Welcome to the first in a new series where we scope out what to do with a brief stopover in Istanbul, Turkey on the way to somewhere else. Bourdain is not the only tipster wringing the most out of a city in record time!
From the US often some of the best air bargains to many European cities is with Turkish Airlines, winner of SkyTrax’ Best European Carrier award for the last four years. Even if you are able to connect and zip right through to your final destination, why would you? We suggest a brief stopover in Istanbul, a legendary city spanning two continents where east very literally meets west, with Asia and Europe intersecting. Consider any stopover an amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for a full-on visit down the road.
Let’s go! We’ve got 30 hours in Istanbul, let’s spend it like we mean it. You can sleep during a business meeting at your final destination.
Most international passengers arrive at Ataturk International Airport just outside Istanbul. Some passengers might arrive at Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side of Turkey, however, the chances are you will be touching down at Ataturk.
The Lay of The Land Built On Seven Hills.
East meets west, Asia and Europe, old and new, it sounds confusing, but it is actually rather straightforward. Turkey is in both Asia and Europe with the Bosphorus Bridge connecting the two continents. Very rarely does one have opportunity to have breakfast in Asia and lunch in Europe, but it’s totally doable in Istanbul.
With more than 20 million residents, Istanbul is actually a tale of three cities, old, new, and Asian. The old city has the ancient sites in the Sultanahmet area, while everything modern, hip and pulsating is in the Beyoglu/Taksim area on the new side, while the Asian side is all about yachts, resorts and the twinkling Bosphorus.
Stay Like A Sultan, On Almost Any Budget.
Deciding where to stay is one of the most important decisions to be made when planning any Istanbul trip and most especially a quickie stopover. One of the wonderful aspects of a short stopover is the temptation to stay somewhere pampering, after all, it is only one night. We suggest you go for it and spring for a hotel that will cosset you during your brief stay.
So, old, new or Asian?
In short, we recommend if you want to see major cultural monuments,
Four Seasons Istanbul At Sultanahmet, Total And Complete Luxe.
It used be a prison and is located steps from major monuments, cultural sites and restaurants in the old city. Midnight Express certainly did not look like this.
It’s luxurious, it’s elegant; it’s the Four Seasons in the Faith neighborhood. And with a one night stopover, it’s worthy of a splurge. Room rates hover around $600, give or take a $100 or so, depending on the time of year.
Live large, we know you want to. With a snazzy rooftop lounging area to take in the gorgeous views, you might not feel the need to actually venture out of the Four Seasons to see this famous Istanbul landmark.
Boutique St. Sophia Hotel, Loads Of Cache For Around $100.
Wonderfully situated very close to the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, this is one of the best deals in all of Istanbul. The St. Sophia with only 26 rooms is minimalist chic in an unbeatable location.
In anyone’s language it is remarkable bang for your stopover buck, dinar,
The Artefes Hotel, Ottoman Style On A Skinny Budget.
Located within a few minutes walk of the Blue Mosque and other major attractions, the Artefes Hotel has charming Ottoman style at absolute rock bottom prices.
Single, double and triple rooms are available, along with one penthouse suite with a large terrace and stunning views. Did we mention the suite, aside from a lovely bathroom with a large walk-in shower, also has a jetted soaking tub smack dab in the middle of the main living area/bedroom? Quirky for sure, yet we loved it. Rooms go as low as $45 depending on the time of year and average around $80 in peak season.
Throw into the bargain a hearty buffet breakfast with assorted Turkish sweet and savory pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, yogurts, freshly squeezed juices and rich Turkish coffee, all of which are included in the budget-friendly room rates, and you’re living large for less!
In fair weather, breakfast can be enjoyed on the rooftop terrace with knock-out views.
Regardless of where you stopover on your Istanbul stopover, gracious, kind Turkish hospitality is a hallmark of this ancient city.
Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow, You’ll Be Long Gone!
We suggest skipping wood-fired pizza joints (very popular with locals as it is foreign), foo-foo international foodie temples or anything that smacks of a pretentious chef in the kitchen. You can find all of that at home, regardless of where you live.
