Updated: Mar 29
When travelling to Turkey, the first destination is inevitably Istanbul, the capital of the country and some may say, historically speaking, of the world. I couldn't wait to visit this mythical city, wander around its historical souks, admire its grandiose mosques, cross the Bosphorus and of course, eat Turkish food! We only had three days in Istanbul but it was enough to make it an unforgettable trip!
Where to stay for three days in Istanbul?
As I mentioned in my travel guide for Turkey, Istanbul is one of the most "expensive" cities since it is the capital and a major tourist attraction. Accommodation is a bit "pricey" compared to other cities and we wanted to limit our spending in terms of accommodation because our goal was to go out all day. It is very easy to find nice hotels or Airbnbs without breaking the bank! We opted for a room in a host's house, it's very popular in Turkey and the prices are very affordable. It also allowed us to meet and exchange with locals!
If you are looking for a room, I recommend staying at Emrah's Airbnb, who welcomed us with open arms and made us feel at home during our short stay. His flat is located in the Siçli district, central but quiet. The metro is not far to reach the tourist sites but we did everything on foot (about 1h/1h30 depending on where you're going). We enjoyed sharing meals with Emrah, watching Turkish films and listening to music together. It's always interesting to talk about politics and cultural differences.
How to get around Istanbul?
Public transport in Istanbul is very cheap and dynamic. We got around mainly on foot but also took the ferry, tram, metro and taxi.
To get around using public transport, we used the IstanbulKart which allowed us to take the bus, metro, tram, boat and funicular. The IstabulKart is practical because it's cheaper than single-use tickets as you get discounts on every trip. Instead of paying 5 TL (€0.25) per trip, we only paid 2.60 TL (€0.12) and it's more convenient as you don't have to worry about buying the token for each trip.
The Istanbulkart can be purchased at metro stations, platforms and major bus stations, but be careful as not all vending machines are logical to use - some do not sell the card, while others offer other travel options such as 3 trip tickets for 35 TL. It is also important to note that vending machines do not accept more than 40 TL in cash (not practical when you have no change!). We saw a lot of tourists struggling like us but ask around and someone will surely help you! It seems to me that it is also possible to get the card from kiosks that you can find all over in town.
For the taxi, I was recommended the BiTaksi application (it's a bit like the Turkish Uber), which allows for avoiding hassles because the prices are announced in advance. We only took the taxi once and got into an little argument with the driver because we thought he was trying to rip us off. You should know that if you take a taxi from the Asian side to the European side or vice versa, you have to pay an extra tax (40 TL I think), a tax that is not mentioned in the app!
Three days in Istanbul: what to see?
As I said, you can't see everything in Istanbul in three days. Many blogs say that three days is enough but I disagree. I think a good week would be ideal to visit this huge city but we had to work with what we had! The vastness of the city, the distances between the sites, the crowds as well as the cars, bikes and buses driving in all directions affected our visit as all these stimuli tired us out very quickly!
The mosques of Istanbul are among the must-see sites during your stay, there are no less than 3,000 of them! Wherever you go, you are sure to find many mosques with their characteristic minarets. Some mosques are better known than others, with the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet and the Hagia Sophia Mosque being among the most famous.
Although I wanted to visit these two sites, it is no surprise that these are very popular tourist spots meaning very long queues and a lot of people. We only had three days in Istanbul and arrived a little late to visit the Hagia Sophia Mosque but still managed to visit the Blue Mosque. Bonus point, the entrance is free! Being a religious place, make sure to wear modest clothes and bring a headscarf if you are a woman. Unfortunately, the mosque was under renovation so we didn't get to see much, but we could still get an idea of the grandeur of the place.
If we ever go back to Istanbul, we'll make the effort to get up earlier in order to get there before the crowds because I think it's really worth the visit!
A ferry crossing of the Bosphorus
Many tourist boat tours offer to take you across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, but I strongly advise you to avoid them and opt for the daily ferries used by the locals. For 0,70€ we had a 30mins crossing, allowing us to enjoy beautiful views of Istanbul while passing from the European to the Asian continent! There are ferries every 30 minutes and you can sit inside or outside. We used the Istanbulkart to pay for the crossing. This was definitely a highlight during our three days in Istanbul!
If you decide to go to the Asian side of Istanbul then I highly suggest visiting Moda, a trendy and artsy district with many bars and restaurants. We went there to meet up with a friend who I hadn't seen in four years since my trip to Russia and he took us to a nice burger restaurant. It's also a nice place to sit by the sea and admire the European side of the city.
Stroll around the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul (Kapalıçarşı) is one of the largest and oldest markets in the world. In 1455, Mehmet II ordered the construction of the Old Bazaar (Eski Bedesten) near his palace. As in many other cities, craftsmen's workshops were quickly built around the market.
If you have three days in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is worth a visit because it's an emblematic place of the city and the galleries are beautiful, especially the arcades. However, I don't think that the prices are interesting because of the multitude of tourists and you have to be aware that many products are counterfeit, something to take into account according to the laws of your country.
You also have to be aware of the number of people who wander around the market, with the number of daily visitors varying between 300,000 and 500,000 depending on the time of day! If you are agoraphobic for example this might not be the best destination, I remember feeling quickly overwhelmed by the crowds so we decided to cut short our visit. That being said, the endless stalls selling all kinds of colourful spices, dried fruits, carpets and jewellery truly take you to the heart of Istanbul!
Macka Park (aka Cat Park)
Macka Park is a popular recreational area in Istanbul. Also known as the "cat park", it is a quiet and pleasant green space that stands out from Istanbul's densely built-up urban environment. The park is located between Macka and Taksim and its history dates back to the Ottoman era (19th century). The park is home to many cats that are particularly loved and protected by the Turkish people. You'll see that cats are everywhere in Turkey! Lying under a car or on the corner of an alleyway, bouncing from table to table on the café terraces, cats roam the streets of Istanbul as if they owned them, and this adds a peaceful charm to the organised chaos of Istanbul!