UPDATED June 1, 2021
I picked Istanbul as my very favorite city in the world. Because I lived there for two years, many people have asked for recommendations on what to see. While it would take a lifetime to learn all the secrets of this magical place, I believe three days are the minimum amount of time to experience a small slice of what Istanbul offers. Here are my suggestions:
- Starting each day with a rooftop breakfast overlooking the sea
- Soaking in the historic sights in and around Sultanahmet park
- Sipping tea on a ferry while sailing the Bosporus strait
- Savoring wonderful foods such as Iskender kebab, stuffed eggplant, and baked pide
- Sitting on a bench overlooking the water as the sun slides down over the many minarets
Day 1: See the historic sites of the old city around Sultanahmet Park
- I suggest staying in one of the many guesthouses in the Sultanahmet area – by staying here, many of these sites are easily walkable and feature beautiful rooftop breakfast buffets.
- Morning – Stroll through the old Hippodrome area and see the obelisk (free)
- Morning – Enter the Blue Mosque and see the amazing tile work. Note: While free, the mosque will close for prayer around noon, mid-afternoon, and sundown; this is why I suggest seeing it in the morning. Also note that modest dress is required when entering mosques. Men should wear long trousers (no shorts), and women should cover their shoulders, legs and head.
- Next visit the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the former church built by Emperor Justinian. Now a functioning mosque, the same dress code and prayer time visiting restrictions apply.
- Tip: If time is short, I suggest visiting the sultans’ tombs which are free, have beautiful tilework and no waiting. The entrance is around the right side as you face the Hagia Sophia main entrance on the way to the Topkapi Palace.
- Enjoy lunch at a nearby café. You can also grab an inexpensive doner wrap and eat in the park.
- Afternoon – Visit the underground Basilca Cistern (near the tramline across from Hagia Sophia, admission fee). Very interesting and a cool spot to escape from the hot summer sun.
- If you have energy and like to shop, visit the Grand Bazaar. Non-shoppers may want to avoid this somewhat chaotic experience.
Day 2: See Asia and the Bosporus
- Morning – take the T1 tram down the hill, exit at Eminonu, and walk to visit the old Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) – this is our favorite and less hectic than the Grand Bazaar. Lots more for sale than just spices – stock up on snacks, gifts and souvenirs.
- Enjoy the views of both the “New Mosque” (Yeni Camii) and the Golden Horn, the waterway dividing the European side of Istanbul into the very old and newer parts.
- Catch the tram going toward Kabatas and ride to the end stop – get there by 12pm. Walk north past the PO gas station and buy your ticket for the Dentur “Hop on Hop off” Bosporus cruise. This trip is our favorite and a fun way to see the sites from the water (cost 30TL, kids under 7 free). The first ferry leaves at 12:45pm, and you can hop off at any time and catch a later ferry. The ferry is also timed to allow visiting national palace museums. We recommend hopping off at the Emirgan Park stop to see the pretty flowers (especially in April when tulips are everywhere) and the quiet Kucuksu pavilion for tea and a brief walk through the pretty palace-like structure. Note: The pandemic of 2020/21 has affected many ferry and tour schedules, so please check with the ferry company or your hotel for updated ferry timetables.
- Returning to Kabatas, take the funicular up the hill to Taksim square, and stroll down the pedestrian Istiklal Street for more shopping and dining experiences. If you have energy, you can easily walk all the way down the street, then down the hill past Galata Tower to the tram stop at Karakoy. Take the tram back to your hotel.
Day 3: A Day of Choices – Pick One and Enjoy!
- If the weather is nice, visit Topkapi Palace (closed Tuesdays) and tour the Harem inside (extra ticket). The best view is at the end of the tour in the inner courtyard looking out over the Bosporus – great photo spot! You can also visit the First Courtyard for free if you want to see the grounds, and also view the St. Irene church, which is now open and has a place in early church council history. You can have lunch inside the Topkapi if you like – great view! After your visit to Topkapi, stroll down through the Gulhane Park, have a tea or coffee and people watch.
- Another option is to take a taxi out to Chora Mosque (Church of the Holy Savior or Kariye), best known for its preserved mosaics and frescos. The Christian artwork and mosaics are more beautiful and well-preserved here than in the Hagia Sophia. It is a bit harder to find, so you could take a taxi out and then public transport back to your hotel. There is a nice café next door for a relaxing meal, too. Note that like Hagia Sophia, Chora became a functioning mosque so modest dress and prayer-time visiting restrictions apply here also.
- Love the water? If you enjoyed the Bosporus cruise, take a ferry out to the Prince’s Islands – get off at Buyukada and take a horse drawn “faeton” carriage ride on the “Kuchuk Tur” (short) or “Buyuk Tur” (longer tour all the way around the island). The lack of cars and buses makes this a quiet escape from the bustle of the big city. Enjoy an ice cream while waiting to board your return ferry.
If you are planning to stay longer in Istanbul and Turkey, check out these Museum Passes which could save you money if you plan to visit most museums. Whatever you choose to do in Istanbul, I am sure the views, hospitality, and tastes of the city will remain with you forever.