Istanbul is one of those eternal cities which will leave you fascinated no matter how many times you visit. It is the magical convergence point of East and West, where an incredible cultural experience lies around every corner. Istanbul enchants with its Ottoman mosques, atmospheric bazaars, and countless teahouses. 3 days in Istanbul isn’t nearly enough time to explore all the city has to offer but gives you enough time to get a good overview of the city. Let us help you make the most of your trip, so you can experience some of the best things to do in Istanbul over the weekend.
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How to Get Around During Your 3 Days in Istanbul
For this ‘3 days in Istanbul itinerary’, I would recommend using the city’s extensive public transport system which is cheap and efficient. Trams and the metro provide the fastest means of transport running approximately every 5 minutes from 06:00-24:00. For most visitors, the most useful tram line is T1 which runs from Zeytinburnu through Aksaray and Sultanahmet. The line then crosses the Galata Bridge and continues to Kabataş, offering plenty of sightseeing spots along the way. Istanbul’s tramway system is sleek and efficient with trams running every five minutes, but it can be very crowded at peak times. To access the tramway, you’ll have to first purchase a journey token (jeton) or the Istanbul Card (Istanbulkart), which operate the turnstile.
I would highly recommend investing in the Istanbul Card during your 72 hours in Istanbul. The Istanbul Card is a travel pass that can be used on the entire public transport system in Istanbul: trams, metro, buses, ferries. It is a prepaid (10 TL) and rechargeable contactless smartcard. The card can be bought and topped up from the main bus stations and other public transport ticket offices or from vending machines at major stops. The initial fare costs 2.60 TL and additional journeys made within two hours are progressively cheaper. The good thing is that one card can be used for up to 5 passengers. This is thus cheaper than purchasing individual tokens each time for 5 TL.
Buses and dolmuses (minibuses) are also extremely efficient but due to traffic congestion trips can be very long. The most useful bus lines for visitors are those running both sides of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the western districts.
It is possible to walk between many of Istanbul’s major sights and the vast majority of the outer lying points of interest can be easily reached by public transport. The historic Sultanahmet district is relatively traffic-free and easily explored on foot, as is most of Beyoğlu. Keep in mind that traffic only stops at pedestrian crossings controlled by lights, and always make use of pedestrian overpasses and underpasses on the main roads.
Taxis are pervasive in Istanbul and fares are cheap in comparison to other major European cities. Taxis in Istanbul are bright yellow, with the word “taksi” on a sign on the roof. They can be hailed in the street or found at taxi ranks. If you plan on using a taxi you should carry a map or have the name of your destination written down since most taxi drivers aren’t well versed in English. Be careful not to get short-changed by drivers taking you the long way.
Forget about using a bicycle in Istanbul unless you have a death wish. Seriously, there’s a dearth of cycle routes and heavy traffic makes it pretty dangerous.
Your 3 Days in Istanbul Itinerary
For this three day itinerary to Istanbul, I have included almost all the must-see sights in the city. It is also possible to follow this itinerary if you are spending a weekend in Istanbul. This itinerary is designed to provide a flavor of the city as a whole. It, of course, isn’t possible to explore all of Istanbul’s sights in just three days.
I’ve divided the itinerary according to the locations of the attractions so as to save time while commuting. For your convenience, this post includes a free map which highlights the main points of interest in Istanbul for three days. You can find the addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map. I understand that everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. The earlier you start your day the more time you’ll have to see the attractions. Below I have compiled a list of the best things to see (or eat) in Istanbul over the course of three days:
Day 1 in Istanbul
Day one of this ‘3 days in Istanbul’ itinerary covers the area of Sultanahmet which has a high concentration of historic sights. The neighborhood is a showcase of the city’s glorious past and is home to some of the best things to see in Istanbul such as famous mosques, churches, and houses dating from the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman eras. Sultanahmet is best explored on foot.
1. Blue Mosque
Kick-off your 3 days in Istanbul at the iconic Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), one of the must-see attractions in Istanbul. Its instantly recognizable six slender minarets, hulking bulk and prominent position on the Istanbul skyline make it Istanbul’s most photogenic building, in my opinion.
The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 by Mehmet Ağa, the imperial architect for the Sultan Ahmet I. The sultan wanted to build a monument that would rival and even surpass the nearby Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque soon became Istanbul’s principal imperial mosque because of its proximity to Topkapi Palace. At the time, a mosque with six minarets was considered a sacrilegious attempt to rival the great mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca which had six minarets. According to popular legend, the sultan asked for a minaret capped with altın (gold), but the architect heard altı (six) minarets. Ultimately, Sultan Ahmet I was forced to send Mehmet Ağa down to Mecca to build a seventh minaret for Masjid al-Haram to restore its eminence.
The courtyard of the Blue Mosque is the largest of all the Ottoman mosques, As you enter, you’ll immediately notice that it is surrounded by a portico of thirty small domes that have the same dimensions as the mosque itself. The former hexagonal-shaped ablutions fountain (şadırvan) stands in the center of the courtyard and is now purely ornamental. The cascading effect of the domes is absolutely stunning!
The interior of the mosque is amazing and once inside you’ll realize why the mosque earned its familiar name. More than 20,000 cobalt-blue İznik tiles glowing gently in the light from the mosque’s 260 windows, beautifully decorated with lilies, carnations, tulips, and roses. The abundant use of these decorative tiles marks the apogee of Iznik tiles craftsmanship. Four elephantine pillars support a dome 22 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at the crown – big, but not quite as big as Hagia Sophia.
The mihrab (the pulpit from which the imam delivers his sermons) and minbar (a niche that points towards Mecca) are intricately carved with white marble, and the ebony window shutters are inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. The arabesques painted on the domes, semidomes and the upper walls are also strikingly attractive. However, these are restorations; to see the originals, look at the wall beneath the sultan’s loge which lies to the left of the mihrab.
