Sitting at the crossroads of two continents, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is a deeply historical, culturally significant and beautifully diverse city. Home to nearly 20 million people, Istanbul has this amazing clash of old and new, east and west, Christian and Islamic. Istanbul was such an easy place to travel with so many different things to do. Turkish food is amazing, Turkish people are so warm and welcoming.
Turkey was one of my favorite stops on my 90 day travel adventure in 2014, and I have been searching for an opportunity to go back ever since. It is truly one of my favorite cities in the world and is such an endlessly fascinating place to explore. And Istanbul was the perfect place to start my 3 month journey. I saw this amazing video about Turkey which is seriously one of the most beautiful and creative travel videos I’ve ever seen.
There are tons of museums, galleries, markets and historical sights to visit, so I would recommend budgeting at least a few days for your visit. I spent 5 days in Istanbul and even though I could have easily spent 2 weeks in this city, 5 days was enough time for me to see a majority of the major touristic sights that Istanbul has to offer.
Here is my itinerary suggestions for 5 perfect days in Istanbul, Turkey.
Day 1: Sultanahmet Historical Sights
I always find that it is best to start a city trip in the heart of the city and then work out to the neighborhoods from there, so for your first day in Istanbul, I would recommend starting at the historic and cultural center— Sultanahmet. Sultanahment is home to three key heritage sights that you will spend the day exploring: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace.
Before starting your tour of the major historic sights, I highly recommend using the three-day museum pass to gain entry. You get to skip the ticket line (which for Hagia Sofia was around the block and took 2 hours!) and go right in. We went right when the museum opened at 9, and it was still pretty empty. This gave us the opportunity to explore the mosque relatively in peace.
One of the most popular stops for tourists is the Blue Mosque. Known by worshipers as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this mosque is one of the largest working mosques in the city. It is often called the Blue Mosque because of the tiles on the interior as well as the domed roofs, both of which feature the bright blue color.
Since the Blue Mosque is a working mosque, it is important to follow local customs and dress more conservatively, with pants or skirts past your knees, and shirts (or shawl) to cover your head and shoulders.
The views from the public square outside the Blue Mosque are very nice, getting a good glimpse of the 9 domes; but once inside the courtyard, you can get an impressive and slightly imposing view of this enormous structure. Originally built as an imperial mosque, this place still looks modern even though it was built in the 1600s! The minarets are beautifully detailed with carvings and scripture. The interior is beautiful in its mastery of simplicity. The blue tiles line the walls and impressive domes, to give this mosque is well-known name.
Built in the 6th century, your next historical sight in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area is the Ayasofya. Also called Hagia Sofia mosque, this museum is a staple of the Istanbul skyline and their most popular downtown tourist destination. Originally a Orthodox cathedral, then a Catholic church, then a mosque then a museum, this building holds (quite literally) centuries of religious history in its walls. I loved seeing different religions coming together in one building as well as the different depictions and representatives that have been excavated.
When you walk in the Hagia Sofia main entrance, you enter into the cavernous main basilica. Restoration is currently underway, so be prepared to see some scaffolding. This was the largest cathedral in the world for over 1,000 years and you can certainly feel its impressiveness today. Directly in front of the entrance is the main chapel, where you see the famous Virgin & Child mosaic high in the half-dome. You are also drawn into the large plaques featuring Arabic surrounding the main cavern.
I recommend going to the upper gallery for an overhead view of the structure. This is also the location of the famous Christian mosaics of Jesus and biblical stories. You can even get an awesome view of the Blue Mosque, which is directly across the courtyard.
Your final stop on the first day of your 5 day itinerary in Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace. Home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the palace features 4 gardens with the living quarters around them. The first garden was available for public use during the empire, and features ancient trees and beautiful walkways. It also has a nice view of the Bosporus. The second courtyard was open to dignitaries, business men and other “people of influence”. Once you proceed to the third and fourth gardens, these are the ones that were exclusively used by the sultan and his family. There is a large library, gazebo and scenic overlook in these gardens.
