From Istanbul with Love: A City Guide
The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy. —Ahmet Rasim
Nestled in Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a city comfortable with dualities: east and west, ancient and modern, religious and secular, beauty and grit.
The legacies of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires that once made Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, their ruling centres, have endured and clung visibly onto the facades and vaults of its grand monuments, towering mosques, dilapidated mansions. Combined with the call to prayer reverberating through the sumac-scented air, the mounds of baklavas and Turkish delights entering your field of vision from all angles as you amble along narrow cobbled streets—it's easy to succumb to the city's seduction and develop a transcendental attachment. A treat for the eyes, and stimulating to all your senses and inner core, Istanbul has plenty of soul.
Despite the ongoing tension permeating Turkish politics, its residents remain welcoming and friendly. Yours truly embarked on a short, solo journey to this sprawling city of 15 million during its low season—a grey, mild winter week in January. By no means is this a comprehensive guide, and a single trip to Istanbul clearly does not do it justice, so expect more to come in the near future.
A walkable city, its layout and reliable transit system enable you to navigate the streets and major sights with great ease.
Stroll along the hilly streets of Beyoğlu on the European side, where you will discover cafes, restaurants, bars, galleries, boutiques. Snack on cheese börek and baklava from any of the numerous patisseries located on the pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi, or explore smaller establishments on less crowded side streets around the avenue.
A visit to a hamam or Turkish bath will alleviate jet-lag and shed months of accumulated stress. The newly opened Soho House (Meşrutiyet Caddesi No. 56) in Beyoglu, the private members' club also offers the traditional hamam treatment and other spa services. For 50 minutes while you attempt to relax atop a peştemal set in a steamy marbled room, an attendant gives a complete body scrub followed with a foam massage, and washes your hair. Open to both members and the public, be sure to reserve ahead of time.
Alternatively, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Karaköy and Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami in Sultanahment, both built in 16th century, are allegedly the best in town. The latter, originally built for sultans' wives, has two domes and allows access for both genders at all times of the day. With only one dome, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is strictly reserved for ladies from morning until 4 p.m. and the remaining hours for men.
BUT FIRST, COFFEE...THEN MUSIC & DESIGN
The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvalti, a literal translation to "before coffee," and the common choice of beverage to begin the day is actually tea. Turkish breakfast consists of various types of bread, white cheeses, olives, honey, jam, yoghurt, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Served almost everywhere; however, at Van Kahvalti Evi (Defterdar Yokusu No:52/A) in Cihangir, a busy dining room with attentive service tucked on a leafy street, you could be eating alongside local hipsters, students, businessmen, and expats.
Take less than 100 steps after breakfast toward Firuzağa Cami Sokak No2/B, you will find Kronotrop, one of the more reputable roasters and specialty cafes in Istanbul. Get your fix of espresso, cappuccino, cortado or if you fancy, a fresh brew pour-over style. Hold that craving for Turkish coffee until a little later.
Make your way to Boğazkesen Caddesi via Yeni Çarşı Caddesi. It's a pleasant walk downhill and check out a handful of vinyl record stores, kitschy gift shops, cozy bars and cafes lining the streets. Kontraplak has a decent selection of soul, electro, rock, new wave, jazz, though most are re-issues. You could find an original pressing of Barış Manço's first psychedelic album from 1971 priced at 50 TL in mint condition. Hamm, a local furniture and accessories design company, has its well-merchandised retail shop on Boğazkesen Caddesi. From plush cushions to brass candle holders, Hamm also designs modern contemporary furniture infused with Scandinavian aesthetics, if Alvar Aalto were alive, he would readily approve.
WE'RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
At the end of Boğazkesen Caddesi, catch the tram at Tophane to take you to Sultanahment where most of the essential sights are located. Start at the Hagia Sophia, consecrated as a church and commissioned by Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) after the structure underwent a series of fires and demolition prior to his reign. Eventually, Hagia Sophia was renovated into a mosque following Fatih Sultan Mehmed's conquest in 1453, and founder of the Republic Atatürk declared it a museum in 1935. As you enter and appreciate the scale of its dome and the extraordinary beauty of the gold mosaics, you will realize its interior is more breathtaking than the exterior.
Steps away from Hagia Sophia, you won't miss the Blue Mosque with its six slender minarets, although its architecture and symmetry are better appreciated when viewed from the Hippodrome, located on the other side of the mosque. Still functions as a place of worship, admission to the Blue Mosque is controlled. Along with separate entrances for worshippers and tourists, it is not accessible to tourists during times of prayer. The interior of this beautifully-curvaceous mosque is adorned with blue tiles, giving its unofficial moniker. Also, a short walk from Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of sultans and the administrative centre during the Ottoman period. Visiting the palace, comprising spacious courtyards and harem, opulent pavilions and fountains, as well as various relics and treasures, offers a glimpse into its rich history.
