48 Hours in Istanbul

Istanbul. It hits you like a train. There’s chaos everywhere, it’s busy everywhere, there are noises and smells and music everywhere. There are people talking, and shouting and gesticulating round every corner. There are car horns and calls to prayers and street vendors echoing in to the streets. This city is amazing, unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. It’s a city of contradiction – of charm, of magic, of beauty but also of exhaustion, of chaos, of full on crazy.

I visited Istanbul back in September for a weekend to meet up with my husband who was travelling for work. I only had a very short amount of time in the city, and I needed to make the most of it. So, here comes a whirlwind 48 hours.

(And if you want to find out more about safety in the city, then check out my post HERE – coming soon).

Day 1 – Arrival

I’m assuming your 48 hours starts with arrival in the evening (if you leave the UK on a 10.30am flight, you will arrive in Turkey at 5pm due to the time difference and you’ll be exhausted from a c.6am wake up), so your first stop will be checking in to a nice hotel. I recommend staying in the Sultanahmet (Old Town) area so you’re close to the main sites and can walk everywhere instead of relying on taxis.

We didn’t do this and instead stayed up in the Bomonti area. The Hilton Bomonti is absolutely beautiful and meant for a quiet peaceful stay and an insanely amazing spa, but it also meant a taxi ride each day in to the city which was never a fun experience so pick your hotel location wisely.

Our room at The Hilton Bomonti

Day 2 – Sultanahmet

Today is spent in the main tourist centre, the Old Town. It gets VERY busy here, so be prepared for crowds, noise and traffic. It’s also highly likely you’ll have to queue for most of today’s activities (even with a pre-booked tour you’ll still have to do the security queue even if you don’t do the ticket queue), so you won’t be able to do things quickly.

A. Hagia Sophia (1.5hrs, including queue)

Start your day at one of the city’s most incredible attractions – Hagia Sophia. We got there for opening at 8.30am and it is free to enter without a guided tour. It’s an amazing place; once a Christian church it was converted in to a Mosque in 1453. Today it’s still a working Mosque and closed at prayer times for visitors. I loved the murals on the walls being a combination of new and old, a true testament to the diversity of this city.

Please be respectful. Women have to wear a head scarf to enter so take one with you otherwise you will have to buy an (over priced) one at the entrance, and leave your shoes in the stands. You should not put shoes on any of the carpet area, whether wearing them or just laying them down. Women also need to ensure shoulders and knees are covered.

Inside the Mosque

B. Blue Mosque (1hr, including queue)

The Blue Mosque is a short 5 minute walk across a beautiful square from Hagia Sophia. Known as the Blue Mosque for its wonderful tiles, we unfortunately didn’t get to see them as it was under renovation. This building has always been a Mosque and there is a separate entrance for visitors vs practising Muslims. Be sure to go through the right one – and again be respectful with behaviour, headscarves and shoes.

C. Basilica Cistern (1hr with skip the line guided tour)

This was one of my highlights of the visit. Built in the 500s, this crazy underground structure was built as the city’s water storage systems back in Roman times and is known locally as the ‘Sunken Palace’. Be sure to look out for the upside down Medusa heads, re-used from older buildings and the original pillars. Just wow!

Like a film set

D. Grand Bazaar (1hr)

I think when you picture Eastern opulence, you picture the Grand Bazar, full of lights and smells and noise. This Bazaar was founded in 1461 and was designed as the trading heart of an Empire. The site is huge and we easily spent 45 minutes exploring. We were actually surprised it was largely under cover, very clean and we weren’t actually harassed at all to buy anything. We didn’t buy anything but if you want to haggle for well, almost anything, here’s your place.

E. Rooftop Bar Lunch (1.5hrs)

Istanbul has some of the best rooftop views in the world (in my humble opinion). There are rooftop bars everywhere and I’m sure some really beautiful ones. We chose to go to Queb Lounge and have lunch as well. The food was delicious, cocktails great and the views marvellous. It was quite magical with the call to prayers echoing from both mosques over lunch time as we ate.

What a view!

F. Topkapi Palace (3.5hrs with skip the line entrance tickets)

We spent our entire afternoon in Topkapi Palace and barely managed to see any of it. Topkapi is the Palace which Mehmet II built fresh from his conquest of what was then Constantinople, from 1460-1478. It remained the Sultan’s Palace until 1856 when Dolmabahce Palace took over (which I didn’t have time to visit this time around unfortunately).

In the Gardens

Topkapi is famous for its Imperial Gate, Sultan’s Apartments, stunning gardens, Kitchens and of course the Harem. The Harem was one not so exciting as often portrayed – yes, the Sultan chose girls, but mainly it was a family home and girls’ school. Of its 1,000 or so occupants, more than 2/3rds were servants or royal children and concubines spent many years undergoing a thorough education before being introduced to the Sultan.

