• Naureen Chhipa

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...