Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities. With over 15 million people, situated strategically at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, it’s been a central point of trade and travel for over 3,000 years. It’s the fourth-largest city in Europe, one of the top-ten most-visited cities on the planet, and the historical and economic center of Turkey.
An enormous city needs an equally large airport. The new Istanbul airport (IST; unofficially “Istanbul New Airport”) is on track to become the largest in the world with over 200 million passengers annually, dwarfing the current leader, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, with its minuscule 107 million.
Turkish Airlines, which flies to and from the new airport, has a new stopover program to encourage flyers passing through Istanbul to stay and see the city, free of charge. Yes, I said free. Turkish Airlines will pick up the tab on two nights in a five-star hotel for business-class travelers and one night in a four-star hotel for economy-class travelers. By way of the new program, I had 48 hours to see and eat everything I could in Istanbul.
Here’s what I found—and from my experience, how to enjoy 48 hours in Istanbul with help (and accommodations) from Turkish Airlines:
Morning, day 1
Explore Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square is the heart of old Istanbul. Around it are some of the city’s most compelling historical sites that must be seen by visitors with time. A part of the square is occupied by the remnants of the Hippodrome, part-circus, part-chariot-race-track, the center of social life for both Byzantine and Roman times at the time this massive coliseum-like structure stood tallest. With some 100,000 spectators cheering and betting on teams of chariots pulled by four horses each, it must have been spectacular. Still standing today is a segment of the Serpent Column, and the Obelisk of Theodosius, both of which adorned the racetrack.
On opposite ends of the square are the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, both of which I had the chance to step inside (the Blue Mosque is free while the Hagia Sophia charges an entrance fee). Visiting a mosque in Istanbul, especially such historically significant ones, is vital. The grandeur of the construction, all done to facilitate huge groups of worshipers gathering together, is truly awe-inspiring no matter your religious beliefs. You could spend hours exploring here.
Lunch, day 1
Eat meze for lunch at Karaköy Lokantası
Meze is a Turkish tradition consisting of multiple rounds of small plates of food. It’s by definition a gathering of people to eat, talk and drink wine or raki, the sweet, potent, anise-flavored liquor usually mixed with water and similar to ouzo. At Karaköy Lokantası in the hip and upcoming neighborhood of Beyoglu in Galata—across the Galata Bridge and thirty minutes walking or 15 via T1 tram from Sultanahmet Square—I was served meze dishes that were fresh and light and that highlighted local fish and produce: deep-fried cauliflower with thick-strained yogurt and dill, steamed celeriac root, stuffed grape leaves with rice and lamb, olives, marinated red beans, and lightly grilled fresh fish from the Bosphorus.
This restaurant just felt so good. Maybe it was the food, the buzz of conversation or the comforting glow from the blue tiles covering the walls—or maybe it was a combination of all the above.
Afternoon, day 1
Cruise the Bosphorus
A cruise along the famous Bosphorus River (aka the “strait of Istanbul”) is a fantastic way to get a feel for modern-day and historic Istanbul, from Sultan Mehmet’s Rumeli Fortress (built in 1453) to the Yalı wooden mansions, mosques and baroque palaces of the Ottoman sultans. The waterfront is the most highly sought-after real estate in Istanbul. It’s gorgeous. Small fishing boats negotiate the water with giant ocean-going tankers and somehow don’t collide.
Throughout the day, many passenger ferry boats cross from the European to the Asian side of the city, as do a plethora of reasonably priced tourist cruises. If you can swing it, having tea or drinks served aboard your own private yacht, at sundown, is the way to go. Sea Song, with which a private, 1.5-hour sail for up to 10 people runs $475, can help with that.
Dinner, day 1
Eat kebabs at Ali OcaKbasi
Located at the end of a dark, sketchy-looking alley, up a small vintage elevator to the fourth floor, this fabulous restaurant (location: Arap Cami, No: Kat 4, Kardeşim Sk. No:45) made all my kebab dreams finally come true. The smokey-umami aroma of grilling kebabs permeated the air as they were turned and charred over open flames. More flames leapt out of a stone tandoor oven as Turkish pita bread was deftly shoved inside by hairless arms otherwise immune to the intense heat. I arrived late at night. The place was lively and packed with locals, and the food was fantastic.
