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The perfect 2 days in Istanbul - an ultimate itinerary

Istanbul Turkey

The exciting and beautiful city of Istanbul, Turkey has a fascinating history, captivating culture and stunning architecture. It is a sensory overload of sites, smells and chaos that will intoxicate you. The world's 15th largest city, Istanbul straddles the two continents of Europe and Asia, making it an interesting mix of East and West.  The almost 3000 year history of Istanbul is complicated with many twists and turns. It was first officially settled in the 7th century BCE by the Greeks and named Byzantine. In 330 CE it became the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and the name was changed to Constantinople. In 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and changed the name to Istanbul. Throughout its history, whether Byzantine, Constantinople or Istanbul, this great city has been a major influence on trade, science, art, architecture and religion

Two days is not enough in this marvelous city. You could easily spend a week here. But, when travelling you sometimes have a short amount of time. I get it. In this 2-day Istanbul itinerary, we will go over all the best things to see, main attractions, must-see historical sites and travel tips to help you have a memorable trip.   

Blue mosque Istanbul

​For those with even more limited time, I have written another post about 1 day in Istanbul.  For this 2-day itinerary, I will touch on those things in the one day itinerary and then add on a second day, as well as add a few extras. The one day itinerary also has information regarding the Istanbul airport, the Sabiha Gokcen airport, transportation into the city and getting around the city, so please refer to that post. 

There is a city pass in Istanbul that can give you discounts and fast track access to many of the top sites and museums. Decide on the sites you are going to see beforehand to price out the options and see if the pass is beneficial to you. 

First day

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

The Sultanahmet area is the Old town and one of the most historic areas of Istanbul on the European side. It has many of the historic sites. The first stop on any Istanbul itinerary for a first-time visitor needs to be the Hagia Sofia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) is the world's oldest cathedral. It was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral between 532 and 537 AD. During the Ottoman Empire the cathedral was transformed into a mosque with much of the Christian art being covered over. In 1935 it was turned into a museum but it has now been reinstated as a mosque.  Inside there are 104 marble columns, gorgeous calligraphy and an enormous dome overhead. This building has been the inspiration for numerous other churches and mosques throughout history. 

Hagia Sophia

When entering the Hagia Sophia, be aware that there is a strict dress code. Be sure to dress modestly and check the prayer times. This is a working mosque. Women will need head coverings. If you don't have one, one will be provided.  

About a 2 minute walk from the Hagia Sophia, across a pretty park, is the magnificent Blue Mosque. The gorgeous blue tiles of the mosque give it its name. With multiple domes and 6 minarets, this mosque is quite impressive.  Built in the early 17th century, the Blue mosque has more than 20,000 handmade tiles on its interior walls. There is a legend surrounding why the Blue mosque has so many minarets. The legend states that the Sultan ordered the minarets to be made of gold. The architect misunderstood the word "gold" for "six" as the two words were very similar. At the time, only the Mosque in Mecca had six minarets so a seventh was promptly added to Mecca.

Blue mosque istanbul

Because both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque are major attractions, especially during the summer months, the line to enter can be long. The best way to see them is with a guided tour. This way you are able to skip the lines while receiving history and information you otherwise would miss. 

In close proximity to the Blue Mosque is Sultanahmet Meydani or Sultanahmet square. Also known as "horse square", it was originally the hippodrome or circus of Constantinople where sporting events such as horse and chariot races would take place. There were monuments and statues of gods, animals and emperors in the middle of the hippodrome. The stands could seat as many as 100,000 spectators. There was a tunnel leading directly to the ancient palace so the emperor and family could travel directly from the palace to the hippodrome. This was an important place for the community. It was a place where the Emperor and his people could come together in one venue. It was also a place to conduct politics and make alliances.  Today the hippodrome is a beautiful square. Some of the original monuments are still there. The serpentine column, for example, was taken from the temple of Apollo in Delphi. The obelisk of Thutmose III is another monument that still stands in the square. It was created around 1490 BC and stood at a temple in Luxor in Egypt. In 390 Theodosius the Great brought the obelisk to the hippodrome. This square, along with the area between the two famous mosques, is a wonderful place to relax and people watch. 

Topkapı palace was constructed in the 15th century by Mehmed the Conqueror. This large palace complex  was the primary residence of Ottoman sultans and their court until the mid-19th century. The Topkapi palace is ornately decorated with gorgeous courtyards and stunning tiles. It also offers beautiful Bosphorous views.  The imperial treasury, the harem (personal apartments for the Sultan's family), kitchens and other rooms and courtyards are available to wander. 

Topkapı Palace Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar is another of the main sites of Istanbul.  Dating back to the 15th century, this market has over 4,000 shops selling a variety of different goods, including ceramics, clothes, textiles, art, jewelry, food and more. Don't just walk in the central area. Explore the side alleys and see what you discover. You could get lost wandering in here for hours, uncovering all sorts of treasures. Be prepared to haggle as this is expected. If you are not interested, be kind but firm and just walk away. 

