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Istanbul has been at the crossroads of civilisations for Millenia. Formally called Byzantium by the Greeks that ruled over 2700 years ago before changing its name to Constantinople after the Roman emperor Constantine, right up until the end of Ottoman Empire rule in 1922. Since renaming to Istanbul in 1930, the city has continued to be the melting pot of all the cultures that surround it.
It is now the major gateway for tourists in Turkey and one of the most popular city breaks destinations in Europe. With the new Istanbul airport opening in 2018 and Turkish Airlines flying to more international destinations than any other airline, Istanbul’s popularity isn’t likely to decrease anytime soon.
With the city being a great destination for travellers looking to experience Europe and Asia, what’s the best things to do in Istanbul in 2 days if you just come for a weekend.
Day 1 in Istanbul
Take a free walking tour
Taking a free walking tour is a must for any city that does them. They are normally run by locals that are passionate about their home town and can’t wait to show it off to tourists. The “free” part of the tour is a bit misleading as you are meant to tip the tour guides at the end, but it is up to you as to how much you would pay. Think how much a tour normally would be and tip about that much if it meets your expectations. Of course you can pay more of less if you want to or if your budget allows.
I went with Happy Istanbul Tours, who also run tours in Spanish, and can’t complain about the trip at all. It took about 2 hours and the guides had an immense knowledge of all things Istanbul. Not easy with the history the city has had.
Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous sites in Istanbul if not the world. The minarets stand tall, looking out over the bosphorus like they have for hundreds of years.
I couldn’t even begin to explain the history of this incredible building here, but it was originally built as a church, before being converted to a mosque, then into a museum, and, since 2020, back into a mosque.
As a place of worship, it is free to enter but women must cover their heads, shoulders and have clothing that goes below the knees. Men must also be appropriately dressed.
The vastness inside will take a bit of getting used to. There is some limits on crowd control and it gets busier the later it gets in the day so try to go early or during the week if possible.
The Topkapi Palace was home to all of the Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years. Now it is a museum containing a vast amount of history. It does cost to get into the museum and see the exhibits but it is free to wander the leafy courtyards if you are on a budget.
Coming back on yourself a little bit from the Topkapi Palace will lead you to Sultanahmet Square.
Sultanahmet Square was originally a hippodrome used for chariot racing during the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Era. Today it contains four major landmarks that are important throughout Istanbuls history. The first is the Obelisk of Thutmose III, originally brought over from Egypt and over 3000 years old. The second is the Serpent Column, brought over from Greece and built in the 5th Century BC, the Walled Obelisk, built in the 10th Century and finally the German Fountain, a gift from the German government in 1900. Which other place has that much history on show in such a small area.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
If you want to learn more about how Islam had such a major role in Turkish history, a trip to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts should be on your list. It contains and incredible collection of rugs and glassware as well as some of the oldest Quran’s in the world.
The Grand Bazaar is the largest undercover market in the world with over 60 streets and 400 shops. At times, it has been one of the busiest tourist sites in the world, accommodating 1000’s of tourists per day due to its size. If you get the chance to go early before a majority of the stalls are open, you have the chance to see the traders setting up their wares, drinking their tea and it is an all round much more authentic experience. Note that the bazaar is closed on Sundays.
I personally preferred going to the Spice Market (or Egyptian Bazaar as it is sometimes called) more than the Grand Bazaar. It seemed to be more relevant today, selling teas and spices as the name suggest which meant a lot more locals using it for shopping than just tourists using it for souvenirs.
Once, you have left the Spice Market, head across the Galata Bridge nearby taking you from Eminonu to Karakoy. The Galata Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in Istanbul with fishermen hanging their rods of the edge at all hours of the day. The only small gap is at the center is for the boats to enter the Golden Horn from the Bosphorus. On the Karakoy side of the bridge is a small fish market selling the products the boats bring in. On the lower levels of the bridge, near the water line are several large (but mostly overpriced) restaurants if you want dinner with a view.
Dinner – Ficcin
After a long day walking around, you’ll want to refuel in an authentic Turkish restaurant. Ficcin was recommended to my by three separate people and they all sent me there with good intentions. I struggled to choose what to eat as so much on the menu looked good as well as the food coming out to other diners around me. I went for a fried octopus and a beef dish but whatever you order will be delicious. Wash it town with a small glass of Turkish tea.
