2 to 5 Days in Istanbul & Turkey

When time is short and at a premium, you can see all of Istanbul‘s top sights in 2 or 3 days, then take a one-day or overnight excursions to another Turkish destination. (See also my Istanbul Weekend page.)

To make the most of your time, your visit must be very efficiently planned—especially transportation. You should seriously consider joining a value-for-money guided tour and/or having one of my recommended Turkish travel agencies help you to make your travel arrangements.

You must also consider seeing the sights with a recommended Licensed Private Guide so you don’t get lost in this confusing city, and you don’t have to wait in ticket lines (guides are allowed to jump the lines). When your time is short, their expertise and help are all the more valuable.

An Istanbul Museum Pass can save you time as well as money. More…

Here are possible plans for 2 to 5 days in Turkey:

Day 1

Ottoman Istanbul

Istanbul’s top sights are grouped right around the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet Square:

Topkapı Palace

(closed Tuesday; stay 2-3 hr). Get there before it opens and go straight to the Harem, which gets overcrowded. More…

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

(closed Monday; stay 1 hr). Right next to Topkapı. Don’t miss the mosaics on the upper level. More…

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque

(Sultanahmet Camii) (stay 1/2 hr). Just across the park from Ayasofya, on the Hippodrome. The mosque is closed to visitors for 25 minutes after each call to prayer, and for much of the day on Friday. Here’s mosque-visit etiquette. More…

Byzantine Hippodrome

(At Meydanı, stay 1/2 hr). Enjoy the monuments in the park: Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius, Kaiser Wilhelm II Fountain, serpents’ column and more. More…

Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art

( closed Monday; stay 1-2 to 1 hr). Right on the Hippodrome across from the Blue Mosque, this is a treasure house of Anatolian art. More…

Basilica Cistern

(Yerebatan Sarnıçı) (9-5; stay 1/2 hr). At the NE end of the Hippodrome beneath the little park. More…

Turkish Bath (Hamam)

Turkish bath (1-3 hr) can be amazingly refreshing after a long day. If not today, then later. More…

Day 2

Byzantine Constantinople

Today you visit Istanbul’s top Byzantine (4th to 14th centuries) sights, and go shopping.

Divan Yolu

(1-hr walking tour) Walk from the Hippodrome uphill along this historic boulevard, the ancient Roman Mese, to see the tombs of the Ottoman sultans, other Ottoman buildings, and Çemberlitaş(Forum of Constantine) to Beyazıt Square (Forum of Theodosius) and Istanbul University. Take a bus or taxi to Edirnekapı and the Chora Church (Kariye Museum) or, better yet, make the most of your time and avoid hassles by joining a convenient, value-for-money guided tour that takes you to a number of hard-to-reach sites.

Chora Church (Kariye Museum)

(9-4, closed Wednesday; stay 1-2 hrs). Come for the brilliant gold 14th-century Byzantine mosaics that cover the ceiling and walls. Nearby is Tekfur Saray, Istanbul’s only extant Byzantine palace, built into the huge 4th-century city walls. Take a bus or taxi back to Beyazıt Square and the Grand Bazaar. (If you’re on the tour, you’ll go on to Eyüp, the Pierre Loti café, and the Ecumenical Orthodox PatriarchateMore…)

Grand Bazaar

(9-5, open every day; stay 1-2 hrs, longer if you’re really shopping). With its 4000 shops, it has something you want! Finding it is great fun. Have lunch at one of the little restaurants right in the bazaar. When you’re done, walk downhill along Long-Market Street or take a tram or taxi to Eminönü and the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. More…

Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar

(open every day; stay 1/2 to 1 hr) Right next to the southern end of the Galata Bridge, it’s much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, but the surrounding district is full of other shops selling food, clothing, kitchen utensils, etc. The tram will take you right back to SultanahmetMore…

Day 3

19th-Century Istanbul: Beyoğlu

Explore the romance of late Ottoman Istanbul on a walking tour of Beyoğlu, and a visit to the sultan’s most lavish palace.

Galata Bridge

(stay 1/2 hr) Start at the bridge over the Golden Horn which links Old Istanbul and Beyoğlu. Take in the view, then walk north through Karaköy (Galata) and uphill to…

Galata Tower

(9-7, discount on Monday; stay 1/2 to 1 hr) Best views of the city from this Genoese cone-topped stone tower. Continue uphill to Tünel Square and…

İstiklal Caddesi

(Grande Rue de Péra; 1-2 hr walking tour) Lots to see along the main boulevard of 19th-century Istanbul: a whirling dervish hall, grand old embassy buildings, the Pera Palace HotelGalatasaray Square, and lots of boutiques. Plenty of restaurants for lunch.

Taksim Square

From this hub of modern Istanbul, go downhill to Dolmabahçe Palace or north to the Military MuseumMore…

Dolmabahçe Palace

(9-4, closed Monday and Thursday; stay 1 to 2 hrs) With a façade almost 400 meters (1/4 mile) long, this is the mother of all Ottoman palaces, and a must-see if you’re into magnificence. More…

Naval Museum

(closed Monday) Right next to Dolmabahçe Palace is the Naval Museum (Deniz Müzesi), home of the splendid collection of gilded imperial barges (kayıks)—you must see them! More…

Military Museum

(9-5, closed Monday & Tuesday; stay 1-2 hr) North of Taksim along Cumhuriyet Caddesi past the Istanbul Hilton, the museum chronicles 1000 years of Turkish military history—quite fascinating. At 3 and 4 pm you can hear the Ottoman Mehter, the world’s original military band, in costume with period instruments. More…

Days 4 & 5

Excursions from Istanbul

You’ve seen Istanbul’s top sights, now get out of the city. Here are the best one-day and overnight trips. More…

—by Tom Brosnahan


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Istanbul in 1 Day

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