HalalBooking’s Guide to Halal-friendly Holidays in Istanbul
Istanbul is proving to be one of our top destinations for halal-conscious travellers, with lots to see and do and some excellent halal restaurants. In fact, Turkey has now become one of the world’s leading destinations for halal-friendly travel and visitors from all over the world are discovering that a trip to Turkey really isn’t complete without a stay in its largest city, Istanbul.
Istanbul is truly a world city. Located at the crossroads of east and west, with a foot in each of the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a melting pot of cultures and a meeting place for those coming from the Orient and the Occident. Istanbul is consistently in the top 10 of most visited cities in the world and it is now extremely popular with guests from both Europe and the Middle East.
What to expect as a halal-conscious traveller to Istanbul
Although the population of Turkey is around 99% Muslim, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern-day Republic of Turkey in 1923, he chose to make it a secular state, meaning that the state itself is not run along Islamic guidelines. This can be confusing for Muslims wishing to holiday in accordance with their Islamic beliefs, but this guide should tell you all you need to know to make sure that you enjoy a peaceful and relaxing holiday.
Halal hotels in Istanbul
Standards of accommodation in Istanbul are high and Turkish people are renowned for their hospitality. Turks are not easily offended so if you are not sure about something, always feel free to ask. Although the majority of hotels in Istanbul cater for western tourists and do, therefore, serve alcohol, with the rise in guests visiting from Muslim countries, it is becoming more common for tourists to seek out alcohol-free accommodation. We believe it is best to offer a choice of accommodation, but as a bare minimum you can be sure that if you book through HalalBooking.com there will not be any alcohol in the minibar in your room. We have also chosen a selection of hotels located throughout Istanbul on both the European and Asian sides, which are completely ‘dry’ and have no alcohol at all on the premises. The best way to be sure of getting the accommodation which suits you, is to search through our Istanbul hotels and then filter them according to ‘No Alcohol Policy'.
- One of our luxury Istanbul hotels which has been most highly rated by our guests, the Ajwa Hotel in Sultanahmet, in the heart of the historic old town, has a spa and wellness centre which has separate hours for dedicated use by women only and men only
- Golden Tulip Hotel in Bayrampasa, also a favourite with HalalBooking’s guests, has an indoor pool which is available for separate use by women only and men only at set hours of the day.
Halal restaurants in Istanbul
Due in part to the secular nature of the Turkish state, Turkey does not have a tradition of halal certification, although this may change now that the government has set up its first Halal Accreditation Body (HAK). You can be sure, however, that any meat you eat in Istanbul has been slaughtered and prepared according to halal principles. The Turkish government recently confirmed that any meat imported must also have been slaughtered strictly according to Islamic custom.
Even international fast food chains only use halal meat products so if you are visiting Turkey from Europe and your kids have been pestering you for a Happy Meal this could be a good time to give it a try!
Having said that, it would be a shame to stick to international chains when the local Turkish cuisine is so good! You can enjoy succulent kebabs, tasty rice dishes and a myriad of hot and cold starters served on tiny dishes, known as meze, not to mention the honey-soaked sweet treats such as baklava and flavoursome rice and milk puddings. Many of the more upmarket restaurants in Istanbul do serve alcohol so if you are keen to eat in an alcohol-free environment then you may find that sticking to the more relaxed, café style eateries is better. Chicken restaurants, traditional kebab restaurants and those serving food, which is displayed on hot trays under glass, tend not to serve alcohol. If you are not sure, just ask, or you may notice a sign saying ‘alkolsüz’.
