Dense and dynamic, with an estimated population of 15 million and a history that spans more than 3,000 years, Istanbul captivates at first glance. Its undulating skyline, dotted with mosques, skyscrapers and glimpses of trembling waterways, is magnificent. Like Rome, the juxtaposition between old and new here is striking, but it’s also a way of life.
The ancient metropolis is still vibrant, ticking all the boxes of a must-visit destination: Superlative cuisine? Check. World-class shopping? Double-check. Five-hundred-year-old Turkish hammams that put modern-day spas to shame? Of course. In truth, there’s enough to see and do for weeks on end, but you don’t have to spend that long in the former Constantinople to absorb its essence.
As the main hub for global air carrier Turkish Airlines, Istanbul is a gateway city from East to West. Traveling Europe, Africa or Asia? Bisected by the Bosphorous Strait — an international waterway that forms part of the European continental divide — Istanbul is an ideal stopover point en route to or from your final destination. In fact, layovers of 20 hours or more are offered as a free service when traveling on Turkish Airlines, so it only makes sense to take advantage of this by exploring this fascinating city.
Here’s how to do it in two days, Forbes Travel Guide-style.
First things first: if you’re planning on stepping foot onto Turkish soil, you’ll need a visa to do it. The process is simple and takes mere minutes — just make sure to print it out and have a paper copy available at Turkish immigration, and you’ll be cleared for entry.
Unless you speak Turkish or have a local contact who can take you around, we highly recommend utilizing a travel service for the days when you’re on the ground. Sea Song — a local tour company established in 2000 by Karen Fedorko Sefer when she moved to Istanbul and married — specializes in crafting custom itineraries for the luxury traveler, complete with an English-speaking guide and transportation kitted out with Wi-Fi and USB ports to keep your phone charged.
Let the luxurious Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Raffles Istanbul be your home away from home. The sumptuous stay is renowned for its impeccable service, welcome cocktails and gorgeous fresh floral arrangements that greet you in the lobby. After an ultra-efficient check-in, you’ll be escorted to your room and introduced to your very own private butler. Any of the hotel’s 136 rooms and 49 suites would make for a retreat, but to make your visit most memorable, book a Bosphorous Suite. The highlight of the opulent 1,970-square-foot corner unit is the wraparound balcony offering exquisite panoramas of the city.
With a full living area, stocked mini-bar, Bang & Olufsen Bluetooth-enabled speaker, a giant walk-in closet and a marble bathroom fit for a magazine spread, the lavish abode comes with all the amenities to make you feel at home and then some.
When you’re finished taking in the views and are properly refreshed, leave the unpacking to your butler and set out for the day.
From a cultural standpoint, one of the imperatives of experiencing Istanbul is to visit a mosque. The most famous is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque for the 20,000 vibrant tiles adorning its interior. If you had time to see just one place of worship, this would be it.
However, due to renovations expected to be completed in 2020, the Süleymaniye Mosque makes for an excellent alternative. Perched on the third of Istanbul’s seven hills, the 16th-century mosque is the second largest in the city. Take some time admiring the gorgeous exterior structure, including the detail on its four columnar minarets, balconies and ablution (pre-prayer wash) stations, before stepping into the interior courtyard and entering the mosque itself. Since this is an active place of worship, shoes must be removed and women have to cover their heads and shoulders before entering in adherence with Muslim custom.
When you’re ready for lunch, have your transport take you across the landmark Galata Bridge to the Karakoy neighborhood in the Beyoğlu district for a meal at Karakoy Lokantasi, favored by locals for its traditional Turkish cuisine. Scope out the plates of mezze (the Turkish equivalent of Italian antipasti) on display so you’ll know what to order.
Start with a spread that might include dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), fasulye pilaki white bean salad, and fried cauliflower with yogurt sauce. For your main course, try Turkish dumplings known as manti or the Sultan’s Delight (braised lamb served over silky roasted eggplant puree), capping things off with a strong cup of Turkish coffee.
Skip dessert because just half a block away is Karakoy Gulluoglu, a bakery established in 1820 that is famous for its baklava. Don’t be surprised if you’re stuck behind hordes of people waiting in line for boxes of the confection to go. Do as the others do and get whatever looks good, then have a seat on the patio and take a bite of the wonderfully light, honey-tinged pastry.
