Istanbul For First-Timers: Planning Guide & 3-Day Istanbul Itinerary

November 26, 2021
things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Ohhh, Istanbul…what a complex, vibrant, delicious, fascinating place you are!  The first time I visited I was instantly captivated by the east-meets-west history, the friendly people, bright colors, and amazing food.

And after a few brief visits, it’s become one of my favorite cities in the world!  Each time I return, I discover new things to love.  But for first-time visitors the sheer volume of sights, millennia of history to explore, and language and culture differences can be a bit overwhelming when planning a trip.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

So I’ve worked for quite some time to put together a really in-depth post on things to do in Istanbul—what to know before you go, packing tips, how to get around, where to stay, what to do, and how to structure your itinerary.

How this post is structured:

  • Getting to know Istanbul’s areas & neighborhoods
  • Where to stay
  • A few considerations on clothing
  • How to get around
  • How to structure your Istanbul itinerary
  • What to do in Istanbul
    • Historical sites in Sultanahmet (Hagia Sophia et al)
    • Eminönü & Galata Bridge area (including Spice Market)
    • Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent
    • Beyoglu to Galata Tower
    • Istiklal Street to Taksim Square
    • Additional things you’ll love (boat ride, food tour, sunset spots, & more)
  • Where to eat and drink

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

I’ll share a fairly flexible itinerary outline that could be anywhere from an aggressive two days to about a week (if you’re taking your time), including how to group things, what to see and what I thought was skippable.

I’ve also already written a number of specific posts about what to do in Istanbul that provide a much more in-depth look at specific sights, experiences, or neighborhoods, so be sure to check them out!

Here are deeper Istanbul posts to help plan your trip!

Turkey Travel Tips: How to Plan the Best Adventure

Istanbul’s Main Sights If You Only Have 24 Hours 

Istanbul in 5 Hours: Making the Most of a Layover

Why You Have to Take a Food Tour in Asian Istanbul

Exploring the Coffee Scene in Istanbul’s Beyoglu Area

20+ Turkish Foods You Have to Try

Dinner at Istanbul’s Mikla: World’s Top 100 Restaurant

Where to Stay in Istanbul:  The Charming Hotel DeCamondo

Things to do in Istanbul - the delicious food is part of the draw

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Orient yourself: Istanbul’s areas & neighborhoods

There are three major areas that you’ll hear about—Old Town, the European side, and the Asian side.  Within those, there are dozens of individual neighborhoods, each with its own flavor.  Obviously tourists only scratch the surface of the neighborhoods, but here are a few of the ones you should know (and this post goes a little beyond that).

Sultanahmet (in Old Town) is the cultural and historical heart of the city, but also the most touristy.  It’s where some of the most famous sights are located, including Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.  Many tourists stay here for its central location, but it’s also more expensive (and to me, less interesting).

To the east of Sultanahmet you’ll hit Eminönü, which is on the water by Galata Bridge and has sights such as the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market.  It can be a good option for where to stay, still easy walking distance but a better chance of budget-friendly accommodations.

If you cross Galata Bridge from Eminönü you’ll be over on the European side, in the hip Karaköy neighborhood.  Personally I love the European area because it’s less insane and touristy than Sultanahmet, and feels more “real life”.  Karaköy is right on the water and is now full of hip nightlife and cool cafes.

Just up the hill from Karaköy (headed toward Galata Tower and Taksim Square) is Beyoğlu, which I absolutely love.  It’s got great restaurants, nightlife, boutiques and art galleries, lots of different housing choices, an awesome vibe, and is high enough up the hill to give good views over the water.  Galata is sometimes seen as a separate neighborhood (and sometimes lumped in with Beyoğlu), and it’s great too.

Things to do in Istanbul - watch the sunset from Galata Bridge

Planning a larger trip to Turkey??  Here are some posts to help you out!

How to Plan an Awesome 7- or 10-Day Turkey Itinerary

A First-Timer’s Guide to Cappadocia

Zelve, Cappadocia’s Best-Kept Secret

2 Days Sailing Turkey’s Gorgeous Turquoise Coast

Turkey’s Turquoise Coast:  Exploring Fethiye & Oludeniz

Paragliding Over Olüdeniz’s Famous Blue Lagoon

Review: Is Turkish Airlines Business Class Worth It?

Or explore all my Turkey posts!!

