When putting together the itinerary for our second TTT Tour, our first worry concerned time. Would three days in Istanbul be enough? Would this expansive, serpentine city be conquerable in just a weekend?
In a city notorious for its traffic, its sprawling neighbourhoods and the no small matter that it straddles not one, but two, continents, would we be chewed up and spat out before we even caught a glimpse of this minaret-filled city?
Keen to ensure that our tour would still include a quick diversion to Cappadocia, we decided that we’d just have to bite the bullet and commit. With a long list of sites we wanted to see – from the venerable Hagia Sophia to the frenetic Spice Markets – we prepared for an intensive three days of sightseeing.
Below is the itinerary that we followed: a (perhaps painfully detailed) guide on how to spend three days in Istanbul. Including the best places to stop for lunch, where to enjoy a sunset cocktail and, of course, where to find the city’s jaw-dropping historical sites, it’s an itinerary that we hope you find useful.
For those looking to pre-book tours or activities ahead of visiting Istanbul, take a look here.
With one side facing Asia and the other peering towards Europe, Istanbul has – for centuries – been a pivotal hub for transport and trade. Within easy reach of Asia, Africa and Europe, the city’s connections are unlimited; a giant octopus of a place with arms reaching across continents, countries and cities.
As such, it is – unsurprisingly – incredibly easy to get to.
From London’s Gatwick airport, we flew with the country’s own airline: Turkish Airlines. Flying to more locations than any other airline, Turkish Airlines delivered us swiftly to the city in just under four hours.
Offering a meal, free drinks and the coveted inbuilt television, flying with Turkish Airlines was a fantastic way to start our break.
Furthermore, time your trip carefully and you’ll be able to scoop flights for as little as £172 return.
From a quick scan of the internet, it doesn’t seem to be the case that your usual budget airlines (Easyjet or Ryanair) fly to Istanbul. However, the Turkish budget airline Pegasus do, with the cost of a return flight rivalling those offered by Turkish Airlines.
An important note: neither the city’s metro network nor train network currently extends to the city’s new airport. However, a metro line is expected to open in 2020.
As one of the largest transport hubs in the world, it was perhaps to be expected that Istanbul’s (main) airport (also known as ‘Istanbul New Airport’) is, well – big.
Enormous, in fact.
Soon to be declared the largest airport in the world (able to accommodate over 200 million passengers per year), the airport (which is already open in parts) is a glittering, spacious and cavernous place. As such, make sure you arrive with plenty of time to get to your gate – it took us nearly 20 minutes to find ours.
From the airport, there are a number of ways to get into the city centre (both the European and Asian parts).
Driving and Taxis
Dependent on what time of day you arrive, your journey into Istanbul by car can take anything between 45 to 90 minutes. We arrived just as the working day was ending and we watched as queues of traffic left Istanbul; car headlights stretching for miles.
Taxis: given the temperamental traffic, expect taxi fares to fluctuate, particularly if they are metered. I would perhaps be tempted to avoid this option altogether, if only to avoid the anxiety of sitting in traffic and watching as the price slowly ticks over. On average, it seems that a taxi will cost you between €25-45.
If you do opt for a taxi, look for the black ‘E’ type, the blue ‘D’ type and the orange ‘C’ type taxis, to ensure you aren’t taken (both literally and metaphorically) for a ride.
A bus from Istanbul airport is a much cheaper option. The city’s New Airport Transit Bus runs regularly, with over 150 running a day.
You can buy your tickets on floor – 2; purchasing either a single ticket, or the Istanbulkart (6 TL), which you can top up and use for all transport in Istanbul (we’d highly recommend getting one of these).
A full bus timetable can be found here.
Home to a dizzyingly large population – 16 million in total – Istanbul is vast. With two sides: its ‘European’ side and an ‘Asian’ side (separated by the Bosphorus Strait), you’ll need to do a little planning before you set off for a wander.
However, getting around – particularly if you shuttle between the old city and some of its newer parts – is relatively easy, thanks to the city’s beloved tram, metro, and ferry system.
As mentioned above, the easiest (and most economical) thing is to buy an Istanbulkart. The card itself costs 6 TL (the equivalent to 86p) and can be topped up easily.
