High Pile Designs Guide to Istanbul

High Pile Designs Guide to Istanbul

By Popular Demand...

The sun is out, the weather is nicer, people are happier - summer is almost here! And with summer approaching, we get into summer travel season. SO many of you have reached out and asked for recommendations to Istanbul and greater Turkey - thanks, we’re flattered. 

Jessie and I are by no means experts, but with the frequency of travel I do paired with our visits there in the last year, we have a ton of places we dream about on the daily. Instead of continuing to send 1-off text/email responses, we thought, “what better than to put it all on our blog post to share with everyone?!”. So that’s what we’re doing. 🙂 

There’s not going to be much rug content here (if any at all), so if that’s what you’re looking for, check out our other blog posts

Why Istanbul? 

Diving into why, it’s important to understand the history of Istanbul, which I knew nothing about before going for the first time. It’s truly fascinating though. Here’s a VERY basic overview: 

History of Istanbul

Istanbul has an incredible and strategic location, situated at the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait with access to the Black Sea. Because of this, throughout history Istanbul was central and wildly important to the region’s trade routes. It’s situated in Asia AND Europe. Because of this, it connected Europe, Iran, the Arabian peninsula, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus, the Russian steppe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean Basin. Crazy. And there have been SO many different rulers over this city throughout its time. 

In 6th BC century, Persians ruled until Alexander the Great took it over after 4th century BC. In 193 AD a Roman emperor conquered the city and it was under Roman control until 4th century AD. Constantine the Great made Byzantium (original name of Istanbul) the capital of the entire Roman Empire. He also changed its name to Constantinople, which you’ve probably heard of. 

In 532 there were riots and much of the city was destroyed, but was later rebuilt with buildings like the Hagia Sofia (a must-see!). 

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Istanbul was ruled by a different group and after, another group in the 9th and 10th centuries. You can see a pattern emerging, right? 

The history is fascinating and I encourage you to learn way more than what I’ve put in this little post.  But you can start to understand why the city is so multicultural, has so many different areas and things to do, foods to eat, and why it’s a major central location in that part of the world. 

When To Go?

The coldest month is February, which is when we went for the first time. 🙃

And what an experience we had! Cooper and I had been in Switzerland the week before, and it was colder in Turkey than in Switzerland. They had a massive cold front move in and it snowed almost every day. So my recommendation for sightseeing and rooftop-drinking would be the opposite time of year. We still had an amazing time though and made the best of it - because sometimes those are the cards you’re dealt with. 

If you don’t have a ton of flexibility on time of year, you’ll still have a good time no matter when you go. The city does a phenomenal job of having heaters everywhere, enclose their outdoor areas and have blankets at restaurants/cafes. Part of the allure of Istanbul is the eating and drinking and spending time near the water. Obviously better enjoyed outside in the sun but you work with what you’ve got. Jessie and I were just there end of March and it was lovely. So basically, whenever you can go, GO and you’ll have fun. 

Where To Fly Into? 

IST vs. SAW 

Istanbul has 2 major airports, and both are about 45 minutes to an hour outside of the city depending on traffic (which can be major). I’d try not to fly in during rush hour (if at all possible) because our first time driving into the city took more than an hour and a half. 

  • IST - Istanbul Airport - is Istanbul’s newest airport and is super modern, clean, almost fancy and seems to be less crowded than SAW. It’s on the European side of the country and is Turkish Airline’s hub, so if you’re flying from the US, chances are you’re flying into IST. I prefer IST because of its lounge situation. 🙃
  • SAW - Sabiha Gökçen International Airport - seems to be smaller (but I actually don’t know this to be true) and on the Asian side of the country. It always seems to be busier and more chaotic. If you’re flying on domestic airlines like Pegasus, you’ll probably fly in and out of SAW. 

For ease and a smooth experience, my recommendation is to fly in and out of IST for all your travel to and from Turkey. 

What To Do: 

A few years ago when I was traveling, I started making individual city Google Map lists. This has been a game changer not only for me but for when other people ask me “Hey, have you been to X?”. I can instantly give a few key recommendations, or just share my map with them! 

Here’s what my Istanbul map looks like:

I have some touristy things saved but I also have some non-touristy things saved so I’ll break my favorites down for you! 


