Istanbul is a city that’s hard to define, effortlessly combining elements of the East and West. There’s really is no place like it. Nothing compares to a ferry ride on the Bosphorous, seeing the city from atop the Galata Tower or walking through the winding side streets of Beyoğlu. I try to visit the city every few years when I come visit family in Izmir and I feel like it’s different place every time. For visitors it can be overwhelming to know where to go, but with a bit of careful planning you will be able to get a solid introduction to the city. 5 days in Istanbul allows you an ideal length of time to see the main highlights. Here’s what should be on your itinerary.
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5 Days In Istanbul-Day 1
Start your 5 days in Istanbul in the Sultanahmet neighborhood 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 the Aya Sofya. A short walk away, the Basilica Cistern is worth a stop to experience a mysterious subterranean world, which used to hold the city’s water supply, but now functions as a backdrop for movies. Wander around the dimly lit walkways and try and catch a glimpse of ghostly carp in the shallow pools as well as the upside down Medusa head.
Spend the afternoon at this trio of museums: Archaelogy Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Tiled Pavilion, which house art collections from nearby Topkapi Palace. The museums boast over a million Greek, Roman and Byzantine works. A brief stroll from Sultanahmet, these museums are a great spot to get away from the crowds, as well as the elements. Make sure not to miss the lavish Alexander Sarcophagus, which is thought to have belonged to Alexander the Great.
5 Days In Istanbul-Day 2
Start the day out wandering around the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest (4000 shops and counting) covered markets in the world. 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.
A few notes about bargaining: the best time to strike a good deal is earlier in the day when the merchants are trying to reach their daily quota, don’t ever name your best price because you won’t be able to go under it, and make sure to shop around (each section is divided by similar items) before deciding which stall to try out your haggling skills at.
Spend the afternoon letting your nose guide you as you make your way through this aromatic 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.
Afterward, walk over to the Eminonu waterfront to get a “balik ekmek” (fish sandwich) from one of the decorated fishing boats and eat it at one of the provided plastic tables nearby. For those who are fans of all things sour, grab some “tursu” (pickles) or “tursu suyu” (pickle juice) from a vendor nearby the pier.
5 Days In Istanbul-Day 3
One of the city’s main boulevards in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, Istiklal Avenue has everything from shopping to an active nightlife scene with numerous bars and clubs. Hop on the vintage red trams that go down the length of the street and get a front row seat to watching the world go by as you give your feet a rest.
Other noteworthy stops along the way include:
- Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage) – a historical arcade that was a former theater-turned-flower-hall that is now filled with cafes, restaurants, and wine shops.
- Galata Mevlevi Museum – take a break from the bustle of the city at this historic dervish tekke (lodge) that allows you to learn more about Sufism. It is also one of the only places in Istanbul where you can attend a whirling dervish performance.
- Pandora Kitabevi – a bookstore that has a large amount of English language books, including an impressive collection on Turkish history.
- Cikolata Dukkani – the moment you step into this shop, the decadent chocolate-centric desserts will overwhelm all your senses in the best way possible. Try the Asuman, a pot of chocolate pudding with whipped cream and fresh strawberries.
If you come back at night, make sure to indulge in a popular late night snack: the islak burger, which translates to wet burger and is bathed in a buttery tomato sauce.
For stunning panoramic views of the city and the Bosphorus, head to the Galata Tower observation deck, an iconic medieval stone watchtower located in the Galata/Karaköy neighborhood. There is a restaurant/cafe at the top if you want to linger a bit longer and soak in the view with a cup of tea. There’s also a 4D helicopter simulation ride of the tower, but the real views are better and don’t leave you feeling queasy afterward. Be prepared for long lines, especially during the summertime. The entrance fee is 25TL for adults.
5 Days In Istanbul-Day 4
If there is one thing you must see, it’s Topkapi 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 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 Gulhane Park, the city’s oldest park and is an ideal spot to wander around amid families and couple picnicking on the grass.
Take the ferry to the less frantic Asian side of the city, and escape the tourist crowds on the European side. Get off at Kadikoy-Moda, a scenic neighborhood that is situated right by the water and is known for its fish and produce markets, artsy atmosphere, as well as stunning views of the city and Bosphorous. Wander the side streets to find the growing number of murals on the sides of buildings, largely due to the art festival Mural Istanbul, that takes place in Kadikoy.
Grab a seat at Moda Cay Bahcesi, an open tea garden that boasts sea views and is a great place to rest after a long day of sightseeing. Pro tip: buy pastries from nearby shops and eat them alongside your steaming hot cups of tea.
5 Days In Istanbul-Day 5
If you have a full day to get away from the city, the Princes’ Islands are an excellent choice. Located in the Bosphorus, they are made up of nine different islands, but only four are open to the public: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada. Büyükada is the biggest and most popular, where you can eat breakfast on one of the terraces, rent a bicycle to explore the island and visit St. George’s Monastery high on a hill.
Cars are not allowed on the islands, and the main mode of transportation is horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. It feels like you are going back in time with all the beautiful Victorian houses and the slower way of life.
The only way to get to the islands is by ferry from Eminönü or Beşiktaş, which are easily accessible with public transportation. The sea buses will take you in 55 minutes versus a regular ferry that can take around 100 minutes for half the price (5TL), but it’s advised to take the regular ferries since they have a more reliable schedule.
Alternative Things To Do In Istanbul
Staying a bit longer than 5 days in Istanbul or you’ve already seen the major sites? Here are a few more things to do that will allow you to dig deeper into the heartbeat of the city.
- Dolmabahçe Palace – located in the Beşiktaş district, this stunning Ottoman structure is where Ataturk called home and is the largest palace in Turkey, where you could easily spend half a day.
- Take a food tour – Turkish food is definitely its own destination, whether you want to explore the lesser known markets or have a traditional Turkish breakfast. Culinary Backstreets offers excellent food-centric tours in some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
- Museum of Innocence – step inside the accompanying museum to renown Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. You don’t have to read the book beforehand, but it will definitely enhance your experience.
- Cihangir – this hip neighborhood is famous for its narrow streets and outdoor cafes. Make sure to stop by Van Kahvalti Evi for life-changing breakfast.
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 absolute favorite thing to do is to take a ferry across it during sunset. The European side is home to all the main sights and the Asian side is more residential (though equally as interesting).
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 opinion you should avoid if at all possible.
Istanbul is as safe as any major city, and it’s important to remain vigilant while traveling and be respectful of your surroundings as you would in any other destination. I have never personally felt unsafe traveling through any of the main neighborhoods, like Sultanahmet, where the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, and Basilical Cistern are.
Where To Stay In Istanbul
It’s best to stay in a central neighborhood like Sultanahmet, where you have easy access to sights like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern. Depending on the exchange rate between your country, 4-and-5 star hotels are a bit cheaper than places like the U.S. and Europe.
An excellent budget option that is centrally located and is a 5-minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The hostel is great for solo travelers, and is spotless and recently renovated. The best part is the rooftop terrace where you can relax with an ice cold Efes and take in the panoramic city views below. Breakfast included.
This hospitable 4-star hotel is centrally located in Sultanahmet, and walking distance to top sights like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. Amenities include an on-site restaurant and bar, as well as a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a glass of wine with a view. Airport shuttles are available.
Located near the Galata Tower, this stunning luxury hotel feels like you have time-traveled backward. Most importantly the staff make you feel instantly at home. On property there’s a restaurant and bar, as well as an indoor pool and health club. Each room comes with a private terrace where you can put your feet up after a long day of sightseeing.
How would you spend 5 days in Istanbul?
Photo source: Istiklal Avenue