At the mouth of the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea meets the Aegean, stands the proud city of Istanbul. It is a place of history and myth, of ancient wonders and merging cultures. Here, a history pulses through the veins of this sprawling metropolis, and the distance between two worlds is reduced to a single river.
Istanbul sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, making it the only city in the world to bridge two continents. This strategic placement gave rise to an illustrious trading history, and allowed the city to be the capital of great empires. During the Ancient Greek Civilization, the area was known as Byzantium, which was supposedly founded by the legendary Byzas the Greek at the behest of the Oracle of Delphi.
It eventually came under Roman control, and in 330 A.D. was transformed into Constantinople, the new capital of Constantine the Great’s (a Christian convert) empire. After the splitting of the Roman Empire in 395, Constantinople served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire until the mid-15th century, when the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city and renamed it Istanbul.
The days of the sultans are long gone, but the vestiges of the city’s imperial status remain. Grand mosques, palaces and churches shape the skyline and tower over the shorter Eastern- and Western-inspired buildings. Centuries-old marketplaces operate just a stone’s throw away from modern shops and restaurants. Trams roll past ancient landmarks along Istanbul’s main thoroughfares, while pedestrians (and occasional pushcarts) rule the sloping backstreets. This unique convergence of time and cultures is the source of Istanbul’s charm, and of its ability to captivate and enthrall any visitor.
8:30 a.m. Morning coffee and tea in Hafiz Mustafa
Hafiz Mustafa 1864 is a Turkish institution with its top-notch sweets like baklava, kunefe (a white cheese pastry that’s soaked in sugar syrup), and lokum (Turkish delights). While it’s generally more of a dessert place, it does have some good options for breakfast. Order a cheese-filled borek pastry along with tea or the ever-famous Turkish coffee, and you’re all set for the day. If you’re in Istanbul during winter, sample the sahlep, a warm and comforting milk-based drink flavored with orchid root.
10:00 a.m. Start with the Blue Mosque courtyard and the Hippodrome
Start your sight-seeing with the Sultanahmet Camii, a.k.a. the Blue Mosque. This 17th century structure is currently going through some interior restorations until 2020, but the courtyard is still open for viewing and the building’s façade is nothing short of impressive with its fine crescendo of domes and graceful arches.
Right beside the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, where a large stadium (inspired by the Circus Maximus in Rome) for chariot racing and other public events and ceremonies once stood. Today, only its outline, a few brick vaults and three fascinating ancient monuments remain, as the original structure was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade. The most striking of the three monuments is the Egyptian Obelisk (or at least the top third of it), which was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in AD 390.
10:30 a.m. Marvel at the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
Cross Sultanahmet Square to one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world: the Hagia Sophia. The building’s past is fraught with fires, riots, and sackings, and the current structure is from the second rebuilding during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Many alterations, repairs and additions to its imposing exteriors and cavernous interiors were made as the city changed hands among rulers and empires. Inside, the many awe-inspiring architectural and visual features bear witness to its history as both a Christian church and as a Islamic mosque. Be sure to check out the mosaics in the galleries, and to turn your thumb in the Weeping Column before you exit (legend has it that your wishes will come true!).
12:00 n.n. Explore the Topkapi Palace
Grab a snack from a street cart on the square outside the Hagia Sophia and take a short walk to Topkapi Palace, which served as the former residence and seat of government of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th century. The palace itself is like a miniature city with various buildings and courtyards linked together by a series of ceremonial gates and pathways. Topkapi’s main attraction is the Harem, but the Court of the Divan (where the Imperial Council held its meetings), the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle (where the important religious relics are kept) and the tiled terraces and pavilions of the Fourth Courtyard are essential parts of the visit.
2:30 p.m. Get some street meat
No one should ever leave Istanbul without eating a döner kebab, but that doesn’t mean that you should just chomp down on the first one that you see. So make your way through the small walkways of the Grand Bazaar to city favorite Dönerci ?ahin Usta—where the meat is juicy, the pide bread is soft and warm, the tomatoes are fresh and sweet, and the onions are seasoned generously with sumac.
3:00 p.m. Check out the Suleymaniye Mosque
Before you start shopping, take a shortcut through the Beyazit Gate of the bazaar and walk past Istanbul University to the Suleymaniye Mosque (Suleymaniye Camii). Sometimes referred to as the greatest Ottoman structure in Istanbul, this mosque was commissioned by Sultan Suleyman I and designed by the revered architect Sinan. The courtyard is grand and regal, while the geometric patterns and walls and the stained glass windows of the interiors are stunningly intricate.
