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How To Get The Most Out Of Your 4 Days In Istanbul Itinerary
Written by Martina Grossi & SJ Begonja
We’d been in Istanbul for minutes before the afternoon call for prayer started. For a split moment, goosebumps sprang down my spine, packed with the excitement of finally setting foot in this mythical land.
Istanbul is a tale of two continents, empires, and millennia. Also known as Byzantium and Constantinople by good ol’ fellows back in the day, Istanbul is one of the most important cities in the history of our era. Part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, it wasn’t until the 15th century that it became an Ottoman bastion, adopting the Islamic faith. Divided into two by the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul’s Western side belongs to Europe and the Eastern to Asia.
Even though you could spend months exploring the city, it’s possible to get a taste of the top sites in less than a week. In this article, you’ll find a 3 to 4-day itinerary to Istanbul that will take you through the main highlights and across continents! How cool is that?
Where To Stay In Istanbul: Main Areas And Districts
Most of the main highlights in Istanbul lie on the European side of the city. However, the Asian -Anatolian- section allows visitors to experience more of the local way of living.
During my visit, I stayed on the Anatolian side in Kadikoy. This area doesn’t come up very often on travel guides as it’s not central, and you’d need to take the ferry to cross to the main sights. Yet, I highly recommend it if you fly into the Sabiha Gokcen Airport or would like a taster of the vibrant local life -plus stunning sunset views.
Istanbul’s main districts for visitors are:
- Grand Bazaar
Sultanahmet is the historical epicenter of Istanbul, where the most important sites are. Staying here means you can pretty much walk anywhere and enjoy being in the midst of it.
The Grand Bazaar and Sirkeci areas are also within walking distance from most spots. Keep in mind these are part of bigger neighborhoods, in this case, the district of Fatih.
The southern section of the huge district of Beyoglu is also very popular amongst travelers, especially backpackers. It includes Karakoy, Galata, and Taksim, all areas you’ll explore during your visit and where you can check out Istanbul’s nightlife or stroll around funky streets and cafes.
Getting To Istanbul From The Airport
Up until 2019, two airports were serving Istanbul. With the Ataturk Airport closed for commercial flights, now the Istanbul Airport (IST) and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) are the only two operational. IST is located on the European side, 54 km from the city center. Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side, is located about 44 km outside town.
When arriving at the new Istanbul Airport, you can reach the central areas by metro, bus, or taxi in about one hour.
The trip from Sabiha Gokcen into central Istanbul is longer, but you can take the Havabus -the airport’s shuttle bus service- and go up to Taksim. We got off our Havabus in Kadikoy after about a one-hour trip.
Much like a taxi, except you can book ahead and have a driver waiting for you at the airport terminal. Someone to carry your bags, lead the way, and, best of all, you’ll know the fixed cost ahead of time, no matter the crazy traffic.
Getting Around Istanbul
With 15 million people living in Istanbul and its surrounding areas, the city has a relatively developed public transport network. Getting around by metro, tram, bus, or ferry takes time because of the traffic jams and the crowds.
In this 3 to 4 days Istanbul itinerary, I’ve focused mainly on spots you can reach by walking, except if you decide to stay or visit Kadikoy. Fast movers can hop on modern or traditional trams as these are cheap and efficient.
If you fancy exploring the Anatolian side, you’d have to take the ferry, which is also cheap, convenient, and a great experience! I’ve shared simit -a type of bread that looks like a bagel- and tea with two ladies, heard local artists perform, and enjoyed the stunning Istanbulian skyline from the sea. For sure, there’s a bit of romance in the idea of crossing continents just like that!
The Best Time Of The Year To Visit Istanbul
March to May and September to November are probably the best months to visit Istanbul. I was there in early May, and it was still a bit fresh but warm enough to enjoy a full day out.
During peak months -aka European summer-the crowds get crazy. So better visit over shoulder season to make the most of the city.
