This four-day Istanbul itinerary will help you to see the highlights and off-the-beaten-path treasures of Turkey’s largest city. Istanbul is an exotic city like no other.
The city straddles the continents of both Asia and Europe. Its architecture, cuisine and culture are an interesting juxtaposition of East meets West, and modern living meets centuries-old traditions.
- 1 A Little History of Istanbul
- 2 Four Day Istanbul Itinerary Highlights
- 3 Istanbul Itinerary Day One: The Historic Sultanahmet District
- 3.1 Start the Day with a Turkish Breakfast (“Kahvalti”)
- 3.2 Visit the Blue Mosque
- 3.3 Admire the Beauty of the Hagia Sophia
- 3.4 Check Out the Sultanahmet Square
- 3.5 Submerge into the Eerie Atmosphere of the Basilica Cistern
- 3.6 Browse Eccentric Exhibits at Topkapi Palace
- 3.7 Tour the Topkapi Palace Harem
- 3.8 Wander Through the Bustling Souks of Istanbul
- 3.9 Taste Test at the Istanbul Spice Market
- 3.10 Check out the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Optional)
- 4 Istanbul Itinerary Day Two: Cosmopolitan Istanbul
- 5 Istanbul Itinerary Day Three:The Princes Islands
- 6 Istanbul Itinerary Day Four: Anadolu Kavağı Village
- 7 Istanbul Itinerary: When to Travel to Istanbul
- 8 Istanbul Itinerary: Where to Stay in Istanbul
A Little History of Istanbul
A common misconception is that Istanbul is Turkey’s capital. That isn’t true and in fact, the capital is Ankara, which awaits in the country’s Anatolia province. However, Istanbul is the largest city in the country.
The city was formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium. Its history stems back over 8,000 years, making it one of the oldest continually occupied settlements in Europe and Asia.
Various civilisations have occupied Istanbul over the millennia. Each of them has left their mark on the city.
The Byzantines constructed intricate palaces and churches in Istanbul and adorned them with vividly coloured mosaics and frescoes. Meanwhile, the Ottomans crafted beautiful imperial mosques with stunning minarets that reached out to the skies. The combination of the two influences has created one of the world’s most unique and beautiful skylines.
Embarking on an Istanbul itinerary means wandering through the narrow passageways of labyrinth-style souks, past fragrant spice stalls, colourful markets and quaint tea rooms selling kucuk cay (Turkish tea). Whether you are a history buff, a culture vulture, or you just want to roam around a new city, Istanbul has a little something for everyone.
Four Day Istanbul Itinerary Highlights
Truth be told, a four-day Istanbul itinerary is not enough to even scratch the surface of this huge megalopolis. You could easily spend a month here and still be discovering new sites, restaurants, and districts every day.
However, for a first-time introduction, a four-day Istanbul itinerary is a good start. Istanbul makes a nice alternative city break destination but it is best enjoyed as part of a wider Turkey itinerary.
Highlights of experiencing Istanbul for the first time are plentiful. A handful are discussed below.
- Exploring the various neighborhoods of Istanbul and discovering their unique, quirky personalities
- Sampling traditional Turkish street food delicacies – from islak burgers to salep
- Wandering the passageways of the infamous Grand Bazaar and haggling with local vendors
- Revelling in the peacefulness and serenity of Buyukada and the Princes Islands
- Sipping apple tea in the narrow passageways of the marketplaces
- Getting scrubbed to an inch of your life at a Turkish hammam
- Witnessing majestic architectural wonders such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque up close and personal
- Visiting fascinating historical sites and museums with the Istanbul museum pass
- Seeing the city from the water on a Bosphorus Cruise as the sun dips behind the horizon
- Getting off the beaten path in Istanbul and visiting traditional islands and beach towns
Istanbul Itinerary Day One:
The Historic Sultanahmet District
Istanbul’s main tourist district is the central Sultanahmet neighborhood. Day one of this four-day Istanbul itinerary entails a lot of walking.
