Istanbul, Turkey: How to spend a day in Europe's busiest city

Newshub's travel guide for Istanbul.
Photo credit: Newshub.

There's something special about visiting a city overwhelmingly different from your own. In Istanbul, which with a population of 15 million people is the largest city in Europe, nothing is like it is in New Zealand.

For one, prepare to be woken regularly in the middle of the night by street noise - or, more likely, by the Islamic call to prayer at 6am. Prepare to be shocked by the boisterousness of locals, the bitterness of the coffee, the opportunism of con artists.

Istanbul is home to a hodgepodge of ideologies and a clash of cultures; it's a place where religious zeal meets rampant consumerism, rich meets poor, and quite literally east meets west, as the city straddles two continents: Europe and Asia. 

Destination Istanbul: what to do with 24 hours in Europe's craziest city.
Photo credit: Newshub.

It's a city in which it pays to be prepared as the sheer scale, intensity and colour of Turkey's crowning jewel can be a lot to take in.

Here's how to break your Istanbul trip down into bite-sized chunks.

Rock down to İstiklal Avenue

The first thing you'll want to do is walk down İstiklal Avenue, the chaotic pedestrian-only shopping strip in downtown Beyoglu, which provides a telling first glimpse at the rampant, unceasing energy of Istanbul.

The street, which spans 1.4km from Taksim Square to Karakoy, swells with as many as 3 million tourists and locals each day, who share the space with a historic tram that runs right through centre of the crowds.

It's a real sensory experience - Istanbul's answer to New York City's Times Square or Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing - and come night time is inundated with shoppers, neon lights, blaring Eastern music, kebab vendors and buskers.

Beyond the assault on your senses, though, there's plenty on offer. There are coffee shops and karaoke bars galore and the southern end of İstiklal Avenue is home to the stately Church of St Anthony of Padua, one of a handful of non-Muslim places of worship in the city.

Istanbul, Turkey - how to spend your first day in Europe's craziest city.
Photo credit: Newshub.

And for a small fee you can also scale the Galata Tower, an imperious stone turret at the southern end of Istiklal that supplies incredible 360-degree views over the Bosporus Strait and the wider city.

Marvel at majestic mosques

Next, head across the Galata Bridge into Istanbul's historic and religious centre - a cornucopia of jaw-dropping architectural masterpieces.

Just east of Eminonu lies this well-visited treasure trove of stunning mosques and palaces, home to the most significant structures of the Byzantine era.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey.
Inside the Blue Mosque. Photo credit: Newshub.

Topkapi Palace is a must-visit, a stunning 13th Century residence constructed under order by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, which has now been converted into a museum brimming with Ottoman relics, clothing and weapons.

Just south is the Blue Mosque, aptly named on account of its characteristic hand-painted blue tiles that cover its interior walls, and the imposing Hagia Sophia, which was once famously the world's largest structure when it was built in 537AD.

The Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
The Hagia Sofia. Photo credit: Newshub.

You can go inside all three buildings, and there's also the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and a handful of other mosques nearby if you have the time.

Shop 'til you drop at the Grand Bazaar

After revering religious monuments all morning, it's probably about time to indulge in a spot of consumerism. Head west from Hagia Sophia to Fatih and the Grand Bazaar, the world's oldest and best-known shopping mall.

To call it a mall is to do it a disservice, as this has nothing at all in common with the soulless, white-tiled, fluorescently lit shopping experience we're used to in much of the Western world.

The Grand Bazaar is close to 600 years old and boasts more than 60 streets and 4000 shops, all encapsulated inside an unmappable labyrinth of dimly lit brick tunnels.

It's a special place - a genuine relic of the Ottoman Empire - which is perhaps why it's the world's most-visited tourist attraction, with 91 million visits annually.

View of Eminonu from Karakoy, Turkey.
The Grand Bazaar is just a short train ride or walk from Karakoy. Photo credit: Newshub.

Just be prepared for vendors to try just about anything to lure you in, be it shouting, free Turkish delight samples or lofty promises about the authenticity of their obviously fake Nike Air Maxes.

Once you've had a look around, navigate in the general direction of Eminonu from Fatih, a section of street stalls that is essentially a complex of designer knock-offs - but with a noticeable drop in intensity from the Bazaar and, mercifully, back in the open air.

Make the most of the food scene

If you're able to escape the maze of imitation football shirts, counterfeit Armani jeans and acrylic 'Gucci' belts, then congratulations - you've earned yourself some a bite to eat.

Back across the bridge in Karakoy, there are a variety of options to match your budget and taste buds.

For something cheap and delicious, you can't go past Mario the Fisherman. There are plenty of fish sandwich vendors at the base of the Galata Bridge, but Mario is the cream of the crop - for just NZ$5, you can get a wrap jam-packed with salad, spices, sauces and fresh, succulent fish. Bliss.

There are so many street food options - you'll obviously need to try one of Turkey's infamous dürüm kebabs at some point - but if you're hanging out for more of a sit-down meal experience, then Karakoy's got you covered.

Kadikoy, Turkey.
Istanbul makes the most of its expansive coastline. Photo credit: Newshub.

Scout out an authentic Turkish restaurant like the charming, family-run eatery Falafel Koy and you can expect huge portions, a drink and complimentary items for less than NZ$10 per person.

Or, if you're ready to splash out, Karakoy has many fine-dining establishments along the main stretch and around Galata Tower.

Make Istanbul your own

Istanbul is ginormous and there really is a lot to see and do. Here are a couple of extra activities if you've got a few days to kill in Europe's largest city:

Head to Kadikoy

This one kills two birds with one stone: you get to see some of the Asian side of Istanbul and you get an open-top sunset boat tour that costs you less than NZ$1.50.

Sunset ferry ride in Kadikoy, Turkey.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Catch the ferry just before sundown from the northern side of the Galata Bridge to Kadikoy - a large and youthful suburb across the Bosphorus.

The town is teeming with trendy bars, alternative op-shops and student-friendly cafes and eateries - and while it's certainly still a busy area, most tourists stick to the European side of Istanbul, so you can get a more authentic peek at life in the city.

Watch a game of footy

It's a little-known fact that Istanbul is home to three of the most widely supported football teams in the world in terms of local support: Besiktas in the north, Galatasaray in the south and Fenerbahce to the east.

Turkish fans are arguably the most fanatical in Europe, so you do need to take safety precautions if you attend, but there really is nothing quite like the atmospheres in these sporting arenas. In 2011, for example, Galatasaray fans created the loudest crowd noise ever heard in a stadium.

Besides, all three of these clubs attract some of the biggest names in the game as they head into the latter part of their careers - so the quality remains high, and you get to see some legends before they retire.

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