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A Tale of Two Worlds in Two Days: How to Spend a Weekend in Istanbul

Rowing Down the Golden Horn, Haggling at the Bazaars and Partying in a Three-Story Mansion

By AnnaMarie Houlis ·
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Evgenii Zotov/Getty Images

Travel is, by definition, traversing space; but it often feels like traversing time—not just zones, but decades or centuries. Suddenly, you can be transported to some other uncharted planet, and only the occasional reminders, like free Wi-Fi and Heinz ketchup, remind you that you’re not really in another world. Traveling to Turkey feels something like that. 

Istanbul is an idiosyncratic city straddling both Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. The city crosses continents with two inimitable cultures—but Istanbul feels like two worlds not for its geographic expanse but, rather, for its amalgamation of old and new. 

While the mosques, cathedrals and bazaars of its old city tell tales of the ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires that once ruled the nation, the new city vaunts rooftop restaurants, sheesha shacks and artisanal, alfresco coffee shops replete with Turkish teas, carefully crafted coffees and… DJs.

To be clear, the government advises travelers to reconsider Turkey due to "terrorism and arbitrary detentions," but some areas have increased risk, such as along the Turkey-Syria border and some southeastern provinces. Istanbul, however, is a safe city, and June is an ideal time to go as the weather is warm, but summer prices haven't yet peaked. 

Though it’s impossible to experience Istanbul in a weekend, sometimes that’s all the time there is. And, if that’s the case, here’s what you’ll need to do to get the best of both worlds—literally.

Time to Kill in Istanbul: 48 Hours

Day 1: The Old City

7:00 am: You’ll sit down for a Ottoman Turkish breakfast and Turkish coffee at House of Medusa in the Sultanahmet neighborhood on Istanbul’s historical peninsula. Your breakfast will likely be some variation of eggs, Turkish sausage and water börek, which you'll enjoy seated in the garden. The bitter tang of the unfiltered grounds in your coffee will wake you right up.

8:00 am: Did you ever imagine, in your wildest, most specific dreams, that you'd go rowing down the iconic Golden Horn and watch the sun rise over Istanbul's old city? You'll meet a man named Sinan Sökmen of Istanbul Tour Studio at the rowing club on the shores of the Golden Horn (Haliç). The natural inland runs approximately five miles long, dividing the European side of the city, so you'll get to see Istanbul's two facades from its most historic waterway. And you'll also learn how to row yourself from a professional instructor—what better place to try it out?

10:00 am: With your adrenaline pumping, you’ll head to Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica-turned-Ottoman imperial mosque, which now serves as a museum. You’ll marvel at its marble cubes, calligraphy and sheer size, and probably wonder how humankind had the resources back then to erect such architectural wonders. Then you’ll head over to Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka, the Blue Mosque), built in 1616, and wonder just the same. 

12:00 pm: You’ll take a stroll over to the Galata Bridge, thronged with hundreds of fishermen sipping hot tea—and the cats and seagulls they sometimes feed. The bridge has been named in numerous travel tales, including Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad. It connects the two different civilizations, Asia to the east and Europe to the west. On either side of the bridge, however, you’ll find a street food paradise, with everything from hot corn on the cob to five-lira freshly caught fish sandwiches. 

2:00 pm: If you’re still looking to satiate some craving after lunch, you’ll want to wander the Spice Bazaar, one of the largest bazaars in the city. It sits in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district, just off the bridge, and it’s a colorful, aromatic, sensuous experience. The market was crafted in 1664 as part of the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) complex, and now it’s known in Turkish as Mısır Çarşısı, which is sometimes also translated to the Egyptian Bazaar or the Corn Market. You’ll look out for Pul Biber (dried red pepper flakes that are a mainstay in Turkish cuisine) and Çörek out (which you’ll find sprinkled on Turkish breads, cakes and pastries). And, of course, before you leave, you’ll treat yourself to some honey-soaked baklava.

4:00 pm: Because you’ll have developed your bargaining skills leaving the Spice Bazaar, you’ll feel prepared to move on to some place bigger and better: The Grand Bazaar. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the most expansive and oldest covered markets in the world, spanning 61 streets and boasting over 4,000 shops that attract between upwards of 400,000 visitors each day. Just be prepared to buy one too many Pashmina scarves, some stupidly alluring lantern or, you know, a Turkish carpet… Or just practice saying this aloud: “Hayır teşekkürler.” That’s “No, thank you,” and you’ll need to use it vigilantly.

6:00 pm: With a full belly and an empty wallet, you’ll stumble into the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, a 16th-century Turkish bath commissioned by Roxelana, the consort of the Ottoman Emperor Sultan Suleiman I. There, you’ll ruminate on the damage you’d just done… while paying someone to massage you. Hey, it's vacation...

8:00 pm: Nothing works up an appetite like being pampered in a Turkish hamam, so you’ll have dinner at Mimar Sinan Teras Café, for the mere fact that it boasts unparalleled views of the Süleymaniye Mosque, an Ottoman imperial mosque located on the Third Hill. 

10:00 pm: At some point throughout your day, especially while chatting up shop owners in the bazaars, the chances that someone—if not multiple locals—have invited you to their home for tea are high. You’ll take said person up on that offer. If that doesn't happen, you'll wander the shops again, this time for tea rather than knick-knacks, and head back early to get a good night's sleep.

Day 2: The New City

8:00 am: You’ll wake yourself up with Turkish coffee, a flat white or an espresso macchiato, and Turkish pastries at Karabatak, a previously abandoned metal workshop that reopened in 2011 as a coffeehouse located on the border of the Karaköy and Beyoğlu districts of Istanbul.

10:00 am: Next, you’ll make your way over to the shops on İstiklal Avenue, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard renowned for its international brands from Zara and Mango to Topshop, Loft, Bershka and more. It runs along the vintage tram line from Taksim Square nearly all the way to the landmark Galata Tower, which means you’ve a lot of shopping to do. And when you reach Taksim Square, marked by a Republic monument, you’ll find side streets lined with 19th-century buildings housing a wealth of Turkish antique shops and boutiques to steal your attention for a while longer.

12:00 pm: You’ll wander the many side streets surrounding Taksim Square, each lined with cafes. You’ll find the best-smelling kebabs, and you’ll eat them. Hint: It’ll either be Kebapçi Enver Usta, a subterranean kebab joint located on a quiet Beyoğlu alley, or Zübeyir, a cozy grill house near Taksim Square.

2:00 pm: Wandering around Taksim Square and its surrounding area, you’ll grow curious about Turkey’s new wave of creatives. So you’ll find Istanbul Modern Art Museum, a museum of contemporary art in the Beyoğlu district. The museum opened in 2004, occupies an 8,000-square-meter site in Karaköy on the shores of the Bosphorus and focuses on artists from Turkey, like Fahrelnissa Zeid and Lütfi Akad. Don’t recognize the names? More reason to check it out. 

4:00 pm: You’ll stop for an artisanal strawberry or banana latte at Müstakil Beyoğlu. Don’t ask questions.

6:00 pm: You’ll have a gastronomic experience at the Guney Restaurant, which boasts ample views of the Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower in the Galata and Karaköy quarter of Istanbul just to the north of the Golden Horn’s junction with the Bosphorus. You won’t be able to read the menu, so you’ll close your eyes, point your finger and leave it up to fate. (Fate will be tasty.) 

8:00 pm: You’ll have had enough of the views of the Galata tower and be tempted to climb it yourself. So you’ll do just that, and you’ll watch the sun set from there. Get there early to beat the crowds for unmatched views of the bustling city as night falls. 

10:00 pm: You’ll wander into Karaköy to smoke fresh fruit sheesha out of a massive pineapple on the rooftop of The Rose café. Or you’ll stick to the melon, lemon, mint, banana, peach, grape, orange or many more options—there’s really no wrong choice.

12:00 am: Istanbul comes alive again late at night, so you'll head out to party in a three-story mansion with a garden and balcony boasting Bosphorus views, because that sounds like a pretty nice damn thing to do. The name of the place is Ruby, which will be easy to remember because you'll hear whispers of it around come nightfall. Choose your vice: the upstairs nightclub or the one downstairs. Either way, varying DJs and classic cocktails crafted by award-winning bartenders will make for a damn fine night. If it's not your vibe, you'll want to check out Ortakoy, aka the "Village in the city." Nestled near the Bosphorus bridge, it's known as one of Istanbul’s trendiest neighborhood, and boasts tons of neighborhood bars and clubs. 

AnnaMarie Houlis excels in sleeping in middle seats, occupying shared armrests and asking strangers questions to which they have no answers because they're not watching her airplane movie.

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