I can’t remember the last time we spent a week in a single destination, let alone a new-to-us destination. That said, a week is more than enough time to experience the best of Istanbul. It’s hard to imagine spending less than a week in this incredible city. There is so much to see, so much to experience, and a lot of traffic to contend with – even during slower seasons. While I think you could see a lot in a short time, it may feel like a blur if you go too fast. Don’t just do it as a stopover on a cruise or a long flight.
If you’re on the fence about going to Turkey, jump off that fence. Go. Enjoy. The hospitality was incredible, the food was delicious, and there are so many sites to see on both sides of the Bosphorus. We are pretty easygoing travelers, so every part of this trip was an incredible adventure. Visiting Istanbul is one of the best decisions we made.
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Getting to Istanbul
We flew from DFW-EWR-FRA-IST over Saturday and Sunday. In a stroke of luck, we were able to fly Polaris by United on the EWR-FRA leg, and the service was incredible. United has really improved their transatlantic business hard product, as well as their soft product. (American is going to face some fierce competition now that we know this.) Our longest layover was at Frankfurt. It took an hour to walk between the terminals, and I was content to grab a fresh pretzel and some water to wait for our flight to Istanbul.
We flew Turkish Airlines from FRA-IST. Despite all the changes to meal service, Turkish provided a substantive meal for a (relatively) short flight. (I loved the marble cake.)
US Citizens need a visa to enter Turkey. It’s best to apply for this in advance.
After a full travel day, I knew I would not want to deal with finding a cab. I booked a private Istanbul transfer to our first hotel. It was so easy. It took us about an hour to walk to and clear customs and get our bag. The transfer company texted us a code prior to arrival, so we walked outside, found the driver holding our code, and they called the car around. The drive from IST to the JW Marriott Bosphorus took about 45 minutes on Sunday afternoon around 5:15pm.
We ended up having a sunset cocktail and an appetizer at Octo at the JW Marriott and picking up a to-go order from Chuck for dinner that evening. We were in bed by 10:00pm and ready to jump into Istanbul on Monday morning.
Best of Istanbul Itinerary Ideas
One thing that makes trip planning easier is to make a list of everything you must see or want to do. I also list any limitations on visiting and timing, especially for the top tourist attractions. Excel is great for keeping track of all this. Prior to finalizing this trip, I had an old list that I was able to use and update. I had an exhaustive list of places to see and things to do in Istanbul. Having a mostly complete list made it really easy to fit together tours of Istanbul and timing to create the perfect itinerary for visiting the best of Istanbul.
Day One in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Tour (pronounced Aya Sofya) – Muhammet is such an incredible guide. We did this on our second day, but this tour needs to be the first thing on your itinerary. We did visit the Hagia Sophia on our first day in Istanbul. To say that we were awestruck is an understatement. I do wish that we had booked our tour with Muhammet for that first morning. Learn from my mistakes!
Muhammet provided us a brief overview and tour of the old city, including some of the city’s ancient ruins, along with incredible views of the seven hills of Istanbul. With this introduction, he was able to give us a deeper appreciation for the history of the Hagia Sophia and its place within the world over time. Muhammat’s deep knowledge of religion and history helped us to better understand some of the links between Islam and Christianity, too.
We walked back across the Galata Bridge to get back to our hotel for a mid-day break. This gave us an up, close and personal look at the fishermen and the restaurants below the bridge. It’s completely fascinating to see how this tradition persists even in the modern world.
Blue Mosque Tour (know before you go) – The Blue Mosque is currently under construction, so if you’re hoping to see it, make sure it is back open. This tour includes other parts of Sultanahmet, including the Hippodrome, so it’s worth booking even the mosque is under construction. I can’t wait to see the Sultanahmet Mosque after the construction. The sneak peeks that we were able to see were absolutely breathtaking. (We met our first rug salesman at the end of this tour.)
GOURMET: Karakoy Gedikli Kofte & Grill. Try the various shish kabob here. It’s all good, but we really loved the flavor of the chicken The staff is so helpful and kind.
GOURMET: Koskeroglu Karaköy. I picked up a variety of pastries and cookies to keep at the hotel for sweet treats. (The hazelnuts were incredible, too.)
Day Two in Istanbul
Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi) – Start your day at the Spice Market to avoid the crowds. Skip the walking tour and DIY your own adventure. Stop by Masala 49 and let Muhammed teach you about spices, teas, and Turkish Delight. This is one of my favorite things we did in Istanbul. I didn’t know that you could taste dry spices, but you can and they are delicious! We brought back several pounds of spices, including saffron. Muhammed vacuum-sealed our spices, put them in reusable shopping bag with a zipper, and we had no trouble getting the spices home. (They ship to the US, too!)