Day 2 in Istanbul
Start at Galata tower for sunrise/ early
Start your day by getting up the Galata Tower. The tower opens at 8.30am for most of the year (sometimes they reduce the hours in winter) with long queues forming from lunchtime onwards. Head up there first thing to have the place (practically) to yourself. You will have views over the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and the rest of Istanbul. With inflation rampant in the country, the ticket price has increased drastically in recent years. Check the tourist office for the most up to date prices and opening times.
Beyoglu is one of the most stylish and contemporary areas of Istanbul. Containing not only the Galata Tower, but also the largest synagogue in Turkey and a restaurant home to the internet sensation that is Salt Bae. There’s also plenty of local street food to try from the famous baklava to local kebabs and great independent coffee shops with some incredible cakes. The area is quite hilly and will also make a stunning backdrop for some of the street art you may see.
From Beyoglu you can walk or take the historic tram down Istiklal Street (Independence Street). This is the one of the busiest shopping streets in Istanbul with designer brands competing with small local coffee and ice cream shops for business. With the recent troubles of the Turkish Lira, there are plenty of bargains to be had.
Taksim Meydanı, or Taksim Square in English is seen as the heart of modern Istanbul. Containing the Republic monument, to celebrate the founding of independent Turkey, and Taksim mosque as well as one of the most central metro stations in the city. It may now infamously be known as the site of many demonstrations in recent years, but when peaceful it is a great place to sit and enjoy watching Turkish life pass by.
Crossing the Bosphorus
From Taksim you can walk close to the Besiktas neighbourhood, possibly passing the famous Vodafone Park, home of one of the oldest football clubs in Turkey, Besiktas JK, make your way to Kabatas Ferry Terminal and cross one of the most famous waterways in the world, the bosphorus.
The Bosphorus is the divider between Europe and Asia and a major passage of trade from countries surrounding the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. It is such an important part of world trade and the Montreux Convention was written to ensure it remains open and neutral.
There are various tourist boats that provide tours along the Bosphorus but I don’t recommend them. You’ll get the same views taking public transport boats across which cost a fraction of the price. You can use your Istanbul card on the boats if you have one.
From Kabatas to Kadikoy on the Asian side takes between 20-30 minutes and they depart every 15 minutes. An alternative route would be to take the tram to the Golden Horn and take a boat from Eminono to various destinations on the Asian side.
When crossing the Bosphorus, keep and eye out for any major tankers and the occasional warship that may pass through. One site that you will definitely see is the Maidens Tower (Kiz Kulesi), used in the filming of the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough.
Explore Moda and Kadikoy
Spend your afternoon relaxing on the Asian side of Istanbul in Moda and Kadikoy. Walk along the parks on the coast of the Bosphorus and feel a much more relaxed vibe than the tourist centric hustle of the European side. Spend time in local cafes before enjoying the modern nightlife in the evening.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Depending on where you will spend most of your time will depend on where you want to stay. For short term visits, staying in Beyoglu, right in the heart of the major tourist sites of Istanbul would be recommended. If you want to stay somewhere slightly more traditional, any accommodation in Ottoman era Sultanahmet. Many expats and digital nomads choose to stay in Kadakoy due to its cheaper long term rentals but bargains can also be found for shorter term AirBnB’s.
If you are really rushed for time due to flight connections, staying near Taksim Square is an option as the Havabus bus stop to both airports is near by.
Tips and Tricks
Get the Museum pass if you plan on visiting all the museums in Istanbul as it will save you money compared to buying them all individually.
The Istanbul Pass is great for travel around the city. It works like a travel card and money can be loaded onto it before swiping onto the metro or the boats crossing the Bosphorus. It makes it a lot easier than buying individual tickets. Some shops were unwilling to sell them to tourists but they are available. Alternatively, ask a local to help you.
I haven’t included any prices in this post. I went to Istanbul in November 2021. When I was there, the Turkish Lira devalued against the US Dollar by 10% in one day. They still have massive amounts of inflation in Turkey and the economy is not stable. Many prices I paid then are not the same now and from my research, some prices have nearly doubled since then. Note than any prices you may read online have probably increased.
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.