The entrance to the Blue Mosque is free, and it is best to visit early in the morning. It is open daily from 8:30-12:15, 14:00-16:30 and 17:30-18:30.
INSIDER TIP: VISITING A MOSQUE
Visitors are welcome at any mosque in Istanbul, but non-Muslims should try to avoid prayer times, particularly the main weekly congregation on Fridays at 13:00. The five daily prayer times are calculated according to the times of sunrise and sunset and thus change throughout the year. Exact times will be posted up on boards outside prominent mosques. For women, exposed shoulders and thighs won’t be tolerated and heads should be covered. Rules are a bit more lenient for men, but guys should should be sensitive to any skin exposed by shorts or tank tops. For visits to the mosque, remember to take your shoes off outside the entrance. It’s a good idea to carry around a scarf, but all mosques provide some type of head covering at the entrance. Take off your shoes before entering the prayer hall. Do not eat inside, engage in flash photography or get in close proximity of worshippers. On entering the prayer hall of one of Istanbul’s grandiose mosques, you might experience a soaring sense of space. Since Islam explicitly prohibits images of living things inside a mosque, there are never any statues or figurative paintings. Men and women pray separately with women often praying in a screened-off area or a balcony. Mosques always have carpets in order to cushion the knees and forehead during prayer time.
2. Sultanahmet Square & Hippodrome
The Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydanı) is the oblong square lying beside the Blue Mosque. The square lies at the epicenter of Sultanahmet aka Old Istanbul. A tremendous amount of art and architecture spanning millennia can be found in the narrow, winding streets surrounding the square. The small gardens in the square are a nice place to sit and people watch.
Now try to imagine this serene spot as being the venue of boisterous chariot races, bloodbaths, and extravagant royal functions. Well, this square used to be the site of the Hippodrome, the gigantic chariot-racing arena which was formerly the cultural center of the Byzantine Empire. A stadium was originally laid out by Emperor Septimus Severus in 200 AD and enlarged by Constantine the Great for the performance of court ceremonies and games. The Byzantines’ most popular pastime was watching chariot racing in the stadium.
HISTORY 101: NIKA REVOLT
The Hippodrome was the scene of one of the bloodiest events in Istanbul’s history, the “Nika Revolt”. In the Byzatine era, rival chariot factions known as the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites were separated along sectarian lines. The factions were a focus for serious rivalry in Istanbul, centred on the circus events in the Hippodrome. In 532, the Blues and Greens put aside their differences to protest against Emperor Justinian’s heavy taxation. In what became known as the “Nika Revolt” – which derived its name from the battle cry “Nika” (Greek for Victory) – much of the city, including the original church of Hagia Sophia, was destroyed. The revolt only came to an end when an army of mercenaries, under the command of Justinian’s general Belisarius, butchered an estimated 30,000 people trapped in the Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome fell into disrepair following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, but it continued to be used for great public occasions. Obelisks and statues adorned the Hippodrome in its heyday and today, there are enough remnants of the Hippodrome to glean its scale and importance. The park’s southern end is home to three survivors of the multitude of obelisks, columns, and statues that originally adorned the raised central axis of the arena, around which the chariots raced.
The 15th-century BC Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul by Emperor Theodosius I from its place in front of the Temple of Luxor at Karnak, in Egypt. Hieroglyphics celebrating the campaigns of Thutmose III in Egypt during the sixteenth century BC cover its four sides from top to bottom. It was originally 60 meters tall but two-thirds of the original was lost during transport and today it stands at a height of nearly 20 meters. Considering it is over 3500 years old, it is in astonishingly good condition.
The two other structures are the Serpentine Column (dating back to 479 BC and shipped here from Delphi) and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The origins of this so-called Column of Constantine are uncertain, but an inscription records that it was already decayed when Constantine restored it.
3. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıçı) is a vast, underground water cistern that is one of the main points of interest in Istanbul. It is a stunning example of Byzantine engineering that is arguably the most unusual attraction in the city. The cistern’s design and cavernous interior are awe-inspiring and provide a welcome relief in the summer.
The cistern was initially constructed by Constantine and enlarged to its present form by Justinian after the Nika Revolt using 336 marble columns, many of which were recycled from ruined temples around the Bosphorus. Built as an underground water storage tank, it was laid out to service the Great Palace and was able to store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water delivered courtesy of 20 kilometers of aqueducts from reservoirs around the Black Sea. The cistern was sealed off after the Byzantine emperors left the city and later served as kind of a junkyard to the Ottomans.
Walk along the wooden walkways to the mixed sounds of classical music and water dripping steadily from the vaults above. The cistern seemingly spreads endlessly into darkness, as the meager illumination causes the distant columns to glow like lanterns. The elaborate arches reflected in the rippling waters coupled with carp swimming lazily through the floodlit waters make the cistern highly atmospheric.
The focal point of the cistern is two Medusa heads located at the far end of the walkway. These amazing stone pillars are relics from an older structure and it is unknown when exactly they were brought here. Medusa was a Gorgon female monster and those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone. This is probably why one head is inverted and the other is on its side so as to neutralize her powers.
The Basilica Cistern is open daily from 09:00-18:30. The entrance costs 20 TL.
4. Hagia Sophia
Of all the major attractions in Istanbul, none can match the glory of the venerable Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom), due to its innovative architecture, fabled history, and religious significance. The sprawling edifice was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537. It was designed to surpass every other edifice ever constructed as a monument to God in terms of grandeur and majesty. The Hagia Sophia was the place I wanted to see most above all else in Istanbul and it lived up to its hype.
Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The building continued to function as a mosque until 1935, after which it was converted into a museum.
Enter the building through the central portal, into the long, narrow narthex, running to the right and left. Note the beautiful matching panels of marble and the vaulted gold mosaic ceiling. Going in through the Imperial Gate, take a moment to admire the Christ Pantocrator mosaic. It shows Christ holding a book with the inscription “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world”. He is flanked by roundels portraying the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel and at his feet is a prostrated emperor (reckoned to be Leo VI) asking for forgiveness for his four marriages.
Your eyes will be drawn skywards by the upwards sweep of the dome. The sight is overwhelming and you cannot help being staggered: the dome is around 31 meters in diameter, and reaches a height of 56 meters above the floor. It is supported by 40 massive ribs constructed of hollow bricks, and these ribs rest on four giant pillars concealed in the interior walls. It is considered a miracle of engineering and served as inspiration for several prominent religious structures. The entire interior of the dome is covered with glittering with gold mosaic tiles.
The Hagia Sophia is home to the Weeping Column (Column of St Gregory), which has a thumb-sized hole covered with a brass plate. According to legend, Emperor Justinian rested his aching head against the damp stone of this pillar and was instantly cured. Since then, visitors have queued to touch brass- and marble-clad surface that is regarded as a panacea.
The main nave, side aisles, apse, and semidomes are covered with mosaics and frescoes, depicting religious and imperial motifs or floral and geometric designs. The apse features a magnificent 9th century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ Child. Look out for the eight calligraphic discs, four of which are the largest examples of calligraphy in the Islamic world, that adorn the interior. They bear the names of God (Allah), the prophet Mohammed, the four successive caliphs, Ali, Abu Bakr, Osman, and Omar, and two of the Prophet’s grandsons Hasan and Hussein, who are revered as martyrs.
Bring a pair of binoculars if you want to properly view the mosaics in the apse and the dome.
From here make your way to the gallery. Jacky and I particularly enjoyed the number of glistening figurative mosaics that are the remnants of the decoration that once covered its upper walls. These remarkable works of Byzantine art date from the 9th century or later. Two of the standout ones are the Deësis mosaic depicting Christ Pantocrator (Almighty) with John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, and Christ flanked by Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus. The Deësis mosaic is regarded to be the finest one in Hagia Sophia due to its soft features and humane expressions. Unfortunately, its bottom part is badly deteriorated.
As you leave the church, marvel at the mosaic lunette depicting the Virgin with Constantine and Justinian. It shows an enthroned Mary holding the infant Jesus who is flanked by Emperor Constantine, on her left, presenting her the city of Constantinople, while Justinian, on the right, offers her Hagia Sophia.
The opening hours of Hagia Sophia are 09:00-19:00 (April-October) and 09:00-17:00 (November-March). The admission costs 72 TL.
5. Soğukçeşme Sokağı
Next up on this ‘3 days in Istanbul’ itinerary is Soğukçeşme Sokağı (the street of the cold fountain). This narrow, sloping cobbled lane is home to numerous charming old, wooden houses. Traditional houses like these were built in the city from the late 18th-century. In the 1980s, nine buildings on the street were restored in the faux-Ottoman style. These pastel-colored guesthouses are extremely pretty and feature wooden lattice covers and bay windows.
Istanbul was founded in the 7th century BC by Greek expeditionaries, on a naturally defensive site from which trade along the Bosphorus could be controlled. This colony, known as Byzantion, grew to be a successful independent city-state in the ancient Greek world. The city came to be known as “Byzantium” after coming under the Roman Empire in 64 BC. Byzantium was already 1,000 years old when, in AD 326, Emperor Constantine the Great shifted the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium and began to rebuild it as the new capital of the Roman Empire. On May 11, 330, the city was officially renamed the “New Rome,” though it soon became widely known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Turks named the new city Konstantiniyye, but in time the city came to be known by the name “Istanbul” which is derived from the Greek phrase “eis ten polin”, meaning “in the city” or “to the city”.
6. Gulhane Park
The verdant Gulhane Park (House of Roses) is one of the most popular parks in Istanbul where hordes of locals and tourists flock to picnic among the formally planted flowerbeds under a large number of trees. The tranquil surroundings of the park are the perfect place to replenish your energy when sightseeing in Istanbul. The park covers a pretty large area and is home to a variety of beautiful gardens, trees, pools and outdoor cafes.
Gulhane Park occupies what was the lower grounds of Topkapi Palace and it includes a couple of interesting landmarks. The Goths’ Column, a well-preserved 3rd-century victory monument, is found at the far end of the park. It commemorates the victory of Emperor Claudius II over the Goths in 268 CE. From the northeastern end of the park, you can enjoy fine views over the waters where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus.
Gulhane Park is open daily from 06:00-22:30. The entrance is free.
7. Istanbul Archaeological Museums
If you love history then you certainly don’t want to miss out on the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. The complex includes three different museums – the Archaeological Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), the Ancient Orient Museum (Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi) and Tiled Kiosk Museum (Çinili Köşk Müzesi). It has one of the world’s richest collections of classical artifacts, and also includes treasures from the preclassical world. You can get museum fatigue trying to explore all that is on display, so I’ll just highlight the main things that you shouldn’t skip.
The most extraordinary items in the Archaeological Museum are the sarcophagi that date back as far as the 4th century BC and which represent various architectural styles influenced by outside cultures including Egypt, Phoenicia, and Lycia. The best of these is the intricately carved Alexander Sarcophagus, thought to have been built for King Abdalonymos of Sidon. It is carved out of Pentelic marble and is called the Alexander Sarcophagus because it depicts Alexander the Great defeating the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Other highlights are the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, with 18 intricately carved panels showing figures of women in extreme distress and mourning and the Sidamara Sarcophagus, with its interlocking horses’ legs and lovely cherubs.
