Istanbul is one of the most culturally rich cities you might ever have the pleasure of visiting! It’s one of the best places to get lost in and wander through the bazaars, snap photos of the picturesque architecture, and grab all kinds of satiating foods through the busy streets of Taksim.
Istanbul is a city that lies on two continents, and it blends the cultures in an astounding harmony. You can experience both Europe and Asia in one single city and witness how millennia of seesawing between cultures and empires has unfolded into something beautiful. If you’re preparing for your first visit to Istanbul, here is an itinerary on how you can best spend three days exploring this incredible transcontinental destination!
To enter Turkey, you’ll need to get a tourist visa which you can apply for online prior to visiting or upon arrival. Be sure to read up on my Turkey guide for more details!
How to Get Around Istanbul
Before arriving in Istanbul, our recommendation is to book yourself a driver to pick you up from the airport and take you to your accommodation. We loved Welcome Pickups for this! Our driver was so great at getting us and dropping us off and made a great conversationalist. He gave us tons of recommendations to do around the city – as well as good tips for tourists to know – and loved getting to know us too. We made sure to reserve our ride back to the airport with him again. You pay online in advance and never have to worry about any surprise hidden fees. It honestly beat trying to find a taxi for us!
Getting around Istanbul can be rough when you visit during high season (i.e. summer months). Their public transit system is limited and is mostly held by the city’s tramway, which consists of few cars for the number of people needing to ride them. Retrieving tickets or passes for the transit system isn’t simple either.
At each tram station, there are ticket machines but they don’t all sell the same pass or ticket options. Very few of them accept credit card so your best bet is to have cash on hand – something that is a must when visiting Turkey. Fortunately, there are a number of young volunteers who speak English at each of the ticket machine locations at the stations that see heavy traffic. Ask them for help and they’ll gladly guide you through the ticketing process or point you in the right direction if the machine you’re at isn’t giving you what you need.
When purchasing your transit tickets, if you’re only riding a handful of times during your stay, it’s most affordable to go for the disposable multi-use passes that grants you five or ten uses per card. Each use allows you one ride, but an advantage is that if you’re travelling with others, you can scan the ten-pass card more than once at the same gate – it is not just exclusive to one passenger. Simply let each person pass through the gate before scanning for the next.
If you foresee yourself riding the public transit quite a bit during your visit, consider getting the Istanbulkart. There’s a 50 TL non-refundable deposit for the card (subject to increase), but just like the other passes, you can have up to five passengers using the same card. By using the card, you’ll receive a 50% discount on the fares compared to simply purchasing a single ticket. You’ll also receive a reduced fare on transfers made within a two-hour window up to five transfers. This only applies to the first passenger if you are using one Istanbulkart for more than one person. All remaining passengers pay for the full fare for every transfer within that window.
With Istanbulkart, you can use every mode of public transportation: tramways, buses, ferryboats, funiculars, subways, you name it. This is not the case for the multi-use passes. We learned this the hard way when we wanted to take the Marmaray subway train from Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, back to the European side where we were staying. Since most people taking the subway were using Istanbulkart, we were the only non Turkish-speaking folks trying to fumble with the ticket machines at the subway station which weren’t working and ate our change after trying and trying with various machines. No ticket booths were to be found in order for us to complete the transaction in person either.
When visiting Istanbul as a tourist, much of the areas you’ll be frequenting, which are included in this itinerary, are in walking distance of each other. The trams and funicular will be helpful for getting from A to B if you want to save your feet a little. But you’ll enjoy seeing the city by foot as much as you can. Save the cab and taxi rides for when you have no other choice, and ride the public transit system for the relatively further distances.
Day 1 – Exploring Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar and Taksim
Start your day with a visit to the peaceful Sultanahmet Park where you can enjoy the majestic views of the iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Both are stunning pieces of architecture, and we loved that we could admire their outer facades right from this park situated in between the mosques.
