In my previous post, I wrote an overview of my experience in Istanbul, a city that’s so much more than what the headlines say. (Read why here!) We only stayed there for three full days—hardly enough to exhaust all it had to offer. It left me wanting to go back, and I will someday. After all, I still have to ride a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.
I’ve never been one to keep tabs on my daily expenses, but I do try to keep track of the places I visit. Here, I share our DIY tour of Turkey’s historical, religious, and cultural center. Check out my travel maps as well as some tips and photos. For a detailed list of my stops per day, click the leftmost icon on each map’s title bar.
Day One – Walking up and down the streets of Sultanahmet
One of my favorite things about Istanbul is how many of its landmarks are within walking distance of each other—particularly in Sultanahmet, its old city. We’d chosen an Airbnb right in the area, which is perfect for both sightseeing and eating. After breakfast and coffee at Cigdem (good food and service!), we explored Sultanahmet Square, where we found the German Fountain, Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column, and Walled Obelisk. *Tip: Look for the plaques and signposts marking each monument. They have descriptions in English.
From there, we were supposed to visit the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Camii. Since it was closed for prayer time, we went ahead to Hagia Sophia—the great church-turned-mosque-turned-museum that put Istanbul on my bucket list. We spent about two hours following our audio guide, which isn’t included in the ticket price but is highly recommended. Don’t miss the climb up the ancient ramp to the Upper Gallery! *Tip: Entry costs 40TL, but if you plan to visit several stops over 5 days, you may want to get the Museum Pass for 85TL, which will give you access to the Topkapi Palace and Harem, Chora Church, and a number of other museums.
Since we were low on battery gadget-wise and energy-wise, we headed to Divan Yolu Street, their main boulevard. My target? DÖNER. We ended up at Antik Büfe, which sadly didn’t live up to my expectation. As per our brother’s advice, we had dessert at Grande Cafe, which offered beautiful views of the Sultanahmet area.
After we had our fill, we walked up the street to the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul’s most famous underground water reservoir—unfortunately not covered by the Museum Pass. I first saw this in Dan Brown’s Inferno movie, and while it was quite impressive (the Medusa heads especially), I would’ve appreciated it more had there been an audio guide or more information. *Tip: Entry costs 20TL, but it might be better to visit when there’s a concert going on.
Finally, we got to enter the Blue Mosque, which turned out to be my favorite stop. It’s gorgeous from the outside alone, but inside, it’s very intricate, ethereal. It gets its name from its 20,000 blue tiles, and I’d say this is a must-see in addition to the Hagia Sophia. *Tip: Entry is free, but you’ll have to take off your shoes. Women are required to cover their heads, shoulders, and legs with the wrap provided for free.
Still tired from our flights, we capped off day one with dinner at Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun and grabbed ice cream on the walk home. *Tip: Try their lahmacun, or Turkish pizza. Portions are huge!
Day Two – Seeking different views of the city
We kicked off day two with breakfast at Mado. It has several branches, but the one along Divan Yolu offers a nice view—ask to eat at the upper levels. Rain was forecast for the day, and we got our first taste of it as we walked to the Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman Empire’s imperial palace. There were several groups of students touring the area, so we ditched the recommended route and went to the Harem first. With its elaborate walls and ceilings, it’s a feast for the eyes. Tip: Cost: 30TL + 15TL for the Harem, but both are included in the Museum Pass. The entire Topkapi Palace is quite big, so allot a few hours for this if you want to maximize your visit.
All that exploration got us so hungry that we didn’t want to venture further than Divan Yolu. We ordered our own plates of köfte (meatballs—yum!) at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi. They served it with a basket of bread, from which I assembled a meatball sandwich to eat later. Since traveling with my sister means eating dessert, we went next door to Hafiz Mustafa, where she sampled different baklavas and I drank my Turkish coffee.
