Perhaps you’ve come across it in another post of ours and know it already. Or maybe this is the first time you hear about it: we love bridges. Not only in terms of architecture. We first and foremost love bridges for their superpower, which is their ability to connect. Places, people, cultures. This is why we find Istanbul so fascinating. The entire city is itself a bridge. It connects two continents. Europe and Asia. In fact, it connects two different worlds. The East and the West. All along our 5 days in Istanbul itinerary, it was mostly this blend of cultures that we tried to explore. Ultimately, this was also what made us fall unconditionally in love with this unique and beyond words charming global city.

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This photo shows Ortakoy Mosque with Bosphorus Bridge in the background.
The Bosphorus Bridge brings together the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Built along both banks of the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the largest city in the world which spans two continents. Throughout its long history, Istanbul has always been an important cultural, political and trade centre because of its strategic position. The oldest part of the city, today’s Sultanahmet area, sits on a peninsula where three seas meet: the Golden Horn Strait, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus Strait.

This image shows a lighthouse in the Sea of Marmara. In the background the silhouette of the city of Istanbul during sunset.
The Sea of Marmara at sunset

Taking a trip to Istanbul can be a rather emotional experience for us Greeks. Constantinople, Istanbul’s former Greek name, was a city where a large Greek community flourished in the past. However, the vast majority of Istanbul’s Greek residents left the city unwillingly. Therefore, at every mention of Istanbul, a haunting aura of nostalgia makes Greeks turn their eyes towards the East and daydream of the City. That’s what Greeks used to call Istanbul. The City, η Πόλη. Because, to their minds, it was the prettiest, the most important city of all. The one and only in their hearts. According to one theory, that’s also where the city’s current name, Istanbul, comes from: Εις την Πόλιν (is tin Polin), which means to the City.

This photo shows a ferry sailing in front of Galata Bridge in Istanbul.
The fairest of them all, Istanbul.

Our 5 days in Istanbul Itinerary

Day 1. Istanbul basics: Beyoğlu and Eminönü

Istiklal Street

We had a very early flight from Athens to Istanbul which means we had to wake up in the middle of the night to get to the airport. That’s why we decided to take it slow on our first day and save our energy for the days to come. So, as soon as we got to the city from the airport, we checked in at our hotel in Beyoğlu and then decided to have a look at our neighbourhood. After walking just a couple of blocks away from the hotel, we found ourselves on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s most famous avenue.

This photo shows a part of Istiklal Street. It is pedestrianised with grand buildings on both sides. In the middle of the street there is an iconic red cart selling Turkish snacks.
Colourful Istiklal Street

Busy with thousands of people all day long, Istiklal is a pedestrianised street lined with magnificent buildings, which house shops, restaurants, cafés, consulates and many more. We saw Galatasaray High School, Turkey’s oldest secondary school, as well as Çiçek Pasajı, a beautiful historic shopping arcade built in 1876. The highlight of the avenue, though, is the old-fashioned red tram that runs between Istiklal’s two ends: Taksim Square (north) and the area around Galata Tower (south).

This is a photo of Çiçek Pasajı. It is a beautiful arcade with shops right next to Istiklal Street.
Çiçek Pasajı

We reached neither end on this first encounter with Istiklal Street of ours. We just grabbed some snacks (simit and açma) from the omnipresent food carts along the avenue as well as some divine baklava from Hafiz Mustafa. Then we headed back to our room through a maze of charming side streets and this is how we stumbled upon Reşat Balık Pazarı, a lively fish market and Nevizade Street with its quaint restaurants and pubs. We didn’t know it then but this is one of the many spots where the heart of Istanbul nightlife beats.

This is Nevizade Street. It is lined with tables and chairs, now empty, because this area comes to life in the evening. Colourful small flags and a big Turkish one hang above the street creating a festive ambiance.
Nevizade Street

Galata Tower and Galata Bridge

After a very short and totally unsatisfactory nap, we were out in the streets again. We walked along Istiklal Street towards its southern end. The street was even more crowded in the evening. At the end of Istiklal, a number of downhill cobbled streets descended towards the Galata Tower area. We took one of them and we started wandering around one quaint street after another. This area is full of souvenir and other shops where you can buy gifts at very low prices. Soon we were at the foot of the Galata Tower.

This is an up-close of the Galata Tower.
Galata Tower

The beautiful 67m tall tower was built by the Genoese who lived in Istanbul in 1348. Nowadays, it is home to cafés and restaurants and, most importantly, a viewing terrace with breathtaking panoramic views to the entire city. It was too early in the evening to go up the tower as we were determined to do so during sunset. Instead, we sat at a traditional coffee shop under the shadow of the tower to catch our breaths and drink our first of many glasses of exquisite Turkish tea.

This photo shows Maria having a glass of tea at a traditional coffee shop. She is leaning against a wall with a colourful graffiti on it.
Tea anyone?

We then resumed our walk further downhill towards the sea. We walked down some of the steepest streets we have ever seen while at the same time we promised each other never to walk UP those same streets. Soon we reached the famous Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn Strait. The bridge was completed quite recently, in 1994. It has vehicle and pedestrian lanes as well as tram tracks. On its first floor, closest to sea level that is, fish restaurants and pubs line the bridge. It connects Istanbul Old City to the Beyoğlu area, which was formerly known as Pera (Greek for across).

