I recently returned from a week-long trip to Istanbul. This bustling metropolis stands at the doorway to the East and offers the intrepid traveller all the exotic sights, scents and adventure expected along with the culture and convenience of a truly world-class city. Istanbul's tourism industry has suffered tremendously in the past decade leaving an entire class of tour guides, museum educators and hospitality workers under-employeed and desperate to share the beauty and history of their city with the world. This makes it a great time to visit Istanbul, so GO!
The city is massive, overflowing with people, with cars, with food and textiles and art and spices and I wanted to do it all. Unfortunately, with only five full days in Turkey and two days devoted to a trip to Cappadocia, I had to prioritize my exploration. So here are the higlhights and must-sees for Istanbul.
Stay in the old city of neighborhood of Sultanahmet. With easy access to the major historic attractions, Sultahnament is a great walking neighborhood with shopping, food and a plethora of charming older hotels.
Street food - Istanbul is a street food mecca and cheap and delicious eats abound. doner, pide (a pizza-like flat bread topped with spicy lamb),Simit (the ubiquitous sesame-encrusted golden ring of delight and turkey's answer to the bagel), gozleme (thin crepes stuffed with veg, meat or cheese and grilled in butter), turkish coffee, turkish tea and The traditional turkish Ice cream dondurma.
Nusr-et - The flagship restaurant from internet sensation "Salt-Bae," meat takes center stage in masterfully dramatic presentations of butchery, cookery and service. Reservations are a must and be prepared to wait a long time, event with them, but the intensely flavoured meat is worth the wait!
Eat balik-ekmek - (fish sandwiches) served at the many specialty restaurants on the galata bridge.
SEE & DO
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) - see the incredibly rich blue tiles and experience a thriving and historic 400 year-old mosque
Hagia Sofia - Built in 500 this massive basilica's construction stumps engineers to this day. First a church then a mosque now a museum, Hagia Sofia perfectly Mirrors the complex history of Istanbul itself.
Basilica Cistern - built under the city to hold water in ancient times, it now holds lots of columns and a random pool full of carp. it's dark and creepy and smells like the pirates of the caribbean ride at disneyland.
Topkapi Palace - This massive palace is beautiful but a lot to take in. Definitely worth crossing off your list if you have a few hours to spare. i opted to be a complete heathen and go to the turkish baths instead.
Galata Tower - Eat fish sandwiches,Then cross the bridge and take the funicular up to galata tower for expansive views of the city.
The Grand Bazaar - massive, traditional bazaar with something for everyone. Spices, oils, fabrics, towels, really good faux designer goods, ceramics, snacks and so much more. Spend and hour or a day in the labyrinthine covered walkways.
Arasta Bazaar - the grand bazaar's little teeny tiny sister. A two-block long pedestrian street with many of the same goods found in the grand bazaar in a less hectic atmosphere and with late-night hours. Home to my favorite turkish towel dealer and some killer handbag shopping.
turkish bath - the city is home to some of the oldest bath houses in the world with different styles and levels of luxury to appeal to all. i visited cemberlitas hamami, one of the oldest and most traditional where grandmas in black undies give what is probably the sudsy-est bubble bath on earth and then squeeze you fresh orange juice. pretty much heaven.
Whirling Dervish Cafe - a low-pressure way to check out a whirling dervish show. have a snack, smoke a hookah and see these followers of the sufi mystic rumi take a twirl in expression of a spiritual journey towards truth.
A trip across the Bosphorus to the Asia Side - (You can take A tour
boat but I prefer the public ferry. It costs around a dollar each way and gives you a great taste of "real life" in Istanbul)
Day trip to Cappadocia
if you have 24 hours to spare, spend them in cappadoccia. the stuff of star wars dreams and indian jones adventure is just an hour-long flight from istanbul and well worth the trip. brace yourself for the 4 am wake
up call to catch a hot air balloon ride as the sun rises over the country side. this is kilm rug country and great bargains can be found if you've got the space to get them home.
don't be surprised to see kids and babies out really late at night. family is very important in turkish culture and family members, young and old, do things together, so if mom and dad are going out to dinner at 11pm, the kids are probably coming with. this makes Istanbul's restaurants and streets a fun, family friendly experience at any hour.
istanbul was built on seven hills just like rome. get up high or out on the water to see them. most of them are topped by mosques making for a beautiful and eclectic skyline.
water water everywhere. istanbul is surrounded and divided by water with three different bodies (the sea of marmara, the golden horn and the bosphorus) mixing and mingling before leading to the black and aegean seas.