Overwhelmed with planning your Istanbul itinerary? Take in the amazing architecture, the shops, the minarets which are literally everywhere, the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, the blue Iznic tiles, and the colorful Turkish lamps. Here’s 20 of the most beautiful places that you can cover in 5 days in Istanbul.
Five (5) days in Istanbul and I just couldn’t get enough of it. Istanbul is a city where East meets West, clearly marking it as a city like no other. Thanks to the Greeks, Romans, Venetians and the Ottomans, who have shaped Istanbul’s glorious history. Here’s a sample Istanbul itinerary that will provide anyone with an extraordinary cultural experience visiting 20 of the most beautiful places in Istanbul.
Istanbul Attractions Map
Istanbul 5 Days Itinerary
In this article, I’ve put together 20 of the best places to visit in Istanbul. The list is absolutely not exhaustive. Nevertheless, I hope it can provide you with options on the best places to visit in Istanbul. Here is my sample Istanbul itinerary for 5 days, which you can customize based on your preferences. You may also refer to the Istanbul attractions map above to help you plan your itinerary.
Day 1 – Sultanahmet Area
Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Our 5 days in Istanbul begins with a visit to one of its many mosques. The Blue Mosque is definitely one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. Blue Mosque is apparently a name coined by Western visitors who found the dominant blue Iznic tiles in the mosque’s interior. Turks call it the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after the ruler Sultan Ahmet I.
My heart skipped as I get closer to the mosque’s dominant six minarets on the skyline. The interior is as astonishing as the exterior architecture. The large chandeliers, the massive domes, the intricate design and the ray of light coming from the windows give the mosque an air of mystery.
Hagia Sofia or Ayasofya
You Istanbul itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s distinguishing pink landmark . Hagia Sophia is just opposite the Blue Mosque. First built as a Christian Church, the structure was converted into a mosque after conquest by the Ottomans. Now, Hagia Sophia serves as a museum. This explains the presence of stunning Christian mosaics inside, the four minarets, the Islamic pulpit and medallions, all in one building.
Getting inside the Hagia Sophia topped with the interior dim lighting is like being transported to the old medieval world. The grandeur plus dimness makes me think of Dracula.
The Deësis Mosaic at the Upper Gallery depicts Jesus at the center, Mother Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right.
To avoid long line and long waiting time, especially during the peak season, you can get a Hagia Sofia Tour with skip-the-line here.
Hippodrome/ Sultanahmet Park
The present day Sultanahmet Park is formerly a Hippodrome in the Roman times, where chariot races are held. Today, the Hippodrome has retained the Obelisk of Theodosius, a fountain and the Serpentine Column. If you stay within the Sultanahmet Area and near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, I recommend that you visit again both sites and the Hippodrome at night. The famous structures and the park is beautifully lit at night.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
We nearly missed the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, one of the Istanbul attractions that is usually skipped by visitors. The entrance is hidden within the stretch of the Arasta Bazaar, which we passed through on our way to the Blue Mosque. The mosaics in this museum represent some of the pavements of Constantinople’s Great Palace which were discovered in the 1950s under some shops. These mosaics, depicting hunting scenes, wild animals and scenes from everyday life were painstakingly “rescued” and restored.
If you want to literally go to the depths of history when you visit Istanbul, have a go to the Basilica Cistern. Dan Brown’s depiction of the Basilica Cistern in his Inferno novel is as mystical as the real thing. Basilica Cistern, more commonly known as Yerbatan Sarayi by the Turks, was used to supply the water needs of the Great Palace.
There are two large Medusa heads used as a block under two columns at the far end of the 336 columns supporting the cistern. One head sits sideways and the other is upside down. Medusa is already a mythical personality and seeing her big head upside down inside a dark cistern makes it even more mysterious.
Arasta Bazaar on the southeast side of the Blue Mosque is a series of shops selling souvenirs, carpets, kilims, Turkish tiles, ceramics and apparels. We always pass by this bazaar from our hotel to the tram station.
