Istanbul: the great city formerly known as Constantinople
The Turkish city acting as a bridge between Europe & Asia, known for its blend of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. Today we would like to give you the ultimate stopover guide of what to do in the city; a quintessential compilation, prepared by our very own Artleove team. For those who are visiting the dynamic, historic city for the first time, we have personally compiled a list of places you must pay a visit, including: restaurants, bars, cultural activities, must-see neighborhoods, and then lastly, places to get respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Kick off the day with a ferry ride across the Bosporus
Classic direct routes which take you across the Bosporus include Kadikoy – Besiktas, Uskudar – Besiktas, Eminonu – Uskudar. To see the old Ottoman palaces up close in all their glory, take the less common Kadikoy-Ortakoy journey.
You can choose to start your trip with the classic Galata Tower, the most visited attraction, located in the popular Beyoglu district. The tower was built by the Genoese in 1348, and it fulfilled several functions throughout its existence: a lighthouse, an observatory to fight against fires, a prison and an astronomical observatory. Today, you can climb to the top to admire a 360° panoramic view of Istanbul – though beware of the long queues on weekends. Climbing to the top of the tower is an absolute must for visitors; legend also says that the first person you climb the tower with ends up being the one you’ll marry. Before your climb, pop to Viyana Kahvesi, facing Galata tower, for their infamous San Sebastian cheesecake drizzled in melted chocolate. While you’re in the Galata area, walk straight down to Karakoy to watch the fishermen on Galata bridge during sunset – and don’t forget your camera!
Palaces of Istanbul
If you get the chance to visit Uskudar on the Asian side, Beylerbeyi Palace serves as an alternative to the more well-known Dolmabahce Palace and it is truly a treat for sore eyes, with its panoramic views of the European coastline as you enter the grounds of the palace. The neo-Baroque style palace was built as a summer residence for the Ottoman Sultans, with its six halls, hammam, French clocks, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, and porcelain vases. (Similar palaces to visit are Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi Palace, or the Yildiz Palace). When your time at the Palace ends, wander down towards Cengelkoy, past the Beylerbeyi neighborhoods and enjoy the Bosporus views on your left hand side as you go.
After all that strolling, you’ll be hungry for some lunch, so when you arrive at Cengelkoy, be sure to visit a cafe or restaurant with a bosporus view. Cengelkoy offers one of the best views in Istanbul, as the neighborhood is situated right under the second bridge. Erbap has a great upstairs view, and ‘Tarihi Cinaralti’ is a classic for breakfasts and sunsets (the tables closest to the water are almost always full).
Hagia Sophia: The former great church, and later mosque
If you visit the Sultanahmet side, pay a visit to the Hagia Sophia, the former great church, and later mosque, which holds political and historical significance, and which was converted from a museum back into a mosque recently. Facing Hagia Sophia mosque is Sultan Ahmet mosque, also known as ‘the blue mosque’, which is another beautiful Ottoman-era mosque, open to visitors outside prayer times. The Basilica Cistern, a Byzantine era cistern largest of several hundred ancient structures that lie beneath the city, is just yards away, and it has opened to the public recently after a period of restoration. The Grand Bazaar, also located in Sultanahmet is a tourist favorite and is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world: with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops on a total area of 30,700 m², attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.
The colorful Balat
A must-visit neighborhood further past Sultanahmet, is the colorful Balat, which can be accessed by bus and tram.The vibrant neighborhood is ideal for photography enthusiasts, and is known for its colorful houses, cobbled streets and eclectic mix of churches, mosques and synagogues – all scattered among antique auction houses, trendy cafes and vintage clothing stores.
Other trendy and lively neighborhoods to visit include Cihangir, Galata, Moda, Caddebostan, Besiktas, Arnavutkoy, Ortakoy and Bebek.
Beauties of Beyoglu
In General, Beyoglu (which encompasses Cihangir, Taksim, Galata, Karakoy all in one) is the neighborhood with the most to do for those visiting Istanbul; hidden historic churches, hotels, diverse neighborhoods and landmarks define its wonder. Taksim Square is a tourist hotspot, and Istiklal avenue is a great long pedestrian road boasting a plethora of churches, shops, restaurants, embassies, churches and hidden passages. One of these historic passages is the beautiful ‘Cicek Pasaji’, – originally called the Cité de Péra – a covered grand arcade of Rococo style, with rows of historic cafes, winehouses, and restaurants. There are many other passages on Istiklal where you may buy small gifts, souvenirs, sweets and jewelry. Built-in 1913 in the Italian Gothic Revival style, The Church of Saint Anthony of Padua is one of the largest Catholic churches you can visit in Beyoglu. The church is easily accessible, has a beautiful courtyard, and lies on Istiklal avenue next to the trendy rooftop bar 360. If you’re thinking of staying in Beyoglu for your stay, consider the historic Pera Palace, and then go for drinks at Monkey (monkeyistanbul) at night. The Marmara Taksim is also a very popular hotel with spectacular views, and the Grand Hotel de Londres in Pera has a great terrace bar with spectacular views, open to all. For hotels with direct views of the Bosporus, try the Shangri-La or the Four Seasons (or the majestic Ciragan palace if you have thousands of dollars to spare).
A few food alternatives
Restaurants in Beyoglu are notorious for their terrace views: Los Altos (Mexican terrace restaurant), Eleos (stunning Greek taverna), Firuzende (Chic Galata rooftop), Rika Cihangir (Stylish rooftop offering global dishes) are all great in their own way- if you decide to go for Rika, try closeby Geyik for drinks afterwards. A personal favorite is Terrace 41, roof garden with a spectacular panoramic view (enter the Corinne Art & Boutique Hotel and head to the top floor).
