48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat, sleep and go

Turkey’s biggest city has got a lot going for it. Stunning architecture, friendly faces and more than enough to keep you going for a long weekend. Let me share my advice on how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul.

After a quick three and a half hour hop over Europe from London, I arrived in Istanbul on a fabulously sunny Friday morning. I was excited (if a little trepidatious) as to what I might see and the people I might meet (the Turkish referendum was happening the very weekend we were there!) but as usual, I had nothing to worry about.

People seem to absolutely adore this place, so I knew that I’d have my work cut out to do it all in 48 hours. This post gives you my recommendations on how to make the most of your short trip to Istanbul.

48 hours in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Where to go with just 48 hours in Istanbul

Istanbul is famed for being the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Because of that, there’s a hell of a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover. 

Historical walking tour 

For that reason, we chose to do a full day walking tour with  Daily Istanbul Tours. It allowed us to take on all the main sights in the old town including the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. 

They’re all fascinating places with incredible histories that we just wouldn’t have known without a guide. As part of the tour, you have free time at each place to explore and take photos. The tour also includes a hearty lunch and entrance to each place. Even though it might seem expensive, it’s really worth it. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Hippodrome

Our guide, Oz, was fantastic. She clearly loves her city and that comes across in the anecdotes she would tell us over lunch and while walking between sights. Her knowledge of the history was unquestionable and she was honest enough to say she didn’t quite believe that is really Moses’ 3000 year old staff behind glass in the Topkapi Palace exhibition. Well, you wouldn’t really, would you? 

48 hours in Istanbul: Blue mosque

Basilica Cistern

While you’re merrily wandering the streets at ground level, you may be completely unaware of the cavernous tunnels that lay beneath you. The best way to see them? Go underground to the Basilica Cistern – a labyrinth of archways and columns, built in the 6th century to store and provide water to the surrounding buildings. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

It’s a fun place to explore and try to take non-blurry pictures (good luck with that without a tripod!) The biggest attraction has to be the two columns with Medusa heads sculpted into the base. No one really knows why they’re there or even why neither is upright, but it’s fun to come up with conspiracy theories of your own. Maybe we all used to live upside down?!

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

Bosphorus trip

One must do that we didn’t do (isn’t that ironic?) was a trip up the Bosphorus. It’s a body of water that effectively splits Istanbul in half across the two continents. There are loads of tour companies that will take you on a leisurely cruise along the coast of Asia and then back via Europe. Just beware,  the whole journey could take you all day if you take the wrong one – not a great way to spend your precious 48 hours in Istanbul! 

Day trips

There’s more than enough to keep you occupied in the city itself. However, if you had more than just two days here, you could consider a day trip to another part of Turkey. We met a guy that was headed to Gallipoli, but you could also explore Ephesus, Pamukkale and even Capadoccia if you really wanted (and don’t mind spending half of it on a plane!) 

Where to sleep in Istanbul

Most visitors tend to choose between the modern town and the old town when looking for somewhere to rest their heads. While the modern town is home to Taksim Square – the lively hub of the city – having just 48 hours in Istanbul meant we wanted to be as close to the main sights as possible. We opted for the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, which was definitely the right decision. Not only could we flop out of bed and into a tourist attraction in the morning, we could also stumble back to bed after one too many rakis at night.

We slept in the Sura Design Hotel – a fabulously decorated modern hotel in the heart of the old town. Normally a place like this would be way out of our budget, but visiting in the turbulent times of 2017 meant we could take advantage of Turkey’s drop in tourism and a drop in prices along with it.

48 hours in Istanbul: Sura Design Hotel

The turquoise and gold rooms are comfortable, spotlessly clean, and smell AMAZING. It even had a little balcony overlooking the landscaped garden and (if you leaned really far over to the right) the blue mosque.

Breakfast was the usual selection of English style hot options, and continental cereals, yoghurts, pastries and fruit. If you wanted to be really Turkish, you could try salad, cheese and sickly sweet puddings. We passed.

Where to eat in Istanbul

Street food

There’s a little red cart on every corner selling roasted chestnuts (but it’s not even Christmas?!) and simit – a Turkish bread a bit like a bagel that you can either eat plain or spread with Nutella. It’s delicious and a great option for a lunch on the run (quite normal if you’re spending just 48 hours in Istanbul!)

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Sura Restaurant  

We ended up eating at the Sura Restaurant for dinner one day and lunch the next, completely by accident!

