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48 hours in Istanbul

An edited version of this article appeared in Vacations & Travel Issue 87, Jun-Sep 2013

Situated on the cusp of Asia and Europe, Istanbul has always been marked by contrasts – old and new, east and west, secular and sacred. It is cutting-edge and conservative, and though at least two millennia old, thrillingly hip. Here, highlights of a two-day trip.

DAY ONE

8.30: We take in a traditional Turkish breakfast on the rooftop balcony of the Deniz Konak Hotel. From here, we have a view out over the tumbling rooftops of the ancient, tourist-friendly heart of the old city, Sultanahmet, to the Black Sea beyond. Breakfast is hearty and delicious: a cheesy potato dish called kremali patates, hard boiled eggs sprinkled with flaked red pepper, peppermint and thyme, meats, sliced cucumber and tomato, bread and butter dripping with honey and hot, sweet tea.

9.30: The autumn sun is shining, so we head out to explore the tourist-friendly heart of this ancient city, which is perfect for follow-your-nose wandering. We head in a northerly direction up narrow, winding, cobble-stoned streets, stopping to take in the grandeur of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which sit opposite each other and are the jewels in Istanbul’s historical crown. A little further on and we are in the leafy, well kept grounds of the Topkapi Palace complex, a vast compound that was once the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years of their 624-year reign.

11.00: We consider visiting the palace itself, but the queue is literally hundreds deep (best to fast-track by booking tickets in advance), so we opt for the relatively undiscovered crumbling grandeur of the Istanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri, or Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Actually a complex housing three museums (the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art), it holds more than one million objects from almost all eras and civilizations in world history, and is a treasure trove for history buffs and ingenues alike.

13.00: There are food options a-plenty in this part of town, but the delicious kebabs at Hamdi, a small restaurant staffed by a friendly team, are hard to pass up. We follow our lunch with a small, strong coffee, which sets us up for the afternoon ahead.

14.00: The 550-year-old Grand Bazaar and the 430-year-old Egyptian Spice Market are nearby. We visit them both and get drawn into the touting and haggling that characterise Turkish market life. The stallholders proceed with charm and finesse; one could be mistaken for thinking the many salesmen working the streets of this city – Europe’s third largest – are in training for an elite sport.

16.30: We pay an indulgent visit to the Cemberlitas Hamami, or bath, which operates in much the same way as it did when it was designed and completed in 1584 by the royal architect Sinan. This means separate, equally opulent quarters for men and women, and it means bathing in your birthday suit in public. First, I spend 20 minutes of pore-opening relaxation on a large hot stone in a circular room beneath a vast and echoing domed ceiling. Next, a firm-handed, no-nonsense local woman gestures for me to lie on my stomach, then on my back as she dry-scrubs me from head to toe. Then she pours a bowl of warm water over my head, lathers me with soap and scrubs me down again. The scrub and the oily massage I opt for afterwards leave my skin looking and feeling amazing, and is one of the most profoundly invigorating and oddly comforting experiences I've ever had.

19.30: We float out of the baths and back down the streets to Dede Efendi House, where we attend a Sufi music concert and whirling dervish ceremony. Men dressed in long white gowns and tall brown hats enter the room and proceed through a precise ritual of sound and movement, and an entrancing insight into the beauty and mysticism of Sufism (a branch of Islam). The longest and most intriguing stage is the four salams, in which the men spin on their left heels, raise their right palms to the sky and their left pointing towards the ground in a representation of the spiritual journey that every believer goes through.

20.30: Watching all that twirling has really worked up our appetites. We follow our concierge’s advice and drop in to Balikci Sabahattin, a simple wooden restaurant with a reputation for serving some of the best fish in Istanbul. It’s a warm and pleasant evening so we dine al fresco in the leafy courtyard, selecting red sea bream and a range of salads. The fish comes whole from the grill and is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside: perfect. We follow it with two tall, thin glasses of raki (ouzo) a traditional anise-flavoured clear spirit that that turns a cloudy white when iced water is added. 

DAY TWO

08.00: For centuries, this city – which has been known by at least ten other names, including Byzantium and Constantinople – has been a major European trading port. It still is, so we start the day with a cruise tour on the Bosphorus Strait that runs between the Black and Marmara Seas. The Bosphorus quite literally cuts Istanbul in two: on one side is the fast-paced European metropolis; on the other the quieter, but no less sprawling Asian side. The tour takes around four hours and gives an excellent, wind-blown sense of Istanbul’s vast Olde Worlde grandeur. It also includes a quick stop off at the Spice Market, where we pick up fresh, still-warm pastries for breakfast.