The Ancient Orient Museum houses an unbelievably rich collection of artifacts from the earliest civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Arab continent. The highlight here is the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest surviving peace treaty, carved in stone in 1269 BC, was agreed by Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and King Hattusili III of the Hittites after a battle in present-day Syria. It lays out the terms of the ceasefire and agrees the safe return of refugees. Another notable point of interest is a series of glazed mosaic panels depicting animal reliefs of bulls and dragons with serpents’ heads from the monumental Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia.
The Tiled Kiosk Museum is housed in a wonderful pavilion of turquoise ceramic tiles whose facade displays eye-catching blue and white calligraphy. Highlights here include the 14th-century mihrab from the Ibrahim Bey mosque in Karaman in central Anatolia and samples from Iznik and Kütahya, the two most important production centers for pottery, porcelain, and ceramics during the Ottoman period.
The opening hours of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums are Tuesday-Sunday from 09:00-19:00 (April-October) and 09:00-17:00 (November-March). The admission costs 36 TL.
8. Cemberlitas Baths
No weekend in Istanbul would be complete without a bout of steaming, soaping, scrubbing and massaging in a Turkish bath (hammam). Spending an hour or two in a Turkish bath will leave your whole body feeling rejuvenated. Turkish baths differ little from the baths of ancient Rome, from which they derive, except there is no pool of cold water to plunge into at the end. Cemberlitas Baths (Çemberlitaş Hamami), built in 1584, is one of the most beautiful baths in Istanbul and a good place for your first experience of a Turkish bath. The baths still have separate facilities for men and women.
A full service at the baths will accord a period of relaxation in the steam-filled hot room, punctuated by bouts of vigorous soaping and massaging. Go for the authentic Turkish bath experience which involves an attendant wash, scrub and massage you. This involves the attendant dousing you with warm water and lathering you with a soft sponge. Your body will then be briskly scrubbed with a coarse, soapy mitt removing the outer layer of dead skin and other organic detritus you never realized existed. This is a wonderful exfoliating experience and I highly recommend you try it.
The Cemberlitas Baths are open daily from 06:00-24:00. Prices vary according to the type of treatment you opt for.
Day 2 in Istanbul
Day two of this ‘3 days in Istanbul’ itinerary covers more of the best things to see in Istanbul such as the Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, and the Süleymaniye Mosque. It also covers the seldom visited but highly interesting twin quarters of Balat and Fener, Ottoman-era enclaves where Armenian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants first settled.
1. Topkapi Palace
The mighty Topkapi Palace (Topkapι Palace) is the former residence and seat of government of the Ottoman sultans. Built shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror, it was extended by each succeeding sultan until it became a miniature city. Mosques, libraries, stables, kitchens, schools, the imperial mint, treasuries, barracks, armories, government offices, and audience halls. During its heyday, it supported a population of nearly 4,000. By 1909 it was completely abandoned and in 1924 it was converted into a museum.
The palace is laid out as a series of courtyards linked by ceremonial gates. You enter through the Imperial Gate (built in 1478) into the wooded gardens of the First Court aka Court of the Janissaries. It is a public park of gardens and trees, just as it was in earlier days. Pass through the turreted Gate of Salutations into the Second Court (Court of the Divan). Commence with the Palace Kitchens, a complex comprised of a string of lofty chambers topped by a series of chimney-domes, a narrow inner courtyard, and a smaller string of rooms.
The kitchens contain a vast collection of European crystal, Chinese porcelain, and Ottoman serving dishes and cooking implements. Watch out for the ornate Imperial Council Chamber and the Outer Treasury, where a substantial collection of Ottoman and European arms and armor is on display.
The Sultans preferred to eat off celadon china because the pigments reputedly changed color when put in contact with poisons.
Next, head to Topkapi’s main attraction, the Harem (an additional ticket required & it is completely worth it). The harem dates back to the late 16th century and is a labyrinth of brilliantly tiled corridors and chambers. A Harem was the residence of the sultan’s wives, concubines, and children. Apart from the sultan and his sons, the only men allowed into the Harem were the black eunuchs, who were in charge of security and administration. Their barracks lie on one side of the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, an arcade of marble columns with some old-fashioned, wrought-iron lamps.
A long, narrow corridor lined with shelves leads to the Courtyard of the Women Servants, from which you enter the Apartments of the Valide Sultan (the reigning sultan’s mother and the most powerful woman in the Harem). It features domed wonder of mother-of-pearl, ivory, tortoiseshell, gold leaf, porcelain tiles, and frosted glass. Past this is a gorgeous reception room with a large fireplace that leads to a vestibule covered in Iznik tiles. This leads to the exquisite Imperial Hall, the largest room in the Harem, where the sultan would enjoy music and dancing of his concubines. The Imperial Hall and the equally sumptuous dining room of Ahmet III, better known as the Fruit Room were our favorites from the Harem. This tiny room is covered all over with lacquered paintings of flowers and fruit in rococo style.
Fun Fact: Life in the Harem
In the western world, the word “harem”, Arabic for “forbidden,” generally conjures up images of bellybuttons, grapes, and palm trees, and of limitless pleasure. The reality was further from the truth. Women of the Harem were slaves, gathered from the furthest corners of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. At its peak the Harem contained over 1,000 concubines, many of whom never rose beyond the service of their fellow captives.
