Time Out insider guide to on Turkey's ever-changing capital
Time Out staff
Eternally engaging and ever-changing, Turkey’s largest and most historic city has retained a powerful pull over travellers for centuries. Jennifer Hattam channels its essential energy.
Preparing to marshal his army for the 1453 siege of what was then officially still called Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II declared: ‘Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me.’ (Spoiler alert: he came out on top). Faced with the modern city’s teeming masses, chaotic organisation and downright overwhelming array of things to see, eat and do, the present-day visitor might feel much the same way.
The engine of about a quarter of Turkey’s entire economy, and home to nearly the same percentage of its population, Istanbul is the showpiece for a country that’s newly flexing its economic and political muscles. Big efforts to boost tourism have the streets of Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet bustling with Arab, Asian and South American visitors, in addition to the Brits, Germans and Russians who have been vacationing in Turkey for years. Hipster cafés, French patisseries and sushi restaurants are popping up where once were only kebab shops and humble lokantas (small spots for traditional home-cooking). And grand plans to build new airports, bridges, stadiums, shopping complexes and luxury housing threaten to turn much of the city into one giant construction site.
Amid all this, though, remain the great mosques and palaces of the Ottoman sultans, the still-awe-inspiring architectural feats of the Romans, the push-cart vendors and sleeping cats in the winding backstreets, the rich cuisine and rousing nightlife. The ancient relics and modern art, and of course, the breath-taking sweep of the Bosporus Strait – all the things that have made Istanbul a conqueror of hearts for hundreds of years, and will surely remain so for centuries to come.
Around Town With so many sights clustered into such a small area, it would be hard to avoid spending a good chunk of any visit touring – and queuing up in – Sultanahmet, home to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Basilica Cistern, just to name a few (see www.muze.gov.tr). But visitors who fail to venture out of Istanbul’s ‘tourist ghetto’ won’t get much sense of what makes the rest of the city tick.
For a vibrant glimpse of pious Istanbul, put on some modest attire and head up the Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish) to Eyüp, a busy neighbourhood centred around the tomb of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s closest companions.
So many devout Muslims wanted to be buried near him that the area’s cemeteries sprawl up the hillside. It’s a short, peaceful walk or a quick ride on the city-run aerial tramway (teleferik) to the top, which boasts great views of the city.
On the way back to Sultanahmet from Eyüp stop in at the neighbourhoods of Balat and Fener. The area is still home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the world Orthodox Christian Church and has several churches tucked amidst its appealingly ramshackle buildings. Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, is an idyllic quarter likewise known for its concentration of houses of worship and for its picture-perfect restored Ottoman wooden houses, a popular backdrop for Turkish TV shows (known as dizis) and commercials.
Food and drink Eating in Istanbul is an all-day affair, from breakfast to late-night snacks, with plenty of tiny cups of strong black tea in between. Fuel up in the morning with a serpme kahvaltı (literally ‘scattered-about breakfast’) with a Bosphorus view at Kale Café in Rumelihisar. Meant to be shared, the small plates of cheeses, olives, jams, cream and honey, spicy dips, eggs with cured meat, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and savoury pastries will fill your table to overflowing.
When it comes time to eat again, a kebab may be the obvious choice, but Istanbul has plenty more (and often better) to offer. Attracting migrants from all over the country, visitors can take a culinary tour of Turkey without leaving city limits. The wild greens, succulent seafood and ample olive oil of the Aegean region are well-represented at Sıdıka, a homey Beşiktaş restaurant where the specialty of the house is levrek (sea bass) fillets wrapped in vine leaves and grilled. Black Sea food is reminiscent of the cooking of the US south, with its emphasis on dark leafy greens, cornmeal, beans and pickles, plus the ubiquitous (and very tasty) local anchovy called hamsi. Give it a try at the canteen-style Hayvore or the rowdier Mohti, both in Beyoğlu. For an authentic array of the grilled meats and zesty peppers for which Southeast Turkey is famed, venture over to the Aksaray area for a hearty meal at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, a multi-storey restaurant full of Turkish families and businessmen washing down meter-long kebabs and legs of lamb cooked in rock salt with the frothy, salty yoghurt drink ayran. Kale Café, Yahya Kemal Caddesi 16, Rumelihisar, www.kalecafe.com (+90 212 265 00 97). Sıdıka, Şair Nedim Caddesi 38, Beşiktaş, www.sidika.com.tr (+90 212 259 72 32). Hayvore, Turnacıbaşı Sokak 4, Beyoğlu (+90 212 245 75 01). Mohti Laz Meyhanesi, İstiklal Caddesi, Terkos Çıkmazı, Karaaslan İş Merkezi 15/A, Beyoğlu (+90 212 249 71 81). Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, Ahmediye Caddesi 44/A, Aksaray, www.akdenizhataysofrasi.com.tr (+90 212 531 33 33).