A taste of traditional Turkish cuisine
For a taste of traditional Turkish cuisine, Haci Abdullah in Taksim on the European side, is one of the oldest restaurants in Istanbul, established in 1888. The 127-year-old Haci Abdullah restaurant is Ottoman-themed, with authentic and unique dishes, and a classic ambiance.
Dinner under the iconic Bosporus Bridge
For those who like the idea of a dinner under the iconic Bosporus Bridge, facing Ortakoy Mosque: you mustn’t visit Istanbul without dining at Lokanta Feriye. Feriye’s grounds, including the Lokanta, lie within the former complex of the neoclassic Ottoman Feriye Palace, built along the European shoreline of the Bosporus strait. Ortakoy Mosque of course offers one of the best views of the Bosporus, and you can dine at the heart of the city, tasting local seasonal Turkish cuisines with a backdrop of one of the city’s iconic views. After your time in Ortakoy, take a walk or bus down to Bebek, and then Arnavutkoy before sunset. Stop at Lucca in Bebek for drinks, a fashionable bar offering Mediterranean & global plates, brunch & cocktails, plus regular DJs.
Feriye has a special place in our hearts: if you’d like to read more about the Feriye experience, please check here for our lengthier magazine feature.
For Italian food lovers – hop over to Asia
Let’s switch to the Anatolian side of the city for now. For Italian food lovers, Aida – vino e cucina is a perfect little Italian which offers an authentic, traditional menu in a cosy warm setting located in Moda (Kadikoy) in Asia. If you’re spending the night in Kadikoy and you’re on the look-out for drinks, head to Viktor Levi, a cozy wine bar with a spacious leafy terrace. For those with a sweet tooth, Asuman, in Moda, Kadikoy, is our top choice. We recommend ordering the ‘Feride’, a hot melt-in-your-mouth hot chocolate pistachio cake with its unique creamy cheese ice cream topping. This place is the ultimate heaven for chocolate-lovers, doubling as a chocolate store inside in the cafe; there is even chocolate-flavored cologne offered on each table. If you’re in the area, you can also pop over to Hane Kadikoy, which is a few streets away. Here, try the ‘Endorfin’, a delicious brownie doused in a bed of melted Belgian chocolate with sliced bananas and crushed biscuits. The Magnum store in Caddebostan on the Asian side is also a close contender for the sweetest experience, offering make-your-own ice cream desserts.
Wind down from the hustle and bustle
For those wanting some respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, here is also a quick compilation of spots to wind down after a busy few days exploring the big city.
For the ideal day to kick back and unwind, start from Moda Sahil Park on the Asian side of Istanbul, and make the stroll to Fenerbahce Park, stopping for brunch at Brekkie along the walk. If it’s later in the day, try Develi in Fenerbahce, a Turkish restaurant with a lovely location. Alternatively, Bostanci Sahil Park is a little further down the coast. Macka Park is sort of the Besiktas equivalent of Moda Sahil Parki, a lively hang-out spot popular with youths.
Camlica tepesi is a great spot for views, and is mostly undiscovered by tourists.
On the Eminonu/Sultanahmet side in ‘Old Istanbul’, Gulhane park is an expansive park located in the old grounds of Topkapi palace for its springtime tulips. And if you’re close to Arnavutkoy/Bebek, take the short bus journey down to Emirgan Park, which has beautiful lavender and tulip seasons, accompanied by spectacular views of the Second Bosporus bridge and three pavilions to explore.
Wind down with friends
If you need a space to wind down with friends and reflect on your time in Istanbul, DEKK is a good option: an outdoor food hall with a bosporus view, it wins the award for the most fashionable location: it is squeezed between Nisantasi, Harbiye and Besiktas, at the edge of Macka park. Pop-up workshops, pizza, cocktails, even NFT exhibitions, movie nights, and burgers are among the variety of experiences offered by Dekk.
The modern art museum SALT Galata
If you’re looking for a space to study as well as relax, the modern art museum SALT Galata, situated on ‘Banks Street’ (Bankalar Caddesi) is a great place to escape from the crowds and immerse yourself in some culture and art. The Art space is situated within a former imperial Ottoman bank, and features a gallery, a cafe & a library with free Wi-Fi.
Take a break from Istanbul: The three islands
To take a break from Istanbul entirely, we highly recommend visiting ‘The Princes Islands’ for a breath of fresh air; a day trip to any of these Islands is one of the top things to do when visiting the city. About an hour’s ferry ride away from central Istanbul, the stunning natural scenery of the islands offers the ideal setting to escape the city (the islands are one of the best preserved natural areas and sights in Istanbul, and all fuel-driven vehicles are banned, making them an oasis of peace and quiet). We recommend Buyukada, the most popular island and the largest, translated literally to ‘Big Island’. Stay at the beautiful Splendid Palace hotel for sea views and enchanting rooms. If you’re looking for more of a boutique hotel, stay at Ada Palas for a central location, and eat dinner at the hotel’s own ‘secret garden’ restaurant, a cute hideaway with pretty fairy lights and live Turkish music most nights. And be sure to visit Trotsky’s house, located on Hamlaci Street, Buyukada! And most importantly, take the hike up to Aya Yorgi Church, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, for panoramic views of Istanbul. You may spot Prinkipo, an old Greek orphanage, on the way up!
We hope you found our Istanbul 72 hour guide useful. We compiled this piece with the aim of sharing our love and knowledge of Istanbul, and helping you make your trip a unique and rewarding experience and not just a visit. To tell you the truth, you’d need a lot longer than 72 hours in this historic, diverse city full of hidden delights, but for now, that’s all from us! Happy Travelling.
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