24 hours in Istanbul: History, food and sweeping views of the city

A rundown on how to spend your limited time in the city.

Nostalgic trams trundle along İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul (Photo: Diana Khoo/ The Edge Malaysia)

7am: There is absolutely no better way than to start the day than at the newly opened The Peninsula Istanbul. Lucky in-house guests wake up to vast views of the blue-as-can-be Bosphorus, which most of the hotel’s 177 rooms and suites offer. Even if you aren’t staying, there’s no reason you can’t start your day here. The best breakfast spot is The Lobby — a misnomer since everyone may be found outdoors on the large terrace surrounded by lush gardens — the hotel’s private boat dock that is practically by the water’s edge. All the morning favourites are offered, of course, from Eggs Benedict to avocado toast but, since you are in Constantinople, opt for Turkish flavour by ordering Menemen, a dish of stewed eggs and tomatoes, flavoured with garlic, onion and green pepper. There is also Çilbir — poached eggs with yoghurt, garlic, hot olive oil and red pepper. If you come for its famous afternoon tea, you will be further treated to live music from a band, perched on a nearby first-level balcony.

9am: Istanbulites like sleeping in, so it’s a good idea to make a dash for the historical peninsula of the city, the area south of the Golden Horn and which consists of boroughs like Beyazit, Fatih and, our favourite, Sultanahmet. Considered the historic heart of the city and rich with Byzantine, Constantine and Ottoman influences, all the jewels of Istanbul are concentrated here, including the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome.

11am: A break in-between all the palatial grandeur is a good call. Come back to earth with a humble but delicious meal at Lale Restaurant, best known as The Pudding Shop and right on Divan Yolu, the former imperial road laid out by Constantine the Great and which leads from Constantinople to Rome. The Pudding Shop, founded in 1957, is famous in popular culture as the de facto meeting spot for beatniks travelling overland on the “hippie trail” from Europe to Nepal and other parts of Asia. What to try? Tavuk Göğsü — a sweet pudding flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla and thickened with rice flour, cream and … chicken breast!


The famous inverted head of Medusa at Basilica Cistern. Be sure to check ahead with your concierge as this surreal venue often hosts many artistic and musical performances.

12pm: Unless you have an accredited guide with whom to dodge the queues, walk over to Fatih where the Yerebatan or Basilica Cistern is. It is searingly hot overhead by now, so we can’t think of a better place to hide from the sun than in a cool, underground cavern that is also romantically known as the “Sunken Palace”. Dating back to the time of Emperor Justinian I in 523 AD, the cavernous underground cistern spans the size of roughly two football fields. There are many other ancient cisterns lying beneath the city, of course, but the Basilica is the most famous, partly due to its supporting role in major films like Skyfall from the James Bond series, The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe and Inferno with Tom Hanks.

1pm: Continue hiding from the heat, this time in the stunning new Istanbul Modern, reimagined by the great Renzo Piano (his first project in Türkiye) and which just reopened to the public in May. It’s chock-full of great artworks, naturally, by names like Olafur Eliasson, Anselm Kiefer and Tony Cragg, but one of the most ethereal and immersive has to be Refik Anadol’s Infinity Room: Bosphorus, specially commissioned for Istanbul Modern and which reveals the visible as well as the invisible colours of the Bosphorus. Take that, Yayoi Kusama!

4pm: Refresh yourself with a quick bite or spot of shopping at the neighbouring Galataport, a modern mixed-use 400,000 sq m development that stretches 1.2km along the Bosphorus in hip Karaköy. Admire stunning jewellery at famed local jeweller Sevan Biçakçi’s atelier or tuck into a burger at Saltbae Burger, owned by the recognisable Nusret Gökçe. For something to remind you that the borders are now all open and the dark Covid-19 days are gone, order the cheekily named Vaccine Burger, so named due to a literal injection of cheese. And priced at just 300 Turkish lira (about RM52) for a single, it’s well worth a try.


Make short trips even more memorable by squeezing in a cruise on the Bosphorus

5pm: No one should leave Istanbul without sailing the Bosphorus. There are several options catering for all types of travellers but nothing sets the tone quite the way a private cruise can. There are cruises as short as two hours or up to a whole day, where you can sail to the Black Sea. You may also opt for one that stops over in Kanlica on the Asian side of Istanbul where the local speciality is yoghurt eaten with confectioner’s sugar. Ask your hotel concierge to recommend a cruise and cruise company that best suits your budget and schedule.

9pm: Whether it was because of Agatha Christie’s 1934 book Murder on the Orient Express (local lore says the prolific author wrote the whodunnit while staying in Room 411) or the new Netflix period drama Midnight at the Pera Palace, the historic Pera Palace hotel definitely deserves a drop-in. Admire the neoclassical façade conceptualised by Alexander Vallaury and sumptuous furnishings before picking a place to sip or sup. Every corner combines romance, history and luxury. After all, the hotel was built to host the pampered passengers of the Orient Express passenger train. And should you happen to have well-connected friends, ask to be brought into the private members’ club that is Soho House Istanbul right next door. Housed in the 19th-century Palazzo Corpi and a former US consulate, the rooftop bar is lively and offers great sweeping views of the city.


This article first appeared on July 24, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.

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