Istanbul, A city that lies in both Europe and Asia, new and old. Bustling in every corner and alive at all hours. Diverse, eclectic, and full of hospitality. The history can’t get any richer here, and the people couldn’t be friendlier. What a city! It quickly became one of my favorite cities and one I get to luckily frequent often as it’s a hub for Turkish airlines and a stopover on route to many popular destinations in Africa, Europe, Asia, and The Middle East.
The airport is the largest airport and stopover hub in the world and brand new, opening in 2018. I was in absolute shock with how colossal and incredible it was. So, grand, so many options, and such great shopping. It’s a great start when arriving in a new city on your layover or just for a delightful Turkish getaway in Istanbul.
My first trip to Istanbul was a five-day trip, and I was obsessed. I recommend doing a few days in Istanbul if possible, as there is a lot to see and a lot of land to cover. If you only have a quick 24 hours in Istanbul, I’m going to tell you all the best places to see and things to do. No time to waste, let’s get on it. This is my list and what I recommend when my friends go. There are a lot of things to see and do, but I’m going to prioritize what I think are the best.
Accommodation; There are so many great hotels in Istanbul. It can be hard to choose. I enjoyed staying at the more boutique ones, and I strongly suggest staying in the Sultanahmet area. This area is historical, has many of the best sites in Istanbul, has an incredible atmosphere, and is generally less expensive than staying in the other neighborhoods. It is also where the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are located, as well as the fabulous Grand Bazaar.
I stayed at Hotel Amira, and it’s just perfect for everything you need. The staff is extremely accommodating. Its family-owned, the rooms are beautiful, there are an incredible rooftop bar and terrace with views of The Blue Mosque, and the stunning sea. The buffet breakfast at Hotel Amira was incredible, as was the Turkish flatbread station next to it. You must try the flatbread. The lady that makes it really puts her heart into it! It’s delicious.
Another thing I love is that you can walk to Sultanahmet Square, where The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are located just a few minutes. You can also walk to the Bazaars and other shops in only 15 minutes or less. I do love staying at family-owned boutique hotels in some cities because they go the extra mile for their guest’s satisfaction, and Hotel Amira pays attention to the details and makes their guests feel welcome and at home. They even booked and printed my Hagia tickets online for me (So I wouldn’t have to wait in line) and booked my airport shuttle.
24 Hours, Here we go!
The early bird gets the worm. I would wake up and be down at breakfast when it starts. Approx. 7 am at Hotel Amira. Fill your tummy up and be ready to do some walking. I would start by walking to the Sultanahmet Square and The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Take some photos outside of each without the large crowds. (They’re right across from one another) I would stay be there before 8 am to get some pics without the large herds of tourist buses.
If you want to enter The Blue Mosque, you must dress appropriately. For women, this means covering your head with a scarf and wearing loose-fitting pants and shirts. Linen is a good, cool option. Leave the leggings at home. You must have your knees and shoulders covered. Men also must cover their legs and avoid any tank tops. If you fail to meet these requirements, they will ask you to cover yourself or leave. There are robes and scarves there if you want to borrow one free of charge, but they aren’t washed after every person so I would bring your own. The Hagia Sophia has a more lose dress code as The Mosque is an operating Mosque with prayer times, so you must respect it and check the times’ tourists are allowed in as it changes in different months, and you must go after prayer times.
The Blue Mosque will take you about 30 mins to walk around and check out. I would allow approximately 1 to 1.5 hours in the Hagia Sophia. There is more to see inside. It’s incredible. It’s a Wonder of the World. So, check it out. Keep in mind though, It is closed on Mondays. The regular hours are 9-5, so I would be there right at 9. You could go to The Blue Mosque at 8:30 and walk across to the Hagia at 9! Perfect.
