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How to spend 1 day in Istanbul

July 12, 2022
11 min read
Istanbul, Turkey
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Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, is a sprawling metropolis that spans two continents and is filled with the remnants of various empires that have ruled the city and its surroundings throughout the centuries. From the medieval spire of Galata Tower, which can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire, to the vestiges of the opulent Ottoman Empire scrawled across the city in gold flourishes of Ottoman Turkish, the city's rich and enduring history is not easily distilled into a short visit.

And that's to say nothing of the traffic, which can turn a short drive into an hourlong ordeal.

Still, Istanbul is home to one of the world's busiest airports, making it a likely destination for a layover or connection. Though you could easily spend weeks sampling roasted chestnuts from street vendors and exploring Istanbul's various museums and landmarks, travelers shouldn't dismiss the idea of getting a microdose of the frenetic city.

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It also doesn't hurt that Turkish Airlines, the country's flag carrier, makes it easy to turn a quick connection at its hub into a fruitful stopover. Just be sure you're flying into the new Istanbul Airport (IST), sometimes referred to as Istanbul Havalimani.

When you spend at least 20 hours in the city on a round-trip Turkish Airlines ticket, you can work with the airline to arrange a complimentary stopover (think: a one-night stay at a hotel deemed to be a four-star affair by Turkish when flying on an economy-class ticket, or two nights at a five-star hotel when flying business class).

For travelers who have between six and 20 hours in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines is once again offering its Touristanbul program, which pairs flyers with a guide and provides round-trip airport transportation.

Or, you can just as easily arrange your own short stopover. If you find yourself in the city on an upcoming route, here's everything you need to know about making the most of a one-day stay in Istanbul.

Before you go

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Istanbul is a vast and congested city, meaning the traffic can be excruciating. Expect to spend at least an hour traveling to and from the airport by taxi (which will typically set you back 400 to 500 Turkish lira, or $24 to $30). Construction and routine road closures to make areas of the city more pedestrian-friendly only exacerbate the problem.

Unless you plan on spending all your time in one neighborhood, you should consider taking advantage of Istanbul's metro, tramway and ferry systems. Even if you think you'll only ride the tram or take a ferry a few times, get an Istanbulkart for 25 Turkish lira (about $1.50). You'll get a per-ride discount when you buy this refillable card, which can be used for multiple people on the city's various forms of public transportation.

Having a guide can be extremely helpful in a city like Istanbul, especially if you're still perfecting your Turkish. It's easy to find a guide for specific attractions, but you can also get a tailor-made tour through companies like Locally Istanbul.

Before you even leave home, be sure to exchange some money for Turkish lira, which is extremely helpful to have in Istanbul.

Related: How to get to Istanbul on points and miles

Stay near the action

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

To cut down on the amount of time you spend transiting from one site to the next, consider a stay at Hilton's Hagia Sofia Mansions Istanbul, a Curio Collection property just outside the walls of the famous Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.

The clutch of individual wooden mansions that comprise the Old Town hotel put you within walking distance of many key sites: the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the namesake Hagia Sophia. Depending on the date of your visit, rooms can be booked here for less than $300 per night, or you can redeem Hilton Honors points from 60,000 points per night.

Best of all, once you drop your bags, you can take advantage of the hotel's convenient location between two tram stops: Sultanahmet and Gulhane.

Related: 11 of the best hotels in Turkey, from Istanbul to Cappadocia

Visit the palace museum

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

After enjoying the quick, complimentary breakfast buffet at Hagia Sofia Mansions, make your way along the ancient cobblestone street to Topkapi Palace, the sprawling former court of the Ottoman Empire. The palace opens to the public every day except Tuesdays (when it's closed) at 10 a.m.

It's worth paying extra for access to the Harem section of the palace (get the bundle for 420 Turkish lira, about $25), which also includes access to the Hagia Eirene, a derelict Eastern Orthodox church on the grounds of the palace.

Only the first of the Harem's six floors are accessible to visitors, who can navigate the labyrinthine network of hallways and rooms, many of which are adorned with a dazzling mix of Iznik, Delft and Kutahya tiles.

During your visit to Topkapi, you can also admire the richly decorated towers and chambers, along with an incredible exhibition of ornate timepieces and the Library of Sultan Ahmed III.

Check out the mosques

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

First, be warned: Many of Istanbul's most iconic attractions are currently undergoing restoration work, including the 17th-century Blue Mosque, which is almost entirely shrouded in scaffolding and industrial curtains.

Tourists can still enter (headscarves and other coverings are provided for free), but there's not much to see beyond worshippers. There is currently no confirmed timeline for when the mosque and its tens of thousands of handmade Iznik tiles will be revealed to visitors in its entirety.

