Lost in Istanbul ?! Sure, it will happen to you as soon as you set your foot in the city divided on the two continents. Turkey’s metropolis is like a huge puzzle that will surprise you with every new piece discovered. Surely you will not be able to finish it in one visit, but as the appetite comes while eating, you will also want to come back to explore even more.
Leaving the metaphors to one side, a visit to Istanbul will fascinate you in every aspect! Delicious meals, world-class mosques, controversial history, loaded bazaars, sumptuous palaces, luxury residences, the Bosphorus, museums, and restaurants will delight you.
The city fascinates through its cultural and architectural mix. Through flavors and textures. Through past and future. Being so big and so generous, it will be hard to choose the things that you’ll want to do first. So, inspire yourself from my suggestions. All the activities listed in the article can be done in only 5 days in Istanbul.
What to do in Istanbul in 5 days
Visit the most famous restaurant – Hafiz Mustafa
You haven’t been to Istanbul until you passed the threshold of the most famous restaurant, with tradition in Istanbul since 1864, Hafiz Mustafa. Although the prices are a bit higher, the quality is directly proportional, and the experience a must-do. I recommend you go to the one located in Sirkeci. Have a dose of patience, because it is so loved that almost always all tables are taken. Order delicious baklava or any other good-looking dessert. Have a cup of coffee and enjoy the view over Bosphorus.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
Kitschy and grandiose! This is how I could briefly describe what the Grand Bazaar is, also known as Kapali Carsi. It is indeed one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It has over 4000 shops with all kinds of products, from fabrics, bags, clothes, pillows to souvenirs, perfumes and anything else that can cross your mind. You will see many brands, but I must warn you that they are all fake. So, no matter how convincing the seller could be in pursuing you to add an authentic Channel to your collection of bags, don’t fall into his trap!
If you still insist on testing your negotiation talents, the Grand Bazaar is the ideal place to do that. However, don’t have too many expectations. The bazaar is frequented by tens of thousands of people every day, so the sellers don’t make discounts very often. Even if you are not going to buy anything, don’t miss visiting the bazaar. Cultural speaking, it’s a beautiful experience! The architecture of the building is spectacular and deserves admiration. It is one of the best things to do in Istanbul.
Explore the Egyptian Bazaar
Warning for those who are on a diet: Stay away from the Egyptian Bazaar! It is a real temptation for your taste buds, impossible to refuse. Besides the hundreds of spices, from saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon, to peppermint, curry, and others whose name has not remained in my memory, the Egyptian Bazaar is the heaven of Turkish sweets. Sellers are more than excited to give you samples of every kind of Turkish delight lying on the table in tasty rollers. And it will be hard for you to refuse. You must try the pomegranate and Nutella one, the most delicious in my opinion!
Here, you will also find baklava, halva and other delicacies that will leave your mouth watering. But also dried fruits from the most exotic corners of the world: kiwi, pineapple, apricot, mango, papaya, and other eccentricities. As the hospitality of the Turks is very big most of the time, it is likely they will also offer you a cold mango tea. The perfect drink that will soothe your thirst after the whole diabetes experience.
Admire the mosque with the most controversial past, Hagia Sophia
After you have walked through Sultanahmet Square, it’s time to sit in a long queue to visit the Hagia Sophia Museum. This is one of the most important tourist attractions in Istanbul. If not even the most popular one. It’s a real symbol of the city. Very present on fridge magnets with Istanbul, flyers, magazines dedicated to tourism or presentation videos. Even worldwide, it is recognized as one of the most impressive religious buildings, with over 1500 years of existence. So it’s worth waiting to be visited when you’re in the city.
The story of the former Christian church begins a long time ago. Prior to reaching the present form, the church was built and demolished 3 times. The first version was erected by the founder of Constantinople, Emperor Constantine the Great. The period in which it was used as a church is much longer than the one in which it has been a mosque. It was and still is considered so spectacular that nowadays all the mosques in Istanbul are inspired by this imposing building.
