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.

Our Istanbul itinerary explores 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. Sample eastern flavours in the grand bazaar for lunch, then sip beer on a rooftop bar, before being engrossed in an ancient Islamic ceremony.

Learn the fascinating history, explore local neighbourhoods, and discover what makes this metropolis tick on our 5-day Istanbul itinerary.

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5-day istanbul itinerary overview

DAY 1

Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Aya İrini & Basilica Cistern

Blue Mosque & Sultan Ahmed Tomb

The iconic Aya Sofya

DAY 2

Taksim Square & Istiklal Caddesi

Pera Museum & Museum of Innocence

The sensory overload of the Spice Market

Rüstem Pasha Mosque & Kadıköy

DAY 3

Brunch in Ortaköy & Ortaköy Mosque

Dolmabahçe Palace

Whirling Dervishes

DAY 4

Panorama 1453 Museum

Crusader Byzantine Church

Cool art and cafés in Karaköy

Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre

DAY 5

Valens Aqueduct & Süleymaniye Mosque

Full immersion in the Grand Bazaar

Sumptuous Topkapı Palace

5-day istanbul itinerary overview

DAY 1

Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Aya İrini & Basilica Cistern

Blue Mosque & Sultan Ahmed Tomb

The iconic Aya Sofya

DAY 2

Taksim Square & Istiklal Caddesi

Pera Museum & Museum of Innocence

The sensory overload of the Spice Market

Rüstem Pasha Mosque & Kadıköy

DAY 3

Brunch in Ortaköy & Ortaköy Mosque

Dolmabahçe Palace

Whirling Dervishes

DAY 4

Panorama 1453 Museum

Crusader Byzantine Church

Cool art and cafés in Karaköy

Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre

DAY 5

Valens Aqueduct & Süleymaniye Mosque

Full immersion in the Grand Bazaar

Sumptuous Topkapı Palace

DAY 1 / HISTORIC ISTANBUL

Get up to speed with the fascinating history of Istanbul in these iconic sites and museums.


ISTANBUL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

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.

AYA İRINI

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 possibly 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 delicious.

BASILICA CISTERN & MILION STONE

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.

Next, pass by the Milion Stone – the mile marker from which all destinations from Constantinople were measured – and into the remains of the Hippodrome. Drop down the hill past a daily market to Little Aya Sofya – a less-visited gem.

BLUE MOSQUE & AYA SOFYA

Retrace your footsteps and head into the Blue Mosque to stare at its ephemeral ceiling and rich carpets. Next stop off at Sultan Ahmed Tomb, where he and his family lay at rest in all different size of tombs.

Next is Aya Sofya, the iconic building that has defined Istanbul for 1,500 years and gave us an insight into the city’s mighty past. Allow a good 1 hour, 30 minutes to look around this historic treasure.

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 | LocationCankurtaran Mh., Topkapı Sarayı 1.

Basilica Cistern / 9:00 – 18:30 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 17:30 Oct –14th Apr | Price:₺20 | LocationAlemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3

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 | LocationSultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı

DAY 2 / MODERN ISTANBUL

Explore local neighbourhoods and Istanbul’s expertise with modern art.


ISTIKLAL CADDESI

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.

BEYOĞLU

Soak up the atmosphere in Beyoğlu by popping into some other galleries. The Museum of Innocence has a quirky display by Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Next, amble down the hill and across the Galata Bridge for lunch at Hamdi’s, a local Turkish institution and a must-visit places on any Istanbul Itinerary.

SPICE MARKET

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.

KADIKÖY

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 | LocationAsmalı Mescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Cd. No:65

Museum of Innocence / 10:00 – 18:00 Tue-Sun; 10:00 – 21:00 Thur | Price: ₺25 | LocationFiruzağa Mahallesi, Dalgıç Sk. No:2

DAY 3 / ISTANBUL CULTURE

Partake in a typical Istanbul weekend and finish with a mesmerising cultural tradition.


ORTAKÖY MOSQUE

Jump in a taxi and head to Ortaköy, to join the locals for Sunday brunch on Firini Street. Café Zemheri had excellent food and friendly service but there are many more excellent breakfasts in Istanbul to chose from. The back streets have a flea market atmosphere on a Sunday with a covered market near the waterfront, and make sure to pop inside the stunning Ortaköy Mosque, shimmering against the Bosphorus.

DOLMABAHÇE PALACE

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.

WHIRLING DERVISHES

Walk to Kabatas, take the tram to Tofane and stroll up to the Galata Mevlevi Museum. The Sema takes places every Sunday: a religious ceremony where the Whirling Dervishes do their whirling. The ceremony lasts about 1 hour and is highly recommended. 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.

