What To Do in Istanbul in 3-4 Days – Turkey

categories: europe travel

If you, like me are a history buff then Istanbul is a place to visit before you die.

Let’s talk first about what there is to see in Istanbul. Skip ahead to see a 3 Day or 4 Day Itinerary for what to do in Istanbul.

Istanbul Attractions Map


Istanbul Sites

Hagia Sophia

The crowning achievement in Roman / Byzantine architecture was the  church Hagia Sophia which is now a museum in Sultanahmet, the oldest region of Istanbul. It’s impressive dome on dome design so impressed the Ottoman Turks after they captured the city that you can find Mosques that are influenced by its design throughout the former Ottoman Empire.

The interior of Hagia Sophia is quite large and even more amazing when you realize that this building was built in the 6th century. As you can see from the photo above, there are elements of the use of Hagia Sophia as a church but also from it’s use from the 1400s as a mosque.

In addition to the architecture the beautiful mosaics are some of the best examples of the Roman / Byzantine art.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

The most notable of the mosques that were influenced by the design of Hagia Sophia is the so called Blue Mosque which is located just opposite it. Stand in between the two and the similarities will be fairly obvious.

The nickname Blue Mosque comes from some of the tiles in the interior of the mosque (which is really not particularly blue).

Visiting a mosque: You can enter the mosque even if you are a tourist and not a muslim, although you should not enter during prayer-time or during the middle the day on Fridays. You will need to wear appropriate dress which means no sleeveless shirts or shorts. At the Blue Mosque they may offer you a robe if your clothing is inappropriate, but that will not be available at smaller mosques. Women should have a scarf they can use to cover their head. Remain respectful and inconspicuous as people are here to worship. Flash photography is not appropriate.

The real name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after which the Sultanahmet district is named. The Sultanahmet name has a more interesting story. Sultan Ahmet (or Ahmed I) caused all kinds of controversy when he commissioned the mosque be built with 6 minarets. Look around Istanbul and the number of minarets that a mosque has tells you the significance of the person who built it. While a neighborhood mosque would have 1 and a mosque built by a sultan could be expected to have as many as 4 minarets. But when Sultan Ahmet had this mosque built only the mosque in Mecca had 6 minarets. It was pointed out that Sultan Ahmet had won no great victory for Islam that would justify this hubris. Ahmet’s solution was brilliant. Rather than knocked down one of his minarets he paid from his own fortune to build a 7th minaret in Mecca.

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace is just around the corner from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was the center of the Ottoman Empire until the 1800s when the more modern Dolmabahçe Palace was built north of Sultanahmet.

Don’t expect a lot of furniture in the palace as this palace is a much more oriental design where people sat on pillows or cushions in large relatively sparse rooms.

Pay special attention to the quality of the tile work or the windows inlaid with abalone shells. This is where a lot of the craftsmanship is displayed in this sprawling palace. I visited with someone who could point out the intricate blue tiles  from nearby Iznik and the poorer craftsmanship of later replacement tile work after the tile industry in Iznik declined in the 1700s.

In addition to visiting the harem and the throne room the national treasure of Turkey is housed in the Palace. The collection has a large number of relics such as Mohammed’s footprint, one of his teeth and a selection of hairs from his beard, Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan, and John the Baptist’s hand. It was a surprise to me that an islamic culture would even have relics.

Basilica Cistern

To get some sense of the layering of history in Istanbul visit the Bassilica Cistern. This underground reservoir was built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. After the conquest by the Turks it was forgotten for 100 years until someone started to wonder how local residence were able to fish through holes in their basements. Apparently there are hundreds of ancient cisterns below the city streets of Istanbul.

Look for the two different columns that have the head of the mythical medusa at their base.

Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)

One reminder that Istanbul was once a Roman city is the Egyptian Obelisk of Thutmose III. This obelisk dates back to the 1400s BC. but was brought to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantius II in 357 A.D. to celebrate being on the thrown for 20 years. It was later moved to this site which was the site of the old Roman Hippodrome or horse racing course. Look at the shape of the long narrow square you are in and see if you can picture charioteers like in the movie Ben Hur.

