Europe · Middle East · Travel

4 Day Istanbul Itinerary – The Best of Istanbul in 4 Days

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Istanbul is a city full of eastern magic within easy reach of Western Europe. As such, it makes a great place for a short break. So while you are in Istanbul, what is there to see and to do? How do you cover the best of Istanbul in a long weekend? Use this 4 day Istanbul itinerary for a fun way to see the best of Istanbul in 4 days.

Istanbul

You may be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is the capital of Turkey, but the capital is actually Ankara. Istanbul is instead, the glamorous poster child of this huge country. Stretching across the Bosphorus river, it straddles the border between Europe and Asia. The blend of cultures has created a city full of personality, with loads to explore.

Why You Should Consider Making This 4 day Istanbul itinerary a Long Weekend in Istanbul

4 days in Istanbul is always great fun but if 2 of those days fall over a weekend, new possibilities open up. For example, the hipster bars in Karaköy are absolutely buzzing on Saturday night. The following day, a big breakfast at Namli Gurme is an iconic start to a lazy Sunday. For the purposes of this itinerary, we are going to assume you are travelling to Istanbul from Friday to Monday.

A Few Notes About this Itinerary

  • If you can fly to Istanbul the night before this itinerary starts, you can wake up bright and early, ready to start for day one.
  • We don’t have meal recommendations for all meals but we have thrown in a few along the way. Don’t worry, Istanbul is absolutely chockablock with places to eat.
  • We walk a lot on our travels so most of this itinerary can be walked. We will note specifics when this is not the case.

DAY ONE – The Hill

The first image that pops into most people’s heads when you say the word Istanbul is one of the iconic buildings in the Sultanhamet district. It may be tempting to dash straight to this area but if you spending a long weekend in Istanbul, your first day will be Friday. this is the main day of worship and as such, the area around Sultanhamet is going to be exceedingly busy, and you may not be able to see the sights that you’d like. Instead, we will start in the hilly district of Galata.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower is one of those structures that could be straight out of a fairytale. Images of a long plait descending for a rescuing knight seem to fit perfectly. Getting closer, the hoard of tourists slightly dampen the magic but it still an impressive sight. It is no wonder it conjures up medieval imaginings, as it was constructed in 1348 to act as a lookout point fr the fort of Gelata. The walls are now gone but the tower was the tallest point in the city for centuries. 

Istiklal Caddesi

Take the road that leads steeply uphill from the east side of the tower. The stepped road is lined with shops featuring everything from souvenirs to great coffee, delicious juice stalls and quirky clothing boutiques. As it levels out, the road terminates and it opens up on a wide pedestrian thoroughfare. The only motorised traffic that runs up the road is the iconic tram.

If you are in Istanbul with a bit of money to spend, you will find plenty of familiar high street brands here as well as a few shops you have never heard of. All the way along, remember to look up and enjoy the variety of late Ottoman building styles. 

Çiçek Pasajı

Along with the main street, there are a few side streets and arcades that are worth exploring. Çiçek Pasajı is one of the most well known. It was built in 1876, inspired by Parisian architecture and is home to small shops and a cluster of restaurants including the fifty year old Huzur Restaurant. If you need a break from bright sun or a little rain, the large glass dome provides a lovely respite.

Street Art

If you wander along some of the side streets, keep an eye out for street art. Street art is all over Istanbul, and it is fantastic, from the small tongue in cheek pieces to huge murals. Here are some of the ones we have spotted around the city:

Grab an Ice Cream…If You Can 

Turkish ice cream (Dondurma) is a unique and tasty treat. Added to the normal combination of cream and sugar are a very rubbery resin and a unique kind of flour that thickens it up. This makes it a little chewy and hard to melt. Getting a cone is partly for the taste and partly for the show that goes with it.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square makes headlines as the heart of demonstrations in Istanbul, but for most of the time, this huge square is just a lovely place to stroll through and get a bite to eat. 

In the centre, you will see the Republic Monument, commemorating the formation of modern Turkey in 1923. It was unveiled 5 years later and features the leaders of Turkey at the time. 