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

A short walk from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice bazaar. Dating to 1660, the spice market is overflowing with colorful spices and fragrant aromas. It is also called the Egyptian bazaar. Besides spices, you can also find Turkish tea, fruit, nuts, Turkish coffee, Turkish delight and other tasty treats in this amazing place. The vendors are usually happy to give you a sample of their wares, making this bazaar especially fun. 

Spice Market Istanbul

The colorful houses and cobbled streets of the Balat neighborhood are nearby. Wander this area enjoying the European style 19th century terraced wooden houses. Make sure to stop by St. George Greek Orthodox cathedral as well as the Bulgarian church of St. Stephens. Many of the homes have now been turned into cafes, restaurants and boutique hotels making this area a charming place to spend some time. 

Balat neighborhood Istanbul

Cross the golden horn on Galata bridge. This is the fifth bridge to be built in this spot. The second floor is a bridge for vehicles but the lower deck has many restaurants to choose from. The bridge is usually also busy with fishermen hanging their rods over the edge hoping to catch dinner. 

Galata bridge Istanbul

On the other side of the bridge you will explore Istiklal street, the Galata tower and Taksim square.

The Galata tower was originally a watchtower in the highest point of the now lost Galata walls. Built in 1348, the tower was allowed to survive after the rest of the walls were abolished. It is nine stories high (205 feet). It now holds a museum and an observations deck with panoramic views of the area. 

Galata tower, Istanbul

Istiklal street is the main street of the city. This pedestrian street is full of restaurants, shops, boutiques and coffee shops. It is the perfect place to enjoy the energy of the city, do some souvenir shopping and try some local delicacies. There are usually street performers and artists along the street adding to the vibrancy of area. The best time to experience Istiklal street is in the early evenings when the locals come out to enjoy an after dinner stroll. 

Istiklal street Istanbul

Taksim square is another main area to hang out and people watch. Considered the heart of modern Istanbul, it has plenty of places to try the local cuisine. It is also full of shops, and hotels. The Republic monument is also located here as is the central station for the public transportation system. Hanging out in Taksim square is a great way to end your busy first day in Istanbul.

Second day

On day 2, begin with the Basilica Cistern. Built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, the basilica cistern can store 80,000 tons of water and measures 450 feet by 230 feet. It is the largest of several hundred cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. The cistern would receive water from waterways, rain and an aqueduct and then distribute it to the palace and surrounding buildings.  It is known as the basilica cistern because it is built on the site of a former basilica. It is also known as the sunken palace because of its 336 marble columns that are 30 feet high.  You can walk around the cistern. It also hosts art exhibits and even evening concerts. 

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

The best place to see the city of Istanbul is from the water on a Bosphorus cruise. There are many options from dinner cruises, sunset cruises, and cruises with on-board entertainment. There are also hop-on hop-off ferries. This is a great way to cross the Bosphorus Strait to get to the Asian side of Istanbul and explore some sites in that part of the city.

View from ferry in Istanbul

There are 4 stops on the hop-on hop-off ferries. You begin in Besiktas. This is a lively neighborhood that includes a Naval Museum, which is one of the oldest museums in Istanbul. The first stop is Emirgan. This is a beautiful city park to walk around, explore or have a picnic. This park hold an annual tulip festival every April. The Kucuksu pavilion is a stop on the Asian side. It was constructed as a temporary residence for the royal family. Today it is a museum with original 19th century furniture.

Kucuksu pavilion Istanbul

The Beylerbeyi palace is another stop on the Asian side. It is the second largest palace in the city and was constructed in the 19th century. This was actually not a palace for the Sultan, but instead, a place for his guests. 

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without the experience of a Turkish bath. The bath, or Turkish hammam is an integral part of Turkey's rich history.  In times before indoor plumbing, Turkish baths were used for hygiene but they were also used as a place of community, spiritual cleansing and celebrations. It was common to attend a bath before a wedding or other celebration as part of the event. Sometimes there were even dancers present. Each bath has its own style. Some are very grand and ornate with intricate tiling and beautiful decorations. Others are more simple and intimate. Some even have a modern look to them. Since you can't take pictures inside the bath I only have ones of the outside.

Hammam Istanbul

When you enter the hammam, you will be directed to undress, sometimes given a small modesty towel. You will then be directed through a series of rooms, usually with each one getting warmer. You will be washed, exfoliated, massaged and may even be covered by a cloud of bubbles. Be aware though it may not be relaxing. The massages and exfoliating can be vigorous. I remember thinking that I couldn't breathe, so much water was being poured over me. This is an experience that is so memorable. It is a must-do when in Turkey. 

Door to a Turkish bath

The Hürrem Sultan, Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş are probably the most popular hammams in the old city. The one I went to was Hurrem Sultan. If you go there be aware that while they give you a small towel, it will be removed during the washing. I thought I would be able to keep it around me, and my slightly uptight American attitudes were not prepared to be naked in front of my best friend. We still laugh about it today though, so it provided an unforgettable afternoon. 