Where to stay in Istanbul

For me, I always stay in the Beyoğlu neighborhood in the European area, between Karaköy and Galata Tower.  It’s a perfect location, easy walking to tons of places, great views, lots of amazing food, coffee, and bars.  It’s more budget-friendly than Karaköy or Old Town, plus you’re higher up so sometimes have great views over the water.

The first time I visited we stayed in a great Airbnb apartment that’s not available anymore but had *amazing* views (you can see it here).  and I stayed in the charming, historic Hotel DeCamondo on my second trip.  I highly recommend DeCamondo, you can read my review here.

Overall there are tons of good housing options in Istanbul.  A few additional considerations:

  • Booking.com is illegal and blocked in Turkey.  HOWEVER, you can book on them and use them from your country of origin (I did on my last visit a few times), just know that their website won’t work for you while you’re there.  Make sure you have their phone numbers to contact them or the hotel directly if needed while you’re there.
  • Airbnb is a squishier area…it’s not illegal in Turkey, but there are a lot of regulations and many listings probably don’t adhere to them.  I rented an Airbnb apartment the first time I visited in 2016, but most apartments would have trouble fitting in under the regulations.  So just do some research and go in “eyes wide open”.

You might also like:  How to Choose the Best Hotel or Rental Every Time

Where to stay in Istanbul - which neighborhoods and hotels I recommend

Where to stay in Istanbul - Hotel DeCamondo was amazing

Where to stay in Istanbul - rooftop view from Hotel DeCamondo

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A few considerations on clothing

I recommend you check out my in-depth post on planning a trip in Turkey, which provides a more detailed look at everything from safety, to e-visa requirements, to currency, to when things are usually closed, and so much more.  So I’m not going to rehash all of that here.  I will briefly cover a few things from more of an Istanbul-specific lens.

That post goes into detail about my thoughts on what to wear.  Obviously dress is a personal preference, but overall I recommend dressing fairly modestly.  However, that doesn’t mean you have to be fully covered or wear a head scarf (outside of mosques).

Turkey is a fairly modern secular Muslim country and Istanbul is a big city, so you’ll see a lot of jeans, dresses (knee length or below), and short sleeves.  But you won’t see a lot of skimpy dress at all.

The dress code for mosques in particular is pretty strict, and that’s another reason to dress more modestly for just walking around.  You’ll have to cover your shoulders and women wear a headscarf, and they prefer a long skirt vs. pants…some mosques will allow women in pants and some will provide a long skirt to put over your clothes.

One other thing to know is that you need COMFY shoes.  Istanbul is great for walking but is very hilly, with some unevenness (like cobblestones).  Comfortable and supportive shoes are a must (these are my favorite walking sandals, they’ve saved my life in Istanbul a few times).

Things to do in Istanbul - spend time in the historical sites of Sultanahmet

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How to get around Istanbul

First off, walking is the best way to get around Istanbul!  The parts of the city that most tourists would visit are super walkable, though very hilly.  You will definitely burn calories and earn all the amazing food you’ll be eating.

Public transportation in Istanbul is really good as well, from the tram to funicular to bus to ferry.  You’ll need to buy an IstanbulKart (card) that can be pre-loaded with money to use on public transportation (including trams, buses, ferries, furnicular, and tünel)…it will save you time and money.  You can learn more about public transportation in Istanbul here.

There’s a tram that runs throughout the main old town, and then a tram/funicular that runs from around Galata Tower up to Taksim Square.  I haven’t tried the subway or buses yet.  Also, ferries run across the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, and I *highly* recommend giving that a try!

In terms of car options, Uber was illegal in Turkey last I was there, but the app BiTaksi works great and is what I’d recommend (to call a cab or schedule one).  While taxis can be a good way to get around quickly, taxi scams are quite common and so it can be more hassle than it’s worth (that doesn’t apply to the ones at the airport though).

You should absolutely not rent a car and try to drive it around Istanbul.  Just DON’T.  Istanbul is in the top-10 cities in the world for worst traffic, plus you’d have a crazy hard time finding your way through the winding, hilly, narrow streets.

How to get around Istanbul - public transportation, taxis, & more for your Istanbul itinerary

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How to structure your Istanbul itinerary

I’ve done a detailed post on how to see the most famous sights in 24 hours, and it’s definitely doable.  But hopefully you’re able to be visit for at least 2 to 3 days and can have a more robust itinerary rather than just “ticking” boxes.

Here’s a rough example of how you *could* think about an itinerary, based on arriving Thursday and leaving early Monday.

