If you only have three days in istanbul

If you only have three days then there’s plenty of time to visit all the top sites in Istanbul, and to dabble in the local lifestyle. Fill days one and two with the must-see sites in old Istanbul; on day three go further afield to stroll the neighborhoods of Beyoğlu or venture west to visit Eyüp and the gilded mosaics of Chora Church. The close proximity of historical sites and the great public transport system mean conquering Istanbul with a three-day itinerary is easier than it looks.

Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey
This decadent palace, which overlooks the Bosphorus from the European side, holds great importance to Turkey. The late-19th-century sultans resided here and ruled the Ottoman Empire from here, and while the Turkish Republic’s capital is in Ankara, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, stayed at the palace whenever he visited Istanbul. It was here that Atatürk took his last breath, on November 10, 1938, at 9:05 a.m.—the time displayed on the palace clocks today.
Dervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No:8, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
According to Islamic tradition, only God can create images of holy beings, including angels and prophets. Therefore, when the Ottomans converted Chora Church into a mosque in the 16th century, they covered the 14th-century Byzantine mosaics and frescoes depicting the life of Christ and Mother Mary. Hidden behind wooden shutters were some of the finest mosaics in the world, which were restored following World War II and can now be viewed in all their glory.
1 Yeni Cami Caddesi
I had just left the Spice Bazaar behind me when I noticed the entrance to Yeni Camii (New Mosque). It was late afternoon, and I was already exhausted from a very long day of sightseeing. I wanted nothing more than to call it a day but I was already here so I thought I would just quickly dart in and out. One foot inside and the plan changed—the domed interior is an intimate space with a stunning design. As in the Blue Mosque, calligraphic discs hang from just below the edges of the ornately painted domes and soaring sections of walls are covered with beautiful Iznik tiles. Gold paint and thick wool carpeting create a luxurious, inviting feel. As tired as I was, I didn’t want to leave anytime soon. I discovered that Yeni Camii has a visitors’ section and found my spot on the carpet and discretely watched a slice of local life unfold before me—men and women praying, people having conversations in hushed tones, and a few tourists milling about. Enveloped by the quiet of this serene space, I felt rejuvenated in no time.
Emniyetevleri Mah. Eski Büyükdere Cad., Emniyetevleri, Yamaç Sk. No: 7, 34415 Kağıthane/Kâğıthane/İstanbul, Turkey
In Istanbul, the most authentic place to smoke nargile (also known as hookah and shisha) is Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi. The 300-year-old Medrese evolved from a religious school and dervish lodge during the Ottoman times to bazaar stores in the mid-20th century to its current form—a respite for locals and tourists from the bustling Grand Bazaar district. Relax amid the bubbling sounds of the nargile while indulging in the wafting aromas of fruity tobacco. Alcohol is not served; instead, savor a Turkish tea in a tulip-shaped glass or try “boomba” tea with lemon, hibiscus, and mint at the café on the left as you enter the complex. In winter, the warm milky cinnamon drink called salep is a local favorite. The customers are mainly men, but ladies, don’t feel intimidated. It’s a great place to people watch and meet locals who speak many languages. Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi is open till 2am and located on the tram line between Cemberlitas and Beyazit/Grand Bazaar stations. If you want my recommendation, try the apple and mint or rose and mint nargile—best shared with old and new friends. Afiyet Olsun (bon appetit)!
Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art in the gardens of Topkapı Palace make up the trio of Istanbul Archaeology Museums. An array of permanent and temporary exhibits display items from sculptures and sarcophagi from the Archaic and Roman eras to treasures uncovered from archaeological projects in Egypt, Troy, Istanbul and beyond. The Royal Necropolis of Sidon sarcophagi and the oldest peace agreement (set in stone) are just two highlights here.
Yıldız, 34349 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey
The waterside neighborhood of Ortaköy is a favorite of locals and tourists looking to spend a lazy afternoon strolling its cobbled streets, playing backgammon over a few glasses of tea, or finding a spot for a picnic with an overloaded kumpir (baked potato). The Bosphorus Bridge, the first in the world to connect Asia and Europe since Hellenic times, is the ultimate photo backdrop, especially behind the Ortaköy Mosque when it’s lit up at night (try to see the newly restored interior during the day, when light streams through the windows and makes the chandeliers and tiles shine). Traffic can be brutal, especially in summer or around Ramadan, but it’s a pleasant 30-minute walk past old palaces turned hotels in Beşiktaş, where many ferries and buses terminate.
