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Istanbul is an iconic city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. Despite not being Turkey’s capital, worldwide it is certainly regarded as the Country’s most important city; it is certainly the one that receives far more overseas visitors than any other. It is a huge place with a unique atmosphere. Life is hectic and at times it is difficult to travel around at any pace.
However, if you have 3 days to explore this historic city, it is possible to see most of its highlights. That is partly because the main landmarks from the Ottoman times, and before, are located in one district on the European side, Sultanahmet. Four of them are within a short walking distance of each other.
It means the pressure is off and with the Bosphorus running between the two continents, you can take to the water to marvel at the skyline as well as avoid the traffic to reach other places you should try to see.
Are you staying in the city for more days? Check out this great 5 day Istanbul itinerary.
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How to spend three days in Istanbul, things to do and see
3 Days in Istanbul: Day One
You need not set foot outside Sultanahmet on your first day to enjoy some of Istanbul’s top attractions.
Hagia Sophia was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian back in the 6th Century and it became the largest Christian Cathedral in the world. When the Ottomans took Constantinople in the middle of the 15th Century, they began its conversion into a mosque. It is a complex structure with a huge dome built in a region susceptible to earthquakes. Natural forces and the design of the dome have caused problems and at one point the dome actually collapsed completely.
Christian frescoes were plastered over and it has only been since it was closed after the formation of the Turkish Republic that they have been revealed one more. Its dimensions are 100 metres by 70 metres with the dome almost 60 metres high. The frescoes are best seen from the Gallery where there are also a number of photographs and pictures.
Tip: Lines are big to enter Aghia Sophia so I suggest that you purchase a skip the line ticket with guided tour.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is an Ottoman design and is located just a minute’s walk from Hagia Sophia. Obviously, the public is not admitted during prayer times but otherwise, visitors can queue, remove their shoes and enjoy this stunning mosque which uses the various shades of blue to great effect and simply pay a donation when they leave.
It opened in 1610 and has been the main mosque in Istanbul ever since. Fully carpeted, few cannot but appreciate it as a masterpiece.
Check my post about the best Mosques to visit in Istanbul.
The nearby underground cistern was the source of water to the Byzantine city of Constantinople. It was created in the time of Justinian and tourists who don’t walk down its steps to enter the eerie environment are missing something. Goldfish swim in its waters and you can walk around to see them, and some ancient carvings in the stone columns.
The Cistern has been used as a location for a few famous Hollywood films, most recently Tom Hank’s ‘’Inferno.’’
Tip: Lines are usually big to visit the Cistern, I recommend buying a skip the line ticket before you go.
The Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman Sultans until the middle of the 19th Century. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror began its building in 1460 and it took eighteen years to complete. A whole empire was run from these buildings overlooking the Bosphorus.
Many treasures remain with some priceless exhibits in the Treasury. The Harem is fascinating and at the rear is an area where the harem could walk away from any prying eyes. The beautiful gardens in which the Palace sits complement the buildings wonderfully.
Tip: The Top Kapi Palace is huge and you should definitely visit the Harem which for me was the highlight. Again the lines are huge so I suggest this 3 hour guided tour that includes skip the line tickets.
The Whirling Dervishes Show
If you fancy a taste of traditional Turkish culture then you’ll want to witness The Whirling Dervishes Show at the HodjaPasha Culture Center. This spectacular portrays the Mevlevei Sema spiritual journey through the medium of dance. The hour-long performance features Turkish music, dancing, chanting and drumming as part of a tradition that is over 800 years old! This is a must for anyone seeking an authentic experience while visiting Istanbul.
Please note: photography is not allowed during the ceremony.
You might also be interested in: Taking the train from Turkey to Georgia.
3 Days in Istanbul: Day Two
The Grand Bazaar has more than 50 streets and 4,000 shops and is located in Karpalicarsi in Fatih on the European side. You can buy almost everything in what is the largest covered market in the world. The core, Ic Bedesten, was built in the years that followed the Ottomans taking Constantinople in 1453. Bedesten means ‘’arcade’’ and gradually more ‘’arcades’’ were added.
Today, there are restaurants, a mosque, hammam, post office, police station, health dispensary and most Turkish banks have a branch there.
It is clearly possible to get lost in the maze of narrow streets but there will always be someone to help. There are 22 entrances so you will always be able to find your way out. The question will be where you have then found yourself.
Remember to bargain if you want to buy. Don’t ever lose your temper while bargaining and shopkeepers are not offended if you walk away. That happens to them hundreds of times a day.
