Considering the size of metropolitan Istanbul, how much of the city can you actually see in one day? We tested the logistics around must-see sites to create several themed itineraries that will help you navigate through the city. Let’s experience the best of Istanbul in 24 hours!
TOUR 1: Flavors of Istanbul
No human has the capacity to enjoy all the culinary delights that Istanbul has to offer in just one day. However, with a few hacks you can make the most of your day in the city, browsing through the plethora of tastes and smells, and collecting culinary experiences.
Practical tip: to follow our route, start in Beyoğlu, pass by Galata to the Karaköy fish market, and then cross Galata Bridge. Then take the ferry to Kadıköy and explore the market. There are opportunities to taste new things at every step of the way!
Don’t leave the city without tasting these must eats!
Instead of having a full Turkish breakfast, stick to simit and a glass of tea. This iconic combo tastes best onboard a local ferry. If such a trip isn’t on your agenda, pick up simit from street vendors, avoiding the ones sold in chain stores. Read more about simit and tea in Turkey.
In Turkish culture, coffee is what follows breakfast (the Turkish word for breakfast, kahvaltı, means “before coffee”). All around the city plenty of places serve exquisite lattes and cortados, but forget them for a moment and make room for Turkish coffee. No one makes it more authentically than Mustafa Amca (Uncle Mustafa) at Hazzopulo Pasajı in Beyoğlu. Just let him know how sweet he should make it. Learn about Istanbul’s coffee culture and where to find the best cafes in the city.
Maraş ice cream, as you might have seen on YouTube, owes its gummy texture to mastic. If the well-known antics of the vendor are outside make you uncomfortable, order a portion at Mado and don’t hesitate to use a knife and fork while you’re at it.
Freshly squeezed fruit juice is easy to find on the streets of Istanbul all year round. Watch out for the street carts around Galata and Tophane, or grab a cup from one of the joints by Galata Tower. See Beyoğlu food tour for more options around this area.
Köşkeroğlu in Karaköy makes its fıstıklı baklava using pistachios from Gaziantep—just choose whatever catches your eye, and yes, ordering just one slice is perfectly acceptable. See Karaköy food tour to find out more.
Instead of buying a balık-ekmek sandwich from one of the places under Galata Bridge, go for a more authentic treat made of fresh fish from one of the buffets in the heart of the fish market in Karaköy. During the fishing season, which in Istanbul is between September 1 and May 15, simply ask what’s fresh. You can’t go wrong.
Stuffed mussels (midye dolma) top Istanbul’s street food list. They are sold all over town, and the most popular location is near Galata Bridge. The price is per portion, so enjoy as many as you want, and when you’re done, simply say “stop.”
Once you cross to the Asian side, Kadıköy market unfolds in front of you like a culinary fairytale. Must tries include pickle juice (turşu suyu) from Özcan Turşu; seasonal fruit, cheese, and olive tasting at Gözde Şarküteri; and a feast at Çiya restaurant (as seen on Netflix’s Chef’s Table) for dinner. Read Kadıköy food tour to learn more about eating on the Asian side.
TOUR 2: Timeless classics
Taking this route is like going on a journey through centuries, where different eras, cultures, and religions left their marks on the city. The path also happens to cross through most of the famous seven Istanbul hills. Don’t worry—they are historic point markers and don’t really require much climbing.
Practical tip: the quickest way to reach the starting point of this tour is by taking the metro to Haliç station on the Golden Horn bridge, and interchange to a bus heading towards Balat (approx seven minutes). Estimated walking times are given below in brackets. They don’t include visits at the stops, which you can enjoy at your own pace.
Follow this route and you can visit all the must-sees on the historical peninsula in one day!
Start at 9am – Perispri Cafe in Fener is one of those places where time stands still. Serving traditional Turkish breakfast in a cosy ambience, it emanates warm feelings just like your favorite grandma’s place.
