48-Hours in Istanbul: Where to go and what to see

View of Istanbul, Turkey from the Bosphorus | Istanbul Landscape | Istanbul Skyline

If you are looking for the best city for a stopover, consider planning a stopover in Istanbul, Turkey.

Istanbul is a fascinating, thriving, and historic city that straddles both Europe and Asia; and at the time of writing, Turkish Airlines flies to over 331 destinations (the fourth most of any airline, behind United Airlines, American Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines), meaning there’s a good chance Turkish Airlines flies to a city near you.

Wondering what to do in Istanbul, Türkiye? Read on to discover what to do with two days in Istanbul, Turkey –

Day One

Explore Sultanahmet Square

Located in the heart of old Istanbul, some of Istanbul’s most important historical sites are located in Sultanahmet Square, also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Some of the hippodrome’s monuments have been preserved, including the Serpent Colum and the Obelisk of Thutmose, and are a fascinating glimpse of the city’s history.

But it’s the beautiful mosques that sit at opposite ends of Sultanahmet Square that drive visitors and locals alike to this area: the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Both of these mosques are stunning inside and out. The Blue Mosque is free while the Hagia Sophia charges an entrance fee.
To avoid the crowds, look at what time the call to prayer is that day or visit in the early morning or late at night to avoid the crowds.

Hagia Sophia is a particularly interesting mosque as it was the largest Christian church of the Byzantine Empire. During its history, it’s also been a Roman Catholic cathedral and after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was converted to a mosque. In 1935, it was turned into a museum; then in 2020, it was reconverted into a mosque. They have preserved much of the Christian and Catholic architecture, and the building blends facets of each religion beautifully.

If you want to go inside a mosque in Istanbul be sure to wear clothing that covers your elbows and your knees (both men and women) and women must wear a hijab. I recommend you buy a cheap one locally or in the square, but there are vending machines where you can buy one on-site. Also, note that you will have to remove your shoes (they can be locked in complimentary shoe storage) so bring socks!

One of my favourite things to do in any city is taking a Big Bus Tour in Istanbul to get an overview of the city. You can book in advance for the best price, or there is a ticket booth in Sultanahmet Square (just look for the big bus!).

Shopping in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey | What to do in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Take the tram or walk to the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a world in and of itself. Built in the second half of the 15th century, today the 61 stone-arch-covered streets have more than 4,000 shops where you can find anything from gold to antiques, carpets and leather goods, spices to electronics, knock-off clothing, and local handicrafts.

Each ‘area’ has its own theme (clothing, rugs, souvenirs, antiques) and there are maps posted on the columns. The merchants are in general very friendly and will gladly help you out with directions while they chat you up for a sale. Bring your bargaining skills!

My advice is to snap a photo of the entrance you came in through (there are 22 gates all with metal detectors), leave at least a few hours just to follow what’s around the next corner, get lost, and love it. 

If you have time, check out the Spice Bazaar after. It’s around a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar and is much less crowded!


Hop on a ferry and cross the Bosphorus to Kadıköy located in the Asian side of Istanbul. 

Kadıköy is a laid-back residential neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian shore, famed for its bustling fish and produce market offering Turkish pizza, olives, stuffed mussels, and more. On curving streets, buildings with colorful murals are home to indie boutiques, hip cafes, and Anatolian eateries.

The views from the Moda neighborhood’s shores stretch across the Sea of Marmara toward Sultanahmet, showcasing the skyline – the perfect place to enjoy dinner!

READ THIS NEXT: Kadıköy Neighbourhood guide

Galata Tower | What to do in Istanbul, Turkey | 48 Hours in Istanbul, Turkey

Day Two

Explore Beyoğlu

Head across the Bosphorus and explore the Beyoğlu neighbourhood. Historically known as Pera (have you seen Pera Palace on Netflix?

If you want to shop, take to Istiklal Street where you will find lots of local and international brand stores. I enjoyed finding a cafe in one of the malls and watching the bustling street while I sipped on a tea and listened to the buskers playing down below.

While you are there, take the Istiklal Street Tram which connects Taksim Square with Galatasray and Tunel Square. The ride is relatively slow (Istiklal Street is a pedestrian street), but pleasant ride.

When you get off at Tünel Square, head over to Galata. This neighbourhood is a maze of small streets filled with restaurants and boutique stores. There’s also the famous Galata Tower which was built in 1348 and is considered one of the most prominent landmarks in Istanbul.

There’s so much more to Turkish cuisine than just kebabs! Turkish food is a wonderful fusion of Mediterranean, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Eastern European cuisines. I was surprised by how many dishes I knew by a different names because of my favourite Lebanese, Greek, and Israeli restaurants.

One of the most common dishes is Meze. Something of a Turkish tradition, Meze consists of multiple rounds of small plates of food.

Karaköy Lokantası is in the upcoming neighborhood of Beyoglu, near Galata. The meze dishes served up are fresh, light, and highlighted local fish and produce: deep-fried cauliflower with thick-strained yogurt and dill, steamed celeriac root, stuffed grape leaves with rice and lamb, olives, marinated red beans, and lightly grilled fresh fish from the Bosphorus.

