Istanbul is a place thriving with history and culture. Once named Constantinople, this was the entrance to Europe and the Roman empire. There is so much to do, see and a great atmosphere to soak up.
Istanbul is split between the North (Eurasia) side and the south (Asiatic) side. This was bought together as one city, once the Ottoman's invaded. I would urge you before you go to this city to watch the Ottoman documentary on Netflix. This will help you truly appreciate the history of this city. I won't go on too much about the history, but if you are interested, take a look at this for more knowledge:
So, how to do Istanbul in 3 days, here we go...
I would suggest you stick to the north side of the city. Most people make the mistake of going to the Hagia Sophia early in the morning, but I advise you all not to. As everyone has the same idea and the ques are crazy! This winds all the way round the square, near to the Blue Mosque. It will take you hours to get into the Hagia Sophia. Now, this is the trick, wait until the evening. You will then walk straight in and really enjoy the place in a tranquil environment.
So, with this in mind, this was our schedule:
- Topkaki Palace
- Ottoman Ice cream
- Small market behind the blue mosque
- Grand Bazaar
- Dinner - Seven Hills Restaurant
- Hagia Sophia
Topkaki Palace. If you want to know the style and taster of the Ottoman Empire, this is the place to go. Oozing with lavish patterns, gold and beautiful satin fabrics, this is a perfect place for design and pattern inspiration. The Ottoman's desire for sweet treats are prominent in the Palace, with a dedicated, purpose-built confectionary kitchen. Infact, the sweet treat 'Turkish Delight' was an Ottoman delicacy created in the 18th century, which is now enjoyed worldwide. You can walk into the main garden free of charge, however, if you would like to go into the Sultan's chambers or the Harem, then you will need to pay an amount of 300TL, which is roughly £15. But I would definitely recommend paying this as it is such an interesting place. It will take a good 3 hours to walk around every part. The Harem is like a maze.
Located in the palace, is the Treasury. To enter this room will take around 45 minutes to que, but inside are artifacts of the prophet Mohammed, including his weaponry, beard cut offs and a skull of one of their followers. In this room, the Qur'an is sung 24 hours a day. The singing is quite empowering, so I urge you to que up, just for the experience.
After the Topkaki Palace, I recommend having a snack at the 'Ottomans Ice Cream' shack, opposite the Hagia Sophia. It is a great ice cream shop, making it in the traditional way. There is a new TikTok trend at the moment with these stall holders, doing the 'cone dance'. It is quite funny to watch.
Next stop, the market behind the Blue Mosque. A great little find with all sorts of souvenirs. It is more of a high-end market row of shops, compared to the Grand Bazaar, but a great little taster to Turkish Markets.
The Blue Mosque. A spectacular dome building. Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque is currently under construction, so we could only really see the dome in all its glory, but not the rest. There are a few dress code practices entering this building. Women must cover their legs, shoulders and hair. But not to worry, if you are not dressed appropriately, scarves and skirts are given out to meet the appropriate dress code.
Walking further down the main high street to the right of the Blue Mosque, you will get to the Grand Bazaar. This is an overwhelming treasure trove of all sorts of shops and stalls, from Turkish delight, little ceramic souvenirs, to fake handbags and jewelry. A few things to be beware of when negotiating:
- There are several shops selling the same think. Go into a few to gage the right price and quality. You can barter off each other to get the best deal.
- Ask whether it is real or fake leather - you could be paying for something fake, thinking this is real.
- Be willing to walk away. The most powerful negotiating tactic is knowing that you could find a better offer. This will help them go down in price.
Now, we found a perfect little dinner spot, that gives you a fabulous view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I wouldn't say it is spectacular food, but the view itself pays for it all! A rooftop restaurant called the Seven Hill's Restaurant. This has 2 levels, be warned the top floor is surrounded by lots of Gul's, we opted for the lower floor for this reason, however the views are still spectacular. The fish here is great, actually anywhere in Istanbul has great, fresh fish available.
*the ruins in the above picture are of the original Palace of Constantinople*
The Hagia Sophia, was the highlight of our trip. We entered roughly around 9pm, and we walked straight into the building. All prayer times have finished for the evening, and it is now calm and beautiful, especially under (electric) candlelight. You can peacefully sit here for however long you feel like. Again, this place has strict dress code rules, similar to the Blue Mosque explained previously. The Hagia Sophia was initial built as a church and then once the Ottoman invasion, turned into a Mosque. Paintings that are commonly seen in churches (images of important figures, laced with gold) were stripped away and replaced with Islamic patterns and calligraphy. For a while, this was a museum, embracing both the Islamic and Chirstian history, however, it is now converted back into a Mosque. Try to find the hidden gold laced paintings still seen on the walls. There are still a few around, but you have to look to find them, as most of them have been painted over or covered up.
Day two is now over to the south side, here is our recommended daily itinerary:
- Galata Tower
- Tea at Galata street
- Walk around the hidden shops
- Istiklal Street with the Vintage Tramline
- St Antony's Church
- Back to the Bosphorus for a Balak Durum
- Boat ride along the Bosporus
- Dinner and drinks at a hidden away wine bar
The Galata Tower has a huge amount of History. This was a watch tower with a long chain forming from one side of the Bosporus to the other. This acted as a barricade and border control for any unwelcomed ships. You now can climb up to the top of the tower, where you will get amazing views of both the north and south side. It will cost you around 220TL, which is around £11.
An array of little boutique and vintage shops surround the Galata Tower. It is a great way to wander off track down these side streets and explore. There are great cafes dotted around as well, which have a trendy and bohemian vibe. Also bubble tea seems to be a huge thing around here, so worth a try!
