Explore Istanbul In One Day: The Ultimate Itinerary

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This is a guest post from Kim of Kim’s History Travel.

Even if you only have one day to spare, you should definitely take time to visit Istanbul. This is a city full of charm and character, brimming with centuries of history, stunning buildings, and a unique geography, spanning two continents. With only 24 hours in Istanbul, you can still explore the majority of the city’s top attractions and get a good grasp of the history and culture that it is known for. Read on to find out how you should fill your day in Istanbul and make the most of your time in this historic city…

Why Visit Istanbul?

Istanbul has a long and interesting history, from the Byzantine period and the Ottoman Empire to the present day. It is famous for its mix-matched architecture that represents the empires that once fought for control. The city also has an interesting geographical position, straddling Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus Strait. It can be quite fun for tourists to move between the two!

Many people mistakenly think that Istanbul is the capital of Turkey, but the capital is actually Ankara, which is also jam-packed with tourist attractions and things to do.

Mosque with dome and four minarets. In front of the mosque are trees, fountains and lots of people.
The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque

Is It Possible To See Istanbul In One Day?

Yes, it is absolutely possible to see Istanbul in one day. If you plan your itinerary right then you’ll be able to see most of the major landmarks. Many of Istanbul’s main attractions are located relatively close to one another, with quite a few in the Sultanahmet district (this whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This means that you can explore many sights in a short space of time.

Istanbul also has an excellent transport system that allows you to make your way quickly around the city. Of course, although a day in Istanbul will show you much of what the city has to offer, you may wish to return for a longer visit to get a deeper insight into the city’s culture, history and heritage!

Must-See Sights In Istanbul

There are far more things to do in Istanbul than you could possibly fit into a one-day itinerary, but here are the top priorities for your visit:

Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to its most famous and grand cultural site, the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Originally built as a Christian church, the building was later turned into a mosque and still stands as a stunning example of the unique and beautiful Byzantine architectural style. Located in the Sultanahmet district of the city, Hagia Sophia is located close to other historic landmarks.

Entrance fees to Hagia Sophia were introduced in 2024. Typically visitors spend around one hour here, exploring every part of the building including its many mosaics. Pre-2020 Hagia Sophia was a museum, but it has since been converted back into a mosque, meaning that you should be respectful of the locals coming for prayer and ensure that you dress modestly. 

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is another famous religious site in Istanbul, famous for its stunning blue tiles and grand design. Officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque is situated directly opposite Hagia Sophia, making it an easy addition to your itinerary. The Blue Mosque remains an active place of worship and is a prime example of Ottoman architecture, with six minarets and a large courtyard.

Entry to the mosque is also free but donations are warmly welcomed. You should dress modestly at the Blue Mosque and make sure to remove your shoes before entering as a sign of respect. Allow around 30-45 minutes for this site, giving you time to admire the interior, take photos (where allowed), and immerse yourself in the calm atmosphere.

Outside of large mosque with multiple domes and minarets. There are several arches at the front of the building.
The Blue Mosque

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground water reservoir that was built during the Byzantine period, and is famous for its size and impressive design. It is also located in the Sultanahmet district and is very popular among tourists and guided excursion groups. The cistern showcases the ingenuity of the civilization and highlights how advanced their engineering was.

There is an eerie feeling within the cistern due to the lighting and presence of Medusa heads on the many columns that are dotted around. Now a museum, the Basilica Cistern is a unique location for learning about the history of Istanbul. You need to plan for spending around 30-45 minutes here.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower is another historically significant landmark that you should consider visiting during your one day in Istanbul. The tower was originally used for surveillance and defence purposes during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods but has become popular with tourists for its stunning panoramic views of the city from the observation deck.

There is an entrance charge for the tower. However many tourists opt to spend a little more by visiting the restaurant at the top of the tower and having a meal or a drink while gazing at the view. A visit to the tower typically takes around 45 minutes and you can opt to climb or ride the elevator.

