Turkey’s location as a gate keeper between Europe and Asia has created a melting pot of different cultures, history and diversity. You can spend endless time exploring Turkey, but if you can only spare 24 hours in Istanbul, don’t worry: follow our guide and you will be able to see the best of Istanbul in just one day.
WHAT TO SEE
Istanbul has multiple historical landmarks that are all equally grand and amazing, so how do you choose which ones to visit? Lucky for you, most of Istanbul’s iconic landmarks are located within walking distance from each other in the Sultanahmet area so you can see them all in just one day!
Start your trip by visiting the Hagia Sophia located in the Sultanahmet area. This mosque is absolutely impressive from the outside and looks even grander from the inside. Built in 537 and made up of golden colored ceiling, chandeliers, and Arabic medallions and mosaics, this mosque was built to be admired. Walk around the main room which looks humongous due to the lack of supporting columns, then take the stairs to the upper gallery for a closer look at the detailed ceiling art and peak over the ledge for a birdseye view of the main room.
After visiting the Hagia Sophia, walk across the Sultanahmet garden to the Blue Mosque that earns its name from the blue tiles that surround the inside walls. You won’t miss it as you can see the mosque’s huge spike shaped columns searing into the sky from just about anywhere in the area. Walk around the huge courtyard and enjoy the grandness of this mosque. The Blue Mosque is still used for prayer so to enter the mosque you are required to wear a head and shoulder shawl. Don’t worry if you don’t own one, the mosque offers loaner shawls. Note that the mosque closes to general public during the prayer hours and the prayer hours vary day to day. Before heading out to the Mosque you can check the praying hours HERE.
Hippodrome and Obelisk of Theodosius
As you walk outside of the Blue Mosque, stop by the Egyptian Obelisk which is located in the Hippodrome plaza right outside of the Mosque. This pillar, built in 1300 BC, is only one third of its original size, yet still stands tall in the plaza as the center piece for tourists, food vendors and street musicians. The pillar is engraved with ancient markings celebrating the victory of Thutmose III and reminds you of something you learned about in Art History class. The Istanbul hippodrome was an ancient place for social gatherings and chariot races and still stands as a popular place to attract tourists and crowds.
Make sure to set aside some time to see the Basilica Cistern because this underground water storage structure is a sight you don’t want to miss. Made up of 336 columns placed in a symmetrical manner, including a few featuring Medusa heads at the bases, the cistern was originally built in 532 to store the water for the palace and garden. Tourists can walk between the tall columns that are now lit up with orange lights, giving this place quite the breathtaking and mystical view.
What is a good trip without doing some shopping? Street vendors are scattered all over Istanbul, but the best place to snatch a good souvenir for a bargain is the Grand Bazaar. Here you will find anything from local spices and mosaic lamps to intricate jewelry and beautifully woven carpets. Turkish souvenirs are extremely detailed with bright colors and intricate patterns and make a great gift for family, friends or even yourself. Note that the best time to browse the Grand Bazaar is early in the morning when vendors are less likely to hassle the customers and that Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.
If you are suffering from the occasional jetlag and can’t sleep in the morning, take advantage of your sleeplessness and head down to the Gulhane garden for an unforgettable sunrise view of the bay. In the past, this park was only accessible by the royal court, but now it is available for the public and many locals use this park for running, picnicking or to enjoy a nice stroll outside. This park is filled with beautiful flowers, green trees, and antique statues, making you forget about the city hustle that surrounds you outside of the park gates.
WHERE TO EAT
One of the best things about Istanbul is the delicious food. Before you travel to Istanbul, make a reservation at the Seven Hills Restaurant because this place can get packed and for a good reason; from its rooftop patio, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Bosphorous, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, all while eating some of the best food in Istanbul. For the main course you can have a cart full of freshly caught fish brought table side, where you select what fish you want grilled.
Another popular area to dine in Istanbul is in old town at the intersection of Divan Yolu street and the Hippodrome, where you can find restaurant after restaurant in alleys packed full with tourists. This area is very busy and lively vibe, and the large number of restaurants ensure that you’ll find any cuisine you’re looking for. Many of the restaurants in this area also have rooftop patios where you’ll enjoy a view of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
After dinner, take a stroll around town and explore one of the many Turkish delight shops you’ll find. These delicious chewy candies are filled with a variety of ingredients like nuts, fruits, and other sweets. Many shops will let you sample them before you commit to one; try a few, or if you are anything like me, try them all!
WHERE TO STAY
Istanbul has two main areas where you will likely want to stay, Sultanahmet and Tuksim. Both of these areas are great and offer a variety of hotels, but where you want to stay will depend on if you want to be in close proximity to the historical landmarks or the modern dining and nightlife.
This area is within walking distance to all the mosques and ancient architectural wonders. Although this area is full with action and packed with tourists during the day, when the sun starts going down, the tourist crowds start thinning out and this area feels almost deserted. Sultanahmet is also only a 30-minute cab ride from the airport, and many hotels offer complimentary shuttles as well. Check with your hotel and make a shuttle reservation prior to arrival.
If you want to take advantage of the nightlife, world-class restaurants, and top-notch hotels, the Taksim area might be a better fit for you. Here you will find many nightclubs where tourists come to play until the wee hours of the night. Known as the modern area of Istanbul, Taksim has many major shops, restaurants and hotels like the Ritz-Carlton.
Here are some friendly tips to keep in mind while traveling through Istanbul:
- Although generally Istanbul is safe, the Sultanahmet area can feel intimidating at night because the city is made up mostly of very narrow streets. It’s always better to be safe, so stay away from any narrow streets and alleys at night if traveling alone.
- Make sure to watch your stuff. Istanbul is a big city so keep your important documents and money close to you.
- Call to prayer is played early in the morning, so unless you intend to wake up around 5 am, make sure to bring earplugs with you.
- Walking is the best way to get around Istanbul because everything is located relatively close. Most hotels offer shuttle service as well, and cabs are pretty cheap.
- Most people speak English and restaurants offer menus in English.
- Save some time at the airport and get a travel visa online before your trip. The visa line at the airport is often about an hour long.
- Have fun and enjoy your trip!
Istanbul is so much more than a history lesson or a place where you can snatch a nice souvenir. It’s mysterious, romantic, lively and rich with diversity. Whether you are traveling to Istanbul for a few days or only 24 hours, you are bound to fall in love with this city and leave with memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Written by Laura Sausina