There is much more to the Spice Bazaar than spices. Both of these famous bazaars are on the European side of Istanbul and you will have little difficulty getting to them.
The Spice Bazaar is in Eminonu in Fatih near the Golden Horn. It opened in the 1660s and is still going strong.
In some ways, Suleymaniye is overshadowed by the two stunning buildings in Sultanahmet. It was built on the 3rd Hill on the Golden Horn on the instructions of arguably the greatest Ottoman Sultan of all, Suleyman the Magnificent. He ruled for 46 years, 1520 to 1566, and this period saw the Ottoman Empire at its most prosperous. He was renowned for his many skills and his subjects remembered him fondly. There is a mosque in the complex but also a library, school and living accommodation.
Suleymaniye Mosque is an integral part of the Istanbul skyline and can be seen from the Bosphorus but it does deserve closer inspection.
The Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s many famous works of architecture that dominates the landscape. Galata Kulesi (as it’s locally known) is a stone structure with a conical roof rising 220 above the ground.
The viewing platform, at 66m up, offers visitors a fantastic panoramic view of Istanbul, from which you can take in other impressive buildings such as the Blue Mosque, the Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn waterway.
Shopping in Istiklal Street
Another popular attraction in Istanbul is Istiklal Street (Independence Avenue), one of the main shopping streets in the city. This cobblestone street is a retail and entertainment hub loved by locals and tourists alike. The street is mainly pedestrianised (apart from the old school tram running through the middle), so you can stroll along the street to your heart’s content. Istiklal Street is also a great place to enjoy drinks and dining in the evening with restaurants, shops and bars staying open until late.
Visit Taksim Square
Taksim Square in Istanbul is a major square renowned for its lively atmosphere and events as well as shops, bars and restaurants to keep visitors entertained. Dotted around the square are important sites such the Republic Monument and the Taksim Masjid mosque that is currently being built. Taksim Square is a lovely place to enjoy a cup of Turkish tea or do a spot of shopping before heading home.
Try The Famous Desserts
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without trying some (or many!) of the tasty traditional desserts that Turkey is famous for. These desserts include sticky and delicious baklava, sweet Turkish delight, sesame seed halva and the almond-based Şekerpare sweets that are soaked in sugar syrup!
These desserts are served up in many of the city’s patisseries and cafés that are ideal paired with a Turkish coffee or tea.
3 Days in Istanbul: Day Three
The Bosphorus is a busy stretch of water that not only divides Europe from Asia but also links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. There is a constant stream of traffic, commercial ships carrying freight backward and forwards.
A great way to see the Bosphorus and the city from another perspective is a cruise. You can check out the following:
View across the Bosphorus
It is Russia’s link out into the Aegean and thence the Mediterranean. There are ferries crossing from Europe to Asia every minute of the day and boats that take passengers to various points on both shores. If you want to simply cruise and take in these shores, you will find that extremely interesting. You will see the activity without finding yourself in busy traffic.
The Prince Islands heading west are interesting but spending too much time there would leave you with little time to do anything else in the day.
The Ottoman Sultans left the Topkapi Palace and moved to this new Palace right on the Bosphorus in the district of Besiktas, over the road from the new stadium of the famous Turkish soccer side of the same name.
It was commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid and was finally completed after 13 years in 1856. It was decided to create a palace with more of a European ‘’feel’’ and thus it was filled with the latest of European fashion. The 4.5-tonne chandelier, for example, was a gift from Queen Victoria and the handmade wooden flooring remains impressive even today.
The Palace is huge, 100 meters long and estimates say that the cost of building it exceeded $1.5 billion in today’s values. it is the place where the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in 1938. The clock was stopped at the exact time of his death; 9.05 am, 10th November and all these years later, Turkey stops at that time to remember him.
Photography is not allowed inside the Palace.
While in Istanbul, you must have a Turkish bath. It is something that has been available in places throughout the world for years but the authentic hammam is an experience that should not be missed in Istanbul. After three busy days in Istanbul, it is certainly a way to relax and clean your body of everyday grime.
How to get from and to the airports of Istanbul
Istanbul New Airport (IST) is, as the name suggests, the new airport serving both sides of the city of Istanbul. This replaces all flights arriving into Istanbul Atatürk Airport, the former main airport for flights arriving from Europe and beyond. As of April 2019, there are no longer passenger services arriving into Istanbul Atatürk Airport so travellers will need to arrive into IST and make plans to travel to and from the city accordingly.
