The Travelettes Guide to Istanbul
The sparkling waters of the Bosphorus, the endless views over thousands of roofs from the Tarlabasi Boulevard bridge, the stunning beauty in the Turkish women’s faces – this and more makes the magic of Istanbul. The city is home to over 13 Million people (inofficial numbers even claim 20 Million), giving it a unique and powerful atmosphere that only cities of this size can embody. A stroll along the water, a visit to Grand Bazaar, a Turkish coffee in one of the cafes nearby the Galata tower can turn even the hardcore cynics into hobby poets.
My first time in Istanbul was in February of this year, when a few friends and I went to celebrate my birthday there. Those 5 days back then were enough to get me hooked and it took a mere 5 months until my next visit. This time around I was on my own but lucky enough to know a couple of locals who would show me around and introduce me to a few places, some of which you will find in this brief guide.
Where to stay
The most desirable area of Istanbul I’d recommend to stay in is Beyoglu, a part of town that hosts many hip neighborhoods such as Taksim, Galata and Cihangir, all of which are directly linked to different ends of Istiklal Caddesi, the sprawling shopping mile that is the heart of this area. Cihangir appears to be more modern, a place where rents are a bit higher and lots of expats choose to settle down in. Galata is young and hip, a more arty, slightly less wealthy crowd frequents the area (always combined with plenty of tourists coming here from Istiklal). Finally the area around Taksim square is almost residential and quiet with a couple of hidden gems like cool cafes and bars.
fancy Cihangir (left) versus hip Galata
But regardless of where you choose to stay, all areas are in great walking distances to one another, so don’t sweat if you cannot find a good place in the neighborhood of your choice. When staying in a city for a few days I prefer subletting an apartment rather than dishing out for a hotel, simply because the experience is more authentic and for a few days you get to experience what it would be like to live in this gorgeous city. In Istanbul I booked a wonderful loft in a great central location and a stunning view over the city with Wimdu.com. Wimdu has many lovely listings at affordable prices suitable for all budgets.
private accommodation through Wimdu.com with great views
If you prefer a bit more luxury and want to go for a hotel, the Pera Palace could be a great and highly romantic option for you. The hotel has been around for well over 100 years and used to be a frequent home for people like Agatha Christie, Greta Garbo and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom have the rooms they used to stay in named after them and decorated in their preferred style. Pera Palace has an incredible lobby and bar area which is popular for their special afternoon tea with locals and tourists alike and throughout the year. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth popping in on a lazy afternoon.
Pera Palace Hotel – lobby (left) and the Greta Garbo room
For a cheaper option, try the Tulip City, a small design hotel, very centrally located with lots of funny bling and mirrors in the lobby.
Once you’ve found some place to rest your head and luggage, you can get exploring. Wander around through Taksim, let yourself get lost in the many cobbled side streets as they hold the best secrets, snap a photo of a local or two (after asking of course, but most will gladly and proudly pose for photos), indulge in some Turkish Delight, a delicate local treat for anyone with a sweet tooth and finally, pick a café, order a Turkish coffee and marvel at how different it tastes to all the caffeinated brew you’ve known so far.
Food + Drink
My favorite cafe in Istanbul is Fes Cafe, a small place, tucked into a side street right behind Grand Bazaar. The funky and modern interior can fool you into thinking you’re somewhere in New York or London. Order the Turkish Coffee here, which comes with a small glass of sweet liquor (which I like to pour into the coffee, but you can just sip it) as well as with some Turkish Delight. Lunch here is great with the Spinach Salad being your best bet.
A bit out of the way but well worth the walk is Karabatak, located in a side street of Karakoy, a harbour area which is becoming increasingly happening at the moment. Karabatak does not serve alcohol but draws some of the hippest crowd you will see in Istanbul. They have good coffee and shakes as well as sandwiches and light snacks.
Karabatak (left) and Fes Cafe
Once you’ve found Karabatak, stroll around the small streets around here to find other hidden gems you might like. If you’re not in the mood for adventure and would like a readymade selection of great cafés, restaurants and bars all in one spot, head over to Cihangir and walk along Akarsu Caddesi. Make your pick between places like Journey, where wealthy locals sip lattes and read the paper in a bohemian setting, beautifully decorated Rose Marine, a temple of rosé which many vote as the best place in town for a wholesome Turkish breakfast or Kahvedan, one of the most highly rated restaurants in Istanbul (according to trip advisor and other reputable sources) and among the few places serving a great western breakfast while also offering a large array of great lunch and dinner options. Finally Cafe Firuz is always packed and yet another popular option for afternoon tea or breakfast.
Rose Marine (top) and Cafe Firuz in Cihangir
A favorite option for dinner with your lover or some friends is Besinci Kat (‘the fifth floor’ in English, Siraselviler Caddesi, Soganci Sokak 7), a charmingly decorated and dimly lit restaurant on the top floor of the same building that houses Minimüsikhol (see club section further down). When it’s warm out head up to the roof top terrace and enjoy a glass of wine with your eyes resting over Istanbul’s lights.
When it comes to buying souvenirs, clothes, sweets and – my favorite – stuff, than the market will be your first port of call. Markets are an important part of Turkish culture, and a visit to Grand Bazaar will reward you with lots of shiny, pretty things you will want to take home. Come here for handmade leather bags and shoes, beautifully painted ceramic bowls and vases, every kind of jewellery you can think of, uniquely woven carpets, colored glass lamp shades and an infinite offer of Turkish sweets; or just come here for a stroll along the many alleys, take in the bustling atmosphere and engage in a friendly chat with a skilled salesman.
