Last Updated on 28th October 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
Dreaming of spending some days in Istanbul? This mesmerising city that spans between Europe and Asia is a wonderful destination all year round. If you are planning a short visit to this city on the coast of the Bosphorus, then bookmark this itinerary for 3 days in Istanbul so as not to miss any of the highlights in town.
The most remarkable city in Turkey (although not the capital of the country) receives thousands of visitors from all over the world eater to explore its unique wonders, such as the awe-inspiring mosques, the delicious bazaars, and some of the most sumptuous palaces in the region.
- Things to Know about Istanbul, Turkey
- The History of Istanbul
- Getting to Istanbul
- Where to Stay in Istanbul
- Suggested itinerary for 3 days in Istanbul
- Day 1: Sultanahmet District
- Day 2: Bazaars and Karaköy
- Day 3: Lesser-Known Istanbul
Things to Know about Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey as well as the most important cultural and economic center in the country, lying both in Europe and Asia, Istanbul has a large population (over 15 million people) and it is also among the fifteenth largest cities in the world.
This might give you the impression that a three-day tour of the city might never be enough, however, the city’s must-visit landmarks mostly concentrate on the European side, which is easy to explore relying on public transport.
Although many people mistake this impressive city for the capital of the country, the actual capital of Turkey is Ankara, located in the central part of Anatolia, and it is Turkey’s second-largest city after Istanbul. Other popular spots in Turkiye include Fethiye and Cappadocia.
The History of Istanbul
Born under the name of Byzantium, the city was founded during the seventh century by Greek settlers. Later on in history, it became the capital of the Roman Empire (330 AD) and its new name was Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great.
One of the most important spots along the Silk Road (connecting Asia and Europe) as well as among the most influential cities in history, Constantinople grew through the years expanding towards both sides of the Bosphorus.
Capital of the Late Byzantine Empire from 1261 until 1453, the city fell to the Ottoman Empire (Fall of Constantinople), becoming then the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate (1453-1922).
Istanbul was then the capital of Turkey and it was replaced by Ankara in 1923 when the country became the Republic of Turkey. A few years later, in 1930, the city’s name was transformed into Istanbul. The city is a modern and developed hub with a rich cultural heritage hosting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Getting to Istanbul
There are two international airports in the city, one located on the Asiatic part of the city, Sabiha Gökçen International, located 45 kilometers southeast of the city center. Istanbul New Airport which replaces the former Atatürk Airport is around 50 km from the center of the city.
There are different options to travel from the airport (any of them- there are multiple airports in Istanbul) to the city centre, a taxi ride can take from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the traffic. Prices range from €50 to €70 and it is a good idea to book it before the trip.
There are also buses connecting both airports to the city centre, a one-way ticket is about €20 minutes to reach the centre of Istanbul. Prices range between 10 and 35 Turkey Liras depending on the stops, the time of the day, and the route covered.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Those who visit Istanbul for the first time might be surprised at the affordable fees they will pay even when choosing to stay in a top-rated hotel.
Accommodation, food, and entertainment are some of those key things that are still very affordable for visitors when you consider the favourable currency exchange rate between the Turkish Lira and the Euro (or the US Dollar).
If you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, it is a good idea to stay in the more central areas of the city, such as Taksim Square, a major bus hub in Istanbul, home to hotels, restaurants, and a few interesting attractions.
Another great place to stay in the city center is the Sultanahmet district, where you will be able to visit some of the most remarkable mosques and other religious buildings in town.
If you’re staying in Istanbul for three days, do consider the following hotels in town:
Budget – Best Point Hotel Old City – Best Group Hotels: The hotel is located in the heart of the Sultanahmet area, in the district of Fatih, within walking distance from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Check prices and availability here.
Mid-range – Haci Bayram Hotel: Situated in the heart of Sultanahmet, this accommodation boasts a gorgeous terrace with great views of Istanbul as well as a paid airport shuttle service. Check prices and availability here.
Luxury – Azra Sultan Hotel and Spa: This place is conveniently close to the stunning Basilica Cistern, in the Sultanahmet district. It is a 4-star hotel offering free parking and currency exchange services for guests. Check prices and availability here.
Suggested itinerary for 3 days in Istanbul
Day 1: Sultanahmet District
The Blue Mosque
Start your day by heading to Sultanahmet Square to discover the magnificent Blue Mosque, the best-known place of prayer in Istanbul. If you are planning to visit both The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, consider booking a guided tour like this one.
