One day in Istanbul: A snapshot of Sultanahmet

Istanbul sunset

Istanbul is up there with places like New York, Paris and London as one of the world’s great cities. Places where each different neighbourhood is almost a city in its own right, where you could spend a few months and still only scratch the surface. But what if you only have one day? Istanbul was the final stop on our Mediterranean cruise, and with only a limited time to explore, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly across the city, we headed straight to Sultanahmet.

Read more: A first-time cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean 

The Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn in Istanbul

The Galata Bridge

Located on a peninsula, Sultanahmet is the old heart of Istanbul. Formerly known as Constantinople, it was once an entire city in its own right, protected by water on three sides and city walls on the other. Today it’s just one part of modern Istanbul, but it’s where you’ll find some of the city’s most famous historic buildings. You’d need more than a day to see it all, but as many of Sultanahmet’s main sights are within a short walk of each other, you can pack a lot into a 24-hour stopover – so here’s my itinerary for spending one day in Istanbul.

Things to do in Istanbul in one day

Colouful lanterns in the Grand Bazaar – one day in Istanbul

Colouful lanterns in the Grand Bazaar

Visit the Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque – better known as the Blue Mosque – is one of the most recognisable buildings in Istanbul, with its minarets visible from across the city. But when it was built in 1609 it caused uproar as it had six rather than the usual four minarets. Legend has it that the architect misunderstood the Sultan when he asked for golden (altin) minarets and thought he said six (alti), ending up with one of the world’s grandest mosques.

Despite the name, the mosque isn’t actually blue on the outside, but the huge domed ceilings inside are covered with over 20,000 ornately patterned blue Iznik tiles. The soft light through the stained-glass windows and the quiet murmur of prayer make it a peaceful escape from the bustle of the city outside. Note the mosque is closed for around 30 minutes five times a day for prayers, and women visitors need to cover their hair (scarves are available to borrow).

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque – or Blue Mosque – in Sultanahmet

The Blue Mosque

Experience a mix of cultures at the Hagia Sophia

Just across Sultanahmet Square from the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul’s most famous buildings – the Hagia Sophia (entry 100 Turkish Lira – or you can pre-book a guided tour with a skip-the-line ticket to avoid the queues). It was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in the sixth century but over the years it’s also been a Catholic cathedral and a mosque. It survived earthquakes, fires and wars. And today it’s a non-denominational museum, with a mixture of east-meets-west influences adding up to make something unique and beautiful.

The Christians contributed the grand dome and the Biblical mosaics (which are well preserved as they were hidden away when it was a mosque), then the Muslims added the hanging chandeliers and Arabic calligraphy after it become a mosque in 1453. Combined together you have a dazzling mixture of gold-tinged paintings, carvings, mosaics and delicate latticework.

Gold decoration inside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Gold decoration inside the Hagia Sophia

Get lost in the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, with more than 4000 shops spread through 64 streets and covering an area of 30,700 square meters. It started off as a 15th-century trading post between Europe and Asia, and has spread into a labyrinth of stalls along twisting and turning narrow streets. Businesses have sprung up to cater for the stallholders and you’ll find restaurants and cafés selling local dishes in among the stalls.

The Grand Bazaar is a colourful and chaotic experience, with stallholders calling out to a flow of 250,000 visitors a day. You can pick up a range of local goods, from carpets and leather to ceramics and gold jewellery. Browse, chat with stallholders and share a cup of tea. But practice your haggling skills if you don’t want to pay over the odds, and be prepared to get lost in the maze of alleyways – part of the fun is seeing what you come across when you do.

Piles of spices in the Grand Bazaar in Turkey

Piles of spices in the Grand Bazaar

See how the Sultans lived at the Topkapı Palace

The Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years until the mid-19th century. It was built by Sultan Mehmet II between 1466 and 1478, and at its peak it housed 4000 people with its own mosques, hospital and mint. Its now a museum, with some of the grandest rooms open to the public (entry 72 Turkish Lira plus and extra 42 for the Harem – or you can pre-book a guided tour with a skip-the-line ticket to avoid the queues).

Around four main courtyards you can see treasures like jewellery, calligraphic manuscripts and porcelain. You can also visit the Harem – home to the Sultan’s mother, wives and up to 300 concubines, and beautifully decorated with painted tiles and stained glass windows. The palace also has fantastic views across the Bosphorus from its gardens and terraces.

The Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet, Istanbul

On the terrace of the Topkapi Palace

Go underground at the Basilica Cistern

An underground cistern isn’t the most obvious tourist attraction, but the Basilica Cistern is not your usual water tank. It was built for Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 552 AD and stored 80,000 cubic metres of water for the nearby palaces, which was delivered by 20km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. But when the emperors relocated from the Grand Palace, the cistern was abandoned and forgotten for centuries until it was eventually discovered in 1545.

After a massive restoration in 1985 the Basilica Cistern was opened to visitors. It’s a moodily atmospheric place to visit – as well as being a cool refuge on a hot day (entry 20 Turkish Lira). The size of a cathedral, its domed ceilings are held up with 336 carved stone columns. They’re lit with golden lights, glowing in the darkness and reflected in pools of water below.

