Istanbul is one of my favourite cities – I have visited three times! It is literally where East meets West and is a fantastic city to visit if you’re curious about the Middle East and Northern Africa but a bit unsure about scheduling a big trip. It is also a fantastic long weekend away from most places in Europe. There are so many things to do in Istanbul as well as some fantastic food! Here is my perfect Istanbul 3 day Itinerary!
Istanbul 3 Day Itinerary – How to get there and how to get around
Direct flights from London to Istanbul take just around four hours. I have flown with Turkish Airlines several times and I am a big fan! Lovey planes and good service. British Airways and Air France both fly from London to Istanbul.
Istanbul is definitely a public transport and walking place. Don’t hire a car! Istanbul has a metro and best of all it has a tram system which I found very useful – there are trams in the key tourist areas. There are buses but I prefer a tram or metro as I find it easier to work out where I am and when to get off! And Istanbul has ferries to take you across and around its main river the Bosphorus.
The key places to see in Istanbul
If you’re planning on hitting lots of sights during your 3 days in Istanbul then make sure you order an Istanbul City Tourist Pass. This fantastic pass covers virtually every activity listed below and includes lots of options for skipping the queue! Plus public transport and 4G wifi whilst you’re in Istanbul.
1. The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is possibly Istanbul’s most famous attraction. The mosque has six minarets or towers and several domes. It isn’t actually blue – it was named the Blue Mosque because of its beautiful interior tiles – but it is absolutely stunning. The Blue Mosque was built between 1603 and 1617 and is still a working mosque today.
The inside is jaw-droppingly beautiful. For me, the Blue Mosque and its beautiful interiors is at the top of the must-see Istanbul list. There are over 20,000 tiles inside the building.
Do note that the Blue Mosque is closed to non-worshippers before and after some prayer times and on Friday mornings – check the prayer times here. If you are a non-Muslim visitor you must enter by the door on the south side of the mosque. You will be given a scarf to cover your head when you enter the mosque but even better to come prepared.
2. Hagia Sofya
Two of top places to visit in Istanbul – The Blue Mosque and Hagia or Aya Sofya – are located on the same main square in the Istanbul neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Very convenient! Hagia Sofya has had several lives. It began as an Orthodox Cathedral and was turned into a mosque. In 1935, Ataturk proclaimed it a museum – although it is still considered by many to be the second biggest cathedral in the world.
30 million tiny gold mosaic tiles cover the interior of the church. Yes, 30 million – that isn’t a typo! Make sure you head up the stairs to the mezzanine as it provides one of the best views of this stunning museum/church.
Both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofya are particularly stunning at sunset. I suggest gaining access to one of Istanbul’s many bars and restaurants with a terrace and a view and settling in for sunset!
⇒ Hagia Sophia is the number one tourist attraction in Turkey so don’t waste time standing in queues – book your Skip the line ticket for Hagia Sophia
3. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is one of my favourite Istanbul tourist attractions. This palace was used between the 15th and 19th centuries and apparently was a hot place to go during the Ottoman Empire! Topkapi Palace Istanbul is stunning and filled with lots of fantastic Instagram opportunities – particularly the colourful tiles.
It’s a big palace – there are gates, courtyards, dormitories, and even a 6 story Haram complex!
⇒ Book your skip the line tickets for Topkapi Palace
4. The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar or Kapali Carsi is the largest covered market in Turkey with over 4,000 shops. This market contains everything you could ever imagine needing! From, of course, carpets to jewelry to lanterns to pajamas. It can be quite overwhelming. The market is 30,700 square metres and has 60 street and is a must in any Istanbul itinerary.
Bargaining is expected in the market so do take care to brush up on your skills! I usually work to the fact that I am being charged at least 1/3 more than the vendor is willing to pay. I am sure locals pay less – as they should – but as a foreigner, I will never get that price. Remember to always keep smiling during the negotiation. And don’t be afraid to walk away. If you’re not chased you really have got their best price. At this point, you can head back and say you have changed your mind – and then negotiate your way back to the final price you were given!!!
I have two favourite shops in the Grand Bazaar that I can recommend. The first is Jennifers’ Hamam. This beautiful store is filled with beautiful hammam towels, blankets, rugs, throws and all other soft items in soft colours. (One challenge of the Grand Bazaar Istanbul is finding some simpler designs to suit western tastes!). All of their products are made in Turkey according to traditional techniques but the designs themselves tend to favour Western tastes.
In addition to all things soft and hammam, the Grand Bazaar is also a great place to buy leather items. There is a leather area in the Grand Bazaar for your convenience! Again, the biggest challenge for me was finding designs for my taste. I have visited Koc twice over the last 13 years and bought a leather jacket each time which I still own and wear.
⇒ For more information on shopping in Istanbul check out this post on What To Buy In Turkey.
