Istanbul. It hits you like a train. There’s chaos everywhere, it’s busy everywhere, there are noises and smells and music everywhere. There are people talking, and shouting and gesticulating round every corner. There are car horns and calls to prayers and street vendors echoing in to the streets. This city is amazing, unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. It’s a city of contradiction – of charm, of magic, of beauty but also of exhaustion, of chaos, of full on crazy.
I visited Istanbul back in September for a weekend to meet up with my husband who was travelling for work. I only had a very short amount of time in the city, and I needed to make the most of it. So, here comes a whirlwind 48 hours.
(And if you want to find out more about safety in the city, then check out my post HERE – coming soon).
Day 1 – Arrival
I’m assuming your 48 hours starts with arrival in the evening (if you leave the UK on a 10.30am flight, you will arrive in Turkey at 5pm due to the time difference and you’ll be exhausted from a c.6am wake up), so your first stop will be checking in to a nice hotel. I recommend staying in the Sultanahmet (Old Town) area so you’re close to the main sites and can walk everywhere instead of relying on taxis.
We didn’t do this and instead stayed up in the Bomonti area. The Hilton Bomonti is absolutely beautiful and meant for a quiet peaceful stay and an insanely amazing spa, but it also meant a taxi ride each day in to the city which was never a fun experience so pick your hotel location wisely.
Day 2 – Sultanahmet
Today is spent in the main tourist centre, the Old Town. It gets VERY busy here, so be prepared for crowds, noise and traffic. It’s also highly likely you’ll have to queue for most of today’s activities (even with a pre-booked tour you’ll still have to do the security queue even if you don’t do the ticket queue), so you won’t be able to do things quickly.
A. Hagia Sophia (1.5hrs, including queue)
Start your day at one of the city’s most incredible attractions – Hagia Sophia. We got there for opening at 8.30am and it is free to enter without a guided tour. It’s an amazing place; once a Christian church it was converted in to a Mosque in 1453. Today it’s still a working Mosque and closed at prayer times for visitors. I loved the murals on the walls being a combination of new and old, a true testament to the diversity of this city.
Please be respectful. Women have to wear a head scarf to enter so take one with you otherwise you will have to buy an (over priced) one at the entrance, and leave your shoes in the stands. You should not put shoes on any of the carpet area, whether wearing them or just laying them down. Women also need to ensure shoulders and knees are covered.
B. Blue Mosque (1hr, including queue)
The Blue Mosque is a short 5 minute walk across a beautiful square from Hagia Sophia. Known as the Blue Mosque for its wonderful tiles, we unfortunately didn’t get to see them as it was under renovation. This building has always been a Mosque and there is a separate entrance for visitors vs practising Muslims. Be sure to go through the right one – and again be respectful with behaviour, headscarves and shoes.
C. Basilica Cistern (1hr with skip the line guided tour)
This was one of my highlights of the visit. Built in the 500s, this crazy underground structure was built as the city’s water storage systems back in Roman times and is known locally as the ‘Sunken Palace’. Be sure to look out for the upside down Medusa heads, re-used from older buildings and the original pillars. Just wow!
D. Grand Bazaar (1hr)
I think when you picture Eastern opulence, you picture the Grand Bazar, full of lights and smells and noise. This Bazaar was founded in 1461 and was designed as the trading heart of an Empire. The site is huge and we easily spent 45 minutes exploring. We were actually surprised it was largely under cover, very clean and we weren’t actually harassed at all to buy anything. We didn’t buy anything but if you want to haggle for well, almost anything, here’s your place.
E. Rooftop Bar Lunch (1.5hrs)
Istanbul has some of the best rooftop views in the world (in my humble opinion). There are rooftop bars everywhere and I’m sure some really beautiful ones. We chose to go to Queb Lounge and have lunch as well. The food was delicious, cocktails great and the views marvellous. It was quite magical with the call to prayers echoing from both mosques over lunch time as we ate.
F. Topkapi Palace (3.5hrs with skip the line entrance tickets)
We spent our entire afternoon in Topkapi Palace and barely managed to see any of it. Topkapi is the Palace which Mehmet II built fresh from his conquest of what was then Constantinople, from 1460-1478. It remained the Sultan’s Palace until 1856 when Dolmabahce Palace took over (which I didn’t have time to visit this time around unfortunately).
