This transcontinental hub is a historical treasure that captures many people by surprise with its fantastic contemporary food scene and vibrant modern culture…
By Karen Kwan
As a bustling city so rich history, but also brimming with incredible cuisine and a friendly vibe that makes for fantastic people watching day and night, 72 hours will just give you a tiny taste of what Istanbul has to offer. Make the most of your first visit to this metropolis by checking off these must-not miss spots during a stopover (Psst: Turkish Airlines Stopover program is soon coming to Canada) and get a head start on planning the itinerary for your next visit–it’s that intoxicating a city that we guarantee you will want to return.
What to see
Zero in on these major sights and immerse yourself into their history. Aya Sofya stands grand and pretty as a former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral turned Ottoman imperial mosque. Aya Sofya now a museum, its frescoes, mosaics and enormous dome (impressive in its construction dating back to 537–the dome rests on four pillars hidden in the walls). Get a sense of what sultan life in the 15h and 16th centuries was like with a visit to Topkapi Palace, filled with opulent architecture, stunning tiles, and a Treasury filled with jewels. The sultans and their families who lived here for four centuries before they moved to palaces along the Bosphorus, rarely left the grounds. Finally, plan to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque thanks to its stunning blue tiles inside). Built between 1609 and 1616, the Blue Mosque is best approached from the Hippodrome so that you can fully appreciate its architecture. As it is still a functioning mosque, non-worshippers should be prepared for it to close to visitors for about 30 minutes during the five daily prayers.
What to eat
When it comes to Turkish food, you hear a lot about Turkish delight and yes, Salt Bae, but did you know Istanbul offers plenty of street food options? Fuel up on them quickly during your busy itinerary so you have more time to explore. For breakfast, look for a vendor peddling simit, a bagel-like carb option typically coated with sesame seeds. For lunch, grab a balik ekmek by the Galata Bridge. This sandwich is made of grilled fish stuffed into a bun usually with some onions, herbs and a squeeze of lemon; it’s simple, inexpensive and fresh, and the traditional boats serving them up make for a great photo opp. They’ve been selling them here since the mid-19th century, when fishermen created this side hustle when they had abundant catches that day. Peckish in the afternoon? Pick up roasted chestnuts at any one of the many vendors peppering the streets of Istanbul. And after a night of partying, head to Taksim Square for an islak burger (also known as a wet burger). More appetizing than its soggy sounding name, it’s made of a beef patty slathered in a garlicky tomato sauce in a soft white burger bun. Also popular in Taksim Square but also in Ortokoy are kumpir. Think baked potatoes that you load up with your choice of toppings (they’ve got everything from olives and cheese to yogurt and corn.
How to work off the kebabs and baklava
Maintaining a healthy routine of physical activity always helps us both adjust to the time change and feel more energetic. Since Istanbul is composed of seven hills, you will give your quads a serious workout, but exploring on foot is a superb way to discover the city’s gems you might miss otherwise like tiny doner stands and the 19th-century wooden houses. Up for a significantly more demanding undertaking? The Istanbul Marathon is held in early November and it’s got plenty of hills to challenge you (thankfully not the intensely steep ones like the ones surrounding the Galata Tower). Once you finish, besides the medal, you’ll earn bragging rights for running the world’s only transcontinental marathon–the race begins on the Asian side of Istanbul and takes you directly over the Bosphorus Bridge for one epic start to a 42.2k run (there’s also a 15k if you prefer to race a shorter distance).
Where to kick back and relax
If you visit Istanbul and don’t visit a hammam, have you really been to Istanbul? Before you book, know that you have to be comfortable being in the buff in a room full of strangers as you get bathed by someone. If you’re cool with that, get set for a unique bathing experience where you get scrubbed, covered with a glorious swoosh of bubbles and soothingly rinsed with warm water. Book at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, which is set within a stunning restored Ottoman dome-topped bathhouse for an escaped from the intense city traffic.
Where to stay
Staying near the Galata Tower (a medieval tower that was originally used to surveil the harbour) will have you centrally located for your short stay in Istanbul and apartment-style accommodations (such as this one from booking.com complete with charming balcony and usually a few of the famous Istanbul cats living right outside your door) will make you feel instantly like a local. With this as your home base, you are steps from delightful cafes and restos and about a 10-minute walk to the always busy Istiklal Street, where you can get your dose of retail therapy and grab a Turkish coffee at the go-to spot, Mandabatmaz.
How to get there
The only direct flights to Turkey from Canada are with Turkish Airlines. Also, since nothing puts a damper on a trip than feeling under the weather or a serious case of jet lag, while you’re in the air, be sure to follow the expert advice in the Turkish Airlines’ Fly Good Feel Good guide if you want to feel 100 percent during your travels. Enjoy one alcoholic drink if you’re in the mood during your flight but follow it with a signature beverage from the Turkish Airlines menu designed to boost your wellbeing, such as the digestion-friendly tea, which includes fennel, aniseed, garden balm, caraway and garam masala, to help ease bloating.