Going to Istanbul? Prepare to be astounded, for Istanbul is one of the most intriguing metropolises in the world.
For more than 1600 years the city served as capital for two major world empires, first of the Byzantines and then of the Ottoman Turks, and has remained the cultural capital of Turkey since the country’s founding in 1923. The brilliance and beauty of this long legacy can be found throughout the city, in its monuments and in the spirit of its people.
Throughout its extensive history Istanbul has also been attracting a certain type of traveler. As a “bridge” between Europe and Asia, the city has lured in foreigners from the West to see at first hand the mysteries of the East, and from the East to see at first hand the mysteries of the West.
Over the past ten years especially, it has become one of the world’s most-popular travel destinations. You could literally spend a lifetime exploring Istanbul. After two years of living in this city, I still feel like a newcomer. So how can one hope to experience the city within a limited amount of time? The following guide should help.
Where to stay
You can begin by basing yourself in Beyoğlu, the city’s main entertainment district, located near Taksim Square. Many tourists lodge in one of the many hostels and hotels surrounding Istanbul’s main attractions in Sultanahmet, but the nightlife there is quiet, touristy and inauthentic. By basing oneself in Beyoğlu you are within easy walking distance of many of the city’s best bars, clubs and restaurants (they all expand out around Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare). Every day and at all hours, thousands of people can be found out in the streets here, and, as Taksim Square is the city’s main transportation hub, you can easily find your way down to Sultanahmet during the day.
If you have only one day in the city, you would do well to not miss the following:
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque
These two sacred buildings, which stare at one another across the hippodrome, are truly breathtaking. They should be at the top of your list of Istanbul tours. Although the Süleymaniye mosque, located up a steep hill a few blocks away, is considered by many to be the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul, with limited time your curiosity will be satisfied by a tour of the Blue Mosque, which, in my opinion, is equally lovely.
The Hagia Sophia is quite shabby when compared with these mosques, and today the interior mosaics and vaulted chambers provide only a shadow of its former glory, but its historical relevance is undeniable. It was first a Byzantine church built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian and inaugurated in 537, and remained the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. When the Turks conquered Constantinople it was transformed into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum. The underground chambers tour of the Basilica Cistern across the road is another must-do.
This lavishly-decorated Eastern pleasure dome served as the command center of the Ottoman Empire for over three centuries. The high entrance fee is high, but it’s definitely worth it. You’ll need a few hours to tour the Topkapi Palace, but if you’re short on time, be sure to at least swing through the Harem and the Imperial Treasury, as well as pause for a moment to drink in the sweeping views from the innermost courtyard.
Another place you could easily spend a day in, the Grand Bazaar is essential to the Istanbul experience. There are over 5500 vendors in here and they sell almost anything imaginable. Most come for the kitschy tourist trinkets and ornately woven carpets, which will certainly impress friends back home, but prepare for an onslaught of sweet-tongued compliments and high-pressure sales tactics. Never agree to anything even close to the opening price, though keep in mind while arguing it down that the vendors pay their rent in gold (seven kilos a year for shops on the main avenue).
Located in Galata at the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi, Galata Tower was built in 1348 as part of Constantinople’s fortified walls. When the Ottomans took over they used it to house prisoners of war before turning it into an observatory. Ignore the corny restaurant and nightclub and ascend to the 360-degree viewing gallery, which has magnificent views of the old city and the surrounding metropolis.
Although perhaps not strictly a necessity, the often overlooked (due to its location off the beaten track) Church of St Saviour in Chora is certainly worth the confusing (unless you take a taxi) journey to get there. It houses arguably the most important surviving examples of mosaics and frescoes from the late Byzantine era.
Things to Do
Toke on a narghile
Turks have been smoking narghiles (also known as hookahs or hubbly-bubblies) since the early 17th century. They were pretty popular during the 19th and early 20th century, but were relegated to a pastime of the peasantry during the republican period. Over the last 20 years their popularity has flourished anew, however, and there are countless narghile joints throughout the city. Some of the most popular are located in a complex called “Tophane”, which is situated on the Golden Horn near the Tophane tram station. Be sure to accompany your wet fruity smoke with a hot salep, a sweet delicious milky drink made of orchid flour.