So maybe your focus isn’t leather and hammam towels when visiting Istanbul. In which case I would recommend doing some googling before you go around what you’re after and using some of the local expat’s blogs to find some good stores. Just google say the best perfume shopping Istanbul and you’ll find one of the local ex-pat blogs and this is a great place to find some interesting shops which are more likely to feature styles you might like. Some local blogs that I like are The Guide Istanbul, Turkish Travel Blog, and The Istanbul Insider.
A fantastic little place to get tea within the Grand Bazaar or a meal is the super cute Fez Cafe. Even better, Fez Cafe is located in the home and toiletries area of the Grand Bazaar and is part of the super cute shop, Abdulla.
5. Enjoy some seafood in the Arnavutkoy Neighborhood.
Seafood didn’t really pop into my mind when I thought of what to do in Istanbul. I was so wrong!!! There is fabulous seafood galore here and so many seafood restaurants! But the best thing to do is to head to the super cute Arnavutkoy area on the European side of the Bosphorus. This area is filled with wooden ottoman houses and seafood restaurants.
Arnavutkoy manages to feel almost like a little seaside village! It would be hard to have a bad meal at any of their seafood restaurants but in particular, Adem Baba and Hayri Balik receive consistently good reviews. The neighborhood is about 30 minutes by car or 45 minutes and 2 trams from Sultanahmet.
6. Take a cruise on the Bosphorous
7. Have a Hammam
A Hammam is a traditional Turkish bathhouse. I seldom feel as clean as I do after having a hammam! The bathhouse will generally be divided into separate areas for men and women. It is quite common to wander around the bathhouse completely naked. Indeed, visiting one of the local Hammams can be a very memorable experience as this is still where women come to chat and get clean.
The Hammam normally involves a scrub. This will be administered by a woman and boy is it exfoliating! I once went in with fake tan on my legs – must to the amusement of the local women in the hammam! There as none left by the time she was finished with me! The steam and scrub will clear you out completely.
In Sultanahmet, there are some hammams that allow for couples and wearing swimsuits eg more suited to wester couples.
⇒ Book your Istanbul Hammam
8. The Basilica Cistern
This underground cistern was built in 532 to bring drinking water to Istanbul. There are hundreds of them underneath Istanbul but the Basilica Cistern (named because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica square) covers nearly 9800 square metres and has 336 marble columns! No wonder it is called the Sunken Palace Cistern!
Walkways and lights were installed in the 1990s and there is even a small cafe down in the cistern!
⇒ Book your skip the line ticket for Basilica Cistern
9. Gulhane Park
Gulhane Park was once the private garden of Topkapi Palace. It is now a beautiful public park open to all – and, of course, it is located next to Topkapi Palace. The park is most beautiful in the springtime when it explodes into color. Gulhane Park Istanbul contains several fountains, a couple of museums and a cafe with great views of the Bosphorus.
10. Spice Bazaar
Located at the southern end of Galata bridge, the Spice Bazaar re-opened after major renovations in 2018. It is filled with spices, dried fruit, cheese, seeds and all things tasty. Hasirilar Cadesi is the main street of the Spice Bazaar and possibly the most photogenic.
11. Cicek Pasaji
Cicek Pasaji is a beautiful arcade in the Beyoglu district. Its name means flower passage as it used to be full of flower sellers. Today it is full of restaurants, mostly seafood. There have been mixed reviews of this arcade of late, suggesting that it has lost some quality. Apparently many locals now head to the nearby street Nevizade Sokak for seafood these days. See what you think.
12. See some Whirling Dervishes
Whirling, or Sufi Whirling as it is called in Turkey, is a form of physically active meditation. Originally whirling was done to get closer to god through the state achieved by listening to the music and repetitive spinning. It is still practiced today – and possible to see practitioners at several spots in Istanbul. The whirling looks fantastic and is very photogenic. And you get to keep saying Whirling Dervish, which I find very fun to say!
13. Have dinner in a train station
Mythos is located in one of Istanbul’s historic train stations, Haydarpasa. It is known for excellent meze and seafood – and raki! It gets packed with locals in the summer so arrive early!
14. Explore Istanbul’s hippest neighborhood Kadikoy-Moda
Moda is part of the Kadikoy district and is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is filled with bars, cafes, cute shops, and quirky restaurants. The best way to experience this neighbourhood is to just wander around. Pop into Ciya Sofrasi for a meal while you’re there. And take the ferry over and back to get some great views of the Bosphorous!
15. Take a Food Tour
Taking a food tour is one of my favourite ways to get to know a city these days. I like how it combines learning something with eating – and that they normally go beyond the standard tourist itinerary. There are loads of different food tours on offer in Istanbul. Choose from street food, how about having dinner in Europe and dessert in Asia? or visiting markets? Check out a complete list of Istanbul food tour options here.
3 Day Itinerary for Istanbul Options
So is it possible to do all 15 of the above activities in just 72 hours in Istanbul? Well perhaps – if you want to be flat out every day! Here’s what I would recommend:
On your first day in Istanbul, visit the Grand Bazaar in the morning and have lunch at the Fez Cafe. After lunch head for the Basilica Cistern. Come back above ground and take in both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Take a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus.
