48 Hours in Istanbul: A Perfect 2-Day Itinerary

Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents. The slow-moving waterway of Bosphorus Strait separates the European part from the Asian part of Istanbul. Istanbul is seeping with history, culture, and generous hospitality. We decided to stop in Istanbul on the way to a wedding in India, and had 48 hours to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of this two-continent city. Here are the best things to do if you only have 2 days in Istanbul!

The Hagia Sofia - 48 hours in Istanbul Turkey

Here is a perfect 2-day itinerary for Istanbul, Turkey

1. Visit the Blue Mosque

This mosque is a famous landmark of Istanbul and has incredible architecture inside and out. The Blue Mosque is an active religious site, so it’s important to be respectful and acknowledge the mosque’s rules. Dress conservatively, men cannot wear shorts, and it’s customary for women to wear headscarves. If you forget to bring one, you can borrow one from the mosque.

blue mosque istanbul

I was selfishly disappointed to discover that it was under renovation. The renovation meant we couldn’t see the famous blue dome on the inside. However, the renovations are much needed in order to preserve such a wonderful building and place of worship, for future generations.

2. The Istanbul Spice Bazaar

We wandered into this beautiful old market with hundreds of stalls and our senses were immediately attacked with the pungent scent of spices and dried fruit.  The market is in the layout of the letter T so it’s fairly easy to navigate.

spice bazaar istanbul

Many of the shops sell similar items, but the variety of items (there were more than a dozen varieties of Turkish Delight) are a feast to the senses! Important to note that haggling is expected in this market.

3. Visit the Hagia Sophia

When you enter Hagia Sophia you can’t help but appreciate the importance of the building; first to Christians then to Muslims.

hagia sofia istanbul

Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most famous and fascinating monuments and is the spiritual hub of Istanbul. It’s called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by historians and is one of the most visited places in the world in terms of art and architecture history.

looking up at the hagia sofia roof istanbul

What an amazing church

Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 as a church, it then served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, before becoming a secular museum. There’s a history of religious and political struggles with the building. I was fascinated to see traces of christianity within mosaics inside the Hagia Sofia. The mosaics were not destroyed by the Ottomans, instead they were covered when the city was occupied by Muslim Turks. When Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, the images were uncovered so visitors of all religions could enjoy them.

jesus christ in hagia Sofia
Here you can clearly see the last judgement scene

In March 2019, President Erdogan declared on national TV that the status of Hagia Sophia will again change back to a mosque. Security is incredibly tight, and you have to be completely comfortable with young men carrying guns. Lines are always long, and we went early in the morning to beat the crowds.

There are armed police all around Istanbul

4. Topkapi Palace Museum

Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans from 1478 to 1856 and is an amazing large palace set in beautiful grounds. There is extremely tight security here.

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

It officially became a museum in 1924, shortly after the end of the Ottoman era. It features stunning architecture, pretty courtyards and extensive weaponry, porcelain, cutlery, art and fabric collections. We allowed 3 hours for this visit as there’s so much to see.

topkapki palace - 48 hours in istanbul

We wandered through rooms filled with historical Islamic treasures such as ancient armors, weapons and staff quarters.

I’d strongly suggest sitting in the beautiful gardens to have a cup of Turkish coffee to soak in the stunning views overlooking Istanbul and the Golden Horn.

5. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

This place is amazing with 19 entrance gates!  We wandered around a maze of over 4000 stalls selling an endless supply of jewelry, trinkets, shoes, spices, lights, Turkish delight stores and ornaments.

grand bazaar in istanbul

However, if you want to shop I’d recommend shopping at the outside bazaar as we found the prices to be about half of the price of the indoor bazaar.

grand bazaar istanbul

It’s easy to get disorientated, so be sure to note the gate number where you entered.  It will make things easier when you attempt to find your way out!

6. Experience the Call to Prayer in Istanbul

The call to prayer booming throughout the city of Istanbul, was one of the more memorable parts of our trip. Five times a day throughout the streets of Istanbul you can hear the call to prayer, also known as ezan. During this time the voice of the muezzin, the man who calls the Muslims to prayer from a minaret, can be heard over loudspeakers at different mosques in the city. It’s an incredible experience to see people washing quite proudly, in preparation to enter the mosque for prayer.

mosque istanbul

7. Turkish Baths of Istanbul

The hamam (Turkish Bath) is an important part of Turkish life. The Ottomans built hundreds of outdoor public fountains, where people would cleanse before heading to their mosques. They were also places where men and women would gather socially.

Turkish Baths were a public utility in the past because of water shortages. Most Turkish homes now have plumbing, however, the baths still remain a social institution today. We decided we HAD to experience this during our stay in Istanbul, and it was a true highlight. You can read more in-depth about our relaxing experience in a Hamam here.

hamam turkish baths

8. Taksim Square

Taksim Square is the central tourist hub of Istanbul and has much historical significance. It’s bustling with activity. taksim square istanbul

It’s a great place to sample local food and sweets, shop for souvenirs, people watch and  feel the Istanbul culture with flags draped across the street. Istanbul is incredibly crowded, so be prepared to get bumped by people and look out for pickpockets. If you hate crowds, avoid it at all costs!

