Things to do in Istanbul in 24 hours (historic sites, markets and cool places to explore)
On a flight back to the United States on Turkish Airways, I had a 24 hour layover in Istanbul and I decided to take advantage of this layover to explore the best of Istanbul in a very short timeframe and get my first impressions of the city that bridges both Europe and Asia culture, history and even street food and cuisine from the region like a traditional Turkish Borek. Here are my favorite things to do in Istanbul in 24 hours and hopefully if you have a short layover like this, you can also take advantage of seeing the best of the city in a such time frame.
If you are wondering what to do in Istanbul in 24 hours or less, check out this quick guide to discovering the top attractions and fun things to do in just one full day in the city.
Here’s what you can see in the city on a short 24 hour visit to Istanbul
Check in to my Istanbul hotel
When you travel with Turkish airways and have a layover, any flight longer than 6 hours allows you to stay in any of their designated hotels. Fortunately, I requested to stay as close to the city center as possible and was booked for a night stay at the Hilton Hotel located in the Golden Horn section of the city. Even though this area of Istanbul is a little out of the city center, you can easily catch a cab, ferry or even a mini-bus to take you to the historic district of the city.
Ferry to the historic districts of Istanbul
One of the best ways to arrive and see Istanbul especially the main monuments and landmarks to the city is by water. When I checked into the hotel, I made sure to get a map and find out where the closest hotel ferry dock is and had some money taken out of the ATM. Fortunately my hotel was already close to the water and a nice walk to the nearest ferry dock – a ferry ride is only 4 Lira per ride (about $1 dollar) and a bargain for a wonderful ride through the Golden Horn into the historic district.
At just $1 for a ferry ride, you get your money’s worth and really get to see the city from a different vantage point which is spectacular from the river and ocean views.
Coming up to the historic district of Istanbul
There’s nothing liking seeing many of the beautiful monuments, mosques and other historic sites of Istanbul from the water – you really get a sense of place that the city is at the crossroads of both Asia and Europe and traveling by water bridges those different districts of the city. So, if you are visiting the city, get to a ferry, water taxi or cruises and enjoy those views around the capital from a water vantage point.
Catching a ferry ride
There are many historic places you can visit by ferry around Istanbul to include: Eminonu, Karakoy, Ortakoy, Kadikoy, Bebek and Arnavutkoy to name just a few places you can catch the ferry to and roam around and then ferry back to the main port areas.
Fishing along the banks of Karakoy facing historic Istanbul
Exploring Karakoy and Galata district of Istanbul
The district of Karakoy on the other side of historic Istanbul is a very popular area along the waterfront filled with shops, cafes and other trendy bars and hangout spots. Passing through the area, I passed through some wonderful shops selling all sorts of delicious and exotic treats and other delicacies and even some street vendors selling fish sandwiches and fresh corn on the cob.
Enjoying some street food and grilled corn at Karakoy
Spices, delicacies and other exotic treats found in Karakoy
Facing uphill to the Galata Tower
After walking the waterfront and alleys around Karakoy, it’s a short walk uphill to the Galata neighborhood which has the impressive and intact Galata tower sitting in a prominent area facing the entire region. A medieval stone tower, the Galata Tower is a nine story tower built during the Genoese occupation in 1348 and was the tallest structure of its day. you can now climb to the top, enjoy a meal in the restaurant or just enjoy a magnificent view of the Bosphorus and city below. The Galata neighborhood likes in the European side of Istanbul with trendy shops and cafes, cool bars and fun places for the younger generation to hang out and enjoy the European influences, lifestyle and current trends that predominate this area.
Crossing the Galata bridge and restaurants under the bridge
Spanning across the Golden Horn of Istanbul, the Galata bridge connects the European side to the historic district of Istanbul. It is a highly trafficked area with a constant fishing happening on the bridge while diners eat fresh and expensive seafood dishes with amazing water views to both the historic district and the European site of Istanbul.
Walking across the Galata bridge over the Bosphorus
Popular fishing venue on the Galata bridge
Eminonu and the Grand Bazaar
After crossing through the Galata bridge you enter the Eminonu waterfront area of the historic district of Istanbul. To get to the other side of the main thoroughfare you enter through a small tunnel that goes underneath leads to the various areas of the Grand Bazaar markets including the spice market, jewelry market, clothing/domestics market and a more touristy market filled with trinkets, carpet sellers and other souvenir stands. The markets are fascinating to explore, chaotic and confusing all at once – I enjoyed trying some food samples and souvenir shopping and hopefully headed out into the right direction of the historic center at Sultanhamet.
