Editor’s note: I spent a couple days in Istanbul a decade or so ago, and will be returning this coming year with TRT writer Dan Warren. This itinerary by our traveling rabbi Sam Spector is a perfect starting point for my trip, and will be for yours as well. For more of Sam’s amazing adventures, click here to visit his index page.
My reason for choosing to write about Istanbul is unfair because I thought of it since we are at my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, aka Turkey Day. It is due to these jokes that recently the country went to the effort of publicly using the Turkish spelling, Türkiye, in international settings. Yet, jokes aside, if you are to make a trip to one city outside of the United States, a great case can be made that Istanbul should be the one. Istanbul has a special place in my heart as it was the first international city that I traveled to when I was 16 years old. It is also l one of the only cities that I have returned to for a second visit. Istanbul is a city that is both in Asia and Europe, in which you can experience east and west, and both religious and secular. It is one of the most affordable great international cities and is easily accessible with one of the largest airport hubs on the globe. In this article, I will breakdown how to spend a great four days in Istanbul (I once crammed all this in two days, but four days is better to make it less stressful).
Day 1: Arrive and Relax
Upon your arrival to Istanbul, make your way to your hotel. On both of my trips to Istanbul, I stayed at the same hotel, the Blue House Hotel in the Fatih neighborhood. This hotel is not overly fancy; it is a very decent 3-star hotel, but the location cannot be beat. Directly across the street from the hotel is the gigantic Blue Mosque, a 17th century UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque is particularly noteworthy in that it has six minarets. At the time of its construction, the only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. Due to backlash, the sultan of the time ordered a seventh minaret built in Mecca (today there are nine). Aside from this mosque, there are many other sites to see in this district, all within a 15-minute walk from the hotel, but we will save those for day two. With jetlag, it is important on day one to rest up and have a relaxing day. On your first day, go to one of the many rooftop restaurants in the Fatih district. These restaurants generally have incredible views of the Bosporus Strait, the body of water separating Europe from Asia and connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. If you are looking out at the water, you will enjoy watching massive cargo ships go through this important strait for global trade. If you look the other way, you will get as impressive, if not more so, of a view with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, one of the great architectural structures in human history. At these restaurants, splurge on the freshly caught seafood; I had easily the best sea bass of my life.
Following your meal, go to a traditional Turkish bath in the area. Generally, men and women are separated. On the male side (I cannot speak to what happens on the other side), you will be in a massive steam room, laying, pretty much naked, on a marble slab. A traditional Turkish masseuse will come and massage you, exfoliating your skin with an exfoliating glove to remove dead skin, and do treatments with hot and cold water dumped on you. Once you get past the awkwardness and embrace that you are having a cultural experience, it will be quite enjoyable and afterwards, your muscles and skin will never have felt better.
If you cannot sleep that evening, head out to Taksim Square, a large public gathering area for celebrations and protests alike. From Taksim Square, walk the nearly mile-long Istiklal Avenue. With shops, cafes, and restaurants open until the early hours of the morning, you are bound to find an enjoyable place to stop and people watch on this pedestrian street, which is seemingly packed at every hour. This street is a great place to also enjoy a couple of must haves in Istanbul: Turkish coffee and Turkish ice cream. With the latter, this will be an ice cream experience that is unmatched anywhere on earth as the ice cream servers are performers who serve the ice cream on a stick. As the customer tries to grab the ice cream, the server playfully maneuvers the stick, making it impossible to grab the cone. After a minute that is equal parts fun and frustrating, the customer finally gets their well-deserved treat – talk about a great way to end your first day in Istanbul.
Day 2: Historic Istanbul
Wake up early because you have a lot to do today! In order to have the energy for a day full of sightseeing, make sure you start your day off with Turkey’s most important meals, their legendary breakfasts, while enjoying the view of the Blue Mosque. Afterwards, walk across the street to the mosque and tour inside. The interior of the mosque is as beautiful as the exterior. The inside of the walls and domes have beautiful blue intricate designs made from 20,000 tiles. Around the walls are various Quranic quotes in calligraphy. Next to the Blue Mosque is the Sultanahmet Square, which was the hippodrome for chariot races during the time when Istanbul (then Constantinople) was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At this narrow square, still bearing the resemblance of a hippodrome, there are numerous monuments that have been there for centuries that are worth visiting. First, in the 4th century CE, Theodosius the Great brought from Greece the three-headed Serpent Column, dating back to the 5th century BCE. This monument celebrated the Greek victory over the Persians, but sadly, the top part, containing the serpent heads, was destroyed in 1700. Also in the square are two obelisks, the more prominent being the Obelisk of Thutmose III. This granite obelisk was also placed there by Theodosius, having been taken from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, and still looks new with highly legible hieroglyphics, despite being 3500 years old. The other obelisk, which is “only” from the 10th century, must have been once brilliant as it was gilded with bronze; however, after being stripped by the Crusaders, it remains as an unattractive stone. Finally, see the beautiful German Fountain, an octagonal gazebo that was gift from Kaiser Wilhelm in 1900. Inside the gazebo is a bright golden mosaic.
