Istanbul Itineraries and Travel Tips

Sunset skyline of Istanbul.

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I love Istanbul. Even though I’ve been going to Istanbul for as long as I can remember, it still strikes me as one of the most exotic, magical cities in the entire world.

It’s a city I truly love! So many people only go to Istanbul when traveling to Turkey, and there is so much more to see and do in this amazing country, but it’s a good start and it certainly has some amazing sights to see. I hope you enjoy our Istanbul Travel Guide.

After visiting so many times, we’ve got lots of Istanbul travel tips for you, and we’ve developed some Istanbul itineraries so that you can do this trip on your own and really see as much as you can. I know you are going to love Istanbul as much as I do.

If it is your first time to Istanbul, you might want to consider doing an all-day tour to hit some of the big sights and get your bearings. Hop on, Hop off bus tours or a Hop on, Hop off boat tour of the Bosphorus , or a full day private tour and lunch are some ways to start experiencing the best of Istanbul.

Hagia Sofia Interior.
Hagia Sofia Interior

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Historical Places To Visit

Hagia Sophia

Undisputedly the most important of all the sights in Istanbul, the Hagia Sofia has been around for over 1500 years. It is truly a symbol of the city.

Built originally by Byzantine emperor Constantius (which the city was named after as well) as a Greek Orthodox Christian church, it had a wooden roof and burned to the ground.

Rebuilt in 537, it still stands today. It was such an important religious place that the emperors were crowned there. After the Ottomans took power over the city, it was renovated into a mosque by adding a mihrab and minarets. (source).

Today, millions of tourists visit it each year, some more interested than others. The last time we were inside of the building admiring the calligraphy, the marble, the mosaics, and the architecture, we saw a couple of kids with game devices sitting on a pillar and playing away. At least they weren’t being disruptive.

Blue Mosque with Turkish banners in front, some flags.
Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Having lived in Turkey as a middle schooler, I believe that the Blue Mosque was the first one I’d ever visited in my life. Unlike the Christian churches I was used to, I was captivated by the wide-open expanse of floor covered with beautiful Turkish prayer rugs. After having visited this iconic place of worship many, many times, I’m still delighted by its grandeur.

Construction of the Blue Mosque (known as Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) took place in the early seventeenth century. At the time, it was thought presumptuous to build a mosque with six minarets as this was the same number at the mosque in Mecca. To avoid criticism, the sultan ordered a seventh minaret to be built at the Mecca mosque.

The blue mosque gets its name from the interior decorations. More than 20,000 individual tiles, all hand painted by master craftsman and artisans in Iznik, line the interior. Look closely at the tiles to discover flowers, cypress, and fruits.

Hippodrome

The area in front of the blue mosque is the site of the ancient hippodrome where chariots raced. Today it’s known as Sultan Ahmet square. It’s a big rectangular green space, with two Egyptian obelisks. The best known obelisk is the Thutmose II Obelisk taken from the Temple of Karnak. (source)

You will often see families walking there in the evening, throwing ball, or just chatting. We love going during this time and having a glass of çay while we people watch.

Basilica Cistern

It doesn’t take much time to wander around this Istanbul favorite. Kids and adults alike love going underneath the city to marvel at the 336 columns submerged in water in the otherworldly Basilica Cistern. The main attraction are the two stone medusa heads, and that’s just what they are, two stone heads. It’s worth a quick trip down there!

Top Kapi Palace Interior.
Top Kapi Palace Interior

Top Kapi Palace

One of my absolute favorites places in Istanbul is Topkapi Palace. There’s so much more to it than just a palace with a harem, which is, by the way, very cool. There are other exhibits that include the European Porcelains, the Imperial Treasury, and the Arms and Weapons.

The palace is beautiful, but many of the artifacts have been moved, so you end up walking through a number of empty rooms. The harem, however, still holds a couch. You can see the beautiful Iznik tiles in the rooms and halls as well.

The jewels and historical artifacts are priceless, and some of the items that you can view will amaze you, like these: Moses’ staff, scrolls belonging to John the baptist, keys to the Kaaba, and Muhammed’s footprint and his sword. (source) Pretty amazing!

Dolmabahce Palace from the water. Boats are in front of it.
Dolmabahce Palace from the water.

Dolmabahce Palace and Mosque

Dolmabahce palace, built in the nineteenth, is one of the most beautiful palaces in Turkey, maybe even the world. The palace served as the homes of the last Ottoman Sultans, and it was Attaturk’s home away from home when he was in Istanbul leading the new republic.

Highlights of a palace visit include the clock tower in front of the palace, the sultans Harem, Attuturk’s bedroom, and the palace gardens. Plan an early visit, shortly after opening hours, and find a quiet table in the garden cafe and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee with a view of the Bosphorus.

