Istanbul is Turkey’s biggest city, but that’s not all that makes this sprawling metropolis remarkable. (Far from it! There’s the ancient history, eye-popping architecture, flavorful food, and mix of global cultures, too.) It also straddles the Bosphorus Strait—a natural waterway that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia—which means that the city sits on two different continents. How cool is that?
Not sure what to do in Istanbul? Consider spending one day exploring the city’s European side, and another getting to know every nook and cranny of the side that lies in Asia. Follow our handy travel guide for all the can’t-miss things to do in Istanbul in 48 hours.
Some of the most iconic places to visit in Istanbul are on the city’s buzzy European side. The Sultanahmet neighborhood is the heart of Old Istanbul and home to treasured cultural and architectural sites like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace—plus countless lively restaurants, taverns, and nightlife spots.
Traveler tip: Visitors are not allowed inside the Blue Mosque during prayer, but you’re welcome to explore the striking interior once worshippers depart. Our expert tour guides will even show you around on our Grand Tour of Turkey.
One of Istanbul’s most iconic structures also offers the best views in town. Built in the 14th century by Genoese traders, Galata Tower has survived earthquakes and fires, and has served as a surveillance post, prison, and fire tower.
Fun fact: In the 17th century, Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi famously strapped on a pair of bird-like wings, jumped from the tower, and flew nearly four miles, soaring over the Bosphorus and landing on the Asian side of the city.
Today, visitors can soak in sweeping views from the tower’s nearly 200-foot-high observation deck. While you’re there, try classic Turkish dishes and take in a traditional dance show at its popular top-floor restaurant.
What originated as a small, vaulted warehouse in 1461 has ballooned to become one of the world’s largest covered markets. Today, the Grand Bazaar comprises 4,000 shops and 500 stalls, or dolaps, which are spread over 60 streets and roughly 7.5 acres. This stop calls for your comfiest sneakers.
Along its crowded, labyrinthine lanes, visitors can bargain for the best prices on items like handmade jewelry, antiques, carpets and kilims (flat, tapestry-woven rugs), and famously soft Turkish towels. To give your tired feet—and wallet—a break, grab a Turkish tea or coffee in one of the Bazaar’s many traveler-friendly restaurants.
Go Ahead staffer Gen suggests keeping an eye out for the legendary dried-fruit stalls while on tour in Turkey, too. “Someone suggested I skip the usual snack stuff and try the wide array of dried strawberries, apricots… anything I could find,” she said. “I’m so glad they did! The pineapple was just as tart as if it weren’t dried at all. I’ve never found anything close to this amazing at any grocery store.”
Need to refuel after an adventurous few hours in Istanbul? Make your way to the historic former fishing area of Eminönü, on the banks of the Bosphorus. There, you can order a balik ekmek (translation: fish sandwich, or, literally, fish bread) from one of many vendors who serve the famous snack straight from their docked (and decked-out) Ottoman-style boats.
The sandwiches—a half-loaf of white bread stuffed with grilled white fish, raw onions, and fresh lettuce—first surfaced in Istanbul in the mid-19th century, when fishermen began grilling filets of their fresh catch and serving them to the public on hunks of white bread. It’s a tasty, ongoing tradition you won’t want to miss.
Istanbul Tour Director Suleyman also suggests trying a national favorite: samit. “Locals and visitors alike love this freshly baked, sesame-crusted bread dipped in molasses,” he said. “It’s widely available from street vendors everywhere and can be had with cheese added, or nutella and other toppings, for less than $1 or $2 USD.”
Want more local Istanbul insight? Read our complete Q&A with Tour Director Suleyman.
This subterranean reservoir is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul—and is just as impressive as it sounds. It was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built beneath the Stoa Basilica in 532 to serve emperors living in the Great Palace. These days, you just have to swing by the Sultanahmet neighborhood to see it for yourself.
Supported by 336 columns—many of them salvaged from ruined temples—the cistern was designed to hold more than 21 million gallons of water. That’s almost 32 Olympic-size swimming pools! Today, visitors can stroll along raised wooden platforms in its cool darkness and spot schools of carp swimming in its still (and, arguably, eerie) waters.
