The Best Way to Spend 24 Hours in Istanbul

If you’ve got a short rendezvous in the city situated in the East and the West and straddling a major waterway, then prioritize seeing a few key historical monuments while enjoying modern cuisine. Given that the city has two airports on both continents, decide if you’d like to see Europe and the old city or Asia, or both if you plan well. See the most important sites and neighbourhoods and you’ll take away some good memories from this city of minarets and bridges, ancient relics and modern skyscrapers.

One of the most ephemeral highlights of your trip can be a trip across the Bosphorus waterway. Take a ferry trip across the waters with the seagulls from one of the stations and you won’t need a private and more expensive Bosphorus tour. This is how most Istanbullites cross the continents each day for work and entertainment.

A layover in this big and beautiful metropolis is totally possible with around 2-3 hours allocated to go to the city and come back to the airport. Check out our layover guide to the city!

But what if you’ve got more time i.e. around 24 hours in the city? It can seem daunting but surprisingly doable if you’ve got some plans, a map, an open mind and a few insider tips! Here’s your guide to 24 hours in Istanbul!

Morning

visit the blue mosque

Take your feet to the Sulanahmet Square, from where you can spend the morning exploring all the nearby sites. These include the Sultanahmet Mosque or the Blue mosque. Admire the blue tiles and the gigantic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling outside of prayer hours.

Image sourced from Flickr

Next, don’t forget to admire its fountain and take a short break on one of the benches in the park outside. Grab some street food such as Simit or one of the other most popular street foods. 20,000 Iznik tiles, stained glass windows and calligraphy are prominent throughout the mosque.

Image by NauticalVoyager from Pixabay

The mosque is lit in the evenings and the stained glass windows and chandeliers add illumination — a stunning sight!

tour the hagia sophia

After, take yourself to the Hagia Sophia — it’ll be hard to miss this because of its massive dome and pink colour.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Inside, you’ll find both Byzantine mosaics and Ottoman additions with a niche and a pulpit. Round medallions featuring historically important Islamic names are displayed in the central part, for instance.

Spend a good hour here admiring the structure, including the iconic chandeliers and popular 1500-year old Christian mosaics on the upper floors as well as the ceiling. See some of the mosaics up close and look down for a breathtaking view of the central nave from the top — the photo that’s most associated with the monument.

Photo by Musa Ortaç from Pexels

Mosaics of Christ, Virgin Mary and angels adorn the walls of the building, along with marble columns and decorative ceilings. Chandeliers and natural light filtering in illuminate the interiors beautifully giving it a mythical air.

explore the grand bazaar and spice bazaar

Not far from Sultanahmet, you’ll find a bustling street called Divan Yolu and it’ll easily take you to one of the biggest covered bazaars in the world — the Grand Bazaar and beside it, the Spice Bazaar, also called the Egyptian Bazaar.

Image by emahmuzlu from Pixabay

This is the place for shopaholics and souvenir hunters. You can take home colourful ceramics with tulip motifs, silver and gold jewellery and of course, dried herbs, spices and Turkish sweets such as Lokum. Visit the small but popular shop of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir Lokumları in Fatih close by. When you get there, try some of the lesser-known flavours such as peppermint, mastic or rosewater with pistachio.

Image sourced from Flickr

Alternatively, you can pack up some dried herbs such as mountain thyme, herbal teas such as chamomile, hibiscus, linden, lemon balm and spice mixes for meat or breakfast such as zaatar.

Afternoon

wander around the Topkapı palace complex

Topkapı Palace with the Bosphorus Strait in the background, sourced from Pixabay

Get in line and spend at least two hours at the Topkapı Palace and if you desire, explore the Harem quarters that cost a little bit extra. The palace served as the seat of power and as a residence for almost 400 years, especially since the reign of Sultan Suleiman.

Image sourced from Flickr

The complex is bigger than what it is today to include sites and gates outside of the current palace/museum. It includes kiosks such as the Alay pavilion opposite the Sublime Porte, which was the seat of the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. Not far, you’ll find one of the most beautiful parks of Istanbul — Gülhane Park. This park was a private rose garden of the palace but is now a public and pedestrianized park enjoyed by all.

Image sourced from Flickr

Today, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it offers visitors a glimpse into palace life. Rose and tulip gardens, the invaluable artefacts, stunning interiors and stately gifts from international visitors, along with the courtyards will keep you occupied for a long time.

Image sourced from Pxfuel

Lavish furnishings and decor in the many pavilions and kiosks will surely take you back to the golden years of Sultan the Magnificent, the longest reigning Ottoman sultan. Be sure to explore the terraces of the palace from where you can see a bird’s eye of the city in all its glory — from the East to the West!

take a stroll across the galata bridge

Image sourced from Flickr

Once you’ve got your fill of the old city, take a walk on the famous Galata Bridge connecting the old peninsula and the relatively newer part of Istanbul, Pera/Beyoğlu. This 175-year old bridge is popular with not only Istanbullites but also artists, writers and poets as it represents a bridge between the old and the new. It bridges the area near the Spice Bazaar, the New Mosque to the Karaköy area, not far from the Karaköy ferry station.

As you walk the bridge, you’ll notice the traffic, a modern tramway operating on the bridge and the unmistakable row of fish anglers on both sides. The bottom part of the bridges houses many fish restaurants where you can grab Istanbul’s famous street food balık ekmek.

brunch in karaköy, galata

Get yourself to Karaköy to have good options for a top-notch brunch! This area is a hip and quickly gentrifying neighbourhood on the opposite side of the old peninsula. You can check out local

Anyone familiar with Turkish food will rave about its breakfast culture and spread. A typical Turkish breakfast or Kahvaltı is an elaborate affair that’s best enjoyed leisurely!

