How to Spend One Day in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is a major city in Turkey that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Its Old City reflects cultural influences of the many empires that once ruled here. With history, food, and culture, it’s easy to have fun and spend one day in Istanbul.

Turkish Air offers a ton of cheap flights to Europe. I was able to travel to Greece for a great price, including a wonderful layover for one day in Istanbul! Back in August, I was looking for a cheap destination in Europe because I hadn’t been since college and was dying to go back. I found a $530 flight for Greece on Turkish Air that was too good a deal to pass up.

Most of their flights offer long layovers in Istanbul, similar to other budget airlines. With the airport so close to the city and so many incredible things to do there, you have to take advantage of your Istanbul layover!

blue mosque istanbul turkey

Let me start by saying, this was NOT a planned trip to begin with (see why I won’t book another flight Expedia), plus it wasn’t meant to be a solo trip… I even spent many HOURS on the phone trying to make it not happen. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because I had planned to spend the day seeing Athens so that the last day of the trip would be relaxing and we could simply do some shopping, eating, and walk around. This is the best way to get to know a city after all! However, it was not meant to be, and instead, I spent the first day of my trip in Istanbul—alone!

So, while unplanned, I knew I had to take advantage of being in an incredible city with tons of history and culture. A country where Europe, Asia, and the Middle East connect and blend together to make such a unique and rich history is something I couldn’t pass up experiencing!

Let me also say, yes, there is a lot of stuff in the news about the current state of Turkey right now and that should be paid attention to. However, I never felt unsafe or nervous in Istanbul (although I did take extra precautions to be safe like dressing very conservatively, not staying out late, or avoiding non-touristy areas).

view of the bosphorus at sunrise in istanbul

Alright, one last thing… While I don’t see myself as a natural “solo traveler“, and at the time I definitely didn’t see myself as someone who was bold when visiting new countries, I was determined to make this less-than-desired stop into an opportunity I will never forget.

Istanbul is INCREDIBLE! I loved this city so much and am so glad that I ended up seeing it. Take advantage of your layover in Istanbul.

Note: This was my first-time solo traveling outside the North American continent, so throughout this post, I will give you pro-tips all related to solo travel. Hope you enjoy them. This post should be helpful for short and long layovers.

Don’t forget to check the bottom for my need to know things about Turkey that will help your layover go smoothly! 

hagia sophia in istanbul
 

Layover in Istanbul — Costs

  • 1 City, 1 Night
  • Hotel — $41
  • Tour — $30
  • Airport Transfer — $20
  • Food/souvenirs/tips — $20 (yes, that cheap!)
  • Food/souvenirs/tips — $20
  • Total Cost — $110
deniz hotel istanbul
 

Where to Stay

 

I found this great hotel last-minute that I just loved! Why was it so awesome? Well…

  • It was within walking distance (like 15 minutes!) of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and all the restaurants/shops.
  • It included breakfast!
  • It had a balcony and amazing views of the Bosporus.
  • I was offered tours, airport pick-up, and drop-off through the travel company that the host of the Airbnb also runs called Efendi Travel. They are one of the top-rated tour companies in Istanbul and offer all kinds of tours and packages ranging from half-day tours to extensive 12-day tours all throughout Turkey. Affordable, professional, and informative tour! I highly recommend it even if you are only here for a day.

I literally found Deniz Houses by chance and was able to book everything through them two days before my trip. Everything was essentially taken care of from there. They picked me up from the airport, gave me a map of the city, served breakfast in the morning on the rooftop, took me on a half-day tour, and then dropped me back off at the airport. All for just $100.

 Pro-tip: Airbnb can be a great way to save money, time, and get all the services you need for travel taken care of in one place. Also, I had read online that taxi cabs in Istanbul often take advantage of foreigners, so hiring a driver through your hotel is safer. I only got taxis through my Airbnb, but I only really needed one to and from the airport because of its excellent location!

 

Grand Bazaar 

walking to the grand bazaar in istanbul
 

As soon as I arrived, I was ready to explore. With so little time, you really want to make the most of it! I freshened up then went for a walk through the Grand Bazaar, past the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays, so if you are planning on visiting, be aware. However, there are other great markets like the spice bazaar that are open, so look into those options if you only have a day!

Pro-tip: Getting strangers to take photos for you is easy, but they don’t always take the best pictures. I asked three different people to take my picture before I got one where I wasn’t blinking!

 

outside Hagia Sophia
got to match with Hagia Sophia (totally on purpose)
 

Dinner and Sunset

Pro-tip: Walk like you know where you are going, and people will leave you alone or try to talk to you more. I got stopped by many shop owners in this area wanting to talk/my business I’m sure. Either way, you feel important and special as you are walking!

cats in istanbul
 

A funny thing I noticed about Istanbul on this walk: it has so many cats! If you saw my Instagram story, you know how many I saw—sorry not sorry that I posted so many cat photos! Apparently, Istanbul is known for its cats, and I ended up finding a shop full of porcelain cats, and I bought one. Couldn’t resist…

dinner at night in istanbul
 

After walking around the old city, I grabbed dinner near my hotel. I asked the person at the front desk what spot was good and she recommended this little place! I loved this little spot because it had delicious food, kind people serving us, and even kitties playing near me. My dinner was saffron chicken with rice and salad, plus baklava for dessert! Perfect dinner setting and a delicious meal.

Pro-tip: Find a spot with a rooftop or hop on a boat to watch the sunset. The views are incredible!

