How To Spend 24 Hours In Istanbul

From the historic cable cars that run up and down Istiklal Street to the winding laneways of the city bazaar, Istanbul is a mecca for travelers looking for a taste of Europe and the Middle East in one city. Although the city’s reputation as a safe destination has been injured in recent years due to civil unrest, the city’s patrons are just as lively and welcoming as ever. If you’re running short on time, follow this 24-hour itinerary to make the most of this cultural, religious and social hot pot.

Photo by Pedro Szekely (Flickr)

8 am: Break bread the Turkish way

Situated in the heart of the Eminonu district opposite the main light rail station, Saray (full name Saray Muhallebicisi ve Yemek Odasi ) is the perfect place to fill up on breakfast for the day. The added bonus is the restaurant’s central location. The breakfast selection here is large – with a variety of Western and Turkish options to choose from. Try the kasar – a toasted sandwich with molten cheese and sausage. You’ll also find a wide range of Turkish sweets here too, so pick some up for your travels today.

9 am: Haggle your heart out at the city bazaars

Depending on whether you’re a foodie or a bargain hunter, it’s a good idea to hit up the Egyptian Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar. The Egyptian Bazaar is filled with Iranian gold, hand-woven silk, detailed artwork and jewellery, making it a great place to discover your inner haggler. Navigating the tangle of 61 lanes, with over 4,000 stalls, can be a bit tricky so don’t expect to come out the same way you went in.

Haggle your heart out at the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul. Photo by Jun Seita (Flickr).

Around a kilometre away from the Egyptian Bazaar is Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, a tantalizing place filled with striking aromas and a variety of nougat and Turkish delight. Ask to try the pistachio nougat and pomegranate Turkish delight. If you’re looking for edible souvenirs, the vendors here will be more than happy to pack and vacuum-seal some treats to take home.

Keep in mind some stalls welcome haggling and some (especially in the Grand Bazaar) have set prices and haggling isn’t encouraged. When haggling, a useful phrase is cok pahalı (“chok pahali”) which means ‘too expensive’.

11 am: Turkish tea break

Turkish coffee is definitely an experience. It’s served a little blacker than most people would have it, so be sure to try some at one of the city’s cafes. Turkish apple tea is also a local favourite. Mum’s Corner in Sultanahmet is a perfect place to spot for some tea and baklava.

Istanbul's iconic Blue Mosque. Photo by Mathias Webster.

11:30 am: Encounter the spectacular Hagia Sofia

Take a walk towards the Sultanahmet district and you’ll come face to face with some of the city’s famous attractions: the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern. All three are incredible pieces of architecture that are well worth individual exploration. However, if time is a factor, we recommend giving the Hagia Sofia priority.

Originally built in 532AD, Hagia Sofia functioned as an orthodox church for 916 years before being converted into a mosque for another 482 years under the rule of Fatih Sultan Mehmed, It was only in 1935 that Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum. Today the building stands as an architectural marvel.

1 pm: Take lunch by the water

Wind your way back to the Eminonu district (or take the tram), where you’ll find a series of seafood restaurants tucked under Galata Bridge. For a quick snack, Balik Ekmek is a fresh, cheap grilled fish sandwich – which just about every restaurant offers. A good rule of thumb is to visit places that have the most diners, as this is usually a sign the seafood is fresh.

Try some traditional Turkish pide in Istanbul. Photo by Jorge Cancela.

2 pm: Take a cruise down the Bosphorus River

At the southern end of Galata Bridge you can board a cruise down the Bosphorus River. Many operators will try to bargain with you for tickets. Make sure you don’t pay more than 20TL (around AUD8) per person, or you’re being taken for a ride (and not in a good way). Some cruises set sail from a second wharf five minutes away and will shuttle you to the departure point. Although cruise itineraries can vary, most cruises on the European bank ride up the river to the Rumeli Hisari Fortress, before turning around and returning to the city centre. Keep an eye out for the Bahcesehir University and Ciragan Palace: a former Ottoman palace turned Kempinski hotel.

4 pm: Visit Independence Avenue (Istiklal Caddesi)

On return to the city centre, disembark and head towards Galata Tower and the Karakoy neighbourhood. While Galata Tower provides a great view over Istanbul, it is also where you’ll find the city’s bustling shopping strip.

Istiklal Caddesi (Cd) is visited by nearly three million people daily, with international brands such as H&M, Starbucks and McDonalds, but also Turkish restaurants and coffee rooms. Refuel at Turk Alman Kitabevi & Café – a bookshop and air-conditioned café serving Turkish coffee and apple tea with free Wifi.

Experience Istanbul's atmospheric nightlife. Photo by JD Lasica/

7 pm: Check out the city nightlife

Istiklal Caddesi and the surrounding laneways are a hotspot for local nightlife Nevizade Sokak (Nevizade Street), which is parallel to Istiklal Cd, is full of taverns and bars, with musicians all willing to have you in for meze plates and drinks. While there’s plenty to see and do, keep an eye out for shady waiters or over-eager patrons who want to buy you food and drinks. This area’s popularity means it is also a haven for pick pockets.

10 pm: Hit the hay

Bunk Taksim is a cheap, modern option for backpackers looking for a clean night sleep. While it doesn’t enjoy a central location, the hostel has a rooftop bar that looks over the skyline of northern Istanbul. There is also a daily breakfast. Dorms start from AUD$12 per night.

A cheap hotel option is Best Western Empire Palace, located in the Old City Centre close to the Egyptian Bazaar and within walking distance of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia.

If you’re looking for something more up market, Kempinski Ciragan Palace is a slice of Turkish luxury right on the Bosphorus.

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