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2 or 3 days in Istanbul??

My family and I are taking a trip to Greece in July. Because of the way our air miles worked out, we have to fly through Istanbul to get there. So we decided to tack on a few days to the trip so we can see Istanbul as well. My main question is, how long should we spend there? We could do 2 or 3 days is all we have time for. We are only interested in Istanbul for this trip, we won't have time or money to go outside of the area. I have looked at the list of "must sees" on Rick's site here and there does seem to be a lot. But I am wondering if they are all fairly close together? Do they take a lot of time at each place to see? That kind of thing. We will be doing this part of the trip last, so jet lag will not be an issue as we will have been in Greece for 9-10 days prior. Suggestions for good places to stay that are close to sights so we don't have to spend a lot of our time getting back and forth would be great. Also, we will be flying into Istanbul from the west coast (Oregon) at the beginning of our trip. We will be arriving at midnight and the earliest flight we can get back out is 10:30 am. So we will need a hotel near the airport for just getting 4-5 hours of sleep that first night...recommendations?

Anything I am missing??
Thanks in advance!

Posted by
4745 posts

My main question is, how long should we spend there?

As many days as you can afford. It's a huge city with lots of interesting sites. The Old City/Sultanahmet is where the majority of the tourist attractions are. I don't know the exact location of the New Airport (which will replace Ataturk Airport) but it appears closer to the Old City.

Posted by
121 posts

Since you will be flying in July, the new Istanbul airport should be open. According to its website, there will be a Yotel hotel right on site. You will be able to enter it from airside so you won’t need a visa. You might not be able to retrieve any checked luggage, so be sure to pack what you need for one night in your carry-on. Here is a link:

http://www.istanbulhavalimani.com/en/passenger/airport-guide/airport-hotel

As for touring Istanbul, the more time the better! I went on the Rick Steves one-week tour of Istanbul (no longer offered) and the week was very full! I returned on my own a year later for a two-day layover, and easily filled my time with even more.

There are many good hotels in the Old City area. The tram system is easy to navigate and can take you to other areas. I stayed in the Hotel Amira, behind and down the hill from the Blue Mosque and it was very nice with a wonderful, helpful, friendly staff.

Posted by
17 posts

I had no idea that there was to be a new airport in Istanbul. Is there a way to decipher if we will be flying in there? Is the old one closing? Our tickets says "IST" which I think is Ataturk. I guess I will have to do some research on this.

Posted by
9883 posts

The situation with the new airport is indeed confusing. According to the Wikipedia article, the current code for the new airport is ISL. However, when it becomes fully operational and starts getting all the flights that Ataturk airport is now getting (such as the Turkish Air flights from the US), it will take over the code IST from Ataturk. At that time, Ataturk will close.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istanbul_Airport

I agree that you should allot as many days for Istanbul as you can. If you only have 2 or 3 days, you will have to do what you would do on a first visit to London or New York with only a few days - prioritize. Many of the major sights are indeed close together, and they're all on the tram line, so getting between them is easy. However, it does take time to see each one. And everyone has different experiences. For instance, for me, the long Bosporus cruise (the one that goes almost to the Black Sea) was a non-highlight, and in a short trip, I'd make sure to skip this. However, for some, it was their favorite thing in Istanbul. For me, the most memorable place was the Hagia Sofia.

Posted by
29 posts

2-3 days isn't nearly enough time in Istanbul. Having said that, if that is all the time I had, it's still worth going.

Posted by
902 posts

Anywhere in Sultanhamet is good in terms of being close to everything. My recommendation is to go to your hotel and not waste time at an airport hotel. Otherwise you have to check in, then out then in. From a sights perspective, Istanbul is on the level of Rome. You would likely never ask is 2 days enough for Rome, you wouldn't even go through the main sites in 2 days. Same here... So yes, three days is better, I would say 5-7 would be adequate for a first time visitor but you have what you have.

Posted by
7 posts

No one knows exactly when the new airport in Istanbul will be fully operating. At this point, March is the hope. The new Istanbul airport is much farther from the city than Atatürk Airport is. Atatürk Airport is fairly close to the old city, where many of the big historical sites are located.

For your two or three nights in Istanbul, stay in the Old City, as others have said. The more days you spend in Istanbul, the better. Lots to do and see!

