Ideally you would be able to spend longer than one day in Istanbul to fully explore this beautiful city, but if you can’t swing it, then you definitely need to be very organised when planning your itinerary.
Turkey is a fascinating place to visit and Istanbul the only city in the world that straddles two continents. This itinerary just takes on the European side, but if you are lucky enough to extend your trip to 2 days in Istanbul, then you can spend one day exploring each continent (how many places can you say that about!).
This 1-day Istanbul itinerary will show you what you can do in just one day from things to do, places to see, where to stay and eat, as well as lots of helpful Turkey travel tips to make the most of your visit.
What to Do in Istanbul in One Day
If you only have a day to spend in Istanbul, I would recommend sticking to one area or you could end up spending a good portion of your day travelling around. Sultanahmet is a really great option to choose, particularly if it is your first trip, as it has the highest density of things to do in a relatively small area, including some of the best sites in Istanbul.
Have a think about what plans you want to make in the evening as well as this can only add to the experience; to combine fantastic views with some of the city’s best food, check out this list of Istanbul’s best rooftop bars and restaurants.
Begin your day at the Hagia Sophia, a beautiful building that started its life as a church in AD 537, later transforming into a mosque and then into the museum it is today.
Inside you will see huge domed ceilings and stunning mosaics, many interlaced with gold. Head to the upstairs galleries for a different perspective and don’t miss looking out of the windows on the opposite side, there are some lovely views of the Blue Mosque across Sultanahmet Square!
Try and get here for when it opens, or if you don’t, purchase tickets in advance as the queues can get lengthy. If you don’t manage to reserve tickets in advance, check to see if the ticket machines on your left when you walk through the gate have a smaller queue, a lot of people miss them and just queue at the kiosk.
One thing to be aware of is that there is some quite extensive construction going on inside the museum itself, a regular occurrence due to the high maintenance requirements of preserving this historic building as close to its original state as possible.
Consequently, you can find that many parts are closed off and there is lots of scaffolding. Pictures of the main hall without any evidence of the construction are actually quite tricky, particularly if it busy, it’s a small price to pay for the preservation of this wonderful piece of history though!
The Blue Mosque
Less than a five minute walk away is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the vibrant colour of the interior. Its namesake commissioned the building of the mosque back in 1616 and now his tomb lies in the grounds.
This is well known as one of Turkey’s most beautiful mosques, with six minarets instead of the usual four, the largest courtyard of all the Ottoman mosques and more stained glass windows than you could count.
As the Blue Mosque is still an active place of worship, visitor numbers are strictly controlled and you cannot pre-purchase entrance tickets. This also means that you need to dress modestly; long sleeves and trousers or skirts and ladies, you need to cover your hair as well.
The mosque also closed to non-Muslims during the five daily prayer times for 90 minutes each time. For this reason, it might be worth trying to visit the Blue Mosque after each of your stops during your one day in Istanbul for the best chance of being able to go inside and visit.
Built in the 15th century, this was home to the Ottoman sultans for generations. As you can therefore expect, it is a tad opulent! This place is huge and I would anticipate spending at least double the amount of time here than at the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque.
Wandering around this huge complex provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the Sultans and the many, many people that were part of it, from wives (multiple), children (lots of), concubines (these weren’t scarce in number either), as well as the large number of servants required to look after them all.
Take in the Imperial Council Chamber where all the state affairs were discussed, the Imperial Treasury holding some of Turkey’s most valuable artifacts and the sprawling harem. For fantastic views across Istanbul, don’t miss the Marble Terrace, a quiet area where Sultan’s of past eras came for a bit of peace and quiet.
Hit the shopping and bazaar experience in the afternoon when you have a bit more time for a leisurely wander around and preferably after you’ve had some lunch to refuel, it can be quite chaotic!
This warren of alleys and lanes are all roofed in creating a veritable labyrinth that can be hard to navigate. Part of the beauty here though is getting lost, you never know what you may find and with the multiple exit and entryways, you’ll find your way out eventually!