  • Afternoon you arrive:  get settled your hotel or apartment, walk around Sultanahmet, take an evening food tour
  • Day 1:  walking food tour on the Asian side, Spice Market, Eminönü, maybe Istiklal Street and Taksim Square, dinner with a view
  • Day 2:  hit the big sights…Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, and maybe one of the palaces
  • Day 3:  more leisurely pace, like exploring the coffee scene in Beyoğlu, re-visiting places you loved (for us that was the Asian side), get out on a ferry, or see some additional sights (Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe, etc.)

You may need to re-arrange the days based on day of week.  For instance, most mosques are closed some or all of Fridays.

If it’s rainy, it’s is a great day for inside things like museums, palaces, hamaams, Hagia Sofia and the mosques.  Though I will say that Hagia Sofia is particularly beautiful on a sunny day, as the sun it changes the light and colors inside significantly due to all the windows.

One common question is whether you should get the Museum Pass.  I’ve never gotten it because 1) I’m not a big museum person anyway, and 2) it doesn’t cover tons.  But this post from Yoga Wine Travel gives more info on the pass and whether it’s worth it so you can decide for yourself.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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What to do in Istanbul

These are grouped in two different ways…by proximity (for instance the historical sites in Sultanahmet) and then additional experiences (like boat rides and sunset views).

Historical sites in Sultanahmet

Fuel up with the big Turkish breakfast of your choice (much more on that in the food section) and get your walking shoes on, it’s a big day!  There are so many amazing historical sights crowded together, you can see a lot in a pretty compact amount of time.

The biggest thing is to make sure that your main day in Sultanahmet doesn’t fall on a Friday due to mosques (including the Blue Mosque and to some extent Hagia Sophia) being largely closed for visitors.

Planning the ultimate Istanbul itinerary - soaking in Sultanahmet's vibe

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Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern is super cool and worth a stop, but not a long one (like 20-30 minutes).  It’s a good option to knock out first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the lines get long.

Constructed in the 6th century for the Byzantine emperor, the underground cistern covers the length of two football fields and can hold 27 million gallons of water.  It feels absolutely massive.  Check their website for opening times and cost to be sure (note, in 2021 they’ve been closed for restorations).

Things to do in Istanbul - visit the historic Basilica Cistern

Istanbul itinerary ideas - visit the historic Basilica Cistern

Things to do in Istanbul - visit the historic Basilica Cistern

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Hagia Sophia

This is an absolute must-do!  Even if you only have a short time, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque should be at the top of your list.  It’s one of the most famous buildings in the world (visited by 3 million people annually), having served three different religions over the centuries—pagan, Eastern Orthodox Christian, and Sunni Muslim.

In 1935 it was converted into a museum (not a religious building) and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s.  You get a really interesting opportunity to literally *see* layers of religious history on top of each other.

In fascinating news though, in 2020 it was converted back into a mosque and so it no longer requires an entrance fee (was about $30 USD before).  That also means it’s open every day of the week (previously was closed Mondays) though you need to be careful with Fridays as visiting mosques on Fridays can be very challenging.  This is the most updated info I could find on hours.

Things to do in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous historical sites in the world

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Things to do in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous historical sites in the world

It was built three different times as an Orthodox Christian church on top of a pagan XXX (first in the 300s, then 400s, then 500s).  When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 1400s they converted it to a mosque.  At different places in the building you can see the blend of Christian and Muslim colors, patterns, and icons right on top of each other.

Until Florence’s duomo came along a thousand years later, Hagia Sophia’s dome was the greatest in the world—which is bananas!  For perspective, you could fit Notre Dame Cathedral under the dome.

I recommend planning for an hour to an hour and a half for your visit (including waiting in line), though longer if you’re one of those people who really likes to linger and absorb in museums.

This post has even more details & photos on Hagia Sophia if you’re interested!

Things to do in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous historical sites in the world

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Things to do in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous historical sites in the world

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Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)

The dome and minarets of the Blue Mosque (along with Hagia Sophia) are probably the the most iconic image of the city, and this should be at the top of your list of things to do in Istanbul.

Named for its patron (Sultan Ahmet), this was his 17th-century answer to Hagia Sophia, which directly faces it.  Because it’s a mosque there’s no entrance fee but be aware that there’s usually a long line (it dos move fairly quickly) and that it’s closed on Fridays until 3pm and several other times for prayers.  Look up the schedule ahead of time.

