Two days definitely isn’t long enough to see everything Istanbul has to offer; however, it is long enough for an introduction to a city that’s home to many historic neighborhoods and a few islands. Here’s a two-day itinerary for first-time visitors to the grand Turkish city.
Day 1: Sultanahmet
The heart of Istanbul’s tourist sights, the Sultanahmet neighborhood is where you’ll find the city’s most iconic structures, from imperial mosques to grand palaces. Start your day in Sultanahmet Square and visit the beautiful Hagia Sophia. Constructed in 537 AD, the building served as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral until it was converted into a mosque in 1453 during the Ottoman Empire, and then transformed into a museum from 1935 onward.
While you’re in the square, make sure to see the grand Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1617 during the reign of Ahmed I, the structure is famous for the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn its interior walls. Right across the square, you’ll find the famous Basilica Cistern, the largest of the hundreds of age-old cisterns that lie beneath the former Constantinople. Dating back to the sixth century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the ancient water reservoir is perhaps most noted for its striking Medusa column bases.
Next up, it’s time for a quick bite to eat at locals’ favorite restaurant, Sultanahmet Köftecisi. Open since 1920, the family-run haunt today sees the fourth generation continue to follow the same traditional recipe for köfte (Turkish meatballs). The menu here is very straightforward, but delicious: köfte, piyaz (white bean salad with vinaigrette), and pickled vegetables.
After you’ve had your fill, walk down Topkapı Sarayı Street to the next important sight: Topkapı Palace. The residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years, the palace also hosted some of the most lavish state occasions and royal celebrations. At this point, you can decide to either spend the rest of the day in this area at the Istanbul Archeology Museum, which is open until 7pm, or go shopping at the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered bazaars. For the latter, take the street tram to the Çemberlitaş stop.
After a day marvelling at Istanbul’s historic beauties, continue the nostalgic vibe by dining at Balıkçı Sabahattin. Located in a renovated Ottoman mansion, this traditional fish restaurant has been open since 1926 and harks back to an Istanbul of a former time. Take your pick from the daily-made meze varieties to accompany the catch of the day.
Day 2: Karaköy, Galata, Çukurcuma
On the second day of this whirlwind tour, it’s time to explore a more local side of Istanbul. First up, head to Karaköy, one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods and full of cafés, shops, and art galleries. Some top stops include Mae Zae design store, artSümer art gallery, and Bey Karaköy menswear shop.
Worked up an appetite? Make sure to go to Karaköy Lokantası, which serves up traditional, home-cooked Turkish dishes with a modern twist. The menu changes on a regular basis, but if it’s available, order the alinazik (slow-cooked lamb on a bed of eggplant purée).
Take a deep breath, it’s an uphill walk toward the Galata neighborhood, which you can easily discern by following the Galata Tower that soars above the entire district. One of the best streets to explore here is Serdar-ı Ekrem, lined with great fashion and design boutiques as well as Mavra, one of the best cafés for a pit stop.
Make your way up to the bustling Istiklal Street and head back to Taksim Square to snake your way to Çukurcuma, a treasure trove of rare antique gems (A la Turca is a haven for one-of-a-kind finds). It’s also here that you’ll find The Museum of Innocence, based upon Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name.
For your farewell dinner, make a beeline for Demeti, a traditional meyhane (tavern) where you’ll find delicious meze eats, which go perfectly with a cold glass of rakı. For a Bosphorus view, you should book one of the tables on the balcony in advance.