How to see Istanbul in just 24 hours or even a quick layover? Even the thought is daunting. Istanbul is home to nearly 15 million people and one of just four cities in the world that are located in two continents. It’s divided into districts that each have their own identity and personality… making it difficult and overwhelming to decide what to do (especially 24/48 hours). I’ve put together my must-sees for visiting this enchanting city with limited time!
What to do:
Istanbul is located right between the Bosphorus Straight leaving miles of gorgeous coastline to discover. One of my favorite things is to watch the sunrise or sunset along the water. The hues of the clouds turn purple and pink while the water reflects a soft turquoise. You can watch as the cargo ships, yachts or ferries go by. I recommend going to any of the parks along the water just by searching in google maps. For a fantastic view of the bridge while you watch, head over to Ulus Park. Another great option is to head up to a rooftop bar or restaurant like Vogue that offer stunning views.
You can’t come to Istanbul without seeing the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Tokapaki Palace, and Basilica Cistern. Fortunately, they’re all located in the same area so once you arrive you can manage to do this fairly quickly. Note: do get a guide for the Hagia Sophia. This was my favorite place in all of Istanbul. The history is so incredible you can’t afford to just walk in and take a picture and leave. It’s as if the entire world’s religions once passed through.
*I personally did not like the Grand Bazaar. I’m not a fan of touristy things and I feel like you can find more authentic items in other areas of the city.
TBH I had no idea what to expect when my teammate told me to try this. I was a bit confused when I walked into a giant bath, laid down on a marble rock, and someone began to actually bathe me. Surprisingly, it’s a pretty cool experience. I felt as if I was in game of thrones for a bit haha. You can spend the time after the bath either with a massage or sauna. I really enjoyed this, but if you’re not wanting to relax in your short time then don’t include it. I recommend heading over to Wyndham Grand Istanbul Hotel if you’re on the Asian side.
Drive Across the Bridge to Asia
Istanbul is one of four cities located in two continents. Personally, I think everyone should experience driving across the bridge. The view alone is worth it. Once across, you can drive along the coastline or head up to Buyuk Camlica Tepesi park to get a birds eye view of all of Istanbul. Most of the things you will do will be on the European side, but there are many things to enjoy on the Asian side. Walk along the shores on the seaside or stroll through the street markets and stop for cay at the thousands of cafes. In the heart of Moda, you can find Ciya Sofrasi, an authentic restaurant serving up Turkish cuisine.
Take a Boat Tour
If you have time and it’s a possibility, get on a boat! Seeing Istanbul directly in the straight is a once in a lifetime feeling. We chose to use locally Istanbul for our tour which was 2 hours and we had the entire yacht to ourselves. If you’re not wanting to spend a ton or working on a budget, just take a ferry over to the other ports (Uskudar, Kadikoy, etc), have some cay, and stay for sunset.
Visit One the Many Trendy Urban Areas
Karakoy, Moda, Kadikoy, and Beyoglu are some of the newer areas with a younger hipsterish crowd. You can go to have a drink or walk the cute alleys lined with cafes, vintage shops, and record stores. At night many of the bars have live music playing and you can often find a lot of locals to chat with! If you’re staying or touring near the Galata Tower, I recommend checking out Karakoy (a personal favorite).
What & Where to Eat
Have a traditional Turkish Breakfast
Absolutely carve out time for this. This is not just a meal… it’s an experience. You can check out where to go in my Breakfast in Istanbul post. Try everything from menemen to cay to Turkish coffee. You can’t leave Istanbul without trying simit and borek and all the cheeses/dips/butters/olives that are offered!
Baklava and Turkish delight
The flaky pastry outside filled with chopped pistachio or walnuts has my mouth watering every time I think about Baklava. I literally cannot say no when offered. If you’re in the Karakoy area check out Gulluoglu for some of the best in town!
