How to Spend 2 Days in Istanbul

two days in instanbul itinerary topkapi palace

Istanbul: The City where East meets West

For years now I’ve been dying to go to Istanbul, the city where East meets West. Its cultural heritage spans from an ancient Greek civilization through Persian, Greek, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires to the modern nation-state. This convergence of civilizations has shaped Istanbul into one of the world’s most culturally rich cities and I was eager to experience it first-hand. Although we only had one weekend to explore Istanbul, we were able to see most of the city’s highlights with the help of our Turkish friend. If you only have two days in Istanbul and want to make the best of your time there, this guide is for you…

hagia sophia two days in instanbul itinerary

Getting to Istanbul

Istanbul has two airports, the Ataturk Airport on the European side of the city and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side of the city. Though we were staying on the European side (where the main tourist attractions are), we flew into Sabiha Gokcen Airport because the tickets were much cheaper. The only downside was the long cab ride to our hotel which took over an hour in traffic. Weigh the pros and cons before choosing which airport to fly into.

DwD Tip: Before going, make sure to check whether or not your country requires a visa to visit Turkey. For Americans, a visa is required but it’s just a matter of paying $30 upon arrival.

airport map two days in instanbul itinerary

How to Spend 2 Days (and 2 nights) in Istanbul

Night 1:

Check in to hotel

If you want to stay somewhere special while in Istanbul, choose a hotel along the beautiful Bosphorus Strait. With the recent turndown in tourism, hotels are cheaper than ever and rooms that normally would’ve been out of our price range were surprisingly affordable.

We stayed at the Shangri-La Bosphorus largely because of its great location and view of the Bosphorus. The Shangri-La is conveniently located in the financial and entertainment district of Besiktas. This was the perfect area for us because it’s very close to the trendy neighborhood of Bebek and only a tram ride away to the historic Old City.

*Click here to see current prices at the Shangri-La Bosphorus.

Shangri-La Bosphorus hotel two days in instanbul itinerary

Luxe lobby of the Shangri-La Bosphorus

Experience the city’s nightlife in Bebek

Begin your night with dinner at Lucca, a local hotspot in the hip neighborhood of Bebek. The cool thing about Lucca is it’s a cafe by day and one of the hottest bars in Istanbul by night. Around midnight the last plates are cleared and the party starts. The music is fantastic with a DJ who has everyone singing and dancing. It’s the perfect way to kick off your trip and dive straight into the local culture.

lucca cafe and bar two days in instanbul itinerary

Day 1 Itinerary:

  • Blue Mosque
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Topkapi Palace

Touring the Old City

The Blue Mosque

The beautiful Blue Mosque is an absolute must-do while in Istanbul. Today, the Blue Mosque still functions as a place of worship and Muslims from around the world come here to pray. I was struck by the serenity and beauty of this grand mosque. I especially loved the stained glass windows and immense, intricately tiled domes.

two days in instanbul itinerary blue mosque

DwD Tip: When visiting mosques in Istanbul make sure to dress somewhat conservatively out of respect. The Blue Mosque asks that both men and women cover their legs and shoulders and that women cover their hair. However, a long robe and an attached headscarf are provided for those who, like me, did not bring their own. Also, all visitors must take off their shoes upon entrance in keeping with Islamic tradition. 

istanbul blue mosque two days in instanbul itinerary

Admiring the mosque’s stained glass windows in the robe and head scarf provided for visitors

istanbul blue mosque two days in instanbul itinerary

two days in instanbul itinerary blue mosque

Photo of the Blue Mosque taken from a window in the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Directly across from the Blue Mosque is the great Hagia Sophia. The history of Hagia Sophia (whose name means “holy wisdom” in Greek) is extremely interesting and reflects the many drastic changes Istanbul has undergone over the last millennia. If you have some time, read up on it! If not, here’s the short version: Built in 537 by a Byzantine emperor, it served as the focal point of the Greek Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. In 1453, the city was conquered by the Ottomans and it was converted into a mosque. Then in 1935, Ataturk, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, transformed the it into a museum.

hagia sophia two days in instanbul itinerary

Today, Arabic calligraphic panes hang next to 6th century murals of Mary, Christ, and the Saints, resulting in a fascinating confluence of Christian and Islamic iconography. Although it’s currently undergoing extensive repairs, don’t let this deter you from visiting. Standing under Hagia Sophia’s 55 meter dome is a humbling experience unlike any other.

hagia sophia two days in instanbul itinerary

Topkapi Palace

Our final site for the day was Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Perched on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace was strategically built to have the best view of the Bosphorus and surrounding city. Allow some time here because there are four courtyards, a harem, mosques, a hospital, bakeries, a mint, and beautiful gardens to see. There are also several museums where you will find elaborate Ottoman weaponry, an extensive collection of Japanese, Chinese, and European porcelain, and many other imperial treasures.

topkapi palace two days in instanbul itinerary

Entrance to the palace

topkapi palace two days in instanbul itinerary

For a blue and white lover like me, Topkapi Palace was a dream. The palace is covered in blue and white Iznik tiles with the most beautiful designs and I left with major design inspiration!

