Last month Chris from The Aussie Nomad and I travelled to Turkey with Hostelbookers and Intrepid Travel. We spent a few days in Istanbul during our time in-country as well, so I’ve managed to bring together all the unmissable stuff for you in our bread-and-butter 48 hour Guide format.
Istanbul is a city of contrasting cultures. Not quite Europe, not quite Middle East, it’s somewhere in the middle and makes for a destination swimming in thousands of years of history, architecture, evolutions in cuisine and some lively nightlife. This place has consistently been the spot “where east meets west” – where the continents of Europe and Asia come together over the expansive stretch of water that is the Bosphorus.
The city has traded hands countless times over the last 2000 years. Starting out as the Roman Empire’s Eastern stronghold of Constantinople, it became the heart of the Byzantine Empire and later the capital of the mighty Muslim Ottoman Empire. Although Istanbul isn’t the capital of Turkey, it’s still the number one city you want to head to to experience the country.
Things to See and Do
There’s absolutely no shortage of stuff to see in Istanbul in just a few days. A city that can boast hundreds of mosques, one of the the most famous markets in the world and so much diverse history isn’t going to leave you bored shitless.
Built by Roman Emperor Justinian in around AD 700, it started life as a Christian church and for many years was the largest freestanding building in the world. When Constantinople was captured by Muslims in 1300s it was turned into a mosque and the minarets were added.
The inside of this joint is truly stunning. The mosaics, lighting, ceiling, archways and artwork really do take a few minutes to absorb when you first walk in. The way it looks like a Christian church in some parts and in other places like a mosque is really something that throws you off. There’s big murals to the Virgin Mary and then big scripts in Arabic praising Allah and it catches you off guard a bit sometimes.
This is the kind of place you just wander around in for a good 45-60 minutes just taking it all in. Admiring the size of it, the detail and thinking about how significant its been over hundreds of years. When the Turkish Republic began after WW2, Mustafa Ataturk turned Hagia Sophia into museum for all to enjoy. Entry costs 25 TL and it’s open from 9am to 7pm daily.
One of the most important mosques in the Muslim world, the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) is a jaw-dropping example of the Islamic faith. Apart from the mosque in Mecca, it’s the only mosque in the world with six minarets (the towers surrounding the mosque).
Don’t do what we did and just rock up expecting to waltz in and check the joint out. The mosque has very strict opening hours and you really do need to time your visit, else you’ll find yourself in Sultanahmet with a few hours up your sleeve. The times during the day that the Blue Mosque is open are as follows:
09:00 – 12:15
14:00 – 16:30
17:30 – 18:30
And on Friday, the mosque is closed from 11:15 to 14:30. So as you can see, they consider this place pretty special and don’t just open it up all the time for everyone. If you’re wearing shorts or not much, they’ll make you put a blanket around your legs/shoulders also.
Built deep under Sultanahmet during Roman times, it was designed to keep emergency water underground for the city. The fact that way back in the 1st century the Romans were able to build amazing feats of civil infrastructure like this blows me away.
It’s a good place to escape the heat of Istanbul and wander around admiring the Roman engineering. The crowds can be a bit overwhelming but there are quieter parts where you can hang out and enjoy the place. Entry is 10 TL.
It’s said that you can get anything you could possible want in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I reckon that was probably more true 200-300 years ago, but you can still find a treasure or two these days in one of the hundreds of stalls that make up the sprawling open air market.
Having visited souks in Marrakech and Tunis, I’d say the Grand Bazaar is tame in comparison. There’s no in-your-face vendors trying to sell you football shirts or electronics here, it’s all very civil. You’re free to wander and take it all in without any real pressure to buy or enter any of the shops. You can definitely haggle here and it’s expected. My rule is go in at half of what they offer you initially and negotiate from there.
There’s lots of really good quality wooden antiques, lamps, carpets and fabrics for sale here, making it a great place to get souvenirs for mates back home. The Grand Bazaar is definitely going to test your ability to stay under your checked baggage weight limit.
Topkapi Palace was the absolute heart of the Ottoman Empire – where the Sultan lived and ruled everything he surveyed. It’s an opulent property high on the hill in Sultanahmet that sprawls over acres of lush gardens, beautiful decorated galleries and really demonstrates how powerful the Ottomans were back in their heyday.
There’s loads to see here so give yourself 2-3 hours. Make sure you check out the Sultan’s throne and the Imperial Rooms. The Chamber of Sacred Relics is a must visit in the palace also, holding many invaluable items such as the Prophet Muhammad clothes, swords, and hair from his beard. It also contains items from the sacred Kaaba in Mecca and Moses’ staff. I’d say that there aren’t many other places on Earth with so many religiously significant items (well maybe Jerusalem). Topkapi Palace is another key Istanbul sight that was turned into a museum in 1926 by Mustafa Ataturk. Entry is 25 TL.
