48 Hours In: Istanbul

Mosques, mansions and markets: Turkey's biggest city has plenty to intrigue the weekend visitor. Twenty years since he first prescribed the perfect 48 hours here, Simon Calder returns



Click here for
48 Hours



In...Istanbul map

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

The vast city where Europe extends a tentative hand to Asia is easier to reach than ever thanks to new budget flights. Get there before the crowds arrive for Istanbul's year in the sun as European capital of culture 2010.

Touch down

The main carrier is Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; turkishairlines. com), which flies from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester to Istanbul's main airport, Ataturk, and – starting this week – from Stansted to the secondary airport, Sabiha Gokcen. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Ataturk, while easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Luton and Gatwick to Sabiha Gokcen. Pegasus (0845 084 8980; flypgs. com) flies from Stansted to Sabiha Gokcen. On arrival in Turkey, Britons must pay £10 (in cash) for a "visa", ie a stamp slapped in your passport.

From Ataturk airport, 20km west of the city centre, a train/tram combo gets you swiftly and cheaply into town. At the airport follow signs for the Hafif Metro; buy a 1.50 lire (YTL1.50/65p) token and take the train to Zeytinburnu station, about halfway to the centre. Transfer to the tram (different token, at the same price) which heads first to Sultanahmet (1), and Sirkeci railway station (2), then crosses to the newer parts of town.

Sabiha Gokcen is about 50km east of the centre, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side. An airport bus (00 90 212 518 03 54; istanbulairportshuttle. com), runs to and from central hotels for €7-€10, depending on the number of passengers.

Get your bearings

Istanbul is essentially a maritime city. The mighty Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea to the world, bisects not just the city but the continents of Europe and Asia. Almost everything of interest is concentrated on the European side – notably in Sultanahmet, with the bulky, beautiful Aya Sofia (3) and Blue Mosque (4), and the expansive complex containing Topkapi Palace (5). "Old Istanbul" is separated from the newer area to the north by the broad inlet of the Golden Horn. It is crossed by Galata Bridge (6), which leads north to Galata Tower (7) and the hub of the new city, Taksim Square (8).

Check in

Sultanahmet and the adjoining areas of Sirkeci and Eminonu have plenty of hotels. At the Orient Express (9) at 34 Hüdavendigar Caddesi(00 90 212 520 7161; orientexpresshotel.com) I paid €156 a night (including an 11 per cent cash discount) for a large room, with breakfast. It is a comfortable place with a superb roof terrace. Among the many budget options in "tourist valley", between the Aya Sofia (3) and the water, is the reliable Side Hotel (10) at 20 Utangac Sokak (00 90 212 458 5870; sidehotel.com), which has double rooms without baths or breakfast for as little as €35.

To escape the crowds, and enjoy an Asian aspect to your trip, try the A'jia Hotel (11), across the Bosphorus in the suburb of Kanlica (00 90 216 413 9300). Readers of The Independent can enjoy the Ottoman exterior, a design interior and views across to Asia on a great deal: two nights in a waterfront deluxe room costs €389, with breakfast an extra €15 per person; book through Mr & Mrs Smith: independent.co.uk/ mrandmrssmith.

Day One

Take a view

Valide Han (12) is a vast 17th-century caravanserai (trading complex) buried in the middle of the busy commercial district, and an enthralling place: a warren of warehouses and workshops, compressed around a courtyard where once merchants' camels were stabled. Soon after you wander through the gateway, a "guide" is likely to appear from the shadows and invite you to step through a passageway on to the roof, revealing a spectacular 360-degree view of the city. Tip YTL5 (£2.20) for a brief visit.

Window Shopping

Just south from here, the Grand Bazaar (13) now comprises a vast, rambling and entertaining tourist attraction rather than somewhere to find bargains, and is probably more rewarding as a place to sip tea amid a retail frenzy rather than to flex your bargaining skills for carpets or gold; you will be no match for the local traders. The market opens 8.30am-7pm daily except Sunday.

A less overwhelming experience can be had at the Spice Bazaar (14), also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. It is an L-shaped complex lined with stalls and exuberant vendors. Colourful and aromatic spices are on sale, along with a million varieties of lokum (Turkish Delight).

Lunch on the run

Inside the Spice Market's northern entrance, a staircase leads up to Pandeli (15) (00 90 212 527 3346) – started a century ago by a Greek entrepreneur. It opens lunchtimes only (and not at all on Sundays) for good-but-pricey fare in spectacular surroundings, with a dazzling array of tilework. Try to get a seat by one of the windows looking down into the market. At the other end of the price spectrum, the Spice Market, Tahtakale Kokorec (16) at 2 Sabuncuhan Caddesi (00 90 212 519 7847) is a cheap and cheerful kebab shop, with an upstairs salon where you can relax above the madding retail crowd.

