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Istanbul: What to Visit and Where to Eat

You may have guessed from the pictures I posted on Instagram and on Facebook: Istanbul made its way into my heart and I think it’ll stay there for a long time. I had been wanting to visit for years and finally, my friend Vale and I managed to book a reasonable flight and off we went!

It’s impossible not to be fascinated and I returned home with the image of the Bosphorus, the streets and the rich contrasts still vivid in my mind. Needless to say, before we left, I attentively studied our “plan of action”. We stayed for 4 days and this is the tour that I would suggest upon your arrival in Istanbul: here’s my advice on what to see and where to eat in one of the most beautiful cities in the world! 

WHAT TO SEE

ISTANBUL DAY #1

BLUE MOSQUE – HAGIA SOFIA – BASILICA CISTERN – GRAND BAZAAR – SPICE BAZAAR -SÜLEYMANIYE’S MOSQUE

Start with a walk around Sultanahmet. Arrive to this district by tram and, as soon as you step off, be prepared to walk a lot. Head down to the Blue Mosque (check the times beforehand, as it is not possible to visit during prayer hours) and visit Hagia Sofia, whose interior is truly unmissable. A stop at the Basilica Cistern is mandatory, if only to feel the magical atmosphere of the lights reflected on the water of this huge underground building. After lunch (you can find restaurant suggestions in the last part of this article), take a trip to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, which are both chaotic and intriguing, and where sellers understand that you are a foreigner before even seeing you and proceed to try to sell you anything. I bought ginger, saffron and teas, as well as a beautiful scarf. One can find anything in here and leaving with a lighter wallet (it’s not as cheap as you might think) is easy. Between one purchase and another, stop for a cup of hot tea from Sark. On the way back towards the center, you must absolutely stop at Süleymaniye’s Mosque, not so much for the inside as for the rear terrace overlooking the city: a dreamy place!

ISTANBUL DAY #2

TOPKAPI PALACE- FENER AND BALAT NEIGHBORHOODS 

Another pearl of Istanbul is Topkapi Palace: so vast and immense it requires at least half a day for a complete visit. My advice is to also buy a ticket for the Harem, which is the most impressive part of the entire complex. Wander around the thousands of rooms and suddenly feel yourself catapulted into another era. After a short break (which I spent, as you will soon read, in the company of meatballs!), leave your “touristy self” behind and, by taxi, make your way to two neighbourhoods off the common, tour-guide suggested path: Fener and Balat. These two areas are among the most fascinating and authentic I saw in the city and, despite being UNESCO Heritage Sites, are relatively unknown. I discovered them thanks to a beautiful website called “Discover Istanbul”, and I spent some of the best hours of the entire trip here, walking around the streets among the children playing and enjoying the “real” and charming side of the city!

ISTANBUL DAY #3

DOLMABAHÇE PALACE – ORTAKÖY NEIGHBOURHOOD – CRUISE ON THE BOSPHORUS

Some people say that Dolmabahçe Palace is even more worthwhile than Topkapi. In my opinion, they are both wonderful in their own way and for different reasons: Topkapi is more grand and opulent, whereas Dolmabahçe is full of stunning art pieces that make it worth the trip. Take the tram and get off at the last stop Beşiktaş (it’s only a 3-4 stop ride) and from there walk until you reach this incredible building. Enjoy the view on the Bosphorus, have a snack under the clock’s tower and, in the early afternoon, take the bus to Ortaköy, which was previously a fishing village, where you can enjoy the local specialty (a giant oven-baked potato stuffed with every tasty thing that can come to mind), drink a hot tea and enjoy the view on the Bosphorus and the bridge that connects the European part of Turkey to the Asian one. From the marina, several boats depart for quick cruises (we chose the hour long one): do not miss the thrill of ‘flying’ over the Bosphorus, perhaps during sunset if you’re lucky! After the boat ride, enjoy a nice break at the beautiful The House Café, with priceless views overlooking the blue water and the mosque.

ISTANBUL DAY #4

BEYOGLU AND KARAKÖY NEIGHBOURHOODS – MODERN MUSEUM – ASIAN PART (KADIKÖY)

I suggest dedicating the last day to visiting the “new” part of the city, the Beyoglu district. I was staying there (scroll up for some useful tips on lodging), but if you are arriving from Sultanahmet you can cross the Galata Bridge (by foot or by tram) and, once you arrive at Karaköy take the Tunel (the underground funicular that goes up to Beyoglu) or make your way there by foot. In this part of town, take a stroll in the Galata district with its tower, cross Istiklal Caddesi and come up to Taksim Square. Wander around the narrow streets up to the Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Then, make your way back to Karaköy and visit the Istanbul Modern, a wonderful museum space overlooking the Bosphorus, full of light and contemporary art. From Karaköy, stop and enjoy a treat at the most famous pastry shop in the area or a fish sandwich, and then take a ferry and arrive – in about twenty minutes – to the Asian side: here the city once again changes faces, permanently westernizing itself, making it difficult to understand where the soul of Istanbul truly lies!

