SHARP Travels: 24 Busy Hours in Istanbul

From the Editors — Shrouded in mystery, equal parts inspired and misled by the presentation of the Turkish metropolis in Western cinema. Yes, there are spice markets and mosques galore, but even with a single day’s layover the city has so much more to offer. Once again, we turn to the experts for a lightning-fast look at the City of the World’s Desire.

Why do so many iodine-stained faces and bandaged skulls haunt the streets of central Istanbul? Have their minds been blown from the inside? The confluence of seas, histories, foods, cultures, languages, and ages of architecture on display in Istanbul figuratively and literally bridge the eastern and western worlds.

You’d be tempted to call this the Medieval New York as a headline, but Istanbul’s been welcoming strivers from all over the world for hundreds and hundreds more years. And still is. (Moreover, unlike New York, Istanbul’s public transit is funded and functional.) You could spend a lifetime touring here and just scratch the surface. But if you only had one day, we humbly suggest comfortable shoes, some water, and the following.

Spend the Morning at a Famous Mosque

8:30am: Entrance to the 1,500-year old Hagia Sophia mosque, a former church and one of the most important structures in civilization, is free(!) from 9am. So arrive early and get in the surprisingly orderly line. The mosque is vast and the line will disappear inside in minutes. For now, though, you won’t be bored.

The line snakes around a massive public square where pop-up coffee stands and roasted chestnut vendors abound to caffeinate you and quell your rumbling stomach. So, you don’t need that tour guide who’ll queue for you an hour earlier, then recite the top 10 facts you’ll find about the Hagia Sophia on Wikipedia. Use the time to sample Turkish coffee — good luck sleeping tonight — and boning up on your surroundings, which you’ll wander briefly on the way to destination #2. (Save your appetite for a massive lunch this afternoon.)

Haga Sophia
Hagia Sophia

For a thousand years after the supposed Fall of Rome, Constantinople’s citizens called themselves Romans, though they spoke Greek. Here, in line, you’re just metres away from an 1,800-year old Roman hippodrome (chariot racecourse) and Egyptian obelisk from 1,700 years before that.

Inside, you’re immediately as insignificant as a grain of sand. Remnants of Christian saints and crosses are still detectible on the walls, decorated with Islamic branding … but the dome literally dominates like a glorious midnight firmament. Mind already blown but the clock’s ticking! Get your comfortable footwear back on from this massive mosque’s shoe-check station.

10:30am: Just 200m away, present your timed ticket (purchased online yesterday) to enter and descend into the Basilica Cistern. Have you ever paid to see a drained reservoir? We hadn’t, either. But few underground manmade lakes of 80,000 cubic metres were assembled with leftovers from ancient Roman construction projects.

366 thirty-foot columns with assorted Corinthian, Doric and Ionic capitals support the roof, while a few monstrous Medusa heads anchor the whole show. Speaking of which, the presentation of this Orcish chamber is a show unto itself. Cleverly hidden coloured spotlights change hue and location every few minutes, highlighting different aspects, and turning even the shyest photographers into would-be influencers. Mind re-blown. How did they fill this cavern? Read on.

Afternoon of Architecture

Aqueduct of Valens
Aqueduct of Valens

Noon: A walk of maybe 30 minutes through streets of cluttered shops spilling their goods 360 degrees leads to the Aqueduct of Valens, a glaring reminder that this city dating back to the 7th century BCE was relaunched on a world-class scale by the Romans in the 4th century. The aqueduct is so big, a 6-lane boulevard road runs between the arches at its base. So it’s also free to visit the same way the Eiffel Tower is free to observe from anywhere in Paris. Indeed, you’ll need a half hour to wander around and see this Brobdingnagian stone hose from different angles. Mind re-re-blown.

