Exploring Istanbul without a plan is like throwing a five-year-old kid into the middle of Grand Bazaar – you’ll find it mesmerizing, chaotic, and overwhelming.
Colorful buildings cluster around massive architectural masterpieces, narrow streets leading you from one characterful neighborhood to another.
Whether you’re in the Asian half or the European quarter, you’ll find cultural goodies like galleries, museums, festivals, and delicious noms.
This 4-day Istanbul itinerary will check off your bucket list of worldly wonders.
Lucky enough to stay a full week?
Read on for a 7-day Istanbul itinerary that you can boast about to your friends.
Arrive in Istanbul and unpack your bags in Sultanahmet. You’ll be exploring Topkapi Palace, a collection of museums, and Hagia Sophia.
Wake up early because you’ve got a full day! Visit the Blue Mosque, Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts, Basilica Cistern, Sultanahmet Square, and end your night with a Whirling Dervishes show.
Start your morning with a strong coffee and stroll around Taksim Square. Check out Istiklal Street, the Flower Passage, Museum of Innocence, Pera Museum, Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Art, Galata Tower, and Galata Bridge.
Open up your wallets – today’s all about the shopping experience. Visit Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, swing over to Kariye Museum for a photo-op, and round of the night on a Bosphorus cruise.
Today you’ll be wandering the markets in Beşiktaş, visiting the Turkish Naval Museum, Dolmabahçe Palace, Yıldız Park, and Ortaköy Mosque.
Pack a light day bag and head to Cappadocia. Soar high above the skies in a hot air balloon and yes, you’ve guessed it – this is where all the insta-famous photos are taken.
The last stretch of your 7-day journey in Istanbul. Burn off all the goodies you’ve been munching on and go for a walking tour of Fener and Balat.
Tip: Use the Contents tab on the left to quickly navigate this itinerary and travel guide!
The golden rule of efficient travel is plotting a route with few to no repeats.
The silver rule is to center your accommodation where there are the most attractions, hence reducing travel time and cost (unless you prioritize quiet).
Put down your bags in Sultanahmet before you hit up the streets!
– Interior of Topkapi Palace
– The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
– Sunset at Galata Tower
– Colorful Lamps at Grand Bazaar
– Dolmabahçe Palace Exterior
– Hot Air Balloons, Cappadocia
– Phanar Greek Orthodox College
Many people argue that summer vacation is the best time to visit (or the only time they can) but the crowds get overwhelming.
If June to early September are the only months you’re free, try to book accommodations ASAP and save up more – rates will go up.
Along with the increased rates is increased temperature and humidity, but hey, at least you’ll love mealtimes along the Bosphorus.
Shoulder seasons are in fact the best time to visit! April-May or mid-September to November offers temperatures between 12⁰C to 25⁰C.
Not only do you exchange sweltering heat for mild breezes, you get to scour the sights without bumping shoulders.
April delivers a sweet treat with the Tulip Festival.
To enjoy Istanbul slow and cold, December to March is low season. Hotel rates drop and so do waterfront temperatures.
While Christmas and New Year sees an uptick in activity, some tourist businesses (such as Bosphorus dinner cruises) may stop during the coldest weeks. It may be your chance to grab great discounts at the Grand Bazaar.
With Istanbul being the sprawling city it is, spare some thought for where is best to stay.
Here are 6 neighborhoods that accommodate various likes and dislikes, needs and wants – all with their own character.
– People Walking on Istiklal Avenue
Unless you’re road-tripping through Turkey or cruising around those exotic Greek islands, chances are you’ll glide down an airport runway.
There are direct flights into Istanbul from overseas, most likely between Turkish Airlines, Air France and Lufthansa.
Touchdown at one of the two international airports: the newly minted Istanbul International Airport and Sabiha Gökçen Airport.
The former is located in the European side while the latter is 50km out from the Asian quarters.
– Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi)
Even seasoned travelers will find Istanbul’s traffic an agent of chaos and terror – but get familiar with its public transport and you’ll actually get somewhere.
The key is to avoid the streets during peak hours.
Note that public transport is run by the IETT company; look up schedules and more information online.
Whether you’re digging into a balı ekmek at Eminönü or tucking into full-course meals, here are some Istanbul best eats.
Asitane Restaurant – calling on the Ottoman cuisine, this kitchen unveils traditional cooking methods, 200 lost recipes and a fascinating journey through Turkish history.
Altan Şekerleme – an 1865 relic that still sells classic Turkish sweets; try their Turkish delight done right or the akide şekeri rock candy.
Karaköy Lokantası – this iconic lunch spot serves an Ottoman palace specialty: slow-cooked beef on mashed eggplant, the hünkar beğendi.
1924 – curious about Russian fare? Order the borscht, stroganoff, chicken Kiev and pelmeni dumplings for an authentic meal.
Antiochia Concept – serving homey Southeast Turkish food, you can load up on kebab dishes and hot mezes at reasonable prices.
Pandeli – a legendary restaurant that started with piyaz and köfte, now known for its slow-cooked lamb, eggplant pie and oven-baked quince.
Inci Pastanesi – for its profiteroles.
Beyaz Fırın – for a delightful breakfast or dessert, this bakery-café is topnotch!
Mikla – offers sweeping views, locally-sourced ingredients and fine dining that combines Turkish and Scandinavian techniques.
Aheste – enjoy meze-style dishes with a twist! From three-course tasting menus to vegetable-only options, this atmospheric eatery is a tavern made modern.
This itinerary for Istanbul is laid out for you district by district – you could also explore the city based on theme or by ticking off your bucket list of top places to visit in Istanbul.
With each area so distinct from each other, exploring one piece at a time allows you to delve deeper into their individual histories and charm.
Consult the locals! Follow them to their favorite tea gardens, taverns or coffeehouses, the parks and hidden alcoves.
Wander off the main roads or embrace the chaos of every street market. Try succulent meat dishes and wash them down with aniseed brandy.
Istanbul’s blend of cultures is eye-opening to say the least – every traveler’s duty is to experience it.
Do you have any useful tips to add to our travel guide to Istanbul?
You know the saying…sharing is caring!