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque is an active Ottoman imperial mosque built between 1609 and 1616, containing the tomb of ruler Ahmed I as well as a madrasah (Coran school) and a hospice.
The name Blue Mosque refers to the thousands of hand-painted blue tiles that decorate the interior of the building. The imposing mosque features five main domes as well as six minarets. The place has been included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985 as a Historic Area of Istanbul.
To visit the mosque, you will need to remove your shoes. If you are a female visitor, you will also need to cover your head and wear a special long skirt that they provide free of charge. This is the main mosque in the city open for visits outside of the hours of prayer.
Just across the street from the Blue Mosque, this building was born as the largest Christian Cathedral in the world, commissioned in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian the Great.
It was the biggest Greek orthodox church in the world as well as the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years (until 1507 when the Seville Cathedral in Spain was completed).
When the city fell to the Ottoman Empire (fifteenth century), Hagia Sofia was transformed into a mosque with the addition of minarets and the removal of several Christian icons. Most of the Christian mosaics, though, are still visible in many areas of the former church.
It functioned as a mosque until 1931. The building was made into a secular museum in 1935. In recent years, however, (July 2020) the decision to establish a museum was suppressed and Hagia Sophia was reclassified as a mosque, a controversial fact received with a great deal of skepticism by the opposition, UNESCO, and the Orthodox community around the world.
From the Christian Era, pay attention to the intricate remarkable vaulted dome, the basket capitals carved with monograms of Justinian, as well as the marble columns and walls.
Some of the most remarkable Muslim traits of Hagia Sofia include the mihrab located in the apse where the altar used to stand, pointing towards Mecca, which is flanked by two immense candlesticks made in Hungary.
Descend 52 stone steps to enter the third stop of your first morning in Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is an incredible place just meters from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, also in the Sultanahmet district. You can also book this Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour if you want to discover the complex with a guide.
Locally known as the subterranean cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish), the impressive complex hosts the largest of a network made of several hundred ancient cisterns (built to catch and keep rainwater) located underneath the city of Istanbul.
The cistern dates from the sixth century, and its construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian the Great. Originally located under a large public square, known as the Stoa Basilica, it receives the name from this former public market in town where there was also a basilica from the early Christian Roman ages.
The cistern included a water filtration system that was used to feed fresh water to some of the best palaces in town until recent times while it is capable of holding about 80,000 cubic meters) of water.
Among the most unique features, there are more than 300 marble columns sustaining the ceiling, some of them with curious engravings.
On the western area of the underground building, you will find two of the most visited spots in the Cistern which are the bases of two columns carved with the face of Medusa, a mythological creature. The two blocks are oriented sideways and inverted as a means to negate the deadly power of the creature’s gaze.
After visiting these three gorgeous places, it is a good idea to stop for lunch and a rest before heading to the second part of the day.
In the area, you can enjoy a quick bite and some street food such as grilled corn, roasted chestnuts, steamed spicy mussels, or a portion of lahmacun. Alternatively, you can go for a doner kebab in one of the many small restaurants behind Sultanahmet Square.
Less than a ten-minute walk from Hagia Sofia stands another magnificent landmark in the city, Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı in Turkish) which was the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-1400s until another monumental palace, Dolmabahçe Palace, was finished (1856).
Until the 1800s, this palace was also the official and main residence of the sultanate of Istanbul. The place, originally known as New Palace, was named Topkapı (Cannon Palace) in more recent years.
The lavish complex features four important courtyards and several smaller buildings, with a harem especially created for the female members of the Sultan’s family.
The palace was made into a museum back in 1924, with dozens of interesting exhibitions, such as Ottoman clothing, military weapons, miniatures, religious objects, manuscripts, and more.
Being part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, also Topkapı has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once again, you can go on a guided tour of this Istanbul attraction. Check prices and availability here.
Sultan Süleyman Hamam – Suleyman Palace
What about spending the next few hours relaxing at a Turkish Public Bath?
A great spot for a relaxing end of the day in Istanbul before heading out for dinner is this spectacular hammam bath complex open to the public features a sauna area, therapeutic massages, hot baths, cold plunge pools, salt room, mud therapy, and the antique technique of scrub foam massage.
For more information about what to bring for your visit and what free services they offer, head to the official website and find out all you need to know to get ready for this relaxing experience.