However, this neighbourhood can easily be covered in a day. Strap on your comfiest walking shoes and let’s get to it!
Start the Day with a Turkish Breakfast (“Kahvalti”)
Exploring the local food culture should be as much a part of your Istanbul itinerary as roaming the various streets and neighbourhoods. Turkish breakfast, or “kahvalti” is the standard way in which breakfast is served across the country.
Kahvalti is served tapas-style. It consists of dozens of little plates and dishes serving an array of fresh cheeses, green and black olives, fruit preserves and sweet jars of honey.
The centerpiece of the dish is usually eggs with sucuk sausages. This is accompanied by a cucumber and tomato salad seasoned with salt.
It is likely that your hotel will serve up some form of kahvalti each day during your Istanbul itinerary. If not, locally adored places to check out include the chic Mangerie restaurant in Bebek, trendy Çakmak in Beşiktaş, or scenic Aşşk Kahve right by the waterfront of the Bosphorus.
Visit the Blue Mosque
The breathtaking blue mosque is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions. It is important to get here as early as you can if you want to avoid the crowds. Getting here before 9 am means that you can have less than approximately 496,458 people in the background of your photos.
The mosque, named Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish was awarded its title on account of the beautiful delicate blue tiles that decorate its interior.
Advice for Visiting the Blue Mosque
It’s important to dress modestly when visiting Istanbul mosques. This means covering your shoulders and knees, and women should cover their hair.
Free scarves can be borrowed at the entrance to the mosque grounds. Shoes must be taken off to go into the mosque interiors.
When approaching the blue mosque, ignore all of the toots that tell you that they will help you to skip the line. They will only try and take you to their bazaar or sell you something.
Follow the standard entrance. The blue mosque is free to enter.
Admire the Beauty of the Hagia Sophia
The marvelous Hagia Sophia is located directly across the courtyard from the entrance to the Blue Mosque. The site was once a Byzantine church and then an Ottoman mosque.
For years, the site operated as a museum containing various artifacts that depict Istanbul’s rich and diverse history. However now, once again, work is underway to transform the structure back into a mosque.
The original building was built all the way back in the year 337. It started operating as a place of religious worship in 537.
At one point, the Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world. Many remnants from the building’s former religious functions still remain.
This includes elaborate, colourful stained glass windows from its time as a church, and ornate, inscribed minarets and domes from its time as a mosque. If there was a “must visit” during your Istanbul itinerary, visiting the Hagia Sophia would be it.
Check Out the Sultanahmet Square
Istanbul’s Sultanahmet square is abuzz with touristic restaurants, tea rooms, and coffee shops – particularly around lunch and dinner times. It is generally recommended to avoid dining and drinking here.
The touristic nature of this part of town means that restaurants here are often triple the price for half the quality than you can expect in “local” areas. However, the square is certainly worth a short exploration.
The Sultanahmet square was the main place for events and gatherings when the city was known as “Constantinople”. Chariot races were even conducted here and crumbling walls outline what remains of the 2000-year-old hippodrome.
Don’t miss the serpent’s column, the obelisk of Thutmose III and the German fountain. The Obelisk was originally constructed in Luxor.
However, it was stolen and moved to Istanbul in 390. It is said that the towering obelisk that remains today is actually only ⅓ of its original height!
Submerge into the Eerie Atmosphere of the Basilica Cistern
Istanbul’s eerie Basilica Cistern leads travellers deep underground, to what feels like another city entirely. The cistern was constructed by the Byzantines in 532 and gained its name as a result of its location. It was originally built beneath the Stoa Basilica.
The Basilica Cistern was used to service the great palaces and religious buildings throughout the city. Yet after the Byzantine Emperors relocated, it was abandoned and forgotten.
That is, until the 15th century when the Ottomans rediscovered it. They then used it as a dumping ground for bodies and other gruesome garbage.
