Best Things to Do in Istanbul in 2 Days – An Itinerary For First-Time Visitors

Istanbul is one of the most unique cities in the world – what other city is spread over two continents? But that is not the only reason to visit this fun city.

To find out about the best things to do in Istanbul, read on because I am happy to share my travel tips for a 2-day Istanbul trip. 

Besides the best tips on what to do in Istanbul in just 2 days, you’ll also find some travel tips so that you can easily plan your  trip.

This is a city that offers many historical and religious sites – but is also rich in modern sights and has the cutest cafes and restaurants, which also translates into a fun nightlife.

Istanbul offers all that to its visitors, and of course, I do not want to forget to mention the extremely delicious food (that also caters to vegetarians and vegans) – no, you cannot go wrong with booking a trip to Istanbul for a weekend.

Istanbul itinerary for 2 days
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Travel Tips Istanbul

How to get to the City Center From the Airport

If you arrive at the Istanbul Airport – the main one, the Atatürk Airport closed and the new main airport just opened in 2019 – you can easily take the Airport Shuttle to get to the city center.

Whichever of the two main tourist areas – Sultanahmat or Taksim – you choose, the shuttle bus gets you there for around 3€ one way.

The buses are modern, clean, and the ride is quite comfortable. Once you arrive at the bus station, you might have to walk to your accommodations or you can then take a taxi.

There are taxis that are waiting just outside or you can book a private pick-up service in advance.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

I recommend staying in Sultanahmad, which is the old part of Istanbul.

I booked two different hotels and both of them were close to the Sultan Ahmad Square.

My tip: Hotel Poem is a small, but lovely, boutique hotel with friendly staff and a great breakfast! Check out rates here and book before it is full booked (it is quite small).

Hotel Spectra Sultanahmad is another option. I booked it just for the views from the breakfast room, and those views did not disappoint. Find out more about this hotel here.

Blue Musque view
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However, I liked Hotel Poem a bit more, and if prices are similar, I suggest staying at Hotel Poem (despite the smaller rooms).

Solo Female Travel Tips

I traveled to Istanbul by myself. My Turkish Airlines flight – without any explanation – arrived more than 2 hours late in Istanbul and so I arrived in the middle of the night. I took the airport shuttle and just had to walk a few hundred meters to my hotel – but at that moment, it felt uncomfortable. It was raining, it was cold and it was dark and there were not many people around. 

BUT that was the only short moment I felt uncomfortable – I think, Istanbul is a safe place to visit as a solo female traveler. So many people visit Istanbul that you don’t stand out from the crowds when traveling alone. If you exercise common sense, there is no reason to not travel alone in Istanbul.

Be aware of your political statements but as a solo female traveler there are no particular precautions to take. People are friendly and nice and its easy to do small talking to locals (if they speak English) there is so much to do – even solo – that I did not have time to feel bored. 

TIP: You might want to check out the Museum Card if you plan to visit many attractions as it could save some money. However, you normally will not be able to skip the lines, and with two days you might not want to stand in lines forever.

Places to Visit and Fun Things to Do in 2 Days in Istanbul

Without further ado, here is how to spend 2 days in Istanbul.

For the first day, I recommend staying in Sultanahmet – the old town – only and visit the main attractions here. Start your day at the Sultan Ahmad Square. 

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

One of the top places to visit in Istanbul in 2 days is the Hagia Sophia.

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Hagia Sophia was a Christian Cathedral commissioned by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and was then converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. But it did not stay a mosque for long.

After 1935 it was converted to a museum (on Atatrürk´s order)- and nowadays there are ideas to convert it back to a mosque, but for now, you can still visit the museum. 

It is one of the busiest places and the main tourist attraction in Istanbul, so lines are quite long – even during the off-season. So, make sure to book a guide or buy skip-the-line tickets.

The Hagia Sophia is a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture – for the best views, go to the second floor.

Hagia Sophia, view from the upper gallery is one of the best things to do in 48 hours in Istanbul
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Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays (as well as on the first days of Ramadan, and Sacrifice Festivals for half time) and opens at 9 am. 

On the website, it says it is open every day, but when you scroll down, it says that it is closed on Mondays starting from the 1st of November in 2019. Check out skip-the-line-tickets here.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)

Another highlight is the Blue Mosque – which is free to enter and is still used as a mosque (to avoid the busiest times, don’t visit during prayers).