Overlooking where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus, the view from the south corner of Topkapi Palace is the best view of Istanbul you could ask for!
If you got the 3 day pass, you can get access to the harem. Also known as the living quarters, this is where the palace really comes to life. I loved peering into the maze of rooms and wandering through the small passageways. The harem contained all of the sultan’s family and concubines, which sometimes number over 500. The best part of the harem however was all of the beautiful hand painted mosaics. Through the interior courtyards, bedrooms and hallways, you can see floor to ceiling tiles. The most impressive was obviously the sultan’s private quarters, but I was also quite impressed with the queen’s mom courtyard.
Day 2: Grand Bazaar & Street Food
Any reader of my blog knows I’m no stranger to a good shopping experience, especially when it comes to handcrafts and unique foreign art. I’ll market shop any day that ends in Y and the Grand Bazaar in downtown Turkey is truly a sight to see, even for those who don’t like shopping. It is full of amazing handcrafts, Turkish rugs, stunning lamps and all sorts of delightful treasures to discover.
The Grand Bazaar is a sprawling complex that would takes hours to explore if you wanted to see every part of it. I recommend budgeting about 2-3 hours to properly wander around and take in all the stimulating sights inside the market. Be prepared for sizeable crowds and to haggle over prices.
Once you’re done shopping, spend your afternoon eating your way through the streets of Istanbul! Nearby to the Grand Bazaar is Mısır Çarşısı market, which is full of spices, teas and lots and lots of Turkish street food. Street food is ubiquitous in Istanbul and on nearly every street, you can find a grilled corn vendor or roasted nut cart. Prior to my visit to Istanbul, I had never really had Turkish food but the food scene in Istanbul is top-notch, thanks to its unique combination of cultures, ingredients and cuisine.
Turkish food is a very interesting cuisine, because it has so many different influences. There is a large Mediterranean influence (obviously since its on the Mediterranean sea), which means lots of olives, tomatoes, oils and fish. You also see a large Middle-Eastern influence, so pork is nearly non-existent and figs, nuts, kebabs and eggplant are very common. Additionally, Asian influences round out this unique cuisine. Curry spices, peppers and tandoori grills can be found everywhere! There is so much flavor in even the simplest dishes, which makes it a joy to eat here.
One of the most popular Turkish street foods is kebab. Available in chicken or “meat” (usually lamb & beef combination), the kebab chefs shave off slices of juicy meat right in front of your eyes as the meat spins around a vertical oven. It is served in a variety of different ways, including just meat, on a bun (doner) or in a wrap (durum). We tried all three types of kebab during our visit to Istanbul! I definitely preferred the “meat” option, since it was juicier and retained more flavor. Sam’s favorite street food was the doner, kebab meat in a fresh baguette with pickled vegetables and a couple french fries!
Kumpir is another tasty street food delight. Similar to a loaded baked potato, kumpir is a gigantic baked potato stuffed with cheese and pickled veggies and topped with a spicy pepper sauce. Surprisingly delicious, you need to eat this dish with a fork as the potato and veggies will get everywhere.
The last Turkish street food delight to try is an Islak hamburger. Described to us as a soggy hamburger, I was less than excited to try this local favorite. But a couple of guys at the hostel convinced us and sent us to a local joint to give it a try. It is “soggy” because the bun is dipped in a creamy tomato sauce (like a french dip) before the meat is put on the sandwich. Usually served in a dish, grab extra napkins before trying this treat. But it is well worth the mess—this burger was so yummy!
Although not technically a street food, Turkish Delights can be found in window displays all around the city and are a must-try Turkish food! A classic desert in Istanbul, Turkish delights made from starch and sugar with a range of different flavors added to create a spongy, marshmallow-like dessert. Try whichever flavor sounds good to you! I was a fan of the pistachio and nut varieties, but same really like the fruit and ginger flavors.
