One day in Istanbul

Lizet Wesselman - 03/11/2023

One day in Istanbul

Lizet Wesselman - 03/11/2023

Istanbul is definitely one of my favourite cities and deserves so much more than only a day. After four days, I still felt like I had been running around like a headless chicken and I would go back in a heartbeat to see more. Do you only have one day in Istanbul anyway, like as a transfer? Then I would visit the sites below first. Mind you, it’s a busy schedule. Do you want to take it a little less rushed? Then I would skip Balat. But these locations will give you a good idea of this beautiful city.

Morning: sunrise at the Galata tower

Your one day in Istanbul begins with sunrise at the impressive Galata Tower. Built in 1348 as part of the city’s defences, this tower towers high above Istanbul’s skyline. You can climb the tower, which costs around €32 (650 TL) in 2023. Since the tower towers over the city, you have a great panoramic view of Istanbul from here. A great start to your Istanbul city trip, where you can plan your onward route through the city from above.

Why go at sunrise? Because this is one of Istanbul’s busiest highlights and is therefore always crowded with people. The tower stands at the end of a cute little street with coloured houses, making it an Instagram hotspot. Want a photo without hordes of people? Then you really need to get there early. Also, there’s always a queue for the tower itself. If you’re early and buy a ticket in advance, you can avoid that queue.

I was too lazy to get up early so I don’t have a picture of the cute little street. Of course, if you’re not such an early bird either, you can also admire the Galata tower in Istanbul from other points, considering it towers over the city.

Breakfast at sustainable restaurant Café Privato

In one of the side streets of the Galata Tower, you’ll find a cosy, sustainable restaurant with all-day breakfast. Breakfast is my favourite meal, so you quickly win me over at all-day breakfast. The ingredients come from local farmers and a lot of seasonal produce is used. So here you can enjoy a delicious, carefree typical Turkish breakfast. My recommendation? Menemen. This is an egg dish with tomato and herbs, usually served with bread. Sounds simple, but I ate this for about 2 months in Turkey and still can’t get enough of it! Café Privato in Istanbul, put it on the list.

Early afternoon: colourful Balat

From the colourful street next to Galata Tower, we head to Istanbul’s most colourful district: Balat. You can take the metro or the ferry. It’s a bit of a stretch from the district around Galata, though. Want to take it a bit easier or did your day start a bit later? Then you could skip Balat.

Still, I thought it was worth a visit. It’s an incredibly cute district, packed with cafés and shops and, of course, the famous coloured houses. These houses are simply residential, and the locals also walk around here. Laundry hangs outside and the streets are often quite busy. So make sure you are respectful to the locals, give them space and respect their property. They are used to tourists by now, but not happy with all the crowds and instagram shoots.

You’ll also find one of several rainbow staircases in Balat, as well as a sort of permanent festival area with food trucks and a large collection of colourful umbrellas hanging above it. Both are super-touristy and therefore, a fee is charged for a photo.

Afternoon: Istanbul bazaar

If you only have one day in Istanbul, the Istanbul bazaar can’t really be missed. Personally, it wasn’t my favourite bazaar ever, but I still wouldn’t skip it when visiting Istanbul, if only to admire the beautiful buildings. Markets in general are such a great peek into a local culture. There are all kinds of things for sale, and it’s a sport to haggle down to a price you’re willing to pay. Be prepared for lots of sales tricks, though. Everyone tries to talk you into their shop and sell you all sorts of things. This is the culture, and if you go along with it, it’s incredibly funny. No, in the end, is just no, but it’s just in their culture to convince you and try to make you buy even more.

Besides the Istanbul bazaar, you will also find the Egyptian spice bazaar in Istanbul. This is mainly for spices and other delicious treats. This one is generally a bit quieter and less touristy.

Lunch at a rooftop restaurant

Make sure not to snack too much in the bazaars because lunch is worth it again. I recommend having lunch at one of the many rooftop cafés around the mosques. (Which you can visit afterwards.) Most offer views of both mosques, allowing you to admire these impressive buildings. The most popular restaurant is “Seven hills”. This is the tallest building, and offers great views of both mosques. However, you’ll share the roof terrace with hordes of tourists, so enjoying a quiet meal isn’t really an option. Plus, it’s pricey.

