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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
4867 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
128 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
21 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
10124 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
984 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
8 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
11846 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
21 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
3034 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 can be translated if you want to check them out.

Posted by
11846 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
21 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
28 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
28 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
21 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
984 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
21 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.

Posted by
28 posts

Hi Tina, Did you purchase Rick Steve's Istanbul guidebook? And read it? As I mentioned, it is full of information and will answer many of your questions. You will very easily save the cost; and it is essential since you will be in Istanbul for a limited time. Harvey

Posted by
1991 posts

My last three times in Istanbul, between 2016 and 2018, I have stayed at the Regie Ottoman Hotel and loved it! It is in a lovely old building, with large and comfortable rooms, great beds and bathrooms, an abundant, diverse and delicious breakfast buffet, very friendly staff, and moderate prices. It is located in Sirkeci, about midway between Sultanamet and the Galata Bridge, which is interesting in its own right, but also where you would get a Bosporus boat trip, or walk across to the more modern city including Taksim. The hotel is very close to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Check it out on booking.com.
While the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are certainly experiences, there is easier and often better shopping at the Arasta Bazaar, in the old town, sort of behind and slightly downhill from the Blue Mosque. The Arasta Bazaar is a small shopping street of individual shops, quiet and low key as opposed to the boisterous other bazaars and shopping streets, with some nice quality crafts and other items, and friendly merchants who are not pushy or slick like many others. Within the Arasta Bazaar is also the entrance to the small Mosaic Museum, which has many ancient (Roman?) mosaics which you view from above them.
All the sites mentioned here in these posts are excellent, you could pretty much cover them in 3 days. When I was last in Istanbul in May 2018, the interior of the Blue Mosque was being renovated. You could visit the grounds and the courtyard, but I do not think visitors were allowed inside, probably would not have been so beautiful anyway. I don’t know if this was a long term project, or maybe just new carpeting, etc. The Suleyman Mosque is very lovely, but not right nearby.
Enjoy this short visit to Istanbul, then plan your next visit!

Posted by
21 posts

Harvey,

I haven't bought the guidebook, but I did print off a lot of stuff from the website. And I printed all your notes and the order of things. I totally plan on following your advice on the order that we do things. I have it all listed out and it sounds like a reasonable amount of places to see in the time we have. I appreciate all the time and effort you put into that for me.

Posted by
5 posts

Even if you land in the old Ataturk or the new 3rd airport, I think you should definitely stay somewhere in Sultanahmet (this is the old city) This way, you can have whole days and visit all the top attractions. I reccommend the Grand Bazaar and Old City. Definitely do a hamam too!

Posted by
28 posts

Tina, I have recently viewed some enjoyable Youtube videos about visiting and eating in Istanbul
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v27ph2U1S4o
is by a fellow named Mark Wiens and one of his videos [I tried to add the address] covers Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi and Cistern plus some excellent eating! I think he spent almost two weeks in Istanbul. Two of the videos cover the parts of Sultanamet which I recommended.
A young couple under the title "Endless Journey" [I hope I got that correct] also visited Ist. but I think 4 days. They also ate wonderful selection of food.
It is delightful to watch these videos which bring back some wonderful memories; and wonderful that they can provide useful information to you and other future visitors.
How are your travel plans progressing?
Anything useful to share with us? Especially concerning the new airport.
Harvey

Posted by
1372 posts

I always buy the RS guidebook for anywhere we go-it'a small price to pay for so much useful information.

Posted by
21 posts

Thanks Harvey!! I can't wait to get a chance to take a look at these videos. So, at this point, I don't really have any news to share. I did get an updated flight information email the other day but it still says ATATURK as my destination airport. So I am still assuming that we are going to the old one. However I have been reading up and it looks like early April is the potential move of the airport code IST from Ataturk to the new one. Likely I will get another notice by this time next month. We have opted to stay at the BASILEUS HOTEL in Old City Sultanahmet. It sounds like it is very close to all the sights that we want to see and looks like a very nice place. I have printed out your sample itinerary for how to get the most our of our few days there. We plan on making use of that as well.

Posted by
28 posts

Hi Tina, Your post prompted me to look at the Hotel you mentioned. Nice foyer but interior breakfast room. No roof patio that I could determine. It is about 1500 ft to one side of Blue Mosque, therefor 3000 ft from Hagia Sofia, and another 1000 ft to Topkapi. These distances add up.
It prompted me to look at the area I stayed in, and I found the guesthouse I spoke of! It is Marmara Guesthouse. One amazing aspect of the internet is the great amount of information which is now available. I even found photos of the room I stayed in! It is a small guesthouse, but still, the room I stayed in, I was surprised! And delighted!

It was called a basement room but it had its own private outdoor sitting area accessible only from the room; and lots of sunlight in the room. And each room has individually controlled A/C and a mini-safe.
There is a simple, functional entrance/foyer. After checkout, luggage can safely be left for pickup later in the day.
That area is about 1500 ft to Hagia Sophia, the same to Blue Mosque, and so on. And walking from Marmora to those places is delightful. Being so close means you can easily return for a rest/nap in the heat of the day. One block away is a popular restaurant street, many with rooftop patios looking out over the Bosphorus, or the Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia. Also convenience stores for water, pop, yoghurt, fruit, fruit juices, candy, etc. BTW many hotels have mini-fridges in the room [but verify this] which is stocked with stuff that will cost 2-4 times what it costs in the store a five minute walk away.
The Marmora has a rooftop patio open throughout the day, and where breakfast buffet is located in the morning. View the photos and you can see the view. I enjoyed eating and relaxing there as I prepared for the day; and relaxed in the evening. At breakfast I enjoyed chatting with other travelers. They also had an automatic coffee maker available throughout the day which made acceptable, not great, coffee.
I was pleased with this guesthouse and the way it was run.
They can arrange for airport to hotel and reverse, either by van or private car.
I think if you contact them directly you might be able to negotiate a better price, especially if paying in cash which avoids a 3-7 % charge by the CC companies. You can still guarantee the room with a CC, just not pay for it with the CC.
I have no connection with Marmora and have not communicated with them since 2016; which also means it may have changed.
Harvey

Posted by
28 posts

Tina, also read the "Eat produce in Turkey" posts. They contain important info about food, water, travelers diarrhea, vaccinations, etc.