When in Istanbul, especially on a short stopover, knock back a few rakis, get your kebab on, tuck into a meze spread or linger over a traditional Ottoman multi-course tasting menu. Go for honest Turkish cuisine, it is massively varied with loads of regional specialties widely available in Istanbul.
Khorasani Restaurant, Sultanahmet.
Close to the Blue Mosque, the Khorasani was highly recommended by the concierge at the Four Seasons hotel, which is also around the corner. With an open grilling station, good service, sizzling kebabs, gril
With a wide range of mezes, many vegetarian, it is easy to make a meal of a meze platter if you’re not a carnivore. The signature pita bread with assorted butters is huge and complimentary.
All up, this stylish kebab house with white linen table cloths and a lovely atmosphere is very reasonably priced, we highly recommend it.
Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine Restaurant.
Located a stone’s throw from the Topkapi Palace in the old city, this refined restaurant offers a wide range of Ottoman palace-style cuisine, based on Suleiman and his magnificent feasts. The menu provides a fascinating history of when and why specific dishes were created. Force, some dishes noted with an asterisk were first served to commemorate the circumcisions of two young princes in 1539.
By European standards, this restaurant is moderately priced, and delivers a rich, cultural experience for lunch or a leisurely, multi-course dinner. It’s currently ranked number four on Trip Advisor, out of a whopping 11,087 restaurants in Istanbul.
If you go, do let us know how you like it!
Hafiz Mustafa 1864.
It’s a bakery and sweet shop offering what is widely considered to be the best Turkish Delight in Istanbul. It’s also a coffee and tea shop and it’s been serving Turkish goodness since 1864.
With only a brief stopover, you can kill two birds with one stone here. Grab a coffee to refuel, enjoy a pastry, we suggest the baklava, and then load up on boxes of Turkish delight, they make stellar gifts. Mix and match, you can choose flavors to customize various size boxes.
Seeing The Sights And The Sites.
30 hours isn’t a long time when you’re set on having a good time and making the most of your stopover. With so little time and so much to see in Istanbul, here is a very short list to consider. Or ignore it completely and go with Plan B. Soaking up atmosphere at a leisurely pace has its own special rewards and should not be underestimated.
Put on comfy walking shoes and hit the streets of the old city to see one or more, depending on your stamina, of what is left of Istanbul’s ancient cultures.
Two of the most famous, important religious sites in the world, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, are close to all three hotels we have recommended. If you’re up for a spot of culture, be sure to pop in for at least a quick look.
The Hagia Sophia was once the largest building in the world, a Greek Orthodox church for 916 years, then a mosque for 481 years. In 1934 it became a museum to house both faiths.
The Topkapi Palace was the residence of Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with commanding views over the Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Harems, eunuchs and sultans were housed in multiple buildings connected by galleries, passageways, courtyards and gardens.
Don’t miss an original footprint and script belonging to the Prophet Mohammad.
The Grand Bazaar is essentially the ultimate mall on steroids. Spanning 61 covered streets with around 5,000 shops, two mosques, two hamams , four fountains, multiple restaurants and conservatively about 300,000 shoppers a day, it is not for weak knees or faint hearts.
We suggest a stroll (or jostle) around to take in the sights, not to actually shop. Most items can be found elsewhere, usually for less.
Bargaining and haggling is mandatory, so gird your loins if you want to take home that Turkish rug you’re convinced you can’t live without. However, flat out, we say no way can one buy a rug, which is a major purchase, during a fast stopover. The entire process can take hours, if done quickly, or longer, with perhaps two visits to a shop, if negotiated properly. Factor in time to take tea with the merchant, which is also part of the process.
Of course, if you don’t mind paying more than any reasonable person should, nip in, plunk your money down and you’re outta there with a rug. And without your shirt!
Istanbul Plan B.
Check into your hotel, flop on the bed, listen to the soothing calls to prayer that ring out from local mosques and order some room service. Perhaps later on wander around the neighborhood, take a soak at a Turkish hamam, snag a box of Turkish delight to take home, enjoy some local cuisine, a raki nightcap and then call it a day.
Doing very little can often be a far more satisfying travel experience than cramming in a long list of “must-dos” in a bustling, hectic foreign city. Either way, happy landings for a stopover that is worth stopping over for.
Coming up next, The Stopover: 30 Hours In Dubai.