How to Spend 3 Days in Istanbul – a First Time Visitor’s Guide to Turkey’s Most Captivating City

    How to Spend 3 Days in Istanbul – a First Time Visitor’s Guide to Turkey’s Most Captivating City
    Last updated: June, 2019

    Some may argue that 3 days in Istanbul is hardly enough time to explore this great city in depth. And I agree. It’s impossible to exhaust all the dazzling array of things to do in Istanbul in just 72 hours. However, if you just want to see the main historical sites, this 3 days in Istanbul itinerary is just perfect for you.

    Istanbul First Impressions

    Istanbul is not an easy place to sum up. With its impressive mosques, ornate palaces and tumultuous bazaars, Istanbul is undeniably a very unique city. An interesting mix of Oriental and Western civilization where the former tends to overshadow the latter. 

    Street in Sultanahmet neighborhood in Istanbul

    The cosmopolitan modernity of Istanbul is more obvious in Beyoglu district, around Istiklal Caddesi street. This area is home to many foreign consulates and is very popular for its restaurants and nightlife. 

    Street in Beyoglu District - 3 days in Istanbul

    3 Days in Istanbul Itinerary 

    There is so much to see and do in Istanbul that it may take months to explore every inch of it. Having said that, I don’t think there is a set amount of time that would be optimal for visiting the city. Some people storm in and out of Istanbul in a day, others complain thirty days were insufficient. The length of your visit depends on your interests and what you really want to see in the city.

    We’ve spent a little over two weeks in Istanbul and still can’t say we have exhausted it. Visiting Istanbul is not only about the main attractions, it’s also about the small things. Like walking the streets aimlessly. Or gazing at the city from across the Bosphorus. Or simply play with the street cats (which by the way, are many!) However, if you have only three days in Istanbul, you can still visit the major sites and go home in awe of this place. No matter how long or how short your visit will be, I’m sure you’ll like Istanbul.

    Below is a suggested 3-day itinerary that you can follow if you want to see the main attractions in Istanbul. You may choose to see these sites in a different order, or even skip some of them.

    Istanbul Itinerary Day 1: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar, Old Wall of Constantinople

    1. Hagia Sophia
    2. Blue Mosque
    3. Hippodrome
    4. Grand Bazaar

    3 days in Istanbul - day 1 itinerary map

    Hagia Sophia              

    Hagia Sophia is Istanbul’s most famous monument. What makes it unique is its troubled and unusual history. Hagia Sophia started as a Christian church built by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 325 AD. However, nothing remains today of the original church that burned down completely a hundred years later. Hagia Sophia went through many adversities before Emperor Justinian I built it in its present form in 537. 

    Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
    Hagia Sophia

    The story says that after completing it, Justinian exclaimed: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” And indeed, when seeing its grandeur, you can only agree that this is one of the most majestic churches ever built. 

    Hagia Sophia remained a functioning Christian church until 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Amazed by its beauty, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror converted the church into his imperial mosque. As the Islamic religion forbids the visual of human figures in mosques, he covered all the faces depicted in Hagia Sophia with plaster.

    Inside view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

    Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1934 when, under the Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum

    The Blue Mosque            

    Just opposite the Hagia Sofia is the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. The Blue Mosque is the second most beautiful landmark in Istanbul. The mosque was built between 1609 – 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. The Sultan was determined to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sophia (at the time the most respected mosque) and therefore he chose to build it opposite the Hagia Sophia. 

    the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
    The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

    When you first look at the Blue Mosque you may wonder why do they it called blue when it’s not blue? But once you get inside and see the intricate tile design in all shades of blue, you understand why. At first glance, the Blue Mosque can indeed rival with Hagia Sophia. The elegant curves and grandiose domes and minarets make for a beautiful silhouette. But if you compare the interiors, the Blue Mosque isn’t as spectacular as Hagia Sophia.  

    Inside the Blue Mosque - best things to do in Istanbul
    Inside the Blue Mosque

    What sets the Blue Mosque apart are its six spearing minarets. The story says that Sultan Ahmed ordered a minaret made of gold. But the Turkish word for gold (altin) is very similar to number six (alti), which confused the architect. He thought the sultan wanted six minarets and as such he built six, instead of just one made of gold. Luckily, the Sultan liked the mistake as no other mosque in the world had six minarets. And so the architect didn’t have to pay with his dear life for this mistake.