This image shows a Sehir Hatlari ferry in front of Galata Bridge in Istanbul Turkey.
Galata Bridge

Once we stepped on Galata Bridge, the magic that is Istanbul unfolded before our very eyes. Iconic landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace stand majestically over the waters of the Golden Horn Strait. Ferries come and go constantly with seagulls following them all along their short or longer trips. Fishermen of all ages wait patiently for the day’s catch. All these and a lot more compose an image of a city whose beauty no artist’s brush could have painted in more enchanting colours.

This photo shows a fisherman waiting patiently for the day's catch on Galata Bridge.
A fisherman on Galata Bridge

Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar

Once we crossed the bridge, we were at Eminönü. The first stop on our walk on this side of the city would be the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). The beautiful covered market has always been and still is the go-to place for spices. That said, due to the market’s popularity with tourists it is now also home to various other types of shops, such as patisseries, jewellery stores etc.

This photo was taken inside the Spice Bazaar. The focus is on the magnificent vaulted ceiling with its striped arches.
The Spice Bazaar

Out of the two markets we visited, the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) is by far the most impressive one. It includes 61 streets and 4000 shops, so we only had time to check out a small part of it. In any case, the Grand Bazaar got us under its spell although we are not that fond of shopping. The Grand Bazaar is not only about shopping after all but, rather, an iconic landmark in its own right. It’s a magnificent maze of covered streets, utterly picturesque cafés and mesmerising sounds and smells of the East. It is one of the top places to visit in Istanbul and we’ll definitely go back to spend more time there some day.

Visit the Grand Bazaar with a local and go shopping like a pro!

This photo shows Details from the Grand Bazaar's magnificent wall paintings.
Details from the Grand Bazaar’s magnificent wall paintings.

A visit to the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre

Alongside immersing ourselves to local life and culture during our travels, we also enjoy a more tourist-oriented experience every now and then. In this spirit, we knew we’d want to attend a traditional Turkish performance at some point so we thought why not do it on our first day in Istanbul? It turned out an excellent decision because after our visit to the Grand Bazaar we were pretty much done with walking for the day. So, what better way to end our first day in Istanbul than watch some of the best performances in the city according to no other than TripAdvisor?

This photo shows the entrance to the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre.
The Hodjapasha Cultural Centre

We walked to Hodjapasha Cultural Centre which is housed in a beautiful 550-year-old hamam. We had booked tickets for both the Whirling Dervishes and the Rhythm Of The Dance shows. More of a ritual than a show, the Whirling Dervishes experience is available every day at 19:00. The 60-minute Whirling Dervishes performance at Hodjapasha Cultural Centre follows the actual sema ritual, which represents the spiritual journey of the soul towards God and back. Although immensely interesting and impressive, this performance is in essence a spiritual ceremony. Therefore, don’t expect lively tunes and entertaining ambiance as not even applause is allowed during the sema ritual.

Buy your tickets to the Whirling Dervishes Show before it sells out!

This is a close up of a dervish made of wax. The lifelike figure is displayed at the exhibition area of Hodjapasha Cultural Centre.
You’re not allowed to take photos during the sema ritual but you are greeted by a dervish at the exhibition area.
If you say hi and he doesn’t reply back, don’t mind him. He’s not rude. He’s just made of wax!

On the other hand, if an hour of genuine entertainment is what you’re after, you should go for the Rhythm Of The Dance show. A group of amazing professional dancers present traditional dances from various parts of Turkey. We particularly liked the belly dance and Turkish drum (darbuka) solos. Also, we kind of have a crush on the guy who danced the fascinating tanoura dance. Both performances had a full house, so book your tickets in advance. In between the two shows we had complimentary refreshments and we had a look around the exhibition centre where one can learn a lot about the sema ceremony and its history.

Make a reservation for the Rhythm Of The Dance Show now!

This photo shows a dancer performing the tanoura dance at the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre. The room is dark with just a few red and yellow lights. He is dressed in black except for his impressive red tanoura skirt. All this creates a mystic and gorgeous ambiance.
We may not know your name but we are in love with you.

Taksim Square

It was already late in the evening when the second show was over and we were really tired. Therefore, we decided to use public transport to return to our hotel rather than walk. In order to avoid any uphill walking whatsoever, we took the tram to Kabataş station and then the funicular line 1 to Taksim Square. The latter is probably the most famous square in the city. It is a major transportation hub as well as a lively meeting point. There is a large number of hotels and restaurants on and near Taksim Square. From there it was a leisurely walk to our hotel via Istiklal Street, which, by that time and considering it was a Saturday night, was swarming with people. We grabbed some Istanbul street food and called it a night. The following day would be a super full one.

This is a photo of Taksim Square at night. The square is dimly lit and there are not many people around.
Taksim Square at night

Day 2. Essential Istanbul sightseeing

Walking tours with Walks In Istanbul

Istanbul Old City is full of must-see treasures but it is also very crowded, thus quite chaotic. This is why we strongly believe that it is best to go sightseeing on a guided tour. We decided to do the bulk of our sightseeing in a single day. Therefore, it would be next to impossible to manage this on our own. This is why we joined three amazing guided tours offered by Walks in Istanbul.

Read all about the walking tours we joined here!

This is an up-close of the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque is one of the top things to see in Istanbul.

