How to embrace a 48-hour stopover in Istanbul

Where to start in Turkey’s biggest city? The energetic ancient city of Istanbul rests at the convergence of two continents, its Asian and European influences embodied in a carousel of cultural delights across both sides of the Bosphorus Strait. On each side, gritty and grandiose sit side-by-side – mosques, markets, Michelin-star restaurants and minarets – making it a fascinating place to wander.

Even better, Australians heading to Europe can explore this cultural melting pot as part of an extended stopover with Turkish Airlines – including complimentary accommodation. Services launched from Melbourne earlier this year provide a breath of fresh air to frequent travellers who might be a touch too familiar (aka bored) with the usual layover destinations.

To help guide your visit, here’s our two-day itinerary to experience the best of this elaborate maze. Remember to pack comfy shoes…

Day one

Start your Istanbul adventure along the western banks of the Strait at Dolmabahce Kafeteria – a waterside eatery, that’s renowned for its views and non-stop aerial stunts by seagulls, rather than its fairly unremarkable food.

Just a few metres away, you can roam around Dolmabahce Palace. Home to a series of six sultans before the demise of the Ottoman Empire, its ceiling is adorned with 14 tonnes of gold – which should give you an idea of its opulence.

With some history under your belt, it’s time for a change of pace. Taksim Square is 10 minutes away by bus or car, in Beyoglu. Considered the heart of modern Istanbul, the famous tourist district is the place to do it all – shop, dine and dance the night away.

Istiklal Caddesi Istanbul

The bustling Istiklal Avenue. Photo: Getty

Start at the Republic Monument, an 11-metre tall sculpture commemorating the founding of the Turkish Republic. You’ll find it at the tip of Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that’s flecked with Ottoman-era and Art Nouveau-style buildings filled with souvenirs, chain stores, cafes and much more.

Before you wander down the long and winding road, swing by fast-food institution Kizilkayalar for a ‘wet burger’. Don’t be put off by the name. Essentially a beef patty served in a bun that’s doused in garlicky tomato sauce, and stacked in a steamy glass box, it’s worth being brave. But do grab plenty of napkins.

Istanbul Wet Burger

The ‘wet burger’ is a popular street snack. Photo: Supplied

For something less soggy, ease the hunger pangs at Viyana Kahvesi – a popular café renowned for its creamy San Sebastian cheesecake drizzled with melted Belgian chocolate. Enjoy the sweet stop while admiring views of the cone-capped Galata Tower, just metres away, whose origins are believed to date back to the fifth century CE. Its form has changed over time, succumbing to fires and earthquakes, and it now stands as a medieval stone tower with panoramic views  – although it’s currently closed to the public while earthquake reinforcements take place.

Continue walking to Karaköy Pier for a 2.5-hour sunset Bosphorus cruise aboard a luxury yacht. Snack and sip while watching centuries-old attractions straddling both continents slowly morph into silhouettes.

Cap off the day with a feast of traditional Turkish barbecue overlooking the Blue Mosque at Ali Grill Karakoy.

Day two

We Australians are proud of our coffee culture, but perhaps not as clued up beyond our own favourites. Remedy that with a traditional coffee-making workshop, to learn the old-school Turkish method which involves heating a tray of sand to extreme temperatures over an open flame.

Turkish Coffee

Turkish coffee being prepared over hot sand. Photo: Getty

A metal cup of water and coffee grounds is nestled into the piping sand, bubbling up within seconds to a strong, thick consistency. It’s an awakening experience in more ways than one, when the host reads the leftover coffee granules in your cup, to reveal your fortune.

Step into history with a visit to the Blue Mosque – also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque – a stunning 17th-century structure with six minarets and domes in shades of blue. Across the way is Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque – a city landmark for nearly 1500 years, and one of the country’s greatest architectural wonders. And if you’re up for even more architecture, visit Topkapi Palace, the 15th-century imperial palace that was once the residence and administrative centre of Ottoman sultans.

Next, it’s time for an assault on the senses, as you’re led by the nose through the 17th-century Spice Bazaar (or Egyptian Bazaar). Relish the scents and hues of spices stacked in neat pyramids, fresh Turkish Delight (known locally as Lokum), dried fruits and vegetables. For something more substantial, join the fast-moving queue at hole-in-the-wall institution Donerci Sahin Ust. Indulge in this hand-held meal, joining other doner devotees in the standing room next door before hitting the shops.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar encompasses more than 60 covered streets. Photo: Getty

Close by is Istanbul’s most famous shopping district, the Grand Bazaar. Built in 1461, it’s one of the world’s largest – home to over 3000 stores across 30,700 square metres. Be ready to haggle.

Refuel and recharge by treating yourself to a multi-course meal at the upmarket eatery Ocak in Istanbul Old Town. The Michelin Guide features the restaurant for its authentic Turkish-Anatolian cuisine served within exposed historic brick walls.

Honestly, two days in Istanbul will barely give you time to breathe – but what a way to shake off the jet lag. Treat it as a taster, whetting your appetite for more Turkish adventures in the future. 

The writer was a guest of Turkish Airlines. As part of the ‘Stopover in Istanbul’ program, business class passengers can extend their stopover with two nights’ complimentary accommodation, while economy class passengers can extend their stopover with one night’s accommodation.

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