Yes, you can see the Hagia Sofia, taste the world’s best kebabs and receive a damn good pummelling at any number of hamams… but what else is there to do in Istanbul? Constance A. Dunn lays the city bare in our insider’s guide.
Istanbul: a mash-up of East and West that vibrates to the rhythm of techno Sufi drums and daily prayers. The city is an expanse of neighbourhoods that stretches across the tips of Europe and Asia and – even while supporting a population of about 20 million (not all documented) – it has managed to organically unearth itself amongst the hills inbetween the Marmara and Black Seas. Despite this city’s green serenity, the locals carry the age old conflict of East and West within, which manifests itself in what novelist Orhan Pamuk calls hüzün, a kind of communal, melancholic lament for past grandeurs.
Thankfully for the traveller, no one in Istanbul is willing to give up the time-honoured legacy of Turkish hospitality from their lost empire. So while the workday moves at a snail’s pace between tea breaks and nargile puffs, the nights are packed with an affable energy that threatens to sweep a visitor off their feet if they don’t mind their ‘ç’ and ‘ș’. Attention to the details of everything pleasurable: food, company and beauty is an essential part of Turkish culture. Istanbul residents’ commitment to this satisfaction of the senses seduces the nose with roasted hazelnuts and perfume, the eyes with the distorted colours of glass lamps, the heart with the salons of homes, and the imagination with the greenish blue eyes of that girl/guy sitting across from you at the cafe. Eat, drink and be güzel, çok güzel.
Best of the Beaten Track
Hagia Sofia is a must for any amateur historian… or just anyone for that matter. The structure is breathtaking and a perfect representation of the constant power struggle between the Christian and Islamic worlds.
Ready to be over-stimulated? Visit the Grand and Spice Bazaars in the morning hours between 08:00 and 09:00. You’ll miss the crowds and you’ll get the best prices when the shops first open. An old superstition holds that shop owners should give their best price to the first customer of the day for good luck.
Mosques are another must, particularly the Blue Mosque. Be sure to visit between prayer hours and dress modestly. Between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia you will find the Egyptian obelisk, brought back to Istanbul in the 4th century and reconstructed in its current location in 390 BC, a piece worthy of consideration.
Sultanamet is the neighbourhood housing both the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. The shops and cafes cater to tourists with higher prices and lower quality, but the neighbourhood warrants a walk-through. When you’ve had enough, hop on a ferry at Kabataș to the Princes Islands and spend a day riding bikes, or lounging inside a horse-drawn buggy.
The Taksim area branching out from Taksim Square is the central hub of all things alternative. It lies in an area where poverty and affluence clash and relies on the conflict for its kinetic energy. This energy sometimes turns dangerous when frequent political rallies cross the line from peaceful demonstration into public disturbance and collide with Turkey’s police force.
A walk down the famous Istiklal Caddesi will reveal a world of shopping, but between the major brands, such as Mango and Zara, you’ll find the art galleries. These privately funded galleries showcase the latest in performance, conceptual, multimedia and visual arts. With four floors of art, an urban garden and frequent free guest speakers the SALT gallery is not to be missed. Arter is a smaller space that consistently houses engaging political artists from the Middle East and Turkey.
Hop on a free shuttle to Santral Istanbul from Taksim Square. Converted from an Ottoman energy plant into a museum/art gallery, Santral is as oddly peaceful as it is industrially beautiful.
Ağa Hamami, not to be confused with Galatasaray Hamami just down the street, is a steamy respite. It is also cheaper than the famous Galatasaray, open later and unisex. That’s right, both ladies and gents share the Aga hamami built in 1453. Although ladies can request a female for the massage and kese (bath gloves), men cannot, sorry boys. A complete service, including a short full-body massage, will set you back 40 TL. The place even has accommodation (see Pillow Talk below!).
Experience & Events
Always conscious of its cultural significance, the city of Istanbul sponsors a number of international festivals, one right after the other, in summer and fall. The Istanbul International Theater Festival, followed by film, music and design festivals. Each venue is marked by the festival signs that decorate the streets of Beyöglu, Taksim, Galata Tower and Sultanamet.
Visit the underbelly of the city with a tour of the Byzantine Cisterns. It will be the prettiest plumbing you ever did see. Only people with an eye for secluded charm would build a underground palace to store water.
