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Istanbul in one day: make the most of your time

Istanbul is a city full of culture and history. If you only have one day, make the most of it to see some of the key sights.

Istanbul is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It is a city with a rich history and culture, where there is much to see and do. If you’re short on time, or just want to make the most of your time in the city, here’s an itinerary to experience the best of Istanbul in just one day.

How to get to Istanbul?

Most likely, you will arrive in the city by plane, hence depending on whether you arrive at the airport on the Asian or European side, the transportation time may vary. In this dedicated article, we tell you how to get from the Istanbul airport to the center? In it, we share the two airports, so you can get an idea.

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The itinerary that we show you here is very busy, depending on whether you stay longer in any sector, you can consider discarding visits. The important thing is that you go at your own pace and that you enjoy the trip.

Sultanahmet: the Istanbul of the sultans

Sultanahmet Square

In the heart of Istanbul’s old town, Sultanahmet Square is a must-see for any first-time visitor. It is home to some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

Sultanahmet Square was once the Hippodrome of Constantinople, back in the days when the city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. You can still see some elements of those times, like the obelisk. On Fridays, the square fills with locals and tourists for the weekly prayer service at the Blue Mosque, although I have to say that the area is generally quite lively every day. In general, it will be from here that tours like this Free tour of Estambul will depart.

Stroll through the square and take in the sights and sounds of this historic part of Istanbul.

Say hello to the friends of the square

In the square you will see that there are several cats and puppies, which spend their time sleeping happily in the gardens. You can take photos of them, as you can see here.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is one of the most emblematic monuments in Istanbul. It is a must-see for any first-time visitor to the city. The mosque was built in the early 17th century by Sultan Ahmed I. It is known for its six minarets and beautiful Iznik blue tiles.

Something to consider: the Blue Mosque is open to visitors every day except Friday.

The day that we began to visit it was a Friday, but since we would stay for more than a day, we returned later. This is so that you know that if you are only going to visit Istanbul in one day, if it falls on a Friday, you will not be able to enter here.

Now, you have to know that for a few years, and probably still more to come, the Blue Mosque has been undergoing renovation works. In our case, we could only see part of the ceiling.

Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum

Another place that you can visit in the area is the Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum. It was built between 1617 and 1618 for Sultan Ahmed I, who died in 1617. In addition, his sons, Sultan Osman II, Sultan Murad IV, Sultan Ibrahim, are also buried here, as well as his wife, Sultan Kosem. The mausoleum is located in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.

The mausoleum is made of marble and is decorated with intricate tiles and is open to the public having free admission.

Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia)

Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic monuments in Istanbul. This former Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque, then converted into a museum, and as of August 1, 2020, converted back into a mosque, is a must-see for any first-time visitor to the city.

Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century AD. C. and served as a cathedral for more than 900 years. In 1453, it was converted into a mosque. Today, Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, with more than 3 million visitors each year.

One good thing about the fact that the place became a mosque again is that you no longer have to pay to enter. The downside is that you have to leave at prayer time, and you can no longer access all areas of the place. In any case, it is a place that must be seen, it is immense and that is saying little.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. The first courtyard is the largest and served as a large reception area for official and state occasions. A second courtyard housed the harem, where the sultan’s wives, children and concubines lived. On the third courtyard was used by the sultan’s viziers (chief ministers) and other high-ranking officials. And finally, the fourth courtyard contained the Imperial Treasury, the armory, the kitchen, and the mint.

In 1853, Sultan Abdül Mecit I decreed that Topkapi Palace would no longer be used as a residence for future sultans, and would instead be open to the public as a museum.

This is where you have to decide. This is because if you want to visit it, at a minimum (but I’m going to the extreme of the minimum) it would take you about two hours to explore the palace grounds. But the truth is that more is needed.

If you do not want to pay the entrance ticket and visit it completely because the truth is that if you cannot dedicate the time it deserves, the price of the entrance ticket will be too expensive, then you can only see the gardens of the free part and the doors like the one in the photo.