You can see more details on visiting the Blue Mosque here!

Istanbul itinerary ideas - the Blue Mosque is a must

Things to do in Istanbul - inside the beautiful Blue Mosque

Things to do in Istanbul - a gorgeous day outside the Blue Mosque

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Hippodrome

In my opinion this is totally skippable, but you can literally walk by it for 30 seconds as it’s right next to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  Built in the 4th century, this long, narrow, park-like square was once a Roman chariot racetrack with many monuments, columns, and obelisks.  Now there’s…an obelisk or two?

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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Topkapi Palace

This is one of the places I’ve never made it to, but Topkapi is just a five-minute walk from heart of Sultanahmet, basically right behind Hagia Sofia (though it’s technically in the Fatih neighborhood).

It was the palace of the sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries, and occupies a pretty impressive spot overlooking the Sea of Marmara, Golden Horn, and Bosporus.  In fact the cafe at the top, while overpriced, has great views of the Bosphorus.

Some of the draws of Topkapi are the treasury of jewels (including an 86-carat Spoonmaker Diamond), elaborately tiled harem chambers (there’s a separate fee for this area), and great outdoor gardens.  The gardens are supposed to be especially beautiful in the spring when all the tulips bloom.

I’ve heard that weekends are crowded, and they’re closed on Tuesdays (you can check opening days and times here).

Wander Eminönü & Galata Bridge

Now that we’ve explored a couple of the most well-known things to do in Istanbul, let’s wander out of Sultanahmet and see a slightly different side.  Just a 5-10 minute walk from Hagia Sophia gets you to the neighborhood of Eminönü and sweeping views of Galata Bridge.

I really love the bridge and always take the chance to walk over it when I get the chance.  It’s not particularly pretty or an architectural marvel, but it is really one of the beating hearts of the city—and stunning at sunset, more on that in a bit!

Things to do in Istanbul - enjoy the views from Galata Bridge

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Spice Market (and Grand Bazaar, if you want)

I’m frequently on the record as being a much bigger fan of the Spice Market than the Grand Bazaar.  It’s a little less insane and slightly easier to find.  Right at the mouth of Eminönü you’ll stumble upon the entrance, get scanned briefly, and can spend a little time wandering through the different lanes and being a bit overwhelmed by how much stuff there is (and how many stores look exactly the same).

You’ll still overpay, but not as much as at the Grand Bazaar.  It’s normal to haggle (though not as much over food items from what I understand).  People recommended sticking to the main thoroughfares, to get better deals and quality (the further you go onto side streets and alleys, the dicier it can get).

I highlight some of my favorite souvenirs in this post about what to buy when in Istanbul, including beautiful ceramics.  There are obviously tons of different spices, nuts, chocolates, candies, some textiles, and so much more. Pro tip:  check out a little perfumer called Arifoglu in the Spice Market to find your signature scent.

Read more about visiting bot the Spice Market & Grand Bazaar here

Istanbul itinerary tips - go beyond the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market to other markets

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, and in my opinion was skippable if you’re getting the “market” experience at the Spice Market.  This is one of those things to do in Istanbul that gets a lot of buzz, but there isn’t anything here you can’t get at the Spice Market, probably for less and in less chaos.

I visited just to say I did, doing a quick 15-minute walk through.  Make sure you do a LOT of haggling—you should get at least 30% off the price here (and at the Spice Market, for non-food items).  If you’re looking for more of a “real” bazaar experience, try something more like Arasta Bazaar (right behind the Blue Mosque).

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Hidden gem:  Rüstem Paşa Mosque

I’m still sad I haven’t been able to visit this, but it was under renovations whenever I visited.  From what I can tell, though, it’s back open and everyone says it’s like a slightly smaller and far less crowded Blue Mosque.

A beautiful mosque designed in the 16th century by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.  It was built Rüstem Paşa who was the Grand Vizier to Süleyman the Magnificent.  Every surface is covered in exquisite İznik tiles (intricately designed blue tiles in a variety of floral and geometric patterns).

Note that the mosque is not visible from the street and is raised above the shops, so find the stairs that take you up (behind the Spice Market).  It’s pretty tough to find from what I’ve heard.

