24 Hours in Istanbul
The most important thing you need to know about spending a day in Istanbul is this: The charms of Istanbul demand far more time than a single day. Yet just as it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it’s also better to have 24 hours in Istanbul than none at all.
How could the only city to span two continents not be one of the world’s most fascinating places? And don’t forget that Istanbul, once the seat of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, lies at the terminus of one of the world’s most iconic train journeys, the Orient Express. With Turkey included in the Global Eurail Pass, it’s both practical and thrilling to arrive in Istanbul the classic way: by train.
When the original Orient Express train first departed Paris’ Gare de L’Est in October 1883, its final destination was Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire ruled by Sultan Mehmed VI. While the train is now defunct, the phrase “Orient Express” still conjures adventure, old world glamour, and even murder. Agatha Christie’s mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express, later adapted into a star-studded Hollywood film, forever lent the train a mysterious air.
Arriving in Istanbul by train
Just like the original Orient Express, European night trains currently depart from and arrive at historic Sirkeci Station. Leave Istanbul in the evening on the Balkans Express and arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria in the morning. The train continues to Belgrade, Serbia. The Bosphorus Express makes the overnight journey to Bucharest and arrives in the early evening.
Be aware that current repairs on the line mean that the first section of the journey is by bus. Buses departs at the same time as the scheduled trains, and will accept your Eurail Pass – no need to buy a bus ticket.
A little history
Istanbul earned its storied past the hard way. It’s been looted by crusaders, decimated by the plague, besieged by Visigoths, and attacked by Attila the Hun – and that’s just until the 12th century. Ottoman Turks ransacked the city in 1453 in a notoriously brutal 57-day siege that left the city in ruins. Afterwards, sultans ruled for more than 450 years until Turkey became a secular, democratic country. Whether it remains truly secular and democratic, of course, has increasingly become a subject of major controversy.
Getting around Istanbul
Yes, Istanbul is massive. Yet the public transit system, especially the Metro, is swift, cheap, and easy to use. This itinerary, all on the European side, kicks off in Sultanahmet, the historic center of ancient Istanbul. Most of the sights lie along the T1 Bağcılar- Kabataş tramline that spans across the Golden Horn.
To reach the first three sights, take the tram from the Eminönü port and get off at the Sultanahmet stop. The sights lie within easy walking distance from each other. The rest of the day’s itinerary, on the other side of the Galata Bridge in Beyoğlu, can also be done by tram or on foot.
24 hours in Istanbul – morning
9 a.m. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque, is one of the most splendid architectural relics of the Ottoman World. It’s also an Islamic place of worship. Be prepared to remove your shoes and dress modestly in long pants or a skirt below the knee. Headscarves are provided for women, while patrons of both sexes are provided robes to cover bare legs. Try to visit well before or at least a half-hour after the ezan (call to prayer). Although the exact times change, you’ll know when you hear chanting from the minarets.
10 a.m. The overused phrase “East Meets West” comes to life at the church of Hagia Sophia (“holy wisdom”). Once a Greek Orthodox basilica, it was destroyed twice (once by riots, once by fire) before the glorious structure that exists today was built in the 5th century. The minarets around the perimeter were erected by the Ottomans, who converted the church into a mosque in 1453. Hagia Sophia is now a secular museum run by the Turkish government. It remains an intriguing place to trace the rise and fall of religions and empires.
11 a.m. Enter the lush, mysterious world of sultans at Topkapi Palace, the world’s largest and oldest palace. As you wander through the interconnected courtyards past reflecting pools into the opulent treasury, it’s not difficult to imagine the air of secrecy around the imperial harem: the secluded residence for the sultan, his wives and family, his concubines, plus hundreds of female servants and male eunuchs. If that sounds remotely appealing, keep in mind that the nickname for the royal harem was “the Golden Cage.”
24 hours in Istanbul – afternoon
1 p.m. It’s lunchtime. Walk across Galata Bridge — a good spot for a Turkish coffee and a scenic photo opp – or take the T1 tram to the harbor side Karaköy neighborhood. The city’s culinary scene has exploded over the past several years. Yet nothing beats this classic Istanbul experience: dining on the outdoor patio at one of Karaköy’s waterfront seafood restaurants. Sample a local specialty such as kağıtta levrek (sea bass cooked in parchment paper) as you watch ships glide down the Bosphorus.
3 p.m. Hop on the world’s second-oldest subway, the 140-year-old Tünel tram. It climbs from sea level at Karaköy Square up the hill to Tünel Square. It’s time to explore Beyoğlu, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn and the historic European center of Istanbul. Built mostly during the 19th century, Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan character is reflected by its historic synagogues and churches, elegant embassies (now consulates, but no less elegant).
There’s also the stately Galatasaray Lisesi, Turkey’s oldest secondary school that’s been running since the 15th century. International chains, boutiques, and a mind-boggling array of sweet shops line the revitalized Grande Rue de Péra. Now called İstiklal Caddesi, it’s arguably one of the world’s most vibrant and interesting pedestrian-only streets. If you don’t want to walk, hop on the bright red historic tram. Either way, you can see why this street inspired the city’s nickname, “Paris of the East.”
5 p.m. Don’t write off the Whirling Dervishes, who perform in various locations around Istanbul, as a tourist trap. Sure, it’s mostly tourists in the audience at Galata Mevlevihanesi, a circa-1491 Whirling Dervish hall at the southern end of İstiklal Caddesi. Yet the Sunday performances are absolutely authentic.
24 hours in Istanbul – evening
7 p.m. Stroll down steep Galipdede Caddesi. It’s an animated lane crammed with funky shops selling musical instruments, local art, clothing, and souvenirs. At the bottom of the street, you’ll see the 14th century Galata Tower rise into view. Once part of the Genoese citadel, the area around the tower is the perfect place to chill out before dinner. While dining, enjoy sunset views of Istanbul’s seven hills.
8 p.m. Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) might be the city’s loveliest indoor arcade. However, the historic Tünel Passage – an intimate courtyard lined with fetching cafes – is my favorite not-so-secret oasis for dinner. More bohemian than posh, locals still outnumber tourists here.
10 p.m. English-speaking expats may call it “Beer Street”. But whatever you call it, Nevizade Sokak is one of Istanbul’s most festive spots. It manages to be a little bit raucous while remaining (mostly) family-friendly. Locals, tourists, business people, and straight-up partiers cram together at tables to drink raki and beer, and munch on mezes while musicians play fasil music for tips. From late afternoon to late at night, the party spills into the street. Snag an outdoor spot to people watch at the center of the action.
Midnight Istanbul’s rooftop bars are reason alone to stay awake past your bedtime. The city’s full of them, from sexy cocktail spots that offer to-die-for views of the glittering Bosphorus, to utterly low-key bars where DJs spin dance music to locals.