The only way from the airport is taxi…no other way (no train etc.) and yes you will need Turkish lira. You can take it with you or take from the ATMs in Istanbul airport or do currency exchange there but have the Turkish lira with you before getting in the taxi.
Historical center is ” Sultanahmet” where you can see Topkapi Palace, Agia Sophia, Yerebat (basilica), the blue mosque and grand bazaar. They are all close to each other and can be done in half a day or a full day if you want to spend more time inside the Palace and Grand Bazaar and have lunch in that area.
Not fancy but famous “turkish meatballs” place is called ‘Sultanahmet koftecisi”.
Make sure you ask (to one of the museum ticket guys for example, as they are in the same area, they will know to point out) the original one, as there are others with same name, pretend to be the one 😉
For a fancy lunch or drinks and to rest a bit, go to the Four Seasons hotel in that area (it was a prison in the past, now a fancy hotel).
Go to Ortakoy for a couple of hours, for brunch for example, you can try House Cafe or any of the more local cafes by the water, there are street arts crafts, jewellery, art galleries, bars, and so many food stands to try different food.
You can also go around lunch or afternoon snack time. On the way to Ortakoy, you can stop by Ciragan Palace (a real palace turned into a hotel) to have drink or just to see (very nice, by the water).
Stroll on Istiklal Caddesi (pedestrian street) where Leb-i Derya is also located – but no need to spend too much time here. I have seen some tourists spend the full time on this street but there is so much more to see.
Take a local ferry from Besiktas to Kadikoy (NOT to Uskudar!!) and (Asian side) to see a bit of other side…you can go to “Badgat Caddesi” which is very nice with cafes and shopping. Or take a taksi from Kadikoy to Kalamis Marina (if you want to also see the Asian side, most people miss this part).
Go to Nisantasi to have a flavor of shopping area and cafes. Experience the local living in this nice neighbourhood.
My favourite place to have beer “lebi derya” at the rooftop; and nice views and very cozy http://www.lebiderya.com/en/
– Reina – for a nice fancy dinner (more impressive, popular music, a must see in Istanbul if you like clubbing, outdoor bar, restaurant, clubs and also an indoor part) http://www.reina.com.tr/en/
– Anjelique (cozier and better music according to me)
– Ulus 29 – one of the most famous restaurant + bars in Istanbul, beautiful views http://ulus29.com/
– 360 Istanbul (good location, also a bar and 360 views of Istanbul) http://www.360istanbul.com/
– Sunset – similar to Ulus 29 http://www.sunsetgrillbar.com/
– Feriye lokantasi – beautiful location by Bosphorus and great food http://www.feriye.com/
* Another area “Karakoy” for nighlife: This area is “in” nowadays with so many bars in narrow streets / popular bars in the area.
* For bar hopping:
Zelda Zonk (rooftop), Colonie, Mitte, Gaspar (while you are in the area, you can simply ask anyone and they point out)
– To eat meze and seafood in this area:
Liman Lokantasi, Karakoy or Karakoy Lokantasi, Karakoy.
Close to Galata tower:
Nardis bar with live music