Welcome to a city that constantly vibrates from the beats of Sufi drums and the rhythm of daily prayers! Istanbul is a metropolis of expansive regions that encompasses both Europe and Asia…with the Bosphorus River slicing the two continents.
With an ever growing population of 14 million people (unofficial count), the city is a mash up of Western and Eastern culture all rolled up together.
The city has 3 parts to it. You have the historic and famous Sultanahmet square along with the vibrant European area on one side of the Bosphorus, while on the other side you have the Asian area. Each of these 3 regions of Istanbul have their own charm, culture and attractions for visitors to explore.
When planning a trip to Istanbul, the most important thing to consider is the amount of time you have there. You could spend months on end exploring the city and still not get to see everything it has to offer.
With this in mind, we’ve created a mini guide for those of you who have just a full-day to explore Istanbul.
We had a full week there ourselves, but we did all that you will read below in this guide in a 24 hour period.
Usually, people come here as part of a tour either at the beginning or at the end, and they become overwhelmed at the options available to them.
Having a clear guide about what to do with a limited time budget will ease the stress levels, so let’s get started!
In order to maximise your time in the city, we’d recommend you stay in or around the Sultanahmet area of the city, but it’s not completely necessary, it will just allow you more time to explore rather than sitting in a bus or taxi commuting.
More about accommodation options later on…
1. Start your day with a traditional Turkish breakfast
With the mind blowing amount of options for eating in Istanbul, you’ll only have to walk a few feet before you encounter a cafe or restaurant.
A typical Turkish breakfast consists of either tea or coffee, although the locals are known for their love of tea. White bread is also mandatory along with a few other ingredients like olives, white cheese, boiled eggs, sliced tomatoes/cucumbers and honey or jam.
We enjoyed our mornings nibbling on the above sitting out in the sunshine watching the world go by.
2. Take a Stroll Around the Sultanahmet District
This is the heart of the old Istanbul, which early travellers used to call Stamboul!
Most of the main attractions are located alongside the Sultanahmet sqaure, including; Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Byzantine Hippodrome, the Istanbul Archeological Museums and the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
We only wanted to visit the Blue mosque and the Hagia Sophia, so for the sake of this mini guide, that’s all we’re going to cover from the above points of interest.
3. Get yourself Inside the Hagia Sophia
Originally built as a Church back around 360 AD, this monstrous building dominates the skyline. It was owned by the orthodox Catholics for the whole duration, but there was a period of about 50 years between 1204 and 1261 when it was a cathedral for the Romans.
It’s hard not to be in awe of the beautiful mosaics as you stand underneath the dome looking up. While we’re not very interested in mosques or churches in general, we can appreciate the history that they have and the architecture it took to build them.
The Hagia Sophia is a museum today, although it still looks like a mosque inside and outside. It’s considered to be one of the most important landmarks in Istanbul, and for good reason. Treasures were buried there and emperors were crowned there over the centuries.
Entrance Fee: 30 TL (€9.30 approx)
Visiting Hours: 9am – 7pm (Summer months) – 9am – 5pm (Winter months)
Closed: Mondays (may change during different times of the year, so make sure you check)
4. Explore the Beauty of the Blue Mosque
Perhaps the most photographed and well-known landmark in the whole of Istanbul, the Blue Mosque got its unofficial name from the blue Iznik tiles that cover the interior of the building.
It has 6 minarets (usually Mosques only have a max of 4) and the courtyard is the biggest of all of the Ottoman mosques. Due to its huge popularity, admission is supervised to keep the tradition of its sacred atmosphere.
Worshippers are permitted to enter through the main door, while tourists like ourselves must use the door on the south side of the building (keep an eye out for the signs).
While we did not go inside the mosque, we did find out a few pointers that visitors should bear in mind if they intend to enter.
- Women will need to cover their heads and shoulders with a hijab out of respect. Don’t worry if you’ve nothing appropriate with you, they will provide you with suitable clothing!
- Men also need to dress in a conservative way in order to enter…so no wife beater vests 🙂
- Both men and women have their own sections inside to pray. The men use the main hall, while the women use another room in the back of the mosque, strangely enough!
- The mosque is closed to visitors 5 times a day for a period of 30 minutes each time for prayer. Keep this in mind if you’re running short on time!
Entrance Fee: Free
Visiting Hours: Don’t visit during prayer time
Closed: Open every day
5. Sample the Turkish cuisine
Depending on the length of time you spent since having breakfast, you may be feeling a little peckish.
Luckily, Istanbul has a wide variety of foods from all over the world available, however, you may as well sample some local Turkish food (other than those tasty kebabs)!
Here a few choices of popular dishes to keep in mind.
