Everyone will tell you this isn’t close to enough time to explore one of the most storied cities in the world. And they’re right. But you might as well try.
One of the keys to understanding Istanbul is experiencing the extreme juxtapositions in the city - modern cafes looking out over ancient sites; Middle Eastern-style bazaars cheek by jowl with European-style art galleries; a horse-and-carriage stuck in a traffic jam alongside BMWs alongside taxis.
So, while the itinerary below encourages you to visit all the awe-inspiring, can’t-miss sights, they are paired with glimpses of today’s modern metropolis.
First things first: breakfast. Turkish breakfast is an institution - best on Sundays by the Bosphorus - but find an abbreviated version to fuel you up for your sprint. Traditional dishes include menemen...
...cheese, tomato and cucumber, simit, borek pastry, and honey and cream - all washed down with plenty of tea or Turkish coffee.
Now, run, don’t walk, to the old city, Sultanahmet, for a spin through the treasures of Constantinople.
Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque: set across from each other, these are your first stop. Note that the Blue Mosque (called the Sultanahmet Mosque locally) is a functioning place of worship, so you will have to visit around prayer times.
In the immediate vicinity, the ancient Hippodrome (which takes a bit of imagination as sadly only three decorative columns are still standing), and Basilica Cistern (straight from a scene out of James Bond’s From Russia With Love), are must-see sights as well.
Tea break! Should you be hankering for a sit-down or pick-me-up, wander by Caferağa Madrasa, a courtyard of artisan workshops just outside the Hagia Sofia’s exit. Take your traditional tea and wander through ateliers of ebru painting, porcelain and more.
Back on your feet, head to Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans until they built Dolmabahçe (DOAL-mah-bah-chay) palace at the end of the empire. Don’t miss the exquisite tile work in the sultan’s chambers or the outrageous collection of jewels from around the empire.
Lunch anyone? Get a glimpse of the modern side of Istanbul and stop on Nuruosmaniye Sokak, a walking street near the Grand Bazaar with a mix local and international stores and cafes. The cream of the crop is Armaggan, a palace of its own, featuring modern takes on Ottoman designs. But pass the gleaming silver tea trays and head to the elevators - the top floor houses a lunch oasis: Nar Lokantası. Flanked on one end by a Turquoise-tiled open kitchen and on the other by a vertical garden, the greyed wood chairs and rich fabrics exude an air of tranquil modernity. The fare is traditional, though, and features Nar’s line of high end olive oils, vinegars, jams, etc.
The Grand Bazaar. Hopefully you indulged in some baklava or other honeyed dessert - you’ll need the energy. The Bazaar is a chaotic rabbit warren of stores that would all be happy to relieve you of a few lira. Enjoy!
Assuming you find your way out of the Bazaar, wander down hill toward the Golden Horn, perhaps stopping through the Spice Bazaar along the way. Crossing the Galata Bridge, be sure to look back for one of the most romantic views in the world.
Istanbul is the city of seven hills, and the Istanbul’us have long known better than to climb them all. The Tünel funicular is one of Europe’s oldest metros, completed in 1874. Ride it from its base in Karaköy up to the top in Galata, at the base of Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s pulsing pedestrian thoroughfare.
Looking back at the Galata Tower, walk away from it up Istiklal Avenue to get a sense for the energy of the city. A few blocks up, stop at sleek Leb-i-Derya on the roof of the Richmond Hotel, and look out at all of the exploring you have accomplished. While you’re there, try one of the wines from Turkey’s growing viticulture industry.
Get back down to earth and head to Nevizade for a traditional dinner of meze, paired with rakı, all out in raucous sidewalk or balcony seating. Dinner can stretch well into the evening from here, but if you are looking for a new venue, check out what’s playing at Babylon, one of Istanbul’s favorite music venues.