I always prefer spending a long time in a destination in order to really get to know a place, but sometimes my schedule just doesn’t permit me to do that. Short excursions provide their own kind of excitement, as I only have a day or two to get the most I can out of a city. When I booked my ticket to Cannes in 2012, I extended my 12 hour layover in Istanbul to a 36 hour layover, in order to see this much-talked about corner of the world I had never stumbled onto before. In case you’re wondering how you should go about a city if you only have 36 hours to see it, here is a breakdown of how I spent my time, and obviously my example is best:
Istanbul Day 1
6:00 PM: Disembark at Ataturk Airport. Hail a cab, realize I have zero knowledge of Turkish and the driver has zero knowledge of English ( In Istanbul, you have a better chance of having a cabbie hit you than finding one that can speak English).
6:45 PM: Drift off to sleep in cab, wake up when brakes screech and my face suddenly hits the seat in front of me. Awkwardly clamber out of cab to check into hotel.
6:46 PM: Find out hotel’s main door is locked. Try to decipher notice plastered on the door, have passerby inform me the city decided to rescind the hotel’s permit and shut it down for the weekend.
6:47 PM: Realize I’m in a city where I can’t speak to or understand anyone, with nightfall approaching and no place to stay. Mildly freak out. Find hotel a few blocks away in beautiful historic district. Sigh with relief. Shower.
7:30 PM: Explore my neighborhood. Find cute little stretch of coffee/hookah shops, decide to try one out. Order Turkish coffee.
7:35 PM: Look for traces of cocaine that surely must be present in the coffee I just finished. Force myself to control hand tremors as waiter offers me a second cup. Try to understand why my waiter is clearly trying to kill me. Learn Turkish word for thank you (teşekkür ederim) and mispronounce it repeatedly, to the amusement of the staff and the surrounding tables.
8:00 PM: Walk through Sultanahmet district. Marvel at the beautiful and ancient architecture all around me, gape at the gall of the people who dared to install a Burger King in the ground floor.
9:00 PM: Meet up with some Greek friends of mine in Taksim Square. Wait for them at a Starbucks while observing an event taking place for the premiere of Diablo III. Wonder if I ever really left the US after all.
10:00 PM: Head to Club Reina under the Bosphorus Bridge. Take in beautiful sights of the isthmus, the bridge, and the city lights on the opposite coast. Dance the night away to a schizophrenic yet somehow enjoyable music mix: top 40 US pop & dance hits, a modern rap/belly-dancing music combo, the standard Romanian house hits with pretty, untalented women breathing out the same 10 syllables in a row, and a couple of Greek songs thrown in for good measure.
2:00 AM: Pass out, because jet lag will always get you.
Istanbul Day 2
8:30 AM: Meet up with 19-year old waiter from the day before who has generously offered to show me the Sultanahmet District. Communicate with elaborate hand gestures; fortunately I am Greek and he is Turkish, so hand-talking is not a problem. Walk down a line of 30 sweet shops in a row while salivating at the offerings inside.
10:00 AM: Tour the Hagia Sophia with my new friend. Stare amazed at the impressive size and architecture of the building. Look at line to get inside and realize this is the only attraction I will see all day if I wait here. Resign myself to seeing the inside on a future trip. Say goodbye to my friend because he has work and I want to keep going alone.
10:30 AM: Walk down cute little cobblestone side street lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants, alone. See random Turkish men rushing out of their restaurant to offer me free appetizers if I choose their establishment.
11:30 AM: Pick up a Greek friend who’s coming to visit me from Ataturk airport.
12:00 PM: Walk down same cute little cobblestone side street looking for a place to eat lunch, this time with my 6’2″ male friend next to me. Observe that no Turkish men come out to offer me free appetizers this time. Briefly consider leaving my friend behind, then realize it’s probably better to have less of that attention.
12:15 PM: Eat authentic Turkish shish kebab. Have no less than sixty cats circling my legs and staring at my food (I’m willing to bet Istanbul has at least a 5:1 cat to human ratio).
1:15 PM: Head to Blue Mosque and take plenty of pictures. Walk around the square a little while longer.
2:00 PM: Have fun getting hopelessly lost in the Grand Bazaar and looking at all the offerings on sale. Gold plates, belly dancing outfits, elaborate hookah pipes…everything here glitters.
2:30 PM: Realize we are actually lost in the Grand Bazaar, because that place is massive. An endless labyrinth of glittering halls, with no immediately obvious exit. Finally find our way out. Try Turkish street food. Love some of the choices (Simit, Turkey’s answer to the New York bagel), while being underwhelmed by others (Doner kebab – not the tasty kebab I was expecting for some reason).
4:00 PM: Walk all the way down to the water from Sultanahmet, passing a thousand beautiful little alleys and streets. After reaching the coast and finding ourselves at the farthest possible point from the hotel, get caught in a torrential downpour. Swim back up towards the hotel, change clothes and shower.
5:30 PM: Hail a cab to head to camera shop I need to visit. Watch as cab driver commits three attempted acts of vehicular manslaughter while hurtling down a 3-foot wide alley. Reconsider stance on religion and start to pray.
6:30 PM: Return to hotel and collapse on bed for a while. Say goodbye to my visitor.
8:00 PM: Take one last sleepy stroll through the neighborhood while fending off many, many catcalls (get used to this in Istanbul, ladies). Pause at another coffee shop to keep myself awake just a couple of hours longer. Get into interesting conversation with UK-educated Kurdish man on the civil rights problems the Kurds face in Turkey. Realize despite the country’s beauty and it’s status as a rapidly developing economy, there is still a lot of discontent and upheaval present (something that is painfully obvious when looking at the recent news out of Turkey).
9:30 PM: Give in to jet lag and pass out for a few hours before my early morning flight, while thinking about the crazy, chaotic, unique day I’ve had. Drown in pleasant dreams of noisy streets, smells of spicy street food, and floating storefronts of Turkish sweets. Decide I must come back to Istanbul as soon as I can, and next time, stay for a while.
Have you been to Istanbul? Share your experiences below!