Istanbul Itinerary: Popular activities and attractionsby | August 24, 2020
Istanbul is probably the most famous out of all the cities in Turkey and home to many of the country’s key attractions. Fitting everything worth seeing in an Istanbul itinerary can be a difficult task, so Visagov has put together three different options according to the time you plan to spend in the area.
Here’s an Istanbul itinerary for 3, 5 and 7 days. Pick the activities you feel drawn to and build your own!
Istanbul itinerary 3 days: Typical activities
Traveling to Istanbul for three days only leaves room for the most important and famous attractions of the city. Here’s what every Istanbul itinerary needs to feature, no matter how short the trip.
Admire the world-famous Hagia Sophia
Istanbul is a city with a rich history, and Hagia Sophia is a symbol of that. It shows the Byzantine and Ottoman empires' influence on the city. At present, this former cathedral-mosque-museum has turned to be yet again a mosque.
As you enter this architectural masterpiece, you will be amazed by the colorful mosaics, calligraphy and rich interior. Although it was recently declared a mosque, it is still open to visitors and it’s a staple of every Istanbul itinerary.
Take a walk in the Basilica Cistern
This cistern, with its dimly-lit, chilled atmosphere, and the resonance of dripping water is a place that is both serene and gothic at the same time. Every Istanbul itinerary includes it!
As a construction of the Byzantine Empire, it has many legendary stories entwined within. What is known to be true is that it was used to supply fresh water to the Great Palace of Constantinople in the past. Take a stroll through this beautiful place adorned with pillars, without forgetting to see the inverted Medusa head. The entrance of Basilica Cistern is located across from Hagia Sophia.
Visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque
This religious landmark built in the 16th century is also known as the Blue Mosque because its interior is beautifully decorated with blue tiles. It was built under the patronage of Sultan Ahmet I as a rival establishment for Hagia Sophia. The exterior consists of 6 minarets, which are essentially tall pillars, and a set of gray-coloured domes.
Although it is still being used for Islamic prayers, visitors are allowed to enter the premises and explore the site. Note that you have to adhere to their prescribed code of dressing or borrow a cloak at the entrance.
See the city from the Galata Tower
As one of the unique places in Istanbul, Galata Tower gives you panoramic 360° views of the city. If you wish to capture a few good photos before you head out of the city, this is the place to go. This 63-meter high, medieval tower attracts a lot of visitors and, if you go at sunset, you will really understand why every Istanbul itinerary includes this stop.
There’s also a restaurant on the 9th floor where you can enjoy a nice cup of coffee overlooking the city from the top.
Shop in the Grand Bazaar
If you like shopping, or just want to take some souvenirs home for your loved ones, this is the place to go. The Grand Bazaar is a colorful market that consists of 60 streets with nearly 4000 shops selling a wide assortment of goods. Some of the items you will find here are jewelry, antiques, carpets, ceramic, leather, and textiles.
Don’t forget to taste the fantastic food! You will also find local artisans providing custom made jewelry. If you don’t have enough time to explore the entire bazaar, or get lost in the maze of shops, it might be better to choose one specific gate and explore the area around it.
Visit the Topkapi Palace and Gülhane Park
This former palace of the Ottoman Empire has now turned into a museum for visitors to glimpse into the previous lives of the aristocrats. It consists of courtyards, the Harem section, and the Treasury which exhibits a rich collection of jewelry belonging to the Ottoman era. The palace is open every day of the week except Tuesdays.
If you are a nature lover, don’t forget to take a walk in Gülhane Park, translated as the House of Roses. It is located very close to the Topkapi Palace featuring numerous gardens with impressive flower varieties and quaint cafes. You can even picnic under the shade of giant trees while enjoying the surroundings.
Istanbul itinerary 5 days
This Istanbul itinerary for 5 days features some minor attractions that you might not have time for in a short trip, but that are still well worth the visit.
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
If you plan on staying a few days in Istanbul, visiting its museums is always a great choice: the city has centuries of history, it’s very interesting to see and hear about.
The Istanbul Archaeological Museums are a museum complex made up of three different buildings: the Archaeology Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient and The Tiled Kiosk Museum. They’re all connected through the same garden.
The museums have loads of historical artifacts, but one is particularly special: the Alexander Sarcophagus.
