Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents: Europe, on the side of the Bosphorus river, and Asia on the other. When you’re in Istanbul, you can feel the influence of both worlds: a big modern metropolis tamed down by Turkey’s rich tea and coffee culture, Hamam traditions, peaceful mosques and colorful bazaars. We have created the BEST 3-day itinerary for Istanbul to make sure you get to see everything this incredible city offers.
Where should I stay? We have stayed at the April Story Apart Hotel and can highly recommend it. Mostly because of the most lovely owner and staff! If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, this is not it, but if you’re looking for a decent breakfast, a top location, clean rooms and kindhearted people, the April Story Apart Hotel is definitely the place to go.
How long should I stay for? Of course, you could always stay longer to explore more of the surrounding areas of Istanbul or hang out in the local bars and restaurants, but 3 days should be enough to cover the highlights.
How to get there? Istanbul has two airports: Istanbul Airports (IST), which is the bigger and most common airport located on the European side of Istanbul and Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) located on the Asian side. Buses travel frequently from the city centre to both airports. Alternatively you could also take the more expensive taxi.
When should I visit? The best time to visit is between March and May and between September and November, because temperatures are comfortable and tourists are limited. We came in April where we experienced temperatures around 19 degree Celsius and very few queues. We were worried that due to Ramadan restaurants and shops might be closed but this did not turn out to be a problem at all.
Arriving in Istanbul
We arrived in Istanbul at the Istanbul Airport and took the HAVAIST bus from the airport to the Beyazit square, which is in the center of Istanbul. The journey lasted an hour and costed us around €2. Afterwards we used the metro system, which turned out quite stressful since we hadn’t researched it before arriving (it’s also a bit complex if you’re not used to it). Most people in Istanbul don’t speak English, which doesn’t make things easier if you’re a tourist. To save you from all that stress, we created a post on how to use the public transport in Istanbul.
Day 1: Sultanahmet
We did the walking tour with viaurbus and met at 10.30am at the Sultanahmet square. Before the start of the tour we grabbed a börek (puff pastry with different fillings such as cheese or spinach) and a simit (Turkish version of a bagel, the classic version comes with sesame seeds) to have enough energy to explore beautiful Istanbul. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and the whole tour lasted 2.5 hours with one short coffee/toilet break at the end. In the following you will see some of the highlights that we covered.
Hagia Sophia Mosque
Hagia Sophia used to be a museum. Now it is a functional mosque which means that you can pray there and that you no longer need a ticket to enter. You do however need to cover your hair if you’re a woman and take off your shoes (that goes for both genders). Put them in one of the assigned storage spaces that are a little further in. If you use the ones at the entry your shoes might get lost according to our guide. You shouldn’t need more than 20 minutes to explore the inside of Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque
As of April 2022 the Blue Mosque is under construction so you cannot enter it. However during the month of Ramadan light constructions are installed on different mosques all across Istanbul, which made the Blue Mosque look just magical enough from the outside. It was built in 1616 and has six minarets. There are two legends surrounding the origin of its name. One says that it stems from the blue Iznik tiles that are covering the inside walls. The other legend says that sailors saw the blue color of the Marmara sea reflected in the mosque when they were sailing by hence giving the mosque its name.
The Sultanahmet square is an ancient square with remnants of the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque surrounding it. You’ll also find stands selling delicious grilled or boiled corncobs, chestnuts and souvenirs around. We were lucky enough to travel to Istanbul during Ramadan and walk by the Sultanahmet square in the evening only to witness hundreds of people enjoying their iftar (the first meal after sunset after a whole day of fasting) together. The communal feel with the Blue Mosque in the background was definitely one of the many highlights of the trip.
The Topkapi Palace, also called the Seraglio is one of the top attractions in Istanbul. In the 15th and 16th century it served as a residence and administrative place of Ottoman Sultans. Today it is a museum that you can visit to learn more about the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Dolmabahce Palace promised to be a bit more lavish, we decided to skip the Topkapi Palace and only admire its Disney caste look from the outside. However, if it is important to you to take pictures inside the palace, then Topkapi should be the one for you.
