WHAT TO DO
Istanbul is one of the most fascinating places in the world. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, it is the most populous city in Turkey and the country’s economic, cultural and historic center. This magical meeting place of East and West is a transcontinental metropolis, straddling the Bosporus strait (which separates Europe and Asia) between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical center lies on the European side and about a third of its population lives in suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosporus. It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and transformed it into an Islamic stronghold. Under the name Constantinople it was the Ottoman capital until 1923 – Ankara was chosen as the new Turkish capital and the city was renamed Istanbul. With its compelling history, vibrant culture, delicious food and distinct neighborhoods, Istanbul is a traveler’s dream.
Start your adventure in the historic heart of Istanbul – Sultanahmet (Old Town). It is the city’s oldest district and the location of most of its historical sights. Ideally suited to exploration by foot, Sultanahmet is a showcase of the city’s glorious past, filled with mosques, palaces and churches dating from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Note: I recommend purchasing the Istanbul Museum Pass, it includes free access to most of the major sights and is valid for 5 days. Begin at the magnificent Hagia Sophia. There are many important monuments in Istanbul, but this venerable structure – which was commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Ataturk in 1935 – surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty. As you enter the building and walk into the inner narthex, look up to see a brilliant mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the third and largest door (the Imperial Door). Through this is the building’s main space, famous for its dome, huge nave and gold mosaics.The focal point at this level is the apse, with its majestic 9th century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ Child. The mosaics above the apse once depicted the archangels Gabriel and Michael – today only fragments remain. The Byzantine emperors were crowned while seated on a throne placed within the omphalion, the section of inlaid marble in the main floor. Ottoman additions to the building include a mimber (pulpit) and mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca); large 19th century medallions inscribed with gilt Arabic letters; a curious imperial loge known as the hunkar mahfili; and an ornate library behind the omphalion. Looking up towards the northeast (to your left if you are facing the apse), you should be able to see three mosaics at the base of the northern tympanum (semicircle) beneath the dome, although they have recently been obscured by a scaffolding tower used in restoration works. These are 9th century portraits of St Ignatius the Younger, St John Chrysostom and St Ignatius Theodorus of Antioch. To their right, on one of the pendentives (concave triangular segments below the dome), is a 14th century mosaic of the face of a seraph (six winged angel charged with the caretaking of God’s throne). In the side aisle at the bottom of the ramp to the upstairs galleries is a column with a worn copper facing pierced by a hole. According to legend, the pillar, known as the Weeping Column, was blessed by St Gregory the Miracle Worker and putting one’s finger into the hole is said to lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist. To access the upstairs galleries, walk up the ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex. In the south gallery (straight ahead and then left through the 6th century marble door) are the remnants of a magnificent Deesis (Last Judgement). This 13th century mosaic depicts Christ with the Virgin Mary on his left and John the Baptist on his right. Further on, at the eastern (apse) end of the gallery, an 11th century mosaic depicts Christ Enthroned with Empress Zoe and Constantine IX Monomachos. Note: as you exit the inner narthex, be sure to look back to admire the 10th century mosaic of Constantine the Great, the Virgin Mary and the Emperor Justinian on the lunette of the inner doorway. Constantine (right) is offering the Virgin, who holds the Christ Child, the city of Istanbul; Justinian (left) is offering her Hagia Sophia.
Across the road from Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. This subterranean structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 532. The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul, it was constructed using 336 columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals. It was originally known as the Basilica Cistern because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica, one of the great squares on the first hill. Designed to service the Great Palace and surrounding buildings, it was able to store millions of gallons of water delivered via aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea, but was closed when the Byzantine emperors relocated from the Great Palace. The cistern was cleaned and renovated in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and opened to the public in 1987. It’s now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Walking along its raised wooden platforms, you’ll feel water dripping from the vaulted ceiling and see schools of ghostly carp patrolling the water below. Note: the cistern is one of the few places that does not accept the Istanbul Museum Pass. Nearby is the city’s most photogenic building – the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. It was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I, whose tomb is located on the north side of the site facing Sultanahmet Park. Constructed between 1609 and 1616, the mosque’s wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Blue Iznik tiles adorn the interior and give the building its unofficial but commonly used name. With the mosque’s exterior, the architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, managed to orchestrate a stunning visual effect similar to that of the close by Hagia Sophia’s interior. Its curves are voluptuous; it has six minarets (more than any other mosque at the time it was built); and its courtyard is the biggest of all of the Ottoman mosques. The interior has a similarly grand scale: the Iznik tiles number in the tens of thousands; there are 260 windows; and the central prayer space is huge. The mosque is such a popular attraction that admission is controlled in order to preserve its sacred atmosphere. Only worshippers are admitted through the main door; visitors must use the south door (follow the signs). The mosque is closed to non worshippers for 30 minutes or so during the five daily prayer times – two hours before dawn, dawn, midday, mid afternoon, sunset and right before the last light of the day. Note: you will need to remove your shoes and women will be loaned a headscarf.
Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome and Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts. The Byzantine emperors loved nothing more than an afternoon at the chariot races, and this rectangular arena alongside Sultanahmet Park was their venue of choice. In its heyday, the Hippodrome was decorated by obelisks and statues, some of which remain in place today. It was the center of Byzantium’s life for 1000 years and of Ottoman life for another 400 years, and has been the scene of countless political dramas. In Byzantine times, the rival chariot teams of ‘Greens’ and ‘Blues’ had separate sectarian connections. Support for a team was akin to membership of a political party, and a team victory had important effects on policy. Ottoman sultans also kept an eye on activities in the Hippodrome. If things were going badly in the empire, a surly crowd gathering here could signal the start of a disturbance, then a riot, then a revolution. Unfortunately, many priceless statues carved by ancient masters have disappeared from their original homes here. Chief among those responsible for such thefts were the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who invaded Constantinople, a Christian ally city, in 1204. Near the northern end of the Hippodrome, the little gazebo with beautiful stonework is known as Kaiser Wilhelm’s Fountain. The German emperor paid a state visit to Sultan Abdul Hamit II in 1898, and presented this fountain to the sultan and his people as a token of friendship in 1901. The immaculately preserved pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius in the center was carved in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III and erected in the Amon Re temple at Karnak. Theodosius the Great had it brought from Egypt to Constantinople in AD 390. South of the obelisk is a strange column coming up out of a hole in the ground. Known as the Spiral Column, it was once much taller and was topped by three serpents’ heads. Originally cast to commemorate a victory of the Hellenic confederation over the Persians in the battle of Plataea, it stood in front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Greece) from 478 BC until Constantine the Great had it brought to his new capital city around AD 330. Do not miss the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts. This Ottoman palace was built in 1524 for Ibrahim Pasa, childhood friend, brother in law and grand vizier of Suleyman the Magnificent. It now houses a splendid collection of artifacts, including exquisite calligraphy and one of the world’s most impressive antique carpet collections. Relics in the museum’s collection date from the 8th to the 19th century and come from across the Middle East. They include muknames (scrolls outlining an imperial decree) featuring the sultan’s tugra (calligraphic signature); Iranian book binding from the Safavid period (1501-1722); 12th century wooden columns and doors from Damascus; Iranian carpets; and even a cutting of the Prophet Muhammad’s beard. Note: sections of the Hippodrome walls can be seen near the entrance of the museum.
