Destinations / Turkey

From Palaces to Rooftops: 3 Days in Istanbul

With its rich tapestry of history, culture, and modern attractions, Turkey’s metropolis can be mesmerising. Spending 3 days in Istanbul is a journey through time! This ancient city, where East meets West, is a treasure trove of experiences. This article is meant to be your guide to make the most of every moment during your trip!

I visited Istanbul in early October this year and was greeted with three days of clear blue skies and fantastic weather. While it was supposed to be the end of peak season, the city was still bustling with tourists, and some strategic planning helped us optimize our time, which inspired me to create this article. Culture and History lovers in particular should find a few suitable recommendations here!

⚠️ ATTENTION ⚠️ Prices: We found that due to high inflation rates in Turkey in recent years, most of the prices turned out to be from 3 to 10 times higher than the price indications we saw in our guidebooks. So be mindful of your budgets before taking off and check directly on the websites of the places you intend to visit when possible.

Topkapi Palace Library
The Sultan’s Library in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Day 1 in Istanbul – The Royal Heritage and Sultanahmet

A morning in Topkapi Palace

The royal residence of Sultans for four centuries, Topkapi Palace offers a blend of various architectural styles due to the contributions of its many residents (all Sultans, obviously). To experience its grandeur to the fullest, arrive at opening time to avoid long queues. Allocate 3-4 hours for a comprehensive visit and ensure you explore not only the various rooms of the palace but also the Harem section (two separate tickets). Don’t miss the view over the Bosphorus from the terrace in the 2nd courtyard, the kitchens (very interesting historically speaking), and the incredible Imperial Treasure if you’re a fan of gems.

The Sultan’s apartments in the Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Explore the Cisterna Basilica

One of the many water reservoirs lying beneath Istanbul, this 6th-century structure spans 70×140 meters. A marvel of the Byzantine era, it is particularly offset by the artful lighting. From a place that could be boring to visit to some since it’s quite repetitive, the changing lights and works of art that have been scattered throughout the columns, make it a real highlight. Take your time wandering among its columns and discover the stunning Medusa head sculpture at the far back that makes the cistern’s reputation. The Medusa head testifies of the use of former Greek temples to build these Byzantine marvels.

Cisterna Basilica, Istanbul.

Discover the Blue Mosque

Otherwise known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, this 17th-century imperial mosque stands as a testament to the grandeur of Ottoman architecture. I loved the softness of the colours inside and the delicateness of the motifs. Visit outside prayer hours (and preferably towards the evening to dodge crowds) and remember to dress modestly.

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Dinner with a Panorama in Sultanahmet

Istanbul, with its hilly landscape, boasts a plethora of rooftop dining options. We were staying in the tourist-centric Sultanahmet area in order to optimise time since we were in the city only for three and a half days, so we chose a restaurant with a terrace that offered a view of the Blue Mosque. Although the downside of staying in that area is that you’re constantly being invited into various restaurants all saying they’re good (which might or might not be true), it proved to be a very convenient choice for tourist exploration indeed.

Illuminated Blue Mosque by night.

Day 2 in Istanbul – Spiritual Reverence, a boat trip, and Breathtaking Views

This was my favourite day, although by far the busiest and most tiring! We roamed the city from south to north and wasted a couple of hours lining up. But honestly, the views and experiences were totally worth it.

Explore Eyüp Sultan Mosque & Mausoleum

Named after Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a close companion of Muhammad, this mosque complex exudes a serene ambiance. The surrounding commercial streets and food stalls add to its charm, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the Asian temple environments with which I am so familiar. I particularly enjoyed the sacred mix of places of devotion, mausoleums, and graveyards.

Eyüp Sultan complex, Mosque and Mausoleum.

Try Turkish coffee!

Experience Turkish coffee, where grounded beans are brewed directly in the cup, delivering a taste that’s unexpectedly mellow. We actually bumped into a hidden courtyard where they were serving cakes and drinks under the trees, right in the surroundings of the mosque. It’s been one of the nicest moments of the trip (we had cake for lunch that day!)… unfortunately, I am absolutely unable to find the address of the lovely courtyard anymore (this is my bad habit of not always taking notes of what I do while traveling, sorry!).

Ascend to the panoramic Pierre Loti Hill café

Ascend to Pierre Loti Hill, either by cablecar or a scenic 15-minute walk through the marble graveyard. The cafe at the top provides panoramic views, perfect for contemplative moments. The Eyüp Sultan necropolis, which we visited later on while descending from Pierre Loti Hill café, was peaceful and inspiring. I cannot help but imagine that our dead must be at peace with such a wonderful view.

