Travel

Weekend in Istanbul: Our guide to the best things to do

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Alessia Armenise
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Tucked between Asia and Europe (literally), Istanbul is a city that will surprise you, embrace you and excite your senses. 

Istanbul is a city of two halves. One side is full of Ottoman art and countless shops; the other is a buzzing neighbourhood full of street art and shisha smoke.

If you decide to stay a week - and you are adventurous enough - the Bosphorus River hides three incredible islands. Some may even say it’s residential oasis where you can pretend to be a local, far away from the crowds of tourists cluttering the Sultanahmet district.

If Istanbul is usually overlooked for more mainstream destinations like Lisbon, Croatia or even Paris - then this year it’s  time to go to Turkey. With Pegasus airlines flying (affordably) from London Stansted to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen every day, you really have no excuses. Delicious food, incredible architecture and the nicest people around – Istanbul will welcome you in every way possible. 

Best places to stay in Istanbul

The best hotels for a cosy stay in Istanbul.

W Istanbul 

Young and fresh, the hotel is located in Beşiktaş, next to the river – one of Istanbul’s more modern and lively neighbourhoods. The W is the perfect spot to enjoy the buzzing Istanbul nightlife and the hotel itself is a hotspot when it comes to partying – you won’t even need to call a taxi, just go back to your room. Hungover? The W has got your back with a breakfast that looks more like a feast – it will reinvigorate you even after the wildest of the parties. An incredible variety of Turkish traditional food, from delicious cheese to elaborate desserts to sweeten your mornings. Don’t forget to ask the lovely staff for help during your stay – W Insiders will follow you pre-arrival, create a personalised itinerary and help you navigate the city like a local.

Book here: W Istanbul

10 Karakoy 

This architectural stunner must be your first choice if you are on the hunt for a cosy, but practical stay. The 10 Karaköy is a fabulous home away from home. Situated in a perfect location on the European side - just next to the river - the hotel is the perfect base to visit every inch of Istanbul. You can easily reach the modern town, full of shops and eateries, and the charming Galata district by foot. The Asian side is only 20 minutes away by ferry and the tram will take you straight to the Bazaar and Sultanahmet district, home of famous attractions like the Blue Mosque. The bonus point? The jaw-dropping view of the city from the rooftop terrace - a definite must-see.

Book here: 10 Karaköy

A’jia Hotel

A jewel located on the shore of the Bosphorus river, this time on the Asian side of the city, A’jia Hotel is a traditional Ottoman mansion. A charming boutique hotel that counts only 15 rooms, A’jia is perfect for a private and quiet stay, far away from the busy city centre. All rooms – each one uniquely designed – can enjoy an incredible view of the Bosphorus river. And crossing the river couldn’t be easier. The hotel offers a complimentary boat shuttle that takes guests over to the European side – a ride that is an experience in itself.

Book here: A’jia Hotel

Çırağan Palace Kempinski

An incredible resort in the middle of the city, Çırağan Palace Kempinski is worthy of a royal stay. Located in Beşiktaş, just in front of the river, on the European side – staying at Çırağan Palace Kempinski means enjoying a jaw-dropping view on the Asian Istanbul, from the hotel’s gorgeous pool. If you can’t stay for the night, make sure you don’t miss the brunch. Surrounded by palm trees and the beauty of the city, Turkish food will taste even more delicious.

Book here: Çırağan Palace Kempinski  

Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus

Inside and outside pools, tennis courts, a Turkish hammam and a stunning view of the city skyline from the 15th floor Summit Bar and Terrace – the Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus has got all your longings covered. Situated in the lively Beşiktaş area, the hotel is an oasis in the middle of the busy city. To make your stay even more memorable, Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus has launched ‘Luxury Experience’ – a private tour through the contemporary art museums of Istanbul to discover the many gems hidden everywhere around town. The icing on the cake? The tour finishes with a Turkish bath in the dreamy Conrad Istanbul’s spa…

Book here: Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus

Best places to eat in Istanbul

The best restaurant to try the most delicious Turkish food.

Ulus 29

Located on a hilltop in the neighbourhood of Ulus, 29 is the perfect spot to get away from the tourist crowd. The restaurant’s terrace overlooks the river, offering a jaw-dropping view of the Asian Istanbul. Delicious food and a great wine selection for the day, 29 transforms itself in a lavish club at night. There is no better place to spend your evenings.

Discover here: Ulus 29

Balikci Emin Usta

Emin is a real celebrity around town, and not just because he looks exactly like a real-life Super Mario. In his little restaurant, Balikci, Emin makes the best fish kebab you will ever taste. If good food isn’t enough to convince you to pay him a visit, Balikci is located on the river bank, facing the Asian side of town and features an incredible view of the river. The most romantic kebab of your life.

Discover here: Balikci Emin Usta

Güllüoğlu

For the best baklava in town, head to Güllüoğlu. There are a couple of different shops in Istanbul but the one in Karaköy, is where you want to go. A real institution in Istanbul, their exquisite baklavas and Turkish delights are a delicacy that you definitely can’t miss. The good news? The even have a shop in London…

Discover here: Güllüoğlu

Viktor Levi

Viktor Levi is an elegant wine bar located in Moda, a young and fashionable district on the Asian side of the river. Reasonable prices for delicious food and wines, this place is loved by the locals and still a well-kept secret from the tourists. The perfect place to spend one of the mild Istanbul’s summer nights, sipping on local wine and trying all the delicious cheeses Turkey has to offer – all of it under the stars, in the restaurant’s gorgeous flowery garden.

