From Europe to Asia and back, Greg Dickinson finds a full 24 hours worth of things to do in Istanbul.
It is 8am and I’m lurking on Kabataş pier with a few friends, blissfully somnambulant having not had my first Turkish coffee of the day yet. A gang of suited commuters disembarks from a passenger ferry and marches towards Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, a street swollen with taxis and mopeds.
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.
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.
The nerve-wracking narrative of istrapped starts ten minutes before we’ve even arrived, as the heavens open above Beyoğlu and we have to sprint from doorway to doorway until we eventually find the entrance – signposted only by a small buzzer. A voice crackles through the speaker: “is your team ready?”.
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.
Our clothes have fully dried by the time we’ve strolled towards the Spice Bazaar near the Galata Bridge where I am greeted by Selin, founder of Turkish Flavours and one of Istanbul’s top culinary experts. She guides us into the market hall where I’m smacked by a riot of sounds, smells and colours. Gravity-defying heaps of spices and Turkish delight line the thoroughfare, while stall-owners shout “Russian?”, “Italian?”, “Dutch?” at us (although interestingly never “British?”).
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.
Refuelled, we head over to Istanbul’s Old Town for some good old fashioned tourist behaviour: bartering and sightseeing. We get completely lost in the labyrinthine streets that lead up into the depths of Sultanahmet, where I’m pleased to finally pick up a fake Galatasaray football kit after haggling it down from 30 to ten lira (£3). Shortly afterwards I pick up a fez for three lira, completing my Turkish transformation for under a fiver.
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.
Located in a nineteenth century penthouse, eight floors above the main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, 360istanbul holds the reputation as Istanbul’s best bar with a view – it overlooks the entire city, from Galata Tower to the Sea of Marmara. We order a selection of rather expensive cocktails – perhaps worth splashing out on considering the absence of any entry fee – and take stock of the impressive visitor’s list, which ranges from Jamiroquai to the Queen of Spain.
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.
Revitalised after our meal and ready for a night on the town, we head back to European Istanbul to Nardis Jazz Club. By the bar a group of young women are clicking their fingers to the beat as I order a round of Efes lagers. Jazz is taken seriously in this cosy, exposed-brick venue; the audience watches contemplatively while supping red wine, and I realise I clearly missed the memo specifying a dress code of brogues and a turtleneck jumper.
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.
My head rather fuzzy after a comprehensive shisha session, we take an early morning stroll back to our Airbnb apartment to clear the airways. Stray kittens and dogs rule the streets at this time of night, while I occasionally glimpse a tungsten-lit kitchen occupied by men playing backgammon.
Back at our top-floor apartment I grab a bottle of raki and take it up to the roof terrace, where it feels like the whole city is asleep except for us and the seagulls that circle overhead. When the sun begins to rise the silence of the city is broken by the call to prayer, signifying the beginning of another day in Istanbul. We sit quietly, engulfed by the chorus of müezzins waking the city up from the top of their minarets, and as I feel the potent aniseed liquor make its way around my body I know it’s time for bed.
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