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Grab lunch from the bobbing boats of Eminönü

On one of your passes through this area, you could consider grabbing the traditional balik ekmek (literally, “fish in bread”) at the famous fish boats of Eminönü.  These are fresh fried fish sandwiches with raw onion, lettuce, and a little lemon juice or sometimes pickles.  The bright boats bob and the fish sellers shout out orders, so it’s a cool experience on a nice day.

BUT I have to be straight with you…taste and texture-wise, these sandwiches are not a winner.  They’re bland and a bit challenging to eat due to occasional bones.  Not my fave, though a winner on ambiance.  For me, the fresh donuts that roaming vendors sell are the real draw.

Or you can go the route I did a different time and grab a delicious burek to go, and eat it over the bridge with a great view.

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Things to do in Istanbul - the fish sandwich boats of Eminonu at twilight

Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent

Perched atop the city in the Third Hill neighborhood, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent requires a steep trek uphill from Sultanahmet or Eminönü.  But it’s totally worth the climb.

It’s still very popular and gets plenty of visitors, but not as insane as the Blue Mosque, and many consider it the most eye-catching mosque in the city.  Designed by the great Sinan in the 16th century, Suleymaniye Camii (the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent) is considered his greatest work.

Things to do in Istanbul - the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent crowns the city from above

Istanbul itinerary tips - I love the pink details in the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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The inside of the dome has the intricate patterns and gold work you’d see at other major mosques, but I especially loved the bright green and pink colors that dominated.  Make sure you don’t miss the patio around the front that has an amazing view over the city.

The mosque is free to enter and open every day (generally speaking 9a-6p, but closed five times daily for prayer).  This is a great option if you’re visiting on a long layover and it happens to fall on a Friday where the Sultanahmet mosques are harder to visit.

Things to do in Istanbul - beautiful details inside Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Climb through Beyoğlu to Galata Tower

Beyoğlu is a district on the old European side of Istanbul that’s made up of several different neighborhoods (including Galata, Karaköy, and Taksim).  It’s a great blend of historic yet with a modern and almost hipster-y vibe added in.  You can find fun shopping, cool coffee shops, restaurants, nightlife, and more.

This area is one of my favorites to spend time in, exploring the little nooks and crannies.  For instance, check out the street Galip Dede Caddesi, with its sloping cobblestone street lined with cute cafes, coffee shops, gift shops and kiosks selling all sorts of different items.

Galata Tower has been a fixture of Beyoğlu since the 14th century, visible as you climb the streets.  There are some cute cafes ringing the tower’s base (we had a lovely breakfast there one morning), and if you choose to pay to climb the tower’s stairs you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the city on a pretty day.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Things to do in Istanbul - the streets, shops, and kitties of Beyoglu

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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Enjoy the energy of Istiklal Street up to Taksim Square

From here there’s a tram or funicular that takes you up to Istiklal Street (or you can climb the steep streets yourself).  This is a more modern shopping street with a lot of energy and the iconic red tram moving up and down the main drag.

At the top of the street you’ll hit Taksim Square, which I’ve heard called the “heart of modern Istanbul” but I haven’t found that interesting or appealing myself.  There’s a monument commemorating the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.  If you’re pressed for time, you definitely can skip Taksim Square.

One interesting cultural experience you can have in this area is witnessing the traditional whirling dervishes.  They employ whirling (sema) as a form of prayer, and with their robes ballooning and twirling in unison it’s said to be a fascinating experience.  The oldest lodge in Istanbul (called Mevlevi) sits in Galata, founded in 1491.

Personally as a woman I’d avoid hanging out solo along Istiklal and in Taksim late at night (after like 10pm) or on weekends.  It’s just got a vibe.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Things to do in Istanbul - the vibe of Istiklal Street

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace sits in the Beşiktaş district, a little walk downhill from Taksim Square.  Built in the mid-1800s, it was the administrative center of the late Ottoman Empire and home to the Ottoman sultans.

I’ve never had a chance to visit, but it’s supposed to be one of the most glamorous palaces in the world, and is definitely on the list of things to do in Istanbul as long as you have more than a couple days.

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Additional things to do in Istanbul

The city doesn’t *only* have historical sites and mosques to offer…there are SO many different ways to immerse yourself in Istanbul’s culture and really feel like a local.  Here are a few of the experiences you should definitely consider.

Take the ferry or a Bosphorus cruise

Finding my way onto a boat is one of my favorite travel activities in general, and should definitely be high on your list of what to do in Istanbul.  The Bosphorus Strait is one of the most historic waterways in the world, bridging two continents, spanned by three awesome suspension bridges, and linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.

