Istanbul deserves a visit. The ancient “City of a Hundred Names” has witnessed more than just frequent name-changing over the centuries. From its original Thracian settlement as Lygos, to the Greek colony of Byzantium, for a brief period “New Rome”, then Constantinople (and many more in between, counting at least 11 previous names in total), this city has seen more than a few different leaders and cultures prosper, thrive, and eventually dwindle. The city shows its scars proudly, each generation making its mark on the city architecturally, artistically, and culturally.
This truly magnificent historical gem deserves your full attention, but if you can’t swing a long vacation to see it all, should you bother trying to scratch the surface?
I say, yes. If you happen to be nearby, I recommend a visit to Istanbul, even if you can only spare the great city three days of your vacation.
Here’s how I would recommend spending them, to make the most of your short visit…
Stay in the “old city,” Sultanahmet. There are tons of boutique hotels in the district and all within walking distance of at least 10 of the top sites in the entire city. This will locate you ideally to be able to see as much as you can, as quickly as you can.
In a single, albeit rushed day you could knock out the top seven sights all within a few hundred meters of one another on Sultahnamet Square: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Yerebatan Cistern, the Archaeology and Mosaic Museums (two different places), Topkapi Palace and the Palace Rose Gardens. If you are an ancient art lover you’ll want to dedicate more time to the Archeology Museum, but even an avid art lover could be satisfied with a (richly filled) hour here. From your hotel, no matter where you are in the district, you should be less than a 10-minute walk from Sultanahment Square. If you are ambitious and still have some daylight to spare, you could try to also make your way to the further afield mosques of Süleymaniye Mosque and the Bayezid Mosque. The Süleymaniye is a personal favorite, with fewer crowds and more green spaces than the other city mosques I visited. The attendants are especially helpful here, offering to answer any questions about the sight or the religion to all visitors.
The next day walk to the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Bazaar—or take the tram, the Grand Bazaar is just two stops away from Sultanahmet Square. Make sure to check out the leeches and live animals for sale at one of the Spice Bazaar entrances—the one that shares a plaza with the New Mosque. Leeches are still medically used in Turkey and can be found by the dozen trapped in water bottles and waiting to be of service, showing off their suckers to the passersby. If you can find it, look for the secret staircase that leads up from an alley of the Spice Bazaar to a hidden mosque: Rüstem Paşa. From the Spice Bazaar, look for the single, relatively short minaret and follow it to the stone staircase. From there, walk through the New Mosque, which artistically was my favorite, but very well-used and crowded with both worshippers and tourists. If you still have energy, catch the tram across Galata Bridge and walk up one of the steep hills to have dinner at a café overlooking the city and Marmara Sea. You’ll be facing the sunset as it passes behind Süleymaniye Mosque across the water.
From Sultanahmet you can also easily reach most of the more distant sites. The walk to the port Eminönü takes about 20 minutes if you walk along the coastline, it’s a beautiful walk along the water. If you’re in more of a hurry, you can cut across the peninsula and the walk to Eminönü port in about 10 minutes. Grab a ferry to Üsküdar to officially step foot on Asia–a must. As actor/comedian Will Arnett put it, it’s a good place to go for those short on time and/or money, but with a travel bucket list: “I went because I’m cheap. I knew that Istanbul straddles both Asia and Europe, so I knew I could knock both those out with one trip. I landed on the European side, then took a boat across and was in Asia. Bucket list—done.” While you may have higher standards for your bucket list, this is a valid point. Culturally the two sides are not ostensibly different, but the city is in fact on two continents and it would be silly to visit and not take advantage of this singular opportunity. My personal recommendation is to take the long ferry ride all the way up the Bosphorus River to Anadolu Kavagi, a small fishing town at the outlet to the Black Sea and located on the Asian side.
The day trip to Anadolu Kavagi affords you the opportunity to see nearly all the main sights Istanbul offers along the banks of the Bosphorus in fast forward…and the town at the end is itself a hidden gem. If short on time, I posit that you can skip the guided palace tours and get a fine taste for their Sultanly splendor from the ferry. You will pass several: Topkapi, Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi are the most notable, but many a Sultan’s less-magnificent summer home are dotted along the banks. You’ll also see all of their associated mosques, most of the palaces had their own built just off-site. You can take in Rumeli Fortress, a 15th century ruin, and plenty of impressive 19th century Ottoman structures. For those with a taste for luxury real estate, the sumptuous river-front homes of the rich line the banks around the Kanlica port—a voyeuristic treat.
Anadolu Kavagi is a small and simple fishing village that makes its only money from the ferry loads of tourists who come to eat lunch before returning back to the city center (get ready for some fresh seafood). Restaurants hail nationalities as the ferry approaches the dock, enthusiastically waving Spanish, British, American, Dutch, Turkish and Italian flags. But the real treat lies at the top of a 30-45 minute hike uphill. From this promontory you can inspect the remains of 15th century Yoros Castle. Bang on the big metal door you’ll find at the very peak. You may see other (mostly only Turkish) tourists doing the same thing, or you may catch someone coming out from behind the door. After a few bangs to wake him from his nap, the old tower watchman will come and open the door for you, allowing you to pass through to one of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen. The area is a danger zone, technically closed off to visitors for safety. You’ll see more dangerous areas inside that are additionally roped off. I imagine you can cross these boundaries easily…at your own risk. A few lazy dogs, the tower guard, and only a small handful of other in-the-know tourists will be your competition for some truly breathtaking panoramic photos (and some great shots of you and yours on a little rock seat that frames you perfectly in the middle of the outlet to the Black Sea). Only one cruise operator makes this trip: Şehir Hatları.
If travelling with kids, try to take the time at the end of one of your busy days to travel to the edge of the city boundary (maybe a 30 minute bus ride) to visit Miniatürk. It’s a large park filled with scale models of Turkey’s most impressive offerings; from architecture, to engineering, to geography, they offer a bite-size version of all the best the country can offer. They even offer two models of no-longer-extant sights, based on drawings and historical accounts. The cafeteria offers refreshments as well as arcade games and rides for kids. On the outskirts of the miniature city the park also offers a giant trampoline and playground. My fiancé and I found it to be a fun and informative afternoon (even without kids!).