Claire Millar recently returned to Istanbul, a city she’d already adventured around in previous years, for a romantic rendezvous with a tall, dark, handsome character from aforementioned previous adventures. With her expat guide, she discovered parts of Istanbul she didn’t even know existed the first time around – here are her top five things to do in Istanbul that will show you a unique side to the city.
So you’ve seen all the big sights of Istanbul – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar. You might have ventured over Galata Bridge for a fish sandwich and savoured the views from Galata Tower, or taken a cruise up the Bosphorus. Maybe you’ve even been to a hammam (Turkish baths) and had the slightly harrowing experience of being scrubbed down on a sacrificial marble slab by an elderly, topless, roly-poly woman in lacy underpants. By now you’re probably tired of Sultanahmet, tired of being offered overpriced carpets and tired of the crowds of North Americans on bus tours who really didn’t need to consume that extra kebap…
Never fear, dear reader, let me guide you in what to do next. These semi-hidden jewels aren’t necessarily off the beaten track, and are certainly popular with Turkish tourists, but they simply may not be immediately obvious to the untrained eye.
Tucked away at the end of the Golden Horn is the supremely religious neighbourhood of Eyüp. For Muslim pilgrims, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque draws the crowds; particularly at Friday prayer, throughout Ramadan and before weddings. Yet it’s the pre-circumcision party that really rocks the Eyüp mosque precinct, and young boys dressed in gaudy costumes resembling Indian maharajas can be seen swallowing dryly amid crowds of excited relatives. The nearby market adds to the carnival atmosphere, selling Islamic paraphernalia such as prayer mats, beads, dates, scented oils and teeny tiny copies of the Koran on key rings.
The very clean square outside the mosque with its fountain, park benches and a proliferation of bakeries across the road, is a lovely place to sit and casually stare at people. If you are overwhelmed by the windows full of Turkish sweets,just ask for acıbadem (ar-jee-bar-dem). These marzipan macaroons, if done right, will blow your socks off with their crisp outer coating and soft, chewy insides.
To work off the acıbadem, walk up through the cemetery (or take the funicular) to the Pierre Loti Cafe to take part in a favourite Turkish pastime – drinking tea in picturesque locations. The cafe is named after the 19th century French writer Pierre Loti who wrote two novels based on his stay in Istanbul, but the name is now synonymous with the cafe and its incredible views over Istanbul. If you’re still sipping your Turkish coffee at call to prayer, the echoing cacophony of a hundred mosques reverberates up the hill for a sure-fire “Ahh, Istanbul!” moment. To get there take a ferry (in Turkish, aferryboat) from Eminönü or Karaköy.
2. Kumpir and waffles under Bosphorus Bridge, Ortaköy
Who knew baked potatoes were a Turkish thing? Not I, but they sure do ‘em good in Ortaköy. Bus or walk along the Bosphorus to this small neighbourhood with its tiny winding streets full of market stalls. Skip the markets and head straight to “potato alley”. Like some kind of grotesque potato-themed fair, the street is lined on both sides with identical baked potato and waffle stalls, all lit up in lights, and all with screaming carnie characters vying for your attention.
If you want to try kumpir (baked potato filled with everything, ever) and the waffles in the same go, share. The potato’s innards are scooped out and mixed with butter and cheese, before being put back in the potato with all of the extras. Take your enormous potato dream down to the water and join dozens of Turkish families under the Bosphorus bridge as the sun goes down. The bridge lights up at nightfall and being part of the mayhem on the small public square is far better than being corralled into the surrounding expensive restaurants with identical bridge views.
A handy hint: The mosque here at Ortaköy has bathrooms available for public use. Actually, all mosques have free bathrooms, for people to wash before prayer.
3. Turkish breakfast at Namlı Gurme, Karaköy
If you’ve been eating your warm, floppy, rubbery cucumber, tomato, white cheese and olives at your hostel or hotel, you may not be fully experiencing the greatness, and utmost importance, of Turkish breakfast. More like brunch, the meal is to be eaten with friends, slowly, as you pick at the multitude of dishes, chat and drink endless cups of tea.
There are many great kahlvatı evi (breakfast houses) in Istanbul. Namlı Gurme deli is not only one of the best, it’s also convenient if you are staying in Sultanahment, Taksim or around Galata Tower. Like any Turkish breakfast, you’ll get the obligatory tomato, cucumber, beyaz peynir and wrinkly black olives. The mountains of white bread and tea are “bottomless”, but note that Turks usually leave a coffee for after they’ve finished eating. You can also pick and choose any delicacies from the counters inside – it’s worth going in just to ogle and enjoy the free tasters.
If that’s not enough, you can order other classic breakfast dishes, such as menemen, a tomato based egg scrambled with whatever you like added – peynir (cheese) or sujuk (sausage) are the most common. If you order nothing else,make sure to try bal kaymak. This clotted butter and honey combination is a shortcut to either nirvana or a heart attack, depending on your outlook.
Tourists who venture to the Asian Side are well rewarded. As one of only three countries that are spread over two continents (the others being Egypt and Russia), Turkey is officially only 3% Europe, with the other 97% located in Asia. A mere ferryboat ride across the Bosphorus and you’ve crossed continents. On the Asian side Kadıköy is the best place to start.
The stomping ground of the Turkish hipster population, Kadıköy doesn’t have “sights” per se, but just a wonderful vibe. With great restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, it’s yours for the wandering. Bustling even on a Monday night, it feels like a “real” Istanbul, with less tourists and more winding residential streets. The Kadıköy market area is a great place to pick up fresh bread, fish, dips, cheese and baklava to eat by the water. The main foreshore is dominated by the two ferry terminals, but further south is a long stretch of uninterrupted path along the water (a rare thing in Istanbul). This esplanade is prime for strolling, musing, teenage canoodling or some calisthenics on the machines that populate every semi-scenic public area.
Kadıköy also boasts its fair share of beautiful buildings. On the ferryboat over you might notice the giant neo-renaissance, fairytale castle lurking on the edge of the water. That’s Haydarpaşa Railway Station, a gift to Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II from his German buddy Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 20th century. Go there to catch a train, or use the massage chairs, which at 1 Lira are far cheaper than a hammam rubdown. The ferry station opposite is less Teutonic pseudo-castle but equally as charming, with ornate Ottoman tiles and carvings above the windows and doors.
5. Princes Islands
The Princes Islands are touristy but for some reason Western tourists seem to put a day trip to these traffic-free islands in the Sea of Marmara in the “too hard” pile. There are nine islands in total, but ferries stop at the four biggest ones –Büyükada (Big Island), Heybeliada (Saddlebag Island), Burgazada (Fortress Island) and Kınalıada (Henna Island).
As the islands were traditionally a summer hangout for royalty, the wealthy and Leon Trotsky in exile, the streets are wide, the mansions are mansion-sized and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul seems very far away indeed. Get around in a horse and cart, on foot or on bicycle (the best option). It’s easy riding and even Big Island is only 5.5sq km; so with relaxed stops for scenic vistas, attempts to get to a beach, snacks, bush wees and horse patting, you’ll be around the island before lunch.
There are plenty of places along the water to eat fresh seafood – the ones further away from town tend to be cheaper. Some fresh grilled fish, green salad, and maybe a cheeky Efes beer or raki, all while looking back at Istanbul across the water, makes for a pretty nice lunch. There’s not a whole lot in the town apart from ice-cream, souvenirs and the main drag, which locals will tell you is just like Bourbon Street, New Orleans (it’s not). If you’re in Turkey but won’t get a chance to get to the beaches down south, the Princes Islands are a good option for a fix of sparkling waters and blue skies.