Home » Istanbul Travel Guide: Best Things to Do & Places to See in One Day

Istanbul Travel Guide: Best Things to Do & Places to See in One Day

Istanbul is one of the most interesting cities in the world. Straddling continents and dating back thousands of years, Istanbul has long been at the forefront of world history. I recently visited and was mesmerised by the city, so I thought I’d put together my Istanbul Travel Guide for others planning to visit.

Because of its geographical location and its fantastic national airline, Istanbul often ends up being a stopover location between flights. Other visitors, such as myself, try to see most of Turkey in about two weeks, and find themselves with just one day in Istanbul.

Istanbul Travel Guide – Essential things to know

Originally known as Byzantium, and then later as Constantinople, the city was finally named Istanbul in the early 20th century. It’s located on the banks of the Bosphorus River with one half located in Asia, and the other half in Europe. A city like no other, it offers some of the world’s most unique architecture, culture, art and food. Plus, the atmosphere in Istanbul is an eclectic mix of cultures, religions, backgrounds and languages. Although one day in Istanbul may not be very long, you can visit a surprising number of the top attractions Istanbul in that time. Read on for my helpful Istanbul Travel Guide.

How to get to Istanbul city centre from the airport

There are now three major Istanbul airports: Ataturk International, Sabiha Gokcen and Istanbul International airport. All serve international flights and you can be arriving into any of three, so make sure you know which!

Generally, the easiest and quickest way to get to Istanbul city centre from any of these airports is by airport bus or taxi. Traffic can be terrible in Turkey, so factor sufficient time for this.

Istanbul Travel Guide
Wandering around pretty Istanbul

What time of year is best to visit Istanbul?

Istanbul is a unique city with year-round appeal. Summer season (June to September) swells the crowds and the air temperature rises significantly. The very best time to visit Istanbul is the Spring and Autumn months of April, May and October.

Even winter is a great time to visit Istanbul, even though it is cold, it can be magically snowy too.

Getting around Istanbul

Istanbul is absolutely huge. Walking this city in a day wouldn’t be possible, however you can walk between several of the major sites. Public transport is very comprehensive and the tram system is particularly straight forward.

However, if you only have one day in Istanbul, then one idea could be to jump on a day tour. I’ve listed a few excellent suggestions below:

Istanbul Travel Guide
Wandering the streets of Istanbul

Where to stay in Istanbul

If you’re planning to stay overnight in Istanbul, you’ll have thousands of incredible hotels to pick from in this city. There’s really no shortage of great hotels, and so many options to cover every taste and budget.

I stayed at the excellent Intercontinental Istanbul located very conveniently next to Taksim Square. This hotel had an excellent breakfast anda lovely pool to enjoy after a long day of sightseeing in the city. Check rates for the Intercontinental Istanbul here.

Some of the other best luxury hotels in Istanbul include:

Here are some suggestions for some great value hotels in Istanbul:

where to stay in Istanbul
The excellent breakfast at the Intercontinental
where to stay in Istanbul
Poolside at the Intercontinental
where to stay in Istanbul
Skyline view from the Intercontinental

Top things to do and see in Istanbul

If you have one day in Istanbul, there are a few must see attractions that cannot be missed.

These include the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Sarayi Palace and the Bosphorus River.

These key attractions are all located in the old part of Istanbul and can all be seen on foot. One of my other favourite things to do in Istanbul includes sampling typical Turkish cuisine in some of the best cafes and restaurants in the city. The food is amazing!

So read on my top experiences not to be missed during a visit to Istanbul:

The Hagia Sofia

Unmissable on any trip to Istanbul, this Byzantine structure was once a Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral. It later became an Ottoman Imperial Mosque and now finally a museum. At more than 1,400 years old, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most impressive museums in the world. It has been intricately designed and has been influenced by a mix of religions and cultures, making it a completely unique place to visit.

best things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque

Located in the historic Sultanahmet area, this spectacular mosque is surrounded by beautiful gardens. A sight to behold, The Blue Mosque is one of the most recognisable structures in Istanbul, with its minarets piercing the skyline from afar. The Mosque isn’t actually blue, but its huge domed ceiling inside is adorned with thousands of beautiful blue ornate tiles. Unlike many mosques, tourists are welcome to come inside and you would be expected to cover up to do so.

Istanbul Travel Guide
The Blue Mosque
Istanbul Travel Guide
The beautiful gardens
top things to do in Istanbul
Beautiful Istanbul in bloom

The Galata Tower

Just off one of the city’s main streets (Istiklal Caddesi), this Romanesque Tower offers fabulous views across the city. Located in the buzzing Karaköy area, it’s surrounded by great cafes and bars and is a must see during a one day visit to Istanbul.

top things to do in Istanbul
The Galata Tower
must see attractions Istanbul
Pretty streets of Istanbul

The Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus

A bridge where time can really stand still and where local fisherman wait for their catch. The bridge connects both sides of the city over the Bosphorus, and a slow walk along the Galata Bridge offers phenomenal views in every direction. If you can afford the time, definitely jump onboard a river cruise. These depart from the Eminönü docks, just by the Galata Bridge.

