Chances are your hotel is in Sultanahmet. That’s where most first-time visitors to Istanbul stay, thinking it’s best to be near “the sights.”
But in following this Istanbul city guide, you’ll see that in addition to some of the city’s most famous landmarks, Sultanahmet is also full of overly-aggressive waiters, tour busses and more grilled meat than you can shake a skewer at.
We’ll hit up some of Sultanahmet’s top spots – because they really are amazing – and then head up to the Galata area for a more local experience.
Istanbul City Guide: Morning
Most hotels in Sultanahmet serve up a mean spread for breakfast – honey, olives, cucumbers, yogurt, cheese, eggs and bread. But if yours doesn’t, or if you woke up too late, hit up Cafe Rumist, a restaurant just a few minutes’ walk from our first destination. Order the Turkish breakfast and feast on all you missed at the hotel.
Our first stop of the day is Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum where mosaics of Jesus hang next to Islamic figures. Don’t be annoyed by the visitors who bump into you because their eyes are trained on the massive ceiling. It’s hard not to be distracted by the dome that for 1,000 years covered the largest enclosed space in the world.
Work your way through the crowds to the front of the museum for an obligatory photo of the Hagia Sophia’s house cat. You’ll generally find him soaking up the warmth of one the museum’s giant spotlights.
After the Hagia Sophia, dart across the street to the Basilica Cistern, an underground water reserve built in the 6th century.
Even if you’ve never considered yourself one for paying to see where water was stored in case of siege, it’s hard not to get a kick out of the 30-foot underground columns and giant fish that swim beneath the wooden boardwalk. Dim lights and piped in music only add to the eerie goofiness.
Exit the cistern and walk back toward the Hagia Sophia. Take a right on Divan Yolu Cd and walk two or three minutes until you see a red awning beneath a sign for Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi. This is a no-frills cafeteria with a limited and famous menu specializing in kofte, Turkish meatballs. Ask for a side of pepper sauce and some bread to accompany the meat.
Refueled, backtrack a bit and make your way toward the Blue Mosque. The mosque may be closed for 30 to 90 minutes during one of the six daily prayers. This isn’t a bad thing. Hearing the Ezan, or call to prayer, bounce of the minarets and watching the worshippers wash their feet at one of the spigots outside can be an other-worldly experience for many Westerners.
Once you’re allowed in, take off your shoes and place them in one of the bags available for free at the entrance. There are also free scarves for women to cover their hair before entering. (It’s best to bring your own.) For either sex, shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden.
Throughout Istanbul but especially at holy sites, you may see boys dressed in white drum major-esque outfits, complete with a cape and hat. These youngsters are en route to their circumcisions. I know you’re tempted to take pictures. Turn off your flash and try to be discreet. Or better yet, smile and ask to take a photo.
When you’re done with the mosque, hop on the T1 tram toward Kabatas at the Sultanahmet station. Get off three stops later at Eminonu. We’re going to cross the Galata Bridge toward the newer part of the city.
There are three ways to do this. Underneath the bridge, where pushy waiters will harass you into eating at their restaurants.
Or you can travel through the crowded tunnel that cuts through the bridge. Here, a mass of people seem to stream at all hours and it’s easy to appreciate that with a population of 13 million, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world.
I prefer walking above the bridge, a more peaceful option that offers a chance to walk by the fisherman dangling their lines into the Golden Horn. Peek into the buckets by their feet to see the tiny silver fish that make up today’s catch. Turn around often to take pictures of the minarets of the old city.
Our next step is the Galata Tower. Originally constructed in the 1300s, the tower has served as a dungeon and a fire tower. For us, it will be a place to rest. Grab an Efes beer from one of the small convenience stores nearby. Try to coax one of Istanbul’s relatively healthy-looking street cats to sit with you as you watch the skateboarders, families and young couples around you.
You must be starving. Snag an outdoor table at Kahvedan, about ten minutes north of the tower. This Asian fusion restaurant offers a nice break from grilled meat. Order a strawberry lemonade, served with mint leaves, and mingle with the expats and residents that frequent the small cafe.
Now it’s time to have some fun. We’re going to bar hop along Istiklal Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare and the hub of the city’s nightlife.
Pop into the Cicek Pasaji. Turkish for “flower passage”, this courtyard is now a touristy strip of restaurants and belly dancers. It’s worth a walk-through, but then head back to Istiklal and take a left on Bekar Sk. You’ll see the U2 Istanbul Irish Pub on your left. This bar is dedicated to all things Bono. It’s no bigger than a closet but it serves Carlsberg and Guinness, a nice break from the weak and sour Efes beer you’ll find everywhere else.
When you’ve had your U2 fill, head back the way you came but take a right on Kurabiye Sk. Here you’ll find Nayah, one of Istanbul’s few, if not it’s only, reggae club. No doner, no cry.
Afterward, make your way back to Istiklal and weave your way to Taksim Square. Pose for a few pictures in front of the Republic Monument.
Featured prominently in this statue is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president. He is responsible for passing major reforms including the emancipation of women, the introduction of Western legal and dress codes, and replacing the Arabic script with a Latin one.
We won’t hold it against you if you’re too buzzed to appreciate that without Ataturk’s reforms you may not be partying it up in Istanbul tonight.