Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, The City on Two Continents: whatever you call it, spending two days in Istanbul is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This city is rich with history, stories, great cuisine, and limitless tea–it is vast, sometimes perplexing, and completely enthralling.
We know many great spots in Istanbul as insiders since we live here, and we’ve discovered lots of nooks, crannies, and delicious breakfasts along the road. We’ve put up this full 2 days in Istanbul itinerary based on all of our dining explorations: if you’re in Istanbul on a tight schedule and don’t know what to do, we’ve got you covered.
Sultanahmet Visit in Day 1
Sultanahmet is essentially Istanbul’s old town and is home to many of Istanbul’s famous sites: if you want to see the finest of Sultanahmet on your first day in Istanbul, you’ll have to wake up early and risk getting achy feet… It will, however, be worthwhile. The Egyptian Obelisk near the Blue Mosque is a quirky, ancient, and surprising place to start getting a flavor of Istanbul. The obelisk was originally constructed in Luxor around 1500 BCE and was brought to Constantinople by the present Emperor around the year 390 (yep–Istanbul history goes back a long way). … the colossal obelisk you’re staring at in Istanbul now is just around a third of its original size!
The Blue Mosque (which is not really blue–the term derives from the blue tiles in its beautiful interior) was completed in 1616 and is undoubtedly one of Istanbul’s most renowned monuments. It is a must-see on every Turkey itinerary. You’ll get the full impact of the mosque when you approach it from the Hippodrome area: the structure is complex and gorgeous inside and out, and you’ll likely find your jaw on the floor at least once or twice while admiring it.
Topkapi Palace has witnessed a lot of history being the residence of approximately 30 Ottoman sultans over the span of almost 600 years. Topkapi Palace is worth seeing only for the picture possibilities (pay the additional minimal price to see the harem/living quarters–probably it’s the most gorgeous section!). The Ottoman Empire ruled vast areas of Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and North Africa at its height, and it all began in Istanbul.
Taksim and Bosphorus in Day 2
Istiklal Street in Taksim is the beating heart of contemporary Istanbul: primarily a retail street, it is constantly bustling with residents and visitors alike. This is the location to go if you want to shop at big stores like Gap, H&M, Sephora, and others while in Istanbul (and the prices are fabulous). If you’re looking for traditional products and souvenirs, you’ve come to the right place. Those are also present. Istiklal also has a vintage, charming red tram that travels the length of the street: get on for a cheap trip, or just watch it go by, replete with local kids who actually jump on and off. Then make your way to the Galata Tower.
Make your way to the Galata Bridge from the Galata Tower: this contemporary bridge, which is home to several famous Istanbul sites, is a must-see during your two days in Istanbul. Admire the hundreds of fishing poles strewn over the river (it’s a favorite fishing location), the views of the Galata Tower and the surrounding region, and then go under the bridge to get one of Istanbul’s most famous street food snacks: a fish sandwich prepared from the day’s catch.