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4-Day Istanbul Travel Guide: Where To Stay, Eat, Sleep & Party

A magical meeting place of East and West.

Straddled across two continents, Istanbul is a magical meeting place of East and West. With a landscape punctuated by minarets, domes, boats chugging along the Bosphorus and merchants hawking sacks of spices, it’s a city you’ll fall madly in love with. COSMO editor Holly Meadows shares her four-day itinerary.

Day One

Istanbul’s food scene is a mix of flavour and experience. Start your first day with a walking food tour. Eat lunch at Hayvore, just off Istiklal Street (the main shopping drag that connects Taksim Square with the Galata district). This small, affordable eatery is a culinary ode to the Black Sea region, with bubbling regional dishes of smoky bean stew, large hunks of corn bread and meat-stuffed chard leaves. Walk it off by exploring the cobblestoned Istiklal Street: pedestrianised since 1988, it’s been the heartbeat of the city for more than 150 years, with embassies, boutiques, bars and hidden rooftop clubs (try 360 for penthouse sundowners) all jostling for attention.

Treat yourself to an ice cream, known as dondurma – it’s served with a theatrical show on the side by vendors in traditional garb. Made from whipped cream, salep, mastic and sugar, it stays deliciously sticky and chewy.

Treat yourself to an ice cream, known locally as dondurma.

Istanbul is a warren of side streets and secret courtyards, so make sure to wander off Istiklal and find the Cicek Pasaji. A beautiful flower passage in Beyoglu with pretty mezzanines, it is the perfect spot for your travel ’Gram. Continue to Galata, landmarked by a conical stone fortress built by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II . Climb the steps  (or take the elevator) up the famous Galata Tower for a bird’s-eye view of this ancient area overlooking the mighty Blue Mosque on the Asian side of the city. Legend has it that you’re destined to marry whoever you climb the tower with…

From the top you’ll see Maiden’s Tower on an islet at the entrance to the Bosphorus (which divides the Asian side of the city from the European side). It’s said that an emperor in the Byzantine era built it to keep his princess daughter safe after a fortune teller predicted her early death from a snake bite. Finish your day in Karakoy with a plate of baklava and a Turkish coffee at Güllüoğlu. This family-run dessert caf. is packed with locals and is truly authentic. Order a mix of sweets – my favourite was the palace roll with walnuts.

CHEAP EATS

Stuffed mussels (midye dolması) are a popular late-night snack, served with a wedge of lemon by street-cart vendors everywhere.

Kumpir is a baked potato filled with cheese, butter and extras such as pickled red cabbage, garlic yoghurt and jalapenos. The best are found in Ortakay.

Tantuni is a paper-thin tortilla wrap filled with beef, tomatoes, peppers and spices. One of the best places to find it is Emine Ana Sofrası in Taksim.

Simit is Turkey’s answer to the bagel. Freshly baked, molasses-dipped and sesame-crusted, it’s a staple of breakfast on the go.

Day Two

Whether or not you’re a culture vulture, Istanbul is a historical mecca and any visitor should dedicate a day to exploring its ancient splendour. Fortunately, all the main sites are in one area on the Asian side, so there’s not too much walking involved. Begin at the Roman Hippodrome, once home to chariot races: you can feel the ancient energy just standing on the site where rival Romans and Greeks fearlessly rallied their horses for this spectator sport. The Topkapı Palace Museum is perhaps the most important museum in Turkey. It once served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans, and is now a treasure chest of historical artefacts. The palace, built more than 600 years ago and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consists of four main courtyards filled with hand-painted ceramics, diamond-encrusted daggers and embellished robes. Konyali Lokantasi restaurant inside the grounds is a welcome spot to chill. Book a table on the terrace for phenomenal views over the peninsula, and order an Ayran – a traditional yoghurt and salt-based drink that is the best thirst-quencher on a hot summer’s day.

The Topkapı Palace Museum.

After lunch, cool off at the nearby Basilica Cistern, a big underground water reservoir with impressive marble columns. Next, head to the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox cathedral that was later turned into an Ottoman imperial mosque. The highlight here is the massive, cavernous dome, considered an engineering marvel of its time: it’s covered with intricate religious mosaics that will have you gazing skywards in awe. A short walk away is the Blue Mosque, famous for its many domes and minarets. At dusk it’s bathed in a magical blue light, while the minarets twinkle gold.

