Some cities you can visit for a day and feel as though you’ve seen everything. Istanbul is not one of those places. This glorious city, which straddles the Bosphorus strait, is home to some 13.5 million inhabitants and, at 5,343 square kilometers, it is the largest city in Europe. It has been the capitol city of four empires – Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman – and modern-day inhabitants and visitors have inherited a rich tradition and history like no other place in the world. If you’ve been considering a trip to Istanbul, the city where east meets west, plan to give yourself a generous week’s worth of time to see, taste, smell, hear and touch everything that makes Istanbul one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture.
Consider staying in Sultanahmet, the Old City, for ease of access to the early portion of the itinerary. One of the more obviously-named options is the Sultanahmet Hotel, a reasonably-priced location that comes classically furnished and air-conditioned. It’s charming and centrally located in the city for easy walking distance to the sights and comes with a beautiful rooftop terrace for stunning views of the city.
The Four Seasons Istanbul is a luxury space with all the modern amenities one could wish for. Enjoy the plasma TV, CD player, espresso machine and refrigerated private bar. The hotel also boasts a fitness center, spa services (including Balinese massage) and full-service restaurant.
Day One – Sultanahmet: Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
Two of the most famous sights in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia represent both the cultural and religious history of a city that certainly changed hands over time. Women entering the Blue Mosque are advised to wear head scarves in respect for the sacred space, but all are invited, free of charge, to wander the breathtaking interior of the mosque that Sultan Ahmet I built. Hagia Sophia was once the largest cathedral in the world, though it was converted to a mosque in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks. It is now a secularized museum that is open every day except Monday. Entrance is 20 Turkish lire, approximately nine euro.
Day Two – Sultanahmet: The Topkapi Palace and Sunken Palace Cistern
Topkpi Palace was inhabited by the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years, and is now a museum that is open every day except Tuesday, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. The harem tour, while fascinating, can be skipped in favor of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which houses famous artifacts usually only seen in history books. The Sunken Palace Cistern was part of a building project by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, whose mosaic is so famous.
Day Three – Sultanahmet: Grand Bazaar
Spend your third day meandering through the endless vendors of the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling shopping experience where you can buy clothing, jewelry, ceramics, embroidery, spices and antiques. Barter for everything or grab a seat in a café and people watch. You must also try the restaurant Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, which has become famous for its meatballs.
Day Four – Eminonu and the Spice Bazaar
Eminonu, a Sultanahmet neighborhood, is home to the Spice Bazaar, which is smaller than the Grand Bazaar but full of herbs, dried fruits and spice shops which sell buckets full of aromatic and colorful spices. Try lunch at the inexpensive Doy-Doy Restaurant and aim for seating on the rooftop terrace for spectacular views of the Blue Mosque.
Day Five – The Bosphorus
A daylong cruise on the Bosphorus is a fine way to see parts of Istanbul that might otherwise go unnoticed. It will probably be the first and only time of your life you can remember seeing two continents within minutes of each other, as well as palaces, castles and suspended bridges.
Day Six – Galata: Taksim Square and Beyoglu
Representing the more modern side of Istanbul, Taksim Square and Beyoglu come with trendy restaurants and cafes, bohemian hangouts and plenty of shopping. This is also a great place to stay into the night, when the clubs and live venues pick up.
Day Seven – Hamam and Nargile (Hookah)
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a massage at a haman, Turkish bath, and a contemplative smoke of the Turkish water pipe, called nargile and known also as hookah. Ask around for the best locations with the best prices.
About the Author: Mihriban Hanes is a contributing writer and the daughter of Turkish immigrants who have taken her back to their home city over a dozen times over her lifetime.