If you’re wondering what are the best places to visit in Istanbul, I’ve got you covered with this 3 days in Istanbul Itinerary.
Istanbul is one of the most magical cities in the world, full of culture, rich history and the most delicious traditional food. It is a super unique city, which is located on two continents. The Bosphorus Strait that divides the city is the waterline that connects east and west. The city preserves fragments of different cultures, created by many empires having ruled it over the years. It is a vivid place where European influence mixes with the Oriental, creating the most incredible experience only found in Istanbul. Get ready to simply fall in love!
Istanbul is known as the city of golden sunsets. It is a city that you can get lost in and wander around all day long; between the fascinating views of the Bosphorus, the street performances and vendors, the call to prayer chants in the background, the architecture, history and the amazing smells, which lead you every time to the tastiest never ending options for street food – what is there not to love about this enchanting city?! It is a city that captivated me from the moment I stepped foot there, during my solo female travel journey from Bulgaria to Turkey. And it’s a city that I can return to and I always find something new to discover. That’s why I want to share my discoveries!
In this 3-day itinerary for Istanbul, I intend to give you a taste of what Istanbul has to offer. But I must warn you that you will be back for more, because 3 days in Istanbul is definitely not enough to really enjoy the authentic environment or fully explore this enchanting city.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 Best time to visit Istanbul
- 2 Packing for Istanbul: What to wear in Istanbul
- 3 Where to stay in Istanbul
- 4 Transportation: Getting around Istanbul
- 5 Best places to visit in Istanbul in 3 days (Istanbul Highlights)
- 5.1 DAY 1
- 5.2 DAY 2
- 5.3 DAY 3
- 5.4 What to eat in Istanbul
- 5.5 Other Frequently Asked Questions
- 5.6 Useful Tips for your trip to Istanbul
Best time to visit Istanbul
In my opinion, Istanbul is always lovely; but in terms of the ideal weather, the best time to visit is during the Spring or Fall. I truly love the tulips and the beauty of the flowers blooming during the Spring in Istanbul. Autumn is also wonderful (especially September and October) because there are less tourists and the weather is more comfortable. July and August is quite hot and humid, plus there are more tourists visiting Istanbul during the summer. After November temperatures drop and, of course, the holidays are always especially fun but I think the Spring and Fall are easier and better for visitors.
Additional reading: Here are some of the best places to visit in Turkey, beyond Istanbul
Packing for Istanbul: What to wear in Istanbul
Istanbul weather can vary a lot, depending on the season that you decide to visit. The summer is quite hot, so light clothing (like dresses) are great, but always carry scarves with you. A scarf is good for not only changing up your outfit, but also to cover your head and/or shoulders when visiting any of the religious sites, like mosques. It’s always smart to pack an umbrella and sunglasses too. If you are visiting during the spring or fall, it’s recommended to carry a sweater or light jacket, since you never know how cool it will get in the afternoon or evenings. Winter is quite cold, so you would definitely need to pack a coat, hat, scarf and gloves.
Istanbul is not as conservative as other cities in Turkey or in other countries, but if you are a solo female traveler, you might want to tone down your dress code, to avoid unnecessary attention. Personally, I prefer to wear maxi dresses and long skirts (which I can match with different kinds of tops). I also pack one or two nice evening dresses for going out at night for a nice dinner, shows, or fancy lounges. Best to be prepared.
Here are some of my favorite finds
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is quite big and there are all kinds of accommodations. I’ve personally stayed in luxury hotels, boutique hotels and have also rented apartments through Airbnb.
TIP: I usually get a SIM card in each country I visit but this is important for me especially due to my work. Since I need to connect several devices, I use an international portable wifi device, such as Tep wireless, for this purpose. It keeps me connected on the go and I find it extremely reliable!
Transportation: Getting around Istanbul
Visitors most often arrive at one of the Istanbul airports: Ataturk International Airport, the New Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gokcen Airport.
Around the city, you can use the Istanbul public transport, which is modern, clean, efficient and inexpensive. There are cable cars, city buses, ferryboats, trams, funiculars and taxis. Keep in mind that taxis in Istanbul, might try to scam you. They have a bad reputation for doing this. Make sure to check that they are using the meter, before going anywhere.
