Epic sunsets, distant sounds of Namaaz, spectacular minarets and adorable cats – this is Istanbul, one of the most exotic cities of Europe or Asia.
East meets West is such a cliché but no other destination fits this description as perfectly as Istanbul. There is an Asian side and a European side that’s divided by the Bosphorous.
If I start writing an introduction about this historically, culturally and artistically rich city, I’d never be able to stop typing. Super quick history: Istanbul was once the ancient Roman colony of Byzantium. It was the imperial city of Constantinople in the early ages. The middle age of history started here when the Ottoman Empire took over this city in 1453.
I won’t go deeper into the history here in the introduction but of course I will mention a bit of it in the itinerary for most of the Istanbul attractions. This will help you get a deeper perspective of the place that you’re visiting.
Oh and if you think Istanbul is the capital city of Turkey, you’re wrong. It is Ankara. Haha, gotcha!
Istanbul is built over hills, just like many other prominent cities like Rome and Lisbon. These are total 7 hills in Istanbul. Many of those who visit Turkey just use Istanbul as a quick base before heading off to Cappadocia, Pamukkale or Ephesus. We recommend at least 3 days. Check our detailed itinerary for spending 10 days in Turkey too!
Suggested: Best Places to visit in Istanbul
To explore this city of Seven Hills within 72 hours is a formidable task, and those who love this city will shake their heads in disapproval. Still this awesome 3 days in Istanbul itinerary has been carefully designed so that you can get a taste of many different aspects of this city. Already dreaming of traveling to Istanbul? Get your Turkey visa now.
How to spend 3 days in Istanbul
- Day one – Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula and Vibrant Nightlife
- Day two – Grand Bazaar, Istanbul’s Hamams and Bosphorous Cruise
- Day three – Day trip to Princess Islands OR City Exploration
- Istanbul Hotel Information
- Where to go after Istanbul
Day one – Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula and Vibrant Nightlife
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) Visit the Blue Mosque a.k.a. 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.
The Blue Mosque has six minarets and 5 main domes and 8 secondary domes. Fitting everything in one picture is impossible but you can move to the middle of the garden or the courtyard with a wide-angle lens to capture the visible minarets and domes. The construction of this historical mosque ended in 1616. The best light for photographing the Blue Mosque from the courtyard is sometime around sunset. But hey, I recommend many other places for sunset photography in this article so decide accordingly.
The mosque has a very big courtyard and as you enter, you worshippers at their midday prayers. There is a separate section inside for tourists and another one for Islamic worshippers.
You’d need to cover your legs, shoulders and your head when you’re inside so please respect and dress accordingly. I do remember seeing a sarong rental area at the entry point.
The entry to Sultanahmet Mosque is free.
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.
Constructed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia has orange colored exterior walls. It was a prominent landmark for Byzantine imperial ceremonies.
From 1453 to 1931, Hagia Sophia served as an imperial Ottoman mosque and in 1935 it opened as a museum. It was named after Sophia the Martyr. If you’re interested to know more about the history of this place, I highly recommend you check out the timeline of Hagia Sophia here.
The entry fee for Hagia Sophia is 20 TL and it is closed on Mondays.
- Hagia Sophia: Skip-the-Line Ticket with Guided Tour: 30 minutes tour
- Hagia Sophia Fast-Track Admission with a Licensed Guide: one hour tour
There’s not much different between what both the tour guides are offering but it is always a good idea to read the latest reviews before booking your tour or experience.
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.
Some of the things that will stun you inside are the baths of the Sultans with golden grill, the imperial throne, the fruit room and many stained glass windows.
You will also get an opportunity to see the panoramic view of the Marmara Sea from the palace. The garden area in the second courtyard has some really interesting trees, a few of them are hollow from the inside because of fungus.
Entry fee for Topkapı Palace is 25 TL per person.
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.
Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most prominent landmarks because it stands proudly at the height of 16.5 meters (54 feet). It is a stone tower that was completed in 1348 A.D. The tower has 9 floors and two lifts that can take you to the 7th floor and from there you have to climb up two floors yourself.
Please keep in mind that the queues outside Galata Tower at sunset time are very long, so keep a time buffer. Most of the times the queues move very fast even when they’re long.
There is a viewing deck on the top from where you can see a 360-degree view of Istanbul city, the Bosphorous Sea, the Golden Horn, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and many other landmarks. The viewing platform is very narrow and is just like a ring around the tower.
The viewing platform on top of Galata Tower gets very crowded so you may not be able to stay for long, but there are two restaurants on lower floors where you can sit and chill for long and admire Istanbul’s skyline.
There is also a flight stimulator – 3D Skyride which costs 25 Liras extra and is 10 minutes long.
Galata Tower closes at 8 pm, but the restaurants may remain open for longer.
Entry fee for Galata Tower is 25 Liras per person.
Nightlife in Istanbul – Galata District
After you’ve spent enough time at Galata Tower, you can enjoy this neighborhood’s vibrant nightlife. You can eat dinner in one of the restaurants that are under the Galata Bridge and then check out some clubs or bars.