9. Basilica Cistern

This is the largest and probably the oldest underground water reservoir, that lies beneath the city of Istanbul close to Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 6th century while the city was still called Constantinople under the Byzantine Emperor.

The Basilica Cistern entrance in Istanbul

It’s huge and is roughly the size of two football fields. The cistern is filled with carved columns and one of the most intricate columns has two Medusa heads carved at the base.

medusa heads basilica cistern

The air is musty, and thick with moisture, and you can hear the dripping of water echoing. If you happen to catch the light at the right angle you can also see hundreds of fish swimming in the cisterns. It’s quite creepy.

10. Sample Istanbul cuisine

raki in Istanbul

11. Take a Ferry to Princes’ Islands

If you’re looking for a little adventure away from Istanbul’s busy streets, Princes’ Islands is a great 1/2 day trip. You can just hop on a ferry and in about an hour or two you’ll step onto an island where no cars are allowed. You can catch a ferry from places like Kabataş or Kadıköy, and if you’re on the Asian side, even better, because it’s closer.

Büyükada is the biggest of the Princes’ island and has some cool old houses and a church up on a hill. We chose to walk around the entire island, or you can rent bikes for rent or horse-drawn carriages!

You’ll want to bring a few things to make your day awesome: comfy shoes for walking, sunscreen so you don’t get burnt, and maybe a swimsuit if you fancy a swim.

These islands get pretty busy, especially on weekends. So, if you can, go on a weekday. And keep an eye on the time, so you don’t miss the last ferry back to Istanbul. Trust me, you don’t want to be stranded, but you’ll probably wish you could stay longer.

We easily purchased tickets at the port and enjoyed a lovely 90-minute ferry ride that allowed us to see the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. We chose a seat on the top deck and watched the cityscape pass by.

princes islands

The islands are motor-vehicle-free. You can either rent a bicycle, hire a horse and carriage, or just walk around. We chose to walk, soaking in the quaint bungalows and holiday homes that line the small pathway up the hill. The place is incredibly safe, and it’s a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.

Sipping wine in Istanbul

If you’re looking to escape the hustle of Istanbul and have a day to spare, the Princes’ Islands are tranquil and peaceful. They are just a 90-minute ferry ride from Istanbul.

Five days in Istanbul was the perfect length of time, and I’d recommend staying 3 days at the very least. Our visit left us longing to explore more of Turkey. There is still so much to discover and we are excited to explore other cities in Turkey.

2 Days in Istanbul: Hidden Gems & Insider Secrets

When planning a 2-day trip to Istanbul and you’re crafting the perfect Istanbul itinerary, you might have a few of questions about how to maximize your time. Here is what we learned from our 48 hours in Istanbul.

What’s the best time of year to visit Istanbul for a 2-day trip?

Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) offer pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and the chance to explore Istanbul at a leisurely pace. We visited in November before Thanksgiving, and the weather was spectacular – not too hot, not too cold.

Which airport will I arrive at and what’s the best way to get to the city center?

Istanbul Airport (IST) is the main international gateway. The Havaist shuttle service and taxis are reliable options for getting to the city center. For a more budget-friendly route, consider the Istanbulkart for public transportation. We took a taxi – it wasn’t inexpensive but it was the most efficient.

How can I experience Istanbul’s culture like a local?

Venture into local neighborhoods like Kadıköy or Balat and simply walk around for authentic eateries and markets. Go get coffee or tea and be open to talking to strangers! We found the Turkish people to be super friendly.

Can you recommend any insider secrets for navigating the city?

Use the Istanbulkart for convenient access to public transport. Also, downloading a local map app can help you explore hidden gems without getting lost.

Where can I find the best local cuisine?

Explore the eateries in the neighborhoods of Besiktas and Kadıköy for authentic Turkish dishes. Don’t miss trying a traditional breakfast and sampling street food like simit and balık ekmek. Just about every neighborhood has restaurants that have been there for 20, 30, or 100 years. Finding good food is not a problem.

What are some off-the-beaten-path attractions in Istanbul?

Visit the Asian side’s Çamlıca Hill for stunning views, discover the artsy neighborhood of Cihangir, wander through the antique shops in Çukurcuma, and take a ferry ride at sunset for a unique perspective of the city.

Are there any safety concerns I should be aware of?

Istanbul is a safe city, we didn’t feel the least bit concerned with safety no matter where we went. But, like in any major city, be aware! Keep an eye on your belongings, especially in crowded places. Don’t keep anything in your back pockets, and beware of common tourist scams.

Do I need a visa to visit Istanbul?

Many visitors require a visa to enter Turkey, but the process is relatively straightforward. Tourists from the USA can apply for an e-Visa online before traveling, which is quick and easy. It’s essential to check the visa requirements for your nationality.

Exploring Istanbul with an open mind will ensure your 2-day trip is fun and educational. If you make an effort to talk to the people at the table next to yours in a restaurant or in front of you in line for coffee, you’ll meet some genuinely interesting and cultured people.

Have you been to Istanbul? What were your highlights?

Are you thinking of going?

Let me know in the comments below and join me on Instagram and Twitter!


About The Author


I’m a travel and health writer, digital brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising an active family, life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.

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