The first time, we were wandering along the street looking for somewhere to eat, when a friendly guy standing next to the menu struck up a conversation (they’re good at that). Before we knew it, we were sat inside the restaurant ordering kebabs and vegetable casseroles! It was great food, though, and the big windows looking out onto the street made it ideal for people watching. Also, the 10% discount offered to hotel guests didn’t hurt.

The second time, our tour group stopped off for lunch at the same restaurant. Our guide even said it was one of the best places to eat in the old town. Result! Our group had a set menu, so I ended up eating the same thing both times too. I didn’t mind though – I was relieved to find somewhere that meant I wouldn’t be forced to eat a kebab without the meat!

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Gulhane Sark Sofrasi

I’m usually wary of places where the ‘host’ chases you down the street to look at his menu. But Gulhane Sark Sofrasi surpassed all expectations. We were the only diners for an hour, the stark reality of Turkey’s 85% drop in tourism beginning to hit home. The restaurant host’s keenness makes sense now, doesn’t it?

The restaurant is a lovely little family run thing with delicious food and BIG portions. We were treated to an appetiser of ‘balloon bread’ (the most sought after prize in Turkey seems to be how big your bread gets rather than anything else) that we scoffed down with yoghurt and tomato dips, halloumi and hummus.

For our main, there was the usual selection of kebabs (not your greasy, hangover style kebabs – the real ones). The waiter seemed very keen for us to peruse the fish menu too. I took the hint and ordered the fish, but was very glad I did. It was a piece of salmon cooked in a very tasty but spicy vegetable sauce, served on a sizzling plate. It was fantastic and so so yummy.

They’re clearly feeders at this place. They wouldn’t let us leave without trying their baklava and offering up a glass of raki and water. Raki is a Turkish spirit with a distinct aniseed and liquorice taste. They mix it with water to dilute it, and it turns the whole thing a cloudy white colour. You’ve got to try it – just once – and let me know what you think.

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If you’ve got 48 hours to spare, you won’t go wrong with a trip to Istanbul. Just three and a half hour flight from London, it’s perfect for a long weekend away. As a melting pot of identities and cultures, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled to more than just one city. 

Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid to write this post, so you can be sure that everything is my own humble opinion. Everywhere on this list was chosen through my own research. 

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48 hours in Istanbul

A Viennese Whirl-wind trip: Things to do in Vienna

Back in October, Tim and I spent 48 hours in Vienna: the beautiful capital city of Austria. It’s a place I had been to before with my parents, but going back, I was surprised by how little I remembered and how much more I loved it as an adult. The best things to do in Vienna range from wandering through parks and visiting museums to taking tours of the cathedral.

To save money and effort we invested in the Vienna Pass, which gets you free or discounted entrance into all the main things to do in Vienna. But watch out, they are only valid for calendar days meaning you can only use a 1 day card up until midnight. We didn’t realise this until we picked up our 2 day passes at 2pm and were told we only had 34 hours to cram as much of Vienna in as possible! Challenge accepted.

Let me share our list of things to do in Vienna:

Sightseeing bus
The Vienna hop on and hop off bus is the perfect way to get around and learn about the city at the same time. I know people will probably mock a traveller wannabe that goes on the buses – I can imagine them saying “dude, you have to find your own way”, but all lines of the sightseeing bus are included in the Vienna Pass and they teach you far more than you’d ever care to read about in a guidebook. What’s not to love?
More info…

Schonbrunn
Like something out of Versailles, Schonbrunn is a huge and wide summer palace built for the Hapsburg monarchs over 300 years ago. I’ll be honest, the outside is much more impressive than its 1,441 indoor rooms. They won’t let you in to half of them anyway. We whizzed around the bits you can get into in about 20 minutes, and most of that was spent waiting for fascinated tourists to get out of our way. Every room is impressive, granted. But they’re all similarly impressive and it’s not good to drool over other peoples’ wealth. So we didn’t. The gardens, however, were fantastic. Pristine lawns and hedgerows, with an enormous fountain and (other building) out the back. We could have stayed there for hours.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Schonbrunn

Apfelstrudel show
Also on the Schonnbrun site is Café Residenz – said to be home of the apfelstrudel. Every day, almost by the hour, an apfelstrudel genius shows hungry visitors how to make the famous Viennese dish in a kitchen auditorium. While the baker is stretching the dough with their elbows (yes, really), everyone is given a piece to try. You could tell it had been sitting out for a while but it was still good. They give you a recipe and sell ingredients in the kitchen shop if you wanted to give it a try at home.
More info…

