Turkey’s largest, most historic city has a powerful pull. Jennifer Hattam channels its energy.
With so many sights clustered into such a small area, it would be hard to avoid spending a good chunk of any visit touring – and queuing up in – Sultanahmet, home to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Basilica Cistern, just to name a few. (Those touts pushing tours may be annoying, but paying a guide – or buying a 72-hour museum pass – does allow you to skip to the front of the line.) But visitors who fail to venture out of Istanbul’s ‘tourist ghetto’ won’t get much of a sense of what makes the rest of the city tick.
For a vibrant glimpse of Istanbul, put on some modest attire and head up the Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish) to Eyüp, a busy neighbourhood centred around the tomb of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) closest companions. So many devout Muslims wanted to be buried near him that the area’s cemeteries sprawl up the hillside. It’s a short, peaceful walk or a quick ride on the city-run aerial tramway (teleferik) to the top, which boasts great views of the city.
On the way back to Sultanahmet from Eyüp, stop at Balat and Fener. Historically predominantly Armenian and Greek, the area is still home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the world Orthodox Christian Church and has several churches tucked amidst its appealingly ramshackle buildings. Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, is an idyllic quarter likewise known for its concentration of houses of worship from all three Abrahamic faiths – and for its picture-perfect restored Ottoman houses.
Eating in Istanbul is an all-day affair, from breakfast to late-night snacks. Fuel up in the morning with a serpme kahvaltı (literally, ‘scattered-about breakfast’) with a Bosphorus view at Kale Café in Rumelihisar. Meant to be shared, the plates of cheeses, olives, jams, cream and honey, spicy dips, eggs with cured meat, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and savoury pastries will fill your table to overflowing.
When it’s time to eat again, a kebab may be the obvious choice, but Istanbul has plenty more (and often better) to offer. Thanks to its role as a centre for migrants from all over the country, visitors can take a culinary tour of Turkey without leaving city limits. The wild greens, succulent seafood and ample olive oil of the Aegean region are well-represented at Sıdıka, a homey restaurant where the speciality of the house is levrek (sea bass) fillets wrapped in vine leaves and grilled. Black Sea food is reminiscent of the cooking of the US South, with its emphasis on dark leafy greens, cornmeal, beans and pickles – plus the ubiquitous (and very tasty) local anchovy called hamsi. Give it a try at the canteen-style Hayvore or the rowdier Mohti, both in Beyoglu. For an authentic array of the grilled meats and zesty peppers for which Southeast Turkey is famed, venture over to the Aksaray area for a hearty meal at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, a multi-storey restaurant full of Turkish families and businessmen washing down meter-long kebabs and legs of lamb cooked in rock salt.
Music & nightlife
Unless you want to hobnob with the red-rope and bottle-service crowd at the swish nightclubs up the Bosporus, bustling Beyoglu is the place to be when the sun goes down. From Taksim Square to Tünel, a sea of people stream down Istiklal Caddesi and its many side streets until the wee hours, chatting and dancing the night away at the area’s numerous dive bars, dance clubs and performance venues. Babylon has been the top spot for live music for years, hosting a mix of international and Turkish bands of various genres, but the more intimate Salon IKSV is making a strong challenge for its throne. On the Asian side, the bars of Kadıköy are an increasingly popular alternative to the Beyoglu mayhem, with quirky venues like Arkaoda and Gitar Café putting on an eclectic variety of shows.