We started our day with a walking tour of Fener and Balat. This tour introduced us to the colourful alleys of two of Istanbul’s oldest neighbourhoods. During this 3-hour tour, we learnt how the Ottomans sieged the city and we saw part of the old Byzantine Walls. Our amazing guide also narrated stories from the lives of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities that used to populate Fener and Balat. Among the many important landmarks we visited along this tour, the Greek Mary Blachernae Chruch and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stand out.

Book your Fener & Balat walking tour now!

This photo shows a line of traditional wooden houses in various colours. This architecture is typical of Istanbul and it's at its best in Fener.
Fener neighbourhood and its charms.

After this introduction to off the beaten path Istanbul, it was time for us to visit some of the city’s major attractions. We strolled around Sultanahmet Square and the Hippodrome before visiting the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The latter is one of the most impressive religious sites we have ever seen. Far from being merely seen as either a former mosque or an old Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia is itself the embodiment of the unique blend of cultures that is Istanbul.

Skip the lines! Book your Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque tour now!

This photo shows the gorgeous interior of Hagia Sophia. The huge Quran inscriptions are placed next to Byzantine Christian saints.
The stunning interior of Hagia Sophia.

Our final sightseeing tour for the day took us to the Basilica Cistern, the impressive underground construction dating back to the 6th century, and the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is a huge shame that the latter is often left out of visitors’ bucket lists. It is an amazing construction and offers some of the best views to the city.

Click here and book your Suleymaniye Mosque tour at the lowest price!

This is a photo of Suleymaniye Mosque as seen from across the Golden Horn.
Suleymaniye Mosque as seen from across the Golden Horn.

Food tour with Istanbulite

As if three walking tours in a row weren’t enough, we ended our day with a private Istanbul food tour. During this tour, we visited some of the best places to eat in Istanbul and tasted mouthwatering dishes. Eda, our guide, also gave us tips on where and what to eat during the rest of our trip.

Read all about the private food tour we enjoyed here!

This photo shows details of old yet absolutely charming buildings in Beyoglu.
Beyoğlu is the best district to enjoy an unforgettable food tour.

Day 3. A day trip to the Princes Islands

Long before we even arrived to Istanbul we had decided to spend a day on the Princes Islands. Therefore, on the third day of our trip, we headed to Eminönü station to catch the ferry for the islands. Instead of walking towards Galata Bridge from our hotel as per usual though, we made a slight change to our route. We headed to the Golden Horn Metro Bridge, a modern construction which offers spectacular views to the city. What we liked there was that the entire area between this bridge and the Galata Bridge (on the Beyoğlu side) is turned into a wonderful wooden promenade. It is ideal for leisurely strolls while taking in jaw-dropping views. Next time we’re in the city we’ll definitely try to be there during sunset.

This photo shows two men walking along the pedestrianised path next to the Golden Horn Metro Bridge.
The loevely area around the Golden Horn Metro Bridge.

So, a day at the sea is an excellent idea for a day trip while in Istanbul. The Princes Islands are an archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara but only four or them are inhabited and open to visitors: Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Büyükada. No cars or motorbikes are allowed on any of the islands so their quiet streets and clean air come in huge contrast to Istanbul’s buzzing roads and smoggy sky. Our initial plan (wish, to be more accurate) was to visit all four of the main islands on the same day. However, we decided it would be better to relax and enjoy just two of them, Heybeliada and Büyükada, rather than spend the day rushing from one island to the other. If you have time for just one of the Princes Islands though, head to Büyükada, the largest and most interesting of all.

Ready to enjoy one of the best day trips from Istanbul?
Click here to find out everything about our trip to the Princes Islands!

This image shows a horse drawn cart pass in front of a gorgeous white wooden mansion on Buyukada Island.
The Princes Islands enjoy an irresistibly old-fashioned ambiance.

We got back to Eminönü at about 20:00 so our stomachs announced dinner time. Since we were in this area, we thought it was a fantastic opportunity to try balık ekmek, the famous fish sandwich which is the flagship of Istanbul street food. We chose one of the boats where fish is grilled on board. However, balık ekmek is served on shore. We sat at a tiny table and we enjoyed our dinner among locals and locals alone. When the night air was filled with the last call to prayer from nearby mosques, we were already on our way back to our hotel.

Day 4. Romantic Istanbul: The Golden Horn, Pierre Loti Hill, Ortaköy 

Timewise, we can’t afford to plan themed days during our travels. There is no such thing as Romantic Istanbul or Modern Istanbul when we try to figure out our itineraries. We normally devise our every day’s route keeping in mind mundane things like distance or means of transport. However, it turns out that our fourth day itinerary included some of the most romantic spots in Istanbul.

This photo shows a woman in traditional Muslim attire sitting on the grass next to the water along the Golden Horn. Her back is turned to the camera as she gazes at the city on the opposite shore.
Taking in the beauty of the Golden Horn.

The Golden Horn

We started the day with a DIY cruise along the Golden Horn. What do I mean by DIY? We took the public ferry from Karaköy station in Beyoğlu all the way to the final stop at Eyüp. As simple (and cheap) as that. Check out the Golden Horn ferry schedule here. We enjoyed so much being having tea on the water while the ferry zigzagged from one shore to the other on that bright, sunny day. After 40′ we got off the ferry and we were in a brand new Istanbul district for us: Eyüp.