Posted by
11548 posts

The new airport was officially opened (on schedule I think) in October. But that was just a ceremony, though my guess is that when the project started, they expected it to be functional in October. Last fall, they were planning to begin using the airport for flights within Turkey in this month or next, and there was a lot of criticism because of winter weather conditions being difficult and pilots who obviously had no experience landing and taking off there. The latest news is that the airport won't be functional until March 3. They were talking about beginning to use the airport for international flights this coming summer. Stay tuned. One of the foreseeable problems is that most people who fly into Istanbul are not visiting Turkey but are in transit. Until all international flights are using one airport (the change is planned to be in stages), it means moving thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of passengers between two airports located on opposites sides of the city with no rail transportation between them or between the new airport and the city. Of course since they're going to close Attaturk, no rail connection is even planned. There is a plan for a train (tram?) from the new airport, but I don't know if they will even begin that before the airport is fully functional. Based on absolutely nothing, my guess is that you'll still be using Attaturk coming and going. The new Yotel website says they are taking bookings from March 1. I would bet you a Turkish coffee that if the airport opening gets pushed back for a third time, the hotel's will also.

For your long layover on the way to Athens, check with Turkish Air to see what they offer. When there's an overnight layover they usually have a deal on a hotel near the airport.

There are so many wonderful places to visit in Istanbul. Come back with a list of what looks good to you and we can help you with time allocations and arranging the order of the sights. It will help mightily to know the days of the week (everything seems to close for one day but on different days) and who is in your family (little kids?).

Posted by
17 posts

Thanks Chani, what a fount of information! I am a bit worried over this whole airport situation now. As of now we only have our flights booked from Oregon to Istanbul and back. We are waiting to see if prices come down on flights from Istanbul to Athens. But our plan is to arrive in Istanbul on July 2 at like 11:50 pm - so pretty much midnight July 3rd. The first flight we see heading out (with decent pricing) is at 10:30 on July 3rd. So that give us 10.5 hours in the Istanbul airport. Hence the idea of something very close to the airport because it will take a couple hours to clear customs/immigration and get to a hotel. Then we would need to be back by 8:30 to go through all the security stuff (assuming that it works the same there as it does here, it is an international flight and from a non-EU country into an EU country) But I could check with British Airways and see if they have some sort of lounge or something. That is a good idea.
Regarding our return trip, we plan on arriving back in Istanbul around 10 am on July 12 (Friday) and staying until Monday, July 15th, flight at 8:30 am. It is possible that we could head back to Istanbul on Thursday and give us one extra day. However this trip is for my kids because they want to go to Greece and I am already wondering if we can see all that we want to see in the 9 days we have there. Istanbul is just kind of a bonus item we tacked on because of air miles. So it is pretty much a long weekend in Istanbul (have I said Istanbul enough? I feel like I have typed it a thousand times! LOL It is just that I have so many places in my head on this trip I and trying to keep it all straight.
Regarding what we would like to see, mostly it is all in old town, I think. Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Underground Cistern, the Grand Bizarre and spice markets and the Topkapi Palace.
Oh and my girls are 16 and 18, so no little kids.

Posted by
2950 posts

You can see all the major highlights in two full days but three will be even better. However, in order to do so, you will probably need a local guide or tour company. I just don't think you can really do it justice on your own simply due to the logistics of getting around. We spent two full days from eight a.m. or so until about six p.m. both days with a local tour company and were well please. Tired but happy because all the logistics were left to someone else. Unless I'm mistaken, the outfit that conducted our tours was called Turaturizm. The do have a web site that con be translated if you want to check them out.

Posted by
11548 posts

I'm told by friends that Turkish Air has a good lounge at IST and you can purchase access, though I don't know how to find that out. Their experience was several years ago. If you leave "airside" you'll have to go through passport control on the way to Athens. There is a security check when you enter the airport, then check-in, then passport control and a "standard" security check. On your way back to the US, there is an additional security check (US requirement) at the gate, so leave enough time for it all.

You probably don't have enough time in Greece. It's a wonderful country and there's always more to see. The same goes for Istanbul and just about everywhere I've ever been in Europe. No bad choices, just lots left over for next time.

Posted by
17 posts

I will definitely look into this. However given Istanbul is our "final destination" as far as this portion of our flight is concerned, we will have to go out and get our luggage and do all the security and stuff anyway. Our flight to Greece is a whole other flight, that we have yet to purchase, but I am tracking it on google flights. But I am for sure going to see if they have something that we can use on that side of the gate... Or we would check back in after we get our luggage and use it then. It is going to be a LONG process at midnight, thankfully we will not yet be on their time. But after our series of flights we are sure to be pretty pooped. Definitely going to be taking a sleep aid on the longest portion!

Posted by
29 posts

As far as Istanbul being a side bonus and Greece being the reason for the trip. My personal opinion is Turkey > Greece.

Posted by
56 posts

3 days sure.
First day see Sultanahmet area and Grand Bazaar,
Second day to Taksim and Besiktas area, and third day to see Asian area. Or eliminate second option and see more places in Sultahahmet area including seeing Suleymaniye Mosque which is the best mosque in Istanbul without question..

Posted by
2 posts

Hi Tina, I spent several weeks in Istanbul in 2016. One big change is the airport. Its' operational date for North American and Greek flights is still fluid. You won't be able to plan the overnight airport stay until you know which location will be used by your flights.

