If your list of dream travel destinations does not currently include Istanbul, let me tell you, straight up: You’re doing it wrong.
Move over Paris, Barcelona — these traditional European hotspots need to make room for the best thing you never knew you were missing. Do yourself a favor and book a ticket right now. Turkey — it’s the place to be.
What’s that, you’re here already? The flight was smooth? Wonderful. Welcome to the land of lost cats and whirling dervishes, hookah lounges and more history than you can possibly imagine. This one city spans two continents, a handful of bridges and plenty of fascinating neighborhoods. You could easily spend months here and still not see all there is to see. Istanbul is just that cool. And now that you’ve arrived, I’ll take you on a little walking tour. A “24 hours in Istanbul” sort of thing. Very Rick Steves.
Start your day with a visit to the Blue Mosque. The hundreds of hand painted tiles that decorate this sacred space will blow your mind, plus, it’s free! Marvel at the massiveness at the pillars and the surprising airiness of the interior; the architecture alone is borderline miraculous. When you’ve exited the mosque, meander through the Hippodrome and then follow the tram tracks down to the water where you can locate a fish sandwich for lunch. Fresh and delicious, all you need is a bit of lemon juice as seasoning, nothing more.
Cross the Galata Bridge and watch out for stray hooks — the fishermen don’t always check to see who’s walking behind them when they cast off. Enjoy the panoramic view from up here; it’s pretty spectacular. When you’ve made your way to the Taksim side, take some time to explore the area. I’d recommend a visit to the Istanbul Modern; you can walk along the waterfront en route to the museum, and the collection itself is actually pretty accessible. Tickets don’t cost more than a few lira, and you can easily spend hours getting lost in the vast array of thought-provoking sculpture, photographs, paintings and installations.
On your way back to the bridge, stop at Karakoy Gulluoglu for a serving of baklava. Be sure to ask for some cream on the side (they’ll know what you’re talking about), to cut the overwhelming sweetness of the pastry. Revel in the deliciousness — life will never be better than it is right now.
Once you’re back on the Sultanahmet side of the bridge, find the old spice market. This indoor collection of vendors and booths is filled with equal parts tourists and locals, and in my opinion, makes for a much more satisfying experience than the nearby Grand Bazaar. Haggle for saffron and get your hands on at least a quarter kilo of Turkish Delight in a variety of flavors — it might seem like a lot, but it’ll go quick, don’t worry. Pro tip: If you have enough basic knowledge of any foreign language to convince vendors that you’re from somewhere that is not the U.S., use it! Everyone loves to rip off Americans — it’s practically a sport. At the very least, pretend to be from Canada. Or New Zealand.
Enjoy sunset at the Hippodrome, where the silhouette of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque loom majestically against a dusky sky. If you’ve timed it right, you might even hear the evening prayer call echoing from the many nearby minarets. But by now, you’re probably hungry again. Not to worry.
For dinner, you have to find Sembol Meat House. It doesn’t look like much and it’s kind of tucked away in the back streets behind the Hagia Sophia, but trust me, this place is awesome. Order the lentil soup (only 4 lira — that’s roughly the equivalent of an ice cream cone) and anything else on the menu. Take your time enjoying the hilarious and generally awkward photos of enthusiastic patrons that cover the walls (Challenge: $5 to the first person who finds the picture of me up there.) and when the adorable man who took your order asks if you’d like some apple tea at the end of your meal, say yes.
The rest of the evening should be spent in one (or more, if you’re an overachiever) of the following ways:
-Enjoying nargile aka water pipe aka hookah.
-Exploring the [wild] nightlife in Taksim.
-Eating the Turkish Delight you bought earlier and attempting to befriend the locals who run the hostel you’re staying at.