Ultimate Guide to a 3 Day Istanbul Itinerary

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Planning a trip to Istanbul? Discover the best places to visit with our comprehensive 3-day Istanbul itinerary, for an unforgettable travel experience.

Istanbul Itinerary

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on how to spend an unforgettable 3 days in Istanbul. As a couple who have been exploring the world for over four years, we have visited countless destinations, each with its own unique charm. However, nothing quite prepared us for our first visit to Istanbul. The city’s rich history, vibrant culture, and delicious cuisine left an indelible mark on us. 

In this post, we’ll share our experiences, insights, and practical tips to help you plan your own Istanbul itinerary. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or this is your first international trip, we hope this guide is as exciting for you to read as it was for us to create.

We’ll cover the ideal 3-day Istanbul itinerary, best time to visit Istanbul, where to stay in Istanbul, visa for Istanbul, and more!

This post is all about an ideal Istanbul itinerary.

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3-Day Istanbul Itinerary

Only three days in Istanbul might seem short, but it’s enough to taste this vibrant city’s rich history, culture, and cuisine. From exploring grand palaces and mosques to shopping in the bustling Grand Bazaar, every moment in Istanbul will be a unique experience. While you could easily spend upwards of a week in Istanbul, three days is a good start, especially when paired with other itineraries in Turkey or even when transiting between Europe and Asia.

Day 1 - Istanbul’s Highlights

Your first full day in Istanbul will be full of all the top sights. We’ll eat some traditional foods, visit the Topkapi Palace, and see two of the famous mosques that give Istanbul it’s iconic skyline.

All of our activities for the day are within walking distance. We actually stayed right in this area at the Doubletree Istanbul Sirkeci so we were able to walk to and from our hotel as well. If you aren’t staying in the immediate area (see the full list of recommended accommodations), be sure to use Google Maps to find the best route for public transportation.

Breakfast - Street Food

Start out your first day in Istanbul right by eating like the locals do. Simit is seemingly synonymous with Istanbul, and you can’t visit this town without trying at least one. I’m sure after your first, you’ll realize it won’t be your last. Simit is a plain baked bread dipped in molasses and sesame seeds. It’s not as sweet as you would think and, honestly, is very similar to a breakfast bagel. You can get it with cream cheese, olive paste, Nutella, and plenty of other fillings. We usually ordered them with cream cheese. You’ll find these red stalls all over town. We found them all quite similar in price while slightly more expensive near the tourist destinations; the difference was negligible. This will be the perfect breakfast that you can grab and keep walking.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll also want to grab a coffee or tea. You’ll find storefronts selling tea and coffee on the street. Be sure to try some Turkish coffee at least. We, personally, weren’t big fans of this style of coffee, but we’re glad we tried it! You can also find other coffee and tea to take away.

Purchase and download your e-sim before you even step foot in the country. Airalo allows you to have data when you land! 

Topkapi Palace

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Start your sightseeing with a simit just outside the Topkapi Palace and then make your way through the gorgeous property. If you are interested in seeing a 15th century palace that was the home of sultans, you can explore the Topkapi Palace Museum and Harem. We walked through the palace gardens for free and headed over to the next two spots.

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Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque

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The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque and the Blue Mosque are located just on the other side of the palace. You can enter either mosque for free, except during prayer times, or admire them from outside. You can also choose a guided tour to learn more about the history of these mosques and their cultural significance. 

We were lucky enough to be in the courtyard between the two mosques at noon prayer, and it was remarkable to listen to the alternating prayers over the loudspeakers between them. We ended up only walking through the Blue Mosque since the line for the Hagia Sophia was much longer, and we still had more we wanted to see! Try booking skip-the-line tickets if you want to save time and see more! 

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Lunch + Basilica cistern

This is a good time to grab some lunch. There are a ton of options for food in this area since it is heavily visited. If you are looking for history and traditional dishes, try the Pudding Shop Lale.

From there, it’s just around the corner to the Basilica Cistern. This is an ancient Roman water system that was built underground in the city. Be sure to book your tickets ahead of time.

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Since we are all in one area for the day, this is a great opportunity to try some of the highly-rated restaurants in the area. We chose to eat near our hotel at the Last Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant and loved the outdoor seating area!

Other restaurants in the area:

  • Divella Bistro Restaurant
  • Turk Art Terrace Restaurant
  • Olive Garden Cafe & Restaurant

Day 2 - Istiklal & Asian Side

We’re going to start exploring a few new areas of Istanbul today. We’ll head across the bridge to see more of the European (note: hilly) side and then take some time on the water to go over to the Asian side of Istanbul.

