24 Hours in Istanbul!
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 Gaspar for 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!