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I initially planned to spend three days in Istanbul but due to time constraints I needed to cut my trip short to two days.
Most people seem to say you need three days or more to see Istanbul but if you’re willing to get up early in the morning then you can totally see the most popular parts of Istanbul in two days. I’ve done this exact itinerary myself so I know it’s entirely possible.
The following 2 day Istanbul itinerary is divided into two main areas: on your first day you’ll explore Sultanahmet and all the touristy sights, like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. On your second day you’ll explore ‘modern’ Istanbul including Galata, Karakoy and Taksim Square, which are located on the other side of the Golden Horn (major waterway and inlet of the Bosphorus).
Istanbul straddles both Asia and Europe and you’ve probably heard that there’s an ‘Asian side’ and a ‘Western side’. On this itinerary you won’t have time to explore the Asian side, but you will cover a lot of the important tourist spots and get a feel for the city.
Where to Stay on Your 2 Days in Istanbul
If you’re only spending 2 days in Istanbul I’d suggest staying in either Sultanahmet or Karakoy. Personally I found Sultanahmet to be very intense and crowded with tourists.
I stayed across the water in Karakoy/Galata area, which is the ‘trendy’ part of Istanbul with lots of cafes, boutiques and restaurants. I much preferred staying in this area and there are lots of very modern, stylish hotels here. It was very easy to reach Sultanahmet on the tram within about 15 minutes. Here are some great hotel options for your stay in Istanbul:
This trendy boutique hotel is located in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, close to the Karakoy tram. Housed in a historic, neoclassical building, the hotel offers 71 unique guestrooms, including spacious Loft & Terrace Suites. The hotel’s sky terrace offers beautiful views of the Golden Horn, Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet, so it’s the perfect place to enjoy sundowners after a busy day of sightseeing.
Azzap Hotel Galata
This is the hotel I stayed at. It was perfectly situated in Galata, very close to the Galata Tower and just a stone’s throw from the Karakoy tram stop. Some of the single rooms are very small, so I’d suggest getting a double room, even if you’re traveling alone. The hotel is modern and has a beautiful breakfast restaurant with views across Istanbul. The Turkish breakfast was delicious and was a great way to start my day!
If you’d prefer to stay in ‘old Istanbul’, one of the best boutique hotel options on this side of the water is Mest Hotel. The hotel is located close to the Spice Bazaar and is made from magnesite bricks brought from various countries in Europe in 1880, Some of the larger rooms have their own terraces with views over Istanbul.
Hotel Momento Golden Horn
Hotel Momento Golden Horn is located close to Istanbul’s Golden Horn, right by the Karakoy tram stop . The hotel’s 35 rooms are comfortable and spacious, with either sea views or city views. The hotel also has a Turkish rooftop restaurant where you can enjoy breakfast or dinner with views over Istanbul.
Day 1: Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet
Wakey wakey! On day 1 of your 2 days in Istanbul I’d recommend getting up nice and early so you can head over to the Blue Mosque shortly after it opens at 08.30am. Start your day with breakfast at your hotel. Most hotels in Istanbul offer amazing Turkish breakfasts that include things like cured meats, cheeses, salads, olives and nuts. With such a good spread at your hotel, there’s no need to venture out for breakfast.
Remember to wear comfy walking shoes because you’ll be doing tons of walking!
Start by visiting the Blue Mosque, which is also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for its blue tiles, which adorn the interior.
To enter the mosque men should have their shoulders and legs covered, while women need to have their hair, shoulders, arms and legs covered. If you don’t have the appropriate clothing, you can borrow a skirt and head covering for free from the booth outside the mosque. When leaving through the exit, there’s a bin where you can return any used clothing.
The Blue Mosque has five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. The lower levels are covered with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles in various tulip designs, while the upper levels feature more than 200 stained glass windows that let in plenty of natural light. At night, the exterior of the mosque is illuminated with blue lights, in keeping with the ‘blue’ theme.
The mosque is a working mosque, so it closes for prayer five times per day between sunrise and sunset. It’s usually open from 08:30am to 11.30, 13:00 to 14.30 , and 15.30 to 16.45. On Fridays the mosque is closed all morning and doesn’t open until after about 14:30.
