24 hours in Istanbul: What to do on a 1-day layover

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Grace Hillier

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Istanbul Airport is a common stopover for people traveling to Europe or the Middle East. Many of our friends opt to book tickets with a day layover in Istanbul, because why not squeeze in some sightseeing in a historical city? Others traveling on a budget are forced to endure lengthy layovers to save money.

Whichever the case, we’ve compiled a list of things to do if you have 24 hours in Istanbul.

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Spend the morning wandering the main square in Sultanahmet

We recommend heading straight to Sultanahmet Square if you have just 1 day in Istanbul. This vibrant square has the most famous mosques, palaces, and ancient cisterns in all of Turkey.

Because these sights are close together you can see them all in a few hours.

Enjoy Turkish breakfast in Gülhane Park

If it's the beginning of a new day, you may want to start with a Turkish breakfast. Breakfast is an important part of Turkish culture and is in itself an event with cheese, salad, eggs, bread, toppings, dried fruit and nuts and mezzes. There are many breakfast options around Sultanahmet.

Helpful tip

Some of the restaurants around Sultanahmet are overpriced because it’s such a busy tourist area. After several trips there, we’ve found a café serving good Turkish classics in the park next to Topkapi Palace and they serve breakfast at a reasonable price. It's called Gülhane Parkı Kandil Kafe, Beltur. Don't expect fancy cuisine, but you can eat breakfast in the sunshine and enjoy a view of the palace from the terrace.

There’s also a playground in the park if you are traveling with children who need to let off some steam before touring museums.

After breakfast, it is just a short walk to all the main sights, the most popular of which is the Hagia Sofia.

Cankurtaran Mahallesi, Alemdağ Caddesi Gülhane Parkı İçi, 34722 Fatih/İstanbul

Hagia Sofia

View of Hagia Sofia

One of the most famous buildings in the world, the Hagia Sofia (also known as the Ayasofya) was a museum, and since being turned into a mosque in 2023, the entry was free but now has a €25 fee. Construction was completed in 537 AD.

Sultanahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Blue Mosque

In the courtyard of the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque (or as it is known locally, Sultan Ahmed Camii) is an Ottoman era mosque erected between 1609 and 1617. It is just across from Hagia Sofia, and is another famous mosque. Entry is free of charge here.

Binbirdirek, At Meydanı Cd No:10, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Topkapi Palace

Wide view of Topkapi Palace

Right up to 1856 this palace was where the sultans lived and so was the centre of the Ottoman Empire. As of 2024, the price to visit the Topkapi Palace and Harem section is 1500 TL ($48.60).

Cankurtaran, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Obelisk of Theodosius

Beautiful day looking at the Obelisk of Theodosius

The Hippodrome was the centre of ancient Constantinople, now modern-day Istanbul. You can see where horses used to race, and in the centre is the Obelisk of Theodosius, which dates back to 1479–1425 BC. It was first erected by Pharoah Thutmose III in Egypt and was then transported to Constantinople and erected again by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century AD.

Binbirdirek, Sultanahmet, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul

Helpful tip

We live in Istanbul and regularly visit Sultanahmet Square and are always amazed to see this monument which is over 3000 years old and has outlived several dynasties.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

This giant cistern is located right across from the Hagia Sofia, constructed in 532 AD. There are hundreds of ancient cisterns underneath the modern city of Istanbul today, and this is the largest. It was used to store drinking water for the use of the Hagia Sofia.

The entrance fee for the Basilica Cistern is 600 TL ($19.45 USD). Unfortunately, it’s not included in the museum pass so you’ll have to purchase separate tickets for it.

Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul

Treat yourself to Turkish Döner or falafels and wander the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

Just one kilometer from Sultanahmet Square, are the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Markets, some of the oldest covered markets in the world. With over 4,000 shops in the Grand Bazaar selling everything from jewellery and textiles to spices and souvenirs, you’ll have to keep track of the time here as the day could easily disappear.