Dinner Cruise on the Bosphorus
Arguably the most romantic way to finish the first day in town is to embark on a cruise on the Golden Horn and explore both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul from the water.
During the experience, you will be welcome with a delicious drink to sip while taking in the spectacular views of the city, along the way, you will also pass under the Bosphorus Bridge and Fatih Sultan Mehmed Bridge.
You will admire the Ottoman splendor of the former summer palaces including Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces, the fortifications of the Anatolian Castle and marvel at the impressive mansions along the coast of the Bosphorus.
During the evening, there is normally a music show and a dinner with international and local cuisine. For instance, this particular cruise includes a delicious 3-course dinner, free local drinks, and a diverse program of traditional entertainment on board.
Day 2: Bazaars and Karaköy
Today we will devote the morning to exploring a few of the amazing bazaars and markets in the city, to then reach the Galata bridge for a mouthwatering fish lunch. Then we will visit the Galata Tower as well as other lesser-known districts in Istanbul.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
A place like no other in town, this ancient covered market sells fresh products, spices, household objects and appliances, trinkets and jewelry, lamps, carpets, and a lot more. Keeps in mind that prices will always be negotiable, as this is considered a refined art that the Turkish stand owners enjoy putting into practice with locals and visitors alike.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest bazaars in Istanbul. It is located in the Fatih district and it features an impressive series of 60 narrow streets with more than 3600 shops. You could visit every day for a whole year and still not become an expert here.
A covered bazaar is an excellent place where to start your perfect Istanbul-souvenir hunt. Filled with all types of things on sale, you’ll certainly find the right city memory to take home with you.
Keep in mind that the most popular objects as well as the things that tourist love to take back home are often overpriced, so avoid the tourist trap price tag and bargain until you get the best deal.
Among such souvenirs, there are kilims, a high-quality, handwoven carpet, colorful glass lamps, gold and silver jewelry, spices, sweets, nuts, and dried fruits.
Arasta Bazaar (Arasta Çarşısı)
A small version of the Grand Bazaar, the Arasta Bazaar is a market located right behind the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet.
This is a quiet place mostly visited by locals and with affordable prices, ideal to find original souvenirs, but also Turkish gastronomic products, handcrafts, and clothes.
Beyazit Book Market (Beyazıt Sahaflar Çarşısı)
Also in the Fatih area, near Sultanahmet Square, this is a different kind of market, catering to book lovers. Although a big number of the books sold in this bazaar are religious ones, you will also find second-hand cuisine books, ancient titles, and even the odd modern Turkish best-sellers.
Leather-covered notebooks, prayer beads, wood-carved objects, paintings, and even Oriental perfumes are also on display in the different stalls of this market that is located in a gorgeous courtyard.
The Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
Going also under the name of the Spice Bazaar, this public market was built after the Great Fire of Istanbul (1660) to feature spices coming from Egypt.
Known for its enigmatic perfumes and colorful spices on display, those who enjoy cooking would be willing to spend hours over here purchasing unique spices and dried herbs. There are also other exotic condiments as well as fruit teas, Turkish delight, and natural cosmetics.
Inside the market, there is also a lesser-known small fish market as well as other stands selling home and garden tools and supplies for pet owners. The market is also in Fatih, surrounded by endless small streets with plenty of affordable fashion shops.
The New Mosque
After you leave the Egyptian Bazaar, and enter the Eminönü quarter, head towards the sea, and before stopping for lunch, pay a visit to Yeni Camii, also known as The New Mosque
Another Ottoman imperial mosque, Yeni Camii was completed between 1660 and 1665. It is located facing the Golden Horn and part of the Bosphorus, only steps from the famous Galata Bridge and it is deemed a great architectural example of the Sultanate of Women period.
During this moment in the history of the Ottoman Empire, wives and mothers of the Sultans had extraordinary political influence. Proof of that is the original name of the mosque, Valide Sultan Camii (that roughly translates as Sultan Mother or Queen Mother Mosque).
Another highlight of the Eminönü quarter is the Gülhane Park, which lies adjacent to the Topkapı Palace. Today it remains one of the oldest and largest parks in the city.
Lunch by the Galata Bridge: Balık ekmek
You can enjoy the most iconic dish in town opposite the courtyard of the New Mosque. Right on the Golden Horn, there is a series of small floating restaurants (better described as floating kitchens) specialised in cooking and serving only one dish, the most traditional food you can savour in Istanbul: Balık ekmek.
