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The Perfect 3-Day Istanbul Itinerary

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Istanbul. Some visitors will only breeze through on an extended layover, while other tourists will end up staying a lifetime. But if you only have 72-hours to explore the sky-high minarets, blood orange sunsets over the Mediterranean, and the hustle and bustle of Ottoman-era Bazaars, we’ve got the perfect itinerary for you.

Many visitors to Istanbul are unaware of the city's shape-shifting nature and its nuances, and barely manage to scratch the surface on having an immersive and truly cultural experience. That's why we've visited several times over the past year to craft the ultimate checklist of what you should see during your visit.

Istanbul sunset

3 Days, 18 Incredible Activities

There isn't just one way to see the city, let alone do it justice in only one visit. In the end, it always boils down to which side of it you're most eager to explore. Is it the primeval Greek trading hub of Byzantium? The glorious and eternal Constantinople? Or is it the much newer, young, and more trendy side of Istanbul?

Below, we will tell you precisely what is the best way to organize a 3-day trip to Turkey's number one metropolitan gem, some of the landmarks you can't miss during your visit, and a mix of what to see for history, culture, shopping, and fun.

galata tower

*This itinerary has been planned for those who have a full 3 days in Istanbul. We would advise you to plan an extra two days for flying in and out of the city.

Day 1 – Old Constantinople And Other Historical Districts

We suggest starting your first full day in Istanbul in Sultanahmet, located in the heart of the Historical Peninsula – the strip of land jutting out into the sea where Constantinople was once confined to, and thus its oldest district.

After wolfing down your hearty Turkish breakfast either at your hotel, or one of the city's adorable cat-populated cafes, head first thing to this ancient plaza, where the Old Hippodrome of Constantinople was located.

Here, you'll be met with views of two of Istanbul's most iconic sights: Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Located on opposite sides of the same square, these two buildings face each other off in a permanent struggle for dominance.

Hagia Sophia & The Blue Mosque

(09:00 – 10:00)

Entry: Free

Dresscode for men: Preferably long-sleeve shirts and trousers, no hats or head coverings unless it's for religious purposes

Dresscode for women: They must cover their heads and are advised to dress in a conservative manner

First, walk towards the center of the plaza. Admire the elaborate fountain displays – if you're lucky enough they're on during your visit – and the colorful arrangement of blossoms. Take your time taking in the scenery, the mosques, the surrounding Roman ruins – perhaps, grab a simit on the go ahead of proceeding to your first official attraction.

That will be the Ottoman pearl of the Blue Mosque, and for that, you will be walking west. The Blue Mosque isn't hard to differentiate from other mosques in the city, or even Hagia Sophia herself: unlike the pink-colored marble of the latter, it reflects a grayish-white hue when the sun shines down upon it, revealing the intricate 17th century details.

blue mosque istanbul
The Blue Mosque

Entering the mosque, which is in fact named after Sultan Ahmed, the same Sultan who renames the Old Roman Hippodrome you're in, you will soon learn why ‘Blue' is a more appropriate description. The interior is beautifully-decorated with hand-painted azure tiles, making this one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Istanbul.

hagia sofia
Hagia Sofia

The Hagia, or ‘Saint' Sophia traces its origins back to Roman times, when it was erected as a Christian cathedral and the heart of the Christian Orthodox world, until it fell to Ottoman forces upon the decline of Rome and the conquest of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Being 1485 years old, this is the oldest and arguably most impressive of the two.

Throughout Istanbul's history it has been a religious site for Turkey's Muslim population, and except for a brief period as a museum – from the democratization of Turkey until the early 21st century – the building's newly-added minarets leave no question as to whose deity it serves today. Even then, walking into Hagia Sophia will hardly feel like stepping into a conventional mosque.

Moving onto the cathedral's former nave, currently the mosque's prayer hall, you should take your time gazing up, once more, though this time it's not a Roman Constantinople that will stare back at you. The post-1500s interior is richly decorated with huge mosaics in Islamic calligraphy, and the indelible Ottoman mark is evident.

