Known as the bridge between East and West, Istanbul often becomes one of the most awe-inspiring cities in the lists of various explorers of the world. And it’s easy to understand why. It has historical traces from so many eras which seamlessly unite in the modern metropolis of 15 million people. Istanbul has breathtaking architecture, yummy food, beautiful Bosphorus strait, and one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. On top of it, it’s full of ancient and rich traditions! Even a weekend in this city is enough to make you wish to return here again and again.
In Istanbul, I met a man who said he knew beyond a doubt that God was a cat. I asked why he was so sure, and the man said, “When I pray to him, he ignores me.” Lowell Thomas
How to Spend a Weekend in Istanbul
How to Get to and From Istanbul New Airport (IST)
The Istanbul New Airport opened only several years ago, in October 2018. It’s located in the northern area of Arnavutköy, and it will take you about 50 minutes to reach the city center from the airport. There are several options that you can use to get from the airport to the city center:
- Bus. There are 19 different routes and more than 150 buses that you can take. The best option to reach the city center is the H2 Line to Şişli-Mecidiyeköyis Station. From that station, you can switch to line M2 and go to Taksim Square. This will cost you around 3€ per person and take you around 70 to 120 minutes to get to the city center. Another good option is the Havaist Line from Sultanahmet IST 1S.
- Havaist Airport Shuttle. To reach Istanbul with Havaist Airport Shuttle, you should take the line IST 19: New Istanbul Airport – Beşiktaş – Taksim and get off at the last stop. It will cost you a little more than 5€ and the ride will take you about 100 minutes.
- Private Shuttle. KiwiTaxi is an excellent option if you want to choose a private shuttle as they have 12 car classes. You can even get a minibus for 19 passengers if you need it. Costs vary depending on the class of the vehicle. The ride takes about 50 minutes. Another option for private shuttles is to use a shared-transfer service that will allow you to travel in comfort and save some money.
- Taxi. Taxi is still the most comfortable and hassle-free way to get to the city center. It will cost you 20-30€, and the ride will take you about 50 minutes. Mind that you should expect the ride to be much longer in peak hours. The great thing about taxis is that they’re available 24/7. Book Your Istanbul Airport Transfer here.
Are you ready to explore Istanbul? We are!
Weekend in Istanbul: Day 1
1. Topkapi Palace If you only have a weekend in Istanbul, you need to focus on that, which is really worth seeing. If that’s the case, Topkapi Palace should be on your list for sure, because it’s as essential to see Topkapi Palace as it is to eat Baklava. The palace was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985, and the size and beauty of this place are just outrageous. For 400 years, this palace was the empire’s center. It still shines in its full glory, but today more as a historical, esthetical, and architectural landmark than as a sing of power. The palace consists of two main structures, has three gates, The Harem, and a garden, so you can easily explore it for the whole day. If Topkapi Palace happens to be your principal place of interest in Istanbul, we advise you to take this 3-hour guided tour with an admission ticket.
2. Hagia Sophia. Many more people heard about Hagia Sophia, rather than Topkapi Palace. And the reason for this is that it’s one of the world’s greatest monuments. Also known as the Church of the Divine Wisdom (it has several other names), this cathedral was built in the 6th century CE. First, it was a Christian cathedral. Later it became an important site of Muslim worship, and then it was converted into a museum in the 1930s. Surprisingly, at the beginning of July 2020 Turkish court annulled the site’s museum status, and it was turned into a mosque once again. According to President Erdogan, the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims, and foreign visitors. If you want to take Hagia Sophia tour, rather than explore it yourself, we recommend you to choose this one.
3. Basilica Cistern. If you want to visit the largest and one of the most unusual Istanbul attractions, you’re welcome to Basilica Cistern. The entrance to this landmark is across the street from Hagia Sophia. You will find this place especially attractive during the summer because this underground forest of hundreds of marble columns will give you much-desired coolness.
This place was built in the 6th century to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. Make sure to see the two Medusa heads located all the way to the cistern’s far left-hand corner. If you don’t want to miss a thing while visiting the Basilica Cistern, we recommend taking this guided tour that will allow you to skip the line!