We visited Topkapi  in late afternoon and stayed until sunset. At golden hour, the palace was bathed in the most magnificent light, illuminating its tiled walls and the city below. Watching the sunset from the palace balcony, I couldn’t help but feel like an Ottoman princess. 😀

Night 2:

Dinner at Sunset

Saturday night have dinner at Sunset Grill & Bar in the posh neighborhood of Ulus. This classy restaurant sits on a hill with a fantastic view of the Bosphorus. In addition to Turkish dishes, Sunset serves international and Japanese cuisine and everything is delicious.

sunset restaurant two days in instanbul itinerary

Day 2 Itinerary: 

  • Brunch along the Bosphorus 
  • Dolmabahce Palace
  • Spice Bazaar
  • The Golden Horn
  • Galata Tower

Brunch along the Bosphorus 

Begin your second day in Istanbul with brunch at Lokma, a local favorite along the Bosphorus. Request a window table in order to enjoy the view. Then settle in for a knock-your-socks-off traditional Turkish breakfast. Feast on countless varieties of cheese, eggs, savory Turkish pastries, fresh vegetables and juices. Make sure to try simit (the Turkish equivalent to a bagel) with honey, kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), and jam. I could eat that all day!

two days in instanbul itinerary bosphorus

View of the Bosphorus from our table

Dolmabahce Palace

After a stroll along the Bosphorus, set off for Dolmabahce Palace. In 1856, the Ottomans abandoned Topkaki for Dolmabahce, a palace modeled after the great palaces of Europe. Dolmabahce is a clear example of the confluence of East and West in Istanbul. While the palace contains Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical elements, it also retains elements of traditional Ottoman palace life such as having separate living quarters for the men and women.

Dolmabahce Palace two days in instanbul itinerary

Dolmabahce Palace two days in instanbul itinerary

One of the palace’s ornate gates to the Bosphorus

Both Topkaki and Dolmabahce Palace are worth seeing because they are completely different stylistically and reflect very different eras. With 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets, Dolmabahce is extravagance personified. In fact, the exorbitant expense incurred by its construction contributed to the deteriorating financial situation of the Ottoman Empire and eventually its demise.

Dolmabahce Palace two days in instanbul itinerary

You’re not allowed to take photos in the palace but I managed to snag a few 😉 But to get a real sense of the opulence of this palace you must see it for yourself!

Dolmabahce Palace two days in instanbul itinerary

The Ceremonial Hall with a 36 m (118 ft) high dome and a chandelier weighing 4.5 tons!!

Spice Bazaar

From Dolmabahce, hop on the tram and head to the famous Spice Bazaar in the Old City. The Spice Market was once the last stop for the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road from China. Stepping into the covered market, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked into Ottoman-era Istanbul. There are hundreds of vendors selling fragrant, vividly colored spices alongside countless varieties of lokum, or Turkish Delight, and dried fruits. 

two days in instanbul itinerary spice market

Warning: The Spice Bazaar can be a bit overwhelming with countless vendors competing for your attention.

two days in instanbul itinerary spice market

DwD Tip: The vendors are happy to give you a pinch of their spices or a piece of lokum so don’t be shy to ask! 

two days in instanbul itinerary spice market

The Spice Bazaar is the perfect place to pick up treats for your friends and family.

two days in instanbul itinerary spice market

two days in instanbul itinerary turkish towel shop

I bought two bright-colored Turkish towels here which I absolutely love.

The Golden Horn

From the Spice Market, walk along the Golden Horn, the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. In the early evening, the docks are teeming with activity. Stop for a few minutes to watch the fisherman and enjoy the warm, salty air. Afterwards, make your way across Galata Bridge to Galata Tower.

two days in instanbul itinerary fishing golden horn

Galata Tower

Built by a Byzantine emperor in 528, Galata Tower is one of the oldest surviving towers in the world. Over the years, the tower has served many purposes and has witnessed even more changes. Originally built as a lighthouse, the tower later became a military stronghold, an astronomical observation point, and prison. An early aviator even used it as his launching pad to fly over the Bosphorus! Today, Galata Tower offers visitors a spectacular 360 degree view of the city and is definitely a tourist trap worth going to. To grasp Istanbul’s immense size and beauty, you really must see it from the sky.

two days in instanbul itinerary galata tower

*If you have one more day to spend in Istanbul, check out this super informative guide for what you should do on day 3 as well as where to go after Istanbul.

Hope you enjoyed this two-day Istanbul itinerary! If you found it useful, please let me know in the comments below!

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  2. suzan
    August 5, 2018 / 6:00 am

    Hi..i need to ask about the opening hours of grand bazaar, and dolmabache palace?

    • Sarah Daisey
      August 20, 2018 / 8:31 pm

      Hi Suzan, according to Google, the Grand Bazaar is open everyday from 9am till 8pm except Sunday and Dolmabache Palace is open Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday between 9am-4pm. Hope that helps and enjoy your time in Istanbul!

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