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How to get the very best of Istanbul in 3 days

Ottoman conquest, spices or East meets West are some images I get at a simple brainstorming exercise… On Istanbul. So, let’s see together the very best of Istanbul in just 3 days.

Travelling to Turkey is a majestic experience. This country is filled with beauty from one end to the other. We had 8 full days, so we made a rather comprehensive Turkey itinerary whose departure point was mighty Istanbul. The only city placed between Europe and Asia is not only the largest in Turkey (15 million), but also the most fascinating. Packed with lots of tourist attractions, Istanbul has its share of fun, famous streets, colorful neighborhoods, eating places and many more.

Hagia Sophia is part of the very best of Istanbul
Marvellous Hagia Sophia

The city has a particular way to make itself loved. Istanbul and I started off the wrong path, but soon this fascinating city carved its way deep in my heart.

Curious to find out more about my personal experiences? Click here for more.

Travel to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city! Situated on both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is overwhelming with historical sites, spirituality, spices, bazaars, Turkish baths, palaces and charm!

Taste the bouquet of flavors Istanbul displays! Taste beyond the world-famous dishes and let yourself seduce by the plethora of spices!

Feel the Oriental seduction! Feel the ancient city of Constantinople! Sense the contrast between the rich and poor or between the slump and luxury! But do not neglect the ever-friendly faces ready to help!

Istanbul street by night
Istanbul street by night
spices
Spices…

Content:

Good to know
How to get to Istanbul
Our trip to Istanbul
Safety
How many days should I plan for Istanbul?
When visit Istanbul
Istanbul pass
Travel Guide: The best of Istanbul
What to visit
Things to do
Other ideas for visiting
Eating recommendations in Istanbul
Istanbul Interactive map

Good to know

Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey, is a collision between two worlds and civilizations: Asia and Europe! It is a sea of amazing places, tastes and flavors. No wonder it is the most visited city in the country!

  • According to official sources, Istanbul is home to 15.5 million people, which is more than the population of cities such as: London, Paris, Moscow or Rio de Janeiro.
  • The major religion in Turkey is Islam. Muslims believe in Allah and pray 5 times a day. It is best to know prayer times and try to visit the mosques besides those hours, out of respect.
  • For Muslims, the main prayer is on Friday at noon. All Muslim men have to put aside their daily commitments for a few minutes and pray.
  • A mosque is a place of worship for Muslims. The number of minarets it holds has a special significance: 4 means that it was ordered by the sultan, 2 minarets stand for the sultan’s family, while 1 minaret can be ordered by anyone.
  • Istanbul was originally founded by the Greeks in 657 B.C. The city, formerly known as Constantinople, was one of the most influential cities in the world. It was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
  • Istanbul is a city of contrasts. You can find conservative areas placed close to partying neighborhoods, just as behind modern buildings may hide rundown areas.
  • The European side is more historical and filled with monuments, while Asian Istanbul looks modern with many glass sky-scrapers. Here, the density is of population is lower and rents slightly cheaper.
  • It is the only major city to straddle Europe and Asia, so Istanbul is simultaneously an Oriental and European city. It has a geographic and strategic position over the Bosphorus Strait that pretty much explains its outstanding historical position.
Modern Istanbul placed on the Asian side
Modern Istanbul placed on the Asian side
Rundown area in European Istanbul
Rundown area in European Istanbul

Istanbul highlights

  • Istanbul is a huge and overwhelming city. Undoubtedly rich in history, culture and spirituality, the major city of Turkey is a rare pearl.
  • To enjoy the best of Istanbul, visit the main mosques (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque), explore some of the fanciest and most colorful neighborhoods (Balat, Fener, Karaköy), discover unforgettable palaces that tell the history of sultans and harems (Topkapi, Dolmabahçe), take the pulse of the city from Galata Bridge, or enjoy local food at one of the many restaurants.
  • Istanbul is famed for many dishes that exceeded the border of Turkey: kebab, köfte, dolma or gözleme. It is also a paradise for those with a sweet tooth. Turkish delights with roses, pistachios or hazelnuts tempt the visitor from beautifully decorated shop windows.
  • Even if on an exploration journey, relaxation helps you chill and continue with more enthusiasm. Live the unique experience of the invigorating hammam (Turkish bath).
  • Istanbul was built on seven hills and many milestones are located around these hills, adding to the view.
  • You may want to consider some recommended tours in Istanbul: Taste of two continents food tour or Istanbul uncovered small group tour. If you decide to leave Istanbul behind, you may want to try a Day trip to Edirne to see the outstanding Selimiye Mosque, or have a date with history: From Istanbul: 2-day tour to Gallipoli and Troy.
Suleymaniye is part of the very best of Istanbul
Suleymaniye mosque and its sumptuous inside

How to get to Istanbul

You can take the plane to one of the two airports Istanbul has. There are many flights daily that fly you to Turkey’s major city. But watch out! The airports are around 50 km away from Istanbul.