The Basilica Cistern underground archways

Inside the underground Basilica Cistern

Take a boat trip on the Bosphorus

As the peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides, a boat trip is one of the best ways to see Sultanahmet – as well making as a relaxing break from running around the city sights as there’s a lot to into your one day in Istanbul. The Bosphorus Strait is about 20 miles long and divides Asia from Europe, joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

There are a wide range of different boat trips you can take along the Bosphorus – from public ferries to tour boats, lasting from a couple of hours to a full day. As we came in on a cruise ship we got a Bosphorus cruise on our way into Istanbul, but you can also pre-book a daytime or dinner cruise. Or otherwise you’ll find boats lined up along the Eminönü docks near the Galata Bridge, so you can just find the next one leaving (or with the best price).

Cruise ship in Istanbul harbour

Large and small boats sailing on the Bosphorus

Watch sunset from the Galata Bridge

Linking Sultanhamet with the more modern Beyoglu area, the Galata Bridge is more than just a way of getting across the water. The current bridge was built in 1992 on the site of three older bridges. Its top level hums with constant traffic from passing cars and trams. But underneath there’s another level right on the water’s edge, which is lined with restaurants and cafes where you can grab something to eat and drink, day or night.

In the daytime you can watch the fishermen and the ferries going past, and in the evening you can drink a beer or smoke a nargile water pipe as you watch the sun go down and the mosques silhouetted over Sultanhamet, making the perfect end to a day in Istanbul.

Pink sunset over Sultanahmet from the Galata Bridge

Pink sunset over Sultanahmet from the Galata Bridge

More time?

If you’ve got another day in Istanbul, then why not explore some of the city’s other neighbourhoods? Head to hip Karaköy for trendy cafés and boutique shops. Explore Taksim Square and the SALT Galata art museum in Beyoğlu. Or take a walk along the promenade by the Bosphorus and party the night away in the waterfront bars and clubs of Arnavutköy.

You can also take a longer boat trip out to the Princes Islands, a peaceful archipelago of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara where the only method of transport is a horse-drawn carriage. Or why not relax at a hamman – a Turkish bath house where you can get a sauna, scrub and massage. There’s a variety available, from affordable basic local facilities to high-end spas.

Cup of tea on a rooftop terrace overlooking Sultanahmet in Istanbul

Tea with a view

Where to stay in Sultanahmet

If you want to splash out, the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul has one of the most impressive views in town, with a roof terrace overlooking the Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque and out to the Bosphorus. The building was formerly an Ottoman prison but has been refurbished in luxury style, with a spa, restaurant and courtyard garden. Double rooms from €255/£232 a night.

Or if you’re on a budget, we stayed at the Cheers Lighthouse, a colourful hostel a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Sultanhamet. There’s a mix of dorm beds and private rooms, with a restaurant and bar attached. The staff also run activities like walking tours, pub crawls and communal dinners. Private triples from €75/£68 a night and dorm beds from €12/£11.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Istanbul?

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How to spend one day in Istanbul, Turkey: Exploring Sultanahmet, the historic heart of Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, shopping in the Grand Bazaar and a boat trip on the Bosphorus #Istanbul #Turkey #SultanahmetExploring the best of Sultanahmet, the historic heart of Istanbul, in one day – including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, shopping in the Grand Bazaar and a boat trip on the Bosphorus #Istanbul #Turkey #Sultanahmet

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  • Reply
    September 4, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Pretty hard to take a picture of the terrace at Topkapi Palace without tourists in it. We have one, too, but it took forever!
    Great read

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      Haha, yes I spend half my time waiting round for people to get out of the way in various places!

  • Reply
    Shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    September 4, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Looks so gorgeous especially that sunset and I would love to see the blue mosque! My husband was actually flying Turkish airlines from India when the volcanic ash cloud happened so without any planning or intention – he ended up with a 4-5 day unplanned trip to Istanbul simply due to getting stuck there at layover – I am very jealous!!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      That was a lucky bit of timing! Hope you get to make it out there sometime too (minus the volcanic ash).

  • Reply
    Top Down Time
    September 4, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, we think, is more, well, magnificent(!) than the Blue Mosque. Don’t miss it! And a tip for visiting the mosques: no shorts, bare shoulders, etc. for anyone. And ladies, carry a scarf to cover your hair. Most of the larger mosques will lend you a “community” scarf for the visit, but do you really want to put that on yourself?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      Yes definitely best to bring your own scarf!

  • Reply
    September 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Well, that’s a really tough choice. I think I would go for the boat trip. I feel like you are to see the most when being shown around with a boat. Thanks for the great read! 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      The boat trip was great (especially after loads of walking!).

