3 Days in Istanbul
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Istanbul is perhaps the most photogenic city we have yet traveled to. No matter where we found ourselves, the backdrop was always scenic! From views of the Black Sea with seagulls roaming free to epic looking mosques and museums, to the exotic smells and colors of spices and teas found at the bazaars. Istanbul is chaotic yet calm, full of cultural traditions and religious beliefs. Istanbul is where old meets new, and they live together in harmony. I invite you to fall in love with this city, as we did, and follow our journey as we roam around visiting some of the most iconic places and the not so well know yet hidden gems...
Turkey is perhaps one of those countries that's always picture perfect! From breathtaking rooftop views overlooking the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. To delightful sunset walks along the Galata Bridge overlooking the straight of Bosphorus that separates Europe and Asia or traveling through the captivating and surreal countryside, Turkey will take your breath away, inspire your creativity and expand your instincts.
Did you know Istanbul is the only city in the world straddled by two continents? Yeap! There's an Asian and a European side in Istanbul. You can travel via ferry from Europe to Asia in only 25 min. This trip will cost you under $2 RT.
Where to Stay:
We decided to stay at the Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus for convenience reasons. It has a great location, and amenities were what we were looking for; pool, spa, hammam (Turkish Bath), a rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorus, and an in house restaurant. Of course, we wanted to explore Istanbul fully, but after a long flight, it's always a good idea to chill and take in your surroundings. Every hotel we stayed at in Turkey had a hammam. We found this to be the best way of relaxing at the comfort of our own hotel stay after a full day of sight seeing. Plus, you won't have to go out of your way to go visit one, unless, of course, you want to go to an old school traditional hammam, which can be found throughout the city if your hotel does not have one. Experiencing a hammam in Turkey is a must! They're so relaxing and a great way to exfoliate out all those toxins!
When to Visit:
We decided to visit during Tulip Season (late March-early May, depending on weather). During this time, the streets and mosques are filled with tulips and spring is in full swing! The best time to visit Istanbul is from March to May and September to November. By visiting during this time, you'll get fewer crowds & better lodging rates (we were able to stay at 4 and 5-star hotels all throughout Turkey for under $90 a night!). Try to avoid summer for the crowds and sweltering weather and winter, where temperatures drop really low, and it gets exceedingly cold!!!
Post landing head to your hotel, freshen up and hang out there exploring the different amenities or venture out and see by foot what's nearby! Istanbul is beautiful, and every corner is filled with fantastic architecture. We found this water fountain randomly just walking around. Have no set plans for your first half day here, simply relax. It's always a great way to start a trip! Do go to bed early, get a full 8hr sleep to avoid/minimize that jet lag! Tomorrow we have an early start! ... NIGHT!
Day 1-- Taking care of all the tourist attractions plus a hidden rooftop café.
Today we're starting our day early. After visiting these places several times, I found this schedule to be the most efficient in saving time, getting in and out of places fast with fewer lines, and enjoying the site less crowded! To do this, we must start our day early, we want to be first in line! Despite traveling during low season, Istanbul is a busy city, so yeah, during low season, it is way less crowded, but guess what, is still pretty packed. Following this itinerary and traveling during the low season, I was able to see all the significant spots in 1 day, waiting in line only at one place (our last location) for about 20 min. Usually, lines at these spots range from a 1-2.5 hour wait period.... yeah! Who has time for that?! But follow this guide, and you'll be golden... promise! From our first location to last, we'll be walking for 45 minutes, covering 3.5 km.
Bring Comfortable shoes and proper attire to enter the mosques. Here's a guide on how to dress appropriately. If you don't have a headscarf they will provide one at the main entrance, please always keep it on. We must respect different cultures, traditions, and values.
*Note: Jeans and pants are ok for women, just no tight leggings.
7:45am- Hippodrome Square: Open Air Museum - Free, open all day every day!
We're starting at this square since its open 24/7 and nearby our following attractions.