Rustem Paşa Mosque

Tucked away in the passages and narrow lanes near the Spice Bazaar, Rustem Pasa Camii has a completely different feel than the larger mosques in Istanbul. This smaller mosque was built in 1563 and named in honor of the Grand Vizier. The interior is richly decorated with intricately painted Iznik tiles.

This mosque is really holds a nostalgic place in my heart. I can remember the first time I went. It was with my “host nation” teacher in middle school. Mr. Aksoy teased us that this was a super secret mosques that no one really knew about. We were so excited to go.

As we off-loaded our ferry from Yalova, he set a fast pace behind the Yeni Camii down the street to the spice bazaar, then quickly through the bazaar, exiting onto a street with many vendors, the most obvious because of its intoxicating smell, coffee.

We kept following him. No one had stopped to look at the evil eyes, the produce, or any of the souvenirs we passed. We were on a mission. When we arrived at Rustem Pasa, we took off our shoes, the girls donned a scarf and we quietly entered.

It was almost completely empty, a litte dark inside, yet the blue Iznik tiles shone and almost twinkled in from the amber lightbulbs hanging over the prayer rugs. Mr. Aksoy waited while his 30 or so 8th graders took it all in, and finally spoke.

I don’t really remember what he told us that day, I just remember that he knew how to pique my interest, and I forever fell in love with this hidden mosque.

I took my family there, and tried to remember the path Mr. Aksoy had taken us. Yeni Camii, check. Spice bazaar, check. Coffee vendor or heavenly smells, check. A little further on, I couldn’t find it. I had to ask someone. We were very close, and it didn’t take but a couple more minutes to enter. I was so happy that the interior was just what I remembered.

Galata Tower

Another one of the iconic buildings of Istanbul, the Galata tower has its beginnings in the 5th century Byzantine empire. The tower has been used as a defensive bastion, a prison, a fire watch tower, and now as a museum and restaurant. The views of the Golden Horn from the top of this historic tower are priceless.

This is one of our favorite breakfast spots in Istanbul. The tower café puts on a full spread of Turkish specialties including eggs, assorted cheeses, olives, tomatoes, and pastries.

Opening Hours: Daily from 09:00 – 20:30. Reservations are possible for as late as 22:00.

Interior of fortress.
Interior of Rumelihisari.

Rumeli Fortress

Rumelihisari is one of our absolute favorite places to go and get out of the city. Located about 10 km from the center, it is an easy bus ride or drive. This is a spectacular place to climb around the old towers and castles, enjoy a gorgeous day in the garden, or partake of a special breakfast.

This Bosphorus fortress was built at the time of the Ottoman assault on the Byzantine empire. In fact, some say this fort was the key to the final siege of city. Today it is a great day trip out of the city.

Chora Church

Chora Church would be worth visiting just to see a stunning example of a late Byzantine church. But there is much more here, so much more. The stunning mosaics and murals have been painstakingly restored.

The intimate size and setting of the Chora Church means visitors have the best viewing of these precious treasures from a lost era. This is truly one of the “don’t miss” sites in Istanbul. Entry is covered by the Istanbul Museum Pass or tickets purchased on site.

Things to Do in Istanbul

The Republic Monument stands tall in Taksim Square.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square is at the heart of modern day Istanbul on the European side of the city. Trendy dining, high-end shopping, and luxury hotels are the name of the game here. Bars, nightlife, rooftop eateries it’s all here.

Still, one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul is to head over to Taksim square, take in the energy of the place, and then hop on the historic old tram for a ride down Istiklal Blvd. to Tunel.

Istiklal Avenue

Istanbuls main pedestrian shopping street is lined with stately 19th century buildings housing global brand shopping side by side with local fashion designer studios. Some of the best nightlife and dining is found here or on one of the bustling side streets.

Galata Bridge

Cafés on the lower deck and fishermen everywhere, this bustling bridge provides a rare glimpse of the city. While it’s true that buses and trams, cars and taxis, even donkey carts, all make their way across this famous bridge, the best way to cross is on foot. Take in the city skyline views and marvel at the crazy water traffic below.

Turkish ferry at sunset.
Turkish ferry at sunset.

Take a Ferry

The best way to experience the city is to get out on the water. Boating and shipping has been a way of life in Istanbul for thousands of years. The ferry ride from Hadarpasa station on the Asian side provides the most incredible views of the Golden Horn, especially as the sun is setting.

Another amazing ferry ride is Eminonu to Besiktas. The ferry goes along the Bosphorus passing Dolmabahce Palace on the way. Being on the water and seeing the city from that vantage should not be missed. Yes, there are cruises and boat tours you could take, but take the ferry, it’s cheaper and much more fun!