Head to Beyoğlu or Istiklal Caddesi or Taksim Square – you’re sure to find a lot of bars with outdoor seating and live music. You can also find clubs here. In Beyoglu, go to Baraka for live music on the weekends. You can also check out Bizz Jazz Bar for Jass muic, Riddim for alternative, rock or hip hop, or Mojo for strictly rock music.
Day two – Grand Bazaar, Istanbul’s Hamams and Bosphorous Cruise
1) Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s legendary Grand Bazaar is a place that should definitely not be missed. It is a covered market area and that’s why it is mentioned as the first item for the day so that you can escape the heat.
Believe it or not, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world with more than 4000 stalls and 61 streets. It also has 18 different entry points and was kind of like the “first shopping mall” of the world. The construction began as early as 1455/56.
The bazaar is so big that it may overwhelm you! But it may end up being one of the best places that you’ll visit in Istanbul because of the interesting sights, people and things. Not only does it have historical significance, it also will give you a lovely taste of Turkish culture.
The grand bazaar is in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood and is between the Nuruosmaniye and Beyazit Mosques. Walk around and explore as many streets here as you can and even eat some lunch here. Post that, leave for your relaxing hamam.
2) Turkish Hamam and Massage
A hamam is a traditional Turkish bath house, which features usually a sauna, a scrub and sometimes also a massage. A few years back I read a hilarious article about someone’s first hamam experience and that made me very curious to try it out. Of course my experience was very different than hers
You will see many hamams near touristy areas and some of them are as expensive as 50 Euros. Keep in mind that literally all areas have at least one historical hamam and the ones where locals go can be as low as 30 liras. Some of the cheaper hamams may not look very clean but there are no germs because of the heat and the marble.
The traditional Turkish hamam or bath house date back to the Ottoman era. These were established for cultural, religious and commercial purposes.
Head to Cemberlitas Hamami that’s close to the Grand Bazaar (Çemberlitaş Hamamı) – it is a little high end as compared to many. You can spend the a few hours in an elegant steam room and soak in the hamam after the initial thirty minutes scrub and massage. Like most of the hamams, there are different sections for males and females, but the bathing rituals are almost similar for both sexes.
Affordable and Traditional Hamams
If you’re looking for something a little affordable and less touristy, try Çemberlitaş Hamamı in Fatih where the entrance is 25 Liras and the scrub is 10 liras. Alternatively, you can also try Büyük Hamam in Kasımpaşa or Gedik Ahmet Paşa Hamamı in Gedikpasa or Aziziye Hamam which is towards Istanbul’s Asian side.
3) Sunset Cruise over Bosporus
Yes Bosporus Cruise is a little touristy but it is a very good way to see some very interesting parts of Istanbul that you won’t be able to see in just three days. The several towering minarets of the mosques look spectacular from the distance and you will get many good photo opportunities.
You’ll see many places to buy tickets for Bosporus cruise all around Istanbul’s touristy areas, but not all are good. I did an overpriced 2-hour cruise because I decided last minute to go for it while I was walking around Sultanahmet Square.
As per my research, it costs just 10 Liras for 2 hours if you go through the state run company called Sehir Hatlari, their cruise departs from Eski Kadıköy Pier. They also have a 3 hour option but in my opinion that’s a little too much. Two hours are more than enough. Do check their website before going because they sometimes run sunset cruises only on Saturdays.
Honestly, my overpriced cruise experience wasn’t bad at all and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I was all by myself. I didn’t need to go anywhere special but was just in Sultanahmet Square and their office was right there. Right before the cruise, their staff member took all of us to the pier that was just 5 minutes walking distance away.
Luckily I was carrying my own water because the one on the boat was super expensive.
When you buy your ticket, keep in mind that there is no use of paying extra for a special seat. No matter where you’ll sit, people will stand in front of you will block your view.
Spend two hours in the evening enjoying the sunset cruise on the Bosphorus straits. Opt for the small wooden boats as the guide can better explain the facts as you head to the Bosphorus Bridge and back the Asian side.
- Bosphorus Cruise from Eminonu Pier: 90 minute tour that starts from the Eminonu Ferry Station (Turyol) which is below the Galata bridge.
- Dinner Cruise on Bosphorus: 3 hour cruise that includes unlimited drinks and food. For non Turkish drinks, you will need to pay extra.
- Sunset Bosphorus Cruise on a yacht: 2.5 tour on a luxurious yacht, including a complimentary local drink.
- Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Entertainment: 3 hour long tour on a luxury yacht that includes views, food, drinks and performers.
- Hop-On Hop-Off Bosphorus Cruise: You can leave the boat at 4 different points and join again after 60 or 120 minutes.
All of the above tours are different in their own way. I did not have so many options to choose from while I was in Istanbul but I would have definitely picked a smaller boat or a yacht because mine was a little too full.