This square was an ancient Grecian stadium used for entertainment and horse/chariot racing. Now a square to stroll around, people watch and do some shopping while marveling at old traces of racecourses and ruins. At the end of the ancient hippodrome, you can find a German fountain built in Germany and brought over as a gift, piece by piece in the 1900s.
8:30am- Sultan Ahmed Mosque
aka- The Blue Mosque- Free
The Blue Mosque opens at 8:30am, I suggest arriving a little bit earlier
(it's a short walk from the hippodrome). We arrived at around 8:15am, and although very tempted to visit all the shops nearby, we curved that urge and instead roamed around right outside the Mosque. Most of the perks included: getting some crowd-free photos, reading all the guidelines and rules (I know, nerd! but respecting the culture is important to us while traveling), using the restrooms, and being first in line! The Blue Mosque is still an active Muslim Prayer Mosque. There's a restricted area where non- Muslim visitors can't enter; this is where prayer takes place. At the moment (2019), there's significant construction happening, something to keep in mind when visiting for restrictions. The Blue Mosque; built between 1609 and 1616, and its called "Blue Mosque" because of all the blue tiles that decorate it's interior. Another thing to note is that you're not allowed in while prayer is taking place, so always check the schedule for prayer times and holidays.
9:15am -- Hagia Sophia - Free
Hagia Sophia-- a must visit!! This place took my breath away... It's gone through so many changes throughout time. From a Greek Orthodox, Christian Church turned into an Ottoman Imperial Mosque that's now a Museum! When writing about this place, the first words that came to mind were change, layers, and harmony. Hagia Sophia is one of the most important Byzantine structures ever built. When you visit, you're able to see traces of old Christianity -wall - artwork being recovered from when they were initially painted-- that's where the word layers came to mind. When Hagia Sophia was ruled by the Christian religion, wall murals of Christianity were found throughout the entire structure. When the Muslim faith took over and turned it into a Mosque, they painted over everything because they did not believe in worshiping figures with faces. After, they decided to relocate the Mosque due to the orientation of Hagia Sophia. In the Muslim religion, all Muslims for unity pray facing the Kaaba in Meccah, which is called Qibla. The direction should be facing the Kaaba for Muslims worldwide and Hagia Sophia did not have the right orientation. That's why now Hagia Sophia stands as a Museum. Hagia Sophia is important in Istanbul because it's a melting pot of different religions that now live together under the same structure, tolerating each other in perfect harmony. P.S: when visiting Hagia Sophia, make sure to stop before you exit at one of the far-right end columns, insert your thumb and rotate counter clock. Legend has it that all individuals that do this will return to beautiful ISTANBUL...
10:30am - Snack and natural juice break with some people watching
Take a break from all your site seeing, especially if you've accomplished seeing 3 major spots before noon.. go you! Take a break on the grounds of Hagia Sophia, buy some local freshly squeezed pomegranate juice...my fav! If pomegranate alone is too tart, you can always mix it with orange or simply get a freshly squeezed orange juice. This is also a great spot to try a simit (a famous Turkish on-the-go snack, also known as "Turkish Bagel"). After grabbing your snack, find one of the many benches in the area, sit, and people watch.
11:30am- Visit the Basilica Cistern (underground cistern) a.k.a. "The Sunken Place"
Visit the most extensive surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul--The Basilica Cistern. These underground cisterns are hidden beneath the city and were used to provide water filtration to buildings nearby. Now, since they're no longer in use and have very little water left, visitors can enter and walkthrough. I've visited these cisterns twice, once in 2012 and in 2019, and both experiences were similar yet a bit different. The walkthrough in 2012 was mysterious and a bit haunting with dark, grungy looking pillars along the way. It was also way less popular therefore mostly empty, I remember having the entire place to myself! Now, the complete experience, although still a bit creepy, is way more touristy. There's even a photo op section where you can dress up in costumes and pretend you're a Sultan or Sultana. One thing remains the same...it's eerie feeling due to the structure, lighting, and a couple of upside-down/side-way Medusa head pillars that can be found at the end. Legend has it, that after it was a cistern and before it was open to the public, it was filled with trash and corpus!
12:15pm -- Walk around, get lost and have a coffee break!
