Istanbul is a major city in Turkey that uniquely straddles both the continents of Europe and Asia. Often mistaken as the capital of the country, which is actually Ankara, Istanbul is still the largest city in the country Turkey and often the main port of entry when flying from outside of the country.
Istanbul is a hub for countless landmarks, endless shopping through busy bazaars, and some of the most amazing Turkish food. You could easily spend much more than two days in Istanbul and likely will need at least 4-5 to see all the major attractions. However, if you’re short on time (like many of us often are), you can still cover a lot of ground in Istanbul thanks to it being walkable and well-connected by public transportation.
This guide is to help you through planning a quick trip (or layover) in the city of Istanbul.
Getting to Istanbul
There are two key airports in Istanbul and it’s important that you know which one you are flying in and out of since they aren’t near one another. There is the Istanbul Airport (IST) which is on the European side of the city and about 1 hour from the city centre. This airport is definitely the largest (and newest) airport and is known to be one of the busiest airports in Europe and one of the biggest. This is likely where you will fly into when flying internationally, however, there is a smaller airport called Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) which is on the Asian side of the city and just under an hour from the city centre.
Getting around Istanbul
Istanbul is an incredibly connected city which makes it easy to travel from one side to the other via trams, metro, ferries, or foot. I personally walked mostly everywhere because I was staying very central to most tourist attractions near the Galata Tower. However, if you aren’t big on navigating across the city, or not into walking at times, 30-45 minutes to your destination, you are in luck with the public transit system in Istanbul.
Riding Public Transit with the IstanbulKart
If you plan to travel in transit, you’re going to want to purchase an IstanbulKart which costs 50 lira (at the time of writing this article). This card can be purchased at the airport and most public transit stops from the yellow machines that you can change the language on to navigate. This card is what you need to access public transit. All you do is simply tap it before you board, and you’re good to go.
Adding Fare to Card: On top of the cost of the actual card (50 TL) you need to also add money onto the card that covers your fares. This can be done from the machines that you buy the card from. You can also top it up at any time at these machines as well.
Traveling as a Group: The best part of the IstanbulKart is that you only need one for your group or family. Just make sure you load up your card to have enough on it to cover the fares of multiple people and each person will need to tap the card to enter the tram or metro.
Google Maps: Your best bet to navigate the public transit system is to download Google Maps and use the “transit” option when looking at directions. This will help you determine where the stops are, and what mode of transportation to get on and off.
You can find a comprehensive guide on the types of public transit and how to use them in Istanbul here.
One of the best ways to see and travel the city is by public ferry. Ferries run from the European to the Asian side of the city and save you a lot of time by avoiding traffic. The main piers on the European side are Eminönü, Kabataş, Karaköy, and Besiktaş, and on the Asian side, Üsküdar and Kadıköy. You can use the IstanbulKart to also access the ferry and provide incredible views of the city as you travel across the water.
One Day in Istanbul
If you only have a day in Istanbul then you’re going to want to use this time wisely to see the key attractions of the city. There are several museums, historical sites, mosques (and more) to see, and you can easily spend hours in some of these places, so you’ll need to pick and choose wisely to make the most of your day.
First off, you’re going to want to start your day off with a good breakfast and no one does breakfast better than the Turks with their traditional Turkish breakfast and strong, Turkish coffee. Head out to grab yourself a full spread of olives, eggs, bread, homemade jams, and more at one of these spots:
- Bazlama Kahvaltı
- Cafe Privato
- Arada Cafe
- Van Kahvaltı Evi
- Yiğit Sofram Gözleme ve Kahvaltı
- Doğacıyız Gourmet
- Cafe 6
Take in the sites
Many of the key attractions are located within walking distance from one another in Istanbul. You can find Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern (among other things), all within the same few blocks. What’s great about this is you can knock several items off your to-do list efficiently. What I recommend is that you pick and choose where you prefer to spend your time. Here are some details for each:
Topkapi Palace: Open from 10 am-6 pm (depending on the month), Topkapi Palace has beautiful grounds you can walk around for free, but you can also visit the inside for around 500 Lira. The palace is the residence of the Ottoman sultans and the administrative and educational centre of the state, and you will want to allocate at least a couple of hours to give yourself enough time to see it.