Stephansdom
This huge cathedral looms over Vienna and is one of my favourite religious buildings in the world. Its roof is covered with yellow, green and black tiles making it much more interesting than your usual cathedral stone. As well as the grand statues and porticos in the main part of the building, you can visit the towers and look out over the city and the roof in more detail. If you’re not scared of heights, it’s definitely something for the list.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Stephansdom

Catacombs tour
Also in the cathedral, you can visit the underground crypts and tombs. The main tomb is reserved for bishops and other significant figures from Vienna’s past, but there are smaller rooms dotted about for storing the bones of victims from the Black Plague. It’s pretty harrowing but fascinating to see. I couldn’t look at everything and the frequent reminder from the guide not to get left behind otherwise he’d lock us down there forever made it seem even scarier. Go if you dare… it ended up being one of my favourite things to do in Vienna!

State Opera House
The Staatsoper is a pretty iconic building in Vienna, one that you’ll walk past even if you didn’t mean to as it’s considered the hub of tourist activity in the city. The Pass doesn’t get you access to a show, but you can wander inside for a quick look around the foyer if you don’t look too shifty. Of course, don’t try going to a show without a ticket!

Things to do in Vienna: Staatsoper

Art History Museum & Natural History Museum
These two buildings stand opposite each other in perfect symmetry – but because of the sheer magnificence of the exterior, you’d expect them to house royalty rather than pieces of art and dinosaur bone. I’ll tell you a secret – we didn’t actually go inside because the outside architecture and gardens were good enough for us. Grecian style statues and fountains stand in very neat patterns in the central courtyard.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Stadtpark & Burggarten
We couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the many famous parks in Vienna. Stadtpark is home to Johann Strauss and is always full of tourists trying to emulate his pose. Not that Vienna is particularly busy, but the park still came as a welcome relief from central crowds. Burggarten’s most visited sight is the famous Mozart statue, complete with a treble clef made entirely from bright red flowers. It’s one of the most iconic images of Vienna and you can see why!

Things to do in Vienna: Burggarten

Naschmarkt
The Naschmarkt mainly sells frankfurters or other sausages served in bread roll coats and bread roll hats (see photo). I managed to find plenty of falafel stalls to keep me happy. There are also a few restaurants and souvenir stands too. It’s where the locals go to enjoy a stein of beer or twelve. If I lived there, that’s absolutely where I would be.

Things to do in Vienna: Naschmarkt

Overall, we had a great time on our long weekend in Vienna. I would certainly recommend it as a city to explore if you’ve got a weekend free. Keep this list of things to do in Vienna close, and you’ll never be stuck for somewhere to go or see.

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What have I missed? What would you do with 48 hours in Vienna? Share your ideas in the comments below! 

Ultimate City Guide: Valencia, Spain

Valencia is, without a doubt, my favourite city in the world. I’ve been there twice in as many years and I can see myself doing the same for a long time to come yet. Travellers rarely visit the same place twice, due to their innate need to tick as many places off their list as possible, and I used to agree with them; until I went to Valencia.

Spain’s third largest city behind Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia is one of those places that really does have it all: beautiful weather, delicious food, incredible scenery and a list of things to do as long as the Túria River Gardens (9km if you’re interested!). It’s that combination that has made it impossible for me to stay away. As soon as I step off the plane at Valencia airport, you can’t wipe the smile off my face until it’s time to leave. The place just feels so much like home, and I am totally completely and utterly head over heels in love with it. So much so that my husband is getting jealous.

If that’s not enough to get you searching SkyScanner for flights, here’s my ultimate Valencia city guide to whet your appetite even more.

Where to stay

There’s a huge variety of places to stay in Valencia, and somewhere to suit every budget. I think the best areas to stay in are the Old Town or Eixample as you’re close to everything and the streets are incredibly safe at night. Here are my top picks for a great night’s sleep:

  • Private apartment (Airbnb) – On my most recent trip, I stayed in the most fantastic apartment. It was comfortable, perfectly located within walking distance of all the major sights, and – better than gold dust – it had air conditioning! It was also incredibly reasonably priced, so I’d definitely recommend checking out Airbnb first before even thinking about a hotel.
  • Hotel – Set in a bustling area of the Old Town, the Vincci Lys is a bit of alright. It’s luxuriously decorated, the rooms are super comfy and the breakfast buffet is delicious. It’s a bit more expensive than other hotels in the area, but you can’t always put a price on perfection. Well, you can, and it’s worth it.