Blue Mosque, (Sultanahmet Camii), Istanbul one of the most beautiful places
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The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and is beautiful inside and out. While it actually is not really blue from the outside, it has 20,000 handmade mosaic blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior, which is where it derives its name.

Interior of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul is a must-see in 2 days
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The Blue Mosque was built to rival Hagia Sophia and I must say, from the outside, it is surely more impressive and stunning than the neighboring building.

Visit the Blue Mosque website and check the prayer times – it’s closed to non-worshippers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers (avoid visits on Friday mid-morning, as this is the main prayer time).

Sultan Ahmet Square and Have a Snack

After visiting the Blue Mosque it is time for a break.

Snacks in Istanbul
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Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmed Square in Istanbul is a must for a 2-day itinerary
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The Sultan Ahmet Square is one of the major public areas in Istanbul – and oh man, I loved the Sultanahmat Square. Not just because of the many sights, but also because of the little snack stalls that offered delicious snacks, like corncobs and chestnuts.

I could have snacked all day (and kind of did), so after the sightseeing, it is time to buy those snacks that are also quite affordable.

Take the snacks and sit down at the park and watch the people before you continue your journey.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapı Palace is the next major attraction in Istanbul to see in 2 days.

Topkapi-Palasce is one of the best things to see in 2 days in Istanbul
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It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and was built in the 15th century of the Ottoman period. It was used for the longest time as a royal palace and was the resident of Ottoman sultans and center of state management and education.

The palace covers an area of around 700,000 square meters, most of which are actually the Royal Gardens (Hasbahçe). 

This is one of the best places to learn about its history as you’ll find many weapons, porcelain, Islamic manuscripts, Ottoman treasures and jewelry, and more that date back to those times.Given its size and importance, it can take several hours to go through the palace.

Topkapi Palace is open every day except Tuesdays, and the museum pass is accepted here. An admission ticket without a Museum Pass is 30 TL – but you can buy skip-the-line-tickets for this one as well. Check them out here.

Basilica Cistern

This attraction is not just a great way to escape the heat in the summer months: visiting the Basilica Cistern is a popular activity in Istanbul and close to the main attractions mentioned above.

The Basilica Cistern, (Yerebatan), Istanbul, Turkey is one of the best places to see in 2 days
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Cisterns were built all around the city to meet the populations water requirement – in the case of a siege and the Basilica Cistern was the largest cistern in Istanbul, providing water to the Tokpaki Palace and other buildings in the area. Check out skip-the-line-tickets here

Okay, before talking about another place to visit in 2 days, here are more attractions located on Ahmed Sultan Square. It is easy to see in the first day and it does not take much time, so you will probably more or less just pass them.

The Fountain of Ahmed III

One of the other things to see in Istanbul – without much effort – is the Fountain of Ahmed III that is all located on the Ahmed Sultan Square.

Fountain in Istanbul in 2 days
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It was built in the 18th century and is known as one of the most beautiful samples of Turkish rococo styles.

Mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed

You can also visit the Mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed – the construction of the Mausoleum started shortly after his death in the 17th century.It is free to visit (but dress accordingly and be respectful when visiting).

Grand Bazaar 

Of course, you have to visit the Grand Bazaar. But a word of warning: if you visit at the wrong time, it is crazy and hectic and crowded.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the best places to visit in 2 days
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After checking out the Grand Bazaar, I needed to sit down and take a long break.

But given its size, it is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with around 30,700 square meters full of shops and restaurants. 

It is great for buying souvenirs and little presents – and gold and other jewelery! Depending on which streets you visit, you might have to pass a security check, but then you can basically shop till you drop.

Open every day from 9 am to 7 pm, except Sundays.

For the first day in Istanbul you are set – however, if you want to end your day at a more relaxing place, cap your day at the Bosperus (more on that later).

Extra: Sulemaniye Mosque 

Other than the Blue Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque is another well-known mosque in Istanbul and is actually the largest mosque in the city.

It is located on the Third Hill of the city, near Istanbul University, and if you have some free time on your hands, then check out this mosque, too.

Bosphorus Cruise

Depending on how fast you have been, you could then end your day at the Bosphorus on day one or you can start your second day here.

