After the article with all practical info (where to sleep, where to eat, how to move, etc.), here I want to tell you what to see in Istanbul, especially if you are going there for the first time. Istanbul has always bewitched me, I was struck by the first time I went there with my parents when I was maybe 12/13 years old and I still clearly remember the sensations I felt. Since then I have been back at least 4 more times, almost always in spring (once even in winter .. and I will not repeat!). I believe that no city is crossroads of different cultures and religions, of ancient and modern, like Istanbul! And you can breathe it immediately, as soon as you enter the "city" (actually a metropolis of 15 million inhabitants!). At times one gets the impression of being in a souk in Marrakesh, in others in Saint Tropez, in others in Lisbon or in some corner of Greece, depending on the neighborhood. On the other hand, we cannot forget that Istanbul was the ancient Byzantium of the Greeks, the Constantinople of the Romans, but also the capital of the Ottoman sultans. There are 2 other reasons why I love this city very much: 1) it is spread over several hills (both in Europe and Asia) that overlook the Bosphorus, on the Golden horn and on sea of Marmara and these create breathtaking views and glimpses. If you are a lover of rooftop like myself .. you will have bread for your teeth !!! In this article you will find the reviews of the most beautiful ones I have visited. 2) Istanbul is a city of cats!! My beloved felines are hyper pampered by the Turks, each shop has bowls with food and water outside and you will see many beautiful cats around.
With regard to the duration of a trip to Istanbul, I think 3 days are really the minimum wage! Istanbul is a huge city full of history with tons of things to see and do. In 3 days you will be able to see the "must see", but if you can stay a few days longer to explore some less central districts, the islands of the Princes or Bosphorus. Before talking about the places not to be missed in Istanbul, I would also like to make a note about the Turkish people, an open, super hospitable and sociable people. In Turkey you communicate very easily with everyone and make friends right away. You will see that you will return home with new friends!
When to go to Istanbul
The best time to visit Istanbul is undoubtedly spring / early summer, from April to June I'd say. In summer it is very hot (even 30 ° or more) and it does not rain, while in winter it is very cold (it often snows). When I was there in January I suffered a lot because there was a damp cold that got right into the bones. Autumn can be a viable alternative to spring, with mild temperatures and little rain.
Health insurance is required
In Turkey our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip, even for Covid-19. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online (!!!). All travel insurances also cover medical assistance in the event of a coronavirus infection, including testing if necessary. There is also coverage for the extension of the stay in the hotel due to the quarantine. Likewise, the trip cancellation guarantee includes coverage for illness or death of the traveler or a family member due to COVID-19.
What to see in Istanbul in 3 days: the places not to be missed
Istanbul is a city divided between two continents, Europe and Asia, and I absolutely recommend that you visit both sides in order to better understand the city. In the European part you will surely have to visit the Ancient Istanbul of Sultanahmet and Balat (the ancient Greek Orthodox quarter) and the Istanbul modern in Piazza Taksim, Cihangir and Babek. For the asian part I recommend you go to instead Kadikoy and Fashion. But let's see in detail all the places not to be missed in Istanbul:
1. Blue Mosque
Your visit to Istanbul can only start from Sultanahmet where the oldest and most important monuments of the city are located. There Blue Mosque is the most famous mosque in Istanbul and was built by Sultan Ahmet I in 1616. It is a very large mosque (but smaller than Hagia Sophia) whose name derives from the 21000 decorated ceramic tiles that cover the interior walls, in which it predominates the blue color. The Blue Mosque also has 6 minarets, a number reserved for the "holiest" mosques. Access is free, but you must enter the entrance reserved for non-Muslims.