The Harem tour comes to an end at the Courtyard of the Favorites, surrounded by a charming building reminiscent of the medieval residences of Florence. The apartments on the upper floors were reserved for the members of the Harem the sultan liked best. Inside the Third Court, head straight for the dazzling Treasury, one of the most ostentatious collections of treasures in the world. The golden Topkapi Dagger, a row of emeralds and diamonds in the hilt and on the cover and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, an 86-carat, pear-shaped diamond set in a gold mount encrusted with 49 smaller diamonds. The Fourth Court contains a number of pretty pavilions and terraces.
The Topkapi Palace is open from 09:00-18:45 (April-September) and 09:00-16:45 (October-March). The entrance to the palace costs 72 TL and the ticket to the Harem costs 42 TL.
2. Grand Bazaar
A visit to the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) is one of the best things to do when spending a weekend in Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar is the largest market in Istanbul, and by some measures is the largest covered market in the world, containing more than 4,000 shops selling jewelry, lanterns, carpets, leather goods, hookah, pottery and much more. On top of this, the Grand Bazaar is home to banks, cafés, inns, restaurants, fountains, a mosque, and a post office, crammed together in a grid of 61 narrow streets that total 8 kilometers in length.
Throughout the history of the Grand Bazaar, most silversmiths who have worked here have been of Armenian descent while most of the goldsmiths have been of Arabic or Aramaic descent. This tradition still continues today.
Though the Grand Bazaar can be entered by several gateways, two of the most useful one are the Çarşıkapı Gate (from Beyazıt tram stop) and Nuruosmaniye Gate (from Nuruosmaniye Mosque). Walking through the Grand Bazaar is truly a quintessential Istanbul experience. It’s easy to get lost, as most streets are either poorly marked or their signs are hidden beneath goods hung up on display. Prepare yourself for the incessant hassle from traders, which can get annoying beyond a point. To get a quick overview of the grand bazaar, I would suggest taking a stroll down Jewellers’ Street (Kalpakçılar Caddesi), the bazaar’s widest street that is lined with the glittering windows of countless jewelry shops.
While you are exploring the Grand Bazaar, you’ll come across many shops selling nazar boncuk – glass discs with a distinctive pattern of blue, white and black concentric circles, also sold in the form of jewelry and general knick-knacks. These are considered a talisman to avert the evil eye and bring good luck.
The Grand Bazaar is open Monday-Saturday from 09:00-19:00. Be prepared to bargain in case you want to buy something since it is an important part of the shopping experience.
3. Süleymaniye Mosque
If there’s one mosque that warrants to be seen while sightseeing in Istanbul, it is the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii), Istanbul’s most important mosque. The mosque was built in 1550–57 for sultan Süleyman I, “the Magnificent”, by the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, Sinan, and is one of his finest creations. Considered the finest Ottoman building in Istanbul, the mosque is a tribute to the ‘Golden Age’ of the Ottoman Empire.
The Süleymaniye Mosque’s courtyard is surrounded by a colonnade of porphyry, Marmara and pink Egyptian columns, rumored to be recycled from the Hippodrome.
The interior of the mosque is simple yet elegant, and much more serene compared to the Blue Mosque. It was definitely our favorite mosque in Istanbul. The blue, white and gold dome contains 200 stained glass windows to ensure a softly filtered light. The mihrab and pulpit are made from white marble with İznik tiles. The interior also includes a beautiful persimmon-colored floor carpet and medallions with intriguing calligraphy.
Both Süleyman and Sinan are buried nearby. The tombs of the sultan and his wife Roxelana lie behind the mosque in the walled garden. Sinan’s tomb, which he designed himself, stands in a triangular garden just outside the northern corner of the complex, capped by a small dome. Ceramic stars said to be set with emeralds sparkle above the coffins. It seems like a modest memorial to a colossal prodigy. The garden behind the mosque contains a terrace offering splendid views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is open daily between 09:00-18:00 but closed during prayer times.
HISTORY 101: MIMAR SINAN
Many of the finest works of Ottoman civil and religious architecture throughout Turkey can be traced to one man, a genius who had the good luck to come of age in a rich, expanding empire willing to put its considerable resources at his disposal. Mimar Sinan (1488/90–1588) served as court architect to three sultans – Süleyman the Magnificent, Selim II and Murat III – but principally to the first, who owed much of his reputation for “magnificence” to this gifted technician. Amazingly, even though he designed well over 100 mosques and 200 other buildings, Sinan never trained as an architect. Sinan’s works are among the most influential buildings in history and he has often been compared to Michelangelo. Although the Süleymaniye Mosque is his most well-known work, he himself considered the Selimiye Mosque in the northwestern city of Edirne to be his masterpiece.
4. Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) is one of the most colorful things to see in Istanbul. It is an L-shaped market, built in the early 17th century, which is an extension of the New Mosque complex. In Turkish, the market is called Mısır Çarşısı (the Egyptian Bazaar) because it was built with money paid as duty on Egyptian imports. Soon after its inception, the bazaar came to specialize in spices from the orient, taking advantage of being on the trade route between the East and Europe.
The Spice Bazaar’s 88 stalls stock spices, herbs and other foods such as honey, nuts, caviar, dried fruits, sweetmeats and pastirma (cured beef). However, the range and quality of spices in the bazaar are not what it used to be and prices aren’t cheap. The most interesting item in the bazaar itself is actually the varieties of lokum (Turkish delight). There are also many outrageous concoctions being sold as aphrodisiacs optimistically prepared to cure anything from lumbago to lovesickness.
The Spice Bazaar is open daily and opening hours are 08:00-19:00 (Monday-Friday), 08:00-19:30 (Saturday) and 09:30-19:00 (Sunday).
5. Rüstem Pasa Mosque
The diminutive Rüstem Pasa Mosque (Rüstem Paşa Camii) is one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. This mosque was built in 1561 by the great architect Sinan for Rüstem Paşa, son-in-law of and grand vizier to Süleyman I and believed to be the precursor for his magnificent Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.