Breakfast - Galata Bagel Shop

Start your day by getting over to the Karaköy area along the water. You’ll find a ton of restaurants but we recommend stopping for bagels at the Galata Bagel Shop. You can take a short walk from here to your next stop just note that it is steep in this area.

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Galata Tower

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Galata Tower is an iconic point in Istanbul’s skyline and you can see it from all over on the European side. Admire the tower from below or climb to the top and enjoy the views. It was closed for renovations when we visited. Once they do reopen, be sure to book ahead so you don’t have to wait in line.

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Istiklal Street

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Walk a few blocks from Galata Tower to take the iconic T2 trolley to Istiklal Ave. I’d recommend taking the T2 up the hill so you can walk downhill and explore this shopping area. There are a ton of small shops to pop in here, as well as tons of food options! This is a great spot to grab lunch. We grabbed some delicious stuffed mussels from one of the stalls along the street. Don’t forget to get the lemon squeezed on and you have to say when to stop other wise they will just keep giving them to you! 

Egyptian Bazaar

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You can take public transportation or enjoy the walk down the hill and across the bridge to the Egyptian Bazaar. This is a popular spice market and a great spot to try some Turkish delights. You’ll also see the gorgeous Yeni Cami Mosque.


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Just across the street via the underground tunnel, you’ll find Eminonu area along the water. The bridge is full of locals fishing, there is a ton of boats on the water, and plenty of people watching. At the Eminonu there are some boats docked right on the side that are actually restaurants. They serve a traditional dish called Balik Ekmek. It’s a grilled fish sandwich that is commonly served with pickled beet juice. It’s a simple dish and we highly recommend trying it out. There are plenty of places to sit along the water to eat and people watch.


This is the perfect time to get on the water. Istanbul’s skyline is best seen from the water. You do have a few options, depending on what you are looking for. The best value option is to take the public transportation ferries across the Bosphorus Straight to the Asian side of Istanbul. You can find the right terminal and route via Google Maps. We looked at public transportation to the Kadikoy terminals on the Asian side. It’ll cost around $0.50, but it does go quickly. The ride may be 15 minutes long and is public transportation, so it is for efficiency, not comfort. However, they do sell tea and snacks on board. There will be someone walking around selling it (in glass cups, nonetheless!) for you to purchase with cash. 

You could also book a boat tour on the water. There are a ton of options depending on what you are looking for. I recommend the Bosphorus Dinner Cruise & Show (crazy good reviews) or the Sunset Luxury Yacht Cruise. If you are looking for more of a sightseeing cruise with information, try the Sunset Sightseeing Cruise (great value). 

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Most likely, you’ll end up on the Asian side of Istanbul either during or after your cruise on the Bosphorus. And in all honestly, we preferred the Asian side for eating. Not only was the food less expensive than on the European side, but there were so many highly reviewed places in one neighborhood. You’ll want to check out the area right by the ferry terminals for all the best restaurants. Everything is within walking distance once you are over here, and you can take the ferry back or the subway.

Note that not every restaurant serves alcohol, so if you are looking to have a beer or glass of wine (or bottle of Raki) with dinner, you’ll want to double-check before sitting.

Recommended Restaurants:

  • Kebapçı İskender – İskender İskenderoğlu
  • Çiya Sofrası
  • Rota Restaurant
  • Tatar Salim

Day 3 - Grand Bazaar

On the third day of the Istanbul itinerary, we explore the world-renowned Grand Bazaar, where we’ll shop, eat breakfast, and soak in the bustling atmosphere. In the evening, you have the unique opportunity to immerse yourself in Turkish culture by attending a football game featuring one of the biggest teams in Turkey, Besiktas JK OR head to VIALand Theme Park for rides and food OR relax with a traditional Turkish spa experience. 

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Breakfast + Grand Bazaar

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You can’t visit Istanbul and not visit the most visited tourist destination in the world – the Grand Bazaar. This indoor market is one of the largest in the world and receives over 91,000,000 visitors per year. Wild. You can easily dedicate a whole morning here, even if you are not much of a shopper. We ate breakfast at one of the cafes inside. And then spent our morning people watching and finding a few souvenirs to bring back home.

If you’re looking for something unique, be sure to check out the evil eyes. They are the blue and white eyes that are hung to ward off negative thoughts and rumors. I find them quite pretty and we have one hanging in our entry way. You can also find some great rugs and lamps. Many places will even help you ship home so you don’t have to worry about trying to pack a massive area rug.

