Dazzling architecture, fascinating history, a thriving art scene and a culinary tradition worth booking a flight for—these are just a few of the many reasons why Istanbul, Turkey is one of the world's most beloved travel destinations. Here, a day may begin by wandering centuries-old cobblestone streets, exploring the many Byzantine churches and Ottoman-era mosques, before an afternoon taking in cutting-edge galleries and museums. This, of course, should be followed by dinner at a world-class class restaurant before ending the day experiencing the city's legendary bar scene.
With the recent expansion of Turkish Airlines, there's never been a more convenient time to visit Istanbul and, for those traveling for work to Asia, the Middle East, or Europe, to take advantage of a whirlwind layover. To make the most of your brief sojourn, Departures has created this unique hour-by-hour itinerary to help you experience the best of "The Second Rome" without missing it's most underrated gems.
9:00 a.m: Beat the crowds by starting your day with a magical trip to the historic Galata Tower for 360 panoramic views of the city. Formerly a watchtower used to guard against invaders and signal the arrival of visiting ships, today the tower is one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in Istanbul. Or, head to the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, former home of the Ottoman sultans, which sits on the shores of the Bosphorus. Constructed in 1856 by Sultan Abdüi Mecit, the palace's 285 rooms and 43 salons were the crown jewel of the Ottoman Empire, and later served as the private residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey.
10 a.m.: Duck into Soho House Istanbul for a traditional Turkish breakfast on the lovely, haute-casual outdoor patio space overlooking the city. At night, the building, once a US Embassy, transforms into an on-premise “speakeasy” style bar popular with the ex-pat and entrepreneur community.
11 a.m.: Take the tram from the base of Galata and cross the river to experience the best of old Istanbul. Here, within close walking distance, is the iconic multi-spired Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, stocked with stalls selling Turkish candies, fruits, and traditional plate sets, and the Egyptian spice market, a true feast for the senses.
12 p.m.: Prepare yourself for the crowds at the Blue Mosque, named for its stunning blue tile interior. One of the holiest (and most popular) sites in the city, lines can be long, but it's still well worth the wait to see this magnificent architectural wonder. You can also visit the less famous, though no less impressive, Süleymaniye Mosque, designed by imperial architect Mimar Sinan in the 1550s. Or, visit the Chora Church (also known as the Church of St Savior, or the Kariye Museum), whose walls and ceilings are adorned with Byzantine mosaics, and which is located near the ruins of the fifth-century city walls. Spend some time in subterranean Istanbul with a visit to the luminous Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan), a magnificent underground aqueduct system engineered under the Byzantine empire to bring fresh drinking water from the Balkans to Istanbul.
1:30 p.m.: Grab lunch at one of the many fast-and-easy outdoor eateries that line the river's edge, or make it an occasion and stop at the Matbah Ottoman Palace Cuisine for a fusion of Balkan, Asian, Mediterranean, and European cuisines. Many dishes on the menu are based on recipes culled from the former kitchen of the sultan's palace, today served with modern flair and haute presentation.
2:30 p.m.: Travel back across the river to the uber-hip Karaköy arts district to dive into the city's newest modern art additions. Stop in at contemporary design space SALT Galata or catch an art film at the Istanbul Modern cinema.
4 p.m.: Mid-afternoon is perfect for a scrub and soak at the hammam, the ancient ritual meant to restore health and vitality to the body. One of, if not the, best hammams is Cukurcuma, built in the 1830s to host poets and kings, and today one of the most luxurious destinations in the city. Warm yourself on the luxe heated marble of the Gobektası, lounge in the Halvet (sweat area), or simply relax under the grand Kubbe dome. Another popular Hamam is the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, created by imperial Ottoman architects and built from the bones of ancient carved stone and marble slabs found during excavation. Or, if you're still feeling hungry, stop by the Ciragan Palace Kempinskihotel for an afternoon tea of local pastries, treats, and freshly brewed coffee. You can also stay for dinner at Tugra, the formal dining hall where you can try delicacies like Almond “Kadınbudu” Meatball, deep fried, minced lamb and beef served on sautéed pickled sour cherry with vegetable “siyez buğulama" or sample an assortment of local, seasonal seafood.
7 p.m.: Afterwards, have the hotel staff coordinate a sunset boat trip along the Bosphorus, one of the area's most romantic past-times. You can also book a private boat through agencies like Zoe Yacht Istanbul champagne toasts as the sun goes down.
8 p.m.: Stop for pre-dinner cocktails at The Pera Palace Hotel’s lavish Orient Bar. Or, if you make it in early, afternoon tea in the opulent Kubbeli Lounge, one of the Beyoglu district's most relaxing terrace areas.
10 p.m.: If you still have the energy to spare, visit Ruby Istanbul on the shores of the Bosphorus. This three-story mansion offers fresh bites like Kisir with pomegranate sauce and grilled Canakkale octopus, served in the garden, as well as two nightclubs offering the chance to dance the evening away.
Where to Stay
For those traveling with family or in search of some privacy away from the crowds, Raffles Istanbul offers fine dining, a spa and wellness center, palatial grounds, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the water and a relaxing indoor pool. Or, stay just steps from the Bosphorus at the Four Seasonsto book your own private rooftop terrace or two-bedroom palace suite. If you're looking for something more lowkey, rest up at one of X Flats Instanbul's uber-hip accommodations, located in some of the city's most up-and-coming neighborhoods.