48 Hours in Istanbul: How to Experience Istanbul in a Weekend

48 Hours in Istanbul: How to Experience Istanbul in a Weekend

I was childishly excited for my weekend in Istanbul – to explore the Grand Bazaar and other endless markets, cruise up the Bosporus river taking in the sights of both Europe and Asia, experience the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and eat five kebabs a day. But as I read more about all that city had to offer, I started feeling stressed about how I would see everything I wanted to when I had less than 48 hours in Istanbul.

I decided not only to prioritise, but to spend my time immersing myself in the culture of Istanbul and local life rather than spending precious hours queuing for the must-see items. I’m not for a second saying that the likes of the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern aren’t part of Istanbul’s culture, of course they are, and at some point I will return to Istanbul and visit these sites, but when you only have a 48 hour weekend, joining long queues doesn’t make much sense.

If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul and only have 48 hours, my first piece of advice would be that you need more than 48 hours! I’d have loved to spend at least a week there but, you know, we have jobs and lives that don’t always give us this option! So here’s how I spent (less than) 48 hours in Istanbul.

A Weekend in Istanbul: Day 1

Billy and I arrived in Istanbul late in the evening, meaning that we went straight to find our apartment (via a kebab shop, obviously) and fell asleep. As a result, we awoke the next morning like kids (or adults) on Christmas day excited to start exploring Istanbul and headed out nice and early.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: Two kebabs on a tray on a wooden table shot at night, with two yellow taxis blurred out in the background

A food tour – the only way to experiences the tastes of Istanbul in 48 hours!

If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know that food is a huge part of my travel, and I feel like I haven’t experienced a destination unless I’ve eaten my fair share of the local cuisine.

Food is a big deal in Istanbul and a huge part of the culture, and with so much to try and so little time a food tour seemed the best way to try as much as possible whilst learning about the history of culinary Istanbul.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: dried fruits in the spice market

Our tour was with Istanbul on Food and was incredibly comprehensive, lasting around 6 hours and including multiple tastings at 10 different stops. It took us around much of the city including both the European and Asian side, which meant that as well as eating lots of great food, we also saw a lot of Istanbul and got our bearings before exploring on our own.

The timings (9am – 3pm) were perfect as they meant that we still had loads of the day left to enjoy more of Istanbul. If you’d like to read more about the tour, I’ve written a blog post about 30 must-try foods in Istanbul, which includes plenty of information about the tour.

Princes Islands

I’d read about the Princes’ Islands but didn’t think we would have time to visit them during our 48 hour weekend in Istanbul. However, our food tour finished at the Kadıköy ferry port and our guide suggested that we visit, so we took her advice and hopped on a boat.

The Princes’ Islands, known as Kızıl Adalar (Red Islands) or simply Adalar (Islands) in Turkish, consist of 9 islands of varying sizes. All of them are almost completely free of motor vehicles, with transportation by horse and cart.

I wasn’t sure how well the horses were treated (they looked rather skinny and over worked but that might have just been me being over cautious) so avoided doing this and explored on foot instead.

48 hours weekend in istanbul: A selfie of a couple on a boat to the Princes Islands

The most popular islands to visit are Heybeliada, Büyükada, Burgazada and Kınalıada. I’d have loved to have seen them all, but with limited time we opted for Heybeliada on the advice of our food tour guide as it’s the greenest of the islands.

To get there, take the ferry from Kadıköy and get off at the 3rd stop. If you have the time why not do some island hopping and see all four? I actually enjoyed the ferry ride itself just as much as the island… the sun was shining, the views back over Istanbul were breathtaking and we got to see a little bit of each island from the water.

Once on Heybeliada we went for a stroll in no particular direction and found ourselves heading into a peaceful pine forest. We were entering an official park so did have to pay to enter (7 Lira if I remember correctly which is equivalent to about £1) but it was worth it.

A few moments later we found a small restaurant with a stunning ocean view so stopped off for a beer and some mezze. By accident, we had found the perfect sunset spot and spent the next hour or so watching the sun go down before continuing our walk through the forest. And the highlight? A women walking her giant bunny rabbit through the forest!