4. Blue Mosque. Another mosque that you need to see in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque. By marveling at this magnificent mosque, you may wonder why Hagia Sophia gets all the glory when this one is no less beautiful? Actually, by building it at the beginning of the 17th century Sultan Ahmet I had an intention to surpass the glory and beauty of Hagia Sophia. He built it opposite to Hagia Sophia and took staggering amounts of money from the treasury to erect it. There’s probably no point in arguing which place turned out to be more beautiful. It’s better to enjoy both of them!
5. Grand Bazaar. You visited a palace, an underground forest of marble columns with a giant cistern and two breathtaking mosques. And now it’s time to have some fun at the Grand Bazar! Being one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, it has 61 covered streets and more than 4,000 shops. It was even listed as the world’s top-visited tourist attraction in 2014! With a size like this, you shouldn’t expect to explore even 20% of the market if you’re in Istanbul only for a weekend. What you can do, though, is bargain with the sellers, buy a lamp, get a collection of soap, indulge in quality spices or purchase a small Turkish carpet to remind you about your trip.
6. Suleymaniye Mosque. If you think you have seen enough mosques for one day, you’re wrong. There’s one more architectural masterpiece before we let you go to finally have your evening tea and relax. The Süleymaniye Mosque was named after the Ottoman sultan Suleyman in the 16th century, and it’s designed to glorify the ruler. You will find a lot of old Ottoman timber houses on the streets around the mosque. They’re also worth seeing provided you still have the energy to explore.
7. Enjoy a Cup of Turkish Tea. When the walking is over and much anticipated evening coolness starts to take over the city, it’s the best time to have some signature Turkish tea. You can go to Beta Tea House, which is located not far from the Süleymaniye Mosque to do it. Tea is one of the fundamental Turkish social life elements, but it wasn’t always this way. You will be surprised to know that tea consumption started to spread in Turkey only in the 19th century. Today Turks are one of the most dedicated tea consumers in the world. An average Turk has 1,000 cups of tea per year. Turks drink tea even during the hottest days of summer. Treating yourself with traditional Turkish tea would be a great conclusion of your first day in Istanbul.
Weekend in Istanbul: Day 2
1. Breakfast at Ciragan Palace. It was a former Ottoman palace in the past, but it was turned into a five-star hotel in recent times. So, if you want to treat yourself like a Turkish royal, you can start your second day in Istanbul by having breakfast at Ciragan Palace.
2. Bosphorus Cruise. It’s a rule of thumb for us, that if we’re exploring the place that has a river or a water body, we take a cruise if it’s available. There are many Bosphorus Cruise options near the Ciragan Palace, so you can choose any cruise you like depending on your budget and preferences. If you want to combine cruise with entertainment, we recommend taking this 3-hour ride with full entertainment program, which even includes belly dancing.
3. Taksim Square. Taksim Square is the modern city center in Istanbul where you can take a walk on Istiklal pedestrian street, take a look the famous Independence Monument, take a ride on the old tram, see the Atatürk Cultural Center and then jump to the metro to get to the Mall of Istanbul.
4. Shopping at Mall of Istanbul. If you’re into shopping, then visiting the Mall of Istanbul is an absolute must. Being one of the most popular shopping centers in the city, it has won numerous awards.
Among others, it won the titles of ‘Most functional shopping center of Turkey’ and ‘The Best Shopping Center Development Project’. It has 5 buildings, 4 floors, and a staggering size of 350,000 square meters with 350 large and small stores. Aside from numerous shopping opportunities, it offers many options for recreation as it houses Europe’s largest indoor amusement park.
5. Asmali Mescit. After shopping, you can go to Asmali Mescit, which is a very lively street to visit in the evening. During this time of the day, it overflows with life, and it will be a fun experience to just sit in one of the local bars or restaurants and observe the local people. If you don’t plan to sleep, you can visit one of the many nightclubs in the area, because Asmali Mescit is known for its vibrant nightlife.
6. Evening Drink at 360 Istanbul. Having a drink and admiring the view on Galata Kulesi (a beautiful medieval stone tower in the Galata/Karaköy quarter of Istanbul) in one of the world’s best sky-high rooftop restaurants is an excellent way to finish your weekend in Istanbul. You may sit there and think, ‘why haven’t I opted-out for 5 days in Istanbul, instead of 2?’