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was built in 1609-1616 and is known for its beautiful blue tiles and six minarets. The Hagia Sophia was once a cathedral that was in use for nearly 1,000 years, but was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. This architectural masterpiece is known for its beautiful mosaics and grand dome.
Something I love about Istanbul – and you’ll likely notice it after taking just a few steps out of your accommodation – is that it’s literally the city of cats! No joke, that’s one of its many nicknames. The locals, residents and business owners alike, take good care of the street animals who don’t have a home, and make sure they always have food and even adequate medical attention if needed. The cats are most common and you’ll see them everywhere, but you’ll see a few dogs who call the Sultanahmet Park their home.
After your visit to the Sultanahmet Square, take a short walk to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It’s a vibrant and bustling marketplace that has dated back all the way to the 15th century. You can see why Istanbul, or Constantinople at the time, remained the single most important commercial centre throughout the Medieval Era. It was a vital destination for trading between Europe and Asia as it sat ideally on the Silk Road. That part of history still come out in the Grand Bazaar.
Located in the heart of the city, just a 12-minute walk from Sultanahmet, it features over 4,000 shops and stalls selling a wide variety of goods including clothing, jewelry, ceramics, textiles, spices and so much more. As you walk through the narrow, winding streets of the bazaar, you will be surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the marketplace. The smells of the freshly brewed Turkish coffee and tea as well as the many spices are truly immersive and we loved passing by the many shops where vendors were working on handmade tapestries. One thing that does cheapen the experience is the number of shops that sell inauthentic luxury brand goods. They’re good fakes, but… they definitely take away from the authenticity of the bazaar.
Apart from this, the Grand Bazaar is a great place to bargain for souvenirs and traditional Turkish crafts, and the atmosphere is lively and energetic. One of the highlights of a visit here is the opportunity to try some of the local food and drink. There are numerous stalls selling traditional Turkish snacks and sweets – Turkish delights anyone? -, and it is also a great place to sample some of the local cuisine. Many visitors also enjoy sipping on a cup of Turkish tea or coffee while they wander through the market.
Beyoglu & Taksim
If it’s time for lunch, head to the district of Beyoglu and try some traditional Turkish cuisine at a local restaurant. When in Turkey, one must try doner kebap which is essentially deliciously grilled meat that has been roasted on rotation, and is often served with rice, salad and potatoes or in a bread bun.
Keep exploring the Taksim area starting with Taksim Square and take a ride on the little streetcar that follows along Istiklal Cd. There’s a ton of shopping you can do in this part of town, with many name brands populating the avenue and malls. For food and drink, hit up a bar or rooftop dining spot or try the famous Turkish ice cream – dondurma – at one of the street vendors. It’s quite the show – or tease – if you haven’t seen what the dondurma servers do with their customers!
What you’ll find when it comes to the food in particular is how much more affordable it is in Turkey than the rest of Europe and especially in comparison to North America. Sadly, it’s due to the country’s inflation and devaluing of their currency, the Turkish lira. But it certainly allows us tourists to help boost their economy, with Turkey being such a sought out tourist destination for visitors with all sorts of budgets. We enjoyed a satisfying plated dinner at a small local restaurant with their tables situated on the narrow cobblestone alley of Kallavi Sk., for the small price of 232 TL ($13 USD).
End your first day with more Turkish treats with a visit to one of the best baklava shops in the city. Güllüo?lu in Karaköy is hyped up for a good reason and you have to try as many of the baklavas that you can get your hands on – or that your stomach can bear! They specialize in pistachio baklava so we made sure to get a taste of it by ordering the assorted baklava platter, which was definitely a lot of sweetness for the two of us but worth the 87 TL. Güllüo?lu is a great way to finish off your first day in Istanbul!
Day 2 – Topkapi Palace, Galata and Bosphorus Cruise
Start your day with a visit to the Topkapi Palace, which was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years. The palace is a complex of buildings and gardens and contains a number of interesting features and attractions, including the Harem, which was the private residence of the Sultan and his family, and the Imperial Council Chamber, where the Ottoman government used to meet.