In order to be able to use the public transportation in Istanbul, you will need to get a prepaid and rechargeable card, called Istanbul Kart. It is kind of like the Metrocard in NYC but, the different is that, the deposit you pay for the card, you can get it back if you return the card at the end of your trip. You can usually easily buy them from most of the small kiosks near the metro stations, piers, and even bus stations. Note: While you can get the deposit back, if there is any leftover money on the card, you cannot get that returned.
TIP: I usually map out for myself, in advance of leaving my hotel, where I’m going and how to get there. It helps to look like you know where you are going and/or to be able to know what transportation to ask about. The best app to download is maps.me, which let’s you navigate with the offline map as a pro.
Note: When visiting the best places in Istanbul, you can do it on your own, but if you are really interested in the history and prefer to have guided tours, and also to skip-the-line at the main tourist attractions, I would recommend for you to get the Istanbul welcome card. You can get it here.
Best places to visit in Istanbul in 3 days (Istanbul Highlights)
Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani) is a good point to begin your journey to acquaint yourself with the vivid atmosphere that is Istanbul. Once the center of Constantinople and the Hippodrome, the square still has some pieces of the original structure. Only a few steps away, visitors will also see the Obelisk of Theodosius, an Ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, erected in 4th century AD.
TIP: Many visitors who are coming for a short period of time, stay in this area to be closer to the main attractions in Istanbul. Istanbul has many amazing neighborhoods, but with limited time, and the crazy traffic in Istanbul, sometimes it is easier to be close to the main neighborhood.
Sultan Ahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque
The breath-taking building of Sultan Ahmet Camii, or the Blue Mosque, with six minarets faces the square. Lit by 260 windows, the blue-painted ceilings and 20,000 ceramic tiles decorated with lilies, tulips, carnations and rose patterns shimmer in the tranquility under the 43-meter tall dome.
Built at the beginning of the 17th century, it has been a house of prayer for 400 years. However, it is closed to tourists at the time of prayer.
Note: Be aware that you must wear appropriate clothes – women should cover their hair to go inside the Blue Mosque. If, by chance, you do not have a scarf, which I recommend you to always carry with you, they will provide you something to cover your hair and your knees free of charge. You just need to return it upon exiting the mosque.
Admission to the Blue Mosque: Free of charge
Hagia Sophia Museum
Hagia Sophia is a two minute walk from the Blue Mosque. This is where the East meets the West. This incredible construction, built in the 6th century, was the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years. Once the Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Cathedral, it was converted into the Roman Catholic Church in 1204 and later into the Ottoman Mosque, until it was opened as a museum in 1935. Aya Sophia was one of the holiest Islamic temples in the world.
Visitors can enjoy the stunning Christian mosaics, the oldest dating back to the 9th century, located mostly in the upper gallery, once a women-only section. The Islamic and Christian religions are meeting under the enormous dome surrounded by four minarets.
There is also the wishing column, which is believed to have healing powers. Visitors like to place their thumb in the hole in the column and twist it twice as they make a wish.
While walking around the museum, you might see the Hagia Sophia cat, the lovely animal that lives there. Do not miss the opportunity to visit Hagia Sophia!
Tip: If you are not planning to visit many places listed on the Istanbul welcome card, I would suggest to purchase in advance your skip-the-line ticket with guided tour for Hagia Sophia, so you do not have to wait on line and also because it is the best way to understand the history behind this wonder.
Hungry?! Lunch time at House of Medusa
House of Medusa is a great place for lunch very close to Hagia Sophia. The service is fantastic, the food and drinks are delicious and the patio area is super charming. The prices are mid-range.
Among more than 80 underground cisterns in Istanbul, Basilica Cistern (or Yerebatan Sarnici) built in the 4th century was the major water reservoir in Constantinople. A colossal aqueduct transported water there. It lay forgotten until Frenchmen Petrus Gyllius rediscovered it in 1545. It was built in 6th century and is located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia.
Today, fish swim around 336 giant columns and the two colossal Medusa heads in a few feet of water remaining from the 100,000 tons that the cistern can really hold. Visitors can enjoy small concerts, special treat due to its exquisite acoustics. They can also feel the eerie atmosphere of Dan Brown’s Inferno, possibly inspired by Yerebatan Sarnici, while also observing the lazy carp swimming in the shallow cistern water. It is truly one of my favorite places to visit in Istanbul. Note: If needed, you can also get the skip-the-line entrance ticket with a guided tour.
