To say that Istanbul is unique is an understatement. No other city straddles two continents or has been the capital of two formidable empires. Its venerable churches, mosques, and palaces do justice to its phenomenal history. This sprawling metropolis is chock-full of contrasts with oriental bazaars co-existing with upmarket boutiques and malls, kebab shops and teahouses lying beside chic bistros and the city skyline is dotted with glistening highrises and Ottoman minarets. One day in Istanbul hardly does justice to seeing this great city, but it gives you enough time to get a quick overview of the city. Here are our recommendations on the 13 best things to do in Istanbul in one day.
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How to Get Around Istanbul in One Day
It is possible to walk between many of Istanbul’s major sights and the vast majority of the outer lying points of interest can be easily reached by public transport. The historic Sultanahmet district is relatively traffic-free and easily explored on foot, as is most of Beyoğlu. Keep in mind that traffic only stops at pedestrian crossings controlled by lights, and always make use of pedestrian overpasses and underpasses on the main roads. Buses and dolmuşes (shared minibuses) provide city-wide transport, but roads and vehicles can be extremely crowded during rush-hour.
For this 24 hour Istanbul itinerary, I would recommend using the tram line T1 which runs from Zeytinburnu through Aksaray and Sultanahmet. The line then crosses the Galata Bridge and continues to Kabataş, offering plenty of sightseeing spots along the way. Istanbul’s tramway system is sleek and efficient with trams running every five minutes, but it can be very crowded at peak times. To access the tramway, you’ll have to first purchase a journey token (jeton) or the Istanbul Card (Istanbulkart), which operate the turnstile.
The Istanbul Card is a travel pass that can be used on the entire public transport system in Istanbul: trams, metro, buses, ferries. It is a prepaid (10 TL) and rechargeable contactless smartcard. The card can be bought and topped up from main bus stations and other public transport ticket offices or from vending machines at major stops. The initial fare costs 2.60 TL and additional journeys made within two hours are progressively cheaper. The handy thing is that one card can be used for up to 5 passengers. This is thus cheaper than purchasing individual tokens each time for 5 TL.
Taxis are pervasive in Istanbul and fares are cheap in comparison to other major European cities. Taxis in Istanbul are bright yellow, with the word “taksi” on a sign on the roof. They can be hailed in the street or found at taxi ranks. If you plan on using a taxi you should carry a map or have the name of your destination written down since most taxi drivers aren’t well versed in English.
Your One Day in Istanbul Itinerary: 13 Best Things To Do in Istanbul
For this one day itinerary to Istanbul, I have included almost all the must-see sights in the city. It, of course, isn’t possible to explore all of Istanbul’s major sights in just one day. For your convenience, this post includes a free map which highlights the main points of interest in Istanbul for one day. You can find the addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map. I understand that everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. The earlier you start your day the more time you’ll have to see the attractions. Below I have compiled a list of the best things to see in Istanbul over the course of one day:
- Traditional Turkish Breakfast
- Blue Mosque
- Sultanahmet Square & Hippodrome
- Hagia Sophia
- Istanbul Archaeological Museums
- Explore the Grand Bazaar
- Süleymaniye Mosque
- Galata Bridge
- Sample Balik Ekmek
- Climb up Galata Tower
- Istiklal Street
1. Traditional Turkish Breakfast
A hearty Turkish breakfast in all its Mediterranean glory is the best way to start your one day in Istanbul. Turkish breakfast generally consists of white bread, a variety of cheeses, and jams. For a special treat, look out for honey and clotted cream (bal kaymak). Alongside you will find olives, tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers. If you can, you should try menemen – a popular dish consisting of scrambled eggs, green bell peppers, tomatoes, and a healthy helping of olive oil.
The ubiquitous drink is black tea (çay). It is served with sugar but without milk, and in a small, tulip-shaped glass. The most popular alternatives to black tea are apple tea (elma çay), linden tea (ıhlamur çay), and mint tea (nane çay). Even if you are not big on black tea, you have to try at least one cup. Turkish coffee (kahve), which is dark and strong is also a good alternative.
I recommend going to the House of Medusa restaurant in Sultanahmet for a delicious breakfast plate.
2. Blue Mosque
The iconic Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) is one of the best things to see in Istanbul. Its instantly recognizable six minarets, hulking bulk and prominent position on the Istanbul skyline, merge to make it one of the most famous, photographed and visited monuments in the city. It was built between 1609 and 1616 by Mehmet Ağa, the imperial architect for the Sultan Ahmet I.