The Hagia Sophia is the most iconic landmark in Istanbul and the most popular attraction for visitors. After visiting the Blue Mosque, walk through the Sultan Ahmet Park and snap photos of the fountain and the Hagia Sophia in the background.
This famous place of worship was first built as a cathedral for the state church of the Roman Empire between 532 and 537 AD. Called the Church of the Holy Wisdom, it was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years and is considered one of the world’s greatest examples of Byzantine architecture.
In 1453 the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. It served as Istanbul’s main mosque until the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in 1616. The building’s architectural style was so iconic that it became the inspiration for many mosques throughout the Ottoman empire.
In 1931 the mosque was closed for four years and was eventually re-opened as a museum. However, in July 2020 this decision was annulled and it was redesignated as a mosque once again.
Since the Hagia Sophia is now a place of worship, women must wear head coverings and visitors must remove their shoes before entering.
This sprawling museum was once an Ottoman imperial palace, serving as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans between the 15th and 19th centuries. It’s enormous, so you could easily spend a few hours here if you wanted to see all the different rooms and exhibitions.
Topkapi consists of a series of four courtyards surrounded by buildings that changed functions throughout the centuries. Since you only have two days in Istanbul, I’d suggest walking around the palace gardens and just visiting one or two of the rooms and exhibitions.
The palace housed around 1,000–4,000 inhabitants, including up to 300 in the harem.
If you want to avoid waiting in line to enter Topkapi Palace, you can purchase a skip the line ticket. It’s more expensive than a standard ticket but worth it if you’re short on time.
Topkapi Palace is closed Tuesdays, so don’t try to visit on this day! Opening hours are from 09:00 to 18:00 but the box office closes at 17:30 so make sure you arrive before then. The Topkapi Palace + Harem + Hagia Irene ticket costs 420 Lira, while the Topkapi Palace + Hagia Irene ticket costs 320 Lira.
Lunch at House of Medusa Restaurant
House of Medusa is named after the goddess Medusa and has really colorful, quirky decor with a nice outdoor patio. It’s located not far from the Hagia Sophia, right next to the Basilica Cistern, and makes for the perfect lunch stop on your way to the Grand Bazaar.
On the menu you’ll find classic Turkish dishes such as hummus with lamb, lamb shish kebabs, seafood stew and baked rice pudding.
The Basilica Cistern is currently closed for renovations so I didn’t get the chance to visit but do go there if you can.
This underground water reservoir was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532 and took 38 years to build. Around 7,000 slaves were involved with the construction of the cistern, which is the largest of several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. It measures around 9,800 square meters (105,000 sq ft) and is capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cu ft) of water.
The ceiling of the Basilica Cistern is supported by 336 marble columns, many of which were salvaged from the ruins of older buildings. The water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, traveling through the Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct, and the Mağlova Aqueduct. Over the years it has undergone several restorations and was opened to the public in 1987.
The Basilica Cistern museum is open daily between 09:00 and 19:00 and tickets cost 190 Lira to enter.
Optional: Cagaloglu Hamam
Cagaloglu Hamam is a famous Hamam that dates back over 300 years and was the last bath to be built during the Ottoman empire. The cheapest Hamam package here costs €50 and includes 15 minutes of hot room rest, followed by 10 minutes of rubbing with a bath glove and 20 minutes of bubble bath. After the ritual you’ll be served Turkish tea, home-made sherbet, and Turkish delight.
If you have time you could experience the Hamam, or if you’re short on time it’s still worth taking a peek through the entrance. Photos of all the celebrities that have visited the Hamam adorn the hallway; these include Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta and Cameron Diaz among others.
Address: Alemdar, Prof. Kazım İsmail Gürkan Cd. No:24, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, featuring a labyrinth of 61 alleyways and over 4,000 shops.
Construction of the Grand Bazaar began in the 15th century after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and by the 17th century it had achieved its final shape. Due to its strategic location at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, the bazaar became a major hub for Mediterranean trade, with a large variety of goods on sale. Over the centuries it has been damaged by numerous fires and earthquakes, meaning it has undergone restoration many times, however it is still a very popular market to this day.
You can easily reach the Grand Bazaar on foot from Sultanahmet so no need to take public transportation. It’s very easy to get lost in here so if you’re visiting in a group, stick close together.