Topkapi is famous for its Imperial Gate, Sultan’s Apartments, stunning gardens, Kitchens and of course the Harem. The Harem was one not so exciting as often portrayed – yes, the Sultan chose girls, but mainly it was a family home and girls’ school. Of its 1,000 or so occupants, more than 2/3rds were servants or royal children and concubines spent many years undergoing a thorough education before being introduced to the Sultan.
G. Turkish Baths/Massages (1.5hrs, prebooked)
You can’t come to Turkey and not try out the baths. The most famous is Camberlitas Baths, build in 1584. Men and women have separate sections so there’s no joint treatments here, but we agreed an end time to meet again outside and both enjoyed the hamam and a traditional oil massage.
It’s worth saying that at the entrance you’re given a pestemal which is a sarong for modesty and a kese (a mitt) for scrubbing yourself down, plus tokens to give to attendants. You’ll then be taken to the changing room by an attendant who gives you a locker and slippers. Most people go nude under their pestemal, but I chose to wear a bikini and just take the top of for my massage and that was fine. My husband wore swim shorts the entire time. I saw no naked people and never felt uncomfortable. The experience was great – when in Rome, and all that.
H. Traditional Turkish Dinner (2hrs, prebooked)
You also can’t come to Turkey and not eat the amazing food. We chose Hanedan’ı Aras Restaurant & Bistro and sat outside, relaxed and watching the world go by until late – they are open until 3am!! The chicken kebab and Doner was just amazing and the service impeccable.
After what is a crazy full on day, I was totally exhausted but felt like I’d really seen a lot of the Old Town. We were on the go from 8.30am to 10pm, but it was worth it to take in so much of the city.
Day 3 – Beyoglu
One day in Sultanahmet was enough for us so today it’s time to get out of the chaos of the Old Town and explore a bit more of Istanbul away from the main tourist areas across the river in Beyoglu, known as Istanbul’s new town (although there has been settlement here for 2,000 years and it’s still really busy).
A. Galata Tower (2.5hrs due to long queue)
One of Istanbul’s most distinctive sites, Galata Tower has some of the best views of the city from its viewing platform built in 1348 by the Italians. I’d have loved to visit in the evening as they host dinner with Turkish belly dancing and folk songs, but alas the schedule didn’t allow it. We also had to queue for 1.5hrs here for tickets so it took a lot of time out of the schedule.
B. Istiklal & Shopping (1hr)
This is where a bomb went off about 4 weeks after we had visited, right outside Mango where we had shopped – killing and injuring many including children. I was really upset reading the news, it always feels that bit ‘closer’ when you can picture it and know it could have been you just as easily but for timing.
For us though, we had a peaceful visit and found it to be a beautiful shopping street which is nice to browse – try some authentic Turkish Delight or Turkish Tea, watch the world go by and explore some of the picturesque side streets. You could also ride the nostalgic tram up and down, head to the Galatasary Baths if you didn’t manage a trip yesterday or head in to beautiful Homer Books, a famous bookshop.
C. Cicek Pasaji and lunch (2hrs)
Just off of Istiklal Caddesi is the beautiful Cicek Pasaji, a beautiful passageway which is home to lots of restaurants. We actually had a tea in here, and then went for lunch at Bilice Kebap, which was absolutely amazing.
D. Taksim Square (30 mins)
Our final stop of the break was Taksim Square, a famous spot locally for being where Turkey’s independence is celebrated. There’s a Mosque, lots of Turkish flags flying and a monument to Independence honouring Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state. This is also the main area where protests take place, so if there is one on while you’re visiting don’t head to the square.
We then walked back to our hotel via Tarlabasi, one of the most unsafe areas of Istanbul (we didn’t know this at the time) – albeit we didn’t feel unsafe at all, just totally out of place. The locals were staring at us like we were mad, but actually it was nice to see some of the ‘real’ Istanbul. We even found ourselves in a carpet market which was cool.
And just like that, the 48 hours were up and it was time for a late flight home. We arrived in to Heathrow at 11pm and my husband stayed at the airport, getting up at 5am for a flight to Sydney with work!
What do you think of Istanbul? The main attractions that I wanted to do but didn’t have time for were:
- Dolmabahce Palace, the Sultan’s Palace from the 1600s until 1922, when the last Sultan fled from here into exile
- Bosphorus Cruise to see Istanbul from the water
- The Spice Market, for more colours and smells of the city
I hope you enjoyed this quick city tour – stay safe and happy travelling!