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Both Venice and Istanbul are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is an abundance of travel guides for both cities, but few actually comparing them, and advising you which is the better for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased and independent views of Venice and Istanbul, hopefully making your choice that little easier.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City ratings -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
Ah, Venice – a bucket-list city if there ever was one! Famed for its myriad canals, vast plazas and grand churches, this is one of Italy's most visited destinations. Once the epicentre of its own trading empire that stretched right across the Mediterranean and even east to the Old Silk Road, it became rich on spices, precious metals, and cloth.
With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul is the bridge between two continents. As much of a cliché as that might sound, this really is a place where you can wander between spiked mosque minarets on one street and be gazing at a Byzantine cathedral the next; where shisha smoke mingles with the smells of falafel; the muezzin's call echoes between relics left by the ancient Romans.
Most travelers aim for the north-western portion of the town. That's separated from Asian Turkey by the Bosphorus Strait. Its districts include enthralling Sultanahmet – the home of the iconic Topkapi Palace and the legendary Hagia Sofia – and vibrant, youthful Galata. Those who prefer off-the-beaten-track adventures can go over to Asian Istanbul, for atmospheric areas laced with hookah plumes and bazaars.
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!
Don't think you can distil Istanbul into a few short days. Even with weeks to explore, this vast metropolis (it's one of the largest in the world, let alone Europe) will surely still hold secrets. That said, a fly-in jaunt for a weekend is always going to be fun. You'll just need to pick your side of town and focus on the sights you want to see the most. So, choose between the Old City streets and Asian Istanbul before arriving, and plan accordingly if time is limited.
For those with longer to spare, this great Turkish town is your oyster. You'll be able to cross the Bosphorus to explore districts of steamy hammams and mosques. You can have whole days in the Grand Bazaar and Ottoman palaces. You might even be able to head over to Agva (for beaches) and the islands of Marmara (for wild hikes in pine woods). Basically, having too much time is rarely an issue.
It's no secret that most people whiz in and out of Venice on big cruise ships, even if recent regulations are bringing a slow end to that.
Lots of weekenders also come on low-cost flights – Venice's Treviso Airport is a major hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Those sorts of travellers can only ever really expect to scratch the surface of what's on offer.
The upshot? If you really want to explore this amazing city, you're going to need a little longer. If the budget allows, a week is perfect. That will be enough to see the mainstay sights, but also venture across to Murano and the Venice Lido, the party bars of Campo Santa Margherita, and the pathways of Giudecca.
We're almost tempted to say forget Venice in the summer entirely. During the Italian high season between May and August, the whole place is packed to bursting with tourists. You can barely swing a slice of pizza on the Rialto Bridge or down on Piazza San Marco.
What's more, the horizon is tainted with the outlines of huge cruise ships. Far better are the shoulder months of May and September. The crowds diminish considerably during those, but the weather still tends to be reasonable – think daytime temperatures regularly hitting the mid-20s.
The final weeks of February are also popular on account of the centuries-old tradition of the Venice Carnivale. Come then to join the revelry but be sure to bring along a flamboyant face mask (a must) and a good coat, because the winters can be cold.
It's probably a good idea to avoid the rest of the winter. Venice is one of the lowest-lying cities in the world, so flooding comes easy. In the last few years, there have been huge problems with water clogging up even the famous tourist hotspots around Piazza San Marco.
When things get hot in Istanbul, things get really hot. In fact, it's not uncommon for summertime temperatures to creep over 30 degrees. What's more, June to August is when the crowds come, packing out sights like the Grand Bazaar.
The upshot here is that spring and fall reign as the top times in the calendar to plan a visit. March, April, September and October tend to be cooler, less busy and less expensive.
Winter can bring snows. Photographers will adore the city when it's blanketed, as the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque look simply stunning under a sheen of the white stuff. However, the months from November to February can be bitterly cold, so off-season visitors will need to wrap up warm and forget having al fresco Turkish coffees on the street side.