From there, make your way to Topkapi Palace. Topkapi is the subject of more colorful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace’s opulent pavilions, jewel filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives. Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of the palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453, and lived here until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th century, when they moved to the ostentatious European style palaces they built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Before you enter the palace’s Imperial Gate, take a look at the ornate structure in the cobbled square just outside. This is the rococo style Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, built in 1728. You could spend an entire day touring the palace, therefore I’d like to share some of the not to be missed highlights. On the left (west) side of the Second Court is the ornate Imperial Council Chamber. The council met here to discuss matters of state, and the sultan sometimes eavesdropped through the gold grille high in the wall. The room to the right showcases clocks from the palace collection. North of the Imperial Council Chamber is the Outer Treasury, where an impressive collection of Ottoman and European arms and armor is displayed. The most interesting stop on the palace tour is the Harem – the entrance is beneath the Tower of Justice on the western side of the Second Court. As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will. In more prosaic reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word ‘harem’ literally means ‘forbidden’. The sultans supported as many as 300 concubines in the Harem, although numbers were usually lower than this. Upon entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and in Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of makeup, dress, music, reading, writing and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies in waiting to the sultan’s concubines and children, then to the valide sultan and finally – if they were particularly attractive and talented – to the sultan himself. The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kadin (wife). If a wife bore him a son she was called haseki sultan; if she bore him a daughter, haseki kadin. Ruling the Harem was the valide sultan, who often owned large landed estates in her own name and controlled them through black eunuch servants. Able to give orders directly to the grand vizier, her influence on the sultan, on his wives and concubines, and on matters of state was often profound. The Harem complex has six floors, but only one of these can be visited. This is approached via the Carriage Gate. Next to the gate is the Dormitory of the Corps of the Palace Guards, a meticulously restored two story structure featuring swathes of magnificent 16th and 17th century Iznik tiles. Adjoining this is the Mosque of the Black Eunuchs, which features depictions of Mecca on its 17th century tiles. Past the Courtyard of the Valide Sultan is a splendid reception room with a large fireplace that leads to a vestibule covered in Kutahya and Iznik tiles dating from the 17th century. This is where the princes, valide sultan and senior concubines waited before entering the handsome Imperial Hall for an audience with the sultan. Nearby is the Privy Chamber of Murat III, one of the most sumptuous rooms in the palace. Dating from 1578, virtually all of its decoration is original and is thought to be the work of Sinan. The restored three tiered marble fountain was designed to give the sound of cascading water and to make it difficult to eavesdrop on the sultan’s conversations. Through the Privy Chamber of Murat III are two of the most beautiful rooms in the Harem – the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince. These two rooms date from around 1600; note the painted canvas dome in the first room and the fine Iznik tile panels above the fireplace in the second. The stained glass is also noteworthy. Past these rooms is the tiled Harem Mosque with its baroque mihrab (niche in a minaret indicating the direction of Mecca). From here, you can follow the passage known as the Golden Road and exit into the palace’s Third Court. The Third Court is entered through the Gate of Felicity. The sultan’s private domain, it was staffed and guarded by white eunuchs. Inside is the Audience Chamber, constructed in the 16th century but refurbished in the 18th century. Important officials and foreign ambassadors were brought to this little kiosk to conduct the high business of state. The sultan, seated on a huge divan, inspected the ambassadors’ gifts and offerings as they were passed through the doorway on the left. Right behind the Audience Chamber is the pretty Library of Ahmet III, built in 1719. Located on the eastern edge of the Third Court, Topkapi’s Imperial Treasury features an incredible collection of objects made from or decorated with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, jade, pearls and diamonds. The building itself was constructed during Mehmet the Conqueror’s reign in 1460 and was used originally as reception rooms. Look out for the jewel encrusted Sword of Suleyman the Magnificent and the extraordinary Throne of Ahmed I (aka Arife Throne), which is inlaid with mother of pearl and was designed by Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, architect of the Blue Mosque. Don’t miss the Treasury’s famous Topkapi Dagger. It features three enormous emeralds on the hilt and a watch set into the pommel. Also worth seeking out is the Kasikci (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond, a teardrop shaped 86 carat rock surrounded by dozens of smaller stones that was first worn by Mehmet IV at his accession to the throne in 1648.
Close to Topkapi Palace is the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. This complex has three main parts: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Archaeology Museum and the Tiled Pavilion. The Museum of the Ancient Orient has a collection of pre Islamic items gathered from the expanse of the Ottoman Empire. Highlights include an 8th century Hittite molding of a rock relief depicting the storm god Tarhunza and a series of large blue and yellow glazed brick panels that once lined the processional street and the Ishtar gate of ancient Babylon. The latter depict real and mythical animals such as lions, dragons and bulls. The Archaeology Museum houses an extensive collection of classical statuary and sarcophagi plus exhibits documenting Istanbul’s ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman history. The museum’s major treasures are sarcophagi from sites including the Royal Necropolis of Sidon (Side in modern day Lebanon), unearthed in 1887 by Osman Hamdi Bey. Don’t miss the extraordinary Alexander Sarcophagus and Mourning Women Sarcophagus. The northern wing of the museum houses an impressive collection of ancient grave cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica and Ephesus, including impressive anthropoid sarcophagi from Sidon. Three halls are filled with the amazingly detailed stelae and sarcophagi, most dating from between AD 140 and 270. Many of the sarcophagi look like tiny temples or residential buildings; don’t miss the Sidamara Sarcophagus from Konya (3rd century AD) with its interlocking horses’ legs and playful cherubs. The Tiled Pavilion was constructed in 1472 by order of Mehmet the Conqueror. The portico, which has 14 marble columns, was constructed during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamit I after the original burned down in 1737. On display here are Seljuk, Anatolian and Ottoman tiles and ceramics dating from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The collection includes Iznik tiles from the period between the mid 14th and 17th centuries when that city produced the finest colored tiles in the world.
