While on our honeymoon in Greece, we started toying with the idea of skipping Athens to visit Istanbul instead. Neither of us had a huge desire to visit Athens and would much rather spend that time in Istanbul. We wanted to explore mosques, dine on yummy Turkish cuisine, and go somewhere we had never been before. We wanted to go somewhere chaotic and exciting to the senses. However, there was only one caveat to our Turkish dream: we would only have one day in Istanbul. Come again? Yes. One day in Istanbul. We knew we may have been a little over our heads, especially since we had such little time to prepare or didn’t even have an Istanbul travel guide. However, there was no stopping us and before we knew it, we were on a last minute flight to spend one day in Istanbul. We must’ve seemed mad, heading to a foreign country with only a day to explore. Especially to tackle such a huge city like Istanbul. However, we were ready to hit the ground running and explore our way through the city where the East meets with West.
One Day in Istanbul:
Where to Start
Flying into Turkey is hands downs the easiest way to enter the country and I highly recommend using the fabulous Turkish Airlines, as it flies into Ataturk International at very reasonable prices. If you’re short on time, fly into Ataturk as it is much closer to the city center versus Gokcen Airport. Once you’ve landed, the quickest way to get around Istanbul is by taxi. We wanted to drop off our bags quickly at our hotel to start site seeing. So we quickly negotiated with our driver for a price of 40 lira (roughly $15 USD) and it took about 20 minutes to get to our hotel in the Sultanahmet District.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
If you’re short on time, I highly recommend a hotel in the Sultanahmet District. Behind the walls, lies the old city, which is close to the “what to see in Istanbul” attractions, such as the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, The Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern. Being in this district makes it very easy to cover a lot of ground by foot and and an easy way to get around Istanbul.
Great Hotel Options in Sultanahmet District include:
starting at $100 USD/night
starting at $209 USD/night
starting at $183 USD/night
What to see if you have one day in Istanbul?
The Hagia Sophia
This beautiful architectural landmark was extremely important to both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and as well as modern-day Istanbul. Now considered a Mosque, the centuries old civilizations are wonderfully represented inside this well-preserved religious site. It’s gorgeous to say the least and I highly recommend checking it out!
Sultan Ahmed, aka The Blue Mosque
This gorgeous Mosque is famous for it’s incredible interior, hosting over 20,000 tiles on it’s ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows, that cast beautiful shadows throughout. It is also famous for having six minarets (commonly, there are only four) surrounding the perimeter. The Mosque is free of charge and has appropriate clothing in case you are not prepared. Highly recommend visiting mid-morning to avoid call to prayer.
The largest of the several hundred cisterns located in Istanbul, the “sunken palace” shouldn’t be missed. You’re taken down 500 feet and the columns and aisles are illuminated by beautiful up lighting, making the site more alluring than thought possible. Trust me, it’s much cooler in person and shouldn’t be missed!
The now museum and large tourist attraction, was once home to the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years of their 600+ year reign. The palace has beautiful manicured gardens, wide swept views of the Bospherus and Istanbul, perfect for spending an hour or so roaming the grounds and admiring relics from the Ottoman empire.
The Grand Bazaar
The bazaar is the largest and oldest covered shopping center in the world, recieving a minimum of 250,000 visitors a day and spanning over 60 streets. It’s EPIC to say the least and a great way to casually spend some time window shopping and if you’re like me, admiring and wanting every lantern in the place. It’s definitely at the top of my list on what to see in Istanbul. FYI: The vendors do not like it when tourists take pictures. Sadly, this was the only picture I got of the bazaar. I was dying to get take pictures of the amazing lantern set up but they get feisty if you even attempt to snap a picture!
The tower offers incredible 365 degree views of the city. But beware, the lines can be very long so get there either early in the morning or mid-afternoon (like lunch time). This way, you won’t be wasting time on standing in line.
Fun cultural things to do…
With only a day in Istanbul, we wanted to cram in as much Turkish food, tea, hookah and shopping that we could. Luckily, amazing food and drinks are plentiful and at your disposal!
Even if you’re not a fan of smoking the shisha, it’s fun to go to a hookah bar to try it, mingle amongst the locals, and try some fabulous Turkish tea. The hookah here was hands down the best shisha I have ever tried and the tea is incredible. We got a mint shisha and apple tea and it was amazing together.
