Resting on the cusp of the Middle East, Istanbul has a vastly contrasting culture to much of Europe and is too accessible to resist a visit. If you go in the summer, be prepared to be bounced around with thousands of other tourists while cursing yourself for not wearing cooler clothes and spending more time in front of an air conditioning unit. But still it is nothing that cannot be cured by a boat tour down the Bosphorus or a cocktail in a roof top bar.
When packing for Istanbul do not forget that as a Muslim country many of the women wear burkas and others do not dress immoderately. To avoid unwanted attention wear clothes that cover at least your shoulders and most of your legs. The traditional ‘gap yah’ pants are definitely a winner.
Almost all of the day attractions are in the area of the city south of the Golden Horn River. Staying somewhere near the Blue Mosque means you will be conveniently close to everything. Note that hotels are mostly in old traditional buildings.
Day one: morning
Arrive as early in the day as you can, there are too many beautiful parts of this city that cannot be missed out on. Start with the Blue Mosque, and step into one of the oldest and most famous mosques in the city. Named after the blue tiles that decorate it, this will be the start of a feast for your eyes over the next 36 hours.
Next wander out into the Hippodrome and visualise the crowds screaming as horse and carriages would have thundered up and down at breakneck speeds. Make your way down towards the Aya Sophia (also known as Hagia Sophia), which is conveniently close. Depending on how many museums you are going to visit now consider buying the museum pass, if not only to persuade you to visit more attractions this also allows you to fast track all the queues (a blessing in the summer heat!). Take an audio guide for the Aya Sophia and wonder around in awe of such a majestic building. Take your time here – the size, history and decoration is not to be ignored. When you have been around the main mosque go around the corner to the tombs of sultans and their families. After the sultan died the oldest son would kill all of his siblings, who would often number in the twenties due to the polygamy of the sultan. This resulted in many caskets, including heart wrenchingly miniature coffins alongside those of their fully-grown siblings.
Take the tram from Sultanhamet to Cemberlitas to visit the Grand Bazaar. The tram is definitely the fastest and cheapest way to travel and is also a good way to see a lot of the city. It is the same price for any distance so hang on for a bit if you have the time.
Day one: afternoon
On arrival at the Grand Bazaar be prepared to be hassled like never before. Also be prepared to make yourself sick from tasting endless amounts of Turkish delight. It is always fun to get a taste of a few before picking your favourite flavours. Do not worry about getting lost inside the Bazaar; it happens to all of us and there are “street” signs around to help you. Grab some lunch here in one of the little Turkish restaurants that are spotted around inside.
If you have the energy walk back towards the Blue Mosque, or grab the tram. By this time you will definitely have earned an hour or two with a cup of tea in your hotel and a potential siesta to rest your feet and eyes after so much wondering.
Once you have gathered your strength venture out into the early evening of Istanbul. Head over to the Beyoglu district, first by tram down to Eminonu and then walk across the Galata Bridge at sunset with Asia on one side of you, Europe on the other and the silhouettes of heavily domed and minareted mosques at your back. With hundreds of fishermen lining the edges of the bridge there is a predominantly fishy smell during the walk across, but do not let this put you off the experience. Istiklal Street is where you want to be but definitely take the tram up there to Tunel.
Once you reach this pedestrianized zone you will have a shock at just how different this side of town is. You would be lucky to find many mosques here but instead will walk up and down between Istanbul’s infamous shopping malls, Zara, Mango and JD Sports along with a few of Turkey’s own brands that are spotted around as well. While ogling at how westernised this street is watch out for the tram, which likes to whizz up and down. You are unlikely to find any particularly great food in such a touristy area, but if you are willing to treat yourself head towards Munferit on Yeni Carsi Cadessi which boasts by far the best Turkish food I have ever had and gives a bit of a break from the standard kebabs (if you want a change). This restaurant also turns into a very popular bar after dinner, so stick around for few drinks before heading home or heading out. You are in the party district after all so it is worth making the most of it.
Day two: morning
Hopefully not nursing too much of a bad hangover, fix yourself up with a proper Turkish breakfast – slightly different from your standard choice but worth a taste anyway – and head straight for the Topkapi Museum, the home of the Ottoman sultans and their extended families and workers for nearly 400 years. This was a massive highlight for me and will take a few good hours to get around properly especially once the hoards set in. Once in, grab yourself a headset and head straight for the Treasury. Getting there early will allow you to walk straight in and gape at some of the largest gem stones in the world. It also boasts a gold encrusted crib for the royal babies, something Princess Charlotte would be jealous of!
After this take your time wandering around the Harem, Gardens and the Palace. This is where your audio guide will really be useful. I generally find them better than a human guide as it allows you to go at your own pace, doing everything in whatever order you want to (and skip out the boring bits!). The kitchens are also interesting as well especially when you learn that they used to feed 10,000 people a day.
By this time you will definitely deserve some lunch so take a stop in the museum restaurant or recline on the sofas of a cafe nearby and watch the world roll past.
Day two: afternoon
Take a taxi to the Chora Church. This is definitely a hidden gem of the city and, for the History of Art geeks among you, it will be a favourite attraction. The mosaics are out of this world; the best way to view them is to forget that there are other people in the room and lie on the floor for a while just to take it all in properly.
Travel back via the Suleymaniye Mosque. This one is much quieter than others and retains an incredibly elegant charm, peace and beauty that is not ruined by thousands of tourists squishing past you. Definitely worth a visit. Plus there is a beautiful view of the rivers from its garden.
Walk down through the streets towards the Spice Bazaar. This one will only take you about 20 minutes to walk around, but the smell will attract you from a considerable distance. If you love all smells and tastes Turkish, this is definitely a must.
Now down near the docks you have a choice; either make your way back to the hotel for a few hours of R&R or take a ferry over to the Asian side for the rest of the afternoon. When I went to the Asian side, for some unknown reason I was expecting a considerable culture change. Apart from a reduction in the concentration of tourists, though, this is not the case at all. Instead, the Asian side is really just an opportunity to wander around for a bit and to say you went to Asia for the weekend.