Sliced in two by the mighty Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is literally a bridge between two continents. It’s where East meets West, and its unmatched location has made it a cultural crossroads.
Inhabited as early as 3000 BC, Istanbul’s connection to the past is still evident in both the architectural masterpieces from both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires that stand at its center, and the silhouettes of the many famous mosques that dominate its dramatic skyline. Tourists already awestruck by the age of landmarks in Western Europe will be shocked to realize that in Istanbul such “ancient” structures would be considered relatively new.
Istanbul’s unrivaled sights and attractions—the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Byzantine Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar to name a few—are truly not to be missed. Yet the attraction-packed epicenter of Sultanahmet is not all the city has to offer.
Istanbul is a melting pot full of dozens of neighborhoods each with their own distinct character. A true understanding of the Turkish people and their way of life can only be felt by venturing off the usual tourist paths (especially at mealtimes!). Some of the best travel memories are those made by wandering into in an inviting quarter of town and getting lost in the unexpected sights and sounds of the city.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Travel down the Bosphorus and inland a bit to the neighborhood of Nisantasi. Sleek, modern, and bustling, Nisantasi is a popular, fashionable shopping district filled with internationally recognized clothing boutiques, salons, cafes, and some of the most enticing bakeries and sweet shops around. Take notice of the architecture of the structures in this area such as the Macka Palas building (now home to the high-end Gucci and Armani stores) which are historically recognized and are worthy of closer examination.
The neighborhood is full of small restaurants serving traditional favorites to crowds of lunching locals. Try the Iskender Kebab, a dish of sliced meat smothered in tomato sauce and melted butter and served over diced Turkish flatbread.
For home-style Turkish cooking in a slightly elevated, white-tablecloth type atmosphere, head to Hunkar (Mim Kemal Oeke Caddesi 21, (212) 225-4665) where you can view the day’s specials on the counter before making your choice.
Nearby, bakery and pastry shop windows along the main street of Abdi Ipekci are stacked high with rich honey-drenched desserts.
Enjoy a piece of walnut or pistachio baklava, or a similar syrupy treat called kadayif (pictured).
Or try the specialty Tavuk Gögsu, a creamy custard-like sweet made from … chicken fibers! With so many delicious treats to sample, you may want to fill a box for the road.
TEA TIME BY THE WATER
Not just for the British, the Turkish people have their own take on this pleasant afternoon tradition. Taken late in the afternoon between approximately 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., this comforting ritual can be a cooling relief from hot summer days or a cozy break from the winter chill.
Turkish black tea, served in clear, tulip-shaped glasses and taken only with sugar, serves as a perfect accompaniment to a sweet or savory snack. Simit, a traditional ring-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds (see vendor at left), is available almost everywhere from street stands to cafes, which should tell you it is a favorite not be missed.
It is served warm around tea time and is sometimes sliced and sandwiched with melted cheese and tomatoes.
The neighborhood of Ortakoy, right on the European banks of the Bosphorus in the shadow of the Bosphorus bridge, is a fun place to pause for a break and take part in this ritual. Walk through the narrow stone lanes packed with stalls selling snacks such as lamachun (a kind of “Turkish Pizza” composed of flat bread topped with spiced, minced meat) or flaky Borek water pastries filled with cheese, meat, or spinach.
Wind your way down past jewelry vendors, taverns, and bistros to the waterfront where the Ortakoy mosque stands and grab a seat at one of the tea terraces, called Cayhane, that border the main square. Here you can do some people watching, or gaze out across the sparkling Bosphorus to Asia as you sip your tea.
Mezzes are small plates of hot and cold appetizers, and are truly one of the pleasures of Mediterranean style Turkish dining. Usually displayed in large glass cases at the front of a restaurant, this tantalizing visual spread eliminates the guesswork and any anxiety associated with choosing a restaurant in an unknown area.
Well-suited to the traveler unfamiliar with Turkish fare, you simply point to the dishes you are interested in and almost immediately will find yourself set with a sampling of Turkish cuisine. Specialties such as aubergine, red pepper with yogurt, cacik (a mix of cucumber, yogurt, and mint), kofte (meatballs), octopus salad, or assorted dolma made from cabbage, peppers, or grape leaves filled with rice or meat are a few of the delicacies you will find.
To indulge in this rewarding dining experience head to the neighborhood of Taksim. The main street, Istiklal Caddesi, is a vibrant pedestrian-only strip lined with international concept stores, cafes, restaurants, and food stands. Smaller side streets branch off both sides of the main thoroughfare, luring visitors to investigate their clusters of small tea shops, or buzzing street markets such as Balik Pazari which specializes in fish.