  • Reply
    September 4, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    One of my favorite cities! I can’t wait to go back. One other option: It’s not in Sultanahmet but I also adored the Chora Church in Istanbul. The mosaics are pretty incredible, but it also required hopping a city bus from near the Galata Bridge that takes you through and to some non-touristy neighborhoods. Same with the Suleiman Mosque – it’s incredible and walkable, but walking there takes you off the beaten path. So much fun in Istanbul just soaking up the local hustle and bustle.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      Thanks for the tips, I’ve done the main Sultanahmet sights now so good to have a few more options to see next time!

  • Reply
    Packing my Suitcase
    September 4, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Perfect Lucy!! Loved to read your post, your photos are amazing! Everything is on my list now, thank you for sharing 😀

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Hope you enjoy it, it’s a really interesting city with a lot to explore!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    September 5, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Will be there on Friday Lucy – thank you for your timely guide!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Very good timing! Hope you all have a fantastic trip.

  • Reply
    September 6, 2014 at 6:21 am

    Sounds like you made the most of your time there. Great pictures!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 11, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Thanks Darlene, there’s so much to see we could easily have spent a week there but it even in a day you can fit in quite a few places as they’re so close together.

  • Reply
    Lucy Dodsworth
    September 11, 2014 at 10:08 am

    That would be a long day!! I had actually been before so this is a combination of the two trips, I don’t have the stamina to do quite so much at once!

  • Reply
    September 12, 2014 at 3:05 am

    Amazing post and breathtaking pictures. Even though you only had a day, you really made the best of it!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 14, 2014 at 10:48 am

      Thanks, it’s surprising how much you can pack in if you need to!

  • Reply
    Aggy (@dewtraveller)
    September 15, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Sounds like there’s a lot to do for one day – so many beautiful buildings and places to explore! I have not been to Istanbul but I really need to go there one day!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm

      There’s enough to do to keep you going for a week if you do!

  • Reply
    September 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    Hagia Sophia and Topkapi for me, Luce, and you just know I’d have to have a boat trip. It’s the only way my feet get a rest. 🙂 Great post!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 15, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Great choices! Having come straight off a boat (sorry, ship!) this time I was happy to spend a bit of time on dry land, but last time I loved the Bosphorus Cruise after a long day of sightseeing.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I would love to go to Istanbul just to see Hagia Sophia, I’ve seen so many amazing photos of it like yours and I need to experience it for myself!

    • Reply
      September 23, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      Haghia Sophia is fascinating – the mix of different cultures made it so unusual and different to anything else I’d seen.

  • Reply
    Pola (JettingAround) (@jettingaround)
    September 18, 2014 at 4:08 am

    This city wasn’t really on my radar, even though I grew up in Europe, until recently. Now I live much farther, but hopefully will get to visit. If I do, I’ll go straight to the bazaar, followed by a river cruise to see the skyline.

    • Reply
      September 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      You could easily spend a day in the bazaar (we lost at least an hour trying to find our way out!). Istanbul is a really unusual place compared to other European cities, it really is a mix of cultures.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks so much!

  • Reply
    November 17, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Julie, thanks so much for visiting – Istanbul is a fascinating city, so much to see – will check out your post when I make it back there again!

  • Reply
    January 24, 2015 at 3:45 am

    One word-wow. I went to Turkey in 2011 and stayed in a village called Dalyan but also paid a visit to Marmaris. Although it was an amazing experience and we spent a lot of time sightseeing on a ship which I enjoyed so much, this blog post has made me feel so silly for not making the time to go to the main attraction in Turkey, Istanbul! The pictures you have put up are just breath taking, Istanbul and the Blue Mosque are definitely on my list now, thank you 🙂

    • Reply
      January 24, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      There’s so much to see in Turkey! I have only visited Istanbul so far but have Cappadoccia and the coastal areas on my wish list to see someday. Istanbul is a great city to visit though, so diverse and so much going on.

  • Reply
    Murat Demir
    June 29, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    What a great city. I love the hop-on, hop-off bus tour in any new city. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia are simply amazing. Bophorus Cruise is must do in Istanbul

    • Reply
      June 30, 2015 at 10:21 am

      The Bosphorus cruise is great – I did it on my first trip to Istanbul and it was a fantastic way to see the city (and to cool off on a hot day!).

  • Reply
    jack ryanwills
    May 3, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    The Grand Hagia Sophia is the towering example and boasts some 1000 years of history. Grand Bazaar is the way people lead a life here, well carved wooden works, jewellery and more. Literally, the bazaar is a shopaholics’ paradise.

    • Reply
      May 14, 2019 at 4:14 pm

      It is a spectacular place and so much to see!

  • Reply
    Best Hotel Istanbul
    June 15, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    Hi Lucy, thank you very much for this valuable information. Istanbul is one of the greatest cities of the word and you described it perfect. Furthermore you photographs are fascinating and summarizing the beauty of Istanbul. Congrats.

    • Reply
      June 20, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks so much – great to hear you liked it!

  • Reply
    Saloumeh Sally Salomé Alnadaf-Zahrai
    December 27, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    Brilliant article. I visited every single one of the places you mentioned last year, and yes it is the most beautiful city I love Istanbul more than any other city I’ve visited. Your article is spot on as you have covered the key must see places in this magical city.

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