On rainy Sunday afternoons, you will more than likely find me sitting on my sofa with a glass of red wine and some vaguely interesting film playing in the background while I do some major travel research. I have had to confine myself to this period only to indulge in this activity, as I can find my weeks can become somewhat unproductive otherwise! A big chunk of this time is spent looking at travel deals and matching them up against “The List”, which is basically my spreadsheet of notes and links to hotels, tours, places etc. of travel experiences I would one day like to have. There is no better feeling than when I find a banging deal that incorporates somewhere on my list and more often than not, it’s booked rather promptly!
It was one of these afternoons on a bleak day in March that I spotted a brilliant deal for Six Senses Kaplankaya hotel near Bodrum, somewhere that had intrigued me for a while. The only reservation I had was the somewhat remote location, so I decided to reduce our stay to five days and spend the rest of the week balancing the quietness and serenity of Kaplankaya with the opposite and tag on two days in Istanbul.
Planning Two Days in Istanbul
As someone who likes to “do it all”, planning city breaks has never come particularly naturally to me and I have had a tendency to pack them so full that we leave more exhausted than when we arrived. Add in the general chaotic nature of cities, inevitable queues and my ever so slightly less than chilled nature and I end up in danger of quitting half way through and ordering a whole bottle of wine (to myself).
After a bit of a hiatus from city breaks following a particularly spectacular melt down in Bangkok (a story for another day), I decided I would take up the opposite strategy on my recent trip to Kraków in Poland and plan nothing. Guess what, that didn’t work so well either!
With our trip to Istanbul looming only six weeks later, I began my research into crafting the ultimate relaxed itinerary. My aim was to find a balance between taking the time we needed to see what we wanted to properly, without worrying about getting to the next place and dashing around the city at a hundred miles an hour. I also needed to incorporate lots of (planned) drinking wine with a great view, my most favourite activity ever!
Visas for Turkey
Why is getting a visa always such a drama?!! Well it is for me, I have managed to screw it up an embarrassing number of times; from full stop just forgetting to get them, applying for them so early that they expire before we arrive and even entering the wrong name (I had just got married and changed my surname, I really hope you find this a valid excuse, as I have persuaded myself it is).
Not one to break the habit of a lifetime, applying for my Turkish visa followed the same trend, although I have to say their customer service were excellent in responding to me, which is unusual for most countries, in my experience.
Well, to cut a long story short, somewhere during the process of my visa application the cost went up from $20 per person to $35. There are countless warnings reminding you to only go through the official Turkish e-visa website when applying for a visa to avoid being ripped off and worst case scenario, not ending up with a visa at all. As our UK government website and every article ever was advising not to continue if you aren’t being charged $20 as it was likely to be a scam, I was reluctant to complete the process. A week later our government website was updated with what turned out to be an official change, just three days before we went to Turkey! One of these days I am definitely going to be refused entry somewhere….
Just as another word of warning, you can no longer rock up to Turkey and purchase a visa on arrival, they must be applied for at least 48 hours before you arrive (and ideally further in advance).
Getting to Istanbul
As a year round destination, Istanbul is a lot easier to get to than Bodrum which is experiencing it’s off season in November. There are flights from most UK airports; Turkish Airlines offer the most routes, but they operate mainly out of London Gatwick, the journey to which is a special kind of hell for anyone based in the Midlands, such as myself.
I fly pretty much exclusively with British Airways for long haul and then tend to use low cost carriers that operate out of Birmingham or East Midlands airports for short haul, purely because I don’t appreciate the driving/parking palaver taking longer than the flight itself.
I’m not actually sure whether Istanbul counts as short haul or long haul, but I ended up booking with British Airways as they were by far the cheapest with return flights for £120 each (I booked in the sale) and the flight times were ideal.
Transfers from Istanbul Airport
There are two airports in Istanbul, the brand new shiny Istanbul airport (the one we used for all our flights) to the west of the city and Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen to the east. With reasonable traffic, the journey into the centre of the city is around 45 minutes from Istanbul airport (IST) and an hour from Sabiha Gökçen (SAW).
