Istanbul Two Day Itinerary: The cosmopolitan highlights in 48 hours

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ISTANBUL TWO DAY ITINERARY: WHERE TO EAT, VISIT AND STAY IN ISTANBUL.


Istanbul is a thriving metropolis in Turkey – although it is not the capital, it is certainly the most cosmopolitan city to visit. Where old meets new and east meets west, Istanbul is a melting pot filled with riveting sights, sounds and smells. Not to be missed by any adventurous tourist looking for a fabulous city break.

Here is our Istanbul two day itinerary: where to eat, visit and stay in Istanbul if you visit for 48 hours.

Is two days in Istanbul enough?

Two days in Istanbul isn’t really enough to see the whole city. Spending 48 hours in the city will not fully scratch the itch, but it will give you a chance to visit the main sites and to allow you to form an opinion on whether you want to return.

In two days in Istanbul, you can take a whistle stop tour of the historic and spiritual sites of importance in Istanbul, enjoy some nightlife, quaff a few cocktails and enjoy some fabulous tidbits of Turkish food.

Istanbul is a great city break destination and, in my view, somewhere everyone should travel at least once – even if it is just for 48 hours.

Istanbul two day itinerary

We have put together a two day itinerary allowing for two full days and two nights in Istanbul. You may have to adjust this slightly depending on your flight times.

The map below shows the main destinations we have mentioned on our two day itinerary to help you navigate around the city.

Day One: Istanbul two day itinerary

Day One on our Istanbul two day itinerary begins by crossing the water, visiting the famous mosques and relaxing at a hammam in the afternoon. Spend the evening exploring Galata, enjoying Meze and Raki and a cocktail with a view.

STROLL ACROSS THE GALATA BRIDGE

Assuming you are staying in Galata, we suggest starting your day in a leisurely fashion with a stroll across the Galata Bridge towards Sultanahmet.

The Galata Bridge is actually the fifth version of the bridge, with the current one having been built in the 1990s. It is somewhat of a “character” having appeared in many novels and movies. A symbol of the connection between old and new Istanbul.

Cross along the top to see the lines of fisherman catching their daily haul. Or, peruse the footpath on the underside of the bridge, dotted with restaurants and coffee shops. Look out for boats cruising under the bridge too.

VISIT THE SPIRITUAL CENTRE OF ISTANBUL

Head to Sultanahmet to be whisked away into history and see the most famous of Istanbul’s attractions – the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and Hagia Sophia.

Both mosques are found in the same area, making it easy to visit one after the other. It is free to enter as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are active mosques, but you will to avoid visiting at prayer times. Don’t be put off by the queue, it will go really quickly.

🧣Ladies, you will need to cover up when visiting the mosques. Scarves are sold at Hagia Sophia, but they are not good quality and the queue is long. We recommend packing your own. Find out more about what women should wear in Turkey here.

Depending on your appetite for more sightseeing, Topkapi Palace is another landmark that you can visit in this area. It is an Ottoman period palace, now open as a museum. Tickets cost 750 TL or 950 TL including the harem visit (which is recommended.)

💡If you’re short on time, skip the line and book an audio tour for Topkapi Palace.

As an alternative, take time to see the Topkapi Palace from the outside and instead go for a leisurely stroll around the pretty Gülhane Park.

RELAX WITH A TURKISH HAMMAM

After a busy morning of sightseeing, we would recommend winding down with a visit to a Turkish Hammam.

If this is your first Turkish Hammam, you may find it a slightly strange experience. But overall, it is quite indulgent and relaxing. First, you will be covered in water before relaxing on the hot stone (arguably the best bit). Before being scrubbed, covered in water again and washed with soap. Something to try once.

The most renowned Turkish Hammam is Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, found in Karakoy. If you’d prefer something a bit more private and less traditional, try this one – a private massage and hammam located in a Hilton Hotel on the Sultanahmet side of the city.

VISIT GALATA TOWER

We suggest heading back to your hotel to freshen up after your Hammam and before your first evening in Istanbul begins. Once you’re ready, take a stroll to Galata Tower. Originally a watch tower, Galata Tower is now a museum and exhibition space.

Standing at 62m tall, the tower offers 360 views of the city.Whilst we think it’s worth seeing the tower and exploring around the area, we don’t think it’s worth justifying the ticket price to climb the tower. It currently costs around 600 TL (£20).

After seeing the tower, take some time to explore the trendy Galata neighborhood. Head to Taksim Square, the heart of the modern Istanbul. A bustling hive of activity in the evening.