It's no secret, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is getting lost! I find so many hidden gems that way. I highly encourage you to do the same! It always helps to have a couple of points for guidance, so here they are... Walk around Yerabatan Caddesi Street-- you'll find super cute colorful houses, streets, and shops there. Make sure to stop at Maya's Corner Café for some coffee and continue strolling around...
2:00pm-- Visit The Grand Bazaar
Ideal for shopping, haggling here is a form of art! You can find just about anything at this bazaar, just make sure to always negotiate the price! Top Tip: Always carry Turkish change (coins) with ya! You'll need them to use the restrooms, and this bazaar has a few stalls!
3:15pm--Have Coffee at "Under the Roof" Turkish coffee Shop
(Buyuk Valide Han no.40)
Have a cup of coffee or tea at this hidden café with fantastic rooftop views of Istanbul... Finding this spot was a total adventure as this café is hidden inside an abandoned building where artists work and are always creating art. There were no signs, there were barely any people, just a large abandoned looking building and two backpackers searching for open-air and heights. We kept feeling we were not supposed to be there, looking for doors leading to a secret rooftop that offered spectacular views-- and then, after almost giving up, it happened! We found a diamond in the rough... The cutest, run-down, vintage café with windows overlooking picturesque Istanbul. Find this spot near the Grand Bazaar, there are also many alfresco rooftop coffee shops in the area...
4pm-- Have lunch at Sehzade Cag Kebap
What makes this place unique is how they cook their kebap, horizontally instead of the traditional vertical way. The meat was juicy and tender, and the extra add on sauces are a must! Our meal was delicious, we're definitely going back!
5pm-- Visit the Topkapi Palace and the adjacent Harem Apartments
The Harem Apartments at the Topkapi Palace-- Honestly speaking, this was my favorite part after visiting the entire palace. There's an additional fee to attend this part, which sucks, but in my opinion, this area is way better than the palace itself. The Apartments are full of color, exciting tiles and, designs. I could picture it back in the day as I walked by, all the luxury, freedom, and abundant beauty. The Harem Apartments were where all the sultan's lived together with their families. They were a bit more protected by high walls than the other areas surrounding the palace. Lines at the palace can be long, just a heads up!
7pm-- You can walk back to where we had lunch and try a different restaurant there, that general area is full of them! Have a relaxing night, stroll and people watch. --end of day1
Day 2-- Visiting a local neighborhood while overloading on cute cafés, spicing things up, and getting even more scenic views...
Today we're having breakfast in Balat-- The Jewish Quarter of Istanbul and my new favorite neighborhood! This area is filled with cute cafés, antique shops, and hidden treasures. Still not super touristy, you genuinely do get that "local" feel here. Start your morning roaming the area. Go antique shopping and get lost! We also found terrific handmade mugs here.
Here were our favorite two cafés, so be sure to check them out!
Maison Balat -- This cozy café is filled with antiques and nostalgic memorabilia. It's quirky, fun and the cakes are delicious! Our favorite part was a singular across the street table setting, so romantic! But go during a quiet time when the street is not super busy or during nighttime for some major candle night coffee/ tea-sipping... Yum!
Velvet Café-- Obsessed with these Teacups! After visiting a handful of cafés in Balat, I have to say this was our favorite. This café is so cute!! See any missing teacups from the shelf? It's because you can pick which teacup you want to have your tea in! How cool is that!?!
Tea, Spice & Everything Nice! With a full belly, head over to my favorite bazaar in Istanbul-- The Spice Bazaar
Turkey is hands down one of the most picturesque countries we've visited! Walk the Galata Bridge overlooking the straight of Bosphorus that separates Europe and Asia. The walk is only about 10 min, and the views will take your breath away, inspire your creativity, and expand your instincts...Did you know Istanbul is the only city in the world straddled by two continents? Yeap! There's an Asian Side
and a European Side in Istanbul! Make sure to take your time and even snack on a simit (Turkish bagel) while enjoying the views. Heads up: There will be a lot of seagulls in the area, this is a great time to take some awesome pics... give the slow-motion on your phone a try on videos, you'll thank me later. I got so many epic and stunning shots/videos!
