ISTANBUL: Sometimes getting out of the city isn’t quite enough: You need a complete break, to a different country with a new skyline, an alternate menu and a public transport system.
Since the relaxation of visa requirements between Turkey and Lebanon in 2010, a weekend trip to Istanbul has never been easier. This bustling city is full of life, with an almost overwhelming choice of things to do, monuments to visit and foods to try, but with a little planning you can squeeze a lot in to a weekend break. Explore one of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities, brimming with history, cuisine, stunning architecture and plenty of sea views.
- Istanbul’s sidewalks compete with Beirut’s in terms of unevenness, so pack some sensible footwear: You’ll be doing a lot of walking, and your feet will thank you for it.
- There is a veritable orgy of public transport systems in the city, so make sure you try as many as possible. A metro, tram, funicular combination will you get from the city to the hostel. Keep lots of 1 lira coins in your wallet, as most tickets cost either 2 or 3 liras.
- The temperature may be slightly cooler than in Beirut, but sunscreen is still a must.
The flight from Rafik Hariri International to Ataturk airport takes a little under an hour and a half, and there’s no time difference, so leave Lebanon after work on a Friday evening, taking only hand luggage to minimize time spent in the airport.
There’s a huge choice of accommodation options, for every budget, but for a low-key weekend, book a room at the East West Hostel. At $33 per person per night for a twin room with private bathroom, this cute hostel in the European side is pretty basic, but the staff are friendly and its location is central: Right off the arterial Istiklal boulevard, it’s a stone’s throw from hundreds of restaurants, bars and shops, but it’s far enough down a side street to remain relatively quiet throughout the night. (Breakfast is served between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m).
After checking in, head out for a bite to eat. Walk up to Taksim Square and pick from one of the hundreds of kebab or boreg houses on the main strip, or wander down a side street and find a quiet restaurant.
A meal of traditional Turkish foods from a buffet should set you back around $6. There are a lot of similarities with Lebanese food, so if you’re already missing home, opt for the fassoulye or kibbeh, but if not, go for the moussaka with a purslane and yoghurt salad on the side.
Situated in the thriving Beyo?lu neighborhood, the hostel is surrounding by a multitude of after-dinner options. Head back down Istiklal thoroughfare, which is bustling with thousands of people until the early hours, and find a nargileh cafe where you can relax with tea and backgammon, or pick from hundreds of bars, ranging from the chilled out rooftop spots to some rather livelier establishments. Track down the rooftop Balkon bar, and enjoy an Efes lager with a sparkling view of the south side of the Golden Horn.
It’s a big city and there’s a lot to see, so set off early and head to the Old Town. Take a tram across the Golden Horn and get off at Sultan Ahmet. The infamous Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century, is a beautiful example of classical architecture, mixing Byzantine and Ottoman elements. However it’s full of tourists, and from mid-morning the line to enter the mosque will take about an hour to get through, so get there around 9 a.m. if you don’t want to queue. Alternatively, visit the Süleymaniye Mosque in the nearby Bazaar district, which dates from the mid-16th century, and is much less busy.
Right next door is the unmissable Aya Sofya, (entrance $14). Originally built in 562 as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century and then a museum in 1931. Explore this breathtakingly beautiful building, replete with religious paintings, stained glass windows and hanging lanterns.
Next head to the Topkapi Palace, (entrance $14) the residence of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. Alternatively, relax under the shade of a palm tree in the expansive gardens which surround the exquisite residence (and where entrance is free).
Walk west now to the Grand Bazaar, which should take around 20 minutes.
This vast souk has huge sections devoted to carpets, jewelry and gold, and it’s an experience just to walk around and window shop, but the real fun begins when you start haggling. Decide beforehand the maximum you want to pay, but tell the seller an even lower price than that. Even items which bear a specified price can be bargained down, just stay polite and enjoy the process.
After a few hours in the souk, you’ll be pretty exhausted so head to the Cemberlita? hammam for a complete wind-down.
This famous spa, built in the 16th century, has separate bath houses for men and women. A full Turkish bath and scrub costs $38, and will leave you feeling totally rejuvenated, or pay around $25 to enter the bath house, where you can scrub yourself down and relax on the hot marble slabs before unwinding in the Jacuzzi.
In the evening, go for dinner back in Beyo?lu at Haci Abdallah, which specializes in Ottoman-era hazir yemek, ready-made food which is kept warm. Pick what you like the look of or order from the menu: Try the stuffed zucchini with mince meat and rice, and the beef sautéed with mushrooms. No alcohol is served. Dinner for two is around $40.
On your last day, take the funicular from Taksim to the Istanbul Modern, a fantastic collection of contemporary art overlooking the Bosphorus, and with a fantastic gift shop.
Then head to the fish market at Karak?y to see the cats eyeing up the fresh catch, before walking across Galata Bridge to take the ferry to the Asian side of the city. Visit Usküdar, the quieter of the two destinations.
Walk south along the corniche upon arrival, and pick a quiet cafe in which to finally sample the fish yourself. A hugely satisfying yet simple fish sandwich – crusty bread, fish, lemon juice and onion – will cost $2-3. This side of the Bosphorus has a much slower pace of life, and is a welcome change after two days weaving your way in and out of crowds on the European side. The 20-minute ferry trip itself is lovely and only costs $1.50 each way.
On the way back north, stop off at the Ada Cafe and bookshop on Istiklal, and try a glass of the local Angora wine while watching the world go by, before heading to the airport, and waving goodbye to public transport once again.