This mouthwatering snack is quite generous and it will be a great lunch option before heading to cross the Galata Bridge on foot. Made with grilled whiting or mackerel, the sandwich also comes with fresh lettuce, onions, spices, herbs, and a few drops of lemon juice and is served between two thick slices of fresh bread.
This is the place where most locals come for lunch, any day of the week, although the weekends are extremely crowded and finding a place to seat is almost impossible. Worry not, I’ve always eaten my Balık ekmek standing and looking at the sea. It is a priceless experience and a must-do in Istanbul.
Once you cross the Galata Bridge, and therefore the Golden Horn, you will be in the Karaköy area of Istanbul, however, before getting lost in the streets of this neighborhood, and right after you’ve crossed the bridge, look back towards the New Mosque for a breathtaking view of the city’s ancient mosques and modern bridges.
Formerly known as Galata, this was a citadel and colony of the Republic of Genoa back between the end of the 1200s and 1453. Today, the whole area has been named Karaköy and it remains the most commercial part of the Beyoğlu district, still in the European area of Istanbul.
When checking out the narrow alleys around the neighborhood, you will find dozens of interesting boutiques and vintage stores selling the famous silk headscarves and neckerchiefs from Bursa.
The place was better known for its popular port where immigrants would settle and commerce, since those times, this has been one of Istanbul’s melting pots, where there are religious buildings of different faiths, including Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Bulgarian and Armenian churches, Jewish synagogues and international schools, including Italian, Austrian, Greek and Jewish schools.
The undiscussed star in this part of Istanbul is the medieval Galata Tower, with its really distinctive conical roof shaping the Karaköy skyline.
Built by the important Genoese community that lived in the area in medieval times, the tower was named after the previous name of the quarter where it was located (Galata, today known as Karaköy).
This seaside watchtower, with a strategic observation deck, is now an important exhibition center and city museum as well as one of the most characteristic symbols of Istanbul.
Originally built following the Romanesque style, the tower was for centuries the tallest building in Constantinople (more than 65 meters high).
After the fall of the Byzantine Roman Empire, when the local Genoese colony dispersed and the Ottoman Empire took over, it also served as a prison for much of the sixteenth century.
Later on, the tower also served useful purposes being used as an observation tower to watch for fires in the center of Old Istanbul.
Although part of its roof was lost during a heavy storm, the tower regained its ancient magnificence when it was restored between 1965 and 1967. Since 2020, the Galata Tower has been functioning as a city museum.
Dinner in Beşiktaş District
Fans of soccer might know the Beşiktaş name as the area is home to one of Turkey’s most famous soccer teams, however, contrary to soccer fans’ beliefs, there is much more than sports when it comes to Beşiktaş.
The picturesque neighborhood, on the European side of the Bosphorus, is easily reached from Karaköy by public transport (the journey from Galata Tower lasts around 10 minutes).
Among the important sites located in this district, is the famous Dolmabahçe Palace which was the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire through different historical periods. North of Beşiktaş, the Bebek area is a charming sport, with picturesque alleys and colorful wooden houses.
Heading here at night is great to dine like locals at a typical Bursa Iskender restaurant. Affordable and delicious, these typical Turkish restaurants serve a variety of delicious dishes, some of them originating in the region of Bursa.
There are dozens of traditional eateries along Barbaros Boulevard and the alleys that cross this main street, pick any of them and enjoy a round of authentic Turkish delicacies for a convenient fee.
Avoid visiting when the local soccer team plays, as it will be impossible to find a place to sit!
Day 3: Lesser-Known Istanbul
Asian Side of Istanbul and Istiklal Caddesi
Early wake up to visit the opposite side of the Bosphorus Strait and explore a lesser-known part of Istanbul, also known as the Anatolian Side. Be aware that crossing is very simple even if you’re traveling to another continent, you won’t need a visa or any other special document.
You could get there by Metrobus, ferry or the subway, probably the fastest way to cross. The metro is called Marmaray and you can take it at Sirkeci Station, and get off directly in the Kadıköy district, on the Asian side.
Alternatively, both the hop-on-hop-off bus and public buses take a scenic road crossing over the suspension bridge that goes from the Ortaköy district (European side) to the Uskudar district (Asian side).
Crossing by ferry offers a great opportunity for sightseeing, as you sail towards Asia, you can check out the whole Bosphorus Strait, the several bridges, and the modern skyline of Istanbul dotted with ancient minarets from the several mosques and ancient towers.