Visiting the Topkapi Palace is a great way to learn about the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire. As you walk through the palace, you will see a variety of beautiful architectural styles and decorative elements, including intricate mosaics, painted ceilings, and ornate doors and windows. You will also have the opportunity to see a number of interesting artifacts and displays, including jewelry, weapons, and other objects used by the Ottoman Sultans and their families.
Seven Hills Restaurant
After your visit to the palace, take a short walk to Seven Hills Restaurant for a marvellous Turkish breakfast and coffee as you admire the wonderful city views, the two iconic mosques Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque from this vista, and the many seagulls for an… interesting photo op! The food here is actually really tasty and we got to try a special dessert called Turkish Semolina Halva with our Turkish coffee.
If you aren’t here for the food, the view is absolutely magnificent and about a third of the rooftop is reserved for photo taking. In this section, you can grab a fork and some food that the staff leave over and attempt to feet the flock of seagulls if you’d like! If that isn’t your style, you can enjoy your rooftop experience bird-free at one of the tables without worry!
Take the tram over the Golden Horn, stopping at Karaköy, and head to the Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower that offers panoramic views of the city and stands at about 66m (217 ft) tall. Your ticket purchase grants you a ride up the elevator up to the 360-degree observation deck. Up here on a clear day, you can see for miles in all directions. To the north, you can see the Bosphorus Strait and the Black Sea, while to the south you can see the Sea of Marmara and the Asian side of Istanbul. To the east, you can see the old city, with its domes and minarets, and to the west, you can see the modern city, with its skyscrapers and busy streets.
The tower is located in the Galata district, which is known for its lively nightlife and trendy restaurants. If you hit up Taksim and the Güllüo?lu baklava cafe the night before, you’ll likely pass by the area the night before and experienced some of this nightlife yourself! Additionally, this district is a great place to grab some small souvenirs in the nearby shops.
Bosphorus Sunset Cruise
Before your final activity for the night, head to a seafood restaurant along the Bosphorus Strait. If you’re feeling a little bit fancy, Octo is a fantastic option and is situated in the JW Marriott Istanbul Bosphorus. They offer an elevated experience by bringing high-quality seafood that the city is known for, while not being ostentatious despite the hotel name Octo is partnered with. I may be biased given that Chef Jorge Lavos Costa is Portuguese and, well, the Portuguese know how to cook their seafood. But if you don’t believe me, you can try it for yourself! Regardless of where you dine for seafood in Istanbul, you’ll want to taste their grilled octopus and Black Sea anchovies among other popular dishes.
End your day with a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus Strait, which separates the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. You’ll get to see the city’s skyline and some of its famous landmarks from a different perspective. Although we definitely couldn’t name every architectural masterpiece we passed by from the water, it was certainly captivating to see the beauty of Istanbul gleaming under the golden light. Some of our favourite sights were of the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Grand Mecidiye Mosque (Ortaköy Mosque).
For only 75 TL per person, you can take a public Bosphorus tour that takes you north about halfway to the Black Sea and back for about 1h45 of cruising along the strait. The ferryboat makes a few stops at the major hubs including Eminönü, Karaköy and Harem to pick up and drop people off. The entire way up and down the strait is without stop. Though you can’t hear much information on the intercom, you can stare out to the views of both the Asian and European sides of the strait uninterrupted the entire way through. In early August, we managed to hop on for the tour’s sunset time slot at 7pm and ended back in Eminönü around 8:45pm to enjoy the sky’s colours in full effect.
Day 3 – Archaeological Museums, Fener, Suleymaniye and Whirling Dervish Sema
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Istanbul’s Archaeological Museums are home to a vast collection of artifacts and artwork from various civilizations that have inhabited the region throughout history. They’re open to visitors daily and your ticket grants you access to the museum grounds. Once inside, you can spend as much time as you’d like exploring the museums and admiring the artifacts on display.
