If a day makes a difference, just imagine how much you can do with two. Get the most from even the shortest of stopovers in Istanbul with a jam-packed two-day tour of the city – covering its north, south, Asian east and European west, plus a whole host of historic sights, great eats and top shops

Day one

Morning: Sultanahmet

Morning Sultanahmet

Starting with the obvious is always a good plan in a new city. The monumental, domed cathedral turned mosque turned museum of the Haghia Sophia (pictured above) has dominated this great city for almost 1,500 years. It still does, and its vast interior and glittering mosaics are unmissable. Opposite, though a 1,000 years younger, is the stunning Blue Mosque, a graceful cascade of domes bristling with soaring minarets. Wander inside to enjoy its cornucopia of beautiful blue Iznik tiles. Pep yourself up with a strong, black Turkish coffee and portion of rich, nut-filled baklava at Çigdem, a bustling patisserie a few minutes’ walk from the mosque.

Afternoon: Kadıköy

Afternoon Kadky

Watch the trams rumble by on historic Divan Yolu street before hopping on one yourself and trundling downhill, past the famous old Orient Express terminal station Sirkeci, to the bustling Golden Horn waterfront. From the ferry terminal opposite the Eminönü tram stop, board a ferry bound for Kadıköy in Asia. Crossing the Bosphorus Strait (pictured above), that divides two continents, is a fabulous experience, with stunning views back to Europe and the dramatic peninsula on which the old city stands, and ahead to the low, blue hills of Asia. Eat in Çiya Sofrası, one of the very best restaurants in Istanbul, justly famed for its wide range of beautifully-prepared, bargain-priced regional Turkish dishes. Suitably fortified, spend the afternoon exploring the maze of narrow streets around Çiya, brilliant for shopping for spices, dried fruit, nuts and other local produce.

Evening: Karaköy

Evening Karaky

Assuming you’re not too laden down with shopping, catch a return ferry to Karaköy (pictured above), a hip neighbourhood on the northern shores of the Golden Horn river. Grab a cheap but succulent freshly-grilled fish sandwich from a dock-side street vendor, then enjoy a cold beer in one of the many cafés lining the lower tier of the Galata Bridge. The views of the old city’s skyline, bathed in orange and pink at sunset, are truly unforgettable.

Day two

Morning: Sultanahmet to Beyoğlu

Morning Sultanahmet to Beyolu

Almost as obvious as the Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque is the Topkapı Palace (pictured above), the “White House’’ of the mighty Ottoman Empire. Get there by 9am to avoid the crowds and allow plenty of time to enjoy its gorgeous pavilions and numerous museums. Having now ticked-off the city’s absolute must see trio of historic sites, you’re off the sightseeing hook! Catch the T1 tram from Sultanahmet across the Galata Bridge to the Karaköy stop, duck through an underpass lined with shops selling everything from BB guns to fertiliser, then ride the historic Tünel funicular (the second oldest underground after London’s) to the southern end of Istanbul’s premier shopping and entertainment street, İstiklal Caddesi.

Afternoon: Beyoğlu

Afternoon Beyolu

Istanbulites adore breakfasting out, and few places do it better than Café Privato, hidden away in the warren of alleys beneath the Galata Tower. The full spread of Georgian pancakes, assorted cheeses and dressed olives, homemade jams and more is plenty for two people. Served up to mid-afternoon, it beats most regular lunches. Around it there are plenty of intriguing boutique shops selling everything from Turkish bath wraps to handmade olive oil soaps, vintage household items to designer jewellery. Admire İstiklal Caddesi’s nineteenth-century, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings as you head north towards Taksim Square, then pop in for coffee at hole-in-the-wall Mandabatmaz. Forget flat whites, lattes and the rest: a beautifully-prepared Turkish coffee is the original and best. Finish the afternoon in the upmarket Pera Museum (pictured above), which has a superb permanent collection and attracts touring exhibitions by internationally renowned artists.

Evening: Beyoğlu

Evening Beyolu

There are so many places to eat and drink in this 24/7 neighbourhood it’s impossible to pick out one ‘must’. For a down-to-earth, traditional meyhane (tavern) fish meal, try İmroz on Nevizade Sokak, a narrow alley literally crammed with lively eating and drinking places. For an upmarket twist on the same theme, Meze By Lemon Tree – opposite Agatha Christie’s favoured Istanbul hotel, the Pera Palace – is excellent. Finally, for superb panoramic views of the city by night, head to posh Mikla (pictured above), atop the Marmara Pera hotel.

Weekenders’ tips

Get an İstanbulkart travel pass (6TL) from a kiosk, load it with credit and travel around the city with ease by tram, metro, ferry or bus. It’ll save you loads of time and money.

Even for a weekend it may be worth buying a three-day Istanbul Museum Pass (85TL) – beat the queues and save money if you visit several of the big sites (Topkapı Palace, Haghia Sophia, Archeology Museum etc.) See www.muze.gov.tr for more info.

Dress appropriately if you’re planning a mosque visit – no shorts or vests for men, for women, no short skirts and a head-covering is essential.

If you’ve got a little more time to play with in Istanbul, check out our comprehensive guide on other things to see, eat and do here, then get the lowdown on the city’s best traditional baths and smart new spas. And, however long you’re coming for, don’t miss the Istanbul hotel guide and essential traveller’s info pages

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