Are you looking for the best things to do in Istanbul? This is the perfect city for a 3 day city trip and after arriving it quickly became one of my favourite cities ever to visit.
Istanbul, formerly known as Byzanthium and Constantinople, is a transcontinental city in Turkey with one part being in Europe and the other one in Asia. The city is divided by the Bosphorus strait, which separates Europe from Asia and which makes Istanbul a bridge between East and West.
Istanbul is becoming more and more popular since it has been gaining a lot of popularity on Social Media in the past months. It’s the ideal city to start your trip through Turkey if you’re planning on visiting several regions of this beautiful country.
Top 14 Best Things To Do in Istanbul – A 3 Day Guide
Day 1 – Beautiful Mosques and lunch with a view
1. Start your day by visiting the Hagia Sophia
If you think of Istanbul, you most likely automatically see a photograph of the world famous Hagia Sophia in front of you. It’s no wonder that visiting the Hagia Sophia is one of the best things to do on your first day in Istanbul!
The Hagia Sophia may not be the oldest intact building in the entire world, but it definitely comes close. It was originally built in 360 AD but has since then been rebuilt a couple of times. The latest version is over 1482 years old and truly withstood the test of time, surviving multiple earthquakes.
The current Hagia Sophia was used as a church for the first 916 years and as a mosque for 481 years. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum.
Opening hours – 9am – 5pm (during Winter) and 9am – 7pm (during Summer). You can enter the museum until 1 hour before closing time.
Entrance Fee – 60TL
2. Go across the square and visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is right across from the Hagia Sophia. So it makes total sense to visit these cultural masterpieces in one morning. It’s nickname seems kind of strange when you’re on the outside, but once you step inside of the mosque it will become all the more clear. More than 20,000 handmade ceramic Iznik tiles decorate the interior, different floral motives and the mosque gets its light through more than 260 stained glass windows.
The Blue Mosque is one of the most majestic Ottoman mosques in all of Turkey and it’s the one and only mosque in Istanbul with no less than 6 minarets. It was built between 1609 and 1616AD and until this day the mosque is actively used for daily and congregational prayers. Nevertheless it also became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Did you know that the reason behind these 6 minarets is actually just a simple misunderstanding? The word for gold and six is pretty similar. The sultan asked for gold minarets (altin minaret), but the architect understood alti minaret, which means six minarets. This ordeal made the sultan apparently so upset that he didn’t even fix the mistake but instead he ordered a seventh minaret to be placed on top of the Prophet’s Mosque in Mecca. Talking about overcompensating….
Opening hours – 8.30am and it closes 30 minutes during prayer time 5 times a day. You can find the exact opening hours of that day outside on the wall of the mosque.
Entrance fee – Free
Dress Code – As a woman you have to cover your hair and body
3. Lunch with a view
One of the best places to have lunch is N terrace. Here you’ll have lunch while overlooking both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque!
4. Go shopping in the Grand Bazaar
This will probably be one of the best and most fun things that you’ll do when you’re in Istanbul! The Grand Bazaar is only 15 minutes walking from N terrace and let’s be honest, shopping on an empty stomach is never a good idea. Although you might want to hold off on that second glass of wine haha. Or you end up buying all of the souvenirs!
Important to know when you enter the Grand Bazaar is that these men are here to sell and they will try their very best! The smartest way to go about is to smile politely and say that you’re not interested and simply keep on walking. If you are interested in buying something know that haggling is key!
To be fair, if I could turn back time I would buy me one of those lamps! Guess I will have to go back to Istanbul ;)!
5. Visit the Ortakoy Mosque for sunset
One of the best things to do in Istanbul is to go out for a sunset stroll. And why not head all the way to the Bosphorus bridge? In front of it you’ll find one of my personal favourite mosques: the Ortakoy Mosque. It’s in this exact spot that the beauty of Istanbul comes to life and that you can see the vast contrast between the traditional and modern architecture.
