Istanbul – Time and Time Again
A Stopover in One of the World’s Greatest Cities
Istanbul really needs no introduction. It was the Byzantium and Constantinople of bygone eras – the capital of successive empires and now the largest city in modern Turkiye. It is simultaneously Asian and European, spanning the Bosphorus from Thrace to Anatolia. Istanbul’s UNESCO-listed historic city center is densely packed with world-class architecture and iconic sights. Accordingly, it is a bucket-list destination for many. Istanbul has long been a MIR staff favorite as well – you can read more about that here.
My first visit to Istanbul was in 2006, while transiting between the U.S. and Central Asia. I loved it so much that I ended up making dozens of return visits over the following decade. I lived and worked in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for much of that time, making the city an easy and logical stopover en route to or from the U.S. Visiting Istanbul never got old. So many other cities are exciting on the first visit but lose some of that initial luster on return trips. Istanbul is different. Sure, some things do wear thin. I enjoyed my first visits to places like Topkapi Place, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, but having seen them (a few times now) I am less inclined to brave the crowds again. The enduring of appeal of Istanbul is not that it is home to world-class sights. It has those in spades, of course, but the appeal of repeat visits to Istanbul is that it is such a massive, diverse, and vibrant place. There will always be new neighborhoods to explore and new ways to explore them.
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You can wander through lived-in, authentic neighborhoods with a modern, hip edge, or more traditional ones where mosques, bakeries, and family-style lokanta eateries run into seemingly endless markets. There are enough museums in Istanbul to fill literally days of time – whether you are interested in Islamic history, Byzantine mosaics, modern literature, or art of almost any style. The food scene is spectacular, with excellent cuisine ranging from fine dining at Michelin-starred restaurants to more humble but equally delicious street food. That’s not to mention fantastic cafés serving the world’s best baklava with Turkish tea or coffee. Relaxed and scenic ferry rides are a great way to see Istanbul from another perspective. One can cruise along the Bosphorus, or sail to the Princes’ Islands, or simply hop from one point in the city to another. Shoppers can browse bazaars filled with handicrafts, spices, and more, or venture into higher-end boutiques selling everything from Turkish delight to ceramics to carpets. History lovers can explore Istanbul’s less commonly visited palaces, mosques, and archaeological sites. The possibilities are nearly endless and really can be tailored to match any set of interests or touring style.
On my most recent Istanbul stopover, in November 2023 after a decade-long hiatus, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my time. My layover was short this time around – just 12 hours from start to finish – so my focus was limited to getting reacquainted with the city and a enjoying a bit of nostalgia. I landed at Istanbul’s new and amenity-filled airport early in the morning from Tbilisi, Georgia, and set off for the historic, UNESCO-listed Sultanahmet neighborhood. I started my day by wandering around the exteriors of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Having been in them both before and with limited time to explore, I was satisfied just to get another look at their iconic facades. I walked over to the Hippodrome and took a quick look at the Obelisk of Theodosius – first erected in the 15th century BCE in Egypt but later moved to Constantinople in the 4th century CE. The history of the obelisk is amazing and draws me to it whenever I am in this area of Istanbul.
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From the Hippodrome I descended downhill towards the Golden Horn and entered Gulhane Park, a lush area of lawns and towering plane trees that lies immediately below Topkapi Palace. The park is relatively quiet (beyond the squawking of the many parakeets that call it home) and something of a respite from the busy city built up around it. I walked out as far as the Column of the Goths (erected by the Romans in the 3rd or 4th century CE) and then turned back towards the Golden Horn.
Before crossing the Galata Bridge over to the Karaköy neighborhood I walked through the Spice Bazaar. While the interior is pretty touristy, parts of the exterior are lined with vendors selling local fruits and vegetables, cheeses, cured meats, olives, and more. It is a great place to sample local produce. I continued over to Karaköy and walked up the steep hill to the Galata Tower – a landmark in Istanbul, towering over the city since it was erected by the Genoese in the 14th century. Legs tired from all the walking, I stopped off at an outdoor café in the shadow of the tower and enjoyed a crisp Efes beer while enjoying the scene around me. I then navigated through the hip alleys around the tower and found my way to pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue – one of Istanbul’s main shopping streets. Red trolleys travel up and down this street, but it is otherwise closed to traffic and lined with shops and cafes, making it a fantastic place to stroll. I walked all the way up to Taksim Square at the far end, turned around, and then stopped off for an early dinner at a restaurant specializing in Turkish-style pizzas (called pide in Turkish). I had one with pastirma (a local pastrami seasoned with fenugreek), which I liberally sprinkled with pul biber (a crushed red pepper found on most Turkish tables).
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I ended my day back at the Galata Bridge, my favorite spot in the city. The bridge crosses the Golden Horn, linking the Eminönü and Karaköy neighborhoods. I timed my return passage over the bridge with sunset in order some get some shots of Istanbul’s incredible skyline when the golden light is at its best. I paused there for almost an hour, listening to the evening call to prayer and watching the many fishermen pulling in sardines, the ferries passing by, and the lights adorning the mosques and minarets switch on as dusk turned to dark. This was my favorite experience of the day, and one of the many reasons that I will come back to Istanbul time and time again.
Travel to Istanbul with MIR
While I saw nothing new on this particular trip, and intentionally so, I loved every moment of it. It was relaxed and exactly my speed – a wonderful 12 hours in a wonderful city. MIR would typically recommend spending at least a night in Istanbul – two or three nights is better, especially if your aim is to reduce jetlag on arrival in your final destination. But however much time you have, we can craft the perfect stopover there to match your interests and traveling style. And the beauty is that every stopover can be as different or as familiar as you’d like. Istanbul is extremely well connected with a range of flights to and from the U.S., connecting on to MIR destinations throughout the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. For first time visitors, we even have an Essential Istanbul package that covers the highlights and more in five days. Wherever your interests lie, please get in touch and let us plan your next Istanbul stopover.
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