If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. – Napoléon Bonaparte.
An ancient metropolis lying at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and straddling both continents, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) had been the capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires and then became the imperial capital of the Ottomans for 600 years.
It survived through millennia to become an enigmatic fusion of eras and cultures – a history’s playground where orthodox churches stand adorned with minarets, Ottoman palaces enclosed by Byzantine defence walls and highways run through Roman aqueducts. This city has been capturing the imagination of travellers for centuries.
Today, Istanbul feels like a living museum of humanity’s greatest hits, much like Florence in Italy or Cordoba in Spain.
How many days in Istanbul?
So how do you decide how many days in Istanbul are enough? The safe bet is that you can’t have too much time in Istanbul. There is enough to see and do in the city to keep you exploring for weeks.
If Istanbul is the major part of your itinerary, allocate between 5 and 7 days to explore the city. You could also take day trips from Istanbul to places like Troy and Bursa.
If you are using Istanbul as the jumping-off point for a packed Turkey itinerary, give yourself at least 2 or 3 days in the city to see what made Napoleon proclaim Istanbul the capital of the world.
If you have no other choice, you can see some of Istanbul’s most impressive sights in a day. In fact, Istanbul is one of those rare cities where the drive from the airport to the city centre is an epic scenic excursion. So even if you have a few hours layover in Istanbul, you can take this opportunity to see the highlights of the ancient city.
As a general guide, 3-4 days in Istanbul is a good compromise. You can either pack your days and see as much of the sprawled-out city as you can or keep a more leisurely pace and concentrate on the Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Beyoglu neighbourhoods.
This guide is intended to help you decide how many days to spend in Istanbul by suggesting what you can see and do in the number of days you have.
One City, Two Continents
First things first, you need to get oriented in the city – Istanbul’s layout is a little more complex than most cities. One of the things Istanbul is famous for is that it is the only city in the world to straddle two continents. The mighty Bosphorus Strait cuts the city in two halves – its European and Asian sides.
The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn, which separates the Imperial stronghold with all its Byzantine and Ottoman palaces from what a friend of mine calls the Crusader part of the city – the lands that historically were given to foreign communities: the Genoese after the IV Crusade and the foreign embassies during the Ottoman rule.
One City, Three Empires
Once you have the lay of the land, it’s a good idea to get oriented in Istanbul’s history (briefly) to get a sense of the different empires that created the city you see today.
Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire
In 337 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) and then promptly renamed the city after himself – Constantinople. In time, Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, which outlived Rome for centuries.
Constantinople’s defensive walls kept the city safe from attacks by the invading armies. Until a Hungarian engineer invented cannons and outfitted the Ottoman army with his formidable new weapons. On 29 May 1453, Constantinople fell, and the era of the Ottoman Empire began.
The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire grew into one of the most powerful and long-lasting empires in the history of the world. It reigned over much of the Middle East and parts of Asia and Europe for almost 600 years. Most of the architectural heritage of Istanbul belongs to the time of the Ottomans.
The empire reached its peak during the reign of Sultan Suleiman in the 16th Century; the period referred to as the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.
The Republic of Turkey
The Ottoman Empire was already in decline when it entered WWI. In 1922, after losing the war, the title of Ottoman Sultan was abolished, officially spelling the end of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded, and the capital was moved to Ankara. Seven years later, Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul.
Arriving in Istanbul
If you stay in Sultanahmet (and I suggest you do), the drive from the airport will take you from Asia to Europe, across the Bosphorus Bridge and past the dreamy-white Dolmabahce Palace. You will ride across Galata Bridge and onto Kennedy Avenue, where you’ll follow the broken line of the Byzantine City Walls, drive through an ancient gate and emerge onto the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet – the heart of the old city.
What to See in Istanbul in One Day
If you only have one day in Istanbul, you should concentrate on the most monumental sights of Istanbul, and most of them are in Sultanahmet.
Start your day in Sultanahmet Park and soak in sight. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – two colossal giants gazing at each other across the park, one – a thousand years older than the other.
The Blue Mosque is particularly captivating. It is one of the greatest mosques in Istanbul, and there is something almost unearthly about the shape of its domes. They seem to unfold into existence right in front of your eyes, like the constantly changing shapes of a geometric gif image.
Both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are stunning inside, but you’ll want more time in Hagia Sophia.
One way to maximise your time is to explore both structures on an organized small group tour of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
Between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia is the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople. Or what’s left of it, which are the three obelisks that used to mark the centerline of the stadium around which the chariots raced.