Cankurtaran, Ayasofya Meydanı No:2, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The sun sets over Istanbul as I am coated head to toe with aromatic clay and served fresh fruit sprinkled with pistachios under the heavenly dome of a 457 year old hamam. Tenderly, my attendant washes me before lathering my body with olive oil soap and encasing me in a plume of ticklish bubbles. Like a mother to a child, she washes me again as the call to pray of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia echo outside. This is ‘life’ at the Aya Sophia Hurrem Sultan Hamami. The hamam is named after the famous 16th-century Ottoman icon Hurrem, or Roxolana as she is also known. Hurrem went from slave girl to favored concubine, to legal wife of the most popular Sultan Suleiman. She gave birth to princes and princess and greatly influenced the politics of the Ottoman Empire. The hamam was built by Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan to honor her in 1556. It is nestled between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia. The hamam offers 5 star packages with 5 star services that leave you completely blissed out. I had the uber-relaxing 90 minute Ab-I Hayat Package consisting of wash, body mask, scrub, bubbles and 40 minute oil massage. Whilst other hamams are cheaper, you won’t be disappointed here. Private changing rooms and massage rooms, golden bath bowls, silk and cotton towels, tasty blackberry sherbet drink—the personalized service is truly special. With the motto, “Some rituals never die” the hamam’s luxuries will leave you feeling like Sultan Hurrem herself.
Rumeli Hisarı, Yahya Kemal Cd., 34470 Sarıyer/İstanbul, Turkey
Most visitors to Istanbul probably don’t realize that there is a fortress there. Located on the western shore of the Bosphorus (just south of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge) is a fortress that dates back to pre-Ottoman rule. Rumeli Hisarı (“roo-mel-li hee-sah-ruh”) was built in 1452 by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in preparation for his invasion of Byzantine Constantinople. The sultan built the fortress across the Bosphorus from the Anadolou Hisarı. Strategically, the two fortresses are located at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus which allowed the Ottomans to prevent aid and supplies from ever reaching Constantinople. These days, the fort is a museum and a nice place for a stroll to catch magnificent views of the Bosphorus from the European side. There is a small entry free. The fort is closed on Wednesdays. In my opinion, the best time to go is Saturday morning because there is a town, within easy walking distance, that holds its weekly market then. Plus, there are plenty of cafes to catch a bite or drink. There are several ways you can get to Rumeli Hisarı but I took the No 559C bus from Taksim Square. It ends at the town above the fortress and it’s about a 10 minute downhill walk from there. You can catch the return bus to Taksim. Just ask the driver for information. Not many tourists come to Rumeli Hisarı so you can catch a bit of local life that’s not been tainted by tourism. You’ll truly be off the beaten path!
Istanbul, Turkey
If you’re in Istanbul and interested in Turkish music and dance, then you should shimmy along to a Turkish Night. Favorite venues are Sultanas (www.sultanas-nights.com) and Karavansaray (www.kervansarayistanbul.com) in Taksim or Gar Gazino (www.garmuzikhol.com) in Yenikapi (near Sultanahmet). Most programs boast a bevy of talented belly dancers, folkloric dancers, and performers who re-enact cultural celebrations such as regional and Ottoman-style weddings. On occasion, you may see a comical performance by a flirty duo, Aşuk and Maşuk, who frolic with one another and the crowd in a dance of playful love. The show generally culminates in a program of party anthems from around the world sung by a pitch-perfect multilingual singer. Tickets include transfers to/from your hotel, three-course meals, and drinks (local alcohol only). The top belly dancers at these venues do teach and perform worldwide, so the standard of performance is high. Hodjapasa (www.hodjapasha.com) is also a favorite for its ambience and performances set in a 550 year old hamam in historic Sirceki. However, tickets do not include dinner, only soft drinks, tea, and coffee. Shows generally start around 9pm and finish by 11pm. Always confirm the program upon booking, and if you’re interested in busting some moves, don’t be shy—most audience members from the Balkan and Middle Eastern countries perform their own national dances once the curtain comes down on the show.
İstiklal Ave
The lifeblood of modern Istanbul is the two-mile-long pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), running from Taksim Square to the Tünel train station. It’s equal parts touristy and local, commerce and culture, and strolling down the avenue to shop, dine, or just socialize is a favorite pastime of many Istanbullus. (The beloved red-and-white tram is out of service for the foreseeable future while the street gets some much-needed maintenance.) Though many complain about encroaching international chain stores and shopping malls taking the thoroughfare’s distinct character away, there are still plenty of gems if you follow the backstreets and duck into the historic passages. Don’t forget to look up: Many of the art nouveau and Ottoman-era buildings house rooftop cafés and businesses above street level.
