If you find yourself in Istanbul, with just an afternoon to see the sights, this itinerary should get you to the city’s main attractions with a bit of time to spare.
We usually like to travel slowly, taking the time to discover the character and hidden treasures of a city. Unfortunately, based on a hectic schedule, we found ourselves with only an afternoon to check out Istanbul’s main sights.
After the initial panic subsided, we got busy and set up an itinerary that would let us check out the must see attractions quickly. Luckily, most of Istanbul’s main sights are within easy walking distance in the old city in Sultanhamet.
The Blue Mosque is one of Turkey’s most famous landmarks.
Built from 1609 to 1616, and visited by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, the Blue Mosque’s domes billow upward into Istanbul’s sky. Know by most Westerners as the Blue Mosque, it’s also called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish). It’s outside courtyard is about the size of the interior and shares a lot of the same structural plans. The visitor entry is via a back door on the eastern side (on the opposite side of the Hagia Sofia museum).
Free of charge, the mosque is open daily from 09.00 till dusk. Since it is still a working mosque, the mosque closes for 90 minutes at each prayer time. This time changes daily depending on the earth’s position however mornings are usually the safest time to arrive. As their site says, “Avoid visiting a mosque at pray time (Especially Midday praying on Friday) or within a half hour after the ezan is chanted from the Mosque minarets.” Here’s a link to the changing prayer times.
Women are asked to wear a head covering when entering the Blue Mosque. If you don’t have a scarf, the mosque provides some free for your use. Male or female, if you’re wearing shorts or a short skirt, you’ll be asked to wrap yourself in a piece of cloth, again given by the mosque for free. Flash photos aren’t allowed inside. Before walking into the Mosque, you’ll be asked to take of off your shoes and place them in a plastic bag (free) that you’ll carry with you as you walk through the Mosque and exit the other side.
I’ve never seen a building as stunning as the Hagia Sofia. The architecture of the Hagia Sofia is especially awe inspiring, considering it was built in 537 with materials taken from all over the empire, including columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and stone from Egypt and Syria.
Originally the crowning glory of Constantinople (New Rome), the city was eventually conquered and the church was converted into a mosque for nearly 500 years before finally becoming a museum in 1935.
Admission to the Hagia Sofia museum is 25 TL for adults and kids under 12 are free. Visiting hours are from 09.00 – 19.00 (the last ticket sale 18:00), and it is closed Mondays.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
The Basilica Cistern, built in 542 AD, is the largest of the ancient cisterns underneath the streets of Istanbul. Descending into the cistern feels like you’re visiting a sunken palace. The cistern could hold up to 80,000 cubic metres (2,800,000 cu ft) of water, but today there are around a foot or two at the bottom, and home to some surprisingly large fish swimming among the columns. Make sure you wander all the way to the far left-hand corner of the cistern to see the two Medusa heads.
The Cistern is open from 9:00 am to 18:30 and costs 10 TL for adults, while kids are free. The entrance is across the street from the Hagia Sophia. Signs leading to the Basilica Cistern are named Yerebatan Samici, the cistern’s Turkish name.
You should be getting hungry by now. There are a bunch of good restaurants just Southwest of the Basilica on the streets of Yerebatan Caddesi and Divan Yolu Caddesi. We ate at Fuego restaurant and the food was decent. Prices were reasonable for the area, and supper came with a free appetizer of tzatziki, hummus and bread.
Tip: If you’re really in a rush, you can grab an ear of roasted corn on the cob or roasted chestnuts from a vendor when you leave the Basilica. There’s a small park just South of the Basilica where you can rest on the grass and enjoy.
Jammed with literally thousands of stalls, the maze-like Grand Bazaar was originally built in 1455. You can find everything here from food to trinkets to Turkish carpets.
Unfortunately, we spent a little too much time in the Hagia Sofia (and wow, it was worth every second), so we arrived just a bit too late too see the Grand Bazaar in all its splendor, though we were prepared to bargain hard and be constantly bombarded from vendors.
It’s free to enter the Grand Bazaar, which is open 8:30 am to 17:00 (5 pm). Closed Sundays. There are five major gates. If you’re following our itinerary, you’ll want the Örücüler Kapısı gate which leads to the Spice Bazaar.
Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Market)
The Spice Bazaar is home to a few hundred stalls, mostly selling delicious food items, ranging from lokum (Turkish Delight) to spices, dried fruits, honeycomb and nuts. The smell is absolutely heavenly. Built in 1664 with a long tradition of screaming out their wares, we found that vendors were fairly laid back the day we visited, with almost no one in the stalls shouting for our attention.
Free. Open: daily from 08.00 – 19.00. Closed Sunday. Turkish Delight (lokum), nuts, spices, honeycomb, coffee, teas, candies and various wares. Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi sells good coffee beans.
Bonus: Bosphorus Cruise
If you have a bit of time to spare, and you’re traveling from May to September, consider a cruise on the Bosphorus. You can pick up tickets at Eminonu, at the IDO/Şehir Hatları Bosphorus lines sales offices at Bogaz Hatti dock (dock no.3). The short cruise starts 2:30pm (14:30) from the Eminönü pier and takes 2 hours. Check times and dates at the official ferry website here. The cruise is a steal of a deal at 10 TL for adults, 5 TL kids under 12, and electronic guides are sold for 7.5 TL.
Make your way across Ragip Gumuspala Cd while being awed at the floating kitchens docked near the bus stops and use the underground walkways to check out Galata bridge.
Well worth a look, this iconic bridge spans the Golden Horn bay of Istanbul. Fishermen on the upper level line the edges, and cast their lines into the Bosphorus strait below. The lower level is packed with restaurants serving fresh caught fish fried up and served in a sandwich (along with other food).
After walking across the Galata Bridge, you have a few transportation options to make your way home.
There’s an efficient tram that runs back into Sutanhamet (and further West) or along the river’s edge close to the Dolma Bahce Palace. Highly recommended, the tram is fast, cheap at 3 TL for adults, and can save you a lot of time by avoiding the ridiculous stop and go traffic of Istanbul.
You can also hail a cab off the street, but be careful of traffic conditions. We ended up sitting in our cab for half an hour, stuck in traffic, as mopeds whizzed by on one side as pedestrians rushed by on the other. There are also numerous buses running along here, but again, you may run into problems with traffic in this area.
Where to stay
We found Istanbul hotel prices to be surprisingly expensive, so we opted to rent an apartment from Airbnb instead. For less than the cost of most hotel rooms, we ended up with a great two bedroom apartment, with a dishwasher, washer and dryer in a funky, authentic Istanbul neighborhood an easy walk to the tram or ferry station. Check out the listings for Istanbul on Airbnb.