Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was once famously named, was the ancient capital of the Roman and Ottoman Empires. It was referred to as Basileousia, or “Queen of Cities” and even today, it’s easy to see why.
3 days in Istanbul is just enough time to see this vibrant and bustling city is a huge city that spans two continents; Asia and Europe. As the capital of the Roman and Ottoman Empire, you can expect to find a plethora of historic and fascinating attractions, from the iconic Blue Mosque, the ancient Hagia Sophia, the world’s oldest and largest covered market, The Grand Bazaar, and the underground cisterns. In this Istanbul itinerary, you’ll see all of these top attractions and more when you visit this amazing city.
The Perfect 3 Days in Istanbul Itinerary
If you only have three days in Istanbul but want to make the most out of your visit, don’t fret. In this three-day Istanbul itinerary, you’ll be able to explore all the major sights that make this great city so magical. We enlisted the help of The Turkey Traveler, the #1 travel blog on all things Turkey-related. Offering insider tips, recommendations, and guides, The Turkey Traveler is your ultimate resource to help you plan the perfect trip when you visit Istanbul Turkey.
So, when you’re ready for the perfect Istanbul Itinerary? Let’s get started…
- Day 1 in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Square, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, a Sunset Bosphorus Cruise
- Day 2 in Istanbul – Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Lunch At Eminonu, Galata Bridge, Galata Tower, Istiklal Street and Taksim
- Day 3 in Istanbul – Turkish Bath (Hammam), Kadikoy, Camlica Mosque, Uskudar
A great way to explore Istanbul is to purchase an Istanbul Card. It is valid for 7 days from the first interaction and includes skip-the-line tickets to Istanbul’s top attractions. It also includes 10 rides for public transportation and vouchers to Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and a Bosphorus Cruise.
Day 1 – Sultanahmet – Historic Center
There is no better way to start exploring Istanbul than jumping straight into its historic center – Sultanahmet. It is home to some of the most iconic historical landmarks in Turkey – from the Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque. No itinerary is complete without a visit to this neighborhood.
After enjoying a traditional Turkish breakfast, you’ll have plenty of energy to explore the old city. Better known as Kahvalti, a Turkish breakfast consists of cured meats and dips, fresh cheeses, egg, and fresh breads including a Turkish bagel. After the savory you’ll enjoy pastries, honey, and jams.
The most famous landmark in Istanbul is arguably Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul.
In fact, the building was built in 537, at a time when there was no Istanbul. When it was built, Istanbul was Constantinople, a name given to the city by the Byzantine Empire. For 1,100 years, Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. And it wasn’t until 1453 did the Ottoman Empire conquer it and named it Istanbul.
That is why Hagia Sophia was originally a Catholic Cathedral. Once the city was seized by the Ottomans, it was turned into one of the most significant mosques in the city.
In 1934, the mosque was converted into a museum by the government. In 2020, the Hagia Sophia became a functioning mosque again, much to the delight of the Turkish people.
The Hagia Sophia has 4 minarets, which indicates that the mosque was built by the sultan. Its exterior is gorgeous with hints of red and gold, but the interior will amaze you even further. It has massive marble slabs and a 32-meter main dome that exudes nothing but opulence.
- Opening Hours: April to October: 9am to 7 pm daily November to March – 9am to 6pm. (closed on Mondays)
- Free access to Hagia Sophia with museum pass or 72TL if paying at the entrance.
- Tram stop – Sultanahmet
The Blue Mosque
Just minutes away from the historic Hagia Sophia is another one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks – The Blue Mosque also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Though the Blue Mosque might look more impressive than the Hagia Sophia, especially with its unintended 6 minarets, the Blue Mosque was only built around 400 years ago.
Parts of the Grand Palace of Constantinople were destroyed to build The Blue Mosque. There isn’t a lot of history to The Blue Mosque, except that it was built by Sultan Ahmed I to boost the morale of the Turkish people after the Fifteen Years’ War.
From the exterior, you might wonder how The Blue Mosque got its name. None of its exterior is blue. Visitors will understand once they step inside this religious landmark how the mosque got its name.
The dome of the mosque is covered with decorative blue ceramic tiles that feature traditional Ottoman patterns. Along with the Islamic-style ornaments that dot this massive building, the Blue Mosque is simply an architectural masterpiece.
Though it might not be as historical as Hagia Sophia, its charming decor is going to make you fall in love!
After visiting the two most iconic mosques in Istanbul, stroll around Sultanahmet Square. This is the park that connects both The Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, but it has much more to offer visitors.
Check out the Obelisk of Theodosius, an Egyptian obelisk that was re-erected here in the 4th century AD.
The park is filled with decorated fountains built during the Ottoman period. They served as drinking water for travelers and a place where Muslims could purify themselves before entering a mosque to pray.
