Istanbul Three Day Itinerary: Top Things to Do & See

This is my Istanbul three day itinerary! It may seem tricky to squeeze it all in, but it’s doable.

Istanbul cannot be sufficiently described without being seen. At one corner you’ve traveled back in time to haggle for spices. At the the next, you’re taking a trolley to a curated museum. This city is so many things in one.

Constantinople of the ancient world, Istanbul is on the bridge between two continents, and this is apparent in so many ways. The mixture of cultures gives the sense of being two places at once.

From the distant sound of an imam calling the faithful to prayer, to relaxing in an upscale shop, Istanbul has something for everyone.


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DAY 1: No visit to Istanbul is complete without a visit to its most famous site, so naturally I think your first stop should be to the famed Hagia Sophia.
Stay at a hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, and this is an easy walk.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
I suggest getting the “3 Day Tourist Pass” like we did, as it saves you money overall.
Once inside the Hagia Sophia, you will be amazed! It is a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
First built as a Greek Orthodox Basilica in 1054 AD, it was eventually taken over by the Muslims in 1453 and converted to the mosque that it is today.
The Hagia Sophia is an architectural feat, a UNESCO world heritage site, and now museum.
It is easy to spend about three hours there, soaking in the impressive history. Pro tip: Make friends with the resident cats! 🐈🐈


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Next, head to the intricate Sultanahmet Camii, also known as “The Blue Mosque“. It may be closed for prayer, and in that case you can only enjoy it from the outside. Simply entering the courtyard however is impressive!Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Afterwards, head to the Basilica Cistern. Nestled deep below the city, this eerie underground structure was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Lying hidden underneath the busy streets, it feels a bit like the “Chamber of Secrets” from Harry Potter!
This ancient cistern once provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, and also contains scary Roman-era statues of the sinister Medusa.
Read about even more ancient ruins in Turkey!
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
From there, walk to Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar. One of the oldest covered markets in the world, it first started operating in the 15th century!
Nowadays it is a thriving and busy area, filled with all the goods you can imagine. It is visited by about 400,000 people each day. If you can avoid the hustlers and engage in some bartering, it is a fun time!Grand Bazaar
Next, head to the Spice Bazaar, and then stop at the famous dessert restaurant Hafiz Mustafa for baklava and apple tea.
Stomachs full, head uphill towards the Istanbul Archaeological Museum complex. The museums are worth a visit, but the surrounding gardens and views were what made it worth it to me!
Next, we tried our luck at visiting the Blue Mosque again, and this time it was successful! We were able to view the stunning interior of the mosque, and see the men praying.
Remember that as a woman, you need to bring a head covering when visiting, and dress modestly. Respect the local culture by dressing appropriately in general, even if this is different from your preferred style at home.
For dinner, eat at Buhara Kebab. My husband had the local signature beverage raki, and we tried kanafeh for dessert!
Lodging: Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel  A great location and beautiful hotel!

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DAY 2- First, head to the second most visited site in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace (Topkopi Sarayi). In the 15th century, when the city was under Ottoman Empire rule, it served as the main residence of the Sultan.
Upon entering the Palace and Museum, you buy your preferred ticket, and then have free range over its extensive grounds.Topkapi, Istanbul, Turkey
We visited the Sultan’s chambers, various gardens and courtyards, and the Imperial Treasury (with relics used by Mohammed himself!).
The most intriguing part for me was the Women’s Quarter, where you see how the Sultan’s harem of women lived centuries ago.
Outside of the palace, stand on the terrace to look over the Bosphorus strait (connecting the Black Sea & The Sea of Marmara) and see fabulous views of the other half of Istanbul- technically on the Asian continent.
After some exploring, we found ourselves next at Hagia Irene. I was surprised that hardly anyone was there, as this crumbling Christian church from the 8th century has so much character!
It has a sense of undiscovered mystery, and I loved it. The first Byzantine church commissioned to be built in Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine himself, it makes for an impressive visit.
Next, walk to Kadiköy Pier. We snacked on chestnuts from a food stall, and boarded a ferry towards Uskudar. We took this ferry solely because we wanted to be able to “boat from Europe to Asia”, but once there it was truthfully a bit boring.
Back in central Istanbul, climb the steep hill and cobbled streets toward Galata Tower. We then paid for drinks and appetizers at Anemon Hotel, just so we could enjoy its panoramic view!istanbul, turkey
Near the bridge, we found a bustling local fish market. My husband got some anchovies from a boat captain, and we enjoyed eyeing the day’s catches.Istanbul Three Day Itinerary. Istanbul Fish Market in Turkiye.
Crossing the bridge back to the Sultanahmet neighborhood, we headed to dinner at a hookah lounge called Mesale. There, we indulged in kebabs and traditional Turkish pancakes.
They also had a whirling dervish perform, which while repetitive, was fascinating to see!
On the walk back to the hotel, we passed several souvenir stalls, and I fed my leftover meat from dinner to some of the MANY street cats that are all over Istanbul!
Michelle, the cat whisperer
Lodging: Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel  A great location and beautiful hotel!