Approaching sunset (depending on the season), stroll along the Galata Bridge where you'll spot moustached men patiently angling lines into the waters below, teens kicking soccer balls into makeshift nets, vendors selling stuffed mussels. Amidst the activity and the squawking seagulls flying above, the panoramic cityscape dimming against a dramatic backdrop of pink-hued sky will entrance you.
On Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu, try Anatolian cuisine at the reasonably priced, Otantik (İstiklal Cd. No:170) and order the quintessential Anatolian dish, mantı or Turkish lamb dumplings drizzled with yoghurt and garlic sauce or gözleme, phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach or ground beef. The desserts, enjoyed with Turkish tea, are quite lovely here, like their revani—semolina cake soaked in light syrup. Recipes can be found here.
Head over to Alex's Bar (Gönül Sokak No.7B), a cozy cocktail bar that may remind you slightly of Brooklyn and Portland, mostly for the meticulously prepared concoction and the in-house made bitters and syrups.
A good pide is hard to find. New York has its thin slice pizza, Chicago its deep dish, and Naples the original. Istanbul's pide, similar to pizza, is essentially an elongated flat bread baked in a wood-fired oven with edges of the dough folded in resembling a canoe. Common toppings are ground beef, lamb or the local pastrami combined with cheese, peppers, onions, and usually an egg added on top during the last moments of baking. Nearby Taksim Square, you could settle for Şimşek Pide Salonu (Taksim Caddesi 8) or try Pak Pide (Paşa Camii Sokak 16) near the Grand Bazaar.
Occupying an 8,000 square meter site in Karaköy overlooking the Bosphorus, Istanbul Modern has a cohesive collection of contemporary art including works by local artists Ramazan Bayrakoğlu, Murat Pulat, and international stars as prominent as Hussein Chalayan and Olafur Eliasson. Aside from the permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, the venue houses a cinema, library, design store. The restaurant offers a breathtaking view.
IT'S A BAZAARO WORLD
From the Tophane stop on Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi you could catch a tram directly to Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar), one of the oldest bazaars in the world, famed for its jewelry, silverware, spices, leather, and the ubiquitous evil eye — an amulet made of blue and white glass that appears in various forms of products. If you haven't mastered Turkish already, learning and using basic Turkish words to communicate and haggle for discounts will be appreciated, but with the influx of tourists from around the world, most vendors understand English along with other languages. Visit Doneri Sahin Usta behind the Nuruosmaniye Mosque for döner kebab and wash it down with Turkish coffee (unfiltered coffee, so the grounds are settled at the bottom of the small cup) from Ethem Tezçakar Kahveci (Halıcılar Cad. No. 61-63).
A trip to Istanbul isn't complete without dining at a meyhane, a traditional restaurant that serves alcohol, particularly rakı, the national anise-flavoured liquer (equivalent to Greece's ouzo or Italy's sambuca) accompanied with meze, a selection of small dishes usually served cold. A short walk from the bazaar, also a popular local spot frequented by shop owners after closing time, you will find Kumkapı Evren (Çapariz Sokak No:2-4) among several other meyhane along the narrow lane. Almost all have heated outdoor seating. Along with flavourful meze, Evren offers a variety fresh fish cooked to your liking (grilled, fried) and an assortment of kebab.
WHERE TO STAY
Look out for great last-minute rates!
Perched on a hill across from the Italian consulate, Tomtom Suites is a boutique hotel with 20 suites and a rooftop terrace. Formerly a Franciscan nunnery, the building offers a panoramic view of the Beyoğlu neighbourhood with spacious rooms and floor-to-ceiling Carrara marble bathrooms. $$$
A former 19th century Ottoman-era bank located in up-and-coming neighbourhood of Karaköy, the building was renovated by Han Tumertekin, winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Its high plastered ceilings, interior details, and impeccable service are equally impressive. Given the proximity to cultural centre SALT Galata, boutiques, cafes, and the tram, this boutique hotel is worth considering. $$$$
Occupying a grand palazzo in Beyoğlu, initially built for a wealthy Genovese family and later home to Istanbul's first American consulate, Soho House Istanbul hotel is open to the public, though members receive lower rates. With Turkish tiled floors in the bathrooms and original frescoes left in-tact along with rooftop pools, a spa and cinema, it's the largest and most stunning yet in the club's portfolio. $$$$$
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Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
"Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul—these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul's fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am."
"Cover Story: The Head Scarf, Modern Turkey, and Me" by Elif Batuman
The New Yorker, Feb. 8 & 13, 2016
"Because I spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often travelled alone, I got a lot of lectures from men, particularly taxi drivers."
Also, check out Indonesia, Etc.: A Photo Essay.
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Turkish Airlines, a Star Alliance member, has direct flights from multiple cities across the globe.
Aga Khan Museum is running an exhibition called A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now from February 6, 2016 to June 26, 2016.