Three Days in Istanbul

November 3-6, 2022

One of Andy’s closest childhood friends is Turkish and so he has always been particularly interested in Turkish culture — and extremely interested in Turkish food. Istanbul has always been at the top of his list of travel destinations, so I was thrilled that we could finally check this iconic city (and our first time in Asia) off with a long weekend trip in early November.

Obviously, I was well aware of how influential Constantinople/Istanbul has been throughout history and that it is still one of the most important cultural hubs in the world, but I actually didn’t know the modern city was so gigantic. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world (almost twice as large as London), and it certainly felt like it because everywhere we went was so, so chaotic and absolutely swarming with people. Even the airport was extraordinary — the brand-new airport is the busiest in Europe and was by far the most sophisticated and modern one I’ve ever visited. Istanbul was also the only place I’ve been where I could clearly see the smog/pollution in the air, which was really alarming.

Istanbul famously straddles both Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, but I (again, probably ignorantly) didn’t realize that the European “side” of the city is actually split into two areas separated by the Golden Horn, which is the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. Until the Ottoman conquest of what was then known as Constantinople in 1453, the whole city sat on the southern shore of the Golden Horn in an area that is now known as Fatih. The historic peninsula still serves as the capital district with nearly all of the city’s administrative offices and naturally is the location of many of the city’s most notable attractions that reflect the cultural influences of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires that once ruled it, including the incomparable Hagia Sophia, the monumental Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque built in the 6th century; Topkapi Palace, the ornate primary residence of the Ottoman sultans; and Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.

We stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood in Fatih at Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, a lovely boutique hotel with unbelievable views from its rooftop and an extremely convenient location for sightseeing, but if we visit again I would probably try to stay on the northern shore in the Beyoğlu district, Istanbul’s commercial and entertainment center. We particularly enjoyed the shops, restaurants, and nightlife of the Karaköy neighborhood, which historically contained the medieval Genoese citadel of Galata but today is one of the more modernized areas of the city and requires just a quick walk across the Galata Bridge to get to the attractions and sightseeing areas of Fatih. The Kadıköy district on the Asian side has also grown increasingly popular in recent years and is typically one of the more liberal and lowkey parts of the city. The private guide for our street food tour compared it to Brooklyn, which more or less checked out based on the lovely afternoon we spent with him exploring some of the many, many incredible street food vendors and markets Kadıköy had to offer.

Our trip was absolutely amazing and we especially enjoyed the incredible food scene, but Istanbul also got us farther outside of our comfort zones much more than any other place we’ve visited. In addition to being such a large city, it was also our first time being somewhere with a majority Muslim population, and hearing the voices of muezzins from the city’s 3,000+ mosques intertwining with each other during the call to prayer five times each day was definitely a unique experience. We had never even been inside a mosque before, either, so it was incredibly interesting to learn about Muslim culture and architecture for the first time while inside some of the most impressive and important mosques in the world. We left Istanbul with a much greater understanding of and appreciation for an entirely new part of the world.

If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations.

