Istanbul is the door between Europe and the Middle East and one of the most incredible cities in the world! Although when visiting Istanbul on a schedule, it may be easy to miss some iconic places. In this guide we are going to see the most beautiful places to visit when in Istanbul for at least 3 days. Let’s see them!
Table of contents
The most beautiful places to visit when in Istanbul
Before you dive in a quick note on how this guide works. Every place is listed following its geographical location, so that it’s simpler for you to follow the guide and visit them all in about 3 days. In case you want to easily locate all these attractions you can track them on the map below.
1. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet neighborhood is home to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And its most important square is Sultanhamet Square.
Why is it so iconic?
Because from the centre of the square you have the unique view on Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Facing one another from the opposite sides of the square. In addition to the religious buildings, you will also see the Obelisk of Theodosius. This monument is an ancient obelisk from 1400 BC that was transferred in Constantinople (ancient name for Istanbul) by Theodosius I.
Do you want to do an extra activity at night?
Consider visiting the iconic square with its fountains and gardens. At night Sultanahmet the ambiance in this square is absolutely magical. From the fountains to the gardens. And of course, also Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque defying each other. It’s a must do activity!
2. Hagia Sophia
There is so much history behind Hagia Sophia. Once a church, in 1453 it became a mosque. From 1934 to 2020, Hagia Sophia was a museum. But following the decisions of the Turkish government, since summer 2020 it is once again an active mosque. Which means that when visiting women must cover their head and dress in long covering clothes (men as well must wear long clothes). You will also have to take off your shoes, remember to wear socks!
The visit of Hagia Sophia will let you also discover the Hippodrome, an open-air museum that contains ruins of the ancient Constantinople. Since Hagia Sophia has become a mosque, there is no fee to enter. But the place is often very crowded.
Also, as it’s a place of worship you should avoid visiting during praying time. And especially at Friday noon.
Did you know? Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom from Greek.
Pro tip: Visit the mosque in the late afternoon. There are less crowds, but most important sun’s rays enter the large stained glass creating beautiful light effects.
Opening time: 24 hours daily
Website: Hagia Sophia
3. Blue Mosque
One of the most famous mosques in the world and one of Istanbul’s landmarks is the Blue Mosque. The name comes from the blue tiles that were used to decor the interiors. Although the legend says that the name comes from the sailors who saw the sea reflection on the mosque. Legend or not, the interiors of the Blue Mosque are splendid to admire.
Just like Hagia Sophia, it’s a place of worship and you will be required to dress accordingly. Women must wear scarves and you will have to take off your shoes.
Opening time: 9 AM to 5 PM
4. Basilica Cistern
There is a secret kingdom under Istanbul surface, the cisterns world. The largest and most interesting to visit among them? The Basilica Cistern, our last stop in Sultanahmet’s neighborhood.
In Istanbul there are more than a hundred underground cisterns. So why is this the most interesting? First because it’s one of the two that is still open to the public. But what makes the Basilica Cistern unique are the 336 marble columns that support the ceiling.
While visiting, pay attention to the two Medusa column bases in the northwest corner. They are inverted and sideways to neutralize the power from the Gorgons’ gaze.
Fun facts: The cistern appeared in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love.
Opening time: 9 AM to 5 PM
Entrance fee: 190 TL (10€)
5. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is the most beautiful palace in Istanbul. Unsurprisingly it was the residential palace of Ottoman sultans. The interiors feature impressive work of art, and the tile work of the surfaces is impressive itself.
When visiting I highly recommend booking the ticket to the Harem as well. The Harem will let you have a glimpse of what life looked like back in time.
Pro tip: make sure to get there early, before 10 AM. The palace gets crowded very soon and the line can be quite long. It’s worth being among the first visitors at the opening.
Opening time: 9 AM to 6 PM, closed on Tuesday
Entrance fee: 320 TL (17€)
420 with the Harem (20€)
Website: Topkapı Palace
6. Istanbul Archaelogical Museum
Following its visit to Paris and its archaeological museum, the sultan Abdulaziz was so impressed that he ordered the construction of a similar museum in Istanbul. The Istanbul Archaeological Museum was born.
Next to Topkapi Palace, Istanbul Archaelogical Museum is a must see when visiting Istanbul, especially if you are passionate about art and history. Among their most famous pieces there is one of the lions from Babilon’s Ishtar Gate and Alexander the Great Sarcophagus.