Before the Ottomans took over Istanbul, Sultanahmet Square was a Hippodrome, an ancient Greek stadium for horse racing and chariot racing. That is why you might notice the odd shape of the park.
Before you head off to the next stop of our 3-day Istanbul itinerary, imagine what it was like back then!
See if you can find a place that sells Turkish Ice Cream, otherwise called dondurma. The Turkish ice cream here comes with a little performance when you buy it, and that alone is worth every penny (or Lira)!
Minutes away from Sultanahmet Square is one of the most essential buildings for the day-to-day life of the Byzantine Empire – the Basilica Cistern. Built in 532 by Emperor Justinian, the Basilica Cistern is the biggest of the hundreds of cisterns that exist beneath Istanbul.
Many of these cisterns have collapsed over time, but thanks to the Basilica Cistern’s 336 columns and lots of upkeep, the cistern is open to visitors. Most of the columns came from salvaged temples and visitors can still see the carvings on many of them.
The cisterns were an underground reservoir water system that was designed to hold large quantities of water and collect rainwater. This water is then supplied to the entire city so that everyone can have clean water to use. It’s one of the most incredible ancient Greek technologies. This tour offers skip the ticket lines to enter the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern with a local host.
- Opening Hours: Wednesday-Monday: 9 am to 7pm (from November to march 9 am to 5pm) Closed on Tuesdays.
- Cost: 72 TL (note this does not include the Harem) To book the Harem, it is another 42 TL)
Topkapi Palace was built in 1460 after the conquest of Constantinople to serve as the home and administrative building for the Ottoman sultans. It took a total of 18 years to complete.
The grandeur of the Topkapi Palace is undeniable, but it wasn’t enough for the Ottoman sultans. Starting in the 17th century, the sultans started to prefer spending their time in their palaces along the Bosphorus Strait.
In the mid-19th century, Topkapi Palace was no longer in use and was turned into a museum. Inside, visitors will find tons of exhibits on Turkish history, large courtyards, and beautiful gardens.
But perhaps the most famous section of the Topkapi Palace Museum is the Harem, a private quarter where the female members of the sultan’s family lived. The tiling inside the Harem is equally stunning, if not, more stunning than the ones in the Blue Mosque.
Along with the stained glass windows and intricate patterns throughout the whole interior, the Harem is nothing less than breathtaking. Get a skip the line ticket that includes a guided tour of the Audience Hall, High Court, Historical Kitchens, and The Treasury.
Sunset Bosphorus Cruise
No Istanbul itinerary is complete without enjoying a Bosphorus sunset cruise. The cruise departs from the Golden Horn and cruises around the Bosphorus Strait, one of the most historically important bodies of water.
Today, the Bosphorus Strait acts as the boundary between Europe and Asia, so guests technically get a tour of two continents!
All Bosphorus sunset cruises will showcase some of the most important buildings along the Bosphorus Strait, such as the Dolmabahce Palace and Maiden’s Tower. Guests can also go under the impressive Bosphorus Bridge that connects Istanbul’s European side and Asian sides.
Depending on the type of cruise you’ve selected, there might be food and entertainment on board. We recommend selecting a luxurious Bosphorus dinner cruise, so you can have the chance to sample traditional Turkish food like meze and raki, as well as experience cultural dance like the Whirling Dervishes while sipping on Turkish coffee.
We took a yacht cruise to take in the sights, and this cruise takes you on a 2.5-hour boat cruise of the Bosphorus Strait to see Istanbul’s top attractions including Galata Tower and the Dolmabahçe Palace, both the Asian and European Coasts the Küçüksu Palace which was the hunting lodge of the Ottoman Empire.
Day 2 – Sultanahmet and Taksim
You’ll be walking a lot on the second day of our 3-day Istanbul itinerary, so make sure you wear something comfortable today! On the second day, you’ll finish exploring the sight in Sultanahmet and head across the Galata Bridge into Taksim, the so-called modern center of Istanbul.
Start your second day in Istanbul with one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world – Grand Bazaar. It has an estimated total of 61 streets and over 4000 shops, meaning that visitors can spend an entire day here and probably not see everything.
An interesting fact about Grand Bazaar – it is considered the first shopping mall in the world, which makes it the perfect place to purchase some souvenirs!
You can find a variety of stuff here – from cheap counterfeits to antiques. But if you are looking for something to remember your trip by, then we recommend getting a nice Turkish rug, a Turkish lantern, or a nazar amulet.
When you are tired from walking up and down the streets, relax in one of the local tea shops. Have a nice Turkish Tea (çay in Turkish) and a local snack before you continue.
If you decide to purchase something (which you totally should), don’t forget to negotiate! The Turkish are very good salesmen and you can pay a lot more than what the item is worth!
