Istanbul is a heady mix of east and west with intriguing history, cool museums, hipster cafes and trendy rooftop bars. Here’s our 5-day Istanbul itinerary to help you see it all.
Our Istanbul itinerary explores a centre with many personalities.
Straddling two continents it harmonises old and new, east and west. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Roman Empire for over 1,000 years before the Ottoman Turks captured it in 1453, renamed it Istanbul and made it the centre of an Islamic Caliphate.
But this legacy has not left it clinging to some glorious past. Ancient churches, timeless mosques and baroque grand palaces, sit seamlessly next to the lively neighbourhoods of a new and modern Turkey.
One morning you’re staring up at glittering golden mosaics on Byzantine church domes, that afternoon you’re staring up at contemporary art in a pop-up museum. Sample eastern flavours in the grand bazaar for lunch, then sip beer on a rooftop bar, before being engrossed in an ancient Islamic ceremony.
Learn the fascinating history, explore local neighbourhoods, and discover the very best things to do in Istanbul with our 5-day itinerary.
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IN THIS GUIDE
5-DAY ISTANBUL ITINERARY
DAY 1 – HISTORIC ISTANBUL
Get up to speed with the fascinating history of Istanbul in these iconic sites and museums.
ISTANBUL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUMS
Start your 5-day Istanbul itinerary at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Sultanhamet, collecting the Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs in the Ancient Orient section, the exterior of the Tiled Pavilion, and the incredible sarcophogi in the Tombed Sarcophogi of Anatolia room.
Archaeological Museums / 9 am – 7:30 pm (Apr-Oct); 9 am – 6:30 pm (Oct-Apr) | Price: ₺60. Free with museum card.
Next, head up to Aya İrini passing through the courtyard packed with Roman relics. The Irini church is a large empty shell of a building but the real reason to come is to see the very nondescript tomb that some historians now believe is that of Emperor Constantine. Constantine founded Constantinople and turned Christianity from a cult to the predominant religion in the west, making him possibly one of the most influential people ever to have lived.
For lunch, retrace your footsteps to Café Gulhane in Gulhane Park. The kofte on a bed of eggplant puree was delicious.
Aya İrini / 9 am – 6 pm | Price: ₺30. Free with museum card
After lunch, descend into the Basilica Cistern, the underground cavern that held the ancient Roman city’s water supply. It’s an eerie, dark and watery place; the roof is held up by columns that were constructed from the ruins of what came before.
2022 Update // The Basilica Cistern is currently closed for restoration works, however, a 3D experience is shown at the Theodosius Cistern.
Basilica Cistern / 9:00 – 18:30 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 17:30 Oct – 14th Apr | Price: ₺30
Next, pass by the Milion Stone – the mile marker from which all destinations from Constantinople were measured – and into the remains of the Hippodrome. Drop down the hill past a daily market to Little Aya Sofya – a less-visited gem.
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Retrace your footsteps and head into the Blue Mosque to stare at its ephemeral ceiling and rich carpets. Next stop off at Sultan Ahmed Tomb, where he and his family lay at rest in all different size of tombs.
AYA SOFYA (HAGIA SOFIA)
Next is (or Aya Sofya in Turkish), the iconic building that has defined Istanbul for 1,500 years and gave us an insight into the city’s mighty past. Since being converted to a mosque in 2020 opening times are reduced for tourists. Please note the times below.
Spend sunset on Café Seven Hills with a drink on their rooftop debriefing about your first day of this 5-day Istanbul Itinerary.
Hagia Sofia / Sat to Thur: 8:30 am – 11 am; 1pm – 2:30 pm; 3:30 pm – 4;45pm; Fri: from 1:30 pm | Price: Free.
DAY 2 – MODERN ISTANBUL
Explore local neighbourhoods and Istanbul’s expertise with modern art.
Start this morning at Taksim Square and amble down Istiklal Caddesi, grabbing brunch at Café Ara. Check out the Pera Museum which has a permanent art collection featuring Osman Hamdi Bey’s ‘The Tortoise Trainer’ on the first floor, and three further floors of rotating exhibitions.
Pera Museum / 10 am – 7pm (Tue-Sat); 10am – 10 pm (Fri); 12 pm – 6 pm (Sun); Closed Mon | Price: ₺25. More information here
Soak up the atmosphere in Beyoğlu by popping into some other galleries. The Museum of Innocence has a quirky display by Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Next, amble down the hill and across the Galata Bridge for lunch at Hamdi’s, a local Turkish institution and a must-visit place on any Istanbul Itinerary.
Museum of Innocence / 10 am – 6 pm (Tue-Sun); Closed Mon | Price: ₺40
Head into the magnificent sights and smells of the Spice Market before exploring the warren of streets that stretch in every direction around it. Hopefully, you will get luckier than us at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the New Mosque both of which were covered in scaffolding on our visit.
As late afternoon approaches take the ferry from Eminönü to Kadıköy and explore the produce food market on the Asian side of Istanbul. End with dinner at Ciya Sofrasi in the heart of the market. It serves excellent southeastern Turkish food, and if the menu is too incomprehensible then a bit of pointing does the trick.
