I won’t lie and say I wasn’t pulled to Istanbul by anything other than romance: Istanbul is the final stop on The Orient Express, it’s where the power of the Roman Empire split, and it’s a city that bridges two continents. It could easily be the setting of a Zoe Archer romance or the backdrop for a political thriller.
Istanbul lacks none of the romance I imagined, but it’s far more modern than its public image suggests. This modernity is hardly surprising: Turkey desperately wants membership in the EU and Istanbul is pushing a 2020 Olympic bid. The city is one of the cleanest I’ve ever visited and the public transportation is nearly brand new. I felt more comfortable here than I have in many larger cities in the U.S.
Lost in Istanbul With No Baedeker
Most guidebooks will keep you wandering around Sultanahmet, and for good reason. It is the part of the city where most tourist sites (and traps) are located: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Market, and Topkapi Palace are all here. I will not lie: Sultanhamet is ready for tourists. The sites are unbelievable, but food and shopping are a poor deal here. Grab your Rick Steves and Lonely Planet, view the sites, and then dash over to the New Town and Istiklal street for some noms.
I’ll also say that all the guidebooks are plain wrong when they say the Asian side of Istanbul isn’t worth it. There may be no Hagia Sophia, but there’s a market with amazing food, great restaurants, and the sense that you are actually in a part of town where people live. And not one person asked if I wanted a Bosphorus tour (something you will be asked every time you walk past any tourist attraction in Istanbul).
Another great stop that won’t be recommended by most guidebooks are the Prince Islands. These are the summer getaway for the Istanbul crowd. You can grab the city-run boat (it takes about an hour and a half) and head to the largest island, BÃ¼yÃ¼kada. Rent a bike and enjoy a relaxing ride and a picnic in a beautiful setting. It’s a great day away from the city with amazing views. Bonus: the islands have no cars (though the horse-drawn carriages careening up the hills are a little terrifying).
Perhaps the best part of a visit to Istanbul are all the kitties. The stray cats all look happy and are positively adorable. I still would wash my hands after petting them.
There are many theories about why all the cats, the most popular of which relate to the Prophet Muhammed’s fondness for cats. It’s rather charming (especially if, like me, you are a cat lady). One of my favorite moments was watching a guy sitting down for a rest on a bench when a kitty decided his lap looked perfect for a nap. The man tried to gently move the cat off his lap, but the cat was determined and curled right back up.
I won’t bore you with descriptions of all the tourist sites (Lonely Planet and Rick Steves will tell you that), but I will say what we ate and where we stayed.
Street food: The bagel-like food called the simit is everywhere. You can get these with Nutella for 1 Turkish Lira (about 60 cents U.S.). Find an orange juice stand for fresh-squeezed juice for around 3 Lira and you’ve got a great breakfast or late-morning snack. These are EVERYWHERE, which is great if you’re like me and get cranky when hunger strikes. The immediate satisfaction was a blessing.
Meat, meat, meat: There are all sorts of ways to have meat. There are the gyro-style sandwiches (some with fries in the sandwich) and kebab places are all over. They all have essentially the same menu, though the price and quality will differ considerably. We had our best lunch at Durumzade.
Mezze: This is perfect for the vegetarian (or the meat-weary) in your group. Mezze are basically appetizers and include things like stuffed grape leaves, salads, and fish. You can get these at most restaurants and at delis (which we did for picnics!). We really loved Ciya on the Asian side, which has excellent food and a large variety. You can get small portions of stuff you might not normally try, like tripe.
Fish: So much fish, and all of it is super fresh. Avoid the fish places on the Galata bridge as they are a rip-off, but if you go to the end of the bridge where people are hanging out, barbecuing the day’s catch on informal grills, you can get a fish sandwich for around 5 Turkish Lira.
Sweets: You can munch on sweets all day here! From amazing baklava places (please go to KarakÃ¶y GÃ¼llÃ¼oÄŸlu, just to the right of the Galata bridge if your back is to it on the new side) to Lokum (turkish delight), your sweet tooth will be constantly satisfied.
We stayed at Hotel Sultan Hill, which is very affordable and super clean. It’s right in the heart of Sultanahmet and very highly regarded. If you want to be more in the heart of things, then look for a hotel around Istiklal street.
The Guide Istanbul: We met a writer for this handy online publication and it was one of the best things we learned about. It’s got great information about things that won’t be in your guidebook. Want to know where to shop for funky accessories off the tourist trail? Try the Galata district. We would never have known that without The Guide. It also has great restaurant reviews and tips you off to events and exhibitions.
Lonely Planet Istanbul: Essential, but not updated as often as I’d like. It’s a good encyclopedia of things.
Rick Steves’ Istanbul: I’ll be honest and say that this is the one Rick Steves book I’ve ever used that didn’t meet my expectations. It was far too straight-tourist than he normally is, but that’s maybe because he didn’t write it. It’s still got good information, though, and when used with Lonely Planet, is a good buy.
I would definitely recommend a trip to Istanbul. It’s beautiful, easy to get around, and loads of fun. Where have your travels taken you?