Hagia sofia istanbul inside

In spite the many facets it's assumed throughout History – cathedral, mosque, museum, then mosque once more – Saint Sophia is a stubborn old lady who refuses to dim its Roman essence, all the while proudly wearing a Muslim attire bestowed upon it by its Turkish conquerors. Still to this day, it is modern-day Istanbul's piece de resistance.

  • Bonus: if you're a fellow Roman Empire enthusiast, perhaps you would like to check out the Column of Constantine, one of Constantinople's best preserved free-standing columns and a UNESCO-recognized structure dating back to the 4th century. It is free to visit and only a 13-minute walk from Sultanahmet Square.

Topkapi Palace

(10:00 – 11:30)

Entry: 320 Turkish liras

There are no dressing rules

Still within the precinct of the Old Hippodrome, head next to Topkapi, one of Istanbul's most important museums and a large Ottoman palace built in the 15th century, with the sole purpose of housing the Sultan and its court. Inside, they have kept most of the bygone Empire's most precious belongings, including:

  • Beautiful rugs with intricate patterns as old as 500 years;
  • Centuries-old clocks;
  • Scepters and swords;
  • Moses' staff;
  • Hair from the beard of Prophet Mohammed;
  • The Sultan's vests and more.

Aside from the Historical side of things, you're free to visit the lush gardens, the Hamman once housing the women of the court (and the Sultan's many lovers). Since the palace was built facing the Bosphorus, tourists are also graced with unparalleled views of the iconic waterway, and of Istanbul's Asian – or Anatolian – side in the distance.

Istanbul is packed with museums and heritage landmarks, and in order to save up some cash, I recommend you get a five-day Istanbul Museum Pass, granting you a single entry to each of the city's top-rated attractions, including Topkapi Palace. According to the official website, the price is currently 700 Turkish lira, or roughly USD 37.67.

I know, the U.S. dollar is absolutely crushing it worldwide.

Basilica Cistern

(11:30 – 12:30)

Entry: 190 Turkish lira

There are no dressing rules.

You still have some time before lunchtime, and to top off your introduction to Istanbul as Constantinople, I would advise you to leg it to the Basilica Cistern before the crowds start gathering. This is one of the most impressive landmarks in the city, and one that even featured on our list of 6 underground European attractions to escape the heat over summer.

Built in the 6th century, it was but a water reservoir for the Roman Great Palace, toppled by the city's later Turkish makeover, part of a complex system of hundreds of similar cisterns lying beneath Istanbul. They all resemble an underwater cathedral with tall, sturdy columns holding the below-ground ceiling, but this is arguably the best preserved.

Basilica Cistern

Personally, I believe either early in the morning, or lunchtime when most are feeling peckish and are in search of a bite to eat are two of the best times to visit, as overtourism can get a bit too much in other peak visitation hours. You should plan accordingly as tickets can sell out quickly, and this attraction does not seem to be included on the Museum Pass.

Once underground, make sure you look for the upside-down and sideways Medusa heads, and sculptures supporting two of the Roman columns. Nowadays, due to obvious reasons, the cistern isn't filled with water to its full capacity to allow for visitation, so they shouldn't be difficult to spot – and if you're a fan of Greek mythology, I'd suggest you read up on the reason why the heads are lying in such an unnatural angle beforehand.

Don't forget, of course, to snap as many pictures as you can for the ‘Gram, especially if the cistern is empty. This is indisputably one of the most photogenic and dreamy spots in all of Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar and Lunch

(12:30 – 14:00)

In reality, you could spend an entire day at the Grand Baazar wandering through its ancient covered streets and over 4000 shops, offering everything from carpets to spices, and all things in between.

For the sake of this itinerary, we're going to take an entire day and squeeze it into 90 minutes, just enough time to grab a bite at a food cart or cafe inside the bazaar, and to check out some niche shops of what you're most interested in buying.

During my most recent visit to the Grand Bazaar, I was in the market to buy gold. Many people think the bazaar is just a tourist trap and a place where they're likely to get ripped off, but the truth is far from that. People have been trading gold inside the Grand Bazaar for hundreds of years and many shops are owned by multi-generation jewelers. With the great exchange rate of the USD, combined with the ability to barter directly with suppliers, it's a fantastic place to purchase gold right now.

gold in grand bazaar istanbul

You can make your way to a particular area of the market based on what you're most interested in, whether that be antiques, clothing, carpets, leather, furniture, or other specialty shops.

