48 Hours In... Istanbul
Spend even a short amount of time in Istanbul, and you’ll notice the look. It’s the one of the faces of people who live here as they try to explain their love for this oldest and grandest of cities. Hands will caress the air vaguely as mouths struggle to find the words. Eyes will go suddenly hazy, like the mist on the surface of the Bosphorus.
The best answer I got was simply: It’s the layers. By this they could have meant the people: At 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe (more people live here than the whole of Belgium). But more likely they were talking about history. Few cities are as old as Istanbul, and thanks to its unique position straddling the two continents of Europe and Asia, the fabric of the place has been written and rewritten as classical civilizations rose and fell.
It was the capital of the Byzantine Empire then, following of collapse Rome, served as a seat of power for arguably the greatest empire in world history, the Ottomans. A push and pull between Islamic and Christian architecture is everywhere, nowhere more so than in Istanbul’s most famous building, the Hagia Sophia, a church in which images of Christianity as grand as any in Rome jostle with the exquisite calligraphy of Islam that were erected after its conversion into a mosque. This richness and depth extends everywhere you go, find the winding souks of the spice market to the banks of the Golden Horn, one of the grandest urban waterways in the world.
If you’re planning a weekend away in Istanbul, then follow our guide for how to make the best use of your time in this most sprawling and atmospheric of cities.
Where to stay - Ritz-Carlton
Few spots in the Istanbul command as fine a view of the Bosphorus as the Ritz-Carlton. Here, you can enjoy exceptional dining (Sunday brunch, a Turkish tradition, is particularly spectacular) while watching the glistening waterway ferry people and goods between Europe and Asia, as it has for thousands of years, with the smooth domes of the city’s thousands of mosques shimmering along the skyline. It’s hard to think of a more majestic spot to start your exploration of Istanbul.
The rooms, as one would expect from Ritz-Carlton, are spacious, sleek, and set up to cater for your every need, while the spa downstairs is the perfect place to escape and enjoy a vigorous Turkish hamam that will send you back out scrubbed clean and ready for all the sprawling metropolis can throw at you.
Where to eat lunch - Pandeli
The oldest restaurant in Istanbul also happens to be one of the best. Located at the entrance to the city’s famous spice market (exactly the place you’re going to want to be picking up those Turkish delights to take back for the office), it sits at the top of some very old steps decorated in fine turquoise tiles. Inside, the menu is just as appealing and traditional. Lamb abounds in various forms (kebab, stew, rack of) - all just as melt-in-the-mouth as you’d dare hope.
Misir Çarsisi No: 1, 34110 Fatih
Where to snack - Karaköy Güllüoglu
Quite simply: the best baklava in town, which is saying something. If you’re a fan of Turkey’s national naughty treat, a rich, incredibly sweet dessert pastry made of filo pastry, chopped nuts and syrup, then this bustling family-ran cafe is the place to be. The Güllü clan have been making the stuff since the 1800s, and if you’re lucky enough to wrestle a seat away from one of the locals, you’ll soon find out why.
Where to eat dinner - Park Fora
The first thing you see entering this seafood specialist is a market stall spread of the day’s catches on ice and a few lobsters, claws unstrapped, and their own spacious, impeccably clean tanks. Downstairs, the service at Park Fora is very much ‘old school’ (the waiters attend to you in sparkling white suits with solemn precision) but the interior is relaxed and contemporary, with a great view of the water (in Turkey, a seafood restaurant not attached to the sea is considered an absurd idea). The food, meanwhile, is for real hardcore fans of the ocean’s bounty. Expect the juiciest of prawns, the most delicate of mullet and (should you be feeling decadent enough) a whole red bream baked in ice and then set aflame right next to your table.
Where to go out - Rana by Topaz
Technically another restaurant, Rana typifies a growing trend in Istanbul for dining spots that turn pretty quickly into the opportunity for a little dancing. There are, of course, plenty of nightclubs in the city if you’re young enough to enjoy them, but for the rest of us this a more enjoyable way to party.
It goes like this: You sit down in a spacious contemporary dining room and have your fill of traditional Turkish food (mezzes and grilled meats) while the waiters top up your raki. Raki, for the uninitiated, is Turkey’s national spirit and defacto weapon of choice. It is served with water, takes like aniseed and goes surprisingly well with food. It’s also around 50 percent volume, which helps explain the latter part of the night, when suddenly belly dancers emerge to a significant change in music and everyone previously enjoying a quiet meal starts throwing shapes. Best to just go along with it.
Where to visit: BORD - Maritime Museum
Nowhere rewards having a grasp of its history quite like Istanbul. A great place to start to get you head around it is the The Istanbul Naval Museum, located at Besiktas district of Istanbul in Turkey. It has an impressive collection of military artifacts from the era of the Ottoman Navy including some grand old boats, but beyond that you’re offered a walk through exhibition that’ll bring you up to speed with the many eras (and of course, wars) that have defined the city.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.