You’ll pass plenty of döner shops selling different kinds of meat roasted on a spit (often mistakenly called kebabs by tourists). You can usually choose between chicken, beef or lamb when ordering döner.

The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, has an abundance of spices, herbs, dried fruits, nuts, and sweets. You can stock up on Turkish sweets like baklava and Turkish delight here.

Spend the afternoon taking in the finery of Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace view from the Bosphorus

Istanbul is full of historical buildings and you can’t see them all in a day, but one not to miss is the Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. It was constructed in the mid-19th century and was where the sultans lived after the Topkapi Palace. Sultan Abdulmecid built it to reflect the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire.

Entry is 1050 TL ($34 USD). Entry here is also not included in the Museum Pass.

Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul

Have dinner on İstiklal Street

The busy İstiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Street, officially known as İstiklal Caddesi, is one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Turkey with between 1-3 million people walking it each day. At 3km long, it starts at Taksim Square and leads you to Galata Tower. It’s lined with historical buildings, restaurants, and shops. To save time you can take the iconic red tram which takes you from one end of this bustling street to the other.

Where to have dinner?

There are numerous restaurants along İstiklal, so it can be hard to choose where to eat. We recommend Midpoint which is a large restaurant with a wide menu, a bar and views of the city.

If you want something more intimate, then our favorite restaurant near İstiklal is Tom Tom Kebap where the staff are friendly and the chef roasts eggplant and köfte (Turkish meatballs) over a charcoal fire in the cosy restaurant.

If you're after something more casual, then there are several places that sell Kumpir on İstiklal. This popular Turkish street food is a baked potato with all the toppings.

If you feel like a sweet treat, you can try Turkish ice-cream from the many ice-cream sellers along İstiklal, they often make a show of it so it’s a bit of fun!

Take in the evening skyline at Galata Tower

Historical view of Galata Tower

If you still have energy after your jam-packed day, we recommend to finish your tour of the city by checking out the city skyline from the top of Galata Tower. Originally built as a watch tower, this iconic building is now a museum and houses a restaurant where you can get 360 views of the city from the observation deck.

The entry fee is 650 TL ($21 USD) and is included in the Museum Pass. Just note, there are lots of stairs to climb.

Bereketzade, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul

Should I get a museum pass if I’m in Istanbul for only 24 hours?

We generally recommend getting a museum pass so you can see all the museums and archaeological sites in Turkey for a discounted price, but it may not be worth it if you only have 24 hours in Istanbul.

Some key historical sites like the Basilica Cistern and the Dolmahbace Palace are not included in the museum pass, so you’ll have to purchase extra tickets for these attractions.  

Prices of Museum Pass Turkey in 2024:

  • Museum Pass Istanbul (5 days) 2500 TL  ($81 USD)
  • Museum Pass Turkiye (15 days) 4000 TL ($130 USD)
  • If you’re a Turkish citizen, then the Müze Kart is only 60 TL ($1.95 USD)

What if my layover is less than 24 hours?

We recommend only leaving Istanbul Airport (IST) if you have a layover of 8 hours or more, as anything less can leave you stressing as you make your way back to the airport through Istanbul traffic, which is a 40-60 minute car ride, depending on the time of day.

You’ll also need at least an hour to get through security and walk through the enormous terminal.

If your layover is under 8 hours then there are plenty of things to do in Istanbul Airport (IST).

This major transportation hub has over 150 restaurants and cafes, as well as shops where you can pick up Turkish sweets and souvenirs or check out Turkey’s most popular clothing brands.

If you’re tired you can get some sleep in the Free Nap Zone in the airport, book a sleeping pod, or even a room in the YOTEL Istanbul Airport Hotel, which is located inside the airport.

Yotel airport hotel entrance
Istanbul Airport (IST)
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We often get asked what are the top things are to do in Istanbul since moving here. If you end up staying for more than 24 hours, then you can also try some cultural experiences like relaxing in a Turkish hammam (spa), catching a local show or learning about history at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

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