The Ultimate 3-Day Itinerary for Istanbul

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istanbulite, a boutique travel agency, has curated a perfect 3-day itinerary for Atdaa. Follow their footsteps and experience the many exciting faces of Istanbul. With their expertise and in-depth knowledge of the city, you are guaranteed to have a memorable time. 

Let’s face it; Istanbul is a monster of a city. It is exciting, it is exhausting, it is breathtaking and it is dramatic. 

galata tower drone shot, old city istanbul  

Photo Credit: Deniz Hotamisligil 

 

On any given day you could have a cheap dirt breakfast in the Beşiktaş district among the student crowd, visit the magnificent Hagia Sophia then make yourself to the rooftop bar of a five-star hotel for happy hour. This could happen all in the same day in this city with multiple personalities.

I’ve noticed that many visitors, especially from the US, visit Turkey on a trip that encompasses multiple European stops, thus leaving only a few days to discover Istanbul. Spending a few days here barely scratches the surface but if that’s all you got here’s the perfect itinerary for a long weekend in Istanbul.

Day 1

Start your first day with a mellow brunch, you’ll be running around all day so make sure you take this time to relax and soak in the beautiful Bosphorus. Café Nar in the Rumeli Hisarı district is a highly popular place for its “serpme kahvaltı”, a buffet style Turkish breakfast on your table with an assortment of cheese, jams, salami, olives and the infamous honey and clotted cream duo. Make sure you order a menemen as well, a traditional egg dish cooked with tomatoes and peppers. Mop up all the juices with pieces of simit and wash it down with several cups of Turkish tea.  After your rich brunch, walk along the waterfront towards Bebek and watch the fishermen catch fish for the day. Stop at Bebek Kahvesi to digest your breakfast with a strong cup of Turkish coffee. 

A trip to Istanbul would not be complete without spending time on the water. Book a private yacht tour with istanbulite and cruise on the blue waters of the Bosphorus for two hours. The yacht can drop you off at your desired location, so choose Kabataş and within a short drive you’ll arrive at Karaköy Lokantası, the ultimate locals’ lunch spot. 

At this point you could pass for a local. You haven’t seen a single landmark except the Bosphorus strait. It’s time to do some sightseeing. Make your way to the old town and get ready for an afternoon full of history, culture and beauty. Your first stop should be the Hagia Sophia. This glorious structure served as a church for 916 years and as a mosque since Istanbul’s conquest in 1453 until 1934, the year when it was converted into a museum. You will get chills by just being inside this incredible building. Your next stop should be the equally amazing Basilica Cistern. The cistern was a water storage built during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The mood lighting, the sound of the water dripping and the upside down Medusa head make this place quite mysterious.

Fun fact: the cistern was used as a location for the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

If you’ve felt a bit claustrophobic at the cistern, don’t you worry; your next stop is the open air Hippodrome Square. Unfortunately there are only three columns still standing, just situate yourself in the middle of them and imagine the sporting events that were taking place here centuries ago. 

You’ve done a lot of walking and soaked up all the culture and history. It’s time to get back to the hotel, kick your feet up a bit and relax. After a shower and a quick power nap get ready to go out again. Because Istanbul is a city that doesn’t sleep. 

Many buildings in Istanbul, especially in the Beyoğlu district, have rooftops and terraces. Mikla, a Michelin star restaurant on the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel has one of the best rooftops in the city. You do not need to have dinner here to enjoy the views, the restaurant is indoors while its small but fully stocked outdoor bar offers a near 360 degree view of the city. Sip a delicious cocktail and watch the sun go down behind the Golden Horn.

You’ve had a long day, so pick a cozy restaurant with excellent service. Our recommendation is Asmalı Cavit, a traditional fish restaurant in the Asmalı Mescit district of Beyoğlu. Enjoy delicious mezes but leave room for the fish. The light music in the background and a few glasses of rakı will be a nice wrap up to your first day in Istanbul. 

Day 2

Start your Saturday bright and early because you’re going to spend a few hours at the Topkapı Palace. See where the Ottoman Sultans lived for over 400 years. The İznik tiles in this palace are to-die-for and the collection of jewels will leave you craving with jealousy. Make sure you have comfortable shoes and a camera with you, you’ll be walking and photographing a lot. Once you’ve soaked up enough history, head to Nar Lokantası, a reputable restaurant dedicated to Turkish and historical Ottoman cuisine. 

What trip is complete without shopping? Continue onto your day with a visit to the Grand Bazaar. The biggest covered bazaar in the world, Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 shops, of carpets, leather products, textiles and traditional knick knacks. Even locals go here when they’re looking for some gifts. Don’t be shy to bargain. Rule of thumb: cut down the price asked by half, and don’t accept their offer for tea or coffee unless you’re seriously thinking about buying something from that shop!  

It’s time for dinner and you should see how the socialites of Istanbul spend their Saturday night. Put on some nice clothes and drive to Bebek, the cute and posh waterfront neighborhood of Istanbul. Have dinner at Lucca and don’t bother to switch places for drinks later, the restaurant turns into a club with a live DJ. You’ll be rubbing elbows with the good-looking men and women in no time.  

Day 3

Hopefully you were conservative with the cocktails last night, because this is another packed day and you need your full energy. Make sure you see a few more landmarks on your last day. Start at the New Mosque, a 17th century mosque with beautiful tile decorations, stained glass and light fixtures. It was once a mosque complex which included the Spice Market, your next stop on today’s route. Wake up your taste buds and walk through the alleys of spices, Turkish delight, different kinds of teas, dried fruits and nuts. Don’t turn down the bite size samples of the shops, Turks are very hospitable and would go great lengths to feed you. 

All of these flavors and smells must have made you hungry. On your last day, have a special meal in Istanbul. Asitane Restaurant, the best Ottoman cuisine restaurant in Istanbul offers dishes dating back to the 15th century. Savor your meal in their lovely outdoor garden. Don’t forget to visit the Chora Museum while you are here. Located right next door to Asitane, this museum was once a church and a mosque respectively. The Christian mosaics and frescoes from the 14th century are not to be missed. If you’ve got some energy and time left, check out the Koç Museum. Owned by the Koç family, this is the first major museum in Turkey focusing on the history of transportation, industry and communication. 

One should not leave Istanbul without eating kebab. Head over to the Karaköy district and have dinner at Ali Ocakbaşı, a classic kebab restaurant with views of the Golden Horn. Make a reservation in advance so that you can sit by the grill and watch the chefs cook up some true Turkish delicacies over the hot coals.  

Well you’ve done it; you’ve explored the many faces of Istanbul in just three days. Make sure you come back again and see what this city really has to offer. Istanbul cannot be completely grasped in such a short time, but follow this itinerary put and you will be guaranteed to experience this city in the best way.  

If you’re going to visit Istanbul and would like to leave the planning to the professionals check out istanbulite. This boutique travel agency offers tailored tours and takes care of all their guests’ needs and requests to make their time here memorable. 


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Seza Bali

Born and raised in Istanbul, Seza lived in the U.S. for more than a third of her life. She's traveled through Turkey, U.S., and Europe, as well as Israel and Cuba. Seza is once again living in Istanbul and exploring her city as a local tourist. She is a travel buff and a photographer. Check her portfolio at sezabali.com

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