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. Just so many places to visit in Istanbul and things to do. Read on for Istanbul Itinerary in this blog. There are Istanbul Itineraries suggested from 1-7 days.
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 almost 6 days in Istanbul including travel – 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.
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Best Places to visit in Istanbul
Istanbul 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. You should start Day 1 of your Istanbul itinerary in Sultanahmet with this.
You should 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.
After visiting the Blue Mosque, you could move to visit Hagia Sophia on Day 1 of your Istanbul itinerary. 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! You can consider a guided tour of Istanbul’s 3 most famous landmarks: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern.
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. This can be covered in Day 1 or 2 of your Istanbul itinerary.
You get an impressive view of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara from the palace grounds. Consider this guided tour to explore Topkapi Palace and its harem with skip-the-line tickets.
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. This can be covered in Day 2 of your Istanbul itinerary.
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 in Istanbul 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). For your 4 days in Istanbul, there is loads to see and do in the newer neighbourhoods as well. There are well known attractions like the Dolmabahce Palace and Taksim Square in these areas, but also hidden gems like The Museum of Innocence in Beyoglu.
There are so many non-touristy neighborhoods to explore in Istanbul, the colorful houses of Balat being one of them. If you are craving a cooling dip in the Black Sea, Kilyos is your best bet.
Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square
Day 3 of the Istanbul itinerary can be spent here. 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. You can find plenty of bars and clubs here. This is the party zone of Istanbul.
You can visit Dolmabache Palace on Day 4 of your Istanbul itinerary. The palace is quite stunning, especially the crystal staircase and the grand ceremonial hall. It was built in a baroque style and transports to some luxury land in France or Austria. But the opulence does get a bit repetitive after a while. You need to take a guided tour to visit Dolmabahce Palace, consider pre-booking a skip-the-line tour.
The harem section here is nowhere as interesting as the one in Topkapi. Many rooms are kept close and if time is a constraint, you can avoid this section (you need 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. Easy to visit during Day 1 or 2 of your 4-day Istanbul itinerary.
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. This city is a haven for buying a variety of Turkish souvenirs.
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! We spent the last day of our Istanbul itinerary for this food walk. You can ideally do the food walk earlier to get a sense both of Turkish cuisines, great eateries and neighbourhoods.
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.
Browse through some other food tours in Istanbul:
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.
Browse through these Bosphorus tour options:
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. It is easy to book an online ticket for a Whirling Dervishes Show.
Take a Turkish hammam or bath
Time permitting, you could experience a full Turkish traditional bath or what is known as a hammam. Here is a private Turkish Hammam and massage for you to consider.
Istanbul Itinerary Ideas
Istanbul in 1 or 2 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 Istanbul attractions – Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul in 3 or 4 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 on the Bosphorous.
Istanbul itinerary in 4 days gives you even more options. The 4th day of your Istanbul itinerary could be used to visit the Dolmabache Palace and in experiencing a traditional dervish dance performance.
Istanbul in 5 to 7 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.
A 6-day Istanbul itinerary offers a perfect balance between exploring the city’s rich history and enjoying its vibrant culture. Start with the iconic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, then delve into the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. Explore Topkapi Palace, take a Bosphorus cruise, and visit the stunning Dolmabahce Palace. End your trip with a visit to the trendy neighborhood of Beyoglu.
Seeing the top attractions are merely scratching the surface of Istanbul. The city has many other interesting monuments in the 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.
Travel Tips to Istanbul
Best time to visit: During summer, heat in Istanbul can be overwhelming. Spring or autumn months are the best time to visit this country. If you do visit in summer, make sure you wear loose cotton clothes and stay hydrated. Protect yourself with an umbrella or a hat and wear quality sunscreen.
Getting around the city: There is an efficient public bus transport system within Istanbul. Plus taxis are readily available, though be aware of which route the taxi driver is taking. Check if there is a meter installed in the taxi. You can download the Uber App to book a taxi online.
Spend time exploring Istanbul: Your entry and exit point in Turkey would likely be Istanbul. It is a sprawling city with ancient history, famous landmarks. It would be a shame to spend just a day or two is Istanbul. One popular option for those looking to explore Istanbul is to follow the recommended Istanbul Itinerary 6 days, which offers an extensive list of the best places to visit in this historic city.
Take note of traffic in the city: Istanbul is known for its ferocious traffic jams. If you are going from Sultanahmet to Taksim area or some other neighborhood, take note of the time it would take.
Carry some cash: Some cash is needed for street food, buying a souvenir, taking a taxi etc in the city.
Haggling in markets: You would need to haggle if you are buying anything from a market, especially the ones in tourist areas like the Grand Bazaar.
Communication: English is spoken in Istanbul, enough for you to get by.
Planning a trip to Turkey?
Check out this Classic Turkey Itinerary: Places to visit in Turkey: Explore the Classic Turkey Itinerary
For Cappadocia, do read What to Do in Cappadocia: Highlights in 3 days
Explore the stunning ancient ruins at Ephesus walking tour: Visiting the ancient city of Ephesus
If you are looking for sea, sand and beach resorts, check out this post on Turkish beach holidays.
[This post was originally published in 2018, and later updated in 2023]