Bospherus in Istanbul itinerary
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I loved this area in particular – it is busy and it was here that I first got the feel for how big Istanbul actually is. Sultanahmed is beautiful, but it felt like a smaller city on its own.

I am all about boat tours and ferry rides – so, if you are like me, then hop on a boat/ferry and see Istanbul from a different perspective.

 Those boat cruises take a couple of hours and so it is nothing to squeeze in quickly.

You can buy tickets on the spot, if you like or check out prices here and book in advance. If you want to book a Bosphorus boat cruise with dinner and entertainment click here.

Galata Bridge

Then, it is time to cross the Galata Bridge – and on your way to Beyoglu, look back because the views are gorgeous!

Istanbul from Galata Bridge view_
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You could take the tram (or do a boat ride), but I recommend walking towards Beyoglu from the Old Town. You will arrive in a hipster area of Istanbul – Beyoglu.

Galata Tower 

The Galata Tower is one of the main landmarks in Istanbul and in Beyoglu, and its a great place for great views. Apparently. 

The lines are probably always long (that was the case when I visited in October), so I skipped this – but the 66-meter-high medieval stone tower built in the 14th century – on a hill – offer panoramic views over Istanbul. The views are said to be great from the top. 

Even if you don’t climb the stairs to enjoy the views, I loved the atmosphere in this part of Istanbul. The tower was built in the 14the century as an addition to the Galata Wall for defence purpose and was the main tower of the Galata Walls. It also served as a dungeon for slaves before it then was converted to a depot for the boatyard.

There was such a fun and relaxed vibe here that you should not miss out on this area.

Lunch/Coffee in Beyoglu 

This is the place to sit down and have lunch or just a coffee – food and drinks are reasonably priced and the cafes are the cutest I have seen in Istanbul (indoor and outdoor cafes).

Cute cafe in Istanbul is one of the top things to see in 2 days
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It has a bit of a hipster feel, but it still felt authentic and I would make sure to plan in enough time to spend some here. Plus, you might get lucky and have some great live music playing somewhere nearby.

Fruits in Istanbul
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Tram 

There is an old red tram – similar to the ones in San Francisco – that you can use for a small amount (less than 1€), which will take you all the way up to Taksim Square and back (you need a separate ticket for each ride). 

Iconic red tram in Istanbul
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I hopped on it, but it was so busy that I did not find a seat and was squeezed in with many others. So, my tip is to make sure to wait for the tram and be on time, so you can be one of the first to get in, grabbing a seat and better views.

On a busy day, it will be almost impossible to take a picture of the tram without tons of people standing in front of it, wanting a souvenir picture.

Istiklal Street

As I was visiting Istiklal Street on a Saturday, I experienced the busiest shopping street I have ever seen. 

This long shopping street, pedestrian and tram only, is am incredibly busy and bustling place with many international shops. 

Personally, it was not my favorite place in Istanbul – if you are into shopping, then this is the place to see. If you aren’t, you could skip it.

Taksim Square

Taksim is the heart of modern Istanbul and probably best known at the moment for the place where the demonstrations against the current president, Erdogan, started, but it is generally known as a place for political protests.

However, it is also where all the fancier restaurants, shops, and hotels are, but apart from that, there are not that many interesting sights or attractions. It is not really a must-see place with only 2 days in the city in terms of attractions, but due to the importance of the place, I have still added it on this 2-day Istanbul itinerary.

From there, you can either take the tram back to Beyouglu and end your day there or you can take the underground and go back to Gelata Bridge, and then either walk back to Sultanahmad or end your day at the Bosperus.

I loved the numerous cafes and restaurants in Sultanahmad. So, if you had lunch in Beyuglou already, then I suggest having dinner in one of the many cafes or restaurants in the old town of the city.

Hammam

Extra: If you have time and want to relax, I definitely suggest visiting a Turkish Hamman.

 While I have not visited any in Istanbul, I did so on other Turkey trips and can highly recommend them. Because 2 days in Istanbul can be crazy and hectic, what better way is there to relax and enjoy than in a Turkish bath where you can end your day with a relaxing massage? 

Hopefully, this 2-day Istanbul itinerary will help you plan your trip.

Safe Travels, Arzo
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