Not feeling like Turkish food? Why not have a meal in Cezayir Street, also known as Rue Française, is famous for its pubs and restaurants playing live music.

Craving something sweet? Turkish pastries are delicious! I am a big fan of Faruk Güllüoğlu, and regularly had tea and sweets with friends.

Coffee at Deliler Kahvehanesi

While many people travel to Turkey for the sights, history, and food; the geographic location of Turkey means that it is often a place where head to, or pass through, as they seek a new life.

The truth about Istanbul is that it is also home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, among others.

To be honest, the Turkish government does very little to help refugees, and what it does to help is not enough to assist the number who require assistance. There are more than 15,000 homeless people in Istanbul alone.

Ali Denizci Deliler Kahvehanesi tries to step in where it can to assist. This lovely cafe is run by a volunteer organisation. All proceeds are dispersed to the needy in the poorest areas of Istanbul.
The cafe isn’t the only way they try to help the cities most in need. They also operate a free, second-hand boutique, general store, and soup kitchen that prepares over 1,000 meals a day. Enjoy a coffee and have a bite to eat, and know that your money will go to help those in need.

Sunset cruise on the Bosphorus

You cannot visit Istanbul without taking a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus!

Instead of driving around Istanbul all day and trying to dodge the city’s heavy traffic, discover the city’s beauty in style on this relaxing sunset cruise down the Bosphorus, the waterway that marks the border between Asian Turkey and European Turkey and what made the city the bustling trading port that it continues to be today.

From the open-air deck of your luxury yacht, see riverside landmarks like the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ortaköy Mosque, and the Rumeli Fortress, all lit by the beautiful dusk light. Many cruises include complimentary drinks and canapes. There are also options for lunch or dinner cruises complete with traditional dancers (belly dancers and whirling dervishes are common).

If a boat cruise is too long, consider taking one of the many passenger ferry boats from the European to the Asian side of the city to get the best views of the city!

Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul Curio Collection by Hilton | 48 hours in Istanbul, Turkey

Where to stay in Istanbul

Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul, Curio Collection by Hilton Sultanahmet, Kabasakal Cd. No:5, 34122 Fatih/İstanbulconsidered the best hotel in Istanbul, Hagia Sofia Mansions are a collection of boutique accommodation in the heart of Old Town. It’s steps away from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and the best Sultanahmet has to offer. You’ll feel like an Ottoman King or Queen staying in these beautifully refurbished rooms. You also have access to an indoor spa, fitness center, and on-site restaurants. Please note: Hagia Sophia is literally outside your door so the call to prayer can be a little loud!
Find the best priceAgoda | Booking.com | HotelsCombined

Sheraton Istanbul City Center Hacıahmet, Kurtuluş Deresi Cd. No:23, 34440 Beyoğlu/İstanbulLocated on the outskirts of Beyoglu, the Sheraton Istanbul City Center is a comfortable stay for travellers. Rooms are on the small side (be sure to ask for the end of the hall rooms which are double the size!), but friendly staff and good facilities (there’s an onsite pool, spa, and gym) make all the difference. There’s a complimentary shuttle bus to-and-from- Taksim Square.
Be sure to dine at Souk – the on-site restaurant – during their weekly event, complete with Belly Dancers! I stayed at the Sheraton City Center for 2-months of my Istanbul trip, so you know something was right!
Find the best priceAgoda | Booking.com | HotelsCombined

Hilton Istanbul Bomonti Merkez, Silahşör Cd. No:42, 34381 Şişli/İstanbulperched on a hill in the trendy Sisli neighbourhood of Istanbul, the Hilton Istanbul Bomonti blends the luxe comforts with local vibes. Spacious rooms with views across the city (some with Bosphorus views) welcome you. Bring your bathers because the marble-clad walls of their on-site pool is well worth a dip! Not only allowing you to feel more local, the Hilton Istanbul is an easy walk to the boutiques, cafes, and restaurants in Nisantasi and Macka (Macka Park has a funicular for an interesting activity!).
Find the best priceAgoda | Booking.com | HotelsCombined

How to get from Istanbul Airport to the city center?

Taxis are by far the most comfortable and safe option to get from Istanbul New Airport (IST). It takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach the city center, traffic dependant.

If you choose to take an Uber, please note that your taxis are located on the Departures level. I recommend you exit the Arrivals Hall and then use one of the outside elevators to go up to the Departures level to avoid having to navigate the rather confusing exits on the Departures level.

Can You Get COVID Tests at Istanbul Airport?

Yes, you can get COVID tests at both Istanbul Airport (IST) and Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) airport 24-hours a day.

You can get a COVID test in Istanbul Airport in the Arrivals Hall down the far end (directly underneath Yotel). There are three operators. PCR test results take approximately 1.5-hrs and RAT tests take 20-minutes.

To get a COVID test at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport, you’ll find the testing location at the far end of the hall, behind baggage claim 1, and near Starbucks and Mcdonald’s.

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