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The Perfect One Day Istanbul Itinerary

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I just got back from a two-week trip to Israel with my MBA program and was fortunate to have a long layover in Istanbul, Turkey on the way back to the US to explore with two friends from my grad program. If you’re interested in reading a 10-day itinerary for your vacation in Israel, that was my last post. This blog post is going to cover the perfect one day Istanbul itinerary. Keep reading to learn where to stay, what to do and see, and where to eat during your 24 hours in Istanbul.

How To Get There

Istanbul is one of the most popular layovers in the world. Geographically, it’s situated exactly between Europe and Asia… literally. Did you know that Istanbul spans both continents? There’s an Asian side and a European side, although the European side is more visited. Anyways, I mention this because the Istanbul airport is HUGE and very convenient to get to. We had a 24-hour layover here through Turkish Airlines on our way back to NYC from Tel Aviv. We took advantage of this layover by exploring for a full day and staying at a local hotel one night. If you’re ever flying east from Europe to the Middle East or Asia, I highly recommend looking into a layover here.

Once you land at the Istanbul Airport, it’s about a 40 drive to the Sultanahmet neighborhood, where you’ll want to stay. This is the area where Istanbul’s major attractions are located, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It’s also all walkable and felt very safe, so if it’s your first visit I recommend it. Just grab a taxi from the bottom floor of the airport to here. There’s a set rate and it’s very affordable.

Where To Stay

As previously mentioned, you’ll want to situate yourself in the Sultanahmet neighborhood for convenience if you choose to follow this Istanbul itinerary. Especially if it’s your first visit so you can walk to all the major sites. There are a lot of hotels and apartments in this area, making the choice a bit overwhelming. Let me help with that!

I HIGHLY recommend the Agora Life Hotel. First, the staff is extremely accommodating. We didn’t have cash for our cab and instead of having to sprint to a local ATM, the front desk receptionist paid for our cab with his personal cash and allowed us to pay him back a day later. They also made the check-in process seamless and helped us find our local guide. Additionally, the hotel is conveniently located just a few blocks from the main mosques in the city, and just steps away from a surplus of shops and restaurants. Also, since my friends Grace, Kendyl, and I were a group of three, we were able to book a “triple” room that had 3 twin beds. I’ve never seen this before and loved that it was an option.

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What To Know Before You Go

Before I dive into the Istanbul itinerary, I want to shout out some helpful information to know before you go. Istanbul is NOT the capital of the Republic of Turkey, Ankara is, but it’s one of the most visited cities. Its people are Turks, who are decedents of the Ottoman Empire, which once consisted of mostly people from Central Asia (ex. Mongolians are distant cousins). The primary language spoken here is Turkish, although you can find English widely spoken.

Budgeting for this Istanbul Itinerary

Haggling is a common practice in markets such as the Grand Bazaar where you can score some epic goods for even more epic deals. The currency used here is the Turkish Lira, which is an ancient currency. Turkey is EXTREMELY affordable. Here’s a few examples:

  • 3 bagels cost $.65 USD total
  • Taxi was about $20 USD for a 40-minute ride
  • A 3-course dinner at a 5-star restaurant with a full bottle of wine, apps, an entrée, and dessert was $50 total for 3 people

Pro-tip: I wouldn’t recommend drinking the tap water, and instead budgeting for bottles of water. We used water bottles to even brush our teeth. I noticed signs in the airport saying that the water wasn’t potable and watched our waiters pour us water out of glass bottles instead of the tap, so just be cautious about this.

Religion / Historical Background for Istanbul

Turkey is primarily Muslim. Look up Islamic holidays before you visit. We visited during the last day of Ramadan and the city was 10x as crowded as it normally is.

Istanbul was once Constantinople. Recognize this name from your old history books?? The name means the “City of Constantine”. This city gained importance during the time of the Eastern Roman Empire, which eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire after the Greek emperor who conquered it. The Ottoman Empire took over Constantinople in 1453 and ruled for centuries under 25+ different sultans.

Fun Fact: Something else to note about Istanbul is there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. But don’t feel too sad… the city does something pretty amazing. The government uses tax dollars to pick up strays from the streets, bring them to a shelter / vet to get fixed and marked, and returns to them to their neighborhoods if the shelters are too packed. They will then pay to leave out food and water for the animals instead of euthanizing them. I saw several packs of wild dogs during my 24 hours in Istanbul, and although their wounds were hard to see at times, it made me happy they were given the opportunity to live long lives.

Istanbul itinerary

Your Istanbul Itinerary: What To See

For this portion of the blog post, I’m going to recommend booking a local guide! We only had one day in Istanbul and wanted to ensure we saw the highlights, so I found a 7-hour walking tour on TripAdvisor that covered it all. Here’s a link to the tour if you’re interested.

