Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in Turkey (next to Izmir of course). I usually prefer mid-sized cities, but Istanbul is an exception with its blend of culture, geographical location and complex history. I’ve been to the city three times now, which hardly makes me an expert, but I feel like I’ve gained some insight into how to navigate this often overwhelming city.
Before I give you a few suggestions for a five-day itinerary, let’s get oriented a bit, shall we?
Istanbul is geographically unique because it sits upon both Europe and Asia, separated by the mighty Bosphorus strait. The Bosphorus is the cities lifeline and one of my absolutely favorite things to do is to take a ferry across it during sunset (but more on that later). The European side is home to all the main sights and the Asian side is more residential (though equally as interesting).
Is it safe?
This is obviously a loaded question after the terror attacks in 2016, but in my honest opinion I believe Istanbul to be as safe as any major city. It’s important to remain vigilant while traveling and be respectful of your surroundings as you would in any other destination.
Istanbul has a population of around 15 million and it can be felt especially during rush hour whether you are on the metro or sitting in traffic. Make sure to plan and give yourself plenty of time to get places. When planning to visit be wary of the Ramadan holiday (the last three days after Ramadan), where it will feel like the whole city is out and about, and in my humble opinion would avoid going at that time if at all possible.
Day One: Sultanahmet and surrounding area
This Old City neighborhood is a great place to get a proper introduction to the city, since it’s home to Sultanahmet Park that has both the Blue Mosque and across the way Aya Sofya. Nearby the Basilica Cistern is worth a stop to experience a mysterious subterranean world, which used to hold the city’s water supply. Nowadays you can wander around the dimly lit walkways and try and catch a glimpse of ghostly carp in the shallow pools.
Food notes: This neighborhood is notoriously known as a food desert, but Caferaga Medresesi is a courtyard restaurant that is worth stopping by for lunchtime kebabs and fresh salads. For morning fuel, try a simit (Turkish bagel) from one of the many vendors around the area.
Spend the afternoon at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, a collection of three museums: Archaelogy Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Tiled Pavilion, which house the palace collections from nearby Topkapi Palace. It’s a great place to get away from the crowds in Sultanahmet.
Food notes: Make your way back to Sultanahmet to eat kofte at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta, which is surprisingly decent given the uber touristy location.
Day Two: Bazaar District
Start the day out wandering around one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world (seriously the vastness of this place is insane). You can spend at least a few hours here getting lost in the various side streets, admiring the beautiful rugs, and haggling to your heart’s content.
Food notes: Grab a quick breakfast at Kahve Dunyasi-Nuruosmaniye close to the Grand Baazar. The Turkish coffee is strong at this café, and you can pick up some pre-package chocolates, since trust me you’re going to need stamina for your day ahead. Get a “balik ekmek” (fish sandwich) from one of the decorated fishing boats in Eminonu. For those who are fans of all things bitter, grab some “tursu” (pickles) and/or “tursu suyu” (pickle juice) from a vender nearby the pier.
Spend the afternoon letting your nose guide you as you make your way through the spice market (which is much more manageable than the Grand Baazar). There are potions for every ailment, Turkish delights and an endless array of spices for edible souvenirs to bring home.
Food notes: Indulge in a kebab dinner with a view of the Galata Bridge and Bosphorus at Hamdi Et Lokantasi.
Day Three: Topkapi Palace, Gulhane Park
If there is one thing you must see, it’s this stunning palace where the lives of Sultans and their families played out. The separate Harem is also worth experiencing (and less crowded since it requires an extra ticket). Fun fact: they still film popular Turkish period soap operas within the palace and you can often see the camera equipment scattered around the grounds. Not surprisingly the palace is spacious and can take a few hours to make your way around.
Adjacent to Topkapi Palace is the city’s oldest park and is an ideal spot to wander around amid families and couple picnicking on the grass.
Food notes: Head over to Urfali Haci Usta in Aksaray for solid kebabs and kunefe for desert.
Day Four: Beyoglu
One of my favorite views of the city is from this tower, where you can really understand how massive this city is. The paved public square around the tower is also nice to walk around and watch local life unfold.
Start out at Taksim Square, where the 2013 Gezi Park protests took place. Make your way down the main thoroughfare of Istiklal, where you can browse some of the city’s best bookstores like Denizler Kitabevi for vintage maps and books and Meşhur Beyoğlu Çikolatacısı for chocolates stuffed with hazelnuts.
Food notes: Have a traditional (and lavish) Turkish breakfast spread in Cihangir at Van Kahvalti Evi. For dinner, head to Karakoy Lokantasi for fresh hot and cold mezes at reasonable prices and a lively atmosphere.
Day Five: The Bosphorous, Kadikoy
Take a ferry across the Bosphorous starting from Eminonu and across over to Asia where you can spend the day wandering the streets of Kadikoy. The ferry ride over with the city fading behind you is a view that never gets old. Visit the Kadikoy Produce Market around the Mustafa Iskele Mosque, with fresh baked breads, produce and sweet treats.
Food notes: Whatever you do, make sure to stop at Ciya Sofrasi for dinner and experience a lokanta that is worth crossing the Bosphorus for.
Where To Stay
Great budget lodging in a central location. The best part is the rooftop terrace where you can relax with an ice cold Efes and take in the panoramic city views below.
This hotel is centrally located in Sultanahmet and walking distance to the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cistern.
Located near the Galata Tower, this stunning hotel feels like you have time-traveled back in time. Most importantly the staff make you feel instantly at home.
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Have you been to Istanbul? What’s your favorite things to do? Eat?