If you fancy some lunch or snacks then have a wander around the square and keep your eyes out for these appetising options.

  • Islak (Wet Burger) – Islak burgers are a messy business. A hamburger served in a white roll and smothered in a tomato sauce full of garlic and herbs. Once they are prepared they are popped into a steam box to keep them warm. 
  • Doner Kebab – Spinning skewers of meat, glistening with the butter beaten into them, are strangely mesmerizing. Vendors take long knives to these as they rotate and carve off long strips of meat before stuffing them into a pitta with fresh salad or pickled accompaniments. 
  • Corn on the Cob – For vegetarians or those on a diet, there are several stalls selling corn on the cob with a slather of butter and salt. 
  • Sweets – Taksim Square has plenty of Turkish sweet shops and they all have a great selection of the sweet, sticky treat, Turkish Delight. Hafiz Mustafa is a good bet, offering a wide variety of interesting flavours alongside the traditional rose water option, and some of the best baklava around.

Dolmabahçe Palace

From Taksim Square, take the road that leads South past Mcdonalds and follow it for around ten minutes down to the busy Cadessi Meclis-i Mebusan. Turn left and fifteen minutes later, you will reach Dolmabahçe Palace.

Dolmabahçe is the largest palace in Turkey, and one not to miss. Inside, rooms are a strange mishmash of styles, from curly rococo to plain neo-classical. It makes a tour of the buildings really interesting as no three rooms are the same. You are also able to explore the hammams and other fun additions you won’t find in other European palaces.

The palace’s gates onto the Bosphorus are beautiful, creating a gorgeous frame out to the water. As such, they have become a top Instagram spot in the city.

Ortakoy Mosque (The Mosque on the Water)

In a very photo-worthy location, next to the Bosphorus Bridge, the Ortakoy Mosque is a compact but rather good-looking mosque. It has an interesting blend of traditional Ottoman style and the Barqouque elements seen on the Dolmabahçe Palace.

The area is designed for strolling, with cobbled lanes and squares lined with cafes, bars and the famous waffle stalls and baked potato vendors. If you are on a budget, this is a good plan for dinner. 

DAY TWO – The Sultanahmet’s Big Hitters

Hippodrome

Start the day at the Hippodrome. This large space used to play host to chariot races, the most popular entertainment in Costantinopal for hundreds of years. There isn’t a great deal to see here now but do take a minute to examine the Spiral column, that was transported here from the Temple of Apollo in Delfi. Just north of that is the Egyptian pink marble Obelisk of Theodosius, brought here from the Temple of Karnak. These are two of the decorations moved here from across the Byzantine empire. There used to be many more but it great that these are still here, giving us just a glimpse of what it might have looked like. There is a great little museum if you would like to learn more about The Hippodrome.

Sultan Ahmet Camii The Blue Mosque

Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 1600s, the mosque that bears his moniker is a jewel in Istanbul’s crown. Its six minarets, five domes are domes and eight small domes can be seen from around the peninsular and across the water.

Inside, the 20,000 tiles from Iznik that give the mosque its nickname, is intricately handpainted and glows brightly in the glow of the windows. Look up and you will see that the tulip patterns get more complex. See if you can spot flowers, Cyprus trees and fruit. On dull days, the glow of the wide chandeliers keeps the mosque brightly lit. The ostrich eggs that hang from these lights were added to repel spiders and so combat cobwebs in the mosque, climbing up to dust the dome would be quite the task!

  • Tourists must use the southern gate to enter, the eastern door is reserved for worshippers.
  • As this is a functioning mosque, it is closed to tourists 90 minutes around prayer time but if you arrive early, relax on the seats outside. You can check prayer times here.
  • Females are asked to cover their hair to enter. Bring your own scarf or borrow one at the entrance. 
  • Visitors must remove their shoes. There are bags to keep your shoes in as you go around.
  • The Blue Mosque is free to enter but if you wish to make a donation, there are boxes by the exit. 

The Tomb of Ahmet I

North of, and next to the Blue Mosque is the tomb of the Sultan that ordered its construction. It is small in comparison but the tiles inside are truly beautiful so it definitely worth popping in to have a quick look. You will notice a few more coffins than just that of Sultan Ahmet I’s. These contain the bodies of the Sultan’s wife, his sons and his harem. 

