A blustery, bustling place that’s constantly on the move, Istanbul is a string of colossal mosques and their minarets that carve out the skyline as the gleaming Bosphorus flows in the foreground under a crisp blue sky. The city is a place that doesn’t stop. Whether it’s shopping, dining, sightseeing, art, music, history, clubbing, café culture, or bars that you’re after, Istanbul’s got it. Divided between Europe and Asia, an arm of the Marmara Sea acts as the only physical barrier for the two parts that still form the one sprawling city housing its nearly 14 million inhabitants. With so much to take in, use our expert two-day itinerary to explore the colorful metropolis.
Two days are barely enough to do Istanbul proper justice, but it’s possible to get a fair taste for the lively city and its laundry list of delights. Your home for 48 hours will be The House Hotel Galatasaray in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Karaköy in the Beyoğlu district. Designed with plenty of contemporary flair by studio Autoban, the 19th-century mansion has been given a second life. But with only 20 rooms, the house still retains its quiet, Old World charm. The rooms are all different in shape and size, except all provide high ceilings, polished parquet floors and ornate moldings.
Once you’ve checked in at the hotel, step outside and follow İstiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street, to peruse the various storefronts that lead down to Galata Bridge. Punctuated by the Galata Tower and steep winding cobbled streets, Karaköy runs out onto the Bosphorus, offering a stunning panorama of minarets and plenty of nooks and crannies to investigate. Making your way toward Galata Bridge, explore Tophane, Istanbul’s growing art neighborhood. Istanbul Modern hosts international contemporary art exhibitions such as Neighbours – Contemporary Narratives from Turkey and Beyond, while work by modern artists such as Joan Miró are on display at Tophane-i Amire.
Once you’ve had your culture fill in Tophane, stroll along the banks of the Bosphorus to explore Karaköy’s emerging café culture. Bej Café is the place to stop for brunch or a drink against a trendy boho-chic backdrop, with options such as artichoke salad or Alaturka meatballs with pita bread. A lokanta (mezze bar) by day with reasonable prices and an upscale meyhane (traditional restaurant) by night with higher prices, Karaköy Lokantası is also a good stop for lunch or dinner (but booking is mandatory in the evening), with options such as slow cooked beef with eggplant or oven-roasted veal’s cheek.
Spend your post-lunch hours indulging in a bit of window-shopping. Karaköy is becoming an art lover’s haven in its own right, too, with galleries such as Galeri Manâ and artSümer. A few boutiques are also popping up in the area, including Kağıthane (House of Paper) and 333km for sleek and hip furniture. BrandZoo, however, is the highlight of the area with its five floors packed with vintage and designer apparel and accessories from brands such as Batya Kebudi and Nazli Bozdağ.
For pre-dinner drinks, the lively Mama Shelter is a sound bet with plenty of breathtaking views of the city from its rooftop terrace. The service is impeccable and the cool, collected manner in which the bartenders mix an impressive array of cocktails such as the Sangria Rouge (red wine, strawberry juice, cinnamon, clove and orange) will make you wish you had their agility.
For dinner, make your way to X Restaurant & Bar, which sits atop the Deniz Palas building. The ultra-sleek eatery provides great international food (think risotto with porcini mushrooms and chard or sea bass with mint flavored pea stew and baked spicy potatoes), an extensive wine list and stupefying scapes of the Bosphorus and the mosques of the Sultanahmet district. After your meal, soak in the city’s nightlife by grabbing drinks at 360 Istanbul, a glass-enclosed space perched on the eighth floor of the Misir Apartments building. As the name suggests, this spot is arguably one of the best places in Istanbul to experience 360-degree vistas of the city. After midnight, the tables are pushed back and the venue becomes an action-packed nightclub, too.
After catching some shut-eye back at the hotel, nourish your body at the start of day two at its Attic Lounge Bar on the top floor, which offers views all the way to the river and is where a hearty buffet breakfast is served until 11 a.m. Post-breakfast, head out to cross Galata Bridge for essential sightseeing of the city’s highlights including the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the Old City. While on the bridge, you’ll notice the bustle seems to accelerate as throngs of locals line the bridge armed with fishing rods, and cars and trams roar past. Other sights in the ancient Ottoman neighborhood of Sultanahmet include the Grand Bazaar and the Topkapi Palace — if pushed for time, tickets just for the harem, which is the true highlight of the palace, are available.
The area is packed back-to-back with kebab restaurants and mezze bars. However, for an assured high quality kebab, catch a cab to Samatya, an unpolished residential neighborhood, to Develi Samatya. It is here that you’ll delight in a delicious kebab alongside the lovely views the restaurant provides of the river.
For dinner, the place to go is Anjelique in Beşiktaş at the end of what is known as the Golden Mile, located in the affluent neighborhood of Ortaköy. Here, you’ll find the usual luxury lodging suspects including the Hotel Çirağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul and Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus. The neo-Art Deco, three-story restaurant serving Asian and Mediterranean fare is the place to be on Friday or Saturday night, as the bar downstairs transforms into a spirited club for those who like to imbibe as well. The bar opens onto a wooden deck looking out to the Bosphorus, which proves to be the main attraction in the summer months.
Photos Courtesy of The House Hotel Galatasaray and Rooksana Hossenally