How to see Istanbul’s top tourist sights in a day

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Istanbul is one of those cities that has so much to see that it would take an entire week to properly explore various touristic and not-so-touristic areas of the city. A day-trip to Istanbul would be unfair not only to you, but to the city as well. However, I recognize that many people travel on tight timelines, or have a long layover, in which case I’d suggest not wasting any time and heading straight to visit the core attractions of the city.

Step 1: Make a list of places to see in Sultanahmet, the old city of Istanbul

Istanbul’s top tourist attractions are centered around the Sultan Ahmet square which is the downtown core of the old city of Istanbul. It might take one long and exhausting day to check out each and every place in the vicinity, but it is certainly doable. I am very interested in history and architecture. So, after spending my first day walking around these sights, I spent the remaining three days leisurely visiting the places I liked.

In this post I’ll walk you through the top places to see, followed by a plan to target visiting everything in a day. We will not waste any time entering museums since this is a day trip.

Blue Mosque

↑ The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Jami) at sunset

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) is the most prominent landmark of Istanbul and is a fully functional mosque. There are many entrances to the mosque but tourists are asked to enter from a specific door to the side. Upon entering through this seemingly ordinary door, you arrive into the visitor’s area inside the mosque and are suddenly exposed to magnificent chambers covered in intricate artwork and calligraphy, and glittering lamps that illuminate the interiors. In this state of bewilderment I was so absorbed in appreciating the beautiful decorations spanning the arches that felt awful to pull out my camera to take pictures; did I think I could capture this grandiose interiors on my lens? Thankfully the mosque is open for a long time so I came back at a later time.

Aya Sofya

↑ Hagia Sophia, also known as AyaSofya

Originally a Christian basilica constructed by the Romans in sixth century, Hagia Sofia is a masterwork of Byzantine engineering. The huge 30 m diameter dome covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world. Originally an Orthodox-Christian basilica, later converted to a mosque during the crusades and now a museum, Hagia Sophia has witnessed some of the most prominent milestones of human history.

Topkapı Palace

↑ Tulips blooming in the sprawling Gülhane gardens next to the Topkapı palace

The Topkapı palace (TR: Topkapı Sarayı, MR: तोपकापं सरयं) was the royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately four centuries during which the Ottoman empire reached its glory. Interiors are lavishly decorated and a tour of the premises can easily take half a day. However, since this is a day trip, we won’t have time for that.

Sights around the square

Hippodrome: Located right next to the Blue Mosque, this was a large central arena in Roman and Byzantine Constantinople. It is a great place to orient yourself in Istanbul’s tourist area and watch people. Also located on premises are the German fountain, and Egyptian obelisks and sculptures.

Basilica Cistern: This is a giant underground cistern (there is a whole network) built by the Romans to provide water to the city in cases of siege. It is possible to take a tour to explore the interiors in depth, but keep that for your next visit.

Million: Probably my favourite little sight since it’s very geeky! This partially intact marble pillar dating back to 4th century was the starting point of any distance measured within the empire during the Byzantine era. Indeed, that made Constantinople the centre of the world!

Gülhane Park: Filled with tulips in early April (when I visited), this park is located next to the royal palace. Eastern end of the park has lots of tea houses that overlook the Bosphorus river waterfront. Seen on the other side is the Asian part of Istanbul. So, in reality, you could sit in this park, drink tea in Europe and look at Asia. Pretty neat eh!

The Grand Bazaar – Shopping near Sultanahmet square

After a day of touring, it might be a good idea to get some shopping done. As we all know, it is sinful to return from Turkey without gifts, even if your Turkey visit was just for a day.

A word of warning: The Grand Bazaar is like a whole different city with hundreds of little lanes which would take hours, if not days, to explore fully. There is a tourist-intensive section of the Grand Bazaar (TR: Kapalı Çarşı, MR: कापालं चारशं), a name that implies ‘covered market,’ and not many locals shop in that tourist zone.

Egyptian Bazaar (TR: Mısır Çarşısı, MR: मसरं चारशसं) , also known as Spice Bazaar is also a covered bazaar has specialty herbal and spice shops.

Step 2: The game plan

Istanbul has excellent public transportation and all these places are on the main tram line, making it very easy to visit. The tram line cuts through the downtown core, connecting neighbourhoods on the west side with those north of the Galata bridge. This area of highly concentrated tourist sopts spans three tram stops – KapalıÇarşı to go to the Grand Bazaar, Gülhane for the park, and Sultanahmet stop for everything else. I suggest getting off at Sultanahmet and visiting the core places, and go shopping in the evening to finish off your trip.

If you’d like to use a tour operator, I’d suggest Context travel for excellent walking tours with people who know what they are talking about. The city has a free walking tour (and a free bicycle tour) chapter and I enjoyed a two hour overview with them.

↑ How can we forget food? There are lots of ‘restaurant lanes’ hidden around adjacent blocks. Walk a bit further to find places where the locals eat.

To summarize:

  1. Start early
  2. Visit the Hippodrome first, to get oriented
  3. Have Turkish coffee or tea at a tea house adjacent to the square
  4. Checkout Blue mosque (open 9AM to 9PM except prayer hours) and the major attractions which you’ll pick from the list above
  5. Take a lunch break
  6. Visit a museum: Basilica cistern, Topkapı palace or Aya Sophia
  7. Walk leisurely in the Gülhane park slowly making your way to its eastern edge
  8. Have tea in a romantic setting while watching ferries sail between Europe and Asia (Remind yourself that this is a unique location)
  9. Head over to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice market to empty your wallets
  10. Have dinner (Touristy restaurants on the main road, authentic ones on the back alleys)
  11. Hop on the tram to return home

↑ The tram line passes through the heart of the old city.

Hope you had a good day trip. I bet you will want to come back.

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