The Sultan’s Apartments

G. Turkish Baths/Massages (1.5hrs, prebooked)

You can’t come to Turkey and not try out the baths. The most famous is Camberlitas Baths, build in 1584. Men and women have separate sections so there’s no joint treatments here, but we agreed an end time to meet again outside and both enjoyed the hamam and a traditional oil massage.

In the baths

It’s worth saying that at the entrance you’re given a pestemal which is a sarong for modesty and a kese (a mitt) for scrubbing yourself down, plus tokens to give to attendants. You’ll then be taken to the changing room by an attendant who gives you a locker and slippers. Most people go nude under their pestemal, but I chose to wear a bikini and just take the top of for my massage and that was fine. My husband wore swim shorts the entire time. I saw no naked people and never felt uncomfortable. The experience was great – when in Rome, and all that.

H. Traditional Turkish Dinner (2hrs, prebooked)

You also can’t come to Turkey and not eat the amazing food. We chose Hanedan’ı Aras Restaurant & Bistro and sat outside, relaxed and watching the world go by until late – they are open until 3am!! The chicken kebab and Doner was just amazing and the service impeccable.

After what is a crazy full on day, I was totally exhausted but felt like I’d really seen a lot of the Old Town. We were on the go from 8.30am to 10pm, but it was worth it to take in so much of the city.

Day 3 – Beyoglu

One day in Sultanahmet was enough for us so today it’s time to get out of the chaos of the Old Town and explore a bit more of Istanbul away from the main tourist areas across the river in Beyoglu, known as Istanbul’s new town (although there has been settlement here for 2,000 years and it’s still really busy).

A. Galata Tower (2.5hrs due to long queue)

One of Istanbul’s most distinctive sites, Galata Tower has some of the best views of the city from its viewing platform built in 1348 by the Italians. I’d have loved to visit in the evening as they host dinner with Turkish belly dancing and folk songs, but alas the schedule didn’t allow it. We also had to queue for 1.5hrs here for tickets so it took a lot of time out of the schedule.

Views to the Bosphoros

B. Istiklal & Shopping (1hr)

This is where a bomb went off about 4 weeks after we had visited, right outside Mango where we had shopped – killing and injuring many including children. I was really upset reading the news, it always feels that bit ‘closer’ when you can picture it and know it could have been you just as easily but for timing.

For us though, we had a peaceful visit and found it to be a beautiful shopping street which is nice to browse – try some authentic Turkish Delight or Turkish Tea, watch the world go by and explore some of the picturesque side streets. You could also ride the nostalgic tram up and down, head to the Galatasary Baths if you didn’t manage a trip yesterday or head in to beautiful Homer Books, a famous bookshop.

C. Cicek Pasaji and lunch (2hrs)

Just off of Istiklal Caddesi is the beautiful Cicek Pasaji, a beautiful passageway which is home to lots of restaurants. We actually had a tea in here, and then went for lunch at Bilice Kebap, which was absolutely amazing.

Cicek Pasaji
Lunch at Bilice

D. Taksim Square (30 mins)

Our final stop of the break was Taksim Square, a famous spot locally for being where Turkey’s independence is celebrated. There’s a Mosque, lots of Turkish flags flying and a monument to Independence honouring Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state. This is also the main area where protests take place, so if there is one on while you’re visiting don’t head to the square.

We then walked back to our hotel via Tarlabasi, one of the most unsafe areas of Istanbul (we didn’t know this at the time) – albeit we didn’t feel unsafe at all, just totally out of place. The locals were staring at us like we were mad, but actually it was nice to see some of the ‘real’ Istanbul. We even found ourselves in a carpet market which was cool.

And just like that, the 48 hours were up and it was time for a late flight home. We arrived in to Heathrow at 11pm and my husband stayed at the airport, getting up at 5am for a flight to Sydney with work!

What do you think of Istanbul? The main attractions that I wanted to do but didn’t have time for were:

  • Dolmabahce Palace, the Sultan’s Palace from the 1600s until 1922, when the last Sultan fled from here into exile
  • Bosphorus Cruise to see Istanbul from the water
  • The Spice Market, for more colours and smells of the city

I hope you enjoyed this quick city tour – stay safe and happy travelling!


