48 Hours in Istanbul - Two Days Highlights Itinerary

17th December 2020

Istanbul is an amazing experience, stradling Europe and Asia in every sense – not just geographically, but culturally. It’s refreshing, sophisticated, traditional, and at times even delightfully old-world, especially as measured by the graciousness of the citizens. 

The experience is overwhelming enough that – even though you could happily spend weeks exploring – just 48 hours will give you a generous taste of what the city has to offer. Here’s what to do and see in 48 hours in Istanbul – a combination of glorious monuments, fascinating culture and history, famously elaborate Turkish desserts and sweets, indulgent hamams, and of course plenty of browsing in the grand bazaars and drinking endless glasses of tea.

Morning in Istanbul – Day 1 

To get your bearings to start your two days in Istanbul, head to Sultanahmet – the center of several of Istanbul’s chief attractions. Wear comfortable shoes – even though the sites are close to one another, each is large in and of itself. Women will need a scarf for visiting the Blue Mosque and now for Hagia Sophia. Both Women and Men will need to have their knees covered and be generally dressed modestly for visiting the religious sites.

Hagia Sophia

Until last year, this UNESCO world Heritage site was a museum. It was recently converted into a mosque. Built as a Christian Church in the 4th Century – when this city was still called Constantinople (city of Constantine) – this giant of a building whose dome hovers as though weightless and carried by angels continues to be one of the most impressive architectural spaces on earth and a much for your 48 Hours in Istanbul.

So just imagine what it looked like to the observer well over a millennium ago. Apart from the soaring space, one coils at one time see world famous mosaics.

Another fascinating feature are the trompe l’oeil “windows” painted by the real windows, complete with shadows and beams of light. These are the work of the Fossati brothers, Swiss architects who restored many of Istanbul’s most important monuments during the 19th century.

The paintings serve to keep the rhythms intact where a once existing window had to be covered by exterior buttressing to keep the integrity of the structure.

The Blue Mosque

Mosque Architecture has its own rich vocabulary, and there’s no better introduction to the beauty of mosques than this – the grand Sultan Ahmed Mosque – better known as the Blue Mosque.

Majestic as it is, the Blue Mosque suffers from comparison to Hagia Sophia, as this much later structure (early 17th century) is less impressive from an engineering standpoint (look at the enormous columns supporting the structure to compare).

Moreover, it has a less than glorious origin: while most imperial Mosques were built from the spoils of war, Sultan Ahmed I had to build his mosque from funds from the treasury, having achieved no significant victory, and indeed having suffered a great loss against Persia.

Let none of this distract you though from marvelling at the staggering display of Iznik tiles and the glorious sense of space and light. Even a visit marred by the scaffolding when restoration works are underway will still leave you impressed. As it’s so popular with tourists on their own Istanbul itinerary, there’s a lot of information about Islam on pannels around the forecourt of the mosque.

Taking a Break

Take some time out from your 48 Hours in Istanbul. The great plaza in front of Hagia Sophia is full of lovely flowers and happy families out for a stroll. Street vendors sell grilled corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts in season, and the fabulous ‘dondurma’ – Turkish-style ice cream, famous for it’s sticky, elastic texture. The vendors love to play with it and expect a little show before you finally grab your cone.

The Basilica Cistern

After two glorious houses of worship, a cistern? Absolutely. The Basilica Cistern – which is directly across from Hagia Sopia – is well worth a visit. One of many ancient cisterns under the city, and the largest among them, this too is a uniquely atmospheric architectural space. Built under the reign of emperor Justinian, this enormous cistern could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water, and supplied the Imperial Palace of Constantinople.

This vast underground chamber is supported by a veritable forest of grand columns – over 300 of them, principally Ionic or Corinthian, each 9 meters tall. The columns are thought to have been taken in large [art from other structures, probably from throughout the Roman Empire. Now little water remains – just enough to reflect the columns, arches, and vaults that define this unique space.

Bonus: if your 48 Hours in Istanbul are in the summer, you’ll love the refreshing temperatures down here. Double Bonus – Are you up for some touristy kitsch? Photographers can dress you in Ottoman period costumes and pose you for portraits for a price.