Hagia Sophia/Aya Sofia

The Hagia Sophia (pronounced ai-ya so-fee-ya) is the imposing brick structure that dominates the Sultanhamet. 

A Quick Hagia Sophia History

Originally, the building was constructed as a Byzantine Church by Emporer Justinian in 537AD on the site of an earlier church that was ravaged by faire. The greek mathematicians he commissioned to construct Hagia Sofia, needed to work out how to combine the soaring dome with the traditional rectangle of a church. They created huge arches, which are buffered by the four brickwork buttresses that stick out from the sides (a unique feature). 

When the Ottomans took over in 1453, they converted it into a mosque by adding a member for the Imam to preach from, a mihrab to indicate the direction of Mecca, the 4 minarets and later, the large medallions featuring quotes from the Qur’an. The traditional mosaics of Byzantine churches were plastered over, some of which have been recovered. 

In 1935, Ataturk and his secular Turkey, turned it into a museum and it remained as such for 85 years, including the first time we visited Istanbul However, in 2020, it was once again turned into a mosque by the President of Turkey. It has caused an awful lot of controversy.

Visiting Hagia Sophia

Visitors are allowed to enter and explore, as a museum. Entering the space is genuinely awe-inspiring. The dome rises a whopping 55 m above you, the same height as the Leaning Tower of Pisa! The light streaming in from the windows makes the space brighter and also makes the dome lighter, giving it more staying power. In fact, as you walk around, try and remind yourself that this building has been standing for almost 1,500 years. and somehow, it only took 5 years to build. In comparison, the cathedrals of Western Europe took 200-300 years to build. 

To reach the upper galleries, you take a walk up a slope that doesn’t feel all that steep but leaves most slightly winded. It doesn’t seem to make much sense until you emerge and realise you are now very high above the actin below. Up here there you can get up close to some of the original mosaics, and other beautiful details that are too far away from the ground floor.

The rules for visiting the Hagia Sophia are pretty much the same as those for the Blue Mosque.

  • Cover your shoulder and knees, plus your hair if you are female.
  • Visiting is only allowed outside of prayer times.
  • The Hagia Sophia is open 24 hours a day but closed to non-muslims for Friday prayers.
  • Entrance to Hagia Sophia is now free. Any guidebooks that have it listed as a museum will recommend you consider the Istanbul Museum Pass but as this is no longer included, it is of poorer value.

Dinner at Palatium

Eating out in Sultanhamet can be a pricy business. Too many average restaurants with above-average prices make choosing one difficult. For a cheap and tasty option, Palatium serves up great food to happy travellers, casually lazing on beanbags chairs and low slung tables. Use this opportunity to try pide. Pide is often described as Turkish pizza and when you see it next to pizzas on their menu, it is easy to see why. Light and crispy boat-shaped bread is stuffed with the kind of toppings seen on the Italian classics.

Cheap and cheerful mezze, coffee and cocktail

After dinner, head downstairs to the Byzantian Palatium Magnum (Great Palace) that you have probably spied through glass sections of the floor. This is one of the only remaining areas of this important palace dating back to 330-1081AD and it was only discovered in 1996. Dinner and a free museum, that’s good value!

Hipster Bar Fun

If you are looking to extend the party, the coolest place to hang out is back across Galata Bridge in Karaköy. Hop on the tram to save some time and energy. Bars spill tabes out onto the streets and big groups of friends drink, laugh and chat loudly. It is an incredibly buzzy atmosphere and as most of the bars serve food too, you can stay out late, grabbing something to eat every time you start to flag. Start by strolling along Cadessi Mumhane and see if you can find your way down to the pedestrian crossroads of Ali Paşa Medresesi Sk. and Kuliç Ali Paşa Mescidi Sk. Here, is the greatest concentration of trendy bars.

DAY THREE – Eminonu and Back to the Sultanhamet

Some Istanbul itineraries suggest seeing these extra Sultanhamet sights on the same day as the big hitters (the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia). They are close to each other but we think they deserve more time. Plus, you would be exhausted!

