Two to three days in Istanbul will give you an amazing overview of the fascinating city. I lived in Istanbul for six months, back in 2010. Visits from family and friends have helped me build this itinerary to visit Istanbul in one weekend. It is a great destination for longer holidays too: my semester there was not enough to finish the list of things to check out there…!
For its culture, its history, its food and its diversity, Istanbul is among my top 3 favourite cities.
From the Roman Byzantium, the imperial Constantinople, and the Ottoman centre to the vibrant Istanbul, this city is fascinating.
Not confident travelling by yourself in Istanbul? Coming from Paris, I did not find Istanbul unsafe. Most attractions are very easy to find and people were welcoming and helpful, happy to practice English. But I understand some may be overwhelmed in a big city they’re not used to. If you’re a bit worried, take the stress-free option of joining a guided tour*. It will make the itinerary even more interesting to have comments from a guide!
Itinerary for Day 1 in Istanbul
1. Topkapi Palace
I doubt it is possible to count how many historical and religious places Istanbul offers. With just a weekend, time is limited, so I highly recommend checking out the ones around Sultanahmet Square, the most touristy part of the city.
Topkapi Palace overlooks the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. Built in 1459, it was Sultan Ottoman’s home. The harem is from the 16th century. From the 17th century, the palace became to be less important as sultans would prefer a palace along the Bosphorus. The court was even finally moved to Dolmabahce in 1853.
Today, it is a museum where we can visit the main rooms and admire great collections of porcelain, clothes, weapons and mostly the treasures from the Ottoman time. You will need to allow at least 2 hours to visit the Palace and the harem. For those who like jewels, the tour of Topkapi Palace is a must-do. I personally much preferred the harem where the rooms were very impressive.
You will find many places to have lunch in Sultanahmet; I highly recommend trying an Ottoman restaurant.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, Turkish cuisine has many dishes that will seduce you too. Check out this article about vegan Turkish dishes and restaurant tips in Istanbul.
You’ll come across simit vendors many times in Istanbul. Make sure you try this type of Turkish bread at least once: I love them so much!
2. Basilica (Yerebatan) Cistern
Built in the 6th century, it got its English name from the now gone basilica that used to be there before the place became a cistern. Its Turkish name Yerebatan describes it much better, meaning “The Sunken Palace”. It is big indeed: it is the largest of the numerous cisterns in Istanbul’s underground infrastructures. It is a big tourist attraction in Istanbul, and I enjoyed the visit. The atmosphere was unique, mysterious and intriguing.
3. Grand Bazaar
With almost 60 covered streets and over 4,000 shops, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the biggest markets in the world. It is one of the oldest as well as it first opened in 1461, and grew larger in the 16th century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.
Inside the market, we can find a bit of everything and a lot of tourists. Potteries, scarfs, souvenirs, textiles, lamps, leather bags, carpets, jewellery… The choices are endless. You may want to think about which souvenirs from Turkey you want to bring back home before venturing there. Outside the market, they are selling counterfeit bags, clothes, and shoes. In the end, a seller got my attention by shouting this true statement out loud: “Hello! I have many things you don’t need!”. Funny way to engage with people. Indeed, at the Grand Bazaar, everyone can speak English. Plus a bit of French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, etc. I often witnessed this game of trying to guess someone’s nationality before the person even speaks. They were not very successful with me!
Although the Grand Bazaar is a must-see when visiting Istanbul, it did not seduce me more than that. I found it less fun than Marrakech souk for example: even though the haggle game exists in both, the Turkish one is organised, and I got bored quickly by hearing the same questions again and again.
Be careful when planning, the Grand Bazaar was closed on Sundays when I was there!
4. Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Market)
If, like me, you do not enjoy the Grand Bazaar too much, you can shorten your visit and check out the Spice Bazaar, in Eminonu. It is still a large market, but the atmosphere there was closer to the Eastern markets I visited. I found it more enjoyable, probably because it was more about food as well… I loved all the colours and smells.
In the shops, you can find many varieties of spices of course, but not only. They also sell a lot of local food and delicacies such as cheese, dried fruits and nuts, tea, olives, sweets… and souvenirs.
5. Bosphorus Tour
The Bosphorus makes Istanbul such a unique city. The strait separates the city into two parts: one on the European continent, one on the Asian continent. Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents.
Eminonu is where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn meet. Boats are leaving Eminonu and going north along the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. It is an excellent opportunity to see more of Istanbul while relaxing and sitting down. Many palaces and lovely buildings were built along the Bosphorus.
When you are back in Eminonu, you can end the day at Caddesi near the Grand Bazaar for nargile, a tradition in Turkey. For dinner, you will again find a lot of different choices in Sultanahmet. This time, why not try the börek – a great Turkish pastry?