Lunch

There’s too much to see to sit down. Happily, the street food of Istanbul is fantastic. Grab a Kebab on the run – seasoned shaved meat, chewy pita, and refreshing yogurt sauces. And if you are up for something different as a refreshment, try some Aryan, a fermented yogurt drink.

Afternoon in Istanbul – Day 1 

The Grand Bazar

Defining the eastern Bazaar experience, the legendary Grand Bazaar is like an entire universe. This is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, and it feels like it. There are 61 covered streets, over 4,000 shops along them, interspersed of course with tea vendors (you;re ever far from a glass of hot tea in Istanbul).

Finding your way around is next to impossible so just give up and take it in. And be very careful about your purchases. Some haggling is expected, and it can get exhausting, especially as vendors team up with various well-rehearsed scenarios. Decide what you want to pay and enjoy the show.

Just be willing to walk away. You’ll find jewelry, ceramics and glassware, antiques, decorative items such as those beautiful colorful glass lanterns, textiles, scarves, and all manner of leather goods, in addition to many other curiosities and temptations. You’ll need the full afternoon out of your 48 Hours in Istanbul to fully enjoy this place. 

Evening in Istanbul – Day 1

The Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi Order

The Whirling Dervishes – depite being mesmerizing to watch – are not dancers but rather deeply contemplative religious practitioners. They share the transcendent and hypnotic beauty of their unique ceremony, a sort of intense meditation intended to bring them closer to God. One very fine place to experience this ritual is the Hodjapasha Cultural Center, set in an atmospheric 15th century Hamam.  Go early for the performances so that you can take in the exhibit about the 13th century mystic poet Rumi, who started this form of meditation.

Dinner

The neighborhood around the Hodjapasha cultural center is full of casual family restaurants where you can dine well and inexpensively in a friendly environment. It’s rhe perfect area to enjoy your first evening of two days in Istanbul. 

Morning in Istanbul – Day 2

It’s very easy to stay in the Sultanahmet and Fatih districts for the whole of your stay, but much of the charm of Istanbul is in its extraordinary topography so let’s start day two of 48 Hours in Istanbul.

A Bosphorus Cruise

There are many tourist cruises lasting from 2 – 4 hours to take you up the bosporus where you can marvel at one mansion after the other, plus smaller palaces, grand hotels, mosques, and the great Byzantine fortress that ultimately was not able to withstand the assault of the Ottoman conquerors.

You get a great feel for Istanbul’s deeply emotional relationship to the water, a defining feature of the city. This is one of the most photogenic activities of all Istanbul. There are also plenty of commuter boats to take locals to various parts of the city and suburbs across the waterways. 

The Dolmabahçe Palace

After the cruise, you may find yourself in the Beşiktaş district, on the European side of the strait of Istanbul, placing you within easy distance of the Dolmabahçe Palace. Otherwise, it is easily reached via tram so make sure to visit during your 48 Hours in Istanbul. The Dolmabahçe place is splendidly oriented to the Strait of Istanbul.

This was the Palace of the Sultans after the Topkapi Palace fell into disuse. It is staggeringly grand, and strangely – almost poignantly – Western. Built at a time when the Ottoman Empire was no longer at its height and the west was gaining in power, the Dolmabahçe Palace looks to western styles – Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance – to express grandeur.

It succeeds, in this largest of all the Palaces of the Ottoman Empire. Highlights include the vast domed Ceremonial Hall – featuring the largest Bohemian Crystal chandelier ever, a crystal staircase with Baccarat banisters, and gilded ceilings that used 14 tonnes of gold.

Nonetheless, despite the western styles, the spaces suit the Ottoman way of life, including a separate Selamlik (men’s quarters), Haremlik (the private quarters for the women of the Imperial household), and luxurious hamamas.

Tea Time in the Spice Bazaar – The Mısır Çarşısı

If time allows during your 48 Hours in Istanbul, return on foot to the west side of the strait, crossing the Galata bridge. Close to the west end of the bridge you’ll find the Mısır Çarşısı (“Egyptian Bazaar” in Turkish) – another splendid covered market specializing in – of course – spices. But you’ll find other delights here as well, such as “locum” (“Turkish Delight”), nuts and dried fruits teas, and beautiful textiles.

Next to the covered market is a tangled maze of narrow alleys. Along them are tiny shops selling more dry goods, sweets, coffees, and assorted household goods. While you’ll find locals at the Mısır Çarşısı, you’ll also find it is equally oriented to the visitor. Not so the outdoor market – chaotic, authentic, and really fun.

Here, locals stop for a quick lunch of pilafs and meats in casual surroundings or for a glass of hot tea and a sweet, such as the warm crisp syrupy kunefe, oozing with melted cheese. 

Afternoon in Istanbul – Day 2

The main attractions of the afternoon bring us back to the Sultanahmet district, for the famous Imperial Palace Topkapi followed by a historic hammam experience.

The Topkapi Palace

Even though the palace is right by Hagia Sophia, it is so vast that it deserves its own dedicated afternoon from 48 Hours in Istanbul. Fans of Iznik tile, Islamic architectural details, sumptuous fabrics, and richly detailed surfaces will be in absolute heaven. 

Topkapi Palace is also called the Seraglio, due to its location on Seraglio Point, overlooking the Golden Horn. The palace dates from the middle of the 15th century, shortly after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. The existing Great Palace of Constantinople – that used by the Byzantine emperors – was in a state of disrepair. But moreover, the Topkapi palace expressed the Ottoman aesthetic.

This is an entire complex to explore, surrounded by walls and entered through various gates of enchanting names, including the Gate of Felicity and the Gate of Salutation. There is a choice of tickets, and it’s best to get the ticket that allows access to all areas open to the public.

Among the many highlights are the Imperial Council – the formal meeting quarters, the Imperial Hall with the throne of the Sultan, the Imperial Treasury – housing now the armory, the Audience Council, the Library. And the kiosks of Yerevan, Baghdad, and Iftar. A fascinating world of its own is the Harem – the private quarters of the concubines and consorts of the Sultan. 

These included the Courtyard of the Eunuchs, the Courtyard of the Favorites, the apartment of the Valide Sultan – the mother of the Sultan and the most powerful woman in the Empire, and the luxurious baths. Leave plenty of time to enjoy the palace at leisure, and by all means visit the kitchens, where a staff of 800 prepared meals for 4,000.

Evening in Istanbul – Day 2

The Çemberlitaş Hamam

By the column of Constantine – the oldest Constantinian monument of Istanbul (330 AD) that was once the center of the forum – is a hammam named after it. Çemberlitaş combines the words for “hooped” and “stone” – as the column is supported with rings of metal, thanks to an intervention of Ottomans in the early 16th century. 

The Hamam is designed by Mimar Sinan – the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire. The high-domed space is rich in beautiful architectural detail, with a great warmed marble platform in the center. Men and women bathe separately here, as they have for centuries, since 1584.

You can opt for a self-service hammam to luxuriate in the warm and steamy room and wash yourself. But the attendant service is traditional and a great cultural experience. Get ready to leave modesty aside (you’ll be given a disposable – and small – undergarment) and be buffed with a rough cotton mit head to toe, then slathered in great clouds of soap foam, followed by a brief, slick massage. 

After a day of palaces, it’s nice to feel a little spoiled yourself. 

Istanbul at Night – Day 2

If you have time and strength for one last thing, find your way back over to the east side of the strait for a walk up the Istiklal Caddesi – the most famous pedestrian walk of Istanbul, leading to Taksim Square. You’ll find, in addition to fashions and gifts, all manner of excellent pastries and sweets in tempting displays – Istanbul’s excellent substitute for a nightcap. Try to catch the nostalgic, old-fashioned tram that runs up and down the center.

48 Hours in Istanbul

This quick tour should be just enough to give you and overview of the full Istanbul experience. You’ll make some satisfying memories but more than likely, you’ll soon be planning your next trip. Thanks so much for reading my 48 Hours in Istanbul itinerary, and have a great time.

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So you only have 48 hours in Istanbul? This is our recommended two days in Istanbul itinerary for what to see, where to eat, and heaps more!

So you only have 48 hours in Istanbul? This is our recommended two days in Istanbul itinerary for what to see, where to eat, and heaps more!

About the Author:

 I’m Amber Charmei, and I write on travel, culture, and cuisine in print magazines and web publications. Originally from Manhattan, I’ve lived in Greece for years and love sharing the best of Greek lifestyle and culture – especially Thessaloniki’s – at Thessaloniki Local. You can also follow my casual travelogue on Instagram for more.

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