Thursday, June 25, 2015

Istanbul travel recommendations

Keeping up with a recent theme, here are some of my suggestions for a visit to Istanbul.

Maybe they're obvious, maybe not, but I’ll start by mentioning some of the main tourist attractions:
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), Suleymanie Mosque, the New Mosque, and many others - all beautiful and everyone can enter freely as long as they take off their shoes and cover their legs and shoulders. Entrance during praying times might be restricted. The Turkish word for mosque is 'camii'. 

In front of the Blue Mosque there’s the Hagia Sophia , a church turned mosque turned museum - it's an old building , from the 6th century , and when it was built it was an architectural marvel. I traveled a bit with an Architecture Professor in Turkey, and he told me that it was probably the most advanced building in the world when it was built, its plan and engineering ahead of its time by many years, and so on. It’s relatively expensive to enter (30 liras or ~10EU as of June ‘15), but I would recommend going in. If you’re into museums in general, I would recommend this card: For 85 lira (almost 30EU) you can visit with the Hagia Sophia Church/Mosque, Another church>mosque>museum called Kariye (Chora) with amazing golden mosaics and frescoes, the Archeology Museum (huge and full of fascinating stuff),  Topkapı (the old palace of the Ottoman sultans), and several others. The card also allows you to bypass the lines. The one into Hagia Sofia tends to be especially long... The card has a time limit of 72/120 hours, and you can visit 7-8 museums with it (if you’re gonna visit 4 or more of them, I think it’s worth it. But I’m a big museum and history fan). The Basilica Cistern is right in the same area, and I would recommend visiting it as part of the historical sites tour, but for some reason it’s not included in the card.
There also seems to be a Museum Pass Turkey and Museum Pass Cappadocia, but I can’t find good info on it. If you’re planning to travel more in Turkey, try asking around when you’re already there.

To get around in the city, it’s worth it to get an Istanbulkart, that you must have to ride the bus, and gives you discounts on all public transport (a small discount on the first trip , and a more significant one if traveling again in the next hour and a half or so) including metro, tram and boats. You can buy one (it cost a~3EU last time I checked), put money into it, and you’re good to go. They say it in stores and kiosks, just ask around a bit. I think you can always pay for more than one person with the same card, so if you’re traveling as a pair or a group, one card for everyone should suffice.

A day on the Bosphorus

One of my favorite things to do in Istanbul is to walk on the banks of the Bosphorus. There’s a waterfront promenade that follows it almost the entire way, at least on the European side, and I think it's nice to walk at least the segment from Karaköy to Ortaköy – on the way you’ll pass the presidential palace, several beautiful mosques on the water and all kinds of hotels and luxury villas. In Ortakoy there’s a nice bars and restaurants area and it’s fun to hang around the market - last time I was there there was some serious ongoing construction work, but it should be done by now. Anyway, it’s touristy, but pretty nice. Apart from walking, another option is to take a Bosphorus boat from side to side. There is one specific boat line that goes back and forth across the strait between the Asian and European sides, which I think is very nice. At the very least I'd recommend visiting two ancient fortresses: one is called Rumelihisarı, but everybody calls it Bebek; and the second is at the northernmost end of the Bosphorus, where it connects to the Black Sea, and is called Anadolu Kavağı. There you’ll find a small village and an ancient fortress guarding the entrance to the Straits. You can get there on a tourist cruise, but I think it’s much better to do it yourself with a combination of several boats (and 2-3 buses). The second option is more complicated, but more fun and you can stop in all kinds of places on the way. I personally would spend a whole day and visit several places on the way, but of course that depends on how much time you have and how much you like dealing with public transportation (I love it).
This would be my plan for a full day on the Bosphorus (skip down if you’re not thinking of doing it):

Boats on the Bosphorus are included within the urban public transport, so you can use the Istanbulkart to pay on them. And on any Bosphorus boat dock you can take a small schedule pamphlet that will really help. Meanwhile, to understand what I'm talking about and get a general idea, you can use this page:

Assuming you start from the Old City area, you can take either the boat from Eminönü to Üşküdar, or even the one that comes from Eyüp to Üşküdar (much lower frequency, but adds a trip up the Golden Horn to your tour). In Üşküdar you can hang around the pier , there is another lovely mosque,  and you can walk along the Bosphorus to the south (towards Harem), where there are beautiful views of the strait, the European side, and a cute (and really famous) little lighthouse in the middle of the water called the Girl’s/Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi). From there take a bus to Çengelköy , where right next to the pier there’s a famous teahouse on the waterfront, with a great view to the Bosphorus bridge. After a few cups of tea you can take the Çengelköy – Istinye boat (which also has a relatively low frequency, so plan in advance...). You could get off in Bebek, and go into the fortress there, and then take the next boat from the same line, or just make do with the views of the fortress from the water and continue to Istinye. Istinye has a small and calm pier where you can sit and relax on the water, and the beautiful and well-kept Emirgan Park is close by. It’s full of large and serious flower arrangements (mostly tulips when I was there, but I guess it depends on the season – I was there around March) in many colors. It’s a great park, both in size and design, especially in a city like Istanbul that really doesn’t have enough green areas... From there you can either take a bus or walk (this is a nice walk in my opinion, but it is 10km or so...) to Sarıyer , and from there take a boat to Anadolu Kavağı , the last stop of the day. There you can walk around the village (which is officially part of the city but doesn’t feel like it at all). There are all kinds of touristy restaurants and tea places, but the visit is mostly worth it for the ruins of the castle on the hill, with great views back towards the city and towards the Black Sea. It’s a very good sunset spot. You could go back the same way, but probably the easiest, least expensive way is to take the boat back to Sarıyer, and from there take a bus that goes all the way to Taksim Square. I’m sure that there are other nice places to stop along the way, but these are the things I did. I think they provide a fun and beauty-filled half day to full day, and give you a great overview of the entire Bosphorus strait. On a Bosphorus tour you would probably just pass through most of the straits, not be able to visit more than 2-3 places, and not be able to do it at your own pace. Plus, you would pay the same price as all the cost of public transport combined, or maybe even more.

Would you like some tea?

Turkish Coffee is famous all over the world, but don't buy into the hype: Turkey is much more of a tea country than a coffee country. At least these days: coffee has a much longer history in the country, beginning in the 15th century when it first arrived from Ethiopia (via Yemen and the middle east). Tea, in comparison, is new to the scene: Atatürk urged Turks to drink more tea, since it could be cultivated nationally, and was a more cultured and gentlemanly drink. Less than 100 years later it's deeply embedded in local culture. So much so that Turkish people are the #1 consumers of tea in the world (per capita, of course).

