hailing a taxi, they are quite cheap, but not as cheap as the mass transit. I spent ₺25-40 for each of the three taxi rides I took within the city. Taxis to and from the airport can accept card (I would ask specifically at your hotel front desk to make sure this is the case). For generic taxis around the city, you’ll need to pay in Turkish lira.

I did have an interesting experience on my return to Istanbul Havalmani. As we were pulling into the departures area, another car pulled out into the lane and resulted in a minor fender bender. It was a bit awkward trying to settle the bill with the drive while he and the other man were arguing over the incident. I was glad to leave the scene behind.

Where To Stay in Istanbul

I hotel hopped for my three nights in Istanbul. With kids I will typically try to stay at a single hotel, two at the most in a given city. But when I’m solo I like to stay at as many new places as I can. My three nights is Istanbul were therefore at three different hotels.

a bed with a mirror above it

Since I am an unabashed Hyatt aficionado and loyalist, I decided to stay at their properties all three nights. You can find cheap accommodations in Istanbul, and even luxury hotels can be reasonably priced. My three choices were:

While all were excellent, the Nish Palas was my favorite. It is a small, upscale boutique hotel, and some of the rooms have a nice view of the Bosporus and old city. Sadly, it is no longer affiliated with Hyatt. All of the hotels I stayed at are located outside the old city and you’ll need to take either a taxi or mass transit to most of the sights you’ll want to see.

a table and chairs on a rooftop overlooking a city

There are plenty of hotels for less than $100 per night in the old city, including a couple chain options. The average cost of a room is around $63, which is excellent. If you stay near Sultanahmet, you’ll be within walking distance of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace. Depending on your love for walking, the Suleymaniye Mosque, Spice Market, and Galata Bridge aren’t all that far.

If you always hope for the best, you could consider staying here.

visiting Istanbul during COVID

And Of Course, Cats!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I adored the cats of Istanbul. You’ll see cats all over the city, often in parks or other open spaces. They are owned by nobody and cared for by everybody. Life isn’t easy for a street cat, but I gave many some love as I passed by.

a group of cats lying on a brick surface

There is a documentary on the cast of Istanbul, if you’re curious. I haven’t watched it yet, but it is on my list of things to do during some down time.

a cat scratching a person's leg

Final Thoughts on Visiting Istanbul During COVID-19

Istanbul is an incredibly interesting city, and my three days there were extremely enjoyable. I hope to return again.

Unfortunately, restrictions in Istanbul are greater now than when I visited at the end of the summer. Restaurants and cafes are operating limited hours and only providing food to go. Other types of businesses are closed, including movie theaters, soccer fields, coffee houses, Turkish baths, saunas, and swimming pools. Turkey has also enacted curfew requirements, but foreign tourists are exempt from these.

If you’re hoping to visit Istanbul, I’d wait until things open back up more again. Turkey was one of the few countries this summer with few-to-no COVID-19 restrictions, which made it very appealing to visit.