Find out why the Sultanahmet Mosque is also called the Blue Mosque
If Hagia Sophia is now a museum, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a real mosque used for the daily prayers of Muslims. In fact, during my visit, I even had the opportunity to attend such a prayer. You must have already realized that you have to follow the clothing rules so you can step inside. It is important to respect the culture, religion, and customs of every place we visit. So, in the Blue Mosque, women can only enter if they wear hijab or borrow one from the entrance. Also, all visitors will walk barefoot in the mosque.
Sultan Ahmet Camii differs from the rest of the Istanbul mosques by having six minarets. Not two or four, as you will see the others have. Another distinctive factor, the one from where it got the popular name of the Blue Mosque, is the interior, decorated with ceramic tiles in blue shades.
The Blue Mosque is located right “across the street” from Hagia Sophia, so the wisest would be to visit them the same day in order to save time. If for Hagia you have to pay an entrance ticket and wait for a long queue, depending on the season, things are a little different here. Access is free and is not so crowded.
Walk on the shady alleys of Gulhane Park
For some fresh air and to change the view of the old city with a green one, go and stroll along the alleys of Gulhane Park. It is just 5 minutes from the mosques and within walking distance of Topkapı Palace. The name means house of roses, but tulips can also be admired here. Especially in March and April, when thousands of tulips in all colors blossom.
It is a very large park, one of the largest in Istanbul, but also the oldest. A true oasis of relaxation and cooling in the warm summer months. The elder oaks and walnut trees almost completely shade the alleys.
Visit Turkey at Miniaturk Park
Even if you spend two weeks in Turkey, as I did, it is unlikely you can visit everything this beautiful country has to offer. So the best place to get to know the most popular destinations, buildings, and monuments, is Miniaturk. An impressive park where you will feel like Gulliver in the Country of Dwarfs.
Here everything is done at the 1:25 scale, keeping an incredible fidelity of the details. 134 models, of which only 13 represent constructions outside Turkey. Each one awaits you to study them carefully. The experience is even more interactive thanks to an audio system. It will give you all the information you need for each individual machete.
The most appreciated models are the famous mosques, but also those representing Cappadocia, Pamukkale, the Ataturk airport, the stadium in Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the famous bridge linking the Asian side to the European one. Although it is relatively remote from the central areas of the city, you can get to Miniaturk Park very easily with a bus from the Sirkeci station. The price of an entrance ticket is 15 TL.
Try the street food
In the rush after the best things to do in Istanbul, you will inevitably get hungry. And maybe you don’t want to lose precious time every time while waiting for your order to come. In Istanbul, you don’t actually have to. Street vendors have their stalls spread all over the city. The dishes prepared by them are ready to appease hunger and appetite. Bagless stuffed with cheese or Nutella, baked corn and chestnuts, mussels or fish sandwiches sold under the Galata Bridge are just some of the options you have when choosing a fast lunch.
Not to mention the Turkish ice cream. Not necessarily for its flavor, but for the original way it is served to you. You’ll understand what I’m talking about right after you’ve ordered your first one.
Walk through Sultan Ahmet Square
The pedestrianized area in the current Sultan Ahmet Square was formerly known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. This is because chariot horse races but also protests or torture of the convicts were held here. All in the public eye. Practically, just like today, it was the most transited area in the city. Since the Byzantine Empire, the area was decorated with all sorts of statues and obelisks. Some brought from Greece and Egypt. Some of them can still be admired today. They are preserved well and protected by the fences surrounding them.
Among the original structures that can still be seen today are the Serpentine Column, the Egyptian Obelisk, and the Walled Obelisk. But my favorite is the German Fountain, much more recent. Built in 1900, its purpose was to mark the visit of the German Emperor in 1899 in Istanbul. The most interesting part is that it was built in Germany and subsequently brought, piece by piece, into the Turkish metropolis to be assembled.