Much as my eyes would like to linger on the blue Iznic designed tiles, I try to avoid making eye contact with its sellers. I definitely have no plans of inserting some tiles into my luggage, but I’m afraid they would see through my hidden desire and use that to their own advantage.
After spending more than a week in Turkey, I would have already known how Turkish salesmanship works – they’ll use humor, ask you to have a look (persistently) and invite you for a sip of tea. The next thing you’ll know, you’ve already bought more than what you’ve planned to buy…or not buy.
Day 2 – Istanbul – Europe Side
Crossing the Galata Bridge lets you cross from the more traditional Istanbul’s Asian side to the modern European side in a matter of minutes. Pedestrians can walk on both sides of the bridge, where fishermen are also lined up with their fishing rods towards the Bosphorus.
One level below the bridge are restaurant stalls, one of which is where we chose to have our lunch. I thought that this is the best place to go for a sampling of their fish dish so I ordered crunchy fried fish. I didn’t know that they will place a school of fish on my plate. In our next few days of passing through the bridge, I would always smell that familiar fried fish. Sorry, but the memory of that meal makes me want to throw up each time.
When you visit Istanbul, you can say that you crossed over from Asia to Europe in a matter of minutes if you crossed the Galata Bridge. Pedestrians can walk on both sides of the bridge, where fishermen are also lined up with their fishing rods towards the Bosphorus.
One level below the bridge are restaurant stalls, one of which is where we chose to have our lunch. I thought that this is the best place to go for a sampling of their fish dish so I ordered crunchy fried fish. I didn’t know that they will place a school of fish on my plate. In our next few days of passing through the bridge, I would always smell that familiar fried fish. Sorry, but the memory of that meal makes me want to throw up each time. Don’t get me wrong, the food was tasty, the serving was just too much for me.
Restaurants at the right of the photo
Locals fishing at the side of the bridge
Taksim square to Istiklal Caddesi
We took the tram all the way to Kabataş station, then transferred to the underground funicular and got off at Taksim station. From Taksim, we just followed the historic Red Tram rail and walked our way to Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Avenue. A week before that was the March 2016 bombing incident in Taksim area. I didn’t feel nervous at that time but I was cautious of our surrounding.
European air along Istiklal Caddesi is very strong, reminding me of Champs Elysees of Paris. This avenue is lined with signature shops, cafes and restaurants. We also passed by Christian churches and a number of European embassies.
Built as a lighthouse, Galata Tower is one of the oldest tower in the world. It rises above Istanbul as a witness to its history. Galata Tower is always an imposing sight as you walk along the Galata Bridge. Going up the tower, you would know why it is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul.
At the top, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of Istanbul. The balcony, however, was filled with other visitors when we went up so we had to wait for others to remove themselves from the viewing spots around the railings.
Galata Mevlana Museum
Near the Beyoğlu funicular station is the Galata Mevlevi Museum. Mevlevi is a Sufi order which originated in Konya and was founded by the followers of Mevlana Rumi, a poet and Islam theologian. The Mevlevi are also known as the Whirling Dervishes because they perform a religious ceremony called Sama, which involves chants, prayers, beautiful music and a whirling dance. They do this on the belief that meditation, music and dance can get you closer to God.
Learn more about Mevlevi culture at the Galata Mevlana Museum. The museum serves as a tekke or lodge for dervishes. It houses Sufi artefacts such as calligraphic art items, turbans, musical instruments, shrines and a cemetery for Mevlevis.
The hall where Sama is solemnly performed
Bosphorus Strait via a Bosphorus Cruise
Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul into two continents: Europe and Asia. That fact alone makes a Bosphorus Cruise interesting. We took a roundtrip ticket for 12 TL to take a short Bosphorus cruise from the Eminönü dock at one end of the Galata Bridge. While waiting for our ferry, I roamed on the side of the dock finding the Karaköy fish market.