Time Needed: 2-3 hours
Hagia Sophia: Hagia Sophia is open from around 10 am-10 pm each day but is closed during scheduled prayer times since it is a working mosque. To visit Hagia Sophia it’s completely free but you will likely need to wait in a long line that often wraps all around the square in front. I didn’t have time to wait, but I heard that it can move quite quickly. Try going first thing in the morning or late afternoon for the best lines.
Time Needed: 30-45 minutes (depending on the lines to enter)
Blue Mosque: The Blue Mosque is free to enter and is open around 9 am until 1 hour before dusk. The mosque is an operating mosque so it closes during scheduled prayer times that vary day-to-day. Often you’ll find these times posted outside of the mosque. It’s important to note that, like any mosque, there is a strict dress code. You need to remove your shoes, cover your shoulders, and knees, and for women, cover your head. They will provide scarves at the door for those that don’t have one, but I always just carry around stuff in a purse or bag just in case.
Time Needed: 10-20 minutes
Basilica Cistern: Visit the Basilica Cistern from 9 am-10 pm, 7 days a week. This is the largest of many cisterns that lay below the city of Istanbul and is truly beautiful. You won’t need too much time to spend here, but you may need to wait in line for a bit to get in depending on what time you go.
Time Needed: 30 minutes
Shop the bazaars
Now that you can check the main sites off your list, it’s time to hit up the bazaars that you can seriously spend hours, upon hours in. It is important to note though that most things are incredibly overpriced in the tourist bazaars in the city so go in expected to barter (a good rule of thumb is to start at 50% of what the going price is), or just plan to look and buy elsewhere. Here are some of the key shopping spots:
Must Do – Grand Bazaar: One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world boasting over 4000 shops and 61 “streets”. The Grand Bazaar is often referred to as the first shopping mall in the world, built-in 1455, and it’s a stop you cannot miss on your Istanbul itinerary. Go early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Must Do – Spice Bazaar (aka the Egyptian Bazaar): Another stop on your Istanbul itinerary that is a must-do along with the Grand Bazaar, is the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. This bazaar was (and still is to some extent) the center of the spice trade in Istanbul. The Spice Bazaar has a total of 85 shops selling everything from spices, to Turkish delights, tea, nuts, and souvenirs.
Arasta Bazaar: The Arasta Bazaar is a smaller market when compared to the popular Grand Bazaar, and is located by the Blue Mosque. This bazaar is much different than the Grand Bazaar but in a good way. The shopping will be less busy, less intimidating, and is not in a large covered building, but more a street lined with shops.
Old Book Bazaar: If you’re looking for something unique to visit, the Old Book Bazaar is it. This bazaar has been selling all sorts of literature and books since the 15th century and was originally intended for the benefit of university students in the neighbouring university. This market was actually once located in the Grand Bazaar but now sits only a few meters away near the Beyazit Mosque. You’ll find a small a small, kind of hidden square, that is lined with bookshops and vendors. You can find the exact location in Google Maps under “Second Hand Book Bazaar”.
Cukurcuma: If antiques and vintage shops are your things, Cukurcuma is the neighbourhood you’ll want to make your way to. Located in the side streets not far from Taksim Square, you’ll find more than 100 antique shops. I loved this area. It was adorable, and so picturesque. I wanted to just sit in the cute cafes, and stroll through the antique shops all day long.
