Whether you have six hours or a full day in Turkey’s (and Europe’s) most populous city, prepare to be captivated by the sights, sounds, and tastes of this modern-day metropolis with an ancient heart.
What can you accomplish in Istanbul in six hours? Plenty, when you visit the Sultanahmet, just 30 minutes by car from the city’s Ataturk Airport. Smack in the centre of town, the district is home to the city’s historical attractions, including the magnificent Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque; Turkey’s architectural masterpiece Hagia Sophia; the city’s largest ancient subterranean water chamber, Basilica Cistern; and the opulent palace-turned-museum Topkapi Palace. All of these sights are within walking distance of one another.
If you have more hours to spare, a must-visit is the Grand Bazaar, which is a leisurely 15-minute walk from Sultanahmet district. Considered one of the world’s first shopping malls, the sprawling market covers 61 streets and includes more than 4,000 shops, attracting up to 400,000 visitors every day. If you enjoy haggling, the Grand Bazaar is where you can put your bargaining skills to the test. A tip? Merchants here tend to be talkative, but try not to engage in a lengthy conversation with them unless you are prepared to buy something from their shop. The market is also a foodie’s paradise; don’t miss out on traditional Turkish food like manti (steamed meat dumplings), kabsa (mixed rice), and, of course, kebab.
For longer layovers, consider kicking off your morning at the Galata neighbourhood, a trendy area bustling with European-influenced boutiques, cafés and bars. Once there, you certainly will not miss the 67-metre-tall Galata Tower, whose 14th-century upper floors, complete with a restaurant, you can reach either by a staircase or via an elevator. Next, cross the Galata Bridge to connect to the Old City, home of the Grand Bazaar. Once you have arrived at the base of the bridge, you won’t be able to resist the tantalising aroma of freshly grilled fish sandwiches. Kick back and savour the snacks at the pier before spending the remaining daylight hours shopping to your heart’s content at the Grand Bazaar; then, in the evening, wind down at the nearby Cemberlitas Hamami, a Turkish bath established since 1584.
Craving for some authentic Turkish delights? Make a beeline for Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir Confectioners at Istiklal Avenue in Beyoglu district. Run by the same family since the 18th century, this shop sells more than 30 kinds of Turkish delight! Beyoglu is also home to Nevizade, the neighbourhood’s liveliest street – and the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife. Lined with cool bars and restaurants, this narrow, pedestrianised thoroughfare makes the perfect destination for an unforgettable night of bar-hopping in this city of many wonders.