Sunrise 

I basically never miss a sunrise and/or the sunset in a new city. There is just something about a beautiful start or end to your day that just fills you with happiness.

 

sunrise with hagia sophia in istanbul

Pro-tip: There are not many upsides to jet lag. BUT, you can get up at 4 in the morning to catch the sunrise.

Awesome breakfast with a great view. Have I said I loved this Airbnb? Because it was the best.

Half-Day Tour

My tour picked me up at 8:30 am, and we were on our way. As I stated before, I booked my tour through my Airbnb with the tour company, Efendi Travel—highly recommend! An Istanbul city tour was the perfect way to see the city. I instantly made friends with some people on our tour from the Philipines and England. 

They were going to be in Turkey for another two weeks. We’re friends on social media now, and I am so jealous of the rest of their trip (although mine in Greece was pretty cool, too…).

Pro-tip: Everyone is scared to travel alone, but when forced into situations out of your comfort zone, you may find that you automatically adapt and meet people. There are nice people all over the globe—don’t be shy!

Hippodrome

Hippodrome istanbul

I had forgotten completely about the history of the Byzantine Empire (thanks, world history), but Istanbul was the capital for a long time and is a really important city in the history of the Roman Empire. One of the coolest things about Istanbul is how connected it is to Italy and Greece, both places I have (now) visited! It felt like everything came together in this city. There is so much history and culture here.

I grabbed a Turkish coffee and some Baklava here, too, which was awesome.

Blue Mosque

view of the blue mosque inside courtyard

inside blue mosque

This was a huge, incredible experience for me. I have never been inside a mosque like this one before. It was so beautiful, and the details in the tiles were just incredible. I loved the color and intricacies.

Pro-tip: When visiting a mosque, women must be covered head to toe except for their faces. If you don’t have your own clothes to cover, they will provide you with some. People are not allowed to wear shoes inside either! I wore this outfit and was just fine without any extra coverings from the mosque.

Hagia Sophia

inside hagia sofia when it was a museum

selfie with hagia sophia

I had totally forgotten the history here, too! I should really read more history books… So, a little history fact: Did you know that the Hagia Sophia had the largest dome in the world for 1,000 years? That is a long time, and the dome is HUGE! 
 
It was beautiful and so unique because it was a basilica then a mosque then a museum and is now a mosque again. You can still see Islamic writings and pictures of Mary holding Jesus there, which was a new experience for me. It is an incredible building, even with the construction. 
 
As you can tell, there are many different beautiful places in Istanbul!
 
inside hagia sophia before it was a mosque
 

Turkish Rug Shop

carpet shop in istanbul
 
While this was definitely a stop on the tour to sell us $1000-$4000 rugs, I still learned about the history of Turkish rugs. They are woven differently than any other place in the world that makes them have an extremely tight weave that has lasted through time. Cool to think about!
 

Lunch

 
lunch in istanbul
 

While this was not included on my tour, I wanted to keep hanging out since I didn’t have to leave for my flight until around 4 pm. The food was delicious, and if you have been to Greece, I found it to be very similar in style and taste.

 

Islamic Art Museum

I had to part with the tour at this point but was not ready to go back to my hotel! I decided to visit a museum along the Hippodrome. The only thing I didn’t get to see was the Topkapi Palace, but I was so tired of walking and it would have taken 30 minutes there and back. I was not feeling it since I had been up since 4 am. Instead, I visited the Islamic Art Museum close by.

I saw so much in such a small amount of time! I seriously am already thinking about when I can go back to Turkey to see more of the country. I had an awesome time that was completely unexpected. Take advantage of your long layover and see this awesome city!

 

grand bazaar istanbul

Things to Know

  1. All of the things I saw were within walking distance of each other. If you stay in the old city, you will be able to walk to pretty much all tourist attractions. This also means even with a short layover, you can see a lot!
  2. Everything is really cheap. I didn’t pay over $6 for a meal, and my hotel was nice and very cheap.
  3. The people are very kind and willing to help however you need. Staff everywhere I went was more than accommodating.
  4. I had no trouble finding people who speak English. In fact, I don’t recall encountering anyone who did not speak English.
  5. It is a majority Muslim country. This means there are many people walking around with their heads covered, dressed very conservatively, and you will hear the calls to prayer throughout the city. There are 5 daily calls to prayer in Istanbul. Read the link to find out more about this experience.
  6. Dress is more conservative, but jeans and your favorite cute top are usually fine. I was there in spring, and the weather was pretty warm (80 degrees Fahrenheit), I still did not see people with their legs or upper arms showing most places I went. I wore a pink leather jacket in the evening, and a long sleeve shirt during the day. Shoulders should definitely be covered.
  7. The men in Istanbul are bold. I was walking around alone and got asked where I was from so many times. When I told them or started a conversation, it almost always went to, “You are pretty,” or “Would you like to stay and talk?” I was not approached by any women this way. With that being said, I didn’t find anyone to be disrespectful or creepy, just bold!
  8. Some places only took Turkish Lira, others only took Euros—keep both on hand!

If you want to explore more of Turkey, Cappadocia is a great place to explore this some amazing formations and awesome history.

 
Experience the magic of one day in Istanbul. Discover the rich history, delicious food, and vibrant culture of this incredible city.
Experience the magic of one day in Istanbul. Discover the rich history, delicious food, and vibrant culture of this incredible city.

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I hope you enjoyed this post and are already considering visiting Istanbul. I loved it, and you will, too! Don’t forget to check out my video on YouTube about my layover in Istanbul! Have you been to Turkey? What would you like to see in Istanbul?

Meghan

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