There are also a few Turkish chains which don’t serve any alcohol and have branches throughout Istanbul, such as Mado, Sütiş and Saray Muhallebecisi, famous for its delicious sweet treats and puddings. If you want to enjoy watching the world go by Turkish style then look out for a traditional ‘tea garden’ or ‘çay bahçesi’ which will also be alcohol-free. You can enjoy a glass of black tea, a strong Turkish coffee or a glass of sweet soda known as ‘gazoz’. As well as the family-friendly atmosphere, many of them have spectacular views of the Bosphorus, such as those in Çengelköy and Üsküdar, or in the grounds of the grand Dolmabahçe Palace itself. Another stunning tea garden location is Pierre Loti’s café overlooking the Golden Horn and the sacred Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
One of our favourite restaurants where you can enjoy an excellent halal lunch in an alcohol-free environment is Konyali Lokantasi situated inside the grounds of Topkapi Palace. It is a fantastic place to have a break from sightseeing and it enjoys one of the best views in entire Istanbul, looking out to sea over the famous Seraglio point.
The Asian side of Istanbul is the setting for two of our favourite alcohol-free restaurants, easily reached by taxi or ferry boat services or the Marmaray trains, depending on where you are staying. Çiya is in Kadiköy and serves tasty traditional Turkish specialities accompanied by delicious sherbet drinks made from fruits, herbs and spices. Yakamoz Fish Restaurant is on the shores of the Bosphorus, close to the Kuleli Naval Academy, which is beautifully illuminated in the evenings. It specialises in traditional meze, fish and seafood and is the perfect waterfront setting for a romantic meal. Near to Taksim Square in Beyoglu on the famous Istiklal Caddesi is another favourite, Haci Abdullah serving traditional Turkish and Ottoman dishes. It has been around since 1876 and is a great place to try some unusual specialities such as hünkar begendi literally translated as ‘it pleased the sultan’, a dish made of lamb and aubergine puree. Another favourite is the baked quince served with kaymak (clotted cream). As in any big city, restaurants do come and go and things change, so it’s worth double-checking before you visit Istanbul in case any new alcohol-free restaurants have opened. To avoid disappointment, just ask at the hotel’s reception desk and they will be happy to call ahead and make a reservation for you.
Enjoy a Turkish Bath experience – the original ladies-only spa
The Turkish Bath or Hamam is one of Turkey’s greatest traditions and must surely be able to stake a claim as the original women-only spa. The tradition flourished during the Ottoman Empire, where the bath houses were places for socialising as well as washing. The sexes have always been strictly segregated as part of this tradition. Usually a hamamm would have completely separate sections for women and men, although sometimes in smaller villages, there would be separate days or times of operation for women and men. Of course, those working in the Turkish Bath and administering treatments would always be of the same sex as those visiting.
Even up to a generation ago, in Istanbul it was common for people to visit the hammam in the area which they lived. Sadly many of them closed down in the ‘90s as the tradition fell out of favour, but recently some have been re-opened. Perhaps the most upmarket of these is the fully restored 16th-century Hürrem Sultan Hamami which is architecturally unique, with the women’s and men’s sections being mirror images of each other. A visit to the hammam to enjoy being cleansed with bubbles from organic olive oil soap, an exfoliation treatment known as ‘kese’ and a vigorous massage is a highlight of any holiday in Istanbul. The baths have completely separate sections for women and men and only have attendants of the same sex. It’s a great way to relax, throw off the stresses and strains of everyday life and rejuvenate tired limbs after a heavy sightseeing schedule.
It’s best to book in advance and specify which treatments you want. You will be given everything you need, and shown a place to disrobe and place your belongings before wrapping yourself in a traditional cloth, known as a pestemal, putting on slippers (originally wooden clogs) and taking a silver bath bowl with which to tip water over yourself from the water taps.
Explore Istanbul’s Islamic Heritage
Istanbul is a treasure trove of culture and history from the three Empires of which it was capital: Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman and exploring this rich cultural heritage is sure to be a highlight of your holiday.
Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was then known, was first established as an Islamic city when it was famously conquered by Sultan Mehmet II known as Muhammad al-Fatih or Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453.