If it’s Western good you’re after you won’t have to go far. The most obvious place for regular high street shopping is Istiklal Caddesi where you’ll find everything from Zara to H&M and the usual suspects. Noteworthy is the 3-story high Mango Outlet shop offering past season collections at discounted prices. Istiklal is the heart of modern Turkey and holds little variation to similar shopping streets in other European cities.
Nonetheless it is worth exploring some of Istiklal’s side streets on the hunt for cute boutiques and hidden gems. If it’s vintage that you’re after, get lost in the basement of By Retro (Suriye Pasajı, Istiklal Caddesi 166C), a huge store with sections of clothing divided by age. Whether you love your 70’s, 80’s or even 20’s – this is the place. Particularly impressive is their range of old prom and wedding dresses – come here and your next Halloween is safe.
Potentially the city’s best concept store is Atelier 55 (Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak 55, Karaköy) which sells carefully chosen pieces – clothing, but also jewellery, purses and art – from small designers as well as large brands, both national and international. There is no rush coming here which you will find out the instant you discover the in house espresso bar.
Just up the street from Atelier 55, towards Galata Square several small boutiques are waiting to be discovered by you. Have a look inside Bahar Korcan’s shop (Serdar-ı Ekrem Sok. 9 Galata) to get familiar with the creations of one of Turkey’s most innovative designers or walk down a few doors to fall in love with the dark designs of Arzu Kaprol (Serdar-ı Ekrem Sok. 55, Galata).
Also conveniently located here is an adorable little vintage shop called Atölye dö Bora (Serdar-ı Ekrem Sok. 8A) with great handpicked dresses at welcoming prices. The owner is an agreeable dude who’s traveled all around the world for the clothes he is selling, but beware of his offerings of haircuts – they are as bad as they come (I would know).
There is only one problem when it comes to bars and nightlife in Istanbul and that is picking one. After 10 pm, the whole of Beyoglu appears to turn into one big outdoor party, even during winter, where people stand outside bars that are sometimes no more than holes in the wall. Walking around side streets of Istiklal will provide you with plenty of options but if you wish to target specific drinking holes, have a look at our recommendations below.
For a local experience, buy a beer at the supermarket and grab a seat around the Galata tower along with the other expats, hippies and free spirits. You’ll notice fast that Istanbullus are extremely welcoming and friendly, so this might be a good opportunity for you to connect with locals and get the current scoop on the best insider tips for the city.
Later in the evening make your way over to Sofyali Sokak, a street that runs parallel to Istiklal and hosts an arrey of bars that draw an arty crowd. Pick one that suits your taste in music and people. I like Otto Sofyali, which doubles as a restaurant. Not too far away is Otto (Tünel Meydani), my favorite of the bunch, owned by the same people who run Otto Sofyali and located in a basement of an unassuming side street, attracting a hip young crowd. Great vibes here, international DJs and strong drinks.
If you’re feeling fancy, head to the Marmara Pera Hotel and enjoy a cocktail at the rooftop bar overlooking the city – locals swear by this experience. Another option along those lines is 360° on Istiklal Caddesi which is also a popular fine dining option which turns into a club during weekends.
The club and live music scene is thriving in Istanbul and unless you want to you never have to spend a night inside. Only catch – partying in this city is not for small budgets, so bring your Turkish Lira and get in line.
Minimüzikhol (Sıraselviler Cad. Soğancı Sok. 7) is the club of the hour with cool dj’s rocking the dance floor and a fashionable crowd hanging out around the many rooms in this apartment style club. If you’re wondering where to meet boys with nice hair – come here.
Roxy (Aslan Yataği Sokak 5) is just a few steps from Minimüzikhol and right by Taksim square, featuring a fun selection of music (80s and 90s R’n B, Hip Hop) and decent drinks. It really depends on the night if this place is good or not, but we at least had fun dancing.
Flashy lights on one floor and laid-back outdoor drinking on the next – that is the concept of Living Indigo, a club space covering 400sqm and offering space to over 600 guests. There are regular live music acts here so check out their website for a program on who is playing.
Peyote is a popular choice if you enjoy dingy bars with live music. The locals swear by it.
Of course this selection is not nearly exhaustive of your options and if you enjoy very big, glitzy clubs this list might leave you stranded. Nevertheless, you might also want to check out some of the following clubs that were recommended to us by people in the know:
Groove > http://www.groove.com.tr/
Kasette > https://www.facebook.com/kasettetaksim
Machine > https://www.facebook.com/MachineClub
More live music venues:
Iksv Salon > http://www.saloniksv.com/
Nublu > http://www.nubluistanbul.net/
Arka Oda > https://www.facebook.com/groups/2548947432/
Karga > http://www.kargabar.org/
Finally, there is a seemingly infinite number of highlights you can experience when visiting Istanbul, such as a visit to the Hammam, a ferry crossing on the Bosphorous between Europa and Asia or a visit to the Princes Islands, but there is so much to say about each of these that I will put them in a separate post soon.
For now I hope that these infos will provide you with the basic tools of living a jolly good time in Istanbul. As always your additions and suggestions are more than welcome, so shout them out loud in the comments.