Istanbul isn’t just a beautiful destination to travel to. It’s also absolutely unlike any other destination in the world. Turkey’s capital city is the ideal tourist spot with so many sights and attractions for the traveller to take in. The intricate architecture on the mosques and palaces, the colourful and exotic bazaars, the breathtaking Bosphorus. From being an enchanting stop on the old hippie trail to turning into cinema’s exotic obsession, there’s little that doesn’t sparkle in one’s eyes at the mention of Istanbul. It’s old, it’s intoxicating, it’s enticing. The people have seen tourists for centuries, and are warm and friendly. But Istanbul is also something else. It’s something you won’t quite be able to put your finger on at first, but once you understand what it is, it helps you understand the city in its entirety, and why it is the way it is.
The other side:
Hüzün. The Turkish word for melancholy is beautifully explained in an entire chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. I haven’t been able to finish this book, even though it’s been a while since I got back from Istanbul. Much like the book, the city is deep, complex and takes forever to understand. It takes forever to peel back its layers and unearth centuries of stories, of a tumultuous journey as its identity changed from Byzantium to Constantinople and then to Istanbul. Walking around, especially in the winter I find a shroud of despair that’s been pulled like a blanket over the city and its people. From crumbling houses that reek of rotten and blackened wood, to ruins of city walls around every corner, to ancient mosques badly in need of a facelift, there are remnants of this city’s past every which way I look. Remnants that I now understand do not let the city ever forget or shrug off its past. Staring the residents in their face every day is testimony of their once sumptuously wealthy past that crumbles beneath the austerity of their present. And then I understood, that inexplicable sentiment that permeates the city. The melancholy. The Hüzün.
Before we get into our guide to neighbourhoods in Istanbul, do have a look at this useful travel insurance guide.
First of all, Istanbul may be a city, but it spans two continents, with one half in Asia and the other in Europe, split down the middle by the Marmara and Black seas. Since I didn’t visit Kadikoy on the Asian side (save for a quick stop on the Bosphorus Cruise), let’s focus on the European side. The European side is split halfway across by the Golden Horn.
The area below the Golden Horn comprises the following neighborhoods:
- Sultanahmet: This is where most of the tourist action is. With sweeping views of the Marmara Sea, this was where the ancient palace of Topkapi lies. The Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofya, the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome, it’s all here. Discover winding alleys of tiny houses, hotels, restaurants, shops and money changers in this beautiful and convenient neighbourhood.
- Eminonu: This waterfront neighbourhood is definitely next on the list. With the Eminonu mosque, the Sirkeci station. the spice market and all the major ferry terminals, this major tram stop is busy and buzzing at all times. It’s also a great place to try out some fresh seafood and the main way to connect to the northern part of European Istanbul as well as the Bosphorus cruises.
- The Grand Bazaar: Maybe this one fights for second place. After all this area is named after the oldest mall in the world – the Grand Bazaar, with several smaller mosques like Nuruosmaniye and Mosque of Mother Sultan surrounding it.
- Fener, Balat & Eyup: Further on the outskirts, these suburbs are a great place to catch a glimpse into the lives of locals. After the Chora church, stray off the tourist path, following the ancient ruins of the city walls, churches, synagogues and more.
The area above the Golden Horn:
- Galata/ Karakoy: Fabulous views of the Bosphorus, great hipster shopping, this is also where the famous Galata Tower and Istanbul Modern Museum lie.
- Taksim: Modern, hip and trendy, the Istiklal street is lined with shops, cafes and a convenient nostalgic tram at the end of which is the Galta Lodge. This is also where the political centrepoint Taksim square lies.
- Tarlabasi: The dark side of Istanbul, houses minority communities from Kurds, Turks and Romas to transexuals and illegal immigrants, and can be quite the immersive experience.
- Sisli: This residential and business neighbourhood houses modern middle class locals and is worth stopping by to check out the Cevahir mall.
