Doing İstanbul in a Day
Location is crucial if you’re trying to hit a good chunk of the major attractions in one day. Try to get a hotel in the old part of the city in the Sultanahmet neighborhood so you’re close to the sights.
Hippodrome- Big, open space near the Blue Mosque. Look for the obelisk as you walk to your destination!
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia)- Tickets to get in are 20 TL. You don’t want to miss seeing this amazing edifice and if you have a guidebook, a self tour is quite easy to do. My travel companion had a Rick Steves book with detailed descriptions of all the highlights which proved to give us more freedom to roam the space among the different tour groups. Make sure you climb the ramp to the upper gallery where for centuries important people were carried by slaves or on horseback. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a different era plus the view from above is amazing (you can also see the enormous dome in more detail).
Blue Mosque- Located across the square, the Blue Mosque is free to see and won’t disappoint. The queue forms along the side of the building and guests are required to remove their shoes before entering (complimentary plastic bags are available so you can take your shoes in with you). Be sure to cover your shoulders and keep talking to a minimum inside since there are people actively praying. Take in the beautiful displays of Arabic calligraphy, the lush carpet, and the low-hanging candelabras throughout.
Basilica Cistern- The Cistern is past the Hippodrome across the street by a stone pillar in a non-descript building and it’s 10 TL to get in. This is one of the coolest attractions in the Sultanahmet district (From Russia With Love was filmed here). You descend underground to a scene of 1,001 columns lit up in the dark surrounded by a water collected by rainfall. Towards the back, you don’t want to miss the Medusa columns (just follow the crowds). Also if you get a chance, catch some live music by the cafe inside the cistern.
Topkapı Palace- Tickets to get in are 20 TL (tickets to see the Harem cost extra). The Topkapı Palace located on the Marmara Sea was the home of Ottoman Sultans for centuries. Inside the grounds are the treausury, the Topkapı dagger, the 7th largest diamond in the world, and a portrait gallery of Ottoman Sultans (they all were super fat and hairy, hello unibrows!). Warning: The treasury galleries get crowded. Bring your A game.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)- The Grand Bazaar is a must-see while in the city. The Bazaar is an indoor maze of shops flanked by outdoor vendors selling rugs, lamps, Turkish Delight, and spices. Vendors are not shy and have a working knowledge of English so transactions aren’t that difficult. It’s extremely close quarters throughout so hold onto your belongings and be aware of pick pocketers.
Spice Bazaar- The Spice Bazaar is located by the New Mosque along the sea. Unlike its big brother, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is much smaller and less crowded (makes shopping much more enjoyable). Here, vendors sell spices, teas, Turkish Delight, and other confections exclusively. They also are on top of vacuum sealing spices to comply with airline regulations. A word of caution to English-speaking girls, vendors will attempt to lure you to their shops with cheesy Spice Girls references.
Getting to and from- All the sites in Sultanahmet are walkable but a reliable tram system is available. For 2 TL you can hop the tram or any other transportation offered in the city (Metro, ferry, bus etc). Find a machine near the station and get a red token called a Jeton. You place the Jeton in the turnstile and get right on.