If you are a first time visitor, you need at least three days just to see the top places in Istanbul even if your schedule is tight.
If you have three full days, what will you do in Istanbul?
I visited Istanbul many times, as a child, alone, with friends, and with family. I even spent three months there learning how to be a travel agent, courtesy of Efendi Travel. And their office was right in the heart of Sultanahmet. I felt great as I walked past the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace every morning on my way to work.
I would like to give a glimpse of Istanbul that can fit in a 3-day visit.
These three days exclude your days of travel to and from Istanbul. But, remember, a day consists of a morning, tour times from around 8:30 am until about 4:30 pm, and an evening. So, you can stretch your time in Istanbul from early morning until the late evening to see more and to experience more. It is best to stay in the Sultanahmet area – that would give you an easy access to many other locations. The tours described here are offered by Efendi Travel. I highly recommend them since I personally enjoyed their small group tours.
DAY 1 IN ISTANBUL
Morning: Hope you are an early riser. Nothing beats having a great Turkish breakfast early in the morning at the hotel. Then, leave the hotel and take a walk in narrow cobblestone streets. I recommend taking the Sogukcesme Sokagi (“Cold Fountain” Street), a narrow street down by the left of the Topkapi Palace’s main entrance. It is a beautiful street with one side touching the walls of Hagia Sofia, and other side lined with Ayasofya Pensions with their backs leaning on the Topkapi Palace walls. In 1997, we had the privilege to stay at the Ayasofya Pensions for a reasonable price. Ayasofya Pensions (now called Ayasofya Mansions) consists of five buildings restored completely in 1986 reflecting the 19th century Ottoman style homes. They were closed for a while; now they are renovating again into an upscale hotel.
There is an open air café and a restaurant near the end of the street where you reach the entrance of Gulhane Park, once an outer garden for the Topkapi Palace. If you keep walking on the main street, you will reach Eminonu in five minutes. Or, you can take a tram from Sultanahmet station to Eminonu. Eminonu is one of my favorite places; it gives you a great view of the Galata Bridge , Galata Tower , Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmet Mosque , Golden Horn, and Suleymaniye Mosque. There are two other famous mosques in Eminonu: New Mosque (“Yeni Cami” in Turkish, and nothing really new, only newer (c.1665) than the rest of the mosques in the Old City) and Rustem Pasha Mosque.
You can watch the morning rush hour at one of the busiest ports in Istanbul. You see the ferries offloading passengers coming from the Anatolian side of Istanbul. You watch the seagulls chasing the ferries back and forth without realizing that they are criss-crossing the two continents many times a day. You can even arrange your tour guide to pick you up here so that you do not need to go back to the hotel. While waiting for your pick up, you can buy simit from a street vendor.
Old City Guided Walking Tour: Make sure to you wear your comfortable shoes since there is going be a lot of walking on this tour while you hit the highlights of the Old City.
Morning tour: You will visit Topkapi Palace (closed on Tuesdays), the palace of the Ottoman Sultans for hundreds of years, Basilica Cistern (open every day), which is a breathtaking underground water cistern from Byzantine times, and the Roman Hippodrome, where chariot races were held between the Greens and the Blues. You will see the Serpent Column and the Obelisk brought in 390 AD from Egypt.
Lunch: Your guide will probably take you to the area where there are rows of restaurants (and where Efendi Travel’s office is). Ask your guide, on your way to lunch, to pass through Arasta Bazaar. It is a walkway, just behind the Blue Mosque, lined up with gift shops, and much cheaper, quieter and smaller version of the Grand Bazaar (which is closed on Sundays). It is open seven days a week.
