Istanbul in less than a day

Story and photos by Therese Margolis

Any trip to Turkey will generally include at least a brief stopover in Istanbul, with its sprawling, pungent bazaars, imposing fortresses and opulent palaces, and while there are thousands of astonishing places to visit in this ancient city, a quintessential whirlwind tour should entail four essentials.

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The first is the obligatory day cruise along the pristine waters of the Bosphorus, the 19-mile strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

This is where Europe and Asia meet, and where the great city proudly shows off the monuments of its 17th century history with its multicultural and multiethnic heritage.

The spectacular waterfront is crowned marble palaces to the Byzantine era, ancient wooden villas from the Ottoman Empire and modern luxury condominiums.

A roundtrip 60-minute cruise (the abbreviated option, because traditional cruises run about two hours) leaving from Emintönü ferry dock at the southern end of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn will run you about $15 and is a great place to start your lightning tour as it will give you a chance to get your bearings before heading off to the Sultanahmet district, which is the heart of the old city.

A short cab ride away (depending on the time of day, short can be a relative term because Istanbul in midday is a traffic nightmare) is Sultanahmet, with some of the city’s most unforgettable attractions.

Topping the list of must-sees in Sultanahmet (and for that matter, Istanbul) is Hagia Sophia, a spiraling edifice built by Emperor Justinian which started out 1,500 years ago as a Greek Orthodox basilica, was transformed into a imperial mosque during the Ottoman era and has served as a museum since 1935.

Originally dedicated to the Logos (Wisdom of God), Hagia Sophia is a emblemic monument to the wisdom of the Turkish people to adapt and assimilate different cultures without demolishing those that came before them.

This breathtaking masterpiece of Byzantine architecture centers around an 18- story-high dome adorned with thousands of golden tiles.

Across from Hagia Sophia is the incomparable Blue Mosque, built in 1609 by Sultan Ahmet Camii.

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The interior of the mosque glitters with 20,000 turquoise blue İznik tiles and nearly 300 stained glass window in its main dome.

On the exterior of the mosque, there are six gracefully slender minarets and eight secondary domes.

Before wrapping up your cyclonic tour of Istanbul, head west to the Grand Bazaar, a massive (but surprisingly orderly) shopping complex built by Mehmet II in 1461.

It’s a brisk 15-minute walk away to this covered market with more than 3,000 shops willing to sell you high-end knockoffs of practically every known designer, as well as fine leather goods and chinchilla jackets.

Most of the vendors are out to make a deal, come hell or high water, and can rattle away their sales spiel in more than 20 languages to suit their international clientele.

This is a place to hone your haggling skills, but a little Grand Bazaar goes a long way since the constant babble of “I-have-the-best-prices-and-merchandise” can be dizzying.

Before wrapping up your tour of Istanbul, take time out to enjoy a traditional tea and Turkish delight candy at a local teahouse and to soak in the cosmopolitan charm of the only city on Earth that straddles two continents.

Staying there:

If you are lucky enough to spend a night or more in Istanbul, you will find a wide variety of hotel options, ranging from the newly opened ultra-luxury St. Regis to the much more affordable Armada in the old city.

Here’s a few great options:

  • St. Regis – The epitome of bespoke luxury and elegance, this stately hotel in the upscale Nişantaşı district was opened just six months ago. It is, by far, the classiest address in Turkey with luxury suites, a Michelin-starred Wolfgang Puck rooftop restaurant and the most spectacular view of the city you will find. (www.stregis.com/istanbul)
  • Point Taksim Hotel – Located in the heart of the bustling Taksim neighborhood, this hotel has a great view of the Bosphorus (as long as you are on the third floor or higher), an exceptional restaurant and extremely attentive service. It is not nearly as elegant as the St. Regis, but a lot more affordable for the budget-conscious traveler. (www.pointhotel.com)
  • Armada Old City Hotel – As the name suggests, this inn is smack dab in the middle of the old city and a hop, skip and jump to the main attractions in the Sultanahmet district. The service is good and there is a restaurant with the basics. The prices are budget-friendly, although you may have to compromise on room size.

Therese Margolis is the editor of the Global Village features section of The News, a major daily newspaper in Mexico City.

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