Istanbul, where Asia meets Europe, is unsurprisingly a melting pot of cultures. With over 2500 years of history, each part of the city is as interesting as the last, with ancient monuments, fantastic food, and amazing diversity around every corner.
Given this, planning a short getaway to Istanbul can be a little intimidating (there’s a lot to see after all). But, not to worry, as we’ve put together the best Istanbul itinerary, for 3 days of sightseeing, eating, and learning about this vibrant city’s history. Keep reading!
Day 1: The old city
Start the beginning of your Istanbul adventure, with a hearty breakfast at Poiká Breakfast & Turkish Cuisine. It’s a modern cafe with a delicious traditional Turkish breakfast, but they also serve granola bowls and omelettes if you’d prefer something lighter. Try to grab a seat outside on the terrace if the weather is nice to soak up the gorgeous Turkish sun!
Once you’re all fuelled up, walk the four minutes to Sultanahmet Square, the bustling heart of the old city. The square is surrounded by some of Istanbul’s top attractions and is a great base to start exploring.
The Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmet Camii, is right on the square and is one of Turkey’s most impressive buildings. Dating back to the early 1600s, the mosque is a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, with a breathtaking interior made up of hand-painted blue tiles. We highly recommend going inside to take a look, just remember to respect the dress code (long trousers/skirts, covered shoulders, and a head covering for women) and bear in mind that the mosque is closed during daily prayer, five times a day.
Next on the morning’s agenda is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts on the opposite side of Sultanahmet Square. The museum is a great place to learn about the history of Islam and Turkey, with beautiful Ottoman-era rugs, ancient manuscripts, and ceramics on display.
There are lots of places to eat to the north of Sultanahmet Square, but if you’re looking to treat yourself, we recommend Deraliye. The restaurant specialises in cuisine that was served in the Ottoman Empire court, so expect dishes like lamb neck with plum and stuffed dried eggplant.
From the restaurant, it’s an eight-minute walk to Haga Sophia (Ayasofya), another stunning mosque in the old city. Haga Sophia predates the Blue Mosque, dating back over 1,500 years. Originally a Byzantine Christian cathedral, Haga Sophia was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman invasion of Istanbul in 1453. The interior is magnificent, with a mix of Islamic and Christan elements. The mosque is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world, and is a must-see for anyone visiting Turkey! Like the Blue Mosque, a dress code applies and it’s closed to visitors during prayer times.
From Haga Sophia, head five minutes northeast to Topkapi Palace. The museum closes at 6 pm during the summer, 4:45 pm in the winter, and is closed on Tuesdays. The Topkapi Palace was the Ottoman Imperial Palace and the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. It’s a huge complex with exhibition halls, gardens, and courtyards. We also recommend checking out the Harem, a maze of over 400 opulent rooms that housed the sultan, his wives, concubines, and children. It costs a little extra, but it’s well worth the money.
Your next stop is the Basilica Cistern, an eight-minute walk from Haga Sophia. It’s been an action-packed day so far, so if you feel like resting, grab a quick Turkish coffee and a cake from Hafiz Mustafa, which is nearby.
The Basilica Cistern is a fascinating subterranean structure built in the 6th century. Today, the water levels are kept low to allow exploration inside. Pay extra attention to the columns (there are a whopping 336!), many of which were reclaimed from temple ruins and have interesting carvings.
For your first night, head to My Terrace Cafe and Restaurant for unpretentious Turkish food and the best views over the old city. It’s a popular place, so it’s best to book in advance to secure a seat.
Since it’s been a super busy day, if you’re in the mood for a little R&R, book a treatment at Cağaloğlu Hamam, the last Turkish bath that was built during the Ottoman era in 1741.
Day 2: The modern city
Start the day with breakfast at your accommodation or Yiğit Sofram Gözleme ve Kahvaltı, an amazing little spot for a traditional Turkish breakfast. After you’re finished, walk nine minutes to Taksim Square, a major tourist hub and the centre of modern Istanbul. From there, take a stroll along Istiklal Street, a busy pedestrian avenue lined with shops, museums, and cafes.
Make a stop at the Flower Passage (Cicek Pasaji), a historic passage with a beautiful glass-dome ceiling. It’s a great spot for photos but the restaurants here aren’t renowned for their food, so we wouldn’t recommend it for a mid-morning snack. If you are a bit peckish, there’s an amazing dessert shop, Hafiz Mustafa 1864 Pera, 300 ft before the Flower Passage. Their baklava is mouth-watering and they have a huge variety of Turkish delights. Sit down and enjoy a coffee or take some treats to go!
Istiklal Street is home to several small museums, but our favourite is the Mekan Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervish House and Museum. It’s right at the end of the street, so once you’re done checking out the museum, you can hop on a vintage red tram to get back to Taksim Square (there’s one every 40 minutes). The museum is a great place to learn about the famous Whirling Dervishes, or the Mevlevis (don’t worry, you’ll have the chance to see a dance tomorrow).
Once you’re back in Taksim Square, it’s a 20-minute walk to the Dolmabahce Palace.
Dolmabahce Palace is a stunning palace on the Bosphorus and the main administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire after Topkapi Palace. It took 13 years to build and was finally completed in 1856. It’s a lavish Baroque-style building, known for its magnificent central staircase, crystal chandeliers, and overall grandeur.