Touring Istanbul over winter can also be a great experience as the city lies under layers of rain and sometimes even snow, which only adds to the winter charm!
Currency In Türkiye And Ways Of Payment
Turkey’s local currency is the Turkish Lira. Even when many establishments accept foreign cards, you’ll need cash to make your life easy around town. Public transport, food stalls, market vendors, and even some attractions accept only cash.
You can buy your ticket online for some historical sites if you don’t feel comfortable carrying a stash of cash.
Ensure that your accommodation is the best way of payment, as some may give you a discount if you use euros, dollars, or pay cash.
There are plenty of ATMs, so once you figure out your bank’s foreign transaction fees, you may as well use this method for withdrawing money.
3 to 4 Days In Istanbul Itinerary
Before getting to the actual four days in Istanbul guide, let me give you some insight into how I’ve put together this itinerary. As mentioned, I stayed in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of town. This meant that every day I’d hop on the ferry. However, this doesn’t affect this itinerary’s timing and order, as, understandably, you may choose to stay on the European side.
Another thing I’d like you to know is that I LOVE FOOD. The food in Istanbul is genuinely excellent. So if you are a foodie like me, you’d want to set aside time for proper feasting, especially when spending 3 or 4 nights in Istanbul. And drinking coffee and having tea -of course! So, I’m throwing some of the places our local friend took us to.
Depending on your arrival day, you can change the days’ order, as many places have differential opening times.
Let’s count your arrival day as ‘day 0,’ so you get this 4-day Istanbul itinerary on your first full day in Istanbul!
PLAN AHEAD TO GET THE BEST DEALS
Istanbul Itinerary Day 1
So, what to do in Istanbul in 4 days? Start your first day by exploring the center of ancient Istanbul, arguably the city’s most famous and iconic district.
09:30 am – The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
There’s no cost to get in -all mosques are free, though donations are welcome. Know that the mosque opens for tourists only between prayer times. During prayer, you can still get in and join, but you can’t take photos. The mosque opens only after 1.30 pm on Fridays, so try to skip this day as it gets very crowded.
Current visiting hours are 08:30 am – 11:30 am, 1 pm – 2:30 pm, and 3:30 pm – 4:45 pm. Fridays after 1 pm.
Estimated length of visit: 1 / 1.5 hs
11:30 am – Topkapi Palace
After grabbing a sweet treat and sipping your first Türk kahvesi (sediment coffee), it’s time to head to the day’s second stop, just a 10-minute walk from the Blue Mosque. The Topkapi Palace.
I strongly recommend pre-purchasing your tickets online to save time in the queue. The cost of the entrance is TL100. It’s 100% worth paying a bit extra for your online ticket and save some precious time!
The exquisite architecture of the palace, built in the 15th century as the Ottoman Empire’s administrative epicenter -for almost 400 years- will draw you in for hours.
The museum is closed on Tuesdays and has different opening times according to the time of the year. If you plan to visit the whole complex -including the Hagia Irene and the Harem- then make sure these are included on your online ticket- Otherwise, get separate tickets as the entry booths.
Even though you’ll come across crowds during your visit, the complex is huge, so you should be fine. Try to avoid heading there on a Friday. Most people head to the palace, with the mosques closed till the afternoon.
Estimated length of visit: 3 / 4 hours
4:00 pm – Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Cistern)
After visiting the Topkapi Palace, head to the day’s last stop! Located just a 5-minute walk from the palace, the Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most fascinating and mysterious spots.
This underground cistern was built in the 6th century. It’s not only huge but offers a bit of an obscure sight due to its darkness, dump atmosphere, massive columns, brick walls, and Medusa Heads bearing myths and unknown origins.
As the Cistern visit doesn’t take that much time, queues are more bearable, and you may even be out in about 30 minutes.
Visiting hours are 09:00 am – 6:30 pm.
Estimated length of visit: 0.5 / 1 hs
Finish your day meandering Sultanahmet’s old streets!