Topkapi Palace Museum
As a palace and castles lover, Topkapi Palace was a must see for me and it did not disappoint. It is such an impressive place to experience. The main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans in the 15th century, the Topkapi Palace is now a large museum. This symbol of the city, set on top of the most prominent hill with a marvellous view of Bosfor, is the most visited museum in Istanbul. It houses valuable jewels and artifacts, one of them being an 86 carat diamond, the 5th largest diamond in the world!
The palace is decorated with hand-made Iznik tiles and has hosted 22 different Sultans and their families. You should not miss the information regarding the harem, which at one point housed 809 odalisques or concubines in the Imperial harem. You should plan to spend two or three hours in four different courtyards and seventeen different exhibitions, where you can see treasury, weapons, a watch collection, kaftans, portraits and sacred relics of prophets.
Looking for a great spot for sunset time?
What about checking out Uskudar on the Asian side! You can take the ferry from Eminonu and not only watch the sunset, but not far from Uskudar, you can check out the neighborhoods of Kadikoy and Moda. I love how those areas are more local, and there are many great places to eat, drink, have coffee, dessert and more.
Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsi, dating back to the Byzantium period (15th century), was a popular center for fabric trade. Fires and earthquakes destroyed a lot of construction but Sultan Abdulhamid II reconstructed what is today Kapali Carsi, 550-years old and one of the oldest covered markets in the world, in the entangled maze of covered streets, passageways and corridors. Visitors can buy the most delicate silky shawls and scarves, jewellery, fine antiques, exquisite leather goods, carpets and ceramics, and even spices. The charming smell of Turkish coffee cooked on a coal fire, traditional Turkish cuisine and spices, along with their vivid colors, all takes you back in time through the history of the place. Don’t be afraid to haggle, they expect it and it is the most usual way to do the shopping.
Note: The prices are usually higher at the Grand Bazaar since it caters more to tourists than locals. Many items can be found at other places at a way more affordable prices. The only way to really buy anything here is to bargain a lot!
A good way to begin the second day of your journey through the miracles of Istanbul is the Spice Bazaar or Misir Carsisi. This wonderland of food was built in 1664 and is often referred to as Turkish or Misir (Egyptian) Market.
It is colorful and fun, as you can taste the goods – typically Turkish spices and products like Sumac, Red Biber, Nar eksisi, Nigella seeds, Saffron, dried fruits, baklava, honey, as well as herbal remedies and hand made soaps. You know I had to get my fill of Turkish delights!
Galata Koprusu / Galata Bridge
Galata Bridge or Galata Korpusu shows that a bridge can do much more than connecting two banks. Spanning over the Golden Horn or Haliç, a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus, this bridge is a lively place where you can eat cheap food, watch fishermen catching fish, smoke nargile pipes and/or catch a ferryboat. At sunset, you will enjoy the most amazing view of the Galata Tower, shrieking seagulls above the water surface, the seven hills of the city and the skyline with famous mosques. There are also restaurants under the bridge where you can eat or enjoy a beer.
PRO TIP: I would suggest for you to go on a bosphorus cruise, since it is an amazing experience. The views are spectacular, creating the best moment for unforgettable pictures.
For the bosphorus cruise, you can buy the tickets in advance for a tour, or just simply get the tickets in person at the booth. Word of caution: Be aware that some people will be approaching you around the dock trying to sell you tickets at a higher price; do not fall for the scam and buy them directly from the official booth.
The Galata Tower, built by Genoese community living in the city, is a medieval stone tower that is great to visit. This cylindrical tower, built of stone, is a landmark of Istanbul, which offers an excellent view of the city, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
It is situated on a hill in Galata and, before Beyazit Tower was built, it had been the tallest building in Istanbul. Once a jail, observatory house and watch house, today it serves as a 360-degree viewing platform. It was also popular among artists to draw the panorama of Istanbul from it. Several elevators take you to the platform and the cafeteria, but you still have to walk some more floors to reach the top. There is also a small souvenir shop.
Beyoglu is a district on the north bank of the Golden Horn with consulates, posh shops, chic cafés, restaurants, music clubs and innovative art galleries but it used to be a newer, more European section of the city. It begins at Galata and stretches all the way to Taksim Square, with Istiklal Caddesi as the beating heart of the district. Art lovers will enjoy outstanding examples of the Neo-Classical and Art Nouveau architecture on the Avenue. Today, it is a cosmopolitan street, a cobblestoned pedestrian area.