The Blue Mosque soon became Istanbul’s principal imperial mosque because of its proximity to Topkapi Palace. At the time, a mosque with six minarets was considered a sacrilegious attempt to rival the great mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca which had six minarets. According to popular lore, the sultan asked for a minaret capped with altın (gold), but the architect heard altı (six) minarets. Ultimately, Sultan Ahmet I was forced to send Mehmet Ağa down to Mecca to build a seventh minaret for Masjid al-Haram to restore its eminence.
As you enter the courtyard, you’ll notice that it is surrounded by a portico of thirty small domes and has the same dimensions as the mosque itself. The former hexagonal-shaped ablutions fountain (şadırvan) stands in the center of the courtyard and is now purely ornamental. The cascading effect of the domes is absolutely stunning!
Once inside you will see how the mosque earned its familiar name. It’s difficult not to be awed by the 20,000 turquoise İznik tiles glowing gently in the light coming from the mosque’s 260 windows. The tiles are beautifully decorated with lilies, carnations, tulips, and roses. Four massive pillars support a dome 22 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at the crown – big, but not quite as big as Hagia Sophia, the design of which obviously influenced the architect.
The mihrab (the pulpit from which the imam delivers his sermons) and minbar (a niche that points towards Mecca) are intricately carved with white marble, and the ebony window shutters are inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. However, the painted blue arabesques in the domes and upper walls are restorations; to see the originals, look at the wall beneath the sultan’s loge which lies to the left of the mihrab.
The entrance to the Blue Mosque is free and it is best to visit early in the morning. It is open daily from 8:30-12:15, 14:00-16:30 and from 17:30-18:30.
INSIDER TIP: VISITING A MOSQUE
Visitors are welcome at any mosque in Istanbul, but non-Muslims should try to avoid prayer times, particularly the main weekly congregation on Fridays at 13:00. The five daily prayer times are calculated according to the times of sunrise and sunset and thus change throughout the year. Exact times will be posted up on boards outside prominent mosques. Coverage for men and women entering a mosque is quite conservative: for women, shoulders, legs, and head must be covered, and men should be sensitive to any skin exposed by shorts or tank tops. It’s a good idea to carry around a scarf, but all mosques provide some type of head covering at the entrance. Take off your shoes before entering the prayer hall. Do not eat inside, engage in flash photography or get in close proximity of worshippers. On entering the prayer hall of one of Istanbul’s grandiose mosques, you might experience a soaring sense of space. Since Islam explicitly prohibits images of living things inside a mosque, there are never any statues or figurative paintings. Men and women pray separately with women often praying in a screened-off area or a balcony.
3. Sultanahmet Square & Hippodrome
Exit the Blue Mosque onto the Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydanı). This fascinating and historic leafy square. The square lies at the core of Old Istanbul, where many of the city’s must-see attractions are situated. An incredible concentration of art and architecture spanning millennia can be found in the narrow, winding streets surrounding the square. You’ll also encounter numerous simit (bagel) hawkers, carpet sellers, and souvenir shops in the square.
The square used to be the site of the Hippodrome, the gigantic chariot-racing arena which was formerly the cultural center of the Byzantine Empire. A stadium was originally laid out by Emperor Septimus Severus in 200 AD and enlarged by Constantine the Great for the performance of court ceremonies and games. The Byzantines’ most popular pastime was watching chariot racing in the stadium.
The Hippodrome fell into ruins following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, but it continued to be used for great public occasions. Estimated to have held up to 100,000 people, the original orientation and dimensions of the 480-meter-long arena have been more or less preserved by the present-day park, although its amphitheater was destroyed in the construction of the Blue Mosque.
However, there are enough remnants of the Hippodrome to glean its scale and importance. The park’s southern end is home to three survivors of the multitude of obelisks, columns, and statues that originally adorned the raised central axis of the arena, around which the chariots raced. The 15th-century BC Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul by Emperor Theodosius I from its place in front of the Temple of Luxor at Karnak, in Egypt. Its four sides of granite are covered from top to bottom with hieroglyphics celebrating the campaigns of Thutmose III in Egypt during the sixteenth century BC. Two-thirds of the original was lost during transport but it still rises to a height of nearly 20 meters. Considering it is over 3500 years old, it is in astonishingly good condition.
The two other structures are the Serpentine Column (dating back to 479 BC and shipped here from Delphi) and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.