Next, head to the famed Grand Bazaar. This colorful and chaotic marketplace is the heart of Istanbul’s Old Town and has been so for centuries. Starting as a small vaulted bedesten (warehouse) built by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, it grew to cover a vast area as lanes between the bedesten, neighboring shops and hans (caravanserais) were roofed and the market assumed the sprawling, labyrinthine form that it retains today. Be sure to peep through doorways to discover hidden hans, veer down narrow lanes (it’s ok to get lost) to watch artisans at work and wander the main thoroughfares to differentiate treasures from tourist tack. It’s mandatory to drink lots of Turkish tea, compare price after price and try your hand at the art of bargaining – it is all part of the experience. From the bazaar, walk up the hill to Suleymaniye Mosque. The Suleymaniye crowns one of Istanbul’s seven hills and dominates the Golden Horn (Halic), providing a landmark for the entire city. Though it’s not the largest of the Ottoman mosques, it is certainly one of the grandest and most beautiful. Commissioned by Suleyman I, known as ‘the Magnificent’, the Suleymaniye was the fourth imperial mosque built in Istanbul. Its four minarets with their ten beautiful serefes (balconies) are said to represent the fact that Suleyman was the fourth of the Osmanli sultans to rule the city and the tenth sultan after the establishment of the empire. The mosque and its surrounding buildings were designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famous and talented of all imperial architects. Construction occurred between 1550 and 1557. Inside, the building is breathtaking in its size and pleasing in its simplicity. The mihrab is covered in fine Iznik tiles. Other interior decoration includes window shutters inlaid with mother of pearl, gorgeous stained glass windows, painted muqarnas (corbels with honeycomb detail), a spectacular persimmon colored floor carpet, painted pendentives and medallions featuring fine calligraphy. To the right (southeast) of the mosque’s main entrance is the cemetery, home to the octagonal tombs of Suleyman and his wife Haseki Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana). The tile work surrounding the entrances to both is superb and the ivory inlaid panels in Suleyman’s tomb are lovely. Note: the streets surrounding the mosque are home to what may well be the most extensive concentration of Ottoman timber houses on the historical peninsula, many of which are currently being restored as part of an urban regeneration project. Make your way down the hill towards the water until you reach the Spice Market. Vividly colored spices are displayed alongside jewel like Turkish Delight (lokum) at this Ottoman era marketplace – providing eye candy for the thousands of tourists and locals who make their way here every day. Turkish Delight is a family of confections based on a gel of starch and sugar. Premium varieties consist largely of chopped dates, pistachios and hazelnuts bound by the gel. Stalls also sell caviar, dried herbs, honey, nuts and dried fruits. The number of stalls selling tourist trinkets increases annually, yet this remains a great place to stock up on edible souvenirs, share a few jokes with vendors and marvel at the well preserved building. The market was constructed in the 1660s as part of the New Mosque, with rent from the shops supporting the upkeep of the mosque as well as its charitable activities, which included a school, hamam and hospital. The market’s Turkish name, the Misir Carsisi (Egyptian Market), references the fact that the building was initially endowed with taxes levied on goods imported from Egypt. In its heyday, the bazaar was the last stop for the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road from China, India and Persia.