48 hours weekend in istanbul: Sunset image from the princes islands. An orange sky is set against the ocean with two islands shown in black and a boat between them
48 hours weekend in Istanbul: a selection of mezze

Beer and Hookah in Karaköy

Our accommodation was in Beyoğlu (I’d definitely recommend staying there, as it’s close enough to everything you’d want to see but not touristy at all), so we got the ferry back from Heybeliada to Eminönü and walked across the Galata Bridge in roughly the direction of our apartment. Our route took us through Karaköy, a ‘trendy’ neighbourhood with a grid of narrow cobbled streets lined with hookah bars and cafes.

Despite it being a Monday evening, live music drew us towards one particular bar which offered everything we wanted: comfortable outdoor seating under a ceiling of brightly coloured umbrellas, funky (weird) wall decorations, great beer, great hookah (no silly flavours) and a tipsy family of four enthusiastically singing along to the live music.

We spent a few hours here relaxing and I’d definitely recommend this bar if you’re in Karaköy, it’s called Levanten and it’s hard to miss!

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: Nell in white dress with a beer in her hand looking up at an unusual wall decoration of stuffed child dolls.

A Weekend in Istanbul: Day 2

Gülhane Park

I wasn’t expecting such a large, serene park in the middle of busy Istanbul! Full of vibrant flowers, oak and walnut trees hundreds of years old and pretty fountains, this park is the perfect haven. Although it’s the oldest park in Istanbul, for centuries it served as the outer garden of the Ottoman imperial palace, Topkapı Palace, and was opened to the public in 1912.

The park serves as a perfect cut through from Eminönü to Sultanahmet so if you’re heading to the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern definitely take this route.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: A selfie of a couple in Gülhane Park with a sign of the park's name behind them.


Despite being the most popular area of Istanbul with tourists, we didn’t spend very long here. I won’t deny it was beautiful – a large square with impressive fountains sat in front of the stunning Blue Mosque and was quite breathtaking – but it did feel over commercialised.

My benchmark was corn on the cob which was priced at 7 Lira here compared with 4 Lira everywhere else. I know that difference is pennies, but still! As we only had 48 hours in Istanbul, we didn’t join the massive queues to visit the inside of the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque but instead admired them from the outside before moving on.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: Nell with curly hair stood in front of the blue mosque

The Grand Bazaar and other markets

The Grand Bazaar, and the markets in general, were my favourite bit of Istanbul and the one thing I knew I couldn’t miss. The Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world at 30,700 square meters with over 60 streets and 4,000 shops.

It’s also one of the oldest in the world, with the original core dating back to 1461. Over the years it’s expanded greatly, with amenities for traders including restaurants, a hamman, a mosque and prayer rooms. It’s now got pretty much everything you could need including a police station, a post office, banks and a tourist information centre.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: Hanging decorations in the Grand Bazaar
48 hours weekend in istanbul: A hand picking up a pink pistachio from a large pile of them in the spice market in Istanbul. In the background other buckets of nuts and olives are out of focus

We walked from Sultanahmet through countless outdoor markets before passing through a metal detector into the Grand Bazaar. I was almost blinded by the bright gold jewellery that lined the shop windows at the entrance we took!

We wandered through sections selling jewellery, leather, fur, spices, sweets and sunglasses (yep, I couldn’t resist a bit of haggling and got them down by 60%). We stopped to refuel on a hearty lamb stew (I talk all about this in my ‘30 foods to eat in Istanbul‘ post) before eventually finding our way out.

48 hours weekend in istanbul: Buckets of turkish delight in the markets

From here we continued our market adventure wandering through the fish market (hunting for fish sandwiches) and the spice market (all the smells and colours) and searching out breads, cheeses, meats and mezze for the picnic we’d be having later that day on the sleeper train from Istanbul to Sofia.

