A 48-Hour Guide to Istanbul

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Courtesy: Pedro Szekely (https://flic.kr/p/TCNBML)

Photo of A 48-Hour Guide to Istanbul by Husein Haveliwala

An iconic gateway between Asia and Europe; Istanbul is the economic, cultural, and historical hub of Turkey that is divided by the Bosporus strait into the European and Asian sides of the city. This sprawling city is inhabited by roughly 1.5 crore people, and is a magical medley of seven hills, azure waters, spectacular architecture, and rich cuisine.

Getting in and around

Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is the biggest airport of Turkey, also being the hub of the country’s flag carrier Turkish Airlines, with a passenger traffic of 6.3 crores in 2017. From here, you can take a taxi (45-55 Turkish lira (TL), to the central districts), airport bus (11 TL to Taksim), or metro. There is another international airport on the European side of the city known as the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. Note, withdraw the local currency from the airport ATMs to keep in handy for the transport, as well as keep your hotel details handy.

Istanbul’s public transport service includes the yellow taxi, metro, bus, tram, and boat. It is advisable to purchase the smart card Istanbulkart for 6 TL (after which you recharge it to an amount of your choice. We recommend about 25 TL per person, for this trip), which can be used to travel via the bus, metro, trams, or local ferries. It offers considerable discounts for travel in the city. The metro and tram can be used to travel to most of the significant points to visit. The metred yellow taxis are easy and economical, however traffic in Istanbul proves the mass-transit systems to be faster options.

Accommodation

Budget: Oba Hotel, Basileus Hotel, Sultanahmet Inn Hotel, Walnut Shell Hotel

Mid-range: Ayramin Hotel, Hammamhane, Osmanhan Hotel, Regie Ottoman Istanbul

Luxury: Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, Romance Istanbul Hotel, Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus, The St. Regis Istanbul

Day 1

Located in a quaint narrow street south of Sultan Ahmet, the Marbella Terrace Cafe Restaurant has some beautiful views of the Sea of Marmara, and is your breakfast venue to start off your trip! For about 40 TL per head, you can get a basic breakfast spread with some authentic Turkish coffee. But, the view from this cosy café is what will make your day!

A 15-minute walk through the beautiful streets of Istanbul should get you to the entrance of Topkapı Palace. Once the main residence of Ottoman sultans, Topkapı Palace is now a museum. Full of opulent interiors and courtyards, this iconic palace is a sight to behold. The adjoining museum has a collection of weapons, china, utensils, jewellery, relics, and paintings that show just how grand the life of the rulers was. The palace is open from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm (winter) and 6:45 pm (summer) everyday but Tuesday. The ticket price is 40 TL + 25 TL for the Harem Section, and can be purchased on this website. Audio guides can be availed for 20 TL.

On the opposite side of the Hagia Sophia (a 7-minute walk from Topkapı Palace), lies the Basilica Cistern. At depths of almost 590 feet underground, this grand chamber will transport you to the Byzantine times, or part of a Dan Brown novel. The 336 amber-lit, marble-carved columns give a rather chilling atmosphere to the place. It is open from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm every day, and can be visited by paying an entrance of 20 TL.

Tucked away in an adjacent street 2 minutes away, this Turkish restaurant is known for serving up century-old recipes of fresh meatballs known as kofteh, amongst other kebabs. These succulent delights are just what you need to recharge for lunch. A meal for two here shouldn’t cost you more than 70 TL.

Take a tram from Sultanahmet to Eminönü/Spice Bazaar (3 stops, 2.60 TL) and make your way to the Eminönü pier. From here, get onboard Şehir Hatları’s Short Bosporus Cruise at 2:30 pm which will give you a look at the city from the water, a different and attractive new perspective. This is a relaxing round trip on the Bosporus, skirting the shoreline of İstınye, that drops you back to Eminönü pier at 4:30 pm. Ticket prices are 12 TL for adults and 6 TL for children under 12 years old. Try to find an audio/booklet guide on land before getting onto the ferry, to have an idea of what you are seeing around you. Note, this cruise is only available during summer (April 1st until October 31st), and plies every day.

Walking back to Eminönü/Spice Bazaar station, take a tram across the Galata Bridge to Karaköy İstasyonu (1 stop, 2.60 TL) and then walk up 10 minutes to the Galata Tower. This striking medieval tower of stone stands tall amongst its adjoining structures at 219 feet, and is a vantage point for the most unbeatable views of the city. The entry fee to the tower is 25 TL, and it is open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm every day.

From Tünel, a 3-minute walk from Galata Tower, take a ride on the heritage tramway to Taksim (1.75 TL). Welcome to what is pretty much the centre of the city. With the Monument of the Republic at the centre, what spans around is a major recreational hub for the city; with shopping, eateries, nightclubs, and hotels. You can spend hours strolling around the alleys and main-streets that diverge from the square; trying out some Turkish treats like Turkish delight, milk pudding, roasted chestnuts, Turkish ice-cream, islak or döner. As the moon rises, you have many options to choose from when it comes to nightclubs and bars; Litera, Urban, Babylon, to name a few.

A great option for a fun evening is Leb-i Derya, serving up some gourmet food with a Mediterranean touch, and scrumptious cocktails. Spread over three levels, with the top providing views of the city along with the Bosporus; this is the best way to end Day 1! Make sure to book about a week in advance, as this place is popular amongst locals and international visitors alike. An evening for two here would cost you around 270 TL with alcohol.

