This week, a friend asked me “why Istanbul, again?” Her question was valid for, unlike so many of the other trips we take, this one didn’t involve cycling epic distances or elevations, running over mountains, surfing, skiing…we went to try something new. To eat. To touch the Middle East. To just enjoy it!
I didn’t always feel so good about not having an “adventure agenda” in Turkey; in fact, my original version of our trip included hiking in Cappadocia and some mountain biking in the ancient aquaducts outside of the city. (Someday, seriously, we’re going back to do this and more.) But as our schedules got crazier, and it became apparent that a grand tour of Turkey wasn’t in store. Instead, we would have 12 days of unstructured time to spend right there in the city (which by the way is a very luxurious and relaxing way to explore a city so rich and full of….great STUFF.)
I woke that first morning and slowly, surely, started exploring. Our home base was right in the heart of Taksim Square, the place where just months before, violent riots had broken out when police broke up a peaceful sit-in near the square. This was the first time I’d ever visited a country with significant Muslim influence and, admittedly, these rashes of violence and my lack of true understanding of the culture here made me a bit wary to explore as a woman alone. That first morning I sheepishly ordered a Turkish coffee on Istiklal Cadesi, pulled up a chair at an outdoor table to watch the morning unfold. Intriguing pastries rolled by in carts, women wearing all manner of headscarves gaggled by (as did women choosing not to wear any scarves at all.) Buskers played their instruments, the street car clanged through the alley, and vendors threw up their shades. I had questions, so many questions and so much I wanted to see and do. And so we did.
Istanbul is the only major city to span two continents, with one half plopped on the European border and the other tottering on the edge of Asia. As such, its known for the historical sites dating back thousands of years. But between the modern skyscrapers and mosque minarets, there is a contemporary culture that is growing by the day and a beat of life that is not to be missed. Spend as much time as you can in the city so you are sure to have time in between your sightseeing and to-do-listing just to sit back and take it in. We structured just one day to hit all the major historical sites of interest, and one day to hit the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market (okay, I went back for one last quick souvenir stop at the spice market!) We found this to be more than ample though we did have to keep on our feet to fit everything in. The rest of the time was spend digging a little deeper into the dynamic of the city knowing full well that this isn’t the type of city you can get to know on one, or five, or even fifteen trips. None the less, here are the 10 things we did, and suggest you not miss, on your trip to Istanbul.
#1: Soaking and steaming an afternoon away, enjoying the contemporary translation of hamam tradition at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami. The Hamam was constructed in 1580 to serve the levends (marine forces in the Ottoman navy) and is one of the most symbolic buildings in Tophane, Istanbul’s harbor district. After seven years of painstaking and intensive restoration, the spa and Turkish bath facilities are open to both men and women (each sex with their own exclusive hours of admittance,) and is one of the more modern, historical, luxe and therefore chic bathing experiences you can have in the city. Be sure to book an olive oil massage when you make your appointment, and plan for time after your service to relax (and even nap!) in their lounge area, enjoying some cleansing tea or a light snack before heading back out into the city.
#2: Waking up at the Istanbul Modern Museum. We started with breakfast in the cafe (set on a stylish terrace overlooking the Bospherous )and enjoy the fresh and creative fusion of Turkish and European cuisine before taking in the two floors of contemporary modern art in the museum. The sculpture garden and library, along with the works of Eryol Akyavas were favorites.
#3: Running. YES. Running. Specifically on the outskirts of town, and outside of the city center where the traffic is less imposing, and it seems to be an environment more welcoming of female runners. I used this Istanbul Running Guide by Nike as a primer for my own adventures (which occasionally required a taxi ride to my run start.)
#4: Ignoring the guidebooks; a 6-hour cruise on the Bospherous is surely historic, but lengthy and we get seasick! Instead, we grabbed picnic supplies from the fish sandwich stalls on the docks and at a pide vendor nearby and took our your lunch aboard our 1.5 hour cruise sailing from the docks in Eminonu on board the faster, smaller boats operated by Turyol . Not only was this the most scenic lunch we had, but it was a pleasure to take part in a joyride favored by tourists and locals alike.
#5: Navigating the side streets off of Istiklal Cadesi, window shopping, getting lost, and then working our way back to the main drag to discover goat’s milk gelato made at Mado. Have mercy. I thought the Italians were onto something, but now I know that the Turkish are no fools what with their almond, sweet cherry, and vanilla cream flavors. We had a cone each night after dinner as we walked home to our hotel.
#6: Wandering the back streets of the Old City on a culinary tour with Culinary Backstreets; maybe even crawl through the night in search of kebab and across continents and through the markets with them too. The time spent in the company of their guides, exploring and tasting with them might just have been the highlight of the trip for me. With their guidance, we explored hidden parts of the city, learned about the tradition of ingredients and technique beyond translation. I went home after each outing with a full belly, and a brain full of inspiration to bring home.
#7: Getting lost in the cobblestone streets of Beyoglu and Galata shopping, poking, and dallying along the way. From Taksim, wiggle down the side streets to Beyoglu in search of cosmopolitan Kumbaraci Yokusu and the tiny dwarf of a coffee shop on your left side. Coffee + Jazz (at Kumaraci Yokusu No. 52/A) is all that and more; I loved the homemade lemonade with mint and pomegranate ice to go so I could continue my wander. I stumbled upon the sweetest team of simit bakers whom let me hang out with them and photograph their craft for a good part of the morning. Further into Galata, you’ll want to indulge in women’s clothing with the finest hand, and swing into Yasemin Ozeri’s boutique near the Galata Tower (Galip Dede Caddesi 93/B.)
#8: Savoring every bite of dinner at the artistic yet distinctly Anatolian Yeni Lokanta restaurant in Beyoglu. We enjoyed the bustling hip crowd, and everything we ate on the tasting menu which included some of the best grilled octopus of my life, lamb so tender it melted in mouth, and all ranges of mint, pomegranate, harissa, coffee, smoke and cream inspirations.
#9: Hoarding (literally) spices at the Mısır Çarşısı or Egyptian Spice Market in Eminonu. Far smaller than the Grand Bazzar, but far more grand in my opinion, go early and be prepared to be side-tracked with the scents, sights and scenes inside. Practically all the souvenirs and gifts I brought home from Istanbul came from inside but certainly not all vendors are created equal. I came home with bulk spices and candied fruits from Malatya Pazari at #40 after a spirited visit with the shopkeep who, smiling, fed me delicacies, tastes, and treats until he felt I had a good selection to travel with. (His hand gestures told me so.) I also picked up bottles of pomegranate molasses from Artifoglu at #33, and a small pendant from the charming jewelry store, Sufi, at #45.
#10: People watching. Anywhere. Everywhere. Take in the time to see the faces, hear the laughs and the boisterous conversation in multiple dialects flowing all over this beautiful city. Specifically, observe the women whom you’ll find flaunting all manners of fashion statements. Gucci beneath birka? You bet. Ripped jeans with wayfarers stolen from the West, oh yeah.
Have some Istanbul travel tips of your own? I’d love to hear them — we’ll be back again and heaven knows that this is the type of place that takes a lifetime to learn!