How do you spend two days in Istanbul and feel like you’ve seen enough of the city to go home and tell your friends ‘I’ve been to Istanbul‘? This magical city that separates Europe and Asia is so vast and there is so much to see!
It might be a bit intimidating at first but, if you plan it well, then 48 hours in Istanbul can be just the right amount of time. Besides, even the shortest trip to this city is still magical.
Like many other big cities, Istanbul is a place best explored on foot. So be sure to bring a water bottle, hat and suitable footwear- those cobbled lanes sure are pretty but they’re not conducive to walking well in heels! If you’re looking for things to know before you visit for the first time and Apps to download before visiting Istanbul, I’ve got you covered.
Tip: Unlike most cities where tourist attractions are open till late. Most places in Istanbul close between 5pm and 7pm, so the earlier you start the more you can see.
Day 1: Sultanahmet Square
For your first day in the city where the east meets the west, you’ll want to tick off as much of your Istanbul bucket list as possible. As such, the first 24 hours are all about seeing those iconic places which you’ve no doubt seen on countless postcards prior to your city visit. So indulge your inner tourist and rest well the night before- you’ve got a lot of ground to cover!
Start your day the right way with a Turkish breakfast. I recommend the Seven Hills Rooftop Restaurant for great hospitality, food and views. They open at 7am and the earlier you go, the greater the chances of finding a table with a great view. My breakfast cost 80 TL.
After a 5 minute walk to will find Hagia Sofia or as the locals call it, Aya Sofia. First a church, then a mosque when the Ottomans took over the city and now a museum for nearly 100 years, Hagia Sophia is not only insanely beautiful, it’s an impressive piece of history.
The current structure first opened for worship in 537 (nope, not a typo), though the original church on the site was built in 337 (still not a typo) by the East Roman Empire. For those looking to make their most of their time, you may well want to purchase a skip-the-line timed entrance ticket to Hagia Sofia.
Right across the road you will find, the Basilica Cistern. If you’ve read the book or watched the movie Inferno, chances are you know about this underground former mosque now water reserve for the city. It was constructed with columns from different temples and there are two columns with Medusa’s heads on the bottom. Entry costs 20TL per person.
Note: It is really dark and slippery. So make sure you’re wearing the right shoes.
Head to the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque), Famed for its stunning blue tiles, the Blue Mosque is the most photogenic building in Istanbul. When visiting its important to remember that the Blue Mosque is a place of worship, there are certain rules to abide by whilst visiting. Entry is free.
See the Hippodrome, Built in the 4th century AD, this was a venue for chariot races. The centerpiece of the Hippodrome is the Egyptian obelisk that was carved 3,500 years ago and brought to Istanbul in the 4th century AD. There are three domes to see and it’s free:
- The Obelisk of Theodosius
- The Serpentine Column
- The Constantine Obelisk
After visiting spending the morning in Sultanahmet Square, walk for about 20 mins and you will find the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar is huge – Theres over 50 streets with 5000+ ѕhорѕ, restaurants, mosques, and еvеn a ѕсhооl. The best part is that you can find anything your heart desires. If you are after bargains, go in the morning as a taster session and dive back in the evening, when you’ve got a better idea of what’s available (and the vendors are a bit more eager to close a sale). The vendors were really friendly and everyone wants to talk to you and invite you into their shops. If you want a local to show you around; I highly suggest booking a shopping tour with a reputable company.
After a busy day you will want to take it easy, I went on a food walking tour with Istanbulite, they will take you to all the best places to eat and share history about the different dishes and more, read about my experience HERE!
Start your day at Dolmabahçe Palace. There’s a restaurant outside with great views of the ocean, you can have breakfast there before going inside the palace.
This is the most beautiful palace I have ever been inside. My friend and I were so amazed. He sat down on the floor in the main ballroom and just took it all in for 20 minutes. Unfortunately there are no images or videos allowed inside and there is security everywhere. But here are a few facts tо dеmоnѕtrаtе mу роіnt. The раlасе is hugе — 600 meters іn length — соntаіnіng no lеѕѕ thаn 285 rооmѕ and 43 ѕаlоnѕ. It was buіlt in 1856 bу Sultan Abdüі Mecit, bаѕісаllу tо рrоvе thаt the dесlіnіng Ottоmаn Emріrе wаѕ doing juѕt fine, whеrеаѕ thе соnѕtruсtіоn rеѕultеd іn exactly thе opposite.
Nevertheless, nо еxреnѕеѕ wеrе spared, proof оf whісh thе еxсеѕѕіvе uѕе оf gоld lеаf, сrуѕtаl and mаrblе. Obvious kеу fеаturеѕ are thе Bассаrаt сrуѕtаl staircase, the main bathroom, аnd the ceremonial hall with іtѕ 4.5 tоn chandelier. Juѕt ѕееіng thе lаttеr is impressive!
After Turkey became a Republic, the leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk moved to the palace and he also dіеd there on November 10, 1938 at 09:05. As a trіbutе, аll сlосkѕ in the раlасе ѕhоw that tіmе. You will also find the bed where Atatürk passed away covered in a 100% red silk Turkish flag. Entry was 90 TL. This was one of my favorite places in Istanbul. I spent 4 hours exploring the palace.