ROOFTOP COCKTAILS

After the whirling, skip the horrendous queues at the Galata Tower and busy Bar 360, and make 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.

As evening arrives 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 | LocationVişnezade Mahallesi, Dolmabahçe Cd.

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 | LocationŞahkulu Mh., Galip Dede Cd. No:15, Beyoğlu

DAY 4 / OTTOMAN VICTORIES & ROMAN CHURCHES

Learn the story of the Ottoman conquest and find Byzantine gems tucked away in local neighbourhoods.


PANORAMA 14533 MUSEUM

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.

CHORA CHURCH

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.

FERRY DOWN THE BOSPHORUS

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.

KARAKÖY ART GALLERIES

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 – one of our top moments in Istanbul.

Spend the afternoon in the cool district of Karaköy. Collect some excellent modern art, either at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art or at the Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre. Grab 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 | Location: Merkez Efendi Mahallesi, Topkapı Kültür Park

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. | LocationDervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No:8

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

Istanbul Museum of Modern Art / Closed for refurbishment on our last visit to Istanbul, but we have been before and it is excellent. Check their website for re-opening updates

DAY 5 / GRAND ISTANBUL

From beautiful mosques to palatial homes, explore the grandeur of Istanbul.


SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE

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. Turkish coffee is such a rich tradition in the country it’s been recognised on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

GRAND BAZAAR

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.

TOPKAPI PALACE

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. It’s a thoroughly sumptuous and extravagant icon and a great way to wrap up your 5-day Istanbul itinerary.


Grand Bazaar / 8:30 – 19:00 / Price: Free / LocationBeyazıt Mh., Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22

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 the museum pass.  / LocationCankurtaran Mh. Fatih

FINISH

No matter how many days in Istanbul we spend exploring incredible sights; the heady blend of east/west, the history, the food, the culture; it all fuels our thirst to see more of the country.

From evocative Roman ruins to ancient Christian palaces, the west of the country has enough to keep history buff’s fascinated for a number of days. If that’s not enough, an off-the-beaten-track hike in Cappadocia is an ideal way to explore the more of this fantastic country.

For all the information, see our 2-week Turkey Itinerary.

/ INFORMATION

A little pre-planning and research will help make your travels far more successful, it will also help you to understand what you are looking for in a destination. If you like our itinerary, here’s all the information you might need to plan your trip.

WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL

In our opinion, the best areas to stay in Istanbul are around Beyoğlu, Karaköy and Taksim. The atmosphere is alive and kicking in the evening with plenty of great restaurants and bars, without being too close to the heavily populated areas. The excellent transport links will easily transport you to rest of the city.

We strongly suggest you stay away from Galatasaray and the centre of İstiklal Caddesi. Both are very noisy late into the night – and not in a good way.

Here are some recommendations from us.

GREAT VALUE

HOTEL SARI KONAK


Great value in the centre of Istanbul with stylish finishings and one of the best-located roof-terraces in the city.

CHECK PRICES

PERFECT APARTMENTS – OUR PICK

LOUIS APPARTEMENTS


These modern, great value apartments are well equipped with basic essentials in an ideal location for exploring the city.

CHECK PRICES

GRAND OPULENCE

PERA PALACE HOTEL


A magnificent old building with terraced lawns and three restaurants, this is a perfectly located touch of indulgence.

CHECK PRICES

GREAT VALUE

HOTEL SARI KONAK


Great value in the centre of Istanbul with stylish finishings and one of the best-located roof-terraces in the city.

CHECK PRICES

PERFECT APARTMENTS – OUR PICK

LOUIS APPARTEMENTS


These modern, great value apartments are well equipped with basic essentials in an ideal location for exploring the city.

CHECK PRICES

GRAND OPULENCE

PERA PALACE HOTEL


A magnificent old building with terraced lawns and three restaurants, this is a perfectly located touch of indulgence.

CHECK PRICES

WHAT TO BOOK BEFORE YOU GO TO ISTANBUL

With so many big attractions in Istanbul, we recommend picking up the Istanbul Museum Pass (€44). It provides access to 12 museums, allowing you to skip the queue and save some cash. The card is valid for 5 days from first use.

If you want to pay a little extra for a little more, the Istanbul Welcome Card (€79) provides access to the 12 museums, plus professional historians to take you on a guided tour of 3 of them, a cruise on the Bosphorus, transportation vouchers, plus other discounts.