    The Blue Mosque at night

    Note: Since the Blue Mosque is a functioning place of worship, a dress code is imposed. Men should wear long trousers, but can wear short-sleeved shirts. Women should cover their arms, legs and head. 

    The Hippodrome of Constantinople

    Right next to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, a large open-air square known dominated by two Egyptian obelisks. The Hippodrome was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. The construction of first Hippodrome dates back to the 3rd century and is attributed to the Emperor Septimius Severus. During the 4th century, Emperor Constantine the Great greatly enlarged the city. One of his major projects was the renovation of the Hippodrome.

    Unfortunately, very little of this old structure remains today. Most of it was destroyed during the Crusades, in the early 13th century. The Hippodrome stopped being used and its spectacular monuments and art works were looted. 

    Egyptian Obelisk in Istanbul
    Egyptian Obelisk at the Hippodrome, in Istanbul

    Today, 4 prominent monuments tower the hippodrome. At one end is the modern German fountain. The fountain was a gift from the German government in 1900 to commemorate the visit of Emperor Kaiser Whillem II to Istanbul. The other monuments are much older. They include the obelisk of Egyptian (nearly 3,500 years old), the old serpent column (2,500 years old) and the walled obelisk (about 1,100 years old).

    The Grand Bazaar

    If there is one thing that best reflects the spirit of Istanbul, that is the Grand Bazaar! This place is one of the world’s largest and liveliest markets, stretching over an area of 61 streets. A maze of alleys in which you can loose yourself for hours! From stores, booths, workshops, and warehouses, to cafés, restaurants and exchange offices, you can find almost everything here. There is even a mosque, a police station and a post office in the Grand Bazaar, so one could righteously consider this place a city within a city

    Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
    Inside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

    Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. The bazaar includes more than 4000 shops that attract hundreds of thousand of fascinated visitors every year. The Grand Bazaar was founded over 500 years ago by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. The reason for concentrating the trade in one place was to provide security against theft. The gates were always closed at night and the bazaar was patrolled by guards paid by the merchants.

    Bazaar’s merchants were organized in guilds. Being accepted in a guild was possible only by co-optation, as the son of a deceased member or after paying a large amount of money to a member who wanted to retire. The bazaar has a long and tumultuous history. It has witnessed many historical incidents, survived earthquakes and fires but came back to life again and again. The 1980s restoration returned the place to its old glory. 

    the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
    Grand Bazaar-Istanbul

    Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is not only a shopping oasis, but also a very interesting cultural experience. A great opportunity to discover the people of Istanbul. If you want to learn how to bargain at the Grand Bazaar, read my more detailed post about the bazaar.

    Old Wall of Constantinople

    The Old Wall of Constantinople is a must-see in Istanbul. The Old Wall can be seen in different parts of the city. We saw these walls from the taxi, on the way to our hotel. Of course, we knew about them but weren’t sure we would have time to visit this part of town. On our last day in Istanbul, we hired a taxi and came to explore them in more detail. I’m glad we did, because they are quite impressive! You can really understand the defense they provided once you get to see them.

    The Old Wall of Constantinople in Istanbul
    The Old Wall of Constantinople in Istanbul

    When you see these thick fortified walls and their towers you understand how Constantinople resisted the attacks for so many centuries. These walls have managed to keep out the crusaders, Bulgars, Turks, Russians and many others. The walls are now but a reminder of the greatness of Constantinople, but also of the Ottoman Empire.

    Istanbul Itinerary Day 2: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Irene, Basilica Cistern, Suleymaniye Mosque, Chora Church Museum

    1. Topkapi Palace
    2. Hagia Irene
    3. Basilica Cistern
    4. Suleymaniye Mosque
    5. Chora Church Museum

    3 days in Istanbul - day 2 itinerary map

    Topkapi Palace        

    Topkapi palaces was the royal residence of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, one of the greatest Ottoman military leaders. He didn’t spare any expense for the construction and used the most expensive and rare materials he could find. Over the centuries, the sultans who followed added more pavilions to the palace. The final version measured 700,000 square meters and was home to 4000 people at some point.

    Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans since Mehmet the Conqueror until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid in 1853, who moved the court to the Dolmabahçe Palace. In 1924, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi became a museum. 

    Topkapi Palace gate - 3 days in Istanbul
    Topkapi Palace

    Arguably the most interesting part of the palace is the Harem, where the Sultan’s wives and their children lived. You can see how the Sultan family lived back in those days, and how the palace was a city within a city. 