I had: Turkish white cheese with parsley and spring onion; chopped tomatoes with arugula, sumac, and chili powder; hand-ground minced lamb kebab with Anatolian spices; grilled marinated steak kebab; cubes of marinated chicken legs; and grilled tidbits of deboned lamb ribs. So savory, so satisfying and so much fun to wash it all down with ample glasses Yeni raki. This is the taste of Turkey.
Morning, day 2
Grab pastries at Koska
There are a few Koska pastry shops around Istanbul, each a good choice among the plethora of places to sample the array of pastries so important to Turkish cuisine. The one at Koska, Mimar Kemalettin, Ordu Cd. 25/A, is not too far from the Grand Bazaar, which makes it a good starting point for the day.
I’m a baklava lover but I never knew that many consider Istanbul its birthplace. When you look at the quality of Antep pistachios from Turkey, it all makes sense. Their bright green color and sweetness are intense. The baklava I had at Koska was incredible, with a depth of flavor I had not previously experienced. Layers of crunchy filo dough were filled with pistachio with hints of honey and butter that didn’t stick to my teeth. Perfect and addictive.
Order a selection of pastries, sit down in the attached cafe and a cup of strong, muddy Turkish coffee and I dare you not to eat them all. I did.
Late morning, day 2
Wander the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is a world in and of itself. Built in the second half of the 15th century, it’s the ultimate shopping experience. Think you’ve been to a big mall before? You haven’t seen anything until you come here.
Inside the Grand Bazaar are 61 stone-arch-covered streets and well over 4,000 shops. It’s visited by up to 400,000 people daily. You can find anything from gold to carpets, spices to electronics, antiques to modern-day knock-off clothing and local handicrafts plus endless options for amazing food. It’s crowded, exotic, hectic, and fascinating.
My advice is to snap a photo of the entrance you came in through (there are 22 gates all with metal detectors), leave at least a few hours just to follow what’s around the next corner, get lost, and love it. The merchants are in general very friendly and will gladly help you out with directions while they chat you up for a sale. Bring your bargaining skills.
Tip: If you’re up for it and have time, check out the Spice Bazaar (Turkish: Mısır Çarşısı) after. It’s under ten minutes walking from the Grand Bazaar.
Light lunch, day 2
Get coffee and light bites that matter at Deliler Kahvehanesi
Travel for me is about more than just a voracious romp through restaurants while checking off must-see places; it’s also about learning. A chance to live even temporarily in a different culture is a gift. If only for a short moment, it can open your eyes to the truth of the world.
The truth of Istanbul is that it’s not only a fascinating, thriving and historic city to visit, but also a city with profound political differences in a country that has absorbed over 3.5 million Syrian refugees and is facing serious economic challenges. There are victims. Some of them are the over 15,000 homeless people of Istanbul. Although the Turkish government does provide some assistance during the winter, it’s not enough. Ali Denizci is the driving force behind a volunteer organization that staffs this lovely little cafe. All proceeds are dispersed to the needy in the poorest sections of Istanbul. They do so much more, including operating a free, second-hand boutique, a general store and a soup kitchen that prepares over 1,000 meals a day for the hungry.
It’s a welcoming place where people from different economic realities rub shoulders. The food is excellent, the coffee is strong, the conversation is real, and your money will go to help those in need.
Early dinner, day 2
Indulge in the tasting menu at Isokyo
After a refresh in the hotel or maybe some additional exploring, it’s time for dinner. Located in the luxurious Raffles hotel in the Beşiktaş district on the European side of the city, Isokyo is helmed by Chef Minwoo Yun, who brings a Korean flare to Isokyo’s “Asian inspired European fusion cuisine.” These are highfalutin words to describe his personal take on locally sourced Turkish food with an Asian kick.
The restaurant is beautiful, with a Pan-Asian atmosphere, a secret champagne room and a happening bar. I tried his tasting menu, which was reasonably priced at 400 TL (about $68) for this level of haute cuisine. It consisted of ten spectacular dishes designed to delight both your eyes and palate.
Just a few examples: crispy tuna tartar sandwiches with avocado and tobiko (flying fish roe); tempura prawn tacos with pickled cabbage and soy aioli; bao bun sliders with pulled beef ribs, black pepper and Asian slaw; pan-fried gyoza dumplings with sake soy dressing; and my favorite, caramelized miso-glazed black cod. If you’re going to treat yourself, this is the place to do it.