Istanbul is a heady mix of east and west with intriguing history, cool museums, hipster cafes and oh so on-trend rooftop bars. Here’s our 5-day Istanbul itinerary to help you see it all.


Istanbul is a centre with many personalities. Straddling two continents it harmonises old and new, east and west. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Roman Empire for over 1,000 years before the Ottoman Turks captured it in 1453, renamed it Istanbul and made it the centre of an Islamic Caliphate. But this legacy has not left it clinging to some glorious past. Ancient churches, timeless mosques and baroque grand palaces, sit seamlessly next to the lively neighbourhoods of a new and modern Turkey.

One morning you’re staring up at glittering golden mosaics on Byzantine church domes, that afternoon you’re staring up at contemporary art in a pop-up museum. You’re sampling eastern flavours in the grand bazaar for lunch, then sipping beer on a rooftop bar as the sun goes down, before being fully engrossed in an ancient Islamic ceremony.

With so much to occupy the senses, we recommend a 5-day Istanbul itinerary to really come to grips with this fascinating conurbation. Learn some history, check out local neighbourhoods, discover what makes this metropolis tick.

5 DAY ISTANBUL ITINERARY OVERVIEW

Day 1 / Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque and ancient Constantinople

Day 2 / Modern İstiklal Caddesi, Spice Bazaar and Asian Istanbul

Day 3 / Brunch in Ortaköy, Dolmabahçe Palace, Whirling Dervishes and rooftop bars

Day 4 / Ancient city walls, Chora church, cool art and cafés in Karaköy

Day 5 / Süleymaniye Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapı Palace


WHY GO TO ISTANBUL?

East meets west in a confluence of flavours and styles

Magnificent mosques, iconic churches and baroque palaces

Exploring the history of two remarkable world empires

Capturing sunset reflected on sparkling blue and white terraces

Funky modern art, cool cafes, chilled rooftop bars

Local neighbourhoods each with their own vibe

It’s cheap, really cheap

5-day Istanbul Itinerary: Uncovering historical sites in a cool modern city.

DAY 1 / AYA SOFYA, BLUE MOSQUE AND THE HISTORY OF CONSTANTINOPLE

AM /Start your 5-day Istanbul itinerary at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Sultanhamet, collecting the Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs in the Ancient Orient section, the exterior of the Tiled Pavilion, and the incredible sarcophogi in the Tombed Sarcophogi of Anatolia room.

Next, head up to Aya İrini passing through the courtyard packed with Roman relics. The Irini church is a large empty shell of a building but the real reason to come is to see the very nondescript tomb that some historians now believe is that of Emperor Constantine. Constantine founded Constantinople and turned Christianity from a cult to the predominant religion in the west, making him surely one of the most influential people ever to have lived.

For lunch, retrace your footsteps to Café Gulhane in Gulhane Park. The kofte on a bed of eggplant puree was rather fine.

PM /After lunch descend into the Basilica Cistern, the underground cavern that held the ancient Roman city’s water supply. It’s an eerie, dark and watery place; the roof is held up by columns that were constructed from the ruins of what came before.  Then, pass by the Milion Stone – the mile marker from which all destinations from Constantinople were measured – and into the remains of the Hippodrome, marking various moments in Istanbul’s history. Drop down the hill, pass a daily market and the original walls of the Hippodrome to Little Aya Sofya, a little-visited gem with a café serving Turkish tea just beside the entrance.

Retrace your footsteps and enter the Blue Mosque (sadly half covered in scaffolding when we were there). Head towards the Aya Sofya, stopping off at Sultan Ahmed Tomb, where he, his family and all his brothers lay at rest.

Next is Aya Sofya is the iconic building that has defined Istanbul for 1,500 years, allowing a good 1 hour, 30 minutes to look around.

Spend sunset on Café Seven Hills with a drink on their rooftop debriefing about your first day of this 5-day Istanbul Itinerary.


Aya İrini /9:00 – 16:30; Price: ₺20. Free with museum card.

Basilica Cistern /9:00 – 18:30 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 17:30 Oct –14th Apr; Price:₺20

Aya Sofya /9:00 – 18:00 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00 Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺40. Free with museum card. Last entry one hour before closing time

DAY 2 / MODERN İSTIKLAL CADDESI, SPICE BAZAAR AND ASIAN ISTANBUL

AM /Start this morning at Taksim Square and amble down Istiklal Caddesi, grabbing brunch at Café Ara. Check out the Pera Museum which has a permanent art collection featuring Osman Hamdi Bey’s ‘The Tortoise Trainer’ on the first floor, and three further floors of rotating exhibitions. Soak up the atmosphere in Beyoğlu, popping into other galleries, especially the Museum of Innocence, which has a quirky display by Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Amble down the hill and across the Galata Bridge for lunch at Hamdi’s, a local Turkish institution.

PM /Head into the magnificent sights and smells of the Spice Market before exploring the warren of streets that stretch in every direction around it. Hopefully, you will get luckier than us at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the New Mosque both of which were covered in scaffolding on our visit.