After the Hagia Sophia at around 10:30 I walk over to the Basilica Cistern, this is an underground water reservoir that was built back in the 6th-century Byzantine era. It is the largest in Istanbul but now is kept with little water so it can house millions of tourists a year. It is cool going underground. It’s stunning. Dark and moody but, you can get some killer unique photos of it. You only need about an hour there. The best shot is of the pillars illuminating orange underneath. So pretty!
Now it’s time for some shopping. You can walk from the Basilica to The Grand Bazaar in just ten minutes or so. You can find everything you would want there: rugs, Lamps, Tea, Turkish candy, and a lot of high-quality replica items. You can find bags, shoes, jewelry, and clothing. They have it all. There is also a jewelry district. Remember to always haggle. Whatever the price is go half and half again, and then meet in the middle. They expect you to haggle, and it’s more of a fun game for them. So, enjoy it and don’t be nervous. Sometimes they will say no and as soon as you leave they will chase you down. Also remember a lot of the stores have the same stuff, so compare. You don’t have to buy the first thing. Also, if you want you can bring photos of a designer item you want and they will typically go find it for you. They have brands like Gucci, LV, YSL, Rolex, Dior, etc. I can recommend some of the top sellers with the best quality there, as I have their numbers personally if you are looking for something specific and don’t have all day to find and compare prices. I would expect to spend a few hours here. Also, most times they will offer you tea, take it, it’s free, and it’s something they do for their customers, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to buy. Also, a big tip for visiting the Bazaar is that you shouldn’t look American or Rich. I get you may be coming from touristy sites, and so you’ll be looking nice, but they really will hassle you more if you’re American or if you look like you have money. Be prepared to have them calling you to come into stores. They will try and flatter you by calling you celebrity names and ask where you’re from. I heard “Hey Barbie Girl” a lot. This is a sales tactic and a way to get your attention.
The earlier you arrive, the better as a lot of times they want to start the morning off well and make a sale, so sometimes they will bargain better in the morning, and you can get stuff even cheaper than you would. You can also get a better bargain if you buy more than one item. A few times, I would make a deal and then add a second item and ask for a slightly higher price for both. It sometimes works. If they take you into a back room or tell you to follow them, don’t be alarmed, this is normal. They aren’t legally allowed to sell specific “designer” items, so they’re not all out in plain sight, and the better quality is usually hidden. So again, this is very normal. I went in dozens of back rooms. Don’t be alarmed.
After you finish at the Bazaar I would walk back to Hotel Amira and drop your many bags off. If you’re like me, you may have a lot. You can’t get a lot of these items anywhere else in the world, so I always spend more than I usually would shopping. I also love bringing things back for my family, like Turkish delights and apple tea.
Now it’s time for a late lunch, at 3 pm or so, I recommend walking from Hotel Amira to Seven Hills Hotel to their rooftop terrace for a lovely seafood lunch. You get great views of the sea, the city, and the Hagia Sophia. Get a table by the edge. I love this spot. The atmosphere is excellent, the wine is great, as is the fish. They have a lot of very fresh fish. Don’t let them talk you into the market fish unless you are starving and willing to share as it’s too large of portions otherwise. I got the sea bass off the regular menu and it was great. It’s an excellent spot for a glass of Rosé, a photo, and to relax and just enjoy the energy of Istanbul and Sultanahmet square.
After a nice lunch, I would jump in an uber (yes, they’re safe) or a cab (I prefer uber) and head to the Chora Museum. It is a little outside of the city center by about two miles, but it’s not to miss. It used to be an old Byzantine Church and it holds some stunning mosaics thousands of years old. If you’re into art and history, you can’t miss this. A funny story, I came here and walked around staring at the ceiling high mosaics and started bawling my eyes out. I don’t know what happened to me, but I became incredibly emotional and was just so awestruck at the beauty, history, and intricacy of the pieces. It was an overwhelming feeling. You will only need about 30 minutes here and then grab an uber or taxi and head to The Golden horn.