Eat traditional Turkish food
Being a huge foodie, I always love learning about different cultures through food. So it’s no surprise that I was beyond excited to try Turkish cuisine in Istanbul. My recommendations include: lamb kebabs, any kebab for that matter, load up on rice pilav, dolma (yummy bay leaves wrapped in rice, mouth watering noms, and any sweets you can get your hands on. Don’t forget to try Turkish coffee and yummy teas. We ate at the fabulous Bella Mira restaurant, which is conveniently next to all the major landmarks. Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures of the food. I ate it before I had the chance too…
Grab a drink at a rooftop bar
Grabbing a drink at a rooftop bar, overlooking the Bosphorus with views of the many Mosques throughout Istanbul makes for an incredible experience. Highly recommend going near dusk to enjoy the sunset and to rest your feet a little from hitting the pavement from all your site seeing.
Important things to know about Istanbul
There is always a little extra to know to better prepare you for your trip by someone who’s been there. So I am more than happy to share with what I learned during my short, but amazing, time in Istanbul!
What currency does Turkey use?
The local currency is the lira and the math on it is very easy, it is usually triple what that of what a US dollar is, making it a very economical travel destination. If that is confusing (because I’m sure how I worded it doesn’t make sense, sorry!), I’ll break it down: if something is 45 Turkish Lira, then it is 15 USD. Most museum entry fees are around 20 Lira, meaning $7 USD.
Do Americans need a visa to visit Turkey?
Yes. American citizens do need a visa to pass immigrations to enter the country of Turkey. However, you are able to access a Turkish visa right before you go through customs. It is so easy, painless and quick which makes it even more fabulous if you’re like me and decided on a whim to go there. Visa costs are around $30 USD and they accept US dollars, euro or lira.
Is Turkey safe to visit?
It is always important to consider your own personal safety when traveling somewhere new. Check the US Embassy Website, for up to date information on Istanbul tourism, safety levels, and info on civil unrest. To better protect yourselves, follow basic safety rules when traveling abroad. From my own experience, I felt safe while I was there despite the civil unrest in the country. During the day, it seemed like every other destination I had been too: you can tell there were scammers and pick-pocketer’s, so use your street smarts to not find yourself in a tricky situation. At night time, we were back to our hotel by 10:30-11:00 and it became a little seedier. So if you do plan to be out late hitting some bars or dining late, be aware of your surroundings and take lit pathways home.
What should I wear in Turkey?
Dress conservatively because Turkey is predominantly an Islamic country. However, I noticed that the women here were a little more modern and progressive in their fashion sense as opposed to other Islamic countries. Regardless, it’s smart to dress on the conservative side, so pack pants, long skirts, & longer shirts or sweaters (to cover elbows). You can always look cute and modern, even if your dressed conservatively. I didn’t have much of a conservative wardrobe considering I was coming from Greece, but I did my best to cover up with a shawl that I purchased outside of the Blue Mosque. So I highly suggest bringing bring an extra shawl or scarf for extra coverage when you deem necessary.
What to pack for Istanbul
Is one day in Istanbul enough time?
If you have the only option of one day in Istanbul, then yes, take the chance. Even though we only had 24 hours, I felt that we covered a lot of ground, experienced a lot of the local culture, and stuffed our faces with glorious Turkish food. Of course, I would’ve loved more time to enjoy the spice market and did a Bosphorus Cruise, but hey, that’s life. I didn’t know when I would make it back and wasn’t going to miss my chance! Ideally, I think the ideal amount of time in Istanbul would three full days to really experience everything and see things at a slower pace than we did.
Take away tips for one day in Istanbul:
- Fly into Ataturk. It’s closer to the city center than Gokcen Airport.
- Stay in a hotel in/or near the Sultanahmet District to be close to everything.
- Visas are easy to attain once you get off the plane and are located in customs. They can be purchased with lira, euros, or USD.
- Eat all the food you can stomach and drink all the Turkish coffee and tea that you can!
Thanks again for stopping by! I always appreciate the fact that I’m not writing for a party of one (myself…) If you’re not already, follow along on social media for all the fun and subscribe for more tips!