This is flat bread mixed with hand rolled pastry, which is called Yufka. Ingredients may include feta cheese, egg, minced meat, seafood, potatoes etc. Then the whole thing is baked on a grill.
In general the Turkish people love eating fish. The fish from the black sea or Marmara sea are extremely tasty we’re told, that there’s no need to add sauce to most fish dishes. Hamsi is one of the most popular fish and it’s pan-fried or grilled along with Pilav rice.
This is Turkish pizza that has a combination of beef, lamb, vegetables, tomatoes, onions and herbs in it. After it’s baked in the stone oven it’s crunchy and in general a lot thinner than traditional pizza. The locals drink Ayran with it.
The above three dishes are just some of the more popular choices that locals like to eat. You could write multiple posts just talking about the food choices in Istanbul!
6. Take a Bosphorus River cruise
One of the most overlooked things to do in Istanbul is to take a cruise along the Bosphorus River. We highly recommend you plan this into your day, as you really get to see some great views of the city in the two hour trip.
As I mentioned at the start of the post, the Bosphorus divides Europe and Asia. The river was a vital trading route in ancient times and it connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.
There are plenty of ferry options for this tour but be warned as there are many untrustworthy options among them. If you’re walking along the docks in search of a ferry, then you’ll be targeted by some companies who will charge you double for half the time and put you in a boat that hardly resembles a boat!
These hustlers are always on the look out for easy prey, so it’s best to avoid them at all costs.
Prices vary widely for this tour but a ball park figure would be around €15 – €25 per person for a 2 hour trip with a guide.
When I say “guide”, I mean just general information over a loudspeaker about the various spots on the cruise.
Make sure to bring a jacket with you if you plan on being on the top deck (depending on the time of year of course).
We choose a tour agency around the Sultanahmed area and paid €20 each. We definitely could have gotten it cheaper, but we didn’t want to spend too much time filtering through agencies.
7. Find the Best Panoramic Viewpoint of Istanbul
Our river cruise started at 2pm and we were back on land just after 4pm.
So the rush was on to get to a “secret” panoramic viewpoint of Istanbul that we’d heard about.
This secret viewpoint turned out to be not so secret after all, but it definitely gave a cracking vista of the city.
To find this viewpoint, you first should make your way to the Grand Bazaar (more about this below).
The entrance can be found in the Valide Han. After you pass under the big stone archway, you must take the stairs to your right – just before it opens into the square.
There will be an old man who’s making a killing by charging everyone anything from 1 TL to 3 TL (€0.30 to €1) to let you up the stairs to the rooftop.
For the 20 minutes we were up on the rooftop there must have been 50 – 80 people coming and going.
Anyways, the view is amazing and we got there just before the sun set and got ourselves a nice few shots standing on top of one of the huge domes.
8. Experience the Chaos of the Grand Bazaar
We’d recommend your final stop to be a stroll around the Grand Bazaar after you catch the sun going down.
The grand bazaar is one of the biggest and most popular shopping locations in the world with literally hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to it.
It has over 6,000 artisanal shops and the area covers a few city blocks. Most people, like us for example, just head there to wander aimlessly around and stop off for a coffee and chill.
If you do plan on buying stuff there, then make sure you haggle to get the best price possible. Even with a good haggle, you still may pay way over the price unless you know the value of what you’re buying etc.
We personally love local markets and visiting the grand bazaar certainly was an interesting one to add to the list.
Entrance Fee: Free
Visiting Hours: 8:30am to 7pm
Closed: Every Sunday (Open days may change depending on special holidays)
Where we stayed in Istanbul
The hotel is literally a stone throw away from the Sultanahmet Square and, subsequently, just across from the Blue Mosque.
As some of you know, we love “flashpacking” it from time to time on our travels and the Ibrahim Pasha definitely exudes luxury!
From the lobby to the rooms, the hotel boasts of style and charm and gives a boutique hotel feeling.
The lobby has a wood burning fire to greet you as you walk in the door and you can also sit down right beside it in the comfy lounge area and use the speedy Wifi to catch up on work, or just relax. We did both 🙂
Our room had everything we needed in terms of facilities and having a long soak in the bath after a long day of sightseeing was most welcome.
Breakfast was amazing and had a variety of salads, cereal, fruits along with eggs, cheeses, cold meats, tea/coffee etc.
The staff were also amazingly friendly and polite and really went out of their way to make our stay as comfortable as possible. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the hotel and if you stay there, then don’t forget to check out the view from the top floor if it’s a clear day – it’s pretty cool!
So there you have it; a little guide about what to do in Istanbul if you’re on a time budget of 24 hours.
It may seem like a lot of activity for just one day, but it’s possible if you plan it correctly. You could also skip dinner until you’re finished sightseeing and that way you’d maximise the time that you’ve available even further!
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