Can you spend three days in Istanbul and see it? Sure, the way you can “see” Paris in three days …. Having been exactly once, I think a week is the ideal time for an Istanbul newbie – you can see the so-called top sites, but also some of the cooler sites and spend some time actually enjoying the city, by dining on the Bosphorus Strait, trying an upscale hammam or hiking around the hills of Beyoglu.
Here’s my top-five in a nutshell:
Must do: Dining on the Bosphorus. I guess a view really matters. Watch the ships go by and lose yourself in the sun and breeze. Oh, and the seafood is terrific.
Must see: If you can only see one site, then Aya Sophia. It’s not St. Peter’s but it’s pretty cool, and the layers of history (and religion) make it that much more fascinating.
Off the beaten path: Basilica Cisterns, but G says that’s not “off the beaten path.” Otherwise, I would say Rumeli Hasari, the fort Mehmet (the Conqueror) built at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus (about 700 meters across) to stage the conquest of Istanbul. The site is easy to get to, and surprisingly uncrowded. You can hike the walls or sit on a bench overlooking the Bosphorus …
Runner up goes to Fener, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in the Old City, still a practicing church today, judging by the robed priests going in and out.
Try it: Raki. Mostly for the priceless look on the servers’ faces when you ask if they have raki. It tastes of anise, and yes, despite the warnings, add ice and water, otherwise it will be really harsh. I can’t believe people drink more than one glass and can still stand.
Skip it: Taxis, says G. The public transit system is surprisingly good. The tram is great, and the commuter ferry to Asia or other destinations is terrific. Best of all, the plastic subway tokens, a nice throwback.
I say skip the Grand Bazaar. I love to shop, but if you’ve been to one market, you’ve been to them all. For all the hype, the Grand Bazaar is no different from the “fake” market at Shanghai or any other large, developing world city. Same product in stall after stall, with sharp shopkeepers hassling you and sizing you up. No thank you.
If you have a week … well, stay tuned for the recs!