Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in Turkey and one of the most interesting cities in the world. It 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 totally possible to see a lot of this incredible city in a 1 day layover.
In this post you will find:
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.
How to get from Istanbul Airport to the city
There are three airports that serve international flights: Istanbul Airport, Sabiha Gokcen Airport and Ataturk airport.
It is possible to get to the old city of Istanbul combining metro and tram. It is the cheapest option.
Considering you only have one day to see Istanbul, it might be a good idea to book a private transfer to get you to the city so you can save time. Here are some transfers available on Getyouguide:
- Private Transfer from Istanbul Airport: private door-to-door transfer for groups of up to 4 people.
- Shared transfer from Istanbul Airport: another option convenient if you’re traveling on your own is to book a shared transfer.
- Private transfer from Ataturk Airport: private door-to-door transfer for groups of up to 4 people.
Where to stay in Istanbul if you only have one day
When you only have 24 hours to visit a city, it is crucial to book accommodation with a good location so you don’t spend much time getting to you your hotel to an attraction. I strongly recommend staying in Sultanahmet district, where most of the city’s main attractions are located.
Here are some recommended hotels in Sultanahmet:
- Empress Zoe Hotel: I stayed at this boutique hotel which is conveniently located in the Sultanahmet district, within steps from Hagia Sophia church. The hotel is amazing because it was created by the union of old Turkish style townhouses. Each room in Empress Zoe is unique and full of history. Read more about my experience at Empress Zoe Hotel. Click here to see photos, availability and prices.
- The Magnaura Palace Hotel: a mid-range hotel with excellent location. Some rooms offer great views of the Bosphorus. Click here to see photos, availability and prices.
- Celine Hotel – Ottoman Mansion: a beautiful boutique hotel built in a totally renovated antique mansion. Click here to see photos, availability and prices.
Flying with 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.
A stopover is a great way of saving money, learn how to book flights with a stopover
What to see in one day in Istanbul
The best option to explore Istanbul in one day is to start in Sultanahmet, the historical area. Later, 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 and visit the asian part of the city.
- Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmed 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 stunning but it is even more beautiful inside with its large carpets, tiles, windows and lights. It was constructed between 1609 and 1616.
It opens at 8.30 am so it’s the first you should visit. Entrance 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).
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 tourists 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 exactly before you visit, since during prayer the mosques remain closed to visitors for approximately half an hour.
- 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 Turksish 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 is open to visit from 09:00 to 19:00 hs and the entrance fee is 100 Turkish liras (around $15 USD).
Sometimes there are long queues at the entrance to the Hagia Sophia museum, especially during summer. To avoid long lines you can buy a skip your line ticket which also includes a guided tour.
- Basilica Cistern
A few metres from Hagia Sophia is this huge cistern built under the city around 532. It is very impressive how 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 decorated with lighting that make the place look so dramatic. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s books or saw the last movie you will certainly remember this place.
Cistern Basilica opens at 9 am and the entrance fee is 2 TL ($5 usd).
- Topkapi Palace
After you visit Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque you can also visit Topkapi Palace. This palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans until 1856 and is one of the most visited attractions in Istanbul.
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. Suleymaniye Mosque is situated on a hill so it has very beautiful views of the city. 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 I strongly reccommend you visit it.
The entrance to Suleymaniye Mosque is free
- Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest bazaars, housing more than 4,000 stalls and shops. You can buy all sorts of things there. It remains closed on Sundays so unfortunately I couldn’t visit it.
But I did visit 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 an extra thing to do in one day in Istanbul. It is definitely not one of the most tourist sites in the city, but I really wanted to visit Büyük Valide Han because it 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.
Important: Büyük Valide Han roof is now closed. You can still access the Han’s first floor and still get some good views of the city.
- Take a 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 like this one.
- Galata Tower
Beyoğlu 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. With a 66.9m height, Galata Tower was the tallest building in Istanbul when it was built in 1348.
You can access the Tower’s observation deck to have panoramic views of Istanbul. The Tower is open every day from 09:00-19:00 hs and the ticket price is 25 TL. The Galata Tower restaurant is open between 20:00-22:00.
- Taksim Square
Also situated in Beyoğlu, Taksim Square is a tourist area with many restaurants, shops and hotels. It is really easy to reach by tram from Sulthanamet. Taksim Squareis considered the heart of modern Istanbul.
This is a good area for those who already visited Istanbul once or if you have a little more than one day to explore the city.
- Get lost in the streets
In addition to all the wonderful attractions the city has, it is nice to simply stroll through the streets and discover places off the tourist map. Istanbul is full of curious places and beautiful buildings. One day in Istanbul is not enogh, 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 soon.
- Other things to do in Istanbul
Do you have a few more days? You can also enjoy some of these activities in Istanbul:
How to save money in Istanbul
If you’re staying in Istanbul for more than one day and plan on visiting many attracions, you should consider buying one of the tourist cards/passes that allow you to save some money. These are the options:
- Istanbul City Tourist Pass: this pass includes the entrance to more than 30 attractions and is available for 3, 5 or 7-days. Learn more about the Istanbul City tourist Pass here.
- Istanbul Welcome Card: this card includes public transportation and fast track entry to 12 museums in the city like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Learn more about the Istanbul Welcome Card here.
- Istanbul Museum Pass: this pass has a duration of 5 days and includes the entrance and guided tour to the most important attractions in the city. Learn more about the Istanbul Museum Pass here.
I hope this article has helped you plan your layover and spend one day in Istanbul. If you have any other questions please feel free to email me or leave a comment below.
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