How to get around

Valencia is an incredibly easy city to get around. Most of the sights are in the Old Town, which is a neat and compact diamond in the centre of the city. Beyond it, Valencia’s residential neighbourhoods, beach town and remaining sights are all within easy reach, thanks to the wide variety of transport available:

  • Walk – In my opinion, the best way to get around Valencia is on foot. How else could you get lost in all the back streets? You can walk across the Old Town in less than half an hour, but with something beautiful on every corner, the city deserves a bit of a linger.
  • Bike – Valencia is incredibly bike friendly. You can rent a bike from numerous points across the city with Valenbisi, and with cycle lanes all over, it’s a safe, affordable and healthy way to travel beyond the Old Town.
  • Metro – Definitely the fastest way to get about, a single journey will cost max. €4.90 (including a reusable ticket) but there are deals to be had if you buy multi trip tickets from kiosks. All the trains and stations are clean, and the best part? It has air conditioning! Just be careful because you can’t get everywhere with the metro, but you can get close.
  • Bus/tram – Best for the places you can’t get to by metro, buses and trams are a great alternative. You can get closer to the action, and with a single costing only €1.50, it won’t break the bank either. The only downside is that it can take a long time to get somewhere, the buses tend to be busy and really hot.

What to do

It would be easy to come to Valencia and do nothing – there’s something incredibly relaxing about that climate and the laid back way of life. But there’s so much to do and see in the area that it would be a sin not to make the most of the opportunities available:

  • School – Not a traditional holiday past time, but one of the best things I’ve ever done, why not spend a week at school? The International House school Españole offers intensive Spanish lessons in the heart of Valencia. You could spend your mornings learning this beautiful language (much more fun that it sounds) and the afternoons exploring the city, relaxing or partying with your new Spanish speaking friends. Seriously, think about it.
    Espanole school, Valencia
  • Turia Gardens – The Turia Garden is my absolute favourite spot in the city. Filling the gap left behind by the rerouted Turia River following disastrous floods, the garden is full of walking paths, palm trees, delightfully smelling plants and flowing water features. It’s a wonderfully serene area, and the trees offer some welcome shade from the stifling power of the sun. It runs to the north and east of the Old Town, and a leisurely walk through it to the south will find you at the City of Arts & Sciences.
    River Turia Gardens, Valencia
  • City of Arts & Sciences – Being a bit of a cultural hotspot, Valencia is full of museums, none more appealing than those at the City of Arts & Sciences. This is home to the largest aquarium in Europe, a fascinating science museum and a spectacular Opera House. They are all housed in real feats of modern architecture that would look more at home on a movie set than in an ancient Spanish city, but it works. The City of Arts & Sciences is one of the most visited attractions in Valencia, and it’s easy to see why. Even if you don’t go in the museums, you have to at least see them.
    City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia
  • Cathedral – For those with more traditional tastes, the spectacular Cathedral should be on your list of things to do. Built in a Gothic style in the 13th century, it’s absolutely beautiful both inside and out. If you’re brave enough (and have enough water with you – it’s hot!), take the steps of the Miguelete tower all the way to the top. The views are stunning and definitely worth the climb. Just remember to hold your ears as the bell starts to chime – it’s deafening!
    Valencia Cathedral
  • Flamenco show – Being Spain, there are flamenco shows popping up all over the city. Some shows are free at restaurants, but the best one I came across was Cafe del Duende – just 5 minutes’ walk outside the Old Town in Carmen. For €10, you are treated to a 1 hour flamenco show and two drinks on the house. The performers are super talented and will completely shake the stereotypical vision of flamenco you have in your head. Give it a go.
    Flamenco at Cafe del Duende, Valencia
  • Beach – The Malvarossa beach is a 1km stretch of beautiful white sand just begging for your footprints. But if sunbathing isn’t your thing (I’ll be honest, it’s not mine either) you can take advantage of the water sports, walking along the promenade or eating and drinking at any one of the restaurants and bars on the seafront.
    La Malvarossa beach, Valencia
  • Shopping at Central Market – The Central Market is a beautiful art nouveau style building, filled to the brim with traditional food stalls, souvenir shops and places to eat. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, you could spend hours just browsing the stalls and soaking up the atmosphere as the locals bustle around you.
    Valencia Central Market

