After a whirlwind trip through Turkey, I had two days to pack in as much sightseeing as possible in the enchanting city of Istanbul. If you want to follow in my footsteps and have 48 hours to spare, here are my recommendations.
Begin your day at the Rustempasa Mosque, which features some of the most detailed frescoes in Istanbul and is far less crowded than the famous Blue Mosque. Then wander to the Spice Market to soak up the fragrance of colorful spices piled high and perhaps pick up some Turkish delights. From here, continue to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the city and very beautiful, with sweeping views across the Golden Horn.
Next, work your way to Old Istanbul and start at the Basilica Cistern – a marvel of ancient engineering. This underground water reservoir was built around 500 AD to provide fresh, running water to the people of what was then Constantinople, with beautiful carved columns featuring Medusa heads.
Continue to the magnificent Topkapi Palace where artifacts, treasures and jewelry once belonging to the Ottoman sultans are displayed. Be sure to admire the jade, diamonds and ruby gemstones, as well as browse the armory room where there are some amazing swords.
It’s a short walk from Topkapi Palace to Hagia Sophia – a Christian basilica that was later turned into a mosque and still retains elements of both religions. Keep an eye out for the Hagia Sophia cat who you should pet for good luck! After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the famous Pudding Shop that does a great Turkish spread, with the restaurant made famous in the 1960s as a meeting spot for beatniks and hippies.
From here you can visit the Hippodrome, the sporting heart of Constantinople, where you can imagine races taking place beneath the immense columns. Alternatively, get some retail therapy at the Grand Bazaar, which is packed with Turkish pipes, homewares and textiles. It’s jokingly said that only four items are sold by the 4,000 shops that cluster in this iconic market.
If you want to taste some of the best baklavas in Istanbul, end your day at one of the two Baklovava – Gulluoglu shops in the city. You can sample both walnut baklava (a classic Turkish recipe) and pistachio baklava (originating in Syria), as well as milk baklava that melts in your mouth.
Begin your second day in Istanbul at the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, which once served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. Wander through the lavish halls decorated with immense chandeliers and see the room where Mustafa Ataturk spent his final days, then browse the art collection out the back.
From Dolmabahçe Palace, walk to the nearby Maritime Museum to get an education in Turkey’s seafaring history, then jump aboard a cruise to view Istanbul’s lively European side and the red-roofed houses of the Asian side from the water. Keep an eye out for the Imperial Ottoman summer residence of Beylerbeyi Palace and the big outdoor clubs and party islands where you can see people lounging, drinking and dancing.
A short distance downstream you can see the gorgeous Bosphorus Bridge and the remains of an old fort before arriving at the vibrant harbor area of Karaköy. It’s packed with great restaurants and family-run shops where you can pick up high-quality goods and reasonable prices.
If you want to go out after dark, head to the maze-like streets of Asmalimescit that are home to fantastic bars (try Nu Pera) or the famous Istiklal Avenue that extends from Tunel to Taskim Square. Alternatively, make a reservation at one of the big nightclubs, such as Club Reina, Suada or Sortie.