You can’t miss Sultanahmet Square when you visit Istanbul. It is in the immediate vicinity of the most visited mosques, Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed. It’s kind of an open-air museum for which you will not have to pay an entrance ticket.
If there was a capital of souvenirs and shopping in general, I would bet on Istanbul. It’s the place where you have all the chances of going with at least one extra baggage back to your country. That’s because the merchandise is so rich, varied and affordable that you can hardly resist not to spend your holiday budget on clothes, accessories, baklava, home decorations or souvenirs. No matter how tempting it may seem, I advise you not to waste. Limit yourself to a few fridge magnets, a pillowcase with traditional Turkish motifs or a miniature mosque. Small objects to remind you of your beautiful experience.
Of course, if your purpose is different, it’s perfectly okay to ignore my suggestion. The places from which you can buy these souvenirs are unlimited. But I recommend avoiding the famous bazaars where prices are much higher.
Explore the streets
Relief in Istanbul is very uneven, so the streets are built largely on the slope. This, along with the architecture of the old buildings, the views of the Bosphorus and the rising minarets of the mosques, contribute significantly to the charm of the city. If you spend at least a few days here, one of the most pleasant activities is to explore the streets. Of course, looking for Instagrammable places. The most recommended neighborhoods for doing this are Galata, Karaköy, Arnavutköy, Çukurcuma, Balat, and Moda.
Visit Dolmabahce Palace
The stories with sultans will be most beautiful contoured in your mind when visiting the most opulent building on the Bosphorus, the Dolmabhace Palace. Being surrounded by white, imposing, splendid decorated fences, Dolmabhace is the ideal place to feel transposed to the glorious times of Turkey. Like any historical building in which the last rulers of the Ottoman Empire have lived, Dolmabache has a section where women used to live and the section is called Harem.
The majestic chandeliers, the elegant fireplaces and the candle holders with elaborate patterns are the main pieces that prove to be worth the 40 Turkish Liras paid for the entrance ticket. Important contributors to the whole decoration were the czar of Russia and Queen Victoria of England, who offered some precious items. Considering that it has 285 rooms, 13 years have been required to be completed. Although Sultan Abdulmecid is the one who ordered the construction of the palace, the most famous resident of the palace was the much-loved Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He also died in the presidential palace.
Have dinner on a rooftop
One of my favorite activities in Istanbul is to relax on a rooftop bar or restaurant, with incredible views over the Bosphorus. There are many restaurants of this kind everywhere in the city, and the atmosphere is truly special. I admit I’ve only been to a few which are located around the mosques in Sultanahmet. So, I don’t know if the views are better or not on the other side of the water.
If you choose Sultanahmet, close to Sirkeci, I recommend you Husnu Ala Café. Delicious food, Turkish love songs, the sea breeze and the dances of the seagulls on the colorful sky are the perfect ingredients for a lovely evening.
Play with cats
The cutest locals in Istanbul are by far the ones with four legs. Wherever you are, either you are in a very transited area, either you are in a quiet neighborhood, the little felines are always present. They will stick to your legs and wait to be cuddled on their fur. So they can pay you back with a thankful purr. Not all are sociable, but most of them are used to humans. So they won’t bother to hide from you.
Although they are stray cats and their number is bigger than tens of thousands, they are very much taken care of and constantly fed by locals. The cats in Istanbul are a splash of color in the city’s decor. They will probably be a symbol of the city a very long time from now on. Especially given that in Islam cats are very clean and respected.
Cats are part of the soul of Istanbul, and the appreciation for them has gone quite far. So far they have even documentaries or Facebook pages dedicated to them.
Cross the Bosphorus Bridge
Asia and Europe are not only connected by the daily ferries in Istanbul, but also by the famous Bosphorus Bridge, known as the 15 July Martyrs Bridge. It stretches from Ortaköy on the European side to Beylerbeyi in Asia. The bridge is one and a half kilometers long. Although it has impressive dimensions, it is only 17th in the world in the top of the longest bridges. For example, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is almost double the length.
