Istanbul is a unique city, that effortlessly combines elements of East and West. There really is no place like it. Nothing compares to a ferry ride on the Bosphorous, seeing the city from atop the Galata Tower or walking through the winding side streets of Beyoğlu. For visitors it can be overwhelming to know where to go, but with a bit of careful planning you will be able to get a solid introduction to the city. 3 days in Istanbul allows you an ideal length of time to see the main highlights. Here’s what should be on your itinerary.
Istanbul is geographically unique because it sits upon both Europe and Asia, separated by the mighty Bosphorus strait. The Bosphorus is the cities lifeline and one of my absolute favorite thing to do is to take a ferry across it during sunset. The European side is home to all the main sights and the Asian side is more residential (though equally as interesting).
Istanbul has a population of around 15 million, and it can be felt especially during rush hour whether you are on the metro or sitting in traffic. Make sure to plan and give yourself plenty of time to get places. When planning to visit be wary of the Ramadan holiday (the last three days after Ramadan), where it will feel like the whole city is out and about, and in my opinion you should avoid if at all possible.
Istanbul is as safe as any major city, and it’s important to remain vigilant while traveling and be respectful of your surroundings as you would in any other destination. I have never personally felt unsafe traveling through any of the main neighborhoods, like Sultanahmet, where the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, and Basilical Cistern are.
The Sultanahmet neighborhood is a great place to get a proper introduction to the city, since it’s home to Sultanahmet Park that has both the Blue Mosque and across the way the Aya Sofya. A short walk away, the Basilica Cistern is worth a stop to experience a mysterious subterranean world, which used to hold the city’s water supply, but now functions as a backdrop for movies. Wander around the dimly lit walkways and try and catch a glimpse of ghostly carp in the shallow pools as well as the upside down Medusa head.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Spend the afternoon at this trio of museums: Archaelogy Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Tiled Pavilion, which house art collections from nearby Topkapi Palace. The museums boast over a million Greek, Roman and Byzantine works. A brief stroll from Sultanahmet, these museums are a great spot to get away from the crowds, as well as the elements. Make sure not to miss the lavish Alexander Sarcophagus, which is thought to have belonged to Alexander the Great.
Start the day out wandering around one of the oldest and largest (4000 shops and counting) covered markets in the world. You can spend at least a few hours here getting lost in the various side streets, admiring the beautiful rugs, and haggling to your heart’s content. A few notes about bargaining: the best time to strike a good deal is earlier in the day when the merchants are trying to reach their daily quota, don’t ever name your best price because you won’t be able to go under it, and make sure to shop around (each section is divided by similar items) before deciding which stall to try out your haggling skills at.
Spend the afternoon letting your nose guide you as you make your way through this aromatic market, which is much more manageable than the Grand Baazar. There are potions for every ailment, Turkish delights and an endless array of spices for edible souvenirs to bring home. Afterward, walk over to the Eminonu waterfront to get a “balik ekmek” (fish sandwich) from one of the decorated fishing boats and eat it at one of the provided plastic tables nearby. For those who are fans of all things sour, grab some “tursu” (pickles) or “tursu suyu” (pickle juice) for brave souls from a vendor nearby the pier.
One of the city’s main boulevards in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, this lively street has everything from shopping to an active nightlife scene with numerous bars and clubs. Hop on the vintage red trams that go down the length of the street. Stop by the Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage), which is a historical arcade that was a former theater-turned-flower-hall that is now filled with cafes, restaurants, and wine shops. If you are there at night, make sure to indulge in a popular late night snack: the islak burger, which translates to wet burger and is bathed in a buttery tomato sauce.
For stunning panoramic views of the city and the Bosphorus, head to the observation deck of this iconic medieval stone watchtower located in the Galata/Karaköy neighborhood. There is a restaurant/cafe at the top if you want to linger a bit longer and soak in the view with a cup of tea. There’s also a 4D helicopter simulation ride of the tower, but the real views are better and don’t leave you feeling queasy afterward. Be prepared for long lines, especially during the summertime. The entrance fee is 25TL for adults.
If there is one thing you must see, it’s Topkapi Palace, where the lives of Sultans and their families played out. The separate Harem is also worth experiencing (and less crowded since it requires an extra ticket). Fun fact: they still film popular period soap operas within the palace and you can often see the camera equipment scattered around the grounds. Not surprisingly the palace is spacious and can take a few hours to make your way around. Adjacent to Topkapi Palace is Gulhane Park, the city’s oldest park and is an ideal spot to wander around amid families and couple picnicking on the grass.
Take the ferry to the less frantic Asian side of the city, and escape the tourist crowds on the European side. Get off at this scenic neighborhood that is situated right by the water and is known for its fish and produce markets, artsy atmosphere, as well as stunning views of the city and Bosphorous. Grab a seat at Moda Cay Bahcesi, an open tea garden that boasts sea views and is a great place to rest after a long day of sightseeing. Pro tip: buy pastries from nearby shops and eat them alongside your steaming hot cups of tea.
Where To Stay
It’s best to stay in a central neighborhood like Sultanahmet, where you have easy access to sights like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern. Depending on the exchange rate between your country, 4-and-5 star hotels are a bit cheaper than places like the U.S. and Europe.
An excellent budget option that is centrally located and is a 5-minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The hostel is great for solo travelers, and is spotless and recently renovated. The best part is the rooftop terrace where you can relax with an ice cold Efes and take in the panoramic city views below. Breakfast included.
This hospitable 4-star hotel is centrally located in Sultanahmet, and walking distance to top sights like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. Amenities include an on-site restaurant and bar, as well as a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a glass of wine with a view. Airport shuttles are available.
Located near the Galata Tower, this stunning luxury hotel feels like you have time-traveled backward. Most importantly the staff make you feel instantly at home. On property there’s a restaurant and bar, as well as an indoor pool and health club. Each room comes with a private terrace where you can put your feet up after a long day of sightseeing.
How would you spend 3 days in Istanbul?
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Photo source: Istiklal Avenue