Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in the world with an estimated population of over 15 million, but most of its tourist attractions are concentrated on the European side of the city, specifically in the neighborhoods of Sultanamet, Galata, and Taksim. If you don’t plan on spending much time there, you can see most of the main sights in Sultanahmet on your first full day in the city, then leave the rest for successive days. Depending on how many sites you want to enter, consider getting a museum card.
Day 1 – Sultanahmet
Chances are your accommodation is in this area already, which makes it even easier to see all of the following in just one day: Hagia Sofia, Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Grand Bazaar. If you’ve still got any time and energy left, I highly recommend having a look at the Suleymaniye Mosque near the Grand Bazaar. It’s bigger than the Blue Mosque and isn’t as popular with the tourists, making for a more peaceful atmosphere. All of these sites are within walking distance of each other.
Day 2 – Topkapi Palace, Galata, Uskudar, and Taksim
Start your day off at Topkapi Palace and/or the Archaeology Museum. They’re located right next to each other. The museum has got a ton of artifacts from the region which I personally found quite interesting. So interesting that I think I spent nearly 2 hours in the museum, and I’m not a big fan of museums in general. As for Topkapi Palace, I chose to skip it based on fellow travellers’ recommendations. It’s nice, yea, but if you’ve already seen a lot of castles around Europe then there’s no point in seeing another one which isn’t spectacular by comparison (and costs 25 liras to enter).
Walk or take tram #1 across the Galata Bridge. There’ll probably be hundreds of fishermen on the bridge. I say fishermen because I never once saw a woman fishing on the bridge despite crossing it many times on foot. Walk uphill towards the Galata Tower and onward to the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square. Istiklal is the busiest street in all of Turkey. The streets branching off it near Taksim Square house the most popular nightlife venues in the city. Other travellers and locals told me Galata Tower wasn’t worth the entry fee, so I skipped it.
From Taksim Square, you can take the metro or walk to Karakoy (20 min) to catch a ferry to Uskudar for the sunset. From the ferry terminal, walk south along the waterfront and soon you’ll see the Maiden’s Tower, just a few metres offshore. There’s an outdoor cafe on the steps where you can have a tea and water pipe (nargila) as you watch the sun go down behind the tower and the Suleymaniye Mosque on the other side of the Bosphorus.
Day 3 – Kadikoy and Camlica Hill
Welcome to Asia. Catch a ferry to Kadikoy, the heart of the Asian side of Istanbul. If you were looking for where the locals go, you’ve just found it. Don’t be afraid to walk into any unassuming restaurants here, this is where the locals eat. You can generally expect better food, lower prices, and very little English. Just point at what you want and you’ll be fine.
Once you’ve had your fill of local fare, head to the bus terminus just north of the ferry terminal. You can take bus #14 or 14F to Camlica (pronounced sham-li-ya) Hill for the best view of Istanbul. Be sure to tell the driver where you’re heading when you get on, otherwise you might miss the stop. From the bus stop, it’s a 10-15 minute walk uphill to the viewpoint on top, where there are a couple of small cafes/restaurants. On the way back, you can get a bus from Camlica Parki at the bottom of the hill to either Kadikoy or Uskudar, then a ferry back to the European side of town.
Of course, if you’ve got more than 3 days you can go see some more sights or spread the ones listed above over a few days. But there’s no reason to rush, you’re on holiday, remember?