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Istanbul: two continents in two days

Istanbul Sultanahmet Photo: Yasemin Cusack
It’s a city with an 8000-year history, charting a story from Byzantium to Constantinople before assuming its present name, Istanbul. As a vast metropolis spread across two continents, how could you possibly see it in just two days? Here’s our guide to prove you can.
by Yasemin CUSACK 



We assume you are staying in a hotel in Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city on the European side, as this will help you save time. Start your first day with a visit to the Blue Mosque (Turkish: SultanahmetCamii). It’s called blue because of the tiles on the interior and was built between 1609 and 1616, during the reign of Ahmet I. Entry free.

Istanbul Sultanahmet Photo: Yasemin Cusack

From the mosque, cross the square to the magnificent Hagia Sophia museum (75 TL/£8.99). An Eastern Orthodox cathedral when it was built in 537 AD, it was converted into a mosque by Mehmet II when he took the city from the Byzantine Empire in 1453, earning himself the moniker “the Conqueror” in the process. https://muze.gen.tr/muze-detay/ayasofya

In the 1930s it was converted into a museum by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and it is a stunning sight to see mosaics and frescos featuring Christ, the Virgin Mary and Byzantine emperors alongside Arabic script from the building’s mosque era.

YEREBATAN SARNICI (Basilica Cistern)

Also worth seeing in the same area is the Basilica Cistern (35 TL / £4.50), a breathtaking underground water reservoir built with 336 columns during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It will take you three to four hours to see these magnificent historical sites. (yerebatansarnici.com)


Afterwards, move firmly into the Ottoman era with a visit to the Topkapı Palace complex (75 TL / £8.99, closed Tuesdays) where you could easily while away the hours touring the grandiose home of the sultans that reigned over a vast empire. There are various low buildings surrounding courtyards, pavilions and gardens in an area covering approximately 7.5 million square feet.

In addition to Ottoman sultans’ possessions and documents, you can also see the sceptre of the Prophet Muhammad. There is also a café with a magnificent view of the Bosphorus where you can take the weight off your feet for a minute. (topkapisarayi.gov.tr)

If, after that, you are still not tired, drop into the nearby Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (istanbularkeoloji.gov.tr)

This little neighbourhood was once home to Jewish, Greek, Armenian and ethnic Turks



Today we are off to the Asian side – or, as Istanbul people call it, the Anatolia (Anadolu) side. The short boat trip across the water from Eminönü on the shores of the Bosporus to Üsküdar won’t be easy to forget. From here, take a bus or cab for the 10-minute trip to Kuzguncuk, the artistic village that was once a meeting point for different cultures with its mosque, synagogue and Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches.

Istanbul Bosphorus Photo: Yasemin Cusack

This little neighbourhood was once home to Jewish, Greek, Armenian and ethnic Turks – in particular, it is where ten thousand Jews settled when they deported from Spain in the 15th century. That is why it was known as “Little Jerusalem”. Armenians followed in the 18th century alongside a small Greek community. There was not even a mosque here in Kuzguncuk until 1952.


Next head over to Beylerbeyi Palace (35 TL / £4.50), the summer home of Ottoman sultans, where guests from around the world – including European royalty – would be hosted.

It was constructed on the orders of Sultan Abdulaziz and is a magnificent show of crystal chandeliers, magnificent staircases, the “Yıldız” style of porcelain crockery, Hereke carpets and dolphin- shaped marble fountain.

Anadoluhisarı Photo: Yasemin Cusack


Another Ottoman palace is at Küçüksu (5 TL / 55p, closed Mondays & Thursdays) which was designed as a hunting lodge for Sultan Abdulmecid. The 8-room stone building was built in the 1850s. The outside features baroque- inspired pomegranate and goose figurines, while the interior boasts a twin staircase and lighting provided through Bohemian crystal.

Abdulmecid would spend the weekends here to hunt, popping over from the Dolmabahçe palace on the European side of the city by boat. He would return home in the evenings as the palace has no bedroom.

Some scenes from the 1999 James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough” were filmed here at this architectural treasure. Its location, on the shore of the Göksu, has been the subject of many 19th century European painting.



