3 Amazing Days in Istanbul – Part I

Sultanahmet Mosque

Istanbul, the city of two continents, the place where Europe and Asia are entwined. It’s grand, surprising, full of flavor and color.

Istanbul a must see destination for any serious traveler and it has anything and everything you’d want to see: old, new, art, trade masters, great food, amazing tea, jewelry that makes you sigh and lights sparkles of desire in the corner of your eye, parties, belly dancing, burial sites and holy places. Add two seas, great sunsets and quite a few towers to see the city from up top. It is mesmerizing and it crawls up your veins like a drug, turning into an addiction, making you always want to come back. Sure, the traffic is there to provide your everyday near-death experience, but that’s not a big thing, is it?

As it happens, we rarely have enough time to explore a city. Sometimes we’ve planned a tour and we need to see the best of everything.

Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul

Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul

And as Istanbul is a really accessible destination for a wide number of countries, many travelers may choose to dedicate a long weekend to it! As I have been to Istanbul three times already and it’s always been for a maximum of four days, I thought I’d share the tricks I learned with you. That is why I created a three day guide suggesting you how to mix tourist landmarks with places to eat so that you can see as much of Istanbul as possible.

This guide is not meant to tell you why you should see these marvels, as the Internet is full of such info and the local guide books that you can get, well, everywhere, will tell you the stories behind them! My goal is to help you turn into a happy and effective little tourist and experience as much of Istanbul as you can.

The first day is dedicated to the old city, with ancient palaces, mosques and tombs. The first thing you need to do is wake up early and never, ever skip breakfast! Turkish hotels are pretty good at arranging buffet breakfasts. Make sure you try everything! The bread, cheese, meat, cookies, coffee and helva! They have really good honey as well. Now drag yourself out of the chair and the hotel, get a tourist map, they are cheap and will help you through the city, and head out to see the Topkapi Palace!

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi is open almost everyday. Still, some queuing might be involved, so I recommend getting there a little before 9. Get your tickets for the palace, make sure you get tickets for the Harem section as well (you really don’t want to get to Istanbul and not see where the Sultans kept their armies of beautiful women!). You can get the walkie-talkie guides if you’d like, they are available in so many languages it makes your head spin, but having a Topkapi guide book is just as good and you get to take it home as a reminder of your trip!

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Visiting the whole palace, Harem included, takes a long while. I suggest taking a break after the first couple of hours and have some cay (Turkish tea) in one of the museum’s cafes. Take your time, enjoy the sea view, then get on with your tour of the palace. You will be finished with everything just in time for lunch! And you definitely must try Kofte (a sort of grilled meatballs) with rice and salad!

Sultanahmet Koftecisi

Sultanahmet Koftecisi

But don’t be fooled by the many places selling kofte! Go to the most famous place, Sultanahmet Koftecisi, one of the most frequently copied restaurants in Istanbul. To get there, walk out of the Topkapi Palace through the main entrance, walk by the gift shops, turn right and walk toward the tram tracks, having Aya Sofya on your right and Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) on your left. Once you get to the street with the tram track, turn left and walk along the tracks, on the right sidewalk. It’s less than 100 meters until the koftecisi and the photo I posted should help you. Don’t forget to get Ayran (a salty, yogurt based drink) too!

Ayasofya Mosque, Istanbul

Ayasofya Mosque, Istanbul

After lunch, (it should be around 2 p.m. by now), it’s time for Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya / St. Sophia (Yes, so many names, but they all translate to Holly Wisdom or something like it). As it has stricter visiting hours, I advise you to visit it before the Blue Mosque.

Aya Sofya used to be a Christian church before being turned into a mosque and some traces of it’s Christian past are still preserved. Depending on when you visit, it might also hold religious-themed exhibitions and I advise you to check them out.

As the Blue Mosque is closed for a sermon until 5.15 pm, you might either be in luck and visit both mosques before 4.30 or have some time to spend in the park between them. If you do, look out for these guys:

Sherbet vendor

Sherbet vendor

They sell sherbet, a traditional drink. Even if you’re not tempted, they still make for a great photo subject! Then concentrate on Blue Mosque/ Sultanahmet!

Crowd at Sultanahmet

As you can see, it can be rather crowded! Most mosques in Istanbul don’t charge you for visiting.  Blue Mosque is one of them. But they gladly take donations and I advise you to make one, as they do need the money to preserve them.

Go in, enjoy the beauty and the spirit of the mosque. There are some holy books in one of the corners. Unless you’re fluent in Arabic, you won’t understand a thing, but they are beautiful to look at, with artful covers and exquisite writing.

Sultanahmet inerior

The next part of your day highly depends on when you see the Blue Mosque. If it’s after five, go to the Grand Bazaar first. If it’s before 4.30, save the Bazaar for last. Either way, don’t miss out on the Bazaar!

Burial sites in Istanbul

Burial sites in Istanbul

On your way from Blue Mosque to the Bazaar (a 15 minute walk), you will pass by some burial sites. Pashas and important personalities of Istanbul lay here. Take a moment to acknowledge their presence and to notice an interesting fact: there are a few coffee shops in between the graves.