I therefore opted for the building next door, “En La Luna Terrace“. I shared this terrace with a handful of other visitors who were quietly enjoying their meal. An affordable and delicious meal, with beautiful views of both mosques. And as a plus, views of the other terraces where people were jostling for their perfect Instagram shot. I love people-watching, but prefer it from a distance. So this was the perfect solution.

Late afternoon: visit the Istanbul mosques

The mosques are probably thé highlight of Istanbul. No shortage of choices, but it’s the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque, because of its beautiful blue interior) that are the most visited ones. These mosques are next to each other and attract daily crowds. You can visit them for free, but since they are both in use, you’ll be kicked out for prayer times. You can find those times online. Many people recommend coming to the mosques in the morning, but I wouldn’t do that. Everyone does, which is why the queue is incredibly long precisely in the morning. In the afternoon, the queue is much shorter, and you can almost walk straight through.

The Hagia Sophia is the mosque on which all other mosques in the world are based. Which is fairly remarkable, since it was once a synagogue. Hence, the interior is very dark, with lots of black paint, to cover the original aspects of the synagogue. Before it became a mosque, it was a museum. In recent years, there has been much ado about the mosque and many demands from left-wing activists to restore it to the museum it once was. Since it’s now also a tourist attraction, many people want to get rid of the perception that Turkey is a strict Muslim country and remake it into a neutral attraction.

The Blue Mosque was especially important during the Ottoman Empire and is now mostly a popular highlight in Istanbul because of its beautiful interior. Personally, I found this one the most impressive in terms of the interior. Although Hagia Sophia was certainly very special. However, I found it an uncomfortable visit. People were praying, while all the tourists were running around shouting and taking shameless selfies. I like to visit religious buildings during my travels because it gives an insight into history. Usually, people are quiet and respectful, but here, respect from the tourists was nowhere to be found.

If you visit the mosques, at least abide by the dress code. Shoes have to come off. You can hold them or put them in a locker at the entrance. For women, shoulders, knees and hair must be covered. Just do this. You won’t be let in if you don’t comply with this. You can buy scarves at the entrance if you don’t have any with you.

Evening: sunset at the Atatürk bridge

After a full and busy day in Istanbul, it’s time to quietly enjoy the sunset. Although, it’s hard to actually find quiet in the ever-bustling city of Istanbul. But there are definitely spots where you can admire the colourful spectacle of sunset. My favourite is around the Atatürk Bridge. You have a great view of the city from here, with mosques on one side and the Galata Tower on the other. The bridge itself is a popular hotspot for fishermen, which seems to be the number one pastime in Türkiye. I found this a nice spot that made me feel really in the middle of Istanbul’s daily life. The view is fantastic, and it’s a perfect end to the day.

Diner at Tavanarasi restaurant

End the day with a delicious dinner at Tavanarasi restaurant, a typical Turkish restaurant where you can order mezzes. Mezzes are the Turkish version of tapas, small dishes to share. The choice is endless and you can stay in Türkiye for months and still order new mezze combinations. I found menu options here that I didn’t find in the 2 months after. Moreover, this restaurant really is a hidden gem in the middle of a busy street. Look for a blue door, then take the lift up and enjoy a quiet spot overlooking the neighbourhood.

How to get around in Istanbul?

Public transport in Istanbul is excellent. The city is always busy and chaotic, so you really don’t want to sit in a taxi, let alone hire a car. Especially if you only have one day in Istanbul, you want the fastest way around. You can take the metro straight from the airport to the city centre. In the city centre, there are more than enough options in terms of metro, tram, and even ferries. The ferries are really great! Especially on a hot day, as they offer some cooling air. I found them a bit tricky to navigate, though, as the names on the signs didn’t always match what my Google Maps said it would be. They also don’t go as regularly as the metro and tram. But if you have the time, definitely take the ferry.

The best way to pay in public transport is with the IstanbulCard. You can get this card once from a machine (free, you only pay for the money you put on it) and then you “check in” with the card. Tap it before entering the system. It’s really cheap to use public transport in Istanbul. I had €10 for 4 days and I don’t think I even used half of it. Do you have any credit left on your card when you leave? Then ask your hotel if they want to buy the card. Or just leave it behind, for another traveller.

Public transport in Türkiye is pretty good in general. If you have a longer holiday in the country, consider taking trains or busses across the country. They even have a sleeper train in Türkiye, for example from Istanbul to Ankara.