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The first day is spent in the historic district of Sultanahmet, and the second day is for exploring some other interesting parts of the city. The itinerary seems packed, but everything is so close together, and only a couple of the stops (Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia) take much time to thoroughly enjoy.
We strongly recommend staying in Sultanahmet district, because if you’re staying close by, it is so easy to walk everywhere you want to go. We stayed in the Osmanhan Hotel and loved it.
Start your first day in Istanbul at Topkapi Palace. This was the home of all of the Ottoman sultans for nearly four centuries, and is a gorgeous, sprawling complex.
Definitely get the audio tour guide offered near the main gate, and take your time exploring the grounds and learning about the history of the Ottomans. We spent a few hours here enjoying the slow, self-paced tour and beautiful buildings and gardens. There is also a cafe within the palace complex where you can have coffee or a bite to eat with a beautiful view of the Bosphorus.
Doner For Lunch
After leaving Topkapi Palace, you’ll be ready for lunch. Walk toward Sultanahmet Park and find a street food vendor serving traditional Turkish doners (which are like Greek gyros, shaved meat on a pita). Eat it on a park bench near the fountain while you people watch. It’s an inexpensive way to have a tasty lunch and be ready to move on to the next site.
Next up is a visit to the Blue Mosque. You can see the blue-topped minarets from most places in Sultanahmet district, so just walk in that direction. This mosque was completed in 1617, and is beautiful. Entrance is free, but there is a dress code. You have to remove your shoes. Men should wear long trousers, but can wear short-sleeved shirts. Women should cover their hair and arms, as well as their legs from the knees up.
If you aren’t prepared for the dress code, they will loan you a scarf, velcro skirt, or robe at no cost as they deem necessary. I was proud that I’d brought my own scarf to cover my head, but didn’t realize my arms also needed to be covered, so I still got to don one of their fashionable loaner scarves.
There are separate areas for those who are praying and for tourists, and you should be quiet out of respect for those praying. This visit doesn’t take long, as there isn’t that much to see inside.
The Hagia Sophia was by far our favorite thing to see in Istanbul. It’s an incredible, ancient building with layers upon layers upon layers of history, and many areas to explore.
This Christian church was built in the 500s AD. It was turned into a mosque when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, and then became a museum in 1934. It has most recently, in 2020, been turned back into a mosque and some of the paintings of Mary and Jesus have been covered with white cloths.
Tourists are still allowed to visit it in its current state as a mosque, and this gorgeous old building with its mind-blowing scale and so much history is sure to charm and delight you. There is even Viking graffiti carved into some of the marble on the second floor.
Definitely get the audio guide, and take your time wandering around the magnificent building. There is so much to see, and very few places are off-limits.
Hippodrome & Obelisks
After leaving the Hagia Sophia, grab some fresh watermelon slices from a street vendor and make your way down the Hippodrome, where ancient chariots used to race.
If you’ve never used a train or metro system before, they’re pretty easy and self explanatory. Go to the Sultanahmet station near the Hagia Sophia and take the train to the Beyazit station, which will let you out right beside the Grand Bazaar.
The Bazaars are big and overwhelming, but they are the best places to buy any souvenirs you may want (you can’t skip the Turkish delight). They’re also really cool historic venues that you just have to experience even if crowds and shopping aren’t your things. The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with the oldest part of it built in 1455. The vendors here are friendly, eager to chat, and willing to barter.
By now it’s starting to get later in the day. Depending on your energy levels and appetite, you may want to continue exploring the area for a while, sit and enjoy the fountain and people watch, or go back to your hotel to freshen up for dinner.
Whatever you decide to do, you’ll eventually need to eat supper. Conveniently located just off Sultanahmet Park is the Dervis Cafe (pronounced “dervish”). It’s a laid-back, outdoor cafe with authentic Turkish food and a real whirling dervish who spins in circles for long periods of time without stopping. Don’t forget to get the baklava for dessert!
After a filling breakfast on the rooftop of your hotel, today you’re going to venture a little farther out into the city.
Make your way to Sultanahmet station near the Hagia Sophia, and take the train to Eminonu, which will get you really close to your first destination of the day: the Spice Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar is smaller and older than the Grand Bazaar, and was fun to browse and shop. We enjoyed it more than the Grand Bazaar.
From the Spice Bazaar, walk across the famous Galata Bridge and watch the fishermen fishing off the bridge. The bottom story of the bridge is full of restaurants, which you’ll come back to later.
From the bridge, you’ll do a bit of urban hiking uphill to the Galata Tower. This is one of the oldest towers in the world, and inside is a muesum as well as stairs to the top, from which you can enjoy a nice view of the city.
Lunch on the Galata Bridge
Once you come back down the hill from the Galata Tower, you’ll have worked up a nice appetite and be ready to stop for some fresh fish, mint lemonade, and Turkish coffee at one of the many restaurants on the bottom of the Galata Bridge.
Ferry to Kadikoy
Did you know that the city of Istanbul straddles two continents? You’ve been in Europe, but after lunch you’re going to go back to the Eminonu side of the Galata Bridge and take a ferry across the Bosphorus strait to Kadikoy, a neighborhood of Istanbul that is in Asia!
It really isn’t much different from the rest of Istanbul (though it is noticeably more modern than the neighborhoods you’ve explored up to this point), but it’s pretty cool to be able to say you went to Asia. And the ferry is a neat experience, too, with great views of the city.
Wander around for a bit, enjoy the sights and shops (maybe get a bit tired and grumpy at this point if you’re anything like me), and at some point definitely make a pit stop for some delicious Turkish desserts and more coffee. That will help dispel the grumpies.
Back to the Hotel
At this point, you’ll be pretty worn out. Retrace your steps back to your hotel, where you can rest, shower, and get packed and ready to leave the next morning.
By this point, you’ve become pretty familiar with the Sultanahmet area of town, so head back out for one last meal. There’s a street full of restaurants near the Osmanhan Hotel, or revisit somewhere you passed earlier. We wandered around in the dark for some time and almost got lost looking for a rooftop place that we were told was a favorite among the locals. We don’t recommend doing that.
Enjoy your meal and reminisce on the all the amazing things you’ve done the last two days!