The Best Istanbul Itinerary – 2 Days, 3 Nights

by Mar 28, 2018Instagram, Stopovers & Layovers, Turkey, Weekend Getaways10 comments

I can tell you the exact moment I decided I wanted to visit Istanbul.

I was with my brothers at the movie theatres watching Skyfall – the latest James Bond flick at the time. James Bond was riding a motorcycle over the roof of the Grand Bazaar, eventually crashing through a window and ripping up the inside of the market.

The scenes with beautiful mosques littering the skyline are stunning.

I wrote a post about that called How James Bond Inspired My Trip To Istanbul which goes into that and some of the other places James Bond inspired me to visit. 

In fact, one of my brothers decided to join Gordana and me for an Istanbul itinerary; 2 days, 3 nights, family, food, friends and fun – in a beautiful city that straddles two continents.

Interestingly enough, although we planned to meet in Istanbul we bumped into each other in the Belgrade airport prior to our flight – Gordana and I flying out from Belgrade and Andrew (my brother) transferring through…

Off to a great start already!!!

Running into my brother at the airport and taking the same flight – priceless 
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History Of Istanbul

In A Nutshell

  • So Istanbul has been the site of human settlement for approximately three thousand years. 
  • Istanbul was once called Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantinople then became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
  • There is a great catchy song called “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by The Four Lads that I used in the intro of the first video in this post. The song will have you happily singing along until it refuses to leave your brain.
  • Anyways, Istanbul Turkey is considered as one of the most historically rich destinations in the world. It has one foot in Asia’s door and the other in Europe’s – pick a side man!
  • It is also considered as a city of many contrasts; old and new, East and West, traditional and modern etc.

Getting To Istanbul

By Plane

The easiest way to get to Istanbul is by plane. Turkish Airlines, which I’ve flown with quite a bit and many other world airlines have regular daily flights to Istanbul. There are also local airliners that run charter flights to Istanbul especially during holiday seasons such as summer months or Easter and New Year’s period.

Something I discovered while booking a flight from Istanbul to Cappadocia or any other parts of Turkey and Asia is booking a flight from Sabiha Gokcen International, an Istanbul airport on the Asia side.

It was cheaper to take a bus from Istanbul Ataturk Airport (Europe Side) to Sabiha Gokcen International (Asia Side) and fly from that airport to Cappadocia. Flying from Europe to Asia is considered a transcontinental flight and at times can cost more money.

By Train

Turkish Railways Authority (TCDD) has regular train schedules from Istanbul to Budapest – Hungary, Bucarest – Romania, Kishinev – Moldova, Salonica – Greece and Sofia – Bulgaria in Europe, or to Damascus – Syria and Tehran – Iran in the Middle East. For example, Istanbul – Salonica takes about 12 hours by train, Istanbul – Tehran takes about 68 hours.

International trains arrive at Sirkeci station on the European side or Haydarpasa station on the Asian side.

By Boat

There are several maritime companies that run car and passenger ferries from the Greek islands or from Italy to Turkey. Most of these arrive at Çesme near Izmir. There is also a regular ferry line between Odesa (Ukraine) and Istanbul which takes about 35 hours. Many cruise ships dock at Istanbul too for daily excursions.

From Istanbul, you can get a ferry connection to Bandirma near Balikesir, to Mudanya near Bursa, to Yalova, or to Marmara Island. Within the city, Urban Maritime Transportation (IDO and Sehir Hatlari companies) and many private companies (Turyol and Dentur) run passenger ferries between both sides of the Bosphorus.

BTW, taking a boat ride along the Bosphorus is something I highly recommend.

After a beautiful dinner with my newly discovered cousin, his wife and their son – they suggested we take a cruise. We did it at night and it was spectacular!

Where To Stay In Istanbul

For The Perfect Istanbul Itinerary (2 Days, 3 Nights)

The Four Seasons sits on the shores of the scenic Bosphorus river that links Europe and Asia. The hotel is a restored, 19th-century Ottoman palace that brings together Istanbul’s ancient architecture and warm Turkish hospitality.

If you’re planning on staying around the old city’s center – Akbiyik Caddesi, the Hanedan is a great choice for budget conscious travellers. It has a friendly family feel, with an interior that mixes modern with Ottoman. 

My friend Melissa (a Turkish native) told me that the bar inside the Büyük Hotel is stunning. I’m not a fancy high maintenance type of dude, really any bar will do but I was told they have a wide variety of beers and wines and the hotel is luxurious. 

Get $45 CAD Off Your 1st Booking

Gordana and I stayed in this Airbnb. It’s two metro stops away from the infamous Taksim Square and 5 minutes walk. There is also a bus station and the bus that will take you to the old city. 

