Istanbul is one of the best cities I’ve ever experienced.
Even though that experience was only for a day.
The stunning historical architecture, the amazing complex food, the warmth, the vibrance, the people – they all sucked me in as soon as I arrived.
While just one day in Istanbul is not enough time to get to know the city (it’s huge! you’ll want to go back!), I experienced a ton and made the absolute most of my 25+ hours.
But, I cheated. I had a ‘to explore/eat’ list from a friend’s friend who had studied abroad in Istanbul. I also made a few local and expat and more-prepared-than-me tourist friends here who helped show me around. Really, thank these people for this post, or else I would not have experienced so much in a day!
Are you looking to make the most of your one day layover in Istanbul too? Follow along with my Istanbul layover itinerary below!
In This Post
Taxi from the airport to Sultanahmet
Since you’re limited on time, I recommend just exploring Sultanahmet, Eminönü, and Beyoğlu. Istanbul is massive, and while there are a lot of other districts and day trips you can take, so much history, activities, and main sights are concentrated in these areas. So, this list focuses here. For more info on the neighborhoods, check out this post.
My layover was overnight, so I checked into a hostel in Sultanahmet and was able to leave my stuff there. What I didn’t know is that you can actually get a FREE hotel if you have a layover with Turkish Airlines!!
Revere at the mosques and historical buildings
Since you only have a day, I wouldn’t recommend going inside all of the mosques. And honestly, I’m broke so I only went inside the Blue Mosque on recommendation from friends who all said it was their favorite. It was so worth it (well, it was free, but I would have paid because it was that awesome).
Even on the outside, they are gorgeous and differ greatly from the also beautiful Christian worship places that I’m used to seeing. It still floors me that people were able to create such decorated buildings for whatever higher power they believe in. Well I guess it’s not really surprising, because they had slave labor then. All we do with our slaves in the US in the prison industrial complex is make license plates!
Key mosques to check out include:
Click the links for more information including history, significance, and hours of operation. I was only there for a day so I am not going to pretend like I am an expert here.
Don’t forget to dress appropriately! Wear conservative clothing that doesn’t show a lot of skin. Check out this site for specifics on mosque attire.
This area also has a ton of historical buildings and locations closeby. This includes:
- Topkapi Palace Museum: An ex palace, now museum
- Basilica Cistern: The largest cistern in Istanbul and it’s been around since the Byzantine Empire
- Hippodrome: An area that contains the remains of where things like chariot racing happened
Again, use the links for primary source like info.
Out of these, I only fit in the cistern, which was MASSIVE. But, I wish I did explore another mosque or Topkapi Palace instead- the cistern was cool, but it didn’t wow me like the mosque. So I will leave it up to you what to do.
By the way, be wary of people offering to be your tour guide at these places. Some are legit and useful for context, but some are scams or creepy men trying to touch your butt.
Check out Taksim Square via Galata Köprüsü
Taksim Square is very lively area with different shops, nightlife, and street performers doing different cultural dances and songs. In terms of getting here, I loved walking from Sultanahmet via Galata Köprüsü (aka Galata bridge). It’s a beautiful area – especially at sunset! And there are fish stalls which I unfortunately didn’t get to try, but it was highly recommended to me.
See panoramic views of the city around Galata Tower
In this area, also walk down Isitklal Caddesi, for another lively street with lots of shopping opportunities on the way back to Galata Tower, which has an amazing view and is where most people head to. For a cheaper price, I liked going to a cafe by Galata Tower even better. There are restaurants/cafes that have rooftop seating (sounds ritzy, but the one I went to at least is pretty inexpensive) where you can see similar views to Galata, but with less people around and more food.
Explore the Spice Bazaar
There are two big markets here, and the Spice Bazaar is the one with lots of good food. The Grand Bazaar is the other market and has a ton to look at. Since you only have a day, it’s not enough to experience Turkey’s varied food scene, but since it’s a market, a lot of food options are close together and easily accessible. On your trip, I would recommend NOT getting peynir, because it’s amazing and there’s nowhere at least in Seattle that sells similar cheese, so you’ll be sad for the rest of your life. Also adana kebabs.
Order Dondurma (ice cream)
Don’t ask. Don’t investigate in people’s travel blogs or youtube videos further. Just do it.
And that or some portion of that should take up your day! What are you most excited to try? What do you think of Istanbul? Let me know in the comments!
WTF you went to Turkey as a solo black female?! Is Istanbul safe for black women?
Okay, this has nothing to do with how to spend a day here, but these are questions I got a lot coming from the US. Is Istanbul safe? Why did you go by yourself? Do they hate black people like Trump’s America? And I got this from everyone- (male) friends from Turkey, people who watch Fox News, people who were just genuinely curious.
Wellllllll, my butt got touched without permission more times here than anywhere else I’ve been (so 4 times vs. 0 times). I got followed a lot by creepy people. One guy asked me for sex and then introduced me to his family (yes, it was weird). The most tame creepy guy just kept trying to hold my hand (and he worked for the hostel, so).
But everyone else who wasn’t creepy was really nice, friendly, knew a lot about underground US rap music, and talked a lot about racism, politics, and philosophy. I had a lot of really great conversation with those people. And like I keep saying, the city itself is amazing. I don’t think there’s anywhere else where I would still be in love with the city despite the amount of times I was sexually harassed.
But, I would highly recommend making friends and especially male friends if you want to come here by yourself as a black woman, to lessen the chance of weird stuff happening to you. Especially if you’re a chatty catty and talk to everyone like me. Nigerians are forced to do sex work here, so people may think you’re a prostitute – no matter how much you cover up and wear respectful clothes (what?! it’s almost like what you wear doesn’t affect whether or not you get sexually assaulted). If you don’t make friends and are still solo, I would just recommend being more alert and assertive than usual.
Note: Not everyone experiences this – when I tell this to other women, some agree, but some are shocked because they can’t imagine that happening here. I’m just saying be prepared.
Psst: Going back to the point of this post, if you don’t want to do your own thing, Turkish Airlines has a TourIstanbul program that takes you around the city for free! I didn’t know about this or else I probably would have tried it, but if you have, let me know what you think in the comments!