7:00 pm – Whirling Dervishes In Istanbul
When you are in Istanbul and looking for a unique and uniquely Turkish experience, be sure to book ahead! This mystical religious dance can be seen at various venues around the city. So where can you see the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul? Try these options out:
- Galata Mevlevi Museum
- EMAV Sema: If you’re looking for a more intimate setting, then try to get one of several seats reserved for guests to the private Sema ceremony. Complete with Zikr chanting, the EMAV Sema option is very traditional and comes highly recommended to me by my local friend. Sadly, the timings did not work for my last two trips to Istanbul – maybe I can try this one next time
- HodjaPasha: You can also catch the whirling dervishes at Hodjapasha Culture Center like the kids, and I did this year. This performance space is located inside an Ottoman-era bathhouse. It can accommodate up to 200 people, making it a great option if you want to get up close and personal with these incredible dancers. Some say this is “touristy,” but we very much enjoyed the experience. The seats were comfortable, we were very close to the spinning, and the acoustics of the musicians on stage were top-notch.
Book tickets here
No matter where you choose to see them, watching the whirling dervishes is an experience you won’t soon forget.
Istanbul Itinerary Day 2
Now that you are acquainted with the city vibes, let me get you started on day 2 with a hearty breakfast!
09:00 am Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Hagia Sophia operated as a museum until July 2020, when it regained its mosque status by a presidential decree.
Clearly, Hagia Sophia, which has an overwhelming historical value, will change its opening hours to follow the prayers’ times. Plus, in the early mornings, you get to beat the crowds! So to make it easy for you, it’s better to start your day here, where both times overlap, just in case.
On average, a visit to Hagia Sophia takes 1.5 to 2 hrs. Serving as a Christian cathedral for almost 1000 years, it became a mosque in 1453 under the Ottoman Empire’s rule and then a museum in the 1930s.
Visiting Istanbul and skipping Hagia Sophia is like going to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum. So take your time to learn, and explore this 6th-century Byzantine gem.
Once Hagia Sophia is back to being a mosque, the entrance will be free.
Visiting hours since July 2020: 08:30 am – 11:30 am, 1 pm – 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm – 4:45 pm. Fridays after 1 pm (to be confirmed)
Estimated length of visit: 1.5 hs / 2 hs
11:00 am – Sultanahmet Köftecisi
Just a few minutes away from Hagia Sophia is the famous Sultanahmet Köftecisi. This is the most popular eatery in the Old Town, and for a good reason. It’s better to plan a late breakfast or early lunch here, as it gets crowded! The restaurant opens at 10:30 am and serves the best meatballs you’ll ever try in your life. I’ve eaten here, and it’s all true. Also, I’m confident suggesting this place as it was our local friend’s choice for brekkie.
1:00 pm – Grand Bazaar
Happy bellies! It’s time to head to the Grand Bazaar. The secret here? To go with the flow. The Grand Bazaar is always crowded, bustling, and simply a gift to the senses.
Even if you are not planning to do any shopping, devote at least 3 hours to exploring it, as it’s one of the world’s biggest covered markets.
As I’m more into food than shopping, I enjoyed our Türk kahvesi (sediment coffee) stops and baklava treats inside the market.
The Bazaar’s main area comprises 64 streets and 22 gates, so you’d need quite a lot of time to see it all. If you plan to do some shopping, try to know the type of items you are looking for and head directly to the corresponding gates. If you are happy getting lost, then be my guest! You’ll have a great time.
The Bazaar is open seven days a week now, but as it was traditionally closed on Sunday, many merchants choose not to open.
Opening hours: 10 am – 6 pm (some shops stay open until 7 pm)
Estimated length of visit: 2 / 5 hs
5:00 pm – Crossing the Galata Bridge And Sunset At The Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)
You may be knacked after spending hours exploring the Grand Bazaar. But, if you want to keep it going, head to the Galata Tower, 2.2 km from the market. You can either take the tram or walk.
