Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to a perfect one day in Istanbul itinerary. Do you dream of checking the most famous attractions in the world off your bucket list? How about the Hagia Sophia? The Blue Mosque? The Grand Bazaar?
Well, what if you could check them all off your bucket list with one amazing one day in Istanbul itinerary? Then this post is definitely for you…especially if your time in Turkey is limited. We’ll spend an entire day touring the most famous sights in Turkey. Then in the evening we’ll dine at the restaurant of one of the most accomplished female chefs in the world. No time to waste! Our bucket list awaits!
One Day in Istanbul Itinerary
Where to Stay?
I’m from New York City, which is one of the most ludicrously overpriced cities in the world. So for me, one of the best things about traveling is that I can sometimes afford to stay in better quality hotels than I could afford back home. And I truly lucked out by finding a great deal at the stunning Pera Palace Hotel. (You can find a similar deal by clicking here.)
The Pera Palace Hotel is indulgent in every way. There are amenities like a welcome drink and yummy welcome macarons. (Every hotel should have welcome cookies.) An amazing breakfast spread is included with the price of the hotel room every morning. Plus you actually get to stay in the same hotel where Agatha Christie stayed when she was writing Murder on the Orient Express. For a mystery junkie like me, it doesn’t get better than this.
If you’d like to find a fabulous deal on this hotel, click here. And if it’s out of your price range and you’d rather explore great deals on hotels in Istanbul that are more within your budget range, click here! I promise you’ll find something that will work for you! You’ll have over 4,000 options to choose from!
One Day in Istanbul Itinerary
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Istanbul is hot in the summer, so don’t forget the sunscreen, especially if you want to tango in the streets all day. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, if you’re American, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. Turkish electrical outlets don’t work with American plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
One Day in Istanbul Itinerary
Morning: Hagia Sophia
So the best way to see Istanbul on a one day in Istanbul itinerary is to book this amazing tour through Lonely Planet/Urban Adventures. You’ll have a local guide who knows absolutely everything about Istanbul take you around, feed you, teach you fun facts, and make sure you have a blast. I even got a private tour the day I visited Istanbul because some other people canceled because it was raining. Foolish mortals! You can book this amazing tour by clicking my link below…
But if that tour is out of your price range, I can teach you how to follow the itinerary on your own. And you’ll want to start at the Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom. This building used to be the most important church in the Eastern Orthodox Church, back when Istanbul was Constantinople. Then the Ottoman Turks conquered the city, changed the name to Istanbul, and converted the Hagia Sophia to a mosque. Now it’s a museum open to all.
But that’s just the basics everyone knows about the Hagia Sophia. Let’s dive a little deeper with…
Three Fun Facts: Hagia Sophia
1) Is this the original Hagia Sophia?
As with many old buildings, the answer is…no, not at all. The first version of the Hagia Sophia was made out of wood. You can probably guess what happened. Yup, it burned right down to the ground. There’s a reason we don’t have many wood buildings left from ancient Rome and whatnot.
The second version of the Hagia Sophia was built by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius. He was SMORT, so he made sure that at least part of the church was built out of marble. Unfortunately, this church was destroyed in a riot. Not even marble can withstand really determined rioters!
But my guide, whom I shall call Sophie, showed me where some remains from the second church are kept. There are lambs on the marble because Jesus is called The Good Shepherd.
2) How did the church change when it became a mosque?
First of all, the Arabic writing was added. (Word to the wise, don’t try to speak Arabic in Turkey. They use Arabic for religious reasons because it’s a Muslim country, but people in Turkey speak Turkish.) But there were some other interesting changes made, especially to the mosaics
One major change is that they removed any images of people in the Hagia Sophia. One major difference between Islam and Christianity is that in Islam, it’s forbidden to depict the human form in a religious building. However, they did not remove images of Jesus because in Islam Jesus is a prophet, so it would have been wrong to destroy his image. So instead they covered it up.
Since the Hagia Sophia is no longer an active mosque, the mosaics of Jesus have been uncovered, so you can see them any time you want.
