Istanbul is a metropolis that exudes energy and doesn’t stop to rest. There’s no doubt there’s something exciting stirring at the eastern end of the Med.
Look at major Hollywood productions, who found in Istanbul and its ancient traditions the perfect décor for action movies. But make no mistake, even James Bond couldn’t avoid the tourist traps. Fortunately we did and explored Istanbul as regular locals. Let us introduce you to places you need to know. Before you leave, know that Istanbul, one of the world’s biggest city has a lot to offer! It’s a charming mix of ancient traditions, great hospitality, amazing food, excellent transportation network, enchanting islands, it’s a Walhalla for cat lovers and there’s free Wifi almost everywhere.
Once again, stay away from tourist traps. Although Istanbul is famous for its numerous mosques, visiting one is enough. Tourists congregate around these monuments and there’s nothing more annoying than to come across fellow-countrymen whilst on holiday, right? Mosques are all over Istanbul and they are beautifully lit at night. The sounding of minarets - 5 times a day to lead Muslims in their prayers- is very unique. From wherever you are, you can hear the call from the minaret.
Most iconic mosques: Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Suleymaniye Mosque.
James Bond explored this hood by motorbike, but to stroll around on foot is more acceptable. Before you visit the most famous souq in the world, make sure you prepare yourself properly. There’s hundreds of shopkeepers who will attempt to lure you into their establishments. Compare price after price and try your hand at the art of bargaining. There are two marketplaces worth visiting: the Grand and Spice Bazaars.
What to buy: antiques, ceramics, glassware, inlaid wood, jewelry, leather, old books, rugs, spices, potions, Turkish delight & textiles.
Sultanahmet & around
In this historical part of Istanbul, you can find a concentration of major sights, shopping precincts, hotel and eateries within easy walking distance. Armies of tourists come together around this ancient arena, so be aware. When you are thinking about visiting hamams (also known as Turkish baths), avoid Cagaloglu. Although it’s said to be the most beautiful and ancient hamam, it’s a real tourist trap.
What to see: Aya Sofya, BlueMosque, The Hippodrome
Cross the Galata Bridge, look for Istikal Caddesi (the city’s most famous boulevard) and wonder off in the narrow streets. Go to areas called Çukurcuma and Cihangir. Çukurcuma is where you’ll find many of the city’s best antique shops, and Cihangir is an upmarket residential area where trendy bars and cafes are found and where much of the city’s Western expat community lives. A place that is worth checking out is Holy coffee. This cute bolthole not only serves great coffee, but is also famous for its fruit smoothies, sweet lemonades and great sandwiches. For wooden furniture and metal jewellery, have a look at Stoadesign.
In this sprawling district the Paris’s café culture blends with Brooklyn’s casual vibe. When you pronounce jee-hanh-gear-, you say coffee, people, cats. In Istanbul stray cats are treated like kings. There is a famous story about Muezza, the Prophet Muhammad’s cat: this cat was famous for killing a venomous snake that had slithered into the Prophet’s sleeve. In return for saving his life, Muhammad blessed the cat with the ability to land on its feet. The cat is seen as a clean animal in Turkey. There’s even a saying that if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God. In addition to the tale of Muezza, many other stories exist about the luck that cats bring. Cihangir is filled with antique shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Check out the cozy restaurant Journey, located on one of its liveliest streets. If you like modern art, you’ll love the galleries and expos in abondoned places and you should pay a visit to Istanbul Modern. It’s the hub where modern-art lovers come to get their fix.
The Princes’ Islands
The Islands make a great destination for a day escape from the city. Before you hop on the ferry, make sure to eat köfte. The best meat cooked over a charcoal grill can definitely be found here. Visit Büyükada (the most popular) and Heybeliada (our favorite) island. Absolutely stunning are the Victorian wooden villas set in gardens built by wealthy merchants. There are no cars on the islands, something that comes as a relief after the traffic mayhem of the city. Transportation goes by bicycle (suicide if it makes more than 30 degrees) and traditional horse-drawn carriage, called fayto, to get round. Get up the hill for fabulous panoramic views and private beaches. For very little money you can enjoy a picnic, a bbq, a walk in the pine groves or enjoy a swim in a tiny but charming beach.
Istanbul is a city full of surprises. The metropolis may have been a popular travel destination for years, but the sophistication and depth of what it has to offer visitors has never been greater!
Text: Magali Elali
Photos: Bart Kiggen
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