Experience Hammam

Splashing hot water, heated marble benches, massage, steam-why wouldn’t you want to experience Turkish hammam? Maybe the most amazing experience of my life. Go in for the full treatment and come out relaxed, rejuvenated, and squeaky clean.

The kese treatment, is the main treatment. You get a woman to scrub you down after you’ve steamed and steamed. This is a must.

Other treatments you might like are the coffee, the chocolate, a massage, and facials. It’s a great way to relax, and when I go to Turkey I like to have one the very day I get there to beat jet-lag. Plus, it’s such a Turkish activity that you will be immersed in the culture right away. Warning: You will sleep well after the bath, so make it as late as you can.

One of the best known is Cemberlistas, not far from the Grand Bazaar. I’ve known many people who tried it and had a fantastic experience. You can go on your own and get your tickets here. You’re good for 100 minutes.

If you’d like to try it on your own, to the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam in Beyoglu for a fabulous experience. The bath here is located in a traditional 16th century domed building. Sip some tea after your bath in the relaxing rest area. Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul

Whirling Dervishes twirl amid multi-colored lights.
The Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul.

Watch The Whirling Dervishes

Another must see while in Turkey, is a whirling Dervish show. These spiritual dancers will take your breath away with their grace and serenity. And what better venue than an ancient, remodeled Turkish Hammam?

UNESCO has deemed the Mevlani order dancers as a declared Heritage of Humanity. Watching the spirals and arcs of the dancers in their trancelike state is magical. Try to get a seat near the front for the best experience.

You can book the incredible Whirling Dervish show through our partners at Get Your Guide.

Markets and Shopping in Istanbul

If you’ve ever watched any movies that take place in northern Africa, the middle East, and of course Turkey, you probably have a vision of narrow alleyways, packed in tight with awnings and all kinds of products.

The Turkish markets are very much like that in some places, but bazaars are such a part of daily life that they have been given lots, with permanent stalls, especially in the larger cities like Istanbul or Ankara. You can still find the tents and awnings in the countryside where the vendors go to a different town each day of the week.

Turkish markets are crowded, chaotic, full of the freshest produce and meats. You can buy breads, yufka (for borek), kitchen utensils, clothing, really almost anything. Don’t leave Turkey without experiencing as many as you can.

Grand Bazaar

I really didn’t have to tell you to seek out the Grand Bazaar, did I? I think it’s high on everyone’s list, and of course it should be.

Kapalıçarşı, the Turkish name for the Grand Bazaar was built in 1460 by Fatih Sultan Mehmet in the height of the Ottoman Empire. This labyrinthian structure with 60 long hallways, or shopping streets, lined with over 3600 shops and businesses, many which have been there for generations. . and small domes across the ceiling, holds over

The building itself spans a massive 30,700 square meters, and believe me, you can get lost inside. The best way to experience the bazaar is a little at the beginning of your visit, and then a return visit before you leave so that you can grab your last souvenirs and take in this quintessential Turkish event. (source)

When you first enter the bazaar, you may think it’s not exactly what you expected. Where are the mountains of spices and the strings of dried dates? Um, that’s not this bazaar, it’s the Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar, and it’s not even very close to this bazaar.

Power Tip: Don’t forget to look up. Like a hamam, the bazaar’s ceiling has many small domes with cutouts of star in them to let in light.

Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar is really called the Egyptian Market or the
Mısır Çarşısı. Even before you open the door to walk inside, you can look right and see that yes, this is the bazaar of your expectations. Right away you will see mountains of nuts and spices, olives and figs, and yes, those colorful, aromatic spices.

Even though there had been a market, or souk, where the bazaar now stands for much longer due to its proximity to the Bosphorus, the building that you walk into today was built along with the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) which sits next door in 1663.

And just like the New Mosque it was originally called the New Market. However, many of the spices that were sold here originated in Egypt, so colloquially it was called the Egyptian Market.

Rug Vendor with rugs and kilims outside of the shop.
Rug Vendor

Turkish Rugs and Kilims

One souvenir many people want to walk away with is a Turkish rug or kilim. We know, we’ve bought many!

We’ve written an entire post about what to expect and how to bargain for your perfect Turkish carpet or kilim, but the most important thing to remember is buying a rug is an event.

You cannot walk in and buy one in 10 or 15 minutes. You will want to plan on staying there for at least a couple of hours.

Power Tip: As you walk around Istanbul, in and out of the bazaars look at the rugs but ignore any invitations to look by the shopkeepers. Then when you have a good idea of what you’d like, and maybe where you saw that perfect one, go back, and then accept his invitation.