RECOMMENDED: While in Beyoglu, stop by the trendy area of Karakoy which has many nice funky cafes, restaurants, neighborhood bakeries, and family-owned businesses. A good place for breakfast or lunch, or simply for dessert in Karakoy is PIM Patisserie. The cakes, desserts and coffee are delicious.
Although fast-food restaurants and new shops are now open, you can still sense the spirit of history here. Many visitors find Istiklal Caddesi (the Grande Rue) interesting. The first European style lycee (high school) was built at Galatasaray Square, along Istiklal Caddesi.
INSIDER TIP: A local gem in this area, it is my favorite cafe, Cafe Ara, which was owned by and named after the world famous photographer Ara Guler, who passed away last year. The food is delicious: Salads, pasta and many more options. A great place for lunch or just a coffee break. As you may have guessed, it is decorated with Ara Guler’s photos of Istanbul, which are stunning! It’s a hidden gem inside a small alley, just a couple steps away from Istiklal Caddesi. Locals come here a lot, I used to work from here while visiting Turkey for over 8 weeks.
In addition, there are several museums in this area too, including the Pera Museum, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, the Ottoman Imperial Arsenal in the Tophane-i Amire Culture & Arts Centre and the Museum of Innocence created by the Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk’s to accompany his novel.
On the whole, for entertainment, eating and drinking, Beyoglu, with its bohemian quarters, is the best part of the city, for both locals and visitors.
Visitors can finish their stroll through Beyoglu district at Taksim Square. The square has been the site of protests and demonstrations lately, but more interesting and pleasant things also take place here, like New Year’s Eve celebration and other festivities. The statue of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is a symbolic spot for locals, so definitely important to visit before leaving this district.
Photo Op: A famous photo that you will see a lot on Instagram is pretending to be jumping onto this old tram – the Taksim Nostalgia Tramway (T2 line) that runs from Taksim to Tunel. You can also find a different old tram on the Asian side, which is called The Kadikoy-Moda Nostalgia Tramway, which runs as a clockwise circular route from Kadikoy to Moda and then back to Kadikoy.
Looking for a nice, elegant dinner? Do not miss Karakoy Lokantasi
I personally love Karakoy Lokantasi. It is a great place for either lunch or for an elegant dinner.
The restaurant serves traditional Ottoman Food. They have a great menu, but if you love seafood, you are in for a treat.
Nightlife and entertainment suggestions
Drinks with a view? 360 Istanbul
While in Istiklal Street, if you are in the mood for a drink with a view, you can check out the Rooftop Bar, 360 Istanbul. Along with a great atmosphere, there are beautiful views. I especially enjoyed going there in the evening.
Check out my favorite jazz club in Istanbul called Nardis. It is in Beyoglu, not far from the Galata Tower. They have drinks and food at reasonable prices and the artists they tend to book are really good. I used to go for shows all the time and I always had a wonderful time.
Traditional experience? Do not miss the Whirling Dervishes
Visitors should not miss the chance to see the Whirling Dervishes; it’s a spiritual experience. Witness this extraordinary dance performance that dates back 800 years. It is usually very crowded, so the best way to guarantee your seats is to reserve the tickets in advance.
You can begin the third day by visiting Dolmabahce Palace in the Besiktas district, on the European coast. It once served as the administrative center of the Empire. Its floors are still covered by handmade parquet, carved from rosewood, ebony, and mahogany. Queen Victoria’s present, the 4.5-tonne chandelier in the ceremonial hall, is the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier. Note: You cannot take photos inside the Dolmabahce Palace.
Tip: You can also visit the National Palaces Painting Museum. In case you are interested, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died in this palace.
Different suggestions to pick and choose from depending on your interests:
For the rest of the day, you can choose from amongst numerous Bosphorus cruises, as I previously recommended. There you can have dinner and watch the sunset from the yacht.
Another alternative experience is visiting Ortakoy
Also, you can go to explore Ortakoy, sit by the water to people watch, while enjoying the views of the Ortakoy Mosque and eating a Kumpir (baked potato with various fillings) from one from the street vendors. Ortakoy is known for having the best Kumpir and it is a must eat when you visit the area. The vibe is very nice during the afternoon/evening time.
