Creating an Istanbul itinerary for a limited number of days can be a herculean task. The city has a plethora of things to do, has a rich history and is spread across two continents – Asia and Europe. Hence, we have decided to share our itinerary that involves sight-seeing, best experiences and enough time to enjoy yourself.
If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, the follow blog posts may prove to be the difference between a good trip and a GREAT trip!
- Our comprehensive guide on visiting Turkey: 2 weeks in Turkey Itinerary
- Get the best of your visit to Cappadocia: 4 Days Cappadocia Itinerary
- A hidden gem often ignored: 3 days in Alanya
- If you are a vegetarian like us and looking for Turkey vegetarian food
- All the amazing things to do in Turkey: Unique things to do in Turkey
- Turkey Shopping Guide: Get the best Turkish souvenirs
Istanbul is the most well-connected city in Turkey. Hence, there is a pretty good chance that you shall be entering and leaving Turkey through Istanbul. Because of this, we split our 5 Days in Istanbul into two parts during our Two Week Trip to Turkey. We spent 2.5 days there in the beginning of our Turkey trip and the balance 2.5 days in the end.
We suggest you to do the same in case you wish to follow our highly recommended Turkey Itinerary for 14 days.
Istanbul Itinerary: Where to Stay
To make the most of this itinerary, we recommend booking your hotel in two of the best areas to stay for tourists – Sultanahmet and Karakoy (or anywhere in Beyoglu).
Sultanahmet is the area where most of the popular sites of Istanbul are. It has the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern and many other attractions within short walking distance. It does get a little touristy, but as long as you stay and eat in one of the inner streets of the area, you should be good.
It also has a lot of restaurants that serve most of the Vegetarian Food options in Turkey. So if you’re a vegetarian like us, it’s a very convenient place to stay during the course of this Istanbul Itinerary.
Karakoy on the other hand is a perfect place to stay for the second part of your Istanbul trip. It is not only close to iconic sites like the Galata Tower and the Galata bridge, but is also a hip area with street art, roadside cafes and nargile joints. On top of that, it is better connected to far-away places in this itinerary like Ortakoy Mosque and Dolmabahce Palace than Sultanahmet.
Also, we preferred to stay in a hotel and not in an Airbnb or apartment rental as the hotels were quite cheap and we didn’t wish to cook our own food. So renting an apartment didn’t offer a lot of value while visiting Turkey.
Istanbul Itinerary: How To Get Around
Istanbul’s public transportation system is one of the most efficient ones in the world.
Buses, trams, ferries and the metro connect this city panning two continents. To access this extensive network, you need to have a city travel card. There are card vending machines located at most major tram and metro stations where you can buy a new card, reload the card and check the card balance.
Another great thing about the travel card is that multiple people can use the same card. Just tap once at the gate for each person, but ensure that there is sufficient amount loaded in the card for your entire group to travel.
We (2 persons) got two pre-loaded cards with 10 trips each before arriving in Istanbul, that enabled us to travel during this 5 day Istanbul itinerary without reloading even once. We travelled on metros, trams, buses and ferries. The best part was that this pre-loaded card was delivered to our hotel which saved us the hassle of going to the metro station and trying to figure out the card vending machine. With this we saved a lot of time and we highly recommend buying your travel card beforehand.
If you are traveling in a group of 4, there might be times when getting a cab could prove to be cheaper. However, use only Bitaksi to book a cab. Bitaksi is Istanbul’s Uber. If you take a regular cab, there is a very good chance that you shall be overcharged for your trip.
Istanbul Itinerary: How To Stay Connected
To use Bitaksi though, you’ll need internet and the best way to stay connected is by getting a portable wifi device. We used this device for the entire duration of our Two Weeks in Turkey which helped us stay connected even in the most remote locations. The device can be pre-ordered and can be picked up from the airport. It can be used by multiple people, allowing you to share the cost as well.
Even if you don’t plan on taking a cab, get internet connection to figure out walking routes and public transportation timings on google maps.
Now that we have covered the basics, let’s explore the things to do during your Istanbul trip, one day at a tie.
Day 1 of Your 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary
Your day 1 in Istanbul shall entail your hotel check-in and collecting your portable wifi and travel card. Choose a flight that reaches Istanbul at around 10:30 in the morning. This way you shall be reaching your hotel at your exact check-in time of 2 o’clock.
Istanbul airport is located a little farther away from the city and the best way to reach the city center is by the Havaist bus. These buses run every half an hour from Istanbul airport to various locations in the city like Taksim Square and Sultanahmet. The seats are very comfortable and the prices are reasonable. International Credit Cards are accepted so you don’t need to change your money at the airport.
