Istanbul has always had something of a split personality: Istanbul and Constantinople, Europe and Asia, the juncture of East and West. Bisected by the Bosphorus, that turquoise ribbon of water snaking its way through the centre, Istanbul is the world’s only major city to span two continents. The metropolis rises on both banks, and for the first time, the city’s fleet of ferries is making the continental crossing 24 hours a day at weekends. Here’s how to make the most of every hour of your visit to the City of the Seven Hills.
Istanbul’s ancient heart – and the magnetic motherlode for first-time visitors and history buffs – lies in the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet. This area is chock full of hostels, backpacker bars and historical highlights from the city’s many eras. Must-sees include the iconic Hagia Sophia, which has operated as a church, mosque and a museum in its nearly 1500-year time span. Nearby, the decadent tile-covered Topkapi Palace was the residence and political HQ of Ottoman sultans. Even second-time visitors who have already ticked the big-name sights off their lists will still have much to explore here. Most tourist sites open at 9am, so be first in the door after a hearty Turkish breakfast to avoid the queues.
The tangle of streets to the west of the city’s First Hill is home to Istanbul’s famous markets: the frenetic Grand Bazaar and the colourful Spice Bazaar. If you’ve arrived hungry, head straight for the latter, where towers of sugar-coated Turkish delight are piled high next to stalls of fragrant spices, nuts, herbs, dried fruit and tea. After you’ve picked up some edible souvenirs, navigate your way back to the Spice Bazaar’s main entrance to find Pandeli, an ornate old-school dining hall, for lunch above the din.
Now it’s time to escape the harried cobbled alleys and snarls of traffic on nearby Reşadiye Caddesi. Cross over to the ferry docks at Eminönü at the mouth of the Golden Horn and hop on board a boat bound for Kadıköy on the Asian side. Snag a seat on the upper deck and watch as the pencil-thin mosque minarets slowly fade away on the 20-minute journey. Istanbul’s Anatolian side feels less hurried, and it’s easy to while away an afternoon at the Kadıköy Produce Market, a popular foodie destination, or admiring the huge building-high murals dotted around the streets near the ferry terminal.
Work up an appetite with a slow stroll south along the Bosphorus. Informal cafes, sometimes with little more furniture than patterned maroon rugs and plastic chairs, line the water’s edge. They offer a tempting place to pause for a tulip-shaped cup of traditional Turkish tea with a front-row seat to watch the sunset. If the scent of the sea has you fancying fish for dinner, head slightly inland to Cibalikapı, considered one of the city’s best meze seafood restaurants, or to the open-air terrace at Koço for freshly grilled seasonal fish.
Istanbul’s Asian side tends to be more conservative, but the sprawl of cafes and bars along Moda Caddesi and Kadife Sokak (also referred to simply as ‘Bar Street’) is the place to let loose. The sheer density of options means it’s almost too easy to make a full night of it. Arkaoda, a cosy cafe that moonlights as a dimly lit bar with a regular rotation of DJs, was at the forefront of the neighbourhood’s transformation, and after more than two decades it’s still buzzing until the small hours. Back across the Bosphorus, the late-night action spills up the hill from Karaköy, which has all-night weekend ferry access from Kadıköy. The laid-back, shabby-chic cafes and cocktail bars are often so tiny that the action stumbles out into the narrow streets, where drinkers linger until dawn.
Next up: 5 of the best beaches near Istanbul