Istanbul 1-2-3

Istanbul 1-2-3

Three days in Turkey’s vibrant capital doesn’t do it justice, but will certainly have you adding Istanbul to future travel itineraries.  Home to the Byzantine, Ottoman and Roman kings you will spend your time in awe of both the history and modernity of this incredible city.  The sights of the Sultanahmet are unparalleled in grandeur and beauty to anything else in the city while the high end shopping street of Istiklal Caddesi and the modern art museum offer a flavor of Istanbul’s progress.

Istanbul is definitely a European city, offering amazing food, excellent public transport and stunning sights, but it also has a taste of the exotic.  The call to prayer can be heard throughout the city and the smell of cumin and roasted meat lingers in the air.  The towering minarets of mosques throughout the city offer an old world charm to even the most contemporary streets in the bustling metropolis.  It’s not uncommon to see women wearing mini skirts or head coverings nor is it surprising to see men in fitting suits or loose robes, it is this juxtaposition that make Istanbul so intriguing.

The breathtaking interior of Aya Sofia is one of the must-see places in Istanbul

Day 1

Your first day in Istanbul should be spent in Sultanahmet, this is where the bulk of the attractions are and it’s easy to navigate on foot.  Ýou can get off the tram at Below are the highlights:

Aya Sofia

This is the main attraction in Istanbul, the crowning monument to the Byzantine Empire this incredible church turned mosque has stood for over 1,000 years.  The domed roof, gilded murals, incredible architecture and fantastic story have been mesmerizing tourists for decades.  Make it your first stop, because you won’t want to miss it, but know that you might find nothing else in the city tops this gem!

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, built to rival the Aya Sofia is another must-see.  Named for it’s beautiful blue Iznik tiles adorning the interior it is worth the wait to stand awe-struck, mouth agape taking in the vaulted ceilings.  You will have to decide for yourself if it does in fact surpass Aya Sofia as the builders intended.

Lamps for sale in the Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

With over 3,600 shops the Grand Bazaar lives up to it’s name, it is the bazaar to end all other bazaars.  The labyrinth of covered shops selling everything from carpets, leather goods and glass lamps to knock-off Gucci bags it is the place to soak up the local culture.  Enjoy a tea at one of the many restaurants or haggle with the vendors, regardless of how you spend your time within the 76 acre bazaar you will get a feast for the senses.

Topkapi Palace

Home to Ottoman sultans for nearly five centuries the Topkapi Palace has some of the most incredible collections of jewels, clocks and riches of one of the richest empires in the world.  Touring the Imperial Harem was a highlight of my visit and conjures up images of turbaned sultans and opulence that can only be imagined.  After enjoying the beautiful museum, which may take several hours, stroll down the cobbled 19th-century Ottoman lane that runs parallel to the palace wall (to the right of the main gate of Topkapi Palace as you’re leaving), allowing both a view of a residential street and the backside of the Aya Sofia.

Don’t forget to allow time in your itinerary to give the many cats throughout the city a nice pet

Day 2

Spend your second day in Turkey’s capital along the beautiful Bosphorous River enjoying the views and surrounding sights.

If you have extra time in Sultanahmet take a stroll through the old neighborhoods behind the Blue Mosque, you might be surprised what you discover in the old cobblestone alleyways.

New Mosque

The most beautiful mosque created by Süleyman the Magnificent and his chief architect, Sinan it also offers an amazing view of the city.  Located at the foot of the Galata Bridge on one of Istanbul’s many hills you can see all the way up to the Princes’ Islands on a clear day.  This mosque may not be as famous as Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, but it is magnificent!

Spice Market

Known as the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, named for all the spices and grains brought in from Egypt and sold in the covered market, this stop is an assault on your nose.  Smells of Iranian saffron and cumin float in the air while vendors yell for your attention from their stalls.  The entire experience is delicious as all the stall owners offer you tastes of what they have on offer.  If you are interested in other Turkish markets, check out this post about my favorite markets in the city.

Galata Bridge

The bridge over the Bosphorus River that seemingly separates traditional Turkey from modern Turkey is one that every visitor should walk.  The views of the Old Town are beautiful and the bridge itself offers it’s own culture.  You can either stroll along the top of the bridge with the fisherman or take a walk on the lower deck where you can enjoy the fishermen’s catch at the many restaurants and tea shops.  The floating boats at the foot of the bridge also offer a great place to grab a freshly caught fish for lunch.

Day 3

For your last day in Istanbul explore the more modern side of the city, take in some art and treat yourself to some shopping.

Istanbul Modern

After spending the last two days enjoying the history of Istanbul, treat yourself to a visit at the Istanbul Modern where the contemporary art exhibits are both informative and progressive.  The views from the veranda are awesome, with perfect vistas of Topkapi Palace and a wonderful restaurant to boot!

Istikbal Caddesi

The famous shopping street of Istikbal Caddesi is no secret, the crowds can be immense, but the open air mall boasts architecture from several foreign embassies and some of the best restaurants in the city.  The street is particularly festive for the holiday season and offers excellent window browsing!

Galata Tower

The imposing Galata Tower at the end of Istikbal Caddesi stands as a landmark for the city and offers a commanding view over the River all the way to the Aya Sofia if you are willing to climb it’s many stairs.  After all it is the tallest building in the city.

Whirling Dervishes

End your time in Istanbul with a performance by the Whirling Dervishes, the enchanting ¨meditation in motion¨ is incredible to watch.  The entire ceremony is spell-binding and a must-see while visiting Istanbul.


Bring a scarf, to visit mosques you will need to cover your head as a woman.  Bring a scarf that can easily cover your hair, it also doubles as warmth if you visit in the winter.

Stay in Sultanahmet, all the attractions are nearby and public transportation can take you anywhere you need to go from here.

For more great three day itineraries, check out our Cairo guide and our Shanghai guide to plan your next trip!

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» Susan Narayan :
Sep 15, 2013

Enjoying your blog and travels — wonderful!

I just returned from a 3-year stay in Turkey, and have a few minor corrections to your text, if you’re interested. The Bosphorus is not a river; indeed Turks dislike hearing it referred to that way. “It is the sea,” as a Turkish friend told us. The New Mosque was not designed or built by Sinan; it was built more than a century later than Sinan’s time. And one cannot move east along the Turkey’s Aegean coast because it runs north to south. One can, however, move east along the Mediterranean, and the culture does get more Middle Eastern. Happy travels and keep up your good writing!

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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