Istanbul is the most heavily populated city in Turkey and one of the largest cities in all of Europe. An estimated 12-19 million people call it home (just for reference that is 20 times the size of my hometown of Portland, Oregon).

Turkey is split by the narrow strait called the Bosphorus with Bon one side and Asia on the other. Not only is the city split geographically, but culturally as well. It is a melting pot of many different cultures and religions. You’ll encounter scantily clad women in short skirts and half shirts alongside extremely conservative women in burkas and everything in-between. All in one day.

The city is gigantic and sprawling. If you only have a limited amount of time in Istanbul, deciding where to sleep, eat, and explore can be overwhelming. Follow our detailed three-day itinerary to get the most out of your trip to this amazing city!

Know Before You Go

The Turkish currency is the lira (TRY) and the conversion is about 5.66 lira to the US dollar

Learn a few key phrases to help you get around! “Mer-ha-ba” is “hello”, “tay-shay-koo-ay-dare-em” is “thank you very much”, “goo-lay-goo-lay” is “goodbye” if you are staying and they are leaving, while “hose-check-out” is “goodbye” if you are leaving and they are staying.

Purchase the Museum Pass Istanbul for a better price on five days of museum exploration

Purchase the Istanbulkart to get easy access to the tram, ferry, and city buses. Uber is also in Istanbul, but the prices are not significantly cheaper than taxis

It’s super safe! I never felt uncomfortable or afraid even for a minute in Istanbul.

How to Get Around During Your 3 Days in Istanbul

For this ‘3 days in Istanbul itinerary’, I would recommend using the city’s extensive public transport system which is cheap and efficient. Trams and the metro provide the fastest means of transport running approximately every 5 minutes from 06:00-24:00.

For most visitors, the most useful tram line is T1 which runs from Zeytinburnu through Aksaray and Sultanahmet. The line then crosses the Galata Bridge and continues to Kabataş, offering plenty of sightseeing spots along the way.

Istanbul’s tramway system is sleek and efficient with trams running every five minutes, but it can be very crowded at peak times. To access the tramway, you’ll first have to purchase a journey token (jeton) or the Istanbul Card (Istanbulkart), which operate the turnstile. 

Istanbul Itinerary: Day 1

1. Walk around in Sultanahmet Square

Walking around in Sultanahmet Square is perhaps one of the first things a traveler does when they visit Istanbul. This area has some popular tourist spots, all within a walkable distance from each other.

Moreover, just like any other “touristy” area, Sultanahmet Square also has a lot of cafes and restaurants – most of which I’d recommend you avoid.

Once upon a time, Sultanahmet Square was the hippodrome of Constantinople – the social center of Constantinople. During that time, this area also featured horse racing.

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are of course the most obvious attractions here, but you should go look for the Serpant Column, the Obelisk of Thutmose III, the Walled Obelisk and the German fountain. Most people who can spare just a day in Istanbul end up visiting Sultanahmet Square.

2. Sultan Ahmet Mosque

Sultan Ahmet Mosque is spectacular from the inside and it is also free. This iconic building of Turkey is definitely one of the most popular European landmarks.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque has been nicknamed “the blue mosque” because the inside features blue hand painted tiles. You will see them on the walls and the ceiling. The blue interiors look spectacular with lush red carpet. The low hanging lamps and many windows cast an amazing light and the result is spectacular.

3. Visit Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is right next to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but it is not free to visit. Moreover, it was once a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, then it was turned into a mosque and is now a museum. If you love admiring historical architecture, you’d love to know that Hagia Sophia is believed to have changed the history of architecture in the world.

4. See Topkapi Palace (Optional)

Topkapı Palace was once the main residence for the Ottoman Sultans and administrative headquarters for the Ottoman Empire but is now a large museum.

This palace displays visions of the true Turkish royalty. It is rather expansive and can take up a few hours to explore in depth. It features a stunning imperial gate, four massive coutyards at different levels that have their own set of sections inside, a harem, outer garden and many smaller coutyards. The harem also features a courtyard of the Eunuchs.