The metro is a quick and easy way to get around the city; particularly if you’re on the European side. Although it can get a bit crowded, it’s regular and cheap.
We stayed in Karaköy whilst we were in the city, and it was therefore incredibly easy to hop between the historic part of Istanbul and its more recent parts.
The metro runs from 6am – 12 or 1am, and one journey will cost you around 5 TL (i.e. pennies). A really handy annotated metro map – including its key stations – can be found here.
Istanbul’s Tram System:
I love a tram – who doesn’t? Istanbul’s tram system – a little like Lisbon’s – is lovingly regarded and whilst a little battered, is a regular sight on the city’s streets.
As with the metro, you can use your Istanbulkart to pay for your fare.
The tram line you’re most likely to use as a tourist is the Bağcılar-Kabataş Tram (T1). This is a great line for hopping between the old and new city, and runs every ten minutes or so.
Again, a single journey will cost you around 5TL.
Istanbul’s Ferries (‘Vapur’):
Divided by the glittering Bosphorous Strait, Istanbul is a city wedded to the water. As such, ferries are a convenient and reliable way to navigate it.
In particular, and for a bit of novelty, crossing from the European side to the Asian side of the city (and back again), is a lovely experience and also a way to avoid the traffic-riddled bridge. For a centrally located ferry station, head to Karaköy.
A full ferry timetable can be found here.
As you’d expect, visitors to Istanbul are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation. From the hipster hangout of Soho House Istanbul, to luxury names such as Raffles, you won’t find yourself short of options.
For ease, we stayed at the beautiful 10 Karaköy hotel, located in the central neighbourhood of Karaköy. Whilst situated in the European and newer part of the city, the hotel is a stone’s throw from the Galata Bridge that connects the old city with the new. The Metro station is also a five minute walk away.
Formerly a quarantine hospital and built in a beautiful Neo-Classical building, 10 Karaköy is sophisticated, quiet and filled with splashes of luxury; from large rain showers to luxury bath products.
The hotel also has a breathtaking rooftop bar – Bahane 10 – with views across the city’s skyline.
Double rooms begin at £110 per night and include breakfast (a large buffet) and super speedy WiFi. One thing to note: try to request a room that isn’t facing the Kemeraltı Caddesi (a main road) – as the sound of the tram can be a little noisy.
Istanbul’s history is as long as it is complicated. Beginning life in the 7th century as Byzantium, before falling under the power of the Romans in 193 AD, Istanbul would next transform into Constantinople – the vision of Constantine the Great.
Following this came a dizzying number of rules and conquerers, including Arabs and Ottoman Turks. It was under the Turks that the city’s name – Istanbul – came to be; a name that would stay with the city even after Turkish independence in 1923.
Despite the fact that Turkey’s capital was later moved to Ankara (where it remains), Istanbul is still Turkey’s largest – and most populated – city. A papier mâchè of layers, history and cultures, there is an almost impossible amount to see and do in this historical meeting place.
So, with so much to see and do, and just a few days to achieve it in, where to begin? How do you see all that Istanbul has to offer in just three days?
4.30pm – Arrive in Istanbul:
We caught a 10am flight from London Gatwick airport, arriving in Istanbul at 4.30pm (Istanbul is 2 hours ahead of GMT). Once we had transferred to the city – battling through rush hour traffic – we arrived at our hotel, 10 Karaköy at 6pm.
7pm – Evening Drinks & Panoramic Views:
After a quick turn around, it’s time to catch the last of the city’s rays with a quick walk to the jaw-dropping, 360 Istanbul.
A short 15 minute stroll from our hotel, this bar offered our first glimpse of Istanbul’s sheer size and reach. Arriving on the top floor of the bar, we were met with sweeping panoramic views; all of Istanbul’s seven rolling hills filling the skyline.
Ordering some cocktails, we settled down to watch as a fiery orange sun dipped below the skyline; the call to prayer ringing out across the city. As swallows dipped and dived over the distant Blue Mosque and laughter rang out from the surrounding bars, it was our first opportunity to form some first opinions of Istanbul.
My thoughts? This was an intoxicating place.