The Egyptian Obelisk at the Hippodrome
The hippodrome was a Greek stadium in which horse and chariot racing took place. At the top of the hippodrome in Istanbul you can find the Egyptian Obelisk, which was originally erected in 15th century BC at the temple of Karnak. It used to be 30m tall, whereas today it is only 19m high. However, it still keeps decorating the hippodrome, which was the reason it was originally brought to Istanbul for. The Egyptian Obelisk is not only significant because of its enormous height but also because it’s the oldest monument of the city.
One of the reasons you should consider traveling to Istanbul in April is not only the comfortable mild temperatures you are going to encounter but more importantly the most beautiful tulip beds in Gülhane Park that all start blooming in April. Grab a corncob, sit down on one of the many benches and enjoy an amazingly relaxing afternoon amongst thousands of tulips. Fun fact of this post: Although many people believe that the tulip flower comes from the Netherlands, the truth is that it was first cultivated by the Turks 1000 BC.
The German Fountain
The German Fountain is a gazebo styled fountain and was a gift from Germany to commemorate the visit from German Emperor Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. You can find the fountain at the Northern side of the Hippodrome located on the Sultanahmet Square. Set on a high base it is octagonal in shape and very photogenic.
Lunch at Sirvan Sofrasi Restaurant
The walking tour ended right at Little Hagia Sophia next to Sirvan Sofrasi, a Turkish restaurant that the guide recommended. We were served a lentil soup with pita bread and hummus for starters, Dürüm (Turkish wrap) with Adana kebab, Döner kebab, lahmacun and bulgur for the main dish and walnut baklava (unlike popular belief the original baklava is not made with pistachio) for dessert. It was a very affordable and tasty introductory lesson into Turkish food. Since we have tasted so much of it in Istanbul, we have created a separate blog post on THE 18 BEST FOODS TO TRY IN ISTANBUL.
The same architect that build the Hagia Sophia mosque build the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is still under construction but you are allowed to enter. As always don’t forget to cover your hair and to take off your shoes. Not only was the mosque stunning from the outside, but the courtyard was filled with dogs enjoying a lazy nap in the sun. Istanbul is trying to vaccinate all dogs. You can recognize the dogs that have been vaccinated by the colorful chip pierced in their ear. For your own safety, we would recommend to only pet the chipped dogs. There’s also lots of street cats in Istanbul that will be interested in some snuggles, or your leftover food.
Before coming to the Grand Bazaar we have heard a lot about it: that it was a tourist trap, that you were gonna get harassed, that everything was overpriced… and once again, we were pleasantly surprised! Not that we would recommend anyone to shop here (unless fake Louis Vuitton is what you’re looking for), but it wasn’t at all the stressful experience that we were mentally prepared for having. So if you want to browse some jewelry, some Turkish sweets, teas or soaps, you can find all of this and more right at the bazaar.
Misir Carsisi or Spice Bazaar is the slightly more elegant version of the Grand Bazaar. The building it is located in looks nicer and the things that are sold also look slightly more upmarket. However, if you are looking to buy some spices, some lokum (Turkish delight) and some baklava (according to a local you should stay away from the packaged one and always buy fresh), then you should rather go to Eminönü. This is where the locals shop since its not only better quality but also a lot cheaper. Another tip: only enter stalls with price tags on the products. Otherwise, you could easily be taken advantage of without even knowing.
We would recommend coming to the Eminönü pier at the end of your day. You can come to one of the many cafés (we recommend Kubbe i Ask, which is also featured on our list of the best FOODS to try in Istanbul) and enjoy the view over the Bosphorus river while sipping on a Turkish tea or coffee. After that you could try a Balik Ekmek (fish sandwich). We read that the best ones to try are the ones coming fresh from a boat. However all the access to the pier was blocked due to construction when we were there in April 2022, but of course you could always try your luck.