One of the nicest things about Turkey - and Istanbul in particular - is sitting and drinking lots and lots and lots of tea. I got to sit in various tea gardens (çaybahçe) for hours; I think my record is over 10 cups of tea in one place. Each one costs ~1 euro or less, so it's pretty affordable. Here’s four specific tea houses I recommend: in Kadıköy, on the Asian side , there is an area called Moda, where there are two tea gardens on a really nice spot on the water; on Istiklal street, the main pedestrian street that ends in Taksim Square, there are many passages and alleys leading to both sides, in which you can find all kinds of different things (go exploring, it’s great!), and in one these passages, called Hazzo Pulo, there’s a great traditional tea house; in Çengelköy, right next to the small boat pier, there’s one that has a beautiful view over the city and the Bosphorus Bridge; and the highlight, in my opinion: in front of Suleymaniye mosque, there’s Mimar Sinan Street, and on that street you can find Mimar Sinan Cafe. There is a roof with an amazing view, both of the mosque and of the city, and you can sit there for hours, drinking tea, smoking a nargile and playing backgammon.
Turkish tea is usually brewed dark and strong. At home, people commonly use a double-tiered teapot, one pot with hot water and one with concentrated tea, and you'll be asked how strong you want it. In tea houses this is not the case, and you will most likely get average concentration (average for Turkey would be strong almost anywhere else). Most people drink it with a lot of sugar - 2 sugar cubes in a ~100ml cup is the most prevalent. If you're like me and will end up drinking 6-7 cups of tea a day (at least...), you can calculate how much sugar that is and realize that's a problem. My suggestion is to either get used to the taste of strong unsweetened tea, or ask for your tea 'açik' (clear or light, pronounced a-cheek). 
Since I’m on the subject of nargile and backgammon, there is an area full of nargile places behind the Great Mosque at Tophane, again close to the Bosphorus, and not too far from Taksim (but all the way down on the water). The city is filled with this kind of places, but in this area there is a good concentration of them, so you can chose whichever seems best to you, and it’s unlikely you will find them all full. Also, location is good, easy to get to, and it’s right besides the wall of an old Ottoman mosque, so you'll have something to look at and can feel the historical ambience around you.
I have no idea how one can explain how to get to my favorite nargile place in Istanbul, but I can say it’s on a passageway close to the University of Istanbul in Fatih... It’s a traditional, loud, crowded and very aromatic place – just the way a nargile place should be.
Another thing that I liked a lot in Istanbul is the moving tea houses. Sometimes there’s people that will be selling tea off of a cart or a van, complete with a large quantity of chairs. So they basically open a tea house wherever there are enough space and potential clients. I’ve seen it happening mostly on the Bosphorus promenade.

Escape to the islands

If you get tired of excessively urban Istanbul, you can escape to the Prince islands (Adalar in Turkish, which simply means ‘islands’) in the Marmara Sea. There are no cars on the islands, which is a big relief from the busy city streets.
The biggest and most popular is Büyükada,  where there’s a huge abandoned orphanage built entirely out of wood, and an Armenian monastery on the highest point in the island. The view from up here back towards the city isn’t exactly pretty, but it does give you a unique perspective on how huge Istanbul really is: it basically covers the whole horizon, wherever you might look.
The residents in the islands are mostly Armenian, Greek and Jewish, houses there are large and beautiful, and there’s a lot of forest, beaches and quiet. You can swim there, but I think all the beaches charge an entrance fee in the warm-hot season. There are three other islands the ferry stops at, so you could chose to island hop or stay just on one.
The ferries to the islands go fairly regularly, and are also covered by the Istanbulkart. If you take the bus or tram to the ferry pier in Kabataş (European side), Bostancı, Kartal or Maltepe (Asian side), you’ll get the discount for a second ride, which will lower more from the price of the boat than you would have just paid for said bus/tram.