Other Turkish Products

If you are a shopper, Turkey is the best place for you. From copper to ceramics, tea sets, coffee sets, food products, gold, jewelry, you name it. There is something very cool to buy in the markets of Istanbul.

Souvenir cans of "Air of Istanbul", cute.
Souvenir cans of “Air of Istanbul”, cute.

Istanbul Itineraries

You could spend a year in this amazing city and still not see it all, but we’ll do our best to give you ideas on what to do for the amount of time you’ll be there.

As much as we love Istanbul, we encourage you to go to other parts of the country as well. Turkey is an amazing country, and you will love exploring it.

We’re hoping that you are not including arriving in Istanbul as your first day. Our recommendation is that you arrive in the afternoon, get checked into your hotel, go out for a bit to eat, and as I said above, go to hamam and beat down some of that jet lag before going to bed.

Map of One Day in Istanbul Itinerary

Map of One Day in Istanbul Itinerary.
Click here to access our Map of One Day in Istanbul Itinerary.

Map of 2 Days in Istanbul Itinerary

Map of 2 Days in Istanbul Itinerary.
Click here to access our interactive Map of 2 Days in Istanbul Itinerary.

Map of Istanbul 3 Day Itinerary

Map of 3 Day Istanbul Itinerary.
Click here to access our Map of 3 Day Istanbul Itinerary
Cat in a fountain sleeping.
Cats are all over Istanbul, and curl up wherever they want.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

As you can imagine, Istanbul is a huge city and each neighborhood has its own personality and pros and cons. Most tourists stay in the Sultan Ahmet area, mainly because it’s central to most of the sights. We’ve stayed in Sultan Ahmet more times than I can count.

Sultan Ahmet Hotels

Luxury

Mid-Range

Budget

Taksim Chestnut Seller
Taksim Chestnut Seller

Other Great Istanbul Hotels

Luxury

Mid-Range

Budget

Ferry and boats docked at Buyukada.
Ferry and boats docked at Buyukada.

Day Trips From Istanbul

Depending on what you love to do, you can add any of these day trips to any of your Istanbul itineraries, but they also work well to get you out of the city if you are there on business.

Buyukada (Princes Islands)

One of my favorite things to do as a kid, my school went to Buyukada about once a year. Buyukada, or Big Island, is the largest of the nine Princes Islands in the middle of the Marmara Sea.

We’d ferry across, take a horse cart ride through the beautiful summer houses, ride the donkeys to the top of the mountain, run down, and have a seafood lunch in the harbor. I took my kids and we did the exact same thing. They loved it!

You can check out this tour to the Princes Islands.

Yalova and Iznik

I lived in Yalova for a year. It’s a ferry ride across the Bosphorus, and the town itself is just truly Turkish. Walk the coastline, sit in a cafe and enjoy some tea. It’s a perfect way to truly take in the other side of Turkey on a day trip.

However, I suggest hiring a taxi to drive you to Iznik where those beautiful tiles have been made for centuries. Walk the dusty streets popping into all the small workshops and artisans shops. (Make sure the taxi waits for you.)

Bursa World Heritage Site

Bursa

Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Green city of Bursa has plenty to offer like the tombs of the sultans, the silk market, traditional puppets and more.

Check out this full day tour of the Green City here.

Conclusion

Don’t miss out on a thing in the most exotic city in the world! Istanbul is like no other place, not even in Turkey. Wander the bazaars, smoke a hookah, and revel in its long and amazing history as you follow our itineraries. You will find yourself in love and planning your return trip.

Pin Istanbul Itineraries
Sunset Blue Mosque
Pin with Tiles, Galata Tower, and Turkish Delight.

18 thoughts on “Istanbul Itineraries and Travel Tips

  1. Pingback: Mediterranean Travel Destinations and European Capitals of Culture - Life On The Mediterranean

  2. Sabrina says:

    I’m going to Turkey for 5 days at the beginning of October and Want to try and visit 1-2 cities other than Istanbul. What do you recommend? Better yet – what should I do in 5 days?

  3. Debbie Smyth says:

    You’ll have seen from my own posts that I loved istanbul. I loved everything about it. I especially enjoyed wandering the narrow streets around the Galata Tower. I’ll be returning next year to wander some more!

  4. Frank says:

    Istanbul on our list and I wanted to build in a stopover on our flight to Bangkok. But Turkish Airlines flights from Prague were too expensive compared to others. But we’ll get there someday. Love your pic of the boat above – surprised by the number of tourists!
    I like this guide, reading it I can see you’ve spent time there.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Corinne Vail says:

      Steve, If you have more time, maybe there are other places you might want to go in Turkey. It’s pretty cheap to get around. If you have any questions while you’re planning your trip let me know!

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