4:30 p.m. Shop at the Grand Bazaar
Now it’s time to get lost in the 60-plus lanes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. The shops have modernized and the wares have become very touristy, but the bazaar has managed to retain a lot of its historical traits: the ceiling is beautifully painted, the old stone floor is charmingly worn out, and waiters from nearby tea shops zip through the crowds to deliver tea on silver trays to shopkeepers. Many of the goods inside can be found for cheaper right outside the building, but even just being inside is a memorable experience. So go ahead and sift through the evil eye talismans and haggle with the vendors inside and outside the building for the next couple of hours. For a change of scenery, you can pop on over to the Beyazit Gate and check out the book market.
7:30 p.m. When the sun goes down
Istanbul’s nightlife is particularly good on the other side of town. The area known as Tünel has many café-bars and wine joints tucked away into charming little corners or up on rooftops, while the Taksim area has some lively taverns and bars with good food and lots of drinks.
8:30 a.m. Breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi
Head on over across the Bosphorus to Van Kahvalti Evi, a charming breakfast spot with one of the most delicious Turkish breakfast spreads in the city. Your table will be covered with olives, tomatoes, fresh cheese, clotted cream, eggs, honey, jams, and spreads with lots of fresh bread. You can accompany your breakfast with Turkish coffee if you like, or down lots of black tea like the locals.
10:00 a.m. Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace
Located by the shore of the Bosphorus, the Dolmabahçe Palace became the official residence of the Ottoman sultans after Sultan Abdul Mecit deemed Topkapi Palace too old-fashioned. Completed in the 1850s, the new palace is the architectural embodiment of extravagance with its large, European-style halls, opulent furnishing, and grand lighting fixtures. All this luxury and excess, however, came with a price: its construction nearly emptied the imperial coffers, and is often cited as one of the causes of the empire’s bankruptcy in the 1870s.
12:30 p.m. Climb the Galata Tower
For a panoramic view of the city, climb the Galata Tower. From its viewing deck you can look across the Bosphorus and count the mosques and minarets that dominate the skyline. The area surrounding the tower has become the haunt of the local art crowd thanks to the SALT Galata art research center, so take a quick stroll around the neighborhood to see some of its quirky corners.
1:30 p.m. Eat balik ekmek by the Galata Bridge
Instead of taking the tram back across the river, walk along the Galata Bridge, where you’ll see fishermen patiently waiting for a catch. At the end of the bridge, you’ll find some colorful (almost to the point of gaudy) boats selling balik ekmek, a sandwich made with fresh fish and vegetables. The sandwich is light, simple, and tasty—just sprinkle on some of the salt and lemon juice from the bottles on the tables and you are good to go! The eating areas in front of the boats can get extremely crowded and chaotic, with people hawking wet wipes and pickles. Make sure to get the latter and not the former!
3:00 p.m. Look around the Spice Market
Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, the Spice Market is an L-shaped building heady with the scent of spices and teas. Here, you can buy every spice and spice mix used in Turkish cooking, as well as endless varieties of tea, dried fruit, and lokum (Turkish delights). The shops inside the building charge much more than the stalls right outside (still technically part of the market), but make sure you stop by the store Ucuzular Baharat, which is famous for not upping the prices for tourists.
5:30 p.m. Take a tea break
Time for a well-earned break from the sight-seeing and the shopping. Tea is the national drink of Turkey, and is served in a tulip-shaped glass. The most common is black tea (koyu çay refers to strong tea while açik çay refers to light tea), which can be mixed with some sugar according to the drinker’s taste. There’s also elma çayi or apple tea. While almost always artificial and most definitely a touristy drink, it is sweet, delicious and refreshing.
7:30 p.m. Dine in Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun
For your last dinner in Istanbul, visit Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun. It’s a popular spot with the locals thanks to its mouthwatering grilled dishes and sides—all served in generous servings for low prices! The Adana Kebap (a heavily spiced minced meat skewer) and the Tomato Kebap (grilled tender chunks of beef and tomatoes) are devastatingly good, while the lahmacun (a flatbread topped with ground meat, tomatoes, herbs, and spices) is a definite must-try.
9:00 p.m. Take a Turkish bath
There’s a lot of mystique surrounded the Turkish bath (hamam), but truth be told, it’s a straightforward process. Bathers will first be led into a the hot room (similar to a sauna), where they can relax and let out a little sweat before receiving a massage, scrub, and a rinse in cold water. Hamams separate female visitors from male visitors, either by schedule of baths or by area in the building itself, and are open until midnight. It’s the perfect way to relax after two full days of exploring the city.