2. Aya Sofya Basilica (Hagia Sophia)
In front of the Blue Mosque stands out Hagia Sophia, with its immense dome, the most incredible monument in the city in my opinion. This immense basilica was built by'Emperor Justinian and inaugurated in 537. It was a true architectural marvel and required the work of more than 10.000 workers. Justinian wanted to accomplish the largest Christian monument in the world and Aya Sofya did not lose her primacy until 1626, the year of construction of St. Peter's in Rome. The basilica came then transformed into a mosque in 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, and then became museum from 1935 until July 2020, when Erdogan converted Aya Sofya back into a mosque. However, the museum remains and travelers will be able to enter, but only when no prayer is taking place. The interiors are simply crazy, especially the large dome decorated in gold, as well as the beautiful Byzantine mosaics.
3. Topkapi: the sultan's palace
The small promontory behind Aya Sofya is occupied by the Topkapi, the famous palace (or complex of buildings) of the sultan. Topkapi was there official residence of the sultans for 4 centuries, from 1451 until 1839, and each sultan made changes and improvements to this immense palace. Unlike the royal palaces we are normally used to in Europe, the Ottoman palaces do not have large halls but are made up of smaller and shorter buildings. Consider at least 2-3 hours to visit Topkapi because it is truly immense! There is certainly not to be missed the harem, consisting of 300 rooms (but only a few are visible), the Ahmet III library, the gardens, the court of the eunuchs and, above all, the treasure. The jewels and precious objects that you will see in these 4 rooms make the treasure of the English crown pale !! Two pieces that will leave you speechless: the dagger in gold, diamonds and emeralds (Hancer) and the famous "diamond of the spoon merchant" (Kasikci), the highlight of the treasure, an 86-carat diamond surrounded by 49 enormous brilliants. Small curiosity (but there are many if you want to study a little): the sultans were Turks on their father's side, while their mothers, coming from the harem, were often Christian keys. The future sultans thus received a double education.
4. Basilica Cistern: the submerged palace
From the same large square overlooked by Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, you can also access the Basilica Cistern (Yerabatan Sarayi), also called the submerged palace. We are talking about a truly impressive Byzantine monument; this immense cistern was always built by Justinian in 542 and was used to guarantee water to the Grand Palace (the residence of the emperors). It could hold up to 80 million liters of water!! It was rediscovered in the mid 1500s when it was used to supply water to Topkapi. What you see today going down a flight of stairs is an immense room full of water with 336 columns (which come from different temples) and the glance is truly spectacular.
5. Grand Bazaar: the largest covered market in the world
Moving west of Aya Sofya and the Cistern you enter the neighborhood of the Grand Bazaar. The latter is one of the most famous markets in the whole Middle East and has been active since 1400. It was built thanks to Sultan Mehmet II in 1461 and, with 4000 shops and 200.000 square meters of surface, it is still today the largest covered market in the world. The whole district is dedicated to commerce and all the streets around the Grand Bazaar are shops divided by sectors: there is the spice market (the Egyptian Bazaar.. descending towards the Galata Bridge), that of books, that of technology, bags and so on. To visit the oldest and most beautiful part of the Grand Bazaar, you should enter the door which is near the Nuruosmaniye mosque, so you will find yourself in the "main street" of the bazaar, full of jewelers. Inside the bazaar you can spend a little or a lot of time, it will depend only on you! Inside, however, you will find bars and street food stalls so you will not die of hunger or thirst! Small parenthesis .. if you are a lover of bags (or cmq of leather accessories) at the Grand Bazaar you will find some perfect copies (of excellent workmanship and with a quality leather) of the various best known brands and you can take off more than a whim. I've always bought great here and have used those bags for years. Often the best copies do not have it on display, but if you are interested they will take you to some nearby warehouses .. don't be afraid to follow them! Needless to say, you will surely get lost in the maze of streets of the Grand Bazaar, but it's also the beauty of traveling, isn't it?