Unless I’m hiring a car (not sure you would find anybody recommending you try and do this in Istanbul), I generally always get a private transfer to and from airports. The last thing I want to be doing is trying to navigate the public transport system of a country I don’t know very well with luggage after a flight.
I booked with Welcome Pick-Ups, who were just brilliant. They very patiently worked around our flight that had been delayed for over two hours and were there waiting for us in the arrivals hall. Our driver was very friendly and took us on a three minute walk to a very comfortable luxury minibus cross 4×4 (I’m not great with identifying types of car…) complete with chilled water waiting for us inside. The cost was a very reasonable flat rate of £35 and the same again for the transfer back to the airport.
This isn’t the only reason why I think a private transfer is the best option in Istanbul; you can flag a taxi, however, refer to my note below on them not always being completely transparent with tourists. Also, you are completely beholden to the meter. The traffic in Istanbul can be absolutely horrendous and if you are lucky the journey may cost you as little as £25, hit traffic and you could shell out £60+.
Getting Around Istanbul
We have done this differently in every city we have travelled to, as I think the best method varies everywhere you go. In Kraków we didn’t need any transport as the city centre is so compact (I did have a go on the electric scooters though!) but in Muscat, we hired a driver and guide for the day as everywhere was so spread out.
Istanbul, however, has a great (and safe) public transport system. Now, that’s great and all, but if you cannot navigate it easily, it’s not a lot of good to you really is it?! I have many a time arrived somewhere with great intentions of using public transport and if it takes me too long to figure out, I hail a taxi pretty fast (patience isn’t one of my gifts in life either).
Enter Trafi Turkey, a perfect example of how incredibly helpful a well thought out app can be. Dead easy, you enter your start location (or just let the app find you) and where you want to end up and it gives you walking directions to the nearest stop, what tram/metro/ferry to take and what time it will arrive (based on how long it expects you to walk there) and then walking instructions from your drop off point to your final destination. Loved it.
To use and pay for public transport, get an Istanbulkart. It costs 6 TRY (which at time of writing, is a bank busting £0.81) from the yellow vending machines at every station. Using the same yellow machines, you will then need to top it up; virtually every one way ride on the bus, tram, metro, cable car, funicular or ferry will cost 2.60 TRY per person (around £0.35). Our lovely hotel, Witt Istanbul Suites, had kindly got one for us in advance and we just needed to top it up. We only needed one, scan, go through barrier and pass it back, very common practice. Honestly, when it’s that cheap and more importantly, that easy, why do anything else.
Not convinced I recommend taxis in Istanbul, everyone from our air hostess to the waiter at our restaurant said to stay away from hailing them. Apparently, they are notorious for trying to rip off tourists and with the traffic in Istanbul being very volatile and unpredictable, it just didn’t float my boat.
We did do a couple of Ubers though when my heels discouraged me from walking to the nearest stop and this worked fine.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
I’m a luxury hotel lover through and through, however generally my preference is to stay more in boutique style luxury hotels, rather than the huge complexes that are more common with the well known brands. I also think there is a stronger value benefit to going down the more boutique route in cities as they tend to have less amenities which you generally don’t need anyway on a city break, as you don’t spend as much time in your hotel.
There are two places I considered staying in Istanbul; one of them, Sultanahmet, is classed as the Old City and is where many of the Istanbul’s most well know sights are. However, it appeared to be a bit pricier (I suspect due to said close proximity) and my research seemed to suggest there isn’t so much to do in the evenings.
The newer side of the city, Beyoğlu, is the other side of the Galata Bridge. It has more of an edgier vibe and there are coffee shops, boutique stores, bars and restaurants galore.
Selecting where to stay is one of my favourites bits of planning a trip and my final choice was between 10 Karaköy and Witt Istanbul Suites, both in Beyoğlu. I went with the latter and it was an excellent choice, with superb design, massive rooms, Nespresso coffee (my hotel room must have), a rooftop bar with some epic views and a very helpful concierge.