Post-meal, explore Karakoy on foot. An area that used to be the main port of the Ottoman Empire, this up-and-coming hub of food, culture and shopping is a great place to get lost. Keep an eye out for some of the cool boutique hotels that have popped up and browse the well-curated gift selections at trendy shops such as Mae Zae, Çiçek İşleri and Mobu Design Market.
Be sure to leave time to explore the spectacular Hagia Sophia Museum. (Tip: purchase tickets online beforehand so you can skip the line.) One of Turkey’s most-visited attractions, this former Eastern Orthodox cathedral is a must-visit. You’ll crane your neck to marvel at the beautifully preserved mosaics that date back to the 14th century, and make sure to ascend to the second floor for a closer look at the artistic motifs.
Another way to acquaint yourself with Istanbul is to see it from the water. Just before sunset, head to the pier to embark on a private motor yacht sunset cruise. The golden glow of the setting sun will act as the perfect backdrop for Instagram-worthy shots as you cruise by palatial residences and historic structures such as Küçüksu Palace, Four-Star Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul and Ortaköy Mosque, sitting just a stone’s throw from the Bosphorus Bridge.
Retire to Raffles Istanbul to freshen up before an indulgent degustation menu dinner at the hotel’s chic pan-Asian restaurant, Isokyo. Feast on specialties such as crispy tuna tartare sandwiches, tempura prawn tacos and oishi sushi (crispy shrimp, spicy dynamite sauce and toasted sesame) served in cloud of smoky dry ice for an extra wow factor.
As dinner comes to a close, arrange to have your butler draw you a bath — optional special touches include rose petals or a side of champagne on ice — after you pop into the sleek Long Bar for a nightcap. The sip-and-soak combo is guaranteed to help you achieve a peaceful slumber.
Mornings at Raffles Istanbul start with the push of a button from the panel next to your bed. The drapes open dramatically to reveal the city in all its glory, the hazy morning light giving it a dream-like quality that begs for a moment of quiet contemplation.
After an activity-filled day out and about, take the morning easy and enjoy the hotel, starting with a gourmet breakfast at the onsite Rocca Brasserie. At the hot buffet station, try individual servings of shakshuka (eggs poached in spiced tomatoes), hot-from-the-oven croissants made with real French butter or traditional Menemen scrambled eggs with tomato. In the salad section, choose among charcuterie and smoked salmon, fresh fruit and cold-pressed juices. You also don’t want to forget to try the wonderfully thin Turkish gözleme savory pastries that are hand-rolled right in front of you.
Next, pamper yourself with a trip to Four-Star Raffles Spa. In the coed pool area, bask in the vitality pools, ice fountains and experience showers, letting the strong water jets massage your travel-weary body, before heading back to the locker room to do rounds in the steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi.
For a truly local experience, opt for one of the hammam services, like the Aegean Purity treatment. Savor an exfoliating body scrub and olive oil cleansing in the gorgeously tiled steam room before indulging in traditional treats for a sweet finish.
End your relaxing morning back in Karakoy with delicious kebabs at Ali Ocakbaşı. On the fourth floor of an old building, this contemporary spot offers tasty Turkish fare with windows overlooking the Golden Horn.
Energized by your mid-day meal, set out for an afternoon of serious retail therapy at the Grand Bazaar, a massive shopping center roughly 20 minutes from your hotel. Here, you’ll find some 4,000 stalls along 61 covered streets selling Turkish rugs, cashmere scarves, lanterns, leather goods, jewelry and just about anything else you can think of. Get lost for a couple of hours before returning to your room to drop off your purchases.
In Istanbul, there are countless places to enjoy dinner with a view. For your last taste of Turkey, opt for Neolokal, a contemporary restaurant serving classics done with a modern twist. On the second floor of an industrial building, the dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows that are strategically positioned for an unobstructed vista of the Süleymaniye Mosque, which lights up the night sky as you dine.
As you feast on chef Maksut Aşkar’s artfully presented plates (paired with Turkish wines, no less), you’ll feel as if you’ve barely scratched the surface of this historic and vibrant city, but that was the original plan anyway.