By Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran
Istanbul demands a minimum of two days, but we'd suggest at least four days to do it justice. Even with a week, you'd find yourself running out of time trying to tackle everything the city has to offer.
With that in mind, here are my recommended priorities:
Istanbul in Two Days
On the morning of Day One, focus on the Sultanahmet district in the center of the Old Town, visiting Hagia Sophia, the Underground Cistern, and the Blue Mosque — ideally following our Istanbul guidebook's self-guided "Historic Core of Istanbul" walk. With additional time, tour Topkapı Palace (the time-consuming sultans' complex a short walk away) or the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (a small collection in the heart of Sultanahmet).
On Day Two, explore the Grand Bazaar, Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, and Spice Market (best with our guidebook's self-guided Old Town Back Streets Walk). You'll finish near the Galata Bridge, where you can end your day meandering amid the waterfront streets along the Golden Horn (ideally with our book's self-guided Golden Horn Walk).
If you haven't done so already, tour Topkapı Palace and the nearby Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Or, if you're museumed out, consider Day Four's New District activities.
Devote this day to the New District, including the Pera Museum and Galata Tower (you can follow our book's self-guided New District walk). Then, take a taxi to the Chora Church to see its sumptuous Byzantine mosaics, and consider following our book's self-guided City Walls and Neighborhoods Walk, which starts nearby. Or, if you'd rather stay in the New District, choose from a range of other sights: Dolmabahçe Palace, Military Museum, Quincentennial Museum of Turkish Jews, or Istanbul Modern Arts Museum.
Go to Asia. Set sail on the Bosphorus Strait, spending a full day going up to the Asian fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı, then returning to the Old Town.
Istanbul in a Week
More time gives you more options, from some of the smaller museums to quintessential Istanbul experiences, such as getting scrubbed in a Turkish bath, watching Whirling Dervishes spin themselves into a trance, or lazily smoking a water pipe (nargile) filled with apple tobacco.
Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran are the authors of the Rick Steves Istanbul guidebook.