Today’s city guide comes from Melinda Mahaffey, a blogger and copy editor at a daily English-language newspaper. Melinda moved to Istanbul six months ago, and her Istanbul-native and graphic-designer boyfriend, Cagatay Icden, helped with these city guide selections. Melinda takes us on a tour through the many historic neighborhoods of this now somewhat metropolitan city. Thank you, Melinda and Cagatay, for this beautiful guide! — Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump . . .
Istanbul defies description. Straddling Asia and Europe and with 15 million inhabitants, it’s a city that can be both tranquil and congested, historic and modern, secular and religious, gorgeous and painfully ugly all at the same time — it just depends where exactly you are. The city has existed in some form for 3,000 years, and despite multiple name changes — as the song goes, “Istanbul was Constantinople, now it’s Istanbul . . .” — and multiple cultures sweeping through, the city has for the most part incorporated its past to build today’s multifaceted metropolis. This is a place where you can find castles, mosques and mosaics, Ottoman mansions, Eastern spices, ornate palaces, skyscrapers, McDonald’s and Starbucks.
For this guide, I used the names of neighborhoods generally, to indicate location and walkability (though it only takes about 10 minutes to walk from the heart of Sultanahmet to Eminönü). The most difficult part was choosing which areas to cover. For everything I chose, I left something equally great out. I ended up sticking with three major areas of interest to tourists — Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Taksim Square — but also included some quick hits at the bottom.
Check out this Google Map with all of the below listings!
Neorion Hotel: This moderately expensive hotel in Sultanahmet only opened last summer and has already secured the top spot (out of more than 700 entries) on Trip Advisor. Guests rave about the hotel’s gorgeous view of the Golden Horn from the rooftop terrace, breakfast buffet and warm hospitality.
Four Seasons: Istanbul boasts a number of exquisite (and extremely expensive) hotels, but if I could stay anywhere in town, with price as no object, I would choose the Four Seasons Sultanahmet for its prime location near Topkapi Palace, lush central courtyard and its historical past as a notorious prison (think Midnight Express). The Four Seasons also has a second, palatial location on the Bosphorus where Martha Stewart stayed when she came to film her show.
Basileus Hotel: The newer Basileus offers simple rooms with wood furnishings, a good breakfast buffet (with omelets!) and great value for its location in the historic Sultanahmet district.
Hotel Seraglio: Located in a townhouse in Sultanahmet, this small family-owned hotel also boasts a hearty breakfast buffet plus tea and cakes in the afternoon. However, the rates almost double from low season to high season.
5oda: Known as “five rooms” in English, this untraditional hotel features accommodations in small modern apartments (with kitchenettes) and also includes breakfast. It’s located just off Istiklal Street, near the Sishane metro stop, and within walking distance of Tunel and Galata Tower.
Sultanahmet is the place in Istanbul that you came to see, home to most of the major historic sites such as Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya. Not surprisingly, a huge industry has sprung up in this area to cater to the busloads of tourists that pass through every day. The sites of old Constantinople and Byzantium are breathtaking, but the eating and shopping in this area are generally overpriced and underwhelming. (If you have suggestions on either front, please post them in the comments!)
You might consider buying the 72-hour Museum Pass, available at most of the following sites. It includes free entry to Chora Church, Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace and the Harem, the Archaeology Museum, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and the Istanbul Mosaic Museum (plus, it offers a few discounts at other attractions that you likely wouldn’t get to in such a short time period). While it does cost 72 lira (about $40), the entry fees to Chora Church, Ayasofya and Topkapi Palace alone add up to 75 lira. Most attractions in Istanbul are closed on Mondays; Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays.
See & Do
Aya Sofya: Also known as the Hagia Sophia, this massive church-turned-mosque-turned museum has withstood various disasters — both natural and man-made — since the year 537. Most of the famous golden mosaics are located on the ceiling or along the upper gallery. Not surprisingly, the museum gets really crowded, so come as close to the opening time (9 am) as you can.
Topkapi Palace: With construction starting in 1460 soon after the Ottomans captured Constantinople, Topkapi Palace served as the opulent home of the sultans and their many wives for 400 years. Built as a series of four courtyards, the massive museum-palace has a myriad of rooms to visit, including the kitchens, the treasury with the famed Topkapi dagger, an exquisite library and a room devoted to the sultans’ extra-large caftans. You have to pay a separate fee to enter the Harem, but the gorgeously decorated rooms are well worth seeing. The First Court of Topkapi Palace is open to the public, and its wide, grassy spaces make a nice place to rest and relax in sunny weather.
Blue Mosque: Officially named the Sultan Ahmet mosque after the man who ordered its construction, the Blue Mosque gets its nickname from the blue Iznik tiles that decorate its walls. It’s still a functioning mosque (there’s a separate entrance for visitors) and as you’ll see, has an altogether different vibe than the Aya Sofya, its neighbor.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum: The Ottomans aren’t the only ones who made Seraglio Hill their home; the Byzantine emperors also built an enormous palace here (at today’s Blue Mosque), along with a ceremonial mosaic-decorated road that led down to the water. The museum displays what remains of the road — about 150 human and animal figures, including griffins, a boy and his dog and a monkey hunting birds — in situ. (For the best mosaics in town, though, head to Chora Church, walkable from the Edirnekapi Metrobus stop.)
