Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in Turkey, and is undoubtedly a city that deserves a visit of more than one night due to its size, attractions and history. Many flights have layovers in the city, as it is located between Europe and Asia. One day in Istanbul is not enough, but it is entirely possible to see a lot of this incredible city in 24 hours.
Istanbul was the ancient capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. So as you can imagine, every street and building in the city hides history in it. The most famous sights are located in Istanbul’s old city, Sultanahmet. If it is your first time in the city, you’ll probably just stay around this area which is totally walkable.
- Accommodation and transport
When you only have 24 hours to visit a city, the most important thing when choosing the accommodation is the location. In Istanbul, I stayed at Empress Zoe Hotel, which is conveniently located in the Sultanahmet district. It is just a few minutes away from Hagia Sophia, so I didn’t even use public transport to visit the old city.
- Turkish Airlines: the airline offers complimentary accommodation in Istanbul but only if the next flight is also through Turkish and the connection is forced. In other words: your connection flight should be the earliest possible to your final destination. If there is a flight at 9 am, and you bought the 9pm one to stay a day in Istanbul you won’t receive free accommodation. Minimum transit time must be 10 hours for economy class.
- Transport from Ataturk Airport: Getting to the old city is possible combining metro and tram. It is very simple and is the cheapest option. I chose to hire transport with hotel service, since my flight arrived at night and public transport closes around 11 pm. If you choose to go by public transport or taxi remember that the currency of Turkey is the Turkish Lira.
What to see in one day in Istanbul?
The best option is to start to exploring Istanbul in Sultanahmet, the historical area, and then if you spare time go to other more modern areas such as Beyoglu or even cross to the Asian continent. I visited only the European side since my flight was at 9 pm and needed to reach the airport early, but if your flight leaves later it is completely possible to cross the Bosphorus.
If you stay close to any mosque (which is likely because there is one everywhere you look) it is possible that you wake up in the morning with the first call to prayer. This may bother some, but I thought it was a magical moment and spent the day looking forward to the next call. This alarm can be a good excuse for waking up early and start exploring the city. The call to prayer is heard 5 times a day in Turkey. And it is important to know when before you visit, since during prayer the mosques remain closed to visitors for approximately half an hour.
- Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is a must-see attraction in Istanbul. It is a beautiful building, and one of the most important mosques in the world. Its outside is striking but it is even more beautiful inside with Turkish decorations, large carpets, tiles, windows and lights. It opens at 8.30 am so it’s the first you should visit. Entry is free, and it is important to respect the dressing code: cover shoulders and legs, women should cover their hair, and before entering you must remove shoes (so wear socks).
- Hagia Sofia
The basilica of Hagia Sophia is located just in front of the Blue Mosque. Another must visit place in Istanbul. Hagia Sofia is an amazing place, especially for history and architecture lovers, but it impresses everyone with its size and beauty. This mosque was originally a Byzantine Cathedral and was then converted into a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Today it is a museum. The minarets (towers) are not original from the cathedral but were added by the Turks once converted into a mosque. It was built around the year 532 and it is famous for the huge central dome. It is very impressive to see how a building this old remains on foot and is visited by thousands of tourists. Hagia Sofia opens at 9 pm and entry is worth 40 Turkish lira ($12 usd)
- Basilica Cistern
A few metres from Hagia Sophia is this huge cistern built under the city. Also built in the year 532, it is again very impressive as anything built so many years ago is still on foot, and underground! Rainwater was collected here and supplied certain buildings of the city. The place is well decorated, with lighting that dramatize it. And if you’ve read Dan Brown’s books or saw the last movie you will remember this place. Cistern Basilica opens at 9 pm and the entrance fee 2nd TL ($5 usd).
- Topkapi Palace
After you visited Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque you can also walk over to Topkapi Palace, which I decided to leave for another trip. This palace is where most of the Ottoman sultans lived. The museum is open everyday except Tuesdays, starting 9 am. Ticket price is 40 TL.
- Suleymaniye Mosque
Visiting this mosque was not in my plans but it was one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. It is the largest mosque in the city as it is situated on a hill so it has very beautiful views from its gardens. The beautiful interior is very similar to the Blue Mosque. What I loved about this mosque was the impressive exterior. It is not as famous as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, but it is equally worth visiting.
- Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest bazaars, and without doubt a beautiful building. You can buy all sorts of things there. It remains closed on Sundays so unfortunately I could not visit it. Anyway I visited the Spice Bazaar, which is a great place to buy typical turkish food like baklava, turkish delights, spices and also some souvenirs.
- Büyük Valide Han
This is completely an add-on to the 24-hour Guide. It is definitely not one of the most tourist sites in the city, but I really wanted to go. Büyük Valide Han offers one of the best views of Istanbul off the beaten path. Hans were buildings that once served as shelter to thousands of merchants passing through the city in their way to Europe or Asia. Therefore there are many hans in the city, today most of them abandoned. You can climb to the roof and enjoy one of the best panoramic views of the city. Whenever I visit a city, I love to see it from above, and Büyük Valide Han is an amazing place to admire Istanbul’s skyline.
- Ferry to Asia
Istanbul is located between two continents: Europe and Asia. Just 20 minutes by boat from the European side is the Asian side. If you still have time you can take a local ferry that costs only 1.5 TL and cross the Bosphorus. There are also cruises that travel along the narrow and last a couple of hours.
- Galata Tower & Taksim Square
Beyoglu is a more modern area of the city but is also home to many historic sites such as Galata Tower which is one of the symbols of the city. Also in this are you’ll find Taksim Square, with many restaurants, shops and hotels around. It is a very touristy area and easy to reach by tram. This is a good area for those who already visited Istanbul once or if you have a little more than 24 hours of layover to explore.
- Lose yourself in the streets
In addition to all the wonderful attractions the city has, it is nice to simply be carried through the streets and discover places off the tourist map. Istanbul is full of curious places and beautiful buildings. 24 hours are not enough to see Istanbul, but it will be a very pleasant layover and you will get to see many things. I left with the hope that I would come back.