Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey: Trip Itinerary & Travel Guide

Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey: Trip Itinerary & Travel Guide

Between Turkish Airlines’ impressive growth and the UEFA Champions League Final descending upon the city last month, Istanbul has recently been dominating the international travel airwaves. And for good reason—the Eurasian megacity is chock full of reasons to visit, from richly historic districts to buzzy restaurants and bars, upmarket hotels, and a killer sports and live entertainment calendar. Hospitality’s been part of Istanbul’s culture for nearly 2,000 years, beckoning travelers to experience its particular confluence of ancient and modern while maintaining—and re-upping—its welcoming allure.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable trip to the City on Seven Hills.

turkish airlines planes
Turkish Airlines

When to go, how to get around, and where to stay

Spring and fall in Istanbul are sublime, with warm, sunny weather and a buzzing cafe culture. And thanks to Turkish Airlines’ aforementioned flight route proliferation directed straight at the city’s slick, tech-savvy airport, you can easily hop a direct flight to Istanbul from just about any major American city. It’s important to note that passport-holders from the States (along with a bevy of other countries) are required to secure a visa before passing through Turkish customs. You can either apply for an electronic one ahead of time or purchase one upon arrival for $50 USD (cash only).

Both Beyoğlu or Beşiktaş are great launchpads, ensuring easy access to Old Town’s historic sites and all modes of public transport. Istanbul’s traffic jams are the stuff of notorious nightmares; avoid them by planning to travel via the ferry or Metro during peak times (a.k.a. pretty much all the time). Home to the world’s second oldest urban subway system after London’s Underground, Istanbul’s vast network of buses, trams, trolleys, trains, and even—our personal favorite—funiculars are a snap to figure out, super affordable, and a dream to ride. (Transit geeks and Orient Express fans, don’t miss the small but well-stocked Railway Museum inside Sirkeci Station.)

Istanbul is teeming with both independent boutique hotels as well as recognizable chains, from two- and three-star stalwarts like the Holiday Inn to ultra-luxe options like the Four Seasons and St. Regis. For a taste of Istanbul’s glitzy history without completely breaking the bank, book a room at the Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus. Featuring sweeping views overlooking the Old Town and waterfront, the recently renovated property spotlights its 68-year history via tastefully curated photos of previous high-profile guests like Muhammed Ali and mid-century architectural nods to the past. The oldest still-operating Hilton Hotel outside of the United States, it even had a starring role in the 1963 James Bond blockbuster, From Russia with Love. And, lucky for you, it’s located just up the hill from both a transportation hub and Taksim’s many storefronts.

Eminönü, Turkey
Izzet Keribar/Stone/Getty Images

Market-hop through Eminönü

Eminönü is a bustling commercial district and transport hub, which is home to the Spice Bazaar and the Yeni Cami, or New Mosque, built in 1665. The square outlined by these buildings is pretty much always crowded. There are commuters racing to catch ferries and the tram, locals sipping tea and enjoying döner kebab with friends, street cats hoping for scraps, and people shopping for plants and pet supplies at various stalls outside the bazaar. (It also happens to be where you buy leeches used to treat varicose veins, in case that tickles your fancy.)

On Friday afternoons, devout worshippers congregate and kneel on plastic woven carpets to observe prayers en masse. Inside the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Mısır Çarşı, there are endless stalls selling tea, herbal remedies, olive oil soap, dried fruit, and spices. For high-quality spice mixes, rose water, and cooking oils, head straight to No. 51, Hayfene, a reputable shop frequented by local chefs.

turkish delight at a bazaar
Ihor Bondarenko/Shutterstock

You can sample Turkish Delight, a.k.a. lokum, at the Spice Bazaar, but you’re better off buying it at nearby Hacı Bekir. Established in 1777, the shop is the oldest purveyor of the iconic floral-scented treat alongside other flavors like pomegranate encrusted with barberries or pistachios. Afterwards, lose yourself in the winding backstreets of Eminönü, which is essentially the city’s one-stop-shop for a mishmash of wholesale accessories, designer knock-offs, cosmetics, fabric, baskets, appliances, and more.

Wander far enough and you’ll eventually stumble upon one of the many doors to the Grand Bazaar. It’s the world’s oldest covered market, and large enough that you might need a GPS app to navigate its crowded lanes. The market is divided into sections of gold and jewelry; leather goods; pashmina scarves; traditional regional wares like cobalt, turquoise, and red Iznik tiles; Eastern-style slippers; shadow puppets; and leaded glass lanterns. Vendors are friendly but can be quite assertive in courting customers. Duck into the antique section to browse Ottoman-era jewelry, watches, and collectibles. Interested in a carpet? Check out Adnan & Hasan, which has held court as a long-favored seller among American expats since 1978.

suleymaniye mosque, istanbul
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See all the sights in Sultanahmet

From Eminönü, hop the tram to Gulhane Park and the Topkapı Palace complex. Locals gather at the park for picnics, to snap pictures of the resident green parrots, and to enjoy the tulips in springtime. There is a small restaurant in the park, from which you can take in captivating views of the Bosphorus Strait.

