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- Posted:Friday, May 10, 2013
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From Beyoğlu to Sirceki and from Europe to Asia, Istanbul is a busy, beautiful city - so what do you do if you've only got 24hrs to see it all? We love to make the most out of a new destination regardless of how little time we have to spend there. So that's why we've put together a quick guide to what we would do with just one day in Istanbul.
9am – Be prepared to hit the ground running as soon as you go out the front door of your accommodation – Istanbul is a city of almost 14 million people, and they’re all trying to get where they’re going as quickly as possible. But nip into any café and everything slows down a bit. Order a savoury cheese pastry and a tea or coffee. If you want a real blast of caffeine, don’t just ask for a ‘coffee’ – chances are you’ll get a cup of machine-made Nescafé, with which Istanbulites seem to have a fixation. Order a Turkish coffee instead and savour the rich, sweet flavour and thick texture as you sip.
Want something more than a pastry and coffee? Head to Van Kahvalti Evi in Cihangir and order menemen, a staple of Turkish breakfast which is like an omelette but with stewed tomatoes, onions and peppers. If you’re in a group, we recommend also ordering a serpme kahvaltı between you; this is an assortment of fresh cucumber, tomatoes, cold meats, honey, clotted cream and different types of cheese. It’s delicious and will keep you going for hours.
10am – Head into Sultanahmet and be amazed to see the Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace all centred around one square. It certainly makes things easier when you’re pressed for time. Entrance to the Aya Sofia is 25TL, while the Blue Mosque is, of course, free. They’re both covered in beautiful murals on the inside, with intricate, traditional Islamic art in the mosque and a unique blend of Christian and Islamic Byzantine art in the Aya Sofia.
Entrance to Topkapı Palace is another 20TL and the place is absolutely enormous, so it’s wise to consider budget and time restrictions before deciding to visit it.
Also located on this square is the Basilica Cistern, which is well worth visiting for only 10TL. Look for the two stone heads of Medusa and the swarms of giant carp.
12pm – Buy some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and then walk up the hill to the Grand Bazaar, which will be bustling with activity this time of day. Peruse the wares on offer and soak up the atmosphere as vendors try to catch your attention. Pick up a nazar amulet while you’re there – this blue-and-white icon is said to be a protection against the evil eye and is omnipresent in Turkey. Once you know what it looks like you’ll realise it’s on everything from keychains to doors and even airplanes.
Then continue north to the Spice Bazaar, a (much) smaller version of the Grand Bazaar. Here you’ll find piles of spices and herbs arranged in a rainbow of colours. It’s also a handy place to pick up some tasty Turkish cookies and baklava.
1.30pm – Grab balık ekmek for lunch from one of the boats parked at Emınönü square next to Galata Bridge. Balık ekmek is a grilled fish sandwich made with peppers and other fresh veg. It’s cooked right in front of you and the fish came straight from the sea that morning, possibly even that hour. Eat as you stroll across the bridge to Beyoğlu and take in the views of the beautiful, ancient city around you. Istanbul was the centre of the world for hundreds of years and it’s not hard to picture all this history with such a spectacular view.
2pm – Once you’re across the bridge, turn left and walk up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi for about five minutes until you get to Galata Tower. It’s bit of a steep walk; alternately, hop on the underground funicular at Karaköy Station and then walk back down the hill to the tower from Tünel Station. Entrance to Galata Tower is 13TL and it offers some breathtaking views over the entire city.
3pm – Head back towards the water a tiny bit and then walk for about 10 minutes to the Istanbul Modern. It looks like it’s in an empty parking lot, but don’t be fooled. Lest you begin to think Istanbul is all ancient mosques and traditional food, the Istanbul Modern hosts a constantly changing, fun, thought-provoking range of art installations, much of it interactive. It’s also a fairly small museum so it won’t take more than an hour to wander around. When you leave, grab a couch in one of the many sumptuously decorated cafés located in the alley next to it. Give yourself an hour or two to smoke a nargile (shisha/hookah/water pipe), sip some strong tea and maybe play a board game while you give your feet a rest.
5pm – Walk up the hill on Boğazkesen Caddesi to the unbelievably grand Galatasaray High School – yes, that’s a high school. Thirsty after all that walking? Stop at any of the fruit stalls and grab a pomegranate juice for around 5TL. They’ll juice it right in front of you and it’s very refreshing. Then turn right onto Istiklal Caddesi. This is one of the main high street shopping areas in Istanbul, where you’ll find tons of easily recognisable shops like Sephora and Nike.
7pm – You’re probably very hungry and a little tired by now, so the best thing for it is to dine in a traditional meyhane. A meyhane is a kind of Turkish tapas restaurant, designed for settling in at a table with friends to eat and drink and talk for a good couple of hours. There are several meyhanes in the area, but one we can personally recommend is Salkım Meyhanesi at 27a Süslü Saksı Sokağı, across from a taxi stand. It’s hidden up some unmarked stairs above another restaurant and when you go in it feels like you’ve entered someone’s living room; it’s comfortable, friendly and no-frills. The cheery staff will bring plate after plate of meze – cheeses, halloumi, babaghanoush, hummus, köfte and more. Much of it is vegetarian so if you don’t eat meat, you’re in luck. Order a small bottle of rakı, an anise-flavoured liquor, and mix it in your glass with water and ice to make it turn from clear to milky white. Hate the flavour? Local beer Efes is cheap and refreshing.
Alternately, Cezayir Sokağı, located behind the high school, is a lane famous for its row of charming restaurants featuring live music while you eat.
Evening 'til late – This area around Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square is full of great nightclubs and bars, no matter what kind of music or atmosphere you’re looking for. You’ll find quite a lot of tourists and expats in any of them, but the locals party here, too. Some good options include Nayah (for reggae), Araf (for cheap beer and live gypsy music) and Joker Bar (for a party atmosphere). At 28 Imam Adnan Sokağı, you’ll find a building with a different bar on every floor, each one specialising in different music. On the third floor is Eski Beyrut, a lively, friendly club playing popular world music like Gogol Bordello and Manu Chao.
The wee hours – You’ll find 24hr restaurants and sandwich places on Taksim Square at the top of Istiklal Caddesi. Taksim is the heart of Istanbul and you can watch the city start to wake up on the square. There is an almost-endless range of junk food on offer here, from köfte to lahmajun (a kind of spicy mince pizza) to something called Taksim islak, or ‘soggy hamburgers’.
Otherwise, make your way (by taxi or metro) to Kumkapı to see the sun rise over the Sea of Marmara and Kumkapı fish market. Then take one of the (non-tourist) ferries to Kadıköy – welcome to Asia! Get yourself a Turkish coffee at one of the many cafés and contemplate how you just crossed from one continent to the other in just 15 minutes.
Want more info? Check out our Istanbul City Guide for info on currency, language, getting around and more.