Day three – Day trip to Princess Islands OR City Exploration
1) Princes’ Islands Day Trip
Many people incorrectly call them Princess Islands or Princess’ Islands but these are “Princes’ Islands” and are a group of 9 islands in the Asian side of Istanbul. They’re named so because during the Byzantine and the early Ottoman times, the exiled princes and monks were sent here.
Don’t imagine these islands to be “resort-esque” and expect to sit on a beach here. Intead, these islands will give you a cultural or historical experience. You’ll feel that time stood still some decades back here and never moved ahead.
A very interesting part about visiting Princes’ Islands is that the motorized vehicles are banned here. Because of this, these islands are a good escape from Istanbul’s hectic life and sounds of the automobiles. Instead, you will see horse carts and Victorian bungalows.
In order to reach here, you will need to take a fast ferry operated by IDO or look for Istanbul Liners. These ferries depart from Kabatas or Eminönü near the Galata bridge. You can book your ferry tickets for the Princess Islands and back here. Alternatively, you can book a tour that will pick you up from your hotel in Istanbul (if centrally located), take you to the Princess Islands and back, including lunch, sightseeing. The most popular island here is Büyükada, and the other major ones are Kınalıada, Burgaz and Heybeliada.
Tip: Make sure you find the timetable so that you don’t miss the last ferry out of the islands.
In case you’re not in the mood to spend your entire day on Princess Islands, you can head to the below mentioned places to explore Istanbul a little further.
2) Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern that’s beneath Istanbul city. It features in the famous old school James Bond movie – From Russia with Love. If you’re a Dan Brown fan, you’d have surely read about this cistern in the book Inferno.
The entry point for Basilica Cistern is in Sultanahmet Square, close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
Basilica Cistern has a very interesting history – I won’t tell you all of it but only the most interesting part as per me. It was built in the 6th century, but was closed when the Byzantine emperors relocated but after that it was completely forgotten.
It was rediscovered in 1545 when a scholar was researching Byzantine antiquities in Istanbul and the locals told him that they were able to obtain water by lowering their buckets in the dark space beneath their basements. The scholar – Petrus Gyllius eventually found it through one of the basements!
The entry fee for Basilica Cistern is 20 Liras per person. Check this for a “skip-the-line” entry ticket with a guide.
3) Çamlıca Hil for a Sunset Panoramic View and Dinner
Camilca Hill is the highest hill and it is on the Asian side of Istanbul. From here, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Istanbul and see the Golden horn and Bosphorus.
There are two Camilca Hills – Little Camilca hill and the Big Camilca Hill. This point is about the Big Camilca Hill, which is in Üsküdar.
In order to reach the Çamlıca Hill from Sultanahmet Square, take a tram to Eminonu docks. From here, get on a boat to Uskudar and than take the 9U bus to Camlica Hill. Of course you can do the full or a part of this journey by taxi too.
Apart from just enjoying the panoramic view, you can also visit one of the cafes or restaurants here. They are not as expensive as the ones in Sultanahmet area.
After spending the last two sunsets in comparatively crowded (yet lovely) spots – Galata Tower and Bosphorous Cruise, the sunset experience at Camilca Hill will be a refreshing change. Many visitors say that this is the best sunset experience in Istanbul, but I’d let you decide.
Istanbul Hotel Information
During my stay in Istanbul, I stayed in the Sultanahmet area and I was pretty happy with the location because I was in the heart of the city. That hotel is no longer there, but here are some of my recommendations for different budgets:
- Pera Palace Hotel ($170 – $200 per night) – click here to book,
- Amira Palace Istanbul ($170 per night) – click here to book,
- Byzantium Hotel & Suites ($70 – 100 per night) – click here to book,
- Angel’s home ($35 – 50 per night) – click here to book.
The most popular hostel chain here is Cheers and they run hostels all over the city –
- Cheers Vintage – Sultanahmet Hostel – click here to book
- Cheers Lighthouse – also in Sultanahmet
- Cheers Printhouse – third hostel in Sultanahmet
- Cheers Downtown – in Beyoglu near Tophane Tram station
- Cheers Midtown near Istiklal street
- Cheers Porthouse – Art nouveau building near Galata Bridge
Where to go after Istanbul
Istanbul to Cappadocia
My visit to Cappadocia was in 2016 and till this day when people ask me what’s the most beautiful place that I’ve ever seen, I always think of this place.
Cappadocia has an otherwordly landscape with weird formations, fairy chimneys and hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky. My website has a lot of posts about Cappadocia, so head over the to main Turkey page to see all the posts.
Istanbul to Pamukkale
Pamukkale has been a spa destination since the ancient roman times because of it’s stunning limestone thermal pools. This destination is very blue and white and you’ll fall in love with it for sure. For information about how to reach, where to stay and more, check my detailed guide to Pamukkale.
If you’ve been to Istanbul already and have tips to share, comment below and let us know.
PS: Drifter Planet contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, we will earn a little commission at no extra cost to you. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.