Food and Drink
When you think Turkish food you think a few things right? Kebabs, baklava, Turkish Delight maybe? Well I’m not going to mess around and try and tell you otherwise, let’s dive straight into the stereotypes.
You can’t move in Istanbul without spotting a kebab joint. They’re absolutely bloody everywhere and they’re cheap and make for a quick snack or a stop of lunch.
I’d never tried baklava before I went to Istanbul. When I heard Karakoy Güllüoglu was the place in Istanbul to get the best, I decided it was the perfect way to try it for the first time. They’re a 5th generation family from Gazientep (where baklava was invented in the south of Turkey) and were the first to bring it to Istanbul. Baklava is made up of 40-something layers of thin pastry, sugar and pistachios and takes 2-4 hours to make just one pan.
Karakoy Güllüoglu produce 2-2.5 tons during the week and 4-4.5 tons on weekend, all from organic ingredients. They also export 15 tons per month overseas, so you know this is the good stuff.
They serve all the top hotels in Istanbul and make 20 different kinds of baklava. Their main shop is under a carpark in Karakoy, but I’ve pointed it out on the map below.
Balik Ekmek (Fish Sandwich)
All underneath the Galata Bridge is lined with restaurants specialising in one thing – Balik Ekmek. It’s a humble fish sandwich served in a crusty roll with salad, but it’s filling and damn cheap at only 5 TL.
Kind of quirky and something different, it’s a good place to grab a snack and sample the locally sourced seafood.
Beer, Bars and Pubs
Beyoglu is where you want to head to check out Istanbul’s coolest bars. Nevizade is a street completely lined with them that you’ll want to definitely hit up on at least one night.
The ubiquitous local drop is Efes, and you’ll find it at every bar in Istanbul.
How to get there
Istanbul has two airports – Ataturk on the European side and Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side. The big flag carriers like Turkish Airlines and British Airways fly to Ataturk whilst the low cost carriers like easyJet and Pegasus fly into Sabiha Gökçen.
Coaches are available from Ataturk airport into Taksim Square in Beyoglu every 15 minutes and take about 45 minutes. A one way fare will set you back 10 TL.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Istanbul. Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map.
View 48 hours in Istanbul in a larger map
Get around in Istanbul
Istanbul is well served by an extensive public transport network of European standards. It is a bit haphazard, consisting of funiculars, trams, a metro line and ferries, but it’s easy to interpret after the first few trips.
Make sure you grab yourself an Istanbulkart. It’s exactly like an Oyster card and will mean you don’t have to buy the little tokens for each trip. You can top it up at newsagents and at stations.
When it comes to exploring Sultanahmet or Beyoglu, you can easily get around each area on foot. It’s only when you need to get between the two that you’ll need to take a tram like the above or if you want to cross to the Asian side by ferry.
Where to stay
#bunk hostel is a new, posh hostel based in the Beyoglu area of town. Away from the touristy bustle of Sultanahmet, #bunk is tucked away off the main thoroughfare of Istiklal Caddesi and staffed by friendly locals that speak tip top English and know Istanbul well.
Towels and linen are provided, along with fluffy soft duvets. The breakfast is basic (cereal and toast), so if you usually have something more substantial you might want to find something on Istiklal Cadessi. The bathrooms are nice and clean though with good, hot water pressure showers.
One thing that makes this hostel special is the roof terrace, complete with a jacuzzi. It’s the perfect place to relax after a long day exploring with a few beers, watching the sun go down over the skyline.
Another bonus is the enthusiastic yet friendly Turkish barber across the road. Chris and I got the full face treatment one morning consisting of a head massage, hair singed off by flames and a cut-throat shave for only 20 TL. It was a special experience and I’d say we definitely walked away different men!
For more hostels in Istanbul, check out Hostelbookers.
The currency in Istanbul is the Turkish Lira, which is (at time of writing) 2.87 TL per British Pound. Istanbul isn’t crazy cheap, but it’s definitely cheaper than Western Europe. Kebabs cost about 3-6 TL and a beer will set you back 7-9 TL. A single trip on public transport is 2 TL.
I’d been keen on visting Istanbul ever since I moved to Europe. The appeal of “east meets west” is definitely an alluring drawcard that many are keen to come and experience. Although it’s not immediately apparent, you do notice little subtleties like Middle Eastern brands and European cars all around you. But then in other ways it’s totally obvious, with the mash of churches and mosques everywhere.
Istanbul is great for a long weekend, getting you far away from Europe for a few days in a very different city. You can get lost in the noise, colour and aromas of the Grand Bazaar in the morning before marvelling at the beauty of the ceilings of the Blue Mosque in the afternoon. Istanbul is a city thousands have discovered over the centuries and experienced in their own way, isn’t it time you went and found out for yourself?
Disclosure: I travelled to Istanbul on my own dime, but my accommodation was covered by Hostelbookers and #bunk hostel. All opinions are my own.