48 Hours in … Istanbul
Istanbul, capital of two empires, is home to fairy-tale palaces, Ottoman-era mansions and all the noise, excitement and chaos that a megacity of 15 million shelters. This is where cutting-edge art galleries, nightclubs and lively bars sit by mosques, ancient tombs and chapels, and where slow-moving Bosphorus ferries glide gently into the golden sunset.
Why go now?
Istanbul’s tourism industry was hit hard by the attempted coup of 2016, but now the city is busy welcoming visitors again. The weather in early summer is blissful: hot, sunny and inviting, while ferry rides offer refreshingly cool and salty breezes.
Get your Bearings
Istanbul’s sprawl means it would take a lifetime to truly know it. Water plays a significant role; connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean is the legendary Bosphorus, the city’s grand channel, also dividing European Istanbul from the city’s districts on the Asian shore. The Golden Horn separates old Istanbul (Stamboul) to the south from Beyoğlu. Bridges straddle the waterways.
A handsome museum hotel with Golden Horn views, the Pera Palace is a magnet not only for well-heeled visitors but also locals, who often arrive for glitzy parties and gatherings. Built in 1892, the hotel exudes literary luxury. This was where Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express and where Ernest Hemingway propped up the bar. A sauna, swimming pool, the chic Orient Bar and a library designed by Anouska Hempel complete the scene.
Did you know…
There are four remaining Russian rooftop churches in Karaköy, or Galata as it was before. One, Aya Panteleymon, built in the late 19th century, was a holy stopover point for Russians travelling to Jerusalem for pilgrimages.
Ortakoy mosque & the Bosphorus Bridge
Stroll through Kadıköy Pazarı, a bazaar containing a warren of specialist food traders – an epicentre for lovers of Turkish produce. Glass dispensers of purpley-brown pekmez (grape molasses) stand next to piles of pestil (fruit leather), canisters of nuts and ginormous plastic tubs of turşu (pickles).
A Fusion of Flavours
It could be argued that Istanbul is the world’s greatest kitchen, from simple kuru fasulye, creamy pale beans in thick red buttery gravy, to late-night meze dishes and the morning routine of heading to the kahvalti salonlari (breakfast salons) for cheese, jams, fresh bread and endless cups of strong tea. Seasons play a huge role here, too; spring means sea bass and summer means mackerel, while autumn heralds the re-arrival of oily palamut (bonito) and sticky quince deserts.
A Cultural Afternoon
Start with a spot of ship spotting, an art form in Istanbul. To join in, all you have to do is take a pair of binoculars and position yourself at a decent vantage point on the Bosphorus, then watch as rainbow-coloured goods containers ease past Russian warships and commuter ferries. Next, head to the Istanbul Research Institute to get a handle on this fast-changing megacity. An extension of the nearby Pera Museum, also a must-do and a mere two-minute walk away, changing displays highlight the city’s Byzantine, Ottoman and modern history. Top off the afternoon with a trip to the Grand Bazaar to shop for ikat silks, spices and tea sets.
Istanbul has its fair share of cocktail bars, but for a drink with superb views of the Golden Horn and the old city beyond, try the rooftop bar at the Vault Karaköy hotel. Head there in the summer for a sundowner G&T, and take your camera.
Traditional Turkish lanterns, Grand Bazaar
Dressing for Dinner
Istanbul offers a bewilderingly wide mix of high and low dining, with much of the most memorable food served at the simpler spots. Smart casual, therefore, is the way to go. Don’t miss picking up a fresh simit from a cart in the morning or dining at a traditional lokantasi – literally a ‘tradesman’s restaurant’ but really better described as home cooking – where stews, pilafs, beans and kofte are the order of the day. Istanbul encourages wandering, and some streets are steep, so comfy shoes win here.
Night out on the Town
Head to the historic Atlas Sinemasi cinema, just off Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street, Istiklal Caddesi. A hub during the Istanbul Film Festival, this cinema exudes charm with its red seats, old-world setting and arty cinematic offerings.
In the heat of the summer, take the fast ferry from the Kabatas docks to the cool and quiet Princes’ Islands, a chain of small isles of historic interest in the Sea of Marmara. Once a place of exile during the Byzantine era, today they attract tourists and locals looking to escape the urban chaos. The two largest (Büyükada and Heybeliada) offer museums, monasteries and restaurants. Istanbul is best by boat and this is one of the city’s most popular day trips.
Head to upscale and refined Nişantaşı for independent boutiques and antique dealers, and stop at Yastık by Rıfat Özbek for silk and velvet ikat cushion covers.
The chance to pick up a box of lokum (Turkish delight) from Istanbul’s Hacı Bekir, which has been peddling these chewy delights for two centuries. There are several branches scattered throughout the city, but the one in Kadıköy is particularly elegant and has a little cafe at the back.
Recommended C&K tour:
Classical Turkey 9 Days & 8 Nights
Discover the remarkable architecture of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; the classical sites of Troy, Aphrodisias and Ephesus; and the ancient hot springs of Pamukkale.
Cox & Kings also offers 3-night short breaks in Istanbul. To find out more or plan a tailor- made itinerary, please speak to one of our Europe experts or complete our tailor-made request form and one of the team will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.