The Golden horn is the body of water separating the north and south parts of European Istanbul. It’s a freshwater estuary that has an area to walk around and is great for watching the sunset. Just opposite of the Horn is the Galata Tower. A charming old tower with an observation deck that once served as a jail and a watchtower. The tower, built in 1348, has so much history. It may also be the best place to watch the sunset and get a panoramic view of the city. It does get crowded so that I would get there a bit before sunset, but again, the views are incredible, and you can see for miles.
After sunset, I recommend having a nice dinner in another area besides Sultanahmet. Since you are already at the Galata Tower, I would eat somewhere around Galata or Karakoy. My top recommendation is Meze by Lemon Tree. It is an authentic Turkish meyhane experience that focuses on meze and raki. It’s delicious food, and a cozy atmosphere makes it a top restaurant in the area for local cuisine. If Turkish food isn’t your thing for some reason, I would recommend the Peninsula Restaurant. It serves a variety of foods from Mediterranean to European and beyond. It’s the top floor restaurant at Hotel Golden City. It has sweeping views over the Bosporus. The food is delicious, and the atmosphere is buzzing like the boats coming down the river. The food presentation is also lovely.
After dinner, if you’re feeling adventurous and not too tired from your day, I would recommend checking out Gasparfor a drink or two. It’s a restaurant that turns into more of a bar after the dinner crowd has finished. It’s quite sophisticated and has groovy cocktails and music. On the weekends this place really gets busy. Don’t get too buzzed if you have an early flight the next day, as it’s always a mission getting to the airport in Istanbul traffic.
There you have it! There is a pretty good detailed itinerary for a 24 hour Istanbul layover. There’s plenty of other sites in the city to see, but they honestly weren’t my favorite, nor did I feel they beat the listed ones, such as a couple of the palaces, etc. There are many museums if that’s your thing and you have another day to explore.
A few more restaurant recommendations for Istanbul;
Mikla; (it’s expensive though, our dinner and drinks for 2 was around 300 USD). Great views! Posh!
Yeni Lokanta; Celebrity chef and great wine.
Ulus 29; Super pretty interior, happening at night, and incredible views.
Novas Hagiasophia; Great seafood and near the Hagia Sophia.
Petra Roasting Co; for all you coffee lovers.
Mezze; Authentic Turkish experience.
Spago; If you want something Western by the famous Wolfgang Puck.
Neolokal; Great interior and incredible food and views.
Turkistan Asevi; Cute place near the Blue Mosque, with great and very cheap food.
Make sure to try some apple tea, baklava, and Turkish Delight! Yummy!
Cappadocia, Turkey. Probably one of the most fictitious places I’ve ever visited. I’ve seen many different destinations in my traveling that felt outer-worldly. Jordan was one of those, but Cappadocia just feels like you have stepped inside of a “Lord of The Rings” film, another planet, or a whimsical Disney film. It’s a place so unique looking, that you have to really visit and see for yourself. No photos can ever do it justice. If you could go anywhere in the world, this place HAS to be top on your list. It’s hard to believe that places like this genuinely exist on our planet and that people like you and I live there. How lucky are they? Around 340 days a year, hot air balloons are soaring through the skies. It is one of the most popular places in the world for hot air ballooning, and the hot air balloons are the most popular activity in Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is located in central Turkey, an hour flight from Istanbul. It’s famed for its beautiful, daily hot air balloon spectacle, It’s interestingly unique tall pointed rock formations in the sci-fi-like valleys, and its fairy-like mushroom topped chimneys.
There is so much history in this region. There are historical caves that acted as houses and refuges. Much of the history also includes underground cities dating back to around 2000 BC. The first discovered mention of it dates back to around the 6th century.
Cappadocia’s dramatic landscape is due to volcanic eruptions and gradual weather erosion from the elements. This is responsible for the volcanic rock tower-like formations, chimneys, and valleys. There are rock-carved monasteries and churches scattered throughout the region as well.
Now that you know a little about the region and history, I’ll tell you everything you should know before, and while visiting to make the most out of your magical experience, you’ll thank me for it. Haha.
