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Founded around 660BCE as Byzantion, Istanbul today has come a long way, being Turkey’s cultural and financial hub and also the most populous city in Europe. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus—the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea—Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally.
With such a rich history and unique culture as a result of the city straddling two continents, you won’t be short of places to visit in Istanbul. We show you how to make the best of your trip with a comfortable time-based itinerary below.
With 1 day to spare
Istanbul’s most popular attractions hold great significance, with thousands of years of history behind them. You don’t have to miss them even if you’re short on time—they are well within a five-minute walk from each other surrounding Sultanahmet Square.
The Blue Mosque—officially the Sultan Ahmed Mosque—is arguably Istanbul’s most photogenic building, gaining its unofficial name from the over 20,000 blue hand-painted Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.
The grand project of Sultan Ahmet in the 17th century mirrors the domed silhouette of the Hagia Sophia standing across it and is one of only a handful of mosques in the world to boast six minarets. A great example of classical Ottoman architecture with its numerous domes, the mosque is an iconic fixture of the city’s skyline.
Visitors must enter by the side entrance from the Hippodrome which will take you past the courtyard. It is as large as the mosque’s interior and the largest amongst all Ottoman mosques!
While free to visit, the Blue Mosque is still an active religious site so modest dress is required. Don’t worry if you wandered in on a whim—the mosque loans headscarves and wraps to visitors.
Constructed in 532 for Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, Istanbul’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern once supplied drinking water to the Great Palace of Constantinople, the main palace residence for local emperors for centuries. The palace no longer exists but the underground water reservoir was renovated in the 1980s to welcome visitors.
The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici) was built using 336 9-metre high columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples and monuments. Walk along the raised wooden platforms and look out for the fish swimming around the column bases. Interestingly, you might spot the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column—proof that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as little more than reusable rubble!
Foodie Tip: Take a break from exploring and stop by Sultanahmet Ottoman Terrace Fish House for lunch, just a short 5-minute stroll away. They’re popular for their fresh fish and seafood with excellent service and an impressive view of the sea to boot.
Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) was a Greek Orthodox church for nearly a thousand years. Also commissioned by emperor Justinian I, it was then converted into a mosque in 1453 before being secularised in 1953 as today’s Hagia Sophia Museum. As a result, you’ll find beautiful gold Christian mosaics like the 9th century Virgin and Christ Child interestingly juxtaposed with brilliant Islamic calligraphic roundels suspended from the main dome of the building.
Hagia Sophia is considered the magnum opus of Byzantine architecture. Its innovative architecture, rich history, religious importance and stunning beauty make it a must-visit in Istanbul. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site continues to undergo constant restoration works, with the latest major restoration being completed in 2012.
Just a 3-minute walk from Hagia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayı), which was home to generations of Ottoman sultans from the late 15th century to 1856.
Today, the Palace with its promontory location is a museum with breath-taking views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. Besides the brilliant architecture, its manicured courtyards and collection of holy relics, weapons, porcelains and art are not to be missed.
If you’ve another hour or two to spare, get tickets (42TL/US$8) to the harem. Wives of sultans were closeted in these lushly tiled rooms wrapped round a gem of a traditional Turkish bath.
The palace is notorious for its snaking queues, so try booking a guided tour if you’re short on time. Modest dress is also required at the Sacred Relics department; cloths are available for loan with staff.
Foodie Tip: At the end of a packed day, settle down for grilled meats and traditional Turkish desserts at Gullhane Sark Sofrasi, a 10-minute walk from the palace.
With 2 days to spare
Two days gives you plenty of time to squeeze in more museums and some shopping without having to wander too far from Sultanahmet Square.
Just across Topkapi Palace are the Istanbul Archaeological Museums made up of the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), Museum of the Ancient Orient (Eski Şark Eserler Müzesi) and the Museum of Islamic Art located in the Tiled Kiosk (Çinili Köşk).
Showcasing archaeological and artistic treasures from the Topkapi collections, the three museums together house over one million artefacts, artworks, inscriptions and coins covering the history of Istanbul, Turkey and Islam!
Highlights here include the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great which depicts scenes from his life in vivid 3D; the blue-tiled Karaman Mihrab, a semi-circular prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca; the beautifully restored Tiled Pavilion—one of the city’s oldest Ottoman structures—and the Treaty of Kadesh from 1269 BC, the world’s earliest surviving peace treaty.
In the historic Fatih district, the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi) is one of the largest covered markets in the world, where some 400,000 people stream through the colourful 500-year-old market daily.
The Bazaar covers 61 maze-like streets; there are thousands of shops and stalls selling handcrafted Turkish ceramics, carpets, teas, lamps, leather goods and jewellery. It may be overwhelming but embrace the chance to browse and practice your bargaining skills with the vendors. It’s still very much a traditional market so come prepared with loose change.