- Hours: 10 am to 6pm
- Tram Stop – Beyazit Kapaliçarsi
Located a few minutes from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Market. Unlike the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is rather small. There are only two streets, and they form the letter L.
Constructed in the 17th Century, the Spice Bazaar is much newer than the Grand Bazaar and visitors can immediately tell by the moment they walk in. It is much more modern-looking and elegant than the Grand Bazaar.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the Spice Bazaar is the smell. When you go in, your scent is immediately overwhelmed by the different spices. A mix of sweat, tea, spices, and herbs create a unique smell that is iconic to the Spice Market. If you want to purchase Turkish tea, the Spice Bazaar is a great place to do so.
- Hours: 10 am to 6pm
- Tram Stop – Beyazit – Kapaliçarsi
Lunch At Eminonu
Once you have finished your shopping spree in those bazaars, it is time to sample some local foods. Luckily, Eminonu, the neighborhood where the Spice Bazaar is located, is the perfect place to do so.
This bustling neighborhood is a great place to sample Turkish food. Unlike restaurants in Sultanahmet that are targeted toward tourists, the restaurants here attract locals thanks to their affordable prices and simple Turkish flavors.
The best way to experience Eminonu is to walk around and see what you like. Our favorite restaurant in Eminonu is Sehzade Cag Kebap. Its lamb sis kebap is so rich in flavor and melts in your mouth!
After a hearty lunch, it is time to continue exploring Istanbul. Head over to the Galata Bridge, which connects the historic center of Istanbul with its modern center. The bridge spans across the Golden Horn, an iconic body of water and one of the most popular spots for fishing.
It is not uncommon to see local fishermen lined up from one side of the bridge all the way to the other.
All the fishermen bring forth a ton of seagulls. Combined with the multitude of pedestrians and boats coming from in and out, walking across Galata Bridge is an iconic moment. Though only 490 meters long, it can take a bit of time to get across!
Perhaps the most famous attraction in the modern center of Istanbul is Galata Tower in the Beyo?lu District. The tower was built in 1348 under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. At 63 meters above the ground, it was the tallest tower back then and served as part of Constantinople’s fortification.
Nowadays, the Galata Tower is one of the best places in Istanbul for panoramic views of the city. From the balcony, you can see Sultanahmet, Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait, and even the Asian side of Istanbul on a good day.
Besides admiring the spectacular views, make sure you explore the exhibits that detail the history of the Galata Tower. This tower was an important part of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire’s history.
- Opening Hours of Galata Tower: 9 am to 7 pm
- Cost: 35 TL
Istiklal Street and Taksim
The last activity on the second day of our 3 days in Istanbul itinerary is to explore Istiklal Street and the Taksim neighborhood.
Istiklal Street is a 1.4-kilometer (0.87-mile) pedestrian-only street in Istanbul that is always bustling. Home to numerous restaurants, trendy bars, and chic cafes, you can spend hours here and not see some of the best things it has to offer.
Here you’ll find the historic Istiklal tram that covers half the span of Istiklal Street. Though it might be tempting to get on it and save yourself some time, the tram could be slower than walking because of all the pedestrian traffic!
The best way to see Istiklal Street is to just walk around and go into any shops that might fancy you. Don’t miss the dessert shops and the chance to try out baklava, the national dessert of
Turkey. There are many flavors to it but you can’t go wrong with the original pistachio flavor.
As you walk up Istiklal Street, you’ll eventually find yourself in Taksim Square. Many people consider Taksim Square to be the heart of modern Istanbul, and you’ll certainly see a lot more international brands such as Mcdonald’s, Burger King, Marriott, and the likes here.
On the western side of Taksim Square (near the entrance of Istiklal Street) are several doner kebabs shops. If you haven’t gotten the chance to try them yet, this is the place to go. Just expect a long queue and a lot of hungry people shoving around!
Before you leave, enjoy a nice dinner at one of the rooftop restaurants near Taksim. Our favorite is 360 Istanbul, and it has earned its name for the 360-degree views its penthouse offers. 360 Istanbul usually turns into a nice nightlife venue later in the night.
If you want to check out the nightlife in Istanbul, this is a great place to do so. Otherwise, there are numerous options along Istiklal street!
A great travel tip is to get an Istanbul Museum Pass to skip the line to popular museums like Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Harem, Great Palace Mosaics and more popular museums in Istanbul with the guided tour app. Check out this pass here.
Day 3 – Asian Side Of Istanbul
Our last day in Istanbul covers the Asian side of Istanbul and also offers something a little more relaxing.
Turkish Bath (Hammam)
After a long day of walking around Istanbul, I think it is time to relax. Luckily, there is the perfect place in Istanbul to do so – a Turkish Bath, or Hammam in Turkish.