Right next to the obelisk is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

Grand Bazaar

If you go to the Grand Bazaar someone will try and sell you a carpet. They will offer you tea and invite you to come in and sit down. They will do this in perfect English or any of a number of other languages. I honestly think they think every tourist really wants a carpet and that my refusals were simply negotiating. The shop that I visited was run by a couple of Kurdish brothers. I was wearing a microphone at the time so you can eavesdrop on the process if you listen to Turkey, Istanbul – Amateur Traveler Episode 83.

I love the energy of the bazaar. What for boys who are carrying copper trays with small glasses of hot tea on them to the various merchants. You can certainly but souvenirs here but there are real bargains as well… especially if you want a carpet. Although… I visited with a Turkish young man from Gaziantep in eastern Turkey. He claimed you can get much better prices there, because the carpets are made there.

Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar)

Even more colorful than the Grand Bazaar is the spice bazaar with piles of colorful spices (and lots of souvenirs). What I really needed was a cookbook to know how to use all of these wonderful spices. Photographers and instagrammers will love it.

Theodosian Walls

For over a thousand years the impressive Walls of Constantinople kept out all invaders (well, there was that one regrettable incident in the 4th crusade that no one wants to talk about). They kept out enemies like the Ostrogoths and Atilla the Hun. You can still walk these walls and see what made them so impressive. They are far enough away from the normal tourist areas that you will need to grab a bus or an Uber to get to them. If you managed to breach the outer wall you had the unpleasant surprise of finding yourself trapped between it and an inner wall. It was not until Mehmed the Conqueror brought his canons to besiege it that they fell.

Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)

Anchoring the Walls of Constantinople at the southern point is the Fortress of the Seven Towers. This is a great place to get up on the walls and explore.

From the walls look south and you can see something like 100 ships bringing goods through the Bosphorus.

Saint Savior In Chora

On the way to the Theodisian Walls stop at one of my favorite under-visited spots in Istanbul: Saint Savior In Chora Church.  It is small church unlike the towering Hagia Sophia but Saint Savior In Chora has some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics and murals. Both churches had the murals plastered over when they were convered to mosques after the conquest of the Turks in the 1400s, and both also had them uncovered when they were converted into museums in the 1900s.

Watch Travel to Istanbul – St Saviour in Chora – Amateur Traveler Video Episode 14 to see what this site looks like today.

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman was sultan at the highpoint of Ottoman rule. His armies conquered Hungary, Rhodes, Belgrade and threaten all of Western Europe before they were defeated at the walls of Vienna. A bit of trivia for you, the croissant was invented in Vienna to commemorate the victory over the Ottoman Turks, hence its crescent shape.

Tünel

Just north of the body of water known as the Golden Horn is the neighborhood of  Beyoğlu. In southern  Beyoğlu right near the water is the 2nd oldest subway in the world (after the London Underground). The Tünel is not nearly as extensive as the Underground. It is an funicular  that climbs the hill from the Golden Horn towards Galata Tower.

Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is the most notable landmark in  Beyoğlu. It was originally built by the Genoese and called the Tower of Christ. It offers a great view of the old city (Sultanahmet, Fatih).

İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)

İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue) runs from Galata Tower towards Taksim Square. This is a pedestrian shopping street. When Istanbul was the capital, this area is where most of the foreign embassies were. There are still at least 4 foreign consulates along this street.

Along the avenue you will find the Galata Mevlevi Museum which is dedicated to the Mevlevi branch of Sufism which is better known as the Whirling Dervishes. You can see the Whirling Dervish Dance show here.

If you are an art lover the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is very near to the avenue.

There are also some churches on this street which are still active. This neighborhood used to be a greek neighborhood until the forced resettlement of greeks and turks after the Greek War of Independence.

A fun place to eat along the İstiklal Caddesi is Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage). This restaurant used to be a flower market.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square monument

When you get to Taksim Square you are in an area of shops, restaurants, and hotels that is the heart of modern Istanbul. The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Taksim square is also a major transit hub.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace was built in the 1800s as a more modern replacement for Topkapi Palace. This is a very European style palace complete with imported chandeliers from Venice and furniture from Paris. The palace cost the sultan 25% of his yearly tax revenue of the debt that it caused helped speed up the decline of the Ottomans.

For Turks, one special place in the palace is the bedroom where Attack, the founder of modern Turkey, died.

Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge

One of the iconic photos of Istanbul is the view of a small mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge in the background. The mosque in the photo is the Ortaköy on a beautiful small square near the base of the bridge. There are some good places to grab a bite, a photo and also a boat for a cruise on the Bosphorus.

