So you have a long weekend in Istanbul planned, and you want to make the most of it? Stephanie and I have been to Istanbul eight times between the two of us, so I think it’s safe to say we know a fair bit about how to plan the perfect Istanbul city break.
Since we’re assuming you’re making a quick weekend trip to Istanbul, we’ve broken it down into seven easy planning stages for you, to quickly and easily covering everything you need to have a relaxing and enriching city break!
Istanbul City Break: Planning Checklist
Don’t get caught up in overwhelm! We’ve broken down how to prep an ideal Istanbul city break into seven simple steps, so you can easily plan your trip and then spend the rest of your time getting excited for your Istanbul trip!
How to Use This Guide
While we have big, exhaustive guides for each of these topics (and we’ll link to them in case you want to read them), the whole point of a city break is to have a quick, easy taste of a city. That kind of weekend doesn’t usually start with reading twelve thousand words about what to do (even though we sometimes write that much – we’re wordy and love this region, guys!).
Instead, we’ve pulled the most important pieces of information and our top tips and recommendations. Consider this post the highlights of all our Istanbul travel tips, though you certainly could check out our Turkey page which has all of our Istanbul content if you wanted to scan our resources more thoroughly.
Step 1. Book Your Accommodations
We’ve written a bunch about where we think the best places to stay in Istanbul are, including a breakdown of all of our favorite neighborhoods. But if you don’t want to get too into that, we’ve narrowed it down to our top 3 recommendations for where to stay, broken down into three budget categories.
Here is a rough estimate of what we mean by each budget category. However, note that room availability, time of year, and how much in advance you book will play a big role in what you pay for your Istanbul accommodations.
Generally, for a double room, we classify budget as under $50 USD per night, mid-range as $50-100 USD per night, and luxury as $100 or more per night. Note that you can easily get a 5* hotel in Istanbul for just over $100 (and sometimes even under if you’re lucky), so we feel like Istanbul is a great place to splash out on your budget a bit if you are able to.
Finally, one last thing: all these hotels are located in Beyoglu, our favorite district of Istanbul, which is close to excellent shopping, nightlife, restaurants, and sightseeing, but it’s a tiny bit far (but still walkable or a short train or Uber away) from the main tourist places in Sultanahmet.
This is because while Sultanahmet is great by day, it dies down at night significantly and it’s rather overpriced for the quality of what you get. We recommend staying outside of Sultanahmet and just hopping in a cheap Uber to get around when you want to visit Sultanahmet – you will save a ton of money this way. But if you really want Sultanhmet recommendations, you’ll find them on our where to stay page.
I often recommend the neighborhood of Galata for people in Istanbul for a city break, as it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods right in between Taksim and Sultanahmet, easily walkable to both. The best value-for-dollar option is Jurnal Hotel, which has small and sleek double rooms within just a few minutes’ walk to Galata Tower for an insanely affordable price.
While the rooms undoubtedly are on the small side with not much room to spread out, the cleanliness is on point, and all the amenities you’d need are there: a TV, an electric kettle, an en-suite bathroom, free coffee/tea and water bottles, and daily housekeeping. It’s a great option if you want to be in the heart of Galata and you’re saving your coins for shopping!
Rooftop breakfast with a view of the Galata Tower for less than $50 a night? It’s definitely possible at the Galataport Hotel, literally 200 meters away from the gorgeous Galata Tower.
Price and location aren’t all it has going for it, though: guests love it, with an average review score at the time of writing of a whopping 9/10! The rooms are decorated with a classic Ottoman style, slightly dated but delivering a ton of old-school luxury. They’re roomy and spacious, with modern bathrooms and windows delivering insane views.
This is my favorite Istanbul hotel! I stayed at Hammamhane for 3 nights and it truly started to feel like home at the end of my stay. Located literally on Cukur Cuma, the main street of the antiques district, Hammamhane is within walking distance to art galleries, design stores, antique shops, and chic cafés. Hammamhane is a converted boutique apartment-hotel, that was originally a hammam, which should be now open after years of renovations (it was still being worked on when I visited in 2017).