First things first, There are two airports in Cappadocia. I didn’t know this when I booked annoyingly. I typed in Cappadocia into Sky scanner, and they automatically came up with Kayseri. They failed me. Kayseri is one of the two, but the furthest away and about 90 minutes from the main city Goreme. It isn’t cheap either to get a private taxi. Some shuttles are less expensive from Kayseri, but they go at certain times, and they take about 2 hours. Not ideal.
That being said, I recommend booking to and from Nevsehir airport. It’s about 35-40 minutes from Goreme, and much more convenient and cheap to get to. There are no direct flights into Cappadocia from other countries. You will need to do a stopover, typically in Istanbul. I would say have a full day in Istanbul before and really make a trip of it. I love Istanbul, as well. Very historical and excellent shopping in the Bazaar.
Accommodation; Anyway, back to Cappadocia. So, one of the biggest questions is, “What hotel do I stay in?” Well, Cappadocia is a region, and there are a few cities and towns, but most tourists stay in Goreme. It’s considered the hub of tourism in Cappadocia and the home of the famed “Open Air Museum.” This is where most of the restaurants and hotels of all budgets are. It’s a small town that you can literally walk everywhere in just twenty minutes or so.
There are a lot of amazing hotels in Goreme with panoramic views of the hot air balloons, as well as great balconies for breakfast and Turkish teas. I stayed in the gorgeous and ideally located Artemis Caves Suites. They do the most stunning breakfast set-ups. They have 3 amazing balconies for breakfast and photos, accommodating staff, even some cute little stray kittens they feed, and they are right under one of the best views in Cappadocia. Lover’s Hill, also known as Sunset point. It’s great for taking in the balloons in the morning but arrive early as it gets packed quickly. You should be up there before the sun rises. It is also great for sunset photos. The views on both sides of the hill are fantastic. One side is a rural valley area with a horse ranch, and the other side is the hotels and the city of Goreme.
Artemis Cave Suites is a luxury boutique hotel with 25 cave rooms built into the stone. It’s tranquil, charming, and romantic. As mentioned, the staff were accommodating. The food was great, and just the views alone are incredible. It also doesn’t let guests under 16 stay, meaning no crying babies! Whoo-hoo! It’s a super romantic experience as well if you are traveling with your partner. It’s so dreamy. I loved my stay here and really hope to return.
There is also a really cute cafe decorated with evil eyes and hot air balloons across the street, still owned by the hotel that has hookah, tea, and is a great spot for a fun IG photo.
Other options in Cappadocia if Artemis is fully booked, is Sultan Cave Suites and Henna Hotel. All offer the best hot air balloon views. The thing that’s great about Artemis is you get the hotel balcony view of the balloons, but then you can run 3 minutes up the hill to get another view. So it’s like hitting two birds with one stone of great, but different views.
Best Time to Visit;
This is entirely up to you. I would suggest shoulder months. March-May or September and October. This is when the weather is mild, and it’s not exactly peak season, but not freezing. I went in November, and it was pretty cold. I liked it because there were not herds of crowds. However, if you plan on actually going up into the air on a balloon, I wouldn’t suggest this as once you get up in the air, the higher you go, the colder. You will literally not be able to feel your extremities. So, plan accordingly for the weather, also Nov-Feb, there are more canceled balloon trips due to weather. If you go in the shoulder months, you won’t suffer from the large summer crowds and the insane heat the summer months bring. It’s all dependent on your tolerance for the temperature and what you would like to do. Most of the activities are outside, though, so I wouldn’t suggest going in the winter as it will be below freezing and possibly covered in snow.
How long should I stay in Cappadocia?
I would give yourself 3 full days. The balloons are only in the mornings. It’s smart to have one day in case of delays or cancelations in the aircraft, it’s also nice to have one day in the sky, and one watching on land. The balloons are also not the only thing to do here. There are some other magical and thrilling things to do in Cappadocia.