Following your visit to this side of the Sultan Ahmet Park, walk 500 meters straight across from the Blue Mosque to the Hagia Sophia. Along the way, feel free to take a stop along the way to get a cup of sherbet, which is sweet and tart cherry juice, with water, sugar, and flower petals served from a man dressed in traditional Ottoman garb with a fez adorning his head. He will be holding a giant antique-looking metal carafe that he carries on his back with a long spout that pours when he bends over. Following this delicious refreshment, make your way over to this most significant building. The Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century as the main basilica of the Byzantine Empire by Justinian I. When the pink Roman brick fireproof structure was completed, Justinian proudly declared that he had surpassed the Temple of Solomon. Inside this grand church were many Byzantine mosaics of the most important figures in Christianity. However, the Christian world was not the only one that took notice of the Hagia Sophia’s grandeur. The founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad stated, “One day Constantinople will be conquered. Great is the commander who will conquer it.” In 1453, the city finally fell to the Ottomans and the Hagia Sophia was converted into one of the world’s most important mosques. With the rise of the Turkish Republic, which was designed to be a secular nation, the Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935. Many of the Christian mosaics were uncovered underneath plaster and restored to their original glory, and were able to be visited by tourists. I was privileged to do so on my first visit to Istanbul in 2004. However, in 2020, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been promoting Islamism, ordered the museum to be converted back to a mosque, much to the glee of his supporters. On the plus side, the Hagia Sophia is now free to visit. However, it cannot be visited during prayer hours and many of the best Christian mosaics have been covered up, leading to outrage by the international community. During my visit in 2020, I was definitely disappointed with the change, yet it was not lost on me that I was still in one of the most significant buildings in our world’s history.
Down the street from the Hagia Sophia is a must-see that would be easy to walk right past: the Basilica Cistern, the largest of Istanbul’s underground cisterns. The Basilica Cistern was built in the 3rd century by 7000 slaves, but was enlarged by Justinian, and there is still water kept in it. The cistern is 453 feet by 213 feet and can hold 80,000 cubic meters of water. The cistern is held up by 336 beautiful 30-foot-tall marble columns, put in 12 rows of 28 columns spread 16 feet apart. At the base of two columns are giant statues of Medusa’s head to scare away intruders, but turned sideways and upside down to avoid her gaze. The Basilica Cisterns are easily one of the coolest sites that I have seen anywhere and are worth the visit.
In the afternoon, walk ten minutes north to Topkapi Palace. Topkapi feels as though it is something out of Game of Thrones. Allow several hours to wander through this museum, which is a city in itself. For four hundred years until the middle of the 19th century, Topkapi was the primary headquarters of the Ottoman sultan. After crossing under the large imperial gate, you will enter a 7.5 million square foot complex with beautiful wooden and tiled buildings reflecting Eastern Mediterranean and Islamic architecture, as well as peaceful gardens and views down on the city and the Bosporus’ Golden Horn. Thousands of individuals lived in Topkapi, from the royal family to servants and courtiers to the sultan’s eunuchs and concubines. It is particularly interesting to walk through the former harem of the sultan. While touring all of the rooms, make sure you also go to the museum within the palace to see the armory and treasury of the Ottomans. The museum also claims to hold many sacred (though not verifiable) relics, such as a hair, tooth, and footprint from the prophet Muhammad, and a handwritten letter, seal, banner, and mantle that were all from him as well. Additionally, it is home to the alleged staff of Moses, pot from Abraham, turban from Joseph, and sword for David. In the room with the artifacts from Muhammad, an imam chants the Quran to this very day. After several hours wandering Topkapi Palace, call it a day for sightseeing.
Day 3: More Fatih and the Asian side of Istanbul
While the day prior was spent seeing the historic European side of Istanbul, there are still good spots to visit on the Asian side. However, I would first still start off the day on the European side by going to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum located next to Topkapi Palace. The museum is divided into three parts: archaeological, ancient orient, and Islamic art. With over a million artifacts, it is easy to spend hours exploring all the civilizations and understanding Turkish and Ottoman history. Some of the most famous and impressive artifacts include everything in the Greek and Babylonian sections, a panel from the path to the Ishtar Gate, and the Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty stele from 1259 BCE. However, the most impressive artifact is the Alexander Sarcophagus, a 4th century BCE sarcophagus (not Alexander’s) depicting intricate bas-relief carvings of Alexander the Great in remarkable condition.