Relax in a Turkish Hamam
Hamams are intended to purify and are strongly linked with the Muslim tradition of washing oneself before prayer, but in the age of home showers and bathtubs they’ve sort of become a luxury rather than a communal necessity. They’re pricey, particularly the nice ones, but paying a half-naked stranger to knead and bathe you as you lie towel-swaddled on a steamy slab of marble is a bizarre and unforgettable experience. The most beautiful include the historic Çemberlitas, Cagaloglu and Galatasaray hamams.
Things to do for Free (Or Pretty Much Free):
Scattered in the Marmara Sea off Istanbul’s Asian Shore, this archipelago is where Istanbul’s mainly non-Muslim Ottoman elite once escaped to their summerhouses. Many of the wooden homes here remain in wonderful condition or are being restored. The islands are a popular escape from the traffic and noise of the city proper, and all it takes to get there is a cheap ferry ticket, or you can take a Princes’ Islands tour from Istanbul. Vehicles are forbidden, but transport around the islands is possible via horse-drawn carriage.
Take a Ferry up the Bosphorus
A relaxing way of traversing this famed waterways is by taking one of the half-hourly commuter ferry services up the straight from Eminönü (pennies compared to what the tourist cruises, which basically run the same route, will charge you). Stop in Besiktaş, Ortaköy and Bebek along the way to admire the handsome parks, palaces and waterside mansions.
Walk the City Walls
Constructed during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), the walls of Constantinople, comprised of inner and outer ramparts with a terrace in between, are the largest Byzantine structures that survive in Istanbul today. The walls enclave the old city and stretch some 6.5 kilometers from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara.
Made somewhat famous by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, and located along a steep declivity that slopes down into the Golden Horn, Çihangir is perhaps the most relaxed and European neighborhood in Istanbul. Buffered from the noise of nearby Istiklal Caddesi by a maze of confusing side streets, here you will find the city’s greatest array of eclectic cafes, art galleries and antique shops, as well as the densest concentration of the foreign expat population, who pay the exorbitant rents for the signature Çihangir ambience.
Eating and Drinking
Filling one’s belly in Istanbul is not challenging as long as you are a carnivore. Although there are a few vegetarians options, they are few and far between. Unless you eat at upscale restaurants, slaking your hunger in Istanbul probably won’t put too much of a dent in your pocket. Street food, such as döner wraps, cost 3-4 lira, and a large plate in a decent restaurant will run you between 12 and 18 lira. Most restaurants with favorable real estate in regards to tourists tend to be generic and aim at luring in customers by means of tacky décor and large women in village costumes kneading wads of dough through observational windows. Their purpose is to bring in one-time customers rather than have people coming back for quality cuisine.
Many of Istanbul’s finest eateries are unadvertised, down dark alleys or four floors up in buildings that appear abandoned, and there are rarely signs to guide you. The only way to go about discovering these places is to troll foodie blogs or take an Istanbul food tour.
Eating at a Meyahne
If you’re only going to be in town for a few days, you need to spend at least one full evening drinking and eating — and perhaps dancing — at a Turkish Meyhane. This will involve drinking generous amounts of raki (more on this later) and filling your tables with mezes. Mezes are little dishes, or appetizers, somewhat akin to Spanish tapas. They include such favorites as eggplant dip, halloumi, calamari, hummus, hot pepper paste with walnuts, olives, pilaki and octopus, among countless others. For a night out in a meyhane, plan on spending between 30 and 50 lira.
It should be also noted that meyhanes demand a bit of decorum. First, gather friends or strangers and go into one of the countless enormous multi-floored restaurants with long tables and wandering minstrels (these are meyhanes), and sit down and order enough rakı (an anise-flavored spirit) to make everyone cotton-eyed, and enough mezes to fill up the table. Spend the next few hours laughing and shouting at one another over the music and occasionally watching old Turkish men stand up and dance like amorous drunken hawks.