If you are only going to pick off the big sites then consider skip-the-line with guide tickets. The Hagia Sofya, Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace can have long queues and are such fascinating places a guide can be useful. Also if you don’t want to risk not getting tickets to see the Whirling Dervishes you can book advance tickets to see them at the HodjaPasha Cultural Centre.

OUR RECOMMENDED TOURS

Skip the queues and book these tours before you go. Tickets are delivered to your smartphone.

HAGIA SOFYA

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

BASILICA CISTERN

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

TOPKAPI PALACE

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

WHIRLING DIRVISHES

HODIA PASHA CULTURAL CENTRE

OUR RECOMMENDED TOURS

Skip the queues and book these tours before you go. Tickets are delivered to your smartphone.

HAGIA SOFYA

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

BASILICA CISTERN

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

TOPKAPI PALACE

SKIP THE LINE TICKETS

WHIRLING DIRVISHES

HODIA PASHA CULTURAL CENTRE

HOW TO GET TO ISTANBUL

Most travellers will need an entry visa for Turkey, which can easily be organised online here: https://www.e-visaturkey.org

The new Istanbul Airport opened in April 2019, located around 40 kilometres from the city centre on the European side. As a major international hub, flights arrive from many destinations in Europe. Here’s how to get to Istanbul from the airport:

TAXI / Metered yellow taxis are available from the official taxi rank just outside the terminal. Make sure you ask for the meter to be switched on. It should cost around ₺100-₺130 (£10-£12 / €11-€14 / $12-$16). Uber is considered a premium service in Istanbul and will often cost more than a regular taxi.

AIRPORT SHUTTLE / The Havaist Airport Shuttle costs ₺25 (£2.50 / €2.60 / $3.20) and takes around 1.5 hours to reach Istanbul – possibly longer during heavy traffic. You can pay with cash or credit card on the bus or use your Istanbul Card.


HOW TO GET AROUND ISTANBUL

Istanbul public transport system is excellent. Metro, funiculars, ferries and trams all interconnect providing cheap, easy and quick access across town. The very handy Istanbul Card (İstanbulkart) is accepted on all public transport including the Airport Shuttle. So pick one up at the airport when you arrive.

If you intend to be in Istanbul for a few days buy the Istanbul Museum Pass 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.

RAMADAN / In 2021 Ramadan will be 13 Apr to 12 May, in 2022 it will be 2 April to 1 May. These are the best time to go to Turkey over the next few years.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO VISIT ISTANBUL?

With the impact of the global pandemic, the Turkish Lira has hit record lows against the Euro and the US dollar. As a result, Turkey is generally a very cheap destination for tourists.

Although capital cities can be more expensive than the rest of the country, and Turkey is no exception, Istanbul continues to be a very affordable travel destination.

Expect to pay around ₺17 (£1.60) for a beer; ₺7 (£0.70) for a kebab and ₺40 (£3.80) for dinner for 2 in a standard restaurant. For a top-end Michelin starred dining experience expect to pay around ₺460 (£44).

HOW MANY DAYS IN ISTANBUL?

Deciding how many days in Istanbul, really depends on your stamina – there’s so much to do. It’s also just a great place to hang out.

As a result, we recommend allowing at least 3 to 5 days to see it all. Apart from the fascinating historical places, there’s a huge array of museums, a thriving art scene, buzzing cafes and bars, and 2 continents to see it all from.

3 DAYS IN ISTANBUL / If you have 3 days in Istanbul, we recommend you follow days 1, 2 and 5. This will allow time to see the major attractions, the most sumptuous palaces, some very cool art, and many of the interesting historical sites.

4 DAYS IN ISTANBUL / To see Istanbul in 4 days, follow days 1,2, 3 and 5 of this Itinerary. This will capture most of the main tourist attractions plus allow you to experience more of the local neighbourhoods in Istanbul.

5 DAYS IN ISTANBUL / With 5 days in Istanbul, you’ll be able to see the main attractions, plus get under the surface and find local Istanbul experiences lurking in quirky and traditional neighbourhoods.

MORE TURKEY READING FOR YOUR TRIP

INSPIRATION / Read about our top experiences in Istanbul.

PLANNING / Our 2-week Turkey Itinerary covers local villages, ancient ruins and Cappadocia.

READ / Read our take on the future of Istanbul.

HIKE / While best known for balloon rides, try hiking in Cappadocia.

ANCIENT RUINS /  Find the most interesting ancient ruins in Turkey.

GUIDEBOOKS / The Lonely Planet guidebook and 500 Hidden Secrets are great resources for Istanbul.


Please note – This article was originally published in August 2018 and updated in December 2020.

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