Advertisements for Bosphorus tours proliferate as you get closer to a ferry station, but don’t get sucked in. Instead, buy an Istanbul Kart for 5 TL from any kiosk with a sign that says akbil, load it up and use it to take ferry rides for less than a pound. Some ferry routes run in a loop through stations along both the Asian and Europe sides, while others simply cross over. Pickup a schedule at one of the stations and map out your own tour. The larger boats have cafes on the upper deck that serve tea, nescafe, sandwiches and snacks. Get off the boat at out-of-the-way stops to poke around on your own time, then hop back on to head back to the centre.
Ağa Hamami (mentioned in our Hipster’s Guide) has sleeping quarters upstairs from the hamam, so a great choice if pampering is a priority. A full kitchen and a large terrace plays host to homemade meals shared amongst international travellers. Chillout Hostel is a ten-bed-a-room-place with friendly staff; no special amenities but the location is perfect. If Ottoman luxury is what you seek then take a peek at the Pera Palace, an elegant sleeping spot by anyone’s standards. Sumahan, a boutique hotel on the Bosphorus, is a chic alternative on the Asian side with a minaret-ridden view.
A traditional village breakfast of local honeys, olives, homemade salads, bread and hot finger foods at Privato Cafe for 20 TL (£5, $10) will start the day out right. One breakfast is enough to feed two. On my last visit the owner brought a tea and coffee “on the house” simply for being a guest. Tag Bistro is a tiny cafe with a decent wine list, a hard thing to find in Turkey. The food is classy, European/American fare such as cheese plates and chicken breast. A young, friendly staff seals the deal and makes Tag an ideal watering hole after a long day exploring Istiklal on foot. Kenan Usta Kebab serves up courses that will keep you from going hungry for days. Their kebab is one of the best around. Klemuri restaurant is set up inside what used to be an apartment and they’ve kept that cosy feel with cushions and family mementos. The food is a combination of traditional Turkish and Georgian cuisine.
Start an evening out with a panorama of the city at Leb-i-Derya; cocktails are pricey but the sunset view is to die for. After you’ve shed some tears about dropping £6-£8 on a glass of wine, walk up the hill and down one block to Yeni Caddesi, swing a left and climb a set of stairs to Kafka Kafe. Here beer runs at the more palatable price of around 5 TL (whilst literary philosophising is free). Later at night take thing up a notch at Babylon, a hip spot for live music and DJs, whilst a great place to round off your nightlife experience with the city’s cool kids – and some experimental bellydancing – is Sefahathane, open until 02:00.
Getting There & Around
Easyjet and Ryanair can get you there cheap. Check out Wizz Air and Tarom from Eastern European capitals. Turkish Airlines runs great deals, they have five daily flights from London perfect for those planning wild weekend city breaks, as well as daily flights out of Chicago and New York. For getting from the airport to the city look up Book Taxi Istanbul. If you want adventure, then take the old Orient Express train route, now known as the Balkan Express with connections in Belgrade. The train will take a few days to reach Istanbul from most Europe capitals, so that is a trip within itself. Buses are another option for the slow-moving adventurer.
Istanbul.com is helpful for quick tips from users, while the Hurriyet Daily News will provide reviews of places and events along with international news stories. Great Istanbul provides info on major sites and the Hammam Guide is a fun read if you’re into the art of lazy decadence.
Lonely Planet and Rough Guide give some good recommendations, especially for eating out, while TimeOut Istanbul will keep you cool with their film and music guides. Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk is a bittersweet love-letter to the city that shaped him. In fact, anything by Orhan Pamuk will enlighten a visitor to Istanbul. Pierre Loti, the 19th French Orientalist, recorded his Istanbul exploits in Aziyadé; it reads like the best part of an opium trip, enjoy the ride.
Fatih Akin is Istanbul’s darling of cinema. His 2007 film The Edge of Heaven will give a good intro to the city, as will Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. Head-On is another and, although mostly set in Germany, the story exposes immigrant Turkish culture with unceasing energy. Ferzan Ozpetek’s Hamam is worth a watch as is Reha Erdem’s My Only Sunshine. One oldie but goodie is the classic heist film Topkapi directed by Jules Dassin in 1964. Yesilcam Sokak studio in the Beyöglu neighborhood produced a cacophony of tribute films in the 1950’s and 1960’s that will horrify anyone with good taste: Tarzan in Istanbul, Dracula in Istanbul and a version of Turkish Star Trek, to name a few.
Soundtrack to the City
Istanbul- Dario Moreno
Istanbul (not Constantinople)- They Might be Giants
Turkish electro-house music- DJ eR.n
Istanbul Sokaklari- Umit Besen
Istiklâl Marsi- Turkish National Anthem