From the Spice Market, take the underground pedestrian walkway to Eminonu Square and the Galata Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Horn inlet and connects the Old Town with the New Town. Under the bridge, restaurants and cafes serve drinks and food all day and night. Come here to try a nargile or hookah (Turkish water pipe of dried fruit smoke) while watching the fishermen, seagulls and ferries do their thing. Do not miss the popular fish and bread boats – they do freshly caught and grilled mackerel on a baguette. From near the Galata Bridge, it’s easy to hop a tour boat for a relaxing cruise up the Bosporus and a chance to see the city from the water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. You’ll pass under the Bosporus Bridge and take in beautiful homes and palaces along the way. After cruising the Bosporus, walk the Galata Bridge from the Old Town to the New Town. The Beyoglu (Pera) neighborhood is home to several notable attractions. Take the Tunel funicular (the second oldest in the world) up to Istiklal Caddesi and head towards the Galata Tower. The cylindrical Galata Tower stands guard over the approach to ‘new’ Istanbul. Constructed in 1348, it was the tallest structure in the city for centuries and it still dominates the skyline north of the Golden Horn. Its upper balcony offers commanding views of the city. Note: the line to enter is always long and the viewing balcony can get overcrowded. The Pera Museum is located at Mesrutiyet Caddesi 65. There’s plenty to see at this impressive museum, but its major draw is undoubtedly the 2nd floor exhibition of paintings featuring Turkish Orientalist themes. Drawn from Suna and Inan Kirac’s world class private collection, the works provide fascinating glimpses into the Ottoman world from the 17th to 20th centuries and include the most beloved painting in the Turkish canon – Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Tortoise Trainer (1906). Permanent exhibits on the 1st floor concentrate on Kutahya tiles and ceramics, as well as Anatolian weights and measures. The ground floor is home to the popular Pera Cafe, a comfortable space decorated in art deco style to reflect the fact that the building originally housed the posh Bristol Hotel.
Once called the Grand Rue de Pera but renamed Istiklal (Independence) Caddesi in the early years of the Republic, Beyoglu’s premier boulevard is a perfect metaphor for 21st century Turkey, being an exciting mix of modernity and tradition. Contemporary boutiques and cutting edge cultural centers are housed in its grand 19th century buildings, and an antique tram traverses its length alongside crowds of pedestrians making their way to the bustling cafes, bistros and bars for which Beyoglu is known. Stroll north along the avenue – seek out SALT Beyoglu, the Fish Market and Cicek Pasaji – until you reach Taksim Square. SALT Beyoglu is located at Istiklal Caddesi 136. Occupying a former apartment building dating from the 1850s, it houses exhibition spaces, a cinema, a bookshop and a reading room popular with students. Exhibitions tend to be dominated by photographic and multimedia works. Located opposite the grandiose entrance to the 1868 Galatasaray Lycee, one of the city’s most prestigious educational institutions, the much loved Fish Market is an essential stop when exploring Istiklal Caddesi. At its entrance are stands selling midye tava (skewered mussels fried in hot oil), kokorec (seasoned lamb or mutton intestines wrapped around a skewer and grilled over charcoal) and other snacks. Further inside are shops selling fish, caviar, fruit, vegetables and other produce. Back when promenading down the Grand Rue de Pera was the height of fashion, the Cite de Pera building was Istanbul’s most glamorous address. Built in 1876 and decorated in Second Empire style, it housed a shopping arcade and apartments. The arcade is now known as Cicek Pasaji. Taksim Square is the symbolic heart of modern Istanbul and the scene of often violent protests in recent years. The Republic Monument in the center of the square was created by Italian sculptor Canonica in 1928. It features Ataturk (founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923), his assistant and successor, Ismet Inonu, and other revolutionary leaders.
Conclude your tour of Istanbul with a visit to a Hamam (Turkish bath). A Hamam is similar to a Scandinavian sauna but is closer to a Roman bath. It is based on the same principles as the steambath but the focus is on water rather than steam. A traditional Turkish bath package includes 60 minutes of washing; traditional body scrubbing with a handwoven wash cloth known as a kese; a foam wash; and a massage. There are numerous Hamams in Istanbul – I chose the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, located in the Old Town at Ayasofya Meydani 2. It was designed and built by Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect. It was built at the request of Haseki Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. It was built where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus used to stand, between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
WHERE TO EAT
Istanbul has many great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Cigdem Pastanesi, located at Divan Yolu Caddesi 62 in the Old Town. Strategically located on the main drag between Hagia Sophia Square and the Grand Bazaar, it has been tempting locals since 1961 with its mouth watering window display of cakes and pastries. Stop in for Turkish coffee or tea, accompanied by borek (baked filled pastries) or perhaps some tasty baklava (sweet pastry filled with chopped nuts and honey). Another solid spot is Hafiz Mustafa, found close by at Divan Yolu Caddesi 14. Making locals happy since 1864, this sekerlemeleri (sweets shop) sells Turkish Delight, baklava, milk puddings and borek. You can put your sweet tooth to good use in the upstairs cafe. For the best coffee in town, head to Kronotrop at Firuzaga Cami Sokak 2 in the New Town. Specialty coffee bars have taken off in Istanbul in recent years, spearheaded by businesses such as this hip place opposite the Firuz Aga Mosque in Cihangir. It sources beans from across the globe and roasts them in a purpose built facility in nearby Maslak. Choose from espresso, cold drip, filtered, Aeropress, Chemex and traditional Turkish varieties. If you fancy a spot of tea, make your way to nearby Chado at Aga Hamami Sokak 13. Located in the middle of Cihangir’s cafe scene, this tranquil teahouse has comfortable seating where you can relax over your choice of 60 teas – white, green, black, oolong and herbal – as well as chai masala, matcha and kombucha. One of the most beloved breakfast stops in town is Lades 2, located at Sadri Alisik Sokak 11 in the New Town. All day long this shop serves its famous menemen (traditional Turkish dish which includes eggs, tomato, green peppers and spices). You may add chicken, cheese, or sucuk (Turkish sausage) to taste; you’ll need a lot of bread and tea as well. It’s fast, it’s delicious, and most importantly, it’s a local favorite.