You want to stay here if only to glam up your feed

Stay

I stayed at Room Mate Emir in Beyoglu, an elegant boutique hotel in the middle of exactly where you’d want to be. A design paradise, it’s the creative brainchild of Lázaro Rosa Violán – a Catalan architect celebrated by critics such as the prestigious Wallpaper magazine. Inside is an exotic blend of avant-garde furnishings: tropical patterned Art Deco wallpaper is combined with a pink-crystal lobby chandelier and mirrored ceilings. You want to stay here if only to glam up your feed. It won’t break the bank either, at about R1 500 per night for two people. Room-matehotels.com.

Room Mate Emir in Beyoglu.

Drink at

The rooftop bar of the stylish Georges Hotel in Galata, for Instagram-ready cocktails as the sun sinks over the Bosphorus. Georges.com

Have Dinner at

5.Kat in Cihangir for upscale fifth-floor dining and live music. 5kat.com

Party at

Sortie, for a waterside beach-club vibe and a ‘be seen’ crowd. It’s open from 6pm to 4am. Sortie.com.tr

Day Three

There’s no better way to get a sense of the magnitude of Istanbul than by jumping aboard a boat for a ride up the Bosphorus. Take a two-hour day cruise on the Șehir Hatları (Sehirhatlari.istanbul), which departs daily in ‘summer’ (1 April until 31 October) and takes you from Emin.nü to Istinye and back. The ferry leaves the Emin.nü docks at 2.30pm; the ticket costs just 12TL (about R30).

Jump aboard a boat for a ride up the Bosphorus.

Get your camera ready to snap the glamorous neighbourhoods of Vaniköy and Bebek, where super-yachts park in front of mini-palaces. Disembark at .sküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul for a late lunch of kofte and mezze at Filizler Köftecisi, before visiting Çamlıca Hill, the highest peak of Istanbul. This calming garden, with a panoramic vantage point and rose-filled archways, provides a wonderful respite from the big-city buzz – a soothing place to get some perspective and just sit.

Get your camera ready to snap the glamorous neighbourhoods of Vaniköy and Bebek.

Finish your day at Dolmabahçe Palace, a magnificent 19th-century waterfront landmark that once served as the administrative centre for the Ottoman Empire. The design is an eclectic mix of Baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles. Inside you’ll find the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, 150-year-old bearskin rugs and a hammam decorated with Egyptian alabaster. It is here that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the first president of Turkey) spent the last days of his life; and it’s full of echoes of a man lauded for his progressive policies.

Check Out a Hammam

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to a hammam. I recommend Galatasaray, a 500-year-old bathhouse where you’ll lie on a hot marble stone gazing up at a dimly lit dome, with an imam’s voice ringing out from a distant corner of the city. Ask for a female-only session and book the ‘pasha service’ (about R750). Expect to be scrubbed with frothy soap, doused in buckets of hot water and pummelled by a lady masseuse using oil. It’s as fierce as it is gloriously cleansing. Galatasarayhamami.com.

Day Four

Save your last day in Istanbul for a mega shopping fest. (In fact, you might want to travel to Istanbul with a half-full suitcase so you can top it up!) The Grand Bazaar – one of the oldest covered markets in the world – is an enormous maze of stalls, where you’ll find everything from handmade carpets to antique glass lanterns.

The Grand Bazaar – one of the oldest covered markets in the world.

Expect to be beckoned into every shop, have pomegranate tea forced on you, and doors opened for you leading to rooms piled high with trinkets. Some of the best buys include quality leather handbags, traditional crockery, silver jewellery and vacuum-packed bags of spices. Bargaining is a given: it’s normal to go in at 50% of the asking price and haggle up to a 35% discount. If it’s a ‘fake but not fake’ designer clutch you’re after, this is your retail heaven at a fraction of the cost.

Pssst!

If you’re connecting to another international destination and your layover is between six and 24 hours, the free Touristanbul service allows you to discover Istanbul. Sign up for Touristanbul at the hotel desk in the international arrivals terminal of Istanbul Atatürk Airport.

GET THERE

Fly direct to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines from Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban. A return flight costs about R10 000.

GET A GUIDE

If you’re a solo traveller, definitely book a guide to show you the sights. I recommend Lutfi at Istanbulwalks.com.

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