Istanbul is an enchanting city – one I could easily see myself spending an extended period of time in. But, Istanbul is also a great hub to spend a few days in at the beginning or end of your next international trip. The city, which straddles the boarder between Europe and Asia, offers direct flights to a plethora of European and Middle Eastern destinations, and is often one of the lowest priced roundtrip tickets available from the States to Europe. Whether Istanbul is your final destination, or (like it was for me) one stop on your European Adventure, here are my suggestions for how to spend your weekend in the city where East meets West,
A WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL: DAY ONE
Hop on the city tram towards Sultanahmet, the middle of the city’s historic “Old Town” (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and get off near Topkapi Palace. The palace, which was home to Ottoman sultans for more than 400 years, could easily take several hours to explore if you’re a history buff.
Tip: If you find the palace interesting, it’s worth the extra entrance fee to tour the harem where the sultan housed his wives, female slaves, eunuchs, concubines and female relatives.
After exploring sprawling Topkapi, follow the tram line and walk towards the iconic Sultan Ahmed Mosque (typically known as, the “Blue Mosque”) at the Sultanahmet stop.
If your tummy has begun to rumble, make a quick detour to grab some roasted chestnuts or grilled corn from a street vendor, or pop into one of the restaurants near the palace to try gozleme, also known as a “Turkish pancake.” (You can’t miss these establishments since Turkish women are placed in the front window rolling dough to lure tourists in off the street). As one would expect, you’ll be paying a premium to dine in one of these restaurants (located so close to tourist sites), but the convenience of the location (and the deliciousness of a savory spinach and cheese gozleme) make them an acceptable choice if you’re pressed for time due to your busy sight-seeing schedule.
After you’ve satisfied your hunger, don your headscarf (women only) and head into the Blue Mosque to explore the colorful place of worship.
Tip: When planning your visit, remember that the Mosque closes five times a day for prayer. If you arrive mid-morning, you should be in the clear, but if not, head over to Hagia Sophia first.
Once you’re finished photographing the gorgeous blue tiled mosque, walk over to the (very) nearby Hagia Sophia. Interestingly, before the building was used as a mosque, the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox church (which is evidenced by the restored frescos depicting Jesus Christ).
Tip: The Hagia Sophia is now a museum and no longer used as a mosque. Because of this, it’s not necessary to plan your visit around prayer times and women do not need to wear a headscarf.
If you still have time (and energy), cross the tram tracks and walk to the nearby Basilica Cistern, the ancient underground chamber which used to hold the city’s water.
By this time your feet are probably begging you for a break, so head to the rooftop Seven Hills Restaurant for dinner or a drink. The view from this restaurant is nothing short of spectacular. Relax, enjoy the sunset and take in the twinkling lights of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.
Tip: Make sure to have your camera with you because the views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque illuminated in the evening from Seven Hills are definitely photo worthy.
Once you’re ready to turn in, take the tram back across the Galata bridge to your hotel in Beyoglu. Although not walking distance from the sights in Sultanahmet, I would strongly recommend staying in Beyoglu for the best dining choices and lively nightlife.
While in Istanbul, I chose to stay at Hammamhane Boutique Hotel. It’s common knowledge that Turkish people are known for their hospitality, but the staff at Hammamhane takes hospitality to a level that exceeds many of the five star hotels I’ve stayed at in the past. (For instance, don’t bother asking for directions at the front desk, because the friendly and helpful hotel manager will probably insist on personally walking you to your destination).
The hotel itself is stylish and trendy, and seemed to attract the same type of clientele. (While I was there, a Swedish male model was also staying at the hotel and shooting a print spread outside). If “stylish and trendy” isn’t your thing, I still wouldn’t rule out Hammamhane. All of the rooms are studio suites (complete with a full kitchen and washer/dryer), and they offer a comfortable, luxurious retreat from the bustling city.
Hammamhane is located in the Cukurcuma neighborhood, which is a SOHO-esque part of Beyoglu and is known for the numerous art galleries and antique shops. Near Istikial Street and located between Taskim Square and the Galata Tower, I found Hammamhane to be the perfect base to explore Istanbul.
Tip: If staying at Hammamhane, make sure to check out the eclectic Cihangir area of Beyoglu (only about a five minute walk from the hotel).
A WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL: DAY TWO
Start your day with a traditional Turkish breakfast and then head to the Galata Tower for panoramic views of the city. Istanbul was hazy and rainy last month when I visited, but I still was able to get some great photos from the tower.
Tip: If you have time, be sure to explore the trendy shops and cafes near the Galata Tower.
Next, if the weather is nice, walk over the Galata bridge and hop on a Bosphorus cruise.
Tip: You’ll want to walk across the bridge rather than take the tram so that you are able to capture some great photos of the city’s skyline dotted with minarets.
After your cruise, head to the Spice Market to shop for some (edible) souvenirs. Choose a stand where the locals are shopping and purchase spices and delicacies such as Turkish delight, dried apricots, pistachios and hazelnut chocolates and spreads.
Tip: Taste before you buy. The stall owners are typically more than happy to allow you to try their goods before you make a decision as to whether you would like to make a purchase. Make sure that you request your spices to be vacuum sealed so they stay fresh until you’re back home.
Once you’ve finished at the Spice Market, walk over to the nearby Grand Bazaar (famous for being the world’s oldest covered market) if you’re not already shopped out.
Tip: The Grand Bazaar is huge and can be a tourist trap. Make sure you’re not on a tight time schedule and brush up on your bargaining skills before your trip. With a bit of patience and expertise, you can score a great deal on Turkish leather goods, jewelry or carpets.
From the Bazaar, head towards the Sultanahmet tram station to nearby Mesale Cafe. Here you can enjoy live music and see whirling dervishes without paying a cover charge or entrance fee.
Tip: Mesale Cafe (like many other establishments in Sultanahmet) does not serve alcohol. Instead enjoy Turkish coffee, apple tea or salep (a delicious drink made from orchid root).
When you’ve worked up an appetite, hail a cab to the Fish Market. Choose from the many restaurants, grab a table outside, and order fresh fish straight from the Bosphorus.
Tip: If sitting outside, consider paying the gypsy musicians to serenade you. Their songs undoubtedly come with dancing and a whole lot of fun.
A WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL : DAY THREE
On your last day in the city, I would recommend that you explore Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul with the Taste of Two Continents food tour from Istanbul Food Adventures. Wow. This experience was so fantastic that it deserves it’s own post. (So, stay tuned).
Tip: Stretch your stomach beforehand and show up very hungry… the tour takes you to over 12 different stops, and I assure you, you will not leave hungry.
After your tour, you’re likely to feel a bit slovenly from all the deliciousness you’ve consumed. Wind down your weekend in Istanbul by heading to a hammam to experience a traditional Turkish bath. I’d recommend that you opt for a package which includes a massage so that you’ll end your weekend relaxed and prepared to catch your flight to your next destination.
Istanbul exceeded my expectations. A place where east (literally) meets west, I was blown away by the city’s culture and beauty, and the hospitality of the Turkish people. If you haven’t made your way to Istanbul yet, you’re missing out.
Have you been to Istanbul? What did you think?
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Although I was a guest of Hamammhane Boutique Hotel and Istanbul Food Adventures, I promise you that all opinions are my own and I’m keeping it real for my readers. (Honestly, my experience with both companies was just that good)!