Istanbul is a fascinating city. A city where Europe and Asia meet beautifully. Its strategic location ensured rule over the centuries by many – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. This splendid history has given the city a richness in terms of art, architecture, food, culture and historic monuments.
Echoing the words of Alphonse de Lamartine, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
We spent 6 days in Istanbul – 3 days in the old town of Sultanahmet and another 3 on the modern side in Besiktas – as part of our 10-day trip to Turkey. And yet, there was more to see and experience in the city that we couldn’t do. It would be a shame to spend just a day or two in this richly historical land, but if you are short on time, base yourself in Sultanahmet for those 1 or 2 nights to be near the top attractions. 4 days in Istanbul would be the minimum time in my opinion. I have given ideas on itineraries from 1 to 7 days in Istanbul at the end of this post.
Best Places to visit in Istanbul
Top attractions in Sultanahmet
The Blue Mosque (called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is a historical mosque in Istanbul. This is named such because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. It is a major attraction of Istanbul, and also an active mosque.
Do remember to dress conservatively (do not expose your legs and arms, head to be covered, head covering is provided at the mosque). Keep in mind that the mosque closes for some time to visitors for prayers 5 days during the day. This is a place of worship, so conduct yourself with dignity and consideration.
Built as a church, converted to a mosque and finally made a museum by Atatürk in 1935, Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya in Turkish) is my favorite monument in Turkey. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its history and architectural beauty. Make sure you go to the galleries upstairs on the first floor after going through the ground floor.
Hagia Sofia is a popular attraction, and it was unbelievable that we jumped the long queue because of carrying a 2-year toddler. I have never felt happier traveling with a young child!
Topkapi signifies a life of opulence and grandeur of a bygone era. It is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to this day. A visit to this palace, including the jewel-laden Treasury and sprawling Harem is a must-do. There is an additional fee to see the Harem, but it is worth paying that.
You get an impressive view of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara from the palace grounds.
This is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in İstanbul. This huge underground hall, supported by 336 columns, once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors. It is located underground, and besides being nicely cool in summers also has loads of atmosphere.
We passed this a couple of times while roaming around the Sultanahmet area. You are bound to spot this column while going to Blue Mosque.
Places to visit beyond Sultanahmet
For anyone doing more than 2 days in Istanbul, I would highly recommend staying beyond Sultanahmet for a part of the stay (Beyoglu, Besiktas would be good options). Loads to see and do here as well. If you are craving for a cooling dip in the Black Sea, Kilyos is your best bet although it is not amongst the top beaches in Turkey.
Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square
Istiklal Street is the most prominent avenue in Istanbul. The street is lined with boutique stores, restaurants and designer shops on both sides. It was crowded when we walked towards it one day and got even more so as evening approached. We were with our 15-month baby and pushing the stroller slowed us down even more.
The street ends in Taksim square. Taksim means division – this square in modern Beyoglu is the common meeting point for locals. There are bars and clubs to be found here. This is the party zone of Istanbul.
The palace is quite stunning, especially the crystal staircase and the grand ceremonial hall. It was built in baroque style and transports to some luxury land in France or Austria. But the opulence does get a bit repetitive after a while.
The harem section here is nowhere as interesting as the one in Topkapi – many rooms are kept close and if time is a constraint, this section can be avoided (one needs to pay extra for visiting the harem section at this palace).
Going through the entire palace tired us and we decided to spend some time in the palace ground. My 15-month daughter, Kaavya was delighted with the resident peacocks, cat, and the geese (she fed all of her cake to them).
Things to do in Istanbul
Shopping at Grand Bazaar
This colorful and chaotic bazaar lies in the heart of Sultanahmet, the old city. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, do go to have a look. This 500-year-old covered market is a great cultural experience and a nice way to spend an afternoon. You can find everything from hand-woven rugs to Turkish souvenirs to spices to antiques and pottery and clothes.
I had fun haggling with a shopkeeper, a much better negotiator than I, to purchase a small hand-crafted bag with leather trimmings.
There is also the Spice Bazaar if you want to buy Turkish delights, dried fruits, nuts and all sorts of spices.
Take a walking Food tour
Most of us have tasted baklava or kebabs or have sipped Turkish tea or coffee. But there is so much more to Turkish cuisine. Our food walk ‘Two Markets, Two Continents‘ with Culinary Backstreets was an eye-opener! This full-day experience draws upon hole-in-the-wall restaurants with lip-smacking food starting from the European side of Istanbul, taking a scenic Bosphorus crossing and ending with the city’s Asian side.
Take a scenic Bosphorus tour
A sunset tour on the Bosphorus is highly recommended. It is a great way to see the skyline of this unique city on both the European and the Asian side. We had crossed the Bosphorus twice during our food tour and decided to give this a miss. But I do wish we had time to squeeze in a night cruise – seeing the sunset views, to begin with and then to see the city dressed in night lights would have been magical.
Experience traditional dance
No better place than Istanbul to experience a whirling dervishes performance. This experience has the designation of being a UNESCO-listed ceremonial dance.
Take a Turkish hammam or bath
Time permitting, you could experience a full Turkish traditional bath or what is known as a hammam.
Istanbul Itinerary Ideas
Istanbul in one or two days
If you are visiting the city just for a day or two, my recommendation would be to stay in Sultanahmet and cover the top 4 attractions – Hagi Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul in three or four days
For 3 days in Istanbul, it makes sense to stay put in one area. You could use the third day to see some more sights in Sultanahmet and take an evening cruise over the Bosphorus. Another itinerary option could be to use the third day to visit Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square followed by a sunset cruise.
Istanbul in 4 days gives you even more options. The 4th day could be used to visit the Dolmabache Palace and in experiencing a traditional dervish dance performance.
Istanbul in five to seven days
If you are spending more than 4 days in Istanbul, you have the choice of splitting your stay for 3 days in Sultanahmet to get a feel of the old city and another 2 /4 days in the modern part of the European side of the city.
Seeing the top attractions are merely scratching the surface of Istanbul. The city has many other interesting monuments in Sultanahmet area – Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul Archeology Museum, Suleymaniye Mosque, Rustem Pasa Mosque, and Galata Tower.
Spending more than 4 days in the city also gives you enough time, not just to see the best places to visit in Istanbul but also to experience most of the things that this fascinating city has on offer – go shopping at traditional bazaars, take a food tour in this city, take a Turkish bath.
Extending your trip to Turkey beyond Istanbul? If you are looking for sea, sand and ancient ruins, check out this post on Turkish beach holidays.
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Have you traveled to Istanbul? What was your favourite monument or experience?
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