Check-in to your Sultanahmet hotel, have lunch at one of the many small eateries in the back alleys of Sultanahmet and take a nap to get rid of any jet lag. Again, this entire area accepts international credit cards, so no need to change your money anywhere. The exchange rates in this area are really bad, so avoid changing money here.
Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square)
This is why we recommend booking a hotel in Sultanahmet during your 5 days in Istanbul. After check in and lunch, head out for a stroll in the Sultanahmet Square, also known as the Hippodrome.
During the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was used for chariot races and other such sporting events.
Today, it is a lively area full of street vendors selling their wares, colorful gardens, fountains and some of the most important monuments of Turkey.
Facing each other, on either side of the Hippodrome are Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – the two most iconic buildings of the city.
There are also some lesser known monuments in the area like the Obelisk of Theodosius built in the 4th century (picture above).
You can leisurely walk around the square to get a general look and feel of the area. After all, your next day is going to involve exploring the history and heritage of all these monuments in detail.
The Blue Mosque
While exploring the Sultanahmet Square, check if it’s prayer hours. If not, you can visit the most iconic monument in Turkey.
The Blue Mosque is the image you see when you google Istanbul. It is a 6 minaret Mosque and is famous for the Blue mosaic tiles in the interior of its main dome that give this magnificent mosque its name.
You shall be visiting this mosque at around sunset so there will be minimal crowds and you will be able to marvel at its beauty to your heart’s content.
Like in all other mosques in Turkey, there is a strict dress code to be followed while visiting the Blue Mosque.
Women need to be dressed in such a way that your head, shoulder and your knees are not exposed. Men cannot wear shorts.
All mosques in Turkey are free to enter.
After visiting the blue mosque, sit down for drinks or smoke a water pipe (nargile) at one of the many amazing street-side or rooftop bars in the neighborhood. It might seem a little touristy but you won’t get to have a drink with the most epic view in all of Turkey anywhere else. Call it a night after dinner and get some good rest as the next day is going to be packed with activities.
Day 2 of Your 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary
Start the day 2 f your 5 day Istanbul itinerary by visiting the iconic Grand Bazar! The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest shopping complex in the world. The market was established during the 15th century and houses approximately 4000 shops selling everything from Turkish carpets, decorative lamps, Ottoman Jewelry, luggage, cheap knock offs of luxury goods and jerseys of your favorite football clubs.
The reason why we have included the Grand Bazaar in our first full day in Istanbul is because it is the best place to exchange money in Istanbul. You will get the maximum value for your dollars or euros here.
After getting forex (Turkish Lira), you can choose to shop today or visit the bazaar again on your last day. This way, you wouldn’t have to carry your shopping goods everywhere for the rest of your trip.
The Bazaar is only a 10-minute walk from the Sultanahmet square so you can quickly head back to continue your site seeing adventure.
The Hagia Sophia is located opposite the Blue Mosque and is probably the monument with the most history.
It was built as an Orthodox Cathedral, converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Rule, declared a Museum in the 1900s by the then leader of the Republic of Turkey and was converted back to a mosque as recently as 2020.
Take a guided tour of the Hagia Sophia to understand its rich culture and get a glimpse of the famous mosaics of Lord Jesus and Mother Mary.
Have lunch at any of the many amazing restaurants in the back alleys of Sultanahmet and proceed to our next destination, the Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace used to be the main residential complex of the Ottoman Empire. The palace complex consists of the Royal Residence, administrative blocks, the high court and the royal kitchens.
The palace is known for its architecture and rich history. However, the highlight of your visit to Topkapi Palace shall be the Harem – a place where the Sultan’s wives and concubines lived.
We recommend this highly rated guided tour of the Topkapi Palace because otherwise, it’s just like visiting any other good-looking building.
Also, consider investing in this Istanbul Pass like we did to follow this 5 day Istanbul Itinerary. It includes guided tours to all the heritage locations listed in this post and also includes special experiences like the Whirling Dervishes show and a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise. The pass offers great value as normally, the total cost of the above listed shows itself is higher than the cost of the pass.
There are hundreds of cisterns under the city of Istanbul. These cisterns used to store water to meet the needs of the entire city.
Only two of the many cisterns are accessible to tourists now. The larger of the two, Basilica Cistern was constructed in the year 532 to meet the water needs of the Royal Palace.
The dimly lit interiors of the cistern and the medusa head at the bottom of some pillars have become Instagram favorites.
The Turkish Pass includes a guided trip to the basilica cistern, so make the most of it.
The Whirling Dervishes Show
You might be exhausted after visiting the above places and what better way to soothe your senses than the most calming experience you can have in all of Turkey – The Whirling Dervishes show.
This mystical Sufi ceremony, known as Sema, is a form of meditation where the Sufi saint becomes one with God.
While spinning, with his right hand above his head, the dervish is conveying to God that he is ready to receive His benevolence and with his left hand pointing at the earth, he’s willing to share this blessing with the ones witnessing his prayer.
