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48 hours in Istanbul

East meets West in this intriguing Turkish city, offering a kaleidoscope of history and culture waiting to be explored

For centuries, Istanbul has enticed visitors with its heady mix of history, culture and hustle, perfectly in keeping with its status as the former capital of the Ottoman Empire. Straddling two continents, its dazzling districts spread across Europe and Asia are dotted with top-notch attractions, meaning that two days hardly do it justice. But if you're looking to sample Istanbul's highlights in 48 hours, here's a guide to the perfect weekend in the Turkish city.

Day One

Start your day right in the heart of Istanbul’s historic centre of Sultanahmet, which is flanked by two of the city's top sights. The awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is one of the Byzantine Empire’s last surviving architectural marvels and sacred sites, with its changing status over the centuries mirroring Istanbul's history. It was first commissioned by Emperor Justinian as the Hagia Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) in 537 AD, converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 and reconverted into a working mosque in 2020. Today, visitors come to marvel at its pendentive dome, the blend of Byzantine opulence with Ottoman grandeur and its glorious architecture.

Adjacent to Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque stands adorned in blue as a serene spectacle in the early morning light. The grand project of Sultan Ahmet I, it was constructed during the Ottoman period between 1609 and 1617. Its exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets, while intricate blue tiles grace the interior and give the mosque its unofficial but commonly used name.

A short walk away lies the Topkapi Palace, which served as the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. Wandering through its lavishly decorated chambers and expansive courtyards can take the entire afternoon but it offers an awe-inspiring glimpse into the lives of the sultans who once reigned and their enormous entourages.

The immediate area has enough museums and historic sights to keep you busy. The Istanbul Archaeology Museums – a trio of museums – boast imposing, intricately carved sarcophagi; the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts displays one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in the world; while the cavernous depths of Basilica Cistern – the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul – is one of the city's top attractions.

Day Two

Get an early start and see the city in a whole new light with a sunrise cruise on the Bosphorus. In the glow of the early morning sun, witness the Istanbul skyline and marvel at the iconic sights as you pass by the Bosphorus Bridges, Dolmabahçe Palace and Maiden's Tower.

The Rumeli Fortress, located on the hills adjoining the banks of the Bosphorus, is often only admired by visitors while on a cruise; but stepping inside its historic surroundings gives you an entirely different perspective on the city. Built in the 1400s, the three large towers of the castle and its entire façade were constructed to resemble the ancient letters spelling out Prophet Mohammed's name from a distance.

Over the centuries, the fortress has played many roles – as a base to prevent attacks and a customs checkpoint, while, today, it serves as an open-air museum and an outdoor theatre for a multitude of concerts and festivals all year. Visitors can climb the main tower, over 28 metres tall, and look out over the Bosphorus and the city.

For a relaxing afternoon, take a walk along the shore adjoining the fortress towards the trendy neighbourhood at Bebek. The vibe at this seaside promenade is ideal for long strolls, taking in the views of the neighbourhood and the water.

There's no better way to conclude your time in vibrant Istanbul than with a spot of shopping. The bustling Grand Bazaar is the pulsating heart of Istanbul's Old City – a role it has played for centuries. Its origins date back to 1461, when it served as a modest vaulted bedesten commissioned by Mehmet the Conqueror. Over time, this marketplace expanded to incorporate adjacent shops, transforming into the labyrinthine souk that we see today.

Lose yourself in its enchanting chaos, where vibrant stalls beckon with spices, textiles and artistic treasures.

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