The apartments have literally everything you’d ever need: a fully-functioning kitchen, a washing machine (be still my beating, backpacking heart), a great seating area for relaxing or eating a meal you’ve prepared, one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in, and a lovely modern bathroom. Oh, and the breakfast there is hands-on the most delicious I’ve ever eaten in Istanbul, which is some seriously stiff competition. Plus, the staff is some of the loveliest and kindest people I’ve ever met.
Still looking? Check out our full guide to Istanbul Hotels and Hostels.
Step 2. Plan Your Itinerary
We can spend weeks in Istanbul without getting bored (we’ve literally tested this; it’s true). However, assuming you are just taking a quick Istanbul city break, you only have many 3 or 4 days. This means you’ll want to balance seeing the city’s main sights with enjoying your vacation and taking a breather once in a while instead of being go-go-go the entire time. Here are the top ten things to do in Istanbul, so you can plan it at your leisure!
This church turned mosque turned museum is essential viewing in Istanbul, as it’s truly one of the most spectacular places Stephanie or I have seen on our travels.
Don’t be dissuaded by its popularity (or its construction) – it’s absolutely worth a visit. There are also skip-the-line tickets which we recommend for maximizing the limited time you have on an Istanbul weekend trip.
Literally across the square from Hagia Sofia, it’d be foolish to pop into the Hagia Sofia and skip the Blue Mosque. This gorgeous mosque, also called Sultan Ahmet Camii (hence the name of the neighborhood) is famous for its stunning blue tilework and impressive six minarets.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to be mindful of prayer times, so I recommend trying to go here first and then re-routing to the Hagia Sofia (above) or Basilica Cistern (below) if it is temporarily closed. You have to dress modestly, but no worries – clothes are on hand for you to borrow.
The largest underground water storage unit in Istanbul (there are at least a hundred), the Basilica Cistern is way cooler than it sounds.
Nicknamed ‘Sunken Palace’ in Turkish, the cistern is at least as large as an enormous church yet entirely underground. You can tour the impressive, centuries-old structures and puzzle over the enormous Medusa heads (one of which is upside down) while enjoying a different side of Istanbul
Often maligned as a tourist trap, Stephanie and I are both huge fans of the Grand Bazaar and think it’s a great place for Istanbul shopping.
It’s one of the largest and oldest covered marketplaces in history, and even if you don’t choose to shop it’s well worth a visit regardless. From perusing gorgeous rugs to accepting cups of apple tea from friendly shopkeepers to admiring Iznik tiles, there’s tons to do in the Grand Bazaar even if you don’t buy.
The main shopping street of Istanbul, you can’t miss strolling down Istanbul’s biggest pedestrian street during your time in the city. You’ll see everyone out for a stroll, especially in the early evening hours when the city really comes to life.
There’s a lot of big chain stores on Istiklal, but stroll down some of the alleyways for cute antique shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. And keep your eye out for the adorable vintage Taksim-Tunel tram making its way up and down the Caddesi!
Indulging in an enormous Turkish breakfast spread is truly one of the most essential parts of any trip to Istanbul. Consisting of an endless array of homemade jams and marmalades, cheese, olives, honey, cream, meats, eggs, breads, and probably a million other components I’m losing track of, a proper Turkish breakfast could fill you up for hours. All washed down with endless amounts of tea (or Turkish coffee) and you’re halfway to being a proper Turk.
Our favorite breakfast spot is Cafe Privato in Galata, but our friends rave about Van Kahvaltı Evi in Cihangir. I doubt you could go wrong at either.
Ortakoy Mosque is a bit outside of the center, but it’s well-worth the side trip as it truly is one of the loveliest places in all of Istanbul.
