Updated on November 17, 2019
What if one told you that you only had 3 days in Istanbul? How would you do your planning to see as much as possible? Would you take several guided tours or you’d put together a list and visit everything in your own, self-guided tour through the city?
Whatever your choice, remember to add Yerebatan Sarnici (also known as the Sunken Palace or the Basilica Cistern) on your must-see list, because it is an impressive monument you may not be able to find anywhere else in the world, one of the best things to do in Istanbul on any kind of weather. The Basilica Cistern is the monument in Istanbul that impressed me the most. I can’t wait to get back there with a tripod and a wide lens to take some proper photos.
What You'll Read About
- How To Plan for Your 3 Days To Cover the Best Things To Do in Istanbul
- Bosphorus Cruise
- Hagia Sophia (Ayia Sophia)
- Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)
- Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque, Sultanahmet Camii)
- Topkapi Palace and Harem
- Dolmabahce Palace
- Whirling Dervishes – Mevlevei Sema Ceremony
- Sea Life Istanbul
- Istanbul Byzantine Monasteries Tour
- Istanbul Food and Culture Tour
How To Plan for Your 3 Days To Cover the Best Things To Do in Istanbul
These are 10 things to choose from. You’ll have plenty of activities to cover your 3 days in Istanbul. There are cool things to try and impressive historical places to visit.
If you are an early riser, you can do Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace in one day.
This is possible, but you should keep in mind that you may have to put up with huge lines.
You can avoid the Basilica Cistern line by showing up early in the morning, before it opens. As the cistern is very close to Hagia Sophia, that’s where you should head to as soon as you finish the underground tour.
What I loved about the Basilica Cistern tour was that it isn’t guided. You can stay inside for as much as you want, you can wait for people to go away, and you can take photos without anyone rushing you to move on. There’s even an underground cafe nearby the exit, so you can have a cup of coffee of some snacks, if you don’t mind the creepy decor with blind fish that thrive in the darkness.
Blue Mosque should be the next in line, and then Topkapi Palace and Harem. All these objectives are close to each other, so it makes sense to see them all in one half-day.
For the afternoon, you can head over to Dolmabahce Palace. If you move fast, you may also be able to take a 1.5 hours Bosphorus cruise.
In the evening, you can go to see the whirling dervishes in this Mevlevei Sema ceremony. Please note that the ceremony starts at 7pm and the venue isn’t wheelchair accessible. This is a one-hour show which includes complimentary drinks.
For the second day, you can take a tour of the Byzantine monasteries and visit Sea Life Istanbul.
For the last day of your Istanbul trip you can go on this food an culture tour.
In order to be close to all things to see in Istanbul, it’s best to choose a hotel somewhere in one of the central areas.
Here are a few deals on Istanbul hotels. Feel free to use them for your planning.
Please find below a description of all these things to do in Istanbul with details and photos. Feel free to schedule them as you see fit, so that you can make the most out of your three days in this beautiful city.
There are many options of Bosphorus cruises. you can opt for a dinner cruise with entertainment, with a 3.5 hours duration, but you can also choose a 2-hour afternoon boat tour. If you prefer to spend one full day on the water, you have the 8-hour cruise option that includes transfer from your hotel, lunch and the entrance to the museums included in the tour.
If you want to spend the New Year’s Even in Istanbul, you can choose a midnight cruise with an included party. I’m not a big fan of traveling around 1st of January, so I can’t tell you whether this is a good idea or not. However, some of my friends did it and they said it was cool.
Hagia Sophia (Ayia Sophia)
Hagia Sophia is one of the best things to see in Istanbul. Its fascinating history and its transformations from orthodox church to mosque and then to the museum it is today attract millions of tourists every year. Located in the Sultanahmet square, Hagia Sophia is famous for its huge dome and for its troubled history. Apparently, when the builder placed the dome on the building, the walls started to lean outward, hence calling for new walls to support this huge weight.
Although in dire need for restoration works, Hagia Sophia is still fascinating and definitely worth a visit. If you want to skip the line and to enjoy an introductory walk, click here to book your ticket at the price of today, Saturday, December 10th 2022.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)
This underground water tank is one of them most impressive architecture and engineering creations of the ancient world. The Basilica cistern looks like a sunken palace with huge pillars and arches. It used to deliver water to the entire city of Constantinople (the current name of the city is Istanbul not Constantinople, but the cistern dates back before this change). Initially able to accommodate 80,000 tons of water, it was enlarged to store 100,000 tons.
You can find Yerebatan Sarnici right in the Sultanahmet square, nearby Hagia Sophia. If you can’t see it, you’d better ask someone, as the outer part isn’t impressive at all, so it can be easily overlooked.
You can visit this monument as part of a bigger Istanbul tour like this one, here. Like that, you won’t have to worry about not finding the entrance or having to do the line. The best thing about these guided tours is that they offer you the skip the line opportunity which enables you to have more fun.
The pillars and the still water make an awesome photo opportunity. However, the dim light calls for a tripod, so make sure you have yours with you when you visit the Basilica Cistern. Also, a camera with manual settings would help a lot.
If you wonder where you’ve seen this image before, you should know that part of the video game Assassin’s Creed replicates this space. It was also used to shoot some sequences of a James Bond movie: From Russia with Love.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque, Sultanahmet Camii)
Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque isn’t a museum. It is an operational mosque where people come to pray. If you want to enter, you must take off your shoes and wear a decent outfit.Don’t show your shoulders and don’t wear shorts.