Grab a late lunch either somewhere nearby the palace or near the Galata Tower, your next stop. We recommend Guney Restaurant which has a great view of the tower and delicious mezze plates (the hummus is amazing). To get there, walk to the Kabataş Tramvay istasyonu station (five minutes), hop on the T1 tram to Tophane (two stops, five minutes), then walk for around nine minutes.
The Galata Tower is an icon of Istanbul, and climbing to the top should be on everyone’s Turkey bucket list! Originally built as a watchtower, the Galata Tower dates back to 1348, although it has been dismantled, remodelled, and repaired several times. From the observation deck, you can enjoy panoramic views of the Golden Horn and the Sultanahmet area and inside there’s a small museum. While there is an elevator, it doesn’t go to the top, so wear appropriate shoes as you’re going to have to walk all the way back down!
Hopefully, the stars have aligned and it’s around sunset. Stroll over to the Galata Bridge to enjoy beautiful views of the sun setting behind the old city.
It’s time for dinner, and your next stop, Cezayir Street, has loads of options. But, if you want to try the best kebab in Istanbul (a bold claim, we know), then make a stop nearby at Tomtom Kebap. It’s open until 11 pm, so you could always grab dinner and drinks elsewhere and then pass by for a cheeky kebab before going back to your hotel.
To get there, walk to Tophane (around six minutes) and hop on the T1 (two minutes) to Karaköy İstasyonu. From there it’s a three-minute walk to Tomtom Kebap, which is just around the corner from Cezayir Street. Cezayir Street, nicknamed the French Street, is a narrow steep pedestrian street lined with colourful restaurants and bars. There’s a great ambience at night with plenty of cosy outdoor seating, music, and of course, the drinks are flowing!
Day 3: The Bosphorous
On your last day, you’re going to be exploring some lovely neighborhoods in Istanbul on the shores of the Bosphorous.
Start the day with breakfast at Tarihi Kapalı Çarsı Day Day Pastanesi, a popular pastry shop in the old city. From there, it’s a three-minute walk to the Grand Bazaar which opens at 9 am (closed on Sundays). With over 4,000 stalls, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest covered markets, an explosion of colour, and the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs – just remember to haggle!
Next up is Arnavutköy, a historic neigbourhood roughly one hour north of the old city. The best way to reach Arnavutköy is by taxi or Uber. It is possible with public transport, but you may need to make some changes. This gorgeous neighborhood is one of the most beautiful in the city, with late Ottoman-era houses lining the waterfront canals and fishermen casting their lines out into the Bosphorous River.
Arnavutköy is known for fish, so grab a seafood lunch in one of the many restaurants, or a light bite from a cute cafe. One of our favourite restaurants is Adem Baba, a cosy little place with a great vibe and even better seafood.
It’s an easy bus ride from Arnavutköy to Ortakoy and a roughly seven-minute journey. Once you arrive, stroll over to Ortakoy Square where you can take in the amazing views of the Bosphorous, the 15th of July Martyrs Bridge, and the Asian side of Istanbul across the water.
Ortakoy Square is also home to Ortakoy Mosque, or Büyük Mecidiye Camii, a magnificent 19th-century Ottoman mosque on the water’s edge. Head inside for a look if you feel like it, just remember that it’s closed during prayer times and to make sure you’re dressed appropriately.
If you’re feeling like a pre-dinner snack, then grab some Kumpir, an Istanbul street food synonymous with Ortakoy, in Ortakoy Square. Kumpir is a baked potato, stuffed with butter and cheese, then topped with various delicious toppings, such as olives, mushrooms, sausages, and more!
We’ve got two suggestions to help you end your time in Istanbul with a bang, check them out below!
Option 1: Dinner, a Whirling Dervish show, and a hookah lounge
Start the evening with a live Whirling Dervishes show at the Hodjapasha Culture Centre. They have shows every night at 7 pm that last for 60-minutes. You can book your tickets on their website, and you’ll need to be there 30 minutes before the show starts.
After the show, grab dinner at Mivan Restaurant, a popular place in the city for mezze plates and kebabs. Then, finish your night in Anadolu Nargile Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, an authentic no-frills Hookah Bar. This place is normally packed with locals, the prices are great, and the experience is authentic. If smoking shish-a isn’t your thing, you can always check it out and just get a tea or a coffee.
Option 2: Bosphorus dinner cruise
There are lots of Bosphorous dinner cruises to choose from. They normally last around 3-3.5 hours and you will typically sail along the Bosphorous River, watch the sunset, and go under the Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
On the cruise you’ll have amazing alternative views of the city on both sides of the river, with landmarks, like the Blue Mosque, will be lit up.
Most cruises offer a three-course Turkish meal, and drinks may or may not be included in the ticket price. Of course, during the evening there’ll be some live entertainment, usually in the form of belly dancers, telling the stories of Anatolian folklore with their dancing!
Istanbul is such a vibrant and historic city, that some would say three days isn’t enough, but, we’re confident we’ve managed to pack in most of the city’s best attractions in our itinerary. Let us know below if we’ve missed anything out!
If you’ve got more time, why not hop on a plane and visit Cyprus, which is less than three hours away? Or if you’re on a tour of Europe, you can check out more of our in-depth guides here.