There are all kinds of Bosphorus cruises you can take, but even if you haven’t planned ahead to that extent or are on a tight budget, you can also just hop on the next ferry headed to the Asian side and see where it takes you.  It’s not really about the destination, it’s about getting out on the water and enjoying the beautiful views.

Typically I just jump on the next ferry out to the Asian side, regardless of where it’s going.  Wandering the market of Kadıköy is a favorite of mine, along with lunch at the delicious Çiya (Kebap or Sofrasi)

I haven’t had a chance to do this, but you could also take a ferry around sunset and enjoy a stunning sunset on the water.

Things to do in Istanbul - getting out on a ferry or Bosphorus cruise is a must

3-day Istanbul itinerary ideas - getting out on a ferry or Bosphorus cruise is a must

Things to do in Istanbul - getting out on a ferry or Bosphorus cruise is a must

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Take a walking food tour

I kind of stumbled onto this idea the first time I visited Istanbul, and now food tours have become a staple of my travel itinerary planning (with varying degrees of quality).  But my two Istanbul food tours started it all and were both absolutely amazing experiences.

We spent a half day being guided through little cafes, markets, and local restaurants on the Asian side of Istanbul, sampling a range of different dishes that showcase the best the city has to offer.  It was a small group (four of us plus a guide), and we learned so much while gorging on Turkish delicacies.

See all about our walking food tour in Asia here!

Istanbul itinerary ideas - try as much Turkish food as you can, and take a food tour

Istanbul itinerary ideas - Turkish yogurt and honey on the Asian side

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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We started by selecting flaky burek pastries filled with soft cheese, then trying candied fruits, pickles, and then a plate of kofte, dolma, and charcuterie.  But we were just getting warmed up.   We still had tangy Turkish yogurt absolutely dripping with local honey, lavash, lahmacun, and a kebab plate, and finally mouth-watering baklava and strong Turkish coffee to finish.  WHEW!

The other one we booked was even more intimate and unique, eating dinner in a Kurdish family’s home and learning about their lives, then going to a local bar (where you have tea and shisha, not alcohol).  You can see more about this local experience here, it was super cool.

Istanbul itinerary ideas - try as much Turkish food as you can, and take a food tour

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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Galata Bridge at sunset

This is one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul, just an all-time life experience.  Being here at sunset the first time was a happy accident, and I’ve made sure to repeat it every time I visit.  It’s great from the bridge itself, but find the steps down to the platform in the middle of the bridge for a real up-close view.

Istanbul itinerary ideas - Galata Bridge at sunset is the best

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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My last time here was on my 35th birthday, before heading to dinner at one of the world’s top 100 restaurants.  I watched a quietly stunning sunset from one of my favorite spots in one of my favorite cities in the world.  Does it get better than that??  I vote not.

In addition to the rooftop bars that dot the city (all of which can be great for sunset), you could also take a ferry (or other boat trip) around during sunset and enjoy the views that way.

Things to do in Istanbul - Galata Bridge at sunset is the best

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Things to do in Istanbul - Galata Bridge at sunset is the best

Get a view from up high

The upside of a super hilly city is that there are tons of amazing views to be had.  Rooftop bars and restaurants abound, so if the weather is nice make sure to stake one out (it’s also beautiful for sunset).

Another well-known 360-degree view is from the top of Galata Tower (on a clear day, obviously).  The first photo here is from there, and you can really see everything.

View of Istanbul from the top of Galata Tower

We found a great rooftop restaurant for dinner and a sunset

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

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Wander…

This should go without saying, but one of the best things to do in Istanbul is just to wander up and down the little side streets and alleys.  If you *only* see the famous sights, though, you’ll miss some of the intensive charm that Istanbul offers.

It’s all about the little details and slices of life you’ll see…finding a cute café and stopping for some tea and a snack, walking through a street packed with vendors and grabbing a bite of fresh cheese if they offer, and hunting down the best hole-in-the-wall baklava shops.  (Haha yes, somehow all my things to do are food-related!)

Things to do in Istanbul - wander the streets of Beyoglu

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Hammam

I have not had a chance to experience a hammam yet, but hear it’s a must-do.  It’s a type of public steam bath that’s very popular in the Islamic world, and there are many beautiful traditional hammams in Istanbul.  This article highlights some of the most beautiful ones.