Looking to cross more architectural gems off your bucket list? Check out our tour of Portugal, Spain & Morocco.
Toast your first full day in Istanbul over raki (a popular Turkish spirit) and mezze (small plates) in one of the Karaköy district’s many meyhanes, or taverns. In local lingo, this joyful ritual of food and drink is called raki balik.
A spirit made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed, raki is a main ingredient of Turkish celebrations and is served with food in homes, restaurants, and bars. It’s typically served over ice with an added splash of water, which turns the clear liquor a ghostly white and earns it its nickname, Lion’s Milk. Word to the wise: A little raki goes a long way!
Kick off the second day of your Istanbul visit with a scenic, 25-minute ferry ride from Eminönü or Karaköy to the more laid-back, Asian side of the city. While on board, order a cup of hot Turkish tea to sip as you watch the breathtakingly beautiful skyline of Istanbul’s European side fade into the distance behind you.
Disembark in Kadiköy, the cultural center of Istanbul’s community-driven Asian side, where colorful street art, cozy cafes, and outdoor spaces await.
Back on dry land, fill your tank with a traditional Turkish breakfast at KÜFF or another cafe in Kadiköy. And come hungry! The first meal of the day takes many forms in Istanbul, but the most well-known is a hulking spread that dates back to the Ottoman Empire and consists of cheese, jam, honey, yogurt, local-style breads, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and other goodies. Of course, wash it all down with a cup (or two) of Turkish coffee or tea.
Behind the relatively discreet facade of this three-story building in Kadiköy, visitors will experience a true visual—make that sensory—feast. That’s thanks to its Art Deco performance hall, which was inspired by Paris’s Champs-Élysées Theatre. The soaring space is crowned by an opulent, frescoed ceiling, at the center of which is a dramatic, Art Deco-style chandelier.
The opera house was commissioned by parliamentarian Süreyya İlmen Pasha in 1927, but its stage remained unfinished for decades. A full restoration in 2007 finally brought it to completion, and today, culture vultures can take in performances by the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet there several nights each week.
For a sweet pick-me-up between sightseeing stops, head to Ali Usta in the Moda neighborhood. Shelves, bins, and trays in this local-favorite sweets shop are chock-full of freshly made baklava—try flavors like fistik (pistachio) or ceviz (walnut). Ask the shop’s staff to box yours up in a keepsake, travel-friendly box or tin for the trip home.
Istanbul is a treasure trove of art and antiques. Whether you’re looking to score a pretty piece to send home or just want to do some window shopping, a stroll along cobblestone Tellalzade Sokak, in Moda, is in order. Dozens of antique shops line either side of the street and are brimming with everything from furniture and lamps to glassware and jewelry.
Located near Moda, Kadife Sokak is often referred to by locals as Barlar Sokak, or Bar Street, thanks to the number of restaurants, watering holes, and other nighttime hangouts that call it home. Whether you’re in the mood to sip a Turkish beer at a laid-back local favorite like Arka Oda, whip your hair to some hard rock tunes, or dance among stylish locals, you can do it all here.
After a late night out, Go Ahead staffer and Istanbul native Ozi suggests heading to Kizilkayalar in Taksim Square for a legendary wet burger—the Turks’ garlicky, buttery answer to the American diner burger. “You won’t believe how a food that looks that soggy could taste that good!” she said. “I ate four the first time, I am sure. No one ever eats just one wet burger and is done.”
Discover even more can’t-miss experiences in our Bucket List Guide to Turkey.
When you think of Turkish drinks, coffee, tea, and raki probably come to mind. But it turns out, the country produces some delicious wines that are more than worth exploring. For a crash course—and a glass or two on a plant-strewn garden patio—head to Viktor Levi Moda, a beloved spot in Kadiköy’s Moda neighborhood.
There, order a bottle of Okuzgozu, Narince, or Kalecik Karasi (and an array of internationally inspired dishes to pair with it) and say “şerefe,” or cheers, to two fun-filled days in this vibrant city on the banks of the glittering Bosphorus.
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