Food & Drink

  • Mikla Restaurant: Mikla is almost unanimously regarded as the best restaurant in Istanbul (and has been on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2015), and the dinner we experienced at this sleek, buzzy restaurant in Beyoğlu certainly lived up to those expectations. The Turkish-Norwegian chef is internationally celebrated for his Michelin-starred menu of stripped-down, modernized versions of Turkish small plates served with perfectly paired Turkish wines and the stunning, 360° views across the Golden Horn and the Fatih district.
  • Lokanta 1741: The two-story restaurant connected to the Cağaloğlu Hamam offered a welcome break from Istanbul’s bustle and crowds, as well as a fantastic set menu of contemporary versions of classic Turkish dishes. We had dinner on the beautiful (and romantic) rooftop terrace, which was surprisingly cozy despite the chilly night, and absolutely loved everything we ate. The cocktail menu and wine list were equally enjoyable.
  • Şeyhmuz Kebap Salonu: This low-key kebap restaurant tucked away on a side street just outside the Grand Bazaar was the definition of a hidden gem. Everything we ate for lunch was fantastic (and absurdly cheap) and almost everyone around us was clearly a regular local customer.
  • Flekk Cocktail Bar: As a city with a majority Muslim population, good cocktails were somewhat hard to come by. We were pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon Flekk, a dark and sophisticated bar in Beyoğlu with an excellent menu of creative cocktails. It was the perfect place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and shopping.
  • Street Food Tour: The absolute highlight of our weekend in Istanbul was a street food tour I booked through Airbnb Experiences. Our private guide, Latif, met us at the Spice Bazaar bright and early to start our incredible six-hour tour with breakfast comprised of local specialties from several different vendors at the bazaar before taking the ferry over to the Kadıköy neighborhood on the Asian side of the city. We learned so much about Turkish cuisine and Istanbul’s history, and everything we ate was simply incredible. Some of our favorite stops in Kadıköy included:
    • Çiya Sofrası: If I could recommend only one restaurant in Istanbul, this would be it. The owner, Musa Dağdeviren, is known as Turkey’s ‘food anthropologist’ and has been sourcing traditional recipes from all over the country for more than 25 years in an effort to preserve and honor Anatolian food culture. After we got home, we watched the episode of Chef’s Table that features him and are now even more in awe of the meal we had (and the fact that we actually got to see Musa himself while we were eating there). The menu at the simple, no-frills restaurant constantly changes, and each dish we were served by the incredibly kind and helpful waitstaff was truly better than the last.
    • Kebapçı İskender: Andy loves kebab more than just about any other food on the planet, so he was particularly excited about eating at the restaurant that invented the dish known as İskender kebap: sliced döner kebab meat and pita topped with hot tomato sauce and melted sheep’s milk butter. The İskenderoğlu family still runs the restaurant, which made the experience feel even more special.
    • Kadıköy Tantuni: Tantuni is a popular Turkish street food from the city of Mersin that is made with sliced or minced beef and tomatoes cooked in a giant skillet and served with parsley, raw onions, and a sumac mix as a wrap in the lavash bread known as ‘dürüm‘. It reminded me of an Indian kathi roll (aside from the beef part, of course) and therefore was one of my standout favorites from the tour.
    • Kartal Mercan Balık: This stand sat across the street from a more traditional seafood restaurant owned by the same family and exclusively served mussels cooked in two distinct methods: steamed and stuffed with rice and raisins, and fried on a skewer with walnut sauce. Both versions were absolutely delicious.
    • Reks Kokoreç: After we had proved ourselves to be truly adventurous eaters, Latif tested us with a stop at a stand specializing in kokoreç, which is a sort of sweetbread sausage made with lamb offal wrapped in sheep intestines that is roasted on a spit over coals and served on a baguette with onions and peppers. It was definitely not something we would have tried on our own, but I’m so glad we stepped up to the challenge…it was surprisingly fantastic and not at all what I would have expected.
    • Bilgeoğlu Baklava: We couldn’t have taken a food tour without sampling the dessert that (probably) originated in Istanbul itself. The tiny shop Latif took us to was the perfect place to enjoy a wide variety of authentic and freshly made baklava.

