If you only have 24 hours to spend in a city, Istanbul just might be the best one in the world. All of the major sights are concentrated in the Sultanahmet district, so no precious time is wasted on transporting your body from place to place.
When my husband suggested that I join him on a work trip to Rome, I booked my ticket right away, and I booked with Turkish Airlines, which meant that I had an option for a 24-hour stopover in Istanbul. My husband was going to be in a less stable country prior to Rome (meaning I couldn’t accompany him there), so we decided it was a great idea to extend my trip a little and get an extra stamp in my passport.
I’m so glad I did. Istanbul is a special city, the only city in the world that is actually on two continents. The Bosphorus River separates Europe from Asia, so this place has seen a lot of power struggles. And the collision of Europe and Asia is stamped all over the city, in its history, architecture, and culture.
Here’s what you can see in less than 24 hours in Istanbul, and how to fit it all in.
Book a hotel near Sultanahmet
I found a super inexpensive hotel, Hotel Sultanahmet, right across the street from the Blue Mosque. It was definitely not fancy, and had a lot of… “character,” but for a quick sleep and launching pad (with a delicious Turkish breakfast), it was a really good deal. I woke up in the morning, stored my luggage with the front desk, and hit the streets. This is the view of the Blue Mosque from Hotel Sultanahmet the night I arrived.
The next morning, I started off at Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), because it’s the most visited site in Turkey and it can get really crowded, really fast. I got there about 20 minutes before it opened to secure my place in line. The people and dog watching (lots of dogs roam freely around the city, and the city actually cares for them) passed the time quickly.
Hagia Sophia was built in 537 AD as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, and was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted to an Islamic mosque. That’s when the four minarets were added, and the Christian art covering the walls was removed or covered by Islamic symbols. I recommend the audio guide for great background and a richer experience.
The grounds outside Hagia Sophia are basically vomiting Ancient Roman ruins. In a good way.
And inside is the embodiment of Istanbul itself: Islam layered on top of Christianity. East on top of West. You can still see the Christian art on the walls, covered by Islamic symbols.
This is the Wishing Column. You put your thumb in the hole and twist it 360 degrees for good luck or to make a wish come true. (Sorry about the blurry photo. Sometimes asking strangers to take your picture doesn’t work out quite as well as you hope. And in this case, there was a long line so I couldn’t ask for another.)
The Blue Mosque
The actual name of this mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, but it’s known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the interior and the blue lights that illuminate the building at night. It was built between 1609-1616 by guess who? Sultan Ahmet. He had just lost a war with Persia and needed to flex his Ottoman muscles. I think he did a pretty good job.
This is a working mosque, so visitors are asked to remove their shoes and women must cover their heads when entering. You can bring your own covering, or they have some for you at the door. They’re great about helping you feel welcome and comfortable even if you’re like me and you have no idea what you’re doing (kinda like about 80% of the other people who were there).
This place is right across the street from the mosques and SO cool. The Basilica Cistern is a huge underground water storage system that was built under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian to supply water to the royal palace and nearby buildings. The columns are made from various types of marble and granite, probably recycled from other buildings and brought to Constantinople from other parts of the empire.
There are elevated boardwalks that wind through the cistern so visitors can get up close and personal with the architecture. The ambience is almost reverent, with soft music and occasional drops of water. An audio guide is also available here. Watch your step, because everything is damp and potentially slippery.
The Grand Bazaar
I don’t think anyone skips the Grand Bazaar when they’re in Istanbul, and for good reason. There’s just so much stuff! And it’s all so beautiful! And those salesmen are very persuasive. A dangerous situation for someone like me who likes to bring home treasures from my trips.
This is just one of many entrances. It’s basically a gargantuan maze/mall. (Yes, I got lost, and you might, too. But that just means more browsing.)
Dried fruit, spices, and teas. So beautiful and fragrant! I brought home some of that jasmine tea (among others), and the flowers bloom in your cup!
Stop everything and eat baklava. That chocolate pistachio one is from heaven. But I won’t say no to any of it. (I have a serious baklava problem. My husband knows not to return from his trips to the Middle East without a package of it for me. It’s the butter!)
I hung around in a few different rug shops asking questions and dreaming. This is the rug that really stole my heart. We’re not independently wealthy yet, so I had to pass, but you better believe that when I’m ready to spend $4,000 on a rug, I’m going back to Istanbul.
And this. The pottery. It’s everywhere, and it is STUNNING. I spent the bulk of my Grand Bazaar time in this very shop, engaged in what might, maybe, kinda be loosely considered to be haggling (I’ll have to write another post about my unconventional haggling “skills”). And I came away with some lovely pieces…which, by the way, didn’t fit in the carry-on that my husband advised me to bring. I had to carry lots of shopping bags onto the plane. Note: When traveling for pleasure, do not take advice from business travelers.
What do you think? Not a bad sight-seeing haul for what ultimately amounted to about five or six hours. It was so worth it. I highly recommend flying on Turkish Airlines (seriously, my favorite airline) and taking advantage of the stopover in Istanbul.
Ready for your solo mom vacation?
Get your FREE Mom's Flight Out manifesto and commit to making room in your life for solo travel.