8.30pm – Dinner At at Sıdıka Meze Restaurant, Istanbul: (get a taxi from 360 Istanbul to get here)
As with all of our tours, we try to eat as locally and sustainably as possible. As such, and given the ‘female empowerment’ element of our tours, we were also keen to eat at restaurants run by women, whilst in the city.
As such, the beautifully boutique Sıdıka Meze Resatutant – owned by Sıdıka – seemed the perfect fit. Tucked away in the Beşiktaş neighbourhood of Istanbul, this unassuming little restaurant glowed warmly as we arrived; the smell of garlic floating out from the open door.
Serving up mouth watering plates of traditional Turkish meze, the restaurant is a great place to introduce yourselves to the local dishes. Feasting on mouth watering grilled aubergine, sea bass fillets wrapped in vine leaves and an addictive pistachio and feta cheese mash, we drank locally made Raki (a distinctly aniseed tasting drink) and devoured baskets of Turkish Pide bread.
It was a wonderful way to kick start our three days in Istanbul and a restaurant I would highly recommend visiting.
10.30pm – Back to 10 Karaköy and bed.
9.00am – Explore Istanbul’s Most ‘Instagrammable’ Neighbourhood:
After breakfast at our hotel, we made the short walk towards what our guide – Aynur – declared to be Istanbul’s ‘hipster hangout’. Spanning the wider area of Karaköy – most specifically the streets adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art – here you’ll find beautiful street art, a colourful ‘umbrella’ lined street, concept stores aplenty and buzzing coffee shops.
Filled with young people meeting for brunch or after work drinks, it all felt a little Shoreditch – albeit with the added scent of Turkish coffee to boot.
Browse the Street Art
Be warned: the back streets of Karaköy are a little addictive; lined with busy restaurants and winding vines that grow overhead. Throughout this area there is also plenty of prominent street art to see, including a mural made from used spray can bottles. In particular, head towards Murakip Sk. to see some great pieces.
Grab a Coffee
Even at 10am, this area of winding streets and independent stores was alive with young professionals and students. As such, it was difficult to resist setting up camp in one of the many coffee shops; enjoying the warm September sunshine as it shone overhead.
One particularly lovely spot was ‘Fil’ – a bookstore come coffee shop (found on Akçke Sk.). A collaborative space open to freelancers and artists, this shop had a lovely homely – and distinctly trendy – atmosphere. Oh, and great coffee.
Opposite this shop, the vintage camera filled Ilmisimya Cafe & Art Space, offers a similarly hipster and creative space within which to enjoy your morning latte.
Explore a Rainbow of Umbrellas
Just around the corner from ‘Fil’ lies the regularly ‘instagrammed’ Umbrella Street (Hacı Tahsin Street). Whilst the name perhaps speaks for itself, this permanent installation is a regularly photographed part of Istanbul and worth a visit if you’re nearby.
12pm: Lunch At Karaköy Çorba Evi
Walking in from a now heaving street of traffic, motorcyclists and visitors, a wall of hot air hit us. We had arrived in one of Istanbul’s famous soup stores.
This particular restaurant, Karaköy Çorba Evi, offered over 21 varieties of soup: from the mysteriously named ‘Mother and Daughter Soup’ to its less appetising sounding ‘Sour Soup’.
Heading upstairs, we found baskets filled with croutons, bread and chilli. If you’re feeling adventurous, opt for the ‘Iskembe’ soup (cooked with tripe) – a Turkish delicacy. It’s said to be delicious.
1pm: Head to Istanbul’s Famous Grand Bazaar
It’s time to leave behind the port of Karaköy and head towards historical Istanbul; crossing the water as you go.
Taking the tram from Karaköy, we disembarked at Beyazıt – Kapalıçarşı station (one journey costing around 5 TL). Stepping off, it felt as though we had arrived in a wholly new city; one far removed from the Istanbul that we had experienced so far.
This area was not simply busy – it was frenetic. With towering domed buildings filling the skyline and crowds jostling for space, this was the traditional Istanbul that I’d imagined.
The Bazaar itself is not difficult to find; stretching 30,700 square meters and across 60 streets and alleyways. However, with 22 different entrances, getting your bearings may take a little time.
The best place to start is at the Bazaar’s historic centre, İç Bedesten, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461. Meaning ‘indoor arcade’, the Bazaar is quite unlike the dusty souks of Marrakech (as we’d assumed), but instead a dazzling indoor mall – one that seemingly stretches for miles on end.
