FROM the comfort of your hotel or hostel it’s easy to underestimate the scale of Istanbul. A city of over 12.5 million people, it’s both densely populated and large, consisting of 39 counties which have over time joined up to create one giant “megacity”. Chances are your tourist experience will only take in a tiny fraction of this large sprawling city. It’s also famously the only city in the world to cover two continents: Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosporus Strait.
In Turkey, 98% of the population are Islamic and this is undoubtedly the reason behind the most notable cultural differences. Most women wear a headscarf, but you won’t be expected to wear it yourself and you don’t need to freak out too much about covering yourself up.
That said, Turkish men are full on. They’ll follow you down the street, spouting ridiculous pickup lines, tell you all kinds of nice things and yes, propose marriage. Keep these guys at arm’s length or you might end up like me, with a misinformed taxi driver stopping for a kissing pit-stop on the way home (he was WAY off the mark). Women travelling with men won’t usually experience this. This attention can be initially passed off as disrespect for Western women and our culture, but it actually has more to do with the men themselves, who local women describe as “hungry”.
All workers we came across in restaurants were men, as women generally don’t work and despite their forwardness, they really are very friendly and eager to find out about our culture. You’ll find it’s not uncommon to be given free tea, coffee, extra snacks, without any expectation of something in return.
Being a Muslim country, homosexuality is not readily accepted and is definitely not seen out in the open. In fact, this is one of the issues preventing Turkey becoming a part of the European Union. While Turkish men are very affectionate with each other and can be commonly seen holding hands, locals can tell the difference between friendly hand holding and “more than” friends. Due to this, gay travellers need to be aware that locals might not be very understanding.
Location, location, location
There are two ideal areas to stay in Istanbul.
There’s Sultanahmet – an extremely touristy, but still charming, part of the city. It’s got plenty of accommodation and restaurants, but most importantly all of the beautiful historic buildings that you need to see within walking distance. These include the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Aja Sofia, many of the hammams (Turkish bathouses) and those gorgeous rooftop bars and restaurants that Istanbul is famous for. Accommodation ranges from hostels and guest-houses to high-end hotels.
The other area is the Beyoglu – a tram ride away from Sultanahmet across the water of the Golden Horn. It includes Taksim Square and the long shopping strip Istiklal Avenue with plenty of stores, eateries and accommodation. Here you’ll find a range of hostels. Generally this area is cheaper for both accommodation and dining, but it isn’t as conveniently located to tourist attractions.
One of Turkey’s biggest attractions is the food. In keeping with Istanbul’s distinctly Turkish flavour, unlike most other globalised tourist destinations you’re not going to find a burger joint or an Italian restaurant here.
In Sultanahmet the food is generally more expensive and the quality can be hit and miss. Once you head over Kadikoy on the Asian side, that’s where you can really experience amazing local tucker. Naturally, shish kebabs are plentiful and very tasty, but the seafood is also amazing. Caught on the Bosporus, it doesn’t get any fresher. Walking through the myriad of alleyways, fishmongers had fresh catch literally bouncing in their buckets. For breakfast it’s a tasty Borek — Turkish bread mixed in with meat or cheese and chopped up. But what I was really looking forward to was the humble fish sandwich I’d heard so much about. I finally managed to get my hands on one down by the fish markets, although they’re most commonly sold by the hundreds to locals by the Eminonu docks. These are cooked up on the spot by local fisherman on boats, and packed together with onion, Turkish bread and salad. They are amazing, cost under two pounds and cannot be missed.
For vegetarians, appropriate food isn’t hard to come by but you’ll probably spend your time eating combinations of small snacky things (meze) like green beans, salad and dips, rather than a ‘proper meal’. On the plus side, bread comes free with everything and you can always go and stuff your face with Turkish delight and Baklava at one of the many sweet shops selling fresh made desserts. Don’t forget to wash it down with Turkish tea, coffee or apple tea.
Once you’re done with food, it’s probably time to get a drink.
Although it has some nice bars and restaurants for a quiet drink and nargileh (water pipe), Sultanahmet is a dead loss when it comes to going out. For the best night spots, you need to head to the many lanes off Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square. Our favourite was an area just behind the fish market, called Nevizade, a narrow alleyway filled with bustling bars and chock-a-block full of Turkish people chatting, smoking nargileh, eating or drinking the traditional Turkish drink Raki. The Turks aren’t big drinkers, and although this drink is 45% alcohol, they don’t guzzle in the same fashion us Aussies do. Instead it’s served in a long shot glass with water. Tip the water into the liquor and it will transform into a cloudy white liquid. Sip it slowly and enjoy the strong aniseed flavour.
Alternatively, you can buy the equivalent of a German stein (the size of your head, if you’re not familiar) of beer, for just eight Turkish lire, the equivalent of three pounds. Efes is the only brand of beer served anywhere, unless you go to a fancy hotel or club, so luckily it’s really very nice.
