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.