ISTANBUL IN FIVE DAYS
Guide for a short trip to Istanbul
Five days is a good amount of time to spend in Istanbul and you can break up the days depending on preference. I've organized this guide by map and grouped activities by area of the city. The list includes my favorite spots and sites, but look them up and pick the ones you're most interested in.
Day 1 & 2: Sultanahmet
This is a lot of ground to cover and if you have the time, I'd suggest breaking this up into two days and considering the Museum Pass. See Preparing For a Trip to Turkey.
1. Hagia Sophia. Once one of the largest cathedrals in the world, it's now a museum and attracts architecture enthusiasts who marvel at the massive dome. There is ongoing restoration work and parts of the interior are covered.
2. Blue Mosque. A short walk from the Hagia Sophia, and through the Hippodrome is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, built by the 14th Ottoman Sultan between 1609-1616.
3. Topkapi Palace. Palace of the Ottoman Sultans, houses various collections including the Imperial Treasury, Holy Relics, Weaponry, and a harem. Can easily take up half the day, so plan accordingly.
4. Basilica Cistern. Well preserved underground cisterns from the Byzantines.
5. Grand Bazaar. One of the oldest and largest covered markets, with over 4,000 shops. You can easily spend a full day here and even more easily get lost. Haggling required. Closed on Sundays.
Depending on your pace, this could be sufficient for one day, but if there's still energy, read on.
6. Süleymaniye Mosque. Built for the longest ruling Sultan-known as Süleyman the Magnificent, this mosque is stunning. It has beautiful views of the Golden Horn and like other Imperial Mosques, the grounds contain a hospital, schools, a hammam, restaurants and soup kitchens.
7. Spice Bazaar. Known as the Egyptian Bazaar, it's a small 17th century market with spices, foods, and Turkish goods. The market itself is small and the area around is full of similar shops, restaurants, and is always lively and full of locals.
8. New Mosque. Next to the Spice Bazaar, this mosque (ironically, one of the oldest) has some of the best examples of iznik tilework. (For more tiles: Rüstem Pasha Mosque)
Eat & Drink
This area has overpriced and underwhelming food since it's got a high volume of tourists, leaving this area will afford better options and quality. To get familiar with food options, see the Istanbul Insider Guide.
1. Hamdi. Traditional mezes, kabob dishes and a great view.
2. Eminönü Fish Boats. While these are a tourist attraction, it's still a good spot to stop for a sandwich and a view. Bones included.
3. Vefa Bozacısı. Try Boza, a traditional wheat drink in this historic location.
Day 3: Galata & Taksim
1. Galata Tower. Best panoramic view of the city.
2. Galata Neighborhood (Beyoglu). Historic but now hipster neighborhood. You'll find great artsy stores and perfect cafes for people watching, such as Mavra.
-Museums: SALT. Contemporary art.
3. Istiklal Street. A long street full of shops and food, and fun to experience both day and night. During the day, see the historic red trams. At night, various small musical and dance circles pop randomly.
4. Taksim Square.
5. Bosphorus Cruise. If the weather permits, this is a great way to see all of Istanbul and it's many neighborhoods from the water. Note, there are many to chose from and a lot of peddlers to weed through, try to seek out a stand or ask your hotel for recommendations. You can also take a public ferry to Kadikoy for great views of the Topkapi, Hagia Sophia, and Maiden's Tower along the way.
-The best part about the public ferries are the drink options. You'll hear "chai chai chai, kahve kahve kahve" and you can order a small drink. Try sahlep, a delicious and warming drink.
6. Whirling Dervishes. While Konya is the best place to view the ceremony (or "sema") Istanbul has various options, including the Galata Mevlevi Museum.
7. Hammam. Consider a visit to a traditional (or tourist friendly) hammam. There are many options, read reviews and decide one what scrub experience you prefer.
Eat & Drink
1. On Istiklal, stop at Mado for freshly made sweets and coffee.
2. Coffee: Karabatak. Known more for the cafe ambiance than the service, still a worthwhile stop.
3. Coffee: Mandabatmaz. Picturesque coffee house with outside alleyway seating.
4. Coffee: Latife Turk Kahvecisi. Fresh coffee, free wifi, and perfect for people watching.
5. Zübeyir Ocakbaşı. A traditional meat house.
6. Pera Palace Hotel. Visit for high tea in the Kubbeli Salon in this famous hotel where Earnest Hemingway and Agatha Christie once stayed.
1. Ortakoy. Known as the "middle village," it's still one of the nicest areas of Istanbul and has the picturesque mosque on the water, as well as many cafes and restaurants with a waterfront view.
2. Cukurcuma. Antiques district and known as the "intimate Grand Bazaar."
3. Bebek. Fancier and residential, located right on the Bosphorus.
4. Balat. Former Jewish neighborhood and one of the best to experience Old Istanbul and local life. (Many of the colorful Istanbul photos are taken here.)
5. Fener. Former Greek neighborhood and site of Church of Saint George, and the Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
6. Karaköy. Formerly forgotten but making a resurgence, this neighborhood is popular for locals on the weekends and home a popular restaurant, Karaköy Lokantası. It's also full of old and colorful buildings.
7. Arnavutköy. Full of old wooden Ottoman mansions and fish restaurants and popular for the nightlife.
8. Bağdat Avenue. A popular and long shopping street on the Asian side of Istanbul.
1. Dolmabahçe Palace. Stunning palace full of western style architecture, chandeliers and facing the Bosphorus.
2. Chora Museum. Well preserved mosaics.
3. Rahmi Koc Museum. Private collection, showcasing transport-cars, boats and planes.
4. Museum of Innocence. Created by the author Orhan Pamuk based on his book of the same name.
5. Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Group of three museums: the archaeological museum, the museum of the ancient Orient and the museum of Islamic art and has over one million objects from around the world.
6. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. Check for interesting exhibits and demos (Turkish Coffee making) and has rugs, tiles, and calligraphy.
6. Istanbul Modern. Contemporary art, rotating exhibits, and cafe.
7. Pera Museum. Focused on 19th Century art and rotating exhibits from around the world.
8. Pierre Loti Hill. Not a museum but a fun experience, take the cable car up the hill and enjoy tea or coffee with a view of the entire Golden Horn.
9. Büyük Valide Han. Also not a museum, but instead a relatively hidden experience. There's no way to find it without help from locals and while the rooftop has been reported as closed, there are still people finding there way up.
10. Maiden's Tower. Fascinating history and often photographed, the tower is also known as Leander's Tower.
11. Şakirin Mosque. Visit this mosque in Uskudar, the first to be designed by a woman.
Day 4: Neighborhoods & Museums
Day 5: Day Trip
Day Trips from Istanbul
These ideas can definitely be more than just day trips, if time permits. For more, see Best of Turkey in Two Weeks.
1. Cappadocia. One of the coolest landscapes you'll ever experience full of fairy chimneys, underground cities, and hot air balloon rides/views.
2. Troy. See the archeological site of the famous Greek myth. (Note: statute is a replica.)
3. Gallipoli. Experience history in the memorial sites of the historical WWI battle.
4. Princes' Islands. Cross the sea of Marmara to see the quiet island.
5. Ephesus and the Virgin Mary's home. See one of the best preserved ancient sites.
6. Pamukkale. Swim the mineral rich thermal waters.