Alternative idea: If you've been to the Grand Bazaar before, or the thought of a market with over 250,000 visitors per day overwhelms you, head to a bougie lunch in the area instead. Just 3 minutes on foot from the bazaar is an ultra-premium restaurant called Nusr-Et, which is sure to impress even the most discerning diner. If you're after a budget lunch experience, try Pudding Shop – Lale Restaurant that is popular with both tourists and locals alike.

Nusr-Et Restaurant

Go For A Stroll In The Colorful Balat & Fener

(14:00 – 15:00)

Entry: Free

Open-air attraction where no dressing rules apply.

Istanbul is comprised of many layers, and during a prolonged weekend, we don't have enough time to tick all of the boxes on our bucket list. So we'll need to be practical. There are tons of Instagrammable districts full of colorful houses around the whole city, both on the European and the Asian sides, but for a newcomer, maybe they should be focus on these two:

Balat & Fener, two historical neighborhoods that now practically form a single entity.

Reaching Balat or Fener from Sultanahmet Square, where you started your tour, shouldn't be more than 20 Turkish lira, according to this online taxi calculator, but make sure you check official fares on the BiTaksi app and beware of taxi scams and dodgy drivers as Turkey has been recently named the fifth country where these incidents are most likely to happen.

Arriving to Balat & Fener, you will be met with the classic European-style streets leading to a hilltop monument – more specifically, the 15th century Greek Patriarchate & St George's Church. Prior to the First World War, Greeks were one of the largest ethnic groups in Turkey, owing it to the fact that, in Ancient Times, Constantinople was Greco-Roman territory.

Now they are a minority across the entire country, including Istanbul, but the vibes in Balat & Fener are notoriously distinct from other districts like Sultanahmet and Galata. It is incredibly scenic, with tall windows and very colorful wooden facades that are an Ottoman trademark making for beautiful landscaping.

the colored houses of balat istanbul

Besides the ‘Colored Houses of Balat', you don't want to miss the Neo-Byzantine-styled St Stephen's Bulgarian Orthodox Church, another mark of the area's traditionally Christian nature and of another of Istanbul's historical residents, the Bulgarians. It was famously made out of prefabricated cast iron, and it is one of the few ‘iron churches' left.

Istanbul Photo Session

(15:00 to 17:00)

Just before the golden hour hits is the perfect time to take the most memorable and beautiful photos on this incredible rooftop studio “Teras Istanbul” located in the Balat neighborhood. Acclaimed photographer Ahmet Bolat creates stunning photos and videos for tourists, with the ultimate backdrop of the city behind. You can wear your own clothes or go through his extensive collection of dresses and authentic Turkish costumes for both men and women.

Entry fee, costume rental, and complete photoshoot starts at 100 Euros per person, which is a fantastic rate for such professional and jaw-dropping photos. My friend @dearalyne and I had a photoshoot done together and below is just one of the incredible photos he took of us.

Alternative Idea: Walk Along The Walls of Constantinople Up To The Seven Towers Castle

(16:00 – 17:00)

Entry: Walls are free, Castle/Fortress just 5TL

Open air attraction where no dressing rules apply.

As an alternative to a photoshoot, you can dive into more history with the Seven Towers Castle (also known as Yedikule Fortress) and the ancient walls.

The Walls of Constantinople are where the History of Turkey commences, and some of it is still visible along the Ancient City's northernmost flank – either crumbling in ruins, or beautifully restored in line with the original Theodosian construction. If your true fascination lies in Constantinople, the ancient Queen toppled by Istanbul, then these are a must-visit.

Unfortunately, seeing the walls extending for miles on end isn't easy, unless you're simply looking to catch a glimpse of them on your way from the Historical Peninsula to the airport or other far-out districts, but you can walk from Balat/Fener – the trajectory should take you between one and two hours – or call a taxi.

The castle was built in 1548 fully enclosing a section of the anicent walls, and most people use the fortress as a starting off point to walk along the city walls.