The Ortakoy Mosque is designed by the same architect who created the Domabahce Palace and while you’re here you should definitely check out the surrounding area. It used to be a rather sleepy fishing village but now it holds some of Istanbul’s best nightlife and dining options.
6. Time to go for a good night’s sleep
For a luxurious stay in the old city of Istanbul I would suggest a stay at The Sura Hagia Sophia hotel. It is divided into two buildings: one more classic, the other one more focussed on design. Both of them offer a spectacular view of the Hagia Sophia.
Day 2 – Incredible architecture and the best thing to do for sunset in Istanbul
7. Marvel at the Dolmabahce Palace
The Dolmabahce Palace was Istanbul’s first European style palace and was commissioned by Sultan Abdül Mecit in 1843. After the project was finished the sultan decided to move from his original humble abode, the Topkapi Palace to the Dolmabahce Palace since the latter was able to provide modern luxuries.
The real reason behind it’s opulence is actually pretty sad: to cover up that the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The result is a two-floor palace, covering an area of 45.000 m², containing 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and 6 baths. I guess we can put this in the same overcompensating category. The designer of the Paris Opera was also brought in to do the interiors, which also explains their exaggerated theatricality.
The tourist entrance to the Dolmabahce Palace is at the imperial gate and be prepared to be there early morning. Only 3000 people per day are allowed inside and on weekends and during holidays this number is almost always reached. Nevertheless if you arrive too long after opening time you will have to queue for a while in the blistering sun. During your visit head to the Palace Gardens first (go right instead of entering the Palace). You can’t take photos inside the palace anyway so the best thing to do is start by visiting the Palace Gardens before they get overcrowded with tourists.
Opening hours – 9am – 4pm (closed on Monday)
Entrance fee – 90TL
8. Grab breakfast near the Galata Tower
Surrounding the Galata Tower you’ll find a ton of cute places for breakfast or you can go for some typical Turkish street food.
The Galata Tower itself is one of the oldest and highest towers in Istanbul, to me honestly it looks like it came straight out of Rapunzel. But to be fair it’s purpose was a little more serious back in the day. It was used for surveillance over the harbor and later on to detect fires in the city.
For 25TL you can climb up the Galata Tower and witness a spectacular panoramic view over the city.
Opening hours – 9am to 7pm
9. Rainbow colours of Balat – unique thing to do in Istanbul
Balat is one of the oldest and definitely most colourful districts in Istanbul. The easiest way to get here from the Galata Tower is to just go on foot. It’s a 45 to 1 hour stroll but it will be a scenic one! Offering you a spectacular view over the Galata Tower from the other side of the Bosphorus.
The most characteristic feature about Balat are it’s small cobble stoned streets lined with colourful houses. Most of these wooden houses are between 50 and 200 years old! Balat also holds a mix of synagogues, mosques and churches, something you also don’t see every day!
Balat used to be the district that a lot of minorities called home but after several earthquakes many of the Jewish and Greek Orthodox families fled the district.
These days Balat is transforming more and more into a hipster district. Buildings are being renovated and cute bars and cafe’s are setting up shop all around.
It’s no wonder that you’ll probably hang around here for a couple of hours! Take your time to explore and you might want to take a breather on one of the sidewalks now and again cause the cobbles streets can be pretty steep. 🙂
10. Suleymaniye Mosque
The Suleymaniye Mosque, also known as the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, stands on one of the hilltops and contributes to the skyline of Istanbul. But besides it being an architectural masterpiece it is often overlooked by tourists as they often just visit the Blue Mosque.
Opening hours – 5am to 10.30pm
Entrance fee – free
11. Sunset tea at the Maiden’s Tower – best thing to do in Istanbul
This was by far one of my favourite moments during this 3 day itinerary! The Maiden’s Tower look out point is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. You can easily get there by taking the subway to Uskudar station. Once outside you follow the riverbank to the left and you’ll come across the famous look out point.