As late afternoon approaches take the ferry from Eminönü to Kadıköy and explore the produce food market on the Asian side of Istanbul. End with dinner at Ciya Sofrasi in the heart of the market. It serves excellent southeastern Turkish food, and if the menu is too incomprehensible then a bit of pointing does the trick.


Pera Museum /10:00 – 19:00 Tue-Sat; 12:00 – 18:00 Sun; Price: ₺20. More information here

Museum of Innocence /10:00 – 18:00 Tue-Sun; 10:00 – 21:00 Thur; Price: ₺25

DAY 3 / BRUNCH IN ORTAKÖY, DOLMABAHÇE PALACE & WHIRLING DERVISHES

[Please note this day needs to be on Sunday]

AM /Jump in a taxi and head to Ortaköy, a short ride north of the centre of Istanbul. Head to Firini Street, and join the locals for Sunday brunch. Café Zemheri had excellent food and friendly service. The back streets have a flea market atmosphere on a Sunday with a covered market near the waterfront. Pop inside the stunning Ortaköy Mosque, shimmering against the Bosphorus.

Walk 30 minutes to Dolmabahçe Palace (closed Monday and Thursday). While the queue can still be a bit onerous the awful guided tour has been replaced by a good audio guide that clicks in and out as you enter the various rooms, as if by magic. The palace is split into two sections, the Harem (Sultan’s family’s private quarters) and the Selamik (official palace rooms). In our opinion, it’s worth paying for both. The showstoppers are the Blue Hall, Crystal Staircase and Grand Ceremonial. Allow 2 hours or so to wander around.

Surprisingly, lunch at the on-site café is pretty decent. It’s also one of the few places in Istanbul where you can dine right next to the Bosphorus.

PM /Walk to Kabatas, take the tram to Tofane and stroll up to the Galata Mevlevi Museum. Here the Sema takes places every Sunday: the religious ceremony where the Whirling Dervishes do their whirling. Tickets need to be collected and paid for the day before (Saturday) from a man sitting at a table outside the entrance to the Museum.

After the whirling, skip the horrendous queues at the Galata Tower and the busyness of Bar 360 making a beeline for SNOG Roof & Bar. You’ll be giving up some of the views, a venue with a credible name and star quality, but you’ll get a seat, reasonable drinks and good service.

Explore the area around İstiklal Caddesi and stop for dinner at Sahrap tucked in the streets next to Sishane Metro.


Dolmabahçe Palace /9:00 – 17:00 Each day (closed Mon & Thur); Price: ₺60 for both Harem and Selamik.

Sema at Galata Mevlevi Museum /17:00 every Sunday. Buy tickets outside the museum the day before and arrive by 16.30 for a decent seat; Price: ₺70

DAY 4 / ANCIENT CITY WALLS, CHORA CHURCH AND COOL ART IN KARAKÖY

AM /Start your day at the Panorama 1453 Museum, a short walk from the Topkapı Metro Station. Speed read your way through the verbose information boards explaining the mighty Ottoman victory over the Romans and head up to the dome. The 360-degree painted panorama, complete with sound effects, won us over thanks to its delightfully tacky depiction of the battle scene.

From the museum you can walk along the walls, but it’s better to head back to the metro station and hop on the tram to Edirnekapi which follows the wall anyway. Exiting the tram, walk through the walls and down to the Chora Church. This is the best-preserved Crusader Byzantine Church and the frescoes and mosaics inside are exemplary.

Wend your way down the hill for 20 minutes through a modern Turkish neighbourhood to the ferry stop at Ayvansary. The ferry only runs once an hour so try to time your arrival with the timetable below, but you are rewarded with a relaxing ride along the Golden Horn as views of Istanbul slide by.

PM /Hop off at Karaköy, ignore the awful restaurants under the bridge and grab lunch at Akin Balik, a great seafood restaurant tucked into the fishing village just upstream of the bridge. For desert grab some delicious baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu. The baklava itself was one of our top moments in Istanbul.

Spend the afternoon in the cool district of Karaköy, popping into excellent modern art, either at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art or at the Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre, between grabbing coffee and dinner at the many cafes and restaurants that line the pretty streets.


1453 Panorama Museum /8:00 – 17:00 every day; Price: ₺15; For more information to help plan your visit, see here.

Chora Church /9:00 – 18:00,15th Apr– Sep; 9:00 – 16:00 Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺15. Free with museum card and more information can be found here.

Ayvansaray Ferry /Check their latest timetables to plan your trip back to Karaköy.

Istanbul Museum of Modern Art /Closed for refurbishment while were there, but we have been before, and it is excellent. Check their website for re-opening updates.

DAY 5 / SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE, GRAND BAZAAR AND TOPKAPI PALACE

AM /Start the day at Valens Aqueduct built by Roman Emperor Theodosius. Next amble along Veta Caddesi in the Molla Husrev neighbourhood to the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque. After exploring inside, head down the hill to Aga Kapisi for tea or coffee on its rooftop with great views over the city and back over the Mosque.

