Istanbul Itinerary: 12 Things You Must Do
Istanbul. The once-upon-a-time capital city of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires — formerly named Byzantium and then Constantinople — is a large and enchanting city. It sits at the center of two continents, Europe and Asia, blending religious and geographical cultures along with Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The skyline is packed with elegant towering minarets surrounding mosques, churches, palaces, skyscrapers, rooftop terraces and waterways. As you stroll through the historic streets, the call to prayer by the local mosques is broadcasted throughout the city by powerful loudspeakers 5 times per day. The historic areas of Istanbul have been grouped together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re a first-time visitor looking to experience many of the city’s highlights, this Istanbul Itinerary is designed for you. While I’d recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days in Istanbul, if you are constrained by time (as we were), it is possible to see/do everything on this list in one jam-packed day if you’re active and committed. If you’re in no hurry, we recommend you stay as long as you’d like!
Getting To and Around Istanbul
Many airlines from many cities fly into Istanbul. Use Airfarewatchdog to get updates on the best deals on flights into Istanbul to receive notifications when they arise.
Once in the city, there are many ways to get around. You can hire a private driver, rent a car, take a taxi, or use public transportation systems such as: buses, trams, the metro subway, and ferries. You can navigate various public transportation routes on Istanbul’s Metropolitan Municipality website.
We booked a private tour with Istanbul Private & Small Group Tours that arranged all of our transportation while in Istanbul. We were impressed with the responsiveness, professionalism, and knowledge of our guide and completely fell in love with Istanbul because of his charisma, and Istanbul’s beauty and energy.
Side Trip Suggestion: You can also consider taking a one or two-day trip and tour to stunning Cappadocia, which includes transportation, accommodation, and the option to take a famous balloon ride over the rugged Turkish landscape. This region is replete with structures, churches, houses, and even underground cities carved directly into the rocks. Cappadocia is also famous for its wine. So if you’re heading that direction, be sure to investigate some of the boutique vineyards at Turasan, Kocabağ, Kapadokya, or Şenol.
Many of the sights referenced in this itinerary are extremely close to the center of old Istanbul on the peninsula surrounded by the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait, and Sea of Marmara. The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, and Basilica Cistern are short leisurely walks nearly a stone’s throw away from each other. The Topkapi Palace is less than a 10-minute walk, and it’s approximately a 15-minute walk to either the Grand Bazaar or Spice Market.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Hotel options in Sultanahmet to consider include the Seven Hills Hotel and GLK Premier Regency Suites & Spa, Istanbul. The Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel is a comfortable stay near the airport. You can also search for deals on Istanbul hotels on Trip Advisor.
Top Things To Do in Istanbul Turkey
See Istanbul by Rooftop
Start your morning in the heart of Istanbul sipping on a cup of Turkish coffee or tea at a rooftop restaurant, such as Seven Hills Restaurant which has unrivaled views of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara (the sea that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey). After finishing your cup of coffee, engage in a traditional Turkish pastime by attempting to read your fortune from the sediment of the coffee beans.
Hot Tip: #Winetravelers can also try this with the sediment at the bottom of their wine glass, if so inclined.
Seven Hills Restaurant would also be a great spot for lunch, dinner and/or trying a glass of Turkish wine while soaking in the views of Istanbul.
Seeing Istanbul’s beauty by rooftop is magical. You should see it from at least two different vantage points during your stay in Istanbul. Other places to consider for rooftop views include: Kubbe-i Ask Cafe, 16 Roof, and Mikla Restaurant.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Take a leisurely walk around the Hippodrome of Constantinople at Sultanahmet Square, Constantinople’s former social and sporting center. In times past, horse chariots used to race here. You’ll need to delve into your imagination as not much remains of the once expansive arena as most of the structures were looted and destroyed. The surviving fragments — a Serpentine spiral column, a German fountain, an Egyptian obelisk, and a column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus — are easily accessible as they are in an open square that tourists can freely walk around.
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is truly a masterpiece inside and out. It has 6 minarets dominating the skyline surrounding the mosque calling Muslims to prayer at prayer time. Many mosques have 4 or less. It was given its common name, “Blue Mosque,” in tribute to the more than 21,000 blue tiles blanketing the interior walls and the stunning dome. 10,000 worshipers can be accommodated in the main prayer hall. It appeared thousands more were praying outside the mosque during prayer times.
