Bring your walking shoes, your stretchy pants and your Instagram game, because in this city full of colour, culture and incredible food, there’s a photo op on every corner.
You’ve got one day in Istanbul. Most people would think you’re crazy, because in a city filled with that much history and culture you need at least a week to explore. But to that we say, ‘challenge accepted!’ Because, although you may be short of time you can definitely deep dive into this cultural melting pot of Europe and Middle East in a mere 24 hours. Here’s our guide of what to do in Istanbul, but, be warned: you will want more. So, consider this an entrée for your (inevitable) return.
8 am: Have a long breakfast.
Aussies aren’t the only ones obsessed with breakfast. And, once you’ve tried a Turkish breakfast (called Kahvalti), avocado toast will seem positively basic. Kahvalti is something to be in enjoyed with friends and family over (many) hours… and this is why: a standard spread will see you presented with ten of so small plates with at least three different types of cheeses, olives, many varieties of bread, eggs, honey, fruits, jams and bottomless cups of Turkish tea. There are so many good ones to choose from in Istanbul but our favourite is the quaint Privato Café in Galata for the fresh produce and the always friendly staff.
0 am: Get your culture fix
A ‘what to do in Istanbul’ guide would be remiss without a little bit of culture, so roll on over to the old town where two historic neighbours sit side by side. First, visit the Blue Mosque (named so for its blue-tiled interiors) and revel in its architectural beauty. But remember: it’s still a place of worship so be sure to cover up head to toe – including a scarf for your head. Then, wander over to AyaSofya and be blown away by this homage to the cultural history of Istanbul. The 6th-century building has been both a Christian basilica and a mosque and is filled with remnants of both religions from Byzantine mosaics and Catholic art to Muslim iconography.
Midday. Have a snack break at a local food cart.
Culture can make you hungry. You deserve the break. Stop by one of the city’s many food red and white food carts that serve up börek (filo pastry filled with meat, spinach or cheese), pide (flatbread with topping) or simit (circular bread with sesame seed).
12.30 pm: Buy a Turkish towel
Yes, we have them in Oz, but no they are not the same. The traditional Peshtemal is woven on hand looms, and are not only lightweight but ultra-absorbent (perfect for travel!) Unfortunately the weaving tradition is a dying art, so to get one that is truly authentic (and uses organic cotton), head over to Jennifer’s Hammam where they still work with artisan weavers that are generations old. We can guarantee you will leave with a much lighter wallet.
1.30 pm: Behold the Grand Bazaar
Since you’re in the area, pop into the Grand Bazaar, just for the experience of it all. This place practically invented the term “sensory overload”. The colour, lights, labyrinth-like stalls and the constant haggling chatter can make you feel kind of dizzy, so if you plan to shop, take a list! If not, just take lots of photos because you won’t see anything like it again.
3 pm. Treat yourself to a Hammam session
By now you’re probably feeling exhausted… which is the perfect time to relax at a Turkish bath. Leave your inhibitions (and clothes) at the door as you get soaped, scrubbed, and bubbled-up by your Natir (female attendant), and leave with a new idea of what it means to be clean. One of the best (and most breathtaking) is Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami – and don’t worry it has separate times for men and women.
7 pm: Watch the sunset… with a wine in hand.
Istanbul loves a rooftop bar, and with good reason – the skyline is bursting with beautiful mosques, buildings and views of the Bosphorus. While there’s many to enjoy, we love Vogue Bar and Restaurant in the Besiktas district for its exceptional wine list and huge terrace.
8.30 pm: Dinner and a nightcap in Karaköy
Finish your day in the hipster district of Karaköy, where street art rivals that of Berlin, and lights hang from a canopy of foliage through the alleyways. Make like a local and grab a table outside at one of the many cafes, enjoying the buzzy vibe until the wee hours.
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11 pm: Wind the night down in your room with a view
Hidden amongst the cobblestone streets of Galata is your home for the night – Georges Hotel. If the parquetry floors, minimalist furniture and views of the Bosphorus weren’t enough to make you fall in love with this 20 room boutique hotel, take a trip to the terrace restaurant where you can bid goodnight to the city as it sparkles in the panoramic view in front of you.
Want more Middle Eastern inspiration? Nigel Slater's Middle East airs Wednesdays, 8.30pm on Lifestyle FOOD