So you have 72 hours to explore Istanbul?
The good news – you are in for a real treat as this is a fascinating place. As the once heart of the Ottoman, Roman and Byzantine empires, today Istanbul stands as one of the most historically and culturally rich destinations in the world. Not to mention it is a land of paradoxes: where East meets West, where old meets new, where religious conservatism meets new age, where calls to prayer meet music blaring from street cafes.
The bad news – Istanbul is just way too big, vibrant and multi-layered to be able to truly explore it in three days time. We were warned by friends before our plane touched down that we would need a week minimum in Istanbul to fully experience what this city has on offer. Take it slow and budget at least six days in Istanbul, they said.
Did we heed their suggestion? Of course not. And now having been ourselves we might even suggest longer than a week. But if this is your first time in the city of Seven Hills and you have limited time to explore as we did, Bold Travel has mapped out an awesome 3-day Istanbul itinerary to help you plan your time.
Where to Stay in Istanbul: Beyoğlu District
Where you choose stay in Istanbul is important as this will be both the jumping off point for your daily travel as well as where you will retire at the end of each long day for hookah and a nightcap.
Many a DSLR-touting, fanny pack wearing tourist flocks to the bustling Historical Peninsula around the Sultanahmet area for upscale accommodations near the heart of the major sites. Just experiencing this chaotic, scamy and over-touristed area during the day we knew right away this was not our scene so can’t personally recommend staying here.
Instead, we’d suggest looking to new Istanbul on the other side of the Galata Bridge in the Beyoğlu district. Here you can get lost on the cobble-stoned streets of favorite locals neighborhoods including Tünel, Galata and Karaköy. Access to public transit (either the funicular or the metro) is easy from Taksim Square, Galata, and Karaköy harbor. A ride to the Sultanahmet Area will run you 2-3 TL per ride with the Istanbulkart (which we’d recommend investing in).
We stayed about a five minute walk to Istiklal Street on both our initial and return trips to Istanbul and were happy with the locations both times. However, do make note that Istiklal is a tricky street to navigate with taxis. We had to haul our bags quite far on multiple occasions to get to our next point of transit.
Suggested Itinerary for Istanbul in 3 Days
ISTANBUL ITINERARY DAY 1: Sultanahmet Area
An obvious first place to start in Istanbul is the Historical Peninsula, also called the Sultanahmet Area, as this is home to many of Istanbul’s most popular sites including the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), Hagia Sophia (Ayasofa), the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome and Topkapi Palace. What’s convenient is that all of these attractions are in one walkable (depending on the heat) area so you can move from one to the next fairly quickly.
With all that there is to see in this area, and not wanting to rush too quickly through each site, we’d recommend you prioritize Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace first and visiting the others as time, budget and energy allow.
The grandiose, burnt orange walls and encumbering dome of Hagia Sophia are the main focal points of the busy Sultanahmet area landscape.
This 6th century Greek Orthodox church was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman Turks came into power in 1453. Rather than destroying the church and rebuilding a new mosque, Sultan Mehmet II built converted the existing structure, eliminating all traces of the former religion in the process. Today, Hagia Sophia serves as a museum highlighting both former lives of this incredible monument. We spent 1 hour 30 minutes here.
Moving on, make your way through the fountain-dotted courtyard to the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque). Notable for its six towering minarets and blue İznik tiles, this active mosque gives the unfamiliar an opportunity to learn about the Islamic religion all in a humbling setting. We spent 30 minutes here before being ushered out to allow worshipers their mid-day prayer.
Next pass through the expansive Gulhane Park to the Topkapi Palace where you can relive centuries of opulent Ottoman rule walking in the steps of Turkish royalty. Exploring Topkapi Palace could take a half-day in and of itself; we only dedicated two hours and were happy with what we had time to see and explore.
What You Missed in the Sultanahmet Area
If you have the time there are a handful of other attractions to visit in the Sultanahmet area including the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and Islamic Arts Museum. If you plan to visit more than four of these sites in total, consider purchasing the Museum Pass Istanbul for 85 TL to save a few dollars.
The Grand Bazaar
Now that you’re probably exhausted after a full day taking in the history of Old Istanbul, make the 15-minute stroll over to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. If the Grand Bazaar looks overwhelming from the photos below that’s because it is with its 4,000+ stalls and 18 entrances. Still, it is worth a visit even if you aren’t planning on making any purchases to see the old architecture of a central market that has served Istanbul for centuries (though now in a much more touristic way).
Dinner and Nightlife on Istiklal Street
As the day draws to a close, make your way back to the Beyoğlu district for dinner. You’ll likely have to fight the crowds on Istiklal Street to get to mouth-watering Bilice Karafirin Kebap (8 Asmali Mescit Cd, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey, +90 2122444447) for a delicious mixed grilled meat plate. This is a real gem in a city of already delicious food – reasonable prices, low-key vibe and a huge platter of tasty grilled meats and mezzos to split. Once you’re done, the party rocks on all night so if you have the energy there are plenty of cafes, bars, karaoke joints, and clubs to visit.
ISTANBUL ITINERARY DAY 2: Golden Horn + Galata Tower
Now that you’ve covered the basics of the Historical Peninsula, Day 2 is all about exploring the European side of Istanbul.