Tucked away on a side street at Bay Sungur Sokak 2 in the busy Kurtulus neighborhood is Adana Ocakbasi. Note: take the metro to the Osmanbey stop then walk a few blocks. This small grill was once a hidden gem, but now its reputation has spread all over the city. The Adana kebab is its signature dish, served with grilled tomatoes and peppers, thin lavash bread and onions with sumac. Sip raki (anise flavored drink) and watch the usta (master cook) prepare your food on the charcoal fire. An additional ocakbasi (grill house) worth trying is Khorasani, located at Ticarethane Sokak 11 in the Old Town. It specializes in mezze (small dishes) and classic kebaps such as sis (roast skewered meat), fistikli (minced lamb studded with pistachios) and the alinazik (eggplant puree with yogurt and meatballs). Kofte (Turkish meatballs) are one of the most delicious dishes Istanbul has to offer. Found at Hoca Pasa Sokak 3, and family owned is Meshur Filibe Koftecisi. It has been serving its tasty kofte since 1893. The menu is simple – kofte, piyaz (bean salad), and revani (a yogurt cake finished with simple syrup). Combine the juicy meatballs with a bite of crunchy onions and a piece of bread. For excellent mezze, do visit Asmali Cavit at Asmali Mescit Caddesi 16 in the New Town. The quintessential Turkish dining experience is spending time at a meyhane (tavern), sitting around a table and ordering all sorts of mezze with lots of raki. Eggplant salad, tarama, fava beans, marinated sea bass, lakerda (salted bonito), samphire salad, saksuka (mixed fried vegetables with yogurt and tomato sauce), and more all appear on the tray. After cold mezze, continue with yaprak ciger (thin slices of liver served with onion) and just keep going. Mezze is a way of life, and Asmali Cavit is both the locals’ and chefs’ favorite meyhane in town.
Istanbul is well known for its excellent street food. There’s Turkish Delight and borek from the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, plus so much more. Located in the Old Town at Hoca Pasa Sokak 6 is Sehzade Cag Kebap. Cag kebabi is layers of lamb meat, cut thicker than doner that are cooked on a big skewer over hot charcoal. It’s like the ancestor of the vertical doner. Cut and served on small skewers called cag, the meat is succulent and best devoured with thin lavash bread, onion, ezme (spicy tomato and herb salad) and yogurt. The dish made its way to Istanbul years ago from Erzurum, a city in eastern Turkey, and Sehzade is the best place to try it. Note: be sure to try the kadayif dolmasi (a sweet filled with nuts, fried and soaked in simple syrup) while there. Another classic street snack to keep an eye out for is icli kofte (a deep fried bulgur meatball stuffed with ground meat, spices and nuts). You can grab one at Sabirtasi Restoran, found at Istiklal Caddesi 112 in the New Town. Simit (a sesame coated ring of dough) is the most common all day street food in Istanbul. Although it can be found on every corner in the city, few are as yummy as the version at Galata Simitcisi – Mumhane Caddesi 47. Buying one directly from a simit bakery guarantees it will be crispy and fresh. In addition to a simit, try a catal (a semi sweet and savory cookie). Both are great with Turkish tea. For the best baklava in town, head to nearby Karakoy Gulluoglu at Mumhane Caddesi 171. This joint has been making baklava since 1820 and the sweet pastry here cannot be beat. Layers of thin phyllo dough, emerald green pistachios, clarified butter and simple syrup all come together in perfect harmony. A fresh glass of lemonade is an ideal, refreshing accompaniment. It’s now time to discuss something near and dear to my heart, the doner kebab. Doner is part of a food culture that dates back hundreds of years – it originated with the Ottoman Empire – and is the most popular and delicious street food in Turkey. To review, doner kebab is a type of kebab, made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Seasoned meat stacked in the shape of an inverted cone is turned slowly on the rotisserie, next to a vertical cooking