Discover here: Viktor Levi

Double Meze Bar

You can’t go to Istanbul without trying a meze dinner. A bit like the Spanish tapas, meze are essentially small, shareable plates to enjoy with friends. Head to Double Meze Bar if you are searching for a cool place to spend an evening eating delicious food and sipping cocktails overlooking a stunning view of the city.

Discover here: Double Meze Bar

Best things to do in Istanbul

The best things to do to navigate Istanbul like a local.

Relax in a real Turkish Hamam

Turkish baths are one of the most famous attractions in Istanbul (and the rest of the country), and for good reason. Relaxing is not enough to describe this magical experience – that’s why you must choose your hamam well. In 300 years, Cağaloğlu Hamamı welcomed thousands of visitors into its white marble temple of wellness. Indulge in an afternoon of complete self-care and let the expert hands of the masseuses free you of your tensions. Sauna, scrub, bubble massage and a delicious ‘Turkish afternoon tea’ are waiting for you, just a short flight away.

Discover here: Cağaloğlu Hamamı

Smoke some shisha with the locals

Even if you are not a smoker, shisha is an experience that should be on your list while in Turkey. Head to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, to Boss Kitchen where you can enjoy your shisha while sipping on a traditional Turkish tea, under Istanbul’s starry summer nights. Forget the pub, this is what after work looks like in Turkey.

Discover here: Boss Kitchen

Get a real Turkish souvenir

Once in Turkey, don’t only stuff your bag with kilos of baklavas and Turkish delights to distribute at home. If you are searching for a gift for yourself to remember the Ottoman city, head to Beyoğlu. In a small passage, between tea houses, you’ll find Levan. This small jewellery boutique is full of precious handmade objects that the owners source from all around Turkey. A real artwork to wear every day – and a small keepsake from a memorable holiday.

Discover here: Levan

Find the best Kebab in town

Turkish cuisine is nothing short of delicious, including the kebab. If this speciality – now found in every street corner all over Europe – may have earned the infamous title of ‘the food of the drunks’, but this is definitely not the case in Turkey. Join a group of Kebab aficionados in a crawl (or a mission?) to find the best meat sandwich in Istanbul. 

Discover here: Kebab Krawl 

Explore the Bosphorus River

The river is the real heart of Istanbul. A waterbed between east and west, the Bosphorus deserves to be explored. Jump on a cruise for a day to uncover Istanbul’s hidden gems. The European and Asian sides of the city are just the tip of the iceberg: Istanbul is full of islands, secluded marvels and adorable villages to discover.

Discover here: Bosphorus Strait and Black Sea Day Cruise from Istanbul

Best things to see in Istanbul

There are plenty of things to see in the Turkish city – this is our curated guide to the places you must visit in Istanbul. 

Aya Sofya

The extraordinary beauty of the structure makes Aya Sofya one of the most visited landmarks in Istanbul but is its story that makes it so important. First built as a church by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it was later converted into a mosque and finally into a museum in 1935. This monument in itself summarises the great history of the city and will leave you wanting to know more – carrying a Lonely Planet guide with you to understand the grandeur behind every mosaic, naves and chandeliers might be a good idea. 

Topkapı Palace

The Topkapı Palace is a majestic construction in the heart of the European district, so visiting it requires multiple hours. Through blue and white tiled walls, gardens and a marble terrace overlooking the Bosphorus river, you will be immersed in the lives of the Sultans that lived there with their concubines for hundreds of years. An escape into the lavishness of Ottoman architecture that you didn’t know you needed.  

Galata Tower

Situated in the busy district of Galata, surrounded by souvenir shops, chestnut and corn sellers and crowds of tourists, Galata Tower stands tall as one of the best spots to get an amazing view of the city. The queue can be long but the balcony on the very top of the tower offers a 360-degrees view of Istanbul – definitely worth the wait. 

Blue Mosque

Probably the most famous tourist attraction in Turkey, the Blue Mosque is on many traveller’s bucket lists. Located in the Sultanahmet district, just next to the Aya Sofya and the Topkapı Palace, this landmark is a must-see when in Istanbul, but be prepared: the queue is long and the dress code is very strict in this place of worship. When visiting the Mosque make sure your legs and shoulders are covered and take your own pashmina to cover your head if you don’t want to be handed a reusable one at the entrance. 

Dolmabahçe Palace

The palace is situated on the shore of the Bosphorus river, on the European side of the city. This immense construction often gets overlooked in favour of more famous touristic spots but its grandeur is definitely worth a visit. When you are done exploring this incredible building, stop at the cafe attached for a tea and – more importantly – a stunning view of the river and the Asian side’s skyline.  

Pegasus Airlines flies daily all year round from London Stansted airport to Istanbul, with prices from just £69 one way (taxes incl.). 

Pictures: Provided / Getty / Alessia Armenise / Unsplash