To wash down all the savory items you’ve just eaten, grab a cup of freshly squeezed fruit juice! One of the first things you’ll notice on the streets of Istanbul is all the fruit juice sellers. They’re on nearly every corner. You can watch them press the fruit right in front of you. Sam and I got juice nearly every day and tried an assortment of flavors. The pomegranate is super intense, very sour, but I really enjoyed the blood orange flavor. Lemon was another popular choice and will leave you feeling super cleansed!
Day 3: Neighborhood Tours of Karakoy and Beyoglu
Now that you’ve visited some of the major tourist sights in Istanbul, it’s time to get into the neighborhoods of the city and the best areas to explore are Karakoy and Beyoglu! These lively areas are full of shops, food and historical sights which can fill day 3 of your 5 day itinerary in Istanbul.
You can start your day in the heart of Karakoy and make your way northeast towards Beyoglu. A good way to see the whole area is from the top of the Galata Tower. Even though the lines can get long, going up to the top of the Galata Tower is worth it. Originally built as a guard and watch tower in the 6th century, the tower was rebuilt again out of stone in the 13th century. Once at the tower, there is no need to climb the 500+ foot tower. They’ve installed a modern elevator for visitors! Up top, there are 2 restaurants and a stunning 360 view of the city. From that height, you can get a real appreciation for the size and beautiful location of Istanbul. As far as you can see in any direction is city and water. It’s quite impressive.
Recommended to us by a friend who lives in Istanbul, Refik was by far the best meal we ate during our time in Istanbul and serves an excellent lunch or dinner in Beyoglu. Located just off Istiklal street, this family owned joint is known for meze. Similar to tapas or small plates, you order as you go and can try a variety of different cold and hot appetizers. Our bevy of cold mezes included a white bean dill paste topped with olive oil, a spicy tomato & parsley couscous, salted honeydew with feta and the table favorite, a garlic, tomato and eggplant salad with yogurt dressing. We washed down the meal with a local liquor called Raki, an anise flavored clear alcohol. Mixed with water, it clouds up and goes down easy.
A famous pedestrian area, Istikal Avenue is a great spot for people watching at night. I was truly amazed by the sheer amount of people that pass through this mile long stretch. No matter what time of the day you’re there (believe me, we went in the middle of the day and the middle of the night), it will be lively! It’s lined with shops, mostly chain stores, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, and turkish delight stands. Explore a few of the side streets nearby for some of the best restaurants and bars in town. There’s a street car that rides up the middle if your feet get tired, and tons of street performers to keep you entertained. Leave yourself some time to wander around, because I guarantee you’ll be allured by this place.
Istikal Avenue ends at Taksim Square, a massive public square made famous during the Arab Spring as the heart of protesting in Istanbul. Taksim Square hosts events throughout the year, so check the calendar to see if there is anything going on during your visit. If not, it will still be a lively spot to people-watch as you eat some street food!
Day 4: Bosphorus Coast Cruise
High on my list of activities for Istanbul was to take a boat cruise on the Bosporus. I am a sucker for views and boats, so this was a natural must-do. There are a ton of private companies that try and hawk tourists on an expensive tour. A much better, cheaper and easy option is to take the public Bosporus tour.
As recommended by Witt Hotels Magazine, Sam & I took the Şehir Hatları line for the full Bosporus tour. Located right at the Eminou tram stop, this was super convenient and easy. Keep an eye on the official time table for the most current information about departure times. For us, there were 2 departures daily with 2 return options. I would also recommend getting there early, as the window seats fill up quickly.
With the full Bosporus tour, the ferry takes about 2 hours and you ride it all the way to the mouth of the Black Sea. Along the river, there are many things to see including some of the Sultan’s summer palaces, abandoned forts and modern bridges. There is also some lovely and unique architecture to admire along the way. I had my camera in hand the whole time, and it was a great way to beat the heat of the day. The cool breeze off the water was so refreshing!
Sam and I decided to take the ferry to the final stop, Kavagi, since there is a small fort there with great views. Located on the top of a steep hill, the hike was well marked and paved, as long as you can handle the steep grade. We were certainly sweaty by the top! But the view made it well worth it. We got to see the mouth of the black sea as well as the construction of a new bridge. When you turned the other way, you could see a long stretch of the river as well as all the incoming boat traffic.