There's no doubt that Istanbul is one of the more adventurous and unusual breaks for European travellers. Most folk come to Turkey on package holidays, with pre-booked hotels by the sea. But this destination forgoes all that in favour of enthralling Ottoman history and heady bazaars.
It's a place that will help you break out of the comfort zone and push your boundaries a little.
Those keen on seeing a city that's walkable and compact should certainly steer clear of Turkey's largest. At 15.5 million strong and covering two separate continents, this isn't a bitesize destination by any stretch.
Venice is a perfect break for those keen to check off another bucket-list city. Yes, it might be over touristed, but there's still something truly magical about the canals and the gondolas and the great churches here.
It's simply unlike anywhere else on the planet. All that adds an edge of romance to boot. So, consider this one if you're searching for a city-based honeymoon.
On the flip side, Venice isn't for the budget traveller or the outdoorsy person. Yes, you can hop on a bus to go north to the Dolomites, but they are still several hours away.
There are beaches, but they are nowhere near the best on the Italian east coast. And you can expect to pay over the odds for virtually everything, from hotels to ice creams to pizza.
You can unearth some seriously jaw-dropping sights, taste some unforgettable food, and get a grounding in Turkish history with only 48 hours to spend in Istanbul.
Day 1: There's really nowhere else to begin but Sultanahmet. This is the Istanbul you will have seen on the postcards; the land of minarets and mighty mosque domes. The kingpin of it all is the colossal Hagia Sophia.
In its long life of more than 1,500 years it's been an Orthodox cathedral and a mosque. It's now a museum containing gorgeous mosaics and frescos, although the star of the show is still its dome, flaunting an amazing 30-metre diameter.
Sitting opposite just to the south is the majestic Blue Mosque. Built in the early 1600s, it's still in working order. And even more history awaits in the Topkapi Palace Museum, which is a few blocks northwards. That sprawling complex reigned as the home of the Ottoman sultans. It's now a UNESCO site and occupies a stunning perch above the Bosphorus.
Day 2: Big, modern Taksim Square starts day two with a sighting of what 21st-century Istanbul is all about. Be sure to take a glimpse of the honorific statue at its heart.
That's the Republic Monument, made to celebrate the foundation of the Turkish state in 1928. Nearby Istiklal Street has abundant choices on the food front, no matter if you're craving a gritty Turkish coffee or a regional breakfast spread of mezze cheeses, flatbreads, and olives.
It's also a busting artery of the city, with high-street shopping and a classic trolley car running its length. One thing you can't miss – literally! – here is Galata Tower. Built by the Genoese to protect their European strongholds from the east, it's a mind-blowing fortification that boasts sweeping panoramas from its top floors.
Your afternoon session should be dedicated to exploring the Bosphorus. There's really no better way to do that than on a boat. Some cruises even offer stops in Asian Istanbul and meals with the sunset to boot.
48hours in Venice
Delve into the secrets and the uber-famous sights of Venice with this 48-hour itinerary. It will take you from the legendary walks of the Rialto Bridge all the way to the hidden glass workshops of Murano, revealing some of the most enthralling corners of the iconic City of Canals.
Day 1: Rise early and race to the Piazza San Marco. Beating the crowds to the vast plaza is a great way to see it in all its glory. As the sun rises, watch as the light caresses the red-brick Campanile (a 98-meter belfry dating from the 12th century) and the bulbous domes of St Marks Basilica.
If you've managed to arrive before the queues start to form, be sure to duck into the latter. It's free to enter and has intricate Byzantine apses and frescos. Right next door is the Doge's Palace. Again, if it's too late you can certainly expect a queue. If not, head behind the Gothic frontispiece to wander the old palace of the erstwhile leaders of the Venetian republic.