Beyazid Mosque

Beyazid Mosque

Just before the Bazaar, you’ll be greeted by the Beyazit II Mosque and the Istanbul University. They are both grand, beautifully looking buildings, quite worth a little of your time and a few dozen photos 🙂

Istanbul University

Istanbul University

And now it’s time for some hard core negotiation, spotting beautiful items between thousands of competitors and just filling your lungs with the Turkish trading spirit. They are great salespersons! Even the best European and North American sales specialists admit it.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Besides, everything they sell looks beautiful, from tea sets, to shawls and leather jackets. Speaking of leather jackets, if you negotiate enough, you can get great prices for them (as a Turkish bartender once explained it to me, leather clothes factories are close to Istanbul and surrounding areas, that is why buying them there is smart, unlike going to shop for leather in Antalya or other south-eastern seaside resorts).  The Bazaar closes at 7 PM. And if you have saved the other landmarks for after, make sure you get out through the same gate (Beyazit).

Warning: The Bazaar is closed on Sundays and all holidays. So if you’re there say, to celebrate New Year’s Eve, it will be tricky to actually visit it.

Dinnertime! Just head back to the Sultanahmet Square and pick whatever restaurant you’d like. Lamb or chicken shish kebab would work! It usually comes with rice and grilled veggies. Again, I recommend ayran, and a well-deserved after mean cup of cay!

Sultanahmet Mosque

Sultanahmet Mosque

Now it’s time to head back to the hotel and rest. Or go to a local club…Whatever you do, remember: the next day you will have to once more wake up early!

P.S. I mentioned quite a lot of visiting hours and closing times. You can check the local time here.

3 Amazing Days in Istanbul – Part II
3 Amazing Days in Istanbul – Part III

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12 Comment to “3 Amazing Days in Istanbul – Part I”

  1. Justin says:

    Hi,

    I really liked this post! Actually I think this is something that a lot of people can really use. When I travel I rarely know where to go, and travel guides usually are too comprehensive to help me decide. I think having someone point you in the right direction is excellent. Its sort of like they did the research for you and now all you have to do is go.

    Also Istanbul sounds really amazing! I think there is a lot of interesting culture that that must be seen.

  2. Definitely, a great post. I was in Istanbul 6 days last year and felt I still didn’t get everywhere. The first 2 days were in Sultanahmet alone, doing a lot of things you suggest!

    Of course Taksim across the Golden Horn is a must-visit, especially at night, and the fish restaurants on the Asian side across the Bosphorus. Yum. I loved Istanbul!

    If you’re interested, here’s my Flickr-stream from my days in the city. Cold days, I might add, in December.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/34181233@N06/sets/72157616030034134/

  3. Lori says:

    I’ve never been to Istanbul, but this post got me thinking about going there. Excellent presentation of this city! Looking forward to find out amazing new info in the next two parts on Istanbul.

  4. Justin, I know exactly what you mean! there are so many things to see, they all sound interesting, but no one tells you how to mix and match it all to get the most out of everything. There is indeed a lot of culture to be seen in Istanbul, with so many influences it’s hard to tell them all apart. But they have formed an unique set of traits that defines Istanbul.

    Nico, thanks so much for stopping by! Taksim, the Golden Horn and some other wonderful places will be highlighted in the next two parts. I hope those will manage to bring back great memories as well.
    I’ve only been to Istanbul in the winter, and while it was cold, it was always a bit warmer than Bucharest, so I loved it. Thanks for the Flickr link, I love to see other travelers snapshots and I am sure my readers will enjoy them too!

    Lori, you should really visit Istanbul when you get the chance! It’s close, not that expensive and simply amazing 🙂 I will do my best to post the following two parts as soon as possible, but thinking them through, matching visiting hours and deciding between the way too many photos I took is a bit of a time consumer 😀

  5. Totosh says:

    Wonderful presentation our dear Wizard. I couldn’t have said it better myself “It is mesmerizing and it crawls up your veins like a drug, turning into an addiction, making you always want to come back.” That is the exact feeling you have after visiting this marvelous city. Can’t wait for parts 2 and 3 and more spells :). Kisses

  6. Hi Totosh! Wow, seeing how you were there with me on one of these trips to Istanbul and have been there again afterward, I am so glad you liked it! Same goes for Nico, if this article makes sense to those who have seen Istanabul, it should be pretty accurate and revealing for first timers as well 🙂

  7. Sameera says:

    Thx a lot for such a wonderful presentation….. We learnt a lot and ur info is really helping us plan our vacation. We will be in turkey for a week only and since we r travelling with kids, we trying to get the most out of it. I cant access part II and III. Help pls. thx

  8. Hi Sameera! Unfortunately this blog has been on a way too long break, so parts 2 and 3 were a bit delayed. When are you traveling to Turkey? Is it just to Istanbul, or are you going to visit other cities as well?

  9. Violeta says:

    Such a presence, those sherbet vendors! I remember I was skeptical to taste that drink in the beginning. It was during my second visit to Istanbul when I dared to buy a glass. I liked it.

  10. I haven’t tried it from them, but I did have some! I wasn’t that impressed. However, the Apple Schweppes which I haven’t managed to find anywhere else was absolutely awesome. Not as awesome as ayran though…

  11. […] the first two parts of this quick city trip guide of this Turkish jewel, check them out here: Day I and Day […]

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