Check out all our travels around Turkey

Breakfast at Mimar Sinan Teras Cafe

If you are just sipping a coffee or chomping on a plate of fruit, this is a great place to start the day. The view over the water is just delightful, and the kind of view you would expect to find in a bar that’s twice the price.

Süleymaniye Mosque

In a city full of mosques it can be tricky to choose which ones to visit. Although the hill to Süleymaniye mosque can feel like a bit of a slog, the view over the Golden Horn is great and the mosque is worth it.

Inside the main hall, the tiles are bright and beautiful, lit by natural light streaming through the 200 stained glass windows. In the four corners, you will see the four buttresses supporting the large arches which, unlike those in the Hagia Sophia are built half within and half without the mosque. 

Back outside, you can sit and take a break on the green grass before taking a walk around the gardens to find the tomb of Sultan Suleiman I and Hurrem Sultan, his wife.

Explore the Grand Bazaar

Getting lost in the Grand Bazaar is as easy as it is fun. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 22 entrances and 64 streets. It has been a commercial hub since the mid-1400s and currently holds around 4000 shops. Passing through the bazaar, you will pass shops and stall carrying everything from spices to perfumes, lamps, clothes and jewellery. Linger for just a second and eager vendors will start negotiations. There are definitely a few shops with less than A-grade goods but on the flip side, there are plenty with genuine leather good and top quality artisan goods. Watch the locals to get a feel for the right way to head. Another option is to try and spy the shops where artists are busy making goods instore.

Note that the tiles lining the vaulted walls and ceilings reflect the sounds of commerce so it can be quite overwhelming when it is busy. Just take youor time and have fun.

Basilica Cistern

Istanbul has around 100 ancient cisterns that used to be used for storing water. The Basilica Cistern dates all the way back to 532AD when Emperor Justinian had it constructed. It is the largest of the cisterns with over 500 columns. You may have seen it in the James Bond classic From Russia With Love. However, unlike Mr Bond, you don’t have to row through it. Instead, visitors descend a large set of stairs down to a series of walkways through the cistern. 

As you wander slowly long the wooden slats, you may be dripped on from above, or spot a fish dart in the shallow water below. Right at the end of the walkway is the famous column base shaped like the head of Medusa. It is oddly captivating. 

Lunch in the Park – Beltur Gulhane Kandil Cafe

This has been a pretty hectic day so far, so you have absolutely earned a sit down. Gulhane Park is an ideal place to relax. 

The Beltur Gulhane Kandil Cafe sits in a prime position on the western side of the park. The inside of the cafe is quite dark but the wooden terrace looks out over flower beds and is perfect for people-watching. The menu is full of family favourites, including decent burgers. The slices of cakes are yummy! At busy times, there is a bit of a queue.

Topkapı Sarayı – Topkapi Palace

Straight out of a storybook, Topkapi Palace was the home of the Sultans for 400 years until they moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856 (the palace you saw on day one of this 4 day Istanbul itinerary). 

The Topkapi Palace is built around a series of four courtyards and here are a few highlights to keep an eye out for in each one. 

First Courtyard
  • This is the largest space and would have been open to the public when the palace was in use. 
Second Courtyard
  • In the second courtyard, you will find the entrance to The Harem. This costs extra but has the most beautiful interiors.
  • To the right, the palace kitchens are an interesting contrast to the intricate interiors of the Sultan’s rooms. There are some amusingly noisy floorboards in some of the exhibition rooms.
  • To the left, you will find the Imperial Council Chamber. This is where matters of state were discussed. Inside, a golden window hid the Sultan as he listened secretly. 
Third Courtyard 
  • Visitors to the Sultan only got as far as the audience chamber which means everything from here is private grounds just for the Sultan and his family.
  • In the far left corner is the Imperial mosque. There are head coverings to borrow but you must have your knees and shoulders covered so remember this when you plan your outfit for the day.
  • The Pavilion of the Conqueror is chock full of beautiful jewels, including the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the largest in the world
Fourth Courtyard
  • From here you can see some gorgeous views across the water from both sides of the courtyard.
  • The flowerbeds are rather lovely. 
  • Don’t worry, the circumcision room is no longer in action.