If your plane arrives to International Airport Istanbul, you have two options: take a taxi for around 20 euros and 50 minutes, or take the bus for a lot cheaper (around 4 euros), but the ride takes around 100 minutes.

If you arrive at Sabiha Gökcen Airport, you may take Havabus shuttle that takes you to Taksim city centre in around 90 minutes for 2.50 euros. Alternatively, there’s the taxi option for around 25 euros.

If your country is rather close, you may take the car as we did. Roads are in good condition and you can observe more of the country. But it is tiring too for the driver.

Typical downtown Istanbul street
Typical downtown Istanbul street

Our trip to Istanbul

I visited Istanbul with my partner late September. Kids had already started school and timing was very good. Temperatures were just fine for visiting. Between 24-28 degrees. And the number of tourists also. Of course, you cannot expect an empty Istanbul!

We reached Istanbul in the morning after an entire night driving. After getting to our hotel, we had a shock. It was placed in a rundown area that looked creepy. And the receptionist spoke no English at all. But reviews on Booking were really good. How was that possible? We were wondering whether to keep the accommodation or pick something else on the spot… We had already paid for it, the reviews were encouraging, and the girl from the reception seemed so eager to help…through Google translate. So, we decided to waste no time. And yes, it turned out to be good…eventually.

Istanbul is a city to fall in love with: the beauty, the buildings, the history, the spices, the traffic and even the chaos… And so did we. From day 1, we wanted to explore this city of contrasts, and after 3.5 days we felt we could come back again and again.

To get more of what this amazing city has to offer.

Us in Istanbul

Safety

Istanbul was considered safe.

But unfortunately, the city witnessed terrorist attacks in November 2022 that took away this conviction. Besides, there were similar attacks in 2016 and 2017, which led to a decline in tourism.

However, during my visit in Istanbul (September 2022) I found the city totally secure. Not only did we accommodate in a street in Fatih area that looked dangerous, (and proved to be super safe at any moment of the night), but we also saw women walk alone in Istanbul even at 1 a.m. 

How many days should I plan for Istanbul?

Istanbul is an imposing city. You can visit Istanbul in 1 or 2 days (the major tourist spots), or you can set aside over two weeks without feeling bored.

Ideally, three to four days should be enough to see the best of Istanbul and have an idea of genuine Turkish lifestyle, traditions and food.

Authentic Turkish life
Authentic Turkish life

When visit Istanbul

Istanbul is an all-season city.

But its vibe changes from one season to the other. The high season ranges from June to August, when most of the visitors plan to visit Turkey’s major city. Consider that it is also very hot.

Istanbul boasts a highly recommended shoulder season: from March-May and September-November. In spring and autumn, the number of tourist crowds are lessened and you can enjoy the city more for yourself. The city is least appealing during the winter months, but that is the season for visiting museums and mosques peacefully, or finding more budget accommodation.

Istanbul pass

Istanbul E-pass is a digital pass that offers free access to top 55+ Istanbul attractions.

It can be purchased for 2, 3, 5 or 7 days and costs from 95 euros (2 days) to 150 euros (7 days). In some cases, it comes with skip the line, while in others it requires reservation.

In case you want to visit the attractions recommended in the blog, the pass is well worth it. It doesn’t cover all the attractions, but it covers the major ones, plus some extras.

Turkish delights come in all colours and flavours
Turkish delights come in all colours and flavours

Travel Guide: The best of Istanbul

This is my travel guide with the best of Istanbul if visiting for the first time. I placed the attractions close to one another, so that you can visit several in the same day. After one or some points of interest, you can find insider tips and eating recommendations for each area.

I divided it in two parts: what to visit and things to do.

What to visit

As a general rule, to see the best of Istanbul you should visit the main museums, mosques and bazaars. The city has plenty of each.

