Where can you soak up 8,000 years of history, take a ferry between Europe and Asia and eat some of the world’s best breakfasts? Only in Istanbul. Europe’s largest city, with a dizzying metropolis of more than 15 million, Turkey’s hub offers a seamless blend of Old World and new, East and West. Here’s how to best spend your two days there.
Istanbul is huge, and with that comes serious gridlock. Check into a hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, like the grand Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet or charming boutique Hotel Amira Istanbul so that you can get around on foot, making a visit to Istanbul’s historic sites a breeze.
Hotel breakfasts in Turkey are veritable feasts. Eat up, fighting jetlag with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, before kicking off sightseeing at the iconic Hagia Sophia Museum (Turkish name: Ayasofya). From 537 until 1453, this was a Greek Orthodox church, save for between 1204 and 1261 when the Latin Empire that occupied then-Constantinople turned it into a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, Hagia Sophia became a mosque and remained one until 1931. Mosaics depicting Christian iconography and the bells, iconostasis and altar were plastered over and four minarets and other Islamic features were added. Today, many of these mosaics have been restored and are vibrant in color despite advanced age.
Your next stop, the stunning Sultan Ahmet Mosque, is just across a small park. Better known as the Blue Mosque, for the tiles covering its interior walls, this structure was built between 1609 and 1617 when Sultan Ahmet I decided to make it clear just how powerful the Ottomans were. The building is imposing inside and out — one large dome, six minarets and eight smaller domes. More than 20,000 handmade tiles in 50-plus tulip designs cover the lower levels, bathed in the light that streams through 260 stained glass windows.
Walk 10 minutes to Gülhane Park and take a break at open-air café Setüstü Tea Garden (Set Ustü Cay Bahcesi). At the far end of the park, grab your drink and snack while taking in a sweeping panorama of the Bosphorus, the strait separating the two continents. Turkish tea (called çay) is a black tea you sip without milk but often with a cube of sugar. It’s served here in traditional samovars.
The park is on the grounds of the majestic Topkapi Palace, your next stop before lunch. This was the residence of the Ottoman sultans and their courts for nearly 400 years. Since 1924, the former royal home has been a museum, its galleries filled with porcelain, weapons and armor, calligraphy murals and Islamic calligraphy manuscripts, jewelry and Ottoman miniatures.
From there, it’s just a five-minute walk to Deraliye, a smart Ottoman eatery. The food here is a modern-day interpretation of traditional Ottoman fare — think stuffed vine leaves with sour cherries, lamb shank with pureéd eggplant served in pastry or saffron rice with chickpeas. If you prefer to work up an appetite in the kitchen, the restaurant offers a daily cooking class (about one and a half hours), after which you’ll dine on the fruits of your labor.
Work off lunch with a 15-minute stroll to and then a walk around the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, having been a trading hub since the mid-15th century. There are 5,000 odd shops here selling lamps, rugs, leather goods, tea, spices, books and all manner of souvenirs.
Head for dinner in a former Ottoman palace at the waterfront Ciragan Palace Kempinski. When construction on the palace was completed in 1871, then-Sultan Abdülâziz moved in, but he wouldn’t reside there for long — he died just four years later. Next in line was his nephew, who lived there for only 93 days before being deposed by his brother. Have a walk around the hotel’s regal public spaces and the small gallery detailing the building’s rich history. Sit down to a meal fit for a sultan at Tuğra, the hotel’s signature eatery. Not to be missed is the ultra-tender and wonderfully fragrant beef tenderloin, which is cooked with pearl onion, garlic, mushrooms, green tomatoes and thyme. It was first served in the palace kitchen in the early 19th century.
After seeing Istanbul’s historic side, your second day is all about the new. Start off at Istanbul Modern, the city’s waterfront contemporary art museum. Opened in 2004, the museum lives in a former warehouse and hosts the Istanbul Biennial art exhibition. Its permanent collection includes works by late-19th- to early 21st-century Turkish painters as well as pieces by foreign artists like Tony Cragg and Monica Bonvincini. Temporary exhibitions showcase works by big names in contemporary art, such as South African print artist William Kentridge and American installation/video artist Jennifer Steinkamp.
Your next stop is Karaköy (once known as Galata), presently Istanbul’s hottest neighborhood. Pop into gallery SALT Galata, housed in a handsome 19th-century Ottoman bank. Hosted here are performances, talks, workshops and exhibitions. Its elegant restaurant neolokal, whose team aims to serve food that’s kind to the environment but inspired by tradition, is where you’ll be taking lunch. The kitchen produces dishes such as olive-oil-poached artichokes with yogurt cream, dried peas and carrot yogurt, and rose, coffee and cardamom pudding with meringue.
After lunch, have your lire at the ready for a spot of shopping. At menswear boutique Bey Karaköy, you’ll find bowties, ties and backpacks from local designer Niyazi Erdoğan and clothing from Istanbulite Nihan Buruk’s collection NIAN. Home goods include Müz brand terrariums and cheery notebooks from Happily Ever Paper. Concept store Atelier 55 is a great place to pick up clothing, accessories and home goods from Turkish designers like Bora Aksu. Another smart stop is Aida Pekin. The Izmir-born Pekin studied jewelry design in Florence before returning to Turkey to peddle her unique, bold designs.
Watch the sunset from Galata Tower, a medieval stone creation built in 1348. It stands almost 210 feet and was once the city’s tallest structure. The observation deck, at 169.4 feet, is the place to take in a commanding view of the city and the Bosphorus.
Once you climb down, it should be time for dinner. Make your way to Yeni Lokanta, a restaurant that specializes in cold and hot meze. The bulgur salad with sour cherries and braised sea bass with raw zucchini salad are nice and light. Manti (tiny Turkic dumplings) are a staple dish. And while they’re most often stuffed with minced meat, these are filled with eggplant and the result is fantastic.