A bridge between continents and a battleground between empires, few cities have left their mark on history like Istanbul. If you’re coming to Türkiye’s capital city to experience living history in an open-air museum… well, yes, you’ll certainly get that. But you’ll also be able to immerse yourself in one of the largest, most vibrant, and complex cities found anywhere in Europe or Asia. The former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul is always changing in more than name.
The only way to feel its energy is to visit for yourself, but in such a large city, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are four sensational one-day itineraries to help you make the most of those days at leisure in Istanbul.
Must-See Icons of Old Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia is Istanbul’s number one architectural icon. Originally built as a Byzantine church, its purpose has changed over the years, most recently in 2020, when it was reclassified (not without controversy) as a mosque. That being said, the Hagia Sophia’s magnificent aesthetic appeal remains undiminished and it remains open to the public. It’s best to get here before 9am to enjoy comparatively limited crowds and not interfere with daily prayers. Then cross Sultan Ahmet Park to the Blue Mosque. This opulent worship site was built in 1616 and enchants visitors with its intricate blue tile work. Give yourself enough time to see it before prayers start around 11.30am. Be sure also to follow instructions and not disturb worshippers.
Getting peckish? Street food is ubiquitous in Istanbul, and if you see any stall with a line of locals (we stress, locals) take note. It’s good advice anywhere, but there’s no reason to shell out for expensive eateries in the shadow of big attractions in Istanbul. Definitely avoid foreign chains, which are about as far from traditional Turkish cuisine as it gets. Don’t worry! The city still boasts plenty of beloved restaurants, each with their own specialties from across Türkiye, and its many neighbours.
Hunger sated, dive into another Istanbul icon, the Great Bazaar. While dazzling to explore, take care if you’re actually shopping. This is one of Istanbul’s top tourist destinations, are its wares are priced accordingly. Still, the sheer energy here, plus the mind-boggling array of items in the bazaar makes a couple of hours worthwhile. Just be sure to bargain if you do see something you like. Continue to the Spice Bazaar for sweet and savoury treats if you’re feeling snacky.
Finally, as the sun lowers over this ultimate fusion of east and west, board a sunset cruise on the Bosphorus. Defining Istanbul’s place in history, this is one of the most important waterways in the world. If you’re on a tight budget, hop the commuter ferry to Kadıköy (just be sure to get a round trip). Otherwise, a proper cruise will show the city in its best light before a magical night in Istanbul.
Bringing Historic Istanbul to Life
If the Hagia Sophia captures the splendour of the Byzantine Empire, Topkapi Palace is all about Ottoman opulence. For 400 years, Topkapi served as the empire’s administrative centre, and today preserves its beauty, including its incredible gardens. Don’t miss the Harem either, where the sultan’s wife, mother, and concubines lived. The palace can easily eat up half a day, but if you have time, squeeze in a visit to the Turkish Archaeological Museums next door. At lunchtime, remember to step away from big attractions when choosing a spot to nosh. Look for a queue (of locals!), perhaps grab a doner or kumpir (jacket potato), and head into beautiful Gülhane Park to see Istanbul at play, particularly if it’s a weekend.
Istanbul boasts a number of famous cisterns dating back to various points in its history, but Basilica Cistern is the most popular, with good reason. It’s mysterious, a little creepy, and absolutely the best way to transport yourself back to Roman times. Cross Sultanahment Square to the remains of the Hippodrome to complete the immersion, then hop the tram to the ancient walls of Constantinople, and if you have time, their accompanying museum. No understanding of the city’s history is complete without a visit here.
Exploring the Shores of Eminönü
Start your day with an early morning walk along Galata Bridge, where you can watch the Bosphorus come to life one fishing rod at a time. Your destination? Two of Istanbul’s most beautiful mosques. The Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent opens at 8.30am and is a local favourite after a stunning 2010 restoration. Nearby, don’t miss the Rustem Pasha Mosque, which dazzles with its Iznik tile work. Like all mosques in Istanbul, these close during prayer times, usually between 11.30am and 1.30pm, so grab a balik ekmek (fish sandwich) and watch the organized chaos of Eminönü Square, or weave your way over to the Spice Market for fresh treats if you haven’t already (or go twice, we’re not judging).
Devote your afternoon to the colourful neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat just to the northwest. Traditional houses painted in bright colours define one of the most charismatic areas of Istanbul. Yet, far from being a tourist trap, the area preserves European-Turkish culture with its many Orthodox churches and sidewalk cafes. You can even visit the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus for a glimpse of life as a 13th-century Byzantine prince. Don’t miss a walk up the colourful steps of Merdivenli Yokuş Evleri, and if the 6th century Kariye Mosque has reopened in time for your visit, step inside to admire its incredible frescoes and religious art.
The Best of Modern Karaköy
Karaköy is where young Turks shrug off stuffy conservatism and let loose in late-night cafes and cocktail bars. Come morning, they fend off their hangovers at traditional bakeries in the shadow of Istanbul’s coolest street art and start another day shaping the new face of the city’s ever-changing creative scene. In short, if you want to understand today’s Istanbul, this is the place to be, day or night.
Get to Galata Tower by 8.45am for the 9am opening and avoid the queue. Let your jaw drop at the views from this 5th-century ‘skyscraper,’ then get your Türkiye 101 at Galata Mevlevi Lodge Museum, arguably the best collection of Turkish artifacts and culture on the planet, complete with regular whirling dervish performances. Take some time exploring the streets of Karaköy, but don’t linger too long on pedestrian Istikal Street, unless you’re dying to shop at chain stores you can probably find at home. Step inside the Museum of Innocence, showcasing Turkish household objects from the 19th century, or the Dogançay or Pera Museums on your way to lively Taksim Square… and more street food, of course.
If you just can’t get enough Turkish opulence, level up the wow factor at Dolmabahçe Palace, a sultan’s residence now serving as a museum. Afterward (or alternatively) book in a few hours of pampering at one of the many hammam spas and baths that carry on this most decadent of Turkish self-care traditions. They’re more than happy to show visitors how it’s done.
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