  1. Magnificent architecture, especially The Basilica Cistern…wow!!! The chaos does sounds somewhat distracting, but the food appears quite appetizing. You certainly visit some amazing places, Hannah ~ thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe how much you saw in 2 days! I was exhausted after the first morning just reading it 😊 What a stunning city. The architecture looks amazing and my mouth was watering thinking about the food. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe yes I came back and definitely wasn’t refreshed and ready for work again – I needed a day to sleep 🙂 It’s such an amazing city that’s for sure, and there is so much to see and do. Thanks for reading Maggie.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You certainly had a whirlwind of 48 hours in Istanbul! I spent maybe 3-4 days there in 2019, and still, it wasn’t enough to see everything! I loved Cicek Pasaji, which is a place a bit off the tourist’s radar– also had some incredible stuffed mussels near there! I went to the Spice Market, and honestly, I liked it better than the Grand Bazaar: both are beautiful, but the Spice Market really hit me with all of its colors and smells! Glad you enjoyed a taste of Turkey…kebabs included!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was such a whirlwind and there was sooo much I didn’t get to see – but my motto is it’s better to go and do as much as possible, than not go at all. I will just have to go back to do other things there. I bet 4 days was a great amount of time, and I can imagine the spice market was amazing – definitely have to go there one day. Thanks for reading and commenting Rebecca, hope you have a great weekend 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved your post and photos, Hannah! What a treat to get to visit Istanbul even if it was a short visit. I think I would be a bit concerned for safety, but maybe not so much with a tour group or guide. I am interested in seeing your post on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed it 🙂 It is a city that has its own culture and its definitely one that takes some getting used to if you’ve not been before. But it’s beautiful and so worth a visit. Have a great weekend Kellye

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  5. Are you sure there was no time warp involved?🤣 That was a heck of a lot for 48 hours. I hope you had time for the spa. The Basilica Cistern is one place I missed on prior visits and need to correct that oversight. The pronunciation of the country’s new name is a little intimidating though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha no, definitely no time turner here but I wish that was a real thing for sure. It was a crazy 48hrs but so worth it to see so much! I agree on the pronunciation, I definitely haven’t nailed that. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment John 🙂


  6. Hagia Sophia is stunning inside and you’re right, the Basilica Cistern must be a real gem to visit! I can only imagine that the Grand Bazaar must also be an experience (how did you manage not to buy anything?) 😮. Oh, I enjoyed this post so much Hannah … I actually feel a little out of breath after “running” with you. One sight as beautiful as the next (and your food delicious as always)!


  7. Sounds like you had an action-packed weekend in Istanbul. I’m not a fan of the crowds or waiting in line, but it seems like it was worth it, especially since you’re able to prebook many of your activities or purchase skip the line tickets. The Turkish Baths sound like a great way unwind after a busy day exploring.

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  8. Wow, you managed to do so many things in just 48 hours, that’s amazing!! I’ve never been too interested in visiting Istanbul but this post has really changed my mind, it looks like a stunning city – despite the chaos! The Topkapi Palace also seems fantastic, and don’t get me started on the food! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. We really did, it was a crazy 48 hours – but definitely an incredible trip. There is so much to do there and it’s an awesome city so definitely worth a visit if you ever get the chance. Thank you for reading Juliette 🙂

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  9. What a beautiful city- the ‘Sunken Palace’ is something else. Love the fact you went off piste into Tarlabasi. I know there has to be some caution when travelling, but I love exploring places that make people go, ‘You went where?!?’. I enjoyed this whistle stop tour of Istanbul and am in awe of how much you packed in!

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    1. Isn’t it just amazing, that was my highlight of the visit. I loved the city and am so glad to have seen so much in a weekend. Thanks so much for reading Helen, have a lovely weekend 🙂


  10. Istanbul is such a stunning, intriguing and alluring city, though multitudinous and always overflowing with people. We loved visiting its many mosques, palaces, museums and restaurants. The Basilica Cistern was one of our favourite sites. You packed quite a lot into your visit, and the food looks delicious. This reminds me that I really need to get my own Istanbul visits into the blogsphere. We spent a few weeks there back in September 2020. And then a whirlwind day back in August of this year on our way to Georgia.

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    1. That’s a great way of wording it Leighton and I couldn’t agree more. We thought it was beautiful, and totally agree on the Basilica Cistern. You definitely do, and I can’t wait to read them 🙂 Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.

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  11. Wow, I see what you mean about diversity! I can’t believe you crammed all of this into 48 hours. Also, the time difference between the UK and Turkey really surprised me. I guess I never realized they were that far apart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, I definitely needed a holiday by the time I got back haha!! Yeah it’s a 4hr flight and then a 3 or 4 hr time difference (depending on time of year as we move our clocks twice a year here in the UK, so it was 4 when I visited) – so yeah you lose 8 hours travelling, basically a whole day which is annoying.

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  12. I visited Istanbul years ago and so enjoyed your quick tour. You got around quite effectively! My son wanted to do the boat ride down the Bosphorus and we met some friendly young Turkish men who told us their stories on the ride.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was in Istanbul years ago and so enjoyed your “quick” tour – you got around quite well! My son wanted to do the boat tour on the Bosphorus, and we met two friendly Turkish young men on the trip. It’s always special when you get to know locals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe – I would say 3 full days gives it a decent amount of time to see the Old Town and main attractions, but you could easily spend 5 days there if you want to explore a bit more of the other side of the river, or visit the whirling dervishes or spend time in museums. It’s an amazing city with so much to see and do.
      Oh I know – thankfully they do, otherwise I don’t think he’d still be doing it. And at least he gets to scratch off a lot of places on our wall map!! 🙂

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