3) What’s the coolest thing to see?
So many choices! There’s the special door that used to be only for the Emperor of Byzantium. Now anyone can walk through it. If I were the ghost of the Emperor of Byzantium, I’d be super cheesed about that.
There’s the amazing views of the chandeliers that you can get from the second floor of the Hagia Sophia. Sophie told me that the chandeliers were circular to encourage people to pray together as a group. I think that’s a lovely image!
Of course, I’m a fool for cats, so I think this Hagia Sophia Cat is the coolest thing in the museum. It’s said that the prophet Mohammad loved cats, so in many Muslim countries, you can find cats anywhere. A very civilized view, in my opinion!
One Day in Istanbul Itinerary
Afternoon: Explore Istanbul
Of course the Hagia Sophia is the most famous attraction in Istanbul. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to see in Istanbul. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only attraction worth seeing! Today we’re going to go deep into all the other major attractions of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace. Hardly seems possible that we can fit all that in one afternoon, right? But with Sophie and me as your guides, anything is possible.
One note: the order of this itinerary is not necessarily the order you’ll see all of these attractions on the Urban Adventures tour. But I can guarantee what will be up next: LUNCH!
Approximately Top 5: Istanbul Edition
We stopped for lunch at a cute little hole in the wall called Doy Doy that Sophie knew about. It’s easier going out to lunch with a local guide when you don’t speak the local language. But I will say that everyone I met in Istanbul spoke English. Tourism is a big industry there.
I wanted to try something very Turkish for lunch, so Sophie recommended the Iskender kebab. It’s doner kebab covered in tomato sauce and melted butter. I have never heard of combining tomato sauce and butter sauce in the same dish. But both are delicious separately, and it turns out both are delicious together! So it’s like peanut butter and chocolate, not like peanut butter and sushi.
The Hippodrome is a truly ancient left over from the days of Constantinople. (I basically spent the entire time in Istanbul singing, “Istanbul was Constantinople…even old New York was once New Amsterdaaaaam! But I did it silently in my head so the good people of Istanbul wouldn’t think I was insane.)
The Hippodrome was the place for horseracing in Constantinople. (Hippo means horse, dontcha know.) Horseracing was so popular that it also got mixed up in the political life of Constantinople. There were two factions in particular, the Blues and the Greens, that fought with each other constantly.
Eventually this led to a political rebellion called the Nika revolt. The over-enthusiastic horse racers almost ended up toppling the Emperor Justinian. Unfortunately for them, he and his wife Theodosia were a little too wily for them. Justinian ended up murdering over 30,000 of the rebels. When people say we need to restore civility back to politics, I assume they don’t mean this particular period.
3) Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is the crowning achievement of the Sultan Ahmet. He put six minarets (thin towers) on the mosque because the more minarets a mosque has, the more important it is. He was criticized for this because the mosque in Mecca has six minarets and that mosque was supposed to be the most important. But instead of taking one minaret off the Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet paid to have a 7th minaret added to the mosque in Mecca. A very clever genius!
The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, though it was under construction when I visited so my pictures didn’t come out great. You need to dress modestly and take off your shoes when you are inside. Plus women need to cover their hair, but they provide a scarf if you forget.
Sophie told me that mosques always have a dome to bring people closer together to pray. She also explained to me why there are often images of tulips and roses in mosques. The tulips represent Allah because the words sound similar in Arabic, and the roses represent Muhammad because he is supposed to smell like roses. I really wouldn’t have understood anything about the mosque without Sophie. There aren’t really any signs to help you comprehend what you’re looking at.
4) Grand Bazaar
Sophie said that the Ottoman Turks LOVED commerce. They loved commerce so much that after they conquered Constantinople, they built the Grand Bazaar even before building the palace. I approve! I also love shopping! Perhaps the Ottoman Turks and I could have been friends.