Just behind Hagia Sophia, the magnificent Topkapi Palace is the perfect place to get a taste of the opulence of the Ottoman lifestyle. Make sure not to miss the harem and the throne room – the most exquisitely decorated parts of the palace. You can find more details in my guide to Topkapi Palace.
To see the palace and the adjoining museums properly, you’ll need at least 3 hours. And even if you don’t visit the museums, you’ll struggle to see the palace in less than 2 hrs.
If you plan to take a tour of Topkapi Palace to skip the long queues, consider combining a few sites in the same tour. This tour will take you to Topkapi, Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia in 3 hours.
On the other side of Hagia Sophia is the mesmerizing Basilica Cistern – an underground cistern used by the Romans to store water for the city. Walk down two sets of stairs, and you’ll find yourself in a dimly-light cavern with a forest of mismatched columns supporting the arched roof.
The floor is submerged under the still dark water, and gentle Turkish music flowing from concealed speakers sets a sombre mood. It’s one of the most magical sights in Istanbul. Made popular by the movie based on Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Next to Basilica Cistern is Alemdar Restaurant & Cafe – a delightfully traditional Turkish cafe with a Turkish way of seating arrangement and ethnic Turkish decor all around.
If it is your only day in Istanbul, you can’t miss the opportunity to delight your senses and try your haggling skills at Istanbul’s Grand Bazar.
The easiest way to get to it from Sultanahmet Park is by jumping on the T1 tram. It’s only a couple of stops away. You can purchase the ticket at the machine at the tram stop. Or, if you are staying for longer than one day, get the Istanbulkart transit card. You can get 5, 10, or 20-ride cards that cover trams, buses, and ferries.
Alternatively, you can just as easily walk there. Whichever way you go, keep an eye on your right for a tall column rising above surrounding buildings. This is the Column of Constantine. It was dedicated by Emperor Constantine in 330 AD to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire.
End your day in Istanbul with a dinner at one of the rooftop bars in Sultanahmet and enjoy the view of the sun setting behind the Blue Mosque and bathing Hagia Sophia in golden light.
What to See in Istanbul in Two Days
With two days in Istanbul, you can venture further from the centre, so the Istanbulkart transit card will come in super handy. Public transport is very straightforward in Istanbul and a convenient and cheap way to get around the city.
Catch T1 to Suleimaniye mosque to enjoy one of the best views in Istanbul. The mosque is stunning, no doubt, but the view is the real perk here. Don’t miss the tombs of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his scheming concubine-com-wife Roxelana.
From Suleymaniye mosque, stroll towards the Golden Horn to visit the Spice Bazar and the gorgeous Rustem Pasha mosque – a comparatively small mosque decorated entirely with blue tiles.
Heading to the Beyoglu neighbourhood, walk over Galata Bridge and head up a steep hill towards Galata Tower. The good news is – you won’t have to climb to the top of the tower – there is an elevator inside. You’ll only have to climb a couple of floors, and the views from the top of the tower are entirely worth it.
From the Galata Tower, take a detour to Karakoy’s Umbrella Street and then stroll up to Istiklal Caddesi – one of the most famous and busiest streets in Istanbul. It transports you from the city’s glorious past to the modern-day metropolis. The street is lined with shops and arcades that sell everything imaginable.
Don’t miss the iconic Pera Palace Hotel. Agatha Christie was one of the first frequent guests of the hotel, and you can now stay in the room she preferred – the Agatha Christie room.
Also, check out Mekan Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervish House and The Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasji), try traditional Turkish deserts at Saray Muhallebicisi, and ride the cute-as-a-button red tram for a couple of stops.
If you have enough time, let yourself get lost among the little winding side streets and get a glimpse of authentic Istanbul. And to get a deeper sense of Istanbul’s culture, don’t miss the hauntingly soulful Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, which follows an ill-fated love story from the book of the same name.
For dinner, head to The Dervis Cafe by Sultanahmet Park (Sultanahmet Mah, Kabasakal Cd. No:1 D:2) to catch the Whirling Dervishes show at 7 pm.
What to See in Istanbul in Three Days
The third day in Istanbul gives you enough time to venture further afield. I suggest spending half of the day on the Asian side of the city, strolling through the Kadikoy neighbourhood, and the other half getting lost on the steep winding streets of Balat – Istanbul’s incredibly colourful Jewish neighbourhood and home to some of Istanbul’s best cafes.
Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, is the perfect place to escape the crowds you faced in the first couple of days in Istanbul. About an hour’s ferry ride from Eminonu, the neighbourhood has a more relaxed pace and is brimming with coffee shops, bars, boutiques and cinemas.