Hagia Sophia Mosque

Free entry
Visiting hours: 9 a.m. -11 p.m.
Official website:
Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly one of Istanbul’s trademarks.

Originally built between 532 and 537 as a church, it was back then the world’s largest interior space. Considered the embodiment of Byzantine architecture, current Hagia Sophia is the third church to occupy the same space. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Consequently, it went through many changes: it had the altar and baptistery removed, while the mosaic depictions of Jesus or Mary were plastered over or covered. (You can still observe pictures with Jesus and Mary under the main dome covered by some cloth) Instead, it grew richer with Islamic characteristics, such as minarets or mihrab.

Istanbul insider tip!: Make sure to have a scarf to cover legs and shoulders. The same applies to men who are not allowed to enter with shorts. You can buy a piece of cloth at the entrance.

Istanbul insider tip!: It is useful to book a guide for a better understanding of the mosque and its complex history. It is best to visit either between 9-11 a.m, or late in the evening to avoid prayer time, but also crowds.

Sultanahmet Koftecisi is a nice place close to Hagia Sophia where you can have traditional meatballs at a very decent price. The Must is famous for the carpets and cushions, you eat on the floor like Turkish people do in their houses. Seven Hills rooftop offers panoramic views of Hagia Sophia and the surroundings. For a vegetarian option, try Sebil Cafe for a hot potato, called kumpir.

Majestic Hagia Sophia is part of Istanbul's best
The majestic Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque (under restoration in 2022)

Free entry
Official website: Blue Mosque

Right across Hagia Sophia, you can find another iconic mosque: the Blue Mosque, officially named Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Unfortunately under restoration until 2024, you can enter it, but barely see anything because of scaffolding.

Completed in 1616 by Sultan Ahmet I, this mosque raised a lot of controversy. Firstly, the sultan built it after a devastating loss, and because he was not famous for any victories, he had to take money from the Treasury to construct it. However, the sultan became immortal through this huge mosque filled with blue tiles, and the square surrounding it is today called Sultanahmet square.

Istanbul insider tip!:The Blue Mosque is one of the two mosques with six minarets in Istanbul (the other was ordered by current president Erdogan). Whether this resulted out of a misunderstanding or not, what is certain is that the only place with six minarets used to be Mecca. However, the sultan solved the problem by ordering a seventh minaret for Mecca.

Sultanahmet, or the Blue Mosque, as everyone knows it
Sultanahmet, or the Blue Mosque, as everyone knows it; photo unsplash.com

Topkapi Palace

Price: 420 TL/22 euros – Topkapi + Hagia Irene + Harem
Official website: Topkapi

In the same area you can find Topkapi Palace, an unmissable gem of Istanbul. Very large and stunning, it is part of the very best in Istanbul. Initiated by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1460, the palace served as home for the Ottoman Sultans for almost 4 centuries! After the sultan died, every coming ruler put his personal touch on the palace by renovating and expanding it to what it is today – a mix of Islamic, Ottoman and European architecture. The Palace comprises 4 courts and over 4.000 rooms. Behind its walls were discussed the matters of the state, but also served for the personal life of sultans, beautiful concubines and eunuchs.

The first court functioned as an outer park and is free for visiting.

The second court is an introduction to the main royal residence. Here you can find the kitchens, a collection of porcelain, the ornate Imperial Council Chamber, a collection of clocks and some rooms with impressive Ottoman and European arms and armor. Here, you can also explore the splendid Harem with lots of stories and thousands of blue tiles!

Harem Topkapi
Visiting the Harem

The third court features the sultan’s private domain, the dormitory of the Privy Chamber, Library of Ahmed or the Imperial Treasury full of glittering gold objects.

The fourth court is occupied by pleasure pavilions. Here, the landscape changes dramatically and most constructions are made according to the 19th century European model.

Istanbul insider tip!: Visiting all of Topkapi can take up one entire day. Or at least half a day. Schedule your day thoroughly and skip directly to the part you are most interested in!

Iznik tiles
Pavilion for the 4th court, Topkapi
Pavilion in the 4th court, Topkapi

Gülhane Park

Really close to Topkapi there’s Gülhane Park, the most famous one in Istanbul. You can take a walk to relax after a long visit. But watch out! The park may not offer the peace and quiet expected! Its trees are filled with noisy birds as Istanbul’s first zoo used to be in Gülhane! They moved the zoo elsewhere, but the parrots remained!