With the Bosphorus on one side and the stunning bridge connecting Europe to Asia in the background and its slightly off-pink tiles on the inside, Ortakoy is our pick for one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
Whether or not you brave the line to wait to go up Galata Tower (I hate waiting in lines and even I can begrudgingly admit the view is worth it), it’s worth wandering in the area around Galata and admiring the tower from its base. There are several great restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques in this area so it’s well worth your time.
Houses of Arnavutkoy
We wish the cute, riverside neighborhood of Arnavutkoy got more respect. It’s famous for its wooden Ottoman mansions and delicious seafood restaurants, but it’s also quietly off the tourist path and a delightful addition to your Istanbul standards.
Many tourists stick to the European side of Istanbul but we think the Asian side has a lot to offer! We love the hip, buzzy neighborhood of Moda and the chill residential neighborhood of Uskudar, but Kadikoy is the most common port of call for Istanbul tourists because of the easy ferry connections between Karakoy or Eminonu and Kadikoy. For 5 lira (about $1 USD) you can hop over to Asia – that’s the cheapest continental crossing I’ll imagine you’ll ever do.
Want Something a Bit Different?
We picked our top ten as a mix of the city’s most important sites and a few of our favorite places that are a bit more off-the-path. However, if you want more ideas, we’ll have our massive guide to 101 things to do in Istanbul published very soon, as well as our top Instagram spots in Istanbul.
Step 3. Book City Activities
If you want to dig deeper into Istanbul but are short on time, we recommend booking a few organized city tours. This way, you will leave Istanbul with a far better understanding of what you’re seeing, and you can ask locals important questions about the places you visit. We’ll write up all our favorite Istanbul tours soon, but here are our recommendations for the top three tours that show off what’s unique about the city.
Taste of Two Continents Food Tour
Easily the most delicious thing you’ll do in Istanbul all weekend, we highly recommend a food tour as a way of getting to know Istanbul better. Turkish food is one of the best cuisines out there, and this tour will give you a tasty introduction to it.
This food tour covers several neighborhoods and two continents over the course of five hours, so wear your best walking shoes (and stretchiest pants)! You’ll sample lots of different small tastes, travel by tram and ferry, and enjoy a full meal consisting of an appetizer, main course, and dessert. To cap that all off, you’ll enjoy four drinks over the course of the evening, plus a nargile (aka shisha) to cap off the night.
A Bosphorus cruise is an essential way to explore the best of Istanbul. One of the world’s most important rivers, the Bosphorus connects the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea and provided the foundation for centuries of empires.
A sightseeing cruise up the Bosphorus is extremely relaxing and a great way to rest your feet while you still take in the beauty of Istanbul and its history, learning about the gorgeous palaces, bridges, fortresses, towers, and buildings which flank the river banks. This ultra-affordable 90-minute tour is a can’t-miss addition to your Istanbul city break itinerary.
Landmark Highlights Day Tour
If you prefer to have a little guidance during your trip to Istanbul, we recommend spending one day doing a guided tour which will explain the history of Sultanahmet’s most important sites: Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar.
While you can certainly visit all these sights independently, visiting with a tour will give you essential historical context, allow you to skip the lines, and hop around from site to site in an organized, logical fashion that doesn’t waste any time.
Step 4. Plan a Day Trip
If you only have 2 or 3 full days in the city, then we recommend sticking to Istanbul. However, if you have more like 4 days, you can either spend all 4 in Istanbul (which, trust us, there is WAY more than enough to do here for weeks or months, let alone days) or you can go on a day trip from Istanbul.
If you want to get out of the city for the day, the most popular day trip from Istanbul is to the nearby Princes Islands which are in the middle of the Bosphorus.
This tour starts on the European side of Istanbul and departs by boat to explore the largest of the Princes islands, Büyükada. On this trip, you’ll be able to see the beautiful mansions that date back to the Ottoman empire, try a seafood lunch, and explore the island at your leisure (we highly recommend renting a bike to maximize your time!).