Extra time

I know that this is supposed to be a two day itinerary but if you have more time there are just a couple other must-sees. Dolmabahce palace was built in 1843 for Sultan Abdulmejid I because the Topkapi palace lacked the modern luxuries that other European palaces had. The palace was home to 6 sultans until the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. It was then used as a presidential palace. Dolmabahce palace is the largest palace in Turkey. It has 285 rooms and 68 toilets. It's style is a blend of Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and traditional Ottoman design with gold and crystal everywhere. The world's largest crystal chandelier is in the ceremonial hall with 750 lamps. The dolmabahçe palace cost 5 million Turkish lira, which would be almost 2 billion dollars of today's money. This put a substantial financial burden on the Ottoman Empire. 

Dolmanbache palace Istanbul

The Süleymaniye mosque was commissioned by Suleyman the magnificent in 1520. From its perch on the third hill of the city it commands a wonderful view of Istanbul and the golden horn. The mosque is part of a larger complex that also includes a hospital, public kitchen and other buildings. There is an enclosed cemetery that contains the mausoleum for Suleyman the magnificent and his wife. As with all the mosques in the city, head scarfs are required for women. 

Istanbul mosque

The Princes' Islands are a series on 9 islands near Istanbul. Mainly car free, they are known for their tranquility and Victorian houses. Visiting would be a full day so you will have to skip it if you don't have much time. Throughout their history, out of favor princes, royalty and members of the Sultan's family would be exiled here, hence the name. During the 19th century the islands became popular among Istanbul's wealthy. On the largest island (Büyükada) there are still preserved victorian-era houses. 

Only four of the nine are open to the public. To get around you can walk, use bikes or electric buses or taxis. You get there by a ferry. There are different options. The sea busses are the fast ferry. There are also regular ferries. The fast ferries have more irregular times and may not stop at all the islands. Try to leave on one of the first ferries in the morning and make sure you know when the last ferry leaves in the evening so you are not stuck on the island. (unless that is the plan. Some of the islands have nice hotels.)

If you are a man in need of a shave, consider getting one in Istanbul. This is a fun experience. It is easy to find a barber shop in the city. The shaves are very extensive, often including clipping nose hairs and threading eyebrows and ears. It is a great way to feel like a local and get pampered. 

Turkish Shave Istanbul

Try to see a whirling dervish. These are members of the Sufi sect. They spin to enter a sort of trance or meditation to enhance their worship, pointing one hand up, reaching for the divine. They can twirl for up to an hour. You can pay to see the whirling dervishes in a show or concert. Sometimes you can also see them at restaurants or on the street. 

Whirling Dervish Istanbul

One more thing....if you have time, walk the walls from the sea of Marmara to the golden horn. Called the Theodosian walls, these walls were built by Theodosius II in 413 after he was shocked that the Goths sacked Rome. He wanted to make sure the same didn't happen in his city. The walls ran for 4 miles and were the largest and strongest fortifications in the medieval world. The walls consisted of a 65 foot moat, which was backed by a wall with a terrace for soldiers. At the back of this terrace was a 30 foot high wall with towers 45 feet tall. Behind this wall was yet another terrace followed by a wall which was 40 feet high with towers 65 feet high. Of course, all the time the attacker was trying to get over these walls and terraces, they would be bombarded with catapults, arrows and fire. These walls were successful for over 1000 years, repelling around 24 sieges before the invention of strong cannons and gunpowder when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453. 

Theodosian walls Istanbul

A little word to the wise...don't drink the water in Istanbul, even to brush your teeth or wash fruits or vegetables. Always use bottled water.

Also, beware of scams. We fell victim to a scam when we were following a shoe shiner and he "dropped" his brush. My helpful husband picked it up and ran after the man to return it. To show his gratitude he insisted on shining my husband's shoes but when he finished he aggressively demanded payment. When we returned home we learned this was a common tourist scam and felt silly we hadn't been wiser. If this happens, don't pick it up. They know they dropped it and will come back. 

person shining shoes Istanbul

***Just another quick note. I organized this itinerary more or less with the most popular sites on the first day. If you have 2 days though, you might want to order them more geographically. If that is the case, on the first day I would do the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet square, Topkapi palace, Basilica Cistern and a Turkish bath in the Old city area. The second day go to the Grand Bazaar, Spice market and then cross the Galata bridge to the Galata tower, Istiklal Street and take the hop-on hop-off Bosphorus ferry. Then, of course, if you can fit more in try the add-ons mentioned (the walls, a shave, Princes' Islands and Suleymaniye Mosque).***

Istanbul is such an exciting city, teeming with life and history. It can feel chaotic and overwhelming but also has places you can relax and find some quiet. With thousands of years of history this unique city will leave you with unforgettable memories. 

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