After crossing the bridge, we tasted different types of baklava at one of our favorite spots in Istanbul! Tip: When eating baklava, you have to turn it upside down so that the moist part touches the roof of your mouth...try it! We learned this trick from a local, and it has completely changed the way we eat baklava now. The flavors explode in your mouth instantly! It's pure perfection! So damn good!
End your day exploring around the Galata Tower. You can climb up for more epic views of Istanbul. This general area is great for shopping and nightlife. Find a spot and have dinner here. Make sure to check out Istiklal Caddesi, one of Istanbul's most famous avenues.
Day 3-- Become a local while still being a tourist; in other words, try to connect, understand, and start a conversation with the locals...
Colorful Awareness 📍#therainbowstairsofistanbul These stairs were first painted in May 2013 and can be found all throughout Istanbul. It became a city-wide movement to combat oppression. It's not a symbol of gay pride, it was not created to enhance everyone's Instagram but to send a message, to be heard when freedom of speech was not-- IS NOT permitted. Did you know jails in Turkey are mostly filled with journalists, not criminals? The majority of inmates are reporters and journalists, that's the case right now! Visiting these stairs was vital to me because I found them full of power and communal expression. They scream so loud, and they're so beautiful! I visited the original stairs, run-down, not as popular, faded, old, broken to see where it all had started. The mood was heavy and sad, yet hopeful. You can find the more "trendy" rainbow stairs in Balat. Those were so brightly colored with fresh paint, full of young people taking selfies and Instagramming. The mood was fun, upbeat, and loud. That made me think of the culture we're living in, the insta generation. I wondered if they knew why the stairs were created in the first place... I urge you to start doing a little history research of the new countries you visit, It will change the entire experience and give you a better understanding of why things are that way.
Here are a few facts I learned of Turkey while speaking to a local.
Beyond its beauty, Turkey is a country that's still in struggle. In the political world, journalists have no freedom of speech. They often go to jail or get murdered for expressing their views. Makes me realize how lucky I am to live in a country where you can speak your mind... Terrorism is still present with groups all over the world. There's even an unnamed organization that its citizens fear. They act like regular people with no seen affiliation then infiltrate the schools to start brainwashing the kids at a young age. Their goal is for the next generation to take control with of their beliefs. How scary that must be as a parent, not knowing you're sending your child to one of these schools as they appear normal to the regular eye...
Domestic violence is another problem. In 2018, 145 women were killed in domestic violence. The conflict starts with the old and new generation. Modern Turkish women want more freedom, and the older generation wants them to obey old traditions. Arranged marriages are still a thing, but polygamy is banned. Despite Turkey mostly being a Muslim country, not all women wear a hijab and that's culturally accepted. They can still hang out together and be friends, there's no seclusion or isolation based on religion.
Same-sex marriage is not legal. Most same-sex couples fled to big cities like Istanbul where holding hands in public is not a crime. Fun fact though, their biggest pop star since 1983 is Trans! YouTube one for her songs "Bülent Ersoy" she's a true fabulous diva, Fernando and I couldn't stop watching ⭐
Things to do on your last day...
If you've already completed all the sightseeing itinerary from above, here are some extra things to do on your last day in Istanbul:
After visiting the original rainbow stairs, head on to the Dolmabahce Palace-- This palace is located on the European coast of the strait of Istanbul. Built-in the 1800s and set right next to the sea, this palace will simply take your breath away... It's like taken out of a fairytale. After, head over to the Asian side of Istanbul. Now, you can do this two ways: 1. Taking a Bosphorus cruise; This is a cruise that takes you through the strait of Bosphorus, offering live music, dinner, and stunning views of Istanbul from a different viewpoint. 2. You can take the local ferry for only $2! That option won't serenade and dine you, but it will give you the possibility of actually being able to get off on the Asian side of Istanbul and explore! Try to check out their local market, and if your planning on buying souvenirs to take home, this is definitely a spot where you can get them at half the price! Shopping anyone?