The soft music, the constant rotation of the saints and the set up in general, makes this one of the best experiences you can have in Turkey.
The experience is included in this Istanbul Pass, but if you are not opting for the pass(WHY NOT!?), you can also book the experience individually over here.
Day 3 of Your 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary
Have a hearty Turkish breakfast early in the morning and get ready to use that Public Transportation card I mentioned earlier. Day 3 of your Istanbul Itinerary shall entail some of the lesser known gems of Istanbul.
Suleymaniye mosque is an absolutely beautiful mosque that looks quite similar to the Blue Mosque from the outside. However, because of its distance from the Sultanahmet Square and the popularity of the Blue Mosque, most tourists skip visiting this mosque.
We enjoyed our visit to Suleymaniye Mosque more than the Blue Mosque as the Blue Mosque is under renovation and is covered with scaffolding.
As explained above, strict dress code is applicable for everyone visiting the mosque and visitors are not allowed during prayer hours.
The lane behind Suleymaniye Mosque has a lot of rooftop cafes and nargile joints. Stop by for some Turkish tea before heading out to our next destination.
Balat is one of the most Insta-famous colorful neighborhoods of Istanbul. The area has recently become very popular on Instagram because of its beautifully colored houses, rainbow colored stairs and artsy street murals.
Catch a 9-minute bus from Suleymaniye Mosque to reach Fener and walk along the colorful streets to reach Balat. Admire the street art and the hipster feel of the area covered with lots of cute, street-side cafes.
Click those great pictures for the ‘gram and sit down for brunch at one of the many bohemian style restaurants in the neighborhood.
Chora Church and Museum
A 15-minute walk away from Balat is Chora Church and Museum.
Chora Museum is probably my favorite museum in Turkey. I am not a big history fan but I enjoy looking at art and Chora provides plenty of it.
The walls and ceilings of the Chora Church are covered with mosaics of Jesus Christ. These mosaics were plastered off during the Ottoman empire but have been restored during the course of the last century.
Like the Hagia Sophia, Chora was built as a Church during the Byzantine era, converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Rule, declared as a museum during the formation of the Republic of Turkey and was converted back to a Mosque in 2020.
Take a Guided Walking Tour of Chora Church to understand the paintings and the history of this great monument.
Walls of Constantinople
A 10-minute walk from Chora Museum, will take you to one of the oldest walls built by the Byzantines to protect the city.
Most of the walls have been dismantled as the city outgrew its boundaries but a small portion of the fortification is still preserved. You can go up the walls on a free walking tour to understand the history that led to the fall of the city of Constantinople.
Turkish bath or a Hammam, is one of the best experiences you can have in Turkey. These Hammams were a big part of Turkish culture during the Ottoman period.
Hence, it is the perfect way to end a hectic day of sight-seeing at the end of Day 3 of your 5 day Istanbul Itinerary.
While in Istanbul, you have the opportunity to experience the Hammam in one of the oldest Bath houses in the city. The Hammams are separated by gender and the experience usually takes about two hours. I have explained the entire Hammam experience in detail in our Best Experiences to Have in Turkey post, so feel free to check it out.
It is better to pre-book your Turkish Bath here as the slots are limited due to the popularity of the location.
Pro Tip: Transportation is included in this Hammam experience and the hammam location is in Sultanahmet. So you can arrange your pick up from the Walls of Constantinople (or any other tourist site you are at) and save some money on the ride back. After your Turkish Bath, you can ask the driver to drop you at your hotel in Sultanahmet instead of your earlier location and he’ll be happy to oblige.
Day 4 of Your 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary
Take a 20-minute tram ride from Sultanahmet and get down at Karakoy tram station. Walk 500m on cobblestone streets with hipster cafes on each side to reach Galata Tower.
Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower that was built by the Byzantines as a light house.
Climb to the top of the tower to get sweeping views of Istanbul and also take a ride on one of the oldest subways in the world.
Karakoy is another beautiful neighborhood of Istanbul. The area boasts of chic street side cafes and I have not seen a single boring wall in Karakoy.
Almost every wall in Karakoy either has a colorful mural or is decorated with plants and lanterns to give that cool, bohemian vibe.
The famous umbrella street in Istanbul is also located in Karakoy. It is a great place to sit down for brunch and take some shots for Instagram.
Take a tram from Karakoy tram station and reach the largest single block palace in all of Turkey – Dolmabahce Palace. The tram ride shall take approximately 15 min.
Dolmabahce Palace is one of the most decorated palaces that I have seen.
14 tons of gold leaf was used to adorn the ceilings and the famous 4.5-ton Bohemian Crystal Chandelier was a gift from Queen Victoria herself.
