Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

A Five-Day Itinerary for Istanbul

Planning a well-paced introduction to Istanbul – Constantinople

When my friend Kristian managed a last-minute getaway to join me in Istanbul, I thought about how to introduce him to this extraordinary city in the five days we’d have. He’d need to feel he’d had a break from work as well, and not go back exhausted. Here is how we spent our time, and it’s an itinerary I recommend to you – and believe he would, as well.

Our logistics: lodging, airport transfers, getting around the city

Kristian was arriving and departing in the middle of the night. That’s no problem in a 24-hour city like Istanbul. The airport buses run around the clock. See the sidebar for details, which, in mobile view, ends up at the bottom of this post.

For thorough information on getting around Istanbul, see my separate post.

I had already booked four weeks in a dorm in Bakırköy, but of course would join him in an apartment. I thought he might like to stay in a more touristy (cooler?) part of town. But when I checked airport bus routes, I asked him to stay in the neighborhood where I was. Much less slog for me, but also, the connections were excellent. I was staying near the Marmaray train station, and we could find an apartment between it and the seafront. There’s a ferry terminal, a definite plus, but the clincher was not only having Marmaray but also a Havaist airport bus stopping at nearly the closest point on Kennedy Cd., the boulevard that follows the shoreline around Sultanahmet and on west, well past my area. I could walk my kitchen gear and clothes to the apartment, and could walk to meet Kristian at the bus at 2 am. And for getting around, we could take the Marmaray train. Five stops to Sirkeci put us by Eminönü and the Galata bridge and walking distance to Sultanahmet. Four stops to Yenikapı and we could transfer to the metro to get to Taksim or other parts of town. The Marmaray fare is about US$ 1 and the metro about 50 cents, schedules are frequent, stations are good. With a bit of searching, I can usually find an elevator, but sometimes go ahead and take the series of steep and deep escalators; I just don’t look down!

Arrival night, Kristian’s bus came in early, and he was at the stop before me. We walked towards the apartment and I led him to a 24-hour food spot. I knew he’d be hungry after his trip, but with places open around the clock there was no need to decide for him and then offer reheated food. He chose a meat (döner) platter to go because I did have red wine and cold beer waiting in the apartment.

To visualize this itinerary, I have posted mini-maps of our Google-tracked routes.

Photo credit: all photos on this page were contributed by Kristian Söderberg.

Day one: a ferry trip and a little tour on the Asian side

After this late night, we needed an easy day, but we were anxious to feel the excitement of Istanbul. Constantinople! What could be better than a ferry? We walked down to the ferry terminal, which is not a very well-served one as the Marmaray train covers this district. After a wait, we got a ferry to Kadıköy, on the Asian side. That gave us a beautiful, if short, trip – just 20 minutes – and then we had the fun of exploring that district and the Moda section of it. It’s a bit of an upscale part of town, considered trendy, and was as crowded as all the central parts of the city. We could enjoy the waterfront and its park, and then made our way to a wine bar I had gone to with Turkish friends last year: Viktor Levi. No bargain, but a nice interior garden, decent food and a long list of their own label wines.

Back at the Kadıköy ferry terminal, we caught a Turyol ferry back to Eminönü, in Fatih on the European side, to enjoy the bustling water scene and then walk across Galata Bridge and back. Eventually we made our way to Sirkeci station for the Marmaray train and picked up some lentil soup and other food on the way back to our apartment.

Today’s step count: 17,053

Day two: Sultanahmet

The second full day, Sultanahmet was the plan. Couldn’t wait any longer to have Kristian see Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed mosque (aka the Blue Mosque). There is no entrance fee to religious sites here, so there is no need to buy tickets online. Agencies promote “skip the line” tickets but you’ll see that even those ticket holders must wait either because of the prayer schedule or simple crowd control, so I don’t see the point. It’s a beautiful area with fountains in the plazas and flower beds lining all the grassy areas and those iconic structures to take in, so just allow time and be ready to chill.

We started off on the Marmaray train and alighted at Sirkeci. The T1 tram line is a fairly close connection, but all the Sultanahmet sites are an easy enough walk, and a fascinating one. We visited the two mosques and the building of royal tombs as well. I had seen the Blue Mosque last summer when much of the interior was covered up while restoration was going on. What a stunning job was done! It was extraordinary to see now.

We walked through Gülhane Park while thinking about eating out, and looking up restaurants on Google maps. We checked out a couple where there were views but weren’t inspired to stay. Then we found an elegant-looking place displaying its spit-roasted lamb, that did look inspiring, Gülbeyaz-ı Ziyafet Restaurant, and we were going to eat there. But they had no liquor license, and a good meal without wine, or even beer … not our choice. We opted to take the meal home and caught the Marmaray train from Sirkeci station. Once home, what a disappointment our 800-lira meal was. The meat, more shredded than sliced, had a lot of tough skin-like parts and lot of fat, and very little nice meat. If we’d eaten on site, we’d have sent the plates back. At least we had wine! It had been a good day out in any case. And we gained a probably healthy distrust of fancy-looking restaurants in tourist districts.

