Best Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey: An Inspired Itinerary for the Curious Traveler

Today we call the city Istanbul. Yet it has had many names through the ages: Constantinople, New Rome, Byzantion/Byzantium, Queen of Cities, City of the Sultans, and more.

For more than two millennia, Istanbul stood at the center of events that shaped the history of the West. It was a seat of wealth and power, a den of intrigue and betrayal, a place of vibrant commerce and enduring faith. Istanbul is often thought of as a “middle eastern” city, yet it is in every way a daughter of the West – born a Greek, raised a Roman and converting to Islam in its middle age. For centuries it was the largest and most powerful city in the Christian world before transforming itself in the sixteenth century into the capital of the Muslim East. It remains a city in both worlds - perched at the very tip of Europe, gazing across at the shores of Asia.

With a fully planned 7-day Context itineraryThomas F. Madden, a leading scholar in medieval Mediterranean history, brings us back in time as we contextualize landmarks and hidden gems of this city’s legendary past – from its foundation as Constantinople to its grandeur under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

DAY 1: Arrival & Getting Settled

Enjoy an introductory narrative timeline of Istanbul’s history as we mingle at the hotel over drinks and dinner, followed by an evening of leisure.

At a glance:

  • Arrive from the airport and check in to the hotel in historic Sultanahmet
  • Meet likeminded travelers and Dr. Madden for an orientation lecture on Istanbul
  • Enjoy a dinner group dinner to mix and mingle with other travelers

DAY 2: Introduction to Istanbul and Sultanahmet

We’ll kick things off with private tours of Istanbul's must-see landmarks such as Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome followed by a visit to the Mosaic Museum in the afternoon.

At a Glance:

  • We'll enjoy breakfast at the hotel before we begin our deep dive into the history of Istanbul
  • We'll start our private walking tour of the Sultanahmet area including Hippodrome
  • We'll continue our day with a private guided tour of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
  • We'll take a break for a traditional group lunch in Sultanahmet area
  • Participate in an evening lecture with Dr. Madden to prepare for a planned visit to Chora and Tefkur Saray Palace for the next day
  • Explore a new restaurant in Istanbul - recommendations will be provided or you can check out Eater's list of 38 essential restaurants in Istanbul.

DAY 3: Chora Church and an Evening Bosphorus Cruise through the Bosphorous Strait

We’ll start the day exploring the history of the Chora Church and Tefkur Saray Palace before our evening Bosphorus cruise with cocktails to recap the day’s explorations. We’ll have a narrated ride through the European and Asian sides of the city and discover the connections across the Bosphorous Strait – while cruising in a private yacht accompanied by Dr. Madden.

At a Glance:

  • A privately guided morning tour of Chora Church and Tefkur Saray Palace
  • Take the afternoon off to rest, enjoy lunch, explore, and shop in Istanbul
  • Reunite with the group in the late afternoon for a sunset Bosphorus cruise departing from the Karakoy neighborhood
  • Enjoy drinks and Hors d'oeuvres onboard the yacht alongside an evening lecture
  • Dinner on our own: tailored recommendations will be provided for local cuisine nearby

DAY 4: Experiencing Topkapi Palace and A Taste of Istanbul

Today will include a guided tour of Topkapi Palace followed by an annotated lunch with an expert. We’ll learn about the history of Turkish regional cuisine and the origin story of spices such as saffron.

At a Glance:

  • In the morning, we'll have a privately guided tour of Topkapi Palace - home of the Ottoman Sultans

  • We'll cross the Bosphorus Strait by ferry for lunch on the Asian side of Istanbul, specifically in the picturesque Kadikoy neighborhood

  • Evening lecture with Dr. Madden

  • Venture out for dinner on our own - recommendations will be provided

        - #ContextTip: enjoy dinner at Divella Bistro Restaurant

DAY 5: Sinan the Architect, Suleymaniye Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar

On Day 5, our learnings, tours, and discussions will focus on the larger role of mosques and sultans within Turkish society and religious education. We'll visit the Suleymaniye Mosque in the company of a leading local guide.  In the afternoon, those who wish to can join a tour of the Grand Bazaar.

At a Glance:

  • After breakfast at the hotel, we will visit the Suleymaniye Mosque to see the architectural masterpiece of Sinan
  • Lunch together in central Istanbul, and either venture off to explore independently or visit the Grand Bazaar
  • Spend the evening in a lecture with Dr. Madden to prepare us for the next day's continuing narrative
  • Dinner independently – tailored recommendations will be provided #WithContext

DAY 6: History and Continuity in Istanbul

On our final day together, we’ll tour the Fener and Balat districts of Istanbul to learn about the complex layers of religious history in Istanbul over the centuries.

At a Glance:

  • We’ll have a guided visit to the Greek Patriarchate Church
  • We'll get to live like the locals and experience local life in the Fener and Balat districts
  • Enjoy a free afternoon for exploring independently and last-minute shopping
  • Final lecture with Dr. Madden to coalesce each day’s narrative into the broader context of Turkish culture
  • Concluding with a grand farewell dinner as a group

DAY 7: Departure

Travelers depart for flights home – or their next adventure - with memories and knowledge to last a lifetime.

Here's what our clients are saying about Context's Online Lectures about Istanbul: 

"I cannot keep count of the number of courses by Prof Madden that I've attended. Here is an unassuming guy who takes you by the hand and Takes You There, on the spot, in the seats in the Hippodrome. Forget the Room Where It Happens. How about the city, the fortified walls of Istanbul, the triple-headed snake column? Constantine to Suleiman the Magnificent parade before your eyes, crowns to towering turbans. Madden places you there, not only in locale but in time and in character. A master storyteller. If you're thinking about taking his series on Istanbul, do it. And then take it again. Wow. And I thought the history of Venice was good. Istanbul is wicked fine."

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