Cocktail Hour at A’YA Terrace

(On a super tight budget? Skip this!)

Istanbul is not short of trendy bars, but this terrace at the Four Seasons is a fantastic spot to watch the sun go down. Sipping on a well-crafted beverage, munching on the complimentary nibbles, the world seems to swell with the rising call to prayer emitting from the Sultanahmet. The drinks are costly, but as a once-off, it is a treat that is worth it.

(If you are here on a Tuesday, its happy hour 6:30 – 8:30)

DAY FOUR – A Day Trip to Asia

Brunch at Namlı Gurme

If you can wait a few minutes for breakfast, then find your way back to Karaköy for a gut-busting brunch. Namlı Gurme is a charcuterie stuffed with a huge variety of bread, meats cheeses and dips. Breakfasts are served as a set menu of savoury treats, or you can go up to the counter and pick mezze, paying by the weight of the food. 

Ferry to Kadikoy

Just a stone’s throw from here is the ferry that will take you across the Bosphorus Strait to the Asian side. Buy your ticket from the machine and pass through the barriers when the green sign shows. You can check ferry times here

If it is a sunny day, sitting on the upper deck is a delight. The wind blowing in from the river, bringing a salty smell with it does its best to blow your hat off. Seagulls trail the ferries as people love to throw bread for them. The gulls have become remarkably adept at snatching the tossed baked goods from the air.

As you travel along the coast, look out for the giant mosques of the SUltanhamet on your right, and the ornate sandstone exterior of Haydarpasha Station on the left. Boats pull into the ferry terminal, simply called Kadikoy, making it pretty easy to know that you are at your destination.

Kadikoy Food Market

Head through the edge of the park and up into the pedestrianised road in front of you, Caddesi Yada. From Monday to Saturday, this whole area is turned into a giant food market. It is foodie heaven and the perfect place to pick up delicious souvenirs. From tubs of locally produced honey to the pickles that adorn many a kebab across Turkey, there is something to suit every taste. Whether you are shopping for someone else, or for an evening picnic, you will find plenty to stuff your bag with. There is also a plethora of stall selling freshly caught fish, which you can enjoy in one of the many seafood restaurants on Gunesli Bahce Soko St. 

Not all the food is fancy. These mini batter balls topped with colourings were yummy anyway.

Kadikoy Restaurants/Cafes

Alongside the temporary stalls, there are some permanent shops and restaurants that are worth seeking out:

  • Ali Muhiddin Hadji Bekir – The speciality here is the Lokum or Turkish Delight. Sweet rose-scented cubes of gooey goodness nestle near the nougat studded varieties and slices of cake. Pick some goodies and sit with a cup of tea to enjoy them.
  • Baylan – Coup Grillet is the order of the day at this old school patisserie. A glass full of vanilla and caramel ice cream topped with cream, almondy honey sauce and sprinkled with nuts. It like a rich little ice cream sundae.
  • Borsam Taşfırın –  Along with pide, lamacun also has the nickname of Turkish pizza. This spot serves the tasty, crispy flatbreads topped with spiced mincemeat.
  • Çiya Restaurant – If you aren’t travelling to Cappadoccia, this is a good place to try Anatolian fare. It is quite an expensive meal so make sure you are truly hungry. 
  • Tatar Salim – Have you been too scared to try doner kebab elsewhere in the city? (We get it, your tummy is delicate and you don’t always know where the bathroom is). Never fear, you can try it at this fancy kebab spot. The ingredients are all served separately so you can construct it to your taste.

Other Shopping Around Kadikoy

The streets surrounding this area are full of cool shops stuffed with vintage clothing, music, secondhand books and quirky furniture. Check ut Akmar Arcade for a great rummage.

Kadikoy Bars and Umbrella Street

Just north of the pedestrianised area, running parallel to it is Arayicibasi Street. Along here, a lane runs north. You can’t miss it, it is full of umbrellas. As well as making a great spot for Instagram, the lane is lined with bars. With the cool cocktails of Salpa Bar, relaxed vibe of Cadikoy Cafe and boisterous London Pub it is a fun place to while away a few hours.