Panorama from Pierre Loti Hill.

A boat trip along the Golden Horn

Embark on a ferry journey along the Golden Horn, granting you a fresh perspective on Istanbul’s landmarks. The ferry is the regular city one and goes between Karakoy and Eyüp Sultan a couple of times per hour. The best thing was to follow the landmarks on the map and in the guidebook while trying to recognize the monuments visible from the shore. We were able to see from afar the city wall ruins, a few of the most famous mosques, and the intriguing Museum of Transports with its big anchored boats.

Sunset at the top of Galata Tower

This was the highlight of our day! A symbol of the city’s resilience, this 13th-century tower offers a blend of history that you can explore when going down, but most of all breathtaking 360 views over the city. However, be prepared for potential wait times. We queued up for 1.5 hours and were pretty strategic about buying the tickets. I recommend having one person queue for the entrance while the other one queues up for the tickets.

Sunset from Galata Tower.

A night-time cocktail in Beyoglu

The trendy Beyoglu area, around Galata Tower, offers an experience of contemporary Istanbul. We had dinner in one of the many winding cobblestoned streets, super lively and bustling at night. I can recommend the family-run Helvetia, where they serve simple plates of mainly Turkish vegetarian options, that are all delicious and a change from fried or grilled meals. Consider then visiting the Marmara Hotel for a sweeping city view from their rooftop cocktail bar.

Istanbul panorama by night from Marmara Hotel

Day 3 in Istanbul – A Journey through Timeless Cultures & Traditions

Monumental Hagia Sophia

There’s no other word to describe this edifice. A symbol of Istanbul’s diverse religious history, Hagia Sophia has transitioned from a church to a mosque, a museum, and back to a mosque in the past decades. Arriving early can help you bypass long queues: we got discouraged by the huge line for the first two days so decided to head there as early as 8:30 am. It proved smart since we were able to wait only for 30 minutes and enter the motherly building with the first batch of visitors. It was so awe-inspiring we spent almost an hour there.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Shop at the Egyptian Bazaar

Dive into the hustle and bustle of this market to pick up unique souvenirs: from Turkish delights to coffee sets, traditional ceramics, and spices. For budget-friendly options, venture to the surrounding streets rather than the shops inside the covered market. We had mainly prepared cash but my understanding is that most shops accept credit cards, especially as it’s a highly touristic place.

Stroll along the Bosphorus

This was just an interlude, but it allowed me to take in the lively atmosphere with golden boats docking and an array of riverside establishments that I particularly enjoyed discovering.

Along the Bosphorus

Teatime at the Pera Palace Hotel

By now, you must know enjoying teatime at hotels is one of my top “gourmet” activities to indulge in. My friend knows this, and I’m pretty sure he appreciates them almost as much as I do despite his seriousness. Immerse yourself in the Belle Epoque ambiance of the Pera Palace Hotel while savoring traditional Turkish tea or coffee, complemented by treats like milk rice (my absolute favourite, simple but efficient) or baklava. We were even graced by a live afternoon piano session! It was just great.

Attend a Whirling Dervishes performance

Witness the entrancing dance of the Whirling Dervishes, a spiritual experience that aims to bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine: this Muslim group intends to imitate the rotation of the celestial bodies to get closer to God. The show we managed to attend (by receiving a flyer given out on the streets of Sultanahmet) was mainly meant for tourists but was worth it to witness.

A tip: apparently, the shows organised by the Museum of the Dervishes are better in the sense that they should be less busy, but unfortunately the place was closed during our stay.

Whirling Dervishes performance in Istanbul

Bonus: Visit the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

If you have some extra time, this museum offers immensely rich collections of Turkish, Hellenistic, and Roman artifacts. The Museum offers great insight into the archaeological discoveries across the Ottoman Empire territory and focuses on the work of archaeologists. Among the main pieces is the grave that was once sculpted for Alexander the Great. I found it fascinating, and could have spent hours reading about the History and admiring the many sculptures and objects. History and archaeology enthusiasts will just love the visit, I am sure.

Alexander the Great tomb, Istanbul Museum of Archaeology

And thus we conclude our 3-day trip to Istanbul! I hope this was helpful in helping you plan your trip.

Bisous 💋

No Comments

    Leave a Reply