What are the most popular areas in Istanbul and why? It will be my first trip and I'd love to know what each neighborhood is known for? Do you have any favorite hotels in each?
For tourists the city is generally broken into three major areas;
Old Istanbul (European side) - includes Sultanahmet Square where the majority of tourists sites and restaurants are (e.g. Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia). Beyazıt Karakol Sk is where the Grand Bazaar is. Eminonu Bazaar is where the Spice Bazaar is and boats for the Boshorus cruise. Hotels are recommended in Sultanahment, Gulhane Park and Sirkeci(near Eminonu). These are all on the T1 tram line.
This area is a tourism area and not really a place where locals frequent unless they work in tourism - which is predominantly male. You may be left asking: where are the local women?
Beyoğlu (European side) - is the "modern" side of Istanbul where you can walk among the locals as you explore Istiklal Avenue - the main "artery" (pedestrian street) of Beyoglu. There is a better mix of genders here. There is Galata with the Galata tower - it's bohemian and famous for music shops. Tophane is famous for art galleries. Taksim Square is a main hub for transportation and therefore popular with hotels - although due to political unrest it is often the scene for protests. Cihangir Cd is also popular with the expat community.
Asian side - There's Kadıköy as the main hub and Uskudar as the secondary hub - both ports are where the Bosphorus ferries dock. Uskudar is also where the Maramaray (underground train) connects to Europe in 5 minutes. Kadikoy has a great fresh produce market and places to eat/drink.
You haven't mentioned your budget for hotels so I recommend you look at Booking.com. It has plenty of reviews, photos and other details which will help you decide which hotels come highly recommended.
If it's your first time, I recommend staying in Sultanahmet as that's essentially where you'll spend most of your time.
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Here are a few that can help you narrow it down to what you like and what you want to get out of your trip! I think it really depends what you're looking for but here are my suggestions: The Sultanahmet area is definitely a more touristy part with it's rich culture and various mosques and other historical sites.
Beyoğlu honestly would be my suggestion to stay. It's filled with other neighborhoods that will give you a more local feel and it's not far from the main city center at all. Istiklal Avenue is a great area for local shops and vendors, again, great place to emerge yourself in the local culture. A lot of character here.
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