Afternoon: After lunch you will see: Hagia Sophia (closed on Mondays) with its massive dome (first as a church from 537 to 1453, then a mosque until 1931, now a museum), The Blue Mosque (so beautiful with its tiles), the Tomb of Sultan Mahmut and an Ottoman Cemetery, the Million Stone (marked the mile zero in the Byzantine empire to measure distances from to everywhere), and Cemberlitas (Burnt Column, erected in 330 AD to celebrate the designation of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire). The tour ends at the Grand Bazaar (closed on Sundays) at about 16:30 to give you time to explore it on your own. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the world with more than 3000 shops.
Evening: Since you walk all day for the Old City Tour, I suggest you spend the evening sitting down and watching a show. Hodja Pasha Dance Theater performs amazing cultural shows at a restored 550 year-old Turkish Hodja Pasha Hamam. You can choose to attend either Whirling Dervishes Ceremony (every day except Monday and Friday at 7 PM) or Rhythm of the Dance (every other week onTuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 9 PM, alternating with White Rose Show, or you can choose both.
Rhythm of the Dance includes dances from different regions of Anatolia as well as oriental dances (Belly dancing) with modern choreography and are performed by the Hamam Dance Troupe. Before the dance starts, you can enjoy the exhibition on 10,000 years of dance culture in Anatolia.
The Whirling Dervishes Ceremony is a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony performed by dervishes with “ayin” music repertoire. The Mevlevi Order was founded by Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (http://mevlana.net/) in 1273, and was first started in Konya. It has been included in UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2005.
DAY 2 IN ISTANBUL
Morning: Walk to the café right in front of the Hagia Sofia and have a grilled cheese sandwich the Turkish way with a glass of Turkish tea. Watch the locals and morning explorers strolling in the vast area between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Imagine, how many kings and queens and sultans strolled in the same place that you are having your tea.
The first stop is Suleymaniye Mosque, constructed by Architect Sinan by the order of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. This is the largest mosque complex of the city, It was used as the Imperial Mosque and offers a gorgeous view over the Golden Horn.
After the mosque, you will stop by Pierre Loti Hill, named after the French Poet who gave the spot his name. There, you will find beautiful scenery of the city and can rest at a peaceful location with a cup of Turkish tea. The next visit is to one of the oldest and most important churches in the city – Chora Church (closed on Wednesdays) – representing fascinating wall paintings which tell the life of Christ in an historical order. It is celebrated for its well-preserved mosaics. Driving along the city walls, the tour will end about 12.00 noon.
Afternoon Tour: Eminonu and Bosphorus Cruise Guided Tour
You will first visit Rustem Pasa Mosque, unique with its Ottoman tiles, and then walk through the Egyptian Bazaar/Spice Market built in 1664 and filled with the fragrance of the exotic East such as spices, dried fruits, and Turkish delights. The Bosphorus cruise by a TurYol boat takes about 1.5 hour and you will see the most impressive sights along the shores of the Bosphorus including Dolmabahce Palace , Ciragan Palace (now a hotel), Maiden´s Tower the Bosphorus bridges, Rumeli and Anadolu fortresses and many historic wooden waterfront mansions, called yalis.
Evening: The Bosphorus Tour ends right at Eminonu. You do not need to take the ride to your hotel. You can simply say goodbye to your guide. He/she can even give you recommendations for the evening. My suggestion would be to take a walk across Galata bridge to Karakoy. You can take the lower part of the bridge half-way and then walk up the staircase to the upper level, but ignore the restaurants trying to convince you that they have the best food. Or, you can take the upper part of the bridge if you want to avoid those restaurants altogether. You will see hundreds of fishermen lining up on the Galata Bridge any day of the year.
After your nice stroll on Galata Bridge, you are now in Karakoy. Take a stroll along the pier. You can take a break at one of the cafes for a dessert or coffee or tea. It is a great time now to try one of the best baklavas in Turkey: Gulluoglu. Ask anyone where it is, and they will point you in the right direction. If you have time, you can stroll the narrow streets of Karakoy, the up and coming yuppie neighborhood. If you cannot go, there is a Gulluoglu in Manhattan, Astoria, Brooklyn and Cliffwood Park, New Jersey!
