Day 1 in Istanbul
Welcome to Istanbul! Upon arrival, you will go through customs and immigration. Should you opt to purchase a transfer to your hotel; a representative will be waiting for you as you exit immigration. Arrive at your hotel, check in and do not give in to jet lag! There is so much for you to see and do.
Begin the afternoon with a quick bite to eat at one of the many food stalls to be found throughout the city. Turks are masters of eating on the run and street food (like döner sandwiches, kumpir and simit) is a local experience not to be missed. Afterwards, we recommend that you get acquainted with the city by choosing an optional tour, showcasing the highlights of the city.
As night approaches, enjoy panoramic views of the city at sunset from the balcony of Galata Tower. Then head up Istiklal Avenue (a popular pedestrian avenue formerly known as the Grand Rue de Pera) or take the Nostalgic Tramway towards Taksim Square, Istanbul`s equivalent to New York`s Times Square. Halfway down Istiklal is Çiçek Pasaji, a rococo arcade with beer halls, restaurants and hanging gardens. Explore the adjacent arcades and alleys before calling it a day and relaxing over a meal of meze (garlicky dips and tangy salads) and kebaps at one of the classic meyhanes (taverns) in Beyoglu. Return to your accommodations at the end of the evening.
Day 2 in Istanbul
Wake up early this morning and head straight for Sultanahmet, the Old City, where you will find most of Istanbul`s highlights. Begin at Sultanahmet Square, which was once the ancient Hippodrome, center of Byzantine public life. Here you can see the Egyptian obelisk and the Serpent Column. Then it`s on to the opulent Topkapi Palace, where sultans ruled over the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. Time permitting, stop at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum located in Gülhane Park.
Following your visit of the palace, enjoy lunch at the famous Konyali restaurant before strolling down Sogukçesme Sokagi, a cobbled lane that passes a picturesque collection of Ottoman houses before reaching the Hagia Sophia, the crown jewel of the Byzantine Empire, which has endured for more than 1,000 years! Next stop is the Basilica Cistern which once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors.
Afterwards, head to the Blue Mosque, so nicknamed because of its interior decoration of tens of thousands of Iznik tiles. Then finally you come to the Grand Bazaar! This massive marketplace is home to thousands of shops and restaurants so be sure to stop for a bite to eat while shopping and browsing its seemingly endless streets.
Later, you`ll want to visit Süleymaniye Mosque, the crowning achievement of Süleyman the Magnificent and his chief architect, Sinan. Nearby there are two other mosques that may pique your interest: Sehzade Mosque, dedicated to Süleyman`s son Mehmed, and Rüstem Pasha Mosque, built in honor of the grand vizier who married one of Süleyman`s daughters. At the end of a long day of exploration, go to Süleymaniye Hamami where you can relax while an attendant rubs, scrubs and washes away all of your cares.
Day 3 in Istanbul
Begin your day at the Edirnekapi (Edirne Gate), part of the ancient Theodosian Land Walls and the main point of entry into the city of Constantinople for both Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. While in this area, you`ll want to visit St. Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi). This former monastic church is home to some of the finest late-Byzantine mosaics anywhere. Round out the morning with a visit to the Balat Market and the old neighborhoods of Balat and Fener where Jewish, Greek and Armenian communities formerly resided.
This afternoon, head to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi) in the Eminönü quarter to get your foodie fix of dried fruits, nuts, herbs and spices. Then stop by the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) with its richly decorated interior before crossing over the Galata Bridge. Walk along the upper deck among the fisherman and their catch, making sure to turn around for spectacular views of the hills, minarets and domes of the Old City behind you. At the halfway point, take the stairs down to the lower deck where you will find seafood restaurants and teahouses.
If you didn`t eat at the Spice Bazaar (or even if you did), you`ll want to stop at the chain of fishing boats along the quay for a snack of freshly grilled fish before continuing to the Istanbul Modern and its display of portraits, landscapes and multimedia exhibits showcasing a culture in transition. The café here is a good place to stop for a refreshing cup of tea, called çay (chai) or Turkish coffee while admiring the fantastic views of Topkapi Palace.
Next, visit the Dolmabahçe Palace, built by Sultan Abdul Mecid I in 1854. With its lavish European architecture and the sheer splendor of its interior décor, it replaced Topkapi Palace as the main residence of the sultans and reflected the desire for all things modern and Western. Finally, end your stay with a visit to Ortaköy, one of Istanbul`s loveliest seaside suburbs within the Besiktas district of Istanbul. Relax over dinner and drinks at the House Café on the waterfront before saying goodbye to this beautiful city!
Additional Days in Istanbul
If you have some more time in Istanbul, decide which of these three scenarios interests you the most and fit in parts of the others if time permits. Our first recommendation is for you to take a ferry from Eminönü quay to the northern end of the Golden Horn, where you will find the suburb of Eyüp. This neighborhood is a center of pilgrimage to the Türbe of Eyüp (tomb of the Prophet Muhammad`s standard-bearer, who was killed in the mid 7th century). As Turkey`s holiest Islamic site, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, built in 1459, is where new sultans were inaugurated and is a prestigious final resting place. The cemetery on the hill above is full of ornate tombstones and has magnificent views over the water.
If you have another day to explore the city, you definitely should see some of the further-flung points of interest, such as the oldest Ottoman-built structures still standing in Istanbul. They are located to the north of the city, along the Strait of Bosphorus near the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge: the Anatolian Fortress is located on the Asian side in Beykoz, and the Rumelian Castle is on the European side in Sariyer. Afterward, take the E80 road south to the suburban community of Kadiköy and stroll down Bagdat Avenue, one of the most popular shopping districts in Istanbul. Have lunch in Üsküdar, preferably near the water so you can see the Maiden`s Tower in the middle of the Strait.
If you want to stay on the European side, make sure your schedule includes a stop at the Panorama 1453 History Museum, located near Topkapi Junction and Turgut Özal National Avenue. This museum features the only panoramic mural museum exhibit in Turkey, a painting of the 1453 Battle of Constantinople, which took eight artists three years to complete. Afterward, head north to the Pierre Loti Cafe, which you can reach by taking a cable car. Pierre Loti (1850-1923) was a well-known French naval officer and author who considered Istanbul a second home. Legend has it that he wrote part of his acclaimed 1879 novel Aziyadé here. The views of the Golden Horn are breathtaking.
Your Last Day in Istanbul
Depart your hotel for the airport for your return home. We recommend that you purchase a private transfer, if so a representative will meet you at the hotel, in time to take you to the airport for your flight out.