In the evening, whether you have time before dinner or after, I highly recommend you go to a hammam for a traditional Turkish bath. Istanbul has an estimated 230 hammams in the city so you have a lot to choose from and it’s likely you could probably find a great one right by your hotel. Hamams range in experiences. You can find local ones, that are much more basic, and honestly, kind of intimidating as a tourist, but you can also find so many historical ones that cater more to tourists. Here you’ll find a list of the top ten. I selected Çukurcuma Hamamı because it was close to my hotel. This one specifically was co-ed so it is great if you are traveling as a couple, but I went solo, and it was also fantastic, and professional, and I felt great after!
Tip: Make sure you make a reservation in advance!
End a busy day with dinner. You can either pick a sit-down spot with a great view of the city, or you can grab some budget-friendly grab-and-go options, like kebabs, that you’ll find everywhere. Here are some recommended restaurants to check out:
- Guney Istanbul
- Dukkan Galata
- Cafe Papadopoulos (also great for Turkish breakfast)
- Kapi Karaköy
- Seven Hills
- Ciya (as seen on Netflix’s Chefs Table)
Two Days in Istanbul
If you’re lucky enough to have two days in the city of Istanbul, then you can have more time to spread out some of the activities on the jam-packed day one. You can also add in some of the below activities depending on your interests.
Food Tour – Half Day or Full Day
If you have a long list of things on your food bucket list in Turkey (like I did), then doing a food tour in Istanbul is a great way to check some of those things off in a short period of time. There are a few companies that offer food tours, but I selected to do one with Yummy Istanbul. They offer a variety of tours depending on your interests, and the amount of time you have. For example, if you don’t want to spend a whole day on a tour, you can easily do a night or half-day tour with them. I, however, decided to do a full-day tour with them called the Taste of Two Continents which was about 6 hours and brought us through both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. It was a fantastic overview of the food in the city.
Adding this as an option for your day if you have the time to do it because it was high up on my list and I’m sad I didn’t have the time to do it while in Istanbul. Balat is a neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul that is known for its colourful houses, diverse culture, and rich history. It’s full of narrow streets, cute cafes to people-watch in, street art, and galleries. Historically, it was the centre of the Jewish community.
Explore the Asian Side
You can’t go to Istanbul and only stay on one continent. Most tourists that visit the city stick to the European side as it is home to the main tourist attractions listed above, however, a visit to the Asian side is a great way to experience the local vibe of the city. Here is a great list of things to do, but walking around, and just getting lost among the streets, sipping tea or Turkish coffee in a local cafe, and eating some amazing food is also fun too.
Finally, another popular activity in Istanbul is a Bosphorus Cruise where you sail along the Bosphorus Strait which separates both the European and Asian sides of the city. There are a variety of different cruises you can do that range from full-day tours to lunch or dinner cruises that are about 3-4 hours, making this an easy activity to squeeze in among your other to-do list items in the city.
Is Istanbul the capital of Turkey? This is something I didn’t know until I traveled there, Istanbul is actually not the capital of Turkey. The capital is Ankara despite the fact that Istanbul is the biggest city in the country.
Is it called Turkey or Türkiye? Türkiye is the official name that the country adopted in 2021. Prior to Türkiye, it was known as Turkey (and still is for many people). Funnily enough, the reason for the change was that the country didn’t want to share the same name as the popular bird enjoyed during Thanksgiving and Christmas in Western cultures.
How many days do I need in Istanbul? You could spend 1 week in Istanbul, or you can spend 2 days. It truly depends on your interests, but don’t let that intimidate you. If you only have a day or two, you can still cover a lot of ground. A few days in Istanbul is better than none!
When is the best time to travel to Istanbul? The spring (April & May), and fall (September & October) are the shoulder seasons in Istanbul and ultimately the best time to go. The summer months get unbearably hot.
What currency do they use in Istanbul? They use the Turkish Lira in Turkey. You’ll find most stores, and restaurants will accept credit cards, and some will accept Euros as well.
Is it safe to travel solo in Turkey? Yes! I traveled alone. Turkey is such a friendly country, and fairly simple to travel through. You will experience some language barriers, and of course, as a female, you’ll notice some men may bother you, but nothing that will make you feel unsafe.