How to get to the Grand Bazar
Form the Eminonu waterfront, you can catch the main trolley line T1 (blue line) that goes through the historic district and passes through the entrance of the grand bazaar along wtih some of the main historic sites around the city.
Fresh fish for sale at the Eminonu produce market
The touristy Grand Bazaar market areas
Enjoying mint tea at the Grand Bazaar
Here’s a visit to the largest and oldest bazaar to the Grand Bazaar
Exploring the historic district at Sultanhamet
The entire historic district of Istanbul is a Unesco World Heritage Site created in 1985. Most of the historic treasures and mosques are centered at the Sultanhamet Archaeological Park along with other important areas around the district.
The Blue Mosque courtyard in Sultanhamet
The Blue Mosque juts out of the central park area of Sultanhamet like an exotic jewel with blue tiles that bear the description and was built from 1609 to 1616. This mosque is also a complex to include an education center, tomb and a hospice. The public is allowed to enter the interior halls with proper clothing and there is a carpeted section towards the middle area that is only allowed for followers of Islam.
Grand interior hall of the Blue Mosque
With no imagery of god or prophets, the interior of the mosque is decorated with graphic motifs and design that have an organic influence and repetitive patterns that create a very soothing and contemplative effect on the entire building. Beautiful stained glass windows allow color light into the cavernous halls and adds to the spiritual energy of the place.
Tip – for details on visiting the Blue Mosque and restrictions check out this website for more details and information.
The fountains and garden fronting the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque
Gardens fronting the Blue Mosque
Within the center of Sultanhamet square are fountains and gardens separating the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and is a wonderful place to rest and enjoy all the historic monuments in the area including the Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, Sultanhamet hammam (spa/sauna) and the Basilica Cistern just beyond the square.
Views of the Hagia Sofia
When Istanbul was originally ruled as Constantinople, the Hagia Sofia was the main catholic cathedral in the city which was originally the main mosque of the city. After the Blue Mosque was complete, the Hagia Sofia was left intact as a church and mosque and later converted into a living museum for all to enjoy. This site is fascinating because it incorporates architecture, design and religious iconography of both Byzantine and Ottoman rule throughout the interior and exterior façade over various transitions and it is a wonderful display of how the beauty of the site and features are retained for all visitors to marvel and enjoy this unique monument.
Tip – It is definitely worth a tour of the museum and to explore the entire building, check out the upper terraces of the church looking down into the main halls and visit the smaller chapels.
Having a fish sandwich at Eminonu on the waterfront
Hanging out along the waterfront in Eminonu
After a long day exploring the many historic and fun attractions around the European and historic district of Istanbul, it’s nice to enjoy the rest of the afternoon trying a local fish sandwich from a street vendor and taking it to the dock areas of Eminonu and just watching the ferries and water views along the busy port area. I loved to finally relax and just watching the throngs of people leaving and boarding on the different ferries going to different parts of the Bosphorus is so captivating while munching on a freshly grilled fish sandwich.
After regaining some strength to walk again, I head back across the Galata Bridge towards Karakoy to check out more shops and places to scout for an evening meal before I catch the last ferry back up the Golden Horn back to my hotel. It has been a very busy and active day and transportation is so easy when you just have to rely on the ferry service and walking around the main neighborhoods in the historic district and European side of Istanbul. More than enough time to see the best parts of the city in less than 24 hours wouldn’t you say?
There’s definitely more things to do in Istanbul in 24 hours, but these were the highlights to visiting the most popular attractions and neighborhoods around this amazing city.
Checking out eateries in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul
Where to stay in Istanbul
If you do have a short stay or layover in Instanbul, it makes sense to really be somewhere close to the historic districts of the city, close to the metro or ferry service. Here are some suggestions of places that are historic inns to popular international brands located in various districts of the city.
Sultanhamet district hotels – Here’s a comparison and review of hotels within the old district of Istanbul
Karakoy district hotels – A comprehensive list and review of hotels in the European side of Istanbul
Newer city center/Taksim area – A comprehensive list and review of hotels in the European side closer to the Taksim and New city area.
Golden Horn district hotels – Hotel reviews and prices in the Golden Horn area of Istanbul
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