Boasting over 500 stalls (known as ‘dolap’) and 5,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is a place you must visit during your three days in Istanbul.
As with Marrakech’s souks, do feel free to haggle when buying anything here; it’s expected.
As we were keen to browse jewellery whilst in the Bazaar, we entered through the Beyazıt Gate, which leads almost directly to the jewellers shops. Some of our favourite shops included: Topkapı Özavar (offering beautiful jewellery), Epoque (a wonderful place to explore if you enjoy antique shopping) and Ottoamano (selling sublimely made scarves).
3pm: Head to Istanbul’s Spice Market (or ‘Mısır Çarşısı’)
A short walk from the chaos of the city’s Grand Bazaar lies the similarly frenetic Spice Market.
Built in 1664, this smaller ‘bazaar’ was initially part of the ‘Yeni Camii’ or ‘New Mosque’ district. Alongside offering a dizzying number of spices and fragrances – including Turkish specialities such as ‘Sumar’ and ‘Pul Biber’ – the market also features dozens of little eateries selling traditional Turkish ice cream (made from goat’s milk) and piles of sticky baklava.
4pm: Time For A Turkish Hammam
If there’s one thing you must do during your three days in Istanbul, it’s a Turkish Hammam.
Now, I should say that no one Hammam is alike. Whilst some people claim to have been aggressively scrubbed raw, others report nothing more than a lack-lustre massage.
As such, and as we walked hesitantly towards our own Turkish Hammam experience, we weren’t sure what to expect.
Our inaugural Turkish Bath experience would take place at The Galata Istanbul Hotel, in their luxury spa – the ‘Cesme’. After years of restoration, the hotel triumphantly re-opened the original ‘Çeşme Hamamı’, built by Grand Admiral Kaymak Mustafa Pasha at the end of 1720s, located onsite.
Claimed to be one of the most beautiful spas in the city, we were in for a treat – with a traditional scrub and ‘bubble massage’ awaiting us.
Arriving at the spa and we were shown into an incredibly beautiful room. Entirely marble and with a domed ceiling, the room was filled with small sinks overflowing with hot water. Filled with the scent of soap and lavender oil, the room was perhaps somewhere between a steam room and a large wet room; a large marble ‘alter’ at its centre.
Assigned our own therapist each, we were told to relax as we lay on the warm marble; buckets of warm water thrown over us. As the room filled with the sound of running water, I relaxed as the ‘scrub’ began. Using a traditional ‘keses’ – or scrubbing mitt – my therapist proceeded to remove at least five layers of my skin.
It was fascinating, disgusting and utterly satisfying.
Follow the scrub came my favourite part – the bubble massage. As steam filled our ancient spa, our therapists brought over large cotton bags dipped in suds of olive oil soap. Ringing them out over us, plumes of bubbles fell; great long strings of silky soft suds. Very quickly, each of us were entirely covered by towering bubble mountains; their warmth and softness creating a little haven of luxury.
After a heavenly massage, hair wash and rinse down, it was all over – our first Turkish Hamamm complete.
It had been a heavenly experience.
If you are interested in experiencing a Hammam – particularly one that errs on the side of luxury – I would highly recommend the Cesme Hammam.
8pm: Head to Taksim Square for dinner for views across the magnificent Bosperhous Strait
Your final day in Istanbul will be an unforgettable one: taking in some of the city’s key historical sights.
9am: Catch the tram to Sultanahmet station – just a few stops from Karaköy
9.30am: Hagia Sophia (or ‘Aya Sophia’) :
(Entrance Fee: 25 TL) Book your visit and beat the queues here.
Just a short walk from the station is the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia; one of Istanbul’s most famous structures.
Originally built as a Christian basilica nearly 1,500 years ago, it was Emperor Constantius who first ordered the creation of the original Hagia Sophia in 360 AD. However, following two fires (due to its wooden roof), the original building was rebuilt under the orders of Emperor Justinian I in 532. Completed in 537, it is this structure that still stands today – something that seems entirely surreal.
However, walk into Hagia Sophia and its Roman past is difficult to ignore. Indeed – arriving here feels a little like time travelling.