Topkapi Palace Museum

For nearly 400 years Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans, but it has since been converted into a museum. It is a beautifully preserved structure of Ottoman architecture, housing dozens of imperial collections, sacred relics and pieces of Ottoman art. The palace is located in the same historic quarter as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

You will have to pay to visit the Topkapi Palace, and there is an additional charge if you wish to visit the Harem section or other special collections. To fully explore the palace and its gardens, you should allow for around 2-3 hours, but you could see the main sights in a shorter time.

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, home to over 4,000 shops along 61 streets. Located in the Beyazit District, the Grand Bazaar is a short walk from the Sultanahmet area and is well worth visiting. This is essentially a commercial space selling everything from jewellery to spices and souvenirs, attracting thousands of locals and tourists every day. The market is the perfect place to experience traditional Turkish crafts and shopping practices.

While entrance to the Bazaar is free, be prepared to spend money at the stalls as sellers will try to entice you in with their goods. You should test your haggling skills to get a better deal, as you can often find the same souvenirs more cheaply elsewhere.

Woman standing behind a market stall piled high with different types of spices.
A spice stall in the Grand Bazaar

Bosphorus Cruise

The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul into Europe and Asia and is a unique vantage point for admiring Istanbul’s skyline. There are several great cruise companies that offer great sightseeing tour options, allowing you to glide along the shimmering water as you admire beautiful palaces, historical fortresses and stunning authentic neighbourhoods.

Most cruises last for around one hour but you can find many longer ones which even serve meals onboard. Taking a sunset cruise is very popular among tourists as watching the sun set on the city brings out another side of its beauty. Prices for a Bosphorus boat tour can be as low as 150 Turkish Lira, making them a very affordable way of seeing a huge portion of the city in a short space of time.

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Istanbul Museum Of Modern Art

The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (otherwise known as Istanbul’s Modern) is Turkey’s first and most popular modern and contemporary art museum, and is a great spot for immersing yourself in the culture and art scene of the city. While the museum primarily features works by modern Turkish artists there are also a number of international pieces.

Situated in the Karakoy district along the Bosphorus Strait, the museum is well-located for a quick visit during your day in Istanbul. There is an entrance charge for the museum, but check to see what discounts are available. With such a huge and diverse collection of artwork, you should plan to spend around 1-2 hours here, giving you time to get a feeling for the evolving Turkish art scene.

Rumeli Fortress

Rumeli Fortress, also known at Rumeli Hisari, is a medieval Ottoman fortress located on a series of hills on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait. It is located some distance from the other main attractions of Istanbul but can be easily accessed by public transport. The fortress was constructed under the order of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century as part of his campaign to conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul). It played an important role in the siege of the city and gave the Ottomans a strategic advantage against the Byzantine Empire, leading to their downfall.

The entrance ticket to the fortress allows you to explore and to walk around the ramparts. The structure provides a great viewpoint across the Bosphorus Strait and the entire city, so is a great alternative to the Galata Tower if you’re short on time.

Istanbul One Day Itinerary

In order to see Istanbul’s highlights in just one day you’ll need to maximise your exploration time. This means a full day of sightseeing, starting as early as possible.

Morning

Start in the heart of the old city at Hagia Sophia. This opens at 9 am, meaning you could head straight there after an early breakfast. After exploring the museum and admiring the beautiful architecture of the mosque, you can then cross the square to another of the city’s religious sites, the Blue Mosque. 

Remember to dress respectfully when visiting the mosques. Women are required to cover their hair (scarves are available at the door if you don’t have one) while everyone must cover all skin between their shoulders and knees.

When you have finished at the Blue Mosque, take a short walk to the Basilica Cistern to admire the wonderful engineering and beautiful decoration that lies underneath the city of Istanbul. It’s also a great place to cool down if you’re feeling the heat! From here, it is just another short walk to Topkapi Palace, home of past Ottoman Sultans and now a stunning tourist attraction. You could easily spend hours on end here exploring the courtyards, gardens and endless rooms of the Harem section of the palace.