Today’s step count: 13,662

Day three: Back to Fatih for Kapalıçarşı, the Grand Bazaar

The world’s largest covered market, with more than 3,000 shops, has to be seen. It’s an enormous maze of over 60 streets and numerous gates, and is always fascinating. I noted two differences from my visits the year before: vendors were more actively soliciting and opportuning, and fellows were sitting smoking outside most every shop. In other words, rather less charming. We spent a couple of hours in these passages, often unintentionally retracing our steps, and then finding unseen sections to explore.

We weren’t looking to buy anything, though we did want something to eat. We ended up leaving the Bazaar and found a restaurant a couple blocks south that was a good choice for us. We were ready for cold beers and some lentil soup and appetizers. Don’t know how Kristian managed to snap me with such a look but include it for a laugh.

The Bazaar wasn’t a full day for us, so we went back to Galata Bridge and walked up to Besiktas on the coast, where we took the funicular train up to Taksim. A quick look around and we entered the metro to head home. We’d explore Taksim more fully another day. We’d already had quite a hike!

Today’s step count: 15,359

Day four: the Bosphorus ferry route

After two days of making our way through crowded Fatih, we were more than ready to be back on the water and do some exploring by ferry. We lucked out when we took the Bosphorus route. We didn’t know how far the ferry would go, or what the timetable was, but we were early enough in the day that there should be a return; and if by chance not, likely a coastal bus route and eventually the metro. A bit of adventure!

The ferry took us nearly to the Black Sea! We started at Eminönü, and all the stops were on the European side: Beşiktaş, Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Bebek, Emirgan, Istinye, Yeniköy, Büyükdere, Sarıyer, and Rumeli Kavağı. I have since found that Conde Nast Traveler recommended this ferry trip back in 2013.

It was a splendid day on the water. We passed under two of the the bridges that had fascinated Kristian and got a good look at the third. All suspension bridges, they are: the Bosphorus Bridge (Boğaz Köprüsü), from Ortaköy to Üsküdar; the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, at the narrowest point of the strait, between Hisarüstü and Kavacık; and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, from Garipçe to Poyrazköy.

We got as good a look as we could at each of the ferry stops, thinking that on the way back we’d have dinner in a different part of the city from what we’d otherwise see. I encouraged disembarking at Belek which a friend had told me had lots of trendy restaurants. We found waterside bars and ice cream shops, a couple of very formal fish restaurants that just seemed too stuffy for our casual day, and ended up with burgers and beers across the main road, hardly a trendy find. We were too late for a ferry back, but could get the metro. Public transportation in Istanbul is terrific!

Today’s step count: 11,257

Day five: Taksim

Taksim Square is a central hub of the city, in the sprawling district of Beyoğlu (historically Pera). It’s on the European side of the city on the north side of Galata Bridge. The main pedestrian street, İstiklal Caddesi, runs from the north side of the Galata area, Tünel Square, to Taksim. Consider it the modern commercial heart of the tourist areas. At Taksim, there’s the Republic Monument (Cumhuriyet Anıtı), dating to 1928, the fifth year of the Republic; the Taksim Mosque; and the Atatürk Cultural Center (Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, or AKM) site of the 2023 Istanbul Opera Festival. Taksim has the central metro station for the city, as well as a funicular down to the shore at Beşiktaş with its ferry terminal. Of course we had to go!

But we didn’t have to go directly. As usual, we started off on the Marmaray train. But instead of getting off at Sirkeci, we continued on to the Asian side and got off at Üsküdar where we could catch a ferry back across the Bosphorus. It was just a chance to see a bit more and to be on a ferry again. Ending up at Eminönü, we crossed Galata Bridge and continued walking – or climbing! – uphill towards Taksim. We only looked at Galata Tower; the entrance tickets are 350 lira, US$17.50 at the time, thus about $35 for the two of us, and we preferred to just continue our walk. We rewarded ourselves along the way with a very pleasant lunch upstairs at a restaurant whose name we’re not sure of, but was billed as Asmali Gida Restoran. It was election day – the run-off election for president – and no alcohol was being sold at the sidewalk cafes, but we learned we could have wine if we dined upstairs. Nice solution, away from the bustle of the street – and as it happened, we had the upstairs all to ourselves.

Today’s step count: 12,419

Departure at 3 a.m.

Kristian’s early morning flight meant a middle-of-the-night bus ride. No problem. I walked with him to the stop and then back to the apartment alone, perfectly comfortable in this neighborhood that had become quite familiar. Most businesses are closed at that hour – you have to look for the 24-hour spots – but I had a pleasant and quiet walk back. It wouldn’t be wise for me to recommend a woman walk alone in the middle of the night in any city. But I’m still willing to say that it’s been fine for me here.

What else should you see in Istanbul?

The itinerary here involves no ticket fees apart from cheap transportation, and it’s a very good introduction to the city. But you should try to see these important museums:

  • Topkapı Palace  – the Seraglio – the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from the 1460s, and home to the sultans. So, not one building but a large complex with gardens.
  • Dolmabahçe Palace – the largest palace in Turkiye, near the Beşiktaş ferry terminal, built in the mid-1800s
  • Basilica Cistern – dating to the mid-500s, built for Emperor Justinianus where there used to be a basilica; a reservoir with marble columns

I welcome your suggestions and comments. Please share your thoughts in the “Leave a reply” section below! If you’ve been to Istanbul, what were your favorite places? And if you’re planning a first trip, I’ll try to answer your questions.

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