One last option…
Uzkudar and Kadikoy on the Asian Side
If you did not visit Uzkudar on day one, why not go during sunset time? The views are beautiful and relaxing. You can take the ferry not only from Eminonu but also from Beksitas. On the Asian side, you can also spend the rest of the day there too. As I previously mentioned, in Kadikoy there are many nice cafes, restaurants, especially in my favorite area called: Moda.
Istanbul is a paradise for shopping lovers like myself. You can get beautiful clothing, shoes, accesories, scarves and much more. Best part is that you can find really good deals on unique pieces. I truly love shopping in Istanbul, since they have great stores and boutiques almost everywhere, but some of my faves were in Beyoglu, Kadikoy and Moda.
Prefer to relax?
Hammam (Turkish Bath)
If you prefer to spoil yourself, relax in a hammam, a Turkish bath, and enjoy the oriental scents, luxury baths and massage.
What to eat in Istanbul
In Istanbul, eating is much more than just satisfying one’s hunger. You must spoil yourself and enjoy delicious food (even if you end up gaining a few pounds).
- For breakfast, you will normally have tea, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, bread and Menemen (a delicious Turkish style omelette), a plate with white cheese similar to feta, cold cheese, olives, butter, kaymak (thick cream), honey, jam and boiled eggs. There is also Sucuk (dried sausage with garlic and other spices), or Borek (extremely thin baked sheets of dough with different fillings).
- Meze means cold starters, usually served as appetizers. Then, there is kebap or doner meat, yoghurt, different kinds of fish, Turkish ravioli called manti and many other dishes. You can drink raki, but it’s a kind of very strong brandy, so be careful with it.
Turkish cuisine is also famous for very sweet and tasty desserts like Baklava (my favorite spot for Baklava is Karakoy Gulluoglu established in 1820), Halka Tatlisi, Maras ice-cream, Turkish delight, Sutlias (rice pudding) and even Chicken Breast Dessert.
Food is definitely, one of the many reasons, you will fall in love with Turkey! I warned you…
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Is Istanbul safe for solo female travelers?
This is a frequently asked question, I get by email, and on social media, all of the time, and the real answer is, “Yes, it is safe to travel solo to Istanbul.” It is just important to take certain precautions, as you would in most major cities. Here in this complete Solo Female Travel in Turkey Guide, I go in depth on this topic.
Best areas to stay in Istanbul with only 3 days
I would suggest for you to stay in the European side, where most tourist attractions are found, especially if you only have 3 days in Istanbul. Two great neighborhoods to consider are:
- Sultanahmet, since most of the main attractions are there and it is the historic district of Istanbul.
- Beyoğlu since you can also walk to a lot of the popular places, such as Istiklal Caddesi, Taksim Square, Galata, Karakoy and more. Lots of restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, all around Beyoğlu.
There are other neighborhoods where you can stay, but these two are more walkable and make it easier to reach the most popular places, if you are only in Istanbul for a limited time.
Useful Tips for your trip to Istanbul
Consider getting a VPN for your devices
One useful tip is to always have a VPN (Virtual Private Network). It has helped me a lot, since I can browse the web privately and securely with an encrypted connection; plus, I can change my location and my computer would be tracked as it is in the USA, or any other location I choose. This gives me access to websites that might be prohibited in the country I am visiting.
Visit Beyond Istanbul, Turkey has a lot to offer
I would suggest that you explore Turkey beyond Istanbul, there are so many amazing places to visit in Turkey. If you have more time, there are great day trips from Istanbul or simply book flights to other areas. For the most part, you can find cheap domestic flights with Pegasus. I flew once from Istanbul to Fethiye area for around 10 dollars.
I hope these tips are helpful, but if you have more questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I will try to answer them to the best of my ability.
3 days in Istanbul – not exactly a marathon but definitely a sprint!
In summary, there are numerous reasons to visit Istanbul. During a three-day stay, there’s enough time to feel the spirit of the city and get to know it well enough to know if you’ll want to return another time to explore this amazing City and country even more!
Want to learn more about Turkey?
- Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia
- Best Paragliding in Turkey over the Blue Lagoon!
- An excursion to the Dalyan Tombs and the Dalyan Mud Baths
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