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DAY 3 – ISTANBUL CULTURE
Partake in a typical Istanbul weekend and finish with a mesmerising cultural tradition.
Jump in a taxi and head to Ortaköy, to join the locals for Sunday brunch on Firini Street. Café Zemheri had excellent food and friendly service but there are many more excellent breakfasts in Istanbul to choose from. The back streets have a flea market atmosphere on a Sunday with a covered market near the waterfront and make sure to pop inside the stunning Ortaköy Mosque, shimmering against the Bosphorus.
Ortaköy Mosque / 9 am – 5 pm, closed for prayer time | Price: free.
Walk 30 minutes to Dolmabahçe Palace (closed Monday and Thursday). While the queue can still be a bit onerous the awful guided tour has been replaced by a good audio guide that clicks in and out as you enter the various rooms, as if by magic. The palace is split into two sections, the Harem (Sultan’s family’s private quarters) and the Selamik (official palace rooms). In our opinion, it’s worth paying for both. The showstoppers are the Blue Hall, Crystal Staircase and Grand Ceremonial. Allow 2 hours or so to wander around.
Surprisingly, lunch at the on-site café is pretty decent. It’s also one of the few places in Istanbul where you can dine right next to the Bosphorus.
Dolmabahçe Palace / 9 am – 6 pm (Tue-Sun); closed Mon | Price: ₺90 for both Harem and Selamik
Walk to Kabatas, take the tram to Tofane and stroll up to the Galata Mevlevi Museum. The Sema takes place every Sunday: a religious ceremony where the Whirling Dervishes do their whirling. The ceremony lasts about 1 hour and is highly recommended. Tickets need to be collected and paid for the day before (Saturday) from a man sitting at a table outside the entrance to the Museum.
Sema at Galata Mevlevi Museum / 5 pmevery Sunday. Buy tickets outside the museum the day before and arrive by 16.30 for a decent seat | Price: ₺70
After the whirling, skip the horrendous queues at the Galata Tower and busy Bar 360, and make a beeline for SNOG Roof & Bar. You’ll be giving up some of the views, a venue with a credible name and star quality, but you’ll get a seat, reasonable drinks and good service.
As evening arrives explore the area around İstiklal Caddesi and stop for dinner at Sahrap tucked in the streets next to Sishane Metro.
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DAY 4 – OTTOMAN VICTORIES & ROMAN CHURCHES
Learn the story of the Ottoman conquest and find Byzantine gems tucked away in local neighbourhoods.
PANORAMA 1453 MUSEUM
Start your day at the Panorama 1453 Museum, a short walk from the Topkapı Metro Station. Speed read your way through the verbose information boards explaining the mighty Ottoman victory over the Romans and head up to the dome. The 360-degree painted panorama, complete with sound effects, won us over thanks to its delightfully tacky depiction of the battle scene.
1453 Panorama Museum / 8 am – 5 pm every day | Price: ₺20; For more information to help plan your visit, see here
CHORA CHURCH / CHORA MOSQUE
From the museum you can walk along the walls, but it’s better to head back to the metro station and hop on the tram to Edirnekapi which follows the wall anyway. Exiting the tram, walk through the walls and down to the Chora Church. This is the best-preserved Crusader Byzantine Church and the frescoes and mosaics inside are exemplary.
2022 Update // Chora Church was converted to a mosque in 2020. As a result, visitors need to avoid prayer times.
Chora Mosque / Open daily, check prayer times in advance | Price: Free
FERRY DOWN THE BOSPHORUS
Wend your way down the hill for 20 minutes through a modern Turkish neighbourhood to the ferry stop at Ayvansary. The ferry only runs once an hour so try to time your arrival with the timetable below, but you are rewarded with a relaxing ride along the Golden Horn as views of Istanbul slide by.
Check the latest timetables to plan your ferry trip back to Karaköy
KARAKÖY ART GALLERIES
Hop off at Karaköy, ignore the awful restaurants under the bridge and grab lunch at Akin Balik, a great seafood restaurant tucked into the fishing village just upstream of the bridge. For desert grab some delicious baklava at Karaköy Güllüoğlu – one of our top moments in Istanbul.
Spend the afternoon in the cool district of Karaköy. Collect some excellent modern art, either at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art or at the Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Centre. Grab dinner at the many cafes and restaurants that line the pretty streets.
2022 Update // The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is still closed for refurbishments, however, their temporary space is open in Beyoğlu.
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DAY 5 – GRAND ISTANBUL
From beautiful mosques to palatial homes, explore the grandeur of Istanbul.
Start the day at Valens Aqueduct built by Roman Emperor Theodosius. Next amble along Veta Caddesi in the Molla Husrev neighbourhood to the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque. After exploring inside, head down the hill to Aga Kapisi for tea or coffee on its rooftop with great views over the city and back over the Mosque. Turkish coffee is such a rich tradition in the country it’s been recognised on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list
Next, stroll further down the hill and into the Grand Bazaar. Test out your bargaining skills before grabbing lunch at Carsi Kebab, a great local kebab stall in the northwest corner of the bazaar.