The cutest addition to the Museum? The hundreds furry friends wandering among the Museum’s gardens. Miauuu
Opening time: 9 AM to 6.30 PM during Winter (1 November to 30 March)
9 AM to 8 PM during Summer (1 April to 31 October)
Entrance fee: 100 TL (5€)
Website: Istanbul Archaeology Museums
7. Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest markets in the world! And also one of the biggest. Its surface runs on 30.700 m²; with more than 4000 shops and 61 alleys. So how is it organized? In areas. Meaning that if you need a specific product (clothes, jewellery, spices, etc…) you will find it into a specific area.
Even so be prepared, you will get lost once inside.
But don’t worry, there are many different entrances through its walls. And I can guarantee you once you will be inside you will enjoy exploring. The only unpleasant thing? The pushy vendors trying to lure you to their shops. That’s nonstop and may be tiring. Although that’s common to the Turkish culture and you will go through this kind of interactions during all the journey.
In the same fashion you should bargain while shopping. The vendors will try to charge tourists more in any case. But bargain is almost an obligation when buying in Turkey. I remember when first arriving a vendor plainly telling me to negotiate the price of a clock because he was trying to sell it to me at a too high price.
So do not be afraid to ask for lower prices, on the contrary!
Opening time: 10 AM to 7 PM, closed on Sunday
8. Spice Bazaar
Dive in a cloud of smells and colors inside the smaller Spice Bazaar. A few minutes from the Grand Bazaar, you can find the colourful Spice Bazaar. Despite its name, you will find also souvenirs and delicious food to try or buy, such as Turkish Delights or Halva.
It’s a great place to take photos as well!
When visiting don’t forget to mind your bag for pickpockets and just like in Grand Bazaar you are invited to bargain when buying from a stand.
Opening time: 9 AM to 7 PM
9. Galata Tower
According to the legend (and who knows, maybe true story), Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi a famous scientist and inventor, flew for the first time over the Bosphorus leaping from the roof of the tower.
Galata Tower was built in the 13th century as a watchtower in the neighborhood of Galata. Following the Turkish conquest, it became a prison. Now it hosts an interesting museum about Istanbul’s story.
But above all what will take your breath away is the 360° view of Istanbul.
Inside the tower there is an elevator that will take you to the 6th floor. Although from that you have to climb the stairs to reach the two observation decks, it’s nothing too difficult but people with reduced mobility should avoid this attraction.
Opening time: 8.30 AM to 10 PM during Winter (1 November to 30 March)
8.30 AM to 11 PM during Summer (1 April to 31 October)
Entrance fee: 175 TL (9€)
Website: Galata Tower
10. Dolmabahce Palace
Did you know? Dolmabahce Palace is the biggest palace in Turkey!
And of course, one of the most important landmarks of Istanbul. It was built around 1843 and 1856 and it costed the equivalent of 1.9 billion in 2021! Yes that’s quite a LOT! For these reasons when it comes to wonders you will see many when visiting Dolmabahce Palace.
This is definitely a must-see place to visit when in Istanbul. Just don’t forget (schedule allowing) to visit it after Topkapi Palace. Dolmabahce Palace comes chronologically after Topkapi Palace, as a result of it being “outdated” in the 18th century. You will see a lot of western influences comparing to Topkapi which is an excellent example of Ottoman architecture.
Note: it’s forbidden to take photos inside the palace.
Opening time: 9 AM to 6 PM
Entrance fee: 300 TL (15€)
11. The Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait is the natural border between Europe and Asia. And one of the most strategical locations. Throughout the centuries many different powers fought over the control of it. Nowadays these calm waters are an important passage between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea and the Mediterranean.
Cruising on the Bosphorus will let you admire the main landmarks of Istanbul.
There are many different types of cruises with different durations. You can also sail at all times of the day. During the day it’s excellent to admire Istanbul and its landmarks. Although for 35€ I’d invest in a cruise with dinner at night! It’s indeed a charming experience and there are even dancers on board to create the perfect ambiance.
Travel smart: book a museum pass
If you are planning to visit more than 4 museums or attractions, you can save some money on the Museum Pass. In the same site you will also find options if you are visiting other cities or regions, I’m thinking of Cappadocia for example. The Istanbul pass is at 700 TL, about 35€. While the Turkey pass is 1000 TL, 50€.
If you are looking for fun activities to do read this next: 15 Unusual and Fun things to do in Istanbul (also with kids).
There are so many incredible places to visit when in Istanbul and you shouldn’t stop there! Cappadocia is one of the most beautiful and magical places on our planet! There are so many histories and natural wonders to explore. I have also prepared the perfect travel guide for you when visiting! And if you are into road trips, I’d absolutely recommend doing the itinerary between Cappadocia and Pamukkale in an epic journey through time and history.
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