Here's a quick hit-list if you find yourself in Istanbul for only a day or two:
- Hagia Sophia - arrive at least 20-30 minutes before the 9 am opening time as you can to avoid the flocks of tourists that will inevitably arrive by 10 am. I highly recommend an audio or guided tour. Also, check out the museum cafe outside, they have great hot chocolate and pastries.
- Blue Mosque (officially called the Sultan Ahmet Mosque) - leave the Hagia Sophia and walk immediately across the street to the Blue Mosque. Grab some roasted chestnuts along the way - you can't miss all the corn/chestnut carts lined up between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
- Topkapi Palace - this is a beautiful palace and former home to many Ottoman Sultans between approximately 1480-1800. Outside of being able to walk the grounds of the palace, it also is home to several impressive exhibits; the holdings of the Imperial Treasury are impressive (check out the 86 carat Spoonmaker's Diamond), the haram is beautiful, as is the exhibit of Sacred Relics which houses major pieces of religious history (the sword of Prophet Mohammed pbuh, the rod of Moses, etc)
- The Grand Bazaar - be sure to visit The Grand Bazaar while in Istanbul. Yes, it is a tourist trap in some ways, but where else can you visits hundreds upon hundreds of tiny shops purveying everything from luxury chocolates (Godiva), traditional Turkish sweets, glass lanterns to fake Uggs in a building from the 1400's? While you're here be sure to go to Kara Mehmet Kabop Salonu (show people at the Bazaar the printed name and they'll guide you on how to get there). - the Guardian UK says they have the best Kabops in Istanbul, and I'd have to agree
- Istiklal Street (the heart of the Taxim area) - take a cab to the ultra-modern Marmara Hotel for tea or Hafiz Mustafa 1864 (Istiklal store) for some great Turkish sweets. Proceed to walk a few hundred feet down to Istiklal street and follow the street down to enjoy what can only be described as a very vibrant city scene. This street really reminds me of the fun city scene near the Spanish Steps in Rome or even some parts of San Francisco.
- Sultan Hamam - this is the newest hamam in Istanbul, and it is supposed to be loads better than even the popular Cemberlitas Hamam. This hamam is located immediately in front of the Hagia Sophia in a 400 year old building. Unfortunately, this is all hearsay as I was far too ill to visit a hot, steamy hamam.