Asia, Europe

The Perfect 3-Day Guide to Istanbul

Did you know that Turkey is the only country in the world that spans across two continents? Yep. Even though people commonly identify Turkey with Europe, only 5% of the country resides there while the other 95% lies in Asia.


As a bridge between the two continents, it is no wonder that it has ties to many different cultures. In fact, the cultural mecca of Istanbul is home to the second largest population in the world.

There are so many things to do and see in Istanbul. You can get a unique view of two continents at once while cruising down the Bosphorous, visit one of the largest and oldest markets in the world, and enjoy some incredible Turkish food. Whether you are there for a layover or mini vacation, this is the perfect guide for a 3-day trip to Istanbul.

Istanbul in 3 Days: Top Activities, Hotels, and Restaurants



Day 1

  1. Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square)
  2. Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
  3. Hagia Sophia
  4. Gulhane Park
  5. Try manti at a local café
  6. Topkapi Palace
  7. Dinner at Mikla
  8. Enjoy salep after dinner (during the winter months)

Day 2

Day Trip to Ephesus

Day 3

  1. Take a cruise down the Bosphorus
  2. Grand Bazaar
  3. Lunch at Nar Lokantasi
  4. Turkish Bath
  5. Dinner at Olive Anatolian Restaurant


Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square)

The Hippodrome was a horse-racing track during the Byzantine Empire. It also held parades, coronations and other ceremonies. It was a social center for over 1000 years!DSC_4012

Now it is a park near the Blue Mosque that features an Egyptian obelisk that was brought to Constantinople (i.e. Istanbul) in 390 AD.

Sultanahmet Mosque (AKA “The Blue Mosque”)

This beautiful mosque is still actively used today. It features six minarets, which is unusual, as only 2 other mosques in the world have this many minarets. The name Blue Mosque comes from the blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior.


Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is an amazing museum that has both Christian and Muslim influences. Both religions are evident throughout the museum by the tiles, architecture, and frescos on the walls.



Gulhane Park

Gulhane Park is adjacent to the Topkapi Palace. For many years the park served as the outer garden of the Ottoman imperial palace which was not open to the public. Now you can grab a bite to eat or something to drink at a local cafe overlooking the park. You will be surprised at the amount of stray dogs that call this park home. We found it interesting that these dogs are actually protected by the government.

Topkapi Palace

The palace was built in 1460 and completed in 1478. For hundreds of years the palace was the administrative, art and educational center for the empire. It is now a museum and open to the public. It holds over 300,000 archived artifacts!


Ephesus, Kusadasi

We loved this place! It is totally worth the trip if you can make it from Istanbul or via cruise. It is has both Greek and Turkish influences, and it has much slower pace compared to the city of Istanbul. While in Kusadasi, you have to visit the ancient city of Ephesus. Just remember to bring a head covering or umbrella if you go in the summer as there is very little shade.


The city of Kusadasi is situated on the water and features an amazing outdoor bazaar that is arguably better than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This is due to the quality of products available and fewer crowds.

Luxury Shopping in Harbiye

If you’re interested in luxury shopping while on vacation, then you definitely want to check out Harbiye. In this section of Istanbul, you will find stores like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Tom Ford. There is also a great restaurant, called the St. Regis-Brasserie where you can stop for lunch.

Bosphorus Cruise

We highly recommend the Bosphorous cruise since you get to see all the beautiful palaces and lots of different important landmarks from a different perspective. You can also say you have seen two continents at once as you will have Asia on one side and Europe on the other.


Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is definitely a must see! There are over 4,000 shops and you will find all kinds of purses, jewelry, rugs, souvenirs, spices, delicious Turkish delights, and more. You can even test out your negotiation skills to get a better price (which is quite fun).

Turkish Bath

If you’re looking to try something different and unique, you should definitely try a Hammam or Turkish bath. We’ve only tried it once at the Kempinski Palace spa, where we stayed our first time in Istanbul. It was a little bit out of our comfort zone as you are basically being bathed by another person, but it was so relaxing! Our attendant even sang to us during the experience. Thankfully her voice was incredible. It was an amazing experience and a must-try when visiting Istanbul.


Ciragan-Palace Kempinski

We stayed in the Kempinski palace our first time in Istanbul and it was 5 stars all around. From the service, room accommodations and the location on the Bosphorous, it is definitely worth the money.


The hotel used to be a palace during the Ottoman Empire and was recreated into a hotel. On the walls in the lobby you can see hundreds of celebrities who have stayed over the years; including Robert DeNiro.


 Yasmak Sultan Hotel

The Yasmak Sultan hotel is in a great location close to some of the major sites. We stayed here during our honeymoon and they were very accommodating. The price per night was very reasonable, and the restaurant at the top of the hotel was amazing!


Nar Lokantasi

If you are looking for a bite to eat near the Grand Bazaar, then look no further. This is an outstanding buffet conveniently located near the bazaar that we’ve eaten at both times in Istanbul.

It is so good and fairly priced. They have all different types of meats to choose from along with a salad and dessert bar. We highly recommend you order the dish called “mantisi,” which tastes kind of like a gnocchi or ravioli. You do have to order off their menu in addition to the buffet, but it is worth it!

St. Regis-Brasserie

The St.Regis-Brasserie is a great place to get a cheese board and to relax. They have a beautiful outdoor area and the food is fantastic.



Rated one of the best restaurants in Istanbul and it definitely lives up to the reviews. It is phenomenal and we highly recommend it.

Olive Anatolian Restaurant

This restaurant was conveniently located at the top of the Yasmak Sultan hotel during our honeymoon trip to Istanbul. We could not get over how good their kebabs were and the view of the city wasn’t too bad either.

Final Note about the Food

We highly recommend you try the drink Salep if you are in Istanbul during the winter months! It is like their comfort drink and many places offer it at this time of year.



Must-see: Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square), Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Bosphorus Cruise, Grand Bazaar, Turkish Bath

Go if you have time: Ephesus

Could have skipped: Gulhane Park, Luxury Shopping in Harbiye

Next time:  Cappadocia, Rumeli Fortress, Gallipoli day trip


Heading to Istanbul for a mini vacation? We would love to hear about your plans!

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