An evening in Istanbul (Photo: Getty Images)
There is almost no other city in the world as romantic as Istanbul. It spans two continents, has inspired thousands of authors and artists and, as it’s been around since 660 B.C., has a conglomeration of architecture that rivals Rome.
I first went to Istanbul in 2011 after a trip to Iraq. While it’s in a Muslim country, Istanbul was so different from the tense, religious scene in Mesopotamia that I almost cried with relief. When I went out to explore the city, I almost cried for a different reason: because I felt like I was home. It wasn’t one thing that made me feel that way. It was a combination of the scenery, the people, the culture, and the history. Taken altogether, it was a transportive experience, one that everyone should have. So in the spirit of sharing, I’ve typed up a quick, handy-dandy guide to Istanbul.
WHERE TO STAY
My friend Tim Arango, the Baghdad bureau chief of the New York Times, suggested I stay at a small boutique hotel – the Ayasofya Konaklari — which was lovely and uniquely situated between the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace, two of Istanbul’s top attractions. The rooms were small and well kept and the staff was very accommodating. And, starting at $150 a night, the price was right.
For those with a larger budget, the Four Seasons Sultan Ahmet — built in an old Turkish neoclassical prison — is also in that same area and intensely awesome. Sadly, I did not stay there but went for a drink and pretended I did.
Four Seasons Sultan Ahmet (Photo: Courtesy of Four Seasons)
Nearby, just down from the Blue Mosque, is a chic and luxurious boutique hotel, the Eresin Crown, which has a roof bar overlooking the Bosphorus and really beautiful rooms. The hotel has a built-in historical element; during its construction, workers discovered dozens of artifacts dating back to the second and third centuries B.C. Those artifacts are on display in the hotel.
WHAT TO DO:
While in Istanbul, you must have a bath. No, I’m not saying you stink. It’s a cultural tradition and an experience like no other.
Turkish Bath at Cemberlitas Hamami (Photo: Courtesy of Cemberlitas Hamami)
My favorite was the Cemberlitas Hamami, a bathhouse that has been in operation for around 700 years. Here you will get the scrub of your life as well as a full massage for around $70. It is open from 6 a.m. to midnight.
The Mosques: Some of the most amazing sites in all of Istanbul are the mosques. The Hagia Sofia has the unique distinction of being one of the few buildings to have served as a church, a mosque, and a museum during its nearly 1,500-year history.
Hagia Sofia (Photo: Sim1/Flickr)
Unlike the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque remains an active mosque. It’s closed to non-worshippers during the daily prayers and female visitors are asked to wear head coverings.
The Blue Mosque (Photo: Getty Images)
My friend Susan recommends the Beyazit Mosque. It’s not on most tourist lists but it’s really beautiful.
Watery Adventures: The Basilica Cistern is an underground marvel of engineering built in the sixth century to store drinking water for the Great Palace. It’s now a stunningly beautiful site —made even more so by the mood lighting — with a café near the exit.
Medusa’s head in The Basilica Cistern (Photo: Asim Bharwani/Flickr)
For an above-ground activity, you can take a six-hour ferry ride up the Bosporus, the strait that forms part of the border between Europe and Asia. Or if you’re pressed for time, you can take a quick, 90–minute boat ride. The New York Times has great suggestions in its “36 Hours In Istanbul” guide.
Boat ride along the Bosphorus (Photo: Peter Morgan/Flickr)
Before or after catching the ferry, be sure to eat at one of the restaurants around the Galata Bridge. It’s like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco but with a few burkas sprinkled in.
Galata Bridge (Photo: Robyn Lee/Flickr)
Must-See Spots: I could have stayed at Topkapi Palace for days.You will need at least half a day to explore this fascinating palace. And go early; it gets crowded.
The courtyard at Topkapi Palace (Photo: Courtesy of The The Topkapi Palace Museum)
If you have time, take a tour that highlights Istanbul’s Jewish culture. Explore the island of Buyukada. And be sure to explore the Asian side of Istanbul. Not many people do it and they are seriously missing out. The site Big Trip Little Trip has a good list of some offbeat things to do in Istanbul.
A Summer Sunday along the Asian side of The Bosphorus (Photo: Charles Roffey/Flickr)
As a world-class haggler, I obviously love a market; one day I will have an apartment with a room dedicated to weird stuff I’ve procured from around the world. In Istanbul I had my routine down pat: Haggle, haggle, haggle; rest and drink some coffee; haggle some more. When you’re haggling with a merchant, it’s important to remember that “final price” means FINAL PRICE. So don’t say it unless you’re ready to fork over your money right then and there. The merchants will try and get you to say it way earlier than you should (“Final price, yes? Final price?”). Some good responses: “Meh,” “I don’t know,” and “Where’s the bathroom?” If you really want to send them into a panic, say: “I’ll come back.”
The Grand Bazaar: I could have stayed for days. It is overwhelming, but go find the old antique section and you will find heaven (I still dream of a jade and gold box I didn’t buy).
Food Markets: I love food markets. The Guardian has an awesome list of some of them and the great weekly bazaars.
The Carpet Section by the Blue Mosque: I got the most amazing Kurdish silk carpet. Haggle your butt off or they will rip you off like you have never been ripped off before.
WHERE TO EAT
I almost always use Food and Wine magazine as my guide. It’s just great and has never led me astray. I used their great roundup of the best restaurants in Istanbul. Another great place to look for food recommendations: a blog called Istanbul Eats, which also does food tours/culinary walks of the city. Yum and fun!
GET THE BEST VIEW
Make your way atop a minaret (like one of these) for a great view (Photo: John Kroll/Flickr)
I had a travel company arrange for me to go up in a minaret with an imam and see Istanbul from up above. If you can, do the same during your visit to Istanbul. It’s a very cool vantage point from which to see an incredibly beautiful city.