Today, the Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions and provides a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history. During your descent down there, be sure to check out the creepy stone Medusa heads that support some of the cistern pillars. Nobody is quite sure how they got there.
Browse Eccentric Exhibits at Topkapi Palace
For hundreds of years, Topkapi Palace was the place of residence for Ottoman Sultans and royalty. The castle exudes opulence and grandeur at every turn.
The structure is incredibly well preserved and today it operates as a “living museum”. The various rooms and annexes at the palace still display the rich tapestries, elaborate artwork and decadent furnishings that were enjoyed and used by Ottoman rulers.
Every time a new Sultan inhabited the palace, he added a new section. Over hundreds of years, this has paved the way to an unusual, labyrinth-style outlay.
Tour the Topkapi Palace Harem
A fascinating section of Topkapi Palace that should not be missed is the harem. These are the quarters where the wives of the Sultans lived, along with their mothers and concubines.
The treasury contains an exhibition hall where peculiar holy relics such as the footprint of Prophet Mohammed and the Staff of Moses are on display. It is debatable whether these relics are genuine or not. However, since they were awarded as gifts to the Sultans, they are worth a visit nonetheless.
You can easily spend an entire day exploring the palace. Its history is very interesting and if you want to learn about the building and its royal occupants, you may want to consider a Topkapi Palace tour.
The harem is separated from the main site and generally requires separate admission and tour. However, this tour is comprehensive, interesting, and includes admission to both sites.
Wander Through the Bustling Souks of Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar may be a little touristic and inauthentic as far as Turkish markets go, but it is well worth a visit during your Istanbul itinerary. Virtually every item imaginable can be purchased here.
Everything from intricately-woven Turkish carpets, scarves, and tapestries, to colourful Arabian lanterns and sticky sweet trays of baklava are for sale here. The rabbit-warren style layout is what makes the Grand Bazaar special.
The market dates back to the 1400s. To this day, it maintains the title of being the largest covered market in the world.
The Grand Bazaar contains thousands of stores and tea rooms tucked away across over 60 passageways.
You should expect to haggle while shopping here. Never take the first price offered as it will be severely inflated. If you are looking to buy clothing and souvenirs, it is advisable to wait until you are in a less touristic area.
It is customary for Turkish store owners to invite you in for a cup of apple tea as you shop. You are not obligated to buy anything if you accept. However, it sometimes causes more pressure to buy.
Taste Test at the Istanbul Spice Market
Follow the path from the Grand Bazaar towards the Istanbul Spice Market. The colourful stalls here with their mounds of spices, dates, and nuts presenting every colour of the rainbow are incredibly photogenic. They also create an excellent opportunity for edible window shopping.
Sample dried and candied dates, and a diverse range of flavours of Turkish delight (“Lokum”). Rose and Pistachio are “classic” flavours and will capture the hearts of even those who purport to hate Turkish delight.
Check out the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Optional)
If your schedule permits, you should also make time to visit the Istanbul Archeology museum. This sits adjacent to Topkapi Palace.
The museum is often overlooked on many people’s Istanbul itineraries. However, it contains a collection of some of the most important classical artifacts of European history, including the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great!
Istanbul Itinerary Day Two:
Day one of your four day Istanbul itinerary may have been dedicated to discovering the city’s historical sites. However on day two, we will uncover some of the charming districts that make the city special.
Each of Istanbul’s various neighbourhoods has its own distinct personality and charm. These areas are like little towns in themselves and an underrated highlight of the city.
Catch the Morning Fishermen at Karakoy
Indulge in your morning kahvalti, and then head to the waterfront at Karakoy. Here, you can catch dozens of fishermen who set up their equipment along the various bridges and piers of the harbor. This is a great place for taking photos and Karakoy is often featured on the classic postcard images of Istanbul.
On certain days of the week, Karakoy plays host to a fish market. This is interesting to observe and sees vendors and restaurateurs haggle to obtain the best prices on the freshest catches.
