By mid 2020, I was gifted with the possibility of spending over 4 months in Turkey, with 3 of those months spent in the Europe-Asia dividing city of Istanbul. The former Roman and Byzantine empires capital is currently inhabited by over 15 million people and covers a territory that stretches from the Marmara Sea to proximities of the Black Sea coast, making it close to impossible to get to visit and experience every corner of it.
In order to simplify your Istanbul visiting plans, I’ve summarized, based on my personal experience, the top 8 “day plans” for deep and diverse exploring of this beautiful city! For each item in this post, consider it a full day of activities, so if you’re traveling for a single day trip, or for up to 8 days stay in Istanbul, feel free to chose your top favorites and enjoy!
1.) Taksim Square + Istiklal Avenue + Beyoğlu
No matter where you are in the city, getting to Taksim Square is one of the easiest tasks you’ll have. Buses, trains, taxi options, walking. Located in the heart of the European side of the city, in the Beyoğlu district, the Taksim Square is home to a variety of restaurants, hotels and some important landmarks in the city, such as the Republic Monument and Taksim Masjid (Taksim Square Mosque).
After spending some time in the surroundings of the square, you’ll naturally walk towards the beginning (or end, depending on the perspective) of the famous Istiklal Avenue (Istiklal Caddesi, in Turkish).
Beyond the crowded streets, the infinite stores, the numerous art galleries and museums and the enormous restaurant and bars inventory, there’s an extra layer of beauty in the chaos of Istiklal. This is a place to sit, grab a Turkish coffee and spend hours feeling it’s energy, watching the locals moving around and appreciating the peaceful diversity.
The avenue is a walk only zone (of course, the open air train and the cop cars move freely), with around 1.4km from Taksim to the proximities of the Galata Tower. Count no time and enjoy the amazing culture and activities, maybe stretching all the way to the tower, prior to the final stop of the day (other Beyoğlu areas and a sunset on a rooftop).
To wrap the day, and to add something not very mainstream on the average Istanbul Guides, head back to the Galatasaray School surroundings and move down to the alleys that lead to Istiklal, and you’ll see beautiful architecture dating back to the Ottoman Empire, lots of Cafe options and diverse rooftop bars options to grab a beer and watch the beautiful and yellow sunset of Istanbul (spoiler alert, sunset options are abundant and some will be mentioned ahead in the post).
2.) Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque
Another group of “musts” for whatever Istanbul visit. Cross the Galata Bridge, head towards the Fatih district and you’ll find, in addition to the many bazaars and beautiful sights, three of the most historically relevant mosques of Istanbul.
Start by heading to Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), as they’re both right next to each other. The amount of history, legacy and complexity carried by this region is immense, and it’s not the purpose of this post to describe it. What I can definitely tell you is, grab a Turkish tea, open your mind and experience the amazing energy (specially during praying times) that this place will provide you!
After spending some legit hours admiring the beauty and learning about the history of the previous mosques, it’s time to head to what’s, to me, the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul: the Süleymaniye Mosque.
From Hagia Sophia, grab a taxi (or if you’re still energetic, take the 25 minutes walk) towards the Süleymaniye Mosque. Again, it’s not the focus of this post to describe the history of the place, but to cover this gap, below are some of my favorite shots (from my personal archive) of it!
3.) Karaköy, Cihangir and the Galata Tower
Back to the Beyoğlu district, take a day to properly explore the areas heading to the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge. Karaköy is one of the most historic neighborhoods of the city, acting as an important port area for the Byzantine Empire.
Starting from Cihangir, calmly walk around the hidden streets heading in direction to the Galata Tower, with a further walk aiming the Karaköy Pier and enjoy the cafes, sights, restaurants and the local tastes of the region!
4.) Eminönü, Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar
When you cross the Galata Bridge, from Karaköy, you’ll land in Eminönü. Located in the Fatih District, Eminönü is one of the starting points for the construction of the Byzantium Empire. By the margins of the beautiful Golden Horn, Eminönü is a commercial and touristic area, with plenty of stores, restaurants, cafes, mosques, museums and, of course, the Spice Bazaar.
In order to properly explore the region, take a walk from the bridge and throw yourselves into the narrow alleys as the merchants scream to attract attention to their products!
After several rounds of walks and sight seeing around Eminönu, it’s time to explore the Spice Bazaar and the famous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul.
The smells, the tastes, the negotiations you’ll go through as you try to buy something. The Bazaars are very touristic places, though with lots of authentic local experiences throughout its alleys. Find your limits and (seriously) taste EVERYTHING you’re offered!