Aside from the Dolmabahçe Palace and Maiden Tower, the cruise will pass by medieval fortresses, mosques, and traditional and modern houses.
Karaköy fish market
Day 3 – Princes Island or Adalar
Adalar or Princes’ Island
Princes’ Islands or locally known as Adanar, are a cluster of islands along the Sea of Marmara, southeast of Old Istanbul. We took a ferry at the Kabataş station going to Adanar. The boat ride at 10 TL one way to Buyukada (the biggest of the islands) took us 1.5 hours.
Tourists from the ferry were feeding the birds while we're cruising. It's amusing to see a bunch of birds trailing us, but what about its impacts to the natural feeding habits of these seagulls.
The birds were amusing but this guy also deserves attention. He had a funny way of selling those portable fruit juicers, it actually works! In my estimate, he can probably earn in a 1.5 hour trip more than what an average Filipino employee can earn in a day.
A unique feature of the island is the banned status of motorized vehicles. Hence, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the ways of getting around. We rode a horse cart which went around the island. We thought the ride would include stops to interesting sights but our horsecart driver just kept moving the entire time. Not happy with the horsecart ride, we got off our feet and learned the hard way that walking is a better alternative.
The island is home to old Victorian houses. Seeing horsecarts and bicycles passing by on the streets in front of the Victorian-style houses made me want to dress up in a large skirted, long sleeved dress and wear a lacy bonnet hat. If you know me personally, you would know that was a joke.
Honestly, I imagine Buyukada to be like a ghost town if not for the tourists roaming its streets. But the peaceful atmosphere was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
The Whirling Dervishes Performance
You can watch the Whirling Dervishes performance at the Galata Mevlana Museum. Ceremony is every Sunday at 5 in the afternoon. If you will not have a chance to watch on Sunday, performances are also held at the Hodjapasha Culture Center, which is where we watched the ritual. We were able to reserve for our seats with the help of our hotel in Istanbul.
Hodjapasha Center is a few minutes walk away from Sirkeci tram station. At the time we went, we were informed that the dervishes perform Sama in this hamam-turned theater only during Thursdays at 5:00 PM. Today, performances are held everyday at 7:00 PM, except during winter (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday only).
The performance is popular among tourists and tickets could easily run out. It is advised to buy your tickets at least 2 or 3 days in advance, or on your first day of arrival in Istanbul.
The experience of watching the Whirling Dervishes is…how to say it?...very solemn and enthralling. It almost feels like being under a spell, with the constant whirling hypnotizing me. It’s not easy to be whirling almost constantly in your own axis while also whirling in an orbit for close to an hour. It dawned on me that they must really be in a state of deep meditation to be able to do that while still maintaining a graceful stance.
During Sama, a dervish’ right hands is turned to the sky to receive honor from God. His left hand turned down, transferring the blessings from the Lord to those who are willing to receive them.
Day 4 – Sultanahmet and Fatih Areas
This palace is the home of the sultans that ruled during the Ottoman period. At the outer courtyard is the Hagia Irene or the Basilica of Divine Peace. Hagia Irene was empty when we visited, but it also occasionally serves as a concert hall.
Inside the palace grounds is a vast collection of high-value items, among them a dagger with emeralds and diamonds sent as gift to the sultan, weaponries and porcelains. There’s also a Chamber of Holy Relics containing important religious objects such as the Prophet Muhammad’s beard. What caught my attention are the staff of Moses, the sword of King David and the robe of Joseph, the Dreamer. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in these rooms.
Another must see section of the palace is the Harem, from the word “forbidden”, where the sultans spend their private time with their wives, children, concubines and girlfriends. That goes to show how important it is to have an heir to the throne. The most amazing thing about the Harem is the explosion of turquoise blue ornate tiles in almost all of the rooms. However, there’s something about the empty Harem that made me feel heavy and lonely.
The massive palace complex is a display of opulence and grandiose, making it at the top of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. Exiting the Topkapi Palace, one thing struck my mind. All the earthly riches and honor are useless because in the end, all these things you’ll leave behind.