Yedikule Fortress
Yedikule Fortress

Dinner at Seven Hills Restaurant

(19:30 – 21:00)

Seven Hills is a magical venue for dinner boasting 360 degree views of Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The fare is traditional Turkish seafood, with a few items for vegetarian guests as well.

Seven hills restaurant with views
Seven Hills Restaurant

Experience Istanbul Nightlife In Taksim


End the day with immersing yourself in the nightlife happening throughout the Taksim neighborhood. Head to Istiklal Street and you'll instantly be transported into the energetic hub of the city with unlimited things to see, do and taste. Although there are endless options in the area, we recommend checking out Parantez Bistro, Kulp Bar, Nevizade and Asmalı Mescit for a bite or a drink.

bars in taksim

Day 2 – Galata & Gems Of The Bosphorus

Explore The Galata Neighborhood

(8:00 to 10:00)

Entry to Galata Tower: 100 Turkish Lira

There is no dressing code to be observed.

It's day two and you probably woke up earlier than you were expecting to the dissonant tune of a call to prayer emanating from a nearby mosque. No matter where you're staying in the city, it's the first music you'll be hearing every morning, and that's not exactly something to be upset at: it's a quintessential part of the Istanbul Experience.

Now, for the first item on our list.

Whether it's by private means or public transportation, this will entail traveling on one of the inlet's two main bridges, possibly Galata Bridge. Centuries ago, fulfilling this crossing, you would be officially exiting the city into foreign territory.

As you cross Galata Bridge, try and picture the duo of ancient cities encircled by their own walls, and the complex defense methods they used to employ to keep each other safe. Facing east, you should be able to get some picture book-worthy views of Galata Tower, the district's most easily recognized landmark, and our first official stop today.

A narrow turkish street by the Galata Tower, Istanbul
Galata Tower

Breakfast by Galata Tower

(8:30 to 9:15)

There are many ways to reach Galata Tower once you're dropped off in Karakoy, though I would advise you to get off, or request that your driver parks at the bottom of the hill. Yes, Galata is steeper than Sultanahmet, and while it is not the easiest of climbs in the hotter months, the atmosphere is unparalleled and surely worth the effort.

As you slowly make your way up to Galata Tower from the maze of cobblestone streets that flow into it like an upward spiral, take in the vibrant colors of the traditional houses around you, the charming little cafes intertwined with book shops and souvenir shops, and the street vendors selling an unlimited variety of Turkish goodies.

Feel free to sample some salted peanuts or a small-size balik ekmek – I won't judge you – but don't go indulging just yet. Whichever path you're following, step towards Buyuk Hendek Street, a small, cafe-lined street feeding into the Galata Quarter, where the tower is located. This is where you'll be having breakfast for day two, and watching the clip below, you will understand why we picked this place in particular:

This restaurant is called Rose Papillon and it has privileged views of Istanbul's most famous medieval tower, and you've probably guessed already: their Turkish breakfast spread is all-encompassing and simply to die for. Freshly-picked olives, a selection of cheese, ham, traditional pastries, eggs, honey, and whatnot.

Climb Galata Tower For Views Over Istanbul

(9:15 to 9:45)

Entry to Galata Tower: 200 TL

Tickets to Galata cost only 100 Turkish Lira, or the equivalent to six bucks at the current rate – though that's highly volatile – and I urge you to muster the strength to climb those 146 steps. Making your way up, you will pass through different levels of History that still feels pretty tangible.

A functioning museum, the inside of Galata Tower houses numerous artifacts that are illustrative of Istanbul in the many shapes it assumed over the centuries. Yes, the views from the very top are breathtaking, but you'll want to take your time on every level, slowly making your way up via the spiraling and surprisingly narrow Genoese stairs, and peeking inside any of the fixed sightseeing binoculars fixed along the tourist path.

Alternatively, you can take the lift straight to the upper level and then climb down, but once you reach the viewing deck, you'll understand why the ticket is such a bargain. Beneath you, you'll have privileged views of the streets of Galata, and in the distance, across the sunlight-tinged waters of the Golden Horn, the Historical Peninsula which you toured extensively the day before.