Watching the sunset at the Maiden’s Tower is one of the most popular and fun things to do in Istanbul! So don’t expect to be the only one here. It’s best to arrive 1 hour before sunset to score yourself a seat. While you’re at it, don’t forget to order some Turkish tea and a pretzel!
Day 3 – Spices, Palaces and Umbrellas oh my
12. Egyptian spices for the win
One of the things you have to do when visiting Istanbul is drop by the Spice Bazaar. This Bazaar is not to be mistaken for the Grand Bazaar. And while the latter may be more famous for it’s grandeur this one is definitely the most fun! Nothing like strolling around and getting to try and taste all of the different scents and flavours.
You can find pretty much every spice here that you can possibly think of. So why not take home some typical Turkish spices so you can keep on eating those delicious Turkish dishes when you’re back home. Some spices to look out for: Sumac, Pul Biber, Nar Eksisi, Cörek otu, Saffron.
13. Visit the colourful Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace, also known as Seraglio, used to be a former Ottoman administrative center and imperial residence for nearly 400 years. These days it serves as a museum that exhibits the imperial collections of the Ottoman Empire.
Around 30 sultans ruled from the Topkapi Palace and over 1000 to 4000 people used to live here.
Opening hours – 9am to 6pm, closed on Tuesday
Entrance fee – 100TL
14. Walk through Rainbow Street
Karaköy is the perfect neighbourhood to end your trip in Istanbul. Rainbow Street, officialy known as Hoca Tahsin Street, is where you can see the real face of Istanbul. There are a ton of places here to enjoy a coffee, watch art and eat a delicious meal.
Things to know before visiting Istanbul
There’s a ton of public transport in Istanbul. The trams, metros and busses go through the entire city. To go from the European to the Asian site it’s best to either use the metro or one of the ferries!
There are a lot of taxis driving around in Istanbul but they are not always as reliable and you will have to be very clear on agreeing a price from before!
You can either pay in cash or buy the Istanbul Kart. You can find it either at the airport or in the city itself. You can top up this card and pay with it on all of the public transport. If you’re traveling in group you only need to buy 1 Istanbul Kart and you can use it for all of you.
The Turkish Lira is the official currency. A lot of places accept Visa/Mastercard but make sure to always pay in TL. Otherwise you will end up paying a lot more.
Best time to visit
Try to avoid the Summer months since the weather can get really hot and it will be really crowded in the city. Spring and Autumn are the best months to visit. You can go for nice and long walks without sweating too much and there won’t be too crazy lines at the best things to do.
Where to stay
Since the city is divided between Europe and Asia you will first have to make a choice where you would prefer to stay. The European side is the more commercial one and holds almost all of the main sights. So if you don’t feel like travelling too much back and forward I would advise you to find a hotel located on this side.
Berjer Hotel – to stay near Taksim square (the main airport drop-off). Make sure to also check out their spa treatments when you’re staying here.
Corinne Hotel – for easy access to the public transport.
AirBnb – There are so many nice places to find in Istanbul at a very cheap price. Just make sure that during summer there is working AC in the apartment!
Where to eat
Turkish food consists of a lot of fresh veggies, meat and most importantly humus! Therefore it’s totally normal to order different small plates and share them. Humus should be tried every time cause it tastes a little different at every restaurant! You should be aware that smoking inside some restaurants is still allowed. So you might want to get a table outside if you don’t want to be bothered by this.
N Terrace – If you’re looking for a lunch or dinner with a view. The restaurant offers the most stunning view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Sohbet Ocakbasi Nevizade – For the best veggie plates and humus! Located in a cosy street near Taksim where the locals love to come and eat. Don’t be shy to over indulge here cause this place had the best humus.
I Hope this blog post will give you the inspiration that you need to create a 3 day itinerary with the best things to do in Istanbul. If you have any questions simply drop them in the comment section below!