Istikhal Street, is similar to Oxford Street in London. Lots of mainstream shops lay here, as well as the odd Turkish Delight and coffee shops.
Halfway down the street, hidden away is St Antony's Church. This church is quite remarkable and has similarities of the Notre Dame. This is free to wander round, and it is quite a beautiful and spectacular sight inside.
Once you get to the end of the street, the best way to get back is on the old tram. This goes from one end to the other and is a great little transit experience. This can be used on the Istanbul travel card, which can be used on all transportation. The Istanbul railcard is roughly 50TL and will give you 6 rides. You can top this up several times and acts like an Oyster Card.
If you wander back down to the Galata Bridge and turn right, there will be some run-down looking fish restaurants. Do not be fooled by its run-down charm, you will find some great fast food style fresh food that is delicious. We tried out the Dingonun Ahiri Restaurant. We decided this would be a good place, from seeing a lot of locals going to this one, in comparison to the others. We ordered the Balik Durum (meaning fish wrap). This was delicious! Only 50TL, (£2.50), which will be the best money spent on food!
To the left of the restaurant, there is a boat house metro station. Now, there are several boat trips people try to sell you, however, this is not truly worth it, unless you have a personal yacht. The best way to see the city by water, is to use the public transport right to the end of the line. You can use your Istanbul railcard on these boats as well, which means you will get the experience, at a fraction of the price. There is the Bosphorous tour one or the Kabatas, ensure you get the Bosphorus line.
For dinner, we found a great little wine bar in the hidden streets near the Galata tower. It has an abundance of charcuterie and cheeseboards along with some great wines that can be recommended based on your palette. The restaurant is called Vigneron DeCamondo, with quaint outdoor seating and authentic red brick interiors.
This one was quite a light one compared to day 2. Back to the history of Constantinople.
- Basilica Cistern
- Coffee at ...
- The walls of Constantinople
- Lunch on Galata Bridge
- Spice Bazaar
The Basilica Cistern is a beautiful underground structure built by the Romans. These are 1 of a series of 150 cisterns underneath Istanbul, which once held the water for the whole city. We accidentally went to two cisterns. The first one, Theodosius Cistern, was small (behind the Grand Bazaar), which had a series of video displays. The 2nd was the Basilica Cistern. Now, if you only have time to do 1, I suggest the Basilica is the one to visit. The entrance to this is opposite the Hagia Sophia and goes on for quite a while. It is lit spectacularly, which gives a great ambience and interestingly each column is slightly different. The columns were recycled from elsewhere within the Roman Empire, bought to Istanbul to build. It took 38 years and 7000 slaves to create these Cisterns. An impressive piece of architecture.
Once the Ottomans invaded, running water was preferred, so these where only used by the Sultan to secretly move around the city without being seen.
Behind the Basilica, there are a few small streets full of restaurants and coffee shops. we stopped off at Khaldi which had the best coffee (that isn't Starbucks) around this part of Istanbul.
Next stop, the Walls of Constantinople. Around the city, remains of the walls are prevalent, however, if you wanted to see an iconic part of the walls (where Mehmet first stepped into the fallen Constantinople), then you will have to go out a bit to the edge of the city. Head to the station 'Marmaray Kazlicesme Istasyonu'. After a short walk, you will get to the Gate. It doesn't really have much infrastructure for tourism around here, so keep walking and you'll find the archway with a plaque stating the conquer of Mehmet.
The Synagogue. This is hidden within the busy streets of Galata. Ensure you have your ID here, so that you can gain entry to this beautiful building. They are quite strict on entry, and you will need to be security searched. However, this is a beautiful Synagogue and worth a visit, with its dark wood features and a Star of David-stained glass window at the altar. They have also added on a museum to the synagogue, which explains briefly the relations of the country. This is roughly 100 TL to enter, which is around £5.
Back to Galata Bridge and another Balik dish. This time, we had a Balik Sandvic (fish sandwich) under the bridge, which has a series of different restaurants. From quick and easy food to high class restaurants. So whichever your preference, you can get some fresh seafood at a reasonable price. Our sandwich again only cost 50TL.
The Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) is on the north side of the city, behind the New Mosque. This is a stunning building, under cover with arches and full of sweet treats, such as Turkish Delight and Baclava, alongside a variety of spices, dry fruits and herbs. It has a strong aroma and a really interesting place to wander round.
These are our 3 days of Istanbul; it was a great country busy with diversity and culture. For a small introduction to a Muslim country, this is definitely a good start. Here are a few top tips to use whilst in Istanbul:
- Always bring a scarf with you, just in case you need to cover up your shoulders. As this is a Muslim country, their dress code is quite strict. Ensure you are respectful in dress and bring a scarf in case you end up in a more conservative place.
- Get yourself an Istanbul railcard, this is the cheapest way to get around and easy to top up. There is only 1 station that has card (Sultanahmet), so please bring cash with you so you are not stranded anywhere.
- Look up the right museum card to use. We got the Muzecart, and it did not give us entry to everything, therefore we still had to buy entry to others. Ensure the card gives you entry to the Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace and Cistern. It may be easier and cheaper to pay for these all individually.
- Use Uber to get around from A-B instead of hailing a taxi, this means that the price of the taxi is monitored, and they cannot add any extras on. Be warned, the trips from the airport to the hotel, which involves going under the tunnel, taxi's will charge you an extra 150TL.
I hope you enjoyed reading and helps you on your travels to Istanbul. It is a wander and I urge everyone to visit.
Lots of Love,