Once you’ve moved on from sitting around drinking and feel like a dance, there are plenty of clubs around, many of which are open till 4 or 5am. Our favourite was Peyote, which seemed to be where all the hipsters in Istanbul had been hiding away. Downstairs was a DJ and dance floor and upstairs was a rowdy rooftop bar playing a mixture of industrial, indie and rock’n’roll.
Till you drop
In Taksim there are plenty of places for shopping: high street clothing stores, American cosmetics store Sephora and plenty of other knick knacks. But the best place to blow your dough is probably on the tram back across the Golden Horn.
In Istanbul the best shopping isn’t about high street brands but beautiful traditional Turkish wares. You can find stunning hand-woven bags, shoes, great quality Pashminas (for only 10 euros), tiles, Turkish glassware, beads and rugs.
If you’re a fan of Bangkok style rip-off designer gear, Istanbul has it all. There’s a wide variety of perfumes, although don’t be fooled, these did not fall off the back of a truck. That didn’t stop my friend buying five bottles. Did I mention the packaging was really convincing?
You can find great shops through every street in Istanbul, but the mecca is the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. As in Bangkok, bartering is welcome, and if you’re tough enough you can walk away with a great deal.
Head over to Kadikoy on the Asian side for great antique stores selling furniture, books and quirky records for those crate diggers among us.
Settlement in Istanbul has been traced back to 7th millennium BC, so there is plenty of breathtaking ancient architecture to take in.
There are a million mosques to look around, the most famous of which is the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. You can look around outside praying times and women need to cover themselves with scarves which you can borrow when you arrive. Close by at Sirkeci station, there is also the “new” mosque, which of course is thousands of years old, and Aya Sofia, which has now been converted into a museum.
There are a couple of other museums worth checking out: the Jewish Museum and the Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art in the financial district, boasting impressive local and international pieces.
Another unmissable experience during your Istanbul stay is a trip up the Bosporus. To do this you’ll need to catch a public ferry from Eminonu dock, at a cost of 25 Turkish lire for the 20 mile return trip or 15 Turkish lire one-way. The trip is quite long so you have the choice of hopping off before the final stop and getting the public land transport back to town. These simple ferries have indoor and outdoor areas and are perfect for taking in the palatial Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, many bridges, and wealthy waterside mansions. Try to get to the pier early to get a good seat, make sure it’s an OK day so you can get good photos and if you like your toilets western, go beforehand.
Steam it up
The ultimate cultural experience is visiting a traditional Turkish hammam (bathhouse). These stem back from the days when the Turkish didn’t have their own bathing facilities and would converge on the bathhouses a couple of times a week to scrub themselves clean. Yes, they were in the nude and this was done in front of a whole bunch of other people. This can be challenging for us prudish Westerners, but a) it’s a great experience, b) the hammams have separate male and female bathhouses, and c) you don’t have to take all your clothes off if you don’t want to.
These are expensive but well worth it. I paid around 40 euros for a massage and exfoliation at the beautiful CaÄŸaloÄŸlu (pronounced ja-lo-lu) Hammam, which was built in 1854 and is the oldest in Istanbul. Truly amazing and a quintessentially Turkish experience.
The two airports in Istanbul are Ataturk and Sabiha GÃ¶kÃ§en. If you can, fly into Ataturk airport. It takes about 30 minutes to get into Istanbul, whereas Sabiha takes about an hour and a half, although it’s still relatively easily to access via shuttle bus. Easyjet fly into Sabiha Gokcen and British Airways flies to Ataturk.
Marmara Guesthouse, Sultanhamet: Clean, run by a nice family and with a gorgeous rooftop. That said, the rooms are simple and not particularly cheap at 30 pounds per night each, and gorgeous rooftops are a dime a dozen in Istanbul.
Hotel Saffir, in the heart of Sultanahmet: Well appointed 3 star hotel featuring breakfast and all the luxuries of higher end accommodation, including pool, sauna, hammam, 24 hour front desk and very friendly staff. These guys were invaluable with their tips on where to go and what to watch out for, and even provided translation when we had to visit the local police station (see story below!)
ISTANBUL TRAVEL & SAFETY
A cautionary tale
Cabs in Istanbul are cheap. To get from Sultanahmet to the bar strip on Taksim Square across the bridge, it will only cost around 16 Turkish lire (6 pounds).
*Rule number 1: always make sure the meter is turned on. If it’s not turned on, you’re getting ripped off. It’s always worthwhile asking hotel or hostel staff for advice on prices and tips before you go anywhere as it is possible to get stung. During the daytime the tram is a great way to get around town.
*Beware: while theft isn’t common in this city, the number 1 most likely place to get pickpocketed is by riding a tram. Naturally, we learnt this the hard way. Be very cautious of people around you and what they’re doing. My friend was fuming mad at the guy behind her feeling her up. As she learnt when she got off the tram, he was feeling her up, but he was also grabbing her wallet while she was distracted.
If you run into trouble, the regular Turkish police are useless. In our case they didn’t speak English and wouldn’t give us a police statement. With the help of an interpreter we later discovered they didn’t actually believe that the wallet had been stolen and thought we were insurance fraudsters. Call the Tourist Police if you get into any trouble.