What and where to eat

Beyond the sights, eating is one of my absolute favourite things to do on holiday. It can help you explore the city, give you a delicious insight into its culture, and, of course, fill your belly with amazing tasting food. What’s not to love? Valencia has more than its fair share of great things and places to eat, and here’s my pick of the bunch:

  • Tapas at the tapas bars across the city – Tapas is Spanish food at its best – small, bitesize portions of deliciousness that you can share around a table in a cosy tapas bar. There are three main types of tapas – the traditional sharing plates, montaditos (bruschetta-like tasty morsels on small pieces of bread that come free with your drink) and pinchos (exactly the same as montaditos, just with a different sized stick to denote their price). My favourite restaurants in the city were Mi Cub in Colón Market, Pico Fino in Plaza de la Reina, Mythos VLC in Eixample and Taberna Antonio Manuel on Calle de la Pau (oh my god – the fried cheese!!!). But without a doubt, the best way to experiment is on a tapas tour like the one we went on with Tours in Valencia. Being shown around the best places in the city by a local is something definitely worth doing.
    Pinchos in Valencia
  • Paella at La Pepica – Valencia is home to the paella, so you’d have to be mad not to try it there. There are lots of different types of paella, but one of the most traditional and best can be found at La Pepica on the beach front. All the paellas are cooked from scratch, but the food is fantastic and definitely worth the wait.
    Paella at La Pepica, Valencia
  • Horchata and fartons at Horchateria Santa Catalina – I’ll admit it. I still giggle every time I hear or say or see the word farton. But the Spanish didn’t invent them to make you laugh, they invented them to make you hungry. They’re delightfully sweet, light dough sticks, traditionally served with horchata – a creamy drink made from tigernuts. Both were first created in Valencia, and you definitely have to try them together when you’re in the area.
    Horchateria de Santa Catalina, Valencia

What to drink

There’s nothing quite like a good glass of something cold in the warm Spanish evenings (heck – mornings too, you’re on holiday), and Valencia has a lot to offer:

  • Wine – Of course, Spain is famed for its delicious wine, and if you like the stuff, you’re in for a treat in Valencia. And the best thing about it? I’m yet to have a wine induced hangover, so it must be good.
  • Beer – Weirdly enough, the beers that are most widely available in Valencia are originally from the Netherlands. But if Heineken and Amstel aren’t to your taste, why not give Cruzcampo or Estrella a go, or even try Valencia’s very own Turia?
  • Sangria – No list of Spanish drinks would be complete without a mention of Sangria, and it’s pretty much sold everywhere. Now, I’m not a big fan of it as I think it’s made in bars by the bucketload with cheap ingredients.
  • Agua de Valencia – A much better alternative to Sangria is Agua de Valencia – literally Valencian water – and it’s incredibly tasty and dangerous in equal measure. It is made in a jug with a whole bottle of cava, double shots each of gin and vodka and one cup of orange juice. The best stuff we tried came from Cafe de las Horas in the heart of the city, next to Plaza del Virgen. The bar is ornately decorated with chandeliers, oil paintings and classical sculptures, but you can’t beat a table outside on the street. Even just a glass of their stuff will have you slurring your words and hiccuping home, but it’s ohsoworthit.
    Agua de Valencia at Cafe de las Horas, Valencia

When to go 

Valencia, just like any other Spanish city, can get blisteringly hot. But, thanks to the siesta culture, air conditioned buildings and shady city centre, it can be comfortable to visit throughout the year. Here are my recommendations on when to visit:

  • May-June – To avoid the crowds and serious sweat pools around your armpits, try booking in May or June. The weather is still beautiful (when is it not?) but it’s the shoulder season and you could find a decent rate at accommodation.
  • March – The city is famous for its Las Falles festival, which sees the burning of pretty much anything Valencians can get their hands on in the month of March. It’s an awesome sight that I’m yet to witness yet, but I will do one day. If you want to see it too, be sure to book far in advance as prices are steep and availability is low.

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I hope that has got you dreaming of a Valencian trip away. Of course, there’s only so much you can fit into one blog post, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask! Just pop them in the comments below and I’ll be happy to help.

Have you ever been to Valencia? What are your top tips for enjoying the city?