Istanbul insider tip!: Just two steps from Topkapi you can also find Istanbul’s Museum of Archeology that is worth a visit.

Grab lunch in Gülhane’s Park Beltur restaurant! It is part of a state-owned chain that offers delicious food at budget prices! Or, you can just cross the park till you reach Olive Anatolian, a luxury restaurant not only with a view, but also specialties and vegan options!

Basilica Cistern

It is one of the most remarkable structures in Istanbul. Dating from ancient times, this cistern (one of the many in Istanbul!) facing Hagia Sophia used to provide a water filtration system for the buildings nearby. The basilica denomination comes from its positioning under a large public square. This underground chamber measures almost 140 m by 65 m and holds 336 marble columns.

The Basilica has recently been renovated and showcases a modern vision with dimming and changing lights. The two Medusa sculptures – mythological creatures with snakes instead of hair – are among the most famous attractions. 

Istanbul insider tip!: To observe the basilica in a different light, attend a concert here!

Nars Brasserie is a restaurant with a fabulous décor, of Turkish-Spanish inspiration specializing in steaks! It is just behind the Basilica.

Medusa upside down
Medusa upside down
Columns and colours in Basilica Cistern
Columns and colours in Basilica Cistern

Mehmed Pasha Mosque

This is yet another mosque… but not just any mosque. It is fabulous, with a rich display of blue Iznik tiles, calligraphy panels, constructed by the one and only Mimar Sinan.

These elements should already suffice to prepare you for a great mosque, but on top of them, the mosque contains fragments of the black stone. This is the original stone of Muslims, set intact initially at Mecca by Islamic prophet Muhammad. Five fragments have been part of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha for five hundred years, and their presence makes security controls strict.

Sokollu Mehmet Pasha is part of the very best of Istanbul
Sokollu Mehmet Pasha at golden hour

Süleymaniye Mosque

Free entry

This impressive mosque is placed in Fatih district topping one of Istanbul’s hills. Hence, the stunning view over the Bosphorus. Built at the order of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the mosque was completed by the one and only Mimar Sinan, the royal architect whose works cover downtown Istanbul.

The mosque is more than a spiritual establishment. It had to fulfil the role of a complex and included a hospital, a school, a hammam, a caravanserai and medrese (Islamic schools). Besides the mosque, there are the mausoleums of Suleyman and his wife, Hurrem (Roxelane), but also Mimar Sinan’s tomb.

Insider tip Istanbul!: Book your place in advance for Suleymaniye Hamam, situated a few steps from the mosque! You will not only relax, but will be surprised by the beauty of the place!

Suleymaniye mosque is situated in a fantastic are, with view over the Bosphorus
The mosque is situated in a fantastic area
The inside of Suleymaniye mosque is spectacular
The inside of Suleymaniye mosque is spectacular

Grand Bazaar

Free entry

It is enough to find out that the Grand Bazaar is visited yearly by an estimated 90 million visitors to see why it is a must on your best of Istanbul itinerary. Whether you are in for real shopping or just window-shopping, the major bazaar of Istanbul is the place to see and try gold products, tea, spices, leather, jewelry.

Turkish are said to be very good traders.

For example, I wanted to buy a leather jacket, but the sleeves were a bit too long. The salesman offered immediately to do the adjustment which lasted no longer than drinking an apple-tea. On the house, of course.

Istanbul insider tip!: Bargaining is mandatory and expected! Usually you should suggest half the amount asked and then negotiate your final price.

The world's largest covered bazaar - The Grand Bazaar Istanbul
The world’s largest covered bazaar
products in the Grand Bazaar Istanbul
From the Grand Bazaar…

Spice Bazaar

From the Grand Bazaar you can walk your way up to the Spice Bazaar, also called Misir Çarșisi, witnessing its Egyptian origin. Of course, here you can find all sorts of spices, essence, dried fruit, nuts or Turkish delight mainly.

Istanbul insider tip!: The prices in the Spice Bazaar are considerably higher than in other less touristic areas of Istanbul.

Pandeli is an elegant restaurant close to the Spice Bazaar with dishes alike. If you fancy something less pretentious in the area, go for Skull&Bones, a relaxed bar, vegan options included.

Rüstem Pașa Mosque

Two steps away from the Spice Bazaar, Rüstem Pașa Mosque is a true gem of peace and beauty in a hectic area. Crafted by the now legendary Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier Rüstem Pașa in the 16th century, the mosque boasts a large number of Iznik tiles. They ornate both the inside and outside in beautiful shades of blue and represent floral motifs.

