You’ve read many things already about the great city of Istanbul, its Grand Bazaar, its beautiful Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia… of course! But what about the rest? If you’ve only got a day in Istanbul, here’s your ultimate guide to a short alternative visit by foot. And, of course, a few must-eats.
First off, a crash course on Istanbul: it is separated in 2 by the Bosphorus: on one side, Europe, and on the other, Asia. Since you’ve only got so little time, we’ll stay on the European side. There, it’s again separated in two by the Golden Horn. On the “historic side”, if you’re interested in the touristic spots, the district of Sultanahmet is your place. If not, read on.
Put on your best walking shoes and get up early!
Wherever you start your day from, make sure you start it with a hot cup of çay (tea) and a simit. That’s the typical morning bread – it looks like a strange bagel. It’s delicious and you’ll find it on every street corner. Make your way to the base of the Galata Bridge in the neighborhood of Eminönü, and include the Spice Bazaar (also called Egyptian bazaar) in your visit: it’s smaller than the Grand Bazaar (but still impressively big for a market dedicated to spices, nuts and Turkish delights…) and it’s incredibly colourful. If you like shopping for food, this will be your dream place. I literally spent hours and hours in there. *Pro Tips* : if you’re a girl (this always helps), play the innocent and ask “what is this?” to every merchant. You’ll eat a whole lot of amazing stuff.
If you want to see a beautiful mosque that’s not on the tourist books, make your way to Süleymaniye Camii. It’s quieter and absolutely stunning. Plus, you’ll have a nice view of the city up the hill.
Get back to Galata Bridge and cross it (and greet the fisherman on the way!) On the other side, you’ll soon get in the heart of the Beyoğlu area. In the districts of Galata and Tünel, the hipsters will find their match: small shops, designer boutiques, little cafés and authentic food shops and restaurants. It will be time to eat: I strongly recommend you stop in a “büfe” for a cheap lunch. You could also get a nice dürüm, or Turkish wrap, that would do the job perfectly well – but I seriously did enjoy the büfe (yes, it’s just like the “buffet” you know of), but the food is great. And cheap, too. Make sure you enjoy your meal with an ayran, it’s salted drinkable yogurt. Sounds terrible but it’s incredibly addictive.
The touristic Istiklal Caddesi is the most known attraction of this side of the city (with a reason, it’s blooming with shops and it’s incredibly lively all day long, especially at 2-3 in the morning!) But you’ll want to look further. On the other side of Istiklal, you’ll get to the districts of Karaköy and Tophane, on the waterside. I’m guessing you wouldn’t refuse a break right now, so make your way to one of the most beautiful terraces in town, on the rooftop of the 5Kat Hotel. After you’ve cooled down, walk a bit further up, you’ll get to the buzzing Taksim Square. Sure you’ve heard about the protests, but Istanbul is really safe. Believe me, I was there for 2 weeks by myself and I felt 100% safe. Taksim Square is a cool place where people gather, it’s often a meeting point, and also a big transport hub. You might get lost (I did), because the street indications are not really clear and it’s quite huge. Stay calm, and if you freak out, there’s a Starbucks not too far you can take refuge in (and use their wifi).
Before dinner, why not get another çay, or a delicious lemonade, and play a little tavla? Tavla is basically backgammon, but with a Turkish name. If you don’t know how to play, here, everyone does, so you’ll meet someone who can show you for sure. I recommend you explore the backstreets of Istiklal and you’re sure to find some great, surprisingly quiet spots to get away from the craziness of the big street.
Finally, end your day with some tasty kebap. Walk a few blocks towards the district of Cihangir, and cross your fingers to get a table outside at Kardeşler Kebap Salonu. I hope you’re here with friends so you can share a few dishes. I strongly recommend the iskender kebap : buttered sheep meat in a tomato sauce served on top of pide (the Turkish pizza bread) with yogurt.
If you’re still full of energy after this crazy long day, go back to either Galata & Tünel for a drink, and later on make your way to Istiklal to meet Istanbul’s nightlife.
Pro Tips: If you happen to have more time…
• Visit the authentic districts of Fatih, Balat & Fener, where you’ll find a great deal of monuments and mosques, but also synagogues and palaces.