6. Suleymaniye Mosque
If you can get out of the Grand Bazaar on the right side you can be very close to the big one Suleymaniye mosque (Suleymaniye Camii… or “Up your hands” mosque as I call it). We are talking about the second largest mosque in Istanbul after Aya Sofya and it is considered the masterpiece of the greatest Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. A kind of citadel has arisen around it with a library, a hospital, schools, hammam, etc. The prayer room is very impressive in size and is also famous for having great acoustics. From the square around the mosque you will also have a beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
7. Balat and Fener: the ancient Jewish and Greek-Orthodox quarters
Always staying in the European part of the Turkish metropolis, in the old city on the west bank of the Golden Horn there are two neighborhoods that I absolutely recommend you to see. I will tell you more, in my opinion they are areas to visit as soon as possible, before they enter the tourist guides and lose their authenticity. Balat is an old Jewish quarter of Istanbul, even if in more recent years there has been an almost total change of the population. From a rich Jewish area it has become an area of immigrants from the lower social classes, with consequent degradation of the area. In recent years, however, a redevelopment project sponsored by Unesco and the neighborhood is changing face again. Today it is one of the more bohemian areas of the city and some streets are filling up with really nice cafes and small shops like the Naftalin K Cafe. The neighborhood is all uphill and many houses have brightly painted facades, perfect for taking beautiful photos. The hill is overlooked by the beautiful Rum Lisesi, the Greek Orthodox High School of Fener, with its magnificent and characteristic red brick building. The neighboring district of Fener in fact is seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the equivalent of St. Peter's in Rome for the Christian Orthodox religion. The historical and symbolic importance of this place is enormous. It is one of the five main seats of the Christian church, in order of hierarchy, the patriarchate of Constantinople is the second after Rome, and precedes Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The hub of the neighborhood is right there Cathedral of San Giorgio which preserves numerous relics.
Absolutely not to be missed is the church of San Salvatore in Chora , which is considered to be one of the most important examples of sacred Byzantine architecture still in existence. Since 1958 it has been transformed into a museum and you can admire inside the crazy mosaics and frescoes, considered among the highest expressions of Byzantine art.
8. Piazza Taksim, Beyoglu and Cihangir
Let's now pass to the modern part of Istanbul, the one on the other side of the Galata Bridge, at the mouth of the Golden Horn. The Galata Bridge connects Sultanahmet to Beyoglu, it is a very wide bridge, on two floors, which includes 4 lanes for cars and a succession of fish restaurants at the bottom, very popular with locals. Don't stop to eat here, however, but proceed towards the end of the bridge, where the fish market. Here it is full of restaurants where you can eat fish at a good price. Going forward you will then meet the famous one Galata Tower, a tower that was a prison and later an astronomical observatory. Today you can climb it to have a beautiful view of the city. Continuing even further you will find yourself on Istikal Street, the busiest pedestrian street in the of Beyoglu, full of restaurants, bars and shops, which ends in the famous Piazza Taksim. This square was the symbol of the youth protest during the Arab Spring and Erdogan, in response, began construction of a large mosque right in the center of the square. The district which is located to the right of Istikal Caddesi and which descends towards the Bosphorus is called Cihangir, and it's a nice bohemian neighborhood full of cafes and antique shops. treat yourself to a nice brunch at Faik Pasha Cafe and you won't regret it !! In general, all the roads that start or cut Istikal Caddesi are full of life and this is probably where you will spend most of your evenings.
9. Pera Palace
The historian is also located in Beyoglu Hotel Pera Palace, which can also be visited as a museum. It was built in 1892 for the purpose of to accommodate the passengers of the legendary Orient Express and is considered "the oldest European hotel in Turkey". I slept there the first time I went to Istanbul as a child with my parents and I still remember it, a hotel with a charm of yesteryear, which hosted the likes of Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, King Edward VIII, Alfred Hitchcock and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Room 101, where Atatürk used to stay has been used as a museum, while in room 411, Agatha Christie wrote a large part of the book Assassination on the Orient Express.
10. Dolmabahce Palace
The last sultans of the Ottoman Empire did not reside in Topkapi, which had become damp and uncomfortable, but in this palace overlooking the Bosphorus. The palace-palace of Dolmabahce it was built looking at Versailles and the European royal palaces of the 700th and 800th centuries, with a baroque style combined with oriental elements. 280 rooms, 43 lounges and 6 hammams in a riot of halls, marble furnishings, stuccoes, crystal chandeliers and so on and so forth. The palace can be visited but unfortunately you cannot take pictures inside. Small curiosity: here is the room where "the father of all Turks" Ataturk died and still today all the clocks in the building mark 9:05, the time of his death. Since that November 10, 1938 from 9:05 to 9:06 the sirens of the country sound to commemorate this great president.
