Istanbul may have relinquished it’s role as a seat of empire astride the Mediterranean and Near East, but is still a cultural anchor and crossroads for the region. History is preserved to a far greater extent than in many large European cities, not least because the Ottoman Empire held on to its historical buildings through its demise at the end of World War 1, and the city grew outwards rather than being extensively modernized, so the wrecking ball was more discrete – although the subway and trams work really well. Istanbul’s population grew from about 2.8 million in 1970 to about 14 million in 2016, although the old core of the city is in Sultanahmet with more recent areas east of the Golden Horn.
Istanbul is divided between European and Asian sides of the Bosphorous. Along with the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, Istanbul is one of the great ferry ride cities of the world.
While you’ll likely spend most time on the European side, heading over to the lively Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side for an evening is one way to go.
Things to Do. A rough itinerary could be carved out as follows:
Day 1: Sultanahmet – Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque (or part thereof).
Day 2: Fateh neighborhood to see the Chora Church and then over to the MOMA and Museum of Innocence in Karikoy.
Day 3: Bosphorous Ferry ride.
I’d recommend staying in the neighborhoods just east of Sultanahmet, like Galata.
Sultanahmet has the attractions, but for an evening you’re closer to the Taksim area. Lots of places either side of Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrianized commercial district to start with.
Things to Do with No Time at All
Aya Sofia. It’s a Byzantine orthodox church constructed in 537 AD that was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans invaded. There is Viking graffiti on the marble balconies overlooking the main atrium.
If you have time, check out the Topkapi Palace or archaeological museum just by Aya Sofia. Blue Mosque is also worth a look. The sarcophagus below, dating to the 3rd Century AD from Roman Turkey, is one of the liveliest pieces of funeral art I’ve ever seen.
Chora Church (Kariye Muzesi). The Chora Church has insane illuminated ceilings and wall murals. It’s tiny, unlike Aya Sofia, although must have seemed bigger to it’s congregants when it was constructed around 1080.
Bosphorous Ferry Ride. You can get a one-way ticket (15 lira) with Sehir Hatlari, the main ferry operator at the Emininonu ferry station (on the south side of the Golden Horn, just east of the Galata Bridge), departing 10:35 and arriving at Anadolu Kavagi, arriving at 12:25. Get to the ticket office at least 20 minutes before to buy your ticket, and don’t buy the return unless you want to spend another 2 hours on the boat.
Walk up to the castle at the top of the hill, take a stroll round and then get the 14:00 ferry back to Sariyer. Sariyer has more lunch options and is less touristy than Anadolu Kavagi. You can then get a microbus or a taxi to the Haciosman metro station south of Sariyer and then head back into town.
Karikoy Neighborhood. Just east of the Galata Tower, you can see the Istanbul MOMA and the Museum of Innocence. The Museum of Innocence is a 3-storey collection of artifacts behind the book of the same name by Orhan Pamuk. Even if you haven’t read it, it’s a brilliant back story through the artifacts that the characters would have had.
Food. Turkish food is well renowned and a few good general areas to go include the streets off Istiklal Caddiesi (which runs between Galata Tower area and Taksim Square) and the Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asia side. There are plenty of online guides out there. I’d broadly categorize as follows:
- Kebabs. Of course, but very good. Zubeyir Ocakbasi – on a side street near Taksim. Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap Salonu – in Fateh, by the Roman viaduct, great lamb.
- Lokanta. Kind of a hotplate/stew deal. Sounds unappealing, but a typical way to get a square cooked meal. Ciya Sofresi in Kadikoy is one of the best, everything’s very fresh and the owner tends shop from his stoves by the front.
- Meyhane. Combined bar/restaurant.
- High end. Didn’t go to any of those.
- Regions. The Ottoman heritage still works and you can pick out any levantine/Middle Eastern type. Fission off Istaklal Caddis is also well recommended.