Things to see in Istanbul in 3 days

We spent two weeks in beautiful Turkey this summer, or as you are supposed to say, Türkiye. We had a very busy schedule and tried to accomplish a lot during our stay. The very first part of our Turkish journey began in Istanbul, one of the largest and oldest cities in the world, where we spent a few days.

Greek settlers founded Istanbul in the 7th century B.C. The city served as an imperial capital for almost 1600 years: during the Roman, Latin, late Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. This city, rich in history and culture, attracts millions of tourists every year. If you are only visiting Istanbul for a short period – this itinerary is about must-see and must-try things in the city.

We tried to focus on one area at a time and explore it on foot rather than spending time getting around. A city like Istanbul is a combination of cultures, historic and contemporary architecture. It’s full of unique details in every corner, best discovered when you leisurely walk around.

Things to Know Before You Go

Here are some things to know before your trip to Istanbul:

  1. Pack comfortable shoes; Istanbul is a city on hills, always consider that you might stumble upon occasional stairs or very steep uphill streets (especially while walking with a stroller).
  1. Turkey doesn’t have strict clothing rules for both men and women. You can wear whatever you like, such as shorts and flip-flops (except in some religious places).
  2. Public restrooms are abundant, but they’re not free so prepare to pay 2 TRY per person (cash only).
  3. People smoke. Everywhere. All the time. As we were told once at one of the restaurants, while dining on their patio and wanting to switch tables to a less smoky corner – “people come, people smoke” 🤷🏻‍♀️.
  4. Consider getting souvenirs, such as a box of sweets or magnets from the supermarkets: Migros, KIM, A101, as it’ll be much cheaper than at bazaars that target tourists.

Money in Turkey

  1. Credit cards are accepted mostly everywhere except in some small establishments. Make sure you use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase World of Hyatt. Furthermore, it’s always good to have some cash on you.
  2. Amex is not widely accepted, so make sure to bring a Visa or Mastercard.
  3. Turkish currency is the Turkish Lira (TRY). The exchange rate fluctuates, so it would be wiser to withdraw cash from an ATM when you’re already there.
  4. Before your trip, get a free Schwab Checking account and debit card. Schwab will refund all foreign ATM fees.
  5. ATMs are available everywhere; make sure not to choose the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) option when you withdraw money to get the best exchange rate.

Day 1

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Taksim Square

On the very first day in Istanbul, we decided to explore the Beyoğlu district of the city and started our day by walking to Taksim Square.

Taksim Square is considered to be in the very heart of Istanbul. It’s a bustling part of the city with shops, restaurants, and street food! Right in the center of the square is the Republic Monument, honoring the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

While these little street food carts in the picture above are everywhere and people love eating their favorite roasted chestnut and corn, be careful and watch your step around them as some have greasy oil spilled around. Sophia fell on her bottom while we were walking by; gladly, she was fine, just got a little scared. 😬

When you pass Taksim Square, you are on the famous almost a-mile-long pedestrian İstiklal Avenue! The Avenue is full of cafes and shops and has a quaint tram running through it. While this street is considered the busiest in Istanbul (which has a 15 million people official population!), this time, we got lucky by being there Sunday morning and avoiding the crowds.

The Galata Tower

We kept walking towards the Galata quarters to see the iconic Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower). Built in 527 A.D. and rebuilt in 1348, this tower was used as a lighthouse, a watchtower, and a prison during different reigns.

Now it’s an iconic Istanbul monument and a museum, you can go up the stairs to the top of the tower and enjoy the beautiful panoramic views of Istanbul.


Just a short distance from the Tower, there is a Galataport where you can have your first encounter with the famous Bosphorus. You can spend some time in the shopping center and grab a bite at one of the cafes, or take a nearby ferry (from Karaköy Pier) on the strait to the other part of the city.

Since the very first day in the city could be a little overwhelming (especially when changing time zones as drastically as we did, with 10 hours difference), we had already planned to take a Bosphorus tour instead on the next day.


Turkish meat kebabs

When in Turkey, you absolutely have to try the meat kebabs (charcoal-cooked meat skewers).

💡 Good to Know

When choosing a place to eat, remember that apps such as Yelp are not popular in Turkey; you’ll notice that restaurants there would only have 7-10 reviews at most.
We had to simply type the kind of food we were looking for in Google Maps and read the reviews and recommendations there.

We walked to Zübeyir Ocakbaşı/Taksimsat and enjoyed our lunch on their outdoor patio. It was delicious! We highly recommend this place if you’re in the area.

Turkish desert – Baklava

Another must-try is the Turkish dessert – Baklava, a sweet many-layered flaky dessert with nuts. We went to a little specialty cafe called Pier Habib, which had dozens of different flavors, with different nuts and types of chocolate. Most importantly, this place had a unique way of serving their baklava – in cold milk, which is not a very common thing. It was very moist and rich in flavor; we finished the whole box in a heartbeat 😋.

Turkish tea

You might not be much of a tea lover, but if you are in Istanbul and have not tried hot Turkish tea on a hot summer day while sitting outside and watching people, you truly are missing out. Every single cafe and restaurant will serve Turkish tea, and you must absolutely try it.

Day 2

On the next day, we took a taxi to the historical part of the city and started by visiting one of the most incredible mosques!

💡 Good to Know

How to get a taxi:

1. By simply hailing one. Remember to agree on the price first, and pay either with a credit card or cash upon arriving.
2. Download an app called BiTaksi and request a taxi there. The app conveniently accepts credit cards.
3. There is no official Uber in Turkey, instead Uber partnered with local taxi companies but in our experience, there are fewer drivers available so we would recommend booking through BiTaksi instead.

Hagia Sophia

Built in 537 A.D., Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian church of the Byzantine Empire, later a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the Latin Empire, and a mosque during the Ottoman Empire! In 1935 the Republic of Turkey decided to declare the building a museum.

Until just recently it was a museum and the most popular tourist attraction of Turkey and finally became a mosque again in 2020.

An interesting fact is that some of the Byzantine Christian icons were not removed from the interior when Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and you can still spot them inside, making this mosque very unique.

💡 Good to Know

There are a few important things to remember when visiting Hagia Sophia:

1. The mosque is open from 9 am to 7 pm.
2. There is always a line to get in; it could take up to 30 minutes or an hour, depending on the time of the day or day of the week.
3. There is no entrance fee.
4. There is a specific dress code (this applies to all the mosques) to enter Hagia Sophia. Women should cover their heads, shoulders, and knees. You can purchase a one-time use robe or a scarf at the entrance.
5. No shoes are allowed in the building; you must leave them in a locker in the front hall.

Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a beautiful Ottoman-era mosque (also known as Blue Mosque) built in 1616 and located within minutes of Hagia Sophia. It gets its name from the color of the tiles of its interior design. Nowadays is a fully functioning mosque that you can visit.

Unfortunately, it was closed that day for reconstruction and we weren’t able to go inside.

Sultanahmet Square and Hippodrome

What we call these days Sultanahmet Square used to be an ancient Byzantine Hippodrome, dating back to the 4th century when Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire. Hippodromes were very popular and were used for horse and chariot racing.

Check out the model of this hippodrome that we stumbled upon at one of the museums. It is believed to be 1,476 ft (450 m) long and 427 ft (130 m) wide and could hold up to 100,000 people.

There are three monuments in a heart of the hippodrome – the Egyptian Obelisk, the Colossus, and the Serpentine Column, they all played a significant role and actually appeared on the hippodrome at different times.

Interestingly enough that the Egyptian Obelisk arrived in Istanbul in 390 A.D. but was actually built in 1450 B.C., making it one of the oldest monuments in Istanbul.


Did you know that there are dozens of ancient cisterns underneath Istanbul? They were built as Constantinople’s water system during the Byzantine Empire. There are a few cisterns that you can visit, such as Basilica Cistern which is the largest one by purchasing a ticket, or you can also hire a local tour guide that can get you into some other smaller ones. Funnily enough, the one that we visited was underneath a regular-looking Turkish rug store 😃.

Bosphorus tour

After exploring the area around Hagia Sophia, we planned on taking a Bosphorus tour, so we walked to the Eminönü port.

Walking in Istanbul – one minute you’re on a quiet historical street, and the next thing you know you’re in a busy neighborhood full of shops bustling with life.

The Bosphorus is a 19 mi (31 km) long natural strait that divides the Eurasian continent into Europe and Asia and connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The strait plays a major role in the world’s trade of goods and natural resources. Interestingly enough, the strait goes right through Istanbul, separating it into Asian and European parts.

You can take a 90-minute narrated Bosphorus tour which can be a good way to sit and relax after a day of walking and enjoy the city views from a different perspective.