element. The outer layer is sliced into thin shavings as it cooks. There are a plethora of doner shops in the city and I would like to share some of my favorites. Donerci Sahin Usta is located near the Grand Bazaar at Kiliccilar Sokak 9. Favored with locals and tourists alike, this place is top notch and always has a line. Around the corner, just inside the Grand Bazaar’s Kiliccilar Gate, at Muhafazacilar Sokak 29 is Aynen Durum. Here, you choose your meat then add pickled cucumber, grilled and pickled green chilies, parsley, sumac and other accompaniments that are laid out on the communal table. Situated on a corner at Cesme Sokak 4 inside the Grand Bazaar, across from Zincirli Han, Gul Ebru Kantin is one of those places that most visitors don’t get to. The doner is produced in house and the charcoal fire crisps the meat and toasts the pita to perfection. Found at Mumcu Bakkal Sokak 6 in the Besiktas district of the New Town is Karadeniz Doner. The thinly cut beef is mixed with lamb meat inside house made pita bread and it is outstanding. Asim Usta starts serving his famous doner around 11a and it hardly lasts into the afternoon. Note: prepare to wait in line – it’s worth it. Taksim Square is filled with doner spots. Of the several I sampled, Cilgin Durum stood out above the rest. Found at Siraselviler Caddesi 2, it does a mean doner wrap. Wash it down with an ayran (yogurt drink).
For dinner, head to Sahrap, located at General Yazgan Sokak 13 in the Beyoglu district of the New Town. Popular cookbook writer and TV chef Sahrap Soysal oversees the menu here, and the result is a tasty introduction to modern Turkish cuisine. The two level dining space is attractively decorated and the food is fresh and full of flavor, with an emphasis on legumes, seasonal vegetables and seafood. Down the street at General Yazgan Sokak 3 is Antiochia. Dishes from the southeastern city of Antakya are the speciality here. Cold and hot mezze are equally delicious – pides (Turkish style pizza) are flavorful and the kebaps are exceptional – try the succulent sis et (grilled lamb). Found at Cukurcuma Caddesi 53 is the delightful Cuma. Banu Tiryakioglu’s laid back foodie oasis in the heart of the Cukurcuma district has one of the most devoted customer bases in the city. Tables are on the leafy terrace or in the atmospheric upstairs dining space, and the seasonally driven menu is heavy on flavor. Not far away at Turnacibasi Sokak 4 is Hayvore. Notable lokantas (traditional eateries serving ready made dishes) are rare in modern day Beyoglu, so the existence of this bustling place next to the Galatasaray Lycee is to be wholeheartedly celebrated. Specializing in Black Sea cuisine, its delicious pilafs, hamsi (fresh anchovy) dishes, and vegetable and fish soups are out of this world. Known for its gorgeous tiled interior, genial owner and bustling vibe, Karakoy Lokantasi serves tasty and well priced food to its local clientele. Located at Kemankes Caddesi 37, it functions as a lokanta during the day, but at night it morphs into a meyhane offering marvelous mezze. Note: reservations are essential for dinner. One spot that is not to be missed is Hamdi Restaurant, found at Kalcin Sokak 11 in the Old Town. One of the city’s best loved restaurants, this place near the Spice Market is owned by Hamdi Arpaci, who started out as a street food vendor in the 1960s. His yummy Urfa style kebaps were so popular that he soon graduated to this multi story eatery, which has views of the Old Town, Golden Horn and Galata Tower from its top floor terrace. The food here is excellent. Try the yogurtlu saksuka (yogurt mezze with fried eggplant, peppers and potato), the icli kofte (meatballs rolled in bulgur) and the lahmacun (thin, meat topped pizza) followed by any of the kebaps and you’ll leave well fed – extremely stuffed if you finish with one of the delicious house made desserts (the baklava here is excellent). Any place this good is always going to be busy, so make sure you book ahead and don’t forget to request a rooftop table with a view (outside if the weather is nice).
I saved the best for last. Two of the top restaurants in Istanbul are Neolokal and Mikla, both located in the New Town. Neolokal can be found inside the SALT Galata art gallery at Bankalar Caddesi 11. Here, chef Maksut Askar serves modern interpretations of local dishes from throughout Anatolia in a unique and beautifully presented style. The food looks so pretty, you may not want to eat it. The view is also spectacular, overlooking the historic Old Town. Note: the restaurant requires reservations and is closed on Sunday and Monday. Mikla is at Mesrutiyet Caddesi 15, inside the Marmara Pera Hotel. The New Anatolian approach was started here by chef Mehmet Gurs in 2012 and many imitators have followed. The menu reflects Gurs’ Turkish/Scandinavian heritage. He spent years exploring local traditions all over Anatolia (Asian Turkey) and changed his menu to celebrate the country’s rich food culture. Ingredients from artisans and small producers are interpreted with great respect here. For a special night out, go with the outstanding tasting menu and get the Turkish wine pairing too – there’s nothing else like it in town. Note: reservations are essential and the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
End your evening in Istanbul with a drink and nargile. My favorite spot in the city is Geyik, located at Akarsu Yokusu 22 in the New Town. This joint has a cozy wood paneled interior and serves a mean cocktail. The bartenders really know their mixology – drinks are expertly shaken, stirred and poured. Up the road at Soganci Sokak 7 is 5 Kat. This Istanbul institution has been around for over two decades and is a great alternative for those who can’t stomach the style overload at many of the high profile Beyoglu bars. In winter drinks are served in the boudoir style bar on the 5th floor and during summer the action moves to the outdoor roof terrace. Both spots have great Bosphorus views. If you’re in the mood for wine, do visit Solera at Yenicarsi Caddesi 44. Stocking more than 300 Turkish wines and pouring an extraordinary 47 by the glass, this atmospherically lit cavern is the city’s best wine bar. From there, make your way to the Old Town and Vefa Bozacisi, located at Vefa Caddesi 66. This famous boza bar was established in 1876 and locals still flock here to drink its viscous non alcoholic tonic, which is made from water, sugar and fermented barley and has a slight lemony tang. Topped with dried chickpeas and a sprinkle of cinnamon, it has a reputation for building up strength and virility, and tends to be an acquired taste. Note: in summer, the bar also serves sira (fermented grape juice), limonata and Osmanli serbeti (Ottoman cordials). Conclude the night at the lovely Erenler Nargile ve Cay Bahcesi, found at Yeniceriler Caddesi 35. Set in the vine covered courtyard of the historic Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi, this nargile cafe near the Grand Bazaar is the most atmospheric in the Old Town. Nargiles (hookahs) cost 30 Turkish lira (around 5 US dollars) and are best enjoyed with a glass of Turkish tea.
WHERE TO STAY
Istanbul offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet, located at Tevkifhane Sokak 1. Set in a former jailhouse built in 1919, this elegant hotel in the Old Town is a short walk from Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Featuring neoclassical decor and marble bathrooms, the polished rooms offer free WiFi, flat screen TVs, plus sitting areas, minibars and espresso machines. Upgrades add terraces and original artwork. Amenities include a refined restaurant with a glass enclosed courtyard, a bright piano bar and a rooftop lounge with city views. There’s also a chic spa with an outdoor pool.
A second option is the Witt Suites Hotel, located in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood of the New Town at Defterdar Yokusu 26. This sophisticated, all suite boutique hotel with Bosphorus Strait views is close to the Galata Tower and a brief stroll from Taksim Square along Istiklal Caddesi. Luxurious suites feature contemporary decor, and include complimentary WiFi and flat screen TVs. They also offer Nespresso machines, minibars and kitchenettes, as well as marble bathrooms with rainfall showers. Upgraded quarters add terraces and panoramic city and strait views. Other perks include breakfast on the house, a rooftop garden and a lobby bar.
Istanbul is loaded with history, architecture, culture and cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.