48 Hours in Istanbul

Exotic east meets modern west in a city where two continents collide. Istanbul is one of our all-time favourite cities, throbbing with atmosphere and brimming with cultural treasures including the iconic Blue Mosque, the Ottoman Topkapi Palace and the fascinating Haghia Sophia, conveniently all located in the old quarter of Sultanahmet. While the sights are unmissable, what we love most about Istanbul is soaking up the energy, haggling for spices and trinkets at the riotous bazaars, strolling along the sparkling Bosphorous at night or enjoying an apple tea and some jewelled lokum (turkish delight) as call to prayer reverberates from mosque to minaret. Tick off a few of our top highlights while you’re in the city.

Day 1: Istanbul

Admire the Blue Mosque

While the outside of the Blue Mosque may be striking with its six minarets and striking domed exterior, it’s the inside that is really special. Head in via the old Hippodrome and gaze up at the exquisite iznik-tiled interior of the early 17th centre mosque. As a place of worship, entry is free but you’ll need to dress modestly. There are scarves available to cover up (men should cover legs, women should cover their heads) and you’ll need to remove your shoes.

Relive history at the Hagia Sophia

Now a museum, this Byzantine basilica showcases a fascinating display of cultures having been transformed from cathedral to mosque over the centuries. It is hard not to be transfixed by the juxtaposition of Christian mosaics and Islamic religious script set amongst the thirty million gold tiles displayed throughout the interior. Visit early to skip the queues then hop over to the Blue Mosque, or buy a Museum Pass for multiple sight entry without having to queue.

Enjoy a delicious lunch Mivan Restaurant Cafe

It’s located a short walk from the Blue Mosque but Mivan is well worth sorting out as the atmosphere is very chilled, which is exactly what you want after the crowds of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The staff are super friendly and attentive which perfectly complements the delicious food which is a mix of modern Turkish and international dishes. Whatever you chose will be good but do make sure you have the Katmer for desert as it’s amazing – you will not be disappointed.

Haggle at the bustling Grand & Spice Bazaars

Haggle, spend and shop till you drop at Istanbul’s bazaars. For foodie delights, head to the Spice Bazaar where you can stock up on apple tea, haggle for rainbow-coloured spices or taste a selection of stick baklava. But unless you’re a barter-master, we recommend heading to Koska to pick up some boxes of lokum (Turkish delight). The Grand Bazaar is a similar riot of colour and noise with thousands of stalls flaunting lanterns, textiles, handicrafts, pottery and jewellery. If it all gets too overwhelming, wander downhill towards one of the 22 ancient gateways that will funnel you back out in the bustling streets.

Indulge in Turkish delights at Hafiz Mustafa 1864

For a hit of sweet treats make a beeline for Hafiz Mustafa 1864 and indulge in a plate of melt-in-the-mouth baklava and every flavour of Turkish delight you could possibly imagine. Wash it down with a refreshing apple tea. Then head down the road to Koska to stock up on Turkish delight freshly boxed before your eyes. It’s worth noting if you’ve only had Turkish delight outside of Turkey then you’ve not really had Turkish delight. Try the double pistachio – it’s divine!

Karakoy Gumruk

Karakoy has become an Istanbul hotspot for restaurants, bars and cafes. One of our favourite spots is Karakoy Gumruk, a relaxed brasserie with a distinct European feel. It’s deal for a bite to eat for dinner with delicious Turkish cuisine for a light or a heavy meal and all at reasonable prices. Can also work just as well for a quick stop to recharge and have a coffee. Be sure to take the time to wander down Kemankeş street with its many bars and restaurants which are particularly lively in the evenings.

Ambar Karakoy

There are many buzzing and lively watering holes in Karakoy so by all means pick one that takes your fancy but if you’re looking for a little direct, we enjoy Ambar Karakoy which was a great place to debrief on our day full of adventure while people watching and soaking in the Istanbul nightlife!

Smoke a hookah at Cafe Harab’be

Smoking a hookah (waterpipe) is an exciting way to dip in to the local culture. Spend the evening puffing contentedly on a hookah in a courtyard garden exchanging stories and sipping thick Turkish coffee – we particularly like Café Harab’be for laid-back socialising sessions where there are plenty of flavours to choose from.

Day 2: Istanbul

Experience royalty at the decadent Topkapi Palace

You could spend hours exploring the historic Topkapi Palace, home to generation of sultans and their wives, with its collection of leafy courtyards, lush gardens, and elaborate displays of Ottoman delights including jewellery, armour and clothing. Most impressive of all at is the famous harem (requires a separate ticket) where the Sultan’s wives and concubines were closeted. We recommend visiting earlier rather than later as it can get crowded.

Pamper yourself like a sultan at a steamy Ottoman bathhouse

Head to the spectacular 16th century Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam for a spot of indulgent pampering. Hamam treatments start from €55 where your skin will be scrubbed and polished to perfection in a luxurious environment resplendent in marble and domes of running water. We also very much enjoyed Kılıc Ali Pasa Hamam which was slightly better value if you’re looking for a full experience but the only draw back being that it doesn’t have a separate Hamam for men and women which means it alternates from being woman only up until 16:30 before switching to men only.

Enjoy a proper Traditional Turkish Kebab

You can’t leave Istanbul without trying a traditional kebab and these are really a different proposition from what you’re used to at home. Delicious, fresh ingredients and perfectly cooked succulent meat. We recommend either Sultanahmet Kebab House or the cheap and cheerful Dürümzade which although basic in appearance was a favourite with the late TV chef, Anthony Bourdain. It makes a great lunchtime feed, a carefree supper or to soak up the alcohol after one too many!

Soak up the atmosphere and views at Galata Bridge & Tower

Stroll across the Galata Bridge for some great atmosphere with fishermen hooking bait onto their rods and boats ferrying passengers down the Bosphorous. Munch on a sesame-seed pretzel bought from a local vendor while you’re at it then reward yourself with panoramic views at the top of the 67-metre Byzantine Galata Tower (TL20, open daily 9am to 8pm). Then wonder along the buzzing Siraselviler street, get lost in one of its many side roads, stop for a drink, coffee or a snack to rest your legs and simple take in the atmosphere.

Try some home cooked local food at Novas Hagia Sophia

Tasty, inexpensive local, home-cooked cuisine in the heart of Beyoğlu midway between Taxsim and Karakoy. The service is very friendly and accommodating at Novas, we particularly enjoyed the Turkish lamb casserole which had a lovely touch of spice to it. We also received something sweet on the house with our very reasonable bill which was both delicious but also a nice touch.

Sip on delicious cocktails at Flekk Bar

Situationed right in the heart Beyoğlu, Flekk is exactly where it needs to be. This lively bar is the perfect place to finish your evening, with its vibrant atmosphere, friendly staff and very good value cocktails. It also serves Mediterranean finger food in the unlikely event you’re still hungry after your 48 hours of feasting!

For those wanting to find out more about visiting Istanbul or joining us on our Hot Air Ballooning Experience which includes 2 nights in Istanbul as well as the once in a lifetime balloon ride over Cappadocia please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Written by Marion Poerio and James Chisnall