Istanbul was founded in the 7th century BC by Greek expeditionaries, on a naturally defensive site from which trade along the Bosphorus could be controlled. This colony, known as Byzantion, grew to be a successful independent city-state in the ancient Greek world. The city came to be known as “Byzantium” after coming under the Roman Empire in 64 BC. Byzantium was already 1,000 years old when, in AD 326, Emperor Constantine the Great shifted the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium and began to rebuild it as the new capital of the Roman Empire. On May 11, 330, the city was officially renamed the “New Rome,” though it soon became widely known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Turks named the new city Konstantiniyye, but in time the city came to be known by the name “Istanbul” which is derived from the Greek phrase “eis ten polin”, meaning “in the city” or “to the city”.
4. Hagia Sophia
Next up on this one day in Istanbul itinerary is the venerable Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom), undoubtedly one of the must-see attractions in the city. The sprawling edifice was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537. It was designed to surpass every other edifice ever constructed as a monument to God in terms of grandeur and majesty. For almost a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was a spectacle of Christianity and the symbol of Byzantium, and until the 16th century maintained its status as the largest church in the world. The Hagia Sophia was the place I wanted to see most above all else in Istanbul and it didn’t disappoint.
Hagia Sophia’s deep red walls are surmounted by a central dome and flanked by two semidomes on both sides. Much of the main building is as it was in the 6th century – except for the buttresses added to secure the structure. You enter the building through the central portal, into the long, narrow narthex, running to the right and left. Note the beautiful matching panels of marble and the vaulted gold mosaic ceiling.
As you continue through the huge bronze doors of the Imperial Gate, your eyes will be drawn skywards by the upwards sweep of the dome. The sight is overwhelming and you cannot help being staggered: the dome is around 31 meters in diameter, and reaches a height of 56 meters above the floor. The entire interior of the dome is covered with glittering gold mosaic tiles.
Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The main nave, side aisles, apse, and semidomes are covered with mosaics and frescoes, depicting religious and imperial motifs or floral and geometric designs. The apse is absolutely brilliant with its magnificent 9th century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ Child. Look out for the eight calligraphic discs, four of which are the largest examples of calligraphy in the Islamic world, that adorn the interior.
The Hagia Sophia is home to the Weeping Column (Column of St Gregory), which has a thumb-sized hole covered with a brass plate. Legend has it that if you insert your thumb then turn it 360 degrees, your wishes, allegedly, come true. The moisture is said to be beneficial for eye diseases.
Jacky and I particularly enjoyed the number of glistening figurative mosaics in the upstairs gallery that are the remnants of the decoration that once covered the upper walls but which has otherwise mostly disappeared. These remarkable works of Byzantine art date from the 9th century or later. Two of the best ones are the Deësis mosaic depicting Christ Pantocrator (Almighty) with John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, and Christ flanked by Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus. The Deësis mosaic is considered to be the finest one in Hagia Sophia due to its soft features and humane expressions. Unfortunately, its bottom part is badly deteriorated.
Since 1935, the Hagia Sophia has been a museum. Opening hours are 09:00-19:00 (April-October) and 09:00-17:00 (November-March). The admission costs 72 TL.
5. Istanbul Archaeological Museums
If you love history then you certainly don’t want to miss out on the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. The complex includes three different museums – the Archaeological Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), the Ancient Orient Museum (Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi) and Tiled Kiosk Museum (Çinili Köşk Müzesi). It has one of the world’s richest collections of classical artifacts, and also includes treasures from the preclassical world. Obviously, you won’t have time to go through everything, so I’ll just highlight the main things that you shouldn’t skip.
The most extraordinary items in the Archaeological Museum are the sarcophagi that date back as far as the 4th century BC and which represent various architectural styles influenced by outside cultures including Egypt, Phoenicia, and Lycia. The best of these is the intricately carved Alexander Sarcophagus, thought to have been built for King Abdalonymos of Sidon. It is called the Alexander Sarcophagus because it depicts Alexander the Great defeating the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Another highlight is the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, with 18 intricately carved panels showing figures of women in extreme distress and mourning.
The Ancient Orient Museum houses an unbelievably rich collection of artifacts from the earliest civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Arab continent. The highlight here is the 13th century BC tablet which contains the Treaty of Kadesh, presumed to be the world’s earliest surviving peace treaty, agreed between the Egyptians and Hittites in 1269 BC. Another notable point of interest is a series of colored mosaic panels depicting animal reliefs of bulls and dragons with serpents’ heads from the monumental Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia.
The Tiled Kiosk Museum is housed in a wonderful pavilion of turquoise ceramic tiles whose facade displays eye-catching blue and white calligraphy. Highlights here include the 14th-century mihrab from the Ibrahim Bey mosque in Karaman in central Anatolia and samples from Iznik and Kütahya, the two most important production centers for pottery, porcelain, and ceramics during the Ottoman period.
