You want to explore and capture the highlights of Turkey’s biggest city but have only one day in Istanbul? Read my guide to Istanbul’s best photography spots and attractions and you’re all set.Can’t travel right now? Check out my 360° photos of Istanbul and feel as if you were there in real life! This magical city is huge and seeing the highlight attractions in one day requires some planning – or just reading this blog post 😉
I’ve been to Istanbul three times – two of them for a 1 Day Stopover only, so I know how to get the most out of one day. I’m not a big fan of guided city tours because there is no time to take proper photos. If you’ve run into this problem as well you’ll find some useful information here. If you can, try to spend more time in this fascinating metropole though.
Sultanahmet, the Old City of Istanbul, is where the top attractions of Istanbul are located and where you should spend your day if you only have a limited amount of time to spend. This part of the city is what used to be called Constantinople – Istanbul as we know it today was built around it. Let’s jump into our One Day in Istanbul itinerary!
#1 Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
Closed on Mondays
Summer: 9am – 7pm
Winter: 9am – 5pm
Entrance fee: 40 TL
Istanbuls most famous attraction originally was a basilica from the 6th century, built for Roman Emperor Justinian I. This masterwork of engineering later became a mosque, but isn’t a working mosque anymore. It was converted to a museum in 1935. The dome with its 30m diameter was the largest enclosed space worldwide for over 1,000 years. For more info on Hagia Sophia click here.
Tips for photographing Hagia Sophia:
Hagia Sophia is perfectly lit outside and is therefore an excellent motive for long exposure photography. You can try playing with angles and involve the colored water fountain or the little food carts in front of the building. Ideally, you have a wide angle lens to capture the entire beauty of this UNESCO World heritage site from the outside as well as the inside. Tripods are not allowed to take in. Use one when it gets dark outside for some beautiful long exposure shots.
#2 Sultanahmet Mosque (aka Blue Mosque)
Open every day from 9am – 9pm
Entrance fee: Free of charge, donations welcome
The Blue Mosque with its six minarets and beautiful architecture seems even more impressive to me than the Hagia Sophia, which is right across the Sultanahmet square. This building is an active mosque, which means that it is closed to Non-Muslims for half an hour before and after the five daily prayers. On Fridays it is closed for 2 hours.
Before you go in, you will have to take off your shoes (plastic bags to carry them are provided) and women need to cover their hair with a head scarf (also provided). It should go without saying that you should cover your shoulders and knees. The inside of the mosque will leave you in awe with its amazing details. It is a place of worship, so please behave respectfully – be quiet, don’t take photos of praying people, and don’t use your flash. For more info on the Blue Mosque click here.
Tips for photographing the Blue Mosque:
Just like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is a great subject for long exposure photography. Again, you will need a tripod and a wide angle lens. If you happen to be here during prayers and can’t enter the mosque, take the time to shoot a timelapse, as it will be even more interesting when it’s busy.
To get great shots from above, go to one of the rooftop bars across the square. Sultan’s Pub and Blue Hotel will give you a great view over Sultanahmet square and the Blue Mosque. You can even see Hagia Sophia, unfortunately the roofs of the other buildings stand in the way for a perfect shot. You can take great timelapse videos and long exposure shots from here, especially during sunset. In winter, the rooftop bars are often closed – ask nicely and usually they will let you go up anyway and bring you some hot tea (no food though).
#3 Grand Bazaar
Open daily 8:30am – 7pm
Closed during religious holidays
Istanbul’s grand old bazaar is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls with around 4400 shops. This huge bazaar is a labyrinth of 60 streets and side streets and you can easily get lost amidst all the different colors and flavors. It is divided into “themes”, so you will find spices in one area, leather in the next and silver in another one.
It is normal and expected to haggle over the prices. Start at 50% of what the vendor is telling you as a retail price. After a little bit of bargaining back and forth, you can usually agree on about 75% of the original price. Only go if you are in a good mood though, as it can be pretty exhausting listening to pushy vendors for hours. If you have enough, just follow the Exit signs. The Grand Bazaar is only about 15mins by foot from Sultanahmet square. For more info on the Grand Bazaar click here.
