City Guide: Istanbul

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Image courtesy of Google.

Recently my best friend travelled to Istanbul and asked me to put together a little guide for her and her travel buddies. Having been to Istanbul for a fourth time in the summer I was thrilled to take a walk down memory lane and share with my friends all the must see spots. So I thought I would post my list here, so you, by dear cyber-friends/fellow travellers can get some ideas on where to visit when you’re next in Istanbul, which in my humble opinion is one of the world’s greatest cities.

When to Go:  While the mercury rises to unforgivable levels in the height of summer (late July/August) the city can also experience heavy snow in winter – both of which can be a hinderance to travellers. From my experiences May-early July and September-October are the perfect time to experience both the capital and the countryside; with prices and temperatures dropping and many tourists heading back home.

Budget: Turkey is a backpacker/budget travellers. As a rough guide:

  • Dorm room: AUD$10-20/night
  • Hotel room (db w/ ensuite): AUD$30-50/night
  • Bottled water: AUD50c
  • Cheap restaurant meal for two w/out alcohol: AUD$10-15
  • Fancy restaurant meal for two w/out alcohol: AUD$30-50
  • Beer (Effes, Turkish): AUD$2-3

EAT/DRINK

Eating in Turkey is always the highlight of any trip for me, so it seems appropriate to start with the food!

Must try dishes (aside from kebabs which are literally EVERYWHERE):

  • Borek – Savoury pastry filled with minced meat or cheese and spinach and layered like a lasagne (this is my absolute favourite Turkish dish).
  • Menemen – The ultimate scrambled egg and the perfect start to any day of exploring the city.
  • Köfte – A turkish staple.
  • Lahmacun – Crispy flat bread traditionally topped with minced meat, salad and lemon juice; these are the perfect street-food snack.
  • Pide – “Turkish pizza”.
  • Meze – Commonly served as a starter/side (but if you order enough it can be a meal by itself). Meze is a lot of little dishes served together on a tray.
  • Pilav – Don’t feel bad if you rate this Turkish rice so highly that it’s your favourite thing on any plate! Smothered in yoghurt and as a side to any meat dish this is a guaranteed winner!
  • Lokum (“Turkish Delight”) – When in Rome! (Istanbul?) Note: Lokum usually has a fine dusting of nuts to cover it/will also contain nuts, most often pistachio or peanut, so be sure to ask beforehand if you have any allergies.

Kale Çay Bahçesi, Hisari Mahallesi, Yahya Kemal Caddesi, No. 22, Sariyer

Without doubt my favourite food spot in the city. Set alongside the river away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre it makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a seaside mediterranean resort town. I have been here for breakfast a number of times and while it is a little way out, the food and views always makes it worth the journey. My advice for getting there if you don’t want to catch a taxi all the way would be to catch a ferry from Beyoglu or Fatih to Orakoy and then a shorter taxi or bus from there (you could also do this as an alternative way to return to the city centre). This ferry ride also allows you to see Istanbul from the Bosporus river, which is a must do when you’re in town. Next to the cafe is Rumeli Castle and the area of Orakoy, which are both worth seeing when you’re in there.

Nevizade Sokak

A great food and nightlife area; the street is lined with bars and restaurants. It’s conveniently located off the main shopping street Istiklal Cd.

KafePi, İstiklal, Sofyalı Sok. No:11, Beyoğlu

There are several of these bars/nightclubs around the city, but my personal favourite is on Sofyali Sokak because it’s the perfect location (near Istiklal Cd. and Nevizade Sokak), especially if you’re staying around Beyoglu. They have an extensive drinks menu and later in the night it transforms from a sit-down bar into a nightclub.

Bar 360, Tomtom Mh., İstiklal Cad. Mısır Apt.No:163 K:8, 34433 Beyoğlu

Offering some of the best views in Istanbul this rooftop bar and restaurant packs a punch. I’ve been here a few times and you can’t beat the views. On weekends it becomes a club and the perfect place in summer to watch the sunset over the glistening Bosporus. Book ahead if you want to score a table with a view (which let be real, you definitely do).

bar360
Sunset drinks on the rooftop terrace at Bar360.

Leb-i-Derya, Şahkulu Mah., Kumbaracı Ykş. No:57, 34425 Tünel/Beyoğlu

One thing you’ll notice about Istanbul is that rooftops are prime real-estate; and with good reason – it’s the best way to see the city (and see just how insanely far the city spreads) and appreciate the diverse beauty of Istanbul. Leb-i-Derya is another one of the cities finest rooftop cocktail bars. Go early to get a spot by the edge.

Blue Mosque Picnic

Travelling on a budget? While Turkey will undoubtedly prove to be your best friend (cheap as chips I promise) the best way to save money and have a memorable experience is to grab some street food and spread yourself out in one of the parks surrounding the Blue Mosque (those views). Just remember to be respectful if travelling during Ramadan and wait to eat after the call to prayer has finished.

mosque picnic
My darling Tess and I picnicking on a warm summer evening outside the Blue Mosque.

Meze by Lemon Tree, Lokanta Maya and Milka Istanbul

These are three restaurants that unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to visit but which I hear endlessly great things about from friends and the press. Next time I’m in town I know straight where I’m heading…

DO

For a lot of visitors Istanbul can seem pretty confronting. The city itself is a sprawling labyrinth of bazaars, kebab shops, trinket stalls and mosques. However, once you’re there it isn’t hard to navigate, with many of the “must see” sites being located around the same  area. While I think it’s definitely important to see the big sites, one of the charms of the city is to just wander (you’ll quickly get lost) and find hidden gems off the tourist trail.

Grand Bazaar

An absolute must for any visitor. A completely immersive cultural experience (if not slightly touristy now) it is the perfect place for presents (to treat yourself, obviously) and to be awed by the beautiful architecture and myriad of goods (everything from pottery to sapphires) for sale.

grand bazaar
Lauren and I spending our life savings inside the Grand Bazaar.

Erenler Nargile, Tahtakale, Yeniçeriler Cad. çorlulu ali pasa medresisi no:36 d:28; Fatih

For a lot of travellers chill-time in Turkey is synonymous with shisha. A great place to go is Erenler Nargile which is only a short walk from Sultanhmet and connects with the Grand Bazaar. I was introduced to this spot but my Turkish friends in the city, so I can say from experience it’s a cool local spot to hang out, especially in the evening when the place packs out.

Sultanahmet

The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya) and Topkapi Palace are all placed around a square called Sultanahmet and are all must do’s. Depending on lines/how long you take to wander they can be completed together in one day quite comfortably or explored in greater detail on separate days.

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Inside the Blue Mosque, one of the world’s greatest religious landmarks (image from my instagram @sarah_youd).
blue mosque
Dressing the part inside the Blue Mosque (we were able to borrow the green and blue garbs at the entrance for free). Scarves our own.
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Hotfooting it through Sultanahmet on our way to the Blue Mosque (image from my Instagram @sarah_youd).
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The grandeur of Hagia Sofia/ Aya Sofia needs to be seen to be believed (image courtesy of Google).

Istiklal Caddesi

The main shopping street in Istanbul, this is where all the big global brands have set up shop – so if you’re in the mood to spend head here. Branching off this main street are a number of little side paths with great cafes and restaurants. Ask a taxi to drop you at the top of the street in Taksim square if you want to work your way down the length of it (at the bottom you will find Galata Tower), but avoid lingering in Taksim Square.

Egyptian Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi)

Less touristy than the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar is a maze of foods, spices and trinkets where locals haggle for the best bargains – making it a great site for visitors. The bazaar is an easy walk to/from the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet and takes you through some interesting back streets in the Old Town.

Galata Tower

It’s all about those views! Located at the base of Istiklal Caddesi (or the ferry depending on which side you’re coming from).

Dolmabahçe Palace

If you’re one for exploring palaces then check this majestic beauty out. If you want to catch a ferry you can from Eminönü.

