Two Days in Istanbul, a Detailed Itinerary

Planning to spend 2 days in Istanbul? At first glance, the idea that you could see all the best highlights that Istanbul has to offer in just two days may seem optimistic. It is a huge city that continues to spread yet the Asian side has few places worth consideration in those two days because the Istanbul of the Ottomans was fairly small in modern terms. Those highlights sit on the European side and with planning, you should be able to see and appreciate them.

Much of your time should be in Sultanahmet where the Ottomans ruled their Empire and it makes sense to base yourself there to get an early start as well as to avoid the evening traffic as you head for home.

You will have some traveling to do over the 48 hours but there is the option of taking to the water to move up and down the Bosphorus more quickly than you would cover a similar distance on land.

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Two Days in Istanbul: Where to Stay?

The European side of Istanbul is a ‘’must’’ for a short stay in Istanbul even if you arrive and depart from Sabiha Cokcen in Asia. Just be careful about when you set out for your departing flight.

Pera Palace Hotel welcomed guests arriving from the Orient Express all those years ago. It is fully refurbished and fans of Agatha Christie can see her former room. Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.

The Four Seasons Sultanahmet is an ideal place from which to enjoy your first day’s activities. Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.

Arven Boutique Hotel is just a 400-meter walk from the Blue Mosque. Landmarks on your doorstep. Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.

How to spend two days in Istanbul, A Perfect Itinerary

2 Days in Istanbul: Day One

If you have two full days in Istanbul after arriving late the previous day, it is likely that your hotel will provide you with a typical Turkish breakfast before you head out.

Sultanahmet should be your first destination. Starting at the Topkapi, there are four of the City’s main attractions all within walking distance.

Topkapi Palace

The huge Ottoman Empire was run from the Topkapi Palace from 1480 until the middle of the 19th Century. It was home to the Sultans, their harems and children, and a host of government officials, servants, and military personnel. The Harem and the Treasury are extremely interesting and the setting of the Palace in lovely gardens is still a world away from the City’s bustle.

Tip: The Top Kapi Palace is huge and you should definitely visit the Harem which for me was the highlight. Again the lines are huge so I suggest this 3 hour guided tour that includes skip-the-line tickets. 

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is just a short walk away and had stood for almost nine centuries when the Ottomans took what was then Constantinople. It had been a Christian Cathedral commissioned by Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century. Its conversion to a mosque followed and it was not until after World War I and the fall of the Ottomans that it was closed for a few short years and reopened as a museum which is what it is today. Its dome stands at 60 meters and was certainly a challenge to its builders.

Tip: Lines are big to enter Aghia Sophia so I suggest that you purchase a skip the line ticket with a guided tour.

The Blue Mosque

On leaving Hagia Sophia you cannot miss the Blue Mosque a short distance ahead beyond the fountain. It is a full-functioning mosque so you need to plan your times because it is closed to visitors during prayers.

Otherwise, it is just a matter of joining a queue, removing your shoes at the entrance, and entering to enjoy a lovely interior where blue is the overwhelming color. It opened in 1610 and has been the most important mosque in Istanbul ever since.

Justinian Cistern

Basilica Cistern - 2 days in Istanbul
Basilica Cistern

Constantinople’s water supply came from this cistern that was built during the time of that same Emperor, Justinian. This underground construction is a minute away, half between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia down a side street. There are pools full of goldfish, dim lighting, and ancient stone columns, some with carvings.

Tip: Lines are usually big to visit the Cistern, I recommend buying a skip the line ticket before you go. 

Depending on how long you spend at Topkapi and Hagia Sophia, and whether you want some lunch after that large breakfast, you might like to think about popping into Sultanahmet Koftecisi that has been serving kofte, salad, rice, and bread since 1920. No alcohol and as close to fast food as you get but there is a constant stream of customers, testimony to its quality.

The Bosphorus is fairly close and even though it is Day Two before you take to its waters, come the time you are looking for dinner, it is worth thinking about eating in a restaurant either close to the Bosphorus, or on a rooftop terrace with views over it and the City itself. There are some ideas later to think about without traveling too far.