Returning to Europe

Ferries travel from Kadikoy to both Karakoy and Eminonu (for Sultanhamet) allowing you head back to whichever side of Europe you are staying. 

Information on Visiting Istanbul

How to Get to Istanbul

Istanbul’s Istanbul Airport (catchy name) took over as the main hub in April 2019. Istanbul Airport is home to Turkish Airlines and most international flights arrive here. It is vast and involves a lot of walking so bear that in mind when you are thinking about what shoes to wear for the flight. There is a Havaist bus that travels to Taksim Square and various other points throughout the city. You can pay on the bus so make sure you have some Turkish Lira or a contactless card that you can use. Eventually, metro lines will reach the airport but as of March 2020, this hasn’t happened yet.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Cheap and Cheerful – Cheers Vintage Hostel

Considering Cheers Vintage Hostel’s location, they could charge twice the price but happily, this Sultanhamet budget option is stubbornly geat value. Rooms range from vaulted 8-bed dorms to large doubles. All rooms have ensuite bathrooms and the furniture has an old-world charm in the private rooms. Breakfast is a simple buffet that can be taken on the balcony that looks over to the water beyond. Bear in mind that local seagulls have learned about breakfast and will swoop in & steal your early morning goodies if you leave them unattended.

Mid-Range – White House Hotel

White House Hotel is gloriously old fashioned. Ornate beds, fiddly wallpaper and mini chandeliers adorn the guestrooms. The rooftop terrace has a great view of Hagia Sophia. It is a wonderful place to enjoy your breakfast before hitting the streets for the day. The location is excellent, just north of Sultanahmet Square, you have quick access to the sights here and to the tram stop that will whisk you across Galata Bridge. 

Splash the Cash – Four Seasons

There are numerous former palaces and mansions that have been converted into stunning hotels but our favourite is the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorous. This is a converted palace from the 1800s and is just a few doors away from the Dolmabahçe Palace. You may find you need 5 days in Istanbul if you stay here as a day lying by the pool, with a view of the Bosphorus r in the full Turkish hammam is a luxury you can’t afford to miss. If you want a room with windows that overlook the river, opt for a Palace room.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet

If you are looking for something with a better location, just along the road from the Cheers Vintage Hostel is the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet (home of the A’ya Rooftop Lounge). This is actually a converted prison, which means it has a beautifully manicured courtyard in the middle. Luckily, guests are not expected to take their exercise out in the yard any longer. Instead, you can slowly stroll through the pretty planting. Alternatively, take a seat in the glass-walled restaurant in the morning for a lavish breakfast. Guests here can use a free shuttle to Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorous to use the pool and spa facilities. 

What to Pack for Two Days in Istanbul

  • A Scarf/Pashmina – Pop a light scarf or pashmina in you day bag. Scarves are great for cool evenings, air-conditioned public transport and as a covering for entering mosques.
  • Comfortable Shoes – This 4 day Istanbul itinerary contains rather a lot of walking. Scaling the hills of Istanbul, you will need sensible shoes.
  • Ear Plugs – If you are a light sleeper, the call to prayer at daybreak could be a rude awakening. 
  • A Zipped Day Bag – As with any busy city, pickpocketing can be a problem. The more zips, flaps and buckles your bag has, the better.
  • An Istanbul Guidebook – As splendid as this blog post is, it does miss out an awful lot… There is just SO much to see.

Final Thoughts on This 4 Day Istanbul Itinerary

Trying to see Istanbul in 4 days is a probably crazy thing to do, but it is such fun to try. There is a vast amount to see, do and eat (seriously, come hungry). If you only have a long weekend in Istanbul, this is a great start. We are sure you’ll be back one day…we will too! Until then, enjoy your time in Istanbul.

Rosie xx


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One thought on “4 Day Istanbul Itinerary – The Best of Istanbul in 4 Days

  1. On the travel wish list! Would love to visit Istanbul. So many of the spots look like they are out of a fairy tale. Good to know you can visit the mosques as long as it is not prayer time. A great 4 day itinerary.

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