Have lunch at Durum Bufe. This delicious hole-in-the-wall makes delicious kebab. We had a seat at the grill and enjoyed watching them make the food. Try a little bit of everything. It’s all delicious. The other customers and the staff had a delightful time teaching us to say thank you perfectly in Turkish. In fact, my husband did so well with it that the hotel asked him where he learned Turkish.
Ebru Turkish Marbling Workshop – This class is located on a small backstreet of artsy Karakoy. I always enjoy making things when we travel, which ends up being mostly cooking classes. However, I saw this and I really wanted to try it. Full disclosure: Neither my husband nor I are very artistic. This was really fun to do together. It turns out that my husband is way better at Ebru than I am.
That said, the staff is fantastic. The class includes a brief instructional video, a visit to their rooftop terrace (which has a great view of both the Bosphorus strait and the Golden Horn), and the opportunity to create two of your own pieces of marbled art. We found this to be a very relaxing and rewarding experience! It was incredible to learn more about this incredible art form.
Day Three in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace Tour – Looking back, I’m really glad that we booked a guide for Topkapi Palace. We certainly could have wandered through the grounds on our own, but we would not have had any idea what we were seeing. The Topkapi Palace is made up of four subsequent courtyard, each one leading your further into the Palace. Our guide, Oziel, did a great job breaking that down for us and helping us have a better understanding of how the palace was used. We spent some time after the tour checking out the exhibit of relics, the beautiful tile work and the gorgeous grounds. Even in the rain, Topkapi Palace was magical.
Arasta Bazaar – This is quite a bit more digestible than the Grand Bazaar. I really enjoyed visiting after our tour at Topkapi Palace because it wasn’t too busy. You can find Turkish bath towels and robes, linens, carpets, tasty treats, and more. This is a great place to shop for souvenirs.
Day Four in Istanbul
Süleymaniye Mosque – Take a cab over to the Suleymaniye complex and start your day there. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet one of the volunteers who will teach you more about the mosque, Islam, and answer any questions you may have. If you’re really interested in learning more and there isn’t a volunteer at the mosque, visit the adjacent cultural center. We learned so much about what makes a mosque a mosque, the tenants of Islam, and really enjoying talking with the volunteers. This complex is absolutely breathtaking and offers amazing views of the city.
Stroll downhill for a visit to the Grand Bazaar. While I find the bazaar daunting, there is certainly something for everyone. Bring your negotiating skills. Listen closely as you pass the vendors: the sales pitches are wildly entertaining.
Have a late lunch at Sehzade Cag Kebap. This tiny restaurant has a few tables outside, a few inside, and a few upstairs. You can order a few kebabs at a time and the staff is happy to replenish. Meat is served with a delicious bread.
Day Five in Istanbul
If you’re in the market for a Turkish rug, today’s the day to check them out. You’ll want to know the measurements you need and if you’re planning to use it as a rug or a wall hanging. We spent a lot of time with rug dealers and feel like we learned quite a bit about Turkish carpets. There is something about sitting down with a glass of tea (apple tea for me, please) and learning more about such incredible works of art.
Sisko Osman is run by Nurallah, son of the original owner now. While visiting Sisko, we learned a lot of about the Turkish carpet tradition. Nurallah taught us a lot about identifying handmade carpets vs. machine carpets. He also had some of the most beautiful silk on silk rugs I’ve ever seen. You would definitely want those to be wall hangings. Nurallah explained how they source their handmade carpets, what designs are specific to which area, what is used to make the dyes, and showed us some rugs that were over 100 years old. It was an absolutely incredible experience to see such well-preserved history.
Ottomania – We met Suat while walking around the Sultanahmet. My husband made a joke about how he had already purchased a rug and ceramics but asked where were we could find a cab and the conversation went from there. We ended up at Ottomania with Nuri, Saut’s uncle, who insisted on sharing tea and showing us his rugs. We saw some gorgeous rugs over the course of a few visits. The bottom floor of the shop is a museum and, like Nurallah above, they are happy to show and teach you more about the rugs. They have a number of machine-made and handmade rugs in every imaginable size and color. Their hospitality was absolutely incredible.
Day Six in Istanbul
Today is a day to catch anything that you’re missing. Both the Basilica Cistern and the Chora Church were closed when we were in Istanbul. Both are high on our list for when we return. We ended up having a late, leisurely breakfast on our last full day. (It was delicious.) While there is no shortage of things to do in Istanbul, we enjoyed taking advantage of our hotel spa to wind down on our last day.
Take an evening Bosphorus Cruise. This was the best way to end our time in Istanbul. We were able to catch the cruise at the port near the Galata Bridge. Our guide pointed out the tourist attractions we had not been able to see on this trip and gave us some great ideas on where we want to go when we return. The narration was not constant, so you had the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. We also had some very interesting conversations about world affairs. It was a very memorable experience since the boat was relatively empty. We were able to move around freely and enjoy the open-air roof top seating.