Activities & Attractions

  • Hagia Sofia Grand Mosque: The Ayasofya has been one of the city’s most iconic cultural and religious sites for more than 1,700 years. Built by Roman emperor Justinian I in the 6th century as the Church of the Holy Wisdom, it remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years and is considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture. The cathedral served as a Greek Orthodox church until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and then as a mosque for nearly 500 years before reopening as a museum in 1935. In 2020, the site once again became a mosque, which was highly controversial for many reasons, including significant concern that this change in status would jeopardize the restoration and display of the original Christian mosaics and artwork that were plastered over during its original use as a mosque because Islam forbids figurative art that imitates God’s creation. The restored Christian-era iconography was still on display when we visited, but the most noticeable issue stemming from its reversal in status is that it is now a nightmare to visit as a tourist attraction and is more crowded than ever before. It was free to enter and tickets couldn’t be reserved in advance, so we had to wait with our tour group in the absolute longest line I have ever seen in my life and it was just as crowded when we got inside. It was still a worthwhile experience and the ancient building’s beauty was almost surreal, but we were more than ready to escape the tourist hordes once we saw the key highlights.
  • Sultan Ahmet Camii (Sultan Ahmed Mosque): More commonly known as the Blue Mosque, this Ottoman-era historical imperial mosque was constructed between 1609-1616 and sits directly across from the Hagia Sofia. The Blue Mosque is famous for the more than 20,000 handmade, İznik-style ceramic tiles that line its walls and the blue light emanating from its domes at night, as well as being the only mosque in Istanbul (and just one of five in Turkey) with six minarets. While the exteriors were absolutely stunning, the interiors were in the process of being fully restored, which unfortunately meant that we didn’t get to fully appreciate its beauty during our tour.
  • Yeni Cami (New Mosque): The first mosque we visited was actually the Ottoman imperial mosque on the southern end of the famous Galata Bridge in the Eminönü quarter. Completed in the 1660s, the New Mosque is considerably smaller but it was (in my opinion) just as beautiful as the others we visited. The mosaics were absolutely exquisite and it was nice to have enough room to really soak up the beauty of the space.
  • Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultanahmet Square): The Hippodrome of Constantinople, originally constructed when the city was called Byzantium, was rebuilt by Constantine the Great after he conquered (and renamed) the city in the 4th century as a racetrack for chariot racing and horse racing. Constantine and his successors added to its importance over the centuries by installing artwork and monuments from across the empire in the center, which is called the spina. The racetrack is more than six feet below the present-day surface, but the surviving monuments (the Serpentine Column, part of a bronze sacrificial tripod originally constructed in Delphi by the ancient Greeks in 478 BC; the Obelisk of Theodosius, an Ancient Egyptian obelisk erected at the great temple of Karnak during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III between 1479–1425 BC and brought to Constantinople by Theodosius the Great); and the Walled Obelisk, a Roman monument constructed at an unknown point between the 3rd and 8th centuries to mirror the Obelisk of Theodosius) are on display in excavated pits throughout the square. It was really cool to see such an impressive blend of monuments from dramatically different ancient cultures assembled together in the city center — a true visual representation of the city’s unfathomably long and important history.
  • Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi Palace): This gigantic palace complex served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from the 1460s until the mid-19th century and was the main residence of its sultans until the 17th century. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Topkapi Palace and its sprawling gardens became a museum that is now one of the city’s most popular tourist sites. Unfortunately, I got our tickets and timing mixed up so we only were able to walk around the gardens and the exterior of the palace, which was disappointing because I had been quite excited to see the Ottoman Imperial Harem and the treasury where the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger are on display.
  • Büyük Çarşı (Grand Bazaar): With 60+ streets and 4,000+ vendors, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest, oldest, and most visited covered markets in the world. The beautifully adorned and intricately constructed market was originally built shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century and has played a prominent role in the social and cultural history of the city. We were supposed to visit the Grand Bazaar with our tour group on our second day in Istanbul, but we were so tired of the crowds after the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque that we ended up skipping out on the rest of the tour. We saw enough of it from the outside during our walks through the city to appreciate its size and splendor…and feel more than satisfied about missing out on what is allegedly the most visited tourist attraction in the world.
  • Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar): Although it’s considerably smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the covered market originally known as the Egyptian Bazaar has been the center of the spice trade in Istanbul (and therefore, one of the most important spice markets in the world) since it opened in the 17th century as part of the New Mosque külliye (complex). We walked through the market with our street food tour guide, Latif, and walking through the beautiful market and its mountains of fresh spices was truly a sensory overload. We stopped at several shops inside and around the market to buy components for our breakfast, but I wish we would have taken the time to buy fresh spices to bring home with us.
  • Arasta Çarşısı (Arasta Bazaar): Just beyond the south side of the Blue Mosque is (yet another) traditional, lively market area lined with small shops selling all kinds of authentic textiles, home goods, jewelry, and other souvenirs. The Arasta Bazaar is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar so it was much quieter and less crowded, which made it easier to casually browse the shops, and it also felt more authentic and of a higher quality than what we saw in other markets throughout the city.
  • İstiklal Avenue (Independence Avenue): One of the most famous avenues and shopping districts in Istanbul is in the historic Beyoğlu district on the opposite side of the Golden Horn from the old city. The pedestrian avenue runs for nearly a mile from the northern end of the Galata district to Taksim Square and is almost exclusively lined with boutiques and restaurants, including a notable portion of the city’s international chain outposts. We had so much fun walking down the beautiful street on a sunny Saturday, but just one week after we were there, it was the site of a horrifying terrorist attack in which a bomb explosion killed six people.
  • Noah’s Ark Rugs & Souvenirs: Istanbul was a bit overwhelming for many reasons, but the number of souvenir shops selling “authentic” Turkish rugs, textiles, and other home goods was honestly insane and I was pretty skeptical about buying anything. However, I had come across this same tiny, nondescript shop in several reputable travel guides (including Vogue and National Geographic) so I figured it was worth checking out…and I am so glad we did. The family-owned shop has sold traditional rugs and kilims on the second floor of an otherwise indistinct souvenir shop for more than 30 years and both the service and the selection of new and vintage rugs were fantastic. We bought a beautiful vintage kilim for an excellent price and I can’t wait to display it in our (future) home someday.
  • Dervis Natural Textile: Another random-but-fantastic find was this textile shop completely hidden away on the second floor of an unmarked building in Karakoy. I think they also have a storefront in the Grand Bazaar, but the Karakoy location was gigantic and full to the brim with Turkish towels, linens, robes, scarves, etc. at absolutely insane prices. The owner was so friendly and had so many cool stories to share with us about his passion for his work and the incredible people and companies who have purchased his goods.

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