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Are 2 Days In Istanbul Enough?

Things To Do In Istanbul

Day 1

Beyazıt

Beyazıt Square is in the district of Fatih, situated in the European part of Istanbul, Turkey. It is officially named Freedom Square but is known as Beyazıt Square after the Bayezid II Mosque on one side of it. The Square was also once the former site of the Forum of Theodosius built by Constantine the Great. The current form of the square was designed by Turgut Cansever.

The square has also been the site of political protests, including some in 1969 known as Bloody Sunday a terrorist attack in 1978 (Beyazıt Massacre) and in 1915 twenty Armenian activists were hanged in the square (The 20 Hunchakian gallows).

The Grand Bazaar

This is the place from the James Bond film that inspired this whole trip to Istanbul. That opening chase scene from Spectre that takes place on the roof and inside the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar is not your typical flea market – It is the oldest and one of the largest marketplaces having some 3000 shops selling almost anything and everything – spices, textiles, scarves and more.

You can physically feel the history of merchants who arrived by travelling along the Silk Road.

I purchased my prized leather satchel here and now have the luxury of telling people I bought it in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – when they asked where I got it.

Oh and be prepared to put your bargain and haggle skills to the test. 

Gülhane Sur Cafe

The Grand Bazaar with its endless stores and constant haggling and sensory overload can be draining. Luckily we stumbled across this place on the way to Hagia Sofia – time for a classic Turkish coffee or tea, Kusburnu tea and/or maybe a few puffs from a hookah?
Tucked away in an alley beside Ayasofya is Gülhane Sur Cafe. Awesome spot.

Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)

There is so much history that runs through the walls of Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia) it’s incredible. It was once a patriarchal basilica that became an imperial mosque and is now a museum.

Let me try to run through the history of this structure real quick.

  • It commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian and consecrated as a church in 537
  • It was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453
  • It was declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935

On the walls amongst some other mosaics, the ones that stand out are the mosaics of Christ above the Imperial Door and the 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. 

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Across from Ayasofya is Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). I really love The Blue Mosque, it’s stunning.  The Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the interior walls.

Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I and like most other mosques, it holds the tomb of the founder, a madrasa and a hospice. 

Besides being the most popular tourist attraction in Istanbul, it’s also an active mosque, so it’s closed to non-worshippers for an about half an hour during the five daily prayers.

Yerebatan Sarnıcı | Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish translates to “Cistern Sinking Into Ground”. It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath the city and was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square is a major tourist and leisure district known for its shops, restaurants and hotels. Taksim Square is also considered as Istanbul’s modern city center.

Most of the hotels and restaurants are in or near the Square and on Istiklal Street. Istiklal pedestrian street has all the bars, night clubs and movie theatres which tends to leave it packed with young people 24 hours a day.

The Square is also a meeting place, a place to celebrate New Year’s Eve, watch parades and public concerts or participate in protests.

During our time there we happened to be in the middle of Ramadan and as we passed through Taksim Square, Muslims were about to start iftar – the meal served after sunset and after fasting since sunrise. 

Adana Ocakbaşı

A friend of mine and Istanbul native, Melisa – whom we will meet later in this post told me that they have delicious kebabs and a cozy atmosphere. The culture of “ocakbaşı” which means “serving in front of the grill”  – is really famous among locals. She says it is not a huge place and it’s usually fully booked so you’ll need to reserve your seats!

360 Istanbul

My friend Melissa also wanted me to tell you about two of her favourite bars. The first is 360 Istanbul which offers these incredible 360-degree views of the city. It’s one of those chic and modern type spots but what’s really cool is the glass floor that looks down an elevator shaft.

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Litera Bar

Her second choice is Litera Bar which has views of  Topkapi Palace – which is first on our list for day 2 and the Blue Mosque. It’s located on the top floor of the Goethe Institute and, like most bars in Istanbul, you can enjoy exquisite drinks with some great people.

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Day 2

Topkapi Palace

Day two starts at Topkapi Palace which is a large palace in Istanbul. It is known as one of the major homes of the Ottoman sultans for almost hundreds of years.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, inside the Ottoman empire court, you would find sultans, courtiers and beautiful concubines who lived and worked there.  This museum gives you a glimpse into their lives.

Topkapı Palace was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and was not just the Ottoman sultans palace but also the administrative and educational centre of the state.

Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park is one of the oldest urban parks in Istanbul. One of the largest gates to Topkapı Palace is at the south entrance.

HodjaPasha Arts & Culture Centre | Whirling Dervishes’

If you truly want to experience legendary Turkish culture, visit the HodjaPasha Arts & Culture Centre and be amazed by Whirling Dervishes’ performance.