Head to Karaköy and the Galata area as there are tons of breakfast options on this side of European Istanbul. Our article on the best breakfast options will give you more details here. Most places offer breakfast until 2 pm, sometimes even all-day! Freshly baked bread, cheese and fresh ingredients such as olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs and greens. Be sure to read our guide to know precisely what to order — menemen, sucuk with eggs, gözleme or pişi. 

Image sourced from Namli Gürme’s Facebook page.

In Karaköy, make sure to try Namlı Gurme, one of the best places for brunch and take home some delicacies like local honey, helva and cured meat. This deli and restaurant hybrid offers a unique concept: the hostess assigns a table and once you’re ready, then head to the deli to order your breakfast with böreks or Menemen, cheeses by the slice or smoked and dried meat.

Once you have your fill, explore the area further with its independent small boutiques and concept shops. Visit the colourful bookshop-cafe hybrid Fil — one of the best bookshops the city has to offer. Furthermore, if you fancy a spa experience, head to the Kılıç Ali Paşa hammam.

Alternatively, you cross the main thoroughfare here and make it a point to visit SALT Galata and the Ottoman bank museum, both housed in the same historical building.

see the galata tower

Image sourced from Unsplash

The 5th-century Galata Tower is one of the most popular tourist attractions and offers unparalleled views of Istanbul. The tower was built when the Genoese started settling in the region in the 1300s. Later, it was renovated and had multiple uses including as a watchtower and a prison. Today, it serves as an important symbol of the city today.

The 360-degree views of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea combined be with a dining experience at the tower’s only restaurant. Sunsets at the panoramic balcony is an experience like no other!

Image sourced from Galata Konak Cafe’s Facebook page

On the other hand, you can just choose to take a photo from the street level if you choose to forgo the queue here. Instead, you can head to the Galata Konak Cafe for the views but also to rest your legs and grab a bite to eat!

Evening

walk on istiklal towards taksim square

Taking a stroll on Istiklal Avenue is one of the top things you should do in Istanbul. This is Istanbul’s lifeline — always crowded and offering shopping options on both sides, with some great bookshops, small boutiques and even big chain stores!

On the other hand, you should venture into the smaller streets, shopping arcades and some historical shopping gallerias as well, where you can grab some souvenirs to take home! For example, there’s theÇiçek Pasajı, a former flower’s market or the Beyoğlu fish market. Don’t forget to check out the local bar street here called Nevizade. It serves local rakı and snacks. This is the best place for people watching and you’ll enjoy the milieu of locals and visitors enjoying a drink and some well-deserved time out with friends.

take a taxi to ortaköy

Ortaköy Mosque, as seen from the Bosphorus Bridge, sourced from Flickr

From Taksim, hop on a taxi and ask to be dropped off in Ortaköy. You’ll travel one of the most popular streets of Istanbul called Çırağan Caddesi. You’ll see this historical street lined with plane trees, palaces and complexes on the Bosphorus side and the stone walls of the Yıldız Palace on the other side. These include now famous universities and schools such as Galatasaray University and the Feriye Palace complex with many intricately decorated waterfront buildings. These palaces of sultans and diplomats now house waterfront restaurants and special occasion venues, as seen in the picture above.

Image sourced from Pexels

When you get to Ortaköy square, take a stroll and a few memorable photos at the site with the mosque and the bridge. The Neo-Baroque Büyük Mecidiye mosque contrasts with the illuminated bridge beautifully! The mosque is an example of Ottoman architecture with European influences.

When you get to Ortaköy square, take a stroll and a few memorable photos at the site with the mosque and the bridge. The Neo-Baroque Büyük Mecidiye mosque contrasts with the illuminated bridge beautifully! The mosque is an example of Ottoman architecture with European influences.

The area is also known for a particular potato-based street food called KumpirBuy one near the Mosque or sit down at a cafe overlooking the water. However, we recommend to head to Banyan for its view!

a drink with a view

Image sourced Banyan’s website

Head to the modern restaurant Banyan in Ortaköy for a quick snack. This popular restaurant overlooks the first Bosphorus bridge. Combining Eastern sensibitilies, Asian spices with Turkish ingredients, you can find Aloo Ouri, Karaage with kimchi sauce, ginger samosa, grape leaf artichokes and Freekeh risotto. For drinks, try local wines such as Turkish white and red wines, spirits, rosé and even champagne!

a traditional turkish dinner in eminönü

Head back to the Galata bridge and straight to the award-winning restaurant Hamdi. It offers traditional and modern takes on the Turkish cuisine and Turkish desserts. Specializing in meat dishes from the Southeast of Turkey, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find at least 16 types of kebabs on the menu. Accompanying the mains, there’s a long list of hot and cold mezes too. Sweets like Katmer and Kunefe to finish off your last meal in the city!

Image sourced from Hamdi restaurant’s website

The original owner — Hamdi Usta — is from the city of Urfa in Southeastern Turkey and the restaurants stands at the original location. Today, the restaurant occupies the whole building. In fact, we recommend you head to the terrace which offers a unique view of Istanbul. The restaurant’s location near the New Mosque, the Spice Bazaar offers a unique view directly opposite the Galata Bridge!