Nightlife and music Unless you want to hobnob with the red rope and bottle service crowd at the swish nightclubs up the Bosporus, bustling Beyoğlu is the place to be when the sun goes down. From Taksim Square to Tünel a sea of people stream down İstiklal Caddesi and its many side streets until the wee hours, chatting and dancing the night away at the area’s numerous bars, clubs, cafés and performance venues. Try the intimate Salon İKSV for live music. On the Asian side, the bars of Kadıköy are an increasingly popular alternative to the Beyoğlu mayhem, with quirky venues like Arkaoda and Gitar Café putting on an eclectic variety of shows. Salon İKSV, Sadi Konuralp Caddesi 5, Şişhane, www.saloniksv.com (+90 212 334 07 00). Arkaoda, Kadife Sokak 18/A, Kadıköy, www.arkaoda.com (+90 216 418 02 77). Gitar Café, Sakızgülü Sokak, Taranto Apt. 7/1, Kadıköy, www.gitarcafe.com (+90 216 348 60 55).
Art Since the Istanbul Modern set up shop in a converted warehouse in the Beyoğlu district’s Tophane neighbourhood in 2004, the area has become a hub for contemporary art, with small galleries all up and down Boğazkesen Caddesi and spreading into now-trendy Karaköy. Elipsis Gallery focuses on photography while Mixer has an eye out for emerging artists whose work isn’t yet too pricey for the average art-lover to afford.
Up on İstiklal Caddesi, the Mısır Apartment, a beautiful Art Nouveau building, is home to about a half-dozen leading Turkish galleries. Nearby cultural institutions Arter and Salt Beyoğlu regularly put on challenging, adventurous shows.
Further afield, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum is as notable for its setting in a gorgeously restored Bosporus mansion as for its fine collection of book arts and calligraphy, Turkish painting, and 18th and 19th century furnishings, as well as its blockbuster traveling exhibitions of works by the likes of Monet, Rembrandt and Dali. Istanbul Modern, Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Antrepo 4, Tophane, www.istanbulmodern.org (+90 212 334 73 00). Elipsis Gallery, Hoca Tahsin Sokak/Akçe Sokak, Akçe Han 10, Karaköy, www.elipsisgallery.com (+90 212 249 48 92). Mixer, Boğazkesen Caddesi 45, basement floor, Tophane, www.mixerarts.com (+90 212 243 54 43). Arter, İstiklal Caddesi 211, Beyoğlu, www.arter.org.tr. (+90 212 243 37 67). Salt, Beyoğlu, İstiklal Caddesi 136, Beyoğlu, www.saltonline.org. (+90 212 292 76 05). Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Sakıp Sabancı Caddesi 42, Emirgan, muze.sabanciuniv.edu (+90 212 277 22 00).
In the know
• That handsome fellow whose picture is all over town? That’s revered founding father Atatürk.
• Every hour in Istanbul, 1,290,948 glasses of tea are drunk and 41,667 simits are eaten.
• Dating back to 1871, the Tünel funicular was the second underground subway line ever built. It took 129 years, however, for Istanbul to open another one.
• Istanbul was the world’s most crowded city in the 1500s, when it was home to about half a million people. Today there are at least 13.5 million (though the city’s area has grown too).
• Some Greeks still insist on calling it ‘Constantinople’, but the name Istanbul was actually derived from the Greek ‘Eis tin Poli’, meaning ‘to/at the city’.
• The purple five lira was issued to keep Istanbul taxi drivers from swapping out 50 lira bills for similarly coloured five lira notes and claiming passengers had paid the wrong amount.
• The Marmaray Project, an underwater rail tunnel connecting Istanbul’s European and Asian sides, was first dreamed up in the 1890s.
Where to stay
Budget: Hotel Poem Simple and sweet, the Hotel Poem has spotless, comfortable rooms, a lush garden out back and a supremely welcoming staff. Its location on a quiet residential street in Sultanahmet is very convenient while remaining peacefully apart from the thick of things. Doubles from TL175 (QR297). Akbıyık Caddesi, Terbıyık Sokak 12, Sultanahmet, www.hotelpoem.com (+90 212 638 97 44).
Midrange: The House Hotel Galatasaray Set in a beautifully restored 1890s mansion with an interior design by acclaimed Turkish firm Autoban, The House Hotel seamlessly melds rich traditional motifs and reclaimed original materials with modern elegance. Close to the bars and shops of Beyoğlu and part of a lively neighbourhood of expats and locals, it’s an easy jaunt from the major sights. Doubles from QR740. Bostanbaşı Caddesi 19, Galatasaray, www.thehousehotel.com (+90 212 252 04 22).
Quirky: Heirloom Istanbul Guesthouse and Café Owner Dilek Çamlı has restored this late 19th century Istanbul home with inspiration from the international Arts and Crafts movement of the same time period, and an eye for sustainable materials. From the intimate attic studio to a couple of spacious suites, each of the six rooms for rent is unique. The secluded, garden-like café area is a welcome respite from the busy streets outside. Doubles from QR493. Adile Naşit Sokak 6, Cihangir, www.heirloomistanbul.com (+90 212 243 30 10).