Indulge in an authentic Hammam Experience
A visit to Istanbul won’t be complete until you treat yourself to a Hammam spa in a traditional Turkish bathhouse. A practice from the Ottoman Empire, Hamam is a body cleansing ritual encompassing a steam bath, scrub, and a soothing massage that would leave you refreshingly rejuvenated.
Most of the Hamams are open from early morning to as late as midnight, so if you want to unwind after a tiring day of visiting places, we recommend you to give this a try!
Walls of Constantinople
Built in the 5th century, the Walls of Constantinople extend from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. Their goal was to keep foreign invaders out of the city of Constantinople, and they mostly succeeded: they only failed twice (in 1204 and 1453).
There are some sections available for walking, and they also provide stunning views of the surroundings.
Explore the Bosphorus Strait
Istanbul’s Asian and European sides are separated by the Bosphorus Strait with magnificent bridges connecting the two continents.
Certainly, don’t forget to explore the waterway with impressive establishments on either side by partaking in a cruise. Depending on the time you have available, there are various cruise options that go up to the Black Sea. It’s also one of the most romantic activities you can do.
Taste the local treats: book a food tour
Turkish food is known all over the world, and what better place to taste it in full than Istanbul? Fusing European and Asian styles, it’s both delicious and unique, a living representation of the traditions of Turkey.
There are many different tours available, so you just have to pick the one that fits your Istanbul itinerary the best.
If you tasted the food of Turkey and are now looking to make it yourself, the first stop has to be the Spice market. Here you will be able to buy the key ingredients used in the typical dishes of the country, as well as other types of souvenirs. Don’t hesitate to try their street food offers!
The Hippodrome was the home of ancient chariot races in Turkey. It’s a perfect visit for every Istanbul itinerary: it’s right across the Blue Mosque.
It was built in the year AD 203 by order of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Now it serves as a square.
There are two obelisks in the Hippodrome: the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Obelisk of King Tuthmosis III, brought from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor.
7 day Istanbul itinerary: Day trips
If you have days to spare in the Istanbul area and you’ve already visited all the main tourist attractions, you should try to fit in at least one day trip to discover other tourist attractions in Turkey.
Here are some of the options available for a 7 day Istanbul itinerary.
The Turkish town of Termal is a great choice for those looking to relax and enjoy nature.
Termal has hot springs, waterfalls, lakes and forests that make for a beautiful trip. This is a perfect spot for joining a hammam experience as they are the main attraction of the area.
The Belgrad forest is very close to Istanbul so it’s a very comfortable option for nature lovers with shorter itineraries. Inside the forest you can find nine different natural parks with picnic tables, perfect for enjoying a light meal before starting your walk in nature. If a picnic is not your style, don’t worry: there are cafes and other facilities to make your day trip easier. Here you will also find seven Ottoman dams. Their function used to be to provide water to Istanbul.
Edirne served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire after Bursa, followed by Istanbul.
The city is home to the Selimiye Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Edirne’s main attraction. There are other mosques and places of worship worth the visit, but the one you certainly can’t miss is the Selimiye Mosque.
Thrace Vineyard Route
The region of Thrace is shared with Bulgaria and Greece, and it’s a place known for its wine grapes since ancient times. In fact, it’s mentioned in the Iliad by Homer!
Nowadays, there are boutique vineyards which produce the best grapes of the country thanks to the fertile soil and good weather. They usually are located in one of these 4 cities: Kırklareli, Tekirdağ, Şarköy, and Gelibolu.
There are tours across the Thrace Vineyard Route that also include food tastings, one of the best activities for foodies.
Bursa is the fourth largest city in Turkey and it served as the first capital of the Ottoman Empire before Edirne.
There’s so much to do in Bursa! From monuments and mausoleums belonging to the sultans, to thermal springs and hammams. You can even enjoy skiing in Mount Uludağ during the winter.
Even though you could extend your stay to more than a day trip, it’s still a viable option for history buffs.
Take a tour to the Princes’ Islands
If you need to spend some time away from the chaos of the city, a trip to Princes’ Islands might be the answer. They are a cluster of islands located in the Sea of Marmara, accessible by an hour-long, scenic cruise trip. It’s one of the top choices for every international traveler building an Istanbul itinerary.
These tranquil islands have no motor vehicles, and you can explore the island on foot or bicycle. There are old monasteries, mansions, and mosques scattered on the island since monarchs who were banished from the kingdom were sent there to live. If you want to explore this archipelago freely, you might have to spend an entire day there.