At the seismic interface between two continents, the city of Istanbul fuses Eastern and Western cultures in a scintillating way. Listen to the evocative morning call to prayer that rings from the city's minarets, before visiting an enchanting kahvehan (coffeehouse) or tea garden. Drink deep from this ancient city's rich infusion of cultures and rediscover the treasures and stories of the Ottoman Empire. Top off your days with raki (an aniseed spirit) and spectacularly fresh seafood. Here's how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul, the city of contrasts.
Istanbul cultural highlights on day one
1. Start your day in Istanbul with a Turkish breakfast of eggs with sucuk and a plethora of cheeses, olives, and jams. The area surrounding Sair Veysi Street in the Besiktas quarter is lined with superb cafes where you can enjoy a traditional Turkish repast. Of these, Cakmak is one of oldest and most famous. Alternatively, head to Istanbul favourite Kale (which means 'tower' in Turkish), situated on the banks of the Bosphorus.
2. After fuelling up for the day, make haste to the world-famous Hagia Sophia, where the 43 metre wide dome lined with Byzantine mosaics both dwarfs and uplifts visitors. Look out for the likenesses of Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Zoe. You'll also find this ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum to be a treasure trove of religious paraphernalia from centuries past, making this an ideal first stop on your whirlwind tour of this historic city.
3. Another unmissable destination on your city tour is Topkapi Palace. Enclosed in four verdant courtyards, this regal residence was home to centuries of sultans. For the full Istanbul experience, check out the Harem, an infamous gilded cage, once inhabited by the sultan's many women. The Topkapi dagger is the jewel of the treasury, displaying the prowess of the Ottoman craftsmen in weapon production. Pause to gaze out over the Sea of Marmara before continuing with your tour.
4. Grab a little meze (tapas-like items) for lunch, and enjoy the fusion of fiery chilis with minted yoghurt and fresh salad. As the heat of the day sets in, visit the lesser known Chora Church in Edirnekapi. Snuggled behind the 5th century walls that wrapped around the old city, this hidden gem boasts some of the most spectacular Byzantine frescoes in the world. Outside, wooden Ottoman houses are still in evidence.
5. If you possibly can, squeeze in some more ancient history before collapsing into your raki glass. Make your way to the Suleymaniye Mosque. Dedicated to the famed Suleyman the Magnificent (after whom many locals are named), it is a lesser known alternative to the Blue Mosque, where hordes of visitors descend like an ancient Ottoman army. Beneath the surface of the city's main landmarks are the quiet tombs of Suleyman and Sinan. Afterward, you can wind down your first day in Istanbul with something delicious in the nearby Alley of Addicts, an atmospheric enclave where Istanbul's culinary traditions are upheld.
Fascinating Istanbul museums and shopping
1. Start day two in Istanbul with breakfast on the terrace of a cafe in the hip Galata neighbourhood. Afterwards, it's worth the climb up the Galata Tower for panoramas of the city before the sun becomes too intense. At 60 metres high, the tower is tall enough to offer views as far out as the Princes' Islands.
2. Next, pore over the collection of 40,000 items on display in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Marvellous artefacts transport you as far back as the 8th century. The collection of Turkish carpets is considered the finest in the world. Discover a replica of a Turkish tent that simulates nomadic life, and marvel at the exterior of this former palace of Ibrahim Pasha.
3. More museums are on the menu in Istanbul. The city's Archaeology Museum is unlike any elsewhere in the world. Marvel at Alexander the Great's sarcophagus and the most ancient peace treaty in existence.
4. Peek beneath the surface of this ancient city, literally, at the Basilica Cistern. Walking between its 336 underground columns is made all the more atmospheric by uplighting, classical music, and the sound of tinkling water. Fish swim beneath your feet as you tread gingerly through the dark to see the Medusa head.
5. Wind up your trip to Istanbul with shopping at the city's Grand Bazaar, where you will find bargain souvenirs aplenty. For more than half a millennium, this has been one of the world's most eclectic bazaars. Within its 60 streets, you can explore more than 5,000 shops and even a school. Marvellous carpets unfurl before you, and leather goods and jewellery is just as magical. Just make sure you find your way out of this maze of wonders in time to catch your connection home.