Editor’s Note: Rene Ames of Lonely Planet and Time Out has kindly offered to share his wisdom with us as to where to go in Istanbul for many of you who are making a side trip. We will share a gallery of Bundlr suggestions in the near future, but for now, we thank Rene for all of his fabulous advice and trust you will contact him on the EWBC Facebook Group page, or the #ewbc twitter stream should you have any questions.
Having a Bosphorus inlet romantically called the Golden Horn or Haliç (its Turkish name) naturally dividing two of its main historic urban centers, Istanbul has always been distinctly bicultural in its way of life. And even to this day when four bridges span both shores of this Bosphorus estuary, with a fifth being constructed which will eventually connect the north and south metro lines, the distinction remains unchanged.
On one side of the Bosphorus Straight is the Istanbul etched in most would-be visitors’ minds as a minaret-laden theme park of Ottoman landmarks and grandeur. This is the old town that stretches from Sultanahmet, the neighborhood where most of its many fabled sites are within walking distance from its other; down to the water-edged area of Eminonu where equally grand-looking mosques and the Spice Bazaar are located and where milling hordes of shoppers carry on daily in narrow, warren-like streets lined with stores selling a motley array of produce and products; and on to the colorful ethnic settlements of Fener (Greeks), Balat (Jews) and Fatih (Kurds, Middle-Easterners and Eastern Europeans).
As “old towns” go, this part of the city has mostly preserved its ancient conservative character in regards to how residents conduct themselves. Here one invariably sees practicing Muslims actively heed the calls to prayer with a ready carpet to kneel on and a good number of local women artfully headscarfed, wearing varied ankle-length clothing oblivious to the weather. And even if this tourist hub’s actually located also in the European continent, it’s the Beyo?lu side across the Galata Bridge that’s popularly if mistakenly referred to as the European side – an obvious dig at the former’s entrenched exotic sensibility.
The district of Beyoglu spreads from the wharves of Karaköy on to Taksim Square, the acknowledged heart of modern Istanbul. And along with the “New City” neighborhoods north of Taksim, including tony residential vilages lining the shores of the Bosphorus, it has become a gleaming showcase of modern secular Turkey, offering ready visual indices of this country’s upward mobility. One needs not go by its recently designated pat-in-the-back CIA status of being one of the world‘s “developed“ countries in order to perceive what an impressive over-a-decade-long economic performance has wrought. Aside from gleaming skyscrapers, high-rises and shopping complexes, a 24/7 frenetic lifestyle and all other trappings of progress can be gauged everywhere one looks, sometimes lamentably so over the loss of core Turkish values.
With the confusing bipolarity of Istanbul’s character in mind, here’s a tailored or narrowed-down check list of suggestions for out-of-towners pressed-for-time, especially those on the way to and from the EWBC Digital Conference in Izmir. Hopefully, they’d be able to grab a quick-enough grasp of what this city’s all about:
Go ahead, do some sightseeing on your first available time. And if you’re not already staying in Sultanahmet or in its immediate environs, then by all means head there. It’s easier than you think, with choices of transportation cheaper than in most other western cities. Just remember one thing: you can only pay cash for taxi and dolmus fares but not in buses, metro cars, funicular and boat ferries. You’d have to buy – with cash, no foreign currency nor credit card – either tokens, an Akbil or Istanbulkart from kiosks and machines selling them. However, If you’re only staying for a couple of days, there’s no sense in purchasing either the metal device or plastic card because they cost a non-refundable 10TL to which you’d still have to load up for the number of rides you’d be taking.
Before going to Sultanahmet, it would be helpful to read some historical backgrounds on whichever sites you intend to visit. You’d probably not be able to get into every place you’d like to but at least you’d have a sense of what you’d be missing. Unfortunately, I doubt if other hurrying and harried tourists would graciously allow you to jostle your way in. From my experience, the best way is to sign up for an organized tour with local tour guides who usually procure entrance tickets ahead and maintain a working relationships with a site’s employees for priority accommodation. Hence you should already book with them before your arrival here.
Sultanahmet sites you shouldn’t miss (being online-savvy, do invest time in finding out why):
- Topkafi Palace and the Istanbul Archaeology Museums
- Aya Sofia
- Blue Mosque
- Basilica Cistern
- Grand Bazaar
Cap your (tiring) day sampling a faithful rendition of an Ottoman palace dish paired with Turkish wine at Matbah Restaurant in the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. Or, if you happen to be in the area on a Friday, don’t fail to show up at 6pm in the Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanahmet for their wonderful Turkish Wine & Cheese tasting that features boutique brands and artisanal farm produce. For 40TL ($22), It’s all you can consume regional cheese, bread, fruit preserves and fresh fruits with four-sometimes-five wine flight.