51-53 Turnacıbaşı Cd
The Çukurcuma neighborhood, just a short walk down the hill from Istanbul’s busy İstiklal Caddesi, is an antique, vintage, and retro lover’s delight. Step onto Faik Paşa Street or Turnacıbaşı Street and you step back in time. Here, you can find eclectic shops filled with the possessions of generations of Istanbul lives. Wanderlust shoppers can expect to find modern art, antique jewelry, old and restored furniture, retro lighting, vintage clothes and shoes, well-read books, brass ornaments, coins, old photographs, and other knickknacks from the past. These are cluttered among funky cafés that stretch out to the cobblestone streets. It is one of the most enjoyable and least-touristed parts of the city, full of intriguing finds and photographic opportunities.
Kartal/İstanbul, Turkey
A multipurpose contemporary art center that opened in November 2011 in the Ottoman Bank building, Salt has a library with thousands of shelves of art publications—the most important, impressive collection in the city.—Sylvia Kouvali
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Meydanı Sok. No:46, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Closed for many years for restoration, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum reopened in late 2014 and is located on the edge of the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet. The building was once the palace of Ibrahim Pasha (1493-1536), the Grand Vizier, son-in-law and friend of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It is the only private Ottoman mansion to have stood the test of time since the 16th century - largely because the tradition was to use wooden material for Ottoman mansions rather than the masonry used here. Inside the former mansion lies the remnants of the vaulted western wall of the Hippodrome, uncovered in excavations of the ground floor from 2012-2014. Upstairs are the galleries that feature religious artifacts dating back to the 8th century including the Damascus papers and Korans from the various dynasties of the today’s Middle East that feature exquisite calligraphic work. The remnants of each dynasty is presented in chronological order which culminates in the woodwork, carpets, metal work and ornaments from the Ottoman and Seljuk eras. The highlights for many visitors are the sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammad and the highly decorative metal doors and door knobs of Great Mosque of Cizre. Ethnography exhibits will also reopen here in the near future. The museum is a good diversion for an hour from the crowds of the Hippodrome for those interested in Turkish and Islamic art. Use your 72-hour Museum Pass for free entry, otherwise check the website for entry fees.
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
If the mosaics of the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and Kariye Museum (Chora Church) left you dizzy with admiration, then do take the time to visit The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics. The bi-level gallery sits beneath the Arasta Bazaar, just a stone’s throw east of the Blue Mosque. Whilst not as grand as the former two sites, the impressive mosaics here of limestone, earthenware and coloured stones date back to AD 450-550 and formed part of a courtyard within Constantine the Great’s Palatium Magnum (Great Palace) - a complex that pre-dates the Ottoman’s Blue Mosque that now dominates real estate in Old Istanbul. Over 150 human and animal figures are present across friezes and a 250m2 restored tessellate. They depict the daily life of times when Eastern Roman and Byzantine emperors ruled the lands. Mythological gods, animals in a fight to the death and hunting scenes are also featured. The mosaics lie largely where they were discovered in the 1930s and 1950s and are regarded as one of Istanbul’s greatest finds of the last century - largely because you won’t find a tessellated floor from antiquity of this size anywhere in the world. The museum is open every day with an entry fee as listed on their website. Purchase of the Museum Pass – a 72 hour museum access card - will grant you free access.
Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:99, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
A cultural hub for Turkish and international art, Istanbul Modern opened in 2004 as a permanent home for the contemporary Istanbul Biennial. The 8,000-square-foot warehouse sits along the Bosphorus next to the Golden Horn, a historically important port for thousands of years. The water views rival the exhibitions for your attention and appreciation, and the museum has an excellent restaurant and terrace to take advantage of the location. Back inside, the permanent collection shows contemporary and modern artists from Turkey, with rotating exhibitions of photography, design, and new media. The downstairs cinema has several screenings a week of films that complement exhibitions or feature distinctive work, often accompanied by panel discussions. The gift shop is one of the best places to buy unusual and beautiful souvenirs such as upcycled jewelry and kids’ coloring books of museum art.
Eyüp Merkez Mahallesi, 34050 Eyüp/Istanbul, Turkey
Overlooking the Golden Horn in Eyüp, Pierre Loti Hill offers a spectacular panoramic view of Istanbul’s seven hills. Linger here for a while and partake in keyif—the Turkish art of idle relaxation—at one of the rustic teahouses and restaurants that immerse you in one of Istanbul’s most captivating locations. The hill is named after Pierre Loti, a French novelist and naval officer who wrote his first novel, Aziyadé, after sojourning in the teahouses here in 1876. The novel, originally published anonymously, detailed a semi-autobiographical story about Loti’s forbidden affair with a Circassian harem girl named Aziyadé. The love between the 27-year-old officer and the 18-year-old woman was so enduring that Aziyadé died of a broken heart when Loti left Istanbul. Legend also says Loti always wore a gold ring inscribed with her name. Loti’s subsequent novel, La Turquie Agonisante (Turkey in Agony), went on to win the hearts of the new Turkish Republic, which then named a cafe and avenue on Eyüp hill in honor of the author. The name has stayed, the tales remain, and the view continues to inspire the artist within many. To get there, take a bus or ferry from Eminönü to Eyüp, then take the cable car near Eyüp port to the top, or wander past the Eyüp mosque and up through an old Ottoman cemetery. Avoid going on the weekends when crowds vie for the best seats in the house. Alcohol is forbidden due to the proximity to Eyüp mosque.