    View of the harem rooms at Topkapi Palace
    Topkapi Palace Harem

    There are very many other areas in the palace that are worth visiting, like the library, the museum and beautifully manicured gardens.

    One of the things you shouldn’t miss when visiting the museum is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. This 86 carat diamond is the 5th biggest diamond of the world! The diamond  owes its name to a story that says that the fisherman who found it, swapped it at the market for three spoons, thinking it was glass. 

    Visiting Topkapi pavilion and gardens - things to do in Istanbul

    The palace is definitely an interesting place to visit in Istanbul, although not my favorite one. The ticket line is huge no matter how early you arrive. Also, you have to pay extra to visit various sections of the palace. The good news is that except for the relics and jewelry, you can photograph almost everything else.

    Hagia Irene (Eirene)      

    Right outside Topkapi Palace you will find the beautiful church/museum of Hagia Irene (in translation the Church of the Holy Peace). This Greek Eastern Orthodox church dating back to the 4th century was the very first church built in Constantinople. Despite the fact that the cross on top of the dome has been replaced by the crescent moon (the symbol of Islam) this church has never been converted into a mosque. 

    Hagia Irene - Istanbul itinerary

    When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, Hagia Irene ended up enclosed by the outer walls of Topkapi Palace. The Sultan’s troops used the church as an arsenal until 1826 and later as a warehouse for military equipment. In 1726, during the reign of Sultan Ahmet III, the church became the National Military Museum.

    Inside Hagia Irene church - Istanbul itinerary
    Hagia Irene church/museum

    Today Hagia Irene serves mainly as a venue for classical music performances, due to its extraordinary acoustic and impressive atmosphere.

    The Basilica Cistern      

    The Basilica Cistern is an ancient water reservoir built during the 5th century on the site of what used to be a famous basilica. Also known as the Sunken Cistern, the reservoir was built for the purpose of supplying water for the Great Palace.

    Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

    The cistern’s roof is supported by 336 marble columns in Ionic and Corinthian styles. The columns that were recycled from an earlier pagan temple, made the cistern look a lot like a church. Hence the name Basilica Cistern.

    Among the columns there are two Medusa heads, one positioned upside down and the other tilted on the side.      

    After fulfilling its function for many years, the cistern stopped being used and in time forgotten. In 1545 a Frenchman rediscovered the cistern after he began investigating the appearance of fresh fish in the wells of the houses above it. 

    Basilica Cistern is one of the hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets of Istanbul. Definitely the coolest spot in town during the hot summer months! 

    Süleymaniye Mosque    

    Although it’s the largest mosque and one of the best known landmarks of Istanbul, Süleymaniye Mosque is unfairly overshadowed by its famous sisters in Sultanahmet. The Mosque was built on the Third Hill on the Golden Horn at the order of Süleyman the Magnificent. It features four slender minarets and a large domed building in the style of Hagia Sophia. 

    Süleymaniye Mosque - 3 days in Istanbul
    Süleymaniye Mosque

    Süleymaniye Mosque suffered many perils, among which a ravaging fire in 1660 and an earthquake in 1766. During World War I the courtyard functioned as a weapons depot and when some of the ammunition ignited, the mosque suffered another fire. In 1956 the mosque underwent its last restoration. 

    Suleymaniya mosque - 3 days in Istanbul
    Süleymaniye Mosque

    The main entrance to the mosque is from Professor Sıddık Sami Onar Caddesi. The buildings on this side are home to the Süleymaniye Library and some popular street-side restaurants that used to be teahouses. To the right of the main entrance is the cemetery, home to the octagonal tombs of Süleyman and his wife. 

    Suleymania mosque dome

    Note: Since Süleymaniye is a functioning mosque, so there are dress requirements. Visitation is not possible during prayer times.   

    Chora Church

    Chances are you may have never heard of a church in Istanbul named Chora. Before traveling to Istanbul I had only read about it briefly in a magazine. But nothing you may read about Chora Church can prepare you for the revelation you’ll have when seeing it. Although not as famous as its sister, Hagia Sophia, Chora Church is equally beautiful. And also like its sister, Chora Church suffered a crisis of identity, going from an Orthodox church, to a mosque and to a museum.

    Chora Church - attractions in Istanbul
    Chora Church – Side Chapel (Parecclesion)

    The church’s full name was the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country and it was built in the 4th century, as part of a monastery complex outside the city walls of Constantinople. Chora Church is one of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine architecture. But what sets it apart are the 50 fabulous mosaics dating back to the 14th century, most of which are still in excellent shape.         

