Sandwiched between Europe and Asia and straddling the modern and ancient worlds, Istanbul is alive with cultural, shopping, and dining must-dos. Make the most of a short stay with some insider and vetted insights.
Long a hotbed of vastly differing cultures, languages and creeds, Istanbul is truly a city that never sleeps. Its where Imams’ calls to prayer echo across the waters of the Bosporus from sunrise to sundown, where ships, massive ferries and small fishing craft jostle for space in the choppy waters and where thousands of locals and tourists alike stride down the famous pedestrianised shopping district Istakal Caddesi, looking for bargains and new fashion buys. If you’re looking for an exotic destination, evocative culture and cuisine, and shopping that ranges from haggled-down market buys to high-end designers, then Istanbul is it.
You will never not find a room in Istanbul! From the palatial splendour of the Pera Palace overlooking the Golden Horn to quirky Airbnbs, fear not; you’re covered. The boutique hotel business has boomed in Istanbul in the past few years, and these are often squeezed into some of the most interesting buildings in town. In the old quarter of Sultahnamet and a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha is owned by Mehmet Umur. It has a rooftop terrace and comfy rooms, and his curated walking guides are a great added value. Travelling on a budget? You can easily get a comfortable and clean Air BnB from R1200 a night – like Superhost Emre’s spot – a 40m2 bolthole in the heart of TomTom, one of Galatasary’s achingly cool quarters and round the corner from the Instagrammable Antre Gourmet (@antregourmet) deli and Muz (muz.se), a plant-filled lifestyle store and café.
Be prepared to make all-day dining an integral part of your Istanbul time. The city is home to some 15 million people, and there are thousands of vendors and restaurants to feed them all (plus all the visitors). Simit carts (the sesame-crusted hard rolls are a Turkish breakfast staple) are ubiquitous, as are döhner stands, glossy European-style patisseries, edgy diners and trendy rooftop restaurants with beautiful views of the Bosphorus and beyond.
Breakfast: Once you’ve had a Turkish breakfast plate, you may never want to start the day any other way again. White cheese is the anchor point, then a fried or boiled egg, olives, crisp cucumber slices and sweet tomatoes. Add slices of crusty white bread, and you’re good to go.
Brunch: For some people-spotting and pre-shopping sustenance, head to Besiktas’s Kahvaliticlar Sokagi or ‘breakfast street’, where brunch is something of a cult. Do try Menemen – it’s Turkey’s delicious answer to Shakshuka. Walk off your brunch by heading to the Dolmabahçe Palace, an extraordinary and ornate example of Ottoman architecture and might, on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Lunch: Catch a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul for a bite to eat at the famously no-frills Çiya Sofrasi and if you are around on that side for dinner Bridge Restaurant (@bridgerestaurant), has one of the most extraordinary views in Istanbul.
Pastries Pastries, sweetmeats, baklava and Turkish delight, are part and parcel of a Turkish experience (and don’t forget the gelato). Savoy Pastanesi (@savoypastanesi) in Cihangir (Beyoğlu) has been serving up freshly baked treats since 1950 and is widely regarded as one of the best in the city.
Dinner & drinks: cocktails or dinner with a view are a must in Istanbul. Galata Bridge has tourist-focused seafood eateries that, despite the elevated prices, still offer one of the best sunset views in the city. Stop for a beer and some mezze starters before heading elsewhere for dinner.
Dinner: You’re spoilt for choice in Istanbul. Galatasaray is where you’ll find some modern renditions of Traditional Turkish and cheaper hole-in-the-walls where locals retire after a long day. TomTom Kebap (@tomtomkebap), where everything is cooked over an open grill in the tiny space, is a no-frills cool spot in Tom Tom (Beyoğlu). Meanwhile, for an upscale experience, head for Tom Tom’s Serenita Pera (@serenitapera), where chefs Aylin Yazıcıoğlu and Gülseren Onanç wow local and visiting foodies alike in their converted chapel bistro. Sultahnamet is a hotbed of ‘Ottoman’ cuisine – a little touristy, but that’s what you are when you’re in Istanbul, and honestly, Anatolian Testi (clay pot stew) is something you’ll never forget.
The most touted shopping experience in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar – with over 4000 stores and market booths under ancient domed passages in the old district of Sultahnamet. It’s a must for a first-timer, for sure, and if you’re in the market for fashion replicas, head here. It’s loud, hot and busy – and reasonable haggling is part of the experience. But a wander down the frenetic, cobbled surrounding streets, past the people selling everything from scarves to sewing machines – to the Egyptian (or Spice) Market will give you that hit of stepping into a truly exotic world. The spices are superb – buy oregano mixes to use at home (a Turkish staple) or ask your vendor to mix up your own herb and spice mixes for you for everything from chicken and fish to vegetables and eggs. If it’s edgier, high street or big brand fashion you’re after, then Beyoğlu and Nisantesi are where you need to be. In Beyoğlu – independent, niche boutiques offer a welcome break from the Balenciaga fakes; Cucukurma is where antique, junk and vintage clothing stores beckon and in uptown Nisantesi, you’ll find boutiques and the likes of Chanel et al. Istanbul is also home to several enormous malls for serious shopping sprees; one of the most popular is Istinye Park – with everything you could ever imagine under one roof, including a gigantic food court. Top tip: the biggest Mango and Zara stores in Istanbul are on the Asian side.
Top tip: If you want to tick the ancient landmark hotspots, then definitely combine browsing at the Grand and Spice Bazaars in the old district (Sultahnamet) with visiting some of the most loved sites like The Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. The bazaars open at 7am and close at 7pm.
Insider tip: looking for rugs? Speak to Zeki Kaya (@zekikaya44); his prices are excellent, he is well-versed in shipping to South Africa, and his selection of authentic Turkish rugs is superb.
One-day-in-Istanbul shopping itinerary:
Start at the Grand Bazaar – wander down to the Spice Bazaar – cross the Galata Bridge – head to Beyoglu and its boutiques, then Istakal Caddesi and up to Nisantesi
Istanbul is easily navigable on foot, but it also has excellent bus, tram and metro services which might save your legs. Top tip: buy a multiple-day public transport travel card at the airport as you arrive (istanbulepass.com). The machines at tram and metro stations are confusing and require small money denominations, and there are very friendly and seemingly helpful scamsters that can confuse matters.
Quick glance: understanding the lay of the land can help in crafting how you will spend your time.
Sultahnamet – first time must do; the ancient heart of Istanbul with historical landmarks, shopping and dining
Beyoglu – the area encompasses Karaköy down at the water, Galatasaray with the Galata bridge, adjacent Çucukurma, Cihengir and TomTom with their narrow streets, Edgy eateries, boutiques, coffee shops, galleries, bars and clubs and the main drag of Istakal Caddesi that takes you up to Taksim Square.
Nisantesi and Biktese – where upscale Istanbul residents live, work and play. Also home to beautiful Democracy Park and polished boutiques, and marble sidewalks aplenty.
Asian side – great for a second-time visit – less touristy and authentic eateries.