To say that Istanbul stands out from other renowned destinations in the world would be an understatement. You won’t be able to find anything close to this city, which has been the capital of two powerful empires and crosses two continents. Its majestic palaces, churches, and mosques honor its extraordinary past. While its glittering everyday life attracts the wanderlust in the hearts of many travelers to keep stopping by. This vast city is full of contrasts. With teahouses and kebab shops nestled next to trendy restaurants, ancient bazaars coexisting with upscale boutiques and glittering skyscrapers with Ottoman minarets dotting their skyline.
If you have just one day to explore this stunning city, a comprehensive itinerary complete with places to visit, where to stay, how to get around, etc. can help you navigate your seemingly impossible one-day tour in Istanbul. That’s why we’ve compiled this perfect itinerary for you to spend a day in Istanbul. With stops including the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, the magnificent mosaics of Hagia Sophia and the Galata Tower for a breathtaking sunset, bookmark this itinerary for a magical day in the Ottoman Empire’s former capital.
Ultimate 24-Hour Istanbul Adventure: Insider Guide with Tips
Obviously, a single day in Istanbul won’t allow you to see everything. This city is too dense in terms of landmarks, tourist attractions, landscape, etc. But this itinerary works well for first-time travelers or those who are stopping over and need a list of the must-see attractions. With this comprehensive itinerary in your pocket, you’ll be able to spend a perfect day in this majestic city, exploring, dining and sightseeing.
Morning: Breakfast, Sightseeing and Cruise
Start the Day With an Authentic Turkish Breakfast
Your day will be full of adventure. To prepare for that, you’ll need a hearty and authentic Turkish breakfast to begin your 24-hour stay in lively Istanbul. Choose a filling Menemen (Turkish omelet) with cheese, jam, freshly baked bread, and juicy tomatoes and cucumbers. Naturally, Turkish mornings must include tea. You can also opt for a fresh smoothie or Turkish coffee to fully wake you up and energize you to tackle this city.
Embark on an Early Morning Ferry
Start your day off with a bang with a ferry trip to the Bosphorus. Taking a ferry when spending a day in Istanbul is a must-do activity. While there are many ferry routes to take, we recommend the Golden Horn one. It departs from Eminönü, takes slightly over 30 minutes, and costs just TL3 one way or single.
The route passes the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate-run Fener neighborhood, the former Jewish neighborhood of Balat, the Ottoman Tersane (shipyard), the Feshane, a former fez factory turned art and exhibition hall, and finally, Eyüp, the preferred burial site of Ottoman nobility, which is definitely worth a visit. Ferries depart every dock every 20 minutes on the 25-minute journey from 06:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. You aren’t likely to forget this experience anytime soon, with the coastal breeze wafting across your face and the horizon brimming with marine beauty.
Visit the Hagia Sophia
Your first attraction of the day should be Istanbul’s most important landmark, the Hagia Sophia. You’ll see the longest line outside the Hagia Sophia, which is 1,500 years old. The mosque is open for independent visits, but a guided tour can help you learn more about the history of the site, its numerous mosaics, gold accents, and historic architecture.
- Visiting hours: 24 hours
- Entry: Free
- Requirements: A scarf to cover your head
Check out: Istanbul Tour (3 Nights)
Explore the Topkapi Palace and Harem
Once you explore the Hagia Sophia, walk about 4 minutes (260.0 m) to reach the Topkapi Palace. Topkapi Palace was the Ottoman sultans’ and their concubines’ court, which was occupied between 1463 and 1830. If you enjoy stunning architecture and fascinating history, you should definitely visit this iconic structure. The palace features all the trademark Ottoman architecture elements, allowing a brief glimpse into the history of Istanbul.
- Visiting hours: 9:00 am to 6:45 pm, every Wednesday to Monday
- Entry: Free
Stop by the Blue Mosque
To reach the Blue Mosque, also called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, turn around and stroll back past Hagia Sophia. The mosque sits on the opposite hill from the Hagia Sophia. From a distance, you can see its stunning cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Built during Ahmed I’s reign between 1609 and 1617, it is still in use as a mosque today. You can see the incredible architecture set to rival that of Hagia Sophia’s and marvel at its mastery, down to the iconic blue tiles that give it its name.
- Visiting hours: 9:00 am to 6:00 p.m. daily (except Fridays)
- Entry: Free
Climb Down the Basilica Cistern
Head for the Basilica Cistern next, tucked away beneath the city. This is a must-see if you’re searching for something unique among all of Istanbul’s mosques. There’s a great “Game of Thrones” vibe down there, with haunting overhead structures and a dark ambiance. Following Constantinople’s collapse, the underground cistern—which had originally been constructed to supply water to the Great Palace—was forgotten and abandoned. It wasn’t until 1987 that it was restored and made open to the public. Now, it’s open for visitors to climb down and view its incredibly gothic vibe.