As for negotiating, some places will offer some negotiation opportunities. Others will have signs saying their prices are set and not open for negotiation. Personally, I don’t like negotiating so if I don’t like the price, I’ll usually just walk away. 


You’ll find that getting lost in the various alleyways surrounding the Bazaar can be a fun way to see even more of Istanbul. For lunch, walk a few blocks to Sultanahmet Buhara Kebab House Restaurant for a hearty and traditional lunch. There a bunch of restaurants in this area so you’ll be able to find something.

Football Game

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We are big fans of experiencing other people’s cultures, and in Turkey, that includes football (or soccer for my US friends). We planned our last evening to attend a football game with one of the biggest teams in Turkey, Besiktas JK. We had an absolute blast even though we didn’t speak the language, and we had awesome seats! I highly recommend it.

Tickets are inexpensive, although a bit complicated to purchase. You must register and pay for a Passolig card before purchasing your tickets. There are also strict restrictions on what you can bring inside. Liquids, power banks, coins, or cameras (including microphones and tripods) are not allowed. There is food inside, and it’s fairly inexpensive, but we ate before. And note: there is no alcohol inside the stadium.

After the game, we followed the crowds a few blocks and grabbed beers on an outdoor patio before heading home.

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If sports or football aren’t your thing, that’s okay! The crowds can get pretty rowdy depending on the game so it may not be the best place for kids, either. In any case, the Vialand Theme Park is a great alternative. It’s easy to get to via public transportation (thank you, again, Google Maps). Since it’s not the largest park, it works well as a half-day adventure. This is a great place for kids since they have smaller rides, but it is also a place for kids at heart since they have some fun roller coasters and drop rides! The food is pretty good, and it has a gorgeous view of sunset. Also, the cats all over the park are the sweetest. We are big fans of theme parks and this one was right up our alley. 

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or turkish Bath

If neither of those options sounds good to you, this may be the perfect opportunity to escape to a Turkish Bath. The Turkish people have been going to hammams for centuries. This usually involves relaxing in a hot, steamy room and getting a massage or body scrub. Although, we didn’t get the opportunity to partake in the relaxation, there are a ton of places in Istanbul to do so! 

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There are some great neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul. We personally liked being walking distance to the activities we were doing (like Topkapi Palace and the Eminönü waterfront area). Staying in this area gave us good access to public transportation as well so we never really walked too far to get where we wanted to go.

Our Hotel: Double Tree by Hilton Istanbul – Sirkeci

Other European-Side Recommended Hotels:

Asian-Side Recommended Hotel:


Getting Around Istanbul

Public Transit in Istanbul

Public transportation includes the trams, trains, and buses. Istanbul’s infrastructure for public transport is well-laid out and easy to use. We found it to be the best way to get around, even to and from the airport (both IST and SAW). The trams are the best for most tourist destinations and very easy to use. Simply plug your destination into Google Maps and use the transportation method. It’ll pull up the best route based on time or transfers or least amount of walking (you chose your preference). The app had accurate routes, stops, and times for everything except the buses. We found the timetable for buses to be inaccurate, but they usually run often enough that we could still get to where we wanted.

Tickets are always the hardest part of public transportation. Luckily, most of the time, we were able to use contactless payment. You simply tap your credit or debit card (MasterCard only) at the turnstiles. If you are traveling with two or more people, you’ll need a separate card for each person so they can properly track the route taken. There were a few stations where they didn’t take the contactless payment and we were able to purchase a single journey ticket with cash. They only take small bills, so be sure to get change by buying a water before entering the station.

Car Rental in Istanbul

You can also get around the city by renting your own car. Since it is a large city with thousands of people trying to get around all the time, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are going to be staying outside of town or planning on continuing a road trip through Turkey. You’ll have to pay for parking almost everywhere in the city. Our hotel charged €10 per night for overnight parking. You can still rely on Google Maps to help you get around the city and give traffic updates.

Taxis in Istanbul

There are plenty of taxis in Istanbul to help you get around. We don’t often use taxis unless it’s a late night or early morning and a safer, more convenient option. You can use the Uber app to call taxis to your location. It’s not the same as in the US, where you pay the price the app tells you. It simply hails the taxi to you and estimates the meter, but you’ll have to pay whatever the meter calculates + a service fee for Uber. You’ll still pay via credit card through the app. It seems inconsistent, and you’ll likely be overcharged if you take this route. You can expect a ride around town to cost anywhere from $5-15 and a ride to or from the airport to be around $30-40. 