I’ve never seen so many people crammed onto such narrow streets, but it didn’t feel intimidating or unsafe – it was just people going about their daily lives and shopping for their families.

48 hours weekend in istanbul: Fish heads in the fish market


I’d heard that the neighbourhood of Balat shouldn’t be missed, so we hopped on the 99 bus from Eminönü and ten minutes later we were in the traditionally Jewish and Greek Orthodox area of Istanbul. The colourful streets that Balat is known for certainly didn’t disappoint – they were truly beautiful!

We wandered through quiet streets taking pictures and stopping at cafés to take a break from the steep slopes before discovering yet another impressive market. This was just one street but seemed to go on for miles with the most colourful and gigantic vegetables I’ve ever seen.

48 hours weekend in istanbul: Giant cabbages in Balat market, placed on a table with a red van with more cabbages in behind

One thing that I hadn’t been told about Balat is that although it gets a lot of tourism (the colourful houses make it very instagrammable), there did seem to be poverty that I hadn’t noticed in other areas of Istanbul.

There were a lot of children begging for money around the markets, sometimes not wearing shoes. However, when we were walking through the more residential areas of Balat we saw families playing out on the street who looked happy and content, which was lovely to see.

48 hours weekend in Istanbul: Nell standing next to a brightly coloured blue tiled wall. She has one hand on the wall and is smiling at the camera with her head tilted slightly back.
48 hours weekend in Istanbul: A colourful street in Balat with brightly coloured washing hanging from one colourful building to the next.

As we were catching the train the Sofia that evening, Balat concluded our 48 hours in Istanbul and we caught the bus back to Eminönü and headed to our apartment to collect our bags before heading to the train station. We managed to pack a lot into just a weekend in Istanbul, but there’s so much more to see and I’d love to be able to spend longer there at some point in the future.

Travel Tips for a Weekend in Istanbul

Get an Istanbul Kart (Istanbul Card) if you’re using public transport

These cards can be bought from machines at public transport stops and cost 6 Lira (less than £1)… you can use one for up to five people as well so no need to get one each if you’re travelling in a group! You buy a card and top it up and then can use it on all public transport including metro, buses, trams, funiculars and ferries.

Not only will you be paying around 40% less for public transport but it means that you can easily tap in through barriers without the hassle of buying individual tickets – an important time saver when you only have 48 hours in Istanbul!

Don’t go to Istanbul for a boozy holiday

Billy & I have a habit of getting really giddy on the first day of any city break and getting drunk by about 2pm. On our first day in Istanbul we didn’t drink any alcohol until the evening at the bar I’ve written about above, and on our second day we just had one glass of wine whilst waiting for our train in the evening.

This was mainly because alcohol wasn’t readily available, with a large number of bars and restaurants not selling it, but it was a refreshing change for us and meant that our time was mega productive!

Remember to get a visa for your weekend in Istanbul!

This didn’t even cross my mind until about midnight before our trip when I was trying to sleep, at which point I had a huge panic that I should have applied weeks ago and now wouldn’t be allowed to enter the country.

Luckily you can apply online and it only takes about half an hour to come through, or alternatively you can pay on arrival at Istanbul but you must have a £20 note exactly (i.e. not two £10 notes!).

Extend your trip by taking the night train to Sofia

If you have some time to spare, I’d highly recommend take the night train from Istanbul to Sofia. It was a great experience (and more luxurious than you’d think!), and a smaller city like Sofia is extra relaxing after 48 hours of rushing around Istanbul. Take a read of these blog posts for more information:

I hope this post has inspired you to visit Istanbul for a weekend even if you don’t have loads of time, or given you some tips on what to do if you’re planning 48 hours in Istanbul.

Nell xx

You could spend months in Istanbul and still not have completed all the things to do! Here are some tips to help you experience this city in just 48 hours or a weekend. From the grand bazaar and Turkish markets to the Princes Islands, Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia, bosphorus cruises, Taksim, Balat and all the food! Travel inspiration, city break, destination guide, Europe, Asia, budget travel, backpacking

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