- Budget: This charming hotel has all the personality and warmth of the embrace of a kind local. What’s more, considering hotel rooms in Sultanahmet can be pretty tiny, they even have larger apartments for longer, more comfortable stays. Read all about our experience at the Ayasofya Hotel Istanbul here.
- Blowout: We’re definitely coming back for one of these someday. For sweeping views of the Bosphorus and the swish nightlife of Beyoglu check out the House Hotel Istanbul. And to take in the luxury from where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express check out the Pera Palace Hotel. There’s also a bunch of Marriott properties and you can definitely get some bonus stays with a rewards card like this one.
- Tram: Istanbul’s tram system almost seems as if it were made for the traveller or visitor. With stops along the precise route of things to see and do, it’s the most convenient way to get around. Jeton machines at the tram stops disburse tokens that you can use to get onto the platform, or if you can get your hands on an IstanbulKart you can load them up and scan them at the turnstile where a much cheaper rate gets debited each time.
- Taxis: Somewhat expensive but freely available on the larger wider streets, these may not always be the best option if there are a lot of one-ways that may need you to take a much longer route. And in the old city, where several streets are too tiny or steep for taxis, you’re just better off using your own two feet.
- Bus: The bus system may get a bit confusing if you’re getting on at a smaller stop, but it’s very easy to navigate and find the right bus at the larger terminals. From my experience, it’s best to ask around for the right bus to your destination, because bus numbers may not always be accurate and you may find a quicker, shorter route. Mind you, the buses only accept IstanbulKart or tokens. No cash transactions on the bus!
Things to do: (click on the links for more info)
- History, Religion & Architecture: Marvel at the Blue mosque, Hagia Sofia, Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome, Topkapi palace, Dolmabahce Palace, the Chora Church, the Old city walls, Sirkeci train station and the rest of Istanbul’s long list of magnificent structures.
- Food and Drink: There’s so much to eat and drink in Istanbul. Bite into exotic kebabs,, spicy stew, grilled veggies, lahmacun (turkish pizza) as you sip on çay (turkish tea) or kahve (strong turkish coffee) or disappear behind the smoke screen of nargiles (hookah pipes) and raki (a pretty strong aniseed flavoured alcohol). If you’ve got a sweet tooth, there’s baklava, lokum (turkish delight) and shelves and shelves of sugary and pretty desserts to give into. Better still, try your hand at some local dishes with a turkish cooking class.
- Experiences: Smoke a nargile (hookah), get a traditional rubdown at a hamam, get entranced by the whirling dervishes, enjoy a cruise on the Bosphorus, watch belly dancers, play chess or backgammon with an old timer or just sit at a cafe and watch the turkish world go by.
- Shopping: The Grand Bazaar is the best place for trying your luck at haggling over exotic trinkets, souvenirs like lamps, nargiles, cloth, jewellery, rugs and carpets, and lots of other bric a brac. While the Spice Bazaar is great for stocking up on some wonderful teas, sweets like turkish delight and baklava, cinnamon, sultan’s aphrodisiac (!) dry fruits and more. There are plenty of carpet sellers everywhere, but it’s always best to ask your hotel to refer someone that they think is trustworthy. The Arasta Bazaar is slightly more expensive than the Grand Bazaar but the quality of souvenirs here is better too. There are plenty of souvenir shops around every corner in the old city. For hipper, branded stores, check out Istiklal Caddesi in the New District.
- SIM cards are easy to get at the booths at the end of the Hippodrome or behind Sultanahmet Tram Station. There’s a $100 registration fee that you need to pay which registers your phone against your passport failing which your phone will get blocked within 15 days. Which means you needn’t pay that hefty amount if you’re going to be in Istanbul for just a short while but if you’re going to be around longer or plan to return anytime soon, all the best navigating Turkcell.
- Exchange money that is enough just for the first day at the airport. There are money changers every where. Rates at Divan Yolu money changers (near the Blue Mosque) are good, but the best rates were the ones I found outside the Grand Bazaar.