How To Spend One Day in Istanbul

Though one day in Istanbul isn’t nearly enough to enjoy everything the historic city offers, sometimes that’s all you have. 

If you have just one day in an iconic Turkish city, you want to make the best of it. Here are the top places in Istanbul you need to see. 

Why Only One Day in Istanbul?

People with Isanbul on their itinerary probably have a few days to explore. But Turkey has an enticing offer for people who weren’t planning a visit. The country partnered with its flagship airline, Turkish Airlines, to make it easy for travelers just passing through to make a pitstop in the eclectic town. 

Istanbul wasn’t initially on my itinerary, but the cheapest flights (by far!) from Los Angeles to Switzerland happened to be on Turkish Airlines. As a savvy traveler with Istanbul on the top of her bucket list, I decided to see how much it would cost to extend my layover in Istanbul for a day so I could explore. 

At the time, it was only eight extra dollars – a no-brainer!

Arriving in Istanbul

Our flight arrived from Zurich in the evening, and we found a shuttle bus from the airport to the Byzantium Suites Hotel in Old Town. 

We decided to stay here because of its proximity to the most prominent tourist attractions, which is essential when you only have one day. 

Here are the top things to see in Istanbul if you only have one day. 

Sultanahmet District

If you only have one day in the city, you should stay near the Sultanahmet District. It’s the city’s epicenter, featuring some of the most prominent tourist attractions and best restaurants. The district’s central location on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait makes it an ideal jumping-off point for any of the area’s attractions. 

The Blue Mosque

Built in the 17th century, the Blue Mosque stands proud as one of Istanbul’s most prominent architectural masterpieces. The building features a massive greyish-blue dome surrounded by seven distinct pillars. 

Tourists can enter, but please remember it’s still a functional mosque, and you can only visit during non-worship hours. Women must wear headscarves, provided at the entrance, free of charge. 

The Blue Mosque’s interior bursts with majesty rivaling that of the most famous historic churches. The walls dance with color from the intricate blue tiles expertly placed in mosaics covering most of the interior. The blue gives way to pinkish red as it works its way up to the central dome’s ceiling. 

The artistry involved in laying each tile is beyond comprehension, as you can feel the care that went into each piece. 

If you only have one day in Istanbul, you will probably walk by the Blue Mosque numerous times, but take the time to peek inside. You won’t want to miss this. 

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian Byzantine Church in the fifth century, making it far older than the Blue Mosque. It was considered one of the largest cathedrals in the world for almost a millennium. 

After the final fall of the Roman Empire in 1453, the new rulers of Constantinople converted the church into a Mosque. It served as a religious temple for another 500 years, and in 1935, the Turkish president converted the building into a museum. The building became part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. 

In 2018, the building was redesignated as a Mosque, which currently hosts active religious services. 

The Hagia Sophia houses crucial religious and historical artifacts from its long history. The walls feature intricate stone carvings and wondrous mosaics, some of which date to its original conception. 

The Grand Bazaar

Istanbul’s iconic Grand Bazaar holds mysteries and wonders beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. As one of the top-rated tourist attractions in Istanbul, you must find time to stop by during your day in the city. 

I’ve been obsessed with the Grand Bazaar since childhood. What treasures could you find hidden in the corner stalls of the world’s most renowned marketplaces? Would I find antiquities, Turkish handicrafts, or the same old junk I find in American flea markets?

I had to know. 

You will need at least two days to see the Grand Bazaar in all its glory, but one day is enough to get a great idea of what to expect. The marketplace bursts with activity as merchants display their wares and shout for wandering tourists to come to take a look. 

We saw hundreds of little shops selling a massive variety of goods. You can find trinkets making perfect souvenirs, lovely Turkish lamps with mosaic lighting, and authentic Persian rugs in the eclectic marketplace. 

The favorable exchange rate made shopping a fantastic bargain. I bought some silver bracelets for only twenty dollars a piece. While shopping, you must be wary of unscrupulous merchants attempting to scam you. Some claim cast metal as silver, so be sure to know the markings of genuine silver (and other precious metals or gems) if you want to score great deals on jewelry at the Grand Bazaar. 

