2 Perfect Days in Istanbul
Ahhh, Istanbul! This magical city, which straddles Europe and Asia, has gone through many transformative changes in its history. Founded under the name of Byzantion around 660 BC, the city grew in size and influence. Roman Emperor Constantine, who had just converted to Christianity, made it the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD and began its transformation as a major Christian center. A thousand years later, in the 15th century when the Turks arrived, it transformed again from a bastion of Christianity into a symbol of Islamic culture. In the 1970, Istanbul experienced major population growth as people from all over Anatolia moved to the city looking for work, and it remains Turkey’s most populous (and popular) city to this day. I recommend spending 2 full days in Istanbul, although you can easily spend more than that.
How to Get There
Direct flights to Istanbul are plentiful from around the world. Istanbul has a brand new airport that opened in April 2019. It is farther away from the city center and much bigger, so allow extra time for transportation and getting to your gate.
When to Go
My first visit to Istanbul was at the end of December and the second was in May. Istanbul’s weather is mild in winter and snow is a rarity, but a summer visit would be better. My standard advice to travel in shoulder season applies. My May trip had really pleasant temps in the 70s and low 80s and no crowds.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Neorion Hotel on both of my visits to Istanbul. The location in Sultanahmet (where many of the main attractions are) is perfect and the rooftop terrace has great views. The tappas buffet from 2 – 6 pm was excellent and I hope they continue to do it. There is also a spa onsite – make some time for a Turkish bath!
Day 1: Sights in Sultanahmet district
The Sultanahmet district of Istanbul is where most tourist attractions are located. The recommended hotel is walking distance to all the attractions listed below. The first 5 are literally right next to each other, and the last two are in the vicinity. This makes it possible to see them all in one day if you start early.
- Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It remained the largest cathedral for nearly 1000 years until the Seville cathedral was built in the early 16th century. Once the Ottomans arrived, they converted to a mosque. When the Turkish republic was established in the 1930s, the Hagia Sophia became a museum. Just recently, Turkey revoked its museum status and reconverted it to a mosque once more. It’s still open to visitors but you can only visit outside prayer times. Because it is now a mosque and not a museum, there is no entry fee.
- The Blue Mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. The name comes from the blue tiles used for the interior walls. This is an operating mosque so you’ll only be able to visit outside of prayer times. There is no entry fee.
- Basilica Cistern. Built in 532 AD, the cistern is the biggest of several hundreds beneath the city of Istanbul. With an area of 105,000 sq ft, it could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water and its ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns. The cistern provided water for Constantinople and subsequently, Topkapi palace after the Ottomans took it over and into modern times. Don’t miss the Crying Column and the one with an upside-down Medusa as its base.
- Topkapi Palace served as the imperial residence for the Ottoman household for 380 years. Mehmed II built it in the 15th century but the family abandaned it in the 19th century for the more modern Dolmabahce palace (worth a visit, see Day 2). Topkapi is now a museum of the imperial area and is most famous for Muhammed’s sword and cloak, which are on display there.
- Istanbul Archaeology Museums – this trio of buildings should be on your list. The main building is where the major artifacts are, but the adjacent Museum of the Ancient Orient (pictured) and the Tiled Kiosk are also worth a visit.
- The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are very close to each other. This is the place to buy some loukoum, or Turkish delight. Practice your negotiation skills!
- Coming out of the Spice Bazaar will place you right by the Galata Bridge. Stroll across the bridge and observe locals fishing and tourists strolling. On the lower level, you will find many restaurants. They will compete for your business by showing you menus and inviting you inside. Pick one you like and enjoy some tea and baklava or a full dinner as you watch the sun set over the Bosphorus.
Day 2: Modern Istanbul
On the second day, experience the more modern side of this city!
Start at Dolmabahche Palace, the residence of the Ottoman household from the 18th century onward. It’s right on the water and boasts great views of the Bosphorus. Advance reservations are required as you need to tour the palace with a guide.
Then, take the funicular nearby to Taksim square, considered the heart of modern Istanbul. You’ll find the Modern Republic monument here – it commemorates the formation of Turkey as a secular republic in 1923.
Istanbul’s major shopping street, Istiklal, starts a short walk from Taksim square.
From here, walk downhill to Galata tower, the city’s tallest structure when it was built in 1348. There’s an observation deck at the top that’s worth a visit.
The Galata bridge will be nearby. This is a great place to get on a Bosphorus cruise!
Finish your day with a Whirling Dervishes performance at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center back in Sultanahmet district. Whirling dervishes belong to the Sufi order, which was founded in the city of Konya by the followers of a famous Islamic poet and theologian. Their practice of whirling, called a Sema ceremony, is a form of remembrance of god. Watching this ceremony in the cultural center, which is a renovated medieval Turkish bath, was one of my favorite experiences in Istanbul.