We have always been the kind of travelers who enjoy spending a week if possible in a city, and have never been fans of doing extensive city-hopping in a single week. There is just too much history, culture, and modernity to truly experience to cram it all into a one or two day itinerary. However, there are always those situations where you only have a day in a city. Maybe as a stopover, maybe as a a brief or spontaneous bridge in your schedule. We took our multi day visits in Istanbul and put them into a one-day itinerary for those of you who don’t have too much time to spend in the city. This may feel a bit hectic, but the stops themselves aren’t too long. And at the end, you’ll feel like you got a dose of the place that is so often regarded the most crucial epicenter of three major world religions.
1)Start off your morning at the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultans lived for about four centuries. It a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the lines are huge once the gates open, You don’t want to find yourself waiting that long in the heat just to get your tickets, so get there early and conquer Topkapi before the crowds become too overwhelming (April though October is considered the “peak season” which can be crazy). Now the entrance fee doesn’t mean you can access everything at the palace. There are additional fees to see the whole complex. So prioritize what you want to do before you get there or the experience can be a labyrinthine series of frustrations in the heat. But make sure you see the Topkapi Dagger, a jewel-crusted emerald gift that was supposed to go from Sultan Mahmud I to Iran’s Nadir Shah (who was assassinated and never got the gift). The dagger is the most popular site in the palace, and although somewhat modest against all the hype that surrounds it, it’s something worth seeing because of how highly regarded it is.
2) Make your way over to the Hagia Sophia, one of the most monumental structures in all of Istanbul and the epitome of first class Byzantine architecture. It used to be a church (A Greek patriarchal cathedral and then a Roman Catholic cathedral), then a mosque, and was finally secularized and turned into a museum. The interior was very ornate, and the most memorable part for me was experiencing the colors. I just love color in any construction, and the intricate mosaic-work was so impressive, especially in retrospect. Another highlight of the Hagia Sophia was seeing some historical remnants of Christian construction in what is predominantly a Muslim design. I remembered when I was in Luxor in Egypt and was able to see the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim architecture in the Temple of Karnak and Luxor. It’s always so intriguing to see two religions intersecting at places of high cultural significance, and the Hagia Sophia is a fantastic site to visit to see that side-by-side placement.
3) Walk over to the Hippodrome Obelisk in the Sultan Ahmet Square. This used to be the famous circus of Constantinople and one of the city’s most prominent gathering places. Walk around a bit and you can grab lunch at a traditional Turkish restaurant. We ate ate a place where they made thin bread called lavas on hot stones right in front of you. It felt like a real slice of Istanbul, something we found a bit difficult to discover in the midst of the almost overbearing tourism that has, in recent years, taken over the genuine city.
4) Walk to the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Istanbul (which, in my opinion, was the more impressive when compared to Hagia Sophia).The architecture of the interior was absolutely incredible. The lit chandeliers were connected to the ceiling in this expansive web of masterful design. I haven’t seen anything like it before. A word of caution so you are respectful to the people inside the Blue Mosque who are actually there to pray: as much as many of Istanbul’s sites seem like they’re tailored towards tourists, they are first and foremost sacred places of prayer for the people of the city. It is easy to forget this and have our photographic instincts and excitement take us over. It is mandated that all women wear scarves inside the Blue Mosque. The guards check before you go in. So as a sign of respect, just keep the scarf on once you get in. You can take it off right when you exit the mosque. But don’t risk insulting the many, many people around you who this place rightfully belongs to first by throwing your scarf on the ground and rushing to take pictures. It can come off very, very demeaning, and that’s not something you want to do.
5) If you’re not totally fatigued after all of this, check out the Grand Bazaar, a massive market that caters to every kind of shopping impulse. But if you’re tired, take a break, and then walk into Old Istanbul at night. where the culture is richer and more closely aligned to a raw Turkish lifestyle than it is in the industrialized city. Walking through the streets at night is like walking through a movie-set. Surreal and like a scene from a fantasy with the misty lights and roadside personalities. End your night with a freshly-baked baklava.
Let us know if you have some one-day Istanbul itineraries that have been successful!