Complete 3-Day Itinerary for Istanbul
Arts & Culture
Food & Wine
Istanbul remains the dynamic crossroads of the world after thousands of years, bringing together different cultures and their food, language, religion and architecture on both sides of the Bosphorus. This rapidly-growing city holds the title of the most populous in Europe and has something for everyone, from historical architecture to unique shopping to bumping nightlife. While Istanbul can be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you settle into the city and embrace the warm Turkish hospitality, it will be hard to leave.
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Where to stay
Grand Hyatt Istanbul
Sprawling, luxury hotel with elegantly designed rooms, pools, a spa and an unmatched location in the heart of Istanbul.
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Sumptuous urban resort on the banks of the Bosphorus, with a must-visit spa and terrace restaurant.
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Daily full breakfast for two guests per bedroom
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The Peninsula Istanbul
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Day 1: Arrive in Istanbul
Get a Pide
If you are arriving from the airport, take a taxi or the Havabus to the city center; cruise ships dock in the glamorous Galataport between Taksim and Sultanahmet. I highly recommend staying at the Grand Hyatt in Taksim, the Shangri-La in Beşiktaş or for a big splurge, the Peninsula in Karaköy near Galataport. Check into your hotel and, depending on the time of day, stop by one of the many restaurants serving Pide, which is essentially an oval-shaped Turkish pizza. You won't have any problem finding Pide, but I recommend checking out Nizam Pide near Taksim. If you like your Pide with spicy sausage, make sure to wash it down with some classic Ayran, a traditional Turkish yogurt-based drink.
Try Turkish Coffee or Tea
While you're in the Taksim area, check out Espressolab if you haven't already had your shot of caffeine for the day. This trendy cafe offers delicious pastries along with traditional Turkish coffee, tea and all sorts of other drinks. Don't miss the lush back patio oasis where you can sit and enjoy your drink in peace.
Visit Galataport and Galata Tower
Next, stroll (or take the tram, depending on where you're staying) along the new Galataport district where you can find high end global brands and local trendy shops. While you're here, check out some of the beautiful art pieces at Harem Çini. Once you're ready, lace up your shoes and make your way up the hill towards Galata Tower. This stately tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since the 500s, and today provides a beautiful panoramic view out over the Bosphorus and city center.
Explore the Beşiktaş District
A short tram ride from the Galata Tower area will take you to the historic and cosmopolitan Beşiktaş area. Here you will find five-star hotels near beautiful traditional wooden houses packed along narrow streets. If the local soccer team is playing in the nearby stadium, you may want to avoid the crowds, but at any other time you can find plenty of amazing areas and delicious restaurants to explore. If nightlife is your scene, you will also have plenty of choices in Beşiktaş. Just don't stay up too late because you have a lot planned for tomorrow.
Day 2: Immerse yourself in history in Sultanahmet
Get a Guide
While solo exploring or following an itinerary in an audioguide or guide book is perfectly fine, you'll be able to make the most of your time in Istanbul (and particularly Sultanahmet) by booking a private or group tour. Not only do local guides speak the language, but they can answer your questions, show you secret shopping areas in the Grand Bazaar (it's a thing), and point out excellent spots for a bio break. While there are several stops on your itinerary today, they are all located within a relatively small area so you shouldn't get too exhausted.
The home of the Ottoman rulers is a sight to behold. You could easily spend a full day here, but plan on at least two hours to get a good sense of the area. Audioguides are available, so if you want to explore other lesser-known parts of Istanbul with your guide, this may be a good spot to come back to on your own.
This beautiful mosque is named after the blue tiles adorning portions of the interior. It's free to visit outside prayer times, just make sure you're dressed appropriately.
The ultimate destination for any history or architecture aficionado: first a church, then a mosque, next a museum, and ultimately a mosque again. Soak in the ambience of this 1,500-year-old space and don't miss the incredible mosaics.
These giant human-made cisterns held nearly 21 million gallons of water during its primary operating period. Today, there is much less water so you can explore the cavernous space and even listen to a concert if you catch it at the right time. See if you can spot the two Medusa head columns.
A must-see destination for any visitor to Istanbul. With over 4,000 shops and 66 streets, you won't get bored exploring. Just be ready to haggle with the shopkeepers and see if you can find some of the "secret" luxury bag and watch stores (you may need a guide to get you into certain ones). This is an excellent spot to find souvenirs or gifts.
