Before you arrive, you'll want to make a hotel or AirBnB reservation. We've stayed in both with great success and there are a ton of options throughout the city. As a tourist, I recommend staying in the Sultanahmet part of Istanbul because that puts you within walking distance of the major tourist spots, like the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Taksim is also a really cool part of town with tons of restaurants and bars and isn't quite as touristy as Sultanahmet. The drawback is that it's a little bit farther away from the tourist spots. Istanbul has a great metro system and it's easy to use, so it's really all about personal preference.
Also, just as a note, you'll want to fly into Ataturk airport. There are two airports in Istanbul, but it takes about three hours to get from the other one (Sabiha Gokcen) to the tourist spots, so just say no to that.
Coming from the United States, you'll get in around dinner time, which doesn't leave a ton of time for sight seeing. I also find the flight exhausting and the thought of doing a ton of sight seeing after a ten hour flight is not appealing to me. In both the Taksim and the Sultanahmet sections of Istanbul, there are a ton of restaurants and places to eat. We've been to what is ranked as number one on TripAdvisor and it was delicious. Wherever you go, get something traditionally Turkish. Start off with some mezzes (appetizers) and maybe some fasulye (soup) followed by a main course (I recommend Testi Kebabi, which is lamb cooked in a clay pot! Nomz!) and finished off with some Baklava. Maybe it's because I'm writing this at dinner time or maybe it's just that it's all so good, but I am now craving ALL THE TURKISH FOOD. End your night with a cup of tea before heading to bed. It's a very Turkish thing to do.
Today's the big day!! There is lots to see and not a lot of time to see it. I recommend getting up early and finding a restaurant that has a big Turkish breakfast. Mike isn't a fan, so we don't do it that often, but I think it's an experience in itself. Cheese, bread, honey, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tea! All so delicious!
After breakfast, it's time to start sightseeing. In the Sultanahmet area, the major sights are the Topkapi Palace, theBlue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. It's best to get to Topkapi Palace early because the lines there can be longer than the lines at Disney World. I wish I was kidding... Topkapi is the Turkish version of Versaille and definitely worth it. Plus, the views of the city are pretty awesome.
After Topkapi, head to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The Blue Mosque is beautiful, but make sure you are wearing something that will cover your shoulders and your knees. Also, women will need a scarf to cover their head. They'll give you stuff to wear if you aren't covered, but I just feel weird about that. It's better to bring your own stuff. Hagia Sofia will be crowded and it's currently being restored, but I think that, if you can look past the people and the restoration, there is some true beauty there. Make sure to go up to the second level. We didn't realize there was an upstairs the first time we went and truly missed out.
|Hanging out at the Blue Mosque|
|See, I think the Hagia Sofia is beautiful!!|
Once you are done here, you have a few options. You can do the Basilica Cistern, which is within walking distance. I didn't think it was anything too awesome, but Mike really liked it. If you're nearby, it's worth stopping in.
At this point during the day, we usually are hungry and ready for lunch. There are tons of restaurants nearby and any and all of them are good. We have had good luck with TripAdvisor, especially since you can search by proximity.
After lunch, head to the Grand Bazaar for souvenir shopping. There is literally everything you could ever want at the Grand Bazaar and I think it's the best place for souvenirs. I got a set of hot plates that I absolutely love, as well as a few little bowls and nick nacks for around the house. When Kelly was here, she got a tea set. Jason got a cool plate to display and Poorna got a set of pants (among other things)! There is literally everything there. Make sure to haggle with them! We've never paid full price for anything! Ha!
After shopping, I recommend doing a evening boat cruise. There are always a ton of people selling tickets outside of the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, but you can also book them ahead of time. Try to get a time around sunset, just because it's so pretty. You'll be able to cross from Europe to Asia, which is pretty cool, as well as see the city from the water, which gives it a different perspective.
Once the boat ride is over, finish the night off with a Turkish dinner and drinks at a rooftop bar. There are a ton in Istanbul. I'm a sucker for a rooftop bar! Make sure to order Raki, the unofficial alcohol of Turkey. It's a social sipping drink and definitely not something you want to chug, but worth a try!
Day Three is always a little flexible because we almost always have to get on the road or catch a flight, but there is usually time for at least one big sight. I think Dolmabache Palace is worth it because it's so extravagant. It's the second palace in Istanbul and, despite the fact that it's smaller than Topkapi, the amount of money and extravagance definitely puts it on top. It is a little bit further out of the tourist district, but the metro goes right there. If you don't want to do the official tour (which you must do if you want to go inside), you can still walk around the grounds and enjoy a cup of tea (do you see a trend??) along the water before heading out.
Istanbul is a huge city and we haven't even conquered all of it after multiple trips there. There is a whole other side to the city across the water, which is probably worth a trip in itself. The New York Times did a 36 hours in the Asian side of Istanbul, which we want to try as well. This itinerary definitely involves a lot of walking and is pretty exhausting, but if you only have a few days, you gotta see it all!!
What would you add/subtract from this?