(updated 07 September 2015)
(updated 28 June 2013)
If you ever have the chance to go to istanbul, you really must go. What an amazing, splendid, and gorgeous place.
Let me start by stating the obvious: it’s a Muslim country. Men don’t really wear shorts (despite the image below) – even when it is 100 degrees F outside – and women certainly don’t expose their legs and shoulders. But remember: we tourists stand out regardless so as long as you aren’t offensive (no mini-skirts ladies and tank tops guys), you will be fine. And once you embrace the fact that you are a tourist and you WILL stand out, let the adventure begin.
So now that you are ready, let’s get to exploring.
There are a number of really great hotels in istanbul. Check any guidebook or website and you will see everyone’s opinion. For me, I prefer to stay outside of the really touristic areas – while remaining within walking distance of places – and so I chose the bentley hotel as my first place to stay. (http://www.bentley-hotel.com/) This is just an absolutely stunning hotel with wonderful views of the street below. And yes, I realize that a view of “the street below” may not be a sales point, but watching how the Turks drive is something to behold. Another great thing about the bentley hotel is that it is located near the Nisantasi section of istanbul. Some places say that this is like SoHo which I’m not so sure about. But it is definitely up-scale, has great shops, phenomenal food, and if you can’t do without you Starbucks, there’s one there too!
Another hotel that I can definitely recommend is the Biz Cevahir Hotel (http://www.bizcevahirhotels.com/). Okay, this goes against the comment above that I don’t like to stay in tourist areas, but seek this one out and stay. Yes, it is in the Saltanahmet but it is so quiet and so peaceful that you wouldn’t know that you are steps away from the main tourist attractions. And that’s the beauty: in less than 5 minutes you are the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and the tram. (And if you want upscale, the Four Seasons is literally right around the corner!)
Another option, but only after the Biz Cevahir above, is to stay at the Mavi Ev (translated to the Blue House which is exactly what it is (http://www.bluehouse.com.tr/). The hotel is a bit tattered – or worn-in if you want – but you can’t beat the location or the staff: the hotel looks over some gardens to the Blue Mosque and the rooftop restaurant looks down upon the Arasta Bazaar where we were able to watch a performance of the Whirling Dervishes without the pressure of tipping and drinking more.
My newest recommendation, which I am truly in love with, is the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. I know, it’s a chain hotel, but hear me out: after all of the hustle and bustle of the city, and when you are in need of a lovely pool and a truly quiet oasis in which to stay, this is the hotel for you. The rooms and staff are what you would expect from a Western hotel chain, and that’s not always bad. I’ll be back… once I’ve stayed at my favourite hotels in Yalikavak, Fethiye, and Alacati
Most restaurants that are really worth going to are closer to Taksim Square than anywhere else. I am vegetarian so I can’t really comment on the meats and fishes, but I can tell you that my friend eats fish and she loved it. But if you want to try something a bit different and arguably a bit more healthy, you must go to Parsifal Restaurant (http://www.parsifalde.com/ [as of this writing, the website is not working so i can’t guarantee the restaurant still exists]). The food was divine and we sat at an outside table watching the locals walk by – it’s on a side street so not so noisy as the main drag – under the stars on a perfectly cool evening. Amazing!
Another restaurant that I highly recommend is Zencefil Restaurant (www.zencefil.org) [the website is not working at this time but it’s probably in Turkish any way]. This restaurant is a bit more “healthy” and offers more meat and fish along with the vegetarian dishes. There is a lovely outdoor courtyard and if you can get a table there, do it; the soft breezes, the scents in the air, and the mermer of diners and locals is unbelievable.
Roughly halfway between the Sultanahmet and the Bosphorus is Imbat (www.imbatrestaurant.com). Reservations are essential as the night that I was there, the only Turkish I heard was from the staff. The food is okay, nothing overly outstanding to be honest, but the views out to the Bosphorus are stunning and worth the time.
For a wonderful meal, and even better views if you ask me, go back up to Taksim and seek out leb-i-derya (www.lebiderya.com). It’s off the main drag in Taksim, and down a quite steep hill, but it is definitely worth the trek. Reservations are imperative, once again, so have the hotel make a reservation for you and, I recommend, a very detailed map or you will never find it!
If you need a break from the mezze and the turkish cuisine, seek out Cok Cok (http://www.cokcok.com.tr/). This Thai restaurant is absolutely amazing and although our hotel said that it would be expensive, it really wasn’t anything more than we had experienced in any other city, or even in istanbul itself. The Pad Thai was amazing and those vegetables wrapped in rice paper… melt in your mouth fantastic!
But before we leave the food tour and go back to another hotel, you must – I repeat, you must – try SIMIT, the turkish bread with sesame seeds on top. You can find simit everywhere, but we found that the best places were the street vendors rather than the markets.
TOP 5 THINGS THAT YOU MUST SEE AND DO
- The New Queen Mother’s Mosque. Stunning! As soon as you cross over the Galata Bridge, the first Mosque you will see is the New Queen Mother’s Mosque. Despite the temptation to skip it and go for the Egyptian Spice Market or the Ayasofya, go hear. The peacefulness in comparison to the hectic outdoors is calming, the colours of the tiles breathtaking, and the architecture of the building on par with the Hagia Sofia (aka,Ayasofya).
- Now you can go to the Hagia Sofia. Forget taking a taxi or the tram: walk! Get lost! It’s great and although it can be a bit disconcerting when you’re not sure where you are, you see parts of istanbul that I suspect few others see; we saw few other tourists as we walked up the hill. And when you get there, be prepared to be awed! The Hagia Sofia is everything that you have heard about and read about. Take your time and whatever you do, try not to get annoyed with the tourists and the tour groups; if you do, you will miss out on the frescoes, the undulating floors, the architecture, and the beauty of a church that became a mosque and then a museum.
- Sit in the gardens between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque and people watch. And if you fancy a sweet tea, one of the men will come around and offer you a sweet, hot, tea. (And don’t forget to grab your simit to nibble on while you relax and people watch.
- Take a boat cruise down the Bosphorus to Anadolukavagi. Not only is the boat ride cheap, but you will go under the Bosphorus bridge and the New Bridge which are architecturally stunning. Once you arrive in Anadolukavagi, leave the old fishing village and hike up the hill to Yoros Castle. Not only is the castle incredible, but you will also be able to look out to the Black Sea. How often can you say that?
- And my last recommendation? Climb up the Galata tower and wonder around the neighborhood of Galata. The views from the tower are breathtaking and will give you a full view of all that istanbul has to offer. And the neighborhood? Incredible.
And now, a few words of warning. But don’t worry: they aren’t words of warning that will frighten you from visiting istanbul but they are things that you should keep in mind.
- Only drink bottled water. And never buy water from someone on the street. If the plastic “lock” is broken or doesn’t “snap” when you twist the cap, don’t drink it.
- The wine is a bit strong and some of the brands are made from the same thing that shellac is made from and, quite honestly, some taste like shellac. (I had one bottle that had the nose of shellac – I drank it of course – but boy did I have a headache the next day.) If you find a wine that you like, write down the name; there aren’t that many wines to choose from.
And with that, enjoy!