Bosphorus Cruise

Istanbul is a city on the water and one of the best ways to see it is from the water. You can take a boat up the river from the old city past mansions, palaces and modern Istanbul neighborhoods up to at least the twin fortresses that flank the river.

1.5-Hour Morning Bosphorus Boat Tour

US $20

Buy

Rumelihisarı and Anadoluhisarı

North of the city you can see the two fortresses built on either side of the Bosphorus Rumelihisarı (on the Europe side built by Mehmed the Conqueror) and Anadoluhisarıa (on the Asia side built by his father Murad II). These fortresses were built in preparation for the siege of Istanbul. They were later used to control trade on the Bosphorus, coming in and out of the Black Sea.

While you can tour them, if you just want to get a photo of them I highly recommend a cruise on a site seeing boat on the Bosphorus. You can catch one from Ortaköy.

Free Things to do in Istanbul

From this list all outdoor sites, bazaars and mosques are free… unless you buy a carpet at the Grand Bazaar.

  • Grand Bazaar
  • İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)
  • Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)
  • Ortaköy Mosque
  • Spice Bazaar
  • Süleymaniye Mosque
  • Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
  • Taksim Square

 

What to Do in Istanbul in 4 Days

Day 1

What To Do in Istanbul in 3 Days | What To Do in Istanbul in 4 Days | What to See in Istanbul | Istanbul Attractions MapConcentrate on the sites of Sultanahmet:

  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)
  • if you have interest and time add the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
  • if you have time visit the Bazaars otherwise save them for Day 4

Stop for a traditional lunch of Sultanahmet kofte.

Day 2

Visit the sites of Beyoğlu:

  • Walk over the bridge from Sultanahmet to Beyoğlu and see the fishermen
  • Tünel
  • Galata Tower
  • stroll the İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)
  • if you have time and interest see a Whirling Dervish dance show at Galata Mevlevi Museum
  • if you have time and interest visit the Istanbul Modern
  • have dinner in the Flower Passage
  • stop for tea at least once while you are in the city
  • buy at east one simit (circular bread with sesame seeds) from a food cart

Day 3

  • Dolmabahçe Palace
  • Ortaköy
  • Bosphorus cruise

Day 4

  • Grand Bazaar
  • Spice Bazaar
  • Süleymaniye Mosque
  • Theodosian Walls
  • Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)
  • Saint Savior In Chora
  • Finish with a trip to the cafe Pierre Loti Tepesi with a view of the Golden Horn


Imperial Istanbul Half-Day Tour: Hagia Sophia, Basillica Cistern and Grand Bazaar

US $55

Buy

See the sights of Istanbul that most interest you on a customized, 8-hour tour with private guide. Cost is per group.

US $

Buy

See the stunning Mevlevei Sema ceremony in Istanbul. Known for its whirling dervishes and dances.

US $22

Buy

What to Do in Istanbul in 3 Days

Day 1

Concentrate on the sites of Sultanahmet:

  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Grand Bazaar
  • Spice Bazaar
  • Stop for a traditional lunch of Sultanahmet kofte.

Day 2

Visit the sites of Beyoğlu:

  • Walk over the bridge from Sultanahmet to Beyoğlu and see the fishermen
  • Tünel
  • Galata Tower
  • walk the İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)
  • Dolmabahçe Palace

Day 3

  • Ortaköy
  • Bosphorus cruise
  • half day to pick up one or two more sites

If You Have More Time

We have not even gotten to the side of Istanbul in Asia east of the Bosphorus. Nor have we explored more modern Istanbul.

Accommodations

I have stayed in both a small older boutique hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood as well as a more modern hotel in the Taksim square area. I recommend Sultanahmet for history buffs and Taksim more for people who are looking for nightlife.

Conclusion

Istanbul has much to offer as a modern city but if you love history then a visit to this city is a must.

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.

3 Responses to “What To Do in Istanbul in 3-4 Days – Turkey”

Alex

Says:

I do agree with you Istanbul has a very rich history and widely popular for Islamic culture

Natalia

Says:

I enjoyed reading your guide about Istambul. So much history is unvailed and there are very beautiful pictures. I did not know that croissant, my favorite in the morning, was a symbol of victory over the Ottoman Turks. Thank you for sharing!

chris2x

Says:

You are most welcome Natalia!

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