Top 3 Cool Neighborhoods to Visit in Istanbul
If you have more than a weekend in Istanbul or want to turn away from the beaten tourist track, you can explore these 3 fascinating neighborhoods:
Balat – it’s one of the oldest and most attractive districts in Istanbul. Its atmosphere is so unique that once you step on the narrow streets of Balat, you will feel like you were transferred into another world. Once you’re there, make sure to explore the iconic colorful houses, feel the diverse history of Balat, and do some shopping and food-tasting.
Uskudar – it’s a district for those who want to turn away from touristic routes and see the city’s local culture. While in Uskudar we advise to see the traditional Kuzguncuk houses, learn the legend of Maiden’s Tower, see the ancient mosques, enjoy the breathtaking views from the Camlica Hill and relax in the green parks.
Besiktas – Besiktas is yet another exciting district that allows you to explore local culture better. You can visit the market district and bazar, go to the Dolmabahce Palace, attend art galleries or Turkish Naval Museum of Istanbul or hang out in Ortakoy (the main square) with a jacket potato. But above all, we recommend you to admire the 15 July Martyrs Bridge at sunset.
Top 5 Foods to Try in Istanbul
- Turkish Dumplings Manti. Manti is a tiny pastry filled with meat, boiled in water and served with a yogurt sauce. Even though making manti is a little bit laborious, it’s one of Turkey’s all-time favorite dishes. Manti can be served with different sauces which add new layers of deliciousness to already tasty dish.
- Baklava. If you have really been to Istanbul or Turkey and don’t know what Baklava is, people may get suspicious if you really been to Turkey. Baklava is a sweet dessert pastry made of many layers of filo held together with honey or syrup and filled with different chopped nuts. It’s popular not just in Turkey but also in Central Asia, the Middle East, Balkans, and South Caucasus. Baklava has a lot of fat, but it’s really delicious and crunchy! It’s an excellent option for gifts because it keeps even at room temperature for 5-7 days.
- Lahmajoun. Literally translated as “dough with meat”, lahmajoun is a round piece of dough topped with minced meat, vegetables, and spices. Think of it as about the Turkish pizza, because it really looks like one. In contrast with classic pizza, it doesn’t have cheese, and the crust is thinner.
- Salep: an Orchid Drink. It’s a hot creamy drink made with hot milk, sugar, and orchid bulb powder. It’s served with a cinnamon cover on the top. In fact, it’s the most popular hot drink in Turkey and a perfect beverage to keep you warm during winter. As for the taste and scent…you have to try it!
- Yogurtlu Kebab: Tomatoes, Herbs & Yogurt. Maybe you’ve tried the classic Turkish Kebab, but even if you did, you need to try the Yogurtlu Kebab as well. The combination of tastes and spices in this dish is exceptional.
Top Places to Stay in Istanbul
- Tulip City hotel Taksim – if you want to stay in Istanbul in style, this is a hotel for you. Being a design hotel, its rooms have modern Baroque furnishings, colorful lighting, air conditioning, minibar, and a flat-screen TV. You can also find spa facilities in the hotel. Its central location makes it a convenient place to stay if you only have a weekend to explore Istanbul.
- Soho House – this hotel features three buildings and the courtyard garden with a classy restaurant. The rooms are decorated in a contemporary style and have super king-size beds. They even serve complimentary homemade biscuits. Yum!
- Four Seasons – it’s located in the 19th century renovated Ottoman palace, so if you want to add a touch of history to your stay in Istanbul, this is an excellent option for you. Staying at Four Seasons, you can enjoy the outdoor pool and a garden with a spacious terrace where you can get an outstanding view of the Bosphorus.
- Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul – this one is also situated in the 19th-century Ottoman palace. This 5-star hotel will best fit those who love infinity pools because it offers one with the perfect views of Bosphorus. Rooms in the hotel have floor-to-ceiling windows, luxury bedding and a balcony where you can enjoy the splendid views of the gardens or the sea. The Bosphorus Grill Restaurant has a variety of Turkish cuisine to try. And of course, there is a spa with a Turkish hammam.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk once said: ‘On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, İstanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens.’ Even after visiting Istanbul for a short weekend, it will find a place in your heart too.