The Best of Istanbul in Five Days

Plan for three days in Istanbul, and you’ll wish you stayed longer. A five-day itinerary will show you the best of the city that straddles two continents. Start in old Istanbul, but don’t forget the abundance of attractions outside the old city walls in Eyüp and across the Golden Horn in Beyoğlu. Asia is also a five-minute undersea train ride away on the Marmaray. For the quintessential Istanbul experience, board the intercontinental Bosphorus ferry instead.

From Istanbul, you can easily extend your trip along the coast to experience ancient Ephesus, the snowy white travertines of Pamukkale, and sun-kissed Antalya. The must-see moonscape of Cappadocia and spiritual Konya are the perfect end to your journey. Iyi tatiller! (Have a nice holiday!)

Lamps for sale inside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar. Photo © Luisa Puccini/123rf.

Old Istanbul

Day 1

Hoşgeldiniz (welcome) to Istanbul! To acclimate to the beat of this modern city, head to Sultanahmet, where the underground Basilica Cistern and Ayasofya beckon. Take an hour or more to visit the latter, which has withstood the whim of several empires over nearly 1,500 years. Then turn your sights to the Blue Mosque, 100 meters away, and stop by the dancing fountain of Sultanahmet Park for a photo opportunity with Istanbul’s greatest monuments in the background. Once inside the 17th-century mosque, gaze at the blue tiles that give it its name before stepping out to the Hippodrome that once hosted Roman chariot races. Finally, work up an appetite for dinner by wandering up to Beyazıt to browse the 4,000 shops of the Grand Bazaar. When you’re shopped out, head back to Sultanahmet to feast on Ottoman cuisine.

Day 2

Head to Topkapı Palace, Istanbul’s top tourist draw, for a long stroll through the harem, treasury, and Seraglio Point. Refuel and revive in the palace grounds with Ottoman şerbet drinks and Bosphorus views at Konyalı Topkapı Sarayı Lokantası before launching into shopping in the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Sample some Turkish delight, then walk to Eminönü port to locate the Şehir Hatları ferry and board a two-hour Bosphorus Cruise. If there’s still energy in them bones, board a public ferry to Asia’s Kadıköy district. Spend the early evening exploring the streets of the open-air bazaar around Güneşli Bahçe Sokak, and don’t return to Europe before dining at Çiya Sofrası. Finish the day by cruising back to Europe and finding a café to smoke a fruity narghile.


Day 3

Today, turn your back on the history of old Istanbul to take in the lifestyles of modern day Istanbullus (Istanbul residents). Take the guided tour of the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace, stopping briefly to pay homage to the father of modern day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who took his last breath here in 1938. Make your way to Taksim Square and onto the famous Istiklal Caddesi—one of Europe’s busiest pedestrian avenues—for two kilometers of shopping, dining, and sightseeing. At the end of Istiklal, stroll the cobbled Galip Dede Caddesi that brims with musical instruments and boutiques to find your way to the medieval Galata Tower. Time your visit for sunset and climb to the top for stunning 360-degree views of the city and the calming waters of the Bosphorus. Get here early—there’s often a wait to go up for sunset. With those postcard-perfect photos captured, follow the maze of streets downhill to Galata Bridge, order a freshly cooked fish sandwich by the water’s edge, and people-watch as dusk settles over the city.

An orange sunrise reflects on the water of Istanbul's Golden Horn.
A boat in Istanbul’s Golden Horn at dawn. Photo © Ying Feng Johansson/123rf.

Greater Istanbul

Day 4

Plan a day to venture to the sights lining one of the world’s best natural harbors—the Haliç (Golden Horn). Don’t miss the impressive golden mosaic frescoes of Chora Museum, about one kilometer from the harbor’s southern shores. Afterward, make your way to the iconic Eyüp Mosque before taking the cable car nearby up to Pierre Loti Café to savor lunch at the panoramic look-out made popular by the author of the same name. Walk back downhill through the cemetery to Eyüp port to cruise across to Miniatürk to roam the miniature models of the Ottoman Empire’s and Turkey’s greatest architectural feats and natural wonders. If time allows, continue the day on the Golden Horn’s northern shores at Rahmi M. Koç Museum to have a hands-on experience exploring submarines, steam trains, and a planetarium. Cap the day with a Turkish Night of authentic folkloric dancing, belly dancing, and other musical surprises.

Princes’ Islands

Day 5

Say good-bye to Istanbul by visiting the Princes’ Islands on a relaxing 95-minute cruise of the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea aboard an Istanbul slow ferry. Take in the sights and sounds of the city’s waterways, order a tea from the vendor roaming the decks, and feed the seagulls with freshly baked bread sold on board before disembarking at Büyükada (big island). The islands are car-free, so rent a bicycle near the port or take the horse and cart to trot around the island, making sure to stop at Lunapark to climb to the hilltop Aya Yorgi Monastery for spectacular views of Istanbul. Try the island seafood, the dondurma (ice cream), and soak up the serene island vibe.

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