Day 5: Relax at Hammam and Explore Asia Side of Istanbul
For your last day in Istanbul, why not relax! One of the things I was really excited to try in Turkey was a hammam. A traditional Turkish bath, these public places have been a staple in Turkish culture for hundreds of years. There are many hammam’s throughout the city and some are very historic, dating back to the 10th century.
In a typical hammam, there are multiple rooms (gender separated) including a steam room with a large central stone, a washing room and a cooling room. I opted for Aya Sofia Hammami, a historical albeit over-priced hammam located near the Hagia Sofia in Sultanahmet. The hammam was renovated a few years ago and is now one of the nicest spots in town.
Similar to a spa, you have the option for self-service or pay for professional spa services. I paid for the hammam services and had an attendant with me throughout the process.
Not for the self-conscious, visiting a hammam is a full nude, full body-scrub washing experience. The attendant will get up in your business, so be ready.
My attendant, Samrya, started by taking me to the steam room where you essentially sweat out all of the toxins. I had my own washing station with a gold bowl and sink to rinse as I steamed. Samrya returned after about 20 minutes to do the traditional Turkish scrub.
Wearing an exfoliating glove, she rubbed me down to slough off all the dead skin on your body. Obviously the glove is rough, but Samrya was as gentle as she could be while still effectively exfoliating my skin.
Next came the washing portion of the experience. Using traditional oils and soaps, you get super lathered up and the attendant helps wash you down. Finally, comes the oil massage. Everyone’s favorite part, the 30 minute massage was just what I needed to relax and get my muscles back to their normal state after all the walking we’ve been doing lately. Overall, I was really impressed with my experience at the hammam. I was certainly nervous at first, but I’m that I went because I left feeling clean, relaxed and reinvigorated.
For your final night in Istanbul, get a different vantage point of the city by heading over to the Asian side of Istanbul. Called Kadikoy, the side of Istanbul on the Asian continent has a different vibe and feel, as well as minimal crowds. It feels cleaner but also more conservative giving an interesting window in the multicultural mix of Istanbul. Kadikoy and this part of Istanbul is under-the-radar with tourists and definitely more off-the-beaten path.
You are likely to take a ferry and get dropped off in the Moda neighborhood, which has a packed shorefront walkway full of shops, private clubs and one of the main city marinas. Popular for party-goers, this part of the neighborhood can get pretty rowdy at night.
One thing that stood out to me about the Asian side of Istanbul was the artsy vibe. It feels a little bit more hipster with funky coffee shops, boutique hotels and LOTS of interesting street art. I had a nice night just walking around the streets in this area and discovering spots for myself.
What You Need to Know About Traveling in Istanbul
Public Transportation is Easy!
It’s so easy to get around in Istanbul, and I was shocked by how many people spoke English. Plus if you get lost, people will definitely help you out! My favorite way to explore the city was the streetcar. It goes from the airport into the city, and covers lots of different areas. It’s easy to figure out and you pay before you get on, so you don’t have to worry about holding people up. And then at each stop, the map will list the famous landmarks and sites at the stop. It’s like it was designed for touring the city! Although it closes at midnight, it’s still a great resource for getting around Istanbul.
Great Tourism Infrastructure
I found Istanbul to be easy to navigate from a tourist perspective. All of the signs were in both English and Turkish, and I found many people, especially in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, spoke excellent English. I really appreciated the thoughtful tourist infrastructure in the city, like listing the tourist sites underneath the name on all the public transportation stops and having student volunteers wearing “Ask Me for Help” shirts all around the major tourist destinations.
Turkish Culture is All About Hospitality
What I enjoyed most during my five day travel itinerary in Istanbul was the local culture. I really enjoyed meeting local people in the city and I found the Turkish people to be incredibly welcoming and excited about visitors.Turks are a proud people, and are more than happy to show you around, help you find your hotel or chat with you over a cup of tea. The people are always what make your experience, and Istanbul in particular really excels in creating an inviting atmosphere to travel in.