Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey with a population of over 15 million. It is also the world's 15th largest city. There are hundreds of things to see and do, and while 3 days in Istanbul are not enough to see it all, it's plenty of time to see the most famous attractions.
From Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace, to Taksim Square, Galata Tower and the Basilica Cistern, there are tons of things to see and do in Istanbul, Turkey. When you only have limited time, it is important to plan your itinerary in advance. This way you will cover most of the main attractions in Istanbul and not have to worry about closing times, sites under construction, or expensive entry fees.
Speaking of which, Istanbul offers a lot of free fun things for tourists and locals alike, which you should definitely take advantage of. Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque do not have an entrance fee. It also won't cost you a penny to walk around Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue, the most popular street in Istanbul.
Or, you could get the Istanbul E-pass, which gives you free entry to top attractions in Istanbul. You get to save over 50% and you can even get a refund if you visit fewer sites than you paid for.
But first things first, find a place where you can leave your bags and start your 3 days in Istanbul adventure knowing your luggage is safe and sound.
Morning in Sultanahmet Square
The first day of your trip should include visiting the majority of sights, so it's best to start your morning at Sultanahmet square or the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Most top Istanbul attractions in Sultanahmet Square are within a walkable distance from each other.
This is a historic district and it is easy to explore on foot because it is mainly a traffic-free area. Grab a bite at Istanbul Kebab Cafe & Restaurant or Deraliye Restaurant for traditional Turkish breakfast and Turkish coffee or tea. Turkish breakfast is rich, which is exactly what you need to keep your energy levels high for exploring Sultanahmet Square. Here you will find all must-see historical sights of Istanbul like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and many other palaces, castles, and historical sights.
Hagia Sophia is one of the major attractions of Istanbul. It was built by Roman emperor Justinian I as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople, the only European-style church in Istanbul. This historical building was then converted into an imperial mosque by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and became a museum under the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In 2020, the Turkish government under President Erdogan reverted it to a mosque. Hagia Sophia is open 24 hours and offers free entry, and the best time to visit is the morning from 9 am to noon.
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque is near Hagia Sophia. It was named for the blue tiles that decorate the interior wall of the mosque. The Blue Mosque was built in the early 17th century and is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free of charge and it is open every day till 7 pm. Non-worshippers are not permitted to enter the Blue Mosque during prayers.
Afternoon museum hopping
Spend your afternoon exploring Istanbul Archaeology museums. For this, you may want to take advantage of the Museum Pass which costs about $25 and is valid for 5 days. The Museum Pass gives you free access to over 12 museums in Istanbul including Topkapi Palace Museum and Harem, the largest Palace in Istanbul and Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
It really is worth buying the Museum pass Istanbul as it also gives you up to a 30% discount on some of Istanbul's private museums, museum shops and cafes as well as Turkish baths, Bosphorus cruises, aquarium visits and a lot more.
The Archaeology Museums consists of three museums located near Topkapi Palace. Start your museum hopping with the Archaeological Museum which houses a million artifacts collected from different cultures. Proceed with the Museum of the Ancient Orient and leave the Museum of Islamic Art for last.
All museums are open from 9 am till 7 pm daily. When you are done learning about Istanbul, you can reflect on the information you collected with a glass of wine and lunch at the Last Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant. Rainy day in Istanbul? Try a museum!
Evening walk to Taksim Square
Why not see Taksim Square? Istanbul at night is enchanting and there are so many things you can do, whether you are traveling solo, with your partner, or with kids. Though it seems a bit confusing, it is easy to explore central Istanbul on foot. From Sultanahmet Square, you can walk to the Eminonou district and cross the Galata Bridge. The bridge crosses the Golden Horn and connects the historic Istanbul to the modern Istanbul of the Beyoglu area to the north. This is only a short walk but it's full of local culture.
Then you can walk up the hill past the Galata Tower to Taksim (the city center) and Istiklal Avenue, a 0.87 miles long pedestrian street where you will find tons of restaurants, bars and cafes, art galleries, cinemas, nightclubs, boutiques, music stores, historical pastry shops and lots of entertainment for tourists and locals alike. Stop by the Esmer Chef Beyoglu restaurant for the best pasta and pizza on Istiklal Street or Midpoint restaurant for dinner with stunning views. They stay open until the wee hours of the morning.
Istanbul itinerary - Day 2
Morning in the Grand Bazaar
Your 3 days in Istanbul itinerary should definitely include a stop at the Grand Bazaar. Located in Karpalicarsi on the European side of Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. There are over 60 streets and 4, 000 shops to explore.
From textiles, carpets, silk, leather items, antiques and tons of handcrafted products, the Grand Bazaar will have you spend more than you've planned, especially with the pushy vendors, but it's a wonderful experience you will never forget.