Take the Tunel (Funicular) from Karakoy to Istiklal Street (Turkish: Istiklal Caddesi) in Beyoglu. Built in 1875, the Tunel is the second oldest underground transportation in the world, after London in 1863. The cars from the 19th century still take you from Karakoy to Beyoglu in 90 seconds.
When you arrive at Istiklal Street, you can take a walk to Galata Tower. It was built by the Genoese in 1348. The vista from the top of the tower is incredible.
Walk back to Istiklal Caddesi and enjoy your stroll down this famous pedestrian-only street. Sample some Turkish delight (Turkish: lokum) at the Koska store. Listen to the street music ranging from Jazz to Anatolian Folklore music. The side streets are filled with restaurants. I recommend asking your guide, friends, or checking on the Internet so that you can choose one to your liking.
Last time we ate at Imroz Restaurant at Nevizade Sokak with my college friends. It was a very lively street both sides lined with restaurants with tables outside (with heaters during winter months).
Istiklal Caddesi ends at Taksim Square, which became world famous during the protests in 2013. Before you reach Istiklal, there is a pastry shop called Saray Muhallebicisi (make sure to click through their menu). During the day, save some space in your ever-hungry tummy. Because, right at Saray Muhallebicisi, you are going to order 5 or 6 Turkish desserts to try. Do not miss this opportunity. If you cannot visit the one at Istiklal street, there is one in Eminonu.
Now it is getting late. You can take the Tunel back to Karakoy. There is a tram stop at the beginning of the Galata Bridge. If your hotel is in Sultanahmet, you can take the tram to Sultanahmet tram stop and walk to your hotel.
DAY 3 IN ISTANBUL
Morning: Take a stroll before breakfast to explore the surroundings or just sleep in.
You will first visit Dolmabahce Palace (closed on Mondays and Thursdays), recent residence for Ottoman Sultans. Famous with a great collection of European antiquity, furniture and a 4.5-ton chandelier, the palace has 285 rooms of 46 halls. After the palace, the next stop is Yildiz Palace Gardens. Take a walk in the imperial gardens ornamented with some kiosks and beautiful vegetation in the middle of Istanbul.
Afternoon: You are now free to explore Istanbul on your own. I suggest you take a trip to the Asian side- to Kadikoy, my favorite district.
Kadikoy: You can ask your tour guide to drop you off at the Eminonu ferry terminals and take a ferry to Kadikoy. The ferry terminal for Kadikoy is well marked. Buy a simit from the vendor before you board the ferry so that you can delay your lunch about an hour. After 30 minutes or so, you get off the ferry at Kadikoy and walk up the big street away from the terminal. When you reach an old mosque, turn right and you are right in the Kadikoy fish and produce market. If you get lost, just ask any local where the “Kadikoy Balik Pazari” (Kadikoy Fish Market) is. Walk through a colorful display of fish, produce, cheese, and olives. You will come to an area lined with restaurants with tables outside (even in winter). I highly recommend the world-famous Ciya Restaurant to have a late lunch.
The Kadikoy district is actually older than the Old City of Istanbul. The relics found in the area date back to 5500 BCE, indicating settlement in prehistoric times. The first Greeks settled in the area and formed the city of Chalcedon in 685 BCE, just a few years before the Romans settled in the Old City (Constantinople) in 667 BCE. It became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1353, long before Byzantium (Istanbul) was conquered by Fatih Sultan Mehmet in 1453. Fatih Sultan Mehmet gave the jurisdiction to Kadi (Judge) Hizir Celebi, hence the name Kadikoy, meaning Village of the Judge.
After your very authentic dinner at Ciya Restaurant, walk one street up and you reach the cafes where they make Turkish coffee on coals. The smell of coffee fills the street. All the little tables are filled with young people chatting and enjoying their afternoon. Make sure you drink your coffee there. I always wonder how these cafes make money since all they serve are coffees and tea. And you can stay as long as you want.