Il Ortakoy neighborhood it is located along the Bosphorus, about 6 km from the Galata Bridge, but you can easily reach it by taxi. Featuring the large suspension bridge that connects the modern European area of Istanbul with the Asian side, there is also a beautiful one mosque almost on the water and a market much loved by the inhabitants of Istanbul. Come here on Sunday for lunch, or in the evening to eat the famous kumpir (a potato stuffed with all kinds of goodies). It is also in this area that the most beautiful clubs in Istanbul are located.
12. The Asian side: Kadikoy and Moda
I close this review on the places to see in Istanbul in 3 days with a detour to the Asian side, more precisely to Kadikoy and Fashion. If you are in Beyoglu, the most convenient way to reach this area is the ferry from Besiktas or Karakoy, which will allow you to have beautiful views of the city. The Kadikoy neighborhood (which includes the area called Fashion) is one of the most modern and lively districts of Istanbul, and you will have the impression of being in Europe rather than Asia. Lose yourself in the streets of this beautiful residential neighborhood, with nice shops, restaurants and clubs, until you reach the Moda Coastal Park, a beautiful park with several bars overlooking the Sea of Marmara always full of young people. Kadikoy is also famous for street food, there are kiosks everywhere and they are of excellent quality.
In front of the Asian coast, there is also a gem, the tiny island that hosts the Maiden's Tower. It was built in wood by the Byzantine emperor Alexius I in 1110 to bar the entrance to the Bosphorus with an iron chain stretched between the tower itself and another tower located on the beach opposite Constantinople. It has been built in stone since 1763 and today houses a very romantic restaurant, the Maiden’s Tower.
What to see around Istanbul
Bosphorus boat trip to the Black Sea
If you have the extra time it's worth doing one trip on the Bosphorus. There are several, especially of different lengths, and they normally depart from the Eminonu landing stage. The short ones last about 2h and reach Ortakoy and the second bridge. The long ones last about 6h and go up to Black Sea, covering the 28 km that separate it from the Sea of Marmara. The ferry stops for a couple of hours at Anatolian Kavagi (where you can have lunch), a beautiful village on the Bosphorus which also has an ancient Byzantine fortress. Before getting there, sharpen your view because the beautiful will appear on the left Rumeli Fortress (the castle of Europe), an imposing fort built by Sultan Mehmet Fatih.
Another very nice activity to do is there Bosphorus sunset cruise, to see the city that lights up when the sun goes down. The cruise lasts 2h and 30 'and the ticket includes an aperitif consisting of a glass of sharbat (a typical drink of the Middle East) and an assortment of Turkish snacks. There is also one evening cruise with dinner and show which lasts 3h and a half.
Trip to the Princes' Islands
I loved this trip very much !! The Princes' Islands are 9 islets that rise in the Sea of Marmara, about 20 km south of Istanbul. The name dates back to the Byzantine period, when they housed the residences of the princes, then in the nineteenth century they became the favorite holiday resort of local and foreign nobles. With a scarce hour by ferry (starting from the Kabatas pier) you get to Buyuk Ada, the largest island, which retains the largest number of splendid colonial buildings. The island is car-free so you just have to rent a bike to reach Aya Yorgi Church (the highest point of the island) and / or the various beaches. Next to Aya Yorgi Kilisesi there is also a restaurant with a magnificent view! If you want to see more than one island, you should participate in aorganized excursion like this, where in addition to Buyuk Ada you will also visit lHeybeliada Island.
You might also be interested in these other articles I wrote about Turkey
- Turchia: what to see in 10 days (or 2 weeks)
- Cappadocia (Turkey): what to see in 3 days
- A trip to Istanbul: where to sleep, where to eat and how to get around