Between Gulhane Park and Topkapı, which lies a few meters uphill, you’ll find a cluster of museums. The Istanbul Archaeological Museum, in particular, is worth visiting for its collection of Assyrian and Hittite artifacts. You’ll want to budget an entire afternoon to explore Topkapı Palace and the surrounding area. There’s just that much to look at—including relics like the arm bone of St. John the Baptist and the saucepan of Abraham—while in spring and summer the grounds erupt with roses. Note: If you’re planning to enter the mosque—or any mosque in Istanbul—make sure to dress modestly with your legs covered, while women will also be asked to wear a headscarf (loaners are available onsite or you can bring your own).

Up the tram line lies Aya Sofya. Also known as Hagia Sophia, this architectural triumph dates back to the 360 AD. Since then, it’s had various incarnations, from a Greek Orthodox church to a mosque to, today, a museum. It is also home to Gli the Cat, a cheeky feline who even has her own Instagram account. The Blue (or Sultanahmet) Mosque is located just across the plaza, adjacent to the Hippodrome. For souvenirs, look to the nearby Arasta Bazaar. It’s more easily navigable than the Grand Bazaar and many of the same items are on offer, including traditional peştamel-style towels.

beyoğlu district, istanbul

Browse, eat, and shop in cosmopolitan Beyoğlu

In the fashionable Beyoğlu District, Art Nouveau edifices in neighborhoods like Şishane, Cihangir, and Karaköy give way to modern art galleries and museums. Indie standouts Salt Galata and Pera Müzesi host cutting edge work by Turkish and international artists alongside thought-provoking film screenings. The comprehensive Istanbul Modern is also located nearby, and for something fittingly off the wall, visit The Works: Objects of Desire, an antique shop that’s chock-a-block with vintage curios.

If you’re coming from the Galata Bridge, you can either hike the district’s narrow, curving streets uphill to Taksim Square’s commercial strip or opt to travel back in time by jumping aboard the Karaköy-Beyoğlu Tünel. Designed by French engineer Eugene Henri Gavand in 1875, the historic funicular train runs commuters and tourists alike back and forth from sea-level Karaköy to Beyoğlu above every five to 10 minutes between 6 am to midnight. (And with a single ride costing just 1 Turkish lira, it offers quite a lot of bang for its buck.)

Beyoğlu is home to Taksim, defined by a wide commercial thoroughfare called Istiklal Caddesi. Here, the “nostalgic tram” runs up and down the famous avenue (though it’s often faster to walk due to the crowds). Fast fashion brands, independent boutiques, bookstores, movie theaters, and galleries nest inside the restored turn-of-the-century buildings lining this busy street, but the side streets are far more interesting, especially if you’re hungry. Street vendors hawk everything from roasted nuts and kebab to ice cream cones served up by metal rod-welding tricksters with a smile. But if you’re looking to depart from Istanbul’s tasty but ubiquitous Turkish fare, try Reyhun for excellent Iranian cuisine or Los Altos, one of just a few Mexican restaurants in the city and the only one serving handmade corn tortillas laden with real pork carnitas. Cocktails are relatively pricey but delicious, and the panoramic views are spectacular.

ferry in bosporus sea, istanbul
VladyslaV Travel photo/Shutterstock

Hop a ferry to ultra-chill Kadiköy-Moda

Cool and quirky Kadiköy on the city’s Asian side is just a short ferry ride from Eminönü. It’s known for its café culture, which really comes to life at night. The commercial center starts a block or two inland from the ferry terminal. On your way over, definitely stop for Iskender Kebap, a trademarked dish of succulent meat served over cubes of bread and drenched in brown butter and a tangy tomato-based sauce. After you’re sated, wander the traditional shopping district, where a rainbow of olives, produce, fish, cheese, and sausage hawaii.

After poking around Kadiköy, stoll over to Moda Park, one of the most generously proportioned green spaces in Istanbul. Hole up in the quaint Moda Family Tea Garden overlooking the park, which pairs soft drinks and snacks with scenic seaside vistas. Before catching your ferry back to Istanbul’s European side, make a special stop into Çiya Sofrası. The restaurant, profiled on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, features meticulously researched regional dishes from around Türkiye. It makes for a sweet finish to a few days spent taking in everything this incredible city has to offer.

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Ruth Terry is a Black/Puerto Rican freelancer based in Istanbul who covers the intersections of race, identity, culture, and travel. Follow her @Ruth_Terry.
Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel and a lifelong funicular fan. Follow her @mereditto.