Time to be up and out;
So, for me, I was up very early every morning because it takes me a while to get ready. Depending on the time of year, you should be out of your room at either 6 or 6:45am. (Winter months it’s around 6:45-7) due to the sun rising later. Summer, it’s earlier. I would check the time of sunset and then be outside about 30 mins before to secure your spot. This may sound a bit extreme, but remember, people come here first and foremost to see the sunrise and the hot air balloons. Everyone wants epic photos. The social media influencers and travel bloggers like myself will be out super early to get the best pictures and spots, so get out there with them. With early rising and sacrifice, comes the best photos. I used to annoy my fellow travel friends by forcing them to get to tourist sites by 7am because, yes, it’s insanely early, but also NO people. I would get amazing photos. If you try for photos when there are 200 people in the background, it’s not only frustrating, but the images are never as cool.
Riding the Hot air balloons;
These hot air balloons started about 30 years ago in 1991. Now three decades later, there are around 25 companies and 200 hot air balloons. As I said above, the best time to fly is between March-October. Most of the cancellations are between December and Feb., depending on the weather and the wind. Around 100 balloons are allowed to take off right before sunrise, and the others are allowed about half an hour after sunrise. The balloons are generally in the air around an hour. There are different packages for different durations and amounts of people. Some people prefer to do a smaller tour with only 16 passengers, so you’re not packed in like sardines. These obviously are more expensive, around 200 per person.
I know Voyager is a really great company and has been around a long time in the region. All of the companies have highly skilled and heavily trained balloon pilots. Other companies are Sultan Balloons, Butterfly Balloons, Royal Balloon, and Urgup Balloons. They are experts on flying and the wind. The balloon flight paths are never precisely the same day by day and are decided the morning of, in correlation with the wind speed and direction. There is a truck, “chase crew” on the radio that will follow your flight so that they can pick you up upon landing. You usually land in open areas like parks, valleys, empty fields, etc. Experienced pilots thought typically can land right onto the trailer.
The hot air balloons can fly up to 3,000 feet high. If you’re someone afraid of heights, I would use the breathtaking views to distract you. You will get not only get the beautiful landscape to be in awe of but also the views of the other multi-colored balloons floating around you. The good news is typically, you don’t feel the rocking or swaying in the balloons. You will be left high on the experience. Literally.
If you are one of the unlucky ones with a canceled balloon take off, you will get a refund. Sometimes the balloon rides during peak seasons are fully booked every day. You can try to reschedule with your original company, but I’ve heard people having to find a new company due to full bookings. I always recommend giving yourself 2-3 days in Cappadocia for this reason. If you have just one morning and you’re canceled, then your chance to ride is gone, and you traveled all the way here. Give yourself some wiggle room. Sometimes the weather may seem nice and calm, but that doesn’t mean that 300 meters up there is no wind. They are very strict about the safety of passengers and don’t even want to take the very slightest risk, which is a great thing. It’s also good to have a few days to fly the balloons and get that experience and those photos, and then also have the experience of watching them all soaring above you. The balloons only all go up once a day for around 90 minutes, so you must have a few full mornings. I would say at least until 10am.
Here are some of the other things to do while in the region.
Visit the famous Open Air Museum. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s home to some 30 carved rock churches and chapels. There are also murals inside, dating back to 1200 AD. Make sure to see the Dark Church, it’s very unique. Let’s just say pigeon poo kept the walls protected and preserved at one time.
Horseback riding. The name Cappadocia itself is derived from the ancient Hittite word “Katpatuka,” which literally means “land of the beautiful horses.” This must be why there are so many gorgeous horses and ranches. This is a relaxing way to take a ride through the many beautiful valleys and to see some of its magic. There are tours through the Rose Valley, The Monk Valley, and up to the Uchisar Castle. The horses seemed well looked after, and it’s an excellent activity if you’re not into some of the faster-paced thrilling ones like the 4×4. I suggest doing the 2-hour horse tour, as any longer gets a little long. It also depends on how much you want to see. Also, I’m not sure how all the companies work, but the one I booked with, don’t let you ride the horses alone, they walk beside you and guide it. As someone who loves riding horses, I found this a bit boring and not as interesting. It made it feel a little slow.