Tips for Two Days in Istanbul
Istanbul is huge. You can easily get sucked into a trap of trying to visit sites that are at different ends of the city, or on the other continent (not many places you get to stay that!), my advice is to pick an area and stick to it. You will save so much time and energy by not spending a large portion of your short time travelling and I think it makes for a more pleasant experience.
Have a read of this guide about the best areas of Istanbul to help you decide where to focus on.
Day One: A Long Flight, A Beautiful Hotel & A Seafood Dinner
Our morning had gone seamlessly and courtesy of airline status with British Airways (you can reserve your seats for free at time of booking with silver membership on Club Europe flights), we were sitting comfortably in our exit row seats at our scheduled take off time of 09:30am. One of my top travel tricks had paid off and we had the row to ourselves; I had reserved the window and aisle seat in the hope that unless the flight was full, no would would choose a middle seat. So far, so good!
Stage One: A Long Flight
However, we were still attached to the jet bridge and continued to be for the next two hours. High winds followed by a passenger needing to disembark delayed us and it so happened that the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and England was on. Everyone was huddled around screens and every now and then loud yelling scared the life out of me as virtually everyone on the plane went into a deep depression (if you watched it/heard it/were not living under a rock in England or South Africa, you know why). By the time we were finally in the sky, everyone was desperate for a large drink!
The fantastic service by Welcome Pick-Ups perked us up considerably and they delivered us safely to our hotel up what must have been the world’s steepest hill (honestly, you should have seen me trying to walk up it the next day).
Stage Two: A Beautiful Hotel
We had been scheduled to have dinner at Sunset Grill & Bar, an outdoor restaurant with apparently stunning views over the Bosphorus River and among other things, a sushi menu to die for (I’m a total die hard sushi fan). However, with our reservation 10 minutes ago and a twenty minute taxi ride back in the direction we had just come from not high on my list of things to do at that moment in time, we decided to cancel. All in all, not in keeping with my relaxed itinerary plan at all!
A full review of Witt Istanbul Suites is on it’s way, but let me just say now, they were so great. Our receptionist was ready for us and appeared to immediately sense I needed wine, what an awesome guy! We had booked through one of my favourite travel booking sites, Mr & Mrs Smith so had the “Smith Extra” of a drink each and fruit basket in our room. Wine for me and beer for Danny made the check in experience rather pleasant!
He quickly cancelled our existing dinner reservation and based on my disappointment of missing out on a beautiful view and feeding my sushi obsession, he recommended a local restaurant that didn’t do sushi but did do excellent seafood, which I also happen to be quite partial to.
We had a an hour or so to relax before setting off for dinner, so we took our drinks and headed up to the quiet rooftop terrace on top of the hotel to sit and look at the amazing views across the Galata district on one side and the river on the other.
Stage Three: Dinner at Sur Balık Cihangir
Feeling much better about my life, we headed out through Beyoğlu which was full of sparkling lights, cafés with sprawling outdoor terraces and lots and lots of cats! One of the things I loved about Istanbul was that these cats are clearly well cared for by the community; they’re lean but not starving, courtesy of the countless bowls of cat food I saw left outside of almost every shop and restaurant, little cat kennels on street corners and the fact they are mostly very friendly.
Sur Balık Cihangir is a very lively restaurant spread over two floors, one smoking and one non. With tables overlooking Istanbul on all sides and “foldable glass windows” (not sure how else to describe this!) to keep you warm but still enjoy the view, the setting was just perfect.
The waiter was more than happy to recommend a couple of traditional Turkish starters and then take us over to the counter where you can choose which fish you want cooked for you and how. Simple is often best and guess what, it was excellent.
Day Two: Exploring Sultanahmet
Istanbul gives us visitors a lovely gift in the form of packing in most of their most classic sights in Sultanahmet into a nice neat square mile.
We had planned to take the tram from our hotel in Beyoğlu to Sultanahmet, which is only a few minutes walk away from the Aya Sofia. However we hadn’t banked on the Istanbul Marathon taking place, which meant crossing the road to get to the tram stop was a bit challenging! We ended up walking to Sultanahmet via the Galata Bridge alongside the marathon route which was really enjoyable, there was a great atmosphere, a gentle breeze and some beautiful views across the water from the bridge.