Itinerary for Day 2 in Istanbul
1 & 2. Visit Saint Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque in the morning
Saint Sophia (also called Hagia Sophia) and Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) can both be done in half a day if you start early.
In the 6th century, Saint Sophia was a church in Constantinople. In the 15th century, the Ottomans conquered the town, and Mehmet 2 renovated Saint Sophia to transform it into a mosque. It has been a museum since 1934. It is very famous for representing Byzantine architecture and for its massive dome, over 30-meter high. For 1000 years, it was the biggest sanctuary in the world, and it is the 4th one today. Not only the size but the interior is also very impressive as well: although the building evolved a lot during History, many mosaics from different centuries have been preserved (or hidden during some historical periods). A real must-see.
Built early in the 17th century under the reign of Sultan Ahmet I, Sultanahmet Mosque is one of the most famous mosques in the world. It is often called the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles on the walls inside the building. It is still a place of worship so you can hear the prayer calls at sunset from there. Quite a pleasant experience when it comes from one of the biggest mosques in Turkey with six minarets! It is indeed an impressive building, from both the exterior and the interior. However, I found it difficult to feel the spirituality inside the mosque. It lost it to become a highly touristy zone.
3. Balik Ekmek for lunch at Eminonu
For a fun experience for lunch, you can go near Galata Bridge in Eminonu. The fish sandwich (balik=fish, ekmek=bread) is very simple, but I loved it. The concept is very simple: the fish is grilled on the boat, put inside a piece of bread with onions and salad. And this is it. It is cheap, and it is tasty. More than the culinary adventure, it is a fun experience to sit on the tiny stools, next to the extravagant rocking boats where cooks are working like on a production chain to keep up with the high demand. A very popular and lively spot!
Cross the Bosphorus to spend the afternoon on the other side
Before leaving Eminonu, have a look and a quick walk around the beautiful New Mosque (Yeni Camii) – #4 on the map. It was built during the 17th century.
Then, cross the Galata Bridge (#5) and reach Tünel (#6) by catching one of the oldest metros in the world. Enjoy a walk around the Galata Tower (#7), up the Istiklal Caddesi (#8), the most European street in Istanbul. Then stop in the middle (near Galatasaray High School) for tea on the roof of Bar 360 (#9). It has unbeatable views of Istanbul. When you finally reach Taksim (#10), catch a bus to Ortakoy (#11).
In Ortakoy, you can have tea along the Bosphorus while playing Backgammon. Stay until the sunset, when colours add some further charm. Finally, have a kumpir for dinner. It is a special dish from Ortakoy: a huge potato that you fill with whatever you want from the stall.
If you have time to spend three days in Istanbul (recommended!)
Enough of the city? I’d be surprised that you’d have enough of Istanbul just after a couple of days there. I highly recommend spending at least three days in Istanbul. But if you want to check out another epic destination in Turkey, these ones can be done as a day tour from Istanbul: Ephesus*, Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Troy*, Gallipoli*…
Otherwise, the below suggestions will take you to less-visited places in Istanbul for your third day in Istanbul:
Go to Asia
Keep the Bosphorus Tour for the 3rd Day. Instead, on the second day, take a boat to Asia by boarding a ferry to Kadikoy from Eminonu!
Go to an authentic area
With an extra day, it is an excellent opportunity to have a stop during the Bosphorus Tour. Rumeli Kavagi is I think a perfect option to discover another facet of Istanbul and avoid the tourist crowds. You can have lunch at a fish restaurant there. Read the full article here.
Try some Turkish typical leisures
Once back in the centre of Istanbul, try the hammam. To be honest, I do not think the massages were better than in Europe, but I found the experience very different and fun to try.
I love soccer, but my passion is nothing compared to Turkish fans. It is the most popular sport in Turkey and if you go there when there is a match, going to the Stadium is a real experience. I have heard from teams engaged in European competitions that playing there can be very impressive: the noise and the atmosphere are unique. Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray are the biggest teams to follow.
Has anything changed since 2010? Have I skipped something you loved in Istanbul? Please add your tips in the comments below!
Where to stay during your two-day or three day trip in Istanbul
I recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area, where most of the tourist attractions are located. Beyoglu (near the Galata Tower and Taksim Square) and Besiktas are two other good options. Other accommodations may be a bit far from the tourist attractions. You can see available hotels here*
Map of the weekend itinerary to spend two to three days in Istanbul
Bonus for extra time
Istanbul is at the limit of Europe and Asia, in Turkey. The international airport connects it easily to many European cities for an interesting cultural and historical getaway.
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Excellent article Eloise. I’m planning a trip to Europe next year and want to include Istanbul on my itinerary, so this is really very useful for me.
Thanks Corey! You’ll love Istanbul, it’s very unique in Europe, and in the world.