In each Blitz Tourism segment, I offer sample itineraries to travelers who have limited time to explore a city. Hopefully, I can help you make the most of your visit or share a little inspiration if you’re planning your trip and don’t know where to start.
In Classic Istanbul, I provide visitors with a glimpse into the Sultanahmet and Bazaar neighborhoods, located on the European side of the city and easily accessible by metro, bus, and streetcar. The Sultanahmet is where most travelers spend the bulk of their time, and even a cursory Internet search about what to do can overwhelm any out-of-towner. If you have more than one day to spend in Istanbul (and you should – the city deserves about five or six days of exploration), I’d recommend you book accommodations outside the Sultanahmet and dedicate an afternoon to map-less wandering. However, this sample itinerary is designed to get you into the heart of one of the world’s great cities.
Start your day off at the Aya Sophia Museum, which began as a Christian church in 537 A.D. and was converted into a mosque in 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror took control of Constantinople. The structure bears its rich and complicated history on its walls – literally. Be sure not to miss the beautiful Christian mosaics that have been diligently restored after spending centuries buried beneath plaster. Geographically and culturally, Istanbul has one foot in Europe and the other in the Middle East, and nowhere is this tug felt more acutely than in the Aya Sophia. Plan one hour for your visit. The Aya Sophia has a lovely, reasonably priced cafe with an outdoor terrace if you find yourself in need of refreshments. I recommend the lemonade, especially on a hot day!
Next, visit the Topkapi Palace, which is just a short walk from the Aya Sophia. If you’re expecting the glitz and glamour of Europe’s other great palaces in London, Paris, or Vienna, you might be slightly underwhelmed by austerity of the exterior. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “palace,” my mind immediately conjures up the all-encompassing grandeur of Versailles. When Kevin and I first approached Topkapi Palace, I dubiously asked him if we were at the correct site. Since he’d visited Istanbul before, he assured me that we were, in fact, standing in front of the great Ottoman palace. The photo on the left shows the palace’s entrance, and I found it to be more reminiscent of a fortress, not a royal residence. For my readers craving a little opulence, don’t worry: the inside of Topkapi Palace will blow you away. You will have to pay a separate entrance fee if you want to tour the Harem, but I highly suggest you do so, as Kevin and I agreed that the Harem is the highlight of the entire palace. While strolling about the Harem and palace, take the time to admire the intricate blue and gold tiles that adorn most rooms. In Islam, it’s considered sacrilegious to make art depicting the human body – creating the human, or animal, form is Allah’s unique right. This is why the walls of the Topkapi Palace are covered in detailed, oftentimes abstract, depictions of nature. The colorful artistry of Topkapi Palace is a wonderful breath of fresh air when compared to the portrait-studded chateaus of Western and Central Europe that tend to feature emperors, kings, and dukes with large egos and fat pocketbooks. Allot an hour and a half to thoroughly explore Topkapi Palace and the Harem. I should note that visitors cannot tour just the Harem; you must pay for entry into the Palace and then purchase your tickets for the Harem.
Take a break from curated history and high-brow culture to explore the Grand Baazar, the famous labyrinth of shops, vendors, and food stands that sits in the heart of Istanbul. If you promised friends and family some souvenirs, this is the place to go crazy. Bartering is not only encouraged, it’s expected. Here, you’ll find everything from small rugs to dishware to typical tourist kitsch. Make sure you have ample cash on you before; very few, if any, of the vendors accept credit cards and the ATM’s available in the baazar don’t seem all that secure. Also, keep your wallet in your front pocket, retain a firm grip on your handbag, and just be aware of your surroundings – nothing sours a travel day quite like pick-pocketing.
While you’re wandering the seemingly endless halls of the Grand Bazaar, keep an eye out for the many Istanbul natives who flock to their favorite stall to stock up on necessities or to chat with vendors, who might be a longtime friend. It’s rare when travelers can souvenir shop in a place that also caters to locals! Also try to keep track of how many female vendors you’ll see – after my two visits to the Bazaar, I was able to count the total number of women-run stalls on one hand. Grab some lunch at one of the many kebab or Turkish pizza shops surrounding the Bazaar, which is its own distinct neighborhood not typically explored by tourists. If you plan on visiting one of the neighborhoods’ many mosques, come prepared with loose-fitting, conservative clothing. Female travelers who plan on visiting more than the Blue Mosque should carry a spare scarf; some mosques, like the Blue Mosque, have headscarves women may borrow, but most do not.
If the weather is pleasant, stroll down to the Bosphorus waterfront and enjoy an evening cruise along the water. Particularly during the “on-season,” you should find no shortage of companies offering tours, and there is an option for every budget. Before handing over money and hopping on board, ask the tour guide when the next boat leaves – when Kevin and I visited in September 2015, we excitedly jumped at the chance to cruise the Bosphorus for only $4 USD each, only to have to sit in the harbor for nearly an hour until the boat filled to the brim. Sure, we had good seats, but we had to listen to a man yell, “Bosphorus Cruise, twelve lira!” into a microphone every twenty seconds. Nothing like an Istanbul sales pitch, am I right? The whole experience, though, was completely worth it. Let me warn you now: Istanbul sunsets will ruin you for life. Seriously, they’re the best I’ve ever seen, and in my opinion, they’re best appreciated from the water.
For dinner, stroll across the Ataturk Koprusu bridge for a combination of stunning views and a peek into local fishing culture and then hop onto the metro at Sishane. Ride the metro one stop to Taksim Square, where you’ll enjoy plenty of eateries and a lively nighttime energy that surrounds the famous plaza. Alternatively, sit down at one of the many restaurants near the Bosphorus – depending on your budget, you might be tempted by some of the swanky establishments with waterfront views that line the strait.
After dark, don’t miss out on the opportunity to view the Blue Mosque in its illuminated nighttime glory. Many extol the stunning interior of the Grand Mosque, but I personally found the exterior to be even better. Architecture nerds, make sure your phone has some storage space left – I myself took an unbelievable amount of photos, because each angle somehow manages to become more breathtaking than the last. Sultanahmet Park is well-lit and offers plenty of benches or fountain-side seating, so indulge and purchase some Turkish delight or gelato to eat as you admire the famous mosque. What better way to end a day of exploring classic Istanbul, the urban link between the Middle East and Europe?