The ancient city of Istanbul is where East meets West—on the Bosporus Strait that divides Europe from Asia and the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. It’s become a favorite destination in recent years and for good reason. From Byzantine mosaics to the treasures of the Ottoman Emprie, Istanbul is laden with history and alive with modern sounds, cuisine and culture. Read on to discover some of our top finds in Istanbul as well as nearby sites worth a day trip.
Eminönü District – Bazaar of Edible Turkish Delight
Although many flock to visit Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar—the oldest covered shopping area in the city—a slightly younger cousin (built 1597-1664) hearkens to an era when locals traded spices on Istanbul’s waterfront. An explosion of colors, flavors and scents find their home in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, also known as M?s?r Çar??s? (Egyptian Market) because spices once came via Egypt. ocated next to the New Mosque, the Spice Bazaar offers an enticing foray into the magic of the Far East. Herbs and spices are offered in a vast array of exotic flavors that spice local foods, medicines, fragrant oils, perfumes and more. Beyond aromatic curries, oregano, mint, saffron, vanilla and cinnamon, merchants peddle traditional sweets like baklava and lokum (Turkish Delight), nuts, seeds, dried fruit, Russian caviar, Turkish coffee and an unending variety of natural teas, from apple to flower. Wares are well marked and vendors versed in English to make for a delightful browsing experience and an excellent place to pick up the authentic flavors of Turkey.
Daily 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Ortakoy – Artistic Waterside Neighborhood
The small, lively neighborhood of Ortakoy lies tucked under the mighty Bosporus Bridge that connects the city’s European and Asian sides. What was once a typical village now thrives as home to artists and sophisticates and a parade of jewelry shops, art galleries and boutiques, not to mention restaurants, cafes, bistros, nargile (Turkish waterpipe) bars and tea shops, many on the water’s edge. Renovated buildings on cobblestoned streets and marvelous views of the Bosporus Strait give it a photogenic setting. Besides the Ortakoy Mosque, there’s plenty to explore in small alleyways and eateries. Drop into a traditional fast-food joint or hit up a street vendor for seasonal specialties like chestnuts, waffles or filled donuts. For a low-key café brunch, try Ask Kahvesi and sample their special grilled-cheese sandwiches. Visitors to Ortakoy should also try kumpir, giant baked potatoes stuffed with all manner of filings—available at most any café and a neighborhood specialty. In the afternoon, idle at a waterfront café with a glass of tea and watch locals play backgammon as boats float past. Night brings on romantic waterside dining and an active nightlife, while Sunday mornings feature a very local handicraft, art and antique market for inexpensive and original gift shopping.
Eminönü – Submerged Otherworld
Opposite the famous sightseeing wonders of the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia, visitors can disappear into a hidden subterranean world and bask in a cool escape from Turkey’s summer heat. Emperor Justinian I ordered the Basilica Cistern (also known as the Sunken Palace Cistern) to be constructed in 532 A.D. The cathedral-sized underground reservoir covered 2.4 acres and stored and provided water for the Great Palace and nearby buildings—its roof supported by 336 marbled columns collected from ancient ruins. Later closed and forgotten, the cistern came back to light when a scholar in search of Byzantine antiquities discovered locals in the area were drawing water and even catching fish by lowering buckets through their basement floors. Upon further investigation, he rediscovered the cistern in 1545.
Treated as a garbage site by the Ottomans, the cistern finally saw renovation beginning in the 18th century. Following a significant restoration in the late 1950’s, it opened to the public in 1987 and now basks in magical illuminated grandeur. The 12 rows of Corinthian and Doric columns, giant inverted Medusa-head carvings, unique design elements and occasional classical music concerts capture another dimension. Raised wooden platforms navigate visitors through this surreal water world, where carp traverse their silent kingdom as the footsteps of history pass above them in wonder.