You can buy pretty much anything at the Grand Bazaar. Sophie took me to a shop where I bought an insanely affordable and sparkly Turkish lamp. The shopkeeper even gave me a free cup of tea while I waited for him to convert the lamp so I could plug it in an American outlet. I’ve seen lamps back home, and I saved 100 dollars on the lamp, which is basically the price of the tour. So color me one satisfied customer.
5) Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was the second coolest thing we saw all day, after the Hagia Sophia. This was the palace that the Ottoman Turks built after building the Grand Bazaar. It has several different courtyards. Sophie said the first courtyard was where beggars could come for food. If they could prove they were really in need, they would be given food.
Getting into the second courtyard required more security, and I can see that. Look at these tough guys they have guarding the palace:
Sophie said that if you came to petition the sultan, you’d be given an audience with the vizier (his right-hand man). But secretly the sultan would be hiding in the room listening to everything you said. SNEAKY SNEAKY! I think they should put all these sultans and Byzantine emperors together on Survivor or something and see what would happen. I suspect there would be no survivors.
After showing me around, Sophie gave me some free time to explore Topkapi Palace on my own. I paid a few bucks extra to enter the apartments of the sultan’s harem. I mean, how many times in your life are you going to get to do that?
Sophie said that the ladies in the harem were always guarded by black eunuchs so they couldn’t get them pregnant…and if one of them did get pregnant it would be very obvious the eunuch was the father. That seems like overkill to me, but maybe that’s why I’m not sultan of the Ottoman Turks.
I did see a lot of guards in the harem apartments, but they weren’t interested in talking to me.
I even got real close to this guy and still–nothing. RUDE!
One Day in Istanbul Itinerary
Evening: Dinner at Nicole
Regular readers of this blog know that I love fine dining! But even though I’ve been to world-class restaurants on every continent, Nicole has to be one of my favorites. It’s quiet and calm with gorgeous views. It is sort of hidden in a hipster hotel. The chef is female, and I’m all about supporting women in fine dining. Finally, and most importantly, the food is amazing! So I’m excited to finish our one day in Istanbul itinerary here.
Nicole is a tasting menu restaurant, which means you’ll be served small dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients. You can’t order a la carte, which means that this isn’t the place for picky eaters. But if you love food and adventure, you’ll love it here!
My first course was monkfish served with aromatic herbs. I don’t always like the flavor of monkfish, but I enjoyed it very much prepared rare like this. And the herbs added a wonderful smoky flavor.
I feel like smoke was a theme of the evening because up next was octopus with smoky eggplant and tomato and pepper. The rich octopus was a nice contrast with the light monkfish. In an ideal tasting menu, the dishes almost have a conversation with each other, kind of like chapters in a book. Another theme of this dinner might have been “tricky seafood” since both octopus and monkfish are hard to get right.
The last appetizer was the artichoke heart with salmon and peas. This sort of dish is why I come to tasting menu restaurants because the chefs get their hands on the best ingredients. Literally this is what I had in my notes, “OMG SUCH GOOD PEAS!” Like, how many times in your life have you said that?
For the main course, I had the fish of the day prepared with a walnut sauce. Since the evening before I had eaten lamb with walnut sauce at Mikla, I’m going to guess this is a tres chic way of preparing meats in Istanbul. Well I heartily approve! The walnut sauce adds a lovely sweet-bitterness to any kind of meat.
Another thing I liked about Nicole is that we got more than one dessert. The first was a light medley of fruit in season. This was summer, so the star was a stonefruit: the gorgeous apricot. Nothing says summer like a fresh stonefruit.
The main dessert was my favorite dish of the night. They wheel out one entire large millefeuille filled with lemon cream. Then they cut a piece for each table. So even though we’re each dining separately at the restaurant, we’re all sharing the same dessert. What a lovely idea! More restaurants should try this friendly concept.
That’s a Perfect One Day in Istanbul Itinerary!
What would you do on a one day in Istanbul itinerary? Why wouldn’t those guards at Topkapi Palace speak to me? And what would Sultan vs Emperor Survivor be like? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have a one day in Istanbul itinerary. If you have time for another one day in Istanbul itinerary, try this one.