Now a museum, visitors are able to explore both the ground and first floor of the building; its enormous space filled with dappled rays of sunshine and twinkling chandeliers. It’s an incredibly atmospheric and humbling spectacle, and one you should not miss during your three days in Istanbul.
10.30am: The Blue Mosque (find our more about pre-booked tours here)
Note: when we visited (September 2019), much of the Mosque was under construction and therefore obscured.
As this is a working Mosque, there is no entrance fee. Please ensure you take off your shoes and cover legs, head and shoulders before entering (if female).
Perhaps one of the most photographed landmarks in Istanbul is the mighty Blue Mosque.
Having derived its name from the spectacular blue İznik tiles that fill its interior, this exceptionally beautiful building was built under the guidance of Sultan Ahmet I (1603–17) and soon declared one of Turkey’s most beautiful mosques; featuring 260 windows and large, curving walls.
If you’re planning on visiting, please note that visitor numbers are limited to ensure the preservation of the Mosque. Additionally, it closes six times a day for prayer.
12.30pm: Lunch at Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi
Declared to be the best place for beans and rice in the city, this (again unassuming) little restaurant directly faces Süleymaniye Mosque.
Offering hearty traditional Turkish food, including its famous plate of ‘fasulye’ – or dried beans – we had an unexpectedly delicious lunch here. Incredibly cheap, we opted for the beans and a plate of rice – two simple dishes that blew us away.
2pm: Head to Süleymaniye Mosque
As this is a working Mosque, there is no entrance fee. Please ensure you take off your shoes and cover legs, head and shoulders before entering (if female).
This sun-drenched mosque was the last stop on our final day in Istanbul. Having already wandered through the halls of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we assumed that the Süleymaniye Mosque would be fairly similar.
What we hadn’t banked on, however, was its unforgettable views.
Seeming to straddle both the European and Asian parts of Istanbul, with clear views across the city’s seven hills and its famed ‘Golden Horn’, the grounds of Süleymaniye Mosque are worth a visit in themselves.
Built between 1550 and 1557 under the order of Süleyman I (who was keen that people called him the ‘Magnificent’), the mosque benefits from a large and elaborate mosque complex and beautiful garden courtyard. A smaller garden, filled with beautifully preserved tombs, is also open to visitors.
If you have time, pay a visit to Lale Bachçesi – a beautiful sunken tea garden found in the grounds.
Whilst the interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque is undeniably beautiful – and reminiscent of Hagia Sophia – it is the views you’ll find behind the building that makes it truly special. Affording panoramic views across both sides of Istanbul, you could spend hours here, lounging under a tree and taking it all in.
7pm: Dinner At Duble Mezze Bar, Istanbul
As our final night in Istanbul drew close, we decided to end our tour in style – heading to the jaw-dropping Duble Mezze Bar, Istanbul.
Found back in the port of Karaköy, the Bar not only offers traditional (and delicious) meze, but also provides unlimited wine, beer or Raki (alongside a set meal). However, the crowning feature of this place was surely its breathtaking views – particularly at sunset.
Gathering on the Bar’s balcony, we watched as Istanbul’s skyline turned a heavenly pink, before blushing a deep scarlet. Ahead of us, the Golden Horn glowed and the city’s buildings began to light up, sparkling like Christmas lights.
It was the most brilliant way to end our three days in Istanbul – and an unforgettable evening in what is a truly unforgettable city.
Given the sheer number of words dedicated to this blog post, even I find it a little difficult to believe that it’s possible to fit all of this in to just three days in Istanbul. However, fit we did – and in style. Far from feeling exhausted or overwhelmed – and thanks to the city’s plentiful public transport – we managed to strike a balance between sight seeing and relaxation; enjoying blissful Hammam experiences alongside dizzying history lessons.
From exploring the hipster streets of Karaköy and enjoying morning coffees, to tackling the pulsing crowds of the city’s Grand Bazaar, our three days in Istanbul allowed us to experience both sides that this city has to offer: both its relaxed and mellow atmosphere, and its frenetic, intoxicating buzz.
Of course, there is still so much more to see and do in Istanbul, but given that we had just three days to see it in? I think we did very well indeed.
Find out more about pre-booked tours or attractions in Istanbul here.
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