Alternatively, you can have a Bosphorus Dinner Cruise with Entertainment.

2 Days in Istanbul: Day Two

The Bosphorus will help you to an extent today. Cruising the Bosphorus or simply taking a local working ferry is something you should certainly do. You will get a great view of the European skyline when you are on the waters and there is a chance to avoid the traffic at times when you visit today’s attractions.

You might also like: How to spend 2 days in Cappadocia.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul- - two days in Istanbul
Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar was begun soon after the Ottomans took Constantinople. It employs as many as 30,000 people and can be described as the biggest shopping center in the world. You can only cover a few of its 50 streets today but you can always return to Istanbul a further time. You are expected to bargain; it is all part of the fun.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace - two days in Istanbul
Dolmabahce Palace

When the Ottoman Sultans left the Topkapi Palace, they moved to this Palace on the Bosphorus in Besiktas. Sultan Abdulmecid ordered it and it was finished after 13 years in 1856. It was filled with things that were the height of European fashion. Make sure you see the 4.5-tonne chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria.

The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died here in 1938 at 9.05 am on 10th November. The clock stays at that time in his room.

Military Museum

If you have ever wondered what it was like to hear the Ottoman Army approaching, you will enjoy the afternoon performance of an Ottoman Band at this museum in Sisli. The sounds are shrill and loud. You’d just surrender and as the Empire expanded, many did.

The Whirling Dervishes Show

If you would like to witness the traditional turkish culture I highly recommend a one hour whirling dervishes show.

Click here for more information and to book your tickets. 

How to get from and to the airports of Istanbul

Istanbul New Airport (IST) is located around 50km from the city center. There are a few ways to reach the city center from the airport.

Taxi: It will take you around 60 minutes to reach the city center and the approximate cost can be between €60-70.

Shuttle: There is a shared shuttle service taking multiple guests that costs around 20 euros per person and drops you off at your hotel.

Bus: Another option for getting into Istanbul city center from the airport is to take the bus. The New Airport Transit Bus runs around 150 times a day between the airport and city and bus tickets can be purchased from floor -2 of the airport. There are a range of bus tickets that can be purchased including the rechargeable Istanbulkart (6 TL), 5 Pass Card (BeşGeç, 17 TL), or 10 Pass Card (OnGeç, 32 TL).

Bus services IST-5 Istanbul Airport – Besiktas, IST-18 Istanbul Airport – Mecidiyeköy, and IST-19 Istanbul Airport – Taksim run every 15 minutes from the airport to the city. Alternatively, you could take the H-2 Airport Express service that runs from the airport to the Şişli-Mecidiyeköy metro station. This journey takes around 35 minutes and costs just 5.20 TL using an Istanbulkart. From the Şişli-Mecidiyeköy metro station, you can change to the M2 metro line which allows you to reach Taksim and Sultanahmet in the city.

Two Days in Istanbul: Where to Eat?

There are places to eat wherever you go in Istanbul. Whether you want a snack of a three- course meal, Istanbul will never disappoint you. Here are just a few ideas where you can eat on the European side of the City where you will enjoy the food and the surroundings.

  • Leb-i derya is luxury dining on a rooftop where the food is as good as the views. Quality Turkish cuisine in Beyoglu. Leb-i derya Kumbaracı.
  • Mikla is on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel and offers a great night with contemporary food and stunning views. The Marmara Pera.
  • Changa in Taksim is in an old building, art nouveau, and its menu has a wide variety to please every diner. Changa.
  • Rumelihisali Iskele is located right on the Bosphorus in an old Ottoman dock below a medieval fortress. Pick any fish course and drink raki with it as a local would do.

Steve Smith is a retired Brit living on the South West Coast of Turkey in a small resort town of Dalyan. He is an experienced traveller and a regular visitor to Istanbul which is just an hour away by domestic flight.