2 min – The Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate is located in the heart of the area formerly populated by non-Muslim minorities. The place maintains its symbolic significance within the Eastern Church, and serves as the residence of the patriarch, therefore all visits must be arranged in advance or led by a certified tour guide.
5 min – The newly renovated Bulgarian St Stephen Church is a quirky architectural gem made of prefabricated cast iron. Find out other magnificent churches in Istanbul.
20 mins – Consider Chora Museum a prelude to your Hagia Sophia visit later today, since comparisons between the two finest examples of Byzantine architecture are inevitable.
20 mins –Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque, located on top of Istanbul’s fifth hill, remains outside of the typical touristic route, and provides a stunning view across the Golden Horn. On Wednesdays, nearby streets turn into a popular market selling everything from fresh produce to textiles.
20 mins – One of the few remaining structures from the Roman era, Valens Aqueduct, which connects the third and fourth historic hills of Istanbul, used to supply water to the Beyazıt Cistern.
5 mins –Vefa Bozacısı makes up for the lack of good coffee in the area, providing a quick break with a glass of boza in hand. This traditional winter drink made from fermented millet was supplied to the Ottoman palace by the very same place you’re sitting at. Read the story of boza to find out more.
10 min –Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most important religious landmarks in the city, featuring impressive stained glass windows inside, as well as a stunning view of Galata Tower from its gardens.
10 min –Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi shop has a long queue at any given time of the day. Even though this centuries-old family company turned into a nationwide brand a long time ago, getting your freshly roasted coffee from its original location is a must-do while there.
3 mins – Pandeli Restaurant at the Egyptian Bazaar is your half-way rest point on this tour. Think of it as time travel—the same interiors offer dishes almost identical to those that the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, used to enjoy.
15 mins – If your schedule is limited to one day, a visit to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums should probably be saved for another time. Three separate collections take several hours to browse through, so if you decide to go it, make sure to manage your time wisely. However, the surrounding streets are also very picturesque and give a glimpse of the collections without having to pay the entrance fee.
5 min – Even though the history of the underground Basilica Cistern does not include mysteries and dramatic turns of events, its unique atmosphere makes a visit an absolute must.
2 min – Hagia Sophia Museum has to be a part of any given tour of Istanbul—should you have time to see only one place in Istanbul, there’s no doubt it should be this one. The details of the building tell fascinating stories—to learn all of them, consider hiring a certified guide.
3 min –Topkapı Palace Museum is another several hours long stop. If you want to fully explore the palace, a separate half-day visit outside of this itinerary is recommended. For a general grasp of this splendid place, make sure to take a peek at the treasury, Baghdad Pavilion in the gardens, and the magnificent views of the city.
6 min – For centuries the largest mosque in Istanbul, Sultanahmet Mosque has the longest opening hours of all historic peninsula landmarks, so it is wise to save it for last. Make sure you’re appropriately dressed in order to enter.
5 min – For a relaxing break at the end of this busy day head to the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul At Sultanahmet. The property’s secluded gardens will keep you away from the crowds, while authentic interiors ensure you know you’re in the heart of a historic area. Perfect for an afternoon tea. Find out more places to eat in the Old City.
TOUR 3: Instagram-worthy
If you’ve been following @theguideistanbul, you probably already know that there is no corner of Istanbul that we haven’t photos of. With years of experience, thousands of followers, and likes and comments in the pocket, we came up with a list of essential Istanbul shots that not only guarantee engagement but also help your beautiful travel memories last.
Practical tip: as the days get longer in the summer, you’ll have more time to explore this itinerary at your own pace.
Your friends will be very jealous that you get the chance to witness these amazing scenes!
Istanbul is a city that wakes up relatively late, and an early morning photo spree guarantees frames without too many people. The best places to watch the sunrise and catch the early morning light are along the European coast of the Bosphorus. The best time to take that iconic shot of a mosque and the bridge that connects continents is at dawn in Ortaköy square.