The two castles, which Sultan Mehmet II built to control entry to the Bosphorus straits as part of the preparations for his conquest – Rumeli Hisari and Anadolu Hisari - have survived, one on either side of the impressive waterway which divides Europe and Asia, and can still be visited today.
Mosques - Istanbul’s top 7 must see mosques
Istanbul is also home to some of the Islamic world’s most impressive mosques.
- Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque - The famous Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, which was built to rival Roman Emperor Constantine’s Hagia Sophia or Church of the Divine Wisdom, which faces it. It is famous for its beautiful blue tiles and six minarets.
- Süleymaniye Mosque - It is also well worth visiting the Süleymaniye Mosque, the masterpiece of the great Ottoman architect, Sinan, built in 1550 by order of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, with its beautiful Iznik tiled interior.
- Fatih Mosque - The Fatih Mosque is one of the most significant examples of Turkish-Islamic architecture in Istanbul. The current building dates from 1771, although there was an earlier mosque on the site, dating back to 1463, which was the first mosque to be built after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. For this reason, the Mosque is named the ‘Conqueror’s’ Mosque after the Ottoman Sultan, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or Mehmet the Conqueror.
- Eyüp Mosque - The holiest Islamic site in Istanbul is the mosque and shrine of Eyüp Sultan on the shores of the Golden Horn. It is a well-known site of pilgrimage as the place where Eyüp, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, friend and standard-bearer of the Prophet Muhammad is buried. It is thought he died during the first Arab siege of Constantinople.
- Çamlıca Mosque - Set at the highest point of Istanbul, on the northern slopes of Çamlica Hill, amidst beautiful gardens, the mosque is Turkey’s largest mosque, able to host 63,000 people at once. It was opened for prayers in 2019 and its magnificent design includes elements of Turkish Ottoman and Seljuk architecture.
- Ortaköy Mosque - This attractive mosque surveys the Bosphorus in the popular seafront suburb of Ortaköy. Its official name is the Büyük Mecidiye Camii, the Grand Mosque dedicated to Sultan Abdülmecid. It was built between 1854 and 1856 by the father and son team of architects, the Balyans, who also designed the splendid Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque, nearby.
- Bayezid II Mosque - This Ottoman imperial mosque is situated in Beyazit Square, and was the second mosque to be built in Istanbul, after the conquest. It was commissioned by the Sultan Bayezid II, whose tomb is in the gardens behind the mosque, and built in the early 16th century. Many repairs and additions have been made since this time, notably by the renowned Ottoman architect, Sinan.
Palaces & Mansions
Istanbul is also home to some of the most impressive palaces and mansions from the Ottoman era:
- Topkapi Palace
- Dolmabahce Palace
- Yildiz Palace
- Beylerbeyi Palace
- Ciragan Palace
- Cinili Mansion
- Hidiv Mansion
- Ihlamur Mansion
- Kucuksu Mansion
Marvel at the Sacred Islamic Relics at Topkapi Palace
After Selim I conquered Mamluk Egypt in 1517, the Caliphate passed to the Ottoman Sultans. The Prophet Muhammad’s holy mantle (Hırka-i Sa`âdet) was given to Selim by the last Abbasid Caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, and he sent it on to Istanbul, to Topkapi Palace. During the course of the 16th to 19th centuries, many other Holy Relics followed. These sacred objects belonging to Muhammad and his followers, can still be seen in Topkapi Palace today, together with holy objects found in Medina during the First World War and sent to Topkapi Palace for safe-keeping.
Known as the Sacred Trust (‘Mukkades Emanetler’ in Turkish), they are on display in the Privy Chambers, once the Sultan’s private quarters, which are located in the inner courtyard of the palace. Here you can see the Prophet Muhammad’s footprint as well as Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turban, Moses’s staff, David’s sword and scrolls belonging to John.
