I spent three days in Istanbul. I instantly fell in love with Turkey’s favourite city which straddles both Europe and Asia via the shimmering Bosphorus. It’s not often I travel on the solo and instantly find a romantic connection to a space and place. People often speak this way about the energy in New York City, Buenos Aires and Budapest. Istanbul in September is a delight as the hot heat of summer has passed and sunny days are matched with a cool breeze and stunning sunsets that put us to bad with heartfelt satisfaction.
Over 20 million people live in Istanbul proper. My first experience in the city was getting myself from the airport to my hotel which involved hopping on a subway, transferring to a packed streetcar and then rolling my luggage over cobblestone streets. My home would be Cheers Hostel a brilliantly situated guest house in the heart of Sultanahmet which offers stunning views of the Hagia Sophia from their rooftop bar.
My trip to Turkey was a “back to backpacking” adventure. I wanted to tap back into my travel roots, break away from regimented and exhaustive press trip itineraries and search through cities on the solo. Istanbul offered my career a bit of therapy and reminded me why I love to storytell about travel so much. I wandered where I wanted to, went off the beaten path and found inspiration in an ancient city that feels so fresh and alive.
Istanbul is the only city to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role that has shaped the region’s history for more than 2500 years and bequeathed to Istanbul a staggering wealth of attractions; these range from the masterpiece Byzantine church Aya Sofya to the formidable city walls, and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces that dominate the city skyline. Although no longer the capital , the city remains the vibrant economic, cultural and intellectual heart of modern Turkey, a bustling city where east meets west ever so harmoniously.
I ran around Istanbul for four days eating myself silly, snapping photos like the trigger happy tourist that I am, all the while skipping through the streets plugged in to Lana Del Ray. The following are must do’s in Istanbul:
Sips and Nibbles
Istanbul is famous for its culinary offerings, a unique approach to east meets west which offers hungry travelers delicious cheap eats as well as the glitz and glam of haute cuisine. The best way to familiarize yourself with the cities street food is by booking yourself on a tour with Istanbul Eats, the cities most sought after pedestrian food-centric professionals. The city also offers some of the worlds most jaw dropping fine dining experiences. Sample your way through traditional Turkish cuisine at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet’s Seasons Restaurant or get outside of the tourist zone and head up river for an Italian feast at Aqua at the Four Seasons Bosphorus. For those looking to dine in a Turkish Palace on classic Ottoman cuisine be sure to indulge in a romantic evening at Tugra Restaurant in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski.
Strolling Through Sultanahmet
Istanbul’s architectural icons can be found in the old Sultanahmet neighbourhood. The area buzzes with tourists where many of the cities hotels offer stunning views over the Bosphorus. Give yourself at least two full days to adventure through the Old City as its “tourist treasures” require time to wander through and explore properly. The Sultanahmet “attraction trilogy” are all a stones throw from each other: The Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapi Palace.
In and Around the Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Ottoman-era Grand Bazaar gets more than its fair share of souvenir-hungry visitors. With 66 streets and alleys, more than four thousand shops, numerous storehouses, money changers and banks, a mosque, post office, police station and its own health centre, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. Expect to get lost as most streets are either poorly marked, or their signs are hidden beneath goods hung on display. Vendors sell a plethora of bags, slippers, shoes, jewellery, rugs, leather and ceramics. Northwest of the Grand Bazaar, on the third hill of the Old City, sits the magnificent Suleymaniye Camii mosque worth checking out for its 53 meter high central dome. Walking back down to the Golden Horn be sure to stop by the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the Spice Market). The L-shaped bazaar has been the city’s premier spice outlet for several centuries. Endowed with customs duties from Cairo – hence its name – it has 88 vaulted rooms with vendors selling everything from Turkish Delight, dried fruit, spices and herbs.
Cruising Along the Bosphorus
No visit to Istanbul is complete without a cruise up the Bosphorus River. Boats pick up at Eminonu Terminal adjacent to the Galata Bridge and sail to the entrance of the Black Sea. On a sunny day the cruise is truly relaxing and offers fantastic views of the palaces, nightclubs, castles and towers which line the river. Be sure to walk across the Galata Bridge once back from your sailing adventure. A pedestrian walkway on the bridge makes the stroll across the river to Karakoy a breeze. A smelly one to say the least as hundreds of local fisherman line the railing attempting to snatch the best catch of the day.
North and uphill from the sprawl of Galata and Karakoy, the district of Beyoglu is the beating heart of modern Istanbul. Locals head in droves to Istiklal Caddesi to shop, wine and dine, take in a film, club, gig or gallery. Hop on the promenade’s cute antique tramway to the massive Taksim Square, a symbol of the secular Turkish Republic. My local guide took me for a lovely lunch at Karadeniz Pide his long time favourite spot to grab a cheesy meat covered Pide. The neighbourhood is full of restaurants, hookah lounges and bars that spill onto quaint side streets. A perfect spot to grab a pint of Efes before a football game or in the late evening when the area hustles and bustles.
Arting at the Tophane Docklands
Turkey’s leading contemporary arts gallery, Istanbul Modern, is housed in a revamped warehouse on the edge of the Bosphorus, just in front of the Nusretiye Camii. The interior is all big, blank white walls and exposed piping. The collection includes the countries best modern art as well as reference library, cinema and trendy cafe with a terrace overlooking the river. I was lucky enough to be in town for the 13th Istanbul Biennial which had its largest exhibit next door in an old storage hanger. Considered one of the most prestigious biennials alongside Venice, Sao Paolo and Sydney, Istanbul Biennial plays an important role in the promotion of contemporary artists in Turkey. I had such fun silently observing the throngs of local art fans who wandered through its exhibits and installations. Was nice to see parents taking their children for an art stroll while hip urban youth traveled in packs discussing and scrutinizing the works which mattered to them most.