Until recently, the First Bosphorus Bridge had one single competitor on the Strait linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, the Faith Sultan Bridge. In 2016, a third bridge that the Turks called Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge joined the team.
Visit the mysterious Basilica Cistern
If you are a fan of the James Bond series, then you must visit the Basilica Cistern. No wonder the spectacular underground construction was used as a filming location for some Hollywood cinematographic productions, given the special interior atmosphere. The 336 columns, diffused lights and thousands of fish that bounce into the formed pools create a mystical space that you will want to see.
The cistern dates back to the 6th century and was built with the purpose of supplying water for the Imperial Palace and the surrounding buildings. For this and for its majestic appearance due to the columns, it also bears the name of the Sunken Palace. The most controversial elements that attract tourists as a magnet are the two jellyfish heads supporting the columns. It is said that Meduza was a mortal whose hair was turned into snakes by goddess Athena, jealous of her love with Perseus.
The Basilica is right next to Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace. It measures 140 meters in length and 70 in width, and the price for a ticket is 20 Turkish Pounds.
Go on a cruise on the Bosphorus
Istanbul is the kind of city that you can get to know both on land and on water. And you have to take advantage of the two options when you are in the realm of the former Constantinople! Whether you choose a few short ferry rides or a true cruise to take you to the luxurious Turkish residences, you can’t feel that you really visited the city without having experienced a Bosphorus cruise.
If you choose the ferry, the cost is very small and the views incredible. For just 2-3 Turkish Pounds, you can juggle between the two continents. Depending on your preference, you can opt for a daytime cruise or a sunset one to admire the explosion of reddish shades on the sky of Istanbul. The cruise will also delight you with traditional Turkish dishes, oriental rhythms, and talented dancers.
Also, a great idea is to go and visit the Princes Islands. Filled with luxurious residences of the Ottoman era, the 9 islands are the perfect one-day escape, away from the agitation of the city. Gorgeous landscapes, car-free streets, and relaxing atmosphere will make you realize immediately why they are so loved.
Istanbul is a city full of mixed flavors, that will instantly attract you. In addition to the delicious food, “guilty” of this phenomenon is also the hookah, a hobby often found in the Turkish city. Even if you are not a smoker, it is an experience that deserves to be ticked and one that you may like. I recommend you choose a place decorated as traditional and authentic as Havusbasi Kafe Sultanahmet or a rooftop. As for flavors, my favorite is the one with blueberries.
Take photos next to Ortakoy Mosque
You arrived in Istanbul and want your Instagram feed to look amazing? The photos with the Ortakoy Mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge in the background will solve the “problem”. From my point of view, the Neo-Baroque architecture, the huge dome, and the two towering minarets make the Ortakoy mosque one of the most photogenic places in the city. No wonder the architect of the project is the same one who planned the Dolmabhace Palace. A real talent! Add to the whole picture tens of pigeons that will gather around you just like those in Piazza San Marco, Venice. You will have the best picture on the Social Media platform!
Hop on the red tram on Istiklal Street
Times Square of Istanbul, as I called it on my Instagram stories when I shared my Istanbul experience with you, is the Taksim neighborhood. Crowded streets, music, cats walking among the passers’ feet, protests always present, street vendors having their merchandise ready, shows and street artists. Here you can truly take the pulse of the city because it is the most lively area in Istanbul. Climb onto the red tram on Istiklal Street and let yourself be driven among the old buildings and their beautifully decorated facades, amongst all kinds of shops, hotels, and boutiques full of delights. It’s definitely on of the best things to visit in Istanbul!
Visit Arasta Market
If you feel like the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar are not what you’re looking for, go to Arasta Market. An experience a little more authentic and almost completely free of the bustle encountered in the two bazaars mentioned above. Here you will find the most beautiful handmade fabrics. Without worrying to be disturbed by the insistence of sellers to buy them. Arasta Market is a bazaar built on Byzantine ruins, located behind the Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet area.