If you want to take home souvenirs, this is the perfect place to buy them; just remember to haggle on the price. Popular things to buy in the Grand Bazaar include coffee sets, lanterns, rugs, shisha pipes, gold jewelry, Turkish towels, ceramics and scarves.
There are toilets inside the bazaar but they’re not that easy to find and you’ll need Lira coins to get in through the turnstile, so I’d recommend going to the bathroom in a restaurant before you head inside.
Next, head to the Spice Bazaar, called Mısır Çarşısı. I actually preferred this market over the Grand Bazaar, probably because I’m more motivated by food! The Spize Bazaar is filled with – you guessed it – spices. But that’s not all, you can also buy all sorts of teas, Turkish delight, nuts, baklava, dried chilis and dried fruits.
You’ll find the Spice Bazaar in the Eminonu quarter of Istanbul, next to the Galata Bridge and the New Mosque. The bazaar is actually part of the mosque complex and the rents from the stalls are used for the upkeep of the mosque.
Catch Views of Hagia Sophia from Seven Hills
One of the best times to snap photos of the Hagia Sophia is before sunset, when the sky starts turning shades of orange, pink and purple.
Seven Hills Restaurant is one of the most popular rooftops with a view of the Hagia Sophia and Istanbul. You can dine in the restaurant, or just go up to their rooftop to snap some photos. It has an excellent view of the Hagia Sophia with the seagulls flying around in front of it.
Another popular rooftop is Grace Rooftop Restaurant, which offers 360-degree views of Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia.
Dinner at Lokanta 1741
Lokanta 1741 is housed within the same building as the 300-year-old Cagaloglu Hammam and has an intimate courtyard terrace with a romantic ambiance. The menu offers a contemporary spin on Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine, with a variety of fish and meat dishes.
I ordered the Cyprus ravioli and the watermelon, feta cheese, wild purslane salad, which were both beautifully presented and very yummy. The cocktails are also innovative and very Instagram-worthy; I loved the Külhanbeyi, which features cardamom infused tequila, Otto’s, Bodrum satsuma, fresh orange blend, citrus blend and red flowers.
Day 2: Karakoy, Galata Tower and Taksim Square
Optional: Hammam at Kılıc Ali Pasa Hamam
If you didn’t have time to enjoy the Hamam in Sultanahmet on day 1, you could make a reservation to visit Kılıc Ali Pasa Hamam in Karakoy on your second day. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı was constructed between 1578-1583 to serve the Ottoman marine forces and is known for its beautiful dome.
This restored Hamam has women-only hours from 8:00 am – 4:00 pm and men-only hours 4:30 pm – 11:30 pm.
Address: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Hamam Sk. No:1, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Wander around Karakoy
Located on the northern part of the Golden Horn, Karakoy is a trendy neighborhood with lots of boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops. Start your day by enjoying the views from the Galata Bridge then spend your morning wandering around Karakoy’s narrow lanes. Stop by the famous Karaköy Güllüoğlu, which serves arguably the best baklava in Istanbul. They sell the baklava individually, or you can buy them by box.
Coffee at Karabatak
This cute coffee shop is a great place to sit outside and watch the world go by. Housed in what was once an abandoned metal workshop, Karabatak has quirky decor and fast WiFi. The interior is spacious and divided into different sections, including a quiet section, group section and regular section. Order a coffee and sit on one of the little tables facing the street so you can people watch while getting your morning caffeine fix.
Address: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Karaali Kaptan Sk. No:7, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Lunch at Mürver Restaurant
For lunch with a view, head to Mürver Restaurant, which is located on the roof of the Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel. The restaurant’s terrace offers beautiful views of the Bosphorus and over to Sultanahmet.
At the heart of the restaurant is an open kitchen with a blue-tiled brick oven and open-flame wood-fired grill. The flames are used to cook fish and seafood from the fish market as well as cuts of meat that have been aged and smoked in-house.
I ordered the lamb chops with bulgur pilaf, dried eggplant and pistachio paste, along with the grilled peaches with obruk cheese, rocket, quince molasses and green beans. Both dishes were exceptional and the lamb was very tender.
Address: Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus teras katı, Caddesi No:57-59, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
After lunching in Karakoy, head to Taksim Square, which is a major square and meeting place flanked by The Marmara Hotel to the south, Atatürk Cultural Centre to the east, Gezi Park to the north and to Taksim Mosque to the east.
