I’m pretty sure you can’t cover all of these in a day, but you can try.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
The Blue Mosque is spectacular and so serene. They also provide modesty-covering robes and headscarves for tourists who need them. Only Muslims are allowed to proceed to the front for prayers, and visitors should take note to keep a respectful silence for those who are worshipping.
Opening hours: 0830-1130, 1300-1430, 1530-1645; Fridays – opens after 1330
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
The Hagia Sophia has been a cathedral, a mosque and finally a museum celebrating its many past incarnations. Though its history might have been that of violent conquests (not peaceful transitions) it is reflective of Istanbul’s heritage being Byzantine Catholic then Ottoman Muslim, before finally becoming a secular republic.
Opening hours: 0900-1900 (summer) 0900-1700 (winter); last entrance 1h before closing
Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
Topkapı Palace is a fantastic place to observe Ottoman grandeur throughout the palace’s sprawling grounds. I just wish visitors were allowed to sit on the divan (day-bed) by their tall bay windows. But then I might never leave, maybe that’s why the divans are restricted.
Opening hours: 0900-1845 (summer) 0900-1645 (winter); last entrance 45min before closing + closed on Tuesdays and some religious festive days (check website before going)
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı çarşı)
To be really honest, one visit to the Grand Bazaar was more than enough for me. It is overwhelming, and vendors are calling out to you all the time. Be ready for touts shouting “ni hao” to you if you look in the least bit East Asian. I found that the things outside Grand Bazaar was cheaper and the storekeepers less aggressive as well.
Look out for this wizardly old man in Beyazıt Square. Huseyin Avni Dede is apparently a known war veteran and poet, which explains why he has eponymous books lying at his feet.
Opening hours: 0830-1900; closed on Sundays and public holidays
Spice Bazaar (Mısır çarşısı)
I very much preferred the Spice Bazaar to the Grand Bazaar. Touts might still be as persistent but there’s nothing you can’t walk away from. What I loved were the complex smells and the relatively smaller size of the bazaar, making it easier to navigate. Do try out some honey lokum (Turkish delight), it is way better and healthier than the cloyingly sweet sugar lokum. As the vendor said, “You could eat a kilo of this!”
If you’re feeling up to it, the stores outside the bazaar offer a greater selection of wares. Locals shop there as well, but expect to be charged tourist prices if the prices are not fixed.
Opening hours: 0800-1900 (Mon-Sat) 1000-1800 (Sunday); closed on public holidays
The Golden Horn (Haliç)
To be honest, even after seeing the Thames and River Seine, my favourite waterway is still the Haliç. The Golden Horn is linked to the Bosphorous – the strait that separates Europe from Asia. It is most beautiful at golden hour, when the light seems to be jumping up from the river surface.
Opening hours: 24/7!!!
The first three are all within walking distance of each other, and I would suggest to do these three in a day then take dinner by the Golden Horn. Try a fish sandwich (balık ekmek) for sale on the street or at eateries on/near the Galata Bridge. They’re very affordable at 8TL ($3.60) for one. The Bazaars will likely take an entire day if you want to visit both (I hope your legs don’t die).
I have so many more photos of these beautiful, bustling places. Let me know if you want another photo dump (like the one I did for Cappadocia) and tag me in your photos if you end up visiting these places! xx