Tips for photographing the Grand Bazaar:
The shopkeepers will usually be happy to take photos of and with you. Some parts of the Grand Bazaar are not very well lit, so a tripod will help if you don’t want to use your flash (try to avoid using in-camera flash whenever you can!). On the other hand, it can get pretty busy and your tripod including camera might just be run over by shoppers. A gorillapod is a nice alternative, you can set it up on tables or shelves without needing a lot of space.
Piles of spices always make for great colorful photos, but you will also find many weird curiosities, just keep your eyes open. Taking videos of locals serving tea or haggling over carpets can be nice little scenes for a travel movie. Colorful lamps will make for a great blur in the background of a sharp subject in the front.
There is a a “photo booth” where you can dress up as a Sultan and/or Sultana. One print is 20 TL, if you want all of the shots you get a CD + print for 100 TL. Of course you are not allowed to take your own pictures! On the photo you see my with my friend Rapha from Journey Wonders – having fun dressing up 🙂
#4 Galata Bridge
Take a stroll across Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn of Istanbul with its 490m length and 42m width. The famous landmark has a long history and the one you see now is the fifth bridge, which was completed in 1994. The construction itself is not beautiful, but the feeling is. You will experience the local color and characters of Istanbul. Fishermen are lined up casting into the water below and entertaining everyone by tossing up small fish into the air for the seagulls. There are several restaurants and coffee houses underneath the bridge where locals enjoy a meal watching the rush of the ferry boats and fishermen.
Tips for photographing the Galata Bridge:
It is hard to get a clear picture of the skyline from on top of the bridge since all of those fishing lines will show up in your shots. This is what makes the spot special though, so try to include the fishermen and recreate the spirit in your photographs. For a better view of (one side) of the skyline, walk down the stairs to the lower level of the bridge. At night you can take long exposure shots from any angle you like, from the same spot or you just walk away from the bridge for a while and use a wide angle lens so you get the entire bridge on your photo.
General tips for a day in Istanbul:
- Start with the Grand Bazaar and go to Sultanahmet square in the afternoon so you can see the sun setting over Istanbul. Make sure to be there early enough so you can go inside the Hagia Sophia museum. Unfortunately, both times I went, I was too late to go inside. For sunset, go to a rooftop bar and when it’s dark you can go back down and take long exposure shots at Sultanahmet square. If you have enough energy left, take a stroll over Galata bridge.
- Download the Istanbul map on Google Maps before you go there so you can access it offline. Open the Google Maps app on your phone, type in “Istanbul”, then click on “Istanbul” in the bottom left and download the Istanbul Map.
- Sultanahmet square, between Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque, has a free Wi-Fi hotspot you can use to direct you to your next destination or look up facts about the buildings or photographic inspiration. Most cafés and restaurants have Wi-Fi too.
- If you’re traveling on a budget, avoid eating at Sultanahmet square as it is overpriced.
- Be careful with your valuables, there are pickpockets in Istanbul just like in any other big city.
- Ignore the shoeshine guys on Galata bridge. Their trick is to drop something, hope you inform them about it and then offer to polish your shoes as a gesture of gratitude. They expect cash in return.
Getting from Atatürk Airport (IST) to Sultanahmet
By public transport:
Bus 96T from Atatürk Airport to Taksim also passes through some parts of the Old City. The easiest way to get to the Old City from Taksim by public transport is to take the funicular inside the metro station at Taksim Square and then transfer to tram at Kabataş station. Your final tram stop will be called Sultanahmet and is right in front oft he Hagia Sophia.
There are countless taxis, and fares are relatively cheap. The distance is about 20km and the ride should cost around 40 TRY.
Getting from Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) to Sultanahmet
By public transport:
There are shuttles working between Taksim and Sabiha Gokcen Airport every half an hour. The duration of the trip takes 1 – 2 hours, depending on the city traffic, the shuttle fee is 15 TL. More info here. From Taksim, either take a taxi or the funicular inside the metro station and then transfer to tram at Kabatas station. Get off at Sultanahmet tram stop, in front of Hagia Sophia. If you have only one day in Istanbul, you can get the same shuttle bus back to the airport in the evening.
A taxi ride from Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) to Sultanahmet is about 45 km long and will cost around 85 TRY.
Have you been to Istanbul and would like to add your personal highlight to my itinerary? I would love to hear your favorite tips for spending one day in Istanbul!
Here are some more pictures of Istanbul, maybe these will convince you to visit and stay longer than a day 🙂 After all, you’re visiting two continents by traveling to Istanbul!