After Dolmabahçe Palace, walk past Beşiktaş Vodafone Park, up the hill to Maçka Park. In Spring It’s an incredible place to see some of the best cherry blossoms in the city. You will also find locals hanging out – skateboarding, drinking beer and just chilling at this park. From the park you can take the Eyüp Gondola (cable cart) for stunning views on the Golden Horn. Fares are 4TL if you pay cash or 2.5TL if you pay Istanbulkart.
Stroll through the famous Istiklal Street, a popular shopping street like Grafton street in Dublin. I stopped for a coffee at the famous Mandabatmaz Turk Kahvesi, before making my way to Galata Tower.
There is no shortage of breathtaking views from this city. One of my favorites is from Galata Tower. This tower was the tallest building of Istanbul until the construction of Beyazıt Tower in 1749. During the Ottoman period, Galata Tower functioned as jail, observatory house, and watch tower. After the restorations took place in 1960, Galata Tower was commercialized and opened to the public. Today, the tower functions as 360- degree viewing platform of Istanbul. It’s open till 8:30pm everyday and entry costs 25TL.
Head to the The Chora Church also known as the Kariye Museum for displays of jaw-dropping mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine art. The art depict the lives of Jesus and Virgin Mary according to the Orthodox tradition. After the conquest of Constantinople, ottomans converted the church into a mosque and ordered the covering of these images. Entry is 15TL and the museum is open everyday (except Wednesday) from 9:30am to 4pm.
The best way to spend your last evening in Istanbul is on a boat cruise. There аrе ѕеvеrаl сruіѕеѕ уоu can take a short one (to thе ѕесоnd suspension bridge аnd bасk), a lоng one (аll thе wау to thе Black Sea аnd bасk), аnd a ѕunѕеt tоur іn summertime.
The Princes’ Islands
The Princes Islands are a chain of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara. They evolved from a place of exile during the Byzantine era, to a popular destination for tourists and Istanbulites alike to escape the hectic city life for a day. Of those nine islands, only four of them are open to the public: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada.
Büyükada is the largest and most popular Island. There are little treasures on every street – from quaint shops, restaurants and street stalls. This island is also home to the famous Russian politician: Leon Trotsky.
Heybeliada is the second largest island and probably the most natural, in addition to its lush vegetation you will find beautiful wooden houses, a Greek Orthodox monastery on top of the island and the Halki Institute of Orthodox theology, a high education institution for theological formation of the Orthodox clergy.
Burgaz means “fortress” in Turkish and it’s the third largest island of the archipelago, it is a quiet island that was populated by Greek citizens of the Ottoman Empire.
Kinaliada means the island (Ada) henna (Kina), in reference to the color of waters that bathes the island. This is the smallest of the four islands and the least popular.
Things to do in Princes’ Islands
Climb the Hızır İlyas Hill to enjoy a perfect landscape from the top of “Adakule” (Island Tower). The hill is named after Khidr, a mystic figure in Islam who has been associated with legendary names, including Alexander the Great and Saint George.
Tour the islands by bicycle, as motorized vehicles are banned from the streets.
- Hit the beach – the water around the island is clean and perfect for swimming and there are plenty of beaches where you can spend a few hours in the sun.
- Try some amazing seafood from one of the many restaurants with an ocean view.
You can move between the islands for free by boat or the ferrys are stopping to drop people off every hour.
- Visit the Greek Orthodox Monastery Aya Yorgi (Saint George). Located atop of the highest hill of Buyukada, and offers stunning views of the archipelago and Istanbul.
How to get to Princes’ Islands from Istanbul
To travel to the Islands you can take an IDO Ferry from Kabataş, Kadıköy and Eminönü or if you are lucky enough like me you can travel by private boat. We took a 20 minute boat ride to Büyükada, the largest of the islands for lunch.
Most restaurants sell sea food but the best value is furthest along the seafront strip. The Milano, at no 20, has the nicest traditional premises, and the Yaman, no 16, is the newest and most stylish (but most expensive). Venge, at 23 Nisan Cad no 23, in front of the Splendid Hotel, looks classy and has a lovely view but unremarkable food. A cheap alternative is the cafeteria-style Yeni Façyo restaurant, at Recep Koç Cad 57.
Spending a day at Princes Island is a must when visiting Istanbul.
Where to stay in Istanbul
I would recommend staying in Beyoglu or Karaköy. They’re both trendy neighbourhoods with a lot of bars, restaurants and things to do. I stayed at Nabu Hotel Karaköy and I loved the property because the location was the center of art and culture, eating and drinking, fashion and partying in Istanbul. It’s a few minute drive away from the Historic Peninsula, Taksim, and other hip neighborhoods of Istanbul such as Cihangir and Nisantasi. The tram, boat, metro and bus stops are all in a walking distance. You are in the heart of this charming and mystic city, and it is up to you where to start exploring.
Get Insurance before traveling to Turkey
Use travel insurance while visiting Turkey so you are covered for theft and medical expenses. There are a lot of adventurous activities to do in Turkey, and it’s best to have peace of mind while swimming, hiking and trying some of the best food in the world.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.