If you are reading this blog post, you probably think of visiting Istanbul or even already planning your visit. So obviously I don’t need to explain how amazingly beautiful and awesome this city is.
Oooo and crazy big! Istanbul in 3 days is a challenge. You know you’ll have to leave a lot out of your “things to do” list and even doing it so, you’ll be exhausted anyway, after absorbing so much historical and cultural awesomeness.
So if you can, plan couple of days more to truly enjoy your visit and to avoid rushing around. At the end, you’ll need to prioritise your “things to do” list according your interests and I recommend to get familiar with the districts in advance which will help you a lot when it comes to orientation, which again makes it easier to plan your day.
In this historic centre you can visit most of the historical sights such as Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar
Walking down from Sultanahmet by following the lines of the tram, you will arrive in Eminönü area, where you can visit Yeni Cami (New Mosque) and Spice Bazaar. Eminönü is also one majors stop for the ferries to Kadiköy, the other side of Bosphorus.
C: Galata – Karaköy
From Eminönü you can across Golden Horn thanks to the Galata Bridge (NO it is not the Bosphorus Bridge) which connects Eminönü with Karaköy. From here you can either walk up to Galata district to visit Galata Tower or take the short underground funicular, Tünel to get to Beyoglu.
The district between Taksim Square and Tünel is called Beyoglu which is the heart of Istanbul’s cultural, intellectual and entertainment life. This area is perfect for eating, drinking and clubbing.
E: Kabataş – Beşiktaş – Ortaköy
From Taksim Square you can take the funicular to Kabatas and walk along Bosphorus till Ortaköy passing by Dolmabahce Palace and Besiktas. In Ortaköy you can spend some quality time right in front of the shimmering waters of Bosphorus and have closer look at the famous Bosphorus Bridge.
If you want to see the Asian side of the city Kadiköy is the perfect place to start with. Either from Besiktas or Eminönü you can take the ferry (vapur) to Kadiköy and witness real local life of Istanbul. I so much would like to see your face when you see how this side looks even more European than the European side itself 🙂
Inform yourself more about Istanbul
Now that you have any idea about the main districts, let’s plan your days in Istanbul. In this post I’ll rather focus on the route and daily plan and will not explain each sight in detail. For this I recommend you to get a good travel guide like Lonely Planet.
What to do in 3 days in Istanbul
Day 1 in Istanbul
Start your day in Hagia Sophia, as early as possible before the crowds invade this former church, seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, later the mosque symbolising the power of Ottoman Conquerors , and now a mind blowing museum. It is amazing that they still discover mosaics after centuries.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
After Hagia Sophie pass though the park and walk to Sultan Ahmet Mosque, famous for its handmade blue mosaics tiles on the interior walls. It is still serving as a mosque, so respect the people praying around.
Now dive into ancient history again and enjoy the mysterious ambient underground. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici) is my personal favourite. But again here, try to avoid the crowds by coming either early in the morning or late in the evening.
Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
From Basilica Cistern walk down to harbour, to Eminönü, by following the tram lines. On your way down you’ll pass by many traditional restaurants and shops. Either stop by to ease your appetite for Turkish food or handcraft. Or go straight ahead to Spice Bazaar to absorb thousands of aromas from the orient.
Yeni Cami (New Mosque)
Don’t forget to have a closer look at Yeni Cami which is actually not new at all. Its construction lays back in 16th-17th centuries.
Now across Golden Horn over the Galata Bridge, not to mistake it for Bosphorus Bridge. Have a small talk with the locals fishing on the bridge. Stop for a minute in the middle of the bridge to look right, left, back and forward. This here is one of my favourite views of Istanbul, in the middle of its daily life.
If you’re still hungry try “balık ekmek” (fish sandwich) after crossing the bridge, in Karaköy at a waterfront restaurant. Balik ekmek contains a grilled and salted mackerel fillet served with onion and a little bit lettuce inside a white fluffy bread and you can squeeze a little piece of lemon if you want to. While eating your balik ekmek, enjoy the view of Yeni Cami and Galata Bridge from a completely other perspective.
Now head to Tünel, the shortest underground railway ever. Take the funicular to get to Beyoglu.
Around the 1,4km long Istiklal Street, Asmali Mescit, Cihangir and Çukurcuma you are now in the heart of Istanbul’s cultural, intellectual and entertainment life. It counts as 21th century’s Bohemia for intellectuals and artists from all around the world.
Follow the line of the nostalgic tram, have a drink with view in one of the countless roof top bars and restaurants. If you still have powers, go to a live music venue or a night club and witness the amazing night life of Istanbul.
In this map I marked the places I personally like and would recommend. Of course there is a lot more. Decide for yourself what you want to do, see, eat and drink. No matter what you choose, I’m sure it will unique.
Day 2 in Istanbul
Yes, there are still historical sights to visit. And you can’t miss this one if you want to see where and how the Ottoman Sultans have been living back then. If you want to visit Harem, remember that costs extra and count with additional 1-2 hours.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Even more history can be found in the Archaeology Museum which houses objects from almost all eras of world history.