Topkapi Palace is located near Hagia Sofia. Hence, a visit to the palace can be done in a day with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. However, we were sidetracked by other attractions such as the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum and chose to deal with the spacious Topkapi Palace on another day.
The long queue to Topkapi Palace ticket booth can cause long waiting time, especially during the peak season. You can save time by availing a Topkapi Palace Tour with skip-the-line here.
Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi)
The Chora Church is quite away from the Sultanahamet sights, but is undeniably worth a visit. We reached Chora Church from the Eminönü bus station through Bus 31B. On the way, we had a chance to see the Valens’ Aqueduct from the bus window. We got off at the Edirnekapi bus stop and from here, it’s just a short walk to the church. The old Ottoman houses along the way are a sight in their own right.
The mosaics and frescoes inside the church, now a museum, are breathtaking. These depict scenes from the Bible. My photos simply couldn’t capture the shining shimmering splendid that Chora museum’s mosaics are. We were not lucky to view the entire church as most parts are under restoration at that time.
The Old City Walls
On the way back to the bus stop from Chora Church, we passed by what looks like a city wall in ruins and saw two young Asians at the top of the wall. We were of course curious and it wasn’t much longer before we started climbing up as well. The stairs were quite challenging because other than being steep with no railings, the width of the steps were the size of half my foot. It was like wall climbing with the aid of steep stairs.
It’s always amazing to take a bird’s eye view of an area from the top, but more than the view from that city wall was the unforgettable sound of the call to prayer echoing from the numerous minarets around. For a moment, I stopped just to take all the sights and sounds in.
The New Mosque is easy to spot once you’re at the Eminönü tram station (Find more information about Istanbul tram stations here). Istanbul has such an old history that they have a different definition for the term “new”. The New Mosque is more than 350 years old. That’s about 55 years “younger” than the oldest university in the Philippines, my dear alma mater, University of Santo Tomas.
Suleymaniye mosque is about 10 minutes walk away from the New Mosque. We arrived here close to the Muslim prayer time. What I love about this mosque is that it lies in an elevated location with a garden area outside where you could just sit, relax and view the Bosphorus.
Day 5 – Last Day in Istanbul
Rüstem Pasha Mosque
This mosque is often overlooked when people visit Istanbul. The mosque is only about 2 minutes walking distance from the Spice Bazaar. Seeing the mosque’s minarets guided me at first to where the mosque is but finding the entrance to the mosque is a bit tricky. I had to walk through a narrow street with market stalls on the side and the stairs leading up to the mosque is fairly hidden.
I was the lone person in this relatively small mosque when I arrived. It is small but there’s a high concentration of the blue Iznic tiles inside and out. I love how the patterns are different from each other. Some tiles are notably painted with emerald green and red tints, adding more emotions to the tiles.
The different tile patterns inside the mosque
The Grand Bazaar
Admitting to the lack of sense of direction, I was easily lost in the Grand Bazaar. It’s like going through a maze of columned spaces. The explosion of colors is a visual delight. If you’re looking for something to take home from Istanbul, this is the place to find it.
There’s another Bazaar called the Spice Bazaar which is a few minutes walk from the Eminönü tram station, and located beside the New Mosque. I didn’t have any photos in this bazaar, but the place is filled with aroma and colors of spices.
Since I just window shopped at Grand Bazaar, I still had extra time before the flight back to Manila. Hence, I decided to squeeze in Istanbul Modern in my 5 days in Turkey. This contemporary art museum is a few minutes walk away from the Tophane tram station. At 25 TL, I had a taste of the works of Turkish artists. I may find other artworks weird but I enjoyed the way their art forms left a question and curiosity in my mind.
Istanbul Museum Pass and Skip the Line Card
- If you plan to visit historical places or archaeological sites in Turkey, consider buying a Museum Pass. Choose which one will suit your intended days of stay in Turkey and which sites you plan to visit. They have a Museum Pass for 5 days in Istanbul, Museum Pass Cappadocia, Museum Pass the Aegean, Museum Pass Mediterranean and Museum Pass Turkey.
