48 Hour Istanbul Guide: How to Get the Most out of a Quick Trip
Before I start, I want to preface this by saying this Istanbul Guide is designed around a quick trip. 48 hours will barely scratch the surface, but that was what I had and it was definitely still worth going. If you are in a similar situation, this guide will be really helpful for you. If you have more time, even better! It will still give you a really good sense for what to do on your first trip to Istanbul, you’ll just have more time and can add more ideas in.
Istanbul is a seriously amazing city. It truly is where East meets West. It straddles 2 continents (Europe and Asia) and has so many interesting cultural influences from both sides that make it unique and incredibly vibrant. It is also massive, being among the world’s mega cities at over 14 million people. What I describe below is actually what I did and we were definitely busy, but we managed to fit it all in!
Here is a summary of the itinerary. Keep reading for the details.
Day 1: The Old City
- Topkapi Palace
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Blue Mosque
- Arasta Bazaar
- Dinner in Sultanahmet
Day 2: The New City
- Egyptian Bazaar
- Boating on the Bosphorus
- Walk down Istiklal Street
- Dinner and drinks in Beyoğlu
Where to Stay
I would highly recommend staying in Sultanahmet. It is the “Old City” and has a lot of the main tourist sites that you can walk to. It also has the charm of an ancient city that will feel more foreign to many Western visitors. Yes, it will be more touristy, BUT, if you are a first time visitor and only there for a short time, then it’s the stuff you’re going to want to see anyway.
I stayed at Hotel Amira and I would recommend it through and through, especially for English-speaking visitors. They were really helpful, spoke fluent English and the hotel was well situated for all the main sites in Sultanahmet.
The Call to Prayer
Six times a day you will hear this amazing, ethereal call to prayer (called the ezan) where the Islamic sacred chant will be piped out of speakers from the mosques in the city. It calls the muslims to pray to Allah to remember to seek guidance and forgiveness. You definitely want to be outside to experience this. I was near the Hagia Sophia (more on that later) and the rooftop of Hotel Amira to experience it. The times change with the sunrise (the first one starts 2 hours before dawn) so you’ll need to look up the approximate times it will happen before you go.
Istanbul Guide Day 1: The Old City
The 4 Minute Walking Tour
I call it this because all of these very famous ancient sites are each only a 4 minute walk from each other when done in this order. It makes it easy to get a whirlwind dose of culture on your first day.
This palace (now, museum) was the home to many sultans, dating back to the 15th century. You can see the opulent architecture and insane museum artifacts such as Moses’ staff. Personally, I think this can be done in an hour or two, but I do think it’s worth seeing and there are some great photo opportunities and beautiful views at the palace. For an additional fee, you can also visit the “harem” through a guided tour (about 30 minutes) which will give you access to the former private apartments of the sultans.
Tip: Start here right when it opens (usually 9am, but look it up just to be safe). If you plan to do the harem tour, get your tickets first thing. It is also closed on Tuesdays and some religious holidays so make sure you double-check all this before you go. If you are doing this itinerary and are there on a Tuesday, just swap Day 1 for Day 2.
Dating back to the 6th century A.D., this cathedral of Constantinople-turned-mosque is a really interesting relic of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It’s considered one of the world’s most important monuments, so you should probably check it out. 🙂
OK, in my opinion, this was one of the best things we saw in our tour of ancient Istanbul. So, if you have to cut things out, cut out Topkapi and not this (my opinion). It’s actually an ancient subterranean aqueduct system but what it looks like is an underground palace floating on water. There are over 300 columns that are lit up with the water reflecting the lights like something out of a movie. It’s also a great place to cool off (literally) if you go on a hot day.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque – a.k.a. Blue Mosque
So, this is the iconic mosque with the spires you see in many photos of Istanbul (see feature image). It’s really a working mosque (not a museum) and the interior is made of beautiful blue mosaic, where it gets it’s nickname. It closes to visitors by 6pm, so make sure you plan accordingly. Also, because it is a working mosque, it is closed to tourists for 30 minutes during prayer sessions (after call to prayer) that happen 5 times a day and also for two hours at noon on Fridays. You need to cover your shoulders and thighs up to your knees and you’ll need to remove your shoes. Ladies, this is when you’ll also need a head scarf to cover your hair.