Eminönü – A Sultan’s Treasure
Home to four centuries of Ottoman sultans, the magnificent Topkapi Palace still reigns majestically on a hill overlooking the Bosporus Strait. As a complex of buildings rather than a single structure, the palace reflects centuries of varying taste, styles and functions that served many periods. Abandoned in the 19th century, Topkapi fell into disrepair until it was salvaged and renovated into a fascinating and outstanding museum of history, culture and intrigue. The city within a city housed up to 5,000 people in a mind-boggling number of buildings, rooms, apartments, kitchens, armories, stables, pavilions and courtyards. The areas that are open provide plenty of fodder for interest of all levels in the form of books, calligraphy, ceramics, tiles, miniatures, portraits, weapons, sacred relics, treasures, garments and more.
The Treasury holds fabulous inlaid daggers (including the Topkapi Dagger), the 86-carat Kasikci Diamond, baskets of emeralds and precious jewels presented to the sultans by visiting dignitaries. Perhaps even more valuable is the Chamber of Holy Relics which includes what is purported to be the Staff of Moses and bones from the hand and skull of John the Baptist, while the Prophet Mohammed is represented by a tooth, footprints, sword and a piece of his beard. Model replicas of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Saudi city of Medina complete the holy scene. However it is the Harem (meaning “forbidden” in Arabic) that lures many to pay extra for entry. Defined as the women’s quarter, it was exclusively reserved for the private life of the family and the royal household of females. The Harem remained out of view from public areas and closely protected. Occupied by the sultan, his mother, his wives and daughters, it was also home to all sultan’s concubines, their maidservants and the eunuchs who guarded them.
Edirnekapi – Mosaic Radiance Unearthed
A plethora of churches and mosques freely intermingle in Istanbul, the ancient crossroads where East met West. If you have to narrow it down, the Chora Church (Kariye Muzesi) is one not to miss. The Byzantine church once occupied pastoral terrain as part of the Chora Monastery (“chora” means countryside in Greek). After Emperor Theodosius incorporated it behind city walls in 413 A.D., an earthquake leveled it and the complex was rebuilt as a basilica. Brilliant mosaics depicting the life of Christ and vivid frescoes illustrating Biblical Old Testament stories were added in the 11th and 12th centuries, only to be plastered over when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and the church became a mosque. Deemed blasphemous by Muslims, the mosaics lay hidden for 500 years until they were rediscovered and painstakingly uncovered and restored in the mid 20th century. The priceless mosaics and murals determined that the church become a museum to preserve its fantastic treasures—considered the best Byzantine mosaics in the region (more in quantity, in superior condition and better accessible than those in the Haghia Sofia). The smaller, intimate setting allows visitors to view the walls and arched ceilings up close to appreciate the vivid colors and intricate artistry of the glimmering silver, gold, marble and glass cubes arranged by artists inspired by a higher order. A guide will do wonders in helping visitors better appreciate these exquisite marvels.
Kanlica – Yoghurt & Yalis
On the eastern shore of the Bosporus, the sleepy old fishing village of Kanlica is an appealing and authentic relic of Istanbul known for its artisanal yoghurt. Kanlica yoghurt was thick enough to be cut by a knife in order to remain firm should it accidentally be spilled. Crafted of cow and sheep milk and sold at a handful of vendors, the deliciously rich treat has softened in texture for modern tastes and is sweetened with a variety of toppings such as honey, powdered sugar or fruit preserve. Some Bosporus cruises briefly stop here, but a simple ferry ride allows more time to admire the ?skenderpa?a Mosque (est. 1560) bordering Kanlica Square and to sample yoghurt in leisure. Find a seat at one of the tea gardens along the shoreline to watch the boats as they cruise past nearby yalis, traditional waterfront villas. Fashioned of finely worked wood and roofed with red tile, these chic summer mansions indicated wealth, power and prestige for high-ranking 17th-to19th-century citizens. Of the 620 built, some have been left to decay, while others are elegantly refurbished—the most expensive now worth an estimated $100 million and ranked 5th most expensive property in the world by Forbes magazine. If buying isn’t an option, why not rent a yali? Then sit back, gaze out on the water and imagine yourself at an evening mehab, the social event of an Ottoman summer, when socialites wound their way down the Bosporus in a flotilla of boats under a Turkish moonlit sky.
Fatih – Kebaps & Culture
Bearing the name of the Fatih Mosque, the Fatih district in Istanbul is made up of diverse and bona fide working-class neighborhoods, some very fundamentalist. The traditional Balat neighborhood has historically been a haven for freedom, tolerance and minority populations, particularly Jewish. Greek, Armenian, Turkish and Spanish Jewish residents have all left their religious and cultural marks in this fascinating community and the adjacent Fener neighborhood. The area’s architectural monuments, markets, churches, synagogues, public baths, taverns, grocery and butcher shops display traditional elements and delicacies and preserve an authentic spirit even today.
Now mostly made up of Turkish people and crumbling buildings, the impoverished neighborhood was earmarked a UNESCO World Heritage rehabilitation site in 1985. Wander through the narrow streets and alleys by day to see children playing under laundry lines strung between balconies as music emanates through open windows and residents attend to chores and errands clad in traditional attire—head scarves, long sleeves or full black burqas for women, and long coats and skullcaps for men. Try one of the Ottoman-style dining restaurants where everyone dines from the same tray filled with flat bread, salads, veggies, pickles and meat. Oz Kilis Kebap (Hirka-i Serif cad./Bedrettin Simavi Sok. No: 5) has some of the city’s best kebap (meat dishes) and lahmacun (flatbread covered with minced meat, tomato, pepper and garlic or onion) for very friendly prices.
Eminönü – Journey through a Turkish Institution
Hammams (Turkish baths) were inspired by the Greek baths of the Roman Empire and began to proliferate when the Prophet Mohammed endorsed sweat baths. But unlike the colossal central baths of Rome, the smaller hammams were adapted to Arab culture and annexed to mosques throughout the city. As retreats of spiritual and physical cleansing, they retained a more modest nature and were imbued with half-light, stillness and seclusion. As a place of purification, hammams required order and cleanliness with strict controls put on water quality, surface cleaning and atmospheric conditions (in the form of incense burning) along with proper etiquette (hair removal and suitable coverage of private parts). Local hammams became a place to socialize, offering low entry fees so all could enter and later including women, who had their own quarters.
As Istanbul’s oldest functioning hammam, Cagaloglu Hammam stands opposite the Grand Bazaar and requires a visit for anyone wanting to immerse themself in Turkish culture. The traditional ritual follows a five-step progression: patrons—covered by a cloth or sarong—advance with a tellak (attendant) from the dressing room to the harara (steam room), followed by a hot room, where vigorous massage is administered. Then it’s on to a private nook for shaving (conducted by the patron). The tellak then administers a rinse and skin scrubbing for exfoliation before letting his/her charge retire to the maslak (resting hall) where cooling fans and drinks allow blissful revival.
Day Trips from Istanbul
Iznik (Nicea) – Village of the Blue Tiles
Located just 40 miles southeast of Istanbul, Iznik bears a cultural heritage spanning 2,400 years. Christians have described it as a holy city, heralded when Emperor Constantine convened the first Ecumenical Council here in 325 A.D. to resolve controversies within the faith. The emperor himself and 300 bishops attended the council over a two-month period, resulting in the Nicene Creed that affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ. Iznik later established itself as a center for tiles and porcelain in the 15th century, with over 20,000 of its gorgeous ceramic tiles ordered for the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Iznik tile making reached its zenith in the 16th century, with techniques held in secret for centuries to come. Incorporating Persian influence when Sultan Selim I conquered Tabriz (in Iran) and sent its artisans to Istanbul, Iznik potters developed a unique style of their own in design motifs and colors, expanding beyond the traditional blue and white to turquoise, mauve, purple, green and the exquisite coral red unique to Iznik.
Belying its history as a major city, the somewhat sleepy town on the edge of Iznik Lake still holds remnants of its fantastic history. Stroll on a first-century Roman road to old city walls and Roman gates; view a restored bathhouse, Roman theater ruins and the 4th-century Hagia Sophia (site of the Ecumenical Council). The 14th-century Yesil Mosque (Green Mosque) showcases turquoise mosaics from the kilns of Iznik, while the Iznik Museum provides more samples along with Byzantine jewelry. Excavated remains of the ancient kilns stand in the center of town, while porcelain workshops provide live action. If you can’t make it to Iznik, don’t miss the stunning Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque in Istanbul. This hidden gem showcases Iznik’s fantastic blue masterpieces without all the crowds.
Adalar – Islands of Exile & Escape
Ferries whisk weary Istanbul residents to escape in an archipelago of nine islands about an hour southeast of the city in the Sea of Marmara. Inhabited since the medieval days by monks in monasteries, the Princes Islands (simply called Adalar—the islands—by locals) inherited their name from the practice of sending Byzantine emperors, empresses, aristocrats and troublesome relatives of kings and statesmen there for exile. When steamships arrived on the scene, wealthy Armenian and Greek bankers of the 19th century built lavish summer mansions on the islands. Today, the islands provide a refreshing seaside respite, especially with the ban on private vehicles. Visitors travel on foot, by bicycle, by donkey or fayton (horse-drawn carriage) through quaint towns with restaurants, cafés and shops and to monasteries, mosques, museums in the hills and small beaches on the shore.
Only the largest four islands (Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kinaliada) are inhabited and serviced by ferries. As the largest and most popular, Büyükada is serenely forested with pine, magnolia and mimosa groves and topped with a monastery flanked by the Way of Wishes, named for the pieces of white cloths tied to bushes along the stone path as prayers or offerings. Have a seat at the café next to the monastery and enjoy lovely views. Further down, the Victorian “summer cottages” that line the streets and shores have been converted to hotels for those who wish to overnight. Monthly mansion garden tours are also an option, led by a specialist in Ottoman gardens. To circumvent inflated island restaurant prices, pack a picnic and drinks for a day trip and head out with an early morning ferry to get a jump on crowds—preferably on a weekday. Locals flock to the islands on weekends.
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Travel Tips: Istanbul
How to get the evil eye—and avoid ugly stares as you explore the city once known as Constantinople. From bargaining for Turkish rugs to saving on museum admissions, we’ve got you covered.
The Evil Eye
The blue and white glass bead amulets known as nazar boncuk (evil eye) are found EVERYWHERE in Turkey. Sold as trinkets, charms, jewelry, wall hangings, magnets and souvenirs, they are hung in houses, offices, cars, entryways, building foundations and even on newborns and animals. It is also thought that anything new or likely to attract compliments may bring on envy, resentment or bad energy. The talismans are believed to provide protection from evil forces or spirits—the blue eye reflecting ill intent back to its source. Different tales accompany its origin, its powers and the reason for the color blue. One thing is certain, when an amulet cracks, the eye has successfully warded off an evil attack, and it’s time to get a new one.
What To Wear
Istanbul as a whole is as cosmopolitan as New York City. Stylish casual attire will help you blend in among sophisticated city slickers—but always lean toward conservative, e.g., long cotton dresses. Evening dinner outings at nicer restaurants tend to be more formal. Ditch the casuals and don a dress, skirt or slacks with an elegant top—and men a jacket—bearing in mind that modesty is still the best policy in Turkey. Plunging necklines and bare arms are seldom seen. Mosques require modest dress for both men and women, meaning no shorts or sleeveless tops. Shoulders, thighs or upper arms should be covered (the Blue Mosque provides robes if dress is deemed inappropriate). Women should have a scarf handy to cover their hair. In general, comfortable walking shoes are mandatory to see the sights; select a sandal variety during summer. Pack lightweight fabrics for summer’s heat, and remember to dress conservatively in Muslim neighborhoods and outside Istanbul.