On the Asian side, south of the First Bosphorus Bridge, Kuzguncuk is a charming detour from the well-worn tourist trail and easily combined with a visit to nearby Beylerbeyi Palace. The neighborhood’s multicultural past is very much present, with synagogues, Armenian and Greek churches, and mosques located side by side. You can also expect to find cafes, art galleries, and fresh produce shops. Venture off the leafy main street (Icediye Caddesi) to admire the pretty facades of narrow townhouses and decorative wooden Ottoman abodes, many dating back to the 19th century. To find Kuzguncuk, take the ferry or Marmaray Rail to Üsküdar and follow the Bosphorus shoreline about a mile north (by foot or blue minibus) to Icediye Caddesi.
Kalenderhane Mah., Haşim İşcan Gç., 34134 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The 921-meter long Valens Aqueducts - a prominent landmark in Istanbul’s Fatih district - played a vital role in supplying water to the people of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The Roman Emperor, Valens ordered the construction of the aqueduct in late 4th century AD to feed water from the hills beyond Istanbul to hundreds of underground cisterns inside the city, including the famous Basilica Cistern located opposite the Hagia Sophia. The best place to view the towering stone aqueduct today is where it crosses the busy Ataturk Boulevard near the Mosque of Şehzade. The boulevard is the main thoroughfare between Taksim Square and the Aksaray neighborhood.
Most travelers to Istanbul will make a bee line to photograph the blue hues of the hand-painted tiles that give the Blue Mosque its name. Though, for many locals one of the more intriguing mosques to visit is Fatih Mosque, located atop the highest hill of the city. Fatih Mosque is worth a visit for many reasons. Christendom’s Church of the Holy Apostles once stood here for 11 centuries during the reign of the Byzantines. Commissioned in the fourth century by Constantine the Great and reconstructed by Emperor Justinian 200 years later, the revered basilica housed the sarcophagi of the emperors and their consorts, alongside the relics of saints Andrew, Luke, Timothy, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. The Church of the Holy Apostles was second only in size and importance to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya). Whilst the latter is now the top tourist attraction in the city, the Church of the Holy Apostles succumbed to invasions by the Crusaders and Ottomans. When Fatih Sultan Mehmet II (otherwise known as, Fatih the Conqueror) successfully invaded Constantinople in 1453 he ordered the demolition of the dilapidated church to make way for the first Imperial mosque to be built under Ottoman rule. The first Fatih Mosque was completed in 1463, however, an earthquake in 1766 saw the mosque virtually destroyed. For this reason today’s structure dates back to 1771 and features elements of the legendary Imperial Ottoman architectural style fused with elegant Baroque designs of the 18th century. One of the finest examples of the latter can be seen in Fatih the Conqueror’s türbe (tomb), located in the grounds of the mosque. Visits to the mosque are best combined with the neighborhood’s weekly Wednesday street market.
Beylerbeyi Sarayı
This beautiful 19th-century palace on the Asian shoreline near the First Bosphorus Bridge served as a summer retreat for sultans and visiting dignitaries. Designed in a French neo-Baroque style, the palace features six halls and 24 rooms adjacent to an expansive garden. Complete with halls devoted to the harem, it is also famous for being the place of house arrest of one of the last sultans, Abdülhamīd II, who died in the palace in 1918.
Yeniköy Mahallesi, Köybaşı Cd. No:93, 34464 Sarıyer/İstanbul, Turkey
The castles, bridges and palaces overlooking the Bosporus may be impressive, but it’s the smaller yalılar (waterfront mansions) that whip many people into a photo frenzy on a Bosporus cruise. These ornate multimillion-dollar Ottoman mansions are hot properties, with prices for prime estates starting at $20 million. Buying one is no easy feat. Sales are conducted in the utmost secrecy as many high-profile owners seek to avoid gossip and prefer anonymity.
60 Güneşli Bahçe Sokak
Head to Güneșli bahçe Street on the Asian side and tantalize the senses at the bustling fresh food markets of Kadıköy. Here you can people-watch as locals buy up the freshest produce from lively vendors touting prices of seafood, fruit and vegetables, spices, cheeses, baked goods and mezes. Try the stuffed mussels for the ultimate market experience and, later, head to the perennially popular Çiya Sofrası to dine on Turkey’s best ethnic and regional cuisine.
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