We were a bit disappointed that our one full day in Istanbul had fallen on a Sunday, which meant that the famous Grand Bazaar was closed. We wandered through the nearby Spice Bazaar instead which was a lot smaller and I suspect less frenetic and easier to navigate. Here they sold beautiful silk scarves, traditional Turkish delight and countless teas, spices and desserts, it smelt just heavenly. I (for once in my life) refrained as I am awful for buying herbs and spices almost everywhere we go (my family bring them back from their travels as well) and my cupboards are stocked to the brim with all manner of lovely treats from Sri Lanka, Oman and Morocco.
The area was generally just great for a walk around, the dessert shops were amazing with huge glass windows and every sort of delectable dessert you could think of in lots of different colours. I am not a huge fan of Turkish delight but love baklava, which I had plenty of during our trip.
Oh, the Aya Sophia (which it is also known as), what a beautiful building. Built in AD 537, it originally served as a Greek Orthodox Church, then converted into a mosque in 1453 and finally opened as a museum in 1935. With huge domed ceilings and intricate mosaics laced with gold, it’s just an amazing piece of art to look at. Head up to the second floor for superb views of the nearby Blue Mosque from the windows lining one side.
Be aware that there is a quite a significant restoration operation going on here and a very large scaffolding construction along one side. Danny was more impressed with this than anything else in the Hagia Sophia (trust me, this is not a reflection on the museum itself), apparently it is the most impressive scaffolding construction he has ever seen….I really don’t know what to say about that….
The Hagia Sophia opens at 09:00 and I would recommend you get here as close to then as possible, bearing in mind we were there for just after that time, it was off season and still fairly busy. If you book skip the queue tickets, you can head straight to security before entering.
The Blue Mosque
Exit the Hagia Sophia and cross Sultanahmet Square to the Blue Mosque, a few minutes walk away.
Technically called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it is known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles surrounding the interior, however there is also a distinctly bluish hue to the exterior as well.
Commissioned by Sultan Ahmed, the mosque completed construction in just seven years, opening in 1616. With six minarets (mosques usually have four or less) and 260 stained glass windows, it has been declared as one of Turkey’s most beautiful mosques.
Being an active mosque, it is closed for 90 minutes at each of the five daily prayer times. Visitors are welcome outside of these times but mosque etiquette is to be observed for all. Wear long trousers or a skirt and cover your shoulders, ladies, you need to do the same for your hair as well. Be aware that visitor numbers are also heavily restricted to preserve the sanctity of the mosque, which is first and foremost, a religious venue.
Now as we admired the lovely Blue Mosque from the outside, we noticed it appeared to be very busy to one side; a little wander and we discovered what appeared to be the finishing point of the marathon and a lot of people. We couldn’t distinguish between who was there for the marathon and who was queuing for the mosque, so in the spirit of our new relaxed itinerary approach to our two days in Istanbul, we decided to give the chaos a miss and head for a walk along the Bosphorus.
Walk Along the Bosphorus
Guess what, we were on the marathon route again! A blessing in disguise though as it meant there was no traffic on what I imagine would have been a very busy road had it not been closed.
This was one of my favourite bits of our two days in Istanbul; we wandered along in the sunshine, a gentle breeze and beautiful views across the river. To add to the experience, a school of dolphins swam past us very close to shore, the first time I have ever seen them “accidentally”!
We walked parallel to Topkapı Palace and admired it from the outside, again, a few too many crowds for me so we opted not to go inside. I was actually very much enjoying my new relaxed itinerary!
Topkapı Palace was built in the 15th century and served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. The palace and it’s grounds are huge, so if you want to have a proper look round you will need to allow yourself at least a few hours. Some of the things to see include mosques, several museums containing various artefacts from the Ottoman dynasty, the harem, various courtyards and some very beautiful gardens.
Lunch at Hamdi & a Walk in Karaköy
We stopped for lunch at Hamdi, a traditional Turkish restaurant with a rooftop to dine on, so I was of course, right there. They were very kindly able to get us a table at the edge, which had the most lovely unobstructed views of Galata Bridge, New Mosque and the Bosphorus.