I fell in love with this lavishly decorated mosque. Highly recommended!

Rustem pasha mosque
Rustem pasha mosque
Lovely Iznik tiles in the back
Lovely Iznik tiles in the back

In Rüstem Pașa area there’s the famous Hamdi restaurant. Reservation is required! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to test it, but it was on the list. Maybe you can share your opinions! Still in Eminönü? Try Chef Murad for a palatable experience and a large variety of skewers with lots of spices!

Orient Express Train Station

In the vicinity of the mosque and Spice Bazaar, you can find Maramaray Train Station, also called the Orient Express Train Station. Definitely not impressive by size, the station was built for aristocratic journeys from Istanbul to Paris. Moreover, it seems that it is in Istanbul that Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express during her elusive stay at Pera Palace hotel.

Lunch at Chef Murad
Lunch at Chef Murad

Galata Bridge and Galata Tower

It is time to move on! Let’s cross Galata Bridge for a different experience! It looks over the Golden Horn and offers remarkable views over the very best of Istanbul. This is the meeting place where you can take the pulse of the city. You see people staring at cruise boats, newly wed couples, fishermen trying their luck, a.s.o. Istanbul’s iconic bridge offers nice views on the other side (also Europe) starring Galata Tower.

Istanbul insider tip!: Galata Tower is one of those attractions which offer panoramic view, so expect crowds! There is an elevator that takes you up, and there is no time limit to spend there. The view is nice, but it is worth booking a table at Konak Café nearby for a similar view and more chill!

Galata Tower is Best of Istanbul
Galata Tower at day
Galata Tower is Best of Istanbul
and night

Galata Bridge is filled with restaurants on both sides, but they are very touristy, have a limited variety and the waiters are pushy. For a true Turkish experience, try Karakoy Lokantasi or Ali Ocakbasi, a beautiful rooftop restaurant! Both are in the vicinity of Galata Tower. People also love 3N Sofra Karakoy, a beautiful place with seaview.

Beautiful view over Galata Tower
Beautiful view over Galata Tower

Dolmabahçe Palace

Price: 90 TL or a bit under 5 euro
Official website:
Dolmabahce Palace

Itis the most European attraction in Istanbul. And the most golden.

Former residence of Turkish sultans in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Dolmabahce was ordered by Sultan Abdülmecid I. The sultan, who had his residence back then at Topkapi, wanted an abode more updated to the times. The palace was inhabited by six sultans and Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Dolmabahce cost 35 tonnes of gold – you’ll see ceilings covered in gold, golden door knobs, and lavish decorations. This elaborate ornamentation and the European style stood as a cover that the Ottoman Empire was in decline.

The palace is an adaptation of a traditional Turkish house at a large scale. Dolmabahce comprises three parts: the Selamlik, the Ceremony hall and the Harem. The palace is part of the best of Istanbul and boasts some impressive facts: the largest chandelier in the world or the crystal staircase, to name just a few.

Istanbul insider tip!: Although extravagant on the inside, you are not allowed to take pictures in the palace.

Dolmabahce Palace is part of the best of Istanbul
This is what entrance gates look like at Dolmabahce

Crossing the Bosphorus

This is part of the mandatory and best of Istanbul. The Bosphorus is a strait that connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. You have more options to cross the strait and swap continents within minutes. You can opt for a private company cruise, a traditional public ferry or dinner cruise and show, depending on your priorities.

Eager to get most of our time, we opted for the public ferry. By the way, it is also very affordable and fast (around 20 minutes).

Mihrimah Mosque (Uskudar, Asian side)

This mosque was my very first building on the Asian side. And it is special, despite the many mosques seen. Because of a splendid legend.

There are two mosques with the same name dedicated to Mihrimah Princess, favorite daughter of Sultan Suleymaniye: the first in Asia (Üsküdar) and the second on the European side. To understand the myth, you have to be initiated in Persian to know that Mihrimah means sun and moon.

The story says that Mimar Sinan, the royal architect, was secretely in love with Suleyman’s daughter, and, as he couldn’t express his feelings, he showed them the best way he could. He made an original parallel: he built two mosques, that despite being on different continents, look at one another. Having a brilliant mind, Sinan placed the mosques in such a way that if you visit them on March 21st (Mihrimah’s birthday) you can observe the sun go down from Mihrimah mosque in the European side. And the the moon rise from Mihrimah in Üsküdar, thus paying tribute to the princess. This impossible love story is one of the most fascinating declarations of love… in Turkish architecture.