You can find everything here, from the traditional tourist “tat” to intricately woven scarfs, rugs, home decor and all manner of things to eat and drink. Bring your best negotiation skills, it is a compulsory part of the experience when making your purchases.
Significantly less frenetic and much easier to navigate than the Grand Bazaar, here, you can try every tea you could ever think of and be tempted by the rows and rows of delicious looking Turkish desserts lining the walkway.
The delicious and fragrant smells will hit you as soon as you walk in; if you like to bring herbs and spices back home to your kitchen after travelling, this is the place to pick them up.
On exiting the Spice Bazaar, you are right next to the infamous Galata Bridge that connects Sultanahmet with the newer and edgier districts of Karaköy and Beyoğlu. If you’re still going strong on your exploration of the city, head on over, but alternatively, just take in the sweeping views of the Bosphorus to end your day of exploring this fascinating city.
Planning Your One Day Istanbul Trip
Because of the short amount of time you will be spending in Istanbul, it may be best to stay in the area you plan to explore to reduce your travelling time between places. You will also have quite a hectic day so I am sure you will be glad of the close proximity of your bed for the night when you get to the end of it!
Sultanahmet is a popular place to stay because of its proximity to some of Istanbul’s most historic sites and this tends to be reflected in the prices which tend to be higher than other places in the city.
For the same quality but a bit easier on the wallet, try the other side of the Galata Bridge. These districts are much livelier in the way of restaurants and nightlife compared to Sultanahmet, which is generally a bit quieter in the evening.
Public transport is incredibly easy to use in Istanbul, as well as very cheap and safe. Get an Istanbulkart transport card to be able to use any of the buses, trams, metros, cable cars and even ferries traversing the city, they are available at every station from the bright yellow machines for a one-off cost of 6 TRY, with most one-way journeys around the city costing 2.60 TRY.
Be careful with the taxis, we were informed by several locals that they can often try and rip tourists off. The traffic is also fairly horrific in the city for cars, so it can also take much longer than just taking public transport. If you do take a taxi, choose the blue ‘D’, orange ‘C’ or black ‘E’ taxis (or get an Uber).
Getting From the Airport
Istanbul has recently opened its new airport, which is currently the largest one in the world. If you are connecting here, be sure to leave plenty of time, it can be a very long walk to your gate!
In 2020 the metro line is due to open which will connect the city with the airport and will probably end up being the fastest and easiest option for many. Alternatively, you can take the New Airport Transit Bus, which you can use the Istanbulkart for (these are also available to purchase at the airport).
There are lots of taxis (note the advice above though), but the journey time is hugely variable and as most taxis are metered, the cost of your journey will therefore also be as well (generally anywhere between €25 to €80). To mitigate this risk and have someone meet you at arrivals, you can also book a private transfer which will be a fixed cost of around €40 to €50 dependant on where you are staying in Istanbul.
Don’t forget to apply for your visa in advance as Turkey no longer offer the visa on arrival service. It’s a very easy e-visa system, just make sure that you do it at least 48 hours in advance of your entry date and be aware of scam websites, only go through the official Turkish e-visa website.
Costs vary depending on your country of nationality, but they are generally between $20 and $35 per person.
Where to Eat & Drink
You won’t struggle to find places to eat and drink in Istanbul, it all depends what you are in the mood for! If you are only here for a day, all of the recommendations below come with fantastic views of the city so you can soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible.
For traditional Turkish cuisine with views over Bosphorus and Galata Bridge, go to Hamdi, a local institution known for its high-quality local food. If you are after a classy affair, Vogue has some of the best views over the city; try and get there for sunset to see Istanbul in its most flattering light, best enjoyed with a glass of wine in hand on their fabulous outside deck.
For cocktails and a more party vibe, 360 Istanbul is the place to be, although you pay more for the privilege. With a view that good though, all can be forgiven!
Author Bio: This post was written by Rachael Gunn, the founder and creator behind luxury travel blog Champagne on Arrival. With a particular love of beautiful hotels and more off-beat destinations, Champagne on Arrival informs and inspires those with a passion for travel, as well as sharing lots of tips for getting travel luxury for less.
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