Loud. Messy. Colorful. Rough around the edges. A minaret-dotted skyline that looks every incongruous as it is bewitching.

Trust me, it's a sight that will be imprinted in your mind forever.

Strolls, Shopping, and Lunch Around Nisantasi

10:00 – 13:00

Stepping out of the living history lesson and into a modern and quite posh side of Istanbul, we head to Nisantasi, where the young, rich, and beautiful come out to play in the many high-end luxury boutiques, trendy eateries, and glitzy hotels. You'll find everything here from Gucci to Louis Vuitton, along with gorgeous cafes with outdoor patios, offering healthy quinoa bowls and superfood smoothies, to high-end bars with master mixologists.

Stop for lunch at The House Cafe Atiye which features a lush garden-like courtyard and a diverse menu that looks more like it belongs in Los Angeles than Istanbul.

Kashlee in Nisantasi istanbul outside of gucci
Simit and Gucci in Nisantasi

Experience True Ottoman Imperial Grandeur At Dolmabahçe Palace

(13:30 to 15:00)

Tickets for Entry: 200 TL for all areas

No particular dress code

Even a quick visit to Dolmabahçe Palace is worth the trip. This imperial gem sits right on the shores of the Bosphorus, on the European side, and is a short tram, bus, or cab ride away from Galata, where we started the tour this morning.

Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace

One reason why you should make sure Dolmabahçe is included in your itinerary: it is one of the few places in Istanbul where the shadow of the Ottoman Empire, the colossal force that kept the entire Balkan Peninsula under a tight grip for nearly half a millennia, is still displayed, in its immaculate and revoltingly opulent form.

Crossing it’s high gates, that glisten golden in the sun, and taking the quickest of glances at the inner patios, commemorative fountains and Mediterranean gardens that form a complex ecosystem, even before entering the main palace itself, you will understand why Historians have deemed this ‘Türkyie’s Versailles’.

You won’t be allowed to take pictures inside, and while that’s surely a downside as we all love to keep memories of the places we’ve been, the gold-encrusted colonnades, and the impossibly intricate frescoes emblem on the ceiling of the Grand State Hall will cause enough of an impression for you to remember it forever.

You should take at least 1.5 hours to fully explore the palace grounds, including the Sultan’s abode, the Harem and the gardens.

An Evening In Besiktas

(17:00 to 20:00+)

Besiktas is the perfect area to unwind, let loose, and enjoy some of the local nightlife. Along streets like Sair Nedim, you'll find an eclectic mix of chill cafes, popular restaurants, cocktail bars, and even the occasional club with DJs or live music. This is the kind of area where you can choose your level of excitement and participation. You can simply have a good meal and return back to your hotel, or stay out until 2:00 am bar hopping with new friends.

besiktas streets

Alternative Idea: If the young and hip bars and cafes of Besiktas are not your cup of tea, head to the restaurant Sunset, about a 15-25 minute cab ride from the area. Sunset is on the pricier side when it comes to restaurants in Istanbul, but you'll soon understand why. The venue is glamorous, the food is high-end and the views from atop the hill are to die for.

DAY 3 – Asian Side of Istanbul

Take the Ferry to Kadikoy

(9:00 -10:00)

Depending on where your hotel is, you're likely to find a ferry terminal that will take you directly to the Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, bypassing all the car traffic. The ferries run as often as every 15 minutes and cost around $1 USD. Depending on which neighborhood you're coming from, the ride can be as quick as 15 minutes or as long as 45 minutes.

A Day in Kadikoy and Moda

(10:00 – 14:00)

Without a doubt, Kadıköy and Moda are the beating hearts of the Asian part of the city, bustling with local life and full of energy.

Walking up and down Bagdat Caddesi is an activity all on its own. The street is over 9 kilometers long and has been voted one of the best shopping streets in the world, with some calling it the “Rodeo Drive” of Istanbul due to the abundance of clothing stores and boutiques. Bagdat Caddesi is also a great place to sit on a patio and have lunch or another cup of çay while you people watch.

cafe in bagdat caddesi kadikoy

Next, you can get away from the city vibes by grabbing some food for a picnic or a blanket and a good book and heading to Moda Coastal Park. This coastal green park makes you feel like you're worlds away from Istanbul, although you're just steps from the busy streets of Moda. There are walking trails, outdoor exercise equipment, benches, and shady trees to sit under, or electric scooters to tour the entire park efficiently.

busy street in Moda Kadikoy

If you still have time, you can check out the fresh fish and produce market at Kadikoy Bazaar, ride the historic tram through the city streets, or go antique shopping.