Fragment from Mihrimah mosque
Fragment from Mihrimah mosque
Detail from Mihrimah mosque
Detail from Mihrimah mosque

Since you are here, explore Üsküdar neighborhood, an area with young vibes. It is one of the most populated residential areas in the city, where you can enjoy all sorts of authentic dishes, such as kokoreç, köfte or kebap. For lunch try Nevmekan Sahil, a spectacular cultural centre with exceptional food at budget prices.

Istanbul insider tip!: Çamlica Hill is a non-touristic place situated on the highest point in Istanbul (268 m above sea level) that offers amazing panoramic views of the city!

Istanbul insider tip!: Maiden’s Tower is a tower in the sea and a popular landmark.

Istiklal Caddesi

The Turkish Champs-Elysees, Istiklal Caddesi is Istanbul’s most famous street. The long pedestrian street reaches Taksim Square at one end and besides the many shops, is famous for the vintage red tram. Although shopping is not really part of my tourist ritual, getting the very best of Istanbul should include this Istanbul landmark.

The famous avenue is now headquarters for arts, hotels, restaurants and marches, but unfortunately target for bomb explosions as well (2016 or 2022).

Things to do

Whirling Dervish

Live the Whirling Dervish experience! The dervishes were a new concept to me until recently. Although I had seen some show where I considered the endless spinning mind-blowing, I didn’t know much.

The Whirling Dance Ceremony is related to the Mevlevi Order, founded by the followers of Rumi, a Persian mystic. The whirling is nothing else than a form of active meditation aimed to reach the source of all perfection. To do that, the dervish needs to abandon all worldly thoughts and focus on God only.

Istanbul insider tip!:During the show, you are not allowed to take pictures, record or disturb the dancers!

Whirling dervish performance
Whirling dervish performance

Join a tour guide

Joining a tour guide is one of the best things you can possibly do in Istanbul. Whether you’re up to a day or several, this experience can give you a good start, introduce you to the basics of history and show you some of the most impressive attractions and their stories. We joined Guruwalk, a free walking tour and met Haktan, a truly knowledgeable guide. The tour is free, but you are expected to reward the tour guide with some money.

Live the relaxing hammam

Living the hammam experience is one of a kind. The hammam is a vital element of Islamic culture. It is a place where bodies are cleansed and washed, and the public baths can be compared to today’s social hubs. These are the steps: you wash and sweat in a steam room while waiting to be taken over. Then, you are being thoroughly scrubbed, rinsed, peeled off more layers of skin than ever (in the good sense!!). This all ends with an intense foaming process and rinsing, obviously!

I understand the same procedure applies to any hammam, whether fancy and luxurious, or more modest.

Istanbul insider tip!: In some cases, there is a rigid separation between men and women (we were in separate buildings, but really close), while at others they are mixed. Prices can vary from around 10 euros to 70 euros/experience.

Explore Balat and Fener neighborhoods

Former centre of the Jewish community, Balat is the old city on the European side. It is famous for the pretty and colorful houses that get a lot of attention from tourists. Pretty similar, Fener is the former Greek neighborhood, boasting a beautiful atmosphere. Today, they are spiced up with cafés and restaurants that come in handy after the steep streets. One characteristic of these houses are the bow windows, the large windows curved out that provide more space for the room. This element is a trademark of the area and of the times when old ladies used to hide after the curtains and spy on whoever was crossing by.

Well, yeah, it still happens today…the peeping thing.

Houses with bow windown
Houses with bow windows in Istanbul’s traditional areas

Sultanahmet Square

Sultanahmet area is like a history book. The density of monuments is overwhelming here.

The Hippodrome is a Roman ruin from old Constantinople. This U-shaped horse-race arena was built so as to seat 100,000 people and underwent many transformations after the initial construction in the 3rd century. Placed in the very heart of the city (Sultanahmet), it was initially used for horse races, later as a water system/cistern for the city. You can only see parts of it today when you wander around the area.

Nearby, there’s the Obelisk of Theodosius, by far the oldest monument in the city going back to 3,500 years. The Serpent Column is a Greek victory monument transported from Delphi to Constantinople.