This photo shows the The Bulgarian Iron Church which is built on the shore of the Golden Horn. It is light blue in colour and it's special because it's made of iron.
The Bulgarian Iron Church on the shore of the Golden Horn.

We had never heard of Eyüp before. We just went there to take the cable car to Pierre Loti Hill. However, Eyüp was an amazing surprise for us. A former Christianity stronghold, the area became an important site for Muslims after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. So much so that in 1581 Christians were no longer allowed to live there. Nowadays, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque represents one of the Islamic world’s most sacred sites while the entire district attracts more conservative Muslim residents. The walk from the ferry pier to the cable car is a fascinating one. The mosque and the adjacent mausoleum and tombs are little architectural masterpieces. Moreover, the cobbled streets around the mosque are full of people and souvenir shops.

This photo shows the main square at Eyup. There are people walking or sitting and chatting. It's a bright spring day.
The main square at Eyüp.

Pierre Loti Hill

A visit to Pierre Loti Hill wasn’t part of our initial plans. However, a very dear friend of ours changed our minds. Spyros, our friend, insisted that we couldn’t leave Istanbul without catching the views from the hill. He was 100% right and we can’t thank him enough.

This photo shows the view from Pierre Loti Hill to the Golden Horn. Also, the silhouette of the modern city with its skyscrapers is dominating the horizon in the distance.
View from Pierre Loti Hill

The hill took its name from the French novelist and keen Istanbul lover Pierre Loti. One can get to the top of the hill either by car or cable car. There is also the option of walking through the enormous Eyüp Cemetery. However, we would advise against doing so without the company of a local friend or professional tour guide. For visitors to Istanbul, like ourselves, the cable car is the best way to climb to the top of Pierre Loti Hill. The ticket costs the same as a metro or bus ticket and you can use your IstanbulKart on it too.

This photo shows the Pierre Loti cable car. In the background, the view to the heart of Istanbul is jawdropping.
Breathtaking views from the cable car.

The only drawback of the cable car is that there are always rather long queues at the entrance. Sometimes, at the exit as well. The reason for this is that there are only two sets of two cabins, each of which has a maximum capacity of just 8 people. However, once inside the cabin, it takes less than 3′ to get to the top or vice versa. The views from the cable car to the Golden Horn and the Eyüp Cemetery are breathtaking.

This is a photo of the entrance to the Teleferik. There is a long queue of people waiting to get on the cable car.
Long queues but totally worth it.

Once at the top, there is a nice café with spectacular views to the Golden Horn and the historic centre of Istanbul in the distance. Even though we visited at noon when sunlight is so bright that it deprives colours of their splendour and blurs one’s vision, we enjoyed our time (and some more Turkish tea, naturally) there very much. We assume that the best time to visit is during sunset. Then again, this is true for all places. If only sunsets happened more often than just once a day, right?

This is a photo of the café at Pierre Loti Hill.  It is a very quaint cafe with red and white checkered tablecloths. All tables are filled with people who enjoy the spring sun. In the distance, the silhouette of Istanbul is just gorgeous.
The café at Pierre Loti Hill

Fener, our favourite Istanbul neighbourhood, was only a couple of bus stops away from Eyüp. Therefore, we decided to have lunch there before taking the ferry to Üsküdar. Later, on our way to Üsküdar, we had the chance to get a glimpse of the beautiful Maiden’s Tower. What better welcome to the famous Bosphorus Strait than that?

This photo shows the Bosphorus Strait with Maiden's Tower in the distance.
The Maiden’s Tower tirelessly guarding the entry point to the Bosphorus Strait.

Ortaköy 

Üsküdar is a district on the Asian side of Istanbul. We got there from Fener so as to catch a ferry to Ortaköy. However, we had some time to wander around before actually getting on the ferry. It turns out we liked Üsküdar’s ambiance. In a way that we can’t put our finger on, Üsküdar feels different than the neighbourhoods of the European side. Also, the views to the shore across the Bosphorus Strait are amazing.

This image was taken in Uskudar, near the ferry station. It's a lively neighbourhood right next to the water where you can see mostly locals.
Üsküdar is one of Istanbul’s most authentic neighbourhoods.

It was getting late when we hopped on the ferry to Ortaköy so the weather was chilly. However, the view to the Bosphorus Bridge as the ferry approached the Ortaköy Mosque was superb so we braced ourselves and stayed outside. Ortaköy is one of the somewhat fancy Istanbul neighbourhoods. Clearly, the most iconic landmark of the area is the Ortaköy Mosque. We had been looking forward to visiting this particular spot since for ever. From an architectural point of view, the mosque is gorgeous. But what makes it truly unique is its position, right there at the waterfront. Sadly, we didn’t go inside the mosque because it had closed for the day. However, we really wanted to see Ortaköy during and after sunset so the time of day we visited the area wasn’t negotiable.

This photo was taken on the ferry as we approached Ortakoy Mosque. In the background, behind the mosque itself, we can see the splendid Bosphorus Bridge.
Approaching Ortaköy Mosque

Apart from the mosque, Ortaköy is also famous for being the best place to try kumpir in Istanbul. Kumpir, which is jacket potato the Turkish way, is Istanbul street food at its best. You will be surprised by how many food stalls in Ortaköy serve just that. Don’t miss it! Furthermore, Ortaköy is home to some of the city’s universities and this adds to the area’s vibrant ambiance. We had a couple of beers at the cosy Dwarf Irish Pub and it felt as though we were back to our University years (we’d wish).