The food was delicious and Danny was ecstatic that he could get a kebab (although not quite the kind of one he usually has!), Turkish is definitely his kind of food.
We were so relaxed (!!) at this point that we decided to walk back across the Galata Bridge to our hotel and have a quick power nap before beginning our evening.
Our route took us back through the Karaköy district of Beyoğlu. It is a really vibrant neighbourhood with some excellent boutiques run by young Turkish designers, contemporary art galleries and all manner of shops selling local delicacies (read: baklava heaven). If you love street art, definitely comes here, there is tons of it.
Cocktails at 360 Istanbul
Feeling very refreshed and ready for an evening of cocktails and sunsets, we headed to 360 Istanbul, a bar and restaurant that was guess what…. on a rooftop! I told you, I’m a sucker for a view from the sky and 360 was supposed to have some of the best across the city.
There is something about Istanbul that gives it a pinkish hue in the early morning and late evening and 360 most definitely didn’t disappoint on the view front, truly stunning. However, we didn’t stay long as unfortunately our drinks did not match the view, we ordered a couple of of cocktails that tasted like juice. Very nice juice mind you, but say what you will, I wanted a proper cocktail!
Dinner at Vogue
We decided to call it after just one drink and booked an Uber to our next destination, Vogue. On yet another rooftop (I’m really sorry if you don’t like rooftops, you may have figured out by now that this probably isn’t the read for you!), this restaurant is also supposed to have fantastic view AND…… SUSHI!!! Wine, rooftop, sushi equals total bliss.
While I love trying the local food when I travel and always do so, I will always seek out the best sushi in the city to try as well.
However, first, we need to get there; our Uber driver dropped us off and we were a tad confused, it appeared to be an office block. Hmmm, not the night I was expecting. A small sign assured us, however, that we were in the right place and security directed us to an elevator to one side.
Well, when those elevator doors opened, we weren’t in an office block anymore! Vogue is beautiful and I don’t think the photos on their website even begin to do the views justice. Watching the sunset with a glass of wine was just a great way to end our day in Istanbul.
Day 3: A Leisurely Breakfast and Airport Transfer
After a bit of a late night (to be clear, 11pm is late for me), we treated ourselves to a lie in (until 8am, someone told me this doesn’t count as a lie in though!) before another superb Turkish breakfast at our hotel.
We had booked our return transfers with Welcome Pick-Ups again, who texted to say the traffic was particularly bad this Monday morning and they would be a bit late. Luckily, the one bit of the itinerary Danny controls is airport departure times, as I have a tendency to run it to the wire and it’s one of the few things that stresses him out (this may have worked out in my favour a couple of times, shhh, don’t tell him).
With the same very spacious vehicle we had last time, our very apologetic driver turned up only 15 minutes late in the end and as soon as we got back on the road, we saw how it had taken him so long to get to us, it wasn’t pretty!
I relaxed and read my kindle, Danny started looking tense and tapping his feet. Fortunately, as we were only setting off three and a half hours before our domestic flight that had cost all of £20 with Turkish Airlines (including checked luggage!!), I really wasn’t too worried!
Two Days in Istanbul: Final Thoughts
Honestly, I will never stop doing city breaks, but I am generally always ready to leave when the time comes to move on, I’m definitely not a city girl at heart! However, two days in Istanbul wasn’t quite long enough and we could have easily doubled our time there. I really enjoyed everything about the city; it was easy to navigate, the weather was absolutely perfect for exploring a city and it wasn’t crushingly busy, I suspect because it was off season. I was quite surprised just how much of a difference the last point makes, it really helped my plan of a relaxed trip.
My new itinerary structure definitely helped as well, I liked taking things at a slower pace and taking the time to absorb being in a new place…..interspersed with a couple of glasses of wine of course! For those of us that love travelling, there can be this overwhelming desire to pack in as much in as possible and for me, I’m starting to realise this doesn’t always work out for the best.
Have you been to Istanbul? What do you think of doing more laid back itineraries?