Similarly, only the main room of the Hagia Sophia is accessible to visitors right now (headscarves and other coverings are available for a small fee) — and the mosque is rumored to be closing altogether for restoration work at the end of the year.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

After spending the morning in Istanbul's Old Town, ride the tram a few stops across the Golden Horn, a bustling inlet on the Bosphorus River.

Get your bearings

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

In a city like Istanbul, there's no better (or faster) way to get a lay of the land than to view the city from above. At 206 feet, Galata Tower is hardly the tallest structure in the city, but it is uniquely positioned to give visitors an unmatched, 360-degree view of Istanbul's most recognizable landmarks, including the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Tickets to the sixth-century tower cost 130 Turkish lira (a little less than $8) and include access to the small museum inside. From the tower, it's an easy 15-minute walk to the Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus, an upscale hotel crowned by the rooftop bar and restaurant Murver. At the eatery, you can sip inventive cocktails crafted with infused liquors while watching ships and ferries glide across the Bosphorus.

Unwind at a hammam

When you need a reprieve from the crowds, escape to one of Turkey's traditional public baths known as hammams. Though you can easily go relax in a hot marble steam room, which will likely be dappled with light filtering in through the domed elephant eye windows, you'll get the most out of your trip to a hammam when you book a pasha service.

Expect a deep, rough scrub that leaves your skin soft as a newborn, followed by a soothing foam bath wash. Once you've dried off — usually with a cup of hot Turkish tea in hand — the service typically finishes with a hot oil massage. Just be sure to book your hammam treatment before you head to the beach in Bodrum.

If you find yourself in Beyoglu, you might consider the historical Galatasaray Hamami, which dates back to 1481 and is one of the oldest hammams in the city. The pasha service here starts at 1,100 Turkish lira, or $65.

For a more upscale experience, there's Cemberlitas Hamami, which is often hailed as one of Istanbul's most architecturally stunning hammams. Pasha treatments here are priced similarly at 1,100 lira, or $65.

Another popular hammam is Cagaloglu Hamami, which is considered the last hammam to be built during the Ottoman Empire and has a similar namesake treatment with a foam bath massage and foot massage from 90 euros (about $93).

If you're staying in the Old Town, splurge at the 16th-century Hurrem Sultan Hamami bathhouse, which has traditional hammam treatments starting at 135 euros (about $140).

Many hotels in Istanbul also offer hammam-style spa treatments, if convenience is your priority.

Go shopping

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Stroll along the Bosphorus, shop at retailers ranging from international fashion brand United Colors of Benetton to Turkish jeweler Kafkas and enjoy the public artworks at Galataport, a massive redevelopment project that transformed a cruise port into an upscale, mixed-use space.

You could easily spend hours perusing the shops and exploring Galataport's various dining venues, and when the city's contemporary art museum, Istanbul Modern, reopens in its new Renzo Piano-designed space, it will be an easy one-stop destination for visitors who are short on time.

Or, keep it old school with a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the world's oldest markets that sprawls across more than 60 streets. You can purchase everything from fine jewelry to fragrant spices to antiques and contemporary artworks here in addition to classic souvenirs like Turkish towels and hammered metal lanterns.

Have dinner on a different continent

Even if you only have one day to spend in Istanbul, you can still check two continents off your list by taking a boat ride across the Bosphorous to explore the side of the city on the Asian continent.

There are ferries and guided boat tours, or you can make a reservation at a restaurant that will pick you up on the European side of the city and shepherd you across the strait for dinner in the Anatolian half of the city.

Consider a seafood-centric feast at Uskumru, which serves traditional Turkish specialties like baked gigante beans and stuffed squash blossoms alongside fresh cuts of fish you can select yourself from a remarkable display at the front of the restaurant.

How to spend a few hours at Istanbul Airport

To be clear, you always want to leave yourself a few hours at Istanbul Airport, no matter where you're going. This airport is massive, and it can easily take 15 to 20 minutes to walk from one area to the next — there's no intra-airport transportation to swiftly move you from one block of gates to the next.

Fortunately, if you leave yourself plenty of time to navigate the airport, you'll also be able to leisurely explore the facilities, including its lounges. The 60,000-square-foot Turkish Airlines Business Lounge is an elite space for travelers with business-class tickets on Turkish Airlines and international Star Alliance flights. The similarly spacious but more easily accessible Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles Lounge is open to business-class flyers, elite Miles&Smiles members and their guests, Star Alliance Gold members and others.

Priority Pass holders can access both the IGA Lounge and the IGA Sleepod space, where "cabins" can be booked for three hours if all you really want is a nap.

Even if you don't have lounge access, there's a small museum displaying items that explore Turkish culture from institutions around the world, as well as photography and art exhibitions around the airport.

Despite all the passenger facilities, don't linger too long: Depending on your destination, you can expect additional security at the check-in counter and at the gate, so leave yourself plenty of extra time.

Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award tickets

Featured image by (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases