2 Days in Istanbul? Here are the top 7 things to see and do!

Traveling to Istanbul? Istanbul certainly boasts enough tourist attractions to keep you busy for weeks. It’s not only HUGE, but it spans two continents! But just in case you only have two short days in Istanbul, here are 7 things you can’t miss! Fortunately, despite it’s huge size, most of these attractions are very close to each other-all located generally in the Sultanhamet neighborhood. The last two on the list are only a 15 minute taxi drive away!

1. Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque

It’s pretty unlikely that someone will travel to Istanbul without at least a quick look at these famous places. Although the Hagia Sophia was closed when I went to visit (Turkey was in the process of turning the museum into a mosque) it was incredible to see just from the outside. And the best part is the right across the way, with just a fountain and a little walking distance, there is the Blue Mosque.

Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey

2. Grand Bazaar/Spice Market

No trip to Istanbul is complete without at least a short visit to the famous Grand Bazaar. It contains everything possibly imaginable in its seemingly endless alleyways. Lanterns, traditional ceramic work, and knock off Louis Vuitton’s are just some of the many many marketed items. The Spice Market, just a few minutes walk away, is certainly not to be missed (even if you don’t need to buy any spices!) The smell and atmosphere is so authentic, it’s a must-see.

Colorful Spices at the Spice Market in Istanbul


3. Topkapi Palace

I’m sure you’ve seen those pictures everywhere with amazingly bright and colorful tiles and beautiful architecture? Well, they were taken here at Topkapi Palace (claimed to be the biggest and oldest in the world). It once housed sultans, royalty, concubines, and many many servants. Now a museum, you can also pay a bit extra to go see the most impressive portion of the palace- the Harem.

Imperial Hall in Harem. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul


4. Basilica Cisterns

A visit here won’t take up too much of your time on your trip to Istanbul. About a 3 minute walk from the Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque you’ll find the amazingly intricate systems of Cisterns dating back to Byzantine times. The Basilica Cisterns are really very impressive (and a nice break from Istanbul’s heat in the summer)! And there’s still water in them until today!!

Basillica Cisterns in Istanbul, Turkey

5. Sunset Rooftop Dinner

One of my favorite moments in Istanbul was watching the beautiful sunset and drinking traditional Turkish tea, overlooking the water. Now, there are many many places to do this. In the past it could be done for free, just part of the Istanbul experience. But the locals have realized how popular this activity has become among tourists, so unfortunately most charge a fee to use the beautiful arrangement. But pink and purple sunset views of Istanbul over the water? 100% worth it.


6. Balat

Balat. Hipster heart of Istanbul. Local, organic cafes and restaurants. Laid back vibes. Colorful and quaint streets. It’s a much less touristic area of Istanbul-about a 15/20 minute drive from all the above attractions in the Sultanhamet area, but it is totally worth the visit. From colorful umbrellas to rainbow stairs, this area is not one that all tourists get to see. It’s a chance to experience a different side of Istanbul’s multi-faceted array.

Colorful Stairs in Turkey. Balat


7. Galata/Karakoy

Last but certainly not least is the Galata/Karakoy area. We visited here on our second day in Istanbul as it is on the other side of the Bosphorus Strait. Still Istanbul’s European side, this area not only boasts the medieval Galata tower and famous Taksim Square, but also boutique fashion shops, art galleries, European style streets, fancy malls, and HUNDREDS of cafes. At night its main road becomes covered in fairy lights for a magical experience. It’s a very different feel from the Istanbul across the water and an experience not to be missed.

Galata/Karakoy. Vintage Tram Taksim Square

Bonus! One thing we REALLY wanted to do, but just didn’t have the time, was to go on a cruise of the Bosphorus Strait. If you have some extra time and wanted to enjoy a cruise, they even have sunset options that look amazing! Next time for us!

For sure there are many many many many more amazing places to see in Istanbul, but these are the top can’t-be-missed tourist destinations.


Where to Stay?

Ok so VERY IMPORTANT thing to do know before your trip to Turkey! You cannot use or while in the country. They are also working on banning airbnb as well, but currently it is still legal. So it is advisable to make all your accommodations before your trip.

Day 1: In order to see all the best tourist places in Istanbul, it is recommended to stay in the Sultanhamet neighborhood. 1-5 from the above list are within walking distance! Here is where we stayed, a very affordable boutique hotel right in the heart of the Sultanhamet. The staff were very helpful and friendly and the place was beautiful. It even has a view of the ocean! 1-6 were done on our first day in Istanbul. The farthest being in Balat which was only about 15 minutes away by taxi.

Day 2: We divided our two days in Istanbul in our trip. One on the first day of our Turkey trip, and one on the last day. We spent a long time exploring the Galata/Karakoy area on our last day and here is the cute Airbnb where we stayed. It was the only time we stayed in an actual Airbnb (not a hotel listed on Airbnb) as they seemed hard to come by. The place was nicely central, very cute, and very inexpensive. Great for budget travelers!

Any more Turkey questions?

Traveling in times of Corona? What to wear? Is it safe? Check out the Ultimate Guide to Travel in Turkey Everything you need to know!

Lots of love and safe travels , Danielle, Colorful Sisters


    1. Thanks so much!! 😍

  1. I loved my trip to Istanbul back in 2013. It’s such a beautiful city! Of all the places you listed here, Balat is the only one I’ve never been to. Maybe for another trip in the future.

    1. Yess hopefully!!! It was such a cute area and so different from the rest of Istanbul! Definitely would recommend if you ever get to visit again! 🙂

  2. […] and enjoy everything, ending the day with a perfect sunset dinner overlooking Istanbul. Check out this post for a full list of amazing things to do in […]

    1. It really was!!! Absolutely loved the city! Have you ever visited Istanbul?

      1. I would love to someday!

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  5. Great post and photos. I loved Istanbul when I went and would love to go back some day.

    1. Thanks so much! It really is an amazing city!!! Would love to go back one day too 🙂

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  7. I loved my stay in Istanbul a decade ago – at that time the government was much more liberal and three women traveling together felt no awkwardness at wearing Western clothes and walking everywhere while having no man to escort us. I expect a lot has changed under the new conservative regime. I always wanted to go back, but maybe now it’s better to cherish the good memories.

    Thanks for following my blog! Hope to have more travel posts one day!

    1. From my experience in Istanbul just a few months ago, it felt the same! I did not feel uncomfortable at all wearing western clothes, shorts, summer dresses etc! I’m sure it’s different in certain areas but it was very much liberal feeling for me.

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  10. This is so helpful! Did you use taxis only or try the public transportation? I’d also love to know if you bought any of the combined entry passes! Thanks 🙂

    1. We did a combo when we visited! Within the city we mostly walked or used taxis but for cross country travel we used the bus system which was very effective and organized 🙂

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