After all this history, maybe you’d like to stop for a refreshing beer. Too bad. Despite its proximity to the touristy centre of town, the cluster of restaurants flanking the aqueduct — our favourite had a goat lashed in front — are alcohol free. When I cleverly pronounced the Turkish for beer (“beer-ah”) they pointed back the way we came.

View of the Galata Bridge
Galata Bridge

1pm: The double-decker Galata Bridge spans the old town and Galata quarter. Hundreds of fishers from the overhanging upper level skillfully don’t incise the riverside diners on the many shaded but open-air seafood restaurants below.

If you fancy something less touristy, you can cross the bridge and wander into the funkily restored Karaköy neighbourhood for modern designer burgers, pastas and tacos. But you simply can’t beat the view from the bridge. The wine is good and cheap — and you can be confident the fish is fresh.

Istanbul skyline shows Galata Tower popping out above the skyline
Galata Tower

2:30pm: You could walk back to the old town if you need to see the Harem room in the Topkapi Palace. It’s far less salacious than the name suggests, though the decoration is noteworthy. Still, you’ll also see wonderfully tiled walls at a traditional steam bath too. We’re foregoing both experiences today for a climb up the Galata Tower. (Have you ever been in a steam bath? Yes. Have you stood atop a medieval tower with a sprawling, rolling view of two continents and two millennia of architecture?) Enjoy the view.

3:30pm: If you’re getting exhausted with all the history, nearby hilltop Taksim is a mesh of swish shops and boutiques. If you’re lucky, you might find space on the 100-year old-timey tram. It’s the only aging public transit you’ll see today in Istanbul. Clean subways, slick four-car, new-timey trams with dedicated lanes, subterranean funiculars, even cable cars connecting hilltops all do their part well to bust the hellish traffic — and as we already said: they work! (Hopefully, this morning, you bought a day’s complete pass from one of the thousands of Istanbul-Kart kiosks with their clear multi-lingual instructions. They work on all public transit and even include access to some museums.)

Red cable cars zip down the streets of Istanbul
Transit in Istanbul

4pm: Oh, and included in your day transit pass, there are public ferries bearing you across the Bosphorus at a fraction of the price of the tourist boats. Ride like a local. If you miss the heady jangly music and soporific voiceover with tales of knights, slave auctions, and sultans, download a Rick Steves app.

5:30pm: The central ferries terminate near the Grand Bazaar. Go. You still have time to get lost. You won’t be prepared for the sensory overload — mind blown again! — but will get used to saying no thanks because some of these sales guys are beyond pushy. And their English is excellent. Embrace the chaos but be warned: bazaar is a maze and at 6:30pm they start turning the lights off. It closes at 7pm.

Evening Relaxation by the Bosphorus River

Mosque stretches out to overlook the Bosphorus River in Istanbul
Bosphorus River

7:30pm: Just a few stories up, the rooftop bar of our hotel provides a magnificent view of the Sultanahmetor Blue Mosque, which is bigger than the Hagia Sofia but also much newer … and currently under renovation – aka not welcoming sightseers. So this smashing sunset will have to do.

9pm: Here in the heart of the old town, there’s a spaghetti of streets with restaurants featuring heated outdoor patios, happy to welcome frost-bitten Canadians who love a meal al fresco. We settle down for a feast spread over a couple of hours. The food and wine are delicious, cheap and plentiful, with flavours and textures coming at you from all over.

Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Blue Mosque

A gaggle of boisterous Russians are soaking this all up too. Russians have visited and done business here for hundreds of years. Why should 2023 be different? Two have clearly been using their vacation time to get discount nose jobs. The bruising and legacy iodine stains aren’t enough to make them want to stay inside while their friends get noisy.

See above re: bandaged skulls. Do yourself a favour and do not search “hair replacement / rhinoplasty / dental treatments in Turkey”. You can’t help but stare. They stare back across the patio, then one smiles. We all tipsily salute each across the patio with raised glasses, “Cheers!”

A pity we have to leave for the airport at 6am. At least we’ll beat the traffic.