12.00: The tour driver would’ve happily taken us back to our hotel, but we’re not far from the thriving, modern heart of this huge metropolis, and we’re keen to check it out. We buy a token and jump on board a passing tram, disembarking near Istiklal Street in the historic Beyoglu district. An elegant, three-kilometre long pedestrian street, Istiklal boasts music and book stores, fashion boutiques, art galleries, libraries, cafes, restaurants, pubs, night clubs, and what we’re really after, historical patisseries and chocolateries. It’s okay to have cake for lunch when you’re on holiday, right? Right. So we call into a local institution, Saray Muhallebisi, and sample delights including lor tatlisi, a sweet pastry made from soft uncured cheese, and tavuk gogsay, a pudding made with rice flour and very finely chopped chicken breast (yes, chicken breast). Never fear – if you’re not such a sweet tooth, they also have a fantastic range of savoury dishes.

14:00: Istanbul is often referred to as the 'gateway to the East', and one glance at its hilly banks reveals why; all over the city, the domes and minarets of Istanbul's 2,600 mosques dominate the skyline. Many are open to visitors, and once back in Sultanahmet we pay a visit to the stunning and iconic Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque. Built between 1609-1616, it is considered the last great mosque of the classical Ottoman Empire. It is still a place of worship, shutting for half an hour or so during each of the six daily prayers.

16.00: It’s time to upgrade, so we head back into the city – in a taxi this time – and check in to our new hotel, the TomTom Suites. Located in the Galata district, the building was once a home for French nuns, but today has been renovated into a comfortable modern hotel with 20 suites and a panoramic view of the old town.

19.00: Here, in the city that is often called the gateway to the east, it seems appropriate to check out the European-Asian fusion food scene. We dine at Changa, a fashionable restaurant headed by Kiwi chef Peter Gordon spread across four floors of an Art Nouveau building, and with a glass-ceilinged kitchen you can walk across and peer into. It’s not especially Turkish or especially cheap, but it is especially good. After an indulgent three-course dinner (the stand-out dish for me was the wasabi and salmon tortellini with sautéed porcini mushrooms and a creamy lemongrass sauce), we make sure to swing by Taksim Square, where the Cumhuriyet Aniti, or Monument of the Republic, resides. Inaugurated in 1928, the monument commemorates the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, following the Turkish War of Independence.

22.00: Istanbul is famous for its nightlife, and Galata is just the district for it.  We head to 360 Istanbul, a restaurant, bar and club all in one (though admittedly, in separate rooms) with stunning views of the city and the Bosphorus Strait. We have cocktails in the bar until the nightclub opens, around midnight – the beginning of a long and fun night partying with locals and fellow tourists alike.

Photography by Vanessa Murray, and courtesy of Turkish Tourism, 360 Istanbul, and Cemberlitas Hamami and gototurkey.com.

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting There Emirates flies regularly to Istanbul from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. 1300 303 777; www.emirates.com Etihad Airways flies from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. 1300 532 215; www.etihad.com

Getting Around Public transport by tram, metro, bus, or boat takes in most of the city, but can become challenging for long or multi-stop trips. All taxis are metered and are a good option, though don’t expect it to be any faster than public transport – the roads are notoriously congested. Most hotels can arrange tours for you; Istanbul Daily City Tours offer a good range and can also provide private guides.

When To Go – Summer can be hot and muggy, winter cold and snowy in Istanbul, making spring (April-June) and autumn (October-November) the best times to visit. Istanbul’s lively arts and culture scene kicks off in spring, with the Istanbul Film Festival in April; Theatre Festival in May; Music Festival in June, and; Jazz Festival in July. The seven-week long International Istanbul Biennial begins in April and takes place in odd-numbered years.

Where To Stay – The opulent Hotel Sultania and modern Neorion Hotel are some of the most popular addresses in Istanbul's historic tourist mecca, Sultanahmet. +90 212 528 0806; www.hotelsultania.com, +90 212 527 9090; www.neorionhotel.com. Deniz Houses are a good mid-range option +90 212 518 9595; www.denizhouses.com. If you prefer to be close to the nightlife, try the beautifully renovated TomTom Suites in the Galata district. +90 212 292 4949; www.tomtomsuites.com

Where To Eat Hamdi Restaurant & Café Tahmis Caddesi Kalçın Sokak 17. Balikci Sabahattin, Hasan Kuyu Sokak 50, off Cankurtaran. Saray Muhallebicisi, Istiklal Caddesi 173, Beyoglu. Changa, Siraselviler Caddesi 87/1, Taksim.

Further Information – There is no official tourist body for Turkey in Australia. The official tourism website is www.goturkey.com. Istanbul Daily City Tours www.istanbul-daily-city-tours.com.