Istanbul. Bridging the divide between Asia and Europe, it is a buzzing metropolis of culture, food, people and beauty, steeped in Islamic history and that of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s waterways define it: the wide expanses of the Bosphorus, the key trading route up to the Black Sea, separates the continents, while the Golden Horn waterway divides the most famous mosques and ancient bazaars from the trendy European streets and international shopping of the Beyoglu district. We had four days to explore – not nearly enough by any stretch, but if I were to spend 48 hours new to Istanbul, these were the highlights, the must-sees that I would recommend making time for.
Rise early and head to the Sultanahmet for the day, the oldest district. Though not compulsory, women may be more comfortable wearing long pants or a maxi-skirt to avoid stares in this more traditional part of the city. Start with the Blue Mosque, iconic for its domes and six slender minarets, the handcrafted elaborately tiled interior and colourful stained-glass windows, and notice the exterior rows of ablution taps down the length of the building, built for worshippers to wash their feet and hands before entering to pray.
Move onto the Hagia Sophia, built in 537 as a key church of Orthodox Christianity, though it functioned as a mosque for 500 years following 1453 under the Ottoman Empire – the remaining disks of Islamic calligraphy contrast with crumbling Christian mosaics. Though permeated by an air of disrepair, with a tower of scaffolding, peeling paint and the light illuminating streams of dust, there is no denying the historical grandeur of the Sophia, once proclaimed to be the most magnificent building in the world and the largest cathedral for over 1000 years.
The nearby Basilica Cistern is worth a visit: forgotten about for 500 years before being rediscovered in the 1900s by archeologists who heard rumours of locals being able to catch fish through holes in their basement floors, it was constructed in 532 to service surrounding areas with water. Eery yellow lighting illuminates the 336 columns and arches, salvaged from temples around Europe, while water drips from the roof of the underground cavern and ghostly fish swim lazily beneath the wooden walkways.
Sit outside and grab a cheap and cheerful lunch of tender lamb kebabs wrapped in flatbread and loaded with sides of yogurt and the traditional shepherds tomato salad at Şehzade Cağ Kebabı, where the meat is marinated for hours before being roasted on a horizontal spit over a woodfire, giving it significantly more flavour than the countless roadside doner kebab stalls in the area.
Keep walking to the Grand Bazaar, the chaotic and bustling hive of trade that has existed since the 15th century, for your afternoon of shopping. Don’t worry about getting lost – because you almost inevitably will – just follow the sprawling streets and shouts of merchants, explore the laneways with lanterns arching overhead and figure out if you want a Turkish rug, try bargaining for a set of tea cups or ceramics, and discover hidden treasures within the maze of shops. When hunger hits or you need a break, head down to the Spice Bazaar a few blocks away. Just as frenetic, the distinctive smell of spice fills the air while merchants try increasingly desperate tactics to entice you to buy their wares. Drink pomegranate tea, try a few of the many varieties of dates, marvel at the vibrant colours of dried fruit, Turkish delight and nougat, buy a couple of pieces of baklava and watch the crowds of people, locals and tourists alike, swarm by.
When evening comes, use public transport like a local and catch a ferry from Sultanahmet (or Karakoy, if that is where you are staying) to Kadıköy, the Asian side of Istanbul, familiarising yourself with the horizons of the old city domed mosques and minarets, the opposing vista of the Galata tower in Beyoglu and the bridges joining East and West. Head up through Kadıköy to Ciya Sofrasi, a lokanta serving some of the best regional Turkish food we had on our entire trip: think lamb meatballs, fragrantly spiced with cumin and served in sour cherry sauce, silky smooth hummus and lamb-stuffed roasted artichokes served on a smoky eggplant puree, and everything full of herbs, spices and layers on layers of flavour.
The Topkapi Palace is worth an early morning visit. Opulent is an understatement in describing this residency of the court of the Ottoman Empire: bedrooms gilded in gold and lined with hand-crafted tiles, rooms with dangling chandeliers, the treasury filled with priceless jewels, the kitchens which used to serve up to 15,000 people per day, and the harem – the 400-roomed apartments that housed the Sultan’s mother, his many wives and concubines, their children and servants.
Heading away from Sultanahmet, cross over the Galata Bridge: a thoroughfare of people at all hours with its edges lined with fishermen and street vendors selling simit (a bagel-like bread), barbecued corn on the cob and fresh mussels with lemon. The Galata Tower dominates the Beyoglu skyline and is worth a climb up for panoramic views of Istanbul and a greater appreciation for its size and layout. Keep walking up cobbled streets lined with shops selling electric mixes of artwork and souvenirs, local businesses and stalls selling fresh orange and pomegranate juice towards Istiklal Avenue. Explore and shop away the afternoon along the elegant avenue, watching the old red trams pass by, eating at a local cafe or trying the famously stretchy Turkish dondurma (ice cream). For anyone hanging out for a non-sludgy coffee, it is worth the short walk to KronotRop, a microroastery where you can find flat-whites, lattes and filter coffee that wouldn’t be out of place in Melbourne. The quiet nearby streets lined with balconied apartments could have you in Paris or Rome, until you pop out near Taksim Square at the far end of Istaklal Avenue. The transportation centre of modern Turkey, Taksim Square is the venue for everything from football match screenings and New Year’s fireworks to all significant political demonstrations and protests.
Make a booking at Lokanta Maya for dinner: an upmarket bistro near the Karakoy end of the Galata bridge, it has been lauded by critics for its twists on contemporary Turkish cuisine. It was too good to pick favourite dishes, but the zucchini fritters, light, crisp edged and served with a creamy dill yogurt, the orange caramelised sea bass with roasted apricots, and the slow roasted lamb shoulder on a bed of garlic and lemon scented smoky baba ghanoush were all absolute stand outs. After dinner, nab some of the best baklava in the city at Karaköy Güllüoğlu just a few hundred metres away. Join the crowds and eat there or take some away, but make sure you get to enjoy the layers of flaky pastry, soaked with honey syrup and melded with ground nuts and cinnamon – for true indulgence, try it loaded with a scoop of ice cream on top.
And as an extra aside for those who love sweets, visit Hafiz Mustafa in Sultanahmet, a sweetshop open since 1864. Sit outside and people-watch or head upstairs for views over the street over your treats of specialty baklava, Turkish delight and nougat.
And just like that, your whirlwind 48 hours in Istanbul is over. A city unique in its extremes, in the sprawling landscape of mosques and high rise buildings, the street vendors and trams, centuries old bazaars and international designers, it should be one of the next places you visit.
If you any questions or comments at all, please let me know in the comments section below or send me an email – I would love to hear from you.