Once the table is set and filled with little dishes, the Turkish breakfast shot that captures this feast becomes a show stopper. There are hundreds of places in Istanbul offering a traditional Turkish breakfast (see page 30), but some are more photogenic than others. Our favorites include Cihangir Van Kahvaltı Evi, Mangerie, Grandma (at any of their locations), Çeşme Bazlama Kahvaltı, and Naan. Check out the full list of the best places for breakfast in Istanbul.
There are many ways to take the iconic Galata Tower shot. A wide angle becomes a little tricky when it comes to any frames in the area, but on several occasions we found a good angle from Büyük Hendek Sokak, and those shots tend to catch the eye every time.
Walk over Galata Bridge to let time stop for a moment. The anglers you’ll see have been coming for decades, and some of the older ones might even remember previous versions of this important piece of Istanbul architecture.
Ferry ports on both ends of Galata Bridge offer Bosphorus tours along the European shore all the way to Rumeli Hisarı, providing the best angles for shots of the waterfront wooden mansions, and the bridges that span continents.
When the Bosphorus tour returns to its port of origin, you’ll find yourself just a few steps away from the colorful photo opportunities awaiting at the Egyptian Bazaar. Spice shops, Turkish coffee roasteries, and the overwhelming variety of goods on sale will deliver the colorful and authentic frames you were hoping for.
Evening is ideal for your classic meyhane shot. It’s a different kind of opulence on the table, which can get as impressive as the Turkish breakfast spread. Even if you’re not a rakı drinker, seeing others raising a toast is a moment you’ll want to catch. For your shot, choose one of the classic locations in the Asmalımescit area, or one that comes with a great sunset view, such as Firuze.
Photographing sunsets in Istanbul can be challenging, but also very rewarding. Depending on what type of shot you are looking for, our recommendations include two alternatives: board a city ferry (preferably the large one departing from Beşiktaş) to make the most of the historic peninsula’s impressive skyline, or situate yourself on one of Istanbul’s rooftop terraces (Mikla or Monkey) to catch the mesmerising panorama in all of its glory. Either way, timing here is crucial!
TOUR 4: Like a local
No matter what you’ve been seeing on social media, Istanbul locals hardly ever spend their days wandering around historic sites or enjoying every break over a slice of baklava. A visit to the residential part of the Asian side will give you a better idea of what it’s like to be an Istanbul local. Here are a few experiences that could enhance the feeling of actually living in the city.
If you want to experience the real life of Istanbulites…
It all looks very glamorous on social media, but you haven’t seen the real face of the city if you haven’t taken the metrobüs ride during rush hour. If after reaching your final destination on the other side of the Bosphorus you’re still in love with the city, congratulations—you officially passed the test!
One of the most beloved neighborhoods in Istanbul, Moda, is a hub for some of the city’s best breakfast places. If you stay until the evening, experience the lively nightlife at the bars and live music venues.
Once you’ve fuelled up, take a stroll around the quiet streets of Moda, and along the Marmara coast, before entering the Kadıköy market madness. A historic, and slightly confusing location, the area is known for interesting gastronomic discoveries. Once there, taste the olives, pickles, and seasonal fruit. If you want to take some goodies home, Gözde Şarküteri has an excellent selection, and will vacuum pack them for you.
Head towards the ferry port to get on one of the yellow dolmuş shared taxis. The one you’re looking for is going to Bostancı, but you will get off a bit earlier, in Suadiye, to take a walk along the coast towards Caddebostan.
Hidden between residential buildings in the neighborhood is Neni, a great place for lunch and a quick unwind, and probably one of the best eateries in all of the Bağdat Caddesi area.
Once you’re ready, walk towards the main avenue, which is home to all of the high street fashion brands you can imagine. To shop for luxury items, head right towards Suadiye, where you’ll find Beymen and Vakko department stores, and the impressive multi-story shops by Louis Vuitton or COS.
Once you’ve found everything you were looking for, hop back on the yellow dolmuş and let it take you back to the ferry port, because nothing sums up the day better than a sea commute around sunset.