Hammam and Turkish Bath

14:00- 16:00

Finish your afternoon of relaxation with a full Turkish bath experience.

Just a 30-minute ride on the M4 transit line from the Kadikoy ferry terminal, you'll find the historic hammam and Turkish bathhouse, Süreyya Hammam. While there may be more famous hammams on the European side, none are as good of a deal as this. For 130 TL (about $7 USD) you get 3-hours of access to the entire hammam including: a Turkish bath, pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, slippers, towels, and personal locker.

For an additional 90 TL ($5) you can add in the service of having someone give you the Turkish bath experience by foaming and scrubbing your body. For 220 TL ($12) you can add in a 60-minute massage.

I mean, did you even go to Turkey if you didn't have a traditional Turkish Bath experience?

Hammam in Istanbul Sureyy
Photo Credit: Sureyya Hammam

Alternative Idea: Kuzguncuk. In case you don't want a spa experience and would rather explore yet another neighborhood of Istanbul's Asian side, head to Kuzguncuk. Kuzguncuk is a melting pot of Jewish, Armenian, Greek, and Muslim communities featuring well-preserved Ottoman houses, trendy cafes, and restaurants, combining both tradition and modernity on its streets. You'll find temples, mosques, churches, and other religious buildings all co-existing in harmony.

Kuzguncuk neighborhood in Istanbul


(16:00 – 22:00+)

Just a short drive from Kuzguncuk back to the European side of Istanbul, you'll hit the most charming neighboorhood called Bebek. Keeping with our relaxed schedule today, Bebek is a place of relief from the concrete and chaos of Istanbul. In fact, it truly feels like you're in a different city altogether, as it has more of a seaside vacation town vibe.

Bebek waterfront in Istanbul

You can walk along the waterfront, rent a boat and go for a short Bosphorus tour, or simply park at one of the restaurants with a gorgeous water view for dinner. Alexandra is a charming bar with a hidden rooftop lounge perfect for indulging in a cocktail at sunset. Then head to the waterfront restaurant in the Bebek Hotel and enjoy dinner while watching the yachts and pleasure boats drive by. If you have an open night for accomodation, we recommend staying at the Bebek Hotel as well. It's rooms are designed to look more the inside of a vintage yacht than a typical hotel, with 5-star services and ammenities.

The Stay Bebek hotel in istanbul
Photo Credit: Bebek Hotel

Where To Stay in Istanbul

Since our itinerary has you covering multiple neighborhoods across the vast city of Istanbul, you have a few options:

  1. Choose a more centrally located hotel in Galata, Karakoy, or Besiktas
  2. Move your accommodation nightly based on the area you are touring that day
  3. Stay in more budget-friendly Kadikoy on the Asian side, as most activities in this itinerary can be reached by ferry in less time it takes to get through Istanbul traffic.
Hotel Recommendations based on the above options
  1. I chose to stay at the 5-star luxury hotel Shangri-La in Besiktas due to its super central location and easy access to a ferry port. It's also within walking distance of Nistantasi, one of my favorite areas of the city. Rates start around $500 USD per night.
Alyne Tamir at the Shangri-La Istanbul

Other options in the area are (mid-range) The W Hotel with rates starting at $150 USD per night and the AC Hotel Istanbul with rates starting at $110.

2. If you would like to move locations based on the above itinerary, I would suggest staying the first night in Sultanahmet, the second night in Galata, and the third night in Bebek.

3. Staying in Kadikoy is a delight to the pocketbook. You can find a very high-rated hotel (at least a 9 out of 10 based on hundreds of traveler ratings) directly beside the ferry terminal, from $40 to $80 USD per night. Some examples are the Ikiz Kanak Bosphorus Hotel and Loka Suites. Decent hostels in this neighborhood run around $15- $20 per night.