Day 2: Dolmabahce Palace & Beyoglu
The Dolmabahce Palace is a former Sultan’s palace and includes a collection of art, calligraphy and carpets. You have the option to visit just the palace or also the harem. While at first stunning, looking at one opulent room after the other does get quite boring after some time if we’re really honest. However, both the palace and the harem contain one REALLY breathtaking room, so after all we think it was worth getting both tickets. Please keep in mind that taking pictures inside is not allowed. Also: queues in April were very manageable unlike what reviews said, so no need to come super early.
Taksim Square & Istiklal Caddesi
Taksim Square got famous through the protests that took place here in May 2013 to demonstrate against the urban development plan of Taksim Gezi Park. Today, you can find the Republic Monument and Istanbul’s shopping and nightlife situated around it. Istiklal Caddesi, or Istiklal Street is the area’s main shopping boulevard where you can find high street shops, fast food chains and hip cafes.
The Galata Tower was build in the 14th century and was used as a fire tower, barracks and as a dungeon. Today it offers tourists amazing panoramic views over Istanbul. If you want to climb the tower, plan in around an hour. Afterwards you can enjoy a Turkish ice-cream, which is a whole experience in itself. Make sure to go to one of the the traditional ice-cream vendors with the square red hat if you want to learn what we mean…
Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage)
Çiçek Pasajı, or Flower Passage is a small historic passageway between two streets. In it you will find cute café’s, restaurants and some shops. You shouldn’t need more than 5 minutes to walk through but it is still a nice, slightly hidden spot in Istanbul to check out. Also Istiklal Street can become quite busy so it’s nice to be able to escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy a Turkish coffee in the quiet. For lunch, we recommend a Kumpir, which is a jacked potato with all sorts of different fillings and loads of butter.
Karaköy, Tophane & Çukurcuma
Beyoglu, formerly known as Pera, is a district in Istanbul which is separated from the old city of Istanbul by the Golden Horn, the primary inlet of the Bosphorus river. It encompasses other neighbourhoods such as Tophane, Cihangir and Çucurkuma. We would definitely recommend you to save a lot of time for these neighbourhoods just because it’s the coolest part of Istanbul. You can find hip cafes, small boutiques, amazing bars and great restaurants here.
Day 3: Belgrad Forest & Hamam
On our last day in Istanbul we decided to have a relaxed day. In the morning we took a bus to Belgrad Forest. After around 30 minutes we arrived a little outside of Istanbul. We would recommend you to pack a small picnic and take it with you, because you really won’t have good opportunities to buy food in or around the forest. Belgrad forest also offers lots of nice picnic tables where you will see other Istanbulers enjoy their lunch. After that you can take a hike through the forest. We used Komoot to find a nice route that gave us around 2 hours of a lovely hiking experience.
Turkish Bath at Cemberlitas Hamami
If you have never been to a Turkish bath before, then you should definitely go to a Hamam when you’re in Istanbul since Turkish baths were invented here. However, if you’re like us, you want to go prepared. We have created a little HOW TO- guide for Turkish Baths to help you enjoy the experience more. We decided to go to Cemberlitas and although Sahil had a great experience, I got a face mask applied by a woman who was coughing throughout and ended up sick myself the next day. Next time, we would definitely try a different bath house despite the fact that locals seem to come here.
Hafiz Mustafa should be a sight on its own when it comes to Istanbul. The sweetmaker opened shop in 1864 and has bee delighting every sweet tooth since then with baklava, lokum cakes, rice puddings another delicacies. If you are looking for a nice gift to take home, check out the store inside. You will be able to find packaged sweets, real honey combs and a variety of teas. Please make sure to also try their Turkish coffee which is beyond delicious!
Cruise over the Bosphorus river
A nice way to end the amazing trip to Istanbul is a cruise over the Bosphorus river. There are different cruises available, some of which will take you for 2.5 hours along the entire Bosphorus and through the Golden Horn and others that take 90 minutes and offer an audio tour. You can also opt for the sunset cruise or the one with a 3-course dinner and a Turkish night show. It is definitely an unforgettable way to end an even more unforgettable holiday.