5.) Beşiktaş, Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge
Neighboring Beyoğlu in it’s southern borders lands Beşiktaş, the pearl by the margins of the Bosphorus strait. The beautiful, picturesque and, at the same time, super crowded neighborhood is home to some of the best view points of the Bosphorus Bridge.
One of the best ways to explore Beşiktaş is by starting with a walk around the Maçka Park, on top of the Suleyman Seba avenue, and heading towards the avenue. Suleyman Seba avenue not only is home to some of the main bars and clubs in the city (for the night lifers out there), but also to a huge variety of cafes and restaurants (and some pretty architecture).
After the walk around the area, it’s time to head down towards Ortaköy, specifically walking south on Çırağan avenue. There, lots of Ottoman architecture remainders can still be seen, in addition to the Çırağan Palace and the Dolmabahçe Palace.
The place to be, though, both for lunch, coffee and to enjoy the beautiful sights of the Bosphorus Strait is the Ortaköy Square. The square is home to the beautiful Büyük Mecidiye Mosque. From there, you’ll also admire some of the nicest Bosphorus Bridges sights!
6.) Üsküdar district and the Çamlica Mosque (Erdoğan Mosque)
Now it’s time to cross to the other side of the Bosphorus, and to my favorite region in Istanbul: Anatolia, the asian side of the city! Istanbul is the place where Asia and Europe meet, and the Bosphorus strait is the one that physically marks the division.
Üsküdar is a very important district in Istanbul. Former Scoutarion (during the Bizantine Empire), the region was “founded” 7 centuries BC, by greek colonists as Chrysopolis, and was later home Bizantine and Ottoman empire members.
The district is way too big to be meticulously explored, so I’ll summarize some of the main points to be checked on your visits, with highlights to the recent and amazing Çamlica Mosque, a relevant legacy envisioned by Turkish President Erdoğan.
- Yeni Valide Mosque (“New Mosque”)
- Kuzguncuk neighborhood
- Beylerbeyi Harbor
- Beylerbeyi Palace
- Çamlica Mosque
7.) Kadıköy/ Moda
Kadıköy is one of the most cosmopolitan, cultural and artsy neighborhoods of Istanbul. From crowded alleys in the local public markets, to hype night life streets, the place has it all.
Also the regiom where I’ve lived in Istanbul (more specifically in the neighborhood of Moda), Kadıköy is one of those places where, more than the touristic points themselves, spending a day with no expectations set is what will really provide its real experience.
Young and vibrant young people, older and willing to share stories people, very communicative merchants; amazing coffee places, beautiful and diverse architecture.
Again, a huge place to be listed in detail, but below I’ll share some of the main places to be checked, and photos of it. I’ve lived in the area for months, and fell completely in love with it! I honestly think that Moda alone is worth a 2/3 days focus, or maybe even staying there during your visit!
- Kadıköy Public Market
- Fenerbahçe Stadium / Alex de Souza statue
- Kadıköy Boğa Heykeli (the Bull of Kadıköy)
- Kadıköy Yoğurtçu Parkı (Park)
- Enjoy the coffee places and restaurants in Moda Avenue
- Having breakfast at Küff Cafe Küff Kolektif (in my opinion, one of the best Turkish Breakfasts you’ll have)
- Bars at the Ali Suavi alley (or at Moda Avenue)
- Sunset by the Moda Park
(PS: Moda has so much to offer, from morning to night time! Enjoy the culture, artsy lifestyle of the inhabitants’ busy daily lives!)
8.) Anatolian Istanbul’s beaches and Caddebostan Coastline/ Park
Yes, Istanbul does have beaches! They might not be as clear and turquoise as Turkey’s southern shore, but anyways, they are there!
The beaches in the city are not exclusive to Anatolia’s Kadıköy, but personally they’re some of my favorites.
After spending a day (or more) exploring proper Kadıköy and Moda, head south via Moda’s coastline or walking towards Bağdat Avenue and you’ll reach Caddebostan.
The region is not at all mainstream when compared to Istanbul’s main “touristic attractions”, so you’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of the beaches and the diversity of local people enjoying Istanbul’s waters during their free time!
The neighborhood is mostly residential, but is also home to lots of restaurants and cafes, and of course, the Caddebostan Park. Some report it being one of the most liberal places in Istanbul (public pot smoking is even a thing there), and the park is also targeted for picnics, music playing, sitting with friends for hours, and of course, enjoying the beach.
Istanbul is cultural. Historic. Beautiful. Diverse. Vibrant. Energetic. Embrace the new, and explore not only the touristic spots, but try going “off the beaten path”. That is how you’ll find the real Istanbul experience.
What are your favorite places in the old Constantinople?