Topkapi Palace

The first site we visited was the Topkapi Palace. This is the main castle on the European side of Istanbul that has beautiful gardens and a view of the Asian side of the city. You’ll enter the palace through the Cannonball Gate. Once in the grounds, a lot of tourists spend time in the gardens before walking towards the official castle entrance. The Reception Gate has two sides that represent the European and Asian sides of the city.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

View of the Asian side of Istanbul

The castle is HUGE. It looks small from the front but extends super far back throughout 4 different courtyards. Inside, there’s several libraries, meeting rooms, and even a university! I was most impressed by the weapons room that had all of the sultan’s ceremonial weapons on display. Most were extremely elaborate and covered in gold.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

The architecture in the castle was extremely impressive as well, with mosaics and stunning Turkish light fixtures. Most of the script we saw was written in Arabic, including the sultan signature. On our tour we learned that all sultan signatures were pretty much the same – 3 vertical lines to represent the African, Asian, and European continents and 2 horizontal swirls to represent the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

It was also interesting to see all the elaborate mosaic water fountains throughout the property. Apparently, these weren’t used for drinking water, but actually to drown out the sound of the Sultan’s private meetings. They were often located just outside of the meeting rooms and within the sultan’s bedroom.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

I would set aside about 2 hours to tour the entire palace. It’s the largest historical site in Istanbul and is definitely worth taking your time in.

Theodosius Cistern

After the palace, we tried some traditional sesame Turkish bagels and rushed over to the Theodosius Cistern. We rushed because this underground cistern puts on a very unique light effects show every few hours, and we made it just in time! A cistern is an underground cavern where fresh water or food was stored. It was dark and very cool, supported by giant columns.

There are quite a few cisterns underneath the city that were used for food storage during the Ottoman period. This specific cistern is one of the oldest water systems in the city and was built in the 5th century AD. It can hold 30,000 tons of water! During the time of the Ottoman Empire, wealthy people had their own water systems underneath their homes. Today, the cistern is a museum. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before so definitely carve out 30 minutes or so on your Istanbul itinerary to visit.

cistern to visit on Istanbul itinerary

Grand Bazaar

Our next visit should’ve been the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the largest, oldest, and most famous markets in the world. Unfortunately, it was closed the one day we were in Istanbul due to the Ramadan holiday. This was a HUGE bummer for us, so definitely do your research before you plan your Istanbul itinerary. I guess in the end it was probably better for my wallet and suitcase, but I was still disappointed.

The ancient Silk Road (you know, the one you read about in history books?), ended at the Grand Bazaar where goods were sold from both Asia and Europe. Apparently, this crossroads is quite apparent today, as you can find everything here from teas and spices from Asia to European pastries to traditional Turkish rugs.

Hagia Sophia

Our next two stops were the two I was most looking forward to seeing and the two you MUST see on your Istanbul itinerary. The first was the Hagia Sophia. This name is Greek for the “Church of Holy Wisdom”. Hagia means Church. This structure was built in only 5 years, which I’m still trying to process. Construction began in 532 and was completed in 537. It’s made primarily out of brick and marble and to this day, still has the biggest dome in the world. It also has over 100 grand columns located inside.

Hagia Sophia on Istanbul itinerary

Hagia Sophia on Istanbul itinerary

It was also once the largest church in the world. The purpose of this building as evolved overtime, as it began as a church and was later converted into a mosque. More recently, it was actually converted into a museum. The city charged a fee to those who visited. Three years ago, the government voted to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Now, carpet covers the entire floor (as it does in all mosques for prayer), shoes must be removed to enter, and women must cover their heads. Disposable head coverings can be purchased right outside of the mosque, although I recommend packing your own shawl for the religious sites on this Istanbul itinerary. A huge benefit to this change, however, was that the entry fee was waved. Since it’s now a mosque, entry is free for all.

Pro-tip: Although the Hagia Sophia is now free and easier to access as a mosque, be aware that the public isn’t allowed inside during prayer. Muslims pray 5x a day, so time your visit accordingly.

Hagia Sophia on Istanbul itinerary

Blue Mosque

I was so surprised about how close the Hagia Sophia was to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is equally as famous and is located directly across from a courtyard and the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is famous for its stunning blue tiles and mosaics located throughout the inside. Unfortunately, this was all under construction when we visited, so we only took pictures from the outside.

Fun Fact: This mosque is newer than the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 1600s and took 7 years to complete. It’s the 3rd largest mosque in Turkey, which is impressive considering there’s more than 3,000.

I love experiencing cultures different than my own and was in awe at this park / courtyard during the call to prayer. Five times a day, a male vocalist will sing into a speaker to call Muslims to pray. It’s the same chant, said at the same time 5x a day by every single mosque in the world. It’s spoken in Arabic, but basically translates to “There is only one God and no one else will come before Allah”, according to our tour guide. Both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia switched off lines over their speakers during this time, and it was just the most surreal thing to hear.

Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Where To Eat

We only had one day in Istanbul, so we just ate the traditional sesame bagels for brunch and went out for dinner. For dinner, I HIGHLY recommend Galeyan. This was recommended by our local guide and was a real treat. First, this is the restaurant I mentioned above with the insanely cheap prices, so expect affordability. Second, the service was impeccable. We were brought pita and spreads to try on the house and had local wine. The appetizers and entrees were top notch, and we were able to end by trying some traditional Turkish coffees and teas. Turkish coffee is extremely strong in both caffeine content and taste, so be prepared. But also be sure to try some on your Istanbul itinerary.

Traditional bagels in Istanbul, Turkey

Food in Istanbul, Turkey

That’s all for my Istanbul itinerary! After dinner we just made our way back to the hotel for bed because we had to get up at 3 am the next day for a long travel day back to NYC. I hope you all found this guide helpful and think about planning a trip to Istanbul yourself! It quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world, alongside Florence and Stockholm, and I definitely plan on returning. Ideally, I’d visit Cappadocia next time as well, which is known for its whimsical rock pillars and hot air balloon rides.

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