- Visiting hours: From 9:00 am to 5.30 pm
- Entry: ₺20
Afternoon: Shopping, Sightseeing and Lunch
Re-energize With a Light Lunch
There are numerous excellent restaurants close to Hagia Sophia with a variety of options. There’s the Michelin-starred Matbah restaurant, which offers real Ottoman cuisine. Ayasofya Kebap House is a fantastic location to sample Turkish stews and kebabs. You can also stop by a nearby buffet if you’d like something less expensive. If you have no time and want to eat while exploring, getting a simit (famous Turkish bread) or a Balik Ekmek (mackerel sandwich) from one of the many vendors lining Sultanahmet’s streets is a quicker and more affordable option.
Shop for Souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar
Visiting the Grand Bazaar is among the top activities to do when spending a day in Istanbul. It’s one of the oldest bazaars in the world, with the oldest records dating back to 1455, nearly 568 years ago. The bazaar covers 61 streets with over 4,000 stalls offering handicrafts, cuisine, lamps, spices, bags and much, much more. It’s a fantastic location to explore a Turkish bazaar and find mementos.
And the most important rule to remember; “Always haggle; never pay the full price!”
- Visiting hours: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily
- Entry: Free
Check out: Istanbul Tour (4 Nights)
Wander Through the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar)
Head towards the spice bazaar for your next adventure. You’ll be taken to a world of sights and smells unlike anything you’ve ever experienced as you stroll among the vibrant stalls. There are many exotic Turkish spices available, each with a distinct taste and history. There are various teas with unique scents, colors and health benefits. With dry fruits, nuts, candies, spices, lamps and more, the spice bazaar is a must-visit for a unique shopping experience. And a brilliant spot to pick up presents for family members back home.
- Visiting hours: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
- Entry: Free
Evening: More Sightseeing and a Scenic Dinner
Cross the Golden Horn
Head to the famous Galata Bridge, which spans Istanbul and links the city’s modern and historic areas. You’ll see boats pass by and the fishermen busy at their daily work as you cross the Golden Horn. The sights seen from the Golden Horn make for an amazing tourist experience and an equally amazing picture spot. Perfect for you to snap a memento at this iconic spot.
Catch the Sunset at the Galata Tower
Heading over to catch the sunset at the Galata Tower is next on your one-day Istanbul itinerary. Built as a watch tower in 1348, it’s 63 meters above the ground and offers an incredible 360 panorama from the top. In all of Istanbul, it is the best place to catch the horizon, as it’s lit up with the golden colors of the setting sun of this stunning city. You don’t have to climb the nine stories, as there’s an elevator that goes to the top and a museum to explore within.
- Visiting hours: From 8:30 am to 11:00 pm daily
- Entry: ₺650
Check out: Istanbul Tour (5 Nights)
Stroll Across the Istiklal Street
Surely you’ll be out of energy at this point and wish to take a simple stroll across Istanbul’s iconic nightlife. Istiklal Street is the ideal spot to take a late stroll, unwind, eat, and end your busy day in Istanbul. It’s lined with endless rows of cafes, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and street food vendors. There are often dancers and musicians playing in various locations, and there is a vintage tram that makes for great photo opportunities.
Enjoy a Full-Course Late Dinner
What better way to round off your 24 hours in Istanbul than with a traditional Turkish dinner? You can find many great dinner spots in Fatih. Choose meze (appetizers) first before ordering the main courses. Don’t forget to order an assortment of hummus, baba ganoush, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), cacik (yogurt and cucumber dip) and cheese and olive combos in your meze. For the main course, order a kebap, or a donor, which is similar to meat served in a bread-based wrap with salad and garlic sauces. Top it all off with some tea and delectable Turkish delights as dessert.
The Best Ways to Get Around Istanbul
Walking is the most efficient way to see Istanbul in a single day. All of the Sultanahmet district sites that we have covered in this itinerary are walkable from one another. For more detailed directions, make sure to consult a map or a tour guide. The best way to get to Galata Tower is via the tourist-friendly T1 tram, which also passes by all of Istanbul’s tourist attractions. You can also opt for taxis if you’re too exhausted to walk any further.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Sultanahmet is the ideal area to stay if this is your first time visiting Istanbul. You’ll be at the heart of the city because Sultanahmet Square is home to several of Istanbul’s most famous sites and neighborhood restaurants. In the center of Sultanahmet sits the charming boutique hotel called Legacy Ottomen Hotel or Hotel Amira Istanbul, which is a great accommodation option. The venue is incredible, with a lounge terrace with expansive views of the Sea of Marmara and contemporary Baroque décor.
Spend a Perfect Day in Istanbul With a Guided Tour
It’s not a stretch to say that you could easily spend a month in this vibrant, gorgeous, and massive city and yet still want to see more. But if you’re short on time and still wish to capture the essence of Istanbul in just one day, this itinerary can be the perfect guide for that.
But if you wish to have a complete travel experience without missing out on anything, our Istanbul packages are the way to go. With pre-booked accommodations, guided tours, and the opportunity to skip the lines, our custom and scheduled Istanbul packages take visitors through Istanbul’s most iconic spots and tourist attractions.