If you’re done with getting a glimpse of history or if you’re not a history buff at all, then you can start feeling the pulse of modern Istanbul by doing the Istiklal Street stroll once during your sojourn – even if only to say afterwards that you did it. As borne out by a statistical calculation, a density of three million strollers do it on a given day during a weekend, which means that Istanbullus and other Turks are undoubtedly part of the foot traffic. Istiklal is the pedestrian artery running down from Taksim Square to the Tunel, the world’s second oldest subway station,and is about three kilometers long. And while one can shrug off hearing about the intensity of the street action compared to other busy pedestrian streets in other parts of the world, you’ve got to see it to believe. From hooking up to protesting and marching for a cause, from buskering and street theater staging, the variety is staggering and not for the agoraphobic.
The street also leads to atmospheric Galata area where one finds a welcome respite from madding crowd in Sensus at the basement of Anemone Hotel, behind the iconic tower which is a local equivalenof the Eiffel Tower as a city symbol. Sensus is the city’s cavernous wine bar and warehouse devoted to stocking up not only boutique and major Turkish wine labels but those not sold elsewhere. From their well-priced list of wine by the glass, you should be able to get an initial exposure to Turkish wines here before getting the freebies in Izmir. You might even consider bringing a personal discovery to the BYOB soiree.
Turkish Hamams & Spas
Taking a break from all the walking and sashaying on Istiklal, you might consider slipping into an authentic Turkish hamam that isn’t one of the touted tourist traps in town and where attendants don‘t hold out their palms before you‘re done steaming and scrubbing:
Alternatively, you can get a luxury spa experience modeled after the bathing rituals enjoyed by an Ottoman Sultan or a Sultana at:
If you don’t shrink at rubbing elbows with the folks who lead the city’s charmed lives, consider dropping in places where they habitually shop and/or hang out:
In Nisantasi - the Bul’s Upper East Side
- Beymen Department Store and Café
- Major European and American designer stores all over the whole neighborhood
- The garden area or salon at House Café on Atiye Sokak
- The short bar and resto strip of Atiye Sokak
Note: Bagdat Caddesi in the Asian district of Kadikoy rivals Nisantasi in designer business with even more recognizable international names maintaining retail outposts there .
- The funky avant-garde designer stores in our version of Soho, around Galata Tower.
- The expat enclave of Cihangir is dotted by many shops and cafes where you’ll hear English and foreign languages spoken more than anywhere else in the city and where bohemian chic continues past its season.
- Talimhane is a pedestrian-only quarter centrally located right off Taksim Square and it’s where two of the more interesting neighborhood wine bars face each other in friendly competition:
- Rouge is co-owned by ex-Gusta wine and food magazine founder/editor Mehmet Yalcin
- Parentez Deli
In Akaretler, Besiktas
- W Hotel Lounge is beautiful people magnet
- Corvus Bar & Bite was put up by Resit Soley of the highly-rated Turkish boutique wine label
High End / Fusion
Due to its jagged and hilly terrain, this city offers gasp-inducing views in many F&B venues and those are not for the exclusive delight of the snooty few. But, it goes without saying, the best ones that can leave one momentarily speechless of course are
Note: a), c) and d) being constantly short-listed in the Bul’s best dining places are expensive price-wise hereabouts yet reasonable when considered against comparable places abroad. All five places have well-chosen wine lists.
If you’ve got to have a taste of Turkish kebab…remember that kebabs vary in form and taste depending on the region they pertain and each appeal to individual consumer preference. You’d have to find out for yourself which one‘s for you. Happily the Bul is littered with good inexpensive kebab places and you don’t have to follow a well-scented trail in finding them.
Turkish cuisine is considered one of the most influential cuisines of the world and rightfully so. Judging from the many places of various price points offering good modern takes on centuries old recipes, it seems Turkish cooking secrets were generously handed down from generation to generation. Some places though stand out in their execution.
Not surprisingly, nightlife in a megapolis like the Bul is as varied as its cosmopolitan population and social strata:
- Ulus 29
- Istanbul Jazz center
- Jazz Cafe
If you have any additional suggestions on where to go and what to do, please share!!