This is a close up to kumpir. A jacket potato filled with various ingredients such as corn, hot sauce, russian salad, olives and more.
Kumpir or, as we like to call it, Turkish comfort food.

After it got dark, we decided to walk towards Beşiktaş. We thought we’d enjoy a nice waterfront stroll. But we couldn’t be more wrong. It appears that the entire seafront is private property of either universities or luxury hotels. Consequently, there is no room for leisurely strolls by common people. On the contrary, we walked along a dull road until we reached Beşiktaş. We were so disappointed by our failed attempt on a pleasant evening stroll that we jumped on a bus to get back home. On our way there, we stopped at Taksim Square. To be precise, we stopped at one of the many Hafiz Mustafa sweet shops which are scattered across the city. The perfect place to cheer us up! After a brief session with loads of butter and sugar we were happy again and ready to call it a night.

This photo shows Ortakoy Mosque at night. It is beautifully lit and in perfect harmony with the Bosphorus bridge right behind it.
Ortaköy Mosque at night leaves everyone speechless.

Day 5. Istanbul Highlights: Turkish bath, Bosphorus Cruise, Galata Tower sunset

Turkish bath experience

Day 5 was our last day in Istanbul. It was also Katerina’s birthday. So we thought: Why not do something really special to celebrate the day? How about indulging in a traditional Turkish bath? This experience was very high on our list of top things to do in Istanbul anyway. So it was settled. Since this would be our first time at a hamam, we researched a lot before choosing where to enjoy our Turkish bath. Finally, we decided to make reservations at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, one of Istanbul’s top-rated hamams. We honestly couldn’t be happier with our choice. After experiencing the traditional Turkish bath ritual, we felt reborn to say the least. Happy and relaxed we headed towards Kabataş pier to catch the ferry for a cruise along the Bosphorus. Before doing so though, we sat at a seafront café and enjoyed, what else, some superb Turkish tea.

Feeling nervous about going to the hamam for the first time?
Read our comprehensive guide on how to enjoy your Turkish bath experience here!

This photo shows the reception and welcoming area at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami. The floors are made of marble and there is cosy furniture with wall to wall huge comfortable sofas. Everything is spotlessly clean. Enjoying a turkish bath was a highlight of our 5 days in Istanbul itinerary.
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami

Bosphorus Cruise and Beylerbeyi Palace

No trip to Istanbul is complete without a chance to see the city from the water on a cruise along the enchanting Bosphorus Strait. Ranging from incredibly cheap to super luxurious ones, Bosphorus cruise options are endless. The public ferries of Şehir Hatları offer both a full and a shorter Bosphorus tour departing from Eminönü. The former runs all year long while the latter doesn’t, so make sure to check ferry schedules beforehand. Dentur Avrasya offer similar tours departing from Kabataş but they also operate a Hop On Hop Off Bosphorus tour as well. See all available options here. For a luxury twist on your Istanbul trip, splurge on an unforgettable private yacht cruise along the Bosphorus Strait.

Fancy a special experience?
Book a private yacht cruise of the Bosphorus now!

This photo shows a pier overlooking the Bosphorus strait.
Don’t leave Istanbul without cruising along the Bosphorus Strait.

The Bosphorus Strait is the natural border between Europe and Asia and the only passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This is why it has always been extremely important for commercial and military reasons alike. For us travellers, the Bosphorus Strait is one of the most spectacular ways to take in the beauty of Istanbul. For our Bosphorus cruise, we chose the Hop On Hop Off option so that we could stop at Beylerbeyi Palace and then go back to the city with the same ticket (20 TL= 3€/person). We left from Kabataş and we sailed next to the European side all the way to Emirgan. During this ride, we admired iconic landmarks such as Dolmabahçe Palace, Ortaköy Mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge. As we continued further north, we had the chance to see  the beautiful coloured houses in Arnavutköy as well as the stylish neighbourhood of Bebek.

This photo was shot from the ferry and shows Bebek neighbourhood. There is a line of maginificent colourful mansions along the waterfront.
Colourful Bebek

One of the most impressive sights along the way was Rumelihisari, Istanbul’s imposing medieval fortress. We wish we had time to see it up-close and, most of all, to walk along its dreamy waterfront promenade. We’ll definitely do so next time.

This is a photo of Rumelihisari, Istanbul's medieval fortress which is built on the waterfront.
Rumelihisari, Istanbul’s medieval fortress

After we passed below Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the ferry moved closer to the Asian shore of the Bosphorus Strait and started its southbound course. The Asian side is lined with exquisite wooden mansions dating back to the 19th century. This type of residence, which is yet another symbol of Istanbul, is called a yalı. There are yalı on both shores of the Bosphorus Strait but the Asian side is abundant in the prettiest of them.

