Travel Guide: What to do in a weekend in Istanbul, Türkiye

Your complete guide to a short break in Istanbul, Türkiye.

A scuffle for a seat in Istanbul’s ferry terminal cafe in Karaköy seems unlikely, yet it happens. It’s the view over the curvy inlet of the Golden Horn that divides the European shore of Istanbul into two, that’s so compelling. It comprises Dolmabahçe Palace, with its European-inspired architecture, and the Galata Bridge with its throngs of anglers and its lower deck of fish restaurants and bars.

This is where ferries ferry commuters over the Bosphorus Strait between Istanbul’s European and Asian side, while seagulls fill up the skies, and a motley myriad of seafaring vessels pass by, some making their way to the Black Sea or the Sea of Marmara.

Yet it’s not just the waterway that’s busy, in a city of almost 16 million people, traffic is slow while life is brisk. The majestic Ortaköy Mosque, (Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdulmecid) sparkles at the waterside of the Ortaköy pier square while around Sultanahmet, bustling Karaköy, Galata and Beyoðlu crowds of people, eat, drink, and go clubbing when not going about their business as if on a mission.

Still, it’s a pleasant walk along the Bosphorus promenade on the European side in Bebek in the Beþiktaþ area, to the Rumeli Hisari area passing the 15th-century Rumelihisarý (Rumelian Fortress and Roumeli Hissar Fortress). This medieval Ottoman fortress was commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II and strategically spread over a series of hills in preparation for a siege in the then Constantinople. Now the fort lords it over the waters and a long string of anglers reeling in sardines while youths dive into its cool waters and later drying off in the sun.

Shopping in Istanbul
Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel add glamour to the high street yet home-grown designers are becoming international stars. In stylish Taksim, looking dapper with its many art deco buildings, pop into Kismet by Milka in Bebek whose quaint jewellery designs are worn by celebrities worldwide. So are the collections of Selma Çilek, also in Bebek, whose high-end designs are heralded around the world. The most famous Turkish brand is the family-owned Vakko. It has a high-end hotel in Niþantaþý, as well as designer clothes shops, designer toys, and even wedding gowns.

The ever-popular Grand Bazaar known locally as Kapalý Çarþý offers an exciting labyrinth of shops organised into bedestens selling carpets, clothes, cloth, and jewellery – it’s all there. Merchants can be pushy but if you are interested then haggle hard. A ferry away to Kadýköy on the Asian side is a trendy area that has one of the grandest, most affluent and longest shopping avenues in the City; Baðdat Avenue. It stretches 7km from Bostancý in the east to Kadýköy.

Its biggest gem is its food market (Kadýköy Bazaar) not too far from the ferry terminal. It’s all about the food, the aromas of food spices are heady, and here you should buy Turkish Delight (which they say is an aphrodisiac), Baklava, honey, or other treats that make for great gifts for those back home. A common sight is dried aubergine hanging in spice shops. These are later stuffed with rice and minced meat and cooked and referred to as Dolma.

Popular Landmarks
The most visited landmarks are conveniently located close to each other on the European side of Sultanahmet (the old town).

Topkapý Palace (where Ottoman sultans once lived) has four courts, a harem and several buildings that spread out behind the monumental Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). It’s impressively grandiose but bear in mind you will need a whole afternoon to explore the complex.

Hagia Sophia once a church was converted into a mosque. Standing under its 55m-high dome is exhilarating for you get an eyeful of mosaic depicting the Virgin and child and the Byzantine emperors Constantine and Justinian above the doorway as you exit the building via the Vestibule of Warriors.

Blue Mosque aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque is nearby. Its minaret, domes, and towers dazzle in the sunshine but inside the blue Iznik tilework interior dazzles even more. Each morning, you will hear the Muezzins at each of the imperial mosque complexes call the faithful to their prayers.

Go deep undercover at the subterranean Basilica Cistern, a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 columns. The twin blocks have been carved into snake-haired Medusas, or the carp idling in the shallow waters. If you can’t get there you can see it featured in the Hollywood blockbuster film Inferno. It’s quite something.

If you like art you may like Istanbul Modern Museum near Galataport. There’s funky art and photography but there’s also fabulous views from its rooftop.

Where to Eat
– This restaurant is in Galata centre Galataport, a 400,000 square metre waterfront development in the Karaköy neighbourhood. Frankie offers top-notch Mediterranean cuisine blended with Asian cooking. They call it “MediterAsian” cooking. The steak tartare here is strongly recommended.

Mürver Restaurant Karakoy – This restaurant is located on the top floor of Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus in Karaköy and offers one of the best views over Istanbul. Its fine dining, some cooked over a live fire that has found its way onto the Michelin recommended restaurants list. Dishes include smoked seabream and grilled beef.

Rumeli Kale Café & Restaurant – This restaurant only serves breakfast, and serves the best in Istanbul. The honey & clotted cream combo aka Bal kaymak with fresh bread is delicious and the Muhlama, made from melted Kolot Cheese, butter, and cornflour is great on the pita bread.

Ciya – This restaurant was founded by the legendary chef Musa, also Michelin recommended. Musa is considered the food anthropologist of Turkey. Dishes served are home-style regional Turkish cuisine in a simple restaurant on three floors with outdoor seating.

Mesai Karaköy – This is a fine dining restaurant in the Galata Istanbul Hotel. There’s a great view of the Golden Horn view and Turkish food such as mezes and kebabs in an elegant atmosphere.

Street Food in Istanbul
– When you walk past a stand selling Simit, the aroma is bound to get you. It’s the scent of freshly baked bagel-like sesame-crusted dough.

Midye dolma – This is half-shell mussels mixed with rice and a squirt of lemon, and is served cold mainly on the street corners in Taksim.

Kumpir – You will find this deep-filled baked potato in Ortaköy. Top it with kaºar cheese, corn, mayonnaise salad, peas and carrots.

Kestane Kebab (roasted chestnuts) – There are plenty of stalls selling roasted chestnuts. Simply delicious.

Mýsýr (corn) – Freshly made corn on the cob is delicious, filling and very healthy too.