The fun part is that you’ll be crossing the Golden Horn, and if you walk, you will traverse the Galata Bridge -another top sight of Istanbul. Check out the fishermen and the vibrant spirit of this area! If you want to see them in full bloom, move around this itinerary a bit and be at the bridge by early morning.
The Galata Tower is located in the district of Beyoglu. There’s a lot to explore in this area, but for now, try to focus on going up the tower and be there before sunset to see the city covered in shades of gold -magic!
Open until 7 pm; try to be there early-ish, as you may have to queue for tickets. There’s a charming cafe at the top, so if you need a rest, hang out there.
Opening hours: 09 am – 7 pm
Estimated visit time: 1 hrs
Istanbul Itinerary Day 3
This day is going to be divided into 2. You’ll spend most of your day exploring some of the many attractions in Beyoglu and then head to the district of Moda -in Kadikoy, the Asian side- for premium sunset views.
10:00 Exploring the streets of Karakoy
Take some time to wander the lovely and funky pebbled streets of Karakoy. Head to Hoca Tahsin for the ultimate IG pic in this narrow street covered with colorful umbrellas.
Stop for tea and coffee -compulsory!- and once you are ready for lunch, head to my other favorite restaurant in town, again chosen by our local friend.
12:00 Lunch at Bankalar Lokantasi
Lovely, cheap, intimate, and delicious. This place features a brick-layered arch that will add an extra dash of charm to your lunch. There’s a buffet where you can choose from various homemade local foods, plus the attention is outstanding.
13:30 Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square
From Bankalar Lokantasi, make your way to Taksim Square via Istiklal Avenue. Over 3 million people walk this street every day! Take your time to traverse the 2 km between Karakoy and Taksim, or hop on the old tram -or the metro- if you don’t feel like walking! This is the place to go to soak in all the hustle and bustle of the city. This is the place to soak in all the hustle and bustle of the city.
Taksim square is the center of Istanbul’s social and political life, so there’s a lot to observe and learn here. It may not be the flashiest, but it’s definitely an essential part of your visit if you are interested in culture, history, or politics.
If you’d rather keep walking, check out the streets around Taksim. Swing by the markets, cafes, shops, and old Christian churches.
17:00 – Taking The Ferry To Moda, In Kadikoy
Once you are ready to wrap up your Beyoglu adventure, go back to Karakoy and catch the ferry to Kadikoy.
Enjoy the views and soak it all in because even though the trip is cheap, the views are worth a million dollars. Services depart twice per hour, and the trip lasts about 20 minutes.
This area is uber-busy, so start making your way toward the Moda neighborhood. If you still have energy left in you, wander the streets of Moda. Once you get off in Kadikoy, you’ll get a different perspective and view of Istanbul.
The Asian side of Istanbul is relatively secular and a good reflection of local life. The goal is to catch the sunset sitting by the rocks of Moda’s seaside or with a drink at any of its many bars. Also, celebrate you just made it to a whole new continent!
After sunset, you can either make your way back or stay for dinner. Ferries run until 11:30 pm -worth double-checking before, though!
Istanbul Itinerary Day 4
Time to wrap up your Istanbul itinerary.
Once you have checked out of your hotel in the morning, we suggest you use Istanbul Nannybag luggage storage to secure your bags and return to any places you loved the most, or by visiting more mosques and historical sites – like the Dolmabahce Palace or book a tour on the Bosphorus.
If you are into pampering, spend some time at a Hammam -traditional Turkish Baths. Some of the baths in Istanbul are open all day long, whereas others close around 4 pm. Allow a couple of hours for the whole experience. Prices vary from bath to bath, but you can expect to pay from €10 to over €100.
Getting Ready To Go To Istanbul
I hope you use this four-day Istanbul itinerary as a guide to making the most of your time in Istanbul. Hopefully, you now know what to visit in Istanbul in 4 days.
This city is an absolute charmer, so don’t worry if you plan a comeback before leaving!