Istanbul is the only city to span two continents, with a skyline that brings together minarets, church spires, the call to prayer and indie music from hip cafes. Although Istanbul is mostly known for its historical sites such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, it also has an amazing contemporary scene that is often ignored. This guide will help you bring together the old and the new for a perfect 36 hours in Istanbul, one of the world’s most visually stimulating cities.
Nothing says ‘I’m in Istanbul’ more than walking down Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s most famous avenue filled with cafes, indie bookshops, boutiques, patisseries and galleries. If you are interested in second hand books, you can visit Aslihan Pasaji, which is a huge building full of shops that sell second hand books. (Personally I can spend days in here. Actually I have spent days in here). Or, if you just want to sit down and rest for a while, you can spend some time in Ara Café, named after the famous Turkish photographer Ara Guler and which features his art work on the walls. Sitting here you can watch all the different people walking past, from conservative Muslim women dressed in headscarves to hipster teenagers and business people wearing the latest high fashion clothes.
You can also go up the Galata Tower, which offers a panoramic view of Istanbul’s historic parts. According to Evliya Celebi, an Ottoman historian, Hazerfan Ahmet Celebi flew from the tower and across the Bosphorus using artificial wings.
As the sun starts to set around 7pm, enjoy a cocktail at 360 Istanbul, a rooftop bar and restaurant on top of an apartment on Istiklal Caddesi. Order a martini or one of their specialty drinks and experience the 360 degrees view of the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and all the churches around the area.
Start walking down Istiklal Caddesi towards Karakoy, a former industrialized part of town now turned into a Mecca of indie cafes (think Taste times a hundred), fusion restaurants and the hippest night clubs. Book a dinner beforehand at Karakoy Lokantasi, where you can enjoy Raki-Balik, a term used in Turkish to indicate a table full of and mezes, which are similar to tapas, Turkish style fish and Raki, an unsweetened, anise-flavored alcoholic drink unique to Turkey. To end the night move on to one of the hip nightclubs such as Unter or Gaspar, where you can dance crazily to techno music amongst the contemporary crowd of Istanbul.
To fully take advantage of the day, try to wake up very early and get a Simit (a traditional Turkish pastry with lots of sesame seeds) and Turkish tea from one of the many sellers on the street. Start the day by solving the mystery from Dan Brown’s latest book “Inferno” by heading to Hagia Sophia. You’ll most probably fall in love with its huge dome and Byzantine mosaics. Then, you can visit the Basilica Cistern right across the street. This amazing and quite eerie space dates back to 532 AD and has 336 columns that provide structural support. Why the two Medusa sculptures were placed at opposite corners of the cistern is still a mystery. Maybe you can solve it? Be dazzled by the Blue Mosque again just a short walking distance from the Cistern and Hagia Sophia. There are 260 stained glass windows and around 20,000 shimmering blue-green tiles, that will astonish you. (At least it astonishes me every time I see it.) Before having lunch visit the Topkapi Palace, which served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years of their 624-year reign.
Have an amazing lunch of meatballs and special Turkish hot sauce at Sultanahmet Koftecisi, which has been serving authentic Turkish food since 1920. Make sure to drink some Turkish coffee before you leave so that you have enough energy to bargain later on during the day at the Grand Bazaar.
After resting and gaining you energy back take the tram to the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets with 5000 shops spreading over 60 streets. You can shop for spices, leather goods, antiques, delicious Turkish delights and of course traditional Turkish carpets. Bear in mind that Turkish people are really friendly and hospitable and most probably they won’t let you go without making you have some Turkish tea with them. I would advise you to accept these offers, as these interactions will give you a real feeling of the lives of Turkish people.
To reach the final destination of the day, Chora Museum, take the tram or the bus (you’ll soon realize that the public transport is very cheap and that Turkish people are extremely helpful and sometimes they will even stop what they are doing and accompany you to your destination). Not many people know that the frescoes that decorate the walls of Chora Museum are actually much more significant within the world of art history than those in Hagia Sophia.
Have you ever wondered what kind of food was served in Ottoman festivities? Have you last dinner in Istanbul at Asitane Restaurant, the best Ottoman restaurant in town. You’ll be surprised what Turkish cuisine has to offer beyond kebabs.
Have a traditional breakfast, containing a dozen different kinds of cheese, eggs with sucuk (Turkish peperoni), menemen (a mixture of eggs, tomatoes, peppers and cheese), olives, pastirma and of course different kinds of pastries. Then to stay goodbye to this beautiful city with a ferry tour around the Bosphorus and be immersed in the beauty of this eclectic city. If you have time wrap yourself in traditional cotton and relax in the steamy surroundings of a traditional Turkish bath. The Cemberlitas Baths is one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the 1500s, and is very cheap. After spending an hour being massaged and washed, you’ll leave all the tiredness behind and end your 36 hour trip of Istanbul on a relaxed and positive note.