You can take photos inside the Blue Mosque, but you should do your best not to disturb the people who pray. It’s best to have a tripod and a wide aperture lens, in order to be able to shoot without a flash.
The Blue Mosque opens every day at 9am and it stays open until one hour before dusk. It closes during prayer time. The entrance is free, but you can make a donation if you wish. Outside the mosque you’ll see people washing their feet before entering. Tourists don’t have to do this (I’m not even sure if that’s allowed for non-muslim people).
Topkapi Palace and Harem
Topkapi Palace is so beautiful on the inside, that you don’t know where to look first. Intricate mosaics on the floors and on the walls make it a huge jewelry piece, a work of art that’s been amazingly preserved to this day.
Bonus tip: if you visit Istanbul in April, during the tulips festival, you’ll fall in love with the Topkapi gardens. Thew tulips festival is one of the things to see in Istanbul that isn’t available all year round – I’ve been lucky to get there in April, just in time for the lovely festival.
Don’t forget to visit the interior yard of the Harem wing of the palace. That’s where the Sultan kept his beautiful wives. The ugly ones were probably also here, but who saw their faces anyway, except for the Sultan?
Dolmabahce Palace was the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and home to the last Ottoman Sultans. Located in the European side of Istanbul, this palace is in the Besiktas district. The palace can be visited every day from 9am to 3pm, except for Mondays and Thursdays, when it is closed.
If you want to get from Sultanahmet square to Dolmabahce Palace, you should take the Bagcilar – Kabatas tram. This is a modern style tram with air conditioning. Comfortable and cheap, this modern tram runs from Sultanahmet Square to Kabatas, and it passes through Eminonu, Golden Horn and other central Istanbul areas. Jump on the tram and go until the last stop, which is in Kabatas district. This is the nearest stop to Dolmabahce. From here, you have to walk for about 10 minutes to get to Dolmabahce, but this is as close as you can bet to the palace by tram. You can read more about the palace and get some tips for visiting it here, on their official website.
If you don’t want to walk, you can take a taxi from Sultanahmet. However, you should keep in mind that traffic in Istanbul can get crazy, so you may have to spend a lot of time in traffic jams. I usually prefer to take long walks, as they help me discover hidden gems wherever I travel.
Whirling Dervishes – Mevlevei Sema Ceremony
The Melveli Sema ceremony, with its whirling dervishes and their fascinating dances, is a mystical journey that represents the spiritual ascent to perfection, achieved through mind and love.
You can book a ticket to this one-hour show in Istanbul here.
The show will take place in the the HodjaPasha Culture Center, in a restored 550-year-old Ottoman Turkish bath setting. You’ll meet your guide at the Sirkeci tram stop.
Beware that this event isn’t wheelchair friendly.
Apparently, taking photos is not allowed during the show. I found this video to show you what the Melveli Sema ceremony is all about.
Sea Life Istanbul
If you want something to do in Istanbul for the whole family, consider spending at least half day at Sea Life. You’ll see sharks, starfish, crabs and many other ocean creatures. Sea life is truly fascinating, but if you don’t dare to take a scuba diving class, you won’t be able to see all these amazing things unless you visit an aquarium.
The kids will be able to draw their own dream fish and to touch a starfish or a crab. You’ll walk through an underwater tunnel, so you’ll have the chance to see all those creatures swimming above your head.
Book your SEA LIFE Istanbul ticket here at the price of today, Saturday, December 10th 2022.
Istanbul Byzantine Monasteries Tour
If you love the Byzantine art and civilization or if you’d like to know more about the history of the Ottoman Empire, this guided tour is for you. You’ll see the ruin of the St. Polyeuktos Church, Pantokrator Church, Aspar Cistern, Tekfur Palace, the Chapel of St. John the Forerunner, the Monastery of St. Saviour in Chora, and Pammakristos Church among other beautifully preserved monuments. An expert guide will share with you some facts and myths behind these monuments. You’ll also have lunch at a Turkish restaurant.
This is a 7-hour tour, so you may not want to schedule other activities for this day. You can book your tickets for the tour here.
Istanbul Food and Culture Tour
If you want a taste of Istanbul, you may want to take a closer look at this 5-hour food tour of the city that includes both sides of the Bosphorus. The tour starts in the Sultanhamet square, then takes you by tram to Eminonu Port, where you’ll take a public ferry across the Bosporus Strait to Kadikoy Port on the Asia side of Istanbul.
Kadikoy is a lively neighborhood that features some cool local markets and a maze of narrow streets full of local food shops. At the fish market, you’ll have the opportunity to try some delicious mussels stuffed with rice and spices.
The tour includes a coffee break, as well as a tasting of home cooked food from the Kurdish area of south east Turkey.
There are also vegetarian and gluten free options available.
By the end of the tour, you’ll take the ferry back to Europe. This is a great photo opportunity of Istanbul panorama by night. The last stop will be a dessert place, followed by the visit to a 300-year-old madrasah that has been transformed into a café. Here you’ll taste a Turkish water pipe (narghile) and some traditional beverages such as sahlep, Turkish coffee and cay. All these are worth one of your three days in Istanbul.
Book your Istanbul Food and Culture tour here at the price of today, Saturday, December 10th 2022.
There are way more things to do in Istanbul than you can fit in 3 days. When you plan your itinerary, make sure you consider the duration of each of the above described activities. Some of them will require one full day, but others can be done in one hour or even less.
Have you been to Istanbul yet? What are your favorite things to do you’d recommend us?