DEVOUR SOME MEZE AND RAKI

Eating Meze with Raki in Turkey is more than just a meal, it is a past time. The Meze (like Turkish Tapas) can be simple, or extravagant. Enjoy dips with bread or something more substantial.

Accompany it with Raki – a Turkish spirit that tastes a little like Ouzo. The Raki will be served in small glasses, add water and if you like ice. The water will turn the drink instantly cloudy.

You can do this at many restaurants in Istanbul, we chose Asmil Cavit in the Galata area. A bit of an institution, popular with tourists and locals. You pick your food with your eyes, as waiters deliver samples to your table instead of a menu.

GET INVOLVED IN THE ROOF TOP BAR SCENE

One of our highlights of our recent visit to Istanbul was enjoying a few cocktails at a roof top bar. A visit to a roof top bar is a must do for an Istanbul two day itinerary with the cosmopolitan sites in mind.

Get there just in time for sunset before dinner, or wait until dark and see the city lights. Galata is a great area to find roof top bars, but just look out for some being a little on the pricey side.

We visited Balkon Bar and Restaurant – a really unpretentious roof top bar with incredible views across the city and reasonable prices. The balcony is small, with only three tables so it felt like a hidden gem when we found it and got a seat.

Swankier options include Bank Rooftop Bar, pricey but with fantastic service to match. Zula Galata is also popular and found in the centre of the Galata district.

Day Two: Two day Istanbul itinerary

Day two on your our two day Istanbul itinerary is one for the foodies. It starts with a leisurely light breakfast, takes you to the grand bazaar, on to a food tour, a cruise around the bosphorus and then on to Karakoy to let your hair down.

INDULGE IN A TURKISH BREAKFAST

Having a lazy breakfast or brunch is one of our most treasured things to do when travelling, especially so in Turkey. Breakfast is very much part of Turkish culture, with locals enjoying a colorful feast in the mornings on weekends or special occasions.

Some of the best places for breakfast or brunch are around Galata. There are many cafes offering a blend of Turkish classic food with a modern twist in trendy surroundings. Try the avocado eggs at cosy Dukkan Galata cafe. Or more traditional fare at Walton Breakfast.

SHOP IN THE GRAND BAZAAR

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is a must see. A shoppers paradise, you can spend hours in here wandering around and browsing the offerings. In fact, you may end up spending longer than you want to -it’s very easy to get lost.

Here you can find “designer goods”, rugs, crafts of every kind – basically anything you could possibly dream of. We were pleasantly surprised during our visit to find that the shopping experience is incredibly laid back – rarely did we encounter pushy sales tactics. That said, if you do find something you want to buy, be prepared to haggle.

Dating back to the 1400s and the Ottoman Empire, the Grand Bazaar has historical appeal too. And it’s housed in a covered building with fabulous ceilings. Even if you don’t like to shop, the Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses and the general hubbub is something to behold.

GO ON AN AFTERNOON FOOD TOUR

As a foodie capital, Istanbul has plenty or organized street food tours to choose from. A popular one is this street food tour found on Get Your Guide, which visits the markets, street food hot spots and the Kadikoy area on the Asian side. If you book this, you can enjoy a guided tour covering all the main activities your second day in Istanbul.

Alternatively, you can take yourself on a food tour. Start with a stroll around the Grand Bazaar (referenced above), perhaps sampling a few pieces of Turkish Delight as you shop.

A few of the best street food places that we found in Istanbul are listed below:

MARMARA 37: A street side spot in Karakoy offering fresh fish wraps. Watch them grill and season these delicious wraps – we challenge you to only eat one.

ADANA OCAKBASI: Serving a traditional Adana Kebab. Somewhat of an institution in Istanbul but it’s a bit out of the way.

SEHZADE CAG KEBAB: Voted the best place in the world to eat Cag Kebab, this shop has been open for many years and locals still come here in droves. Very close to the Grand Bazaar.

GALATA BAGEL SHOP: A peaceful spot in Karakoy for a traditional Turkish Simit (a bit like a bagel/ pretzel.)

KARAKOY GULLUOGLU: Famous for baclava. This is a modern all day bakery where you can eat in or take away. The baclava is extremely delicious.

CRUISE THE BOSPHORUS

Istanbul is surrounded by water, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus strait frame the city. A great way to explore another side of Istanbul, is to take a cruise on the water.

