Istanbul Itinerary: Best places to visit in the city the straddles East and West

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.

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Istanbul is a treasure trove for anyone who loves history and culture.

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

Blue Mosque

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. 

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Look at that gorgeous ceiling!

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.

Hagia Sophia

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.

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My favorite site in Istanbul.

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 Palace

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.

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The Sultans knew how to live life king-size!

You get an impressive view of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara from the palace grounds. 

Basilica Cistern

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.

Hippodrome Square

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. 

We left to spend 3 days in Cappadocia and thereafter, an Ephesus tour and came back again to experience a different side of Istanbul.

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. 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 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.

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Crowds, high energy, shops, and food!

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.

Dolmabahce Palace

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.

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). 

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One of the most opulent modern palaces in the world.

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.

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Don’t miss the colorful and exotic Grand Bazaar.

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 Istanbul 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! 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.

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Bosphorus makes the city of Istanbul even more 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.

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This is best experienced in the old town of Sultanahmet.

Take a Turkish hammam or bath

Time permitting, you could experience a full Turkish traditional bath or what is known as a hammam.

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A unique experience.

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

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Staying in the old town of Sultanahmet is a good option.

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 the Sultanahmet area – Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul Archeology Museum, Suleymaniye Mosque, Rustem Pasa Mosque, and Galata Tower.

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So easy to spend a week in this lovely city.

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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Author: Shweta Singhal

Hi! I am Shweta, the zest behind this blog . I play several roles – parent to a 6-year old, adventure enthusiast, travel blogger, generally open to trying out new things in life. Besides travel, I love books and theatre and art. I would love to hear from you; do drop a comment. Join me on Instagram / Twitter @zestinatote.

22 thoughts

  1. Recently I visited a mosque in Sharjah. I was told it is modeled on the blue mosque of Istanbul. Since then, I have nursed the dream to see the real one. The Dolmabahce Palace must be really grand. I am a big foodie, so sampling local cuisine is a must for me. I am have a lunch of only baklava, haha!

    1. The Blue Mosque is stunning as expected. In palaces, Topkapi outshined Dolmabahce for me. A lunch of baklavas sounds great, you will also discover a variety not found in UAE.

  2. Istanbul is a city whose name itself seems to evoke images of an exotic city bustling and vibrant. The city’s unique position at the confluence of diverse cultures adds to the charm. There is so much to see and experience in this lovely city. Of course the Blue Mosque is the showstopper, but other places like Topkapi Palace too have an old world and exotic charm. The colourful Bazaars of Istanbul are another charming facet of the city.

  3. Istanbul has always fascinated me. I hope to see this majestic city some day and experience the magic it carries. You’ve shared some great itineraries to plan my visit. From the grandeur of The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia to the colourful charms of the 500-year-old covered market to the hypnotic sunsets and the whirling traditional dances – everything is simply amazing about this place. Thanks for sharing all these details as well as the beautiful photographs. 🙂

  4. Good to know a lot about Istanbul. That Grand Bazaar, food tour and Turkish bath sounds truly interesting, I’d love to explore this historic and colorful city.

  5. I love this, I went to Istanbul a very long time ago but only had two days there. You’re right you really need to stay a minimum of four nights. Loved the idea of doing a foodie tour, next time, maybe!

  6. What a great post, you’ve listed all the places we really enjoyed visiting, plus I love the idea of the walking food tour, we didn’t do that when we went.

  7. I have always wanted to go to Turkey and still have not gotten there. Your pictures and information made me envious of your travel there. I hope to get there soon. Heard the food is awesome as well.

    1. Alison, the country and Istanbul in particular is fascinating. I have mixed feelings about food. Prefer the Indian version of kebabs to Turkish. But the food tour I took in Istanbul was just mind blowing, we ate so many different savoury and sweet items.

  8. Very accurate and well planed itinerary! I travelled in Istanbul 9 years ago and I loved it so much! It’s a pity that the political situation is getting worse there Thanks for sharing ☺

  9. Such a thorough guide!! I’ve only gotten a chance to do half the things on your list since we were there for 3 days, but Istanbul is such a common hub / layover city that I hope to be back soon…

    1. Thanks, Teresa. You are right, Istanbul is a common hub city and Turkish is a good airline to take. Very easy to spend a week enjoying this city.

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