In the Chamber of the Holy Relics itself are found the most sacred exhibits, and the Quran is recited here continuously. These relics are truly remarkable and include a piece from the Prophet Muhammad’s tooth (Dendan-ı Saadet), broken during the Battle of Uhud in 625, and hair from Muhammad’s beard (Sakal-ı Şerif) - it is even possible to smell its fragrance through a small hole in the glass case. You can also see the Seal of Muhammad (Mühr-i Saadet) and a letter signed by Muhammad (Name-i Saadet). His swords and bow are housed in an exquisite reliquary made by Ottoman goldsmiths.
Topkapi Palace Museum is open every day except for Tuesdays.
Visit the Grand Bazaar – the original shopping mall
Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is an archetypal Istanbul experience. Construction began on the covered bazaar in 1455 and it gradually expanded to encompass 61 covered streets containing over 4000 shops. It is regularly listed as the world’s top tourist attraction and it is a great place to shop for souvenirs and bargains including gold jewellery, handicrafts such as ceramics, metalwork and leather goods, and textiles, especially towels and cotton wear. Don’t be surprised if you are offered a glass of tea or apple tea whilst you conduct lengthy negotiations, haggling over the price!
Those who prefer designer wares will be delighted to find that Istanbul has some excellent modern-day shopping malls, including Akmerkez in the upmarket Etiler district, Kanyon in Levent and Cevahir in Sisli.
In general shopping is great value for money in Istanbul and the variety of goods on offer is immense.
Take a Bosphorus Cruise
One of the best ways to explore Istanbul is by taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, the narrow strait which divides the city into two parts, separating the land masses of Europe and Asia. You can choose whether to take a private tour, hiring your own boat for your party, or whether to use the public ferries which ply their way up and down the Bosphorus, stopping off en route as they head towards the Black Sea, past beautiful waterfront mansions and majestic castles. The public ferries or Sehir Hatlari start from Eminönü and go as far as Rumeli Kavagi, where you can explore the castle, which once controlled entrance to the Bosphorus.
Hagia Sophia, the ‘Church of Divine Wisdom’ is an impressive monument. Facing Sultanahmet Mosque, it is the largest church to be built by the Eastern Roman Empire. The first church was constructed on this site by Emperor Constantine in 360, and the current building was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built between 532-537. Columns and marble were brought from ancient sites around Anatolia, Syria and North Africa for the grand structure. The most impressive part of the building is the huge dome, which is 55.6 metres from the ground and measures 31.87 metres from north to south and 30.86 metres east to west. Following the conquest of Istanbul, in 1453, it became a mosque and minarets, designed by the Ottoman architect, Sinan, were added, followed by a madrasah, mihrabs, minbar and a muezzin mahfili. Calligraphy panels were addded, which are the largest in the Islamic world. In 1935 it was converted to a museum.
The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, standing in the Galata area of Istanbul. According to the Ottoman historian, Evliya Çelebi, in around 1630, the aviator Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi glided from here, using artificial wings to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. It’s a great place from which to enjoy panoramic views over the old city of Istanbul.
This iconic building, also known as ‘Leander’s Tower’, stands in the midst of the water on a small islet at the entrance to the Bosphorus. Although there has been a fortress here since the 12th century, the current stone building dates from 1763. It featured in the James Bond film, ‘The World Is Not Enough’. These days it is in use as a café and restaurant, which can be visited by boat.
Yerebatan Cisterns - ‘Sunken Palace’Cistern
One of Istanbul’s most fascinating sites, this underground cistern was built by Emperor Justinian to store water for the Imperial city of Byzantium. It is a beautifully intricate structure, 140 metres long by 70 metres wide, with some 336 columns, many of which display intricate carvings, including the mysterious Medusa heads. You can enjoy atmospheric music and an entrancing light show, reflecting the stunning architecture in the water which collects here. In summer it is one of the coolest places in Istanbul!
So now that you have been inspired as to what to see and do, it only remains for you to browse our selection of top halal hotels in Istanbul and find the one which best suits your requirements and budget…