The mosque’s facade is adorned with lovely panels of Iznik tiles. The interior of the mosque is nothing short of stunning, being almost completely covered with a dazzling array of Iznik tiles. They date from the finest period of Iznik tile production, with floral and geometric designs in blue, turquoise and coral red. A riot of designs such as tulips and carnations and geometric patterns cover the walls, pillars, the mihrab, and mimbar. I’ve certainly never seen any other mosque adorned with such a brilliant amount of tiles.
6. Church of St. Saviour in Chora
The Church of St Saviour in Chora (Kariye Müzesi) is one of the must-see sights in Istanbul, even though it is one of the most overlooked attractions in Istanbul. It is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. The present church dates from the 11th century and the name “in Chora”, which means “in the country”, refers to the fact that the church originally stood outside the city walls.
The church was rebuilt and decorated early in the 14th century under the supervision of Theodore Metochites, a prominent Byzantine art-lover, theologian, and philosopher. The building became a mosque in the 16th century and was converted into a museum in 1948.
The numerous mosaic panels and the subjects of these panels fall into one of four themes, presented more or less in chronological order after the New Testament. Broadly, the themes relate to the cycle of the life of Christ and his miracles, stories of the life of Mary, scenes from the infancy of Christ, and stories of Christ’s ministry. We particularly liked the Genealogy of Christ. The mosaics in the two domes of the inner narthex portray 66 of Christ’s forebears. In one dome, the Virgin and Child survey the kings of the House of David. In the other, Christ is surrounded by ancestors including Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons.
The Paracclesion (funerary section) is decorated with a series of masterful frescoes completed sometime after the completion of the mosaics. The frescoes reflect the purpose of the burial chamber with scenes from the Old Testament including scenes of Heaven and Hell, the Resurrection and the Life, and a rousing Last Judgment.
The opening hours of the Church of St Saviour in Chora are 09:00-19:00 (April-October) and 09:00-17:00 (November-March). The admission costs 54 TL.
7. Balat & Fener
If you are willing to venture off the beaten track, a visit to the atmospheric neighborhoods of Balat and Fener is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. Balat is a former Jewish hub, once home to Greek-speaking Jews and Sephardic Jews from Spain while Fener is a former Greek enclave. Many of the Christians and Jews have long since departed, and the Muslims that reside here are noted for their orthodoxy. You’ll probably see more men with bushy beards donning elsewhere in the city. You many also see some women, draped head to toe in black chadors. Many of the area’s inhabitants are migrants from impoverished rural areas in Eastern Turkey, and it’s not unfamiliar to hear Kurdish spoken in the streets.
While these areas are mostly residential and there are no big draws here in terms of famous sights, it’s their eclectic, bohemian and multicultural feel that makes these areas a real treat to stroll around. We really enjoyed ambling around the steep, cobbled streets and ramshackle wooden houses interspersed with small mosques. There are a couple of instagrammable spots here. Two of the best ones are Merdivenli Yokuş, a steep cobblestone street with pastel-hued houses that have bay windows and the colorful houses at the intersection of Kiremit Caddesi and Usturumca Sokak, that are decorated with small statues and motifs.
Day 3 in Istanbul
The final day of this ‘3 days in Istanbul’ itinerary covers more of essential things to do in Istanbul such as a Bosphorus Cruise, Dolmabahce Palace, and Galata Tower.
1. Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. While the bridge itself is no architectural marvel, it serves as a crucial link between the two sides of European Istanbul (the old, imperial and Islamic part of the city with the largely Europeanized and progressive area of Beyoğlu), separated by the waters of the Golden Horn. The current bridge, built in 1994, is its fifth incarnation – the original one was constructed in 1845.
Hordes of amateur anglers flock to the upper deck of Galata Bridge in hope of a catch. The lower deck is home to a number of cafés, bars, and restaurants. The views from here, down the Golden Horn and into the Bosphorus itself, are breathtaking, particularly at sunset.
The Golden Horn is a flooded river inlet which flows southwest into the Bosphorus. The estuary attracted settlers to its shores in the 7th century BC and later enabled Constantinople to become a and powerful port. According to legend, the Byzantines threw so many valuables into it during the Ottoman conquest, that the waters glistened with gold. Having been heavily polluted until recently, millions were spent cleaning up the waters and today support fish and cormorants.
2. Bosphorus Ferry
Taking a ferry across the Bosphorus is one of the best things to do when spending three days in Istanbul. The Istanbul skyline is one of the best cityscapes in the world and, while there are many places from which to admire it, by far the best is the deck of a boat on the Bosphorus. A trip up the Bosphorus gives you an entirely different perspective on Istanbul after the frenetic jumble of the city.
A constant stream of ferries crosses the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn from Eminönü. Eminönü is the port from which ferries depart to many destinations and for trips along the Bosphorus. I would recommend taking the Eminönü-Üsküdar ferry run by Istanbul Şehir Hatları. The ferries run between 07:00 and 23:00, every 20 minutes and the ferry ride lasts 20 minutes. Move fast to score a good seat on the sides of the upper deck at the bow or stern. You can touch your feet on Asian soil before taking the ferry back to Eminönü.
As the ferry cruises up the strait, the European shore is to the left and the Asian shore is to the right. Along with admiring the gorgeous views, watch out for the tiny, white Leander’s Tower, a well-known Bosphorus landmark. The tower is known in Turkish as Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) after a legendary princess, said to have been confined here The English name of the tower derives from the Greek myth of Leander. Having served as a quarantine center, a lighthouse, a customs control point, the tower is now home to a restaurant and nightclub.
3. Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) is the largest and most sumptuous of all the palaces on the Bosphorus, with an impressive 600 meter-long waterside frontage. Built in 1856, the extravagant opulence of the palace belies the fact that it was built when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and was known as “The Sick Man of Europe”. Sultan Abdülmecid II spared no expense in creating a house to rival the most opulent palaces in Europe. Ironically, this extravagance nearly emptied the imperial treasury, and the running costs contributed to the empire’s bankruptcy in 1875.
The palace consists of 285 rooms, four grand salons, six galleries, five main staircases, six hammams, and 43 toilets. 14 tons of gold and 6 tons of silver were used in its construction. The interior is a brilliant virtual assault on the senses with inlaid parquet floors, Venetian glass, and translucent pink alabaster imperial baths. Jacky and I loved the Crystal Staircase, constructed from Baccarat crystal and brass with a polished mahogany rail in the shape of a double horseshoe. The Ceremonial Hall is equally beautiful and features a humongous Bohemian crystal chandelier.
The Harem on the other side of the palace also includes some fine rooms and luxurious apartments such as the Blue Salon. Another notable point of interest is Atatürk’s Rooms. Atatürk used the palace as his Istanbul base, keeping an office and bedroom in the Harem. He died here, on 10 November 1938 – all the palace’s clocks are set to 09:05, the moment of his death.
Dolmabahce Palace can only be visited on a guided tour. There are two itineraries: one of the Selamlık (the state rooms including the Ceremonial Hall and the crystal staircase); the other of the Harem (including the living quarters of the royal women, and Atatürk’s bedroom, bathroom, and study). The Selamlık tour costs 60 TL and the Harem Tour costs 30 TL. If you only want to go on one tour, visit the Selamlık. The only annoying thing is taking pictures inside the palace is strictly prohibited. Opening hours of 09:00-16:00 (Tuesday-Wednesday, Friday-Sunday).
HISTORY 101: Atatürk
The history of modern Turkey is dominated by the figure of Mustafa Kemal Paşa. He was born in 1881 and rose to prominence in 1915, leading the Turkish forces to victory at Gallipoli. A leader of the Young Turks republican movement, he came to power following the end of World War I, abolishing the Sultanate in 1922 and declaring a republic in 1923. He served as Turkey’s first president and westernized the country – introducing the mandatory use of the Latin alphabet, compulsory schooling and rights for women and encouraging Western dress (the fez was banned). He is still idolized as the “Father of the Turks” (Atatürk) and it is illegal in Turkey to criticize him publicly.
4. Taksim Square
Taksim Square is a large public square that is the heart of modern-day Istanbul. Taksim means “water distribution center” and from the early 1700s, it was from this site that water from the Belgrade Forest was distributed in the city. The southwestern part of the square is home to the Monument of Independence, which shows Atatürk and the other founding fathers of the modern Turkish Republic.
5. Istiklal Street
If Taksim Square is the heart of Istanbul, Istiklal Street (Istiklal Caddesi) is its main artery. Taking a stroll down the street, formerly known as the “Grande Rue de Pera” is one of the best things to do while sightseeing in Istanbul. Istiklal Street is a pedestrian-only boulevard that is packed with shoppers during the day and is an entertainment hub by night. It is home to a spate of palatial mansions that were once home to embassies of foreign powers but have been downgraded to consulates since the capital was relocated to Ankara in 1923. There are some glorious examples of Art Nouveau architecture here.
The character of Istiklal Street changes noticeably as you head north from here towards Taksim Square (the symbolic heart of Istanbul), becoming less arty and more mainstream, with an even greater concentration of shops, bars, cafés, restaurants, and clubs. Look out for the extremely photogenic antique red trams that run along İstiklal Street from Tünel to Taksim Square.
6. Istanbul Modern
Now that you’ve seen all the major historic sights in Istanbul, it is a good idea to visit Istanbul Modern, the most popular contemporary art museum in Turkey. The Istanbul Modern is housed in a utilitarian former Customs warehouse just outside the cruise ship docks. The large and lavishly funded museum houses both permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, providing a showcase for many talented personalities who have played a key role in influencing modern art in Turkey from the early 20th century onwards.
Exhibits include abstract art, landscapes, and watercolors. The place serves as a sort of cultural center, with a cinema showing arts and independent movies, plus plenty of space for the temporary exhibitions and intriguing still and video installations.
Istanbul Modern is open from 10:00-18:00 (Tuesday-Wednesday; Friday-Sunday) and 10:00-20:00 (Thursday). The entrance costs 72 TL.
7. Galata Tower
The slender Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) is easily the most recognizable landmark on the Golden Horn and also one of the major attractions in Istanbul. The 67-meter high tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese, the Byzantine Empire’s greatest trading partners, as part of their fortification of Galata. Since then, the tower has survived several earthquakes and been restored many times.
It has had a number of functions over the centuries, including a jail, a fire watchtower and even a springboard for early adventurers attempting to fly. The viewing gallery at the top offers enviable views over the city, and across the Golden Horn, you can count the minarets and domes of Old Istanbul’s skyline.
The Galata Tower is open daily from 09:00-20:30. The price of admission is 35 TL. The queues here are pretty long but well worth the wait.
What to Eat in Istanbul
If you are a glutton like me, you’ll love Istanbul for sure. Turkish cuisine is top-notch and Istanbul’s rich and varied cuisine derives from its multiethnic Ottoman heritage. Besides Turkish food, there is an array of international restaurants in the city. Although you fill find nearly all Turkish foods mouth-wateringly good, the following are the culinary highlights during your trip to Istanbul:
1. Turkish Breakfast: A traditional Turkish breakfast generally consists of white bread, a variety of cheeses, jams. honey and clotted cream (bal kaymak). You will find olives, tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers.