The above is best accomplished at meyhanes such as:
Boncuk - Located on Nevizade Street (the main thoroughfare for meyhanes) near Taksim Square, Boncuk specializes in Armenian dishes and is famous for its stuffed mackerel (“uskumru dolması”), topik (an Armenian meze) and Circassian chicken (“Çerkez tavuğu”). Live fasil music on Fridays and Saturdays.
Refik - Opened in 1954, this meyhane on Tünel Sofyalı Street (at the end of Istiklal Caddesi) offers Turkish dishes during lunchtime and transforms into a meyhane at night. It regularly ranks among the top ten meyhanes in Istanbul. Specialties include stuffed kale (“karalahana dolması”), stewed anchovies, and lamb’s chitterling (“kuzu sarma”). Refik is open every day except Sundays until 1 am.
Specialties you should try
Ciğ Köfte -Pronounced chee kooftey, these little wads of spicy deliciousness are easily identifiable – they look like orange termite mounds. Ciğ Köfte literally means “raw meatball”. In the past these were made with raw minced beef or lamb meat. The one’s you will be encountering are made of bulgur wheat, mild onions, scallions, parsley, green pepper and probably tomato sauce, served on a sheath of lettuce with a lemon slice.
Midye (Mussels) - You will find little pyramids of midye almost everywhere. Perennially popular, they are served fried on skewers and eaten with garlic sauce, or, even better, served stuffed with spiced rice, pine nuts and sometimes raisins, and then handed to you by a man who personally squeezes a jet of lemon juice inside.
Hamsi - Black Sea anchovies, or “hamsi,” are miniscule fish roughly the size of a flattened finger. They are served unvivisected – eyeballs, tailfin, everything – fried and in a generous pile on a platter, or served mixed with rice in a dish called “hamsili pilav” (sardine rice).
Kokoreç - Originally a dish brought by nomadic Turks from Central Asia, kokoreç essentially consists of lamb – ideally suckling lamb – or goat intestines wrapped in seasoned offal and stuffed with minced hearts, lungs and kidneys. This is then wrapped around a skewer and torrefied over a charcoal fire. The result is then cleavered into little pieces and seasoned with lemon, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper and served inside flat bread or on a plate with pickles and garnish.
Lahmacun - An oriental dish served throughout much of the Middle East and the Caucus region, the lahmacun is a soft oval of thin slightly crisped dough that has been painted with spicy sauce, bearded with mincemeat, and served with greens and a lemon slice. You basically pile everything you can onto the face of the dough and roll it up like a scroll.
Sarma - Sarma, also known as “dolma” (both of which mean “a stuffed thing”), usually means stuffed grape leaves (or stuffed cabbage leaves if they come from the Laz regions along the Black Sea coast). These look like stubby, wet, loosely-rolled green or transparent cigars, and they are addicting. They come in two main categories: 1) “kıyma”, which is stuffed with mincemeat, onion, pine nuts, spices rice and olive oil, and served warm and doused in yogurt; and 2) the same thing without meat, with some extra herbs and spices thrown in and served at room temperature.
When it comes to boozing, you should at least spend one night sipping cold cylindrical glasses of rakı, a Turkish anise-flavored liquor made from twice distilled grape pomice. The clear liquid is never drunk straight but rather with a splash of cool water, which transforms it white; it is almost never consumed without some sort of meze (appetizer) and is considered near blasphemous if drunk alone. The ideal setting, as mentioned, is among a large group of friends in a meyhane, in line with the example set down by the Republic’s most revered hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who died of cirrhosis of the liver.
If you don’t feel like a meyhane, Istanbul, especially along Istiklal Caddesi, is packed full of bars — many with live music. Especially popular are the city’s rooftop bars and restaurants, which are everywhere and offer a sweeping skyline and sometimes an admirable cocktail list. Do not fail to spend an evening in at least one.
- David Jennings
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Istanbul adventures!