- If you will be traveling only in Istanbul for a few days, consider buying an Istanbul Welcome Card. Unlike the Museum Pass Istanbul, the Istanbul Welcome Card also includes limited rides to public transportation, Istanbul Guide Book and Map and specific museum passes. You can also save time and skip the line using the Istanbul Welcome Card. Check here the inclusions of the Classic Card, Premium Card and Deluxe Card before purchasingyour card online.
- If you only have a limited time in Istanbul and your Istanbul itinerary plan only allows you to visit a few sites, you can get individual skip-the-line tickets or combo tickets. Click the widgets below for options that will suit you:
- I have detailed our 2 weeks Turkey Itinerary, including a breakdown of our travel expenses. Check out other details of this 5 days in Istanbul itinerary in this article.
Best Place to Stay in Istanbul
Two of the common best choices of the best place to stay in Istanbul are either in the Sultanahmet area (old town) or Beyoğlu area (new town, European side). Both areas are close to the must see places in Istanbul. Sultanahmet is close to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace while Beyoğlu is close to the Taksim area.
For me, you can never go wrong whichever area you choose to stay because the old town and the new town are conveniently connected by public transport. Check Istanbul accommodation reviews and the latest prices here from all top booking sites with just one search.
You may also use the Istanbul attractions map above to give you a picture of the best places in Istanbul you want to check out and which area you can conveniently stay at.
Activities to Enjoy in Istanbul
Check out these exciting Istanbul activities through Klook:
Bosphorus Strait Afternoon Cruise - Half-day cruise along the Bosphorus Strait, the famous stretch of water that splits Istanbul into two parts: the European-side and Asian-side. Tour includes a scenic cable car ride starting at the Teleferik Cable Car Station.
Princes' Island Full Day Tour from Istanbul - Enjoy a scenic cruise on the Marmara Sea and visit Büyükada, the largest among the cluster of Princes’ Islands.
Byzantine and Ottoman Relics Full Day Tour - Explore Istanbul's most popular landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and the Hippodrome while immersing yourself in the rich history, heritage, and culture of Istanbul. Shop for souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar and enjoy a delicious lunch at an authentic Turkish restaurant.
Istiklal Street & Beyoglu Walking Tour - Visit Istiklal Street, a one mile length of various shops like patisseries, restaurants, cinemas, and art galleries. Travel back in time as you check out the Neoclassical and Art Nouveau style of the buildings alongside it. Visit St. Anthony of Padua Church and learn about its Italian heritage as you wander around Beyoglu.
Places to Visit Outside Istanbul
If you are visiting other cities in Turkey aside from Istanbul, check out the following links for some travel inspirations beyond Istanbul:
Turkey is such a huge country packed with ancient sites, unique landscapes and stunning architecture. Check my 14-day Turkey Itinerary to help you decide which places to go in Turkey. Hopefully, this will give you an idea on how to organize your Turkey trip, in general and your Istanbul trip, in particular.
Thoughts on Istanbul Tourism
I certainly would love to go back to visit Istanbul given another opportunity. I did not feel any fear of terror attacks while roaming around this beautiful city. However, after hearing the sad news of a sudden death of a Japanese consultant in a blast in Dhaka just last month, with whom our company in the Philippines has worked with, it personally hit me that it could happen to anyone, including myself.
The prospect of tourism in Istanbul getting back to normal is unclear. Let me just end this blog with this – I went to Istanbul for four days and found the city peaceful overall. The place is beautiful, the people are friendly, and my experience had been great. Four days exploring and I thought that there’s still so much to experience in Istanbul.
My best advice is to be aware of the travel advisories by your own countries and if you personally think that you will not feel comfortably safe, then don’t go. Should you have plans of coming in the future, then I hope this article has inspired you and will help you to enjoy Istanbul.
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