I didn’t find the mystical antique stores selling magic lamps like in my fantasies, but maybe I’ll have more time to discover them on my next trip to Istanbul. 

Try Turkish Street Food

Turkey is renowned for its fantastic street food. While walking through the city en route to the crucial historical sites, the aroma of freshly cooked meat wafts in, making your stomach grumble and mouth water in anticipation. 

Take the time to try some of the street offerings. You’ll find delicious pastries, hearty sandwiches, and my favorite, the Turkish pizza, offered at stalls and small cafes throughout the city. 

Visit a Palace

Istanbul features numerous palaces dating from Constanine’s time to the 19th century. One day in Istanbul likely isn’t enough to tour them all, but if you visit in the summer, you should have time on your itinerary to tour at least one, and you’ll see a few as you wander through the city. 

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace (the new palace) served as the administration center for the Ottoman Empire for centuries. 

Today, tourists can roam the courtyards and the corridors, exploring the fascinating rooms decorated with artifacts from the palace’s vast history. 

Dolmabahce Palace

The much newer Dolmabahce Palace showcases the brilliant Turkish artistry of the 19th century. 

Domabahce is the largest palace in Turkey, featuring nearly 300 rooms and 46 halls in the 16 separate buildings that make up the massive complex. 

The only limitation to visiting Dolmabahce Palace on a single-day trip to Istanbul is its location. While most of the attractions featured here are centralized near the Sultanahmet District, Dolmabahce is in the Taksim neighborhood, about 3 miles from the central area. 

Gulhane Park

Guhlane Park, featuring gorgeous landscaping even in the cooler fall and winter months, rests outside Topaki Palace. I can only imagine how lovely the garden is when all the flowers bloom in the springtime. The park served as an outer garden to the palace at one point, but now it’s open to the public. 

Guhlane Park offers a serence respite from the hustle and bustle of the city noise. It’s the perfect place for a brief respite while exploring Istanbul’s most impressive sites. 

Constantine’s Grand Palace

Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Holy Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 C.E. and built himself a majestic palace from which to rule. 

The palace served as the primary imperial residence for nearly a thousand years and as an important administrative center for centuries after. 

Although most of the palace was lost to history, some fragments and ruins survive, and you can find them scattered throughout the Sultanahmet District. 

The best place to glimpse these ruins is at the Palatium Restaurant, a magnificent cafe serving the best Turkish delights, from their iconic pizza to kebabs and decadent ice cream. 

Some of the restaurant’s floors are glass-covered, offering visitors a glimpse of the ruined chambers below. Tourists wishing to explore further can head to the rear of the restaurant, where they’ll find a shabby spiral staircase leading to the ruins. 

Beneath the restaurant lie four excavated chambers, some of the most extensive remnants of Constantine’s historic palace. The ruins aren’t marketed as a tourist attraction. We wouldn’t have known they existed had we not chosen the Palatium restaurant. Though guests can explore, they do so at their own risk, as the paths have poor lighting and lack safety rails. 

Timing Your One Day in Istanbul

If you only have one day to spend in Istanbul, timing matters. In the fall and winter, many of the biggest attractions close at 5 PM, while they stay open later in the summer. 

Due to the early closure, we didn’t have time to see the Grand Palace on our trip. 

The day of the week matters as well. Some attractions, like the Grand Bazaar, close on Sundays. A weekday during the summer is the best option for a day trip to Istanbul.

One Day Isn’t Enough in Istanbul

Seeing the best Istanbul offers in just one day is impossible, but we did our best. We didn’t even have time to venture across the Bosphorus Strait and explore the Asian half of the city on two continents. 

We missed the Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, Miniaturk, and numerous museums, mosques, and historical points of interest that sit atop most Istanbul itineraries, 

However, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to get even this small glimpse, considering Istanbul wasn’t even an original part of our travel plans. If you are ever traveling, Turkish Airlines, take advantage of their sweet deal to expand your layover in Istanbul. 

You won’t regret it. 

Author: Melanie Allen

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Pursuing Your Passions, Travel, Wellness, Hobbies, Finance, Gaming, Happiness

Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation and is a certified happiness life coach. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life. 

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