The German Fountain was a gift offered by German Emperor Wilhelm II to Sultan Abdul Hamid and the City of Istanbul. It is placed in the northern part of the Hippodrome.

Exploring Istanbul is like walking on history remains. And it actually is. Not far from the southern part of the Hippodrome is Café Palatium, interesting because under the restaurant you can visit Roman ruins. In the immediate vicinity also, at the curve of the hippodrome the curious explorer can find another cistern.

The German fountain
The German fountain

Other ideas for visiting

Here you can find other suggestions that might sound tempting to discover more of Istanbul. Read on and help yourselves!

Sultanahmet area

If you want to enlarge your knowledge about Turkey while in Sultanahmet area, here’s some more for you.

Crazy for even more history? Why not visit the Archaeology Museum? Here you can find works of great importance for the history of the Ottoman Empire and Istanbul history. It holds three buildings in one complex: archaeology, tiled pavilion and old Oriental works.

Another highlight for Turkish culture would be the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. The rooms filled with calligraphy, carpets, ceramics or illuminated manuscripts were the home of a high-ranking Ottoman official.

Turbe of Semsi Ahmed Pasha
Turbe of Semsi Ahmed Pasha

Eminönü district

If you want to linger more in Eminönü, explore New Mother Mosque (commonly known as New Mosque/ Yeni Cami). It had an unlucky faith and took over 60 years to build. It is placed close to Galata Bridge.

Close to it, on Arpacilar Caddesi, you can find the first Turkish delight store in the world. They have been producing sweets since the days of the Ottoman Empire and the shop still exists today.

Karaköy and Beșiktaș areas

Karakoy is famous for its pubs and bars and intense nightlife. But here you can also discover Istanbul Modern. Currently closed for moving into a new building, the museum of modern art is the hot spot to see contemporary Turkish art and trends.

Excited to see more of the Ottoman Empire? Visit Çirağan Palace turned today into a five-star hotel. It is situated along the Bosphorus with a magnificent view overlooking Asia. The oasis of relaxation in the middle of Istanbul was built by an Ottoman sultan as his residence in the 19th century. The view is gorgeous and restaurant prices are decent. I have to admit that we did not go beyond that…

And since you are in Beșiktaș district, you can explore the area: walk along the shore and have a sip at one of the many bars (the area is filled with young people as there is a University nearby) or just enjoy the view. If you are a football fan, do not miss Beșiktaș stadium, right across Dolmabahce.

Uskudar neighborhood

If Istanbul isn’t short of something, that is mosques.

Besides the ones already mentioned, you can also visit many others. Valide-i cedid camii is less touristy than others, but definitely worth visiting. It comprises some rare tiles and the atmosphere inside is more spiritual.  

Aziz Mahmud Hudayi Mosque is different compared to the other mosques as it contains the tomb of Aziz Mahmud, son of Mihrimah and Rustem Pasha. Aziz was an inspired poet, composer and scholar and the mosque is an important religious site.

This is what Nevmekan Sahil in Uskudar looks like
This is what Nevmekan Sahil in Uskudar looks like
Baklava and other delights
Baklava and other delights

Eating recommendations in Istanbul

Getting the best of Istanbul is also about enjoying ourselves.

Eating in Istanbul is simple. And delicious.

However, here are some tips collected from our own trip:

  • Eateries, street food or fancy restaurants are available all over the place. So, there’s plenty to choose: from budget to luxury ones.
  • Although you can find international cuisine in Istanbul, I highly recommend you try authentic dishes.
  • Here is some Turkish food you should try during your visit: köfte (Turkish meatballs), baklava, börek (filled pastry), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), döner, lahmacun (sort of Turkish pizza) or kuru fasulye (stew of white beans).
  • Of course, opt for Turkish coffee or apple tea.
  • It is not simple to find vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Turkey.
  • In Istanbul there are some absolutely delicious state-owned restaurants. Here the food is not only super yummy, but also totally affordable. Check Beltur chain (and its many locations) as well as Nevmekan Sahil.
  • Try a traditional restaurant (The Must) where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor.
  • Alcohol is not available in all places.
delicious lunch
Delicious lunch

Istanbul Interactive map

In this map I tried to gather under one umbrella the very best of Istanbul in terms of places, attractions or restaurants. The attractions are colored in purple, and the restaurants/bars in yellow.

Have you been to Istanbul before? How did you like it? Do you have any further tips for sights or restaurants? I look forward to reading your experiences!

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