Start your morning by crossing the Galata Bridge on foot from Karaköy neighborhood to Eminönü. Along the way, take a few minutes to enjoy the scene of locals casting their lines off hopefully into the Bosphorus.
Yeni Mosque and Egyptian Spice Bazaar
From here walk to Yeni Camii (New Mosque) and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Grab a Turkish coffee from the famous Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi at the back entrance to the bazaar and wander the stalls. Be sure to sample the vibrantly colored spices sitting in open containers outside the shops and watch the fishmongers at work trying to hawk their daily catch.
Continuing on, make your way to gorgeously grand Süleymaniye Mosque.
Süleymaniye Mosque was by far our favorite of Istanbul’s mosques to explore for several reasons: (1) As an active mosque you have the opportunity to speak with representatives about the Islamic religion all while observing worshipers visiting for prayer; (2) It felt less touristed than the Blue Mosque (though do temper your expectations as there will still be many tourists); (3) The well-manicured gardens surrounding the mosque are very relaxing and provide an excellent vantage point from which to view the city; (4) In my opinion it was the most beautiful of the mosques we visited while in Istanbul thanks to all of the windows and natural lighting; and (5) There are a handful of great and cheap local eateries just outside of Süleymaniye.
After lunch, continue your exploration further up the Golden Horn to the Kariye Museum and marvel at the stunningly intricate restored mosaics of the Chora Church.
Or if you feel like taking on a super active day, consider signing up for a half-day or full-day bike tour of the Golden Horn area. By bike we were able to cover far more ground and explore neighborhoods we never would have gone on our own on foot.
By mid to late afternoon, make your way back to Beyoğlu to the Galata Tower neighborhood. It’s been a long day so treat yourself to a coffee or tea and relax with some people watching on the patio of the many quaint coffee shops lining the streets. As dusk approaches, consider standing in line for a visit to the top of Galata or finding a nearby rooftop patio to enjoy a drink as you watch the sun set over the city.
If you are still hungry after your long day out, finish the evening with one of the world’s best kebabs at Durumzade (Topcekenler Sokagi No. 1, Beyoglu, Istanbul, +90 2122490147). Seriously, I start salivating just looking at these pictures. Order the double adana durum with side of spicy chilis.
ISTANBUL ITINERARY DAY 3: Asian Istanbul
Your final day is all about blending in with the locals, eating more amazing food and getting lost in the artsy, hip neighborhoods of Asian Istanbul.
Some may argue that our Day 3 itinerary doesn’t make the cut for a first visit to Istanbul but quite frankly we loved the vibe of the Asian side of Istanbul so much we would consider staying here on our next trip. And no other city in the world straddles two continents so coming to Istanbul without getting a taste for both would be a shame.
Start the day by get lost along the cobblestoned streets of Karaköy on the Bosphorus towards the Tophane area. Follow your nose to the wafting smells of freshly ground coffee beans; here you can find a plethora of modern cafes and restaurants where locals like to enjoy a cup of joe and read their newspapers as they start their day.
Istanbul Ferry from Europe to Asia
Once you’re full and caffeinated you should be ready to make your way to Asia.
Istanbul’s vapur, or ferry, is by far the best way to cross between Asia and Europe. You can catch the vapur from Karaköy to Kadıköy, which will take approximately 30 minutes. Since ferry travel between continents is part of the daily commute for hundreds of thousands of Istanbulites, you’ll be in good company when you grab a glass of hot tea and an outdoor seat to enjoy the spectacular view of the Historical Peninsula to the sounds of calls to prayer, seagulls and other boat engines.
By now you will have arrived in Kadıköy, Istanbul’s liveliest neighborhood after Istiklal Street and the heart of the Anatolian side of the city. Walking only a few minutes from the port, you’ll immediately feel welcomed to Asia by a charming array of restaurants, cafes, bars and boutiques.
We’d suggest starting with a stroll through famous antique street Tellalzade Sokak. Get lost amongst the 19th century French sculptures and vases of Galeri Antik and European chandeliers and furniture of Üsküdar Antik. For a real treat, make your way to and speak with the charming owner of Gramofon Antik (Caferağa Mahallesi Tellalzade Sokak No.7, Kadıköy;+90 2165503989) about his collection of gramophones, record players and vinyls. If you are lucky he might invite you up to his attic to blast a few songs.
Thirsty? Join the daily backgammon players for a Turkish tea at one of the numerous bustling sidewalk cafes. Or splurge on a healthy green juice from hip Stuff.
If you are a lover of food (who isn’t?) and exploring cuisines, definitely look into an Istanbul food tour. The majority of your day will be spent winding through the Kadıköy market talking with food vendors and tasting the street food before stuffing yourself with a full meal of mezzes at Ciya restaurant. Afer the tour is over, you have the time to explore the area even further.
Still have some time? Head to the nearby historic Üsküdar neighborhood or take a seaside stroll towards Moda. End the day on Barlar Sokağı where many university students like to hang out to listen to live music performances.
So there you have it – Bold Travel’s ultimate three-day guide to Istanbul! We hope you find it useful. Have you been to Istanbul already? If so, we’d love to hear from you about what should be on a first-time must-see list.