Turkish Baths were an important part of Islamic culture, serving as a place where visitors can cleanse themselves before entering a mosque, and a place where guests can socialize.
Nowadays, a Turkish Bath is more of a relaxing experience where guests can come out completely refreshed and one of the best things to do in Istanbul.
There are plenty of Hammams in Istanbul, but we recommend Ca?alo?lu Hammam. Built in 1741, it is one of the last baths built under the Ottoman Empire. The interior of the Ca?alo?lu Hammam is gorgeous and looks like a museum of its own.
When it comes to experiencing a Turkish Bath, there are many packages to choose from. Depending on how you want to be pampered, you can choose something that is more comprehensive or something shorter.
Before you go, make sure you check out the different packages Ca?alo?lu Hammam offers on their official site!
Now that you’ve experienced the main attractions on Istanbul’s European side, it is time to head over to the Asian side. The Asian side is known for its incredible food and more laid-back lifestyle. With plenty of residential areas, it is one of the best places to stay in Istanbul for families.
Our first stop on the Asian side is Kadikoy, a neighborhood known for its affordable restaurants with authentic flavors. Seafood is a specialty on the Asian side, so don’t miss out on the chance to try some stuffed mussels and fish sandwiches!
Head towards the sub-neighborhood of Moda, where you can find a promenade along the Bosphorus Strait. Go for a short stroll and take in the spectacular views and refreshing sea air before heading to your next destination!
Built in 2019, the Camlica Mosque is a new attraction you don’t typically find in any guidebooks. But if you are following our Istanbul itinerary, you’ll not miss out on this hidden gem.
The Camlica Mosque is the biggest mosque in all of Turkey and its modern construction makes it a spectacular landmark. Besides being a mosque, it features an art gallery, a library, and a museum.
Everything in the Camlica Mosque just speaks of luxury and opulence.
Don’t miss out on the massive courtyard that boasts spectacular views of the Bosphorus Bridge. Perched on top of a hill, the views from there are stunning. The Camlica Mosque is situated in Camlica Park, a massive green space that is popular for families to enjoy the outdoors.
If you are still early in the afternoon, spend some time strolling around. You’ll be thankful for some fresh air after the past 2 days on the European Side.
After you are done exploring the Camlica Mosque and its massive grounds, head over to the quaint neighborhood of Uskudar on the Asian Side. This neighborhood is known for its bustling fish markets and a long-stretching promenade with tons of cozy cafes.
Facing west, the shores of this seaside neighborhood is one of the best places to catch the sunset in Istanbul. But what makes Uskudar even more stunning is the historical Maiden’s Tower that sits just a few hundred meters off the shore.
At the right spot, the sun sets behind this Byzantine-era fortification and its silhouette is just spectacular.
After the sun sets, walk around the neighborhood and find a seafood restaurant with a view for dinner!
Where to Stay in Istanbul
- Swissotel The Bosphorus – This five-star luxury hotel right is in the centre of Istanbul on the European banks of the Bosphorus. It is a perfect location for exploring Istanbul with a rooftop pool and free WiFi. Check out Availability & Prices at Booking.com/Trip Advisor
- Sura Hagia Sophia – Located in Sultanahmet, this 5-star hotel is perfectly situated to all the main attractions. The hotel also offers a well-designed garden with an attractive pool area and Free Happy Hour. Check out Availability & PricesBooking.com/Trip Advisor
- Elite World Europe Hotel – Situated close to the airport, this newly-opened hotel offers luxury at budget prices. Perfect for a layover or to avoid Istanbul traffic if you have a flight leaving in the early morning hours. Check out Availability & Prices Booking.com/Trip Advisor
Tips For Visiting Istanbul
- Bring comfortable shoes – Istanbul is a city that is best discovered on foot. The city has a nickname of “City on the Seven Hills”, so make sure you bring some comfortable shoes to walk around the city!
- Dress conservatively – Though Turkey is slightly more liberal than most Muslim countries, it is still a Muslim country. Make sure you won’t wear something too revealing. For the mosques, men cannot wear tank tops and their pants must cover their knees. Hats are also not allowed. Women must cover their heads, shoulders, and knees. You’ll need to wear a scarf to cover your head before you enter.
- Be Mindful of the Prayer Times – If you plan on visiting the mosques, make sure you check out the prayer times. Visitors are not welcome during this time.
- Get an Istanbulkart – The Istanbulkart is a necessity when using Istanbul’s transportation system. It is a smart contactless card that is used to pay the fare. You can get one from most major public transportation stations.
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To get to and from the airport, we (Dave and Deb) took TransferExpert.com. Their services were professional and friendly! It was nice to have a sign with our name on it waiting for us when we landed at the hectic airport.