Istanbul contains some fascinating areas; from the historical delights of Sultanahmet to the modern thrills of Beyoglu's bars. But what are the must sees on a short break to this enchanting city?
Home to the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and much more besides, Sultanahmet is the centre of historic Istanbul. The area is heaving with tourists, and with good reason; Sultanahmet’s historical attractions make it a must-see area for the first time visitor to Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace (TL20) was the home of Ottoman Sultans for 400 years and merits a few hours exploration. Step out onto breezy verandas overlooking the Bosphorus where the Sultans once contemplated their subjects in the city below, and don’t miss the Treasury, home to a rich collection of jewels and Islamic relics. The spectacular architecture and ornately decorated rooms of the Harem are certainly worth the splashing out the extra TL15 to visit.
While Topkapi has its charms, it was the magnificently domed Aya Sofya (TL20 entry) that really held me captivated. Built in 537 (when the city was Greek Byzantium), Aya Sofya has history oozing out of every corner. Its numerous transformations over the last 1500 years have each left a layer of the past behind. Golden Christian mosaics sit alongside enormous Islamic inscriptions, and the sheer scale of the place is neck-achingly breathtaking.
A stone's throw away from Aya Sofya, is the Basilica Cistern (TL10 entry). Built below the city to store water for a Byzantium Palace, the atmospherically lit columns of the Basilica make for an intriguing diversion. The Blue Mosque, still an active place of worship, is perhaps the most spectacular building in Istanbul. Make sure you have a peek inside (free entry) to admire yet more mind-blowing architecture.
Sultanahmet is perhaps the only area of Istanbul that really feels ‘touristy’, but with sites like these it is easy to understand why, and, it should form the backbone of any short break itinerary. Despite the restaurant touts' promises however, Sultanahmet is not great for eating out, with restaurants general overpriced and less intimate than those in Beyoglu and other parts of the city. The impressively named Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta proved a welcome exception. Near Sultanahmet tram stop (Divan Yolu (Ordu) Caddesi 12; 212-520 0566) this kofte restaurant is a great place for a quick and tasty lunch.
Hop across the Galata Bridge into funky Beyoglu for the best bars, restaurants and nightlife. Istiklal Caddesi is a busy throughfare connecting Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul, to historic Galata with its vertiginous cobbled streets. Istiklal is great for an evening stroll when Istanbul’s younger crowd come out to play before heading to the innumerable surrounding bars and clubs. Watch the sun set over the Old City from rooftop bars such as Anenom Galata (Galata Kulesi Meydani; 212-293 2343), taking in the haunting acoustics of the call to prayer as ferries chug along the Golden Horn below.
Galata has a more European feel than other parts of the city, with pretty squares and a relaxed atmosphere. It also contains some enticing lokantas (restaurants serving ready-made food), like Kiva Han next to the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi Meydani; 212-292 9898). Galata’s lively restaurant and bar scene is worth experiencing. Pick your way through the outdoor tables to the hip bars covering several narrow lanes around the tower. Bursting with businessmen, students and everyone in between, the lively atmosphere makes this an essential stop for a few Efes (local beer) and a bite to eat.
Karakoy Gulluoglu (Rihtim Caddesi, Katli Otopark Alti, Karakoy; 212-293 0910), on a backstreet near the Galata Bridge, is another great stop for some lunch, serving amazing borek (savoury pastries filled with meat or cheese) and baklava (very sweet layered pastry with pistachio and syrup).
The Bazaar District
Braving a stroll around the chaotic Grand Bazaar is another of Istanbul’s must dos. While the Grand Bazaar’s delights are well known, try and make the time to search out another couple of gems in the Bazaar District.
At the Aqueduct of Valens (10 minutes walk from Laleli tram stop), ancient and modern Istanbul collide. The aqueduct, commissioned in AD 373, rises majestically over a busy road and cars and buses hurtle through the arches. With spectacular views to the city below, this is a great place to reflect on the changing faces of Istanbul. The impressive Sehzade Mehmet Mosque near the Aqueduct is also worth a visit. Come just before evening prayers to witness the bustling atmosphere of the faithful congregating.
Eminonu and into Asia
Eminonu is a lively district dominated by the bulk of the New Mosque. Take a walk across the chaotic Galata Bridge where fishermen line in their hundreds. There are great views of the river and the sensuous curves and minarets of the mosques that dominate the skyline. And don’t forget to sample the spice bazaar, with its colourful pyramids of spices and herbs, truly an assault on the senses.
Eminonu is also the departure point for ferries to Asia. Kadikoy on the Asian shore is worth a visit, with its lively café culture and bustling market brimming with fresh fish, vegetables and fruit. It’s almost worth the trip just for the novelty of crossing continents on a ten minute ferry hop, and although there is little specific to see in Kadikoy, the relaxed atmosphere provides a welcome change of pace to the sometimes overwhelming European shore.
We flew from London Gatwick with EasyJet who service the smaller Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. This is probably the best option for cheap flights, although getting into the city will cost you slightly more than the larger Ataturk Airport (try Istanbul Airport Shuttle which offers return mini-bus transfers to your hotel for TL40).
The Crowne Plaza Hotel Istanbul-Old City is a wonderful place to stay. Situated in the Bazaar District, a short tram hop or 20 minute walk from Sultanahmet, the Crowne Plaza offers comfortable and spacious rooms and excellent service in a relaxed environment. There is also an indoor pool, sauna and steam room, ideal after a hard days sightseeing. Give the breakfast a miss though; it is not worth the hefty TL25 price tag.
While the city sprawls for miles in every direction, historic Istanbul is fairly compact, and walking is the best way of getting around. To cover larger areas, use the efficient tram service (TL1.50 per trip). Ferries are also a cheap (TL1.50 to Kadikoy) and fun way of getting around.