To work off those calories, we walked to the Grand Bazaar, known as the oldest shopping mall in the world. Shoppers are spoiled for choice here, but we just had some money exchanged and headed on to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It’s a bit of an uphill trek as it’s perched on one of Istanbul’s seven hills, but it makes for a nice, more peaceful visit. Tip: Entry is free, with the same restrictions as the Blue Mosque. Head on to the terrace behind the mosque for a different view of the city.
Time to head over to the other side of the Bosphorus. We crossed the Galata Bridge on foot to the tune of different languages and the scent of fish, then hiked up a narrow, winding road with artsy stores to the Galata Tower. We were supposed to visit just in time for sunset, but upon seeing the line snaking in front of it, decided to go ahead with it. The wait was much longer than our actual visit. The views were nice though cloudy—honestly, I could’ve skipped this. Tip: Entry is 18.50TL. As an alternative, eat at its restaurant or any other restaurant/bar with a view.
Speaking of a restaurant with a view, my sister’s Google search led us to the nearby Leb-i Derya. We managed to get in without a reservation and found that it did live up to its high ratings. The view, and the restaurant itself, was gorgeous and the food was delicious…and pricey. We split our orders then walked to Karakoy Gulluoglu, which had been recommended to us for its desserts. Tip: GO. It’s baklava heaven. Expect a crowd and remember to pay at the cashier first before placing your order.
We ate our baklavas by the riverside then, too tired to make the trek home, tried their public transport for the first time. It was a struggle to buy our tram ticket—thankfully, the next guy in line offered to help us!
Day Three – Across and crossing the Bosphorus River
For our final day in Istanbul, we woke up bright and early to catch a tram to Dolmabahce Palace, which served as the home of the Sultan after Topkapi Palace. It was our farthest stop but was well worth going the distance for. With its mix of Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Ottoman style, this palace is magnificent and the largest in Turkey. Unfortunately, photos inside its buildings aren’t allowed. Tip: Entry costs 40TL—not included in the Museum Pass—but is worth the price considering your tours inside the buildings will be guided. Check for the schedule of tours in your language.
We’d planned to catch the 2:30pm Bosphorus Cruise, so we took a tram back to Eminönü, from which the ferry would depart. Famished, we ate at the first restaurant we found interesting—Tatseven Restoran. This was a stroke of genius, as their döner turned out to be the best I tried in the city. Just nearby was Coffeetopia, a specialty coffee shop that I would gladly go back to. The joe was great, and so was the ambiance.
Just before 2pm, we walked to the Sehir Hatlari office to buy our tickets for their Short Bosphorus Cruise. The ferry was free seating, so we settled in at the outdoor area of the second level. For around two hours, we sailed peacefully from Eminönü to Istinye and back, stopping at Üsküdar and Ortaköy to let people off. Tip: The short cruise costs 12TL, while the full cruise costs 25TL. Bring a sweater or scarf as it can get really cold—and keep an eye out for dolphins!
It was a day for different kinds of public transportation, as we decided to take the underground railway Tünel up to Istiklal instead of walking up as we had the day before. That gave us enough time to visit the Galata Mevlevi Lodge, the city’s first Mawlawi house. Since we missed the whirling dervish ceremony, our visit was pretty quick. Tip: Entry costs 10TL and is included in the Museum Pass. Check their site for the schedule of ceremonies.
We stopped at Ozsut for snacks and a toilet break before going to Santa Maria Draperis for Sunday mass. It was a small Catholic church tucked away between shops and restaurants along Istiklal street. There were only 14 of us, each from our different part of the world, all coming together for the same purpose. The mass was in Spanish, but the priest translated his homily for us English speakers. He spoke of being based in Manila for 5 years, and I was amazed at how our paths crossed. Definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Istanbul.
For dinner, we followed Anthony Bourdain to Dürümzade, where we found delicious dürüm (Turkish wrap) sold cheap. Tip: It’s open 24 hours! Dessert was künefe, a cheese phyllo pastry, from Taksim Sutis. One tram ride later, and it was a wrap for my first visit to Istanbul. ♥♥♥
Up next? Cappadocia!