You CANNOT leave Istanbul without having a traditional meal filled with meze and kebap. Go to Antiochia in Beyoglu for a real, Turkish kebap dinner. The restaurant is small and unassuming, but the food is packed with flavor. The durum (wrap) might be some of the best I’ve ever had. On the Asian side just a quick ride from the Uskudar ferry port, Mabeyin is perfect for everything from kebap to meze to traditional stews. The courtyard is also perfect for a date night!
More options suggested by my teammate:
This is a mixture between appetizers and tapas, Turkish style. They will be offered at the beginning of most meals and you can’t go wrong! Some of my favorites include stuffed vine leaves, mussels stuffed with rice and raisins, warm hummus with pastrami, grilled eggplant salad, and fava bean puree. Try as many as you like and see which are your favorite! ps ps. if you go to a fish restaurant, try the octopus. I have never had octopus the way it is made here.
Cay (or tea is Turkish) is black tea that is famous in Turkey. Offered at breakfast and the end of most meals, you’ll feel like a local drinking it.
Bomontiada Area: this trendy new area will make you feel like you’re not even in Turkey. With a plethora of bars/restaurants to choose from you can’t go wrong. OR just go for a drink and listen to music under a heater outside!
Sunset Bar & Grill: my pick for an incredible meal with an incredible view. Get the braised lamb with risotto because it was the best meat I’ve ever had and I’m drooling writing about it.
Vogue: another great option for an evening out and an incredible view. You can order anything from sushi, to traditional meals and make sure to get a glass of Turkish wine. Some of the best in the world!
Lucca: perfect restaurant if you want to go out for the evening. It even turns into a night club with brunch on Sunday so you don’t ever have to leave.
Chilai: located in Bebek on the water, this restaurant has a stunning view right on the straight. It turns into a club after 10pm if you’re looking to go out.
Nusret: personally I could go without this, but since it’s all the meme rage I included it. The meat is really good so if you do go you won’t be disappointed. What turns me off, is the tourist attraction it’s become. Seems like more of a show in my opinion. (note: if you want meat just as good without all the distraction head over to Elbet)
Mikla: located on top of the Marmara Pera Hotel, come here for a twist on Turkish style foods. Considered “new anatolian” this restaurant is perfect if you’re touring the Galata/ Karakoy area.
Healthy Cafes & Lunch
Yesil. No 11: cute cafe where they make anything from buddha to smoothie bowls with matcha and almond milk lattes. Everything is fresh and made right in front of you!
Bi Nevi Deli: my favorite vegan spot in Istanbul. They really serve EVERYTHING and the menu is constantly changing based on what’s fresh!
Kase No. 16: BUDDHA BOWLS! This cute cafe is a photographer’s and foodie’s dream. I could have ordered everything on the menu. Kase literally means bowl in Turkish so it’s full of great lunch options.
Pattis: one of the best breakfast spots on the Asian side of Istanbul. This small, charming restaurant serves breakfast and healthy eats. Everything is made right behind the counter so you feel like you’re having brunch in someones home. I love their menu because they offer Turkish breakfast without the cheese as an option. I’d recommend the avocado toast… you won’t be disappointed.
Where to Stay
There’s plenty of amazing hotels in the city depending on what you are looking for. Anything from five star to budget friendly, just be sure to book in advance!
As far as location, quality, and views go, the Hilton Bosphorus has it all. The rooms offer tiny balconies overlooking the city, the rooms are spacious, and the hotel provides plenty of restaurants to choose from.
My pick if you’re wanting to treat yo self! Located directly on the water and offers an incredible Sunday brunch, if you’re not on a budget staying here is a must!
This hotel is located in the heart of the city making it easy to get around and get the most of your trip
I recommend finding an Airbnb in the Cihangir or Karakoy areas. These are cute, trendy locations where many artists and creators live and work.
Trains, taxis, Ubers, Metro and ferries are all available for you to navigate through the city. You best bet is to use the trains or ferries because driving in Istanbul can be anywhere from five minutes to 2 hours. Just be sure to check traffic times if you’re going to drive. Ubers are fairly convenient, just sometimes can take a bit or get lost with directions. Click here for more on how to get around!
If you’ve been to Istanbul, what are your favorite places?! Comment below.
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