This image shows two of the many yali, the wooden mansions that are built on both shores of the Bosphorus. One of them is a two-storeyed red mansion while the other is a three-storeyed cream one.
A couple of gorgeous yalı on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

When the ferry made a stop at Beylerbeyi Palace, we hopped off for a quick visit. Built in the 1860s as a summer residence for the sultan and his family, Beylerbeyi Palace is a fine example of Ottoman architecture and decoration. Small in size and with beautiful gardens overlooking the sea, it is well worth a visit. After an hour or so, we hopped on the ferry back to Kabataş again. As far as we are concerned, a Bosphorus cruise is one of the top things to do in Istanbul. Regardless of the season, pack something warm/windproof to wear so that you enjoy sitting outdoors the entire time. From what we understand, it won’t be possible to sit outside during winter though.

This photo shows the Beylerbeyi Palace as seen from the ferry.
Beylerbeyi Palace

Sunset at Galata Tower

As we said earlier, we were determined to climb the Galata Tower during sunset. So, after stopping at our hotel for a quick rest yet another glass of Turkish tea, we went to the Galata Tower just in time to enjoy the golden hour. You know, we always try to visit a destination’s best viewpoint towards the end of our trip. We do this because we think it’s better to look at a city from above after we’ve wandered around a bit. This way we know what we’re looking at and that feels absolutely great. Other than that, there isn’t much to say. When it comes to watching the sun set over Istanbul, words are very unnecessary as the best song of all time goes. Make sure to be on top of the Galata Tower at sunset and you can thank us later.

This photo shows the view from the top of Galata tower at sunset. The sky and sea are dyed in red as the city lights begin to become visible.
Sunset from the top of Galata Tower

Completely spellbound and with lips uttering vows of eternal love to the city, we strolled along one of Istanbul’s most picturesque streets: Serdar-ı Ekrem Street. Then, we headed towards our hotel in Beyoğlu stopping for a glass of beer or two at the quaint bars tucked away in the narrow streets. After a delightful birthday dinner at Asmalı Cavit, one of the best restaurants in Istanbul, we kissed the magic city goodnight and promised to be back soon.

This is a night shot of Serdar-ı Ekrem Street with the Galata Tower in the backgound. Serdar-ı Ekrem Street is a cobbled street with quaint shops and cafes.
Serdar-ı Ekrem Street enjoys the best views to the Galata Tower.

How many days in Istanbul

We could just say the more the better and leave it at that. However, we’re here to help you rather than simply state the obvious. We believe that spending 5 days in Istanbul is the absolute minimum. We could have stayed a lot more. A LOT. However, knowing that not all of us can afford a long vacation, we will give you a couple of hints on what to include and what to skip if your time is very limited.

This is a photo of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge over the Golden Horn.
Can any number of days be enough? We seriously doubt it.

5-day Istanbul itinerary

For a 5-day trip to Istanbul, you can follow our itinerary as outlined above. However, if the weather is bad, you can skip the Princes Islands day trip altogether and do some more sightseeing instead. In that case, we would definitely recommend visiting Topkapi Palace. The main residence of the Ottoman sultans, it is an Istanbul must-see, second only to the Hagia Sophia.

Book your guided tour of the Topkapi Palace now!

This is an evening shot of Topkapi Palace from the ferry.
Topkapi Palace in the evening

Yet another museum worth checking out is Chora Church. Home to a collection of superb mosaics and frescoes, Chora Church is a less-known yet fascinating place of interest in Istanbul.

See Chora Church through the eyes of a local. Book your guided tour now!

A laid back neighbourhood in Balat with local women casually chatting.
A visit to Chora Museum can be combined with a stroll around the authentic Balat and Fener neighbourhoods.

Last but not least, Dolmabahçe Palace is yet another impressive building with great history. It is the largest palace in Turkey and it enjoys a spectacular location right on the Bosphorus waterfront. Inside the palace, you can visit many lavishly decorated rooms. Among them, the very room where Kemal Atatürk died in 1938.

Skip the lines!
Get fast track entry tickets to Dolmabahçe Palace now!

This is a photo of the facade of Dolmabahçe Palace from the ferry.
Dolmabahçe Palace

4-day Istanbul itinerary

If you only have 4 days in Istanbul, just skip the Princes Islands day trip and follow the rest of our 5-day itinerary.

3-day Istanbul itinerary

A 3-day trip to Istanbul could probably include most of the things we saw in 5 days but in a rushed way. Depending on how slow you want to take it or not, consider skipping any (or all) of the following: Shows at the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, food tour, Beylerbeyi Palace, Golden Horn cruise and visit to the Pierre Loti Hill. You can catch up with all this during your second time in Istanbul. Believe us, you will definitely want to plan another trip soon.

This photo shows people admiring the view to Istanbul city centre from a viewing terrace at Pierre Loti Hill.
If visiting Istanbul for 3 days or less, save Pierre Loti Hill for a future trip.

2 days in Istanbul

We don’t think that 2 days in Istanbul are enough to even scratch the surface of a city this size and with so much to see and do. However, if an opportunity comes up for you to visit even for 2 days, don’t miss it. You should definitely skip everything mentioned in the previous paragraph plus the Fener-Balat Tour and one of the two big mosques (Blue Mosque or Suleymaniye Mosque). Come to think of it again, for a 2-day trip to Istanbul, you can ditch the plan altogether and just wander around taking in the unique beauty of this city. Then, with a glass of Turkish tea in one hand, book your flights for your next proper trip to Istanbul.

This photo shows the sun set in the sea. The photo was taken from on board the ferry at the Sea of Marmara.
Make time to see the sunset at least once!