WHERE TO EAT

  • SULTANHAMET

NAR LOKANTA. If you are craving some downtime in an oasis of peace and quiet, head over to Nar Lokanta, a restaurant on the way to the Bazaar, on the fifth floor of a luxury jewellery store. The setting is beautiful (maybe a little too typical), and it is worth a stop: the service is very courteous, the atmosphere is nice and the food is good. We ordered a pida – the Turkish alternative to pizza – with peppers, a mint rice and chicken dish and the kebab served  on a bed of eggplant sauce. Bill: around 20 euros.

SULTANAHMET KOFTECISI. Do not be fooled by the appearance of this place, which looks like a self service and is popular for the vast majority of locals. Here the specialties are the köfte, which are wonderful meatballs served with a spicy tomato and pepper sauce. An excellent place to break up a day of walking and visiting tourist sites in the area, located only a few steps away from the Blue Mosque. You can expect the bill to be around 5-10 euros!

KYBELE. For a special tea head to Kybele, located not too far from Basilica Cistern and the other attractions of Sultanhamet. Asides from the amazing infusions, what is particularly impressive is the Ottoman-inspired atmosphere of this bar located inside a hotel: soft lighting, lamps of all sorts and colours hanging from the ceiling, typical ornaments and a warm and welcoming environment… perfect for a regenerating snack!

SARK. If your craving for tea strikes as you happen to be at the Bazaar, walk over to Sark, and travel back in time as you enter this teashop located in the heart of the market: here the tea is a real ritual and will leave you ready for another round of shopping!

  • BEYOGLU

KARAKÖY GÜLLÜOGLU. By all accounts, this pastry shop along the Bosporus in Karaköy is one of the best in the city. The kingdom of sweets, and especially of baklava, can be found here: order one of the many varieties of this dessert (the pistachio one is the best), which are made fresh throughout the day in the kitchen located behind the shop!

MEZE BY LEMON TREE. The best dinner I had in Istanbul was at Meze, in the Pera district. The specialty, as the name of the restaurant indicates, are the meze, which are Turkish appetizers, served either warm or cold. My advice is to order a lot, focusing on these rather than the main dishes. We accompanied our meal with the Turkish alcoholic drink by excellence, raki (of course!), and we ordered many delights: salmon marinated with ginger, stuffed zucchini, pickled vegetable salad, delicious fried squid and even great ceviche! Bill: around 30 euros, reservations required.

TAVANARASI. If you are looking for a truly local and authentic place (I didn’t see any tourists here), the best choice in the Pera district is Tavanarasi. Prepare yourself ahead of time to spend a good deal of time looking for the entrance of the place (you need to take a green elevator located inside a residential building, as if you were going up to one of the apartments) and then take a seat at one of the tables of this pretty and rustic tavern, complete with wood panels and a very welcoming atmosphere. I ordered lentil soup, meatballs with eggplant and tomatoes and homemade ravioli (perhaps served with a tad too much yogurt). The staff is very friendly and the atmosphere is pleasant! Bill: around 20 euros.

YARE. Here too you will find excellent meze. We didn’t leave without trying the hummus with pastrami, spicy red pepper infused cheese, salad with dried tomatoes and the fried eggplant… a real treat! The bill: around 20 euros.

ELEOS. This restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi (do not trust the address that appears on TripAdvisor because it’ll take you to the middle of nowhere, where we ended up, and it will not be a pleasant experience) serves up dishes that bridge Greek and Turkish cuisine. Here too you must enter a residential building and go up as if you were heading up to one of the apartments. Friendly service, huge quantities of fresh fish, incredible appetizers. Bill: around 25 euros.

For an aperitivo or after dinner, we headed to the top to MIKLA (the view from here is spectacular!) and the 360. You will have Istanbul at your feet, with a view that surpasses the definition of romantic!

WHERE TO STAY

After a careful analysis, I decided to go with the advice I received from a few friends and decided to stay in Beyogluin an adorable Airbnb, right behind the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi. The new part of the city is slightly less “characteristic”, but decisively more young and vibrant, especially in the evening. In the area of Pera and around the tower of Galata, young people are overflowing, especially during the weekend: these two areas are perfect and safe, even for two girls roaming alone like we were, and are full of stores, bars and restaurants within walking distance!

HOW TO GET AROUND

My advice is to activate an Istanbul card (available for purchase near metro and bus stations, or in the various juice bars found around the city) and recharge it at the machines according to your transportation needs. There are taxis, but the traffic is always crazy and it isn’t the most convenient way to get around. You will likely travel mostly by tram, and you may take the bus a few times. Contrarily to what one might think, there is a public transportation system and it works well. As you explore the city by foot, don’t forget your map: the city is big and not all neighbourhoods are to be visited… be carefully, especially in the evening, just like you would be in any big city! Are you ready to go? 

Have you ever been to Istanbul? What are your suggestions of places to see? Share them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag#aplaceinmilan! 

Read the original article on Conosco un Posto. This English version was translated by Kelsey Rivett.

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