At the center of Taksim Square is the Republic Monument, which commemorates the 5th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
From here, take a walk along İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), which is a pedestrian street lined with high-street stores, bars and restaurants. If you follow this road, it will take you all the way down to Galata.
There’s a nostalgic tram that trundles along the road and terminates at Tunel Square, so if your feet are getting tired, you could hop on and enjoy a quick ride.
Located amongst the hilly streets of the Galata quarter, Galata Tower is a former watchtower that has been converted into a museum and exhibition space. The Romanesque tower was built in 1348, when the medieval citadel of Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa. At the time it was the tallest building in Constantinople, measuring 219.5 ft (66.9 m) high.
After the Genoese colony was dismantled in 1453, the tower was turned into a prison during the 16th century. From the 18th century it was used to watch out for fires and was named Galata Fire Tower. Over the following centuries it was damaged by fires and earthquakes and had to undergo reconstruction. Since 2020 the Tower has been open as a museum and offers 360-views of Istanbul from its observation deck.
It’s worth paying the entrance fee to climb up the tower and soak up the panoramic views of Istanbul and beyond. The lines can get very long around sunset, so if you want to catch the sun going down, it’s best to show up at least an hour or so beforehand.
Galata Tower costs 175 Lira to enter and is open from 08:30 to around 23:00 or midnight depending on the time of year.
Bosphorus Cruise or Sunset at Mikla
To finish off your day you have two options; you could take a cruise on the Bosphorus, or you could head to Mikla rooftop bar for sunset.
Since I was pretty exhausted I skipped the Bosphorus Cruise but it’s a great option if you want to see Istanbul’s landmarks from the water. There are lots of different cruises – some with dinner and shows – but if I’d recommend doing a Bosphorus Cruise on board a luxury yacht.
The yacht departs from Kabatas and takes you along the Bosphorus to see both the Asian side and the European side of Istanbul. You’ll glide past mosques, palaces, and seafront villas, while drinking traditional Turkish drinks and nibbling on canapés. In total the cruise takes around 2.5 hours and ends at Karakoy pier. Prices vary, but expect to pay around $50-$60 per person.
Alternatively, if you don’t fancy doing the cruise you could head over to Mikla at the Marmara Pera hotel, which is what I did. This stunning rooftop is incredibly chic and boasts panoramic views over Istanbul. The cocktails are on the expensive side for Turkey but it’s totally worth it.
Getting Around Istanbul
The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul is easily walkable, as is the Galata/Karakoy area. The only time you’ll really need to use public transportation is to get across the water (the Golden Horn). The tram is the easiest way to do this.
You can buy a ticket for the tram at the tram stop in cash, but make sure you have smaller notes as the machines wouldn’t seem to take larger notes. The Bagcilar-Kabatas (T1) Tram is the tram you’ll most likely be using, as it makes stops at sights such as the Galata Tower and the Hagia Sophia Museum.
You can also get around Istanbul by taxi and most of the taxis take card (although the card machines didn’t seem to work when I tried) or cash. Taxis are usually yellow, although there are also turquoise and black colors, which are more luxurious. Make sure you get your driver to use the meter.
Uber works in Istanbul, although technically it just pairs you with a regular yellow or turquoise taxi. The best app for ordering taxis in Istanbul is BiTaksi and it works similar to Uber, only it’s much more popular and easy to get a taxi. With BiTaksi you can pay by cash or card, and you can see the location of your taxi on a map within the app.
FAQs About Visiting Istanbul
I managed to see a lot in two days but I also got up at 8am on both days and I’m quite speedy when it comes to visiting tourist attractions. I felt like I was able to cover a lot of ground, so I’d say yes, you can see Istanbul in two full days. One day definitely wouldn’t be enough though.
Most people say you need three days to see Istanbul properly. I’d say this is a good number. You could spend up to five days there if you want to be more leisurely and visit the beach. Any more than that would probably be too much in my opinion.
High season in Istanbul is around Europe summer, between the months of June to August. If you want to take advantage of lower prices and fewer crowds, you’re best off visiting during the shoulder seasons of March to May and September to November. Low season runs from December to February and can get quite chilly, dropping to an average of 6.2 °C (43 °F) in January. If you visit during this time, you’ll want to wrap up warm.