Winetraveler Tip: You can admire the Blue Mosque for free, but you will need to coordinate your visit around prayer times as it is a functioning mosque. The mosque is closed to non-worshipers periodically throughout the day. On Fridays, the earliest opening is 1:30 pm.
Note that modest attire is required. Shorts, short skirts and tank tops are prohibited. Women must wear headscarves that cover their hair. At the main entrance, there were head scarfs and other coverings available for tourists who did not have their own. Remember to bring/wear socks as you must remove your shoes before entering.
A trip to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Hagia Sophia. It’s a historical wonder meaning “Holy Wisdom.” The structure was first a church when it was initially built from 532 to 537 and remained a church for more than 900 years. It then became a mosque after the Ottomans gained control of the city in 1453. Finally, it was converted into a museum in the 1930s. It’s an impressive and grand sight to see.
What makes the Hagia Sophia so fascinating to me is that the interior walls feature both Biblical and Islamic influences. The walls are covered in exquisite Byzantine golden mosaics, many of which were plastered over.
The Basilica Cistern, nicknamed “Sunken Palace,” is a massive underground water storage area built from 527-565 with the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water. You walk underneath the city along a raised pathway above water while surrounded by 336 supportive pillars nearly 30 feet tall connected by arches. Deep into the Basilica Cistern are two Medusa heads at the base of two columns, which you may recognize from Dan Brown’s Inferno novel.
The Topkapi Palace, the former residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years built in the 1400s, is located at the tip of the Istanbul peninsula. The palace complex is massive. It felt like a city within a city. Within the palace grounds are gardens, courtyards, terraces and breathtaking water views. The museum includes collections of porcelain vessels, kitchenware, imperial jewels and treasures, robes and portraits of past Sultans, weaponry from the Ottoman army and holy relics.
Winetraveler Tip: You’ll need to purchase these admission tickets for entry into the Topkapi Palace, Harem entrance, and Hagia Eirene. Shorts, short skirts, and strapless shirts are prohibited in the Holy Relics Office.
Even if you’re not a shopper, the Grand Bazaar’s lively maze of shops has a bustling spirit that is more than any ordinary shopping experience. It is one of the oldest and largest indoor markets in the world with more than 4,000 shops. Shopkeepers will tempt you to purchase an array of goods, such as scarfs, spices, fabric, rugs, teas, Ottoman textiles, ceramics, lamps (and Aladdin lamps), jewelry, clothing, and so many more Turkish delights.
Indulge your senses with a visit to the Spice Market, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. The passages are lined with shop after shop, each loaded with fresh spices, herbs, teas, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, oils, sweets and so much more. The variety of colors and the strong and flavorful aromas are intoxicating.
Taste Fresh Turkish Baklava
No trip to Turkey is complete without trying at least a taste of fresh quality Turkish baklava. The baklava we sampled had at least 40 thin layers of dough that lightly crackled as we bit into it while the blend of sugar, nuts and dough stimulated our taste buds.
Chora Church/Kariye Museum
While walking to the Chora Church/Kariye Museum from the center of old Istanbul is possible, most travelers will likely prefer taking a car, a ferry along the Golden Horn, or a combination of the foregoing as it would be quite a long walk. As you make your way to the church, consider first perusing the colorful painted houses in the Balat neighborhood.
The Chora Church/Kariye Museum was a stunning surprise for us. The intricate and exquisite Biblical mosaics and frescoes decorating the walls and dome are awe inspiring.
Walls of Constantinople
Climb up a steep and uneven stairwell near the Chora Church/Kariye Museum and walk along the historical Walls of Constantinople. The old city walls are in various states of repair but once surrounded the city and defended the Byzantine Empire from invaders.
Step on Two Continents in One Day
Set foot in two continents in one day by taking the Şehir Hatları ferry across the Bosphorus Strait from the European side to the Asian side (or vice versa). Even if the thought of stepping on two continents is not irresistible to you, riding the ferry or going on a cruise down the Bosphorus Strait will not disappoint as the views of the coastline from the water are mesmerizing.
Winetraveler Tip: Before traveling to Turkey, visit the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey website for the most current visa and tourist information.
All images featured in this travel guide courtesy Lenore Parr
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Istanbul travel guide, best things to do in Istanbul: unique city experiences to have
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