A huge part of traveling for me, in almost every country, is the food. Turkey wasn’t an exception; in fact, it was a great reinforcement. I had high expectations, and in this specific case, they were met. I can’t really recommend any specific places to eat, but I will write generally about Turkish food.
Now, in a country as big as Turkey, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of regional variety. But since Istanbul is a center of internal immigration, there are people from all over the country living in the city, so you can basically get anything. Two main kinds of restaurants are common: lokantas are places that have ready-made food on display, and restorans are places where there’s a menu that you order from. And of course there’s street food stalls as well.
Some of my favorite dishes are:
Turkish breakfast: if there’s one thing I would say Turks know better than the rest of the world, it’s breakfasts. From my experience, the usual Turkish home will have its breakfast tray all set up and waiting, or maybe two trays – one in the fridge, once outside. The essentials are olives (at least two kinds), cheese (at least two kinds), honey, eggs, yoghurt, sliced vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers are the most common), jam (at least two kinds), and bread. Oh, and tea, of course. Lots of it. On the tray, each thing has its own plate, which adds a feeling of variety to the actual variety. And this is the very basic breakfast tray. I’ve seen Turkish breakfast with 30+ distinct dishes, each one in its little plate.
Çiğ-köfte: raw food eaters, you’ll love this one. They’re little balls of uncooked bulgur (cracked wheat) kneaded with onions, tomatoes, chili pepper and other condiments. They’re kneaded for a long, long time (believe me, I’ve done it), until they become a sort of paste, and then shaped into balls or saucers or whatever shape strikes your fancy. Then they’re usually eaten rolled into a lettuce leaf, and can be accompanied by yoghurt (or ayran). Traditionally it’s made with raw meat as well, and the kneading is supposed to “cook” the meat. But for years it has been illegal for fast food places to use meat, for health reasons, so if you want the meat-version you’ll have to find somebody that makes it or make it yourself. If you buy it on the street, it will be the vegetarian option, which is still really good.
Balık ekmek: a ubiquitous street food in the area of any of the Bosphorus piers. It’s very simple, a fish fillet in bread (the name literally means “fish bread”), but it’s so good. And cheap.
Yaprak Dolma and other dolmas: ‘Dolmak’ means to be stuffed, so everything that is named X-dolma is a stuffed food. They stuff many things in Turkey, but the most common are vine leaves (yaprak). Sometimes they come with meat, in which case they’ll add “etli” to the name. (et= meat; li= with). Other favorite dolmas of mine are eggplants (patlıcan) and tomatoes.
Kumpir: these are baked potatoes stuffed with… well, basically anything and everything. In some places you can get a kumpir with 15 different ingredients, and that’s not including the potato. It’s basically a whole meal: salad, soup, main dish and dessert. In a potato. And if you’re wondering where to eat it, why not go to “Kumpir sokak” (kumpir street) in Ortaköy?
Börek: phyllo-dough stuffed with many different things, most commonly cheese, spinach or meat, and cooked with a lot of oil. There are a lot of varieties prepared in a lot of different shapes, but they have one thing in common: they’re all delicious. My only complaint about Turkish börek is that they don’t cook it in pork lard, like in the Balkans.
And for dessert…
Baklava: of course, of course, how could baklava not be part of a list of Turkish food? I’m from a country where baklava is very popular, but you can’t really compare it with the Turkish one. In fact, strike that, you can compare it: in Turkey it’s much, much better. Of course, you have to know where to go, but unfortunately I don’t remember any particular place to recommend. But ask around, I’m sure people will have a lot of opinions on the matter. Try to find baklava made in Gaziantep or by people from there. The bright green tubes made entirely out of pistachio are a personal favorite.
Künefe: melted cheese topped by kadaif hairs (usually dyed orange, for some obscure reason) topped by ground pistachios topped by sugar syrup. This desert is as pretty as it is tasty, with bright colors to go with the sweetness. It’s traditionally from the Hatay region.
Helva: I just realized all the desserts I’m writing about are also traditional in Israel. I also just realized they’re all better in Turkey… Anyway, helva is made from sesame and lots and lots of sugar, sometimes with vanilla, chocolate or pistachio added. It’s great for long walks, as it’s a solid mass of sugar, basically indestructible and easy to store or wrap.


What else? Of course, walk around the older areas of the city, located mainly around the Golden Horn. You can find many mosques, churches and synagogues there, narrow streets and alleys, all kinds of markets, and so on. Galata, Pera, Fener, Balat, Eyüp – all of those are good areas to just walk around and get lost in.Be aware that some of these neighborhoods are quite conservative. 
I love walking from Taksim square, through Istiklal street, the Galata Tower, the Galata bridge and up to the square of Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia. The contrast is striking, between the new and the old, the liberal and the conservative, the global and the local. When I walk that stretch, it feels to me like walking a cross section of Turkish society and of Istanbul's (and Constantinople's) history. 

The grand bazaar is famous enough that it doesn’t really need my advertising, but it’s worth a visit for sure. Don’t make the mistake I made, and keep in mind that it’s closed Sundays. Also, be ready to be approached by shopkeepers a lot. And I mean A LOT. And if your nationality isn’t easily pinned down, you’ll be approached in a dozen different languages before the day is done. Another market that is very photogenic and surprisingly well-priced is the Spice Market, right next to the New Mosque in Eminönü

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