2. Meze: Mezes are a selection of appetizing starters which are placed in the middle of the table for sharing. The range of meze is huge, and you can easily eat enough for a full meal. Cold options include haydari (yogurt with mint and garlic) and midye pilakisi (mussels cooked in olive oil). They also come in hot options like chicken liver kebabs, and grilled cheese. Mezes are eaten with bread and traditionally washed down with rakı (a clear, anise-flavored spirit that is the national alcoholic drink in Turkey).
3. Kebabs: Turkey’s most famous culinary export is the kebab – known as kebap in Turkish. Kebabs include the döner kebap is wafer-thin slices of roast meat (usually lamb) carved from a spit; the şiş kebap is cubed lamb or chicken grilled on a skewer; the spicy Adana, with its sprinkling of purple sumac herb betraying Arab influence and the cag kebab which is a horizontally stacked kebab of lamb.
4. İmam bayıldı: This strangely named dish, which literally translates as “the Imam Fainted”, is a Turkish classic. It consists of aubergines, stuffed with tomatoes, garlic and onions, that are baked in the oven until meltingly soft.
5. Simit: A simit is a round sesame bread, similar to a New York pretzel.
6. Pastries: Sweet pastries are ubiquitous in Istanbul. The most famous is baklava (flaky pastry drenched in syrup), but there are many variations with honey, syrups, marzipan, almonds, and pistachios. Baklava is normally served with large dollops of ice cream making it heaven to eat and calorie hell.
7. Seafood: Istanbul’s proximity to the sea means that fresh fish is readily available and is a key ingredient on the city’s menus. There is a bounty of oil-rich fish, such as bluefish, anchovy, bonito tuna, sea bass, mullet, and mackerel. The catch of the day is often grilled and served with rice or chips and salad. Two of the iconic Istanbul seafood dishes are midye dolma (Mussels stuffed with spiced rice, steamed and served with a squirt of lemon juice) and balik ekmek (fish sandwiches consisting of grilled mackerel with raw onions and lettuce and seasoned with salt, herbs, and spices with a squeeze of lemon).
8. Lokum: Rahat lokum (“morsel of contentment”) is a chewy sweet flavored with rosewater and coated in icing sugar, popularly known as Turkish delight.
9. Tea and Coffee: Both çay (tea) and kahve (coffee) are the lifeblood of Turkey and are drunk black, strong and sweet, in small quantities. Tea is with sugar but without milk, and in a small, tulip-shaped glass. Coffee is drunk less frequently; it is more expensive than tea.
10. Dondurma: Dondurma is a taffy-like ice cream mastic ice cream that is undoubtedly the ice cream of choice in Istanbul. You can get it in a wide range of flavors from ginger to mulberry. The best thing about getting dondurma is watching the vendors make a fool out of customers by putting on a show of sleight of hand. They use twirling blocks of ice cream with metal rods and use decoy cones to snatch back the ice cream when you think it’s being offered to you.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
Istanbul has plenty of great dining options offering all sorts of cuisines. We recommend the following establishments during your weekend in Istanbul:
1. Hocapaşa Pidecisi: This unassuming little restaurant is famous for serving some of the best pide (an egg-shaped chewy Turkish pizza) in Istanbul.
2. Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabı: This joint serves up a scrumptious alternative to the döner kebab, cağ kebab which originated in the city of Erzurum in Eastern Turkey. The meat is laterally skewered before being served.
3. Kral Kokoreç: This place is not for the faint-hearted given that their specialty is serving sandwiches consisting of offal stuffed into intestines with plenty of spices and then slowly grilled.
4. Meze by Lemon Tree: This glitzy restaurant serves up some excellent mezes. The main course is also delicious.
5. Zübeyir Ocakbaşı: Located in Beyoglu, this amazing restaurant a favorite of the locals. A good range of meat and vegetarian dishes caters to all palates and preferences. The kebabs are succulent.
6. Antiochia: This lovely restaurant specializes in cuisine from southeastern Turkey. The mezes are amazing and the meat dishes are to die for.
7. Balıkçı Sabahattin: This old Istanbul restaurant specializes serves some finger-licking good fresh seafood.
8. Hafiz Mustafa: This legendary chain is less a restaurant than a massive temple to dessert with a huge assortment of baklava, milky puddings, pastries, and cakes.
9. Çok Çok Thai: Astonishingly good authentic Thai restaurant in a chic setting in Beyoglu.
10. Eleos: Flavorful and succulent Greek-style dishes with a fantastic view. Seafood is the specialty but other dishes are equally good.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Whether you feel like staying in an Ottoman palace, taking a room in a restored townhouse, or spending the night in a budget accommodation, you will find the place of your choice in Istanbul. The Sultanahmet district is a good place to stay is conveniently situated within walking distance of most of the city’s major sights. Beyoğlu, the old European center of Istanbul has numerous impressive hotels.
Hostel: Antique Hostel, ideal for backpackers. You choose between private and dorm rooms. Safe, close to main sights, just a stone’s throw away from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
Budget: By Murat Royal Hotel Galata, an extremely well-run hotel with comfy rooms, set in a historic Beyoğlu building. 100 meters from Galata Tower and a 5-minute walk from Istiklal Street.
Mid-range: Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, a charming and stylish hotel in Sultanahmet that is housed in a pair of elegant townhouses. Has a small rooftop terrace with stunning views of the Blue Mosque.
Splurge: Pera Palace Hotel, legendary 19th-century hotel with gorgeous Art Nouveau and Oriental style interiors building in the New Town. Luxurious rooms with sumptuous furnishings and suites named after famous hotel guests like Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend 3 days in Istanbul? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!