The day starts early and evocatively in Turkey’s biggest city. At dawn, the amplified strains of the call to prayer issue from tapering minarets in every suburb. In historic Sultanahmet, where the Ottoman sultans sought to outdo each other with grandiose building programs, muezzins at each of the imperial mosque complexes give their vocal chords a vigorous morning workout, prompting the faithful to their prayers and hotel guests to their breakfast.
Turks take the first meal of the day seriously. Get into the local swing of things and load your breakfast plate with tangy sheep’s-milk cheese, plump olives, flavourful tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, home-made jam and freshly baked crusty white bread or simit (a sesame-encrusted bread ring).
Suitably fortified, join the morning commuter rush and head towards the bustling ferry docks at Eminönü. Three bodies of water met here: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Sea of Marmara. Among the crowd, iPods and designer sunglasses vie with headscarves and prayer beads as the accessory of choice – showcasing the diversity of the 13-million strong local population. Ferries, fishing boats, private launches and container ships jostle for space in these crowded waterways, presided over by flocks of screeching seagulls that supply another of the city’s signature sounds.
To get your city bearings, climb aboard a Turyol tourist ferry and take a 90-minute Bosphorus cruise. A fascinating historical narrative unfurls as you pass white marble palaces where the sultans and their harems lived, whimsical timber mansions that were the summer residences of the Ottoman nobility, and majestic stone fortresses that played important roles in the downfall of the mighty Byzantine Empire.
Returning to Eminönü it’s now time to hop from one continent to another. Fortunately, it only takes 30 minutes to cross from Europe to Asia and visit the ancient suburb of Kadıköy, known for its fresh produce market. Stalls scattered throughout a warren of streets opposite the ferry dock display everything from glistening fresh fish to artfully constructed pyramids of spices. Bars of olive-oil soap share counter space with piles of lokum (Turkish Delight) and slabs of amber-hued honeycomb, and the pungent aroma of farmhouse cheese competes with that of mint and oregano. In the midst of all this is one of Turkey’s most acclaimed eateries, Çiya Sofrasi (Güneşlibahçe Sokak 43). A casual place specialising in the food of southeastern Anatolia, it’s an ideal lunch destination.
After catching a ferry back to Eminönü, it’s time to explore the cobbled streets of the Old City. Opposite the ferry docks is the famous Spice Bazaar – walk straight through and then up to the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque, which crowns the third of the city’s seven hills. Commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent and built between 1550 and 1557, it is widely considered to be the most architecturally significant Ottoman building in Istanbul.
A short walk south around the walls of Istanbul University will bring you to another important complex commissioned by an Ottoman sultan – the Kapalı Çarşı (Covered Market), more commonly known as the Grand Bazaar. This labyrinthine and chaotic shopping mall dates back to the days of Mehmet the Conqueror and is home to more than 2000 stores, meaning that you’ll need at least two hours to explore it. For a coffee or tea break, head to Etham Tezçakar Kahveci in Halicilar Çarşı Sokak, where many of the bazaar’s most tempting stores are located.
At night, make your way to Beyoğlu, the heart of the modern city. Kick off with a cocktail at a glamorous rooftop bar – Mikla, X Bar and Leb-i Derya are three of the best – and then make your way to the streets around Sofyali and Nevizade Sokaks for dinner. Tempting options include Antiochia (Minare Sokak 21) and Zübeyir Ocakbaşı (Bekar Sokak 28). You’ll be able to enjoy excellent mezes (appetisers) and kebaps at both.
After your meal, kick onto one of the fashionable superclubs on the Bosphorus or wind down over a glass of tea and some apple-scented tobacco at one of the nargileh (waterpipe) cafés at Tophane, opposite the tram stop of the same name. This is where locals come to indulge in the particularly Turkish art of keyif (quiet relaxation) – something you’re bound to appreciate after a marvellous but hectic day’s exploration.
This article was updated in March 2012.