The opening hours of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums are Tuesday-Sunday from 09:00-19:00 (April-October) and 09:00-17:00 (November-March). The admission costs 36 TL.
No day of sightseeing in Istanbul would be complete without sampling a juicy kebab. However, we’re recommending you try Cağ kebab instead of the ubiquitous döner kebab. Cağ kebab, which hails from the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum, is a laterally stacked kebab of lamb that is prepared and cooked on a rotating spit before the meat is shaved off and served. The meat is usually marinated in Turkish spices which gives it more flavor than a regular kebab. When it is served, it’s often stacked on a smaller skewer, called ‘bico’. Arguably the best Cağ kebab can be found at Sehzade Cağ Kebap, a rather unassuming kebab joint.
7. Explore the Grand Bazaar
A visit to the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) is one of the best things to do when spending one day in Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar is the largest market in Istanbul, and by some measures is the largest covered market in the world, containing more than 4,000 shops selling jewelry, lanterns, carpets, leather goods, hookah, pottery and much more. On top of this, the Grand Bazaar is home to banks, cafés, inns, restaurants, fountains, a mosque, and a post office, crammed together in a grid of 61 narrow streets that total 8 kilometers in length.
Though the Grand Bazaar can be entered by several gateways, two of the most useful one are the Çarşıkapı Gate (from Beyazıt tram stop) and Nuruosmaniye Gate (from Nuruosmaniye Mosque). Walking through the Grand Bazaar is truly an unforgettable fantasy experience of Eastern opulence. It’s easy to get lost, as most streets are either poorly marked or their signs are hidden beneath goods hung up on display. Prepare yourself for the incessant hassle from traders, which can get annoying beyond a point. To get a quick overview of the grand bazaar, I would suggest taking a stroll down Jewellers’ Street (Kalpakçılar Caddesi), the bazaar’s widest street that is lined with the glittering windows of countless jewelry shops.
While you are exploring the Grand Bazaar, you’ll come across many shops selling nazar boncuk – glass discs with a distinctive pattern of blue, white and black concentric circles, also sold in the form of jewelry and general knick-knacks. These are considered a talisman to avert the evil eye and bring good luck.
The Grand Bazaar is open Monday-Saturday from 09:00-19:00. Be prepared to bargain in case you want to buy something since it is an important part of the shopping experience.
8. Süleymaniye Mosque
If there’s one mosque that warrants to be seen while sightseeing in Istanbul, it is the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii), Istanbul’s most important mosque. The mosque was built in 1550–57 for sultan Süleyman I, “the Magnificent”, by the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, Sinan, and is one of his finest creations. Considered the finest Ottoman building in Istanbul, the mosque is a tribute to the ‘Golden Age’ of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Süleymaniye Mosque is located on a hill, its dome and four tapering minarets dominate Istanbul’s skyline in an unrivaled display of imperial power.
The Süleymaniye Mosque’s courtyard is surrounded by a colonnade of porphyry, Marmara and pink Egyptian columns, rumored to be recycled from the Hippodrome.
The interior of the mosque is simple yet graceful, and much more serene compared to the Blue Mosque. It was definitely our favorite mosque in Istanbul. The blue, white and gold dome contains 200 stained glass windows to ensure a softly filtered light. The mihrab and pulpit are made from white marble with İznik tiles. It’s interesting to note that the height of the dome from the floor is exactly double its diameter.
Both Süleyman and Sinan are buried nearby. The tombs of the sultan and his wife Roxelana lie behind the mosque in the walled garden, where roses and hollyhocks tangle among the tall grass between the gravestones, and sparrows swoop and squabble in the fig trees. Sinan’s modest tomb, which he designed himself, stands in a triangular garden just outside the northern corner of the complex, capped by a small dome. The garden behind the mosque contains a terrace offering splendid views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
HISTORY 101: MIMAR SINAN
Many of the finest works of Ottoman civil and religious architecture throughout Turkey can be traced to one man, a genius who had the good luck to come of age in a rich, expanding empire willing to put its considerable resources at his disposal. Mimar Sinan (1488/90–1588) served as court architect to three sultans – Süleyman the Magnificent, Selim II and Murat III – but principally to the first, who owed much of his reputation for “magnificence” to this gifted technician. Amazingly, even though he designed 146 mosques and over 300 other buildings, Sinan never trained as an architect. Sinan’s works are among the most influential buildings in history and he has often been compared to Michelangelo. Although the Süleymaniye Mosque is his most well-known work, the Selimiye Mosque in the northwestern city of Edirne is regarded as his masterpiece.