You can go independently by ferry but we recommend this day tour for ease and practicality.
Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire and it’s an easy ferry ride away from Istanbul, making it an ideal day trip.
Bursa is full of historical buildings and has the nickname “Green Bursa” for its lush gardens and parks, a far cry from the concrete jungle of Istanbul. You’ll also get to enjoy a cable car up to Mt. Uludağ as well as visiting Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque), the largest mosque in Bursa and more than 600 years old. This is the day trip we recommend to get there.
Pamukkale is difficult and expensive to do as a day trip from Istanbul but this is truly one of the most spectacular places I have ever been, so I feel obliged to recommend it here. Personally, I dind’t do it as a day trip from Istanbul, but rather when I was overlanding Turkey and coming back from Cappadocia.
From the incredible “cotton castle” of travertine hot springs with healing waters to the awe-inspiring stadium of Hierapolis, plus Cleopatra’s Pool, there’s so much in Pamukkale that it is almost a shame to miss it! However, due to its distance from Istanbul, it’s a really long trip, so you should only do it if you have at least 4 days in Istanbul and don’t mind one really long 15+ hour day. If you’re crazy enough to do it, here’s the day trip I recommend.
Step 5. Three Can’t-Miss Istanbul Restaurants
Istanbul is a spectacularly tasty city full of great restaurants, and it’s one of our favorite places to eat in the world. If we had to pick just three places… Here are our top choices for restaurants in Istanbul!
Offering incredible Turkish breakfasts in the heart of Galata, Café Privato is basically a place where you have to beg for mercy to stop them from bringing out more breakfast. If you sit in the garden, you can enjoy spectacular views of Galata Tower. Their homemade jams and pepper dip are absolutely fantastic (and you can buy it as a souvenir to take home with you).
In 2017, Mikla was voted the 44th best restaurant in the world. So yeah, the food here is pretty good. We love the selection of local wine and the emphasis on serving Turkish food that is modern and sophisticated, yet grounded in its past. If you don’t want to pay for an admittedly pricey meal, come at the beginning of cocktail hour when they open at six. You can enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail on the balcony with views of Galata Tower all the way to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
With a view of Ortakoy Mosque from the terrace, Hobo Kitchen is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the world of the Bosphorous pass by. Though you’re sitting in Europe sipping wine or eating some seriously delicious animal fries, you’re looking out across to Asia. It’s a wondrously strange spot to find yourself in, and a supremely peaceful way to relax for a bit before heading back out to explore the city some more.
Step 6. Plan What To Do in Istanbul at Night
For a typical city break, we would expect you would have two or three nights in town. While you might choose to retreat to your hotel room at night to relax, if you do want to go out and explore the city at night, here are a few great options!
Bosphorus Dinner Cruise
While you can definitely do a daytime cruise like we recommended above, another option is doing a Bosphorus river cruise, which includes dinner, drinks, and entertainment as you cruise between Europe and Asia (tickets sell out often and can be purchased here).
Whirling Dervish Dance
Another popular activity in Istanbul at night is to attend a performance of the whirling dervishes, a unique religious dance specific to Turkey. You can purchase tickets for a whirling dervish performance here – my boyfriend went to this exact show on his last trip to Istanbul and loved it!
Despite the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country, it is decidedly secular, especially Istanbul. Alcohol is plentiful (though slightly expensive due to a consumption tax) so if you’re looking to party, don’t worry, there’s plenty of nightlife to be had in Istanbul! If you really want to punish your liver, there’s a 7-hour pub crawl (personally, I want to crawl into my bed just thinking about it) which you can book here.
Step 7. Trip Planning Logistics
Now that you have picked out what you want to do while you’re in town, there are a couple of logistics you need to think about.