Istanbul Travel Guide
Enjoying the view over the Bosphorus river in Istanbul
must see attractions Istanbul
The Bosphorus

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is absolutely mammoth, housing more than 4,000 stalls and shops. It is one of the biggest indoor covered markets in the world. That being said, take note of your route and try not to get too disorientated inside!

Thousands of locals and visitors descend on the Grand Bazaar every day. This makes for a wonderful opportunity to experience daily life in Istanbul. Whatever you could possibly want, you could probably buy here – just be prepared to haggle your price! Nearby is the Spice Bazaar, another huge market absolutely worth a visit.

Istanbul Travel Guide
Exploring the Grand Bazaar

Sample the local cuisine

The city has no shortage of great places to grab a bite to eat and try a Turkish coffeee. One of my favourite cafes in Istanbul is the Latife Cafe near the Galata Tower.

local cuisine in Istanbul
Enjoying a Turkish coffee
Istanbul in one day
Loved this cafe in Istanbul

Explore the boutique stores on Istiklal Caddesi

This main street stretching from near Taksim Square to Karaköy is an excellent place to do some shopping in Istanbul. Its international counterparts would be Oxford Street or Fifth Ave, but fortunately, you can find a lot more locally produced products here. I fell in love with the fabrics and interiors shops and couldn’t stop buying the beautifully presented blankets and soaps!

This is the heart of Istanbul’s shopping, cafe culture and bar scene, so it’s enviable you’ll end up on this street. It’s also quite steep!

Istanbul Travel Guide
Wandering the shops
Shopping in Istanbul in one day
Some of the local products to buy in Istanbul

Enjoy a guided bike tour

One of my favourite ways to get around city is on bike, and Istanbul is no different. Join Baja Bikes for an excellent sightseeing tour by bike with a local guide – and avoid tackling hills like the below!

Book your Istanbul guided bike tour here

Getting around istanbul
Some of the streets in Istanbul are steep!

Get friendly with the resident cat population

This is probably isn’t essential if you only have one day in Istanbul, but it’s fun to know there are cats everywhere across the city! They’re pretty friendly too, so if you want to make some feline friends, it won’t be hard!

Exploring Istanbul in one day
Cats of Istanbul
Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul Travel Guide

Have you been to Istanbul? I would love to return for longer and explore even more areas of the city. If you’re planning to visit for more than one day, then this 5-day Istanbul itinerary might be just what you’re looking for.

I did find I managed to visit a surprising number of the top attractions in Istanbul in one day. Hopefully this Istanbul Travel Guide will prove useful if you’re planning your time in this exciting city. Whether that’s during a layover or a one day visit within a longer itinerary.

If you’re considering a longer trip, you might find my two-week Turkey itinerary here useful, as well as my guides to Bodrum,  PamukkaleEphesus, sailing the famous Turquoise Coast and Cappadocia here.

Wanna see more? Check my Instagram here, my Facebook here or my Twitter here!

Disclaimer: This visit to Istanbul, Turkey was entirely paid for by myself. There was no involvement from the tourism board or any hotel. This is an independent guide.

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14 Comments

  1. December 13, 2017 / 6:58 pm

    I absolutely love Istanbul, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world! A few years back I was backpacking from southern Turkey through Eastern Europe and was offered a waitressing job at a little café just beside the Blue Mosque. I spent about five weeks exploring every nook and cranny of the city and fell more in love every day. I absolutely recommend a longer stay if you’re able to pass through again! Thanks for reminding me of such a magical place 🙂

    • December 18, 2017 / 2:03 pm

      Ah that’s so nice to hear! You must have got a real feel for the city having spent that long there! I will definitely try and return for longer 🙂 x

  2. December 13, 2017 / 7:28 pm

    I have visited Istanbul a few years ago and I also loved it! I have enjoyed most of the places you are talking about here – The Blue Mosque is the one I was the most impressed with. Looks like you didn’t have the time to explore the Grand Bazaar? P.S.: Love your pictures!

    • December 18, 2017 / 2:02 pm

      Unfortunately no I didn’t! It was actually closed, what a shame!! But I didn’t want to lie about having been or anything!
      Thank you though, it is just a beautiful city! x

  3. December 14, 2017 / 10:34 am

    Istanbul looks so beautiful with your photos! I didn’t know cats were a big thing there, lol. Also will have to keep in mind your hotel stay, very nice hotel 🙂

    • December 18, 2017 / 2:01 pm

      Nor did I! Very cute though and nice to see them in a big city 🙂

  4. Exploring Curiously
    December 14, 2017 / 11:21 pm

    Great tips! I love the history of Istanbul.

  5. December 15, 2017 / 1:17 am

    Such a beautiful city! Your photos make me want to visit ASAP!! Thanks for the info 🙂

  6. December 15, 2017 / 2:16 pm

    Istanbul is such a pretty and colorful city. I will love walking through those cobbled stone streets and clicking endless pictures. Great cafes will make the trip more memorable.

  7. Bianca
    February 14, 2019 / 11:43 am

    Hi! I’m super interested in the linen… do you remember what prices were like?

    • February 19, 2019 / 8:51 am

      Hi Bianca! I bought a bundle of linens (tea towel and large towel sized) decoratively tied with rope and an evil eye, for about £5 🙂 You can haggle on the prices though!

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