9. Galata Bridge
Make your way to the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul’s most distinct landmarks. The bridge itself is nothing special, architecturally speaking, but provides a crucial link between the two sides of European Istanbul (the old, imperial and Islamic part of the city with the largely Europeanized and progressive area of Beyoğlu), separated by the waters of the Golden Horn.
You can either stroll across the upper deck and watch the many amateur anglers suspending their rods into the water below in the hope of a catch, or go down the steps and walk along the lower deck, where there are a number of cafés, bars, and restaurants. The views from here, down the Golden Horn and into the Bosphorus itself, are sublime, particularly at sunset.
10. Sample Balik Ekmek
Galata Bridge provides the perfect location to sample yet another of Istanbul’s iconic street foods. It is here where you will find red and gold boats with domes bobbing in the water selling balik ekmek (fish sandwiches). These delectable sandwiches consist of grilled whitefish or mackerel with raw onions and lettuce sandwiched in a half-loaf of standard white bread and seasoned with salt, herbs, and spices with a squeeze of lemon. There is a bevy of restaurants on the pier that sell these fish sandwiches, but the ones from the boat are reputed to be better.
11. Climb up Galata Tower
The spindle-shaped Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) is easily the most recognizable landmark on the Golden Horn and also one of the main points of interest in Istanbul. The 67-meter high tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese, the Byzantine Empire’s greatest trading partners, as part of their fortification of Galata. Since then, the tower has survived several earthquakes and been restored many times. It has had a number of functions over the centuries, including a jail, a fire watchtower and even a springboard for early adventurers attempting to fly. The viewing gallery at the top offers gorgeous views over the city, and across the Golden Horn, you can count the minarets and domes of Old Istanbul’s skyline.
The Galata Tower is open daily from 09:00-20:30. The price of admission is 35 TL. The queues here are pretty long but well worth the wait.
12. Istiklal Street
Taking a stroll down Istiklal Street (Istiklal Caddesi) is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. Formerly known as the Grande Rue de Pera, Istiklal Street is the pulsating heartbeat of Beyoğlu. The street is a pedestrian-only boulevard that is packed with shoppers during the day and is an entertainment hub by night. It is home to a spate of palatial mansions that were once home to embassies of foreign powers but have been downgraded to consulates since the capital was relocated to Ankara in 1923. I was also pleased to see some wonderful examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
The character of Istiklal Street changes noticeably as you head north from here towards Taksim Square (the symbolic heart of Istanbul), becoming less arty and more mainstream, with an even greater concentration of shops, bars, cafés, restaurants, and clubs. The antique red trams traversing Istiklal Street’s length alongside crowds of pedestrians is a truly unforgettable sight.
Cap off your one day in Istanbul by treating yourself to a wonderful Turkish dinner at the excellent Meze By Lemon Tree restaurant. The mezes here are fabulous. Mezes are appetizers normally consisting of cold vegetables and salads of various kinds, but can also include a number of hot dishes, such as börek (cheese pastries) and fried mussels. Mezes are eaten with bread and traditionally washed down with rakı (a clear, anise-flavored spirit that is the national alcoholic drink in Turkey). The main course in this sophisticated restaurant is innovative and features tasty seafood and meat dishes.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Whether you feel like staying in an Ottoman palace, taking a room in a restored townhouse, or spending the night in a budget accommodation, you will find the place of your choice in Istanbul. The Sultanahmet district is a good place to stay is conveniently situated within walking distance of most of the city’s major sights. Beyoğlu, the old European center of Istanbul has numerous impressive hotels.
Hostel: Antique Hostel, ideal for backpackers. You choose between private and dorm rooms. Safe, close to main sights, just a stone’s throw away from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
Budget: By Murat Royal Hotel Galata, an extremely well-run hotel with comfy rooms, set in a historic Beyoğlu building. 100 meters from Galata Tower and a 5-minute walk from Istiklal Street.
Mid-range: Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, a charming and stylish hotel in Sultanahmet that is housed in a pair of elegant townhouses. Has a small rooftop terrace with stunning views of the Blue Mosque.
Splurge: Pera Palace Hotel, legendary 19th-century hotel with gorgeous Art Nouveau and Oriental style interiors building in the New Town. Luxurious rooms with sumptuous furnishings and suites named after famous hotel guests like Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend one day in Istanbul? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!