Turkish carpets and rugs — hand knotted or flat woven — are one of the most well known hand-crafted art works in the world and a favorite souvenir of Turkey. With an endless array of design, size and color schemes pouring out of showrooms, stalls and street shops at all price points, doing advance homework about carpets is highly recommended. Prices depend on: quality (number of knots per sq. cm.), materials used (dyes, fabrics), condition, age of the carpet and demand—the older a carpet, the higher its demand. High knot numbers and carpets made purely of silk command the highest prices. Carpets should also be inspected to ensure they are without tears or holes. Visit a carpet-making cooperative to get educated and gain appreciation for the craft and the labor involved (some carpets take years to make), even if you are led to a showroom afterward. A stop at Istanbul’s Carpet Museum is also enlightening.
Bargaining is part and parcel of exchanging goods in Turkey, and not just at the bazaar. Western travelers may feel intimidated or ill at ease haggling for a price. Although buyers’ and sellers’ engage in countless tricks and ploys, the key is to remember that it’s a game. Before you engage, remember to:
- Have a sense of humor about it
- Never be afraid to walk away
Start low, and remember that if a merchant becomes hostile or appears indignant—it’s all part of the drama. Stressing out about getting the best price won’t help your position. The “best price” is never the best price, after all. Be evasive about what you want to pay and feign interest without committing to a price. Sidestep baited questions like “What do you expect to pay for this,” meant to elicit a price offer from you. As a rule, once you’ve made an offer, it is obligatory to honor it if the seller agrees.
Wayfaring Taxi Fares
Taksi (taxis) and dolmush—Turkish jitneys, shared taxis or minibuses on pre-determined routes—are found throughout Istanbul. Official taxis are yellow, have a taksi sign on top, come clearly marked with visible company logos and employ digital meters. Don’t get in the taxi if there is no meter, and get out if the driver won’t run it, claims it’s broken or turns it off at any time. Since taxis have separate night tariffs (50% more), some drivers may use night fares on unsuspecting tourists even in daytime. Look for “Gündüz” (day) on the rate display. Alert the driver if you see “Gece” (indicating night) in the daytime. Because meters may be located inconveniently, it is not considered rude to lean over and look at it periodically—locals watch the reflection in the passenger window. Upon arrival, round the fare up to a convenient number since cab drivers aren’t tipped—unless perhaps they are loading or unloading baggage. If you run into any issues, have the hotel help you with brokering a solution.
Istanbul Museum Pass
Now available to tourists rather than just locals, the Museum Pass Istanbul Card allows single entrance to any of six museums in a three-day/72-hour span at a cost of 72 Turkish Lira (approx $39 U.S.). You can skip standing in lines for tickets at the sites and head directly to the turnstiles. The pass is available for purchase at Tourist Information Offices, four- and five-star hotels and mobile card stores in Istanbul—or online for an extra fee. Entry is allowed at the following six museums:
- Chora Church/Museum
- Haghia Sophia
- Islamc Mosaic Museum
- Istanbul Archaeological Museum
- Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
- Topkapi Palace (excluding the Harem)
Travelers are advised to carry a mixture of cash (in small denominations), an ATM card and major credit cards in Turkey. Most stores won’t accept traveler’s checks, and banks and post offices with very long wait times are the only places to cash them. Although hotels, restaurants and stores in Istanbul widely accept credit cards, a premium often gets tacked onto prices (can be 10% or more!)—so cash is more economical. The local Turkish Lira (TL) will be necessary at markets, bazaars, street vendors, sightseeing attractions and for tipping, taxis and public transportation, most of which don’t take credit cards. Euros and dollars work best for exchanging currency. Dövis (exchange offices) charge no commission for cash currency exchange and offer the best rates, except at airports and around tourist attractions. They also have more convenient business hours than banks, staying open at night and on Saturdays. ATMs are also easy to find in Istanbul and accept major credit cards and bankcards linked to the Maestro, Cirrus or Plus networks.
Ready to Go?
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