Visit a Carpet Shop
If time allows, check out one of Turkey's world-class carpet shops. Your guide may have a preference, but Vezirhan Carpet & Kilim is one of the best. The shop owners take pride in their work, and explain the carpet making process in a hands-on manner, from showing how silk is extracted from silkworms to demonstrating how the weaving machines work.
Stop by "Salt Bae's" Nusr-Et in the Grand Bazaar, or try some authentic kebab at Amedros or Buhara Ocakbasi. Finish off the evening with some well-deserved local ice cream. This delectable Turkish treat is made with orchid roots to give it an extra stretchy yet smooth texture (Pro tip: go for the mulberry flavor).
Day 3: Explore the gastronomical side of Istanbul
Take a Food Tour
While by no means necessary, joining one of the many food tours offered in the city will help you efficiently navigate the many different flavors and foods you will find throughout Istanbul. If you're interested, my favorite is the "Taste of Two Continents" tour offered through Yummy Istanbul. If you prefer not to join a tour, here are a few suggestions on how to eat your way around the city.
Enjoy a Turkish Breakfast
Start your morning off on the European side near Sultanahmet by wandering the streets near the Spice Bazaar to pick up some fresh olives, cheese and simit (a delicious Turkish combination of a bagel and pretzel). After you've collected your items, take your breakfast to one of the many tea shops in the area. I recommend Cigdem Pastanesi, but it's hard to go wrong in this area. Make sure you try some Bal Kaymak (clotted cream mixed with honey) on your bread- you won't ever go back to plain old butter once you've tried this!
Explore the Spice Bazaar
After breakfast, spend some time wandering around the Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar). You'll find all sorts of spices here along with tea, coffee, produce and most importantly, Turkish Delight. While smaller than the Grand Bazaar, this building and the surrounding streets are a foodie's dream. Get some fresh Turkish Delight as a gift (or for yourself)- they vendors will vacuum pack it so it stays good for up to 3 months.
Head to Asia
Take a short walk to the Eminönü ferry terminal and board a ferry for Kadıköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus (these ferries generally run every 15 minutes). You may not be hungry for lunch yet, but you're on vacation, so walk a few minutes from the ferry terminal to the original Kebapçı İskender shop where the İskender kebap was invented. It consists of layers of sliced döner kebab topped with tomato sauce and slathered in fresh goat's butter and yogurt, all sitting on top of pita bread that soaks up the delicious flavors.
Explore Kadikoy Market
You're probably ready to walk off a bit of your breakfast by now, so find Güneşli Bahçe Sok (which translates to "Sunny Garden Street") and wander around some of the numerous produce, fish, and meat shops in the Kadikoy Market area. If you're looking for something unique or if you're a fan of pickles, explore a pickle store. Pickles were a staple in the Ottoman diet and are still important in Turkish cuisine. At Ozcan Tursularıor or other pickle shops you'll find all sorts of fruits and vegetables you never thought could be pickled!
If you're up for something really unique, check out Reks Kokoreç. It's popular with locals as a post-drinking snack spot. Kokoreç is Turkish dish typically consisting of grilled lamb intestines wrapped around seasoned sweetbread, and eaten with pickles and ayran (a frothy yoghurt drink). It may not be for everyone, but it is definitely worth a try.
Before you take the ferry back to the European side of the city, swing by Mado. This delicious cafe serves everything from Turkish Delight to baklava to Turkish ice cream and more. If you haven't had a Turkish coffee yet, try one here- you won't be sorry!
Cruise (with or without dinner)
Cap your day off with a scenic cruise of the Bosphorus. While there are dinner cruises, you may not even want to think about more food after your gastronomic adventures. Rest assured: there are non-dinner cruises as well. If you're on a budget, consider booking a public "short" or "moonlight" Şehir Hatları ferry tour. If you'd like to splurge a bit, check out one of the many private sunset Bosphorus tours on smaller, more intimate ships for a perfect way to end three action-packed days in Istanbul.
Need to Know
For more travel tips, check out Fora Advisor Diana Popal’s guide, The Ultimate Guide to Istanbul.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Istanbul.