The ride is about 30 minutes. The ferry leaves from Eminönü or Karaköy districts (European side) to Kadıköy or Uskudar districts (Asian side).
There are a few sites to visit in this part of Istanbul, start by heading to Kadıköy, to check out the modern town and the famous Moda neighborhood, which has been included in the list of the coolest neighborhoods in the world.
Over here, you will find plenty of restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, and tons of colorful streets and graffiti, plus endless shopping opportunities.
As you would expect, the vibe is definitely more relaxed and authentic on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Kadıköy Market (Kadıköy Çarşısı)
A wonderful market to visit in Istanbul, Kadıköy Çarşısı offers a more authentic and realistic image of Istanbul. You will find lots of stalls selling fresh produce, as well as bargain shops with clothes, shoes, bags, and more.
Prices are more convenient than on the European side, so this is where most Istanbul residents come for their shopping needs.
The Asian side is also a great place for lunch, you can hang out in the small food stalls at the market, or choose any of the several restaurants in Kadıköy for an affordable yet delicious meal before heading back to Europe. According to the locals, this area of Istanbul has the best restaurants in the whole of Istanbul.
Afternoon in Istiklal Caddesi
Back in Europe, it’s time to discover the most famous street in Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street). Get ready to walk, ride an iconic tram, and maybe do some shopping too.
The easiest way to reach this famous Istanbul street is to first get to Taksim Square (either by bus or tram) and then head to the area. If you like nostalgic rides, instead, it is a good idea to get to Karaköy first, and once there, jump on the nineteenth-century red underground funicular and get off at Tünel Square.
From here, you can start your walk along Istiklal Street, or where you can take the so-called Nostaljik Tramvay (often very crowded) that runs on this street. If you’re in the mood, you can do both!
Although the city is quite safe in general, this is among the most crowded places you will find during your trip, so wear a safe crossbody bag, and keep your personal belongings close to you. Don’t be scared, just take the same precautions you would take in any other big and crowded tourist spot you might visit.
Along the street, you will find the obvious fashion shops and some international brands, bars and cafeterias, and a few restaurants as well as plenty of souvenir shops.
However, the best shops on this street are some vintage and second-hand bookstores, historic cinemas, charming covered passages, two Catholic churches, and fine Art Nouveau buildings.
The Flower Passage
One such place is the magnificent Cité de Pera or Çiçek Pasajı, usually known as the Flower Passage to tourists. This is a Parisian-style arcade that opened back in 1876, and it was designed respecting the Art Nouveau architectural style.
The Flower Passage got its name because Russian refugees living in Istanbul would sell flowers inside the gallery. Today, there are chic stores and elegant cafeterias where you can sit and rest after a walk along Istiklal Street. It’s a good idea to sit at one of the coffee bars and order a cup of Turkish apple tea.
What about experiencing one of the most traditional sights of the country’s culture by attending a Whirling Dervishes dance? This show takes you on a journey into the Mevlevi Sema spiritual experience through dance. During the show, there are complimentary drinks served as well.
Once inside the 550-year-old Ottoman Turkish bath in Sultanahmet-Sirkeci, now Hodja Pasha Cultural Center, you will experience this ancient ritual that’s more than 800 years old.
The hour-long performance starts with a classical Turkish music concert. Then, the dervishes and sheik dance and chant to the rhythm of drums and a complex musical repertoire called ayin.
The mystical act represents the man’s spiritual ascent and ends with a prayer for the salvation of the country. This is an ancient ritual and one of the most authentic experiences you can live in the city. During the show, there are complimentary drinks served as well.
End your Day in Taksim Square
Lively, busy, and popular, Taksim Square is the most important square in town where you can spend the last night in Istanbul.
Start by checking out the remarkable monuments that adorn the area, including the beloved Republic Monument which commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Around Taksim, there are also dozens of shops as well as restaurants and bakeries selling some of Turkey’s best-known sweets, including baklava and Turkish delight (locally known as lokum).
This is a good area for dinner. In most restaurants, you can order anything from a simple selection of mezedes (small dishes with a variety of finger food), but also doner kebab, lahmacun, and a variety of local sweets.
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Gabi Ancarola is a journalist and travel writer who has lived over 20 years in Italy, and has been living in Crete for the last five years. She hosts culinary tours, translates and writes for her Crete travel blog The Tiny Book. She’s written for Greek Reporter and published several travel guides about Greece.