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Where to eat in Istanbul

Turkish food is one of my absolute favorite cuisines in the world!  Everything I’ve eaten there is just SO GOOD!  So a huge part of your Istanbul itinerary needs to be sampling all the Turkish food you can get your hands on.

One side note, I’ve generally read that you should avoid tap water in Istanbul, not like in an obsessive way like in Mexico where you have to worry about fruits and vegetables, but just that drinking bottled water may be better.  I’ve never given it a ton of thought (I drink whatever they give me at restaurants) but I do buy bottled water to walk around with and it’s really cheap.

Indulge in Turkish breakfast (maybe with a view)

Turkey’s food is so good that you have no excuse to skip breakfast—it’s part of the experience, a true “breakfast of champions”.

Whether you sit down and devour menemen (kind of like the Turkish version of shaksuka) or get some burek and baklava to go, or get the meat and cheese and bread and honey, make sure you use it as an excuse to try different Turkish foods.

One option is to make your way across Galata Bridge toward Sultanahmet (if you’re staying on the European side) and make a stop at Hafiz Mustafa for some coffee, bread and honey, and many other delicacies.  We also tried the tavuk göğsü, a weird pudding made from chicken breast (yes, it’s sweet; yes, it’s weird; yes, it’s pretty tasty).

Ask to sit on the balcony in the sunshine if it’s a nice day, and watch the bustle below!  Make sure you take some of their baklava for later as well.

Check out 20+ Turkish foods you have to try!

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Conversely, you can grab coffee, bread and honey, and menemen (Turkish-style scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and sausage) in the shadow of Galata Tower, then pay the 25 lira (about $9) to go up for the view.

The breakfast was awesome.  The view was nice, but not quite as breathtaking as I’d anticipated.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

Look beyond Turkish coffee…explore the burgeoning coffee scene

Y’all know I love me some delicious coffee, and there’s a LOT to love in Istanbul.  Obviously traditional Turkish coffee is a bit part of that.  If you’re getting traditional Turkish coffee, one thing to know is that if you want sugar in your coffee you need to ask for it while it’s being prepared (they’ll brew it with the sugar).

But Istanbul has a great “third wave” coffee scene that I had the chance to explore the last time I was there.  I focused on the Beyoğlu neighborhood because I love it and I was short on time, and tried several great coffee shops while wandering up and down the hilly streets.

You can read more about the “third wave” scene and best coffee shops in Beyoğlu here!

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

Basically, you need to just eat anything and everything, street food, little holes in the wall…it’s more about *what* you eat than where.

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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But there certainly are some amazing restaurants in the city for special meals.  If you take the ferry over to Kadikoy you definitely need to check out Çiya Sofrası (and Kebap, a different part of the restaurant).  SO delicious (it was actually featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table show), one of my favorite food experiences in Istanbul.

I also haven’t done it myself, but I’ve heard you can take a taxi over to Arnavutkoy. It used to be a small quaint fisherman village, and turned into a trendy and charming area full of seafood restaurants with breathtaking views of Bosphorus.

An amazing meal at Ciya Sofrasi

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

There are also great options for “splurge” meals in Istanbul (and honestly quite affordable for what you get).  For example, on my 35th birthday I was able to get a reservation at Mikla, a “new Anatolian Kitchen”, that’s a modern spin on very ancient, traditional Anatolian dishes, flavors, ingredients, and overall culture.

At the time Mikla was #52 on the list of world’s best 100 restaurants (I think it’s #60 right now), and it was a delicious and super interesting dinner and wine pairing that I loved!

I’ve written more about my Mikla dinner experience here!

Dinner at Mikla, one of the world's best 100 restaurants - Istanbul itinerary ideas

things to do in istanbul,istanbul itinerary

If it’s not clear, I love this city so much!  Hopefully this gives a ton of useful info on what to do in Istanbul so you can plan your own adventure.  In fact, Istanbul made my 2022 list of places I’m dying to visit…the country has been more open in the past year than many destinations, and it’s a great time to see it without the insane crowds.

Other amazing city deep-dives you’ll love:

Pin for later!

A Detailed Guide & 3+Day Itinerary for Istanbul | Things to do in Istanbul & how to plan the best Istanbul itinerary...what to do, where to eat, where to stay, an Istanbul neighborhood guide, & much more. Visiting Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Galata Tower. What to do in Turkey, Istanbul tips. #istanbul #itinerary #turkey #beyoglu #eminonu

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