There are so many things to see and taste for those who want to visit Istanbul, that you will not have time to see everything in 5 days. But you will be able to see and taste it all!
When you receive family or friends at home in Istanbul, you always have so much pleasure to take them to visit this magical city, vibrant, in perpetual movement and yet so timeless … so if you wonder what to see in Istanbul in 5 days … follow the guide! we give you our secrets, our favorites, our tips … This is only an idea of a program to visit Istanbul, then it’s up to you to adapt it for an unforgettable stay in Turkey!
Day 1 - The historical heart of the Byzantine and Ottoman capital
One cannot begin to understand Istanbul without having trodden the ground where it all began nearly 3 millennia ago, with the founding of Byzantium… Even today, it is here that one can best see the Byzantine and Ottoman vestiges that blend harmoniously to form the present-day district of Sultanahmet! To get there, the T1 streetcar is the best option. Stop at “Sultanahmet – Blue Mosque” station.
Go down to the old Byzantine racecourse whose track can still be seen and observe the German fountain of the Ottoman period. Make a turn on you even with 360° and let the charm operate… you see the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the blue mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) and the 3 last columns of the hippodrome still upright: the Egyptian obelisk, the serpentine column, the walled column.
By continuing further (10 minutes of walk) you will be able to reach the Small Holy-Sophia (Kuçuk Ayasofya) very little known, this old Byzantine church will be your 1st mosque to visit!
Go straight up to the Sultanahmet square, you arrive under the famous “Blue Mosque” (name given by the Westerners, but that the Turks call Mosque of Sultanahmet – Sultanahmet camii, and they hold it ;-)).
Cross the Arasta Bazaar which borders the mosque on your right, and continue straight to the Seven Hills Hotel and Restaurant (as one of the nicknames of Istanbul). Stop there for a çay (tea!) break on its roof terrace. I don’t recommend eating there as it’s not a very good place for that. But enjoy the exceptional 360° view on Sainte-Sophie, the Blue Mosque and the Marmara Sea…
On your way back down, visit the Blue Mosque (the most touristic one in Istanbul and therefore the most crowded and not necessarily the most beautiful… but it’s still a must see!) Then go to the Cistern-Basilica whose entrance is opposite the entrance of Hagia Sophia on the opposite side of the streetcar line.
Go to the Caferaga medresesi which is a former Koranic school converted into a craft workshop. The entrance is not very easy to find but it is worth a visit! Look at the students in class and their works… and if the weather is nice you can have a very good and cheap lunch with typical food (try for example their manti – kind of Turkish ravioli – and their Imam bayildi – stuffed eggplant).
Day 2 - from Topkapi to Galata, a bridge between tradition and modernity!
Let’s start the day by visiting the Topkapi Palace (see price list and schedule). For this, the streetcar stop “Sultanahmet – Blue mosque” is the easiest (the same as the day before!).
Entering the first courtyard of the Palace you can already visit the St. Irene Church before passing the second gate of the Topkapi Palace. During this visit, you will have a good overview of the way of life of the first Ottoman Turks (nomadic people, the palace is naturally built like a camp, an accumulation of buildings with specific functions, with little furniture but a lot of refinement in the decor).
On your way out, pass by (or stop to visit) the archaeological museum.
You have arrived at the Gülhane garden – the rose garden. Here you can have a nice lunch at the Beltur restaurant (a chain of restaurants always very well placed in the tourist areas. The food is not exceptional but the setting is very good).
If you like to walk, you can continue on foot along the tramway tracks (if not… take the Tram ;-)) to the Sirkeci station which is the station of the old Orient-Express. Take a look at the waiting rooms and the stained glass windows! A small free museum is located inside. You can even have lunch or a drink at the Orient-Express restaurant, with its walls full of souvenir photos…
You then arrive at the Eminönü district with its mosque, the Yeni Camii (literally, new mosque, but which is under restoration! cannot be visited) and its spice bazaar or Egyptian bazaar (Misir Carcisi). Go through it, but don’t shop inside the bazaar, the surrounding alleys are much cheaper!
Then go over the Golden Horn by the Galata Bridge (by foot or by streetcar depending on your condition!). If you do it by streetcar, stop at Karaköy station, just after the bridge. Go to the entrance of the Tünel Funicular (either by crossing the road at your own risk or by going through the underground… by exiting at the bottom left). The Funicular will take you to the top of Galata Hill, at the bottom of Istikklal Avenue.
You will be able to go down slightly to reach the Galata Tower and to go up there (see price and schedule) to observe the city. Very animated district, you will find for the evening plethora of restaurants, hookah bars, trendy clubs… with rooftop!
Day 3 - The more authentic Stamboul on the banks of the Golden Horn
To start this day, We suggest you to go to the museum Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora – Kariye Müzesi which is a former Byzantine church, converted into a mosque then transformed into a museum. Its interest lies in its exceptional mosaics telling in particular the life of the Virgin Mary, like a comic strip… Following a restoration and a political decision, Saint-Sauveur is for the moment closed. Instead, you can visit the Walls of Constantinople and the remains of the Byzantine Palace of Tekfur which are nearby.
Then walk back down through the streets towards Sultanahmet and the Golden Horn, you will cross the districts of Fener and Balat, which are very nice and still not very touristy. They do not miss small restaurants full of charm to lunch.
Day 4 - The most beautiful mosque, the largest Bazaar and the highest tower in Istanbul!
A day on the theme of excess… starts early in the morning, with a real gargantuan Turkish breakfast – Kahvalti (in most restaurants or in a specialized restaurant!).
Then go quietly to the Grand Bazaar. You can get there directly from the T1 streetcar station “Cemberlitas” or “Beyazit”.
At the Grand Bazaar (Grand Bazaar or Kapalicarsi) – don’t hesitate to get lost (you’ll eventually find your way back to one of the 22 exits!). Shop, haggle or go and see the craftsmen working in their workshops… and why not have your picture taken in Sultan/Sultana’s outfit? You are in the biggest covered market in the world! For shopping, you will find carpets, ikat fabrics, lamps, ceramics, hammam products… If you are looking for good addresses, ask us. However, don’t buy spices in the covered bazaars where the prices can be multiplied by 10 compared to the outside streets!
Exit from the side of Gates 6 to 10 and head towards the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent – the Süleymaniye – the most beautiful achievement of the greatest Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan! Enjoy the splendid view of the Golden Horn and the entrance to the Bosphorus. From the roof-tops of the restaurants below, you will still have nice views of the Mosque.
In the afternoon, you can go by metro M2 to the very modern district of Levent (station “4.Levent”) to do some shopping “à l’Europeen” if you wish, but especially to finish in the highest skyscraper of the city, the Sapphire Istanbul. Inaugurated in 2011, it reaches 220m. The access to the top floors (53rd and 54th!) is not free but offers an impressive view on the city.
Day 5 - Istanbul, between Europe and Asia
For this end of stay, we suggest you visit the Dolmabahçe Palace, a much more modern and rococo version of the Ottoman palaces! Observe the contrast with Topkapi… The entrance is quite expensive but includes the audioguide in English. You can get there by the T1 streetcar or the Taksim Funicular, at Kabatas station.
On your way out you can take a boat from the nearby Kabatas pier for a cruise on the Bosphorus (if you haven’t already done so!) or go to the Asian side, to Üsküdar. From there you can walk along the Bosphorus and enjoy the view of the European shore and the Leander Tower – kiz kulesi. It is possible to take a small shuttle bus to the island and climb the tower!
At the end of the day, relax in a hammam, a barber, a manicure… to leave clean as a whistle and elegant as a real Turk!