Next, stroll further down the hill and into the Grand Bazaar. Test out your bargaining skills before grabbing lunch at Carsi Kebab, a great local kebab stall in the north-west corner of the bazaar.

PM /After lunch, go past Constantine’s column on the way to the Topkapı Palace, remembering to skip the queues with your museum card. You can easily spend around 2 hours 30 minutes exploring the palace from which the Ottoman Sultans ruled their massive Empire. For dinner return to wherever you thought was best and have a drink to Istanbul and celebrate the end of your 5-day Istanbul Itinerary.


Grand Bazaar /8:30 – 19:00; Price: Free<

Topkapı Palace /9:00 – 18:00 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00 Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺40 + ₺25 more for the Harem.  Free with museum pass. Further information, see here.

All the information you need to help you plan your own epic 5-day Istanbul itinerary.


We are firm believers that condensed itineraries like this don’t happen through luck alone. A little pre-planning, research, and understanding what you are looking for in a destination, will help make your travels far more successful. Here’s some further information we think you might need to plan your own Cappadocia trip.

GETTING AROUND ISTANBUL

Istanbul public transport system is excellent. Metro, funiculars, ferries and trams all interconnect providing cheap, easy and quick access across town. Buy an Istanbul Travelcard and just keep topping it up as you go.

If you intend to be in Istanbul for a few days buy the Istanbul Museum Card at the first museum you visit. It is not only excellent value at ₺125 but it enables you to skip the queues.

BEST TIME TO GO TO ISTANBUL

Many of the official museums in Istanbul have summer and winter opening times. In winter the sites shut 2 hours earlier, which significantly curtails how much you can see, so it’s better to do this 5-day Istanbul itinerary between late April and October. Turkey also gets very hot in summer, so if you love walking around a city, we suggest you aim for the shoulder seasons.

If you want some of the big sites to yourself, coincide your trip with Ramadan. Very few Turks travel during Ramadan, so everything is much less busy. The downside is some of the restaurants are on a limited menu or reduced hours, but we never found this a problem during our visit.

Finally, the Turkish currency has been very weak recently, making Turkey a very cheap holiday destination. Our advice: go earlier rather than later if you plan to visit Turkey.

TIP | In 2019 Ramadan will be 06 May to 04 June and in 2020 it will be 23 Apr to 23 May, making them the best time to go to Turkey over the next few years.

WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL

We recommend using AirBnB in Istanbul. It is a large city with plenty of availability and choice at good prices. There is a better atmosphere and evening activities in Beyoğlu, Karaköy and Taksim than the old town, and the transport links are good. You probably want to stay slightly away from Galatasaray and the centre of İstiklal Caddesi, as they are both very busy late into the night. Being within walking distance is better than having party town right on your front door.

GETTING TO ISTANBUL

Most travellers will need an entry visa for Turkey, which can easily be organised online here.

Ataturk Istanbul International airport has flights to many destinations. Metered yellow taxis line up outside the air terminal. The 40-minute taxi ride into the city centre should be about ₺70. Uber is considered a premium service in Istanbul and will often cost more than a regular taxi.

MAP OF OUR 5-DAY ISTANBUL ITINERARY

To help you out when you’re on the ground in Istanbul, this map contains all the sites listed in this 5-day Istanbul itinerary. Each day is colour coded to so you can get an overview of the territory you’ll be covering each day. Click on the map title to display all the locations in a list.

How to use this map /Save this map here, then click on the star which says “star this map to view in Google Maps.” Then select Your Places -> Maps -> 5-day Istanbul Itinerary to load the map.

OUR 5-DAY ISTANBUL ITINERARY COSTS

Turkey is very cheap at the moment, but as ever the capital cities are a bit more expensive. The total cost, excluding international flights, of our 5-day Istanbul Itinerary, for two people, was ₺5,720. With May 2018 exchange rates of ₺6 to the British Pound; ₺4.5 to the US dollar; and ₺5.1 to the Euro, this equates to:

4 day Cappadocia Itinerary

US $1,270

4 day Cappadocia Itinerary

GBP £953

4 day Cappadocia Itinerary

EUR €1,121

Total Cost

For 2 people, 6 nights
₺5,720Turkish Lira
  • ₺2050 6 nights AirBnb accommodation
  • ₺2,400 Food and booze
  • ₺670 Entrance fees and tickets
  • ₺600 Transport and other bits and pieces
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OTHER THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL

A glaring omission from our 5 days in Istanbul is a boat ride up the Bosphorus. We have now made this trip twice and just don’t understand the fuss. We much prefer hopping on the local ferries and having time to check out the local neighbourhoods rather than joining a tour or being stuck upstream for many hours in a touristy village.

Another popular activity is to get a scrub down in a Hammam. Having done it once before we did not repeat the experience, but it is definitely worth doing once.

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5 day Istanbul Itinerary; 5 days in Istanbul

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