Katie McGonagle spends two days in Istanbul sizing up the perfect city break
It’s a city of two halves, the only metropolis to span two continents, but there’s nothing half-hearted about Istanbul.
The city captivates its guests from the second they step onto Turkish soil with a heady mix of history, religious heritage and buzzing nightlife. Istanbul is the very definition of a cosmopolitan city, with incredible architecture showcasing its different historical influences and a diverse population to match.
The city is benefiting from improved airlift – Atlasjet has introduced a new service from Stansted, flying to Istanbul Atatürk six days a week and Antalya on Saturdays, while Jet2.com beefed up Manchester departures earlier this year. So now it’s easier to get there, here’s what your clients can do in two days.
09.30: Head to Sultanahmet, the Old City, where the ornate Blue Mosque is a good starting point (avoid prayer times and cover bare shoulders or legs). Then wander outside to the Hippodrome, home of chariot racing when the city was the centre of the Roman and Byzantine empires, and see ancient monuments shipped from around the world.
11.00: Nearby Hagia Sophia is next. Once you’ve stopped gazing in awe at its vast dome, you’ll find an enchanting mix of Christian and Islamic iconography charting its complex history as cathedral then mosque. Remember to wish for a miracle at the Weeping Column.
12.30: Stop for lunch at Sir Evi restaurant on Divanyolu Street. Have your camera ready if you order testi kebab – it’s cooked in a clay pot that is set alight and sliced open at the table to reveal a mix of tender meat and vegetables.
14.00: Walk off lunch with a stroll towards Punto, on Gazi Sinan Pasa, which sells intricate hand-woven carpets. You might see the weavers at work, plucking each string like a harp as they tie tiny knots to make up the pattern, though the amount of effort is reflected in hefty price tags.
14.30: Head back towards the cavernous Basilica Cistern, a huge sixth century reservoir that featured in From Russia with Love. Don’t miss the columns carved with striking Medusa heads.
15.00: For another dose of local craftsmanship, stop at Firca Handicraft Centre on Alemdar Street for beautiful ceramics from Cappadocia. We were just in time to see a lump of clay transformed into a delicate wine jug.
15.45: Step back in time with a visit to the Topkapi Palace, a lavish imperial enclave home to four centuries of Ottoman emperors. If you’re tired, head straight to the cafe for a strong Turkish coffee and breathtaking views over the Bosphorus. Then work back through each courtyard, stopping to see treasures such as an 86-carat diamond.
19.30: After freshening up, why not see the famous Whirling Dervishes at Hodjapasha Culture Centre? It’s an ancient Islamic ritual where they go into a trance-like state, leaving the audience mesmerised.
21.00: Get a bite to eat along Istiklal Street, a pedestrian walkway brimming with people day and night. Hacibaba’s baklava and honey-soaked cake are particularly delicious.
23.00: If you’ve got energy and cash to burn, take a cab to uber-cool nightclub Reina on the banks of the Bosphorus.
09.30: Lose yourself in the Grand Bazaar. With 21 entrances and more than 4,000 shops, the covered market is a city, devoting whole streets to jewellery, leather, rugs and more.
11.30: Walk 20 minutes to the Spice Bazaar, filled with exotic aromas, colourful spices piled high next to dried rosebuds and every flavour of Turkish delight.
12.30: If you want a rest, seek out the tiny staircase to Pandeli Restaurant, where you can look out at the market as you eat. Alternatively, grab pide, Turkish pizza, or take a short stroll to Galata Bridge for tasty balik ekmek, crusty bread filled with fried fish.
14.00: Make your way over the bridge to art gallery Istanbul Modern and don’t miss the views of Topkapi Palace from its windows.
15.00: Just a mile away is the new Museum of Innocence, based on the book by Orhan Pamuk. It’s a curious collection of objects documenting the characters’ lives and a social history of Istanbul; read the book first for maximum enjoyment.
16.00: Get rid of the day’s grime with a hammam, or Turkish bath.
20.30: Head to Ciçek Passage for a lively atmosphere and restaurants. Take your time over mezze– or head to a bar to sample local raki.
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