Istanbul’s Turkish Delights
When I think of Istanbul, I immediately visualize huge bins of rose-flavored Turkish delight. I see winding cobbled streets with delicate minarets rising in the background and corner cafes with baklava and cups of thick, aromatic Turkish coffee. The call to prayer echoes in the background and tourists and touts collide in a strange dance of humorous, ritualized negotiation. But there’s more.
If you look at most conventional world maps, Istanbul – said to have a population of between 13 and 17 million – is literally the center of the world. To call it a crossroads is a laughable understatement. This is a city of sweet contradictions where women in chains and punk dos stomp past flowing figures in full-body hijabs. You can down a beer to acid rock or sip tea to traditional tanbur music, dance all night in a pulsating night club or laze all day in a steamy hammam.
The real Turkish delight is the quirkiness, the art, the humor, the ferries, the edginess, the architecture, the music, the hospitality… the diversity. There is so much to do in this city, it would take a lifetime to experience it all. Clearly, we will be back another hundred times to try and do just that. As a start, here are just a few things to enjoy in this legendary city once called Constantinople.
Experience Istanbul’s Byzantine and Ottoman Heritage
Istanbul is one of the architectural greats. After two thousand years of being tossed around between various empires, it’s a virtual architectural layer cake. But it’s the Byzantine and Ottoman treasures that really stand out.
The most obvious attractions include massive Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque (above) with its audacious six minarets, the stunning Süleymaniye Mosque, and the sprawling Topkapı and Dolmabahçe palaces. But there’s tons to discover including endless backstreet mosques, churches, and street after street of crumbling Ottoman villas.
Explore the Markets
As we mentioned in our post on the markets of Istanbul, this is definitely a city full of markets and bazaars selling everything from tourist kitch to spices to treasures. I’ll admit I really wanted to buy one of those colorful ceiling lamps, but that would be just another thing to put in storage while we travel, wouldn’t it?
Take a Cruise up the Bosphorus
Although we have both been to Istanbul before, this was the first time either of us actually managed to take one of the full Bosphorus cruises up to Anadolu Kavağı on the edge of the Black Sea. The trips are not to be missed. Skip the private boats and take the tour on one of the traditional Sehir Hatlari ferries. Snag yourself a place on one of the outdoor benches and sip tea all the way to the Black Sea. (Tickets and info at the Eminönü docks close to the Galata Bridge.)
Behold Istanbul’s Extraordinary Sarcophagus Collection
Visitors suffering from museum overload, especially those who have been bouncing across Europe, may be tempted to skip Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum. But for art fans that would be a huge mistake. Among other treasures, the museum houses a spectacular collection of sarcophagi, including the phenomenal Alexander Sarcophagus. It’s a testament to Turkey that it managed to keep colonial-era collectors’ claws off these treasures. (To give you an idea of how good the collection is, that’s NOT the Alexander Sarcophagus in the picture; it’s behind glass and was more difficult to photograph.)
Enjoy Istanbul’s Cutting-edge Nightlife
Istanbul is buzzing 24/7. Taksim and Istiklâl Caddesi seemed to be packed morning, noon and night. There are enough trendy bars, restaurants, clubs and coffee houses throughout the city to keep up with any other night life capital of the world. Unfortunately, the prices now often feel a little too close to Manhattan or Tokyo as well. The picture above is from Fransız Sokağı near our apartment which was packed with Turks and tourists enjoying drinks and live music.
Hunt for Street Art in Bustling Kadıköy
Kadiköy is a great place to wander around, shop, people watch, and eat. But we, great collectors of street art that we are, were fascinated by the brilliant multi-floor murals that decorated several of the buildings in the area. Some of them are serious works of surrealist art.
Pause for a Relaxing Moment in Gülhane Park
Whenever we needed a few moments away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul’s streets, we took refuge among the fountains and tulips of beautiful Gülhane Park hidden within the outer walls of Topkapı Palace in Sultanahmet. Flocks of feral parakeets and trees full of massive heron nests give the park an especially exotic vibe.
Walk the Walls of Constantinople
Being a connoisseur of fine city walls, I can say with full authority that Istanbul’s are among the best in Europe. The huge fifth-century Theodosian land walls run for nearly six kilometers from the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus to the Marble Tower. The fortifications boast impressive red-brick stripes, crenulated square towers, and several monumental gates. Some sections even preserve the moat ditch and a smaller outer moat wall of the original double-layer defense. On our next trip, I intend to walk the entire wall. (Since we were with friends this time, there was a limit to how far you can push the wall fetish.)
Eat Baklava with Kaymak at Karaköy Güllüoğlu
Baklava with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) at Karaköy Güllüoğlu has made it into my short-list of greatest things on the planet. I actually don’t want to publicly admit how many times Thomas and I ate there – it’s embarrassing. The ordering process can seem a little intimidating at first, but just dive in and ask locals to help you. Make sure you are eating at the real Karaköy Güllüoğlu as there are other restaurants with the same name. Bizarrely, the real Karaköy Güllüoğlu is mismarked on Google Maps and the address on TripAdvisor is incorrect! Here’s a link to the real location on Google Maps to help you find it.
Stroll Past Ottoman Villas on Büyükada
An excursion to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands southeast of Istanbul, is one of the greatest bargains in the city. The 90 minute ferry ride there costs a mere 3 Turkish lira and makes for a great day trip from the city. Büyükada boasts grand Ottoman villas, beautiful pine forests, and a nice walk up to the Orthodox church Hagia Yorgi with spectacular views out over the island, the Asian side of Istanbul, and the Sea of Marmara. There are also plenty of fish restaurants if you get hungry, but choose carefully because many slap on a mysterious 20% cover charge… Ugh!