This particular company had a photographer on board who took photos of us as a couple. We purchased the album of prints since we rarely get photos together when we travel.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Since we were staying a week, we wanted to stay in different parts of the city and get a feel for different neighborhoods. This worked really well at the start of our trip. Unfortunately, late in the week, most evenings were rainy, so for the latter part of our stay, we tended to stay in the hotel and enjoy drinks and dinner from the igloos overlooking the Bosphorus. That was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t necessarily what we intended to do! That said, we certainly enjoyed both hotels for different reasons and I’ll do full reviews of both on the blog.
JW Marriott Bosphorous
I cannot recommend the JW Marriott Bosphorus enough for a first trip to Istanbul. One, it’s so conveniently located to the old city of Istanbul. Whether you walk, take the tram, or take a cab, you can get there easily. Two, the service and hospitality is incredible. Everyone on staff was happy to make recommendations and suggestions of places we should visit. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Even the doorman was happy to share his favorite spots to recommend. Three, the rooms are absolutely gorgeous. We used Marriott certificates to book our rooms, and I requested a Bosphorus Suite through my Suite Night Awards. It was confirmed pretty quickly and was absolutely breathtaking. For our last night, we moved to an Executive Room with a view of Galata Tower. It was extremely comfortable as well, and I would argue that I enjoyed the view even more. Four, the neighborhood has plenty of shops and restaurants to check out. It feels very “lived in”, with a grocery store, a pastry shop, and plenty of reasonably priced local restaurants with good food, which are some of my favorite things to find when I travel. Five, the water pressure was the best shower I can remember having.
Four Seasons Bosphorus
We booked the Four Seasons Bosphorus through the Preferred Partner program. This provided us with a room upgrade, a hotel credit, and free breakfast. All of those amenities were worth it, especially the breakfast and the hotel credit, which we used for dining and drinks. Both the food and the cocktails were delicious at the Four Seasons. Our room had a partial sea view, superb blackout curtains (we really need to catch on to this in the United States), and was just incredibly comfortable. (I am definitely considering purchasing a set of Four Seasons linens after this stay. I had forgotten how much I love them!) Beyond the room, the spa is absolutely stunning and we had no trouble reserving the saunas throughout our stay. (It is truly the best way to unwind, relax, and warm up on a rainy day.)
The Four Seasons staff was incredible and so very helpful. They offer private, on-site PCR testing for travelers returning to the United States ($35), and they were there to help translate and provide support in getting our test results every step of the way. This made it very easy to plan the rest of our trip to Istanbul and resulted in not having to arrive at the airport 6 hours early to take a test.
The only drawback of the Four Seasons is that it is not as accessible to public transportation as the JW. It more than makes up for it in other ways though!
Travel Tips for Istanbul
What to Wear in Istanbul
Be mindful of your attire. I covered this pretty extensively in my Istanbul packing list, but it bears repeating. You are visiting a country that is 98% Muslim. You should err on the side of modesty to be respectful. For me, this meant packing a scarf to cover my hair, longer hem lines on my dresses, and wearing tights so I could take off my shoes when visiting mosques. It’s easiest to wear slip on shoes for mosque visits.
Use an Istanbulkart
Figure out how to navigate public transportation. When we were visiting, we needed to link our Istanbulkart to our HES code. That took a lot of patience and trial and error. Eventually a police officer helped us complete this, in the rain, on a very chilly evening. Why did we bother? The tram is much quicker than public transportation. Everything took us more time than we expected when we relied on cabs. The traffic is no joke, even when you are traveling a short distance. There were several times when the cab drivers turned us down because the time wasn’t worth the fare. There are a number of taxi apps available in the city, but we struggled with those, too. Ultimately, you’ll need a combination of public transportation and taxis to get around. I do not recommend renting a car. Driving in Istanbul is an art best reserved for locals.
Be Open-Minded to New Experiences
☑ Be open-minded. If you’re going to Istanbul, you might be challenged in different ways – bargaining at the markets, learning more about mosques and Islam, and embracing different cultural norms. It really is part of the experience and it does make the trip that much better. I loved learning more about Islam from our guides, especially since it differs from what we hear about in the US. Another underrated experience was learning about spices, rugs, and other Turkish products. These retailers are proud of their work. Let them show it to you without abandon. It should go without saying that we should approach people with an open mind and a desire to learn more about their experiences when we travel. There is a lot to learn and appreciate about Istanbul if you’re willing to indulge in the local culture. I loved the hospitality of the people and how the restaurant got completely silent when they were teaching us how to say thank you in Turkish. Lots of laughs ensued, but it was a good reminder of how we’re all just… human.