Have a snack

In the square you will see some red carts that sell different snacks, both sweet and salty, so if you start to get hungry, but do not want to sit down yet, they are an excellent option.

Basilica Cistern

Istanbul Basilica Cistern, located in the capital city of Turkey, is a hidden gem that is often overlooked by tourists. This former water storage tank, built in the 6th century, is now a must-see for its incredible architecture and history.

The Cistern was used as a water supply for the Great Palace during Byzantine times and could hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.

We did not intend to overlook this place, but when we went we could not enter, since it is closed for remodeling, apparently it is already open again, so take advantage! Instead, we visited another, less large, nearby cistern.

Get your flight to Istanbul at the best price

Where to eat?

If you are still in the Sultanahmet area and feel hungry, we recommend the Caferağa Medresesi coffee shop. Of course, the tables are in a patio without a roof, so if it’s raining, you’ll have to find another place.

Here we recommend you try the Manti, one of the many dishes of Turkish food that you can try during your trip to Turkey.

Shopping in the bazaars

Grand Bazaar

Istanbul Grand Bazaar is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. It is located in the Eminönü district. In this place, you can find souvenirs and gifts for loved ones who are at home, although during our stay we had the feeling that the prices brought the tourist tax. The bazaar is full of shops and stalls, and it can be easy to get lost in the crowd.

I really have to say that I didn’t love the Grand Bazaar, but you have to see it, even once, to be able to observe the comings and goings of the tea vendors, something I hadn’t seen before, and the stalls in general! Lots of them!

Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar is one of the oldest bazaars in the city. The Spice Bazaar is a covered market that was built between 1663 and 1664. It is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar because it was originally built to store spices and other products that were imported from Egypt.

The Spice Bazaar has just over 80 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, coffee, tea, and other traditional Turkish foods.

This was the bazaar that stole my heart, here I felt I could walk at ease, there was no harassment or annoying vendors. That is, the sellers do talk to you, but you do not feel harassed. In the Grand Bazaar, I did feel it. Maybe I was unlucky. However, I prefer to share it so that you are not surprised.

Galata and the Taksim neighborhood

Cross the Galata Bridge

When you are in Istanbul, make sure you cross the Galata Bridge! Spanning the Golden Horn, a natural harbor, the bridge offers incredible views of both old and new Istanbul.

On one side, you’ll see the city’s historic skyline dotted with mosques and minarets. On the other hand, you can gaze at the modern skyline of high-rise buildings. Either way, it’s a great way to get a feel for this vibrant city.

And while you cross the bridge you will also see many fishermen and numerous restaurants in case you want to eat near the water. This is the perfect place to relax and people watch as locals and tourists stroll by.

Galata Tower

If you’re looking to get a panoramic view of Istanbul, there’s no better place to go than the Galata Tower. At 66.9 meters tall, the tower offers 360-degree views of the cityscape.

Once at the top, take your time to enjoy the views. On a clear day, you can see all of Istanbul, from the Bosphorus Strait in the north to Dolmabahçe Palace in the south.

When you finish seeing the tower, you can explore the Galata district. It is full of narrow streets and small shops.

Take the train to Taksim

Near the Galata Tower, there is the Tünel station, where you can take a tram that will take you to Taksim Square, passing through Istikal Street. Taksim is a district located on the European side of Istanbul. It is known for being the center of nightlife and entertainment in the city.

Taksim Square is the main square of the district and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Istanbul. The square is home to many restaurants, cafés, and shops, as well as a monument commemorating the Republic of Turkey. Also, you will see that Istikal Avenue is one of the most popular shopping streets in Istanbul. This pedestrian-only street is lined with boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.

To close the visit of Istanbul in one day

There are several options to end the day, whether it’s taking a Turkish bath session or a cruise on the Bosphorus and even if it’s time for dinner, take a dinner cruise.

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Olga Grijalva

Olga is a traveler and travel content creator with 17 years of experience. Her goal is to share useful information to help you plan your adventures. She has visited more than 40 countries and is excited to share her experience with you.