5. Galata Tower for Sunset Panoramic View / Dinner

Cross the Galata Tower from Topkapi Palace and you will see your next stop from far. If you’re a sucker for viewpoints, then you will love this place because it is the best location for a great view of Istanbul from up above.

Istanbul Itinerary: Day 2

With many of the best known attractions having been covered, it’s time to see what else the city has to offer by first heading to the shores of the Golden Horn in Eminönü and then crossing over into the Galata and Taksim neighborhoods of Istanbul.

1. Süleymaniye Mosque

Begin your day in the Eminönü area of Istanbul by visiting the elegant Süleymaniye Mosque. While not as famous as the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, this Ottoman mosque is one of the city’s finest, as it features a beautiful forecourt and an uncomplicated yet still stunning interior. The mosque was built by Süleymaniye the Magnificent in the mid-16th century and the sultan’s tomb can be found in the mosque’s tranquil cemetery.

2. Rüstem Pasha Mosque

Just a short walk away, you’ll reach yet another memorable mosque in Istanbul, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. What makes this mosque a must-see even after you have visited several other mosques in the city is the way that it uses its pretty Iznik tiles. Everywhere you look inside the Rüstem Pasha Mosque you’ll find vibrant color, from the carpet to the windows, but it’s the vivid and colorful patterns of the tiles that really stick with you. One other benefit of coming here is that it’s likely to be the quietest of the mosques, allowing you to really take in the space free from other tourists.

3. Spice Bazaar

While everyone has heard of the Grand Bazaar, fewer people know of Istanbul’s equally atmospheric Spice Bazaar, or Mısır Çarşısı. A huge bazaar by any standards, the Spice Bazaar is a delight for the senses as you get to experience the colors and aromas of the spices, herbs, fruits, nuts, and sweets on sale among its many stalls. The building itself is quite a sight as well and dates from the 17th century.

4. Galata Bridge

It’s time to leave Eminönü behind and find out what Galata and Taksim are like, which means crossing the ever-busy Galata Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Horn and is seemingly always lined with fishermen pressed up against its railings. As you cross the bridge, you’re treated to views of both sides of the Golden Horn, allowing you one of the best views of Istanbul’s segmented cityscape. 

Istanbul Itinerary: Day 3

The final day of this ‘3 days in Istanbul’ itinerary covers more of essential things to do in Istanbul such as a Bosphorus Cruise, Dolmabahce Palace, and Ortaköy.

1. Walk the Old Walls of Constantinople

The former City Walls of Constantinople, dating back all the way to the 5th century, are just a few minutes’ walk away.

It’s possible to climb the walls and walk along it, which I highly recommend doing not only for the views, but for the awesome bragging rights of getting to say you walked the walls of Constantinople!

I’ve heard that it’s not so safe to be there after dark, as robberies may occur. When I went in February of 2012, I watched the sunset from there and left before it got dark. I felt perfectly safe, but as always, keep your wits about you and trust your gut.

2. View across the Bosphorus

It is Russia’s link out into the Aegean and thence the Mediterranean. There are ferries crossing from Europe to Asia every minute of the day and boats that take passengers to various points on both shores. If you want to simply cruise and take in these shores, you will find that extremely interesting. You will see the activity without finding yourself in busy traffic.

The Prince Islands heading west are interesting but spending too much time there would leave you with little time to do anything else in the day.

3. Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace Museum is a glorious palace from the Ottoman era. Situated on the banks of Bosphorus between Kabatas and Besiktas, it was the residence of the last six Ottoman Sultans, and Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

The palace houses more than 50,000 objects along its hundreds of rooms. The interior of the palace reflects the grandeur of the epoch, and designed like the luxurious European palaces.

The giant crystal stairs and chandeliers, large oil paintings and armchairs are very attractive. The precious watches of the palace will take your interest.

4. Ortaköy 

Continuing further up along the Bosporus Strait, you’ll soon reach the fun and cosmopolitan neighborhood of Ortaköy. Tourists love coming to this outer neighborhood because it has a bit of a flashier, relaxed atmosphere and is home to loads of cafés and restaurants. The main spot that visitors come to see, though, is Ortaköy Square. Situated on the waterfront, it offers superb views out across the water and of the magnificent Baroque Ortaköy Mosque.