Take a hike

Start a long afternoon walk where the Orient Express train finished its trans-European journey: Sirkeci station (2), whose bleak mid-20th-century exterior conceals some fine original flourishes, and a small but fascinating museum devoted to the pioneers of the "Ottomanische Eisenbahnen" that connected Istanbul to the rest of Europe. It opens 9am-12.30pm and 1-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, admission free.

Cross the Golden Horn on Galata Bridge (6), busy with trams and traffic day and night, offering sublime views and good fishing (the restaurants on the lower level sometimes fry the catches of the anglers above). It leads to the Galata quarter, which for a couple of centuries from the mid-13th century was a colony of Genoa.

The Camondo Stairs (17) are a much later addition: an art nouveau stairway built by a local banker. Climb them, and you are close to the Galata Tower (7), which began life as a lighthouse 1,500 years ago but was replaced by the Genoese in 1348 with this 62m-high stone tower. Between 9am and 8pm daily you can pay YTL10 (£4.50) for the lift (and a short staircase) to the top, for fine views across the city.

From Galata Tower, continue north to the start of Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrianised main thoroughfare for the city, lined with handsome mansions. It ends at Taksim Square (8), where you can board a vintage tram for the ride back to the start of the street.

An aperitif

On the curve of the Golden Horn as it joins the Bosphorus, you can find plenty of waterside cafes (18) to sit and sip as the sun casts its last rays on Asia. Or aim for one of the rooftop terraces, such as the Imbat Restaurant atop the Orient Express Hotel (9): a beer costs just YTL5 (£2.20) and the food is excellent if you want to linger.

Dining with the locals

While Turkey's relatively low cost of living means that dining out is generally good value, finding an innovative venue in the Sultanahmet area has always been tricky. But the recent opening of Khorasani (19) at 39 Ticarethane Sokak (a lane off the main drag of Divan Yolu; 00 90 212 519 5959; khorasanirestaurant.com) offers a sophisticated Anatolian alternative to the tired, touristy offerings. It is also vegetarian-friendly. The YTL18 (£8) mezze makes an excellent starter for two, while grilled dishes (such as hashas kebab, a kebab with opium poppy seeds) are prepared on a large range near the entrance. Finish with künefe: like honey-soaked Shredded Wheat with melted cheese.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to the mosque

Creations of two of the world's leading religions confront each other at opposite ends of Sultanahmet Square, with some impressive monuments between them.

Start at Aya Sofia (3), the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's sixth-century celebration of Christianity. A millennium later, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque (and four minarets were attached). After the Turkish Republic was proclaimed, it was turned in to a museum in 1935. The mosaics are the main attraction; renovations that have been continuing on and off for five years the main detraction. It opens 9am-5pm daily except Monday, admission YTL15 (£6.50).

A millennium after Justinian built the Aya Sofia, Sultan Ahmet trumped it with the mosque named for him, but which is better known as the Blue Mosque because of the ornate tile work on the interior. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit (via the right-hand courtyard) for free outside prayer times; while these vary, you can turn up with a good chance of getting in at 9am-12.15pm, 1.15-4.30pm and 5.40-6.30pm; on Fridays, the only space is 11.45am-2.30pm.

Out to Brunch

After such spiritual sustenance, repair to the Pudding Shop (20) at 18 Divan Yolu (00 90 212 522 2970; puddingshop.com; 7am-11pm daily) for sweet or savoury nutrition washed down with ayran – the slightly salty yoghurt drink popular with locals. While the Lale Restaurant (as it is officially known) seems unremarkable now, it was a cardinal point on the hippie trail to Kathmandu.

Take a ride...

... to Asia. One reason for the Pudding Shop's (20) success was that it was within easy walking distance from the Eminonu ferry quay (21), whence boats shuttle constantly to several ports on the Asian side of the Bosphorus (flat fare YTL1.50/65p). Choose Kadikoy if you want to see the Selimiye Barracks where Florence Nightingale was based (though if you want to see her museum, you have to visit from Monday to Friday at 11am, having sent a fax in advance to 00 90 216 310 7929); or Haydarapasa if you prefer to visit the majestic railway station that takes travellers deeper into the Orient.

Cultural afternoon

Back in Europe, take a walk in the park to the Topkapi Palace (5), built by Mehmet II in 1459 to mark the ascendance of the Ottoman Empire. Its fine pavilions reflect the dominance of the sultans over Europe and the Middle East until the 19th century. Open 9am-5pm daily except Tuesday, admission YTL15 (£6.50). Once inside you must buy a separate ticket (price YTL12/£5) to visit the Harem – the highlight of a visit thanks to the sense of tranquillity and delicate feminine architecture.

The icing on the cake

The Basilica Cistern (22) is a well-hidden treasure: the entrance to this magnificent subterranean temple looks like a municipal WC. But the YTL10 (£4.50) admission fee is amply rewarded when you descend to a chamber built 1,500 years ago by the Emperor Justinian – a water tank fed by aqueducts far from the city, whose ceiling is supported by more than 300 marble columns. To understand the scale of the project, imagine an underground football pitch. It opens 9am-5.30pm daily.

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable