This is part “how was my trip” post and part “here is a list of cool things to do in Istanbul”.
My lovely mother (@mamadespina), sister (@theodoragk) and I went to Istanbul for a few days in September to spend time together (we don’t live in the same country) and celebrate my name day (don’t ask).
Serious hat tip to A. who was my guide in the city before the ladies joined me and showed me how to navigate and choose nice places.
Non stop city
Istanbul must be the original non stop city. I’ve never been in a place that is constantly so full of people and busy. We are talking building works at 1.30 in the morning, taking double the time to get somewhere because of the traffic, bumping into people ALL the time.
And it’s not just that. The shops (at least in the more… traditional parts) are bursting at the seams, products spilling out onto the street, merchants looking on, assistants running up and down, customers asking questions, all at a dizzying speed, with thousands of colours and smells. The effect is fascinating and exhausting in equal measures.
I’m very interested in the history and the “why” it all works the way it works. I’m currently reading Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924 by Philip Mansel – a great read. But for more literary versions I really love the Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk – excellent “atmosphere” book. His Istanbul, is on my to-read list. (If you know any good books about the city let me know).
How the geography works
You will hear people talking about the European side, the Asian side, the bridges, the Golden horn and all sorts of things that can easily make no sense until you see them. Here’s some things I kept in mind that helped:
Europe vs. Asia: BIG body of water separates them – the Bosphorus (not to be confused with the Golden Horn.
Old Town aka Fatih: European side, where all the sights and museums like Hagia Sophia and the Old Mosque are. Separated by the new(er) town by the Golden Horn.
Golden Horn: Inlet of the Bosphorus, separates Fatih from the other European side of the City,
New(er) European Side: Where the neighbourhoods of Beyoglu, Besiktas etc. are as well as Taksim and Galata Tower.
Bridges on the Golden Horn: Atatürk Bridge , Galata Bridge (and two more but you’ll probably not cross em).
Bridges on the Bosphorus: Bosphorus Bridge (duh) and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (suspended and incredibly impressive)
Seriously, it was IMPOSSIBLE to see everything. We managed a few – for which you can find ample info on guide books but here is three stuff on each from me.
Hagia Sophia – complicated, too loved by the Greeks, impressive.
The Blue Mosque. There are no words to describe this miracle. #istanbul #bluemosque #sultanahmetcamii A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque) – incredibly beautiful, tiles to die for, head cover adventure.
Worth it. #topkapi #istanbul #harem A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
Topkapi Palace – requires two days, incredible luxury, peace and quiet.
Basilica Cistern – actual FISH(!), eerie, good temperature.
It exists. #tram #istanbul A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
The main street with the shops, the locals, the tourist traps and all that jazz. We loved walking around there for the tiny little coffee shops on the side streets where from time to time you could hear young musicians. I loved finding two guys playing the kemençe for example.
Take a side street, walk a bit, turn around, repeat. Be warned. Some side streets contain some of the NOISIEST clubs you’ve ever come across. In some though you will find charming little cafes, lovely shops or just local youths chilling and smoking. At the one end of İstiklâl is Taksim Square.
At the the other end of İstiklâl just take the cobbled tiny streets and descend. I advise against doing it the other way unless you are an Olympic athlete, its a steep hill. Galata is basically a bigger area but a lot of people refer by this name only to this part. We found some lovely tiny local shops there and there were some restaurants which looked interesting too.
Get to the end of Galata (i.e. hit the Golden Horn) and turn left till you get to Karaköy. Ignore the port and just walk on until you uncover tiny little streets with awesome hipsterish coffee, mussels and yummy cakes. The cool crowd seems to go there. (If you need an address for Google Maps just try Pan Karaköy.
The food and the coffee and the drinks
Seriously, the food in Istanbul was to die for. Even though we ate very very well everywhere, my favourite was always the breakfast.
Here are some of the places we checked out.
This old meyhane is apparently well known for its fish and I can confirm that it was incredibly yummy. Expect walls covered with photos of famous people who have eaten there and a wealth of Ataturk portraits. Look for the portraits of the original owner, Refik Aslan, he is bursting with pride. (Spotted by Locals, website)
Van Kahvaltı Evi
Simply perfect breakfast without end. Plates keep on coming, waistlines keep on expanding. Try their murtaga (mix of wheat and eggs) which apparently you can’t find in a lot of places in Istanbul. (Facebook, Girl X Departure)
Local – spicy – yummy A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
Dürümcü Raif Usta
If you are peckish before your market walk (see below) then we would recommend Dürümcü Raif Usta – the sort of place where they will be looking at you, wondering how the hell the tourists found it. Their stuff is wonderfully spicy so get an Ayran with that. (Facebook)
Ah, I knew this would exist. You could call it pretentious or chic (depending on your style) but you cannot deny the great food and the unparalleled view. We celebrated my name day there and had really good, posh restaurant food. Later on the tables are taken away and the space transforms to a lounge bar/club for all the cool people. (website, Facebook)
Great little cafe in Karaköy. Try their desserts and get a Turkish coffee even though the crowd is much more of the flat white variety. Hip and trendy.
Namlı Gurme Karaköy
Everyone swears that this place has the best breakfast so be prepared to queue. It’s worth it. You have to go in and choose a number of things from the display. Ask them to make you menemen – a dish with eggs, onion, tomato, green peppers, and spices that you will basically eat with mountains of bread. (website, Facebook)
Apparently THE place for baklava. Just go it, get a Turkish coffee (no sugar) and choose some baklava from the display. Super fresh and smells of butter, it will basically have you making satisfied sounds while your teeth are stuck together. (website)
This will easily be your most expensive experience in Istanbul (it was for us) but it was worth it just to watch Mummy Despina’s face when I revealed that someone else would actually wash us. Hilarious.
We chose the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, mainly because I was fascinated by the fact that it took them seven years to meticulously restore it (it was built between 1578-1583). This was not huge but it was beautiful and that staff were great. Seriously, if you have not had a blanket of bubbles over you ever in your life, you need to try it. Just don’t do it before a full day of exploring. Better to go to sleep after or just go out for food. (website)
Less is more. Not. #Istanbul A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
Sorry to say that we all found the Grand Bazaar horrifying. Unless you go to the Antique shops (see photo), most shops felt touristy, plasticky and generally icky. We were not into leather or carpets so no opinion there.
Mummy Despina was very disappointed with the Grand Bazaar so I took her to Mahmutpaşa Çarşısı. This is a street (and some around it) between the Grand Bazaar and the covered spice market. If you want to see where people *actually* go for cheap shopping, just go there. It’s fascinating to see everything piled on top of each other, the granny underwear and the… not so granny lingerie on display, the old men measuring trouser sizes… it’s all there.
After that brilliant walk, we ended up at the Spice Bazaar where I received an actual marriage proposal. Or to be accurate, my mother was asked for her blessing by this very funny guy.
– Mother in law – can I call you mother in law? – please tell your daughter I love her.
– She decides.
– She is beautiful but cruel.
My sister didn’t know where to hide.
Of course try lokum (i.e. turkish delight) but I highly recommend the pink ones. Any pink ones.
With the awesome Erbil of @bittigitti in #istabul – check out their workshops but mostly their #readmore project. A photo posted by Sofia Gk (@sofiagk) on
Awesome art lessons/ book exchange/ crafters space. Check out their website where you will find more details about their projects and how you can help or learn new skills.
The tour of the Bosphorus
This is horribly touristy but even the short tour is worth it. It’s the only way to really understand the scale of the city.
Disclosure: We went to Istanbul mid September 2015. This is my *personal* list of stuff in the city. No deals with any of the places mentioned.