Ascend Galata Tower for a Birds Eye View of Istanbul
Galata Tower is the place to go to enjoy breathtaking views of Istanbul. It is situated across the river from the city’s Sultanahmet district.
The 13th-century stone tower looks like a princess turret straight out of a fairytale. The turret stands at 54 feet high and is visible from most parts of the city.
It is worth climbing to the top to admire the panoramas. From up here, you can glance across to the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Sophia.
The Galata tower almost always has a long queue outside it regardless of when you go. The viewing platform inside is small but to be honest, the queue tends to move relatively quickly.
The cobbled streets of the quaint neighbourhood surrounding Galata tower are well worth exploring. They are filled with cute coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, and antique sellers. Some of the places here are adorable and it’s like you are just sitting sipping tea in someone’s living room.
Walk to Taksim Square
From Galata tower, follow Istiklal street down to Taksim square. Istiklal street is essentially Istanbul’s answer to the high street and is filled with everything from boutique stores to branches of international brands.
At the end of the street awaits Taksim square. This is essentially the heart of modern Istanbul.
Treat Yourself to a “Wet” Hamburger
Grab an islak burger from one of the many street food vendors while you are in the area. Islak burgers are a Turkish street food delicacy that are found only in Istanbul.
The translation of the name actually means a “wet” hamburger. However, these are much more delicious than that nickname would have you believe!
To create an Islak burger, a beef patty is cooked and served inside a soft white bun just like your regular burger. The difference comes when the entire thing is then doused inside a garlicky, tomato sauce that could be compared to Italian ragu. Then, the burger is kept in a steam box to preserve the moisture until someone orders it.
Take a Bosphorus Cruise
One of the most magnificent ways to see Istanbul as the sun sets is from the waterfront on a Bosphorus cruise. There are an array of options available for booking this pleasant boating experience.
Your best bet is to book a ticket in advance. Indeed, you can reserve your place on a cruise online before you arrive in Istanbul.
The vendors in the Sultanahmet district charge extortionate, heavily-inflated prices for the cruise. Sure this is a relatively touristy thing to do. However, it gets you close to sites like the maiden’s tower which you would not otherwise be able to make it to.
Not to mention, seeing Istanbul from the water provides a unique perspective and makes for an incredible photo opportunity, particularly at sunset. Bosphorus cruises vary wildly in price depending on the package that you go for so consider your budget accordingly.
Wooden boats lead along the Bosphorus strait and sell tickets for as little as 10 lire (£2/$2.50). Meanwhile, more luxurious cruises cost much more but feature traditional Turkish meals and entertainment. Assured, a cruise with dinner and drinks is well worth the price.
Istanbul Itinerary Day Three:
The Princes Islands
A pleasant contrast to the constant hubbub and traffic-jammed streets of Istanbul is the peace, tranquility, and luscious greenery that awaits in the nearby Princes Islands. The Princes Islands are an archipelago of islands in the Sea of Marmara. They can be reached within an hour’s boat ride from Istanbul’s Kadikoy port.
Head to Kadikoy early in the morning to take one of the early ferries that depart Istanbul for Buyukada. This is the largest of the Princes’ Islands and the one you should prioritise if your time in Turkey is limited. As your boat pulls off from the jetty, you can enjoy wonderful views of Istanbul’s skyline from the water, as well as views of the golden horn.
Arriving in Buyukada feels almost like stepping back in time. There are no cars or vehicles allowed on the island and so everyone gets around on horseback or by bicycle. Upon arrival at the port, there are many places from which you can rent a bicycle for the day.
This is a pleasant way to get around. However, hiking is also very enjoyable and indeed the trails here are well-paved and manageable for walkers of all ages and abilities.
The Buyukada trails lead you through beautiful woodland, past quaint historic Greek Orthodox churches and incredible nature. Don’t miss the Hagios Giorgios Monastery that is situated at the highest point of the island.
