Istanbul in 1-3 Days: Top Things to Do

Istanbul is a city that 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 modern trolley to a perfectly curated museum. This city seems to wear a veil of mystery, and is so many things in one.

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

I visited Istanbul for 3 days with my husband. It’s a short time, yet we truly felt we were able to experience the city. Here is my itinerary and suggestions for top things to do in Istanbul!

DAY 1: No visit to Istanbul is complete without a visit to its most famous site, so naturally our first stop was a visit to the famed Hagia Sophia. We stayed at a hostel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, so this was an easy walk. Upon arrival, we bought the “3 Day Tourist Pass” ticket. Once we stepped inside, we noticed much of the building was covered in scaffolding. Despite this, it was still a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
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 a museum. It is easy to spend about three hours exploring and soaking in the impressive history. Pro tip: Be sure to make friends with the resident cats!
Next, we headed to the intricately beautiful Sultanahmet Camii, also known as “The Blue Mosque“. It was closed for prayer, so we were only able to enjoy it from the outside. Simply entering the courtyard however was impressive!Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Afterwards, we headed 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 felt 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. || Click here to learn about even more ancient ruins in Turkey! ||
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
From there, we walked to Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar. One of the oldest covered markets in the world, the bazaar 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, and if you can avoid the hustlers and engage in some bartering, it is a fun time!Grand Bazaar
At the recommendation of a local, we then headed to the Spice Bazaar, and later stopped at locally famous dessert restaurant Hafiz Mustafa for baklava and apple tea. Feeling full, we walked uphill towards the Istanbul Archaeological Museum complex. The museums are worth a visit, but the surrounding gardens and views were what made it all 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. In addition, always remember to respect the local culture by dressing appropriately, even if this is different from your preferred clothing style at home.
For dinner, we ate at Buhara Kebab. My husband tried local signature beverage raki, and we tried kanafeh for dessert!
Lodging: Cheers Hostel– A friendly, social place with quality rooms and an amazing staff!

DAY 2- First, we headed to the second most visited site in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace (Topkopi Sarayi). In the 15th century, when the city was under Ottoman 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 seeing the Women’s Quarter, where we saw how the Sultan’s harem of women lived centuries ago. The architecture and detail in the palace is truly amazing, and we took tons of photos!
Outside of the palace, we stood 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- which is technically on the Asian continent. After some strolling and 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 had 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 made for an impressive visit.
Next, we went 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, we climbed 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 John, the adventurous eater, got some anchovies from a boat captain, and we enjoyed eyeing the day’s catches.
Crossing the bridge back to the Sultanahmet region, 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: Cheers Hostel – A friendly, social place with quality rooms and an amazing staff!

DAY 3- We headed out with grand visions of touring the inside of Istanbul’s ornate Dolmabahçe Palace, but once there we found it was closed. Despite this, we at least were able to enjoy the gorgeous exterior!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 cold, but the audio commentary gave us nice historical insights and city views.
View from the Bosphorus Cruise
Back on land, we headed to the famous Karaköy Güllüoğlu Restaurant for some phenomenal baklava. It was amazing guys, you have to go! Once sufficiently stuffed with dessert, we walked back up the hill towards Taksim Square. The modern city center of Istanbul, you could do some serious damage shopping at the fancy boutiques and restaurants. While there, we made a visit to the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, and headed back to the hotel. 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, Turkey
Lodging: Cheers Hostel– A friendly, social place with quality rooms and an amazing staff!

⇒CLICK HERE for ideas and discounts on day trips and tours in ISTANBUL ⇐

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As always, all reviews and opinions are my own. However, I may receive a small commission should you choose to book any of the hotels or tours listed above. This helps with the costs of running this site


  • Reply Taylor October 11, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    These photos are beautiful!! Never knew Istanbul had so much to offer, thanks for sharing!


  • Reply Lara Dunning December 2, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I love all these ideas and I can see why Hagia Sophia is a must. Beautiful! The Basilica Cistern does have a Chamber of Secrets vibe. Cool! The food looked really good too, for me, that is a reason to travel! Thanks for the ideas, would love to visit Istanbul one day.

  • Reply Kayla December 2, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    I’ve totally pinned your guide for later! I have been obsessed with wanting to go to Istanbul since I was a teenager, I have such a fascination with Theodora and I want to learn more about her in Turkey. My fiancé and I don’t have loads of time off, so I always keep trying to tempt him with just 3 or 4 days in Turkey, just so I can go to the Hagia Sophia. I’ll definitely look up your guide again if I ever convince him to go!

  • 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.

  • Reply Hannah Lukaszewicz December 3, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    We spent a week in Turkey and also 3 nights in Istanbul. Sadly during our visit, it rained every day and was cold (end of November). We really need to go back and give it another shot. We loved the market, we brought back one of the lamps, can’t wait to finally hang it in our house. Hope you had an amazing honeymoon.

  • Reply Rhonda Albom December 3, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    We only had one day in Istanbul, where we saw similar sites to your first day. The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia and Basilica Cistern are definitely not to be missed. Your photos brought me right back to Turkey. I wish we had more time there, next time we will definitely visit for longer. The Dolmabahçe Palace looks so detailed and intricate. I’d love to see it in person.

  • Reply Gizem February 5, 2019 at 8:02 am

    Great Article! If you travel to Istanbul I would also recommend the Istanbul Welcome Card. The tourist card is very budget-friendly and it optimizes your Istanbul vacation while helping you to discover more by paying even less! >>

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