If you, like me, are a history buff then Istanbul is a place to visit before you die. It is an amazing city that has a history that goes back to the Romans overlaid with Ottoman and Turkish history. Combine that with vibrant markets, great food and welcoming people for a must-see destination. While I recommend a longer itinerary to see Istanbul, this is an itinerary you can use to see some of the best sites of Istanbul in 3 days.
What to Do for 3 Days in Istanbul
Table of contents: ()
- What to Do in Istanbul in 3 Days
- Day 1 – Sultanahmet
- Day 2 – Beyo?lu
- Day 3
- Istanbul E-pass
- Istanbul Attractions Map
Day 1 – Sultanahmet
The oldest part of the city is the Sultanahmet district. It is still inside the old Roman walls. It is a triangular-shaped area with the old walls at the west, the body of water known as the Golden Horn at the north, and the Sea of Marmara to the south which connects via the narrow straights known as the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea. Istanbul is located here because of its position on this strategic waterway (see map).
The crowning achievement in Roman (later Byzantine) architecture was the church Hagia Sophia which is now a museum in Sultanahmet. Its impressive dome on dome design so impressed the Ottoman Turks after they captured the city that you can find Mosques that are influenced by its design throughout the former Ottoman Empire.
The interior of Hagia Sophia is quite large and even more amazing when you realize that this building was built in the 6th century. As you can see from the photo above, there are elements of the use of Hagia Sophia as a church but also from its use from the 1400s as a mosque.
In addition to the architecture, the beautiful mosaics are some of the best examples of Roman / Byzantine art.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
The most notable of the mosques that were influenced by the design of Hagia Sophia is the so-called Blue Mosque which is located just opposite it. Stand in between the two and the similarities will be fairly obvious.
The nickname Blue Mosque comes from some of the tiles in the interior of the mosque (which is really not particularly blue).
Visiting a mosque: You can enter the mosque even if you are a tourist and not a Muslim, although you should not enter during prayer-time or during the middle of the day on Fridays. You will need to wear appropriate dress which means no sleeveless shirts or shorts. At the Blue Mosque, they may offer you a robe if your clothing is inappropriate, but that will not be available at smaller mosques. Women should have a scarf they can use to cover their heads. Remain respectful and inconspicuous as people are here to worship. Flash photography is not appropriate.
The real name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after which the Sultanahmet district is named. The Sultanahmet name has a more interesting story. Sultan Ahmet (or Ahmed I) caused all kinds of controversy when he commissioned the mosque to be built with 6 minarets. Look around Istanbul and the number of minarets that a mosque has tells you the significance of the person who built it. While a neighborhood mosque would have 1, a mosque built by a sultan could be expected to have as many as 4 minarets. But when Sultan Ahmet had this mosque built only the mosque in Mecca had 6 minarets. It was pointed out that Sultan Ahmet had won no great victory for Islam that would justify this hubris. Ahmet’s solution was brilliant. Rather than knock down one of his minarets he paid from his own fortune to build a 7th minaret in Mecca.
Have a Traditional Lunch
One of the specialties of Istanbul is the Sultanahmet kofte. This is a spicy ground meat dish that is often served with peppers. One very popular restaurant for this is Sultanahmet Koftecisi.
The Topkapi Palace is just around the corner from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was built shortly after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and was the center of the Ottoman Empire until the 1800s when the more modern Dolmabahçe Palace was built north of Sultanahmet.
Don’t expect a lot of furniture in the palace as this palace is an oriental design where people sat on pillows or cushions in large relatively sparse rooms.
Pay special attention to the quality of the tile work or the windows inlaid with abalone shells. This is where a lot of the craftsmanship is displayed in this sprawling palace. I visited with someone who could point out the intricate blue tiles from nearby Iznik and the poorer craftsmanship of later replacement tile work after the tile industry in Iznik declined in the 1700s.
In addition to visiting the harem and the throne room, the national treasure of Turkey is housed in the Palace. The collection has a large number of relics such as Mohammed’s footprint, one of his teeth and a selection of hairs from his beard, Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan, and John the Baptist’s hand. It was a surprise to me that an Islamic culture would even have relics.
If you go to the Grand Bazaar, someone will try and sell you a carpet. They will offer you tea and invite you to come in and sit down. They will do this in perfect English or any of a number of other languages. I honestly think they think every tourist really wants a carpet and that my refusals were simply negotiating. A couple of Kurdish brothers ran the shop that I visited. I was wearing a microphone at the time so you can eavesdrop on the process if you listen to Turkey, Istanbul – Amateur Traveler Episode 83.