Shopping at Arasta Bazaar
Most people will tell you that you have to go to the Grand Bazaar. Well, I don’t necessarily agree. The Grand Bazaar is HUGE, and for me it was too crowded and overwhelming. Not to mention it was the same stuff over and over. If you want to visit a bazaar, I’d suggest the Arasta Bazaar. It’s outdoors and has a lot of the same things you’d see at the Grand Bazaar, but on a much smaller scale. You can get silk scarves, rugs, spices and Turkish delights. It’s near the Blue Mosque and you can pick up some souvenirs right before you head back to the hotel to rest a bit.
Pro Tip: You definitely want to bargain in Istanbul, so be ready to negotiate for your goods. For some sound bargaining advice, check out ‘How to Bargain Like a Pro’
Dinner: Babylonia Garden Terrace
When you’ll get there, you may wonder why I sent you to a restaurant in the middle of a street full of what looks to be touristy places, but I was actually recommended this place by a local. And, there is a good reason I recommend it: The Chicken Teste Kebob. They cook the chicken in a clay pot and it is juicy and savory and just delicious. There are also plenty of vegetarian options. It’s right in the heart of Sultanahmet so if you are staying in that area, it will be easy to get to. We really enjoyed our dinner there and we talked to our waiters a bunch (native Turks but English speakers) who gave us great tips for the next day.
After dinner, you can walk around the Blue Mosque to see it lit up at night. It’s really beautiful!
Istanbul Guide Day 2: The New City
Today will be a more about exploring the modern part of the city. You did the museum thing, so here’s some ideas for the next 24 hours:
Egyptian Bazaar (and Neighboring Streets)
Check out the coffees, teas and Turkish delights. Try a few sweet treats to start off the day. It’s an interesting shopping experience and great for photo opportunities.
2 Hour Bosphorus Boat Ride (best May – September)
The Bosphorus Strait is the waterway running through Istanbul that divides Europe and Asia. A really pretty thing to do is to take a tour via water and see both sides of the strait. You’ll see sultan’s palaces, fortresses and mansions all along the water. You’ll also see some of the famous sights from a totally different vantage point. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you can hire a private company to take you down in luxury, which I highly recommend. (I used Zoe Yacht and the experience was incredible!)
But you don’t have to spend the money on a luxury yacht to experience this. You’ll see all the same sights from the Şehir Hatları ferry, which is Istanbul’s official ferry company. It offers a few different tours but I recommend the Short Bosphorus Tour with this 48 hour itinerary. You’ll get on at Eminönü which is very close to the Egyptian Bazaar at the Galata Bridge.
Walk down Istiklal Street
From the boat ride, you can walk across the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn to the Beyoğlu side and Istiklal Street where a TON of shopping, restaurants, street performers and cafes are. It reminds me a bit of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. You can walk all around this area and all the way up to Taxsim Square, which is representative of the modern side of Istanbul. Nightlife exists all up and down this street, so there are tons and tons of options and it will be a crowded and lively atmosphere.
In Beyoğlu there are countless places you can go for dinner. Because restaurants in this area are more trendy, I recommend looking up good places before you go and making a reservation. You can check out TripAdvisor’s top lists and other Istanbul blogs closer to the time that you are leaving to see what is trending as good.
The perfect way to close out your whirlwind in Istanbul is with sips on a rooftop bar with views of the city. I went to NuTeras rooftop bar which had jaw-dropping views and a great ambiance, but like restaurants, I think the rooftop scene will be continually changing, so it’s best to look up what is good prior to your trip.
At this point, you’ll likely be tired, so after a few drinks you can walk around or head back to get rest for the next leg of your adventure!
Saying Goodbye (a.k.a. what to know about the airport)
There is one thing to note when you fly out to your next destination. The major airport in Istanbul is huge, incredibly busy and also has multiple security checkpoints (more than we’re used to in the US). I recommend getting there very early so you are not stressed for your flight out. Have your hotel or AirBNB host help you with getting a good driver and just be prepared for a busy airport experience. I find that going in with the right expectations makes it less stressful.
Good luck planning and comment with questions! For more destination ideas (and to fuel your wanderlust), read on!