While you might think Kadikoy is far away from the most popular tourist attractions on the European side, the easy ferry access to and from the neighborhood bypasses traffic and can shorten overall travel times despite distance.

Istanbul is a city you could visit over a dozen times and still never scratch the surface of all its wonder and secrets. If you can, stay as long as possible to really discover and explore as many of its neighborhoods as you can before continuing onto what else Türkiye has to offer. Or of course, return and expand on this 3-day itinerary based on what stole your heart the first time around.

For history buffs who want more of a background and introduction to Istanbul before they arrive, continuing reading below.

The Shortest Possible Introduction To The Mighty Istanbul

Once described by British author Philip Mansel as the ‘City of the World's Desire', Istanbul has been a hot topic for centuries, long before it became one of the world's leading tourist destinations even. A cross-continental behemoth, it is perched on Europe's Southeastern-most tip, where a narrow sea separates it from the Asian continent.

But then again, it constantly defies geography: a great deal of Istanbul's charm lies in the fact that, despite being born European, it refuses to be confined to the Europe's shores. It reaches across the Bosphorus Strait, the strip of water linking the Mediterranean and Black Seas and serving as a natural continental boundary, its veins stretching deep into the Asian side.

Home to nearly 20 million inhabitants in conservative estimates, Istanbul is a unique megalopolis in the sense that it incorporates traits of two cultures: it has both a Southern European flavor, evidenced by the splendor of its Greco-Roman monuments and wide, pedestrianized boulevards lined with historical buildings… all with a distinct Western Asian aura that.

Here you'll find bazaars, grand Ottoman-era palaces and former Christian cathedrals-turned-mosque, and other Seljuk influences, especially South of the Bosphorus.

It wasn't always this way.

Like any major European, or in this case, Eurasian city, Istanbul has undergone dramatic changes during its sixteen centuries of existence – or dare I say, Constantinople? In case you weren't aware, etymologically-speaking, the City of Constantine is Istanbul's historical name, and the one it wielded both as a weapon, and a relic from Antiquity until the 1920s.

The Republic of Türkiye is a relatively new concept, dating back to the First World War only. Prior to that, the lands comprising modern-day Turkey were part of the Ottoman Empire, whose domains extended from the Middle East to the Balkans – the same European peninsula where Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and the like are located.

Traveling further in time, Constantinople, as Istanbul was known back then, once proudly held the status of ‘Second Rome' as the easternmost branch of this Empire, Byzantium. You might have heard of the Byzantines back in school, and I promise not to bore you with all the details, but one thing you should know about Istanbul as the Byzantine capital: it was once Christian Europe's main hub, both economically, and religiously.

Depending on the historical period at hand, Istanbul has adopted many different facets, and even different names. It's been:

  • Lygos, as its Greek founders baptized it
  • Byzantium, how the Classical Era Greeks renamed it
  • Constantinople, under the rule of Rome and its eastern outpost, the Byzantine Empire
  • Finally Istanbul, upon its Turkification

‘City of the World's Desire', as Mansel brilliantly puts it. Istanbul has always been the center of attention in the Roman micro-cosmos, guarding the gates of both the Black and Eastern Mediterranean Seas, and serving as a garrison for Europe in the face of Arab threats. Needless to say, we no longer live in Medieval Times, and the new Istanbul is but Turkey's largest, and arguably most exciting city.

Crossing the Bosphorus Strait is, in the very least, a bucket list experience, whether it's taking the Marmaray fast train traveling beneath the seabed between the European and Asian sides, or even hopping on one of the many ferries, but I should make sure I get my point across: this is a city of many layers, and one that has been under the control of two of the most emblematic empires known to humanity.

Whoever holds the key to Constantinople, holds the key to the world.

Contributor: Vinicius Costa

Travel Off Path was a guest of Go Türkiye who helped the creation of this itinerary by hosting some of our accomodation and attractions. Our opinions, recommendations and suggestions remain our own.

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Monday 17th of October 2022

Impressive city and very well written article. I can’t wait to visit this city again as there is so much to see. One thing to note is that with its new airport, it has excellent connections with many cities in the world and has been ranked by Condé Nast the best airport.