If you’re willing to get lost, dart into one of the many back alleys of the Bazaar and you might be pleasantly rewarded with the most authentic grub. Aynen Dürüm is one such spot: grab a stool at the counter and wolf down grilled lamb kebabs among the locals.
With 3 days to spare
An extra day allows you to wander deeper into the Eminönü area to explore more historical and religious sites in the city away from the crowds.
Said to be just as impressive as the Blue Mosque but without the crowds, Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) crowns one of İstanbul’s seven hills and dominates the Golden Horn waterway, making it an iconic landmark of the city.
The Mosque was designed by famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent between 1550 and 1557 and holds the titles of the city’s largest Ottoman-era mosque and the second-largest mosque. This grand structure features multiple gardens and a large dome, plus luxurious finishes like mother-of-pearl window shutters, painted corbels, traditional ceramic tiles and stained-glass windows.
Modest dress is required here; visitors may loan coverings from the mosque when visiting.
Just like Hagia Sophia, the Chora Museum (Kariye Museum) was originally built as a Byzantine church, later converted to a mosque before being transformed into a museum. But thanks to its location within a neighbourhood of restored Ottoman wooden houses, the Chora Museum sees a smaller crowd than its counterpart.
The building was originally known as the Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the Walls (‘Chora’ means ‘countryside’ in Greek) as it was first built outside the original city walls. However, the museum sits within the Theodosian walls—fortifications built by Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II—whose remains can still be visited and scaled today for a stunning view of the city.
Though further away from the tourist areas, the Chora Museum contains glittering 14th-century Byzantine mosaics depicting biblical events and invaluable frescoes not to be missed. Some are even considered as the most significant in the Christian world!
Foodie Tip: Right next door is Asitane, popular for its traditional Ottoman cuisine and an alfresco area shaded by lush, green trees. Vegetarian options are available here too.
With 4 or more days to spare
Cross the iconic Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to Taksim Square. Though the centre of modern Istanbul, there are a couple of historic sites in the vicinity to visit. And with the extra time on your hands, why not hop over to Asia for some shopping?
The luxurious Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid who decided to move his imperial court from Topkapı Palace to a lavish new dwelling on the shores of the Bosphorus. The palace was used by the last six Ottoman sultans as their primary residence and administrative seat.
No effort was spared from designing Turkey’s largest palace: The designer of the Paris Opera was brought in for the extravagant interiors that are extensively decorated with gold and crystal. Don’t miss the famous Crystal Staircase, built in the shape of a double horseshoe using Baccarat crystal, brass and mahogany. The largest crystal chandelier in the world also hangs in this very palace, a gift from Queen Victoria of England that weighs a massive 4 tonnes!
Fun fact: All clocks in the palace are turned to 09:05AM, the time of death of former Turkish President Atatürk who adopted the palace as his Presidential home.
The Galata Tower is one of the best spots to enjoy a panoramic view of Istanbul. This landmark tower is over 60 metres high and crowns the hill opposite the Golden Horn. Most likely first built in the 6th century, the tower was used to spot fires. Since then, it has also been rebuilt as a jail and observatory before being finally transformed as a visitor attraction in the 1960s.
Today, its 9th-floor observation deck shares the space with a restaurant. Making a reservation here will allow you to skip the lines and head straight up to the view. Alternatively, come early and you’ll be whizzed up in no time.
The tower also has a part to play in aviation history: the first ever intercontinental flight was launched from here by Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi in 1638, who managed to cross the Bosphorus using artificial wings.
A 15-minute ferry ride across the Bosphorous will take you to the Asia side of Istanbul, a largely residential area. Though quieter thanks to the lack of tourist crowds, one of the biggest attractions would be the chaotic yet charming historical Kadikoy Market (Sali Pazari).
More a collection of merchants that pop up on Tuesdays and Fridays, you’ll find a colourful array of fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, cheese, clothing and antiques here, to name a few. The options here may seem endless, but the effort and time spent will be worth it; locals vouch for the quality produce for very reasonable prices at this centuries-old market.
The market has moved locations several times, but as of June 2019, it has found a permanent home back at its original location in Hasanpasa. From Kadikoy ferry station, the metro takes you to Unalan station in 20 minutes. The market (look for Kadikoy Kent Meydani) is a breezy 10-15-minute walk from there. Alternatively, the metrobus from Kadikoy station takes you to nearby stop Uzunçayır Caddesi in 10 minutes.
Whether you’re staying for a short holiday or longer trip, our properties in Istanbul are situated on either side of the Bosphorus, offering you a safe, comfortable and convenient home away from home.