    Chora Church – Esonarthex

    The exterior of the church is rather modest compared with Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque. But once you step inside you won’t believe the splendor that surrounds you! Part of the church displays mosaics with scenes from the New Testament and the early life of Christ, while another part features beautifully colored frescoes. 

    Chora Church Museum in Istanbul
    Chora Church Museum

    Chora Church is tucked away in the little-visited Edirnekapi District, which makes it difficult to reach. For more information on how to get to Chora Church, you can read my more detailed post about it.                   

    Istanbul Itinerary Day 3: Galata Bridge, Galata Tower, Taksim Square, Dolmabahçe Palace, Bosphorus Boat Tour (optional)

    1. Galata Bridge
    2. Galata Tower
    3. Taksim Square
    4. Dolmabahçe Palace

    3 days in istanbul - Day 3 itinerary map

    Galata Bridge

    One of the most colorful places in Istanbul is Galata Bridge, which makes the connection between Beyoğlu and Eminönü. The bridge is constantly full of cars and pedestrians crossing in both directions. The upper part of the bridge is a favorite spot for local fishermen trailing their lines into the waters below, surrounded by shrieking seagulls. Street vendors are also a fixture here selling everything, from fresh-baked simits (Turkish sesame pretzels) to Gucci replicas.

    How to spend 3 days in Istanbul - walking Galata Bridge
    Galata Bridge

    On the lower level of the bridge there is a bunch of restaurants and cafes that serve drinks and food all day and night. Galata Bridge is a nice to stroll if you want to see the local color . Or you can stop and enjoy a beer while watching the ferries crossing to and from Eminönü and Karaköy.

    Galata Tower      

    One of the most recognizable landmarks of Istanbul is Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower located in Galata quarter. The cylindrical tower rises 66 meters high and provides a superb panoramic view of the city. The tower was built in 1384 as Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) and was used for many centuries as an observation tower for spotting fires.

    The access to Galata Tower is done by two elevators, but the lines are always long. We waited for a full hour! However, the view from the top was very rewarding.  

     

    Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi

    Start your 3rd day in Istanbul in Taksim Square, in the Beyoğlu district. This is the modern part of Istanbul, famous for its amazing restaurants and lively night clubs. From here you should make your way down İstiklal Caddesi, one of the most iconic and busiest streets in Istanbul. This pedestrian avenue is the ideal place for shoppers, with famous Turkish and international brands at very affordable prices. There are countless places to shop around here, so walk around the many side streets lined up with small boutiques.

    Istiklal Caddesi
    Istiklal Caddesi

     

    On Istiklal Caddesi you’ll notice quite a different atmosphere from the one you experienced in Sultanahmet. The street is full of tourists, street performers and food vendors. The entire area is a maze of restaurants, bistros, bars, fish markets, spice shops, flower shops, and much more! Don’t miss the cute, vintage tram that goes from Tünel to Taksim Square!

    Istiklal Caddesi street in Istanbul

    We’ve been here during the day and also returned in the evening for dinner, at one of the restaurants. Food was excellent and the atmosphere quite romantic.

    The Dolmabahçe Palace      

    Dolmabahçe is Turkey’s biggest and most extravagant palace and Istanbul’s first European-style palace. The Palace was commissioned in 1843 by Sultan Abdulmecit I, as a cover up for the declining Ottoman Empire. Therefore, to impress the world, he decorated the building lavishly with tons of gold and a large collection of Baccarat crystal chandeliers

    Dolmabahçe Palace - 3 days in Istanbul
    Dolmabahçe Palace

    The construction costed over five million Ottoman mecidiye gold coins, which would be the equivalent of around $1.8 billion dollars in today’s money.

    The design is a mixture of Rococo, Neo-Classic and Baroque art. The palace stands on the European shore of the Bosphorus straight, in a beautiful garden. The visit will take you through the three main sections of the palace: the administrative apartments, the Ceremonial Hall, and Imperial Harem . 

    The most impressive part of the Palace is Ceremonial Hall, where all the important state and religious ceremonies took place. This hall is absolutely huge, spreading over 2.000 square meters of area and and a 36 meters high ceiling. A huge Hereke carpet adorns the Ceremonial Hall and a 4,5 tons crystal chandelier adorns the ceiling. The chandelier was a gift from  Queen Victoria of United Kingdom. It’s not every day that you can see so much opulence in one place. 

    If you have time, stroll through the beautiful gardens which right on the shore of the Bosphorus. 

