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4 days in Istanbul – Best things to do

Explore the best of Istanbul in just four days with our comprehensive guide. Discover top attractions, hidden gems, local dining, and essential travel tips to make the most of your visit to this vibrant city.
4 days in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is home to a bustling population of 15 million people. Straddling Europe and Asia, this city is not just a geographical marvel but a treasure trove of history, packed with landmarks, monuments, and archaeological sites.

Tourists from around the globe flock to Istanbul to soak in its rich cultural heritage and experience the local way of life. Given its vast expanse and the sheer number of attractions, you’d ideally want to spend several days exploring as much as possible.

However, if you’re pressed for time, a four-day itinerary can still cover the highlights. To make the most of your visit, planning is key. To help you out, I’ve crafted a guide that outlines the must-do activities and must-see spots over four days in this mesmerizing city.

Prices are listed in euros. Keep in mind, they may fluctuate due to ongoing changes in currency exchange rates.

1st Day

1. Hippodrome and Sultan Ahmet Tomb

German Fountain
German Fountain / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

Start your first day in Istanbul by exploring the historic Sultanahmet district, a true jewel of the city. Wake up early and make your way to the Hippodrome, once the social heart of Byzantine life, known for its thrilling chariot races.

Today, it’s transformed into a bustling square lined with historical artifacts, including the Serpent Column and the obelisks of Thutmose III and the Walled Obelisk.

As you stroll towards the iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, don’t miss the German Fountain—an ornate gazebo gifted by Germany, and the Sultan Ahmet Tomb. Here lies Sultan Ahmet I, and it’s worth taking a moment to step inside.

Entry is free, the queue moves quickly, and you’ll need to remove your shoes before entering, but it’s a small gesture of respect to witness this sacred site.

2. Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque – the largest mosque of Istanbul – is a masterpiece crafted between 1609 and 1616. With its six towering minarets, it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture. Located directly opposite the Hagia Sophia, it presents a breathtaking visual dialogue between the two historic sites.

Visitors are welcome to enter outside of prayer times, offering a peaceful glimpse into this architectural wonder.

Entrace: Free
Guided tour: Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia

3. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, originally built in 537, stands as a monumental landmark of religious significance. Originally a Christian basilica until the fall of Constantinople, it functioned as a museum until 2020 and now serves as a mosque.

Despite numerous modifications over the centuries, its grandeur remains awe-inspiring. Admission is free, and while the line can be long, it usually moves quickly. I suggest arriving as early as possible to avoid the wait.

Admission: €25 (free for those entering as worshippers)
Skip-the-line Entry: €31 (book here)
Guided Tours Available: Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia

4. Topkapı Palace

Topkapi Palace

Topkapı Palace, perched on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus, is the historic acropolis of Byzantium and was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th century until the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace.

It’s not just an architectural marvel but also houses a stunning collection of Islamic art, historical relics, and sultan’s personal items. A visit to Topkapı and its Harem, where young girls were educated in Islam, offers a fascinating glimpse into the empire’s past.

Consider purchasing a combined ticket that includes entry to Topkapı Palace, the Harem, and the Hagia Irene, the first church built by Constantine the Great.

Operating hours: Wednesday to Monday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Admission for Topkapı Palace, Hagia Irene & the Harem: 42€
Guided tours available: Topkapı Palace & Harem

5. Istanbul Archaeology Museums

Istanbul Archaeology Museums

The Istanbul Archaeology Museums are a captivating trio located just outside the gates of the Topkapı Palace. This ensemble includes the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient. Together, they house over a million artifacts that span across various epochs and cultures—a true feast for history enthusiasts!

Operating hours: Open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
Admission fee: €5
Guided tours: book here

6. Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, known locally as Yerebatan Saray or Sarnici, is a magnificent underground water reservoir built during the Byzantine era. With a vast capacity of 78,000 cubic meters, it was crucial for supplying water to Constantinople.

This architectural feat, one of Emperor Justinian’s major projects, showcases the ingenuity of Byzantine engineering. Interestingly, its existence was unknown to the Ottomans until the mid-16th century when it was rediscovered by the explorer Pierre Gilles. 

Operating hours: Open daily from 09:00 am – 07:00 pm
Admission fee: 16€
Guided tour: Book here

👉 By the time you’ve explored all these sights, it will likely be late afternoon—a perfect time to discover Istanbul’s culinary offerings. If you find yourself in the Sultanahmet area, head towards the Little Hagia Sophia where a wide array of dining options awaits. Here, you can find both tourist-friendly spots and authentic local eateries.

I recommend trying Şirvan Sofrasi Restaurant. It boasts a traditional ambiance and offers a variety of local dishes at reasonable prices. It’s a great spot to unwind and reflect on the day’s adventures while enjoying some delicious Turkish food.

2nd Day

On your second day in Istanbul, why not immerse yourself in the bustling bazaars for which the city is renowned?

1. Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı)

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar or Kapalıçarşı, is not just Istanbul’s largest market, but one of the largest covered markets in the world. Dating back to shortly after 1453, this expansive marketplace boasts 11 entry gates and houses around 3,600 shops.

Here, you can find a vivid assortment of goods, from clothing and shoes to jewelry, home decor, carpets, antiques, bags, accessories, and much more. Just a heads up—prices at the Grand Bazaar can be on the higher side.

Operating Hours: Monday to Saturday, from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm

2. Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)

Egyptian Bazaar Istanbul
Egyptian Bazaar / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

Another captivating covered market in Istanbul is the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. This place is a sensory oasis, brimming with shops that offer an array of spices, teas, and local sweets. The aroma and flavors here are intoxicating.

It’s a wonderful spot to stroll through and experience, even if you plan to do your actual shopping elsewhere.

Tip: I’d advise against purchasing items directly inside the bazaar. The shops just outside offer the same products at more affordable prices.

Operating Hours: Daily, from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm

3. Try balik ekmek

Balik Ekmek
Balik Ekmek / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

After exploring the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, make your way towards the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) and head to the waterfront. There, you’ll find boats transformed into food stalls serving balik ekmek (fish sandwiches).

his is one of the tastiest local delicacies, perfect for a quick bite. I highly recommend trying the balik ekmek from Tarihi Eminönü Balık Ekmek, known for its ample seating. It’s a great spot to pause and savor the flavors before crossing over the iconic Galata Bridge.

4. Galata Tower

Galatas Tower, Istanbul

Cross the Galata Bridge to reach the other side of Istanbul. Your next stop should be the Galata Tower. This 67-meter tower, built between 1348-1349, offers an elevator ride up to the top where you’re treated to a panoramic view of the entire city.

Take your time, snap as many photos as you like, and enjoy the scenery at your leisure. When you’re ready, the descent is via the stairs.

Operating Hours: Daily from 8:30 am to 10:00 pm
Admission: €8.50

After your visit, take a leisurely stroll around the Karakoy neighborhood before heading towards Taksim Square. It’s a great way to soak in the local vibes and prepare for the next part of your adventure.

5. Taksim Square and İstiklal Avenue

Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

Taksim Square, nestled in the trendy Beyoğlu district, is a vibrant hub for both locals and tourists. Here, you’ll encounter the striking Monument of the Republic.

From the square, you can start your walk along Istiklal Avenue, a bustling 3-km-long commercial street. Lined with hotels, cafes, and a mix of local and international shops, Istiklal is always pulsing with energy.

One charming feature of this pedestrian thoroughfare is the nostalgic tram that runs through it, adding a touch of old-world charm to the modern vibes around. This area perfectly captures the lively spirit of Istanbul.

In the Beyoğlu area, especially around Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue, you’ll find endless dining and drinking options. This is one of the most modern and vibrant parts of Istanbul, making it a perfect spot to enjoy a delightful evening.

Whether you’re in the mood for local flavors or international cuisine, this lively district has something to offer everyone. It’s an ideal place to experience the city’s bustling nightlife.

3rd Day

1. Bosphorus cruise

Vosporus cruise
Bosphorus / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

Today’s the day for the much-anticipated Bosphorus cruise! You can hop on one of the local ferries, which accept both standard public transport tickets and the Istanbulkart. Whether you start from Eminönü or Karaköy, you can easily catch a ferry to Kadıköy, crossing over to Istanbul’s Asian side.

The journey across the Bosphorus is truly enchanting—you’ll enjoy breathtaking views and the sight of seagulls gliding alongside the ferry, adding a picturesque touch to your adventure.

You can board the local ferries, which function essentially as a means of public transport and are quite affordable. These offer an authentic experience, similar to what the locals enjoy daily.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for something a bit more exclusive, you might consider booking a private cruise. This option gives you a more personalized experience as you explore the waters of Istanbul. You can find several options for these private cruises here.

2. Kadıköy

Take a stroll around Kadıköy, an area that feels distinctly different from much of Istanbul. Although it’s on the city’s Asian side, many corners of Kadıköy could easily be mistaken for a European neighborhood. It’s quieter and less touristy, with streets often filled with students.

This district boasts an impressive array of cafes, bars, restaurants, and fast-food options. Naturally, you’ll also find plenty of shops here. It’s a great place to experience a more laid-back side of Istanbul while still enjoying its vibrant culture.

3. Üsküdar - Kuzguncuk

Uskudar
Kuzguncuk Evleri / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

From Kadıköy, you can easily catch a bus to the Üsküdar area and get off in the charming neighborhood of Kuzguncuk. This area is known for its colorful houses and lovely European-style cafes that add to its picturesque ambiance.

Once you’re there, take a stroll towards the waterfront. You can enjoy a leisurely walk along the Bosphorus and, if you feel like exploring further, catch a ferry to Besiktas. This scenic route along the water is a delightful way to experience the city’s beautiful contrasts.

4. Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı)

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace is where the Ottoman sultans resided from 1856 to 1922, and it was also home to Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. This sprawling palace covers 45,000 square meters with a stunning facade that stretches 248 meters. The building is a masterpiece, its ceilings adorned with gold leaf, and it boasts 285 rooms. Since 1960, it has been open to the public as a museum, offering a glimpse into Turkey’s lavish imperial past.

Operating Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Admission: €25
Guided Tours Available: Book here

5.Maçka Demokrasi Park

After a bustling day of exploration, unwind at Maçka Demokrasi Park, one of Istanbul’s prime recreational spots. Take a leisurely stroll or simply sit on a bench to rejuvenate before heading back.

For dinner, you have great options in either the Besiktas or Kabatas areas. Both neighborhoods boast a variety of dining choices, from exquisite restaurants to quick fast-food eateries, ensuring you find the perfect spot to satisfy any craving you might have after your day out.

4rth Day

1. Hammam

Kick off your day with a rejuvenating visit to a hammam. No matter where you’re staying in the city, you’ll find both traditional and modern Turkish baths. I personally opted for a traditional one (Kadırga Hamamı) because I wanted to immerse myself in the authentic experience.

One of the most renowned hammams in Istanbul is the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam. This historic bath has been beautifully restored, blending traditional architecture with modern comforts to provide a truly unique and relaxing experience.

2. Princes' Islands

Büyükada

A trip to Istanbul isn’t complete without a visit to the Princes’ Islands. This enchanting archipelago consists of nine islands—four large and five smaller ones. You can easily reach them via the public ferry service.

The journey itself is a pleasant escape from the bustling city, offering a chance to see Istanbul from a different perspective. The islands provide a serene getaway, where the rhythm of life slows and the scenic beauty takes center stage.

Büyükada

Büyükada port
Büyükada Port / photo: Pantelis Kakaris

To truly capture the essence of Istanbul, a visit to the Princes’ Islands is a must. Start your journey from Kabataş, taking a ferry that stops at Kınalıada, Burgazadası, Heybeliada, and ends at Büyükada, the largest of the islands.

Büyükada spans 5.4 square kilometers and has a population of 7,335, continuing a legacy dating back to Byzantine times when it was first mentioned as the “Prince’s Island.”

On Büyükada, cars are replaced with bicycles and electric vehicles, making for a peaceful escape. If you’re up for it, I recommend renting a bike to explore the island’s perimeter on the designated bike path. Alternatively, electric vehicles are available for a more relaxed tour.

Don’t miss the historic sites like the old Greek Orthodox Orphanage, perched atop a hill, which is one of the largest wooden buildings in Europe, and the Church of St. George Koudounas, dating back to the 10th century and rich in history.

After touring the island, indulge in some fresh seafood at one of the waterfront restaurants. Keep in mind that seaside dining tends to be pricier than the charming eateries tucked away in the town’s backstreets.

For a delightful coffee break, stop by Maple Coffeeshop Büyükada. If you’re in the mood for something heartier, Balıkçı Süleyman is an excellent choice for traditional fare.

👉 If you prefer a structured tour that includes transportation and meals, consider booking a private cruise that covers both Büyükada and Kınalıada. This way, you can relax and enjoy the beauty of the islands without any hassle.

Where to stay in Istanbul

Istanbul tips

Choosing where to stay in Istanbul requires some careful consideration due to the city’s vast size and diverse neighborhoods. Sultanahmet is the most popular area for visitors as it houses the Old City and the majority of historical attractions. However, this area tends to be quieter at night, with predominantly tourist-oriented shops and restaurants.

If you’re looking for a more vibrant nightlife, consider staying in Beyoğlu, close to Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. This area pulses with energy and offers a modern, youthful vibe.

My personal favorite for accommodation is Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city. It’s a quieter neighborhood but doesn’t skimp on amenities, boasting an array of cafes and bars with a distinct European flair.

Recommended hotels in Istanbul:

Tips for First-time Visitors

  1. Transportation: Try to avoid taxis unless absolutely necessary, like during late-night hours when public transport isn’t available. Traffic can be incredibly dense, and drivers often disregard traffic rules. Instead, make use of Istanbul’s extensive public transportation network.
  2. Shopping: For better deals, shop outside the major tourist markets. The smaller shops not only tend to offer lower prices but also provide a more authentic shopping experience.
  3. Dining: Eat where the locals do. Restaurants frequented by Istanbul’s residents are likely to serve more authentic and reasonably priced meals compared to the tourist spots.
  4. Hammam Experience: If you’re looking to experience a traditional Turkish bath, opt for an older, traditional hammam rather than a modern spa. The experience is profoundly authentic and the cost is considerably lower.
  5. Currency Exchange: Avoid exchanging money at the airport where rates are less favorable. Be cautious with city exchange bureaus too; look for ones that appear most trustworthy. I recommend using a digital card like Revolut for payments and cash withdrawals from ATMs, which can provide better exchange rates and reduce fees.

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