There is also a 150-year-old bear skin that was a gift from the Tzar of Russia.
I always recommend taking a guided tour of the palace like this one to get the most out of your visit. This was our favorite palace tour from our entire Istanbul itinerary.
💡Pro Tip: If you are in Istanbul for 5 days you can save a lot of money and add a lot of value by buying The Istanbul Pass here. The tourist pass is a great way to experience a guided tour to all the locations without wasting any time in queueing and covers almost all the activities listed above including an airport shuttle! You can buy the pass for 2,3,5 or 7 days depending on how long you wish to stay and how many of the 40 attractions you wish to cover.
Use your Bitaksi app to book a 15-minute cab to Ortakoy Mosque. You can also reach there in 20 minutes via public transportation from Dolmabahce Palace.
Ortakoy mosque is a beautiful mosque by the Bosphorus river. Visit the mosque to experience its serenity and beauty. The mosque has recently become an Instagram sensation esp. if you click a picture from the pier (like the one above).
After visiting the mosque, you can go for a stroll along the Bosphorus riverfront and get an evening snack from one of the many Kumpir stands. (Check out our post here to understand what Kumpir is. You will absolutely love it!)
Ortakoy is also an amazing area to enjoy the night life of Istanbul. Head out to one of the many rooftop bars or underground clubs where the students and artists of Istanbul party.
However, if you want to make the most of your time and money, go for a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise.
When we heard about the Bosphorus River cruise with Turkish show, we thought it was another tourist trap. However, on the insistence of one of our friends who had visited earlier, we booked this experience.
The cruise includes transportation from your Istanbul hotel, dinner on the cruise, about 7 to 8 Turkish folk dance performances, belly dancing performances and drinks (depending on your selection).
This experience is one of a kind and it depends majorly on the tour operator. Hundreds of agencies operate these shows but we recommend this one.
It is very important to opt for a recommended tour as many tours are infamous for serving stale food and the performances are not entertaining at all.
After the cruise, you shall be dropped off at your Istanbul hotel.
Day 5 of 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary
We dedicated the last day of our 5 Day Istanbul Itinerary to shopping and exploring the many bazaars of Istanbul. We were staying in the Taksim area during our last two days in Istanbul so we made the most of the day by following the below listed itinerary.
The Galata bridge isn’t a shopping district but it is on the way to our next destination, the Egyptian Spice Market.
However, instead of taking the usual tram, we recommend you to cross the bridge by foot. The distance isn’t that great as Karakoy and Egyptian market are located on either side of the bridge.
The bridge is a lively area where you shall see lines of men, fishing off the bridge itself with their fishing poles hanging by the side of the bridge. That along with all the other activities on the side like the restaurants serving fish sandwiches under the bridge and the youth skate boarding make the walk a worth the effort.
Alternatively, you can also cross the bridge on a bike if cycling is your thing.
Egyptian Spice Market
The Egyptian spice market is THE place to go to shop for anything related to food in Turkey.
It is the best place to get Turkish delight for your friends and family back home. It is also the best place to get some dry fruits and spices that may not be otherwise available or cost a lot higher in your home country.
Ensure that you have enough baggage allowance on your flight back as your luggage shall be a lot heavier than what it was when you arrived.
We bought 8 pounds of rare dry fruit, two pounds of Turkish Tea and Coffee combined and four pounds of Turkish Delight for our friends and family.
You can also buy Turkish towels, carpets, crockery and artistic lamps here but the collection is quite inferior to the one in the Grand Bazaar.
If time permits, head to the Grand Bazaar to get these. It is only a 10-minute walk away.
We didn’t have enough time on our hands to explore the 5,000 shops of the Grand Bazaar during our 5 days in Istanbul.
So, we headed to Istiklal Street, which has a good collection of Turkish Tea sets, Nargiles (water pipes), bath towels and Turkish Cutlery. The prices are almost at par with the Egyptian market but the quality is far better. No matter where you shop from, never pay more than 50% of the asking price.
After shopping, we had our lunch at one the many amazing street food stalls on Istiklal street and took a ride on the famous vintage tram in nearby Taksim.
If you’re staying in Taksim like we were at the end of your trip, it’s better to shop in Istiklal street at the end of your trip as you can quickly reach your hotel and catch a Havaist Bus from Taksim to reach the airport.
We hope this 5 Day Istanbul itinerary allows you to plan your trip to Istanbul perfectly. The itinerary is planned considering all age groups with allowances for meals, leisure activities like people watching and transit so that your trip to Istanbul doesn’t feel rushed.
If you find the pace of this Istanbul itinerary too slow or if you opt out of any of the above activities and have some spare time on your hand, consider visiting the many other attractions included in your Istanbul Pass.
Have a great trip and do let us know in the comments if this article helped you plan your vacation in Istanbul.