Following the museum, walk a mile (or cab it) to the Suleymaniye Mosque, named for the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Suleiman the Great. This mosque was the largest built by Suleiman during his 16th century reign. It looks similar to another of Suleiman’s mosques, the Blue Mosque, but has four minarets, and the interior tiling is green as opposed to blue. Hagia Sophia aside, the Suleimaniye Mosque was Istanbul’s largest until a couple years ago and contains the tombs of Suleiman and many other Ottoman royals. The mosque has a lovely garden and wonderful views of the Bosporus and the Asian side of the city.
After the mosque, walk ten minutes down to the Galata Bridge where you will see hundreds of locals fishing off the bridge and seafood restaurants right on the bridge. Aside from the great view of the city and Bosporus, and the people watching on the bridge, walking across is a must for the sole purpose of having bragging rights that you walked from Europe to Asia. Across the bridge, you will arrive at the Galata Tower. Built in 1348 (an original tower was 1000 years older but was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade) in Romanesque style, this beautiful watchtower has been an important landmark in Istanbul for nearly 700 years. Go up the 131 feet to the observation level for stunning views of the city. Down the block from the tower is the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, a great and informative museum of Turkey’s rich Jewish history. Local Jews run the museum and sit and read Ladino newspapers while tourists visit. The museum is connected to the Neve Shalom Synagogue, which you can see through a viewing window in the museum.
Take a taxi from there to the Dolmabahce Palace, which replaced Topkapi as the primary Ottoman sultan residence in the mid-19th century. Today, this palace is a receiving area for foreign dignitaries and is located right on the Bosporus. Unlike Topkapi, Dolmabahce feels European, having been built in the Baroque style (however, it also has a harem). There are lavish receiving halls, a chandelier gifted from Queen Victoria, and a crystal banister of a grand staircase. Make sure to get a picture in front of the clock tower and the Gate of the Sultan. Following the fall of the Ottomans, the palace became the home of Ataturk, the founder the Turkish nation, and he would eventually die in the palace. Make sure to spend a couple hours at this beautiful palace.
Day 4: Shopping Day
Begin your day by visiting the final historical site in Istanbul, the Chora Church, also known as the Kariye Mosque. On your way, go underneath the Aqueduct of Valens, a nearly kilometer-long, 95-foot high Roman Aqueduct from the 4th century CE that goes right through the middle of the city. If driving on Ataturk Boulevard, you will drive right through this engineering gem. Like the Hagia Sophia, this was a museum until 2020 when it became a mosque. From the outside, this building is small and unassuming and looks like a tiny Greek Orthodox church. However, inside are some of the most spectacular Byzantine frescoes and mosaics glistening with gold tiles that can be found anywhere in the world. The two domes also contain beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The artwork is so phenomenal that the mosaics and frescoes were largely left uncovered even when the Ottomans used the building as a mosque.
Following the Chora Church, make your way to the Grand Bazaar. Dating back to 1455 and with 4000 stores across 61 covered streets, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. With over 90 million annual visitors, it is considered to be the most visited tourist attraction on earth. Like many other bazaars, there are different sections that focus on different goods; there are markets here that focus on jewelry, gold, leather, clothing, carpets, and furniture. There used to also be an armor and weapons market in the bazaar. During your shopping, make sure to get a delicious doner kebab cut off of a rotisserie spit for less than $1. After the Grand Bazaar walk down to the Egyptian Bazaar, also know as the Spice Bazaar, to see and smell the colorful and fragrant display of spices. My wife and I got a cherished souvenir here, a handmade tablecloth with pomegranates we use on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Finally, next to the Blue Mosque is a little bazaar of carpets. Here, aggressive shopkeepers will beckon you into their stores where they will serve you a cup of tea and then unroll and spin carpets while you sit and watch. It is fascinating to see how each spin of the carpet changes its appearance and colors. As carpets are a staple of Turkish culture, watching this display and maybe even splurging on one to ship home is a perfect way to wrap up your four days in Istanbul.
There is so much to do in Turkiye, giving good reason as to why it is one of the ultimate international tourist destinations. While you can spend months exploring the country and still not see it all, going to Istanbul should be on every world traveler’s bucket list. There are few places that combine history, religion, cosmopolitan city life, culinary excellence, and affordability the way that Istanbul does, making it obvious why it has been considered one of the world’s great cities for the past two millennia.
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