  1. You have to do the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, hands down. The buildings and their history are incredible and they’re totally worth it - plus they’re across from one another so killing two birds with one stone. I’d recommend doing a tour so you get the full experience. We went through GetYourGuide which was affordable and super easy.  
  2. The Grand Bazaar is also a must-do. It’s WILD and so overwhelming. You haven’t truly experienced Istanbul unless you’ve walked around there for an hour. Once you leave, you’re so discombobulated and confused but have had so much fun. If you buy anything, do not pay full price as part of the fun is bargaining. 
  3. Taksim Square we found to be mostly an area where there is a bunch of shopping. It is a great people-watching spot! I learned a lot of clothes from big brands say ‘made in Turkey’ on the tag, so you can go shopping and get things for a little bit cheaper (sometimes 50% off). 


  1. We did an amazing food tour I found from a random YouTube video. This is a ‘tour’ but I’d consider it non-touristy because we spent the day going to hidden gems all day. It’s a 10-stop tour that takes you to both sides of the country. It’s a long day and very worth it. Be prepared and do not eat at all beforehand. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day either. Latif, our guide, was truly a gem and it’s one of our favorite memories from the trip. 
  2. Rooftop bars/restaurants - anything with a view of the water is so much fun. Go to multiple during your time there! 
  3. Vintage shopping - the vintage scene in Istanbul is so cool. There are shops everywhere and people walking around with unique style. Our favorite store we stumbled upon was Stanpolis in the Galata neighborhood. 

What To Eat/Drink:

Being such a multicultural city, the food scene is top notch - so go wild. But you 100% can’t leave without trying a few of these dishes:

  1. Simit - circular bread with seeds on top they sell on the street everywhere - you’ll see it. It’s $.20 and Cooper freaked out when he first bought one. Truly couldn’t believe it was so cheap. 
  2. Doner Kebab - the big meat hunks you see cooking and turning on the skewer in front of shops. It’s DELICIOUS and you should eat this multiple times while you’re in Turkey. 
  3. Testi-kebab - this is found on menus as the ‘Clay Pot Dish’. The meat and veggies are cooked in a clay pot and they break it for you at the table. It’s a fun expereince and also delicious. 
  4. Turkish Delight - a jelly candy famous in Turkey. You’ll see it everywhere and it’s typically beautifully made. 
  5. Turkish Coffee - very different to what we’re used to drinking but is a must when you’re there! 
  6. Apple Tea - everyone drinks black tea, but the apple tea is where it's at. After too many cups of black tea (and an insane amount of caffeine), we discovered apple tea which tastes exactly like hot apple juice. It’s probably full of sugar, but you can’t leave without trying it. 

Our Favorite Restaurants/Cafes:

Istanbul has an endless number of restaurants and cafes you can eat at and we did our best to make a dent. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to decide where to eat. But I’ll just share a few of our favorites from each side of the city so you can easily get to a few! 

Asian Side:

  1. Kebapçı İskender - İskender İskenderoğlu - they don’t really speak English but just go in and point to the first thing on the menu and that’s what you should order. 🙂 
  2. Kadikoy Merkez Borekcisi - delicious traditional Turkish pastries. 
  3. Çiya Sofrası - was voted a 50 best restaurant and is considered Turkish homestyle food.  

European Side:

  1. Antiochia - great dinner spot.
  2. Dönerci Engin'in Yeri - authentic and cheap kebabs. We stumbled upon this place and were the only non-locals there. It was a busy lunch spot for people to grab something quick during a break. 
  3. Addis Ababa Cafe - really good, affordable coffee. 

How To Get Around:

Taxi drivers from the airport will try to rip you off - it’s happened to us every single time. Have cash, but above all just try to get an Uber. If you can’t, it’s okay. The rides aren’t super expensive. 

Uber’s in and around Istanbul are extremely affordable - most of our Uber’s were less than $2 when we decided to take them. It almost makes you want to Uber because it’s so convenient, but walk as much as you can. There’s so much to see and the city is packed with wonderful shops, cafes, and side streets you’ll miss if you always get a ride. 

Take the ferry if you’re going to the other side of the city (Asian or European depending on what side you’re on). It’s so easy and beautiful to see the city from the water! 

Don’t Sleep on Istanbul

A lot of people plan to go to Istanbul just on a long layover, or maybe 1-2 days. But hopefully this information has convinced you to go a little longer and really experience what the city has to offer. 

We’ve been twice and I feel like have barely scratched the surface. Turkey is a large country with so much to offer, so of course you might have priorities to go elsewhere. But don’t sleep on Istanbul - spend the time there and you won’t regret it. 

Have you been to Istanbul? What were some of your favorite restaurants or activities you did? Don’t be shy and share them in the comments!

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