I had the amazing opportunity to visit Istanbul twice. Once in 2015 as a backpacking student, and another in 2017 with my parents as one leg of my 6 month Round the World trip. I’ve taken the best of what I’ve done and put it all together into this jam packed 3 day itinerary.
The main tourist areas in Istanbul are Sultanahment, and the Taksim/Istikal Cadessi area. Sultanahment is definitely the historical and cultural heart of the city, with the famed Blue Mosque, Haggia Sofia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace all within a 20 minute walk of each other. Cross over the Galatta Bridge and follow the easily visible Galatta Tower (forget paying the big admission fee to go up the tower) towards Istikal Cadessi and Taksim, Istanbul’s main tourist shopping area and main square. Popular hotels and hostels will tend to cluster in these two neighbourhoods. It is possible to get from one to the other by public transit but on a nice day, walking is highly recommended.
A note about Museum and Transit Cards. Museum cards are offered all across Turkey by region (Istanbul, Antalya, central Turkey etc). If you’re planning to do the grand tour of Turkey, I highly recommend the country wide card that gives you access to all state run parks and museums. To make transiting quick and easy, load an Istanbul Kart (4TL each) so you can tap onto the tram lines.
Start the day nice and early at Haggia Sofia to escape the inevitable crowds. Pick up your Istanbul Museum card for the savings. This card will give you access to many of Istanbul’s sights and well worth it if you’re into museums. Expires in 5 days. Proceed inside this beautiful Byzantine Cathedral turned Ottoman Mosque turned national museums. Haggia Sofia has its roots going back to 300AD. When the Ottoman Muslims took over, the sultan thought the magnificent building too beautiful to tear down. Instead, it was converted to a mosque, with all the Christian iconography plastered over with beautiful Arabic Calligraphy. An alcove facing Mecca was added. Next up walk across the Plaza to Sultanahment mosque or the “Blue Mosque”. Cover up legs and shoulders, and hair if you are female. Admire the amazing domed ceilings and intricate tile work. Follow the tram up the hill slightly and hit up Sultanahment Koftesi on the right (brown sign) for a simple but amazingly fragrant Kofte lunch. Follow the tram downhill for a block and look for signs on your left side for the Basilica Cistern, a structure built by the Romans to store their water supply (your museum card is no good here). Follow the tram up the hill again for a few blocks and follow signs for the Grand Bazaar. Part of the fun is getting lost here looking at the trinkets, dinnerware, and rug shops. Bargain hard here. Find any exit and make your way to one of the many local coffee shops for an afternoon coffee or tea. Maybe a pastry or Borek (flakey pastries filled with cheese) too if you’re so inclined. Walk around and enjoy the hustle and bustle of Sultanahment and choose any restaurant in the area for dinner. They serve very similar food and it is all generally good. End the night at Erenler Nargile for the most local Nargile (waterpipe/hookah/shisha) experience. 27 TL a pop and don’t forget the tea!
Start your day at Topkapi Palace and marvel at the opulence of the Ottoman Sultans. The main balcony offers fantastic views of the Bosphoros. Riding that museum wave, head to the beautifully organized Istanbul Archaeological Museum for great pieces from Istanbul and Turkey’s past from early permanent settlement, through Greek/Roman, Christian, then Arab occupation. Head downhill towards the Galatta Bridge where you can stop for lunch. My suggestion for a cheap eat here is to walk past the bridge to the series of heavily decorated boats and get a Balik Ekmek, or grilled fish sandwich. Simple, inexpensive, and nutritious. If you catch the little doughnut cart in the same plaza, make sure to grab of few of these syrupy gems. Head to the ferry terminal close by Eminonu and catch a cheap public ferry across to the Asian side of Istanbul. There is usually a market closeby for some coffee, light snacks, and local goods. Be sure to bargain again. On the ferry ride back, soak in the beautiful views of the mosques from the sea side. If your sweet tooth has an itch at this point, Hafiz Mustapha close to the tram line offers delicious Turkish Delights, Baklava, and other delicious treats and pastries.
Hike your way to the Galatta Tower. This tower was built as a lookout, and you can pay big bucks for a 360 degree view of the city. There are so many hip shops around the area selling anything from leather goods to T shirts with a political message, so be sure to check some of them out. There are nearby supermarkets so find one you like and pick up a loaf of bread and some fruit. Heading to Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul’s main tourist shopping street you can shop in the comfort of all your favourite western stores. There are endless food options here but head west down one of the busy side streets and you’ll find tons of nicer restaurants serving local seafood. There are also legit delis and grocers here so stop by a deli and pick up some mezzes (cold appetizers) like spicy olives, roasted eggplant, and every kind of dip imaginable. If you can get your hands on Kaymak (a creamy yogurt/cheese spread, best combined with honey), then you are in for a treat. Combine with your fruit and bread and you have a nice picnic lunch to enjoy near Taksim Square at the end of Istiklal. Head down steep Bogazkesen Cadessi towards Tophane tram station and find tons of beautiful coffee shops to enjoy an afternoon drink and pastry. Catch the sunset on the waterfront by the bridge and watch the ferries and boats go by.
Of course 3 days is enough to hit up all the highlights of Istanbul but if you have 4 or 5 days to spread everything out, it gives you time to explore and discover your own little hole in the wall gems. My personal favourites to watch out for are the cultural nuggets in the alleys. You will often find a cluster of stools and tables where you can grab shisha, a coffee/cay, or even sample local musical talent (we found a nice one off Istiklal cd.)
I wrote extensively about my time in Istanbul in a previous post. Unfortunately, many of the sites were under renovation (more so than in 2015). A small Plaza behind the Basilica Cistern was blocked off for reconstruction. Unfortunate because this was one of our favourite areas to enjoy a beer with a view of both Haggia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Haggia Sofia itself continues to be under heavy reconstruction and now, large sections of the upstairs balcony are inaccessible. Most sad was the Basilica Cistern, where the water and fish have been cordoned off into the corner where the Medusa heads are, and the whole right side of the cistern is unlit and inaccessible.
Any major urban center is subject to scammers who are out to make a quick buck off tourists. Most are harmless merchants vying for your attention. But here are two to look out for
Particularly common around Galata Bridge, you’ll inevitably find yourself walking behind a show polisher who drops his brush. You pick it up and call the guy. He offers to shine your shoes seemingly out of gratitude. You reluctantly accept his persistent offer, only to have him ask you for 40 Euros after. Ignore these losers it’s all a scam. We saw it happen multiple times and one tried to scam my mom.
If you are a single male, watch out for any friendly locals who try to chat you up and offer to show you around. You inevitably end up at a bar where they charge you an arm and a leg for drinks. If this happens to you, make note of the bar name and make a police report the following day.
Istanbul is truly a one of a kind city and top of my list. Be sure to check it out and bring lots of room in your luggage 😀