Basilica Cistern: The Byzantines built this underground cistern; in more modern times, it was used as a romantic setting for one of Bachelorette Ali’s dinner dates. There’s nothing to see exactly (except for two stone Medusa heads at the end), and yet the atmosphere — dripping ceilings, dark interior — somehow makes it a can’t-be-missed site.
Hamam visit: Some visitors think the city’s two most famous hamams are too touristy and expensive, but if you want a good scrubbing — in a historic and gorgeously appointed interior — head to either Cagaloglu or Cemberlitas hamams. Friends say that the ladies section at Cagaloglu is nicer.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art: Housed in a palace on the Hippodrome, this museum is primarily famous for its collection of carpets, though it also displays other functional art like miniature writings, Korans and glassworks.
Eat & Drink
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta: There’s a very small menu at this beloved kofte (meatball) eatery — it’s kofte or shish kebab (with a few vegetarian side dishes), and the locals love it. Be sure to enter the right restaurant as a nearby competitor (down a door or two) has a very similar name.
Giritli: This fish restaurant tucked away on a back street offers a fixed-price traditional Turkish meal: a dizzying array of starters followed by a main course and complemented by unlimited raki, the anise-flavored liquor popular here. It’s expensive but delicious, with the garden setting (open in warm weather) a bonus. Another well-regarded fish restaurant nearby is Ahirkapi Balikcisi (Keresteci Hakki Sokak 46), featuring a simpler menu at more affordable prices.
Jennifer’s Hamam: Take the hamam experience home with you by stocking up on organic, Turkey-produced cotton towels, bathrooms, hand mitts, soaps and oils at either location, both in the Arasta Bazaar. This bazaar is generally a nice place to shop; formerly stables during Ottoman times and part of the Byzantine palace site, the open-air Arasta Bazaar now houses upscale carpet and textile shops, and the atmosphere here can be more relaxing than the shops of Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar.
Caferaga Medresesi: Take a peek inside this craft center, with areas devoted to different Turkish handicrafts like calligraphy, ceramics and tiles. Occasionally, day classes are on offer. While you’re there, you can also have a simple lunch in the courtyard.
As you move north and down the hill from Sultanahmet toward the Golden Horn, the atmosphere distinctly changes. Gone are most of the tourist sites and touts, replaced by locals — lots and lots of them — moving in a thousand directions. From here, you can catch a bus, train or ferry to almost anywhere in the city.
See, Do & Shop
Yeni Camii: You can’t miss spotting the Yeni Camii, with its imposing position right next to the Spice Market. Although the name translates to “New Mosque,” the doors were opened to the public in 1663. Because of its location, there’s usually a lot of locals coming and going, making it one of my favorite places to people-watch, both inside and outside.
Spice Bazaar: Officially called the Egyptian Bazaar, this smaller, covered bazaar mostly sells foodstuffs, with the spices laid out in a gorgeous array of colors in front of the individual shops. You can also buy dried fruits, teas, nuts, Turkish delight and even the so-called Turkish Viagra.
Shopping: If you leave Yeni Camii through the south exit (the one opposite the water side), directly across the pedestrian street, you’ll come across a warren of tiny markets that surround the Spice Bazaar. There’s a pets’ market, selling everything from pedigreed dogs to chickens to leeches, and a flower market selling plants and bulbs, to name two. Beyond that, behind the Spice Bazaar, the area opens up into streets, flanked by small shops on both sides. Here you can buy all kinds of things, including wedding dresses, yarn, fabric, light fixtures and underwear. There’s little for a tourist to buy, but the walk is like a journey through another city, one far removed from Sultanahmet and with a little whiff of the Middle East.
Ferry Trips: From Eminönü, you have multiple choices. For about 10 lira, you can take a tourist boat up to the mouth of the Black Sea, passing sites like Dolmabahce Palace, Rumeli Castle and Ortakoy mosque. You can also take a cheaper public ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side, which will give you good views of Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and Maiden’s Tower on the way.
Sirkeci Terminal: While you’re in Eminönü, take a peek at the ornate interior (as much as possible — the station is about to be renovated). This still-functioning train station was the historic terminus of the Orient Express and a set in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love.
Eat & Drink
Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi Mahdumlari: There’s always a line in front of the window at this famous coffee seller. You can buy both beans and ground coffee here for Turkish, filter or espresso coffees.
Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir: This delicious confectioner has multiple shops, including one near the Spice Bazaar. They’re known for their lokum (or Turkish delight) — which comes in a range of flavors, including my favorite, pistachio — but the almond paste sweets are equally yummy.
Zinhan Kebap House: Situated on the fifth and top floor of the Storks building, this restaurant offers its meals with gorgeous views of the Golden Horn. There’s a large selection of mezes followed by a main meat dish; as the name implies, it’s all about the kebap.
Hamdi Restaurant: Hamdi offers a lot of what Zinhan Kebap House does: traditional mezes, an array of kebap dishes and a dazzling view of Eminönü. However, the founder came from the town of Urfa and also brought with him eastern Turkey’s best dessert, baklava. Be sure to make a reservation if you want a table outside or by a window.
TAKSIM & TUNEL
After taking in the historic mosques and mosaics in Sultanahmet and the crush of Eminönü, this area feels unabashedly modern. From Taksim Square — a chaotic urban square with a monument to modern Turkey’s revolutionary founders at one end — take a stroll down the pedestrian Istiklal Street, the big shopping street on the European side with a historic tram running down the center. Here you can find famous brands like Swatch, Diesel, Mavi, Sephora and Vakko in addition to eateries, small shops and a cinema. Be ready for crowds – this area is almost always packed, especially on the weekends. At the end, the area becomes Tunel to the right and ahead the hill slopes down to Galata Tower. Tunel is a popular area for dinner and abuzz on weekends though the municipality has recently prohibited outdoor seating.
See & Do
Babylon: This popular live-music venue in Tunel features a range of styles, including jazz, electronic and tribute nights, and hosts special events like the Oldies but Goodies party.
Pera Museum: In addition to its permanent collection of Ottoman Orientalist art and ceramics, the Pera Museum also hosts traveling exhibitions — earlier this year saw Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Gelman Collection — plus a number of events, including film showings, concerts and talks.
Pera Palace Hotel: This historic and recently renovated hotel has hosted famous guests such as Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Spend an afternoon in the Kubbeli Salon, enjoying the historic ambiance, exquisite ceiling and delicious pastries during their famous (yet pricey) tea time.
Nardis Jazz Club: If you do find that you’ve kept going and headed down to Galata Tower, head into this small club for the city’s best jazz.
Eat & Drink
Sofyali 9: There are a lot of mehanes around, but this one in Tunel stands out because of its superior Turkish meze (paired with raki, of course!).
House Cafe: This trendy and atmospheric café — which has several locations around Istanbul, including one on Istiklal Street and one in Tunel — offers an extensive world-food menu. The breakfast menu is especially good, featuring both traditional Turkish and American brunch selections.
Leb-i Derya: This upscale world-cuisine restaurant has several outposts across Istanbul, but the location atop the Richmond Hotel off Istiklal Street offers a striking view of the Old City.
Lokal: This small, laid-back restaurant in Tunel plays movies on the wall outside and soft, jazzy music and serves up some of the best Indian and Thai food in the city. Be sure to step into the right place: There’s another Lokal outpost at the end of Istiklal Street, but it’s a bar.
Inci Pastanesi: This small pastry shop on Istiklal Street is known for its chocolate-doused profiteroles, for 5 lira a plate, that the man behind the counter scoops out as you stand there. (İstiklal Cad. 56/H)
Robinson Crusoe 389: This wood-furnished bookshop near one end of Istiklal Street has a wide selection of art books, travel guides, books on Turkish and regional history and novels in English. The staff is also very knowledgeable.
Mephisto: In addition to books, music and DVDs, this multilevel store on Istiklal Street also has a good selection of art supplies.
Virgin Megastore: I’ve included this familiar chain because in addition to the usual music and video games, this outpost in the new Demiroren Mall on Istiklal Street also has a large and diverse selection of English-language books, plus a small selection of art supplies.
Pasabahce Magazalari: You’ll see this upscale chain featuring mainly Turkish glassware in most of Istanbul’s posher malls. The location on Istiklal Street is larger than usual and features some incredible (and expensive) Ottoman-inspired pieces. They also sell votive candle holders that incorporate the city skyline, which make nice gifts or souvenirs.
By Retro: As the name implies, this eclectically furnished shop is home to a large selection of vintage clothes, shoes and accessories from around the world.
ASIAN SIDE/BAGDAT STREET: If you have time, head to the Asian side of the city, specifically to Bagdat Street. In theory, it’s the equivalent of the European side’s Istiklal Street, but with cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalk, it’s a much better place for people-watching, which is what a large number of Istanbul residents spend warm Saturday and Sunday afternoons doing.
ORTAKOY: This neighborhood boasts a gorgeous Baroque mosque (currently undergoing an extensive renovation), and against the backdrop of the Bosphorus Bridge, it makes for a spectacular dinner setting at one of the waterfront restaurants. You might recognize it from its appearance on the October 2010 cover of National Geographic Traveler. This area is pretty trendy especially on weekends, as see-and-be-seen youths come here for lunch/brunch or an afternoon stroll.
BEBEK and neighboring RUMELI HISARI: Chic Bebek can be packed on weekends, with locals crowding onto the waterfront terraces at the neighborhood’s Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffees. There’s nothing to see in this neighborhood; instead, enjoy brunch at the laid-back Bebek Kahve next to the mosque or go for evening drinks on the terrace of the swank Bebek Hotel. Moving north along the water, the next neighborhood you come to is Rumeli Hisari, home to the 1452-built castle that helped the Ottomans capture Constantinople. This area has a number of small waterfront cafes popular for weekend brunch. Afterwards, take a stroll along this very photogenic portion of the Bosphorus, with views of the castle and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.