48 hours in: Istanbul

Istanbul is a unique city indeed, with contrasting characters across its captivating quarters that leave it full of intrigue. Its unusual geography sees it straddling two continents, whilst its layered history leaves today’s visitors a plethora of stories to unearth, from Byzantine underground cisterns to sprawling Ottoman palaces. In contrast, Istanbul’s forward-thinking outlook can be found in the city’s peppering of contemporary art galleries, hip café culture and fashion-savvy shopping scene.

Two full days in Istanbul is enough to introduce yourself to at least a couple of its distinctive personalities, and makes full use of the efficient public transport system which includes buses, trams and passenger ferries across the Bosphorus Strait or up the Golden Horn. Be sure to try real-deal baklava as you make your way around, and pick up a hand-woven peshtemal for a holiday purchase you’ll never regret making.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Day One

Kick things off with a very up-to-date take on the city and head to the Istanbul Modern Art Museum – an 8,000 square-metre space that’s perched on the shores of the Bosphorus. Opened in 2008, the ground floor is filled with contemporary paintings, sculptures, installations and mixed-media works, whilst the basements galleries display temporary exhibitions. The themes that thread throughout provide an interesting insight into the issues facing today’s Turkey, with feminism, religion, politics and the city’s history all making it into the commentary.

You’re a short stroll away from the increasingly cool Karaköy, an area that has sprouted a bevy of stylish cafes, eclectic junk stores and chic independent boutiques, which all sit comfortably beside the long-standing hardware stores and local tradesmen. Meander the vine-covered streets to shop for peshtemals, peruse locally sourced crafts and swoon over hand-picked designer home wares, whilst you work up an appetite for lunch. You’ve plenty to choose from here, from the over-flowing pittas served at Pim to the delicious vegan delights of Bi’Nevi.

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Istanbul Modern Art Museum. Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Get back on the art trail this afternoon and head to SALT, a forward-looking institution that was launched onto Istanbul’s arts scene in 2011. One arm of this not-for-profit organisation is indeed a gallery space but you’ll also find a cinema, a public library and archives, a bistro and a rooftop terrace-garden designed by architect Fritz Haeg. Its situation on Istiklal Caddesi sees the nostalgic tram trundling past its door and also leaves visitors within easy reach of further contemporary art draws, such as Arter, Pi Artworks and Rodeo.

It’s a well-earned slice of Istanbul’s history next, with a visit to Galata Tower. Scale this near 70-metre-high medieval feat to enjoy panoramic views over the city – you won’t find a more atmospheric time to do so than over the sunset ezan (call to prayer). Appetite peaked, head to SALT’s sister in Galata to descend into the historic vaults of the Ottoman Bank Museum (it used to be housed in the building) before heading to the roof for dinner. Its here you’ll find Neolokal, an innovative restaurant that brings Turkish cuisine explosively up to date. The menu incorporates regional produce and traditional flavours, most fresh from their own farm just out of town, and all is presented with a pleasing panache.

Karakoy. Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Karakoy. Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Day Two

With day one dedicated to discovering Istanbul’s modern marvels, day two is all about exploring its fascinating past. Hop on board the passenger ferry to cruise over to the city’s Asian side, hitting ground in Kadıköy. Flit between the jam-packed junk shops and peruse the piled-high general stores, picking up spices, teas and Turkish coffee to take home. If you’ve time for lunch, there’s plenty to tempt you in from the narrow streets around Surp Takavor Ermeni Kilisesi, including Ciya, which serves delicious authentic kebabs.

Alternatively, remain on the European side and head up to the Fener and Balat quarters to discover another side of Istanbul altogether. Once known as the ‘Little Greece’ of Istanbul, these captivating quarters are laced in steep, winding streets where, under the homely lines of strung-up washing, you’ll find old Ottoman houses alongside a handful of cool cafes and cosy boutiques. Take it all in as you make your way between the Chora Museum and the beautiful Byzantine Pammakaristos Church, both home to some of the city’s most impressive mosaics.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). Photograph: Laura Jean Sargent

Spend the afternoon hopping between Istanbul’s most eminent sights, and head to Eminönü. It’s here you’ll find the intricately tiled interiors of the Blue Mosque, the historic artworks of the Hagia Sophia Museum and sprawling former-sultans’ residence of Topkapi Palace. For something a little unexpected, make your way into the subterranean Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul (and a cooling respite on a hotter day).

Wind your day down with a local craft beer or cocktail in Karaköy’s Unter, sticking around for a tenderloin steak or octopus salad over dinner. If you’re up for a more traditional vibe but still hankering for that casual-contemporary vibe, look no further than Karikoy Lokantasi. A popular spot with on-the-pulse Istanbulites, you can expect authentic Turkish cuisine amidst vibrant, tiled interiors. Wash it all down like a local with, you guessed it, raki.

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