You don’t need a set itinerary for Kadikoy. Simply enjoy wandering the streets, checking out fabulous street art, hopping from one cafe to the next, and making friends with local cats. And if you feel like a stroll, head out to Kadıköy Lighthouse and meander along Kadıköy Coastal Pathway.
Balat is the most atmospheric neighbourhood in Istanbul. It spills down a steep hill towards the Golden Horn in a vibrant explosion of colour. From Eminonu wharf, it is about a 20-min bus ride.
There is no point trying to get to any particular place in Balat; Google Maps are no match for the tangle of this ancient neighbourhood’s back streets. It is best to let yourself get completely lost in Balat by turning any corners that appeal to you. Orientation here is very easy – the Golden Horn (and the main road) are downhill.
What to See in Istanbul in Four Days
Another day in Istanbul gives you a chance to venture even further afield. A Bosphorus Cruise is a must – it’s an iconic Istanbul experience, more than worth 2 hours of anyone’s time.
And for history buffs, there is an exquisite Byzantine church that lies further away from the city and takes some time to get to.
One of the most interesting Byzantine churches in the city is the Church of St. Savior in Chora. It is located further from the city centre and takes a little more effort to reach, but it is definitely worth the trouble.
Chora Church is famous for the stunning mosaics that it preserves within its walls. It was built in an effort to restore the glory of Constantinople after the city was sacked by the Latin soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. And it appears that no effort or expense had been spared in the creation of this masterpiece. The mosaics in Chora are jaw-droppingly beautiful. And they are old. They immediately draw you in.
And this beauty is all the more remarkable for the surprise you feel from finding it in such an out-of-the-way location, among a maze of backstreets, so far away from the splendour of Sultanahmet.
To get to Chora Church, first, catch the T1 Tram to the Istanbul University stop, then walk to Vezneciler metro station, catch the train 38B and ride six stops until Şehit Yunus Emre Ezer. Once you come out of the metro station, you will see the walls of Constantinople. Walk through the Edirnekapi Gate, and the church is a 5-minute stroll away.
Of course, if wondering on the fringes of an unfamiliar city is not your type of adventure, you can visit Chora church on this wonderful full-day tour of Byzantine Monasteries in Istanbul.
In the afternoon, take a cruise along the Bosphorus. Cruise past Dolmabahçe Palace and Ciragan Palaces and under the Bosphorus Bridge that joins Europe to Asia. Spot medieval castles and fortresses and stunning seaside residencies on huge estates. Make sure to opt for the audio guide so you know what you are looking at. And if you are a birder, you’ll enjoy the bird-spotting opportunities on the Bosphorus.
There are different options available for the cruises, from a simple seat on the ferry to a private table for a cruise with live music. Most of the cruises last 2 hours, and they all leave from Eminonu wharf.
What to See in Istanbul in Five Days
The Princes’ Islands
Spend half a day on the Princes’ Islands (Adalar), which are a cluster of 9 islands southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. The islands are a quiet carless reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Four of the nine islands are open to tourists, and the prettiest and most popular island is Büyükada.
You can reach Büyükada by a 90 min ferry ride from Kabataş. Try to catch one of the first ferries in the morning to beat the crowds and give yourself more time to explore.
There is plenty to do on Büyükada. You can climb Yücetepe hill to visit Aya Yorgi Church, find the Merkez Ezcanesi pharmacy that dates back to 1870, check out Byzantine churches, and explore the old centre. There are even remnants of a Villa where Russian revolutionary Trotsky used to live. Once you are done exploring, relax on any of the island’s beaches.
You can also take a half-day tour to Prince’s islands from Istanbul and visit Büyükada and Kınalıada islands and have all the logistics taken care off.
If this is your last day in Istanbul, don’t plan anything for the afternoon. Spend more time in your favourite part of the city, venture off the tourist path and search for hidden gems. The backstreets of both Sultanahmet and Beyoglu are perfect for this.
Or, if you are a fan of Agatha Christie, check out the Sirkeci train station and the locomotive of the Orient Express, or have a cocktail at Pera Palace Hotel, where she frequently stayed. Now that you have a feel for the city, you’ll be experiencing it differently.
Day Tours from Istanbul
If you have more than five days in Istanbul, you might like to take a day tour to one of the surrounding towns. You could go to Troy for a day or visit Sapanca Lake for its idyllic natural surroundings. You can even go to Ephesus for a day if you wish.
I hope this guide made it easier for you to decide how many days in Istanbul are enough for you. To recap, set aside at least three days for Istanbul if you have a packed itinerary or five days to explore the city at a more relaxed pace.