4×4. You can take quads all around the same valleys the horses do. If horseback riding or animal tourism isn’t your thing, then this daring and high-speed activity is better for you. Great for all age thrill-seekers. It’s great to see some of the top attractions like the valleys and landscapes.
Take a tour of the underground cities. There are 36 of them in the region, but only 4 open to the public. I wouldn’t recommend if you are claustrophobic, as some of the tunnels require crouching and squatting down lower. It is still a very cool experience and cool to see how thousands of people lived once there.
Take some authentic photos at Sultan Carpets. If you’re looking for a unique and fun experience and want to have awesome photos for your social media, then go check out Sultan Carpets. It’s a carpet shop, and the upstairs also has a little area of rugs and lamps to take photos with. There is an assortment of traditional Turkish outfits for ladies, and you can shoot some awesome pictures and videos. The owner is charming there and hospitable. I got some great photos. There is a small fee, but it’s totally worth it as most of the places with lamps and rugs charge a fee, but why not? There is an Instagram heaven. While you’re here, have some apple tea and look through his extensive collection of rugs. He has some special ones, and no, I get zero kickback here, I just really loved my experience, and again, the owner was a lovely person.
Go to experience Love Valley. It’s a short taxi ride from Goreme, and super cute. There are great lookout points and perfect spots for Insta-worthy photos. Sunset here is magical, and it is where you can see the fairy chimneys and unique “mushroom topped” rocks. You will only need about 3-60 minutes here, but don’t miss it. It’s extraordinary and free!
Book a private day tour that will allow you to see all the top sites in the region in just one full day. It’s around 130-150, but you will see Imagination valley with the most impressive rock formations in the world. You’ll see the fairy chimneys, you’ll pass pigeon valley and check out the Big Blue Eyes Tree, you take a tour of the underground city, you will see Uchisar Castle, a winery, and of course the Open-Air Museum and beyond. You can get some incredible tour guides that will tell you all you need to know about the region and history. You’ll see things you wouldn’t have found otherwise, and again, it’s a way to cram a lot in just one day.
Best Restaurants in the Area.
Dibek – It’s beautiful, cheap, and super authentic. What else could you want? It’s a romantic spot. You take your shoes off to sit on rugs and pillows around a low round table. It was my favorite place to eat here. The wine was incredible as well.
Top Deck Restaurant– is an adorable and authentic family-owned restaurant, and the owner was a renowned chef before opening the restaurant. It’s located on the ground floor of the family’s house in a small cave, which used to be a stable. The food is delicious, and the service was excellent. The interior is really like you’re eating in a cave, with some sit down tables as well.
Aysel’in Mutfagi– This was the first place we ate, and we were absolutely thrilled with the food and the service. I was able to speak in both French and English to the son, and he was so sweet and helpful and gave us fantastic food recommendations as well as some things to do in the area. The atmosphere and view are great, and there are vegetarian, vegan, halal, and gluten-free options, which can be hard to find in Turkey. Don’t skip this spot.
Pumpkin Goreme Restaurant– This is a great spot if you’re into fantastic authentic cuisine and okay with a set menu. I wouldn’t recommend it if anyone is super picky. The food is sensational, and there is a good assortment to choose from, they also cater to modern dietary restrictions. The hospitality here is very special, similar to many family-run places in Turkey. The staff is always very kind and happy. Don’t miss it.
My Mother’s Café– This is owned by the same people as Aysel’in, and they’re great. This spot is excellent for lunch and some rosé while enjoying the views of Goreme. The food is excellent, and again, there are various options for vegetarians and vegans, etc. It’s super cozy, and the hummus and kebabs are great, as was the desert.
Enjoy Cappadocia, and if you have any other questions, I’m always here to answer them! E-mail me, and I would be happy to help!