Day 2

Your second and final day in Istanbul begins with breakfast on the banks of the Bosporus. The House Café in Ortaköy is located just off the water’s edge, with a few exclusive tables on the veranda (try to reserve in advance) that provide views that will blow you away. A breakfast platter for two includes poached eggs, pastries, breads, cheeses, assorted sweet and savoury condiments, and tea; and would cost you 52 TL.

From the Kabatas Lisesi bus stop, take 42T, 22, 40T, or DT2 bus to Akaretler (5 stops, 2.40 TL), and walk 7 minutes to Dolmabahçe Palace. This enormous structure of flawless white marble stands on the bank of the Bosporus, with its carved and columned façades. You will not see anything like the grandeur of this 19th century palace’s interiors anywhere else in the world. Entrance fees are TL 90 for the whole palace and 60 TL for just the main part (excluding the Harem). An audio guide is included in the price, for which you need to give your original passport/driver’s license/USD 100/EUR 100 as deposit. The palace is open to visitors from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

A tram from Kabataş to Beyazıt (9 stops, 2.60 TL) will take you to the first shopping mall in the world. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest bazaars (covered market complex) in the world, with 4000 shops. It’s quite easy to get lost in this fascinating labyrinth of narrow alleys, with every turn dotted with attractive shops and products on display. You can find clothes, jewellery, souvenirs, leather goods, and carpets here; but these are just the basic categories. It goes without saying that bargaining is part of the experience here, and you should start every deal by knocking 50% off the quoted price and work your way up. Shops in the Grand Bazaar remain open every day but Sunday and bank holidays from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Finding this joint in the bazaar is part of the fun, but won’t be too hard by asking shopkeepers the way since Dönerci Şahin Usta is a popular name in the area. You have to stand and eat, and may have to wait in a queue for 10-15 minutes to get your food; but it is worth it. This is the place where you get some of the best döner kebab in the city. Döner is basically sliced tender meat that has been cooked on a rotisserie, that is wrapped in pita bread along with some tomatoes and onions. Mouth-watering, truly. A döner kebab here should cost you around 18 TL. The place is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday but Sunday.

Take the tram from Beyazıt to Gülhane (3 stops, 2.60 TL), and walk about 6 minutes to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. The museum’s opening hours are 9:00 am to 7:00 pm every day but Monday, with an entry fee of 20 TL per adult over 12 years which is possible to be purchased online. An audio guide for 15 TL is also available. This complex houses 3 museums that, together, hold a collection of over a million objects that represent almost every era of human civilisation in the history of the world. A remarkable museum to go through!

A 7-minute walk away stands the Hagia Sophia, an iconic structure in the cityscape of Istanbul, that has had many faces; once a church, then a mosque, and now a museum. This architectural marvel has gold frescoes, carvings, and sculptures galore that make you wonder how they were built at this size hundreds of centuries ago; an awe-inspiring sight. You can rent an audio guide for 30 TL, or hire an official guide for about 50 TL. Don’t forget to watch the film on the history of the mosque at the entrance. The museum is open from 9:00 am to 5:00pm (winter) and 7:00 pm (summer), and you have to pay an entry fee of 40 TL which you can pay online.

Adjacent to the Hagia Sophia is another structural icon that is popularly known as the Blue Mosque. Very pleasing on the eyes, it is one of the most alluring places of worship in the world. As it is a mosque, there isn’t any entry fee or opening hours as such; however, it does remain shut to non-worshippers for about 45 minutes during each of the five times of prayer in the day. Further, one must be dressed appropriately; which includes long pants for men, and woman must also wear a headscarf (can be borrowed from the entrance for free) to cover their head, back and shoulders. You must also remove your shoes and put them in a plastic bag before entering. As with any religious sight, maintaining decorum is important: flash photography and talking loudly are not appreciated.

As the sun sets over this gorgeous city, and with the call for prayer ringing in the background, make your way by tram from Sultanahmet to Tophane (5 stops, 2.60 TL). A 10-minute walk up the narrow, ascending streets should get you to the doorstep of Ağa Hamamı. This three-storey historical Turkish bath or hammam was built more than 500 years ago, and still provides an authentic hammam experience. There are various packages you can choose from; a base package of 100 TL includes entry, scrubbing cleanse, and a foam bath. 40 TL more will add an oil massage, 20 TL more a face mask, and the full package of 180 TL additionally includes a head massage as well. There is no better way to unwind after a jam-packed, adventurous trip through Istanbul. Ağa hamamı is open every day between 10:00 am and 10:00 pm, with 5:00pm-8:00pm being the most crowded hours (so give them a call in advance to let them know you’ll be there!).

Let’s end the trip on a high note of a sumptuous Turkish meal. Conveniently located right next to the hammam, the cosy little Babel Cafe & Restaurant serves up some authentic Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine. The goat cheese/halloumi salads, mezze platter, Babel special, manti (Turkish ravioli), falafel, tepsi kebab, and kunefe for dessert some dishes that cannot be missed. A filling meal here won’t burn a hole of more than 150 TL in your pocket. The hospitality shown by the owners, as well as the homely ambience will give you the best dining experience to bring your odyssey through Istanbul to an end!

There is truly no other city in the world like this one. This eclectic symphony of the East and the West has created a magical new world of its own; and that world is Istanbul. A city you must visit before you die, and now you know how to explore it in just 2 days!

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