Here, a backpack turns into a time machine and the traveller in search of adventure can quantum leap between empires and eras at will. What Caesars and Sultans used to call the ‘Constantinople’ of Roman, Byzantine, and later Ottoman times is today a bustling modern megalopolis and one of the most densely populated cities in Europe.
From ancient city walls and opulent palaces to majestic mosques and secret hammams (Turkish bath), Istanbul may no longer be the capital, but it is still the economic, cultural, and historical heart of Turkey.
The Bosphorus Strait is the dividing line between Europe and Asia and cuts Istanbul into three individual segments, each with its own authentic sights, sounds and cultural flavour. With so many pages of history built on top of one another, Istanbul enjoys a wealth of unique attractions and can seem daunting upon first arrival. Especially if you intend to jam over 3000 years of history into two days and still hope to have time to grab a kebab.
Being Flashpackers with an unquenchable thirst for the uncharted, undiscovered and a good cup of piping hot Turkish apple tea, here are a few of the things we would do and see if we had to conquer Istanbul in 48 hours:
Hippodrome of Constantinople
This Byzantine Hippodrome was built in AD 203 to accommodate more than 100,000 spectators and featured everything from chariot races and political rallies to riots and circus acts. Sadly, the only evidence left of this famed public spectacle’s glory are a few surviving pillars. For the full effect, be sure to bring along loads of imagination.
Topkapi is one of the largest palaces in Turkey and was originally built as a seat of power for the Sultans who ruled for over 400 years. The palace became an official UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and is one of the best examples of palaces from the Ottoman period. During the holy month of Ramadan, the palace is decorated in traditional Ottoman decor and local families can be seen enjoying all manner of sunset feasts. The Palace is closed on Tuesdays and the best way to beat the crowds is to arrive well before 10am. After the tour pop into Konyali Lokantasi, a stunning restaurant with beautiful views of the Bosphorus.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market in the Sultanahmet district is a magical place where even the amateur “point-and-click” holiday snapper can capture images worthy of a national geographic cover. Here amidst the riot of colour and exotic goodies, you can grab a cheap and delicious traditional Turkish ‘Simit’ (circular sesame bread) and tea from a street seller, practise your haggling skills and buy Turkish bath mitts for later, but beware! The alluring aromas of apple tea, perfume, and freshly ground spices are enough to zap you into a sensory trance. If you can’t say no to enthusiastic carpet sellers and feel obliged to respond to every invitation to enter a shop, you will be here forever!
If you have grown tired of the Hotel Spa experience how about relaxing in a proper hammam? After a tough day of exploring, nothing rejuvenates the senses and energises the body more than laying on a slab of hot marble and getting pampered with a full body scrub and massage. Due to it’s popularity the prices are a little hefty, but hey, how many people do you know who can claim they have had an authentic hammam scrub?
Bring your first day to a stunning close with a tram ride down İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) toward Taksim Square and pop into one of the bustling street cafes for some well-deserved dinner and drinks. To make the most of your time in Istanbul and enjoy your second day even more, go easy on the drinks and try to make it an early night
Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
By far one of Turkey’s most recognised and sacred icons, the blue mosque is the culmination of over two centuries worth of architectural development. With sprawling carpets and magnificent arabesque designs, the mosque is still in use as an islamic place of worship and closes for 90 minutes five times a day. The best time to visit is during the morning and the worst time is around midday prayer on Fridays. Ladies are expected to wear a head covering at all times (free at entrance) and shoes are prohibited to the extent that even Pope Benedict XVI had to remove his holy slippers on his papal visit.
Ayasofya is a Church, Mosque, and Museum all rolled into one. Here the lines between religions get fuzzy. A magnificent remnant of Byzantine architecture, this shrine to the divine of whomever came to power was originally built in AD 537 and marked the beginning of a new era for Ottoman architecture. More than 30 million tiles went into the gilded mosaics covering the sprawling interior and one can’t help but wonder how the angels got up there… For the total experience be sure to grab an audio guide on your way in and don’t let the sight of renovations spoil your fun.
The cathedral-size underground Cistern is 500 feet (150 m) away from Hagia Sophia and won’t take more than 30 minutes to navigate. The dimly lit surroundings and background music adds to the mystery and it’s not hard to imagine seeing the phantom of the opera peaking out from behind one of the 336 marble columns.
Pierre Loti Hill is the best place to experience sweeping views of the golden horn. A quick 30-minute ferry from Eminonu beats walking and offers some stunning sights along the way. Pierre Loti Cafe is on top of a hill and the perfect spot to relax and take in the city. You can either hike to the top of the hill and see the Muslim cemetery or hop into a cable car. The Eyup Sultan Mosque is also close by and well worth a visit.
Ferry on the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus Tour ferry sails north toward the Black Sea and back again. The full trip takes around 6 hours but a shorter more compact 2-hour outing is also available. The ferry stops at a variety of small ports where passengers are free to hop on or off. The cruise offers a unique view of the modern suburbs and ancient villages lining the shore and onboard entertainment is provided by troupes of lively (yet, rather snobbish) yoghurt sellers. The docks are lined with fresh-fish sellers and glitzy cafe’s, so grab a bite or visit the Egyptian Spice market for a quick snack.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without seeing these devout Sufi dancers in action. If you have ever tried spinning like a ballerina for more than 30 seconds you won’t believe what a whirling dervish in divine trance can accomplish. More than mere entertainment, this sacred ceremony is a religious dance that dates back to obscurity and some performances last for well over an hour.
Good to know before you go:
A quick getaway over the weekend is highly recommended, but take note that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays and most of the Museums are closed on Mondays. If you are planning to go during peak season, be sure to include enough time between attractions for standing in line.
Two days seem hardly enough time to soak up the magic of Istanbul, but it can be done!