After a busy morning, make sure to fuel up with a hearty lunch before continuing your day of exploring. To immerse yourself in Turkish culture, be sure to enjoy traditional local cuisine at one of the many local restaurants. Some popular dishes include kebabs, baklava and different meze assortments.

Afternoon

Following your lunch break, make your way to the Grand Bazaar, which is around a 10-minute walk from the Sultanahmet district. Spend some time (and money) here, searching for unique souvenirs to take home with you while experiencing the hustle and bustle of market life.

Now comes the opportunity to cross the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge to reach the northern part of Istanbul. You can do this either by walking or taking public transport. If you have the time walking is the better option so you can admire the city views. When you reach the other side, head for the Galata Tower for even more incredible views of Istanbul’s skyline and the glistening water of the Bosphorus Strait – which is where you’re headed next!

Bridge with two levels. The lower level has people walking alongside shops, and the upper level has lots of fishermen casting their lines into the water.
Along the Galata Bridge

Evening

A Bosphorus Cruise is a great way to round off your day in Istanbul and allows you to catch a glimpse of many more treasures along the city’s shorelines. Some cruises have evening meal options which would be the perfect way to end your day. Otherwise, relax and enjoy the sunset views of the city before heading for an evening meal at a traditional restaurant back on dry land.

Getting Around Istanbul

If you’re only spending 24 hours in Istanbul, then getting around the city’s main attractions is very simple and your best option is by foot. Many of Istanbul’s biggest tourist attractions are within easy walking distance, no more than 10-15 minutes from one other. However, if you’re short on time or travelling further afield then you could use the range of transport options that Istanbul has to offer.

The Istanbul Metro, tram and bus systems are very efficient, affordably priced, and cover an extensive area, allowing you to easily navigate the city. The Metro is perhaps the most efficient method for longer distances as it is so fast and frequent, but trams and buses are a great option for shorter journeys.

Taxis are also widely available in Istanbul and are convenient when traveling late at night or to places served by public transport. However, make sure to agree the price with your driver before getting in, as many cars are not fitted with automatic fare meters. There are also multiple ferry services that connect the European and Asian neighbourhoods of the city. While they are mainly used by locals as a means of crossing the Bosphorus, they provide a great mode of transport for tourists wishing to admire the city from the water while getting from place to place.

You can also get around with the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Or let someone else do the planning by taking a full day guided tour.

Looking towards the Blue Mosque from the water.
Looking across the water for a different perspective on the city

Where To Stay In Istanbul

Your day in Istanbul might be the result of a long layover, or you may be looking for overnight accommodation during your visit. There are a number of recommended regions for tourists to stay in while visiting Istanbul, many of which are located close to the top attractions. The most obvious choice in is the Fatih District, near Sultanahmet, as it is home to so many popular historical attractions. There are a number of great accommodation options here, ranging from 5-star hotels to studio apartments to hostels – something for any budget.

There are several neighbourhoods within the Fatih district, two of which are particularly recommended. Fener and Balat are well preserved, full of colour, and largely lived in by locals. These areas are full of quaint cafes and quirky shops, and the architecture is incredibly photo-worthy! Accommodation here is mostly in the form of apartments, which is great for giving you some extra privacy and space.

Reaching the main tourist areas from these locations is simple as they are so well-connected by public transport. You can reach the main Sultanahmet Square within 25-30 minutes on the bus, or you could take a leisurely stroll into the city with a Turkish coffee in your hand, purchased from one of the many traditional cafés.

Conclusion

Istanbul is jam-packed with things to see and do making it easy to fill a one day itinerary. With 24 hours in the city, you’ll have to plan your day well in order to see as many top attractions as possible. Luckily, many of them are within a short distance of each other, making it easy to explore them in a small amount of time.

While you’ll be able to touch on most of the top attractions in a short visit, you’ll only get a glimpse of what Istanbul has to offer. So if you can, you should definitely plan to visit again in the future.

Author bio: Kim is a history buff who likes to study the history of the places she visits. Her favourite countries to explore are Israel, Egypt, and Turkey.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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