After lunch, go past Constantine’s column on the way to the Topkapı Palace, remembering to skip the queues with your museum card. You can easily spend around 2 hours 30 minutes exploring the palace from which the Ottoman Sultans ruled their massive Empire. It’s a thoroughly sumptuous and extravagant icon and a great way to wrap up your 5-day Istanbul itinerary.
Topkapı Palace / 9 am – 6 pm (closed Tue) | Price: ₺100 for Harem; free with the museum pass.
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL
In our opinion, the best areas to stay in Istanbul are around Beyoğlu, Karaköy and Taksim. The atmosphere is alive and kicking in the evening with plenty of great restaurants and bars, without being too close to the heavily populated areas. The excellent transport links will easily transport you to rest of the city.
We strongly suggest you stay away from Galatasaray and the centre of İstiklal Caddesi. Both are very noisy late into the night – and not in a good way.
Here are some recommendations from us.
This beautiful luxury hotel in the heart of trendy Karaköy has stylish decor and helpful staff. The location is perfect for exploring.
VISITING MUSEUMS & ATTRACTIONS IN ISTANBUL
There are so many museums and attractions in Istanbul and queues can be long. So, it’s worth getting some tickets in advance to save both time and money.
MUSEUM PASS İSTANBUL
The Museum Pass Istanbul provides access to 13 museums and archaeological sites including Topkapi Palace, the Archaeological Museums, Chora Museum. The pass costs ₺360 and provides access (without queuing) for 5 days.
The pass can be collected from any of the museums or it can be ordered from your hotel.
ISTANBUL SKIP THE LINE TICKETS
If you are only going to pick off the big sites then consider skip-the-line with guide tickets. The Hagia Sofya, Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace can have long queues and are such fascinating places a guide can be useful. Also if you don’t want to risk not getting tickets to see the Whirling Dervishes you can book advance tickets to see them at the HodjaPasha Cultural Centre.
GETTING AROUND ISTANBUL
The new Istanbul Airport opened in April 2019, located around 40 kilometres from the city centre on the European side. As a major international hub, flights arrive from many destinations in Europe. Here’s how to get to Istanbul from the airport:
TAXI FROM THE AIRPORT TO ISTANBUL
Metered yellow taxis are available from the official taxi rank just outside the terminal. Make sure you ask for the meter to be switched on. It should cost around ₺100-₺130 (£10-£12 / €11-€14 / $12-$16). Uber is considered a premium service in Istanbul and will often cost more than a regular taxi.
The Havaist Airport Shuttle costs ₺25 (£2.50 / €2.60 / $3.20) and takes around 1.5 hours to reach Istanbul – possibly longer during heavy traffic. You can pay with cash or credit card on the bus or use your Istanbul Card.
ISTANBUL PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Istanbul public transport system is excellent. Metro, funiculars, ferries and trams all interconnect providing cheap, easy and quick access across town. The very handy Istanbul Card (İstanbulkart) is accepted on all public transport including the Airport Shuttle. So pick one up at the airport when you arrive.
MAP / ISTANBUL ITINERARY
To help you plan your Istanbul itinerary, all the excellent activities we have listed in this guide can be found on the below map.
BEST TIME TO GO TO ISTANBUL
Many of the official museums in Istanbul have summer and winter opening times. In winter the sites shut 2 hours earlier, which significantly curtails how much you can see, so it’s better to do this 5-day Istanbul itinerary between late April and October. Turkey also gets very hot in summer, so if you love walking around a city, we suggest you aim for the shoulder seasons.
If you want some of the big sites to yourself, coincide your trip with Ramadan. Very few Turks travel during Ramadan, so everything is much less busy. The downside is some of the restaurants are on a limited menu or reduced hours, but we never found this a problem during our visit.
HOW MANY DAYS IN ISTANBUL?
Deciding how many days in Istanbul, really depends on your stamina – there’s so much to do. It’s also just a great place to hang out.
As a result, we recommend allowing at least 3 to 5 days to see it all. Apart from the fascinating historical places, there’s a huge array of museums, a thriving art scene, buzzing cafes and bars, and 2 continents to see it all from.
3 DAYS IN ISTANBUL
If you have 3 days in Istanbul, we recommend you follow days 1, 2 and 5. This will allow time to see the major attractions, the most sumptuous palaces, some very cool art, and many of the interesting historical sites.
4 DAYS IN ISTANBUL
To see Istanbul in 4 days, follow days 1,2, 3 and 5 of this Itinerary. This will capture most of the main tourist attractions plus allow you to experience more of the local neighbourhoods in Istanbul.
5 DAYS IN ISTANBUL
With 5 days in Istanbul, you’ll be able to see the main attractions, plus get under the surface and find local Istanbul experiences lurking in quirky and traditional neighbourhoods.
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PLANNING YOUR TURKEY TRIP
Turkey is a fascinating destination with ancient ruins, magical landscapes and one of our favourite cities in the world. Here are more of our guides about this wonderful country.
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