Istanbul Travel Guide

How to get to Istanbul

There are two airports in Istanbul. The new Istanbul Airport which opened its gates to the public in 2019 and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport. Both are accessible by means of public transport, taxis and hotel airport shuttles. The choice is yours and heavily depends on time and budget available.

Where to stay in Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge city so choosing where to stay may get a bit overwhelming. This is why we dedicated an entire blog post to the best neighbourhoods and hotels in Istanbul.

Read our full guide on where to stay in Istanbul here!

This is an up close of the Galata Tower from an unusual angle. The photo is taken from right below the tower.
We chose to stay near the Galata Tower and we loved it!

Using public transport in Istanbul

Public transport in Istanbul is ridiculously cheap and very easy to figure out and use. Therefore, using means of public transport in this city is one of the best ways to save some money so as to spend it in something more fascinating than simply getting from one place to the other. There are buses, trams, metro lines, ferries and two funiculars which, combined, can take you literally everywhere. During our 5-day trip to Istanbul, we only used the metro once. We mostly used trams as well as the life-saving funiculars. Why life-saving? Because, thanks to the Tünel (F2) and the Taksim–Kabataş (F1) funicular lines, we never had to climb any of the torturing uphill streets in the city. Regarding trams, the Kabataş–Bağcılar (T1) line is the most useful.

This photo shows a series of old Istanbul pictures which decorate the Tunnel Station.
The Tünel Station

The ferries are also a brilliant way to commute in Istanbul, especially between the European and the Asian sides of the city. Last but not least, buses were a very pleasant surprise for us in Istanbul. We normally don’t rely on buses during our travels because we can never be sure that we’ll catch the right one. However, in Istanbul buses are quite straightforward. In most cases, they include something super recognisable in their displayed direction (e.g. Taksim Square or something similar), so we felt confident that we would end up where we wanted without getting lost.

This is an up close of a ferry in Istanbul.
Ferries are excellent means of transport in Istanbul.

Istanbulkart

The Istanbulkart is a contactless public transport smart card which is valid for all of the above means of transport plus a couple of more such as the Eyüp cable car. For any given ride, a single ticket costs a lot more compared to the Istanbulkart fee. You can buy an Istanbulkart at any major station or even news-stand in the city and load it with the desired amount. Then you can top up your Istanbulkart at the same places or at automatic vending machines located at many tram or bus stations etc. The Istanbulkart is not personal. This means that it can be used by more than one people. If so, the discount made at certain transits will only be applied to one passenger. However, we are talking about trivial differences of about 20-30 cents. If you are planning a trip to Istanbul, don’t think twice. Buy your Istanbulkart!

This photo shows the Pierre Loti Hill cable car.
Among many others, Istanbulkart is valid on the Pierre Loti Hill cable car as well.

What and where to eat in Istanbul

Food in Istanbul is a reason to visit the city in its own right. We are not joking. Food is a quintessential part of Istanbul. This is why we wrote a complete guide on the best Istanbul food and where to try it.

Click here for our ultimate Turkish food guide!

This photo shows a series of Turkish dishes on display at a traditional restaurant.
Istanbul has a unique food culture.

Istanbul weather and best time to go

Winter in Istanbul can be really, really cold. We visited in late March and still it was quite chilly. Especially on board the ferries or in the evening. Istanbul is a fantastic city and visitors should be able to enjoy sitting outdoors as much as possible. This is why it would be better to visit in summer, late spring or early autumn.

This image shows chairs painted in many bright colours on equally brightly coloured steps. It's a café in Fener.
Fine weather in Istanbul means that you get to spend time at the loveliest outdoors spots, such as this café in Fener.

Should I get a Turkey sim card?

Free roaming across Europe is one of the best things that has happened to the continent in the last decades. However, Turkey wasn’t invited to the party. If your data providers back home charge outrageous amounts of money for just a handful of MBs to use in Turkey (like ours) and you are reluctant to rely on WiFi, then, yes, you should indeed get a Turkey sim card. We won’t lie. Keeping our cellphones hidden in the dark depths of our backpacks until we reached a WiFi spot was tempting. However, we would miss all of you awfully a lot. So, as soon as we landed at Istanbul airport, we proceeded to the Turkcell booth only to be met with a blunt 35€-for-the-cheapest-data-plan remark. So much for the research we had done according to which Turkcell has the most affordable options for tourists.

This photo shows many colourful umbrellas hanging above an outdoor cafe in Fener. Maria is standing below them, looking at them and smiling.
Instagram was waiting for these umbrellas so we had to buy a sim card!

In the meantime, the guy who would escort us to our shuttle had approached us and offered a 100GB (!) Vodafone sim card for 25€. Cash. There and then. No questions asked. It sounded sketchy, no doubt about that. Katerina and I exchanged a couple of puzzled/worried looks but we decided to take our chances in the end. Everything went smooth. Yet we don’t encourage you to risk it like we did. Pay a bit more and buy a sim card from an authorised seller just to be on the safe side. Keep in mind that prices may be lower in the city than at the airport.

This is an image of a woman taking a photo of Istanbul from the ferry with her cellphone.
Who can resist posting this miracle of a city on social media?

How much does a trip to Istanbul cost?