    Bosphorus Tour

    One of the most exciting things to do in Istanbul is watch the city’s waterfront. The best way to do that is sail along the Bosphorus straight. The Bosphorus commuter ferry is one option. The ferry goes north from Istanbul, up the Bosphorus, almost into the Black Sea, then back again. Along the way it stops at the small ports along the coast, letting you get off at whichever one you care to visit. 

    How to spend 72 hours in Istanbul

    The tour lasts about 6 hours, but you don’t need to stay on the boat the entire time. Just hop on the ferry at Terminal 3 in Eminönü and go as long as you have time. You can get off at any of the stops, and then get back on the next boat with the same ticket. 

    How to spend three days in Istanbul

    There is also a shorter Bosphorus Cruise that lasts only two hours and goes from Eminönü to İstinye (and back). The cruise goes by a few small towns on the Asian side passing underneath both bridges in the meantime. The boat makes only one stop in Ortaköy to pick up more passengers. This short cruise may be a better option if you only have three days in Istanbul. We took the long tour and stopped in one of the small villages across the bay to take a few pictures of Istanbul’s skyline.

    Where to Stay in Istanbul for 3 Days

    Like in all my other European travel guides, I always recommend the most central location you can afford in a city. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be close to the tourist attractions, as well as have good restaurants, parks and shopping around. There are quite a few nice neighborhoods where you could rent a place for your 3-day stay in Istanbul.

    Istanbul map

    Sultanahmet is the historic district of Istanbul and the best area area to stay as a first time visitor. Most tourist attractions are located in Sultanahmet, so you can practically walk anywhere if you are in a decent physical condition. 

    Beyoğlu is one of the good neighborhoods to stay on the European side of Istanbul. In Beyoğlu are some of the most popular areas of istanbul, like Taksim Square, Pera, Galata, the trendy Karakoy and the pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi, famous for its shops and fancy restaurants. 

    Şişli is an upscale neighborhoods where you’ll find the banks, businesses, and shopping malls in Istanbul. If you stay you will need to use public transportation to reach the attractions. 

    Staying on the the Asian side of the strait doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially when you only have a few days in Istanbul. Getting to the tourist sites from here presumes taking the ferry every day to cross the river.

    Getting Around in Istanbul

    Public transportation works great in Istanbul. It includes boats, subways, buses, trams and funiculars. We used mainly the tram and occasionally a cab. Taxis in Istanbul have a bad reputation of ripping people off, so one of the first things to check is if they use a meter.

    To use all public transit in Istanbul you will need the magnetic card (Istanbul Kart). You find it in the small kiosks near all metro stations, piers, and also bus stations. Istanbul Kart is a prepaid and is rechargeable. 

    istanbul card valid on all means of transportation in Istanbul

       • How to Travel Between Ataturk Airport and the City Center

    Ataturk airport is only 25 km away from the city center. The cheapest way to get to the city center is by shuttle bus (33 TL each way). The fastest and most convenient way is by taxi. (about 54 TL to Sultanahmet and 67 TL to Taksim Square). 

    There is also a metro line that will take you from the Ataturk Airport close to Taksim Square, but this is probably the least convenient way to travel from the airport if you’re traveling with luggage. 

    Is Istanbul Safe to Visit?

    If you asked me this question before 2015, I would have wholeheartedly answered “yes”! But since Istanbul has been the scene of a failed military coup and some devastating terrorist attacks. In the years following the attack, the U.S. State Department was advising its citizens against traveling to Turkey. However, the two-year state of emergency is now over and travelers are slowly returning to Istanbul. Would I return to Istanbul? I most likely would, but not with a light heart.

    My advice to any traveler to this part of the world would be to exercise caution. While most visits to Istanbul go uneventful, you should always be alert to your surroundings and remain vigilant in crowded places.

    Even before 2015, walking through Istanbul was a little intimidating for me. While I didn’t feel unsafe in most places we visited, there were some parts of the city where I would have never ventured alone. And some of these streets were right in the heart of Istanbul, on the tourist route. I must say however that most tourist areas seemed safe enough, although not all of them looked necessarily inviting.

    A Final Note

    You may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information contained in this post. If the itinerary listed above seems too busy for you, remember you can always choose what to see when you are in Istanbul. We like to think of Istanbul as the one city in the world that encompasses two cultures: Western and Oriental. But in reality, its real heart lies in the division of the two that manage to coexist in an illusionary balance. The fascination of this place derives precisely form its diversity and energetic rhythm.

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