A city that has enticed visitors for centuries can hardly be done justice in one weekend. But this sampling of İstanbul’s highlights will give you a good taste of its many attractions – while leaving you eager to come back for more. Here's a guide to a perfect weekend in İstanbul.
Start your day in Sultanahmet’s Aya Sofya Meydanı (Aya Sofya Sq), which is flanked by two of İstanbul’s top sights: the Byzantine-era church (now a museum) Aya Sofya, with its famously towering dome, and the tile-bedecked Blue Mosque. The immediate area alone has enough other museums and historic sights to keep you busy for a week. Pick one or two that most pique your interest: perhaps the İstanbul Archaeology Museums, with imposing, intricately carved sarcophagi; the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts, with its impressive antique carpet collection; or the atmospheric underground Basilica Cistern. Round off your morning with a stroll through the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held in ancient times.
For lunch, join local workers at a humble lokanta (eatery serving home-style, ready-made food) – Sefa Restaurant is popular. Or grab a pide (a Turkish flatbread with various topping options) at Karadeniz Aile Pide ve Kebap Salonu. After your meal, step away from the most crowded part of the tourist trail to take this self-guided walking tour down into the Küçük Ayasofya neighborhood. Afterward, shop for souvenirs – ceramics, hamam towels, jewelry – in the historic Arasta Bazaar.
Alternately, do your shopping in the Grand Bazaar (allow time to get lost, because you will). Then grab a taxi out to Edirnekapı, where the Kariye Museum (Chora Church), full of stunning frescoes and mosaics, sits near Istanbul’s old city walls, which date back to the 4th century.
Next to the Chora Church, the restaurant Asitane, which specializes in recreating meals from the Ottoman palace kitchens, makes a unique choice for dinner. Or head back to Sultanahmet for fish at Balıkçı Sabahattin or kebaps at Hamdi Restaurant overlooking the Golden Horn by the Eminönü ferry docks.
After dinner, if you’re feeling adventurous, cross the Galata Bridge to Karaköy and board a ferry for the short ride to Kadıköy, an energetic, youthful neighborhood on the Asian side of the city, where the nightlife around Kadife Sokak (better known as Barlar Sokak, or "Bars Street") stays hopping until the wee hours.
For a more mellow way to round out the evening, head to the A'YA Rooftop Lounge at the ritzy Four Seasons Hotel (summer only). In winter a treatment at one of the Old City's Ottoman-era hamams (the Çemberlitaş and Gedikpaşa baths stay open until midnight) is a warm and relaxing alternative.
The seat of Ottoman power for four hundred years, Topkapı Palace remains an awe-inspiring glimpse into the lives of the sultans who reigned there (and those of their massive entourages). You'll need a half-day to explore the extensive buildings and grounds: to wander through the maze of lavishly decorated rooms in the palace Harem, marvel at the precious objects in the Treasury, admire the palace kitchens, stroll through the pavilion-filled grounds and take in the sweeping views from the Fourth Court, the sultan’s inner sanctum.
Grab a simit (sesame-seed-covered bread ring) from a street vendor to munch on as you make your way over to the Beyoğlu district by foot or via the tram and the historic Tünel funicular. Choose from the tempting array of dishes at Hayvore, a Black Sea-style lokanta, or linger over a light meal at Kafe Ara, a nearby cafe decorated with the works of its namesake, the famous Armenian-Turkish photographer Ara Güler.
The winding streets and hidden alleyways of Beyoğlu are perfect for leisurely wandering and spontaneous discoveries. Explore the galleries, cafes, historic buildings and boutiques of the Galata, Tophane, Karaköy and Çukurcuma neighborhoods and consider a visit to the always-interesting Pera Museum or the quirky Museum of Innocence – created by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk.
Beyoğlu is one of the city’s eating and drinking hotspots, so choices abound. Enjoy a pre-dinner drink with a view at one of the many rooftop bars – the panorama from Mikla is unbeatable if you’re after something a bit classy, while the terrace bar at the nostalgic Grand Hotel de Londres is as laid-back as it gets. Then settle in for delicious meyhane-style food at Greek-inflected Eleos (the octopus is divine) or modern Turkish cuisine in a fine-dining setting at Neolokal, helmed by an acclaimed young chef.
In this 24/7 city, the night doesn’t end with dinner – it’s just getting started. Hit the hipster bars and clubs in Karaköy, the lively beer pubs on the side streets off İstiklal Caddesi, or the cafe-bar scene on the main drag in Cihangir. Need a sugar rush to fuel your dancing feet? You’ll be far from the only person getting your late-night baklava fix at Karaköy Güllüoğlu.