Istanbul is a magical city. It is a blend of East and West. As Constantinople it was the center of world Christianity. Today it is a world center for Islam. Istanbul is a wonderful destination for history, culture, museums, delicious food and magnificent views.
Based on multiple trips to Istanbul, both for myself and to show family & friends this remarkable city, I recommend the following:
Blue Mosque: If you are an early riser, I recommend going to the Blue Mosque first thing. You will beat the crowds, have better light, and won’t have to juggle the timing of getting there between prayer times. Tourists are not allowed in the mosque during the six daily prayer times. The first two times are two hours before dawn and dawn with the third prayer at mid-day. This provides a convenient gap as the next three are fairly close together at mid-day, afternoon and sunset. Note: You will need to dress modestly and women will need to cover their hair with a scarf. The mosque will provide a scarf if you need it but I recommend you bring your own. The one provided will be so covered in perfume you will smell it all day!
Topkapi Palace should be your second stop. It gets crowded so I recommend a morning visit (opens at 0900). Topkapi was the Ottoman palace from 1453 through 1839 and has a long history of interesting characters. The museum is one of my favorite places in Turkey and there you can see hairs from Mohamad’s beard, Abraham’s sauce pan, the sword of David (and Goliath), and staff of Moses! Make sure to stop at the café while here. It is overpriced but the baklava and chai are good – but you are really paying for the spectacular view.
Aya Sofya is a must do (also known as Haghia Sofia). If you can only make one stop in Istanbul, this is it. But if you have more time, then I recommend it in this order to make the most logistical sense. Built in 537 AD, this church was the center of the Christian world until Constantinople was conquered in 1453. It was then converted into a mosque until Ataturk made it a museum.
To complete the most famous sights in the Sultanahmet area, walk past the Hippodrome (make sure to walk up to the slightly elevated platform for a great photo of the Blue Mosque) and then head to the Basilica Cistern. The Cistern is the largest that resides below the city and was for Justinianus I in mid-500’s AD. It is other worldly and really you have to see it for yourself. It is also a great place to beat the summer heat.
Unless you are a huge shopper, I recommend you save the Grand Bazaar for the later in the day. It is open later than most sights and is less busy in the evenings so this is the best way to get the most of your time. Make sure to note which exit you came in or else you may have a hard time finding your way out again.
All of these stops can be made in one very long day. I have done it with friends and family a couple of times. Ideally you would do these in two days and have at least a third day for a cruise on the Bosporus, to see the spice bazar, Chora Church and one of the other great museums the city has to offer.
I highly recommend you stay in the Sultanahmet area. There is a wide variety of places to choose from and regardless of your budget, most will offer a rooftop terrace with views of the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia, and/or Hippodrome.
Travel Tips: If you travel light, the subway and tram from Ataturk airport is an easy way to reach the city center. If you decide to take a taxi, it will cost around $50. Pay attention, Istanbul has two major airports. Unless there is a huge price difference, you want to arrive and depart from Ataturk airport on the European side of the city. While Sabiha Gökçen International Airport often has better prices (especially for travel within Turkey and surrounding countries) to make up for the extra travel time to and from the city along with the expense and hassle to get there it would have to be a significant savings to make it worth it.