But I suggest a walk towards the water. You can either take a stroll as long as you want on the boardwalk stretching for miles along the water, and wait for the sunset. Or, take a ferry back to Eminonu.
There is a great kebab restaurant, Hamdi Restaurant , at Eminonu between Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Spice Bazaar. You may be able to get a table by the windows with a view of the Galata Tower, Galata Bridge, Ferry terminals, and the opening of the Bosphorus into the Marmara Sea. What a perfect spot to say goodbye to Istanbul! Order any of the kebabs and you will not be disappointed.
If you still have some energy left, walk back towards your hotel enjoying the shops, crowds, nargile bars, and cafes. Sit on one of the benches between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, listen to the ezan (call for prayers) and watch the lights dance in the fountain.
Extra Days in Istanbul
It would be great if you have an extra day in Istanbul. You can take a tour to:
Princes’ Islands: I love taking a day off from the big city, and take a ferry or a boat to the Princes’ Islands on the Marmara Sea, very close to Istanbul. As a first time visitor, I recommend the Big Island (Turkish: Buyukada), you will know why if to check out this article in New York Times . You can take a Prince’s Islands Tour or you can take a ferry from Kabatas port to Princes’ Islands. Take a tram from Sultanahmet to its last stop, i.e. Kabatas Port. You can take a ferry by Sehirhatlari or a Seabus by Dentur Avrasya. I recommend Dentur Avrasya since it is the fastest way to go to Buyukada. However, if you want to have a scenic ride, choose Sehirhatlari. Buyukada offers many historic churches, monasteries, and mansions with incredibly beautiful lace-looking woodwork. No cars are allowed. The best way to visit Buyukada is to take a small island tour on one of the horse carriages (fayton). After your tour, take a table at one of the restaurants on the port and order ice-cold beer and fried mussels.
If you go early to the islands, you can take an early ferry back. You can take a short taxi ride from Kabatas to Ortakoy and have time to visit Ortakoy and even walk to Rumeli Hisari.
Ortakoy and walk to Rumeli Hisari (can be done in half a day): Ortakoy and a walk from Ortakoy to Rumeli Hisari will give you a great close-up look at the Bosphorus. Ortakoy Mosque, the world’s only Baroque style mosque, has just been renovated and sits right on the Bosphorus. You have a perfect view of the first bridge, Bosphorus Bridge, spanning from Europe to Asia. There are great restaurants, souvenir shops, bars, and cafes alongside the Bosphorus. My favorite one sits right on the Bosphorus to the left of the Ortakoy Mosque. If you get a table right next to the water, you can enjoy the splashes of the waves every time a boat passes. You can order your tea and tell the waiter that you are going to buy kumpir and bring it to the table. Go to nearest kiosk and order kumpir, a large baked potato filled with the toppings of your choice. And there are at least 15 toppings to choose from.
Then take a 3-mile walk to Rumeli Hisari (a fortress built by Fatih Sultan Mehmet in 1452 before he conquered the Old City of Istanbul), almost all on the boardwalk, watching the fishermen and the magnificent wooden yalis or beautiful waterfront homes along the way. You will pass several great neighborhoods along the way including Kurucesme with its expensive cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, Arnavutkoy with its wooden houses and laid back style , Bebek with its little park by the water and its expensive cafes and Rumeli Hisari with its spectacular fortress and the shoreline. Finish your day on the shores of Rumeli Hisari with another great breakfast – yes, breakfast!- in one of the cafes lining up the Bosphorus. These cafes are famous for their breakfast and they are always busy any time of the day. Kale Café is usually my choice, and I was happy to see that it was also Anthony Bourdain’s choice in Istanbul.
Istanbul is a very big city with many, many districts, each unique with its history, architecture, life style, markets, and people. I hope you enjoy every moment of it.
Let me know if you have any questions about Istanbul.