20 Hours in Istanbul
by Marc Nair
30 Oct 2017
Istanbul is an thriving marketplace city, filled with culinary and cultural adventures. For the historically inclined, there are ancient places of worship, palaces and museums. The streets are a haven for photographers with numerous sidewalk cafes amid a charming, picturesque alleys. The main shopping streets tend to be over-developed and over-policed, but there’s plenty otherwise to keep one occupied.
Coming into the city on a 20 hour layover, I was determined to make the most of my time here.
Important things to sort out:
Bring a small daypack. If the rest of your bags aren’t checked through, there’s a left luggage counter in the airport. Get a local sim card if you need to stay connected, although it is pretty pricy and wifi is readily available at most cafes.
The metro only opens at 6am. And even if you cab into the city, everyone is still asleep.
Once the shutters roll up and you fight your way to the front of the ticketing machine, pick up an Istanbul Kart from the airport and load it with turkish lira (TL). 20 TL should do you. Take the metro M1 red line and get off at Zeytinburnu. From there, take the T1 tramway headed towards Kabatas.
The tram goes past a string of residential neighborhoods, modern and well planned. It's about 15 stops to Sultanahmet, which is the central locus to explore the main tourist attractions of Istanbul this side of the river.
My first stop, however, was to experience a hamam.
The Çemberlitaş Hamam is just across the road from the Çemberlitaş tram stop. If you’re lost just look for the obelisk. The hamam has a rather ordinary entrance, and is just one of 237 hamams left in Istanbul. Only 60 are in use, and this one dates back to 1584.
For 30 Euros, I received a traditional bath and bubble wash from a grizzly, gruff old man, who didn’t look at all pleased that his first customer swung through the door at 6.30am.
The hamam was completely empty, and I had the göbektaşı, the large hot central stone, all to myself (before my bath specialist?!) entered. While the sunlight streamed through holes in the domed ceiling. I closed my eyes and could feel five hundred years of restorative warmth relaxing my body. This is, in my book, the best remedy to face a long day on three hours of sleep.
Next stop was a visit to the famed Grand Bazaar. It was… closed.
I was literally too early. It was around the hamam, so I could come back later, or simply hit a different bazaar later in the day. For now, the Blue Mosque was calling.
It was just after morning prayers, and a small group of us walked in, silenced by the stained glass and the residue of voices raised to God.
After that, I sauntered over to Topkapi Palace, but did the math and quickly realised that I wouldn’t have time to do its vast grounds justice. So, to compensate, I took a photo of a dress-up booth and bought a book on life in the harem.
I did have time to wander the labyrinth depths of the Basilica Cistern (10 TL, open daily, 9am - 6pm) and spend time in the hallowed halls of Hagia Sophia. The former is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Built with columns salvaged from temple ruins, it is far too easy to imagine a minotaur wandering its depths.
Hagia Sophia (40TL, open daily, 9am -7pm) was used as a church for 916 years but after Istanbul fell to Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque for close to 500 years. In 1935, it became a museum by the order of Kemal Atatürk. Fun fact: The original building was constructed by two master architects from 527 - 565AD. Each had 100 architects under them. And each architect had 100 workers working for each them!
After all that history, it was time for something a little less heavy, so I headed for the spice bazaar, a vast collection of shops selling one of three things: tea, turkish delight (and other sweets) and dates. It was so hard to choose which shop to go to, in the end I walked straight through the bazaar. Besides, I didn’t fancy walking around with a sack of dates in my backpack for the next 12 hours.
I proceeded to stop looking at my GPS and instead allowed myself to wander along narrow streets, observing daily life in this city of 15 million. I noticed how neatly all the men kept their beards and was similarly inspired to find a barbershop.
The barbershop in Turkey is more akin to a woman’s hair salon than a traditional barber. I got my head shaved, my beard trimmed, a mask put on my face, my ears de-waxed and a cup of tea at the end. Amazing!
Revitalised, I set out to explore more of the streets.
Some highlights that I have to save for my next trip include the Galata Tower, the Museum of Innocence (it was closed on Mondays) and smoking sheeshah (you really need time to enjoy that).
"Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.”
This is a quote from Kedi, a lovely documentary about the street cats of Istanbul. It’s a nuanced, beautifully filmed insight not just into these feline lords, but the people who care for them and the city itself, cast in all its glory, grit and gumption.
In just one afternoon I found a variety of cats with ease, and they bear testament to how cats are not just tolerated, but are an integral part of the space of this city.
There’s no better way to end the day than with a short 90 minute cruise on the Bosphorus. This is a historically significant crossing point between Europe and Asia. TurYol boats depart on the hour from Eminönü, on the west side of the Galata Bridge. It costs 12 TL for a seat on a large ferry. The journey will go up to the second bridge and then turn around. On the way up, we hugged the Europe shoreline and on the way back, the boat swung closer to the Asian side, so I got to see different things. I took the cruise around 5pm, in pleasant evening light, and disembarked in good time for dinner.
There are a host of good restaurants around Taksim Square. Following the crowd, I walked around the numerous restaurants that dotted the side streets and literally picked one at random.
From Taksim, it was a simple matter to grab the M2 Metro line to Yenikapi, where I transferred to the M1 line, which runs straight to the airport.
Istanbul carries its years like an experienced boxer; lithe, always moving, and packing an unexpected punch. The streets are full of friendly faces and shared moments. There is laughter, there is poverty but above all, there is humanity.
I will definitely be back.