From Europe to Asia and back, Greg Dickinson finds a full 24 hours worth of things to do in Istanbul.
Once the crowd has dissipated the first mate offers us a friendly hand onto the boat, called Zoe, which chugs out into the Bosphorus. Hugging the European waterfront we cruise past the old seat of the Ottoman Empire – the Dolmabahçe Palace– and towards the Rumelihisarı fortress, also known as the "Fortress of Europe", then we cross to Asian Istanbul and peer nosily into the exclusive waterfront properties.
Image by Greg Dickinson
When the engine stops our captain runs to the deck and points into the water; two dolphins are curving in and out of the blue just beneath the Bosphorus Bridge. My 24 hours awake in Istanbul has only just begun and I’m already besotted. But there’s no time for romance, as I’ve booked a late morning slot at Istanbul’s most surreal attraction.
Ready to see the world, but on a budget? See our guide to the cheapest places to travel around the world.
After climbing two flights of stairs I open a heavy door which slams behind us. We are locked in a room, drenched, and clueless as to what is about to happen. When the lights go out I begin to question whether the thunderclaps we can hear are real or all part of the experience.
For the next hour we solve a series of interconnected cryptic puzzles – encompassing everything from a portrait of a monkey to a UV torch – in a bizarre, semi-hallucinogenic experience that can only be compared to playing the Crystal Maze in Sherlock Holmes’s house.
Finally we escape, albeit just in time, to find the puddles already evaporating under the Istanbul sun.
Image by Greg Dickinson
During our whistle-stop tour we are given tasters of a number of traditional and not-so-traditional blends, from ‘Ottoman Spice’ to the admittedly delicious ‘Chip Spice’, and a sniff of a jar packed with enough saffron to buy a car.
We leave the bazaar, my tongue zinging from some of the spicier samples, and make our way over the bridge to the Karaköy Fish Market for lunch. Here we slouch on a few beanbags and order “half a loaf of fish” (a fish sandwich) each – a culinary term used everywhere at the market and nowhere else in the world – while we watch fishing lines dangle in unison off of Galata Bridge.
By the time we’ve wandered past the iconic architectural trio of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapi Palace – remarkably all situated within just a few hundred metres of each other – we’re feeling pretty tired, so we hop on a tram and make our way back to Beyoğlu for a sundowner.
Image by Sashah Anton Khan
We get chatting to a member of the bar staff who tells us that the view from sister restaurant 360east is equally as stunning, and particularly impressive at sunset, so we decide to go for it. Just over an hour later, after hopping on a passenger ferry to Kadıköy, we are sharing a meze platter in Asia, where we watch the sun burn dark red and finally disappear behind the minarets and domes of Istanbul.
Concluding with a series of indulgent but sublime instrumental solos the set comes to an end and the crowd leaks out into the street. At this early hour Karaköy is abuzz with clubbers and bar-crawlers, but we decide to indulge in a more traditional Turkish ritual. After a short downhill walk we arrive at Ali Baba Nargile, a 24-hour shisha emporium whose kitsch, migraine-inducing decor would put off most sober customers. Undiscerning at this forsaken hour, we puff away on our ‘Sultan Special’ hookah with glasses of Turkish tea and embrace the exhaustion that is finally beginning to set in.