Get Your Visa
While many Balkan countries have rather permissive visa policies, Turkey is an exception in that almost all countries require e-visas, including the US, Ireland, the UK, and Canada. They are quite easy to get for most nationalities but it requires a small amount of advance planning and some funds (usually $20-65 depending on nationality). This is the official e-visa website; don’t get scammed by a fake website! Unfortunately, since visa requirements change all the time and vary from country to country, we will not go into any further detail here and instead recommend you check the official website or contact the MFA of Turkey with any questions.
Book Your Tickets
If you’ll be flying to Istanbul and haven’t booked your tickets yet, we recommend using Google Flights to get the best deal. Istanbul Ataturk tends to have the best deals but occasionally Sabiha Gohcen will have good deals, especially if you are flying on Pegasus.
If you’re traveling to Istanbul by bus or train, research your travel route ahead of time. We have a guide on how to get from Sofia to Istanbul by night train, which may be helpful for some people!
We use Uber when we’re in Istanbul to avoid taxi scams and issues – it’s just easier and safer, though I haven’t personally ever been scammed when I’ve taken a regular taxi in Istanbul. If you arrive at the airport, you can use the wifi there to order a taxi on the app to avoid the overpriced airport taxis.
If you arrive in the city by bus or train and don’t have data, ask a local restaurant or hotel to call a taxi for you. This way you don’t risk a taxi scam.
Istanbul has an extensive and slightly intimidating public transportation system, including a huge metro network. We generally tend to get around on a combination of foot and Uber, but I’ve taken the metro to the airport before and found it pretty easy to navigate.
Money in Turkey
In Turkey, the currency is the Turkish lira. Occasionally, a price in euros will be given and you can pay in that, but it is always better to pay in lira to get a better rate. The lira is pretty volatile at the moment, so it will fluctuate, but at the moment 1 lira is about 20 cents, and 5 lira is about $1 USD. To get cash, we advise using the ATMs so that you get the best exchange rate.
You can use credit cards at most of the businesses in Istanbul. If you book your tours and hotels online and use Uber for transportation, you can get away with needing very little local currency.
When dining in Istanbul, tip about 10%.
The Turkish Language
In Istanbul, you can get by 99% of the time on English alone. However, it is kind to learn a few words of Turkish – here are some helpful Turkish phrases you may want to learn before your trip.
5 Things to Pack for Istanbul
1. A Lonely Planet guidebook, to help you plan when on the ground. We recommend the updated Lonely Planet Turkey.
2. An unlocked smartphone, so you can buy a cheap SIM card and use apps like Uber and Google Maps. If you don’t have an unlocked phone and it costs too much to get it online, you can buy a cheap but decent one online, like this unlocked Samsung.
3. An extra swimsuit so you can enjoy Turkey’s hammams and beaches without having to put a wet one back on. We like this cute but affordable one-piece.
4. Motion sickness pills for windy roads, Istanbul traffic, ferries, hot air balloon rides, etc. We recommend something natural that uses ginger rather than chemicals to avoid drowsiness, like these motion sickness pills.
5. An anti-theft bag. While we think that Istanbul is quite safe, it is quite touristic, and with that comes opportunity theft. We like having the added security features that PacSafe provides, and both Stephanie and I carry the CitySafe backpack with us on our travels and day-to-day lives. We love the locking zippers, slash-proof mesh construction, and the cute functionality of it.
Istanbul Travel Resources
Hopefully, you can plan your entire city break in Istanbul just from this post, but we do have ton more Turkey travel resources if you need them.
First, start with our top 50 Istanbul travel tips – virtually every question you might have about visiting Istanbul should be covered here.
If you want to get excited about your trip, check out these beautiful Istanbul quotes and these other beautiful places to visit in Turkey for a future trip (trust me, you’ll want to return – a mere city break in Istanbul is not enough!)
Headed to Istanbul? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, make sure to travel with a valid travel insurance policy. While we feel safe in Istanbul, you need to be covered in case of an emergency. Travel insurance covers you in case of theft or an accident, which can save your trip if there’s an incident.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.