Another bazaar that is less frantic and where you can haggle easier than the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. Located in the center of the Old City area, Eminonu, next to Galata Bridge, Galata Tower and Golden Horn, the Bazaar is a beautiful oriental bazaar that will leave you in awe with its gorgeous colors.
From dried herbs, spices, nuts, and Turkish delight, to Turkish tea, coffee, essence, and gift items, the Spice Bazaar has everything your heart desires. Enjoy the shopping!
Afternoon food tour
When you visit Turkey, especially Istanbul, it is inevitable to try Turkish food. For this, it's best to book a food tour with a knowledgeable guide who will take you on a culinary journey in Istanbul.
The Taste of Two Continents is an excellent tour that will take you to places on both the European and the Asian sides. This 7-hours long tour teaches you about the city's history, you get to visit the Spice Bazaar and you will savor Turkish delicacies in 10 different restaurants and eateries.
The Taste of Istanbul: Street Food Tour is another long tour that includes a ferry ride to the Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey, a tram ride on Istiklal street, a walk across Galata Bridge and a sampling of local specialties along the way.
There are plenty of food tours in Istanbul, and whichever one you choose will surely satisfy your appetite whether it's breakfast time, lunch or dinner. Try out the vegetarian restaurants too!
An evening with a Dervish show
Visiting Istanbul can't be complete without an evening watching the Whirling Dervish Ceremony. You can see dervishes perform in multiple venues across Istanbul, but the most touristy experience is at the Hodjapasha Culture Center near Hagia Sophia.
This lively atmosphere includes dancers that whirl in rhythmic patterns, spin at a rate of 33 to 40 rotations per minute, live music, special effects and Persian chanting. If you want to enjoy dinner along with a dervish show, check out the Alemdar Restaurant, near Aya Sofya, book a Bosphorus Cruise or see it for free at the Dervish Cafe in Sultan Ahmet Park, where a single whirler stands on a stage and whirls. Usually, dervish shows last about an hour.
Istanbul itinerary - Day 3
Morning in the Galata neighborhood
When you visit Istanbul and have only 3 days to explore, you have to make time for one of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul, the Galata Tower. The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower that was originally built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 507-508 AD. After it was ruined by the Crusaders, it was rebuilt again in 1348 by the Genoese colony. At the time, it was the tallest building in Constantinople at 219.5 ft tall. So you can imagine the gorgeous view of the Istanbul skyline from the rooftop.
Near the tower, you will find tons of breakfast spots. Start your morning with a sumptuous breakfast at the Velvet Cafe, Galata, or a traditional village breakfast at the Cafe Privato Restaurant. Velvet Cafe opens at 10 am every day except Mondays, and Cafe Privato Restaurant is open from 8.30 am daily.
Continue to explore the Galata neighborhood with its charming narrow streets, and check out the small shops for souvenirs. Here you can take great photos of centuries-old synagogues, churches, and mosques as well as the Galata Mevlevi House museum and cultural center where whirling dervishes perform their dance ritual.
Afternoon pampering in a Turkish Bath
A few days exploring Istanbul, Turkey can put a lot of pressure on your body especially if you are pressed with time. What better way to unwind than to pamper yourself in one of Istanbul's hammams. There are over 60 hammams in Istanbul out of which the biggest is Hurrem Sultan Hamami, located in between the Aya Sofya and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. If you are around Taksim, make sure to book time at the Galatasaray Turkish Bath, the oldest hammam in Istanbul. It was built back in 1491
Most have an entrance fee of around $25, but the prices go up depending on which packages you buy. From exfoliating, face masks and aromatherapy to all sorts of massages, peeling and soaking in a bathtub, a few hours spent in a Turkish Bath will help you rejuvenate and prepare you for an excellent evening.
Evening cruise down the Bosphorus strait
You haven't visited Istanbul if you don't take a Bosphorus cruise over to the Asian side of Istanbul. These tours normally start around 8 pm and last about 4 hours. You'll be able to enjoy the cruise with a traditional Turkish dinner while you pass by some of the most iconic landmarks of Istanbul.
Bosphorus cruises include night shows with live music, belly dancing, traditional folk dancing, and whirling dervish performances. If you are up for a more luxurious cruise, you can book the Bosphorus Sunset Cruise on Luxury Yacht and get dazzled by Istanbul's skyline during sunset. It is undoubtedly the best way to finish your trip to Istanbul.
Visiting Istanbul in 3 Days
Istanbul is an amazing city that sees millions of visitors each year. There are so many things to see and do and this 3 days in Istanbul itinerary will help you cover most of them. Make sure to get your e-pass and take advantage of all the discounts to get into most tourist attractions. From Hagia Sophia Museum and Dolmabahce Palace to Suleymaniye Mosque, Maiden's Tower, Ortakoy Mosque, and the popular Istiklal Street, this wonderful city will keep you on your feet 24/7.