Spend the morning in Topkapi Palace. This is when I would then divide up what to see in Istanbul. If you’re more into outdoor attractions head to Gulane Park and then over to the Spice Bazaar. If you’re more interested in exploring neighborhoods head to Kadikoy-Moda. Then head to the Arnavutkoy neighborhood for a seafood dinner – it can take a little while to get there.
Take a food tour from mid-morning and use that to cover your lunch. Spend the afternoon in a Hammam. In the evening go and see the Whirling Dervishes or have dinner in Cicek Pasaji (or nearby Nevizade Sokak) or in a train station at Mythos.
⇒ If you’re looking for something different to do while you’re in Istanbul, take out one of my days above and add in a Day Trip to Gallipoli
Where to stay in Istanbul – Boutique Hotels
Empress Zoe is a lovely little boutique hotel in the heart of the historic district of Sultanahmet in Istanbul. There are several reasons to stay here. First is a fabulous location. When it comes to what to do in Istanbul they are all an easy walk from Hotel Empress Zoe – the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and the Grand Bazaar.
Second is it is a lovely stylish boutique hotel at a very reasonable price. The third is incredibly lovely staff. And the fourth is the breakfast! Yum! Fabulous fresh treats and make sure you’re there when the warm savoury pastries come out! Finally, it is also fantastic value with rooms starting at just 60 pounds!
Another lovely boutique option in Sultanahmet is Hotel Ibrahim Pasha. This small hotel has only 24 rooms and features a great balcony with a view of the Blue Mosque. Prices from 100 pounds a night.
If Sultanahmet is too touristy for you head to Kanlica and the minimalist Hotel Ajia . This gorgeous hotel has a fantastic outdoor eating area right on the Bosphorus and 5 of the rooms have balconies on the river. Rooms start from 170 pounds a night.
One of the most exciting boutique hotel openings in Istanbul in the last couple of years was Soho House. Located in the Beyoglu district it has all the brilliant design for which Soho House is known as well as a stunning pool and great restaurants. Prices start from about 140 pounds.
For one of the ultimate boutique hotel experiences, you can’t go past the Four Seasons Sultanahmet. The hotel was previously a prison. There are only 65 rooms and alas no swimming pool but there is all the amazing service for which the Four Seasons is deservedly famous. Prices start at around 340 pounds a night.
Things to Know before you go to Istanbul
⇒ Turkey operates on a 220V two-point prong system eg European style plugs
⇒ Wifi is very common in Istanbul and almost always free when available. Only luxury hotels charge for wifi.
⇒ The Istanbul City Tourist Pass is fantastic value for money and covers many of the attractions I have listed above. And it includes lots of skip the line options within the pass! Plus public transport and 4G wifi whilst you’re in Istanbul.
The Weather in Istanbul
Summer in Istanbul is hot and generally quite muggy. Surprisingly winter can get very cold and the temperature often drops to low single degrees. Grab a forecast for your visit here.
The currency of Turkey is the Turkish Lira. Most large places take credit cards but you will need cash for taxis, public transport, street vendors, bottles of water etc. And you may be able to negotiate a discount if you are able to pay in cash at places like the Grand Bazaar. There are many ATMs around Istanbul so it isn’t hard to get cash.
⇒ If you’re liking the sound of Turkey check out my Cappadocia Turkey Itinerary
When to go to Istanbul
Spring (April to May) and Autumn (September to mid-November) are generally the nicest times to visit Istanbul. The temperature is still warm but not too hot and the skies tend to be clear.
What to pack for a trip to Istanbul
Istanbul is quite relaxed when it comes to dress and more accepting of tourists wearing fewer clothes than many of its neighbors. Having said that, if you are planning to visit the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and other religious sites more conservative dress is expected (eg shoulders and knees covered) and you will need to remove your shoes.
Istanbul is definitely a city for walking so comfortable shoes, a day pack and a water bottle are essential!
Travelling Solo in Istanbul
I have visited Istanbul on my own and felt very safe. However, as always, when I travel on my own I avoid being out late at night and generally take a taxi home from dinner or eat near my hotel. If you are travelling solo it is a good idea to dress a bit more conservatively to avoid any discomfort.
If you would prefer to travel as part of an organised trip there are loads of options:
⇒ TourRadar offers a number of different tours that can work for solo travellers
⇒ Solos Holidays has a 3-night city break in Istanbul designed for solo travellers
⇒ Just You has a range of trips to Turkey for solo travellers
⇒ If you’re planning to travel solo on you may like to read my posts on How to have a great time travelling single when you’re over 40, 30 Fantastic Solo Travel Groups and 30 Fabulous Solo Spa Breaks.
Who Paid for What in this Post
I covered all of the costs associated with my trips to Istanbul myself. However, this post does contain affiliate links. That means if you click through on them and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. I just wanted to make sure that you were aware of this!
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