Turkey: Istanbul in a Day?

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By Jen

It’s not what I would advise. Istanbul is an AMAZING city. But if you only had a day, what to do?

Istanbul has been amazing for 2500 years. It’s not easy to condense that into a day. It’s been Byzantine, Constantinople and now Istanbul, although it’s remarkable position in the world at East meets West and North meets South has never changed.

The average age of its residents is 16. Its population is bigger than Belgium. It’s a happening place. The buildings are incredible; all 21043 tiles on the walls and ceiling of the Blue Mosque are worthy of admiration. The oldest and largest indoor market in the world, built in the 1460s, the Grand Bazaar, is a warren of 3600 shops. Daniel Craig races across the rooftops of the Bazaar in Skyfall. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2010. The place is packed full of history and life.

So in a day, this is what I’d do.

Getting your bearings

Istanbul City map
Istanbul City

Istanbul has several, very different, areas. 1 and 2 are in Europe, 3 is Asia. 1 is the historical part, home to the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, where you’d probably want to spend most of a short visit. 2 is the modern part, home to Taksim Square, the iconic Galata tower (Galata is Greek for Celtic) and Ortaköy, the cosmopolitan cafe and restaurant-filled area. 3 is where most of Istanbul’s 14 million residents live, and it’s where you’ll find the Kadiköy food market.

The Golden Horn is a passage of water which forms the biggest natural harbour in the world. When you first arrive in Istanbul, it’s easy to confuse this wide water crossing with the water over to the right, the Bophorus, which divides Europe and Asia.

It has been protected and fought over for thousands of years. A heavy iron chain once spanned the Horn to prevent invading ships passing up it.

The Bosphorus itself is the second busiest shipping channel in the world, with 130-odd vessels a day passing between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, not including local traffic.

So how about starting here?….

1. Start at 1 on the historical side, on the waterfront at the Galata bridge. A couple of minutes walk south is the SPICE BAZAAR. It’s a smaller version of the GRAND BAZAAR, although just as busy. Both of these markets are en route to Sultanamet, the area of town where you’ll find the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya. Choose one or both to stop in by. Have a drink and a cake. Take your time and wander round the thousands of shops and alley, full of lamps and spices and Turkish Delight.

Spices and dried flowers in the grand bazaar, istanbul
Spices and dried flowers in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

One of the many alleyways of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Turkish Delight in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Turkish Delight in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Try these lovely chickpeas covered in sugar, which look for all the world like little mouse brains.

Little "mouse brains".
Little “mouse brains”.

2. It’s easy to get to Sultanamet square on foot, always heading south from the Golden Horn. There, you are pretty much at the centre of the most famous sights of Istanbul. The BLUE MOSQUE with its 6 minarets is stunning inside and out. Remember to take something to cover your head, and dress respectfully ie covered shoulders and knees. You also need to remove your shoes. Entry is free but donations can be given. It’s still a working mosque and there are times in the day when you will be asked to leave the inside (for prayer). I thought the inside was utterly beautiful, and spent so long there I didn’t go into Aya Sofya (almost next door). Just take your time. Sit. Watch. Admire. It’s especially lovely if you are outside to listen to one of the calls to prayer.

The outside of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets.
Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The beautiful tiled domes of the Blue Mosque

3. Take your time to wander round Sultanamet square. The AYA SOFYA, the BASILLICA, one of the museums. I only went inside the Blue Mosque, and I sat and stared at the ceiling until I had to leave for prayer time.

4. Make you way back through the streets toward the Galata bridge. If you can time a trip on a boat on the Bosphorus at around sunset, you will get the most spectacular views. Most tours take you under the first bridge connecting Europe and Asia, and you will have the chance to admire the many mansions which line the river. Take a peek and see if you can spot the one worth $100 million, one of the most expensive mansions in the world.

Boat tours can be arranged from just beside Galata bridge. If there are enough of you, hire a boat for a private tour,

A Bosphorus boat trip
A Bosphorus boat trip.
The first bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, Istanbul
The first bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, Istanbul

5. On the top of the Galata bridge there are fishermen, and below, seafood restaurants. You can pick up something cheap and quick on one of the boats, or eat in a seafood restaurant on the bridge.

There’s so much to see that I wouldn’t recommend racing around for the day trying to see everything. Take it slowly, enjoy Sultanamet and the bustle of the streets and bazaars there and back. Then take it all in from the river on a boat. Sunset is spectacular.

Sunset on the Bosphorus
Sunset on the Bosphorus
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