Istanbul: The City where East meets West
For years now I’ve been dying to go to Istanbul, the city where East meets West. Its cultural heritage spans from an ancient Greek civilization through Persian, Greek, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires to the modern nation-state. This convergence of civilizations has shaped Istanbul into one of the world’s most culturally rich cities and I was eager to experience it first-hand. Although we only had one weekend to explore Istanbul, we were able to see most of the city’s highlights with the help of our Turkish friend. If you only have two days in Istanbul and want to make the best of your time there, this guide is for you…
Getting to Istanbul
Istanbul has two airports, the Ataturk Airport on the European side of the city and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side of the city. Though we were staying on the European side (where the main tourist attractions are), we flew into Sabiha Gokcen Airport because the tickets were much cheaper. The only downside was the long cab ride to our hotel which took over an hour in traffic. Weigh the pros and cons before choosing which airport to fly into.
DwD Tip: Before going, make sure to check whether or not your country requires a visa to visit Turkey. For Americans, a visa is required but it’s just a matter of paying $30 upon arrival.
How to Spend 2 Days (and 2 nights) in Istanbul
Check in to hotel
If you want to stay somewhere special while in Istanbul, choose a hotel along the beautiful Bosphorus Strait. With the recent turndown in tourism, hotels are cheaper than ever and rooms that normally would’ve been out of our price range were surprisingly affordable.
We stayed at the Shangri-La Bosphorus largely because of its great location and view of the Bosphorus. The Shangri-La is conveniently located in the financial and entertainment district of Besiktas. This was the perfect area for us because it’s very close to the trendy neighborhood of Bebek and only a tram ride away to the historic Old City.
*Click here to see current prices at the Shangri-La Bosphorus.
Experience the city’s nightlife in Bebek
Begin your night with dinner at Lucca, a local hotspot in the hip neighborhood of Bebek. The cool thing about Lucca is it’s a cafe by day and one of the hottest bars in Istanbul by night. Around midnight the last plates are cleared and the party starts. The music is fantastic with a DJ who has everyone singing and dancing. It’s the perfect way to kick off your trip and dive straight into the local culture.
Day 1 Itinerary:
- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapi Palace
Touring the Old City
The Blue Mosque
The beautiful Blue Mosque is an absolute must-do while in Istanbul. Today, the Blue Mosque still functions as a place of worship and Muslims from around the world come here to pray. I was struck by the serenity and beauty of this grand mosque. I especially loved the stained glass windows and immense, intricately tiled domes.
DwD Tip: When visiting mosques in Istanbul make sure to dress somewhat conservatively out of respect. The Blue Mosque asks that both men and women cover their legs and shoulders and that women cover their hair. However, a long robe and an attached headscarf are provided for those who, like me, did not bring their own. Also, all visitors must take off their shoes upon entrance in keeping with Islamic tradition.
Directly across from the Blue Mosque is the great Hagia Sophia. The history of Hagia Sophia (whose name means “holy wisdom” in Greek) is extremely interesting and reflects the many drastic changes Istanbul has undergone over the last millennia. If you have some time, read up on it! If not, here’s the short version: Built in 537 by a Byzantine emperor, it served as the focal point of the Greek Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. In 1453, the city was conquered by the Ottomans and it was converted into a mosque. Then in 1935, Ataturk, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, transformed the it into a museum.
Today, Arabic calligraphic panes hang next to 6th century murals of Mary, Christ, and the Saints, resulting in a fascinating confluence of Christian and Islamic iconography. Although it’s currently undergoing extensive repairs, don’t let this deter you from visiting. Standing under Hagia Sophia’s 55 meter dome is a humbling experience unlike any other.
Our final site for the day was Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Perched on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace was strategically built to have the best view of the Bosphorus and surrounding city. Allow some time here because there are four courtyards, a harem, mosques, a hospital, bakeries, a mint, and beautiful gardens to see. There are also several museums where you will find elaborate Ottoman weaponry, an extensive collection of Japanese, Chinese, and European porcelain, and many other imperial treasures.
For a blue and white lover like me, Topkapi Palace was a dream. The palace is covered in blue and white Iznik tiles with the most beautiful designs and I left with major design inspiration!
We visited Topkapi in late afternoon and stayed until sunset. At golden hour, the palace was bathed in the most magnificent light, illuminating its tiled walls and the city below. Watching the sunset from the palace balcony, I couldn’t help but feel like an Ottoman princess. 😀
Dinner at Sunset
Saturday night have dinner at Sunset Grill & Bar in the posh neighborhood of Ulus. This classy restaurant sits on a hill with a fantastic view of the Bosphorus. In addition to Turkish dishes, Sunset serves international and Japanese cuisine and everything is delicious.
Day 2 Itinerary:
- Brunch along the Bosphorus
- Dolmabahce Palace
- Spice Bazaar
- The Golden Horn
- Galata Tower
Brunch along the Bosphorus
Begin your second day in Istanbul with brunch at Lokma, a local favorite along the Bosphorus. Request a window table in order to enjoy the view. Then settle in for a knock-your-socks-off traditional Turkish breakfast. Feast on countless varieties of cheese, eggs, savory Turkish pastries, fresh vegetables and juices. Make sure to try simit (the Turkish equivalent to a bagel) with honey, kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), and jam. I could eat that all day!
After a stroll along the Bosphorus, set off for Dolmabahce Palace. In 1856, the Ottomans abandoned Topkaki for Dolmabahce, a palace modeled after the great palaces of Europe. Dolmabahce is a clear example of the confluence of East and West in Istanbul. While the palace contains Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical elements, it also retains elements of traditional Ottoman palace life such as having separate living quarters for the men and women.
Both Topkaki and Dolmabahce Palace are worth seeing because they are completely different stylistically and reflect very different eras. With 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets, Dolmabahce is extravagance personified. In fact, the exorbitant expense incurred by its construction contributed to the deteriorating financial situation of the Ottoman Empire and eventually its demise.
From Dolmabahce, hop on the tram and head to the famous Spice Bazaar in the Old City. The Spice Market was once the last stop for the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road from China. Stepping into the covered market, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked into Ottoman-era Istanbul. There are hundreds of vendors selling fragrant, vividly colored spices alongside countless varieties of lokum, or Turkish Delight, and dried fruits.
Warning: The Spice Bazaar can be a bit overwhelming with countless vendors competing for your attention.
DwD Tip: The vendors are happy to give you a pinch of their spices or a piece of lokum so don’t be shy to ask!
The Golden Horn
From the Spice Market, walk along the Golden Horn, the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. In the early evening, the docks are teeming with activity. Stop for a few minutes to watch the fisherman and enjoy the warm, salty air. Afterwards, make your way across Galata Bridge to Galata Tower.
Built by a Byzantine emperor in 528, Galata Tower is one of the oldest surviving towers in the world. Over the years, the tower has served many purposes and has witnessed even more changes. Originally built as a lighthouse, the tower later became a military stronghold, an astronomical observation point, and prison. An early aviator even used it as his launching pad to fly over the Bosphorus! Today, Galata Tower offers visitors a spectacular 360 degree view of the city and is definitely a tourist trap worth going to. To grasp Istanbul’s immense size and beauty, you really must see it from the sky.
Hope you enjoyed this two-day Istanbul itinerary! If you found it useful, please let me know in the comments below!
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