Istanbul, the city that straddles Europe and Asia, is one of the most stunning cities in the world, full of ancient history in a spectacular natural setting.
By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
The city of Istanbul is divided into three obvious parts: the old city, where the majority of the famous sights are located, the new(er) part of town, where neighbourhood life is at its best, and the Asian part, to which few visitors venture.
The Old City
The old city of Istanbul, once fully contained within thick city walls, is so littered with sights that at first glance it looks like a potentially very time-consuming effort to take them all in. But worry not; most major sights are packed into manageable chunks within walking distance from each other, perfect for a weekend.
Start where everybody starts, at the Hagia Sophia, the once church, then mosque and now museum, built back in 537 AD. Next door you’ll find the elegant Blue Mosque with its six slender minarets reaching to the skies and also the Obelisk of Theodosius and the old Hippodrome, a place where horse races and sports events used to take place from 203 AD.
Just around the corner, you will see the insignificant-looking entrance to the Basilica Cistern, an enchanting underground palace with 336 columns, all lit up to generate a perfect reflection in the calm water reminding you that the cistern was once the drinking water reservoir for the people of the city.
Now, you will have to decide as to whether to turn right or left, visit the famous Topkapi Palace or have a saunter around the Grand Bazaar. The Topkapi Palace stands just behind the Hagia Sophia, commanding the small peninsula sticking out into the area where the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus. and the Marmara Sea meet. A visit to the Palace can take you hours, as it not only houses important exhibitions such as paintings of the famous and infamous Sultans that used to rule from there (check out Sultan I Abdulhamid with his permanently surprised expression, and Sultan III Selim, who bears a striking resemblance to Henry VIII of England). There is the treasury which houses some gorgeous jewels, including the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, and more, all set in luscious gardens, with mature trees, beautiful pavilions and views over Istanbul and the surrounding waterways.
Alternatively, if the urge to stock up on some souvenirs is strong, follow Divan Yolu Caddesi, leading into Yeniceriler Street, uphill – stopping first for lunch with superb views at Loti Roof Lounge at no. 27 (https://lotipoints.com/loti-roof-lounge/) – to the Grand Bazaar, one of Istanbul’s institutions, and the one historical sight that keeps both history buffs and shoppers happy at the same time.
Built during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II in 1461, the bazaar is not only the world’s oldest shopping mall, with 4,400 shops, but also the world’s largest covered building, covering an area of 75 acres. Wear comfortable shoes, bring lots of patience and a spare bag or two.
Just behind the bazaar you will find the university and Istanbul’s largest mosque, the Suleyman Mosque, whose sizeable chandelier was once lit with candles, the soot of which was used by the scholars as ink for their calligraphic writings.
Just five-minutes’ walk away, down by the Golden Horn, an inlet dividing the old and the new Istanbul, you will find the Spice Bazaar and the Galata Bridge full of fishermen, street vendors, cafes and a hub for the myriad shipping vessels traversing the waterways.
The ‘new’ city
Just across the Galata Bridge you will enter the newer part of Istanbul, over-towered – literally – by the Galata Tower, once a fire watchtower, now offering the best panoramic views over Istanbul, both at daytime, and during sunset.
Slightly uphill from the Galata Tower is the hotel and business district, where most of the city’s five-star properties, such as the historic Pera Palace (https://perapalace.com/en/), where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express, can be found.
Stroll along Istiklal Avenue, which is great for shopping and has many small arcades coming off it, making it perfect for exploring, to Taksim Square and then wind your way down through the Beyoglu neighbourhood with its many cafes, past the enchanting Museum of Innocence (read Orhan Pamuk’s novel with the same name before you come) and down to the bustling restaurant area of Karaköy. Check out Karaköy lokantasi (https://www.karakoylokantasi.com/en) for dinner.
The next morning, head to Ortakoy with its beautiful mosque set against the Bosporus Bridge. This is an ideal place to spend a morning, have breakfast (try the traditional scrambled eggs in a pan with tomatoes and cheese at Ortaköy Kahvaltı Evi https://www.facebook.com/Ortakoycafekahvalti), an arts and crafts market and a convenient ferry stop that will take you to the main hub of Eminonu, from where you can take another ferry across to the Asian side.
The Asian side
Istanbul’s Asian side is worth visiting, even if it is just for that feeling of crossing from one continent to the other. The Asian side is most of all a residential area, for people wanting to escape not only the high real estate prices on the other side, but also from the busy city life. This side is covered in luscious greenery; houses have gardens and views of old and new Istanbul, with the Bosphorus thrown in as added bonus. Go up to Büyük Çamlıca, the highest hill in Istanbul’s vicinity and relax with a freshly baked simit (a local sesame-covered bagel), some Turkish coffee and enjoy the peace and quiet together with the stunning view.
By the shores of the Bosphorus, you can visit the stunning Beylerbeyi Summer Palace, the smaller sister of the Dolmabahce Palace on the other side, which used to act as the Winter Palace. Please note the Sultana’s bathroom upstairs – it must be the bathroom with the best view ever.
There is so much more to Istanbul outside of these three main areas, such as the gorgeous and imminently Instagram-able neighbourhood of Balat (have coffee at Artlocalist, a café cum art gallery located at Balat, Vodina Cd. No:12), or the simply divine real estate, great fish restaurants and the Rumeli Fortress along the Bosphorus, it is impossible to see it all in one weekend. But for a taster, select a few morsels and then straight away book your return ticket.