There is also a creepy abandoned Greek orphanage in the centre of the forest. If visiting during the summer months you can enjoy the pristine beaches that are situated on the island.
Princess Bay Beach, Hagia Nikola Beach, and Halik Bay Beach are among the most popular coastal areas. There are a few excellent restaurants and coffee shops situated by the port and in the centre of the island. They make a great place to indulge in some traditional Turkish food when you want a break from walking/cycling.
Istanbul Itinerary Day Four:
Anadolu Kavağı Village
The village of Anadolu Kavağı is a charming place to spend a day during your four-day Istanbul Itinerary. It is located at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus. However, it is still technically within the city limits of Istanbul.
Here, you can get an alternative view of life in Turkey away from the hectic streets of central Istanbul. Anadolu Kavağı is easily reachable via ferry from Kadıköy port.
The wooden houses that line the waterfront of Anadolu Kavağı are painted in delicate pastel shades. Nestled among them are charming restaurants and coffee shops that offer picture-perfect views over the water as you dine.
Follow the pathways through the narrow streets and alleys towards the castles of Yoros and Genoa. The castles are situated on top of a hill and sit adjacent to a “secret” garden which offers incredible views across to the black sea.
When to Travel to Istanbul
The Spring and Autumn months are the best time to visit Istanbul and plan your four-day Istanbul itinerary. During these seasons, the temperatures are warm and pleasant without becoming overbearingly hot and humid.
Expect comfortable temperatures of between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius during the Spring and Autumn period. There will also be fewer tourists than during the peak summer months.
Spring and Autumn are officially the “shoulder” seasons for travelling to Istanbul. However they carry the added benefit of lower prices for flights and accommodation and fewer crowds at popular sites. Istanbul can get very cold in the winter and snowfall is not unheard of.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar
Sultanahmet is the historic centre of Istanbul. This is the oldest part of the city and it is still encapsulated by the crumbling remnants of its ancient protective walls in some parts.
Opting to stay here during your Istanbul itinerary places you in close proximity to the city’s main tourist sites. For instance, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace to name but a few.
Sultanahmet may be a touristic district. However, it retains its charm with its winding streets and eclectic bazaars. You can find hotel rooms here for $10-15 per night.
Many of Istanbul’s best backpacker hostels are also found here. The only downside to staying in Sultanahmet is that most of the restaurants and cafes here are tourist traps. If you’re a foodie looking to sample high quality traditional Turkish food during your trip, you should venture out of this neighborhood for mealtimes.
Karakoy makes a great base for any Istanbul itinerary. Located right on the waterfront, many of the hotels and apartments in this neighborhood offer incredible views over the Bosphorus. This area has also emerged as one of Istanbul’s trendiest and chicest districts in recent years.
The streets of Karakoy are filled with independent boutiques, quirky coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. Karakoy is close enough to Istanbul’s main attractions that it is easy to get around. Yet it is “offbeat” enough that it provides a glimpse into more authentic “local” life in Istanbul.
Galata and its namesake tower are just north of Sultanahmet. This is a great place to base yourself during your Istanbul itinerary in order to be in close proximity to the main tourist sites. The winding cobblestone pathways are home to plenty of excellent shopping and dining choices.
Galata is actually part of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. However, it is preferable to choose this part of town than Taksim Square and Istiklal Street which can get a little rowdy at night.
Unfortunately, Istanbul is currently working hard to beat away a reputation it obtained as being a “dangerous” travel destination. The 2016 Sultanahmet bombing and a recent military coup have both not helped the city’s global image.
All things considered, the local authorities have done their best to try and reassure international travellers in recent years. Security procedures at airports and various tourist sites have been improved. Most visits to Istanbul are trouble-free.
Have any questions about this Istanbul itinerary, seeing Turkey as a solo female traveller or Turkey travel in general? Feel free to reach out to me below or drop me an email!
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