The museums house a wide variety of objects, including ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, and Ottoman-era artifacts. The Byzantine mosaics and frescoes are beautifully decorated with gold leaf and bright colours. Out of the many museums, aged churches and mosques that you can visit in Istanbul, the Archaeological Museums provide a great glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the region.
Fener & Balat
Head east towards the Chora Church (or Kariye Mosque) and take a walk through the historic neighbourhood of Fener and Balat. In lovely Fener, you’ll find numerous sidewalk cafes and European-Turkish bistros as well as old wooden houses and small stately churches along the cobblestone streets. This part of town shares different cultures with other regions of Europe and Asia, which you’ll see from the Saint Stefan Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the 7th-century Church of St. Mary of the Mongols. The colourful pastel houses of Balat are a picturesque backdrop to your afternoon stroll in this quieter part of town.
Rooftop Terrace by Suleymaniye Mosque
In the afternoon, head back south for another rooftop experience at Nova Santiye Cafe. It sits adjacent to the Suleymaniye Mosque, one of the largest and most impressive mosques in Istanbul. You can get right up close to it without leaving your seat while enjoying a small cup of rich Turkish coffee and delectable eats. On the opposite side of the rooftop terrace, you can admire the stunning view of the Golden Horn and the Yeni Cami Mosque at the edge of the water. There are a number of rooftop cafes in the area as well as Nova if this one isn’t your cup of tea!
For dinner, try some traditional Turkish food at a meyhane, a type of restaurant that serves small plates of food called “meze” along with drinks. Meze is a traditional Turkish appetizer that consists of a variety of small dishes served with bread. It is similar to Spanish tapas or Middle Eastern mezze. Meze is typically served as a prelude to a larger meal, and is meant to be shared among friends and family.
There are many different types of meze dishes, and the selection can vary depending on the region and the season. Some common meze dishes include:
- Hummus: a creamy dip made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice
- Baba ghanoush: a dip made from roasted eggplant, tahini, and spices
- Dolma: stuffed vegetables, such as grape leaves or bell peppers, filled with rice and herbs
- Tarama: a dip made from cured fish roe and breadcrumbs
- Tzatziki: a dip made from yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic
- Fried calamari: battered and deep-fried squid
- Falafel: deep-fried balls or patties made from ground chickpeas and spices
Meze is typically served with bread, such as pita or Turkish flatbread, and is often accompanied by olives, cheese, and other small bites. It’s a popular choice for a light meal or snack, and is often enjoyed with a glass of Turkish tea or raki, a traditional Turkish anise-flavoured liquor. Some of the best meyhane, like Çukur Meyhane, are located near the Istiklal Cd.
Whirling Dervish Cultural Performance
End your day with a traditional Turkish music and dance performance at a local venue. This performance, known as a Whirling Dervishes Sema Ceremony, features musicians playing traditional instruments and dancers spinning in a circular motion while wearing elaborate and flowing white robes. Whirling Dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Order, a Sufi Muslim sect that originated in Turkey. The distinctive dance is mesmerizing and such a unique part of Turkish culture. If you’re interested in watching a Whirling Dervish performance in Istanbul, there are a few places you can check it out:
- Galata Mevlevi Museum: Located in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, this museum is dedicated to the Mevlevi Order and its founder, Mevlana Rumi. The museum hosts regular Sema performances, as well as other cultural events and exhibitions.
- Cemberlitas Hamam: Located in the old city of Istanbul, this historic bathhouse is home to a weekly Sema performance. The performances take place on Sunday evenings and are open to the public.
- Sirkeci Train Station: Located in the Eminönü neighbourhood of Istanbul, this train station is home to a Mevlevi Order tekke (monastery). The tekke hosts regular Sema performances, as well as other cultural events and exhibitions.
- Other cultural centres and event venues: There are a number of cultural centres and event venues in Istanbul that host regular Sema performances. These include the Yenikapi Culture and Arts Centre, the Turkcell Kurucesme Arena, and the Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to end your stay in Istanbul!