For your stay of 2-3 days in Istanbul I recommend the following in order to minimize travel time and maximize enjoyment. Purchase electronic visas, you may need multiple entry, depending on the overnight transiting procedure.
Buy RS Istanbul guide. Read thoroughly. Reread the sections that cover Sultanamet, what it offers, the walking tours that RS describes, and the interior descriptive guides that RS offers.

Hagia Sophia [at least 45 minutes] Topkapi [at least 2 hours] Archaeological Museum [at least 2 hours] , Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum [at least an hour]. You can easily double these times. I tripled them, but I have an intense interest in history, archaeology,architecture. These four places have individual admission prices or you can buy a Museum Pass which covers over a dozen major museums in Istanbul; you will need to calculate the economy and usefulness since you bypass the ticket booth and go direct to the entrance check station. If 2 days, maybe; if 3 full days, probably.
Underground Cistern [at least 30 minutes, not covered by Museum Pass]
Blue Mosque [at least 30 minutes], no admission but consider a donation, it is a Mosque in which Muslims worship, it is closed during "official" worship times, non Muslims are very welcome at other times. While visiting consider sitting on the floor and worshiping in silence which I believe will improve your appreciation of the blue tile artwork, and, indirectly , of Hagia Sophia, which was a spiritual worship space, both Christian and Muslim, for a millenia. BTW I understand it has been undergoing major restoration, so that might reduce the benefit of visiting it.
Hippodrome [30 minutes], it is outside so no admission price.
All of the above are next to one another, wonderful walking time of less than 3 minutes from one to another.
I ran out of permitted characters, so the remainder of my reply is in a following reply. I hope. Harvey

Posted by
2 posts

Grand Bazaar which is about a 20-30 minute walk from Hagia Sophia. The walk itself is enjoyable since you will be immersed in Istanbul. Thirty minutes of wandering inside The BG is just a dip of your toe. If possible, spend two hours, including sitting for a espresso and enjoying the ambiance. Don't be disturbed by the offers to marry your daughters, laugh and carry on. If it gets more serious, raise your voice, tell them off and move away. BTW salespeople are persistent; say no and move on, do not engage them in conversation unless you do want to buy a rug, or whatever. If you get tired of saying no, just move on; it is not an insult, it is a necessity.
BTW it is easy to get separated from each other in these places so always have a "If separated, we meet at X place, corner, etc" Or, if possible, everyone have a cellphone.
If you like spices, herbs, nuts, wander down to The Spice Market, which is close to the waterfront and good views. It is about a 30 minute walk back to Hagia Sophia. Have a good map of Sultanamet if you leave the major streets, or enjoy being slightly lost as you enjoy the walk.
Doing these things will fill up two full days, and easily a third. That is why I recommend staying at a Guest House/ Pension/ small hotel in the Sultanamet area. I prefer the area located between Hagia Sophia and Bosphorus. It is quieter, more pedestrian than automotive, and since it is on a slope many hotels and restaurants have roof top patios that overlook the Bosphorus. It is delightful to eat breakfast with a beautiful view. With the expansion of Youtube and other video websites, you can probably view the interiors of some of the hotels. The following would be important to me; in July air conditioning, good breakfast with a good view, quiet area and room, within a 5 minute walk of Hagia Sophia. Because tourism has declined hotel prices are negotiable.
The first half of this reply is in a preceding reply. I hope. Harvey

Posted by
17 posts

Wow Harvey! Thanks for all the great information. One question regarding visas, do you happen to know the correct email address for doing this? I have read some blogs on here that there are many false websites going that are not the official one. Do you know if there is a length of time for the visas? What we are thinking now is that we will fly into Istanbul, and rather than trying to just leave again, we will stay for 2 days. Then go do our Greece vacation and come back for the last day prior to flying home. This works out in real time to be July 3 and 4 and 14. So I am hoping that the visa would cover that time period at least so that we wouldn't have to get another one. Our flight out is at 8:30 am on July 15th so we plan to get a hotel near the airport for this last day and try to do our sight seeing from that base. Hopefully we can do all the Sultanamet area stuff on the 2 days and save something farther out for the last one. We had thought this would work better for us not having to spend so much time sitting in the airport for connections and wasting that time. But again, thanks for all the information, especially all the times for each place, that is super helpful when trying to plan out a day, and something that most websites don't tell you!

Posted by
902 posts

There is a whole section of FAQs on that site: https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/info/ that will answer everything you want to know. You will specify your arrival date on the evisa application. The visa length is 90 days so you will be fine if you simply specify the start date correctly.

Posted by
17 posts

Yeah, thanks! I meant website, not email address. duh me. Just typing to quickly I guess. :) But that is fantastic news about the 90 days, and I will take a look at the FAQ as soon as I get a chance.