Then head north through the narrow alleys of the San Marco district. It's a beautiful maze of little side streets, occasionally punctuated by a watery canal. You're sure to find a cafeteria there for lunch, before you go straight for the Rialto Bridge, made famous by Shakespeare and painters. Cross it and hit the buzzing markets of Ruga dei Oresi, which abut the small Campo Bella Vienna, a top spot to sit with a cold beer and watch elegant Venetian gondolas drift in and out of the canals.
If you choose not to ride one, you can push on to see the San Giacomo di Rialto (probably the oldest church in the whole city!) and then the neighbourhood around Campo Santa Margherita. That's a nightlife mecca, where you can unwind with a prosecco or ten.
No trip to Venice is complete without a gondolas ride
Day 2: Your second 24 hours in Venice is all about hitting the different districts. We'd recommend starting on the northern side of the archipelago. That's home to characterful Cannaregio; the old Jewish Quarter. These days, it's got canal-side cafés next to the fascinating Muso Ebraico di Venezia, which tells the story of Venetian Jews over the centuries.
From there, move west to Santa Croce. Within, you'll glimpse the lived-in city. It's the only place where cars can travel on the archipelago and it has newer churches and loads of bakeries and shops. Hop the Grand Canal ferry (number 3) from there to Murano.
Pastel-painted workshops meet the water on that island, in an area that's been famed for centuries for its glass making. If you're interested, the Museum of Glass is a great place to start.
Alternatively, enjoy a lunch on the lagoon and then get back on the boat, travelling all the way through the Grand Canal to the Dorsoduro. The zone has beautiful broadside views of Piazza San Marco at sunset. It's also home to plenty of lovely osterias with northern Italian wines and delicacies to get stuck into.
The modern Istanbul New Airport is the main hub serving this big city. It handles the largest amount of air traffic in Turkey, so expect to find lots of connections in from Western Europe and beyond. Regular shuttle buses link the terminals with the downtown in around 50 minutes to one hour, but, be warned, travel times can vary greatly depending on traffic. The smaller Sabiha Gokcen International Airport hosts most of the services coming in from across the Middle East. It's over on the south side of the metropolis.
Istanbul's tourist areas suffer from the same scams as many other European cities. Fake guides, pickpockets and unregistered taxis are particularly common, so be sure to have your wits about you when sightseeing. Be wary when converting cash in the Old Town area too, because extortionate commission rates and even fake banknotes have been reported.
Choosing a hotel in Istanbul really depends on what you want. Sightseeing in Sultanahmet is what most people come for and there are loads of hotels to pick there, even if paying a premium is normal. Beyoglu is better if you're after chain hotels and boutique stays, and it's right on the more modern and happening part of town. Asian Istanbul will likely be cheaper, but also a ferry ride from the most famous attractions.
Venice is largely safe and easy to travel. However, there are some things worth knowing before you go. First off, the overload of tourists has seen a huge spike in pickpockets over the years. So, always keep an eye on your valuables, especially in uber-popular spots like the Piazza San Marco and Erbaria.
Second, be wary that Venice's side streets are rarely empty. You'll always need to dodge a crowd and watch where you're walking. When it rains, flooding is common, so pack waterproofs and wellies if you're visiting in the winter months. Also, keep an eye out for pigeons. They're a nuisance on the piazzas and can even carry disease.
There are two airports serving Venice and its region. The largest and the closest to town is the international hub at Marco Polo Airport. That's got connections going all around the world. It's linked to the city by the ATVO bus (arrives at Piazzale Roma) and to the train station in Mestre.
If you're flying low-cost, it's more likely you'll arrive at Treviso Airport. That sits some 20 miles to the north, with buses that link to the archipelago in around 70 minutes for about €10 each way.
Choosing where to stay in Venice is very important. Fly-in, fly-out tourists will want to be in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco. The area is laced with expensive and classy hotels, but also has some more affordable options, all within walking distance of the top sights.
If to save some cash and get somewhere a little quieter, you could sleep closer to Dorsoduro or the Cannaregio, or even out in Murano. The cheapest places of all will be on the mainland, in Mestre.