💡 Good to Know

• The cost of the tour is 60 TRY per adult, free for children.
• The tour leaves from the Eminönü port.
• You don’t need a reservation, the tour accepts walk-ins.
• It can get a little windy on the upper deck so bring a light sweater.

The tour starts by facing Europe on the way there and ends facing Asia on the way back.

It was a truly majestic experience, some of us, still being jet-lagged, took a good nap though 🤭.


Turkish pide

Pide is a traditional Turkish baked flatbread either with cheese or meat, it’s a must-try when you’re in Istanbul, and in our opinion, the right place to do it is at the family-owned restaurant called Kuveloğlu Han which is located in an old inn.

The restaurant can be a bit hard to find since there are no visible signs outside indicating that there’s a restaurant in a run-down-looking building. Don’t let the looks of the building deceive you, pide at this restaurant is worth the hype, and the family that owns the restaurant is very welcoming. Make sure to bring cash, as the restaurant is cash-only.

So glad we followed a local’s tip and went to this restaurant, as they have the best pide in town, absolutely approved by all of us! 

Fine dining at Mikla

Istanbul is a city of contrasts where you can get very cheap street food on one corner or dine at a top-rated restaurant on another one.

Mikla is a rooftop fine dining restaurant located on the top floor of the Marmara Pera hotel. It features a 3-course menu for a fixed price per person. The menu explores new interpretations of traditional Turkish plates, such as manti and grilled fish. The restaurant has amazing panoramic views of the city that you can enjoy while you dine.

💡 Good to Know

You need to make a reservation at Mikla in advance and provide your credit card number, you’ll be charged a fee in case of a no-show or late cancellations.

Although Mikla is one of Istanbul’s best-rated restaurants and sure has an interesting menu and exquisite way of serving food we did not think that it was worth the price that we paid and expected more from this place. Maybe it was the crying baby or us still jet-lagged but the food and service were not as memorable as we thought they would be.

Day 3

Dolmabahçe Palace

The Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1856 by one of the Ottoman Sultans and once served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire.

Now it’s open to the public as a museum and you can visit the palace yourself to witness the sultan’s luxurious residential quarters with golden decor, crystal chandeliers, an art gallery, and a garden.

It’s located right on the Bosphorus strait (you pass by it when taking the Bosphorus tour) and now is the largest palace in Turkey, with 285 rooms!

💡 Good to Know

1. The cost of admission to the Dolmabahçe Palace recently increased and now is 300 TRY ($17) per person.
2. The Palace is open from 9 am to 4 pm.
3. There is a cafe on the property where you can get hot or cold refreshments and some pastries.
4. Consider spending at least a few hours there, as the property is extensive and offers various sightseeing.

The museums are not accessible, so if you’re planning to take a stroller there, you’ll have to leave it parked outside which is not very convenient.

The streets of Istanbul

We think that Istanbul is best to be explored on foot as you can venture yourself into old picturesque neighborhoods, narrow streets, little shops, cafes, and vibrant street life. It’s best if you can set some time apart in your busy sightseeing itinerary and just stroll around city streets.

The cats of Istanbul

Istanbul is home to numerous cats, the true İstanbullus. Cats are absolutely everywhere, living seemingly unbothered life, casually passing you by, or just sleeping on a sidewalk. You simply can’t picture Istanbul without a cat on the street.

Sophia is a very big fan of cats so she would literally yell “take a picture of this cat!” at every cat that she saw! We decided not to bore you with 49 pictures of cats that we took and post just a few of them 😸.


Turkish Lahmacun

Another food that you must try in Istanbul is Turkish lahmacun – thin and crispy flatbread with ground meat, vegetables, and spices. We went to the restaurant called Baran where we had delicious lahmacuns, pide, and tea and topped it off with a Turkish dessert called Katmer.

Baran had an amazing outdoor patio on a quiet street. We highly recommend this place!

Bottom Line

Istanbul is definitely a place that needs to be on your bucket list. It’s uniquely diverse in culture, history, architecture, and food. Istanbul has so much to offer to travelers that it’s obviously hard to fit everything in 2 or 3 days, especially when traveling with the little ones. We’d say we were only able to explore one-tenth of the city!

Like any other big city in the world, it has traffic, crowds, air quality issues, and safe and not safe neighborhoods, so adjust your expectations accordingly, and you will be able to enjoy all the amazing things that Istanbul is famous for.

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