Sitting at the crossroads of two continents, Istanbul 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. It is one of the most fascinating cities I have traveled to thus far!
Turkey the first stop on my bucketlist backpacking trip, and I have been searching for an opportunity to go back ever since. It is one of my favorite cities in the world because Turkish food is amazing, the Turkish people are so warm and welcoming, and the city itself has a palpable soul that is unique. It is such an endlessly fascinating place to explore!
Istanbul was such an easy place to travel with so many different things to do. 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
With city break vacations, I always find that it is best to start in the heart of the city and then work out to the neighborhoods from there. On your first of 5 days 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.
If you are planning to visit Istanbul’s major historic sights, I recommend buying the three-day museum pass. You get to skip the ticket line (which for Hagia Sofia was around the block and took 2 hours!) and go right into the site. This also gives you the opportunity to explore the sites in relative 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 conservatively, with pants or a skirt past your knees, and A shirt (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 the Hagia Sofia mosque, this museum is a staple of the Istanbul skyline and the most popular downtown tourist destination. Originally an Orthodox cathedral, then a Catholic church, then a mosque then a museum, this building holds 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’ll enter into the cavernous main basilica. 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. 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 features ancient trees and beautiful walkways with 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.
The real star of the Topkapi Palace is the viewpoint overlooking the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. It offers the best view of Istanbul!
If you bought the 3 day tourist pass, you can get access to the Topkapi Palace 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, but the best part of the harem the beautiful hand-painted tile mosaics. Through the interior courtyards, bedrooms and hallways, you can see floor to ceiling tiles. The most impressive was the sultan’s private quarters, pictured in the third photo below.
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. 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 through the rows of amazing handcrafts, Turkish rugs, stunning lamps, and all sorts of delightful treasures. 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. You can’t travel in Istanbul for 5 days without sampling some of their famous street food! Street food is ubiquitous in Istanbul and on nearly every street, you can find a grilled corn vendor or roasted nut cart.
Turkish cuisine is interesting, because it has so many different influences. There is a large Mediterranean influence, which is attributed to olives, tomatoes, oils, and fish. You also see a lot of Middle-Eastern influence, which means that 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!
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). While we tried all three types of kebab during our 5 day trip to Istanbul, I definitely preferred the “meat” option because it was juicier and more flavorful. Sam’s favorite Istanbul street food was the doner kebab 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 (see below lefthand photo) 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 make a huge mess.
The last Turkish street food to try on your Istanbul city break is an Islak hamburger. Described to us as a soggy hamburger, I was less than excited to try this local favorite. 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 surprisingly delicious treat.
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 are 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 fruit juice sellers. They’re on nearly every corner. You can watch them press fresh fruit in an assortment of flavors. The pomegranate is very sour, but I really enjoyed the blood orange flavor. Lemon was another popular choice and will leave you feeling super cleansed!
Day 3: Neighborhoods 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 like Karakoy and Beyoglu! These lively areas are full of shops, food and historical sights which can fill your third day in Istanbul. You should 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 in the 13th century. They’ve installed a modern elevator for visitors to easily get to the 2 restaurants and a stunning 360 view at the top of the tower. From that height, you can get a real appreciation for the size and beautiful location of Istanbul.
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, 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 Istanbul. 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.
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 boat views, so this was a natural must-do during our travel itinerary in Istanbul. There are a ton of private companies that try and hawk tourists on an expensive tour but a much better, cheaper and easy option is to take the public Bosporus tour.
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 to fine. 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 arriving early since 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. 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 long stretch of the river you’ve just come up.
Day 5: Relax at Hammam and Explore Asia Side of Istanbul
For your last day in Istanbul, why not relax! I love to enjoy spas while I travel, so 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 gender separated multiple rooms 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. My attendant, Samrya, started by taking me to the steam room where you essentially sweat out all of the toxins, similar to a sauna. I had my own washing station with a gold bowl and sink to rinse as I steamed.
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.
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. The glove is rough, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grossed out by the amount of dead skin she rubbed off my body. But I felt like a smooth baby afterwards! 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 continent of Asia 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.
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. 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.
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.