DAY 3- We headed out with grand visions of touring the inside of the ornate Dolmabahçe Palace, but once there we found it was closed. Despite this, we at least were able to enjoy the gorgeous exterior. If you plan it right, I definitely recommend going inside here though!
Dolmabahce, Istanbul, Turkey
Since we were near the ferry port, we then took an impromptu Bosphorus “river” cruise (I say river in quotes because it is technically a strait). We were freezing, but the audio commentary gave us nice historical insights and city views.
Istanbul, Turkey. Bosphorus dinner cruise.
View from the Bosphorus Cruise
Back on land, go to the famous Karaköy Güllüoğlu Restaurant for some phenomenal baklava. It was amazing guys, you have to go!
Once sufficiently stuffed with dessert, walk back up the hill towards Taksim Square. The modern city center of Istanbul, you can do some serious damage shopping at the fancy boutiques and restaurants.
While there, we popped in the Church of St. Anthony of Padua. For our final night in Istanbul, we went to the illuminated fountains between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia- it was the perfect farewell to this amazing city!istanbul three day itinerary. Blue Mosque. Things to do in Istanbul.
Lodging: Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel  A great location and beautiful hotel!

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Common Questions:

Are three days enough in Istanbul? To see all the main sights and icons of the city, yes. Three days is about perfect. You can squeeze it all in to 2 days, but you will likely feel rushed that way. 
Which area to stay in Istanbul for first time visitors? Some people will suggest Taksim square area, but I felt staying in the old town neighborhood of Sultanahmet was perfect. It was easy to walk to most places we wanted to see. 
Is Istanbul a walkable city? Yes, definitely! The main areas and sights are all very walkable, and we never had to use public transit besides getting into town from the airport. You may choose to use it, but we found going on foot allowed us to see more of the city. 
Do tourists need to cover up and dress modestly in Istanbul? Overall, yes. Turkey is a Muslim country and if you don’t want to stand out and draw unnecessary attention, it’s a better idea to dress conservatively. While not required, and you can technically wear what you like, I think it’s a sign of respect to cover up more than you usually would.


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Istanbul three day itinerary. Schedule ideas for a first timer's visit to this unique city of the former Ottoman Empire!

1 Comment

  • Reply Natalie December 3, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Istanbul looks incredible. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are famous, so I found it interesting about the Hagia Irene. It’s really cool to discover a gem within a city of amazing landmarks that feels undiscovered.

    Based on your pictures, I also want to visit Topkapi Palace. I love that you can purchase a ticket that allows you full range of the grounds (and I’d make a huge point to visit this palace).

    And I need to comment on the Basilica Cistern, especially because you remarked that it looked like it came out of Harry Potter. I’ve always thought I might do a Harry Potter (and/or Doctor Who) themed trip through the UK, but it’s entirely possible to do a Harry Potter themed tour through the world! From the pictures, the Basilica Cistern does indeed remind me of the Chamber of Secrets.

    I’d also be feeding and petting the street cats (to my husband’s chagrin). I love animals.

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