Istanbul New Airport (IST) is located around 50km from Sultanahmet, the Old Town of Istanbul – the main tourist centre of the city.
There are various options for getting from the airport to Sultanahmet, with journey times varying between 30 to 90 minutes depending on which mode of transport you take and where abouts in the city you are heading.
Driving or taking a taxi will take approximately 60 minutes to reach the centre of Istanbul. A private taxi is likely to cost between €60-70 and can be booked online prior to arrival or at the airport.
Shuttle services are also available from Istanbul Airport into the city centre, with shared mini-van services costing approximately €20 per person, dropping you right at your hotel. These services will take multiple guests to different hotels and therefore journey times may vary depending on where your hotel is located in relation to others.
Another option for getting into Istanbul city centre from the airport is to take the bus. The New Airport Transit Bus runs around 150 times a day between the airport and city and bus tickets can be purchased from floor -2 of the airport. There are a range of bus tickets that can be purchased including the rechargeable Istanbulkart (6 TL), 5 Pass Card (BeşGeç, 17 TL) or 10 Pass Card (OnGeç, 32 TL).
Bus services IST-5 Istanbul Airport – Besiktas, IST-18 Istanbul Airport – Mecidiyeköy and IST-19 Istanbul Airport – Taksim run every 15 minutes from the airport to the city. Alternatively, you could take the H-2 Airport Express service that runs from the airport to the Şişli-Mecidiyeköy metro station. This journey takes around 35 minutes and costs just 5.20 TL using an Istanbulkart. From the Şişli-Mecidiyeköy metro station you can change to the M2 metro line which allows you to reach Taksim and Sultanahmet in the city.
Istanbul New Airport does not current have a metro or train service that runs directly from the airport to the city centre but there are plans in place to make these options available in 2020 and beyond.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
There are cafes and restaurants at every turn in Istanbul. Their menus range from the typical mezes, kebabs, salads and very sweet desserts to top quality international cuisine. You will not be disappointed by the food you are served in Istanbul.
Eating fish anywhere along the Bosphorus, especially at night when the City is lit up is certainly something to consider while there are rooftop restaurants with views that are equally impressive.
Visiting Istanbul is a special occasion anyway, but if you really want a treat, there are quality restaurants happy to satisfy your hunger.
Afternoon Tea at the Pera Palace
If you want a fine dining experience in Istanbul, look no further than Afternoon Tea at the Pera Palace. This luxury hotel serves up tasty Turkish snacks and drinks for you to enjoy in style in one of the palace’s many restaurants and cafés. Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge and Patisserie De Pera feature exquisite furnishings, lighting and windows which make the ambiance of your Afternoon Tea magical and memorable.
The Pera Palace is the hotel where the passengers of the Orient Express stayed and where Agatha Christie wrote part of the book, so it has a certain sense of charm and character.
Bilice Kebap is an incredible place to enjoy Turkish kebabs and meze dishes, with chicken, lamb and aubergine skewers cooked to perfection and served alongside tasty dips, salads and freshly-baked bread. The restaurant offers a range of small dishes so that every member of the group can try different meals and ingredients and choose their favourites. Bilice Kebap has a traditional rustic style so you’ll know you are dining on dishes that the locals love to eat.
Matbah Restaurant in Istanbul offers Ottoman Palace cuisine in a luxurious locale so you’ll feel like royalty as you dine on decadent dishes all night long. The swanky restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows around the room so that you can take in the breath-taking vistas of the city while you tuck into tasty Ottoman cuisine. This is an exclusive (if somewhat expensive for Istanbul standards) dining experience that it well worth it if you’re a foodie fanatic visiting Istanbul.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
It makes sense to stay on the European side of Istanbul if you are just staying a few days. You are closer to all the landmarks because the Asian side is largely residential and commercial. If you want a treat, take a look at these 5 hotels.
Click here for more hotel options and the best areas to stay in Istanbul.
- Pera Palace Hotel dates back to the end of the 19th Century, welcoming guests arriving from the Orient Express and has recently been refurbished at a cost of $25 million. It hosted Agatha Christie at one time.
- Ciragan Palace Hotel is a former Ottoman Palace on the Bosphorus and includes a suite as expensive as anything in the world.
- The Four Seasons Sultanahmet is a former prison but now a quality hotel if you want to stay close to the district’s major landmarks.
- Ritz Carlton Istanbul in Besiktas is close to the Vodaphone Stadium and the Dolmabahce Palace.
- Rixos Pera Istanbul is close to Taksim Square, ideally located to link with both international airports