I love the energy of the bazaar. Watch for boys who are carrying copper trays with small glasses of hot tea on them to the various merchants. You can certainly buy souvenirs here but there are real bargains as well… especially if you want a carpet. I visited with a Turkish young man from Gaziantep in eastern Turkey. He claimed you can get much better prices in Gaziantep because the carpets are made there.
Even more colorful than the Grand Bazaar is the spice bazaar with piles of colorful spices (and lots of souvenirs). What I really needed was a cookbook to know how to use all of these wonderful spices. Photographers and Instagrammers will love it.
Day 2 – Beyo?lu
Bridge to Beyo?lu
If you are staying in Sultanahmet, walk over the bridge that crosses the body of water called the Golden Horn to Beyo?lu. Along the way note the fisherman that can be found on the bridge catching their lunch for the day.
Just north of the Golden Horn is the neighborhood of Beyo?lu. In southern Beyo?lu right near the water is the 2nd oldest subway in the world (after the London Underground). The Tünel is not nearly as extensive as the Underground. It is a funicular that climbs the hill from the Golden Horn towards Galata Tower.
Galata Tower is the most notable landmark in Beyo?lu. It was originally built by the Genoese and called the Tower of Christ. It offers a great view of the old city (Sultanahmet, Fatih).
Walk the ?stiklal Caddesi (?stiklal Avenue)
?stiklal Caddesi (?stiklal Avenue)
?stiklal Caddesi (?stiklal Avenue) runs from Galata Tower towards Taksim Square. This is a pedestrian shopping street. When Istanbul was the capital, this area is where most of the foreign embassies were. There are still at least 4 foreign consulates along this street.
Along the avenue, you will find the Galata Mevlevi Museum which is dedicated to the Mevlevi branch of Sufism which is better known as the Whirling Dervishes. You can see the Whirling Dervish Dance show here.
There are also some churches on this street that are still active. This neighborhood used to be a greek neighborhood until the forced resettlement of greeks and Turks after the Greek War of Independence.
A fun place to eat along the ?stiklal Caddesi is Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage). This restaurant used to be a flower market.
The Dolmabahçe Palace was built in the 1800s as a more modern replacement for Topkapi Palace. This is a very European style palace complete with imported chandeliers from Venice and furniture from Paris. The palace cost the sultan 25% of his yearly tax revenue and the debt that it caused helped speed up the decline of the Ottomans.
For Turks, one special place in the palace is the bedroom where Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, died.
One of the iconic photos of Istanbul is the view of a small mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge in the background. The mosque in the photo is in Ortaköy on a beautiful small square near the base of the bridge. There are some good places to grab a bite, a photo and also a boat for a cruise on the Bosphorus.
A cruise along the Bosphorus will go from the city up to at least the fortress built on each side of the water by Mehmed the Conqueror and his father. Along the way, you will see mansions, mosques, and quiet neighborhoods.
1.5-Hour Morning Bosphorus Boat Tour
So far we have only spent time in the European part of the city. I would recommend taking a ferry over to the Asian side of the city for your last afternoon and evening. This is where much of the population of the city lives and it’s worth a visit. I would recommend visiting the Kadikoy marketplace and then finding a place to eat dinner back on the water with a view of the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Istanbul E-pass is a convenient way to visit many of the top attractions in Istanbul, as it allows you to access a variety of museums, historical buildings, and other attractions with a single digital pass. With options for 2, 3, 5, and 7 days, you can choose the duration that best fits your travel plans. The pass includes access to guided tours, walk-in attractions, and attractions that require a reservation, so you can easily plan your sightseeing activities.
Some of the included attractions are the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabahce Palace, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, Istiklal Street, Rustempasha Mosque, Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Rumeli Fortress, Mosaic Museums, Archeology Museum, Hagia Irene, Bosphorus Cruise with Dinner and Turkish Show, Whirling Dervishes Performance, Bursa and Mount Uludag, Sapanca Lake and Masukiye, Sile and Agva Day Trip Tours, Madame Tussauds Istanbul, Sealife Aquarium Istanbul, Istanbul Aquarium, Museum of Illusions Istiklal, Museum of Illusions Anatolia, Legoland Discovery Centre Istanbul, Saphire Observation Deck, Skyride 4D Simulation, Safari Park, Dungeon Park, Bosphorus Cruise, Hop on Hop Off Bosphorus Cruise, Princes Island Roundtrip Ferry, Airport Transfer, and Private Airport Transfer.
Istanbul Attractions Map
I have stayed in both a small older boutique hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood as well as a more modern hotel in the Taksim square area. I recommend Sultanahmet for history buffs and Taksim more for people who are looking for nightlife.
I would recommend staying even longer in Istanbul than 3 days, but if 3 days is all you have you can still enjoy this wonderful city.
To see what I skipped to make a 3-day itinerary check out 22 Must-See Places in Istanbul.