Princes’ Islands

During the summer escape the sweltering heat with a day trip to the Princes’ Islands, an hour ferry ride out of Beyoglu. This summer I went to Büyükada which was so quaint you could easily forget you were in a city of some ~20 million people. Ice-cream stalls, bakeries, sea-side restaurants and beach bars (along a very clean coastline) litter the tiny island and make for the perfect place to relax. The most jaw-dropping moment? Seeing how far the city sprawls (you can still see skyscrapers in suburbs that are at least a two hour drive from the city centre).

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That time Princes’ Island literally saved my life on a 40*c day.

Catch A Ferry

There are so many opportunities to catch a ferry at some stage in Istanbul and I couldn’t recommend it enough. It is the best way to see the beautiful city skyline and is a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the streets (plus in summer it is a very nice way to cool down). Travelling on the cheap? Catch one for a few dollars from one side of the city to the other. Got a little bit more in the bank? (not much, about $15-20) then take one of the many tours which you should be able to organise through your accommodation, online or purchase from one of the authorised vendors in the city.

Thinking of exploring more of Turkey? Hell yeah you are! Why not check out my post on the Turkish coast (a.k.a the closest you’ll ever get to heaven).

STAY

To make the most out of your time in Istanbul it is best to stay as central as possible otherwise you will waste untold amounts of money and time travelling in to the city centre to enjoy all it has to offer. I would recommend staying around Fatih, Sultanhmet or Beyoglu.

Previously I stayed at the Marmara Guesthouse which I would definitely recommend. It is a little on the pricier side but the location can’t be beat and the guest-house itself was beautifully kept and very accommodating (plus there was a rooftop breakfast everyday which was a definite highlight of the stay).

If you’re happy with something more basic/you’re on a budget then check out World House Hostel which is located opposite Galata Tower at the base of Istiklal Cd. (a.k.a. the perfect location if you’re big on night-life and a great place if you’re travelling solo to meet a fellow backpacker).

CULTURE DO’S and DON’TS/ SAFETY

Turkey, and most recently Istanbul, is certainly finding itself in the press a fair bit these days, and unfortunately not always for the right reasons. Given its position between the Middle-East/Asia and Europe (it is actually the only country to lie on two continents) there are of course recent safety issues which need to be acknowledged. I have never once felt unsafe or worried when travelling in Turkey, but I understand people with limited exposure to Islamic culture may be nervous, especially during religious festivals such as Ramadan. Personally, I see no need to be – if anything Turkey (which is actually secular) provides the perfect model for a peaceful and prosperous Islamic society. I would certainly consider Istanbul, and many parts of Turkey (particularly the coast) to be liberal and tolerant but as always use caution in crowded areas (such as Taksim Square) or areas of cultural significance, be respectful of cultural norms and expectations and avoid demonstrations or protests (again, Taksim is the common site of these annoyances).

  • DO – Dress respectably when visiting sites of cultural significance (such as Mosques). This often means men and women must wear clothing which is at least to their knees and must not have their shoulders showing. Usually you can borrow clothing from the Mosques when you visit – but it’s always a good idea to carry a scarf with you.
  • DO – Bring sunblock, a hat and a water bottle out with you during the day, especially in summer when the mercury rises to unforgivable levels.
  • DO – Be aware of your safety in busy areas, particularly those which are touristy or culturally significant.
  • DON’T – Embrace your partner in public in an overly sexual way (i.e. you can hold hands but no tonsil tennis please). While Turkey is rather liberal this is just bad manners and not a cultural norm in the country.
  • DON’T – Forget that during the month of July/August (exact dates depend on the calendar year) that Muslim people will often fast during what is known as Ramadan. In Istanbul you are welcome to eat and drink publicly, but be respectful of those fasting – particularly if you are visiting the mosques during prayer times. Don’t let this holy time discourage you from visiting though. There are many markets and festivities to celebrate Ramadan and Eid, the last day (which is the Islamic equivalent of Christmas in size and significance).
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