/Tackling Istanbul

Tackling Istanbul


If you only have a few days to spend in one of the most historically dense cities on the planet, how do you even begin to tackle a visit? Recently a client asked me how to approach such a limited time Istanbul. First of all, stay in Beyoğlu. Forget Sultanahmet and its 5-star hotels. They are totally separated from the living, breathing Istanbul, stuck in a tourist-only vacuum. The Marmara Pera is good enough and is in a great location (and Mikla Restaurant on the roof is an added bonus). There are options for all budgets in Beyoğlu. On the moderate side, I love The House Apart, self catering apartments run by the people who brought you the popular House Cafe chain. I have already posted on where to eat in Istanbul. Now its time for what you should see.

Obviously you have to visit the Sultanahmet area where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the Hippodrome, and the Topkapı Palace are located. Unfortunatley this zone is hypertouristic and it can be a bit overwhelming and even downright obnoxious dodging all the touts. The key is to go really early and knock those sites out so you can concentrate on areas of the city that have preserved their authentic character. The only reason to push the visit out til the afternoon is to have izgara köfte at the legendary Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi.

From there, I would head down to Kumkapı on the Sea of Marmara, just a few blocks southwest of the Hippodrome and Divan Yolu (the road that follows the tram line). This area is famous for its fish restaurants, though unless you go at 2am, you will miss the fish market itself. I love stolling the area to see the old dilapidated wooden houses that are hastily being torn down to make way for new development.

Return to Divan Yolu and follow the tram tracks away from Hagia Sofia. Turn off to the right after a few hundred meters and head uphill to visit Süleymaniye Camii, currently under restoration but nonetheless impressive. Further along is Sinan’s magnificent Şehzade Camii, a 16th century masterpiece designed by the Ottoman’s answer to Michelangelo. Another 10 minute walk due west along the tram line (NB the street name changes to Ordu Caddesi) will take you to Fatih, a fairly conservative neighborhood home to many immigrants from Eastern Anatolia. The colorful market in the heart of the neighborhood has lamb carcasses and organs strung up in windows and produce imported from the East. Grilled meats and innards are served on the market square. If very fresh lamb and offal are not your cup of tea, seek out Karadeniz Pidecisi near the municipal building.

From the main mosque (Fatih Camii), follow Haliç Caddesi (Golden Horn Street) north to Fener, a neighborhood formerly populated by Greek immigrants. Up the Golden Horn is Balat, the old Jewish Quarter. Like Fatih, Balat and Fener are home to a growing immigrant population from Eastern Anatolia. From Balat, take a detour to the Chora Church (aka Kariye Camii), a Byzantine church with exquisite mosaics and frescoes. Another 15 minutes walk up the Golden Horn is Eyüp, a fairly conservative neighborhood home to an important Muslim shrine. Climb up the hill through the cemetery (or take the fenicular) to the Pierre Lotti Cafe’ for a tea and views looking east over the Golden Horn.

The next day, brave the overbearing hawkers at the Grand Bazaar if you dare. I can’t bring myself to go anymore. After visiting the sedate bazaars of other Turkish cities, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is too much for me. Plus, I hate being called “lady”. I much prefer the Spice Bazaar. The shops outside on the eastern side of the bazaar are my favorite where bottarga, fresh fish, olives, meats, and cheeses are sold daily. Look out for the tulum, a cheese that is aged inside an animal skin.

Inside the main building of the Spice Bazaar is the famous Pandeli restaurant. Take a spin inside but don’t eat there. Its overpriced and overrated. Head to Hamdi outside on the adjacent square instead. You can grab a quick lahmacun and ayran(yogurt drink) on the ground floor for around 3 TL. For a larger meal, take the elevator upstairs to the restaurant’s panoramic terrace. I recommend saving your appetite for Kadiköy on the Asian side, however. Before hopping the ferry, take a peek inside Rüstem Paşa Camii, one of my favorite buildings in the world. This small Sinan-designed mosque is covered in delicate hand painted Isnik tiles.

From beside the nearby Galata Birdge there are regular ferry departures for Kadiköy (20 minutes). You can spend half a day or more grazing your way through the food bazaar, pasty shops, and restaurants. For tips on where to focus your attention, read this post. Burn off the calories strolling the streets of Moda before returning to Istanbul’s European shores.

Dedicate the third day to Beyoğlu, wandering the back streets around Galata Tower, Istiklal Caddesi, through Cihangir and Topane, down to the Bosphorus and the Istanbul Modern. Now it is time for a total change of gears. Grab a dolmuş or bus up the Bosphorus to the second bridge. Have lunch at Iskele beneath the bridge, then make your way back on foot, past Rumeli Hisarı, Bebek, Arnavutköy, Kuruçeşeme, and Ortaköy, stopping for tea or coffe along the way. This is a LONG walk and can be supplemented with dolmuş or bus services that pass frequently.

Well, that should about do it. It would be pretty difficult to cover more than this in 3 days. The only thing left to do is plan your next trip.

2016-01-07T14:37:53+00:00 August 9th, 2009|Categories: Culture, Istanbul|5 Comments


  1. Sandra August 9, 2009 at 10:37 am - Reply

    Thanks Katie!
    We start a trip (little) to Istanbul tuesday august 11th.
    On web You know a great friend of mine, Vittorio (on twitter @tirebouchon)
    We have beeen in Istanbul in 2007 (from Italy with a car) and I’m falling in love with this amazing & gorgeous city.
    Have a nice trip you too

  2. Pam August 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Katie, when is the best time to go that the weather could be expected to be good but with least amount of tourists? What is the best month over all even with tourists? You are the best as usual!

  3. Katie August 9, 2009 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    @sandra enjoy yourselves and definitely check out IstanbulEats.com for more great food recs

    @Pam well, the only bad times to go are during Ramadan when you will find some restaurants closed (but the week after is AWESOME if youve got a sweet tooth) and August when lots of Istanbullus head to the coast, or the mountains, leaving many neighborhoods a bit desolate. I like the spring and fall and, if you follow this itinerary you will only really run into crowds (regardless of season) in Sultanahmet. Otherwise, Istanbul is a city of 16-20 million (estimated) so its always crowded, whether there are tourists or not!

  4. […] As the European Capital of Culture in 2010, the city of Istanbul will be holding hundreds of lectures, film screenings, exhibits, and special events. For a calendar of the events scheduled so far, click here. While the English version of the ECOC website could use a bit of help already (there are broken links, listings with incomplete info, etc) and restorations of the Kariye Museum (aka Chora Church), Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace will hinder visits, a flexible traveler will still get a lot out of a trip to the city this year. I stress flexible because this is a cultural initiative in Europe after all, so scheduling and events are bound to change at a moment’s notice. For more information on what to see and do in Istanbul consult this post. […]

  5. Ralph Groggenheimer September 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Hi Katie,

    that’s a great trip you put together there. I have just come back from a 3-day trip of Istanbul myself and my hostel was on the Asian side. I am so glad that you recommend going over there on such a short trip as too many people leave that out (and going on the ferries was probably my favourite part. By the way, you can check out my trip here: http://mappedtravel.com/cities/index.php?city=istanbul&noteId=133&time=2010-09-14%2019%3A02%3A25 and here: http://internet-guided.travellerspoint.com/ if you like.
    Thanks again, next time I go I’ll have a look at the Spice Bazaar, too, which I skipped in favour of the Grand one this time.


Leave A Comment