Now it’s time for shopping and wondering the Ottoman architecture with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. It is easy to get lost in this bazaar and guess what, yes, it is the best way to visit it. Don’t let the vendors annoy you, just ignore their calls (it’s their job to sell), stay calm, smile friendly and enjoy this historical atmosphere.
Don’t miss the largest mosque in the city. Its courtyard has something magical. Stop for a while and enjoy the silence.
Walk down to Atatürk Bridge passing by the unknown streets of Istanbul. You’ll be surprised to see the forgotten old wooden city villas. While crossing the bridge take a loot at the Galata Bridge on the right side.
Neve Shalom Synagogue
Once you’re on the other side of Golden Horn follow the way to Galata Tower by passing by Neve Shalom Synagogue, the largest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul.
This over 700 years old tower offers a beautiful 360˚ view of Golden Horn. To avoid the crowds get there early in the morning or late in the evening.
Galata Mevlevi Musuem
If you’re open for religious spiritual rituals book this one-hour ceremony to watch the dervishes whirling. It is kind of medidation.
Let your day fade out in one of the countless restaurants, bars and clubs in this area. If you like sea food try Midye Tava and Midye Dolma in Balik Pazari and have beer in one of the small tables and stools (as if made for hobbits) in Nevizade Street surrounded by restaurants where you can have a real Turkish dinner with Raki & Meze.
Day 3 in Istanbul
From Ortaköy to Kabataş
In Ortaköy you can have your breakfast or a Kumpir (baked potato filled with stuff) at one of the waterfront cafés while watching the ships sailing by and have a closer look at the Bosphorus bridge. Ortaköy has a special place in my heart because my parents lived and met here, and I grew up listening to stories my father told me about the life and people of this once multi-religious and multi-ethnical neighbourhood.
Now take a digestion tour and walk back to Kabataş. On your way back you’ll see Çırağan Palace, once a palace of the Sultan, now one of the most expensive hotels of the city. Carry on and pass by the busy streets of Beşiktaş‘s harbour area.
After a short walk from Beşiktaş you’ll arrive at Dolmabahçe Palace, residence of late Ottoman Sultans and founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
You are in a city surrounded by water everywhere and now it’s time to spend a little bit time on water.
With Dentur Avrasya you can either take the ~2 hours hop on/off Bosphorus tour (departure hourly between 12:45 and 17:45) or the ~5-6 hours Long Bosphorus Tour (depart once a day at 11:15). Try avoiding the weekend for this tour.
After the Bosphorus Tour, if you have time left take the ferry from Besiktas to Kadiköy, to cross Bosphorus and set foot on the Asian continent.
Have a look at the interior of historical Haydarpaşa Train Station built in 1909. Take a walk from the harbour to Moda and have a closer look at Istanbul’s local life.
If you spend your evening in one of Kadiköy’s fish restaurants and bars take the yellow Dolmuş (~6TL) to get back to Taksim square (avoid rush hours).
If you stay longer
A day trip to the Prince Islands offers a great contrast to the big city life of Istanbul. Avoid doing it at the weekend though. Dentur Avrasya offers also Island Tours from Kabatas. Heybeliada is less crowded than Büyükada.
Walk from Ortaköy to Emirgan
Spend a glorious day walking from Ortaköy to Emirgan all along Bosphorus.
Visit a Hamam
If you want to experience the Ottoman way of bathing surrounded by incredible architecture and history visit Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam near to Hagia Sophia.
From Galata Bridge, take a walk to Eyüp to visit Patriarchal Church of St. George, Kariye Museum (Chora Church) and enjoy the view of Golden Horn from Pierre Loti Café.
Where to stay?
I’d recommend to stay in Beyoglu to be close to the places you’d end your evening (restaurants, bars, live music venues and clubs). This way you can avoid driving or walking longer distances at night. Besides this area is very well connected with nostalgic tram, funicular / Tünel to Kabatas and Karaköy, metro, bus, tram, dolmus, etc. Walking from here to the historical centre Sultanahmet is easy-peasy anyway.
Get Istanbul Card directly at the airport and you won’t regret it. With this card you travel for almost half of the regular price and you can use it almost everywhere like Metro, Tramvay, Nostalgic tram, Metrobus, and Vapur.
If you plan to visit most of the museum, consider buying the museum pass with which you also have the advantage of “fast track”.
Almost everywhere, especially in the Sultanahmet area, there are many exchange offices where you can easily exchange US$ or €. I’d recommend to exchange at least a little bit directly at the airport.
Pickpocketing is pretty common in any big city like Istanbul, especially in touristic places. So just be aware of your belongings all the time. I use the handbag of Pacsafe which has some pretty cool safety features, like “imbedded steel web” and “slashguard strap” which is cut-through resistant. I can only recommend this bag. And it is big enough for a 13″ macbook, iPad, kindle, camera, lens, headphones and all that.
Even after this full packed program you’ll realise there is still so much to do and see in Istanbul. So start planing your next visit already.
Read my personal travel guide to Istanbul for "Everything you need to know before you go to Istanbul". For more insights get the Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Istanbul. For accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com and airbnb.com.
Don't forget to check my Pack List for useful travel items.
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