On a suggestion made by the concierge at Andrew’s hotel, we made our way to Hodja Pasha Arts & Culture Centre to catch a show. Honestly, we expected to see a belly dancing show and when the opening band came out playing Turkish music we started to get excited.

When six men came out, bodies positioned like a teacup and started spinning we were confused.  

These men spun around in circles for about one hour. The dance they are performing is called the sema and it is a religious dance performed to express emotion as well as achieve the wisdom and love of God. It originated here in Turkey, in the Islamic sect of Sufism.

Needless to say, the belly dancers never made an appearance.

Galata Bridge

The Bosphorus River is not just good for its spectacular daytime and nighttime river cruises its also good for fishing. The Galata Bridge is a typical bridge on the top with the addition of people fishing. Meanwhile, underneath the bridge, you’ll find some of the best fresh fish restaurants selling the fish that was just caught off the Galata Bridge.

That is simply awesome.  

Golden Horn | Historical Peninsula

The Golden Horn, also known as Haliç ([haɫitʃ]), is a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus here in Istanbul.

Galata Tower

Lastly, if you’re looking for some amazing views of Istanbul then head over to the Galata Tower – a medieval stone tower.

The Galata Tower or Galata Kulesi in Turkish is one of the highest and oldest towers at 63 meters (206 feet) high provides a panoramic view of the old town. It was built in the 14th century by the Genoese colony who called the tower “Christea Turris”, or “Tower of Christ”. It was part of the defence wall that surrounding their district at Galata.

Kavak Balikçisi Yeniköy

Andrew and I have an Aunt, who like us, loves to travel. She is also the keeper of all family whereabouts and always knows where any one of us are at all times. As she tracked our trip towards Istanbul, she sent my brother and me a Facebook message informing us that we have a cousin who lives here. 

What? Are you kidding?

As it turns out my cousin married a beautiful Turkish woman and together they have the cutest son. So excited to meet Andrew and me they decided to take us out to dinner.

Enter Kavak Balikçisi Yeniköy.
Incredible. Fresh. Delicious.
This low-key meyhane is located on the Yeniköy shore has meze, affordable hamsi (anchovies), tekir (red mullet) and the local staple istavrit (horse mackerel).

Ortakoy Market

After dinner, our cousin and his wife took us out to the Ortakoy Market. Every Sunday, it turns into an impromptu street market with of artists displaying some great arts and crafts.

Ortakoy Mosque

Ortakoy Mosque is located just before the Bosphorus Bridge in one of the most picturesque settings of all of the Istanbul mosques. It was built on the sight of an 18th-century mosque and was completed in 1855.

The way this Mosque jets out into the strait is beautiful, especially from a ship tour.

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As I mentioned off the top a good friend of mine named Melisa is an Istanbul native and as a local, she has the inside scoop on places that only locals know about.

 Naturally, I picked her brain and put together some additional spots worth checking out!

Coffee

Coffee Department

Not only does the Coffee Department roast its own beans, but it also sells bags of coffee and filter-drip coffee-making kits. They have a selection Kenyan, Ethiopian and Costa Rican beans with a new Latin American selection.

Petra Roasting Co

Petra Roasting roasts their beans in a sustainable and responsible way which is reflected in the taste and quality. The shop is also the roastery which happens to be located in an art gallery. Perfect coffee and free art.

Brunch

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Lokma

Lokma opened in 2012, with the hope of introducing Zagreb to authentic Turkish cuisine.  The chefs at Lokma source out the best ingredients and rely on traditional Turkish spices and marinades.

Fincan Kahve

Fincan Kahve was founded in 2002 and in addition to delicious coffee and teas, they also have a vegetarian menu. Liği Fincan Kahve His which has two branches in Istanbul: Sarıyer Emirgan Beach and Rumeli Fortress.

Dinner

Lacivert

Lacivert is in a historic seaside-mansion and has become a true Bosphorus-classic, serving guests since 1999. In the summer the terrace becomes perfect for a little sun and a cool sea-breeze.

Lacivert uses only Organic produce, from fresh farm-eggs to Turkish spicy-sausages and from garden-tomatoes and organic honey to home-made cheese.

Istanbul turned out to be so much more special than what I initially thought. I mean I knew I was going to like it based on how that James Bond movie Skyfall made it look through its cinematography.

Exploring the city with my brother creates an incredible experience that we can talk about for days to come.   

But discovering and meeting my cousin, his wife and their son were one of the best things that happened to me on this trip. It was magical. Oh and yes Melisa you are awesome for sharing some of your favourite spots. Thank you 😉

I really enjoyed Istanbul and I can’t wait to return!

Also if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul during the winter months or just want to see how the city looks under a blanket of snow –  here is the perfect Winter In Istanbul Itinerary!

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