With a leisurely walk, proceed to the AnadoluHisar jetty. Form this point you can see two castles, one on either side of the Bosporus, overlooking the water for centuries. AnadoluHisarı (Anatolian Castle) was completed in 1395 as part of Sultan Bayezid I’s preparations for a second siege of Constantinople. Spend a little while at one of the cafes around the Göksu near AnadoluHisar, particularly if the weather is sunny.

From here, you have two options. You can either proceed to the bar street in nearby Kadıköy to enjoy yourself as locals do and take the last boat back to your hotel in Eminönü. Or you can cross back to the European side immediately and visit the district of Emirgan.


Assuming you proceed to Emirgan, there are boats available to take you across the water for 7.5 TL. Here you will find the Sakıp Sabancı Museum (sakipsabancimuzesi.org/en), founded by one of the most well-known and successful business families in Turkey. The museum displays the families collection of calligraphy and paintings.

From here, proceed to the Emirgan Koru where, if you are visiting in the spring, you will see some magnificent tulip displays and the pink, yellow and white palaces built by Ismail Pasha between 1871 and 1878.


Akin Balik, Istanbul

For a quick, traditionally Turkish lunch in Sultanahmet, pop over to the Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi for a meal of köfte (meatballs) and beyaz fasülye salatası (white bean salad). Another option in the Spice Market: Pandeli Restaurant. The restaurant has roots that go back to 1901 when it was established by Pandeli Çobanoğlu, a Greek who had emigrated to Turkey. www.pandeli.com.tr


For the evening meal, why not consider Akin Balık (akinbalik.com.tr), a fish restaurant down the hill next to the Karaköy jetty by the Galata bridge? An alternative is the Karaköy Lokantası (karakoylokantasi.com) for some authentic Turkish cuisine.

Pandeli Restaurant

People in Istanbul also enjoy Asitane Restaurant (asitanerestaurant.com), which serves such palatial delights as meat stew encased in melon and Ottoman-style sherbet. And while you’re in the area, why not check out the Kariye Museum (kariye.muze.gov.tr; £6.74) – it’s all reachable by boat from the Galata bridge. Just travel to Ayvansaray.

Some SceneS from the 1999 JameS Bond film “the World iS not enough” Were filmed here at thiS architectural treaSure

For a more contemporary but still traditional Turkish dining experience, check out the meyhane (tavern) scene. After warm and cold mezes you can enjoy fish, meat or chicken at the restaurants – all served with Turkey’s national drink, rakı. The best is Refik Restaurant (refikrestaurant.com), which has existed since the 1960s. Try the lakerda, a pickled bonito dish eaten as a mezze in the Turkey. It is made from one-year-old bonito migrating through the Bosphorus and is especially prized.

If grilled kebabs are your thing, then you can’t go wrong by visiting Umut Ocakbaşı (Katip Mustafa Çelebi Mahallesi, Hasnun Galip Sk. No:8 Beyoğlu) or Zübeyir Ocakbaşı (Bekar Sokak No.28, Istiklal Caddesi, Taksim).

The Bosporus shore is lined with stylish restaurants, but these are pricey. Drop into the back streets of Kuzguncuk for a calmer, cheaper and local option – like the Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı, seafood restaurant. Fish soup is 35 TL / £8, while seasonal fillets start from 40 TL / £6.40.

Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı, Istanbul
Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı

When you’re at AnadoluHisar, why not check out Break Cafe (Toplarönü Riyaziyeci Çıkmazı No: 2 Anadoluhisarı, Beykoz/İstanbul Phone: +90 216 323 20 20) on the seafront, where you can feast for between 30-50 TL / £4.50-6.50. Don’t forget to try a Turkish coffee – it’s a true delight!

Istanbul ferry Photo: Yasemin Cusack


The Istanbulkart is Istanbul’s answer to London’s Oyster card. Load up about 75 TL / £10 onto the card, which will be plenty to see you around the city for two days. It’s valid on buses, trams and boats. Taxis are metered, but if you take one avoid surprises by asking the driver how much he expects the fare will be.