There are a few options to do this:

A BUDGET CRUISE WITH AUDIO GUIDE: A basic cruise option, costing around £10 and lasting for two hours.

A YACHT TOUR: A more luxury option for a small group.

SUNSET TOUR: A top rated tour to see Istanbul from the water at sunset, with live guide and drinks.

DINNER CRUISE: Up the ante and opt for a dinner cruise complete with a live show.

The alternative choice is to take a passenger ferry from the European side, Karakoy, to Kadikoy on the Asian side. This costs only a few TL and still offers a chance to see Istanbul from the water, as well as visiting the Asian side of Istanbul too. There are various other ferry routes for anyone wanting to cruise on a budget.

STROLL THROUGH KARAKOY FOR DRINKS

Once a neighborhood filled with fisherman and industrial shops, Karakoy is now super trendy area filled with bars, restaurants and street food.

Karakoy is a dense area with maze like streets, simply wander down and find a bar that catches your eye. Some of our favourites are Parantez Karakoy (a wine and tapas bar), Nox (for cocktails) and Papel (for beer with a game of chess.)

🎨Art fans may enjoy visiting the Museum of Modern Art found on the edge of Karakoy. It closes at 18:00, so stop by the museum before you head out for drinks in Karakoy. It costs around £10, so won’t break the bank.

Where to stay in Istanbul

If you are in Istanbul for 48 hours, it is best to stay centrally. There are three main neighborhoods to choose from. Personally, we would recommend Galata as it is a smart area, centrally located and a little less crowded than the Sultahnahmet area.

Here are the best neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul for 48 hours.

SULTAHNAHMET

This is the main area for budget travellers and anyone wanting to be close to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and historic palaces.

BUDGET: Han Suite Hotel is close to the action, but very budget friendly with rates of £25 per night. The location is particularly popular with guests.

MID-RANGE: Kupeli Hotel looks high end, especially the interior. But it’s a reasonably priced mid-range option in this area.

LUXURY: Motto by Mula is a luxurious 4* hotel. A spacious hotel with a spa, even though it is super central.

GALATA

BUDGET: Peradise Hotel is on the outskirts of Galata, offering a budget option for travellers wishing to stay in this area.

MID-RANGE: Galatahan Hotel is a wonderful mid-range hotel, which feels more expensive than it is. A great location just near to the tower.

LUXURY: For luxury in Galata it has to be The Bank Hotel. Chic, 5* and extravagant. Complete with a roof top bar.

How to get around Istanbul

Istanbul has good transport options, with a metro system that runs regularly and from various points of the city. You can also use a boat to get to the Asian side and sometimes to the North of the European side.

The metro requires either a ticket, an Istanbul city card or a contactless card (only certain debits cards seemed to work for us and ticket machines were not working either for us!)

Although Istanbul is not a “walk-able” city as such, you can get to the main sites within relatively easy walking distance. Everything we have listed in our two day Istanbul itinerary is easy to reach on foot, without taking public transport.

👟Be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes to get around Istanbul. There are many hills and slippery streets too. For more on what to pack and wear in Turkey, you can find our guide here.

Should you buy an Istanbul city card for two days in Istanbul?

Istanbul City Cards offer unlimited access to public transport. You can get them for one day, three days or more. If you are in Istanbul for 48 hours, both options may suit you. A one day ticket currently costs 21 Euros, whilst a three day is 32 Euros.

Do keep in mind that a single journey is around 1.5 Euros, so a city card is only going to be value for money if you really plan to use a lot of transport.

If you are mobile and able to walk and you choose a 48 hour itinerary similar to ours, then you will not need any public transport. Therefore, we would not recommend buying the Istanbul City Card for two days in Istanbul.

How to get to Istanbul

Istanbul has two airports, Istanbul Airport and Sabiha Gokcen Airport. There are regular flights to Istanbul from the UK and Europe. Domestic flights between Istanbul and other Turkish cities, such as Antalya, are also regular.

Istanbul Airport is located North West of the city, around a 30-45 minute taxi ride from the centre. A metro also runs, but you may have to change a few times to get from the city to the airport. Turkish Airlines and British Airways fly from Istanbul Airport and it is the main hub for international connections.

Sabiha Gokcen Airport serves domestic connections mainly. It is a smaller airport on the Asian side of Istanbul. A metro and a boat are required to get from there to the city – a long journey but the boat into the city is a special way to arrive.

Written by Emma

Wine Lover. Yogi. Hiker. Writer.

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