Don’t miss the chance to sample some freshly made Turkish Delight from one of the famous shops with outposts on this street. Haci Bekir (Istiklal Caddesi 129) is the oldest sweet shop in Turkey, dating from 1777.
The rose flavored or pistachio studded varieties of Turkish Delight (called loukoum) are especially tasty, and samples are handed out liberally to help you decide.
Once you are finally ready to sit down for dinner, head to Nevizade Sokak, off Sahne Sokak (one of the side streets of Istiklal Caddesi).
This boisterous lane offers dozens of excellent taverna-style dining options all showcasing a fine selection of mezze.
You will find a bright and lively ambience with tables spilling out onto both sides of the street, a local clientele, and often some live Turkish music. Stroll around until you find the most tempting mezze selection, and sit down to enjoy.
Good bets include Boncuk (Nevizade Sokak 19) and Kadri’nin Yeri.
GO WHERE THE FISH IS FRESH
No trip would be complete without experiencing Istanbul from the perspective of its timeless lifeblood, the Bosphorus. Stretching about 20 miles from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, the Bosphorus flows past countless villages and communities that thrive along both its European and Asiatic sides.
As you navigate this active 2,300-foot-wide causeway along with the dozens of other yachts, freighters, and ferries, you will get an idea of the city’s vast geographic area, and begin to notice how its character changes from one village to the next and from one side to the other.
Make the destination of your ride the small Turkish village of Anadolu Kavagi. The village, a 40-minute ferry from Besiktas, is located in Macar Bay at one of the narrowest points on the Bosphorus and is the last stop on the Asiatic side.
Here you can explore ancient ruins of the Byzantine Castle of Yoroz Kalesi before wandering down to savor some of Istanbul’s best fish restaurants.
The castle has been known since the 14th century as the Genoese Castle, and now invites visitors to tour its upper portion. The view from its perch on the northern promontory commands a spectacular view of the Black Sea and a glimpse of the village below where your seafood dinner awaits.
If you feel like some late-afternoon shopping, but aren’t up for tackling the dizzying immensity of the Grand Bazaar, venture over to the Galatasaray neighborhood to get a feel for one of Istanbul’s most artsy neighborhoods. French Street, or Fransiz Sokagi, is a steep, narrow street that cascades downward to provide the perfect atmosphere for casual wandering.
It is lined by quaint 19th century storefronts and is home to restaurants, cafes, specialty boutiques, and art galleries. Survey the work of the area’s most talented and creative minds, and reward yourself with a souvenir that can add some Turkish flavor to your home. Istanbul’s artist community often gathers at one of the many cafes along French Street and the area buzzes with activity late into the night, so stick around after your shopping spree for a cocktail, dinner or live music.
If you like antiques, head to Beyoglu’s Cukurcuma neighborhood near Galatasaray Square for shops specializing in old prints, paintings, maps, home décor, weapons and other curiosities. But watch out for fakes, and beware that it is illegal to export “antiquities” (carpets, coins, icons, ceramics, arts and crafts) that are more than 100-200 years old.
Old statues, statuettes and coins are often found by residents—Turkey is so old that digging in the dirt can turn up some pretty amazing finds—who sell them to tourists not knowing it’s illegal. Do be aware that sellers here may be a bit aggressive. Check out our tip on Antiquities Certification for more information.
For those who want to get away from the tourist crowds, shopping options also include Uzunçarsi Caddesi or “Longmarket Street,” which is lined with shops selling kitchen items, clothing, toys, backgammon sets among many other things, and the Tahtakale market district, which is 99 percent Turkish.
A HISTORICAL PERFORMANCE
Another opportunity for an excursion from the mainland can be found on a trip to Kiz Kulesi, or Maiden Tower. The structure sits on a small islet served by ferry or private boat on a regular schedule throughout the day.
The structure dates back to 341 BC and has since been used mainly as a lighthouse or to control traffic on the waterway. It has been an eyewitness to Istanbul’s dramatic history from the rule of the Greeks through the Byzantine and Ottoman empires (and you may recognize it from the James Bond flick, The World is Not Enough).
Today, the tower houses a restaurant and café open for visitors for lunch and dinner. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, live evening music from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods is provided for diners by “Group Leandros.” In addition to captivating melodies the shows often include performances from dancers reenacting the tower’s distinct history. The panorama floor offers an unmatched 360-degree view of Istanbul from its unique vantage point on the Bosphorus.
By Alix Proceviat with Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.
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