If you do hail a taxi, be sure they use the meter before you get in the car. You’ll also want to verify if you have to pay with cash or a card. 

Booking Tours

If you are interested in having a guide or leaving all the planning up to someone else, there are tons of options for guided tours. You can find great private tours in the cityday trips outside the city, or even a hop-on-hop-off bus.

Top tours in Istanbul

Turkey is among the least expensive countries to visit in the world. While we found it affordable with plenty of free activities, I wouldn’t say it’s the least expensive place we’ve been, especially the food and drink. Check out our full blog post, where we share how much we spent on our trip to Istanbul and all our actual expenses.

Our Total:

$1,160 for 2 people

Daily Total:

$150 per day for 2 people

Value for Money:

Cash vs. Card in Turkey

Istanbul is a very developed city, and we were able to use credit cards for most of our purchases. I would recommend getting Turkish Lira for some purposes. We always use our favorite debit card to pull out cash since they don’t charge bank fees AND refund you for any ATM fees. 

We used credit cards at all the sit-down restaurants we visited but needed cash for all the street food. We also needed cash for some public transit, but not all. And if you plan on shopping at the markets or small street stalls, you’ll need cash.

Best Time to Visit Istanbul

The best time to visit Istanbul is during the spring and fall seasons, specifically between April and May, and between September and mid-November. The weather is typically mild and enjoyable during these periods, which is perfect for sightseeing. Additionally, these periods see fewer tourists compared to the summer months, resulting in less crowded attractions. We visited in the mid-November and found the crowds reasonable to deal with, although it was quite cold. We got a great deal on our flights and our hotel.

Visa for Turkey

We did need a visa for Turkey at the time of our visit and were able to get an e-Visa ahead of time. The entry requirements have since changed and US citizens can get a free visa on arrival. Ensure you check the entry requirements based on your citizenship and length of stay at iVisa.

Travel Insurance for Istanbul

We never go on a trip without travel insurance and recommend you don’t either. It can provide coverage for unexpected incidents or accidents, ensuring you are financially protected if you need medical care abroad. Additionally, travel insurance can cover trip cancellations or changes due to unforeseen circumstances, providing a safety net for your travel investments. We use SafetyWing for almost all our travels, and it was the perfect option for our trip to Istanbul, Turkey. 

For a weekend getaway or a long-term adventure, SafetyWing has you covered. They cover medical accidents, lost luggage, emergency response, and natural disasters. AND it’s affordable!

Is it Safe in Istanbul?

Istanbul, Turkey is a very safe city. We never felt sketchy or in danger, even when walking around at night. As with any travel, keep aware of your surroundings and your belongings. As with most heavily touristed destinations, it’s possible for petty theft and pickpockets to happen. Luckily, we didn’t have anything happen to us. I even walked around a few blocks alone and had no issues.

Packing List for 3 Days in Istanbul

Depending on the time of year you visit, you’ll need to pack based on the weather. These are just a few things we recommend specifically for a trip to Istanbul. Check out our full list of travel essentials that we take for all our trips.

  • Layers: The mornings can often be covered in mist, and the days burn with a clear sky. Wearing layers will help you be ready for both extremes. My go-to outfit is: 
  • Scarf: I brought a cashmere scarf to keep warm in November, and it also worked as a headcover when entering mosques. 
  • Conservative clothing: If you plan on visiting mosques, be sure to dress appropriately, as they are active religious centers. Women will need to cover their shoulders and knees and wear a head cover. Men should also have their shoulders and knees covered. Hats are okay. And when entering mosques, you’ll need to remove your shoes (so open-toed doesn’t matter).
  • Walking shoes: We honestly walked a ton here and loved it, but we were glad to have these comfy walking shoes. I also recommend shoes that are easier to take on and off for the mosques.
  • Dog Treats: We never travel without these dog treats (we’re weirdos), but the dogs in Istanbul were so calm and grateful for all the treats!
  • Power Bank: With only a few days in Istanbul, you’ll likely be out for longer days. Be sure to pack a power bank to help you get around and take tons of photos. I always carry this MagSafe charger in my bag, and for bigger days, this lightweight power bank.
  • Med Kit: Imodium is a travel essential for us incase you find a food that doesn’t quite sit well with you. With a short trip like this, you can’t afford a day spent in the bathroom. You’ll also want motion sickness medication if you plan on spending any time on the water. I usually prefer these motion sickness patches as a great, less-drowsy alternative.

This post was all about a three-day Istanbul itinerary.

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