Turkey in general is a budget-friendly country. Therefore, Istanbul is a relatively cheap destination. Flights from European countries come at reasonable prices. We paid 150€ in total (2 people, both ways) from Athens which is great considering that the Greek capital is infamous for its expensive flights. If booked well in advance, good rooms in a central location can cost as low as 35€/night for a double. Food is outrageously cheap. As in 5€-10€/person cheap at a very good and centrally located restaurant. Public transport costs next to nothing and so do things like souvenirs etc. Entries to some museums may be quite expensive by Turkey standards but, still, very cheap compared to other destinations within Europe.

The Topkapi Palace as seen from the ferry.
A ferry ride is a super cheap and utterly enjoyable way to go sighseeing in Istanbul.

The only thing that is actually expensive is alcohol. Due to Turkish legislation, taxation imposed on alcoholic drinks is so expensive that a glass of raki can cost as high as 15€! Always keep that in mind before you happily shout next round’s on me. You won’t feel as happy afterwards.

This photo shows clothes hanging high above street level at an outdoor market in Istanbul.
You don’t need a lot of money to have a great time in Istanbul.
Enchanting snapshots wait for you at every corner!

Is Istanbul safe?

Sadly, the times we live in are very crazy. Is it really accurate to say that a place is safe whereas another is not? Istanbul is as safe as everywhere and nowhere. Like anywhere in the world, you need to use your common sense while in Istanbul and everything will be just fine.

This photo shows the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. It is almost closing time and there are big crowds of shoppers or just passers by.
There are security checks at various spots that tend to get crowded, such as the Grand Bazaar.

As far as women travelling alone are concerned, make sure you choose a hotel in a busy area, like Istiklal Street and there is absolutely nothing to worry about. No one is more scared (of everything actually) than I am. Yet, neither Katerina nor I felt uncomfortable during our 5-day stay in Istanbul. Not even at night. In fact, nowhere have we felt not even remotely as welcome as we did in Istanbul. We were genuinely touched by the locals’ warmth and kindness. Therefore, there is no reason why you should exclude Istanbul from your bucket list. It’s a beautiful, incredibly friendly city that everyone needs to see at least once in their lifetime.

This is a photo of Istiklal Street with crowds of people.
Although immensely crowded, Istiklal Street feels cosy and safe all day and night long.

Why Istanbul is a city we’ll never stop going back to

From what you’ve read so far it must be pretty clear that Istanbul is a remarkably enchanting city. For that alone, it claimed and earned a special place in our hearts. However, there are certain little details about Istanbul that we love immensely. First of all, the tea. Served in glasses rather than cups, it costs next to nothing and it has nothing to do with fancy afternoon tea sessions (which we also adore). Tea is so much more than just a drink in Istanbul. It’s a mentality in its own right.

This photo shows a man serving tea and other refreshments on the Golden Horn ferry.
Tea is served everywhere. Even on board the ferry.

Secondly, we were touched by the degree to which locals love cats. There are food and water bowls for them everywhere in the city’s streets. In fact, it seems that cats in Istanbul are literally treated as royalty. Another reason why we love Istanbul is that it feels perfectly safe in the evening. Downtown Istanbul is buzzing with life 24/7 and we absolutely love this.

This photo shows a fluffy cat sitting by an old window of a wooden mansion on Buyukada Island.
One of many happy kitties in Istanbul

Last but not least, what we love most about the city are Istanbulites themselves. They are among the most hospitable people we have met in our travels. The fact that they were even warmer towards us once they found out we were Greek was indescribably moving. So much for the eternal-hate-between-Greeks-and-Turks stereotype. It only exists in narrow-minded people’s imaginations. This is why travel is the best antidote to stereotypes and intolerance. A window to the real, beautiful world that leaves no room for harmful misconceptions.

This photo shows a Turkish man enjoying the ferry ride. Next to him, the Turkish flag is moving with the wind.
We will never forget the incredible Turkish hospitality.

Our final thoughts about Istanbul

Did you honestly make it to the end of this long post? You deserve our respect and everlasting love. The truth is that we never intended to write such a long post. However, our short stay was enough to make us fall desperately in love with Istanbul for ever. The way we see it, Istanbul is not just another city we visited. It is an entire world. A world of magic where all opposites converge to form an enchanting blend of cultures and peoples.

This image shows the Galata Tower. In front of the tower, there is a graffiti of vividly coloured flowers.
Old and new in total harmony

Istanbul is more than just the beautiful images of the Bosphorus and the Hagia Sophia.
Istanbul is filled with the seductive smells of the East as they reach out to touch the West.
Istanbul is carried along in the exciting sounds of a busy city that never sleeps but also in the melodious voice of the muezzin who brings the skies to life at each call to prayer.

Istanbul is all of this and so much more. Istanbul is unique. The one and only. The City.

For a glimpse into The City of the past, check out A Touch of Spice, one of our favourite movies of all time. The film narrates a man’s ongoing love affair with Istanbul and everything it represents for him in the most nostalgic and sweet way.

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Disclosure: Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, Walks in Istanbul and Istanbulite offered us complimentary experiences yet, as always, all opinions remain